Switching to an ergonomic keyboard - the Microsoft Natural 4000

When I bought my Mac Pro last year I used it to replace my Windows XP system. Since I already had a great pair of Samsung 204B displays and a Logitech Mx510 Gaming Mouse that I really liked I figured I'd just keep using them. I personally couldn't stand the Apple Mighty Mouse - I love all the buttons I get on the Logitech too much and with SteerMouse I could customize it as much as I liked.

The remaining item for input was the keyboard. My Mac Pro came with a full size aluminum keyboard and typing on it was acceptable. Since I had been using a MacBook quite a bit up to that point in time I wanted to use a Mac style keyboard, one that had the keys aligned properly for Mac users. Windows keyboards generally have the following keys along the lower left side:

Full size Mac keyboards on the other hand use:

The swapping of the the two keys between the Control and Space Bar means a lot of fumbling for different keys, especially for a heavy keyboard user like me. Since I've now ingrained into my hands the physical location of the keys I decided to give my old Microsoft keyboard a whirl.

Back in Black
I became addicted to Microsoft ergonomic (split) keyboards nearly 10 years ago and have owned a variety of different versions over the years. My latest one is a Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000. While the name is unwieldy the keyboard itself is a joy to touch type on. With a raised wrist rest and natural feeling home position for my fingers I can very easily drop my fingers to the keyboard without looking and just type away. This was not the case with the Mac's aluminum keyboard; if I pulled away from it to grab the mouse I didn't always drop on the right key position; the tiny indentation on the F and J keys were easily passed over.

That's not the case with a split keyboard. Your hands have a tendency to just fall right into place because of the angle for the keyboard. The split in the middle mimics the angle your arms approach the keyboard and the keys themselves are not laid out in a straight line; they curve gently to mimic the reach of your fingers.

I dusted off the keyboard and plugged it in to one of my USB ports. The Mac Pro couldn't figure out which keyboard it was and asked me a couple of questions but after that I was able to get it up and running quite easily. I was shocked to see how quickly I could type on it compared to the aluminum keyboard, especially when I was jumping between tasks.

The first problem I encountered was the position of the Alt/Option and Command keys. Fortunately System Preferences has a Modifier Keys dialog under the Keyboard & Mouse section for switching them around:

While this worked fine there was one other little quirk; the Microsoft Natural Keyboard doesn't have an eject key. There are tons of extra keys on this baby but an eject button just wasn't a requirement.

It turns out Microsoft has an OS X driver for the Natural Keyboard that seems to work well with my Mac so far. It provides some decent remapping of keys and I was able to make the dedicated calculator button serve to eject the CD tray:

Now that I have my keys mapped properly I am ripping through work like crazy and typing faster than ever. The only downside is that I have this little Windows Start key sitting there that I would like to have labeled Alt / Option–which is what it actually does–and the Alt key should be named Command. Since each key on this keyboard is custom fit they aren't interchangeable. It appears a Bic Permanent Marker is able to cover up the incorrect name for the key. All I need now is a small Command and Option sticker to drop in there and I'll be set.

If anyone can think of a decent solution to my key cap naming problem please let me know through the comments below.

Skitch makes it easy to annotate pics

Though Skitch has apparently been around for a while now I didn't hear about it until I saw a Merlin Mann's video on how he has his Mac desktop set up. For those that don't follow Merlin's stuff you really should.

Since I tend to write about software that I find for my Mac quite a bit I drop in a lot of screen shots. Since Macs have an excellent built in screen capture capability I often just used that, pushing Command-Shift-4 to activate it and drop the resulting capture as a PNG on my desktop. I would then take the PNG and load it up into my graphics editor (usually GIMP), then crop or edit the image. If I wanted to annotate the image with highlights or callouts I would use the line drawing tools which were a bit of a challenge.

This is where Skitch really shines. You can capture an image just as easily as with the built in Mac capture tools but this give you an editable surface that allows you to quickly crop, resize and annotate the image with really simple tools.

