Google Maps for iPhone

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Just tried the new Google Maps for iPhone. My first test was with the public transportation option for directions from my local coffee shop in Boulder, CO to my home.  The results were very good and the most impressive segment using RTD had the correct bus times and the SKIP bus actually showed up on time. This going to make getting around Boulder with RTD and my Eco Pass much more convenient. You can download the app here.

Movistar iPhone Mexico

Note: the following iPhone information is for unlocked iPhones and the Mexican prepaid costs are all as of December 2012. I have found two decent options when traveling in Mexico with my Verizon iPhone. The first option is available as soon as you land in Mexico via a delivered text message from your carrier. You can easily purchase 100MB of data for $25, billed automatically through your Verizon account. That’s not much data for $25 (about 10 times the normal global rate for 1GB of prepaid data), but, if you are planning to only check emails during your trip it might be right for you. No SIM card modification hassles and you only have to reply “yes” to Verizon’s soliciting text message. This data offer is the same for traveling in Canada. You might want to reset your cellular data usage counter to monitor your meager 100MB allowance. If you need calling in Mexico (including calling the USA) then you can try Mexico’s discount carrier Movistar. They offer prepaid minutes at very reasonable rates. Verizon’s Mexico minutes are around $1 plus per minute, while Movistar minutes are less than 8 cents a minute (more if you call to the US). With prepaid calling you just run out of minutes, no bill surprises, and with international calling rates there are always strange extras on your monthly bill. On an average week long Mexico visit, I usually spend less than $10 per visit with Movistar. Switching over to a local Mexican carrier isn’t without challenges; including getting a Movistar SIM in your iPhone. There are now three possible SIM card sizes. If you’re lucky, the local SIM will fit your SIM slot without modification. The standard SIM card and micro SIM can be trimmed, the newest nano SIMs may need trimming and sanding to create a slimmer card.

iPhone Prepaid Canada

Two years ago prepaid iPhone options didn’t really exist for tourists traveling to Canada. In August of 2012 prepaid options for smartphones are now readily available. Roger’s Pay as you go wireless plans will cost you $35 for 100MB of data or $45 for 500MB and includes the cost of the SIM card. If you used your iPhone for limited voice or texting during your Canadian visit, those calls will be deduced from your prepaid balance. Telus is another Canadian carrier option with rumored superior coverage outside of Canadian cities. It’s has a 3-tiered prepaid wireless plan as follows: $45 for 100MB data, $60 for 500MB, and $65 for 1GB. The above amounts all include Telus’ more expensive $35 SIM card. If I was planning a longer trip to Canada, I would probably purchase the Telus prepaid plans over the Roger’s plans, as they offer more data and a better rural network. Roger’s would work for shorter trips, where you are spending most of your time in cities. These prepaid wireless plans basically work for email and limited web browsing, so you might want to reset your cellular data usage in your iPhone/iPad’s Settings>Usage>Cellular Usage to monitor your prepaid usage. Another option for US Verizon customers is buying international roaming data at $25 per 100MB from Verizon Global. This wireless option only works for data but could work for a shorter visit to an international destination. The pitfall of this option, is that Verizon has your billing information and should you use more than 100MB of data (which is not much), you are charged another $25 for each additional 100MB. The local Canadian prepaid carriers just shut you down when you burn through your prepaid credits, so using international roaming is still potentially very expensive for US Verizon customers.

TIM Telecom Italy

I have a friend traveling in Italy this month and trying Italy’s TIM telecom prepaid. They have a promo now for 9 euros that gives you 30 days of unlimited data, texting, and 5 euros of voice credits. If you are planning to call back to North America you’ll need to add more voice credits. Perfect for a trip to Italy. Seems like local European carriers have dropped their prepaid rates by approximately 50% since last year (or Italy really is tanking). Another friend used Verizon’s global data ($25 for 100MB data) in Canada this month, another reason to avoid AT&T’s and Verizon’s international plans.

