App Store First Impressions

Today Apple launched the App Store for Mac. The App Store on the Mac is a lot like the App store for the iPhone/iPad/iPod that is part of the iTunes Store. I’ve been spending some time today trying out the App Store, have downloaded a few of the free applications, and have made a few modest purchases. Here are some of my initial impressions.

The App Store is installed when you update your Mac operating software to 10.6.6 (by selecting “Software Update…” from the Apple Menu). It is not available to those running older versions of the Mac OS, like Leopard and Tiger. This is not much of a problem for me, as I almost always run the latest version of the operating system. But I do know people who are still running older versions of the Mac OS who won’t be able to attend the App Store party, at least not until they upgrade (assuming they have an Intel Mac and can upgrade to Snow Leopard).

Once installed, the App Store icon appears in the dock, by default right next to the Finder icon. A link to the App Store also appears in the first section of the Apple Menu, right below Software Update. And of course, the App Store application can be found in the Application folder. The App Store for Mac is not hard to miss, but It’s not built into iTunes, where I suppose it could be confused with the App Store for iOS.

Although the App Store is a separate application from iTunes, it borrows heavily from the App Store on iTunes in form and function. You use your Apple ID to login, and iTunes Store account information is used for any purchases. So if you got an iTunes Gift Card like I did over the holidays, you can now use it to pay for Apps from the App Store. This makes those iTunes Gift Cards quite versatile: I can use them in iTunes to purchase music and music videos, rent and/or purchase movies and TV shows, buy audiobooks and apps for my iOS devices, plus I can use them in iBooks to purchase books. And now I can use them to buy software for my Mac. Sweet.

One of the first things I noticed after I launched the App Store was that it recognized quite a few programs already installed on my Mac. For example, instead of a “Buy” button next to the description for iMovie, there was an “Installed” button. This was true for all of the programs in the iLife and iWork suites, as well as some third-party programs that I had on my computer, like MacFamily Tree from Synium Software and Transmit from Panic Software.

But interestingly, not all programs that are on my computer show up as installed in the App Store. For example, I own iStopMotion Home from Boinx Software, yet the App Store does not seem to recognize it. At first I thought this might be due to having a different version installed, but no, the version on my computer is the same version that is available from the App Store. This behavior is not unique to Boinx products, as I noticed the same thing with Compartments from LittleFin Software and TapeDeck from SuperMegaUltraGoovy (yes that really is the name of the developer of this fine audio recording app). I suspect that programmers need to include something in a a program’s code in order for the App Store to recognize it as installed, so perhaps these programs just need to include this code in future versions.

The first program I purchased on the App Store today was a game called Chopper 2 from Majic Jungle Software. I own the first version of Chopper, and thought this would be a good time to upgrade to Chopper 2. The price was certainly right: Chopper 2 is just 99 cents (for a “limited time” according to the App Store). Purchasing was easy, and proceeded much like a purchase in iTunes. Once I clicked the Buy button, I saw a cute animation of the Chopper 2 icon flying from the App Store to land in the dock, along with a download progress indicator below it. Once installed, the Buy button became an Installed button in the App Store. Unlike my other apps that the App Store recognizes as installed, Chopper 2 was listed in the App Store under the purchases tab. It seems that only apps purchased through the App Store show up on this list.

One of the most interesting things I noticed about the App Store was the dramatic reduction in prices on some of Apple’s products. Aperture, for example, retails in a physical box for $199, but costs just $79.99 as a download through the App Store. This is less than the price of the Academic version of Aperture, which unfortunately is not available for upgrade pricing. (I wonder if the App Store version of Aperture will be eligible for upgrade pricing when a new version comes out.) Even more dramatic is the cost reduction of Apple Remote Desktop. Yesterday this product cost $299 for the ten seat version and $499 for the unlimited seat version. But today it can be downloaded from the App Store for just $79.99. And since the App Store description doesn’t mention a seat limitation, this might be the unlimited version, which could make this a very tempting purchase. What is not clear to me, however, is whether the terms of the license for this product would allow me to use it to manage a small group of computers where I work. The license reads that I can install the software on computers that I “own or control,” so perhaps this might be permissible. In any case, it’s interesting that the version of ARD on the App Store makes no mention of a limit on how many clients one can control; I’m still not clear on why Apple decided to sell two different versions of ARD based on the number of clients anyway.

There are plenty of good apps available at good prices in the App Store. There are also quite a few not-so-good apps available, but I suspect the overall quality level of the software available will improve with time. Noticeably absent from the App Store are the big third-party software companies, like Adobe and Microsoft, which is perhaps not surprising. Staples like Roxio’s Toast and Parallels Desktop are also absent. Given the time of the year, I was really surprised not to find any of the major tax preparation programs available on the App Store. Neither Intuit’s TurboTax nor H&R Block at Home (formerly known as TaxCut) are currently available.

Another surprise was the absence of iBooks from the launch of the Mac App Store. Amazon’s Kindle app is on the App Store, so I suspect it won’t be long until we see iBooks released for Mac. But this raises an interesting possibility of having three programs on my Mac where I could spend my iTunes gift cards: iTunes, the App Store, and iBooks. Perhaps this is the start of a trend, and someday Apple will enable the use of iTunes cards in iPhoto for paying for cards and calendars.

