iPhone 3G Second Look

There are a couple of things I've noticed about the iPhone 3G that I didn't mention in my original post that I would like to cover. First off, the iPhone comes with what look at first glance like standard earbuds. I simply ignored them since they looked like the little white earbuds that I received with every other iPod I own.

These earbuds are different though. They include a little microphone 5 inches below the right earbud, harking back to the wired headsets that were popular before Bluetooth headsets became all the rage. You can use the them to listen to your music and it produces very serviceable sound. The best part though is when you use it for a phone call; the sound is loud, crystal clear and comes into both ears, something I rarely experience with a phone since I tend to use single ear headsets or just press the handset up to my ear.

The other cool feature is that the little microphone is also a switch that can be used while playing music. A single click pauses the current song and a double click advances to the next song on the playlist. If a call comes in while you are listening to music you can also click the microphone to answer the call.

About the only downside to the headphones are how to carry them. You can wrap them around the body of the iPhone but that renders the display unreadable. There are cases out there—like the Jam Jacket from DLO that I bought for my iPod Touch—that provide a nice little clip to wrap the headphone cord around. The downside to that is the iPhone can't be slipped easily into a pocket with it attached; far too bulky. "Is that an iPhone in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?"

The alternative is to just pick up a Bluetooth headset of course, though I have yet to have found one that offers decent sound beyond the ability to listen to phone calls. If you have a good solution to this problem please let me know. As Ross Perot would said, I'm all ears. Assuming I'm not listening to my music that is.

Portable Pictures
One of the nicer features of the iPhone is the ability to sync it up to my iPhoto collection. From within iTunes I simply point it at iPhoto and tell it to grab my 20 most recent events (there are several options for controlling what comes over). iTunes optimizes the photos before shipping them off to the iPhone so they don't take up the same amount of space they do on your hard drive. Once there you can scroll through them or generate a slide show.

The camera that comes in the iPhone is 2MP and takes very, very basic photos. This is not a replacement for even a basic digital camera since there are no controls to handle things like white balance and there is no flash. If your subject is properly lit you can take a decent photo; outdoors in daylight the quality is fine but if there is any backlighting at all everything washes out. That means forget trying to take a picture of someone with a window at their back. A flash would help but again, this isn't a "leave the digital camera at home" kind of device.

It's more like a "I don't have my camera with me but this will do in a pinch" kind of device.

A Black Rubber Cover
I really don't like the idea of having a device as expensive as the iPhone subject to the abuse I would likely visit on it without at least a little protection. I picked up an Incipio dermaSHOT silicon case, which provides some insulation against scratches and inadvertant drops but adds little to the bulk of the iPhone. The case also comes with a clear surface protector that helps keep the main glass free of scratches. The dermaSHOT does attract a little bit of lint when placed inside of a pocket, making the iPhone look a little on the furry side, though it is easily brushed off.

I have one of those scratch protective coatings on my iPod Touch (Came with the DLO Jam Jacket) and it helps considerably. Not only does it protect against scratches it cuts down on the finger print factor too. I haven't seen any change in the sensitivity of the touch screen since applying it either.

If you are going to install one of those protective covers to the face of your iPhone make sure you wipe it down really, really well first and apply it in as dust-free environment as you can. Otherwise you'll get small bubbles under it.

Goodbye Sprint, hello iPhone

Last week the proverbial last straw was placed on my back by Sprint. Though they have tried like crazy to retain my business over the years and I still had 4 phones under contract I had had enough. At our home on the Eastern Shore of Delaware our signal had been deteriorating for many months, to the point where you could only maintain a phone call for 15-20 seconds. People would call, you'd look at the phone and see two bars, start to talk and POOF! The call would fail mid-sentence. Fan-flippin-tastic. Five different phones, all got the same result.

I called Sprint to complain. The first person I spoke to told me that he would be happy to give me additional minutes on my account to compensate for the problem. Though a nice gesture, I declined because the phones were basically useless unless you liked to carry on Twitter like conversations with everyone. He suggested I speak to someone in the technical support group and transferred me over there.

After a lengthy hold a nice guy from the Texas support office got on the line and looked up my physical location. He said my area was in a "good" zone and that I should not have any problems. Well, clearly I was having problems. He explained at length how the cell towers were directional and that I may be in a dead zone. He suggested that I call the Sales department and talk to them about purchasing a signal booster for my home. He of course couldn't transfer me but assured me that I would have no problem speaking to someone that could help.

It was pretty clear at this point that no one really wanted to do anything about my problem. Trying to be optimistic I decided to call back and speak to someone in the Sales department. When I finally got through to a human being I explained that I needed a signal booster based on what their support person told me. The person I spoke to had no idea what I was talking about.

Wonderful. I told the Sprint rep that I had had enough and was going to switch providers if they didn't do something about it. She immediately went into crisis management mode and put me on hold. Apparently it's standard operating procedure at Sprint to put people on hold when they sense there is a serious problem, hoping you hangup in frustration, forget why you called or simply expire from old age. When the Sprint rep discovered that I had indeed decided to stay on hold she told me that she was going to open a ticket to get technicians to our address to see if they could resolve the problem.

