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Truly, it is made of unicorns

23 Mar 2011

Is a Macbook Air up to the job of being a primary working machine? It has for me…

Since 1995, I’ve always used a Mac laptop as my primary (and only) work machine. When at the office, I plug it into a large screen with keyboard and mouse, and then at home or travelling I’ve got absolutely everything I need with me. Having seen the new generation Macbook Air in the flesh/aluminium, and how small and light it is compared to my unibody MacBook Pro, I wondered if it could be the way forward. The fact that I now cycle to work gave me more impetus to get something that wouldn’t be so heavy on my back.

Just as Frank Chimero says in his post about the Air, you have to know what your needs are first. I wanted the power of my 15” MacBook Pro, but in a more portable form, that would allow me to run my day to day apps, and in particular the two resource hungry ones:

From what I read of people’s experiences on Twitter, I was confident it would work. The lady I spoke to at Apple Leasing felt different though, and quite fervently wanted me to get a Pro, but I ignored it and went for the top spec Air – 13” with 4gb RAM, 256gb SSD drive and 2.13ghz processor. The resolution is the same as my MacBook Pro, so while the screen size is 2” smaller, I fit in the same as I always did before.

It’s absolutely amazing.

Amazing, light and jolly fast.

The Air is leaps and bounds faster than my Pro, despite having a less powerful processor and graphics card. The speed gains must therefore come from the SSD drive. All computers (especially Macs) feel fast when they’re fresh out of the box. Over the months things start to slow down though, so it’ll be interesting to see if that happens with SSD. At the moment, restarts are matter of a few seconds, and the biggest test for me, my Windows 7 virtual disk with aero enabled, runs incredibly smoothly. On the Pro it would drag everything down with it, now I can use it without any issues.

When used on a desk, the wedge shaped body means my hands sit so much more comfortably than with the MacBook Pro – there’s no edge to dig into my wrists. It’s dramatically lighter as well of course.

I don’t miss the CD drive either, and 256gb is just enough to work with and keep a good iTunes Library around. Having Spotify helps too, until a proper cloud-music solution appears. Neither have I particularly missed the ethernet and firewire ports.

I’ve run it in clamshell mode (Macbook closed, connected to an external screen) all day without it feeling like it’s going to boil – something I’ve never been able to do with a Mac laptop. Many prefer to have the screen open, and make use of the extra space, I prefer one screen. In fact with the Air, it’s beneficial to do so, as the RAM is shared with the graphics card, it’s not powering two screens. It works great with my 24” LED Cinema Display (you can only get the 27” these days).

There’s only two negatives that I’ve found: Firstly, in some tasks, such as Flash, the fans can really kick in. It doesn’t get particularly hot (like the MacBook Pros always did), but it is rather noisy. In fact, running it in clamshell mode can exacerbate this, but it still doesn’t overheat.

The other is display issues after being connected to my 24” LED Cinema Display. If I don’t makes sure that the display looks right on the Air before I close the lid to sleep it, I can’t get it to come back on wake. The only solution is to force restart.

However, these are still pretty small negatives compared to benefits of this super-lightweight, fast workhorse. Hands down, it is the best Mac I’ve ever owned.

I really don’t regret going Air one bit, but as always, your mileage and needs, will vary…

Boxee Box Review

21 Nov 2010

The Short Review

The Boxee Box is a well made, beautiful piece of hardware that plays even large mkv files without complaining. However, it has a mass of regressions from the beta version: missing functionality, downgraded UI aesthetics & usability and online content is given more importance than your own files. All issues I have with Boxee Box are potentially solvable via firmware updates though!

The Long Review

After waiting 11 months for it be released, it was a shock when I discovered that the final Boxee Box UI had undergone so many radical changes. I cancelled my order, preferring to try the desktop software first to be sure that it still suited me as much as the beta. However, I saw some more reviews, spoke to the Boxee CEO Avner Ronen and saw his responses to the issues and felt confident again. So, the order was back on!

There are many excellent reviews out there, and I will try not to cover the same ground as those, so make sure you also read:

Next, let me state the conditions and criteria of this review. My Boxee Box setup is:

Bear in mind that this review is UK based. There are many online content providers that aren’t available here, such as Netflix, Vudu, Hulu and Pandora. So if you’re reading this and thinking “Why not buy a Roku?” remember that even if we could get the box in the UK, we still couldn’t get the services! We do have LoveFilm, Blinkbox and Spotify, but these aren’t yet supported in Boxee.