In general, I think the App Store is off to a strong start. There are some inconsistencies in how it recognizes installed apps, and I hope Apple improves on this feature in a future update. I think the App Store could eventually move closer to the functionality of the MacUpdate Desktop App, recognizing all of the software on your computer and alerting you to any available updates. The current number of apps for sale in the Mac App Store is modest; at the moment, there are only 7 programs available in the news category, 8 programs in the Weather category, and 9 in the Medical category. But I suspect the number of available apps will grow quickly as developers recognize the potential of this new marketplace for Mac software.

MacUpdate and MacHeist

This past week, the venerable MacUpdate has been running a special bundle promotion.  For just $49.99, one could get a bundle of eight very useful Mac programs, including one of my favorites, ProfCast.  If you are a professor using Keynote or PowerPoint on a Mac, and want to easily make enhanced podcasts of your lectures, ProfCast is for you.  It simplifies the process greatly, and helps you focus on more important things than editing XML and publishing RSS feeds.

But wait…there’s more!  If enough people buy the bundle, one or two more applications will be “unlocked.”  If 3,800 bundles are sold, the drawing program Intaglio would be added.  And if the 6,000 bundle figure is reached, TechTool Pro will be included.  I’ve been using earlier versions of TechTool Pro for many years, and it’s one of the best testing and diagnostic tools available for the Mac.

But wait…there’s still more!  The great minds behind MacHeist have developed an even more appealing way to get the bundle.  If you buy the MacUpdate bundle through their special link, you’ll not only get all of the apps in the bundle, you’ll also get four additional programs, plus special preview access to two programs in beta.  All told, that’s 15 programs (16 if TechTool Pro is added) plus a free membership in MacUpdate if you send out the bundle invitation coupons.  That’s about $3 a program.

What a deal!  If you use a Mac, you owe it to yourself to at least check this out.

Analog TV’s days are numbered

I’ve been watching digital TV signals on computers for a couple of years now, using both internal ATSC tuner cards in Windows Media Center and an external Elgato EyeTV ATSC tuner on a Mac. But I had resisted buying an actual digital television set…until a couple of days ago.

I’ve been watching the prices of digital TV sets drop in cost, especially for LCD models. At the same time, the quality of LCD televisions has risen substantially, so that they are almost on a par with plasma sets. But the real clincher for me was the growing trend to include QAM as well as ATSC digital tuners in even inexpensive sets.

Getting a set with a QAM tuner is essential if you want to be able to use a television to receive unencrypted digital signals sent over cable (or fiber optic) systems. A set with the ability to pull in QAM signals has a significant advantage over one that only has an ATSC/NTSC tuner. It seems that many set manufacturers are now including QAM tuners as standard equipment (although there are still many digital TV sets being sold that lack QAM).

Less than 600 days remain before February 17, 2009. That’s the FCC deadline for broadcasters to switch from analog to digital. Many stations already have switched to digital, and it won’t be long before analog TV will be a distant memory. It’s time to start making plans to replace analog televisions with digital sets…before they become obsolete. But if you’re looking into buying one, and you plan to use a digital cable connection, make sure to verify that the set has QAM. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

Now I’m watching for the price of sets with CableCards to come down…

Finding the best deals

In an earlier blog entry, I mentioned how I was easily able to find a 1 GB USB flash memory drive for under $20.  That was a few months ago, and I’ve seen even better deals lately.  Especially when buying technology, it really does pay to shop around, know your options and take advantage of every special offer you can.

Take, for example, the USB flash drive.  I buy a lot of these for my colleagues as a convenient way to carry documents to and from school.  But I don’t think I’ve every paid full retail price. These things are always on sale, and it only takes a bit of effort to find the best deals. 

If you search online at any of the major electronics retailers you can find 2 GB USB flash drives in a wide range of prices.  The regular prices of most of these drives are typically $50 to $60, with a few as high as $75.  But you can often find them for half the regular price, or even less.  This week at Office Depot, for example, the Ativa 2GB USB flash drive is only $19.99.  I’ve used this particular model, and I highly recommend it for its design (the cap swivels around so you never lose it).  It comes pre-installed with the “U3 Smart” software, which can be useful if you use Windows.

But to really get a great deal, add a coupon to get even more savings.  Many of the same retailers will mail you coupons to get an extra 10% off, or a specific amount off of a minimum purchase (like $10 off a purchase of $50).  You can also find many coupons and coupon codes online.   Just make sure you read the fine print.  Some retailers, like Office Depot, don’t typically allow you to use coupons on technology items.  But Staples’ coupons usually can be applied to technology, and they have one of the best return policies if you’re unhappy with a purchase.

Perhaps the best part of finding a great deal isn’t the money saved, but the “bragging rights” you earn by hunting down the best bargains.  A Vista Premium laptop for under $500? No problem. But try to get a new GPS for less than $140. It can be done! I got mine at Staples. That was easy!