Impressed that Sprint would actually send someone out I asked when this would happen so that I could talk to them directly. She started to become very evasive at this point and told me her supervisor would call me back shortly to explain what was going to happen. She assured me that I would receive a call later that day. Comically she asked if I was interested in upgrading my plan at the end of the call to include some feature I didn't have. Uh, no, thank you.

I was near my phone the remainder of the day and no one called. A couple of days later we wrote a nice little good bye letter to Sprint and talked through where to go next.

I've been wanting an iPhone for months now and with the 3G release my desire for one increased dramatically. With Sprint failing to deliver I had removed my last obstacle and went into full sales mode with my wife, telling her about all the great things she could do with an iPhone. I figured if I could convince her that she wanted an iPhone then I would get one by default. A friend of ours had just visited us and brought her iPhone and my wife was pretty impressed. We knew the iPhone got a great signal in our house so that wouldn't be an issue. Though it took a couple of conversations I finally got her excited about getting one for herself.

Hurry up and wait
Since I was shuttling family members around I was back in Virginia and stopped by the Tyson's Corner Apple Store at 11am on Monday, July 28. There was a line with about 30 people in front of me but the Apple folks assured me that I could get an iPhone if I waited, as long as I wanted a 16GB white iPhone. The black 8GB and 16GB versions were sold out.

After a two and a half hour wait it was finally my turn. It went very smoothly; the Apple clerk needed my Sprint account number so that I could have my phone number ported over. It took about 20 minutes from start to finish to port over our phone numbers from Sprint to the two iPhones.

Immediately after I left Apple I ran over to my local AT&T store to get the remaining phones on our account ported over. Fortunately that was a relatively painless exercise and we were able to set up the full family plan with shared minutes, unlimited text messaging ($30 / month for the 5 phones) and get my kids the phones they wanted. We even found that we were qualified for a discounted rate (15% off) on our primary lines. All in we will be paying about $40 more per month than we were with Sprint, though obviously with significantly more features.

iPhone First Impressions
Though I was thinking I wanted the black 16GB iPhone I didn't really care that much which one I got. While I think the black one looks a touch cooler I was going to slap a rubber sleeve on it anyway to give it a little shock absorbing capability, negating the color. The white iPhone actually looks pretty cool though in person. The white surface doesn't show any smudges and to a degree reminds me of a white MacBook.

The iPhone hooks up to iTunes much like any other iPod and I quickly went about identifying new content since I had significantly more capacity than with my 8GB iPod Touch. I love the Discovery Channel and especially Dirty Jobs; it turns out they are free as video podcasts on iTunes. It's hard to beat watching Mike Rowe show you how sausages are made while you belly up to the breakfast platter at the local diner.

iTunes reports that my iPhone has 14.64GB of capacity. I can only assume that this is a combination of the formatting of the memory "drive" and base 2.0 software.

I really like the fact that the iPhone has an internal speaker (I know, Duh, it's a phone too). There are times with my Touch that I simply need to hear a brief sound clip and don't want to unwind the headphones and plug them into my ears - now I don't have to do that.

I've had an iPod Touch for a little while now and was quite used to the interface. The screen itself is brilliant and displays high resolution images with ease. Browsing the web on the iPhone's built in Safari browser is a complete pleasure. Having suffered through years of crappy little web interfaces on mobile devices the ability to get really useful web pages in that form factor is truly revolutionary.

About the only challenge I've had with the iPhone so far is the placement of the speaker for the handset. At first I thought that the volume was very poor on the iPhone but it was really a matter of where I was positioning my ear against the surface. Other than that I've thoroughly enjoyed my first day with the iPhone.

Best of all, every place I've been my little 3G indicator is displayed and I get a very strong signal. So far, so good.

Oh yes, my nephew Dan—the one that tried to get his iPhone the day after they were released—gets his today. He ended up having to go through the AT&T store in California where his parents set up the original account, they had to order the phone for him and set it up, then ship it out to him.

The role of Apple marketing in my switch

Just a few weeks ago I was contacted by Beth Bulik at Advertising Age to talk about my transition from Windows to Mac. We had a long ranging discussion about the merits of switching to Mac. This got me to thinking, what role has Apple's marketing played in my switch? How heavily was I influenced by the regular drumbeat of TV ads, online ads, store displays, etc.?

Though I am an entrepreneur and business owner my marketing experience has been with smaller companies. I never had the budget to run large scale ad campaigns so my knowledge of their effectiveness is minimal at best. I can however view them as an educated layman. What follows are my impressions of the campaigns and marketing material I have been exposed to from Apple and the role it has played in my switch.

The TV Ads
I'll just come out and say that I really like the TV ads with Mac vs. PC. Ironically it's the PC character, brilliantly played by John Hodgman, that I enjoy the most. His angst, the utter frustration he always seems to have is what makes the ads entertaining. The Mac character seems to be more of a casual observer, aloof and slightly pretentious.