I’m also approaching the Boxee Box from this standpoint: I have a PS3 that can play CDs/DVDs/Blurays and all the files on my NAS via DLNA, access BBC iPLayer as well as films from LoveFilm and Mubi. I’m quite happy with it. You can pick up a PS3 slim for only £30 more than the Boxee Box in the UK, so it’s got to provide a much better media hub experience to be worth it. It’s off to a tough start already when I’m not bothered about the social ‘sharing’ side of Boxee, or for it’s multitude of online video apps.

I’ve also been using the Boxee Beta (v0.9) a lot on my Mac and an Acer Netbook, so a lot of this review is comparison between this and the version you get on the box after the first update (v1.0).


I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the Box packaging. Expecting the bog-standard ‘egg-box’ style innards, I got nice smooth black cardboard neatly nestling the hardware. See more of the packaging on my Unboxing photo Flickr Set. Off to a good start!


The Boxee Box is a thing of beauty. It’s small, solid and dares to be different. Not everyone will be a fan of the sinking cube look, but I definitely am. It’s such a refreshing piece of industrial design.

(Box contents with miniature teapot for scale)

There is an external power brick, but not too big a one as it goes. A surprise inclusion was a HDMI cable – which I’ve not heard of manufacturers doing before. Hopefully it would prevent people being taken in by the ‘gold connector for best signal’ scam that some electrical shops operate (it’s a digital cable, it either works or it doesn’t!).

The Boxee remote has had a lot of attention: it’s RF (no line of sight needed), and includes a full qwerty keyboard on the back. Even my 7 year old son was impressed by that! It’s a good idea, but the keys do need quite a firm press to register, presumably to prevent accidental keypress when using the other side. They’re also labelled with grey text and not backlit, which makes it hard to see at night. For the amount you need to use it, it’s definitely better to have it, than to not. As the iPhone remote app works with the box too, I’m more likely to use that for text input. Apparently a companion app for the iPad is being produced too, presumably more than just a larger version of the iPhone app? It will be interesting to see what they come up with there.

Turning it on via the power button on the top, there is a slight fan noise, but it’s less than my PS3 Slim. I wouldn’t say whisper quiet, but not loud enough to be a concern. The Boxee logo glows when it’s on, but dims when you’re playing a video – such a nice touch.

What I couldn’t work out though, was how to wake the Box from sleep. The remote didn’t seem to have any effect, and the pressing the power button just turned it off.


Here we go then! The Boxee Box ships with version 0.9, the one you can currently use on your computer, but when you start it up, you’re upgraded to 1.0, which in so many areas is radically different.

Aesthetically I still don’t like the new UI. It does look better in real life than on the screenshots, but not enough to stop me missing the previous version. The Boxee-Identity green highlight/selected state has been replaced by a colder cyan colour. The bold font has been replaced by the ‘kinda-funny-looking’ one used in the alpha and looks unrefined in comparison. The background image is now a muddy blur that lacks the warmth and emotion of the sunset image in the beta. Slightly transparent overlays are now fully opaque. Perhaps the simpler downgraded graphics are due to hardware limitations?

The simplified homepage is an improvement on the busy-ness of the beta, but now half the screen is taken up by ‘featured’ content I can’t change and the other by over-simplified icons that lack the quality of their 0.9 predecessors. In 0.9 I used to have roughly two thirds of the screen dedicated to my content (friends feed and queue) they’ve been replaced by half a screen of pushed content without any say in the matter.

It doesn’t just look different though, a lot of the functionality is either changed or missing:

The addition of search is helpful though, and in general, the interface feels nippy – it’s only really let down by slow loading of thumbnails.

One of the advantages of Boxee over my PS3 is that it will scan my media sources and fetch metadata & cover art from, making browsing your library more appealing than simple filenames. In general this relies on you naming your files in a particular way, which can be a bit of a faff at times, but worth it when it gets it right first time.

The problem is that it doesn’t always work, despite being named clearly. For instance, Boxee has a bug which means if you have episodes of classic series Doctor Who, as well as new, Boxee will only show the new. The missing episodes don’t show up in ‘Unidentified files’ either. You can of course still play any of your files by going through Files > Source and finding the file, but this is no improvement on using the PS3. This is a bit of edge case, but would’ve been solved by allowing users to grab data from tvdb (as Plex does) instead of imdb.

Also, part of the metadata that Boxee grabs is a star-rating. While this makes sense for online content I get a bit uppity to see someone else’s opinion on my local files. Who cares what they think? Minor thing though.