I won't go into too much more detail because Michael Warf created a really excellent little video a while back walking through the features of Skitch, including the picture sharing that's included with the service:

Skitch Video Review from Michael Warf on Vimeo.

On top of all this Skitch is free. If you know of a better solution for screen capture than what I'm getting with Skitch please drop a note in the comments below.

Reflections on my first Mac

With all the talk of the 25th anniversary of the Mac I started to wax nostalgic about my original Mac experience.

Though my blog got a lot of page views last year because of my switch from Windows to Mac, the reality is the little white MacBook I bought in February of 2008 was not actually my first Mac. From '83-'84 I worked at a small retail computer chain in Southern California named Sun Computers (not Sun Microsystems). We sold IBMs, Compaqs, DECs and Apples.

When the Mac was introduced Apple provided special training to the authorized dealers and I went off for a day of presentations in early '84. At the end of the presentation Apple gave us all forms that allowed us to purchase one Mac directly from Apple for a ridiculously low price. We could get a 128K Mac, an Image Writer dot matrix printer and a padded carrying case (for the Mac). To be honest I don't even remember the price, though it was considerably lower than its $2,500 retail price; so low that I quickly took them up on the offer and bought the machine, maxing out my one and only credit card in the process.

Keep in mind that in today's dollars the retail price was over $5,000, a princely sum of money for a 20 year old geek to be spending on a computer. Though I had been spending a lot of time around various computers that Mac was a completely different animal. It's hard to appreciate how much better it was than the DOS based PCs of the day.

It took a while before the machine was actually delivered—a couple of very, very long weeks—but when it finally came I remember spending countless hours playing with MacWrite and MacPaint, the only two programs that I had available. I would happily jam my Mac into the padded carrying case and take it with me the first couple of weeks I had it, though that got old fairly quickly. My girlfriend at the time was unimpressed with the machine, likely because I wasn't paying attention to her when I was using it.

The lack of software and the paltry 128K of memory meant that my first Mac quickly got less and less use. There were only so many MacWrite documents and MacPaint images I had the energy to do. Software started to trickle in to our store for the Mac over the late spring and early summer but it was expensive and I was already tapped out because of the cost of the Mac. In September of 1984 I landed my first job as a programmer working with DOS based PCs and my Mac quickly became expendable. I ended up selling the machine to buy a PC clone so that I could continue to learn the programming tools I was using during the day.

For the next 24 years I rarely touched a Mac, spending the vast majority of my time on DOS/Windows and later various Linux flavors. When I finally did rediscover the Mac last year it was a great experience; I felt like a kid again, exploring all the new features (well, new to me anyway) and playing with the wide range of software that is now available.

With all the coverage about the 25th anniversary of the Mac's launch I've been looking at original announcement videos and news stories and for just a few minutes I am that 20 year old budding computer geek, carefully removing that original Mac from its white box.

So what about you? If you are a Mac user when did you get your first Mac?

(PS: That picture of me? The one where I actually had hair? that was from the Spring of 1984, the same time frame I got my Mac)

iStat Server - remotely monitoring your Mac

I've always been a big fan of iStat menus, the freeware system monitoring utility. It's a great way to quickly see what's going on with my Mac, whether it's CPU, disk or memory utilization, temperature, etc.

Bjango, the iPhone side of iSlayer (producers of iStat menus), has recently released iStat Server, a free Mac application that runs in the background. It sends your Mac's system monitoring information to your iPhone for actual monitoring. On the iPhone side you buy the $1.99 iStat - System Monitoring application, which then connects with your Mac and displays your monitoring information on your iPhone.

If you want to remotely monitor one or more of your Macs for the ridiculously affordable price of $2 then this is a very cool set up.

The first step is to download and install iStat Server on any of the Macs you want to monitor. Once installed and running you will get the main iStat Server window:

It will display a code that you will need to enter on your iPhone once you connect; mine is currently locked so it displays as asterisks.