What I find interesting is that even with that in mind, the ads are actually quite effective. Always focused on a single message they either dispel myths about Macs or reinforce key strengths. The minimalist background (a couple of people on an all-white stage) focuses all of the viewer's attention. This minimalist ad model has been an Apple trademark for years and they have refined it to the point of perfection.

Another element of this is that Apple is not attacking a direct competitor. The number 1 and number 2 selling computer manufacturers in the US are Dell and HP right now, yet they never warrant a mention in the Apple ads. Microsoft Windows is mentioned regularly but they do not compete directly with Apple, depending instead on companies like Dell and HP for execution.

When was the last time you saw a memorable HP or Dell ad? The last campaign I remember was from over 5 years ago when the young guy was saying "Dude, you're getting a Dell!". The bigger threat to Dell is HP and vice-a-versa. Microsoft is of course the wild card here and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Microsoft try to take Apple on directly.

I don't use AdBlock so I do see banner ads regularly. Rarely do I ever see an Apple banner ad. Some of my context searches have produced results in Google that generate ads for Apple but again, these have had little influence on me personally. I think this is more a reflection of the online advertising market than it is anything else though. If Apple is doing much with online advertising I must not be visiting the sites that trigger those ads.

In Store
I have a local Apple store (Tyson's Corner, VA) and drop in fairly often. From the outside the store looks sleek and modern, with displays that present the latest class of computer, iPod or iPhone. You can't window shop at an Apple store. The frosted glass encourages you to come in and see what's going on.

About 25 or so MacBooks, iMacs and Mac Pros are sitting out on the tables just above waist height on one side of the store. Another 25 or so iPods and iPhones are parked on the other side of the store. The Macs are all powered up and either running a demo that is easily dismissed or sitting at the Leopard desktop, ready to be played with. Regardless of how busy the store is there always seems to be an Apple employee standing by, ready to answer questions or walk you through features.

So there is a store front which encourges people to come inside, technology that is easily accessable to anyone walking in the door and helpful, non-pushy employees keeping you engaged. Every time I have visited the store, regardless of the day of week or time, there has been a crowd. The mere fact that there are so many people seems to attract more people.

I have had only one bad experience at the Apple store, my recent experience with my nephew as he tried unsuccessfully to get an iPhone. This was purely a result of Apple depending on a third party (AT&T) and complicated by the crush of interest in a newly released product. In my experience when Apple has had full control of the experience it has been excellent, among the best I have experienced in any retail situation.

What role did all of this play?
For me personally there was a series of events that led to my switch. The TV ads, which I enjoyed watching for a couple of years before I switched, played a part. I found them entertaining and though they didn't initially impress me (I liked the PC character too much), I found myself watching them whenver they came on. In effect the ads softened me up to Mac for what came next.

When several of my friends and family members started getting Macs and talking them up I felt a need to check it out, at least in a little more detail. This was probably the biggest factor in my switch, more so than anything else.

Finally, the Apple store sealed the deal. The experience of walking in, being able to quickly see the technology and get my questions answered without any "Buy Now!!!" sales pressure was great.

While I would normally be loathe to admit that something like ad campaigns and store layouts actually played a role in my technology decisions, the reality is that it did. At a minimum it constantly reinforced that Apple had its act together, presenting a consistent message and brand.

Once that was done the technology itself did the rest.

Let your Mac turn you into a ventriloquist

There are times that computers can be the most amazing devices; capable of automating mundane tasks, enabling communication with colleagues, friends and family or simply opening access to the great storehouse of knowledge represented by the interwebs.

Then there are times you just want to have a little fun. I've mentioned before that Alex is one of the best synthetic voices I've ever heard, complete with pauses and breaths that make it sound much more natural than the cyborg sounding voices of the past. What I love about Alex is that you can read off sentences directly from the command line. Just open up Terminal and enter:

say "This is coming from Alex"

It may take a second but shortly you will hear Alex's voice emanating from your speakers. The ability to speak text directly from the command line is incredibly cool, but invaluable when you combine it with the ability to SSH into a machine.

SSH and Remote Access
SSH—which stands for Secure Shell—allows you to remotely access most Linux or Unix based machines, including Macs running OS X. First you need to make sure it's enabled on the machine you want to remotely access. Go into System Preferences / Sharing and enable Remote Login. You will also want to make sure you have a named account on the remote machine.

You can connect to a remote machine by simply entering the following from a terminal prompt:

ssh <user>@<machine>

For me that's:

ssh david@force

I won't go into too much detail on how this works; that's beyond the scope of this blog post. There is a lot of information on how you can get SSH working properly between two machines though. Google will help.

Once you've logged into the remote machine you can run command line applications. This is the method I use to access remote logs on my Macs and see if Time Machine has failed while I was away—which it invariably has.

