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Things 2

I know that there are plenty of other task manager apps out there, free ones even, that have had cloud syncing for a while now. I’ve tried them all, but nothing works as well for me as Things,and now Things 2 finally has proper syncing. Not too minimal, not heavily laden with features, just the right amount of functionality to manage tasks, without spending managing the task-manager.

Well done Cultured Code, it was worth the wait!

Five Details

It’s all too often the case that as soon as a project is finished, I’m on to the next one in the queue, without any time to stop. I’m sure others know this feeling – there’s no time to reflect and blog about the work you’re doing. So here starts the catch up…

Back in April, a project I was involved in was finally launched, the new Identity and website for Five Details, previously known as ExtendMac, whose “Flow”: FTP client won a Runner up prize in the prestigous Apple Design Awards in 2008. Brian Amerige, who created Flow was getting ready to release a new iOS app called Seamless to coincide with the relaunch, and Hicksdesign were bought on board to create a new identity and website.

After a few different explorations, we settled on the simple logo of the 2 ‘D’ shapes that together form a ‘5’ in the negative space:

The logo has white and orange variants, working on either a white or dark background, as well as ‘layered’ version, for use in backgrounds:

Brian and I discussed suitable type treatments, and I felt that LFT Etica was the right fit for this project. It needed to be a clean sans-serif that would work well bold, but with some individuality. I particularly loved how it looked reversed out of black. Brian and I were both keen, and the fact that it was available to use on the site via FontDeck sealed the deal.

A logo can never be designed in isolation though, so as soon as these initial ideas were approved, work on the website began. The key requirement here was the app name was the most important element of the page – the Five Details branding and navigation was secondary to this. Therefore it made sense to place this at the bottom as fixed footer.

(I didn’t work on the app icons by the way: the Seamless icon was created by Woflgang Bartleme, while Flow was created by Sebastiaan De With)

In terms of media queries, this site doesn’t feature the whole gamut of layout possibilities, but it was clear that optimised views for iPhone/iPod Touch and iPad were needed. Following the idea of 320 and up, the stylesheet starts with the narrow view, and then the ‘desktop’ version is added via media query. This prevents mobile devices from loading the larger images. The iPad is a different context though, and it gets the full css, plus a few other rules to optimise it. As Mobile Safari still doesn’t support position:fixed, the nav is placed at the top using position:absolute.

One thing I always find a bit challenging is how to arrange navigation for a smaller screen, such as maximum width of 320px. There’s not usually enough room for a horizontal navigation, and as Stu Robson points out, it pretty much takes up the whole screen when it’s vertical.

My solution was to place the navigation last in the markup, so that while the ‘normal desktop view’ fixes this to the bottom of the viewport, the iPad has it at the top, and the smaller iPhone view has it as footer.

It makes extensive use of the background-size:cover property to make background images scale to fill the background proportionally, while still filling the viewport. One thing I found with this was that Firefox and Opera didn’t like you to have a differenr shorthand ‘background’ declaration in conjuction with it. In order for it to work on those browsers, all the background properties had to laid out individually.

I also wanted to mask off the bottom the site, where it goes underneath the navigation. I tested this using webkit-image-mask initially, and then replaced this with a fixed position image. This is straightforward on the plainer colour backgrounds, but for pages such as the About section, where there is a large black and white photo, I had to create a special mask with the bottom portion of the photo, adding the same background-size:cover CSS to make it work.

Here’s the mask:

And here it is in place:

Fiddly, but worth it in the end!

To finish, I’d like to say how marvellous it was to work with Brian on this project. He had constructive insights on the design, and while we went through a number of iterations, the end result is all the better for it. Brian was also someone who listened, and it made for a very happy relationship!

Apple TV 2


As I’ve waffled about before on The Hickensian, I’m on the never ending search for the right digital media centre setup. For quite a while now, the PS3 has given me what I want, due to it’s ability to do many things in one package. The only areas where it lets me down is that its too fussy about video formats, and a lack of folders to organise videos on its hard drive. It wins over a HTPC for me, because it’s designed to be controlled by a remote, rather than keyboard and mouse.

I also own an original Apple TV. While its 160gb HD isn’t enough for a movie collection, it is for my music, and it grabs new albums from my Mac without me having to think about it. I can then play anything I want via the lovely Remote App for iOS. Musically, it’s a setup I’m very happy with.

Recently, I’ve become rather lazy though. Lazy enough to not want to go through the chore ripping and encoding of my DVDs, and have just downloaded movies from the iTunes store instead. This it very much at odds with my anti-DRM principles, but having a ‘Season Pass’ for Doctor Who this year felt SO GOOD. With the exception of the week delay to get episodes (presumably a BBC restriction) it was convenient, took zero effort, and gave me high quality, legal downloads. I know I’m getting too comfortable in the iTunes ecosystem, but it feels like an easy life. Maybe junk food is a good analogy here? It takes more time to prepare a meal from scratch, but is worth the effort in the end.