The next step is to download and install iStat - System Monitoring (ISM) from the App Store. Once you start that application up you can either monitor your local phone's resources:

Or you can connect to any of the Macs you installed iStat Server on. If they are on your local network ISM will detect them automatically. If you are using remote servers you can manually add them, using the IP address and port number they are broadcasting their information on.

Viewing a server that's running iStat Server gives you a great view of the monitors you would normally see with iStat menus, including consolidated CPU utilization, memory, disk usage, networking traffic use and every temperature that you could ever want to see.

Rounding out SSM it also includes a Ping and Traceroute utility as well as the ability to free the memory on your iPhone and send your iPhone's unique identifier or MAC address through e-mail.

On the iStat Server side you don't need to leave the application window open or even keep it hidden; just quit the application and it will continue to broadcast iStat server data until you uninstall it. On my Mac Pro it uses just under 3MB or real memory.

If you really want to monitor your Mac's performance from virtually anywhere (assuming you've set up your Firewall / router), iStat Server Monitoring is an excellent way to do it.

Switching challenges: the Page Up / Page Down key

It has been nearly a year since I switched from Windows to Mac. In the past I've written that among the more difficult things I encountered in the switch was the behavior of the keyboard:
Little adjustments - from Windows to Mac
Mac: Have you tried using the Option key?
Mac: Where did my Backspace key go?
Windows to Mac keystroke mapping - a quick guide
In spite of all this attention there was one key stroke combination group that I missed and it didn't get to me until very recently: the behavior of the Page Up and Page Down keys. On the Windows and Ubuntu based systems I have handy the Page Up and Page Down key perform the following action: Page Down/Page Up in a non-editing viewport (web browser, help system, etc) and the viewing window scrolls Down or Up by a screen. If however you are in an editable surface (like a text editor) and hit Page Down/Page Up it moves the screen and the cursor.

This is different than the behavior on a Mac. The Mac Page Down / Page Up keys (fn-Down Arrow / fn-Up Arrow on a MacBook) only move the screen view, not the cursor. The way to move the cursor and the screen view on a Mac one screen at a time is to use Option-Page Down / Option-Page Up. Even when doing this the behavior is different: Windows and Ubuntu keep the cursor position in the same place relative to the window as you scroll down; Mac places the cursor in the middle of the screen.

To summarize:

Full KeyboardMacBook KeyboardAction
Page Upfn-Up ArrowMove screen up
Page Downfn-Down ArrowMove screen down
Option-Page Upfn-Option-Up ArrowMove cursor/screen up
Option-Page Downfn-Option-Down ArrowMove cursor/screen down

When I'm in Safari I hit Page Up / Down in order to scroll the viewport, then can switch to the arrow keys for fine tuning the view. Page Up / Page Down are effectively a jump tool for the cursor position.

Many times lately I've found myself paging up and down in a large code file in TextMate, then I'll automatically hit the Down Arrow to just move down a little and since that action moves the view back to the cursor I'm usually back at the top of my document.

Frankly I think Apple got this one wrong; it should be the other way around with the Option modifier being used to only scroll the screen. It is of course too late now to change it and I am working to commit this keystroke combination to muscle memory, however if anyone knows the rationale behind this design choice I'd love to hear it.

The Snowball: a high-end mic for my Mac

Lately I've been trying to build up some screencasts and found that the little RocketFish microphone I had was woefully inadequate. I had to doctor up the sound considerably with Audacity just to get it to come across reasonably well.

My friend Bob (who happily shares his marketing expertise) let me borrow his professional setup, complete with a Tascam US-122, a Sennheiser mic, filter and large desktop stand. He used to do professional voice-over work and after getting it up and running the difference was simply stunning.

Though I liked Bob's setup, it was a little too much for my modest needs. Since I'm not an audiophile or accoustics expert I just wanted something that approximated the sound quality of a professional setup in a nice little USB based package. I hit up the local Apple store and the gentleman that was responsible for high-end creative applications said some good things about the Blue Snowball USB Microphone. I jumped up to Amazon and bought one.