If however you enter a "say" command while remotely accessing a machine Alex's voice will emanate from the remote machine's speakers, even if someone else is logged in and actively using the machine.

Remember that laptop that I gave my youngest daughter? Well, I still have an account on that machine. The sheer joy of logging into that machine while she is using it and having it say things is simply priceless.

"Daddy! My machine is talking to me!!!"

Of course, she's a really smart kid. Within minutes she figured it had to be me and wanted to know how I did it so that she could do it to her sister.

Now all I need is a decent SSH client for my iPod Touch and I'm in the portable ventriloquist business.

say "Mooo ha ha ha"

iPod Touch - upgrading to 2.0

Since I got my iPod Touch last month it has quickly worked its way into my daily use. Though I still keep the iPod Nano around for running, the Touch is my preferred device for general entertainment and music listening, especially if I'm within reach of a WiFi point I can access. On Saturday I upgraded the software on it to 2.0 and downloaded a couple of the free applications from the iTunes store. I'll talk about the ones I like in a future post.

Overall I do like the new software. The ability to download applications directly from the App Store into my iPod through WiFi is fantastic. If I download an application and then later connect to iTunes it asks me if I also want to place the application into iTunes so that I have it there as well. It's very nicely implemented.

The only problem that I've encountered so far is that the WiFi connection is now a bit unstable initially. Whereas before I could pop into Mail or Safari every time and it simply worked, now very often my Touch has a difficult time connecting immediately after pulling it out of sleep or turning it on.

I'll hit the button, slide the unlock and see a nice solid connection on the WiFi indicator. The problem is that if I go directly into Mail or Safari I get an error that reads:

"Safari can't open the page because it is not connected to the Internet", with an OK button:

Eventually it will go through, though it takes considerably longer than it did prior to the update. This has had an impact on the way I use the device; I used to leave it upstairs and if I wanted to quickly check e-mail without running down to my basement office I would simply grab the Touch and check my e-mail. Now it's a much more frustrating process.

That issue aside the Touch is a great option for those of us that want the cooler part of the iPhone experience. If only Apple had made the iPhone carrier independent I'd have one right now. Instead I'll have to be content to use my iPod Touch until my Sprint contract is expired.

Bonus iPhone/Touch Tip:
Ever wanted to grab the screen on your iPod or iPhone like I did to show those error messages? It's really easy:

While viewing the item you want to capture hold down the Home button and then press the power button at the top edge of the device. The screen will flash white and briefly fade. Then pop into Photos and a folder named Saved Photos will contain your screen shot.

You can transfer it to your Mac by loading up iPhoto and importing it.

Not everyone can get an iPhone

My nephew Dan—a Computer Science major at the University of Washington—is interning with me this summer. He gets an education in what it's like to create a start-up from scratch and I get a really bright young resource for a low weekly rate. I've known Dan his entire life and he's an exceptional young man. He and I get along extremely well and I've been looking forward to helping him learn the ins and outs of starting up a software business.

There's just one catch; Dan is a hardcore Windows guy.

We're building our product in Ruby on Rails so this isn't really a big issue. He's using an HP laptop running Vista and I'm using my Mac Pro and MacBook Pro. Needless to say a lot of good natured ribbing goes on between the two of us as I continually tell him how easy things are on my Macs.

A New Hope
It was then that I found out that Dan really wanted to get an iPhone. Many of his friends at school have them and he was thoroughly impressed with them. Though I don't have an iPhone because I'm locked into a Sprint contract several of the people that encouraged me to consider Macs got into them because of the halo effect of having an iPhone. Maybe there is hope for Dan after all!

We drove over to the Tyson's Corner Apple Store today so that Dan could pick up the new 3G iPhone. After stalking people in the parking lot for about 25 minutes we finally managed to get a parking place. Recession? Apparently not in Northern Virginia.

Once we got inside the mall I directed Dan towards the Apple Store and an odd site met our eyes: the front door of the store was guarded by an Apple employee and a security guard. There was a crowd of people milling around the railing in front of the store and it took us a couple of moments to realize that this was actually a line to get into the store. A line with about 150 people in it by my estimate.

We asked the Apple employee if they had enough iPhones left to get through the entire line and he said they had plenty of iPhones in stock, though they were running low on the black 16GB version.

Dan decided to gut it out and wait. The line moved very slowly and in the end it took Dan about 3 hours of waiting before it was his turn. The Apple employees were, as usual, incredibly nice. One wheeled out a cart with bottled water and some food for the people standing in line and the atmosphere was nice and calm. The lady in front of Dan told him that yesterday the line at the Fair Oaks Apple Store was over 700 people long so she decided to try for today instead. She seemed relieved to only have to wait for 3 hours.

The Empire Strikes Back
When Dan's turn finally came up he quickly picked out a black 8GB iPhone and a small case for it. Everything was going great until they tried to add the iPhone to Dan's AT&T family plan. His parents had 4 phones on the account and apparently had some kind of discounted rate that prohibited Dan from being able to add the iPhone.

