Buy my wife a MacBook now or wait?

Okay, here's the deal: my wife's birthday is at the end of September. Since getting her an iPhone 3 weeks ago she's completely fallen for the thing and is now ready to accept a new Mac as a replacement for her rapidly dying Windows XP laptop. The Windows laptop she uses is running painfully slowly and needs a full reformat and reinstall. Since I'm now heavy into Macs I'd rather not deal with it anymore so the time has come.

That said I've got a bit of a challenge. My wife is a high school teacher and qualifies for not only an educational discount but also the special that Apple is running through September 15th that gives students and teachers up to a $299 rebate on a qualifying iPod purchase. That means we could get her a nice little MacBook and give the free 8GB iPod Touch to our oldest daughter in college.

This would be a slam dunk except for the news that's been building that Apple is on the verge of releasing updates to both the iPods and MacBooks. Apple Insider just summarized what's potentially coming up and it sounds pretty interesting. The biggest news for me is that the new MacBook would address the one issue I've had with my white MacBook: the fragility of the plastic case.

The plan according to Apple Insider is that MacBooks will now be sheathed in aluminum just like my MacBook Pro. Since I've had the palm surface of my MacBook crack on me and have had a number of people send me e-mails and comment on my blog about the same problem I would like to avoid dealing with that again if at all possible.

I have a strong suspicion that the information Apple Insider is predicting is exactly what's going to happen. The free iPod Touch promotion is helping clear out the existing inventory now, both for iPods and MacBooks.

So the question is, buy now and get the free iPod Touch or buy a little later, pass on the iPod Touch but get the next generation MacBook. I realize this is a common refrain; buy now or wait for the next release however I only have just over two weeks to make a decision.

Any suggestions?

Keyboarding your way through Google searches

The other day I wrote about how I am trying to use the internal trackpad on my MacBook Pro instead of plugging in an external mouse. Since I switched to Mac from Windows I've become quite a heavy keyboard user, mainly because I feel that I am able to multi-task much better, especially when using the combination of LaunchBar and Spaces.

Where this breaks down is when I need to do a quick search in Google. I can quickly get to the search box by hitting Command-K in Firefox or Command-L, Tab in Safari (Command-Option-F in Safari is hard to pull off for me). I enter in my keywords and BAM, I've got my search results. But it breaks down once I need to navigate through the results - I pretty much have to grab the mouse.

The reason is that the only keyboard way to navigate through a Google search result is to hit the Tab key like you're playing whack a mole in an arcade. This is because the tab key stops on every link on the page and there are far too many that are not search related.

Then Brian mentioned in the comments to the post that Google is running a keyboard experiment for Google search. Anyone can join the experiment, which adds a greater than (>) symbol to the left of the search results and allows you to use the J and K keys to navigate through the results. You can hit O (or Enter) to open the link or / to go back to the search box.

You can see what it looks like by clicking on this link: David Alison

I was really impressed with the way it sped up my Google search navigation; I didn't have to move to the track pad or grab the mouse when on the Mac Pro, it had minimal impact on the presentation of the page and if I wanted to mouse around it still works as normal.

You can join the experiment yourself and it will add the behavior to the web browser you join the experiment with. If you run two browsers like I do (Safari + Firefox) you will need to join it on each. I've been happily joining the experiment on every machine I use.

Thanks for the great tip Brian!

Driving without a mouse

Lately I've been away from my Mac Pro and using the MacBook Pro quite a bit. With no permanent workstation I set up shop on the nearest table or use the MBP to warm up my legs while parked on my lap. My normal routine was to fish my Logitech mouse out of my laptop bag, plug it in and off I go.

The MBP has an excellent trackpad and even though it only has a single button on it I've been adjusting to using it instead of the mouse. Having the machine completely self contained does make it much more portable. Here are some of the things I've been doing to make it easier to get by without the mouse attached.

The MacBook Pro Trackpad
The trackpad on the MBP is great and an excellent substitute for a full range mouse. Without question the best feature for me is the two finger scrolling; it feels completely natural to simply slide my hands down the keyboard a bit and scroll away, then pop my hands right back to the keyboard and continue. I like not having to disengage from my keyboard in order to use the mouse - it feels much faster.

