Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Mainstream media ignore iPhone's awesomeness

iPhone was huge news yesterday. I was on the edge of my seat watching all the updates on Engadget as Mr. Steve Jobs revealed all the succulent details of the phone. Curious as to what the media was saying on the phone, I read several sources, from the New York Times, to the local free dailies, Metro and 24. Some of them even called the phone/device/mp3-player "revolutionary".

But the descriptions of the iPhone, for the most part, seemed watered down. They summarized it as a mobile phone that plays MP3s, or a phone/iPod hybrid. Public response? Been there, done that. Many smart phones, the products Apple Corp is competing with, already play MP3s. So what's the big deal?

The reports didn't mention the 200 technology patents on the new phone - that's more new technology than computers usually get. Some of the amazing features that make my imagination go wild:
  • Accelerometer built in - turn the unit sideways and it automatically switches to widescreen mode.
  • Touchscreen input! The iPhone only has ONE button. Any necessary input can be done by tapping the screen. Subsequently, contextual menus, so you don't have a hundred buttons to choose from.
  • Desktop caliber operating system in OS X. The possibilities are probably obvious to PDA users. I see seamless device syncing, powerful freeware games, spreadsheet apps and document readers that don't suck. It even supports Widgets.
  • Email parsing. If somebody includes their phone number in an email, commonly in a signature, iPhone will recognize the phone number, and you can call them right then (and presumably save the number without having to ever type it in.
  • Speakerphone - not a novel device in itself, but you'll be able to use the speaker with iTunes.
  • Touchscreen gestures (this deserves a separate listing!) - more than just tapping here and there on the screen, you'll be able to manipulate items on screen or trigger scripts with simple patterns of your fingers (yes, multi-finger gestures). For example, in iPhoto, you could zoom in on a photo by moving two fingers apart on the photo. They have a patented process that will ignore "accidental" touching.
  • A power-saving innovation that senses the ambient lighting and adjusts the screen brightness automatically.
  • It's got a HUGE screen. Seriously.
Perhaps if the mainstream media had reported on some of these features, the excitement of those paying attention would seem like more than fanboyism.

Now, who bought a Zune? And did you ever find the social? =)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

To-do-list Solution using QuickSilver and GeekTool

There are many ways to manage your to-do items, including Apple Mail, and Microsoft (gasp) Entourage. If you want to access a complicated list from anywhere, you could even use a free wiki. However, if you mainly review your To-Do items from one location, an efficient method is to maintain a text file named todo.txt. Why a text file? Because it's easy to use, and you can edit it in a number of applications. You could also sync the file using .mac or some other system, actually, and access it from other locations. But the main reasons I like the idea of a todo.txt file is because QuickSilver includes a tool to quickly add items to your list, and I recently discovered GeekTool, a slick way to integrate your list right onto your desktop. The text is displayed anywhere you like, over top your desktop image.

So to begin, create a todo.txt file (Bonus tip: TextEdit won't let you Save As a txt file unless you go under Format and select Make Plain Text). Create an item of something you want to do -- and that's the last time you'll need TextEdit to add an item!

Assuming you have QuickSilver running (make sure you have the Text Manipulation Actions installed), invoke it and press "." to enter text mode. Type another item you wish to add to your list. Press TAB and start typing "Append To...". TAB again to select the file, and you can probably just type "todo". QuickSilver will automatically add a new line with that item. If you want to get all nerdy, you can add other information, like searchable tags or categories, every time you add an item. Further discussion of text format lists and their potential.

So now you have a todo.txt. Here's where it gets awesome! Download GeekTool here for free, open the disk image and double click the preference pane file to install it. This preference pane is not as complicated as it appears. You probably want to select the default Group and delete it. Then create a New Entry. Double click the Group to change the name to Todo List, then from the combo box, select File. Choose File will allow you to browse for todo.txt. Select this, and make sure you have Enable GeekTool checked. By default, your list should appear on the very top left of your desktop. You can drag it anywhere and resize it to your liking. Once you deselect the list, it will look like it's built right in to your desktop.

(GeekTool allows you to do other cool things, like displaying images from the web on your desktop, but I'll let you explore that on your own.)

Now your list will always be there to remind you; you'll never have to open a program to see what you need to do. It's a simple and elegant solution - give it a try!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

PC-user-Proof your Mac

Ever had a friend who wants to use your computer, but they are not Mac-savvy? Perhaps even *gasp* Windows users? Here are some steps to take to prepare for a situation like this.

First, set up a new account for "Guest". In that account, set up shortcuts on the desktop to anything that a guest may want to use -- most likely Firefox, and (God forbid) MS Word. Remove everything from the dock and hide it. Docks don't make a lot of sense to PC users, who are more familiar with shortcuts on a desktop or navigating a clumsy "Start" menu. No doubt you will also appreciate not having your own shortcuts and personal files on the desktop.

Quick Tip: a quick way to create a shortcut (also called Aliases) is to ALT-CMD-drag your application icon to a new location.

Next, open Finder Preferences. Uncheck Hard disks, connected servers, and spring-loaded folders. The first two are to simplify the desktop, the last so Finder behaves more like a PC.

Change the Desktop Picture to one of the default Apple images that have been around for a while. The new Windows Vista wallpapers look very similar to these, so the PC user will feel more at home.

Finally, a lot of PC users are very upset over the misconception they have that Macs are not capable of right-clicking. Rather than explaining CTRL clicking, you may want to buy a cheap two-button mouse for them. Don't try to explain the virtues of having an additional modifier key for keyboard shortcuts. Trust me. PC users LOVE to right click. Let them hold on to that, so when they are finished with your Mac, they will still be able to enjoy their own computer.

Be sure you have a password on your primary (presumably admin) account, to prevent any anti-Mac hacking by malicious guests.