Since it was now late afternoon on a Saturday the Apple staffer was furiously trying to reach AT&T to get the issue resolved but was not having much luck. Though the Apple folks do have the ability to do quite a bit on the AT&T accounts if you have a discounted rate on it then they are unable to do anything. For that you have to work through AT&T.

Since there was an AT&T store right around the corner we walked over and asked if they could get it resolved so that we could go back to the Apple store and purchase the phone. The AT&T store employee couldn't do anything because apparently Dan's mother was the primary on the account and needed to authorize the remove of this discount code. While we were in the AT&T store another person with a similar problem came in.

After 3 hours of waiting and getting so close that the boxed iPhone was resting in his hand for a few moments, Dan had to give up and wait for the account issue to be resolved before he could actually buy the phone. Ironically Dan's family had purchased this account less than a month ago. Dan was told by the AT&T rep that as soon as the iPhone was released he would be able to add it to his account without any problems.

Want an iPhone?
If you are considering getting an iPhone in the next week you will likely encounter some challenges. Though the Apple stores seem to be well stocked, the AT&T stores we visited (3) were all out of stock and had no idea when they would get any more in. If you are already an AT&T customer you may want to call AT&T and verify that you will not have any problems adding an iPhone to the account. The Apple store staffer said this was a recurring problem for a number of people trying to buy the iPhone today.

Another thing you will want to make sure of is that if you are on a Family Plan already with AT&T you need to be authorized to make changes to your account. If not, make sure the person that is comes with you to buy that phone, otherwise you may be in for a wasted trip.

Fortunately Dan was not too discouraged. He should have the account problems cleared up by Monday and we'll head back to the Apple Store so that he can actually get that iPhone. They gave him a little tag that will allow him to bypass the line since he already waited in it.

Keyboard vs. Mouse

Late in the 20th Century Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott is at the PLEXICORP offices with Dr. McCoy and trying to explain how to construct "transparent aluminum" to Dr. Nichols, the plant manager.

Scotty is offered up the use of a Macintosh sitting on a nearby desk in order to demonstrate the design.
Scotty speaks out in a loud voice: "Computer..."

The Mac Plus sits there. Bones grabs the mouse and hands it to Scotty. Scotty pulls the mouse up to his face and says "Hello computer?"

Dr. Nichols looks concerned and instructs Scotty to "just use the keyboard".

Scotty says "The keyboard... how quaint"

After stretching his fingers like a concert pianist Scotty begins typing furiously on the Mac's keyboard, quickly producing a detailed 3-D graphic to describe how to manufacture transparent aluminum.

As Scotty would tell you, using the keyboard is clearly better than using a mouse.

I mentioned before that one of the myths that I clung to before considering a Mac was that it was a highly mouse centered machine. Indeed, Macs take better advantage of the mouse than most other operating systems do, especially in the drag and drop department. See an image in a web page that you want to grab? Perhaps an image of Scotty speaking into the mouse in Star Trek IV? Just drag it out of the browser and on to your desktop.

Clearly the mouse works great on Mac for many tasks, but so does the keyboard. The usual navigational shortcuts are there for text handling and there are system standard shortcuts for things like preferences, window management, file saving, etc. But if you are a touch typist tools like Spotlight, Quicksilver or LaunchBar add an entirely new dimension to using the keyboard.

In the time it takes to move your hand over to the mouse, position the mouse pointer on the screen and perform an action you can often do the same task more quickly by using the correct keyboard commands. I can select a couple of words by holding Shift-Option-Arrow and then bold it by pressing Command-B in Pages. The mouse alternative is to reach over to the device, position the cursor on the desired text, click and drag-select, then reposition the mouse to the toolbar and click the Bold button.

I personally find myself in one of two distinct phases of computer usage most of the time.

Text Creation Mode
If I am in text creation mode, especially when creating large volumes of text or program code, the keyboard is my primary device. As much as possible I try to keep my fingers on the home keys and use the various shortcuts to get around. My net typing speed is 54 WPM on my MacBook Pro's keyboard (you can test your own typing speed at

While I will occasionally grab the mouse when I'm in this mode, more often than not I simply try to use the arrow keys or shortcuts to perform tasks. I have a hot key to activate Spaces and switch to a different area, use Command-Tab to switch between applications, move between browser tabs using Option-Command-Arrow, etc.

This mode is also prime LaunchBar / Quicksilver time. A quick Command-Space and a couple of keys later and my application is front and center or the document I need loaded into Pages is right there.

Information Browsing Mode
When I am browsing through web sites or scanning through my RSS feeds in NetNewsWire I tend to be in full mouse phase, rarely even touching the keyboard. If I'm using my external mouse the scroll wheel gets a lot of work whereas if I am using the track pad on the MBP I use the two finger scroll.

Since I've set up my external mouse to use SteerMouse I also have mapped a couple of the extra keys on my Logitech Mx510 to open Spaces, move forward and back with the browser, open a link in a new browser tab, etc.

