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Parallel Desktops

Making the Logitech Harmony 620 remote work with a Mac

I was buying a couple of items at my local Costco yesterday and saw the Logitech Harmony 620 sitting in a display for $99. I had been wanting a decent all-in-one remote that would help me integrate my primary entertainment set up down in my basement. The equipment is a bit dated but works very well, the only problem being the plethora of remotes that I need in order to make it all work properly.

What looked interesting about this particular device was that it had a USB connector on it and would allow me to program it with my PC. This beat the old process I had to go through on a previous all-in-one remote that required a series of numeric entries into the keypad that felt like a game of Twister for my fingers.

The packaging on the 620 indicated that it supported a Mac so I made the impulse decision to buy it. Turns out I could have saved myself $10 by buying it from Amazon/Target but I didn’t feel like driving back and returning it over $10. Once I managed to extract the device from the blister pack it came in—no small feat mind you—I followed the gigantic fold out instructions and popped the included CD into my MacBook Pro.

Mistake 1: Don’t use the software that comes with it
I really wish the Logitech people would get their software act together, especially on the Mac side of the house. The software that shipped with the 620 was version 7.3.2. I detest software that requires a reboot on installation and this one required two, meaning I downright despised it. I seriously considered taking it back to Costco at that point but kept plugging through.

Once the software was installed I followed the on-screen instructions and plugged the USB cable from my MacBook Pro to the remote. The software failed to recognize that the remote was plugged in. I tried the other USB port on my Mac, tried using a different USB cable and even went through the series of incantations that usually help me cure technical problems to no avail. It simply wouldn’t recognize the device.

I ended up removing the batteries from the remote and plugged it into my Mac to see what would happen. The remote came to life, drawing power from the USB port, though the software still failed to recognize it. At least I knew the connection was good and that it was likely either defective software or a bad remote. Given Logitech’s reputation I was banking on defective software.

Mistake 2: Don’t assume the Logitech site will help you
I immediately jumped on the Logitech site to see if I could find some troubleshooting information on this. Unfortunately the Logitech site doesn’t even have the Harmony 620 listed as a product from them! This led me to conduct a more exhaustive search on the web to find out what was going on. It turns out the 620 is functionally identical to the Harmony 670, which was on the Logitech site.

I deleted the old copy of the Harmony software that I had previously installed and downloaded the latest version directly from the Logitech Support site. They have rebuilt the software quite well and it now installed without requiring a reboot and it recognized the remote right away.

The only catch in all of this was that I expected the remote to actively display that it was connected to my Mac through the USB port but it did not, or if it did it was so quick on the little remote LCD display that I missed it.

Configuring the Harmony
Once the software was installed and running it took a little while to get it properly configured with my devices. I entered in the name / model number for my TV, PVR, Receiver and DVD player and it seemed to recognize them fine. I even added in the xBox 360 and Wii that we have hooked up to everything. The 620 was able to power up the xBox but could not handle the Wii since that apparently requires a Bluetooth connection.

Once it knows your devices you can walk through a wizard interface that handles what device needs to be set to which input and what should and should not be powered on for each task. After going through the hell of getting the software to work properly with the remote this portion seemed to work great.


The Remote Hardware
Using the Harmony 620 is actually pretty nice. It’s got a very comfortable peanut shape much like the Tivo remotes I favored when that was my PVR of choice. With one exception the buttons are well placed, easy to “feel” for in a dark room and reasonably well lit after pushing the little “glow” button.

The only button that caught me a couple of times was the Stop button, which is located directly above the rewind button. It was a little too easy to hit that while jumping back and forth on my PVR, which would pull me completely out of the show I was watching and require I navigate back to it.

That little quirk aside I love that I now hit a single button and all of my inputs are properly set and I can jump between watching TV, a DVD or playing a game. One single button push on one single remote. The only thing missing is one of those little chains like they have at banks for their precious pens so that my kids won’t accidentally hide it.