Clicking and dragging with the trackpad takes more focused attention than the mouse. Normally I just use my right hand's thumb for clicking and index finger for dragging. If the distance and precision needed is high I'll use my left thumb for the click and then drag with my right index finger. I also use secondary (right-clicking) all the time by holding two fingers down and clicking the button. Though the MBP supports tap to click I don't use that feature—too easy to activate by accident.

Though there are other gestures available on the newer MacBook Pros though frankly I never find myself using them.

Mastering the Keyboard
I really like the feel of the MBP keyboard. With it's contoured keys and excellent layout it is a pleasure to type on. As much as possible I try to use the keyboard to navigate around, especially while doing text entry on web pages. I spend a fair amount of time in a web browser with multiple tabs open.

When I want to pop a link into a blog post I usually go through the following steps:

Command-T (open a new tab)
Command-K (or Tab key to get to the Google search box)
Enter the search terms
Mouse / click on the appropriate link I want to reference
Command-L (focus on the address)
Command-C (copy the address to the clipboard)
Command-W (close the newly opened tab, returning me to the last tab I came from)

From here I generally switch back into mouse (trackpad) mode, highlight the phrase I want as my link and then paste in the link. Though it sounds like a lot of keys to remember it's become second nature to me now and I do it without thinking.

I am a pretty heavy keyboard user so mastering the shortcuts is just something I've invested some time in and the results have been excellent for me. If you are a touch typist then don't hesitate to learn them. I recommend taking a look at Dan Rodney's excellent list.

Leveraging LaunchBar
Tools like Spotlight, Quicksilver or LaunchBar are the best alternatives to grabbing the mouse and clicking on an application to start it up. I personally now use LaunchBar and find myself incredibly productive using it. Not only do I use it as an application launcher, I've been leveraging it's ability to tie files together.

An interesting exercise for me was to imagine not having LaunchBar (or QS or Spotlight) and thinking about how I would use my machine. The reality: a LOT more mousing around. I would be clicking on Dock Bar icons, opening the Finder and clicking on Applications and scrolling to find what I needed to run. Opening the Finder and dropping into one of my document folders to locate the file I needed.

If you are still plugging an external mouse into your MacBook or MBP and have thought about trying to drive your machine without that external mouse I hope this was helpful. Got a tip to make it easier? Please shout it out in the comments below.

Six months after my switch, an update

I'm now just past the six month mark since tentatively purchasing my first Mac and beginning to switch away from Windows. At the time I bought my MacBook I had a number of machines in the house, all running either Windows or Ubuntu. What I've tried to do on this blog is provide a kind of running commentary on switching, hitting on some of the challenges I've encountered, the native Mac applications I've found and the general feelings I've had about making the switch.

What I find interesting after 6 months is the impact buying that little MacBook had not only on the way I handle my personal computing but to a large degree the influence it has had on the way I do my development work. You see after I bought the MacBook I found myself doing more and more with it. I had a Windows XP development / gaming rig parked directly in front of me but I was constantly sliding my hands over to the MacBook.

My entire development platform—at the time Visual Studio—was completely set up and I had my after-market libraries installed and was using it to build my next online service business. Even with all of my development experience being Windows based I constantly found myself pushing away from my XP system and over to the MacBook. This was not helping my productivity, at least on the development front.

I rationalized that if I bought a Mac Pro that I could install VMware Fusion on it and use that as my primary development platform. I was obviously hooked on OS X and the idea of having a machine with 8 cores and 12GB of RAM running it was pretty cool. I bought the Mac Pro, placed it in the position of being my primary workstation (pushing the Windows XP machine off to the side) and I was off and running.

I was quickly able to get the Mac Pro up and running with Windows XP and my development environment in a VMware Fusion instance. With a couple of minor exceptions it worked great, providing me with everything I needed to build my web based solutions just as I had been on my native Windows XP machine.

Not long after all this I started to look at Ruby on Rails as an option for development, something that would serve as a replacement for my Visual Studio environment. Why? Much like with Windows itself, I had been doing the same kind of development for a very long time. Given the recent sale of my last company I have the luxury of defining fully the tools I could use to build my next generation of products and I wanted to see if there was an easier way to build Web 2.0-like web applications.

