Three iChat Features You Should Know About

As I wrote up my last blog post on Skype alternatives I started seriously looking at iChat again. Since I had been using Skype for my video chats and Adium for my IM communications, iChat never seemed to have that little blue orb beneath it in the dock bar to indicate it was running.

When I first switched to Mac over three years ago I played with iChat and relatively quickly dismissed it as a cute toy. The cartoon bubble discussion was cute but not compact enough for my relatively heavy IM usage. The video chatting was cool but after playing with the effects button and carrying on a video chat while riding a moving roller coaster I quickly concluded that this was a fluffy consumer novelty and moved on to other applications for my business needs.

Researching alternatives to Skype changed all that.

The more I played around with iChat, the more I learned about some interesting features, especially if the people I was communicating with also had iChat available to them. More and more of my friends and business associates now have Macs than ever before and iChat is already installed so it's really not that hard to leverage. For the most part if you see the Video Conference image:

to the right of their name in your buddy list, you can leverage all of the features below:

Screen Sharing
As a person that provides technical assistance to my family and friends, being able to trouble shoot a problem without having to go to their computer is a huge help, especially when they are hundreds or thousands of miles away. Having the ability to share a screen and actually manipulate it as though it's local is also great for demonstrating something I've built locally to one of my colleagues.

With iChat you can initiate either a "Share my screen" or a "Ask to share their screen" connection. While connected a voice chat channel is opened and you can speak over it while you work. To start up a screen sharing session, Control-click (or Right-click) a buddy name in your iChat list and select the sharing direction you want.

While the screen is active you can jump between the two by clicking on the screen in the lower-right corner.

A couple of notes: You can end the session by closing the small box in the lower right. This will also terminate the voice session. Pressing Command-Q or Command-W will not end the session—those commands will be sent to the remote screen and likely close the current application or window that's open.

Multi-Person Video Chat
With iChat you can link up to four people together in a video conference. Though obviously limited to a very small group, having four people able to easily see one another and carry on a discussion is amazing for an application that's simply included with OS X. Though Skype now offers video conferencing with up to eight people, it requires a paid subscription in order to use it.

Once you establish a video connection with a person you can add others to your chat by clicking the Plus symbol at the bottom of the video chat window and adding another buddy. If you are communicating with people using AIM accounts you can even join a chat room and keep a running text log as your meeting progresses.

iChat Theater
Another great little feature of iChat is the iChat Theater. Once you have a video chat running with someone, click the Plus symbol at the bottom of the window and select the option to share a file through iChat Theater (or simply drag the file to the video chat window). The image of the person you are video chatting with drops down into the corner and the image or file you are presenting takes over the main part of the screen. This is great for reviewing images or paging through a Keynote presentation. There are reports that the next version of OS X (Lion) will support sharing web pages.

iChat Theater also works when doing multi-person chat; as a presenter your multi-chat window is taken over by whatever it is you are sharing, as you can see below:

Important Tips
When you have a single or multi-user video chat running you will see a Mute button in the lower portion of the screen. Clicking that will mute your audio, but not the audio on the other end. As a result, if you click Mute your chat partner will continue to be both seen and heard and your video will continue without sound. If the other person mutes the sound, don't say anything stupid like "wow, when is this going to be over?".

Holding down the Option key transforms the Mute button into a Pause button. This both mutes the audio from your end as well as freezes the video from your end. Like Mute only, this only applies to your feed; the other end is still visible and audible.

For years now my friend an Mac super-user Ast Moore has been telling me I should be using iChat instead of Adium. Now I'm starting to see why.

Got a video / screen / file sharing tip with iChat? Please drop a note in the comments!

Skype Alternatives for Mac Users

Microsoft has agreed to acquire Skype for $8.5 billion in cash. As a long term Skype user I've had Skype loaded on my Macs for years now. It serves for video chats with my family and business associates and also as my desk-bound IP telephony device. This model has worked well for me. By combing a couple of cool AppleScripts with Launchbar I can call people without my fingers leaving the keyboard. So if everything works so well, why would I need an alternative?

Skype's Mac Client
I was more than a little concerned when Skype released their last Mac client and it was, well, not very good. Skype's never really been a company that embraces the Mac user interface well, though version 2.8 is serviceable from a user experience standpoint. With the announced acquisition my confidence in Skype putting any money into "embracing and extending" the Mac client in a way that makes dedicated Mac users happy is... well... compromised.