I’ve also been experimenting with streaming content on the NAS to the AppleTV, via an always-on Mac. The trouble is, with those files encoded to suit the PS3, they don’t all play well with the AppleTV. The prospect of re-encoding isn’t a pretty one. Something more flexible is needed here.

So, I waited with excitement for the announcement of the new Apple TV this week. The rumours of an iOS based box started me thinking about the possibility of a really flexible device. I could get a BBC iPlayer app, and a Plex or Boxee app to play the contents of my NAS, as well as the DRM stuff I’d bought. I’d convinced myself into thinking that the new iOS Plex App was for this purpose!

It turns out that while the new AppleTV is iOS based, it doesn’t allow the installation of other apps. You could argue that Apple might add this ability later, but I’m not optimistic. The original AppleTV had a plugin framework too with it’s ‘.frappliance’ (Front Row Appliance) files, and it was never used officially. This seems like a real lost opportunity for Apple, but it also makes the new AppleTV even more of a ‘iTunes Storefont’ than it was before. A box for their media, not mine. It’s very similar to Ping, Apple’s new music social network, which is based on iTunes store purchases, rather than Last.fm, which is what I actually listen to.

The rental-only model is a pain too, and my feelings were summed up by Dan Cederholm

Renting is great and all, but not when my kids watch Toy Story 2 645 times in a row.

I prefer to own films, even if they’re DRM restricted. The concept of AirPlay is appealing however and I can see that the Netflix integration is too, but we don’t get it in the UK, and neither do we get a great variety of rental choice on the iTunes store. So, all in all, I’m a bit disappointed. It’s small, good-looking and inexpensive, but doesn’t seem to fulfil the needs of family Hicks.

More promising is the rise of Plex, the Mac-only media centre based on XBMC. On top of a sparkling new version 9 this week, have announced that they’re partnering with LG to integrate their software into a new range of tellys and blu-ray players next year. I don’t plan to upgrade my telly, but I’m hoping that these new resources will see Plex continue to grow.

In the meantime, it’ll be interested to see what the hacker community make of the new Apple TV. Maybe a ‘jailbroken’ ATV with Plex, Boxee and iPlayer is still possible!

Thoughts on the PS3 Media Centre (+ Apple TV)

It’s been 6 months now that I’ve been using the PS3 as an all-in-one media centre, and it’s going well. It’s lasted the longest so far, but there are a few small niggles:

  • Wifi streaming is too stuttery, and has to be connected via ethernet to NAS in order to get smooth playback. Not a big issue, but it would be lovely to lose the wires and hide the NAS and router somewhere (rather than being under the TV). I could install an ethernet network, but it seems like overkill, when other devices (such as Apple TV) can stream perfectly well.
  • It’s a bit too fussy on encodings, and even certain should-be-supported .mp4’s just give either ‘corrupted file’ or errors. Wider encoding support would be great.
  • No sub-folders with the internal drive. Seems like such a trivial thing to add, but to get a folder structure you need to use an external USB or NAS drive. (I went for a NAS)
  • Playing digital music isn’t the greatest experience. The only way to navigate and choose tracks is to have the TV on, where the cover art is relegated to a tiny square. The PS3 prefers annoying visualizers.

The first three could be solved by a software update, but it’s because of this last niggle that I just picked up a bargain Apple TV off ebay. It automatically grabs new music from my laptop when it’s open and gives me THE best playback interface I’ve ever used – the Remote.app for the iPhone. If I could design a perfect music system, this would be it. Due to it’s hard drive size (160gb) it’s only really suitable for our music library, and a selection of favourite movies/TV shows. The Remote.app also avoids the overly iTunes store centric menus of the TV interface.

So it’s a brilliant device for music, but I’ve not had a lot of joy with plugin hacks enabling me to play media on the NAS drive. My experience so far has been a lot of crashes and unmounted drives. Boxee works best of all, but it isn’t a system I could expect the family to use. It takes too long to get from the ATV finder to a logged-in and ready-to-go Boxee. Compared with the PS3, it easily reads media from the NAS, via Twonky server, without fuss.

So, ideally, an equivalent iPhone app for the PS3 (now that the 3.0 firmware doesn’t cripple Bluetooth, it could be possible?) that would allow music to be chosen without a TV would be the best solution. For now, it will be ATV for music, and PS3 for everything else.

(Finally, before folks start mentioning a Mac Mini, please be aware that I’ve been that route twice already, and it’s just not the solution for me. A Mac Mini is not designed to be used remotely, and in my view, requires too much ‘admin’ to be a viable option. Also, yes, yes, XMBC, Boxee, Plex etc…)

Mac Media Centre - iTunes Remotes

Despite constant bribes the children still haven’t broken the old telly, so for now, the Mac Mini is acting solely as a server for iTunes and iPhoto. Thats just fine though, as it was mainly for music that I wanted to use it, and there isn’t much time for TV/DVDs. What I have done though is pick up a cheap Airport Express off ebay which is a great for sending music to the stereo without trailing wires.