So which mode works best?
A commenter on this blog turned me on to a great article written nearly 19 years ago by Bruce Tognazzini, the founder of the Apple Human Interface Group and a renowned usability expert about using the keyboard vs. using the mouse. While Tog maintains in the article that people in tests are faster with the mouse than the keyboard, most people disagreed at that time with his findings. A lot of time has passed since the article was produced and if anything keyboards have become far more ergonomic and many standard shortcut combinations have had significant time to "bake" and become second nature.

When all is said and done my preference is to use the keyboard as much as possible. I know that when I'm in the zone and popping between tasks rapidly using the keyboard I feel extremely productive. When creating many of my blog posts I reference application specific features and I find myself bouncing between different sites and local applications, capturing screen shots and pasting in URLs for hyperlinks. Add in a tool like LaunchBar and my productivity goes up even higher.

I think James Doohan would agree.

My daughter got my MacBook

David's Note: A couple of weeks ago I bought myself a MacBook Pro, which enabled my youngest daughter to obtain my beloved MacBook for her 13th birthday. Julia has always been comfortable around computers and loves to explore what's possible with them. If my wife has a technical problem on her machine and I'm not around then Julia is second tier technical support. I have no idea where she gets that from.

One of my conditions in giving her the MacBook was that after she had it for a few days that she write up her impressions for me so that I could put them in my blog. She happily complied and provided the article below. The title and all of the text are hers, not mine, with just a couple of minor edits.

Once you get a Mac you can’t go back to Windows

By Julia Alison

I finally got my first MacBook. It is very nice looking, clean, neat, simple, just all around beautiful. The machine itself is very good, I like the feel of the keyboard, and the nice big trackpad, it is very convenient. I am used to using a Dell laptop, there are some things that are very different about this machine that I will have to get used to but over all it is great.

Some things that bother me are the right clicking, it is different because you don’t just right click, you can set it to holding two fingers on the pad and clicking and that is different but not that bad. I know I will get used to it, so it really isn’t that big of a deal. Some other little things are not being able to maximize the windows to fit the screen.

I really like this machine. I like the clean simple way it is set up with the dock at the bottom. If you think the dock is to big or too small, you can change the size, which is very convenient. I like all the keystrokes, like Command-Space to bring up Spotlight, Command-Q to close the application, Command-W to close a window, and many more. Another thing that is so convenient is Spaces, you can have six documents opened on its own screen by hitting F5, or whatever you set yours to.

I like that when you want to scroll you can use two fingers and scroll, up, down, or side to side. I went on one of the laptops we have, an HP with Windows XP, and it was so weird not being able to scroll by just using two fingers. It was also weird when I went to close by pushing Command-Q and I couldn’t, I had to go all the way up to the right corner, which might not seem big but I could have saved on time and energy on a Mac.

After spending a while with my MacBook I have gotten used to the size of the screen and I actually like it better, because you still can have more documents opened on the same screen, if needed. I also have gotten used to the right clicking, I have gotten so used to it that I do it by habit, it is just natural now. I really love everything about this machine.

Photo Booth
Photo Booth is another fun item on my Mac. Whether you’re taking a picture for your blog, a website, or just for fun, it offers so much. Between a normal picture with color choices, or weird effects, to being on a nice beach. Photo Booth is also great for making little movies.

I personally love iChat. I love the way it is set up and how clean it looks. It is so easy to communicate now. I love video chat through iChat too. It is so easy to talk and it is so straight forward to use.

Overall I love my MacBook, it is definitely my favorite machine. It is something everyone should have, a nice sleek Mac.

So there you have it, the impressions of a freshly minted 13 year old Mac switcher. Now I can start working on my wife and son.

LaunchBar as a Quicksilver replacement?

After my last blog post about Quicksilver I got a number of comments and e-mails from people indicating that Quicksilver was not going to be supported much longer and that the developer was working on other projects. I followed up on a lot of the links people provided to me and confirmed the following:

Nicholas Jitkoff (aka Alcor)—the original developer for Quicksilver—has released Quicksilver as an Open Source project. While Ankur Kothari has taken up development work on it and has made some significant improvements in performance and memory utilization, I now have some concerns about where Quicksilver is ultimately headed. This is in no small part due to Jitkoff indicating to LifeHacker that people should move to more stable and well supported alternatives like LaunchBar. As recently as June 2008 Jitkoff stated that he is not encouraging people to work on Quicksilver because he is planning on making it obsolete. He is working on a number of other projects and one that may well be a full replacement for Quicksilver. It was not clear if Quicksilver users would get a migration path with it or not.

When the author of one of your favorite applications recommends that you use a different product I generally think it's a good idea to follow that advice. I already had a number of people recommend LaunchBar to me anyway so this seemed like as good a time as any to give it a spin.

LaunchBar does many of the things that Quicksilver is famous for doing. First and foremost it's an application launcher. I can quickly launch my applications by activating LaunchBar (Command-Space is my preferred method) and then typing in a couple letters of the application I want to launch. Like Quicksilver it learns the abbreviations I use and after a brief period of time is pulling them up the way I expect them to.