Though it took me a month of getting up to speed on Ruby on Rails I found it to be a fantastic platform for building what I needed to create. With a very English-like language, an extensive library of free plugins, nice Ajax support built in and the ability to get a basic application framework up and running in a matter of hours, RoR was exactly what I was looking for. In two short months I've made far more progress than I did in the 4+ months I spent building my solution in VS .NET / C#.

On top of all that, it turns out most of the core Ruby on Rails guys are Mac people too. OS X already comes with RoR and the fact that I could use TextMate, easily one of the best programming editors I have ever experienced, was a huge plus.

I suddenly found myself using my Macs exclusively. I wasn't even firing up the Windows XP instance because I only needed it for Visual Studio. The Windows XP gaming rig was powered down and resting in the corner, serving mostly as a device to crack my knee on if I swiveled my chair too quickly. Fortunately I was able to find a buyer for it, leaving me without any native Windows hardware (well, my wife and son are still using XP).

Selling the XP rig gave me the money to purchase a MacBook Pro, giving the MacBook to my youngest daughter. She couldn't be happier ditching the Dell she had for it and is constantly using the machine. Photo Booth alone has provided her with endless amounts of fun and she's using the iSight camera to do video chats with her cousin in California.

Then, suddenly, the iPhone became part of our digital lives. When Sprint dropped the ball and our service failed miserably I bit the bullet and bought my wife and I both a couple of iPhones. It's been a fantastic device and my phone reception (contrary to many reports I've read) has been excellent. The best part of getting the iPhone though was watching my non-technical wife not only use it but embrace it completely. Between pulling down her e-mail and doing some web browsing while out shopping, I was shocked by how quickly she took to it. This from a woman that had up to this point in time never sent a single text message. She sends text messages regularly now with our daughters.

She now finally wants a Mac of her own and is going to get one for her birthday next month. I'll be writing about how she adapts to using it as well. Now that summer is winding down and our extended vacations are coming to an end I'll have a little more time to commit to blogging.

Using 1Password on a Mac and an iPhone

As I get older I find myself forgetting things that I really should remember and remembering details that I wish would simply clear from my brain's cache to make room for more useful data. I can still recall the phone number from my childhood home, yet remembering the unique PIN number my cable provider wants me to give them before I talk to a human working there is well beyond my grasp, even a day after I make one up.

Life is complicated enough without someone else badgering me for yet another new security PIN or password, each with it's own unique set of requirements. 6 characters? How about 8-14? Must have a non-alpha character, must not. Can't be longer than 8 characters. Case sensitive. Must be mixed case. Enough already!

I manage an increasingly large portion of my life online or on the phone so this is a big deal. What's a person to do? There are a couple of no-cost solutions. Some people use the same password for everything. You come up with some nice, safe password like "ih82f0rg3tp@ssw0rd$" and use it all over. Sure, it's safe from dictionary attacks but what happens when your password is stored in plain text on some server you access and their database gets hacked? Bye-bye digital identity.

You can also try to remember passwords using something like a post-it note. Simply write down your passwords on a large yellow post-it note and attach it to your monitor for easy access. This very popular method is employed by many non-technical people and works great until someone with extraordinary hacking skills breaks down your security. Hacking requirement: someone with the ability to read post-it notes.

My Mac Solution
When I switched to Mac one of the applications I got several recommendations for was 1Password. It quickly became one of my must have utilities, installing seamlessly into my browsers and making the process of remembering usernames and passwords a no-brainer. What I love is that since I tend to bounce between Safari and Firefox it will maintain my password information on both machines.

It will also fill out forms for me, including things like credit card details. For the US $35 price it's one of the better purchases I've made for my Macs. Highly recommended.

My iPhone Solution
When I finally got my iPhone one of the applications I couldn't wait to see on it was 1Password. Though my Safari bookmarks were able to sync up with my iPhone, none of my login information did. Suddenly I found myself without my key usernames and passwords and was struggling to remember the information 1Password made it so easy for me to forget. With this frustration in mind I downloaded 1Password from the App Store and set it up. Price: Free!

One of the first things you do on the iPhone version of 1Password is set up a 4 digit code (Argh! Another number to remember!) and also a master password. I'm not sure why I need two different passwords but I couldn't find a way to disable the master password once set. Starting up 1Password results in this:

Then trying to access any critical information (like seeing your actual passwords in plain text) results in this:

On the bright side the master password is only asked once per session.