So far, I’d been using my s700i phone with Salling Clicker to control everything, and this worked great. The only drawback is that when I’m away with my phone, Leigh is left without a remote. (There’s still VNC of course, but its not really a ‘small remote’!) . So I’ve been looking into other options available.

The Keyspan Express remote and particularly the ATI Remote Wonder, are possibilites, but when navigating iTunes without the TV & FrontRow, you really need visuals for choosing albums and playlists. What you need is basically an iPod Nano that acts as a remote. Actually, hang that, how about a 40” screen displaying Coverflow with just a Griffin PowerMate underneath?!

Next up was Coverbuddy. If you have a Sony PSP, Coverbuddy’s web interface has a special version sized for it, and it makes a nice remote. However, not only do i not have a PSP, but Coverbuddy only plays albums, not playlists. webRemote does both playlists and library, but seemed quite clunky after what I was used to on Salling Clicker. Like Coverbuddy, it also needs a web browser to work from.

Cut to the chase, it just occurred to me that Leigh had a Palm Tungsten C, and that I could use Salling Clicker with that. This meant enjoying the full graphics glory of the buillt-in iTunes Controller that I didn’t get on my Sony Erricson s700i. It worked so well, I just laughed for about an hour, punching the air like I was ‘Living on a Prayer’. Job done.

Palm Tungsten C with Salling Clicker

The 3 yr old Tungsten C is a maybe little bulky by todays PDA standards, but I’m sure that somewhere there is a smallish, light, supported handheld (or phone with a reasonable sized screen) thats also cheap to grab off ebay. I’d be keen to hear what device you’re using with Salling Clicker that gives you graphics.

Mac Media Centre part two - Software

FrontRow vs Others

So, now that everything is up and working, its time to find a GUI that will wrap it altogether. I could just use the default scripts in Salling Clicker to navigate between iPhoto, iTunes and DVD player using my phone, and this certainly works just fine. Lets face it though, a screen based interface is much nicer, and Frontrow is just the job. There’s the hack to get Frontrow running on macs that it isn’t meant to, and as mentioned above this works really well, but It’s a bit naughty, so lets look at the alternatives:

As mentioned in my sidenotes before, MediaCentral is a freeware FrontRow alternative. Its has a very simple interface – no icons or previews, just text arranged in a very iPod/Frontrow kind of way. This makes it faster to navigate, and works great. It has advantages over FrontRow too, as it also supports WebTV, EyeTV, AVI files and Video_TS folders. There is a Salling Clicker script to control it, but it isn’t as smooth as the FrontRow controller. Instead of just using the up/down/select buttons to navigate what you see on screen, it relays the menus back to the phone display, which I don’t find as easy. Also, there’s no option to view images in iPhoto.

Mediacentral main menu

Mediacentral iTunes menu

Centerstage is another project aimed at this area, and does include the functionality to view images from iPhoto. The initial screen where you choose which media to play looks good, but the interface from then on looks a little busy. Overall, Centerstage feels less like something I would want to use to browse, but its early days yet.

Centerstage main menu

Centerstage music menu

iTheater also looks promising (its open source too), and a public version is due to be released on 31st of this month, although this is a date thats been moving a lot in the past. Judging by the Storyboard PDF you can download from the site, it looks like a winner, but until the public release is out, who knows? One to watch.

Those are the dedicated ‘media centre’ apps, but there are 2 iTunes apps are worth mentioning:

Coverflow is my ideal way of browsing iTunes. I’d love it if this could be integrated into something like MediaCental as another way of browsing (you’d still need to access playlists and such easily, which you can’t do in Coverflow).

Coverflow

Coverbuddy offers a full screen view, but as far as I know, can’t be controlled by Salling Clicker. I also find its performance a bit jerky, even with a plain background. Handy if you have a Sony PSP though, as it can be used as a remote control.

There’s also the recently announced GriffinTuneCenter, but the limitations of iPod HD sizes rule that out for me.

So far, my favourite Frontrow alternative is Mediacentral, but I’m keen to see what iTheater have to offer. None of them quite have the finesse of FrontRow or the features of Windows Media Center, but it feels as if things are just starting to warm up.

Have I missed any? Let me know!

Mac Media Centre part one - hardware

For a few months now, I’ve been bitten by the desire for a Mac based ‘Home Media Centre’. I have all these scattered elements – music in various iTunes libraries, photos in various iPhoto libraries (We’d been using Old Faithful for downloading and keeping all the family photos), as well as DVDs and movies. I felt that I could bring these together somehow, but I also didn’t want to buy lots of new kit in order to do it. What follows is my experience in setting up a basic media thingy.