In addition I can specify a document oriented application like Pages and then hit the right arrow and quickly select from the list of files. Since I spend a lot of time in the Terminal now I can also do a cool little action: activate LaunchBar, type in the name of the folder and then with it selected press Command-T. This launches a terminal window and sets the default folder at that location.

The Noun / Verb model of Quicksilver is also well represented in LaunchBar. I have a file sitting on my Desktop that I would like to send to my colleague Dan. I activate LaunchBar and type the first couple of letters of the file I want to send him. I then select it and hit Tab. Next I type "Dan" and my buddy's address book entry comes up. I hit enter and I have a new message with the file attached and addressed to Dan.

Differences for Quicksilver users
Having just gotten used to Quicksilver there were a couple of things that required some adjustment. First off, I really liked that Quicksilver disappeared when I was not using it. LaunchBar on the other hand appears in my Dock bar while it is running, even in the background. While this is not a big problem it does mean that I can hit it with Command-Tab, which I sometimes use to bounce between applications. Fortunately LaunchBar always moves itself to the end of the list but I'd prefer that I can only get to it with the LaunchBar hotkey.

The second thing that threw me was when I started to enter the name of a file that I knew existed and it didn't load up. I was sure it was there so I knew something was up. It turns out that the file (an Apple script) was parked in my Documents folder which was not indexed.

Specifying what to index was not where I expected it to be either: Preferences was no help. Turns out that there is a Configuration option that gives you complete control over what gets presented in the LaunchBar selection list. I just expected it to be under Preferences and didn't notice the Configuration menu option.

Other than these little issues I was able to get LaunchBar to replace Quicksilver pretty easily. There is a huge advantage to using commercial software that you pay for and at $20 for home users ($39 for business users) the cost for this is pretty reasonable. The advantage? The authors are motivated to continue working on the product, making it compatible with new OS releases and popular applications.

For me switching to LaunchBar from Quicksilver was not that difficult because I hadn't taken advantage of the plugin architecture of Quicksilver yet (other than the Clipboard module) and I hadn't created any custom scripts around it. I'm not sure if hard core Quicksilver users will be able to adjust to it.

I'm still working out some of the kinks but fortunately the LaunchBar forums appear very active and should be a good resource.

Adding Quicksilver to your Mac

My friend Dylan—one of the guys that got me to consider a Mac in the first place—asked me the other day why I liked Quicksilver.

"I don't see what I can get from it that I don't get from Spotlight".

Given the relatively steep learning curve that Quicksilver can have I understand why Dylan feels that way; I experienced nearly the same thing myself when I first tried using QuickSilver. Because Quicksilver is so powerful and has so many options I think people are either too intimidated to use it or simply don't see how they will get that much value out of it.

I see a lot of similarities between using Quicksilver over other methods (Finder/Spotlight/Dock/etc) and switching to Mac from Windows. When I was considering the switch to Mac and asking Mac users about their machines they would tell me enlightening things like "it just works" or "it's so easy". Rarely did people give me hard, specific reasons that made me say "Oh wow, I gotta get me some of that!"

I didn't fully appreciate the Mac until I had my own sitting in front of me and even then it wasn't until a couple of months in that I really felt confident enough with the machine to switch over to it and walk away from Windows. It just took a little time to grow on me. Quicksilver is the same way.

How I learned to adopt Quicksilver
I've been able to get into Quicksilver because I used it purely as an application launcher at first. Command-Space would pull it up, I'd type in the first couple letters of the application I wanted to run and boom, there it was. It was quick, simple and unimpressive. Spotlight did basically the same thing.

What happened though was that after a couple of weeks it got better and better at finding the application I wanted to run. The applications I used most frequently only required a couple of letters (T pulled up Terminal, TEX pulled up TextMate—not TextEdit, etc). After a couple of weeks I noticed that I wasn't even thinking about the application I was loading; I was barely even looking at the display to confirm I had the right application because it always got it right.

It was at this point that I started to leverage the fact that I could perform actions on the things I was working with. I would activate Quicksilver, enter "PA" and see the icon for Pages, then hit the Right Arrow and see a list of the documents I had recently opened. Instead of opening Pages, then selecting the File / Open Recent menu list, I was able to select them right at launch. Sure, I could have typed in the name of the file and launched it directly but I often remember things based on the context. I knew it was a Pages document, I just wasn't sure what I named the thing. Seeing it associated with Pages locked it in for me.

I'm now starting to really explore some of the cool things that Quicksilver can do for me.

Still not convinced?
One of the readers of this blog—Jon—pointed me towards one of the best high level views of how cool Quicksilver can be. It was done by Merlin Mann a couple of years ago for MacBreak. I've watched perhaps half a dozen tutorials on Quicksilver that give you a sense of how to set it up but Merlin's tutorial presents it from the standpoint of how you can get the most out of this application. If you are still struggling to understand why you should even use Quicksilver then check out his video.