Via Michelin Mobile

Michelin’s European road atlases are now available with the Via Michelin Mobile apps for iOS and Android. Michelin’s road atlases are in my opinion the best road maps for cycling in Europe. Graphically, I prefer Michelin’s relief shading, it allows you to put together great cycling itineraries. Michelin maps highlight (in green) scenic roadways which you should consider riding. Google Maps do not provide this information, and in many cases, the scenic classification also means; safer roads with less traffic. With a WIFI connection, or better yet, with a cellular connection you can have all of Michelin’s road atlases on your smartphone or tablet device. Michelin’s app maps display like it’s printed maps and have adequate resolution with close-up magnification. The app is free, but if you want to use the maps in realtime on the road, you will  need to purchase about 2GB of prepaided data from a local European carrier. Normally, this would cost about 20 Euros with a local European carrier. The Michelin app works similar to Google’s Maps including; GPS pin-pointing your location and purple-colored plotting of your desired routes (see below: Configuring your route and Route overlay). Your routes are automatically logged in a historical panel within the app for easy future retrieval. Your routes can be calculated relative to car, moto, bike, or hiking travel time. Michelin estimates that bike riding Passo di Gavia would take you 3:05, but if you were on a Ducati moto (think crotch-rocket), the same route would only take 1:15 or as I have witnessed: way less at 180 KPH. When you zoom into a desired map location, the app switches to a Google-style flat map, which is detailed enough to show buildings and dock structures. When you zoom out, you can see a nice relief-style map. My biggest complaint with Google Maps on an iPhone is the lack of a relief style map. An Apple rumor is that they are not updating Google Maps and are developing their own mapping technology. The Via Michelin app includes other areas of the world, but the better; visually-descriptive maps seems to be only available in European countries. All you need when riding from Paris to Istanbul.

Getting iPhone HD Video Online

I recently upgraded my iPhone to the 4S model, where Apple has upgraded the camera chip and lens design for improved photography including; being able to capture HD 1080p video. This post attempts to cover the process of getting the iPhone’s new HD 1080p video to a WordPress site. Related to this topic, I wrote a similar post called Getting Good Video with Vimeo.

Getting video online and into WordPress is more involved than moving iPhone images to a WordPress site. Firstly, you should realize that source video content should not be uploaded directly to your WordPress Media Library. Video content is data heavy and especially with HD quality video, you need a streaming video server, a standard Apache server with a WordPress installation can’t serve that much video data to your viewers. The server limitation is addressed by setting up a video stream service from You Tube or Vimeo. The solution is to embed the video’s URL into your WordPress post and a video player will pull optimized video content from the streaming server. Optimized video can have many parameters, compressed MP4 video would be a video format that allows for compression and is optimized to stream efficiently from a steaming server. You Tube or Vimeo will provide video streaming for free, but if you plan on providing HD quality video to your viewers, then you will need to upgrade to a paid streaming account. I purchased a Vimeo Plus account for $60 a year. With the Plus upgrade, Vimeo provides me with better video rendering and the capability to upload 1080p source video. Without a Plus account, Vimeo limits free-accounts to only limited HD 720p uploads. Don’t mess with the a free account if your goal is HD content on your site. All the quality HD content I have viewed on Vimeo have been contributed by authors with “Plus” status.

iMovie’s video cam import options

Getting your iPhone video clips to your video editing application, in my case; iMovie, requires connecting your iPhone with a USB cable, and importing the clips with the video cam import button. There is also a wireless method of sending an iMessage to yourself with the desired video clip attached. Note: iCloud syncs only photos, not video, so iCloud is not an importing option to your Mac. Importing a lot of video into iMovie can be time consuming because iMovie must first generate thumbnail images of the imported video. I use the QuickTime player to do an initial edit of the poor clips, importing only video with potential into iMovie.

Uploading your finalized project within iMovie to Vimeo is easy just select Vimeo from the  Sharing Menu. Generally, you want to upload the best source video to Vimeo that you have, so click the  HD 720p or HD 1080p format. Then, from your Vimeo Plus account, you should review and select all your video settings to create your custom defaults. Take the time and create a preset theme for your video player, this will keep all instances of the video player looking and operating consistently within your WordPress site. Vimeo Plus users have additional video settings that basic accounts do not have, including; which domains can show your videos, as well as, hiding them from the Vimeo.com site. Many additional HD options with Vimeo are covered on their FAQ page.

The last step in getting your video online and into your WordPress post is the embedding step. I have not found a good WordPress plugin for importing Vimeo content yet, so you need to copy the necessary code snippet into your post editor in HTML mode. There are three ways to do this:

  1. Paste the Vimeo URL into your post.
  2. Use the Vimeo shortcode and an associated WordPress plugin.
  3. Copy and paste the Vimeo iframe embed code into your post editor.
Universal embed player on iPhone WordPress post

Don’t use the first two, because they may not include the universal embed code and they may fail to scale your videos properly in mobile devices and tablet devices like an iPad. It will also ensure that the proper size and format (Flash vs. HTML5) is streamed to your device, letting Vimeo deal with the various sizes, devices, and formats required on the Internet. The iframe embedding HTML code is found in the embedding panel (Get Embed Code link) of your video’s settings when logged into your Vimeo.com account. You can reuse this code snippet for future video posts replacing the Vimeo id number and adjusting the width and height if desired.