When it comes to playing video I really can’t complain however! It could play everything I threw at it flawlessly. The biggest file I could test with was a 22gb .mkv version of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, which it did without any complaints! It also successfully played DVD .img files, and I was able to navigate the DVD menus just fine. After using an Apple TV and PS3 this is just wonderful.

I’ve seen reports of users having problems with some playback and samba shares, but I’ve yet to find that.

Whose Box is it anyway?

The biggest problem of all however is the way local media is pushed to the back. The Boxee Box feels driven by online content providers – their content is more important than yours, and you can’t change that. Even though my content is high quality and ad-free.

For example, in ‘Movies’, Boxee will only show your files after all the online content. You can filter these out but it requires quite a few clicks each time. You can also access them via ‘Files > Movies’ but I don’t want to see my movies in the clunkily named ‘Movies Files’, I want to see them in just ‘Movies’. Even ‘My Movies’ would’ve been preferable.

This is a moot point though, as Avner has already stated that Boxee understand this problem and are addressing the issues of local content :

“Planned solution: We are going to let users tell Boxee whether they are going to use it mostly for local or Internet playback. In case you select “Local” clicking on Movies or Shows will take you to the movie or show files rather than to the most popular online titles.”

I can’t wait for that update as it’s the biggest issue for me.


Boxee provides easy access to a lot of online content via ‘Apps’, which install when you first click them, but some required a second click to launch after installation. To be honest, the main one I care about is BBC iPlayer. Sadly, when selecting a show, Boxee goes into a kind of browser view, rather than going directly to full screen like it’s 0.9 counterpart. I tried manoeuvring the cursor onto the ‘full screen’ button but couldn’t manage it. As it stands I wouldn’t use the Boxee Box for iPlayer, I’d use the PS3 instead.

4oD videos play well, although like other YouTube videos, they play with the video control bar visible at the bottom. Again, something that you didn’t have to put up with in 0.9. This seems to be a general problem with online video – where 0.9 was clever and gave you the video full screen, it now often shows it in this browser view.

There’s an awful lot of stuff on Boxee I don’t give two hoots about, which was fine in 0.9, but this version puts that stuff front and centre. I’d love a way to uninstall apps, or at least reduce their visibility.

Family Friendly?

I also wanted this to be something the family could use when we sit down to watch movie together, but the local content issue makes it less favourable. Beyond ‘hiding adult content’ (i.e not allowing porn) there’s nothing more you can do to prevent them from being able to watch content too old for them. One way around this would be to create a different user account for family – a hassle and would only solve issues with local files. Again, control over apps would help here.

Boxee has also some funny ideas about which of my movies are in the ‘family’ genre. They’re not quite ready to see Son of Rambow just yet.




Advantages over the Boxee Beta? There’s only really one: better playback support (some mkv’s I had issues with play fine on the Box). In every other respect the beta did everything right, and it’s very tempting to find a way to keep 0.9 on the box. Whether it was technically possible to do everything the desktop version did on the Box, I don’t know.

Advantages for me over a PS3? A prettier media library, smoother playback and support for more codecs, most critically disc images and mkv’s. On the other hand, the PS3 also offers disc playback, as well as only showing the content/apps that I choose to. Not to mention that the PS3 supports BBC iPlayer better, and has access to LoveFilm too.

Now, the Cons list may be bigger than Pros, but all the issues with the Boxee Box are potentially solvable with software updates, and with the exception of the aesthetics, we know are in the process of being fixed. I would hope that Boxee consider bringing back the emotion and refinement from the beta interface too, or add customisation/theme preferences, but there’s no word on that yet.

For my needs, Boxee isn’t completely replacing the PS3 yet, but I do really, really want it to. I have high hopes that the next few updates will solve the majority of these niggling issues and allow that to happen. Onwards and upwards!

My 2007 in Blogs, Music, Events and Apps!

20 Dec 2007

As has been my wont since the early 90’s, I like to write up the things that have tickled my fancy for the past year…


This is should actually be in the singular, as there has been one particular blog that has lit my fire like no others.

Ace Jet 170 seems to have the ability to find objects that trigger the same emotional reactions, like these Routemaster and Underground Signs. A new AceJet post is often followed by a trawl on ebay…

AceJet 170


As usual, not everything in this list was released in 2007, but I couldn’t leave out Midlake’s Trials of Van Occupanther – 2006 be damned! Along with Midlake, the other big discovery for me was Band of Horses, and in particular ‘Cease to Begin’.