First of all, I’m a muppet when it comes anything video related. Emails back and forth with Siobhan who knows about such things helped me learn my coaxial from my s-video, and formulate some plans. Originally I wondered if I could use my G5 to double up as a ‘centre’, but looking through the January sales in Glasgow, I found a low spec ex-demo Mac Mini going cheap. It went against the ‘spending too much money’ rule, but it was a bargain. There was no damage – just a bit dusty on top.

Mac Mini

Being the lower model, it lacked a few features, most of which I could compensate for:

  • No Bluetooth, but I did have a USB dongle I could bung in the back, so that wasn’t an issue.
  • No Airport, but no problem as it would be sitting a couple of feet away from my wireless modem/router, and I could just run an ethernet cable to it.
  • Only 512mb RAM, which is OK, but replacing the RAM is straightforward as this model doesn’t have a bluetooth module or airport card to be disconnected first. All you need is a thin putty knife to unclip the base.
  • No DVD Writer. This was more of a problem, as the intention was to combine it with EyeTV at some point in the future, and the ability to burn off a DVD would’ve been ideal. Never mind, I could just grab the files onto the powerbook or G5 to burn a DVD.
  • Iomega MinimaxSmall hard drive, but then again, even the larger spec 80gb model probably wouldn’t be enough. I knew I would have to use an external hard drive anyway. Word of warning though: If you want to buy one of those firewire drives that sits underneath the Mini, get the Lacie mini drive, not the Iomega Minimax. I got the Iomega solely because it was available on Amazon, and I’d saved up some gift vouchers. The problem is that it takes less than a minute of being underneath the Mini for the drive to get too hot and start emitting a loud, high-pitched whine. The Lacie drive has a stand built in to allow cooling, so it shouldn’t get this problem.

So, connecting it all up. At the moment, the iPod dock, bluetooth dongle and firewire drive plug into the mini, and the mini is connected the telly by Scart connector with audio coming from the headphone socket, and video passing through an Apple DVI Video adaptor (which converts the DVI connection to s-video).

Once the hardware was set up, it was time to set up the software:

  • Installed OSXVNC and set it to run at startup. As it has Tiger, I could’ve enabled “Remote Desktop” in the Sharing preference pane to activate OS X’s in-built VNC server. However, I’d heard reports of this being slower than OSX VNC, and that was certainly my experience.
  • Disabled “Open Bluetooth setup assistant at startup when no input devide is present” in the Bluetooth preferences as I was going to be running it without no keyboard or mouse.
  • Installed Salling Clicker and the FrontRow Controller script, and set up the connection to my bluetooth phone.
  • Installed Chicken of the VNC on my powerbook to setup and control the Mini via VNC.
  • All my media files were copied to the firewire drive, and then I set up iTunes to use the library on the drive, rather than the Mini. To get iPhoto to do this too, I simply removed the pictures folder, and started up iPhoto. It then asks you where the library is located, and gives you the opportunity to choose the firewire drive instead. In iTunes and iPhoto this worked fine, but when trying FrontRow (more on that in part 2), it has problems accessing the files. Instead, I created symbolic links (with this easy context menu tool: SymbolicLinker ) of the Movies folder, and iTunes/iPhoto libraries, and that worked a treat. I haven’t tried a plain old alias, but that might work too. iTunes and iPhoto were also set to share their libraries so that we could listen/view on them on the powerbook as well.

Final note – if you’re ever trying to get Apple DVD player working when there isn’t a display connected (as I was, using VNC), it won’t work. DVD player doesn’t like this situation and will refuse to play. VLC doesn’t however. I spent ages trying to work out what was up with it. Doh.

Mac Mini

It all works, except…

The upshot is that this works just fine, apart from my TV, its not one of these fancy ones with a DVI or VGA connection. The S-Video to Scart connection works, but the picture quality isn’t brilliant (looks better on DVD’s though). This is the limitation of the s-video connection, I was a bit naive to think that it would be enough. The sound quality playing music through the TV’s speakers is made ‘fairly good’ by using the Volume Logic plugin for iTunes, but it lacks a bit of oomph. Music could be fed to a stereo via Airport Express, but while Airfoil allows you to send audio from other apps, the small time lag means this wouldn’t work for playing DVDs. At least thats what I figure – if you have any experience with using an Airport Express like this, please leave a comment!

So that’s the only limitation so far, but there’s not much we can do about that. Unless I can arrange the children to have a little ‘accident’ with the telly, there’s not enough justification to get a new one!

Now, read Part two: software

Keeping score

This will be the last whingey post about powerbooks, promise. Here’s where I’m at now:

Powerbook #1: Dead on arrival
Powerbook #2: Lid catch broke after 1 week, Hard Drive died after 2. Thats where I got to last time.
Powerbook #3: Dud battery.
Powerbook #4: Made of jam.

So, I’m now on #4, which while I hate to tempt fate, is looking good so far. I’ve still got a long way to go to top Michael’s record of 8 (see comment 49).