Needless to say I've become a big fan of Quicksilver.

Adding a Mic to a Mac

The other day my buddy Jeff sent me a link to a video someone had put together that was one of the funniest things I had seen in a long, long time:

The Web Site is Down

Warning: you have to have been in an IT capacity to really appreciate the support desk style humor involved. What was amusing about this was that Jeff and I both thought man, Skype (which figures prominently in the video) looks pretty cool. Determined to check it out I decided that I needed to add a microphone to my Mac Pro in order to get this up and running properly.

When I switched from Windows to Mac I had a number of peripherals that were suddenly available. While most, like printers, USB hubs, memory card readers, speakers, etc. just plugged in and worked, my little standard boom microphone didn't. I plugged it into the back of my Mac Pro and it just didn't record sound.

The reason is the back of the Mac Pro has an audio-in port and I mistakenly assumed was a mic-in port. It's actually a line-in and requires a preamp if I wanted to use my standard mic. Since it was a freebie Creative boom microphone that I'd had for years I decided to just plant it on my Ubuntu machine and get a nice replacement for the Mac Pro.

I ran off to my local Best Buy where I've become such a familiar face that they greet me by name. That's never a good sign. I checked out the mid-range desktop mics and settled on the Rocketfish Digital USB Microphone. My needs for a mic are quite simple and the $24.99 I paid for it didn't seem too bad.

I popped it into a USB port, pushed the little ON button on the top and it was ready to go. I fired up Audacity to see what my recorded voice sounded like and it came through loud and clear, though I did need to set the input volume pretty high.

Now with a functioning microphone attached to my Mac Pro I'm going to give Skype a whirl and see if it's as cool as it looks in that video.

Without a voice that sounds like I've been breathing helium that is.

Some cool Firefox add-ons

For the last week and a half I've been trying out Firefox as my primary web browser. Back when I was a Windows guy I switched to Firefox because of the innovations it introduced and most importantly the extensions available for it. Now that I'm exclusively a Mac / Linux guy I figured I would check out the Firefox add-on market and see what's available.

It's important to note that the web browser is more than just a device to view web pages. I personally do a lot of data entry through web pages, mainly with this blog. Since I use Blogger I end up composing these posts using the in-page editor. Obviously if you comment on this blog you will be using a simple text editing surface to enter your comments. This can extend further when you look at online products like those offered from Google, including e-mail, word processing and spreadsheets.

I also do a lot of my development work using a web browser. In some cases it is to simply see the results of the application I am working on and in others I am trying to work out CSS issues or image alignment problems. Fortunately the Firefox add-in space has an extensive library of tools to make life easier.

Given that as an introduction, what follows are the add-ons I found tremendously helpful.

As I have for many years I use several computers in my daily work. I have my Mac Pro, which is my primary development machine and overall workhorse. I have my new MacBook Pro, which I use when traveling and for taking to meetings. I have a great little Ubuntu workstation that I use for some testing and to host certain external services and goofing around in general. Each of these machines is running Firefox and as a result I have 3 different sets of bookmarks.

Foxmarks is an add-on and free online service that synchronizes your bookmarks. Not only does it keep your bookmarks synchronized it also provides a web site that you can access from anywhere ( where you can view the bookmarks. While this is very similar to the bookmark component that's offered with Mobile Me from Apple, the service is free. Since Mobile Me does not support Firefox bookmarks you now have a way to keep those bookmarks synchronized as well.

I spend a fair amount of time in forums and responding to comments in this blog. In these cases being able to insert HTML links, character formatting and image references can be a bit of a pain. BBCode provides some nice context sensitive menu help to formatting. I have used this extension for years and if you spend any time in online forums you will really appreciate it.

Though I have more sources of weather information than I can shake a stick at I love being able to glance down at the status bar of my current browser window and get a reading on the weather. Forecastfox, something I've used for years, fits that bill perfectly. Not only can I see a little radar view of my area I can click and get access to a detailed AccuWeather forecast.

One of the challenges in doing web based design is matching up colors perfectly. Sometimes you just need to make sure that your web page's background matches the RGB color of a part of an image. ColorZilla provides a nice little way of "color dropping" any part of your web page and then seeing the RGB value for that.

Once you've selected a color you can copy it in standard formats to the clipboard, making it easy to insert into HTML or CSS.

If you do any web development work at all, Firebug is an outstanding addition to Firefox that gives you extensive control over HTML, CSS and Javascript on the web pages you are visiting. Calling this an add-on is a bit misleading; Firebug is so powerful it feels like a full development environment.

So there you have it, my first cut at some great Firefox extensions. I didn't count 1Password, though technically that does appear as an add-on to Firefox. I'm still looking for a decent dictionary reference to replace the fact that Control-Command-D does not work in Firefox. The number of add-ons and themes for Firefox is incredible; well over 5,000 of them. While quantity is no indication of quality, there are several more that I really am looking forward to trying out.

Got a favorite that I didn't include? Let me know!