My confidence in Microsoft's ability to service the needs of Mac users is not very high. Though Steve Balmer has stated that Microsoft will continue to "invest in Skype on non-Microsoft client platforms", that could simply mean they will patch bugs and maybe ensure that some new features added to Skype will also be slapped into the Mac user interface. This hardly makes me confident that they will do anything innovative on Mac. It's far more likely they will simply leave the Skype for Mac client wallowing in freakish misery forever.

Given these and other issues, what are the options for people that want to move away from Skype on Mac? I'll take a look at some of the more popular alternatives here.

As a comprehensive communications solution Skype is pretty robust and not easy to replace with a single solution. It supports both Mac and Windows (there is even an open source Linux client), and offers mobile video support as well. You can use Skype to make free calls to other Skype users for video and/or voice as well as fire chat messages back and forth. Skype on the iPhone also supports video calls over 3G. Video chats are very reliable and other than some basic configuration settings (like which mic to use), they generally work very well.

For purposes of this blog post, I'm going to focus on the Video Chat portion of Skype. I will compare the three main options for Mac users: FaceTime, Google GTalk and iChat.

Though FaceTime is the new kid on the block, it's become very popular among Apple aficionados because it's integrated into iPhone 4s, iPod Touches and iPad 2s, as well as any Snow Leopard based Mac. Apple has also released the specification for FaceTime as an open standard, encouraging other platforms to use this. Apple made FaceTime a significant part of their marketing strategy, devoting full national commercials to it.

Advantages: Very high video quality, even over connections that would cause other video chats (including Skype) to degrade and produce artifacts. Integrated directly with the calling feature on iPhones so you can switch to a video chat on demand. No large client loaded on Mac while waiting for calls - incoming calls are handled directly by OS X.

Disadvantages: Requires the latest and greatest Mac OS (currently Snow Leopard). Older Macs not upgraded to Snow Leopard are out of luck. An iPhone 4, 4th generation iPod Touch or iPad 2 is required on the iOS side, though that's mainly because they are the first devices to have a front and rear facing camera. As of today, you cannot run a FaceTime call over 3G; it requires WiFi unless you jailbreak your iPhone or trick it into thinking it’s connected to WiFi. There are no clients currently available for Windows or Linux. No screen sharing.

Summary: While I love using FaceTime, today it's far too limited. 3G support will help tremendously. Apple should invest the time in building a Windows FaceTime client because it's highly unlikely anyone else will. Those two factors are critical to widespread adoption of FaceTime. This is a great consumer point to point solution for personal use assuming the people you want to chat with are sporting the latest and greatest Apple equipment.

Google GTalk
If you have a Gmail or iGoogle account you also have a Google Chat account. Add in the GTalk plug-in and you can have a video chat with another Gmail account user directly from your browser. The video quality is great and connecting up is very simple. The price can't be beat because this is another one of Google's many free offerings.

Though Google doesn't directly support video chats on iOS there is a free application called Vtok that does support video chats from an iPhone/iPod/iPad.

Advantages: Excellent video quality on the desktop. Works on Mac OS X (10.4 +), Windows (XP +) and Linux. Client plugin is very lightweight. Can run Vtok over 3G on the iPhone.

Disadvantages: Video quality when running on iPhone (using Vtok) is poor, even over WiFi. Cannot perform screen sharing.

Summary: If you want ubiquitous access much like Skype, Google Gtalk is probably your closest bet, though it's really not for mobile devices right now. Sure, Vtok works but the quality is very poor on iOS devices, at least when compared to the Skype or FaceTime options. Google needs to develop a super high-quality iOS client for iPhone equipped users to feel like this is a viable option.

Macs have had video chat capabilities for years through iChat. With iChat and an AIM, Google Talk or MobileMe account (or connected to a Jabber server) you can video chat with another Mac user. iChat is a base part of OS X. Not only does it do basic video chats, it includes some other great features. iChat really is a central hub for a wide range of communications capabilities, mostly technical in nature. Transferring files, remote screen sharing (the full interactive kind), walking through presentations and video conferences with up to 4 people are all possible.

Advantages: Very good video quality over a decent connection. Supports up to 4 simultaneous video chats at once - great for a small conference. Has many of the filters and capabilities of Photo Booth, so you can make your video chat occur on a moving roller coaster if you want. The iChat Theater is great for walking a couple of people through a document or presentation. The screen sharing feature allows you to do complete technical support for another Mac user.