As I added in the last post, I’ve used Macs for 16 years now, and owned my own for 5. I’ve never had any issues, until these new powerbooks, never. All my macs have been rock solid, with any problems arising from my own extreme stupidity. Could it be that these powerbooks were rushed out, with little quality control? Or that Apple’s efforts are more concentrated on iPods? After all, thats where the money is for them. I’d like to think that I just got the few dud ones, and that these are just overly-paranoid conspiracy theories.

All of these have had screens with the horizontal lines problem by the way, but its still too subtle to concern me.

There goes the "living off a powerbook" theory

There was one drawback I hadn’t considered when switching to this ‘living off a powerbook’ idea. No its not underperformance Mr Budd, its no performance. It all falls apart, when the powerbook dies on you.

Thats right friends, this one lasted just over 2 weeks before dying on me. After another excruciating 2 hours talking to Applecare (in India), I’m being refunded again. I refuse to accept a repair on such young powerbook. I need this to last me a few years, it can’t start its life like this.

I’m sure you can imagine right now, just how pissed off I am. This is the second powerbook to do this in as many months. Out of frustration, I shouted out I’ll buy a bloody Dell then!!, but of course I didn’t mean it. Things are bad, but not that bad. This is not an OS problem, its a very particular hardware problem.

So, now I’m in a quandary. Old faithful has been put back into service (now replete with silver-gaffer-tape-to-hold-it-together™ accessory). Maybe I should order a plain off-the-shelf model? There does seem to be incompatibility problems with upgraded RAM and hard drives.

And what I really wanted to be blogging about today was how good Jeff Tweedy was last night at the Shepherds Bush Empire…

Later… While its crap that so many of you have had similar, if not far, far, worse problems than I have it is reassuring. You see, I’ve used Macs for 16 years now, and owned my own for 5. I’ve never had issues until these new powerbooks, never. All my macs have been rock solid, with any problems arising from my own extreme stupidity.

Ack. What to do. I wish there was a widescreen iBook available right now. Waiting until next year for intels isn’t really an option, no matter how good they are.

The new beast

Damn that Gruber, he’s beaten me to the punch once more. Mind you, in typical Daring Fireball style, his piece is more detailed, researched and well written than anything I could’ve come up with (which is why I’m a member). So, I’m actually very pleased that he’s saved me time! Go and read that review if you want to really know about the new Powerbooks.

Like John, I opted for the upgraded 2gb RAM and 100gb (7200rpm) hard drive, which despite the longer delivery time for a customised model, its well worth it. Combining this with a 20” display provides me with my ideal setup. Unless you need to do video/3D work these machines provide enough oompf for web development and CPU hungry tasks like print design. I intend to use this setup now, rather than syncing with a desktop machine, and I’ll let you know how it goes.

This was the first time I’d used the migration facility in OS X. I’d always preferred to start with a clean install and then cherry pick what I wanted to go back in. This time, I felt a bit more nervous, there were too many files and settings that I didn’t want to risk losing. I’m glad I did – a firewire cable + 2 hours later and 62gb of files and settings had been installed. Everything ran as it had been, except I experienced the same problem John had with wireless, until running the airport update.

I’ve also found getting used to two-finger scrolling very easy and natural. This is a great feature, and find myself trying the double-fingered fondle on older machines too.

The other habit thats changed since getting the new powerbook, is that Omniweb has returned as my default browser. While Safari with plugins still feels slow and bogged down, Omniweb positively flies with this setup, and the larger resolution screen makes it ideal. Between Omniweb and Camino, Safari isn’t getting a look in at the moment. Can’t wait for their move to webkit (whenever that happens) which should finally solve issues with Flickr. I’d be interested to know if John’s habits have changed too, as earlier in the year he stated that he had left Omniweb, mainly for performance issues.

There are probably a lot of people waiting for the arrival of the Intel powerbooks (which could be as early as February according to the rumour sites), rather than going for these new models. While I’m usually Mr Early Adopter, in the case of Intel, I want to give it a couple of years and see what happens.

Waiting for new powerbooks again

New powerbook

I did it earlier this year and now I’m doing it again. Waiting for California to wake up and announce the new powerbooks at 10am. Back in January I decided to buy Dunstan’s 17”, rather than go for the new model. The 17” is lovely (and actually thinner than the 12” or 15”), but after lugging it around SXSW, @Media and a trip to New York this year, I decided its just too much. I now use it with a 20” cinema display, and just don’t need the extra size.

If it didn’t cost so much to upgrade my Titanium powerbook (more than a new one!), I’d have done that. Its lighter than the current models, and I prefer having all the ports at the back where they’re out of the way. It is a little worse for wear though:

Old powerbook with peeling casing

And its got a lot worse since that was taken. With only one screw left on the bottom, it does tend to flap about a bit, and to insert CD’s, you have to lift the bent upper casing slightly. The thing is, I loved it. This 15” was the best machine I ever owned – the best balance of screen size and portability.