Enter the Snowball
The Snowball looks kind of like a, er, Snowball on a small tripod. All I needed to do was plug it in then drop into System Preferences / Sound, select the Input tab and then choose the Blue Snowball as my device. There wasn't much more to it than that.

As far as sound quality goes I couldn't tell the difference between it and the Tascam based setup I was using earlier. Again, I'm really just a layman when it comes to audio so to my amateur ears the Snowball sounded just as good.

The best part for me was that with the stand it sat between my keyboard and dual displays perfectly, allowing me to view what was on the screen during the screen casts without having to twist my head sideways to speak into the mic. Here's what it looks like while I'm using my Mac:

The Snowball's stand is slightly adjustable. The top of the Snowball hits 9 inches at it's lowest setting—which is what I use—and 10.5 inches at maximum extension. Just to round out (so to speak) the measurements, the ball itself is roughly 3.75 inches wide. If you are considering getting a Snowball grab a ruler and use those measurements to ensure it won't block your screen if you want to use it like I am. My Samsungs are set at their highest level and this just makes it.

This is a really nice piece of hardware; it feels extremely solid and comes with a high quality USB cable. The screencasts I've been working on suddenly got much better and my everyday uses for the mic have improved dramatically. When I made a call to a friend I speak to frequently on Skype and asked if he noticed a difference his response was "clearly".

That summed it up nicely.

Do you have a mid to high-end microphone setup for your Mac? If so, please drop a note with the specs into the comments.

Using Twitter to really help someone

I've been using Twitter for the better part of 6 months now and have found it to be a compelling way to network with other people. Sure, it can be a fantastic waste of time if you let it but so can nearly every other internet technology. I use Twitter for a wide range of things, from asking about which photo management tool to use, following key people that talk about topics I'm interested in on through BS'ing with my friends on different topics. There's something about limiting the conversation to 140 character statements that keeps everything very focused.

It's hard to understand the impact that this form of networking can have outside of how it impacts you directly. Can Twitter really be used to connect people together quickly? Last night I ran across something that was pretty cool. This tweet came across my Tweetdeck "Friends" feed last night:
From @jtnt:
RT @MackCollier: Pleas help @armano help out a friend in need (pleas RT if you can) - (via @AaronStrout)

In Twitter Speak the RT means Re-Tweet; forwarding a Tweet you read to your followers so that it hits a broader audience. Just like the old Faberge Shampoo commercial, they tell two friends, and so on, and so on...

David Armano (@armano) put up a blog post and followed it with a tweet to his network of followers. I had never heard of David Armano before that tweet but since Nick Tolson (jtnt) is someone I trust I figured I would check it out. You can read David's blog post to see the context but it is a very touching story and clearly impacted a lot of people, prompting them to make a donation on Daniela's behalf.

In less than 12 hours David raised over $11K for Daniela. His original goal, with a deadline of Feb 5th, was to get $5K. Needless to say he was a bit overwhelmed and his recent tweets reflect that.

What's interesting to me about this outside of the incredible "feel good" nature of what David did is the speed with which this took off. The power of Twitter to span out across a wide range of different groups so quickly and with such a visible impact is interesting to say the least.

First Impressions: Picasa for Mac

When I switched from Windows to Mac nearly a year ago the only thing that I really missed from Windows was Picasa, Google's free photo management software. I've struggled getting iPhoto to work the way I wanted it to. I had used it for years and since I take a LOT of digital photos I have a pretty extensive photo library for a non-professional (25K photos, 55GB of disk space that span the past 8 years). Today Google released the beta version of Picasa for Mac and I immediately set about installing it and checking it out.

Here are my first impressions of Picasa for Mac.