So limiting myself to only one song from each of my favourite albums, here is the top 20, in playlist style order:

Song Artist Album
Is There a Ghost Band of Horses Cease to Begin
Blackout Amusement Parks on Fire Out of the Angeles
Time Bomb Goldspot Tally of The Yes Men
Melody Day Caribou Andorra
It Covers the Hillsides Midlake The Trials of Van Occupanther
Intervention Arcade Fire Neon Bible
Isn’t Life Strange The Clientele God Save the Clientele
The Pills Won’t Help You Now The Chemical Brothers (feat. Midlake) We are the night
23 Blonde Redhead 23
Rest My Chemistry Interpol Our Love to Admire
Girl Sailor The Shins
Black Magic Jarvis Cocker Jarvis
You Can Make Him Like You The Hold Steady Girls and Boys in America
The Strangest Secret in the World London Elektricity Power Ballads
Mistaken for Strangers The National Boxer
Mutiny I Promise You The New Pornographers Challengers
Clever girls like clever boys… Pelle Carlberg In a Nutshell
Up Against a Wall Peter Bjorn and John Writer’s Block
Jigsaw falling into place Radiohead In Rainbows
Don’t bother they’re here Stars of the Lid and their Refinement of the Decline

There are few that didn’t quite make the final list, such as Of Montreal and Hammock.

Apps that have changed the way I work

Two apps have changed the way I work in 2007 like no others.


Coda IconSince I first raved about Coda, I’ve met people who have either hated it, or see it as manna from heaven. As I suspected, it doesn’t really suit the hardcore TextMate users, but for me Coda has caused some big shifts in the way I work, and everything I do bar graphics is made in Coda these days.

The biggest change for me is that web development tools in browsers have become less of a necessity. The browser is regaining its position of being ‘pleasure’ while Coda is for everything that’s ‘work’ – like the distinction between home and office. I don’t even use Firefox & Firebug anymore, the revised Web Inspector in Leopard has been incorporated in Coda and that does everything I need and more.

My design process has also been changed by Coda. I’m working on visuals less and less in Fireworks and Illustrator, and starting on the HTML/CSS much much earlier. There are so many things that are hard to convey in a static mockup, and writing the CSS and HTML in Coda is so fast, there seems little point making one. I feel that I can iterate quickly and try out ideas. I still sketch and plan on paper, but a middle man has been cut out.

There’s more to love. The ‘Sites’ view has become more like a project folder or workspace. The saved tabs in a site can include not only the site files, but the remote and local previews, the Textpattern admin panels, phpMyAdmin and the project on Basecamp. I can’t do that in Textmate. The split views in Coda are another favourite feature. Apps like CSS Edit have useful tools, like the ability to override site styles, but the multiple windows for editing and previewing drive me mad.

I could go on, but in short, if I ever see someone from Panic, they’re in danger of getting a big kiss.


Billings IconI mentioned Billings fairly recently, but beyond being a very well thought out time tracking and invoicing application, it’s meant that I have for the first time been aware of just how long I spend doing various different tasks, and how much I spend in terms of expenses and meetings. Having a timer in the menubar wins over a dashboard widget or floating window anyday.

Its also been a great motivator, making me more aware of time I haven’t spent working, without being annoying about it. If I had one request of Marketcircle though, it would be a quicker way of seeing which invoices are unpaid (such as an link in the sidebar), something I need to refer to a lot!


Thanks for letting me get that out of my system – I’m done till next year!

Podspeakers Micropod and Dock review

20 Jan 2007

I felt it was time I wrote a proper review of my Micropod Speakers, particularly as there doesn’t seem to be much written about them on the interwebs (In particular, they haven’t been covered by iLounge).

Specs and Sound

Sold as a set (but also available separately) comprising of ‘The Dock’ and 2 Micropod SE Speakers. ‘The Dock’ is a combined iPod dock (with inserts for all dock connector models) and amplifier (two 15w Class T amplifers to be precise). At the back are 4 bare wire & banana plug (which is superior apparently!) connections for the speakers, as well as a line out to attach a subwoofer. The Micropod speakers come with what Scandyna call ‘Sputnik Spikes’ as stands, but they can be used without (if you get some rubber feet) or even wall-mounted. You also get speakers cables and a basic remote control.

When you first pop your iPod in and play, the sound fades in smoothly – a nice touch. The sound is wonderful – bright, clear and crisp across all ranges, but doesn’t allow for Bass & Treble adjustment, presumably using the dynamic approach used by the Bose SoundDock. Playing music through these speakers reveals previously unheard parts of the music, and even compressed mp3s sound good. While you can get a Minibass or Microsub subwoofer to go with this setup, but chances are that you won’t need one as the bass is well served.