So, a month ago I decided to go back to a 15” powerbook, and get a new one. Mr Oxton expressed his interest in buying the 17”, so it will have a ‘heritage of sorts – Dunstan, then me, then John. Shortly after ordering the new one, the rumour mills started talking about new models coming soon, but I don’t let that talk bother me.

The new powerbook arrived last week, and was what Apple call “dead on arrival”. A faulty hard drive meant kernel panics everytime it started up, and I was not best pleased. The ritual of opening a new mac is such a wonderful thing (and rare), but the joy soon ended. After it was taken in to be looked at, they wanted 7 days to repair it, or 2 weeks to replace it. Thats no way to start its life, so I asked for refund.

Ringing round mac dealers, many aren’t taking orders for a new custom spec powerbook, as they all expect Wednesday’s announcements to bring new models.

So I’m waiting, and so is John.

Update – The event came and went, with new iMacs, not new powerbooks. Bugger….

Update 2 – According Computer Warehouse, they are still expected an announcement on upgraded powerbooks any day now. Could be today, or early next week…

MacUser 20/20 interview

Shameless plug ahoy. The latest issue of the UK’s MacUser magazine (2nd September, #18) has a double-spread interview with myself, for its ‘20/20’ series. It was all a bit of rush, so my answers aren’t the most entertaining or eloquently written, but I’m as chuffed as Jack the Biscuit to be in there! ;o)

Photo of the spread from Macuser Magazine

Tiger-r-r-r-r

One ‘archive and install’ later, and I’m now running on 10.4. This is just a quick post to offload the Tiger related thoughts in my head to make room for more important matters.

Apart from all the obvious shiny bits (dashboard, mail 2, saved searches, spotlight, etc) these are things I love so far:

  • Overall it seems very snappy. I’m not sure if this is due to a fresh install, but it feels very responsive and peppy – hooray! Jeff Croft found this too.
  • One of the best features of Safari RSS, which no one seems to have mentioned yet, is the way it handles pages it can’t find. No longer do you get a sheet which you have to ‘OK’. Just a error message displayed in the browser window – just like every other browser, and its so much less irritating for it.
  • Safari’s in-built RSS reader is actually much better than I expected. It now occupies a tab, rather than using the separate, overlayed window that was shown in the preview demonstrations. Great for small amounts of feeds, but lacks features such as mark as read/unread functions to make it practical.
  • NewsFire is faster again, and it doesn’t suffer from the constant crashing that 10.3.9 was causing it to do. I’m torn between this and NetNewsWire yet again, and NewsFire is winning at the moment.
  • I love being able to add the ‘unified toolbar’ look to Omniweb (using Interface Builder), without resorting to shapeshifter themes. I guess this has the potential to be overused in future apps, but personally I love this clean, less anaemic, look.

In contrast there are only a few negative experiences:

  • Mail’s new toolbar icons. What were Apple thinking?
  • To be able to use signatures in Mail, they have to drag and dropped onto the relevant account icon in the signatures preferences. Trouble is, no accounts were showing up, and the only way to get to show up was to remove them all and add them again.
  • I really miss uControl. So far, its the only app I’ve found that either doesn’t work or hasn’t been updated for Tiger. If anyone knows of a similiar app (Sidetrack isn’t quite the same thing), that uses a keystroke and mouse movement to emulate a scrollwheel – I’d love to know about it.
  • Dashboard is slow to startup, but once you let all your widgets load, switching to it is real quick.
  • When opening a new safari window, the focus used to go straight to the location bar, not any more. Grrr! – not anymore – strangeness!
  • Word hinting that I used every day in Safari (alt-escape after typing a few letters) is no more. Does anyone know the new key combo?” – again, back to normal, more strangeness!

FTP files from skEdit using Transmit 3

Here’s a quick tip for skEdit users who prefer Transmit 3 for their FTP needs. With Transmit 3’s new ‘Dock Send’ feature, you can send files directly from skEdit. As long as your site is set up to use Dock Send, just drag the file directly from skEdit’s file view onto Transmit’s dock icon, and it will upload it where you need it! This cuts out a few steps and makes the whole process a lot quicker.

Waiting for new Powerbooks

G5 Powerbooks soon?

I recently decided that my Titanium G4 Powerbook is finally due for a replacement. Like an old car, its starting to get costly repair bills. At the moment, its suffering from ‘floppy screen’, and when that goes, it just isn’t worth considering a repair. I’m not bitter, its two and half years of use and hard abuse has been a very good innings. Its also been my favourite Mac I’ve ever owned – more so than my G5 desktop, and I’ve been thinking of using a setup like Mike Matas where the Powerbook is the main machine.

For the last couple of months the advice from rumour sites has been unanimous. Don’t buy now – new lines are on their way. What they will be no one is sure – The Register and DigiTimes had reports that suggested the possibility of G5 Powerbooks, whereas Mac Rumors were more conservative predicting just another bump in processor speed and HD size. Whatever they were, they were expected any day now.