Finally, you should enable fast-user switching. Open system preferences (under the admin login), and go to Login Options. Check off Enable fast user switching. I like the icon setting because it uses the least room in the menu bar. Authenticate, and you're finished!

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Too cheap to pay for AppZapper?

AppZapper is a really easy to use Uninstall program.

As you know, uninstalling a program on the Mac is easy enough - just drag the application icon into the trash. But often you are left with preference files, caches, etc. AppZapper will find those for you too, and with a click of a button, move them all to the trash at once.

The shareware price is a deal at $12, but the software isn't perfect, and maybe you don't want to pay for something you could do yourself. You are allowed 5 free "zaps" as part of the demo. But an easy way to use AppZapper forever without paying is to let it find the files that need deleting, but instead of pressing "Zap!", just go delete them yourself. Then press "Cancel" until next time.

Spotlight meta tags

I rarely use Spotlight any more, since QuickSilver does such a fabulous job of finding files on my computer. But unlike Quicksilver, Spotlight searches an underused file property (or should I say Info) that users may access by highlighting a file and pressing the CMD-I. Notice the first field is called Spotlight Comments? It never even occured to me what that field is for, but you can add metadata (tags) to any file so that it becomes searchable via Spotlight.

One possible use for this... Let's say that you like to test out a lot of freeware Mac applications, but you end up having so many small programs in your Applications folder that you forget what they even do. By entering a description into the Spotlight Comments field, you not only get a description, but searchable data. So months after installing Audacity, you think "hmm, don't I have a freeware audio editor somewhere? Now where did I put it?"

So now you can launch a program without even knowing its name :)

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

QuickSilver: DJ your own house party!

QuickSilver gives you great power, if you want to cue up an ongoing song list. Let's say you're listening to your party shuffle, and you have the urge to listen to Queen's Greatest Hits, but you don't want to switch out of Party Shuffle mode. No problem! With QuickSilver, you can cue up any track, album, or a whole discography, into Party Shuffle, and have it continue on with the mix when your craving has been satisfied.

Open QuickSilver and make sure the iTunes Module has been installed. Now go to the iTunes Triggers page, and check the 'Search iTunes' command. You'll want to set up a distinctive but easy to use trigger. I went with a Mouse Trigger - hold down left-click for 0.5 seconds in the top right corner - but you can choose anything you like.

Now when you trigger 'Search iTunes', you can search by artist, track, or album, and then press TAB to open the actions. Down arrow to "Play next in Party Shuffle". You can even make this the default action.

Now whenever you have a craving for a particular song, you don't have to go looking for it in iTunes, and then restart your Party Shuffle when it's finished playing, you can just let QuickSilver make your life easier!

QuickSilver: create new shortcuts for any app!

One of the biggest productivity boosters in QuickSilver is the ability to use Triggers. Triggers can be, well, triggered from key combinations, mouse gestures (if you have the Abracadabra plugin loaded), or mouse clicks (with the Mouse Triggers plugin loaded).

If you have the User Interface Access plugin loaded, and I recommend doing so, you'll be able to use any Menu item from any application as the trigger action. This means, for one thing, that you could create new shortcuts within any application, simply by programming them in with QuickSilver.

Here's an example of what I did today: In Flash MX, I wanted to create several new blank keyframes, but this was only accessible from the menu - no keyboard shortcut! So I created a trigger that I invoke by clicking twice along the left edge of my screen (Mouse Trigger plugin). This triggers the Menu Bar Item (User Interface Access plugin) action "Insert>Blank Keyframe". Two quick clicks as I draw, and there it is: a new blank keyframe. Maybe there's another way to do this specific action, but this is an example of QuickSilver's flexibility.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

iTunes integration finally complete!

Complete... that's a rare state around here! But after months of tweaking, rating songs, and trying different iTunes utilities, iTunes is working seamlessly and effortlessly.

The biggest challenge was to rate all of my music. I have almost 50 gigs, so leaving iTunes on Party Shuffle makes sense. Shuffle has an option to play higher rated songs more often, so this is the main point to rating your music.

As my favourite music gets played more often, it gets ranked more accurately on, the popular self-charting service (check it out if you aren't using it!).

QuickSilver integration: I used Synergy (I even paid for it!) for a while, but QuickSilver can do almost the same thing (for free!), and I have QuickSilver running anyway, so I get to free up a token amount of memory by removing Synergy. Is QS, I created triggers to control iTunes with global keystrokes for fast forward, pause, display artwork, assign a rating, etc.

QuickSilver displays artwork when a song begins, but I am also using a sweet little iTunes plugin called DockArt, which replaces the iTunes icon in the dock with the cover art from iTunes. Why bother? Because you can!

And if you don't have the cover art for your songs? You can use a dashboard widget that finds the art on Amazon. It's called... Amazon Art!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Introduction to QuickSilver

Everybody I know has probably heard me mention QuickSilver at some point. No other application exists that has as much buzz, while being nearly impossible to describe. While you could just install it and poke around, I'll try to outline some cool things that you can do with it, and as I find ways to make my workflow more efficient, I will share those tips with you.

The first thing you need to do is download QuickSilver. Download it from here and install. The preferences menu is where you will create an infinitely complex program -- eventually -- but for now just change the HotKey Activation to something easy, like Command-SpaceBar.

The most basic function of QuickSilver is an application launcher. Invoke QuickSilver, type the first few letters of the application you wish to load. If the application you wanted did not show up, press the down key until it is highlighted. If you want that application to show up first, by default, the next time you enter those letters, click the radio button beside the application name. Press Return to launch the application.

You will notice that second panel, beside the application name, displays the "Open" action. While this is useful (I use it all the time), there are many other actions within QuickSilver. But we'll leave that for next time. For now, enjoy the launcher.