Disadvantages: No mobile support. If you are connecting with someone else and they don't have iChat, it's hit or miss as to what functionality you will have. Video conference with more than two people appears to require everyone on the same service (not some on AIM, some on Google Talk). File transfers rarely seem to work correctly.

Summary: iChat isn’t going anywhere because it is the base method from Apple for IM chats on OS X. Apple now has two different and incompatible video sharing technologies (FaceTime and iChat), so it will be interesting to see where this goes. My take is that while FaceTime is a really easy to use consumer oriented product, iChat is more oriented towards work and collaboration tasks. As I researched this topic I discovered a huge number of great features in iChat that I didn't know about and will be writing up shortly.

Bottom Line:
If you feel compelled to move away from Skype and need to do video calls, any one of these three tools are a decent replacement. If your video calls tend to be business related, iChat provides all of the sharing technologies you could need for Mac to Mac communications. If you deal with a heavily mixed platform environment, Google's GTalk and video plugin will give you the best cross platform support.

FaceTime is the most promising of these technologies because it seamlessly integrates voice calling and video, allowing you to transition on demand (assuming both sides have the same capabilities).

Personally I wish video calling was as standardized as voice calling; when I call a person I don't think about which handset or carrier they use, I just dial the number. Over the next few years virtually every mobile phone sold will have video calling capabilities, yet if I can't perform a video call from my iPhone on AT&T's 3G service to a friend running an Android based phone on Verizon, where's the value? Virtually every laptop and netbook sold in the last 2-3 years has a video camera set up for video chat, yet they are not compatible with one another.

As a consumer, I just want it all to work together. If Skype, iChat, FaceTime and GTalk could all video chat with one another the world would be a better place.

The Mac applications I run all day, every day

When I bought my new MacBook Pro I used the applications I had running on my previous MacBook Pro to help me determine what I would need in terms of horsepower. It was an interesting exercise, mainly because it gave me a good sense for all of the things I need my Mac to handle throughout the day.

I'm a software developer and do some of the development for SharedStatus, so my needs are a little biased towards that. I've broken down what's running on my Mac into two sections, Basics and Development. To give some perspective on how many apps I have loaded up as I write this, here's a snapshot of my current Spaces window zoomed out:

I've always been fascinated by these types of lists because it helps give people exposure to some apps they may not know about. Here are the ones I nearly always have running:


I love the speed of Safari and this remains my default browser. Nice and fast, Safari does have a tendency to crash on me if it's been running for a long time and I have a huge number of tabs open, though it always seems to happen when Flash based web sites are loaded up. Fortunately more and more sites are switching to HTML5 solutions instead of Flash. My iPhone and iPad are happy about that too.

Google Chrome
I really enjoying using Chrome. Why do I have two (well, three—see below) active browsers? Because I'm often logging in to different profiles (personal / business entity) on different online services. The fact that the URL bar and the search area are one and the same is also a cool feature. Chrome is—like Safari—very fast in rendering web pages.

Though I have some die hard Apple fans that tell me I should use iChat, I'm hopelessly addicted to Adium. The customizability of the interface is outstanding and the integrated support of multiple IM accounts means keeping everything consolidated in one place is easy. Having a friend that has Trollicons loaded up makes for some hilarious chats too.

Skype (version 2.8)
I continue to use Skype for my virtual phone and also for video conferencing, though Facetime may soon replace that function. I haven't upgraded beyond version 2.8 due to the horror stories associated with the most recent release. Combine Skype with some Applescripts and Launchbar goodness and it's a great replacement for a land line.

I'm very heavy into Twitter; it has effectively become my primary news channel, replacing my RSS feeds for the most part. Echofon is great because it syncs up from Desktop to iPad to iPhone, so as I switch between machines I don't have to scan through tweets I've already read on another device. Note: you can follow me on twitter @dalison.

I always have iCal loaded up; quickly seeing what's on deck, accepting e-mailed appointment invites, etc. all work nicely, and it syncs up well with my iPhone and iPad. I also have it mated up with my Google Calendar account.

I occasionally access e-mail through a web interface (especially for Gmail based accounts) but my default e-mail access point is I use IMAP to keep my folders synced up and the integration with the rest of the OS is good. With the Growl add-on installed (see below) I get a nice notification of new e-mail as well.

I'm doing more and more writing and blogging these days and my preferred tool for capturing initial drafts is Pages. I love the user interface, the application performance and in the unlikely event I need a document that is print (or more likely PDF) ready, Pages can create a really beautiful document quickly. I always seem to have it open.