I asked my Account Manager at MacWarehouse who in turn spoke to his rep from Apple. I wasn’t sure how honest an answer I would get, but he claimed that there would not be any new powerbooks until May/June! While that would tie in with the DigiTimes report that delivery was set for the second quarter, Powerbook G4’s (at least in the US) have been marked end of line, and with stocks drying up, what are Apple going to sell in the meantime? It seems unlikely that Apple would release a new Powerbook, and then again in a few months time, but according to Appleinsider “sources say that Apple also holds a PowerBook G4 upgrade in the pipeline—rumored to be the last G4 bump before the laptops acquire G5 processors in the second half of 2005’. To complete the optimism, MacMinute stated as far back as last February that “All of the key components for Apple to produce a PowerBook G5 appear to be ready, and Mac users should expect to see the new laptop no later than this summer’. Obviously that hasn’t happened.

However, the problem with using a G5 processor in a Powerbook has always been heat. A desktop G5 needs no less than 9 fans to stop it boiling over, how on earth could they acheive that in a small Powerbook casing? Apple’s chief financial officer, Peter Oppenheimer, stated that for Apple to produce a G5 equipped PowerBook would be the mother of all thermal challenges.

The rumours (and certainly my heart) are pointing towards a G5 Powerbook soon.

One more thing though – if you use a 17” Powerbook, please leave your experiences here, as I can’t decide between that and the 15”.

Update : More on the dual core G4 rumors.

Another update : In the end, I opted for buying Dunstans ever so slightly older 17 incher, rather than a brand new one right now. It was a great decision – I love that screen!

Full Metal interface

Many users are divided over Apple’s use of brushed metal windows. My personal feeling is that I like it in certain apps, but not others. It’s overuse by Cupertino seems to have given many independent software developers the impetus to use brushed metal too, in an attempt to ‘keep up’. While the Human Interface Guidelines are full of good solid reasoning, it doesn’t help when Apple go against them, and then produce beautiful interfaces as a result. It feels as if the pressure is on – you must use metal for your app to look cool and sell.

I’ve been following what John Gruber has to say on the matter with interest, there are two excellent articles about this subject, and I’ll try not to go over old ground, but there is one argument I’ve not heard before, and it’s the reason I like Safari’s metal interface – differentiation. Take a look at this example of one of my favourite sites in Camino:

Airbag in as seen in Camino

and now in Safari:

Airbag in as seen in Safari...mmmm...

I don’t know about you, but I find the Safari one much more pleasant to look at, because there is a clear demarkation between what is the browser, and what is the web page. I haven’t done a survey, but I’d be willing to bet that a large majority of web sites have white, or at least pale backgrounds. In the standard aqua coloured window the distinction isn’t as immediately clear. I’m not sure why this thinking doesn’t extend to other areas such as text documents, but there it is. I like differentiation.

(Having said all that, one thing that does give me that differentiation in a non-metal app, is the grey tab background on my safari style tabs for Firefox…

Airbag in Firefox

I find that the darker grey is just enough to create a visual separation.)

Playing iPods via iTunes

My ‘working away from home’ kit consists of just 2 things. My worn but trusty G4 Powerbook and my iPod. The iPod means I can play music in the car, as well as backup work to it. I’ve been trying to find a way of playing the music on my iPod through the Powerbook, without losing the link to my G5 where the music library is kept. There are plenty of apps that enable you to copy the iPod library onto your computer (such as PodWorks) – but I just don’t have the HD space for such a task. It also seems a little overboard – why copy everything when I should be able to just playback from the iPod?

I tried an app called iPodRip, but was less than satisfied with its ramshackle, ugly-relative-of-iTunes interface, tendency to crash regularly, and inability to display tracks in the right order. A better solution, was a free little app called Music Publisher which shares your iPods music library, allowing it to be played through iTunes. This also works across networks.

Even better however is an undocumented feature that I found after prompting by Shaun Inman. When you plug in your iPod you’ll be asked whether you want to break the existing link with the other iTunes database, and sync with the powerbook’s. Select no, and click the iPod icon at the bottom of the iTunes window. Click ‘Enable for Firewire use’ if you haven’t already, and change updating to manual (deselecting all automatic options), and lo! The tracks and playlists from your iPod show up in iTunes!

OmniWeb 5

For the past year I’ve been dithering between Camino, Safari and Firebird as my default browser on OSX, unable to settle with one. They’re all really good, but each one has something that niggles me or leaves me wanting. In Camino its the lack of autofill and its centered tabbed browsing. In Safari, it’s the lack of toolbar customisability, its icons and non-configurable pop-up blocking. Firebird is the one that comes damn close, but at the end of the day, its not a cocoa app, so no native form widgets and (more importantly) I can’t use the funk in the services menu like ‘subscribe in NetNewsWire’ or ‘Encode into HTML’ (Character Convertor).