I’m not much of an audio or videophile so this was more of a layman’s perspective on setting this up and making it work. I actually wrote all of this down because of the problems I experienced in getting it all to work and the fact that I didn’t find solutions in one single place on the web. If you happen to buy a Logitech Harmony 620 and have a Mac, hopefully this post will be of help to you. Logitech, please get your software act together! I love your hardware but experiences like this one make it difficult to recommend your equipment. At a minimum you should list ALL of your products on your web site.

If you happen to use/recommend a good, inexpensive universal remote please note it in the comments.

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Categories
Parallel Desktops

Getting the most out of Spaces on a dual monitor Mac Pro

Ever since I switched from Windows to Mac over 9 months ago I’ve been obsessed with making myself as productive as possible in OS X. Without question one of my favorite features is Spaces, the multi-desktop feature for Leopard. Here is how I’ve set up my environment to make the most out of it.

Hardware First
My primary workstation is a Mac Pro with 12GB of RAM and several TB of disk space. In addition I have two monitors attached (Samsung SyncMaster 204B), which gives me an effective 3200×1200 of desktop real estate. In my opinion you can’t have too much RAM, disk space or more importantly screen real estate.

The other thing that I’ve found extremely helpful for me was using a decent multi-button mouse. In my case I’m using the one from my older Windows XP gaming rig, a Logitech MX 510 Optical Gaming Mouse. The best part of it for me is that I’ve set the additional button below the mouse wheel to activate Spaces, making it really easy to quickly access the list of windows and select something. Since the Logitech drivers are buggy I purchased a license for Steermouse, which gives me all of the mapping functionality I need to map buttons in OS X.

Arranging Spaces
I use Spaces by breaking my windows up into work areas for specific classes of tasks. In this way when I am in that work area most of what I need is visible. In some cases I want minimal distraction and in others I use the Space as a view into one of many conduits of information.

Spaces can handle a rather large number of virtual desktops but the number I’ve found that works best for me is 12: 4 rows of 3 spaces each:

Here is how I’ve broken mine up:

Web and News iTunes Open
Communications Documentation VMware Win XP
Development Design Open
iPhoto Word Processing Open

Since I rarely shut down my Mac (I simply put it to sleep), I have many of these applications available as soon as I need them. This is of course one of the primary advantages of having 12GB of RAM. Here’s how each one of these spaces works out:

Web and News
My primary web browser is Firefox and NetNewsWire is my news reader. I’ll have multiple tabs open in my browser and use it when I’m doing research or catching up on the day’s news. This is one of those distraction zones and I try to be regimented about how much of my time I spend here.

iTunes
Since I sync up my iPhone frequently and often like to have music playing in the background, iTunes gets it’s own Space. I rarely spend any time in this particular space.

Communications
I try to keep all of my direct incoming and outgoing communications in one place and that’s what this rather crowded Space does for me. I run the standard Mac Mail.app in the left monitor and in the right I have Adium, Skype and TweetDeck active. I also have a small TextEdit window open where I jot down notes and thoughts. I just started using TweetDeck today but have already become quite attached to it. Great way to stay on top of my expanding Twitter feed.

Documentation
I always seem to be referencing PDF documentation on a regular basis. Today I’ve got a PayPal API document and an Active Merchant tutorial I am going through. Since these two are going hand in hand for what I’m working on I have them both up. Normally I have a single PDF up in this space; I’ll mute the speakers, shut off my Growl notifications and music and focus on reading. It’s a bit like entering a library to me.

Windows XP
Though I rarely use it any longer I tend to keep a Windows XP instance up and running in a VMware Fusion virtual machine. My primary need for it now is to load up Internet Explorer and check how the web based application I am building looks on it.

Development
Lately this is where I’ve been spending most of my time as I get ready to launch my next business. I’ve been doing the work in Ruby on Rails and as a result keep a couple of different windows up and running in here. On the left monitor I have TextMate up as my editor of choice.

In the right monitor I have a standard OS X Terminal window up with several tabs inside of it. A background tab has my active Mongrel instance running the development version of my application and the foreground tab is ready to accept commands.

I use Safari as my web browser for local application testing and may have several tabs for documentation open in it as well. Since I use MySql as my primary database I keep a MySql Query Browser handy with my development database loaded in case I want to make quick changes to the data set. This is rounded out with a TextEdit window that contains a list of issues and notes for what I am