Syncing up a 1Password installation on a Mac and an iPhone is really simple, though it does require a wireless network connection (not 3G or Edge) on the same network as your Mac. At least it doesn't require a .Mac MobileMe account. First off, make sure you have the latest version of 1Password installed on your Mac. Launch 1Password and select Sync to iPhone... from the Sync menu:

From the iPhone you click on the Sync button at the bottom and you will be presented with a code that must be entered into your Mac so that they can be matched up. Once that's done you can select your Mac from 1Password on the iPhone:

Click the big blue Sync button and off you go. Now your iPhone will have the same data as your Mac's copy of 1Password:

Daily iPhone Use - Not Quite There
Though I like 1Password for the iPhone and love that it now has all my passwords safely stored away, the integration is not nearly as smooth as it is for the Mac version. I cannot access my password information from Safari. Instead I need to go to 1Password, enter my digital code, select the site I want to visit, enter my master password and then I can access the site. Rather than push me to Safari, 1Password uses it's own browser, which can help enter login information.

Note the small keyhole icon at the bottom. Clicking that will allow you to push in your login credentials for the site.

In practice it's a mini version of Safari, though from within it you do not have access to your bookmarks or Safari history. While it does allow you to use the zoom features, the browser does not automatically go into Landscape mode when the iPhone is oriented sideways.

Perhaps the most frustrating part is that if I leave 1Password to grab some other information and then return to it, I am not brought back to the page I left. Instead, I need to go through those steps again.

The happy medium I've found is that I use 1Password to help me remember the passwords and then simply access the sites through the Safari browser. This is where a copy and paste feature would be incredibly handy.

In effect I use 1Password on my iPhone as a digital, password protected post-it note. Still, the price cannot be beat and at least I can look up those passwords and user names without having to remember them.

After a week with the iPhone, what's great, what's not

I've had my iPhone for a little over a week now and figure it's a good time to settle in and talk about what I like and dislike about it. I have not really changed my calling habits too much as a result of having the iPhone; the way I use the phone in general is about the same as I've done in the past. Where it has changed my daily activities is in the additional stuff I can use it for outside of being a simple phone.

No longer do I get stressed out about having to waste time standing in line or sitting in an airport terminal waiting for a family member's flight to arrive. I simply whip out the iPhone and check my e-mail or hit the Newsgator mobile site to see if there are any new developments on my Washington Redskins. I haven't tried the full iPhone version because I've been so pleased with the web based model.

I love the Safari web browser built into the iPhone. Other than Flash sites everything I've pulled up renders great and is readable easily by zooming in. If the font is reasonably sized I can sometimes pick it up without even having to zoom in. Scrolling is also a wonderful experience. The best part? Coming across a site that's been optimized for the iPhone. This is going to be a requirement for any web products I build in the future.

The 3G access in my area of Northern Virginia is excellent with 5 bars in many places, 4 in others. If I can't tap into a good wireless spot the 3G provides a reasonable alternative. When I'm in Southern Delaware I don't get 3G but I do get excellent Edge signal. It's significantly slower than 3G though serviceable.

Sending and receiving SMS messages with the iPhone is great. I love the iChat style presentation since it makes carrying on a conversation much more natural. The fact that I have a real keyboard means that my text messaging conversations tend to be more human readable too.

The Mail application is fantastic and works very well with my Gmail account. I love that it works with my online folders via IMAP, can quickly pull my recipients out of my Contacts and can deal with attachments so easily. Someone has a phone number in their e-mail sig and a simple tap allows me to call them.

The Calendar application is a nice implementation of iCal, though I don't like that fact that once I create an appointment I can't seem to change it from Work to Home calendar. Since I sync my calendar through iTunes with iCal on my Mac if I make a mistake and place something on the wrong calendar I can change it there.

The Contacts list is also a strong point, syncing seamlessly with my Mac Address Book. I have found myself dropping in pictures for all of my contacts because it is so easy and I like seeing the face of the person calling me.

