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Rob Griffiths

The “joy” of travel in the digital age

Note: This post originally appeared on my friend Kirk McElhearn's blog, Kirkville, back in January, as I didn't have a blog site at that point. I wrote it shortly after returning from the Macworld show in San Francisco, as I was amazed at the amount of stuff I had to take for such a short and simple trip! I'm reproducing it here just so it becomes part of the archives...

wire jumbleLast week [January, 2005], I had the pleasure of speaking about Mac OS X (one of my favorite subjects) at the Macworld Expo in San Francisco (thanks to everyone who came to my sessions!). Since I live in Portland, Oregon, I had to pack for a plane trip to the 'big city.' That's when the fun began...

Traveling has become a much more complex endeavor than it used to be. A decade ago, packing for a three-day business trip would require nothing more than insuring that you had sufficient clothes in your bag, the required personal care items, and perhaps your address book and maybe even a calculator. But that was about it.

Packing today, especially if you're giving a presentation, is a whole different ballgame, as you can see in the image at right (larger version)

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The art and science of OS X system upgrades

tiger boxSince 10.2 (or was it 10.1?), we Mac users have had to make a choice when it comes to major ("dot release") OS X releases: how will we upgrade? In its current incarnation, the OS X installer offers three options:

  • Upgrade Install: The easiest option for users, this simply patches the necessary bits of the system and bundled applications to migrate from the current OS to the new release.
  • Archive and Install: The installer moves the entire current system, Users folders and all, into a Previous System folder, and then installs a new copy from scratch. You can optionally migrate over your Users folder to ease the transition.
  • Erase and Install: The "wipe the slate clean" approach. Your hard drive is erased, a new system is installed, and you start over from scratch.

Which method to use is seemingly a matter of great debate. Apple has a good overview available, too, with a brief description of each option.

Having just recently started (note that it's not yet completed) migrating my primary boot drive to 10.4, read on for my thoughts on upgrade strategies, the strengths and weaknesses of each of these methods, and which I prefer (and why).

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The many faces of Apple’s OS X applications

finder iconGiven my background with macosxhints.com, it's quite clear I'm an OS X fan. But that doesn't mean I think it's perfect. While there are many, many things it does quite well, there are also areas that bother me, and make using OS X tougher than it should be.

One such area is the consistency of applications' interfaces. Long a hallmark of the Mac experience, major pieces of that consistency have been falling away slowly but surely as OS X and its applications evolve. With the recent release of OS X 10.4, I thought I'd take a look at the state of application consistency in OS X. Generally speaking (Java applications excepted), menus remain a high point of consistency. File and Edit are always there, with there generally familiar choices. After that, of course, the menu structure is up to the program designer. But overall, I have no complaints with menu consistency in OS X. It's the actual application interfaces that are bugging me.
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Ten questions on the Finder and user interface

Finder iconI spend a lot of time using OS X. A typical day will involve somewhere between 12 and 15 hours usage, with somewhat less than that on the weekends. I've been doing this basically ever since the Public Beta. After all that time, there are obviously some things that make we wonder "What was Apple thinking?" when they made a certain decision.

So without further ado, here's a list of ten such questions -- in this case, I'm focusing on the Finder and the user interface in general. Answers aren't provided, of course, but please feel free to comment if you have any insight on any of them...

  1. Why can't I sort a Finder column-view window? Yes, the UI would be tricky, but it's quite doable (see Path Finder, which does it quite nicely).
  2. Why isn't there an easy way to colorize the Finder's sidebar? It can be done, of course, but it's quite the hack -- and this one no longer works in 10.4.
  3. Speaking of colors, why can't I colorize (or use a picture background in) a column-view or list-view window? Are only icon-view users thought to enjoy color?
  4. How come a folder in the Sidebar is spring-loaded (you can drill-down while dragging an object), but folders in the Toolbar are not? They used to be, but when the Sidebar was added, that functionality was removed from the Toolbar. I find the Toolbar more useful than the Sidebar (there's more room there, for one thing), but the lack of spring-loaded folder support there is somewhat crippling.
  5. Why can't I add a visual divider to the dock, without resorting to aliases with lame custom icons?

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The technology of baby monitors…

Baby monitorsRemember I warned you that anything of interest to me was fair game for The Robservatory? Well, here's the first non-Mac-related post, but it's at least vaguely technology related.

My wife and I have a nearly two-year-old daughter, Kylie. Way back when at the baby shower, someone gave us The First Year's 900 MHz Two Receiver Monitor set. For those without children, the purpose of these devices is to dramatically increase the stress level in new parents. After placing the transmitter in the child's room, the receivers pick up the child's every sound. So basically, every noise your child makes at night or while napping becomes something new to worry about -- "Honey, did that breath sound labored? Is she getting a cold? Did you remember the blanket, I think her teeth are chattering! Is she breathing? I can't hear her now -- quick, go check on her!!"

In all seriousness, these are very handy devices for monitoring your child without having to sit outside the door to their room. In our case, Kylie's room is upstairs and on the other side of the house from ours, and I sleep quite soundly, so I really need the speaker to jar me awake in case she needs something overnight. So why am I talking about monitors here? While our unit worked well at first, it had recently started to get very noisy. Every so often (like 10 times a minute, really!), we'd get a loud burst of static, or very loud "white noise" sound that would last 20 seconds or so. Sometimes we could even hear half of the neighbor's phone conversations.
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Two older macworld.com articles

Macworld logoThe following two article were posted on macworld.com prior to the launch of my robservatory.com blog. I'm referencing them here in one article, just so they'll have some representation on my blog.