Most of the notification oriented apps I run have Growl support. Rather than each app coming up with their own notification model, Growl provides a clean and highly customizable model that any OSX application can leverage. I love seeing a Growl notification that a file in my shared Dropbox account has been updated.

I've become a hard core keyboard user on my Macs as a direct result of LaunchBar. Not only can I quickly launch or open my existing applications from the keyboard (much like Spaces) but I can connect applications and documents together. I've written rather extensively about Launchbar in the past.

iStat Menu
I like to know what's going on with my Mac, whether it's the temperature inside the machine, the actual health of my batteries or to see if there is any odd network traffic flying across the pipes at the moment. iStat Menu is a staple on my Mac's menu bar.

I'm not sure how I got by without Dropbox before. It’s not that I couldn't quickly transfer files between my various machines, it's just that it required me intervening to do it. Dropbox makes it seamless. Just getting my 1Password files to synchronize automatically makes Dropbox invaluable to me.

The older I get, the less grey matter I seem to have to dedicate to remembering passwords, login names and some of the incantations sites require me to perform to obtain access. 1Password handles all that and fills out credit card and mailing address forms for me. The fact that it's synchronized between my various machines (and my iPhone and iPad) make it a necessity for me.

I often find myself passing screen shots of new features for SharedStatus back and forth with my partner Josiah. Skitch makes that easy, not just because it can take a screen shot so easily (OSX does that natively) but because it includes basic drawing tools to quickly call out parts of images captured. I can resize, crop, drop in arrows and call-out text in seconds.

You know when you fire up a long YouTube video or Skype video chat and your energy saver preferences kick in because you haven’t been touching the keyboard or mouse? Clicking the Caffeine coffee cup in the menu bar tells your Mac not to fire up the screen saver or drop into sleep mode for a pre-defined number of minutes. You can come close to this behavior with Exposé hotspot preferences (System Preferences / Exposé & Spaces), but Caffeine makes it much easier. And it's free.

I keep SMARTReporter running all the time because I like to keep an eye on the health of my hard drives. I don’t actively use it but I like that it passively sits in my menu bar and will notify me if one of my hard drives starts to act up. Also a great free utility.

As you can see on this list, I keep three different browsers running all the time. I also have two primary Macs that I use; Xmarks keeps my bookmarks and browser tool bars synchronized between each of my browsers and on each machine. Combine that with 1Password and I can get to anything from pretty much anywhere.

Time Machine
I've always been a big fan of Time Machine because it makes backups something that I do every single hour and I don't have to worry about it. Unless there's a Time Machine error of course. Time Machine has saved me hassles on more than one occasion; mate it up with a Time Capsule and you have roaming around the house backups.


2-3 Terminal windows
At any given time I have 2-3 Bash shell windows open. One is usually for local commands related to my Rails development, another is for a running instance of my development version of SharedStatus (or other project) and a third is usually open with an SSH session to a remote server.

I put Firefox into the development category because that's primarily how I use it. I've generally found that page rendering is a bit faster with Safari and Chrome than in Firefox, but neither of those browsers has the depth of extensions for playing with web pages.

As a Ruby on Rails developer you learn that a healthy combination of terminal windows and a programmers editor are your friend and TextMate is a fantastic editor for Ruby development. Lots of extensions for languages and version control systems too. It's also great for hacking on plain old text files, CSS pages, etc.

MySQL Server
I keep a MySQL Server instance running on my machine at all times (automatically started at login). A couple of the Rails projects I do use MySQL server so I like to have it available immediately in case I need a local development build of a web application.

Sequel Pro
When I need to browse through data sets or build up experimental queries, Sequel Pro is my go-to tool and I often just have it loaded and running in one of my Spaces windows. It’s perfect for jumping in and examining (and modifying) data. Another great free utility.

When I purchased one of the MacHeist bundles a while back I got Flow, an FTP client. Flow has a very OS X like user interface and feels natural running on Snow Leopard. I'm always pushing files up to web servers and having this open makes it simple. About the only thing I wish it did was integrate with 1Password.

I've been doing more and more iOS development lately (more learning than anything else) and as a result I nearly always have Xcode Version 4.0 loaded up with a project. Xcode can create some fairly heavy demand on a Mac, sometimes at really odd times. Why my CPU utilization pops up so high when parked on the New File dialog is but one example.