The battery life on the iPhone has been decent for me, considering how I am using the device. I can generally get a full day out of a charge with reasonably heavy use. This is not a "I can go for 5 days before I have to charge my phone" kind of device; I plug it in at night while on the road or sync it up with iTunes on a daily basis when operating from my home office.

Not quite perfect
On the downside I've had to restart the iPhone a couple of times now after it locked up on me. There are also times that the iPhone can respond very slowly, especially in the Contacts application. If I activate it and then try to pull up a contact record or click on the alphabetical list on the right it can sometimes take about 5 seconds before I get a response. Once it starts being responsive everything is fine; it's just that initial delay that's an issue. This is not a regular occurrence but it is often enough to be noticeable.

If I could pick one feature that could be added to the iPhone that would be very helpful it would be a modest clipboard function for Copy/Cut/Paste.

Finally the camera in the iPhone is pretty weak. If the lighting is perfect—basically outdoors on a bright day, sun at your back—it can take an excellent picture. Indoors with decent available light it can take reasonably good pictures. The lack of a flash and white balance controls makes it pretty unusable if there is any back-lighting. Want to take a picture of a person that has a window behind them? Forget about it.

These little complaints aside I really am happy with the iPhone. When I consider all the things that the iPhone does brilliantly it makes the list of complaints I have seem pretty weak.

My wife and her iPhone

I've mentioned before that my lovely wife of 22 years is both brilliant and technically challenged. Whenever there is the slightest problem with technology—whether it's switching the inputs on our TV or dealing with the smallest of issues on her Windows XP machine—I hear the "David...!" yell. This has led me to consider getting my wife a Mac to replace the HP laptop she has used for a couple of years now. I would love to get her on the same platform that I'm on and get her to enjoy the Mac experience I have had so much fun with.

I'm also a realist and came to the conclusion months ago that she will simply not enjoy the switch to a Mac unless it was something she really wanted. It's not that she's anti-Apple; she has been an iPod user for years and loves them. It's just that unlike me her computer is purely a utility, something that is used to accomplish her goals. Given that, a Mac would likely be a challenge for her because it is just different enough that she would struggle with it.

In light of all this I have let things run the way they have for many years. I simply have to play technical support for her Windows issues and grudgingly patch the machine up as best I can.

Her new iPhone
When our Sprint service died and I picked up an iPhone I also bought one for my wife. At first she was a bit reluctant but after seeing a good friend use hers my wife warmed up to the idea. I was shocked by how quickly she took to it. I did of course have to provide some initial technical support but she mastered the basics much faster than I expected. This from a person that has never sent a text message in her life.

The biggest issue she had was typing in the letter P. The Incipio dermaSHOT cover I placed on her iPhone has a slight lip that was blocking her from easily hitting it. The only other issue is eyesight related. We're at the age where reading glasses are required and I noticed that she was often stretching the iPhone away from her in order to see details.

Solving the Gmail Contacts problem
She's a Gmail user so I set up her account for her and the iPhone quickly pulled down her e-mail. The only thing she had left to do was get her contacts into the iPhone. Since she runs iTunes on her Windows XP laptop I fired that up and specified that it should pull the contacts from Gmail. Well, that sucked down several hundred people that she did not know since Gmail still adds every person that is on any e-mail you send to your contacts. Every person from my son's lacrosse team or our community activities list was automatically included, making her phone list far too large.

I pulled up a web browser and went into her Gmail Contacts List and noticed that there was now a Suggested Contacts list. I figured I'd live life on the edge and try something so I selected them all and deleted them.

Sure enough the people that were left in the Contact List were the people she actually wanted in there (about 50). When we synced up to iTunes the next time she had her 50 contacts and everything was great. I had her update her contact information through Gmail since it was a little easier than typing everything in on her iPhone, then she re-synced and all was good.

A Mac is in her future
She has been so happy with the iPhone experience that she's actually reconsidering her position on switching to a Mac. Her Windows XP laptop is painfully slow right now, has trouble shutting down and the anti-virus software on it needs to be renewed. I am just tired of dealing with it all.

Instead, she has a birthday coming up next month and I'm thinking a nice MacBook would be the perfect gift for her. If this goes according to plan I'll set up an account for myself on her machine and the next time I hear "David...!" coming from her I'll just SSH into her machine and use Alex to say "What?!?"