  • [April 2005] Volunteering for our local PBS station's pledge drive, I was quite surprised to find a room full of iBooks. So I wrote about it, after interviewing some of those responsible for making it happen.
  • [May 2005] Widget security: fact and fiction: This is my perspective on the security risk (or lack thereof) with the then-new OS X 10.4's Dashboard widgets.

The remainder of my macworld.com articles will be posted in their own stories here; you can read them all by looking at the Macworld category.





Ten things I like about Tiger (10.4)

tiger boxOS X 10.4 (Tiger) has been officially available since April 29th. I've been lucky enough, thanks to a developer seed, to have been testing various builds for a couple of months. In that time, there are a number of things I've grown to love about Tiger (and a number I dislike, though those will come in a future write-up). With over 200 new features, I thought I'd try to pick out the 10 that I've liked the best so far.

Note that these are observations about OS X 10.4 only. Sometime I'll write a longer story discussing OS X in general, both what I like and dislike. But for now, here are my ten favorite 10.4 features...

  1. Apple's much-improved Mail program. From the toolbar buttons (yes, I like the jellybean shape behind the buttons, too) to the subtly colored mailbox panel to Smart Folders to the speedy Spotlight searching, the new Mail's a winner.
  2. System Profiler. In previous OS X releases, this tool was good, but not great. Now it's great. Information on just about everything to do with your system is but a couple of mouse clicks away. From graphics cards to displays to FireWire to USB devices to memory to PCI cards to printers to networking gear; even programs, extensions, fonts, and logs are detailed here. Very well done, and very useful when you want to know something about your machine.
  3. The free Developer Tools. No, I didn't suddenly become a programmer overnight. But some of the pre-compiled sample toys tools they provide are amazing. To name just a few that are fun to play with (on machines with better video cards), check out Core Image Fun House, Quartz Composer, and Quartz Debug, which will let you enable Quartz 2D Extreme (a way to accelerate drawing of 2D windows by using a 3D graphics card). Also, even non-programmers can use Interface Builder to tweak some elements of certain applications.
  4. Core Image and Core Video. It may be a while before we really see the benefits of these features in OS X, but it will be worth the wait. Giving programmers an easy way to utilize newer 3D graphics cards will eventually lead to some amazing applications. See previous entry for one example of what can be done (Core Image Fun House).
  5. H.264. This QuickTime 7 codec (also available in 10.3) does amazing things for video compression. Jeff Harrell's Shape of Days blog has a couple of demonstrations (1, 2) of H.264 encoding, and the results are pretty impressive. In a nutshell, H.264 gives much higher quality (and/or size) at similar or lower bit rates than does MPEG4.

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Shining the spotlight on Spotlight

One of OS X's most-touted new features is Spotlight, the system-wide tool designed to help stop your data from playing hide-and-seek. Spotlight resides in the top right corner of the menu bar, and also functions in many programs, including Mail, the Finder, and Address Book. Third-parties can tap into an API to include the power of Spotlight in their applications.

In theory, Spotlight is brilliant. After some time to index the hard drives in the machine, Spotlight can help you find the oldest, obscurest information buried in the confines of today's huge hard drives. That's the theory, anyway. Despite that, and after having used it for a couple of months now (I had a seed key for testing the developer builds), I'm still undecided about the helpfulness of Spotlight.

spotlight screenshot
 

There are some things it does well -- it clearly makes it much easier to find the proverbial needle in the haystack that is your hard drive. It makes it really simple to look at all the cool things in the System folder. Select that folder in the Finder, then run a Finder search on kind:images within that folder, for instance. It will theoretically help me find long-lost documents as long as I can remember some snippet of text that was in them. All of these are good things, and for these, I'm thankful.

However, from my perspective, Spotlight has a number of issues that very much give it the feeling of a "version 0.95 release." Read on to see the things that make me question Spotlight's completeness...

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On protection of commercials…

I'm a QuickTime clip fanatic. I'll admit it. I love collecting movie previews, music store videos, and Super Bowl (and other funny) ads. I don't share them with friends, I don't publish them on P2P networks, I just build my own little entertainment library for future use. It's fun, for instance, to go back and watch movie trailers after having seen the full movie to see just how they differ (you can occasionally find scenes that made the preview yet didn't make the movie).

When QuickTime trailers and music videos first began appearing, saving them was easy. With the passage of time, though, things have changed. Producers are now starting to take advantage of QuickTime's ability to mark clips as non-savable and non-cacheable, making it much, much harder to capture these clips. While it's still not impossible, it's definitely tougher. Which leads to the subject of my brief rant...

Why are producers making it harder for consumers to record (and yes, potentially share) these video clips? After all, what are they? They're commercials! Producers should want us to copy them, distribute them, post them on P2P networks, write about them and offer them for download from our blogs, etc. The more they get spread around, the happier the producers should be. Videos help sell songs; movie trailers help sell movies; commercials help sell products. So why, exactly, do we need to be prevented from saving and potentially sharing these things? Throw this one in the category of things I just don't understand...