One other browser that I’ve been really impressed with was Omniweb 4.5. Its heavily laden with features, but that doesn’t seem to slow it down. It now uses the WebCore Framework (Safari’s rendering engine), so its CSS and Javascript problems are in the past. One of my favourite features is its form editor. Everytime you come across a textfield, you’ll see a small icon the scrollbar -click that and a larger editing window zooms out. This is particularly useful when fiddling with MovableType templates. I’m not keen on OW’s back/forward/stop toolbar icons, but that can be changed. The real drawback was the lack of tabbed browsing. Why pay $30 for a browser, when all the free ones supply this important feature? So I’ve been waiting for news of the next version, in which the Omni Group promised to bring in Tabs.

Finally, details have been released of Omniweb 5, but I couldn’t help give a huge sigh of disappointment (and feel a little angry) when I saw how they were going to implement tabs. The Omniweb way is going to be a side drawer with thumbnails of each site. If you’ve ever opened a multi-page PDF in Apple Preview, you’ll have an idea of how this will look.

This seems a very odd move. For a start, its screen-hungry. It might not be too bad on a widescreen PowerBook, but on normal proportion monitors it looks as if it’ll steal far too much space. Also, if there are more thumbnails than there is space for, you need to scroll down and then select one. Traditional tabs mean that everything is just one, easy click away. They obviously felt the need to be different – now that it uses the safari rendering engine, they have to work harder to convince users to buy something they effectively already have.

There are some interesting new features, such as an in-built RSS reader and ‘workspaces’ which allow you to save a set of tabs. There’s a google search box to compete with the others – but they’ve also included an interface to add your own search engines. (Safari and Camino require fiddling to do this, while Firebird has a wide selection of add-ons available from Mozdev’s Mycroft). The new page marker feature looks like Safari’s ‘snapback’ in all but name, but the ability to save preferences for each site (pop-ups, text size etc) looks handy. It all looks really promising, with just the tab-thumbnails dampening my enthusiasm.

Having said that, I’m slowly starting to come around to this new approach to tabbed browsing. When the public beta becomes available in February, I’m going to be eager to try it out.

Update: If you want to see how the new tabs work, have a look at this movie. This shows that you can view sites as a list, rather than thumbnails, as well as resize the thumbnails.

Update II: Omniweb 5 was previewed at the MacWorld Expo in San Francisco this week, and Your Mac Life have a video interview with David Kasprzyk from the OminGroup. The video shows that it has the ability to resize the tab thumbnails, from huge to tiny. Looks even more promising….

YML at MWSF – Omniweb 5 Movie

Extending Safari

Just wanted to share with you my favourite apps for extending the capabilities of Safari – There might be one here you haven’t tried…

Safari Enhancer – Does a whole variety of tasks, but I use it to enable the debug menu (contains a spoof user agents menu), remove the metal skin (looks great in Panther!) and deactivate the cache.

Sogudi – creates search shortcuts to use in the location bar. For instance, to search for ‘skEdit’ on Versiontracker, just type ‘vt skEdit’ into the location bar. Comes with some preset searches, and the ability to add your own.

Pith Helmet – Blocks adverts, particularly annoying animated gif banner ads. Just makes life so much nicer. You can specify sites to always block or never block content from.

Safari No-Timeout – get longer than 60 seconds before Safari times out.

What’s more, these apps are all free. There are some nice people out there.

Incidentally, the new OS X 10.3.2 update, seems to include enhancements Safari or the WebCore, as I’ve just noticed that title attributes now show up as tooltips, as promised by Dave Hyatt. This doesn’t seem to be mentioned in Apple’s release notes. Presumably, this means that the other niceties on his list are now installed too.

IE 5 Mac notes

Some IE 5 Mac things I recently discovered:


  • IE 5 Mac won’t float a bunch of
    ’s,
      ’s etc. unless you specify a width for them.

    • When I applied the Tom Gilder image replacement method to elements such as the site logo, Safari added a huge horizontal scrollbar (presumably 1000em wide). This only seemed to happen when the image was within nested divs, positioned absolutely. To get around this, all I had to was add overflow:hidden.

      The reason that the image wouldn’t then show in IE5 Mac, was this extra overflow:hidden rule. As this isn’t needed in all cases, it can added as needed using the commented backlash hack:

      /*  IE 5 hack \*/
      #logo a {overflow: hidden;}
      /* end hack */ 

      My copy of Panther still hasn’t arrived, so I haven’t been able to test whether this is ‘fixed’ in version 1.1. I say ‘fixed’ as I’m not sure this can called a bug.



    *Update – this is no longer a problem in Safari 1.1. Huzzah for that, but 1.1 is so far only available to Panther users.

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The Hickensian is the journal of Jon Hicks, one half of the creative partnership Hicksdesign. Take a look at the work we do.

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Upcoming Talks

I sometimes pop up at conferences and waffle about design, icon creation in particular. Here's where I'll be next:

An Event Apart Chicago- "Icon Design Process" - 25-26th August 2014

Web Expo Guildford- "Icon Design Process" - 26th September 2014

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