Most days these apps are all running at the same time, as you can see from the Spaces screen shot at the top of this post. I have lots of other applications that I use on an infrequent basis but they aren't always running, like the rest of the iWork suite, iPhoto, Preview, OmniGraffle, etc.

What's running on your Mac right now? Any cool applications that I should be using that I haven't already mentioned? Please drop a note in the comments and let me (and the other readers) know.

Finding a protective shell for a MacBook Pro

When I packaged up my old MacBook Pro for my daughter I did a quick wipe down of the machine and found that though it was three years old it had very little visible wear and tear. The keyboard and palm rest areas were in perfect shape and there were no dents in the aluminum case. Though the white power supply and cords were a bit dirty a quick wipe down with a damp cloth had them looking like new.

About the only thing that made the machine look used was the outside of the case. As I had slipped it into my bag or carried it in my hand, objects like my watch band had rubbed against it and put a series of small scratches all over the outer shell. They were purely cosmetic but annoying nonetheless.

I’m determined to treat this new MacBook Pro with a little more care and as a result started searching around for a protective shell case for it. I rationalized that this would help maintain the resale value of my Mac in the unlikely event I decided to sell it or—more likely—it would look like new when I passed it down to one of my kids in the future.

Plastic Covered Couches
My grandmother was a fan of plastic covered furniture back in the 60s and 70s. As a young lady going through the Great Depression she developed a deep appreciation of the cost of things and wanted them to last as long as possible. As a result, her couches and chairs were hermetically sealed in plastic-wrap. You would sit on them in shorts and immediately begin to sweat and after just a few minutes you felt you were physically attached to the piece of furniture.

Sure, her couches looked like new and were preserved for future generations but I couldn’t help but think that the enjoyment of that particular piece of furniture was completely compromised. While I want to protect my new MacBook Pro, I don’t want it to suffer the same fate.

First Try - iPearl mCover Hard Shell Case
As I tend to do, I jumped on Amazon and found a number of cases available. I looked through the reviews and found a very affordable hard plastic shell that got pretty solid reviews: a Blue iPearl mCover Hard Shell Case. At $19.99 it was less than half the price of other cases so I figured I’d give it a try. I’m a member of Amazon Prime so 2-day shipping was free and as I’ve been finding lately, sometimes it arrives next day.

    MacBook Pro open (mCover installed))

    MacBook Pro - top view

    MacBook Pro - left side view of ports

    MacBook Pro - right side view of Super Drive

    MacBook Pro - Back / hinge side view

    MacBook Pro - bottom of case

This case is a hard plastic shell that clips to the MacBook Pro and provides protection for both the top and bottom halves of the machine. It doesn’t impact the closing of the MacBook, nor does it seem to prohibit pushing the display back to a pretty aggressive level.

Pros: This case feels tough and pretty durable. When attached you can still see the Apple logo and the bottom half contains some small folding feet that can prop your MacBook Pro up a bit. It fits the outside of the MacBook case very well and snaps on in seconds. There is plenty of venting on it, especially on the bottom, so I didn’t notice any heat build up with it attached. All of the ports on the MacBook are readily accessible—the case doesn’t prevent any of the connectors from being used. The front edge of the case is flush enough that it doesn’t rub against your wrists as you type. There are two rubber feet on the front edge of the case that keep your MacBook from sliding around.

Cons: Since this a shiny hard plastic shell (it provides no shock absorption), your MacBook Pro now feels very plastic. The shell collects finger prints and smudges pretty easily and seems to attract dust statically. The shell doesn’t really touch the MacBook Pro surface other than at the clip points so the shell makes the MacBook feel significantly thicker. The folding feet on the bottom don’t feel very sturdy and are not useful when propping the device up on your legs because they have a small footprint and dig into your legs a bit, at least while wearing shorts. The cutout on the bottom (which I assume is for heat dissipation and/or cut down weight) makes the bottom of the MacBook look very odd and exposed.

I tried using this case for a couple of days and didn’t care for it. My MacBook felt very cheap with it on and carrying it under my arm felt odd because of the air gap between the MacBook and the shell; it just felt bulky.

Using this particular case just made me feel like I was doing to my MacBook Pro what my grandmother did to her furniture. If you are looking for very cost effective protection for your MacBook Pro, this may be a good choice for you. Reading through the reviews on Amazon it’s clear that quite a few people like this case and that it may be a good fit for some. I guess I’m just not one of them.

My search for the perfect MacBook Pro shell continues. If you have a recommendation for a good protective (and high quality) shell, please drop a note in the comments.