Picasa is very comparable to iPhoto in terms of functionality. It indexes all of your photos and presents them in a scalable film strip interface. You can double click on a picture and it will zoom in to it. When I first loaded up Picasa and had it index my photos it took about 25 minutes to find them all; on my dual processor Mac Pro the CPUs barely moved while this was going on. The quality of the thumbnail image in the film strip on Picasa is not nearly as good as it is in iPhoto; I haven't figured out if this is a setting, standard behavior in Picasa or simply a function of it being beta software. Here's an example:

Not long after I created this comparison image I checked it again and the Picasa version is now much clearer. Again, this may be a function of the beta or a delay in the update process for the quality of the thumbnail.

You can do many of the same photo retouching jobs that you would in iPhoto with Picasa, though the approach is a little different. In iPhoto you can see a traditional profile of levels; Picasa does not display a profile, just buttons and sliders to manage the effects.

One button that Picasa does have is the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button, which will auto-adjust lighting and colors and has an uncanny knack for making pictures look great quickly. In addition the Red-Eye removal tool will first make an automatic pass to try and pick out the red eyes in your photos. Though the automatic mode doesn't catch everything all the time it does a nice job with the obvious ones, making it very quick to run through lots of night shots.

Switchers Have It Easy
If you have switched from Windows to Mac and used Picasa in the past you will be immediately comfortable with Picasa on OS X. The interface is markedly similar to the Windows version, including the quirky scroll bar that Picasa uses in the main viewing area.

If you happened to copy your original photo folders from your Windows machine to your Mac then you'll be pleased to note that the Mac version recognizes your old settings (tags, stars, descriptions, etc). I kept my files in their original state, simply moving them to the large hard drive I have in my Mac Pro so it recognized everything immediately.

The reason I like the idea of having my photos stored on a separate disk and stay there is pretty simple: I share my photos with the rest of my family. So I have a 1TB data drive that has a Photo folder and within that are sub folders for the year / month-day that I took the pictures. This Photo folder is then shared on my network and my wife and kids can get to it easily if they want to grab photos and place them in Facebook, etc. Even my son, still running Windows XP, can get to them.

If you edit a file in Picasa (adjustments, red eye, etc.) the new version replaces the old version on your hard drive. A hidden folder is created under the folder where your originals are contained. This folder (labeled .picasaoriginals) contains a .picasa.ini file and the original copy of your picture. Again, this is hidden so unless you have enabled the ability to see hidden files in the Finder you will not see them.

Where the Pictures are Stored
One of my favorite features of Picasa is that while it can recognize when a camera is plugged in to it and import those pictures it will also allow you to monitor folders so that if photos are placed in them (or their sub-folders) then they will be automatically added to Picasa:

Just select the folders you want to monitor, set it to Scan Always and you don't need to worry about importing the pictures into Picasa; all you need to do is copy the pictures from your camera over and they will automatically be picked up.

Interface Oddities
There are a couple of things about the Picasa UI that take getting used to. First off, double clicking on a thumbnail pulls up a large view of the photo. If you then click and hold the mouse button it will zoom the photo to 100%. When the image is zoomed don't expect to use the scroll wheel to move around within the image like in iPhoto; in Picasa that will jump you to the next or previous image. If you want to scroll around in zoom mode you need to click and drag or use the thumbnail viewer to position the viewing area. A single click pulls you back out of zoom mode.

Even with the little zooming quirks this method is FAR superior to zooming in iPhoto; the only way you can zoom in on the current version of iPhoto is to place the photo in Edit mode.

The software is still in beta so there are problems; as an example when I tried to remove a folder from Picasa (Right Click, Remove from Picasa...) I got the spinning beachball of death and had to Force Quit Picasa. That said, having played with it for several hours I was comfortable with it pretty quickly and am looking forward to using it more in the coming days.

If you decide to give Picasa for Mac a spin note that it only runs on Intel based Macs; PPC based Macs are out of luck. The Picasa for Mac Forums are also an excellent resource for getting questions answered.