OK, now the reality check from Vimeo:

“Note while 1080p is higher resolution, please be aware that it can take significant resources on your viewers’ computer and may cause choppy playback.”

You’ve got this awesome HD 1080 video content online but your viewers may not have the internet bandwidth, computer horsepower, or monitor resolution to see the video’s HD quality. HD 1080p video has twice as much data as HD 720p video. From my tests, it is very difficult to see the difference in quality between 720p and 1080p, unless your viewers enlarge your video to full screen mode and my guess is that most viewers don’t know about this option unless they are specifically reminded to view in full screen mode. It may make sense to provide just HD 720 video to your audience unless they are from South Korea and can pull down 50MB/sec. On the flip side, 1080p seems to be a standard resolution for many large screen electronics, so you might want to get your video content ready for the future.

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iPhone to Mac Messages

If your Mac is at OS 10.7.3 and you install the beta version of Messages for the Mac, and you can use Messages to transfer files (photos, videos, attachments, contacts, and locations) wirelessly between between your iPhone and Mac. These file transfers can work in both directions. For an example; to transfer a video go into Photos on your iPhone, and share it as a “Message” texting the video clip to yourself. Messages for the Mac syncs with iPhone’s Messages and once your clip arrives on your Mac, drag the video thumbnail to where you want to save your video. Keep in mind, you want send iMessages (blue colored), not regular carrier text messages (green colored), and iMessage texting with attachments only works between Macs and Apple iOS devices with iOS 5.

Prepaid iPhone Calling in Canada

Seven Eleven in Canada now has inexpensive prepaid calling for iPhones (unlocked GSM or unlocked CDMA) with SpeakOut Wireless. The SIM card is $10, and you also buy however many minutes you need. This is a voucher receipt you get from the cashier at Seven Eleven. I bought $25 worth from the Canadian Seven Eleven store. Once you have your SpeakOut SIM and your minutes voucher, you need to activate the SIM card online at SpeakOut Wireless. At their web site; setup an account with SpeakOut, enter your iphone’s IMEI number (Settings > About) and choose your desired location for your local Canadian phone number. If the SpeakOut cellular network is not displaying in the upper left corner of your iPhone after inserting the SIM, then you might need to restart your phone a few times to get the SpeakOut network established.

Note that SpeakOut’s SIM cards do not have the extra-small micro punch-out size. So if you have a newer iphone (4/4s), you have to shave it down to the micro size.

To activate the minutes you purchased, dial *818* plus the voucher number printed on your receipt. If you need additional minutes, buy more at the Seven Eleven store.

This SpeakOut prepaid solution does allow for data, but you should probably use WIFI while traveling in Canada, so turnoff the Cellular Data setting at the Settings > General > Network.

Photosynth

A Photosynth created indoor panorama with no post image pixel manipulation. Click to enlarge.

Photosynth is an iPhone photo stitching iOS program developed and introduced to the Apple Apps Store in 2011 by Microsoft. This highly rated (4+ stars) app is free. Most iPhone panorama apps can only stitch horizontally, but Photosynth can stitch horizontally and vertically creating a sphere-like and slightly fish-eyed image perspective after the image-stitching engine is done.


All panorama apps have the photographer capture a series of aligned frames to stitch together to create the final panorama. Photosynth does not require the photographer to visually align each successive frame of the developing panorama like some apps similar to Pano. Also, the user doesn’t have to manually engage the camera’s shutter when the frames may (or may not) be properly overlapped. Photosynth just asks the photographer to slowly move the iPhone around until the app is happy with the next potential frame alignment (indicated with a green rectangular frame), upon which, Photosynth records the frame on its own approval. If the next frame is not aligning properly (indicated with a red rectangular frame) no frame is captured and Photosynth waits for the photographer to move and hopefully improve the camera’s holding position. The shooting process is difficult to explain, but the app interface is very intuitive and simple to understand after only a few panoramas. Hats-off to the app devs who created this unique user interface, the UI (User Interface) is so elegant and simple, that iPhone photographers can quickly understand this panorama shooting process.

Photosynth’s capturing modes: green; automatic, yellow; manual user over-ride, and red; can’t capture.
The rock gym panorama above was created with 12 capture frames



The Photosynth app has image sharing features and photo geo-tagging integration with Bing Maps. The only negative that I have encountered is the low image resolution compared to what the 8 megapixel iPhone 4s camera can capture.