The first thing you notice when you unpack the speakers and dock is the build quality. Solid, weighty, refined and smooth. Normally, I would advocate ‘Black = Cool”, but the white podspeakers option is a subtle creamy off-white (you can’t really tell from the photographs), that gives them almost a ceramic look. I also like the contrast of the creamy white with the black speaker rings.

JBL aside, dedicated iPod speaker manufacturers have tended towards very square designs, the most extreme example being the couldn’t-be-more-sharp-cornered-if-it-tried Logitech Audiostation. While JBL produce more rounded designs, they do tend towards a Darth Vader helmet look, whereas Podspeakers are much more natural/organic, with their mollusc-esque curves. They just look superb.

The downside

A minor quibble is that the ability to input an extra audio source would’ve been preferred, and video out better still. Their newly launched ‘V Dock’ offers all this, but it’s too new to find anywhere outside of Switzerland at the moment, and the price is yet to be announced (I’ve been quoted £200 by one shop!). I’m sure that once the V Dock gets proper distribution, they will be sold with Micropod Speakers as reasonably priced set.

However, a more major grumble is that with the speakers and dock oozing such quality, it seems odd that Scandyna chose to throw such a crappy looking remote. The plastic is the cheap textured kind, and controls are just a ‘pop dome’ type with a grey/silver sticker overlay. With so much thought and effort going into the speaker and dock design, it feels like too much of an afterthought, it can’t possibly have been created by the same team. It doesn’t let you rewind or fast forward, but it does mute, play/pause, skip, power on/off are. Harumph. The Apple Remote uses a high gloss plastic that feels much more at home with the podspeakers.


Once the V Dock is bundled rather than the standard dock, and the remote is given an overhaul, it would get a 5. As it is, these niggles aren’t enough to take away from the fact that these are superb (dare I foolishly use the word ‘audiophile’) speakers that look like design musuem exhibits. The sound and design of the Micropod and Dock is so good, that other choices look a bit bland in comparison.

I do highly recommend these speakers, but if you’re interested, I’d advise you to wait until Scandyna start shipping a set with the ‘V Dock’ instead of ‘The Dock’. Buying these elements separately would be much more expensive. The other option would be to get the Micropod SE Active speakers (which contain there own amplifier) and attach a Apple Remote & Dock into that. While the design won’t match exactly, it would be an opportunity to get a much better remote.

What I’ve decided to do is marry a pair of Micropod Speakers with a Denon micro hifi & dock, so that it can properly serve as a complete replacement for the old stereo. In the end, Leigh and I just couldn’t do without a radio, but would’ve waited for the V Dock otherwise.

Come with me on a journey

18 Dec 2005

Not another chuffin best of 2005? Of course, what else?! As is my want at this time of year, I sit back in a comfy chair, with water biscuits and a well stocked cheeseboard to mark my highlights.

Favourite things of 2005:

Music of 2005

Without a doubt, Sigur Ros’s “Takk” has been my favourite sound this year. However, while there have been great albums, nothing got as heavy rotation as ‘Antics” by Interpol did last year.

*I actually got these last year, just after last Decembers ‘best of’ post, but I love them too much to leave them out.

Cheese of the year 2005

Without a doubt, it has to be the Oxford Isis. A great all-rounder.

Hopes for 2006

Predictions for 2006

Concern for 2006

OK, here is my worry. It feels as if a lot of people are getting a bit too worthy, earnest, serious and po-faced in their blogging. I’m not naming names, but to me, there seems to be very little fun of late. I might well be guilty of this myself.

Balancing informative articles with wit and humour is hard but John, Jeremy Greg and Merlin seem to manage.

Finally, an apology

Bear with me, I don’t want to sound all Britney Spears about this, but I might. People send me emails, a quantity of which surprises me, and I’m finding that I just can’t cope with it. It goes against my beliefs, but I’ve had to learn to live with not answering all of them. I know how it feels to never get a reply from someone – its rude and it sucks donkey – but there just aren’t enough hours left after famiily and work. If you’re one of the people feeling dissed from not getting a reply from me, sorry, its not personal.

Contact us

Call Jon on +44 (0)7917 391536, email or tweet @hicksdesign.

Alternatively, pop in for tea and cake at the studio…

Wenrisc House
Meadow Court
Witney, OX28 6ER
United Kingdom