Photosynth has two viewing modes; plain image and interactive panorama. To view images interactively, you must have a web browser that is running in 32-bit mode and has Microsoft’s Sliverlight plugin, then, you can control the magnification and view direction of the panorama.

iPhone in Mexico

Movistar Mexico in 2012 continues to be an excellent value when traveling in Mexico with an iPhone. You will need an older model jailbroken/unlocked iphone (3G, 3GS, 4) or an unlocked iPhone 4S including Verizon’s 4S iPhone. An unlocked Verizon 4S iphone comes with a Verizon SIM card which allows it to work in GSM countries. Most Verizon employees I have talked to are unclear about the iPhone 4S’s GSM capabilities. I think Verizon would prefer you use their included SIM cards internationally, but don’t, the international roaming rates are very expensive; when your Verizon iphone detects that you have arrived in Mexico, you will receive a text message from Verizon with their Mexico roaming rates: Global Data is $5.12/MB, texts are 50 cents each, and voice calls are $1 per minute. Your calls with a Movistar installed SIM are two cents a minute.

Getting a Movistar SIM card is a quick and fairly simple process but you must find a Movistar office that sells their SIM cards. All Movistar stores sell extra minutes but many of the smaller kiosks do not have SIM cards in stock. Movistar Mexico does not sell any GSM phones with the so-called micro SIM cards, though this probably will change, as most carriers are now selling the punch-out SIMs, which allows you to punch-out either the traditional or micro-sized SIM shape at purchase. This means you need to trim the traditional SIM down to the micro size. This takes some care, but not surgical skills. First time you attempt this procedure, under-trim the card initially, and if necessary, shave the card more until it just fits into its SIM slot.

A prepaid Movistar SIM card costs $12 or 170 pesos and your new account will also be credited 100 minutes. Have the Movistar sales agent activate your new SIM card with the agent’s personal phone in the store. If you need to check your Movistar balance dial *12536, you will receive a text message with your current balance. You can use cellular data with a prepaid account on Movistar’s EDGE network which is fine for email downloading, but limit your cellular data roaming. If you use WIFI for most of your heavier data needs, you can easily continue to use your iPhone in Mexico for a reasonable price.

 
Dial *12536 and you will receive a text message with your current balance
Dial *12536 and you will receive a text message with your current balance

Getting good video with Vimeo

Like many amateur videographers, I was not satisfied with You Tube’s video quality with my uploaded video clips. My videos were always too compressed and You Tube did not offer enough control over my finally video presentation, so I tried Vimeo which offers basically the same video services. This post covers my experience with Vimeo and what I learned about getting good web video with Vimeo.

First off, a standard free Vimeo account is much like You Tube’s service; not good enough. Grainy web videos are not up-to-par with the high quality HD videos that can be found on the Internet nowadays. Only after I upgraded to a Vimeo Plus account did I finally get video quality that I considered acceptable. Vimeo Plus cost $60 a year, which is pretty reasonable for nearly unlimited streaming video. That’s $5 per month to have a streaming video server, HD quality resolution, for an unlimited number of videos. If you don’t have a Plus account, you are going to be a second class client with Vimeo. A basic free account has restrictions and limitations that push you to a Plus account and this is how Vimeo makes money.

When you sign up with Vimeo you are creating your video library on Vimeo’s streaming server. From Vimeo’s website you can manage your videos within your account. Video from Plus accounts is always “processed” ahead of free accounts and there are no limitations on how many videos or how large your videos can be when uploaded to their servers. A basic Vimeo account can’t upload enough video data (size: h x w) to get good video quality. As a Vimeo Plus user, your account has many more options which you can select during the production of your web video. The Embedding settings will allow you to customize your video player and eliminate ads within your player. Privacy settings allow to control who can watch your video content including it being only viewed from your domain.

I have a website hosted on a web server, but the server is not a streaming video server. A streaming video server is absolutely necessary to deliver video content to your website. Keep in mind that your videos are stored on Vimeo servers, not on your web server. They are displayed on your website by embedding a video link from your website to Vimeo’s servers. This is good because serving videos from your server will eat-up your website’s bandwidth quota quickly. Web host admins, like myself, want our clients to keep their video content on streaming servers not on a web server. A video server has been optimized to stream your video content much more efficiently than a standard web server. If you don’t have a website, you can still share your videos with others by viewing them from Vimeo’s site.

What really helped get my videos looking better was when I uploaded so called HD videos to Vimeo with minimal video compression. Let Vimeo do the prepping and compression of your videos. Vimeo recommends uploads with the H.264 codec, size of 1280×720, and a bit rate of 3000-5000 kbits/sec when exported from your video editor application. In iMovie’s Share menu you will find Vimeo’s export panel. Enter your Vimeo account login and size to publish. HD 720p produces good results for all devices with less download bandwidth. If you use HD 1080p, your movie will double in size, but would be good for presentation on a 27″ monitor.

Video resolutions of 1280×720 or greater are considered high definition and with a Plus Vimeo account, your uploaded source video is processed more thoroughly by Vimeo, resulting in superior video compression and containing far less pixel artifacts (blur spots). If your video meets Vimeo’s specs for HD quality, you will see the HD logo at the bottom of your movie player control buttons. You should see clearer video when compared to non-HD video. Event though, you are providing your viewers with HD video, you should probably not have the embed settings to default to HD (HD is off) because many browsers don’t have the bandwidth and will experience sluggish playback. Don’t check; “Default this video to HD quality when embedded”. If they want HD, they click the HD icon on the video controller (HD is on).

HD/Non-HD difference: The extra video compression can be seen on the right around the text.

Here is an example of using Vimeo Plus correctly with HD content. Granted; good photography, Nikon cameras, and a helicopter help too.

 

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There is also a free iOS application available from Vimeo. Once you login into your Vimeo account from the Vimeo app, you can produce and distribute video content from one application on an iPhone. As crazy as editing video on a mobile phone sounds, in a pinch, you can trim your clips, add text, add audio and get them online quickly.

Video editor in  the Vimeo app

 Another issue with serving video content on the Internet is who are you serving your videos to? What size of video do mobile browsers need and what formats do they require? Vimeo’s post-production takes care of these unknowns for you. Vimeo will create mobile versions of your video for you. In the example to the right, Flash video is not supported by iOS devices, so Vimeo provides a H264 encoded version to the iPhone. With Vimeo, you don’t have to worry about optimizing your video for web viewing or different mobile devices, just get them enough data, and they do the optimizing.

Sunrise Switzerland

During an August trip to Switzerland, I decided to try the Swiss carrier Sunrise for my communication needs which includes; texting my traveling partner, using Google Maps for bike touring navigation, reading emails, and for my web work. We travelled with two iPhones and one MacBook Air staying exclusively at Swiss or Italian campgrounds. The iPhones are both unlocked with iOS 4.3 and the MacBook Air has Apple’s new Lion OS installed.

Upon arrival in Switzerland, I investigated three of the six possible prepaid carriers: Swisscom, Orange, and Sunrise. I decided to try Sunrise’s voice-text-data prepaid plan. With Sunrise you pay CHF20.00 for each SIM card, we needed two for our two iPhones. Sunrise has regular SIM cards, but if you have a 4G iPhone with a micro SIM slot, their regular SIM cards can easily be reduced to the micro SIM size (no SIM cutting necessary).

Sunrise also gives you a credit of CHF20.00 to start your prepaid account, hence, your Sunrise SIM card is basically free. Sunrise charges CHF7.50 per month for 250MB/month for data use and overages costs 10Rp.(cents) per MB. As a Sunrise promotion, they currently wave the $7.50 for the first month.

So how long did this take to get two iPhones setup and paid for in the Sunrise store? About ten minutes. My Sunrise rep spoke good English, and handed me two SIM cards and told me they would be activated 15 minutes later. By the time I got back to our campground, both iPhones had voice-text-data capability. A pleasant surprise was that the iPhones needed no additional configuration within the iPhones’ Settings app, just plugin the SIM and 15 minutes later, you are up and running.

I have been using Sunrise for 10 days now, and I have only used CHF8.50 of my initial CHF20.00 credit. If you call *121# you can see your prepaid account balance. Sunrise knows where you are in Europe and when I was riding my bike up Nufennon Pass near the Italian border, Sunrise sent me a text message with all the roaming rates if I used my phone in Italy. When you signup with Sunrise, have them set your desired language, so you can understand text messages from Sunrise.

When I needed to work online with my MacBook Air and I didn’t have a wifi connection, I could easily tether my iPhone to my laptop with the USB/30pin Apple cable. Just connect the USB cable from the iPhone to the MacBook (w/Lion OS) and go into the Settings App and turn on Personal Hotspot. Again, no additional Sunrise configuration necessary, this gives your laptop a 3G internet connection almost anywhere in Switzerland. In some locations, the Sunrise 3G wireless connection was more reliable than the available wifi network. With 2 bars of 3G cellular signal strength, I get about 1.5Mbps of download speed and .2Mbps of upload speed.

In summary, I would recommend Sunrise to anyone traveling in Switzerland with frugal bandwidth needs and wanting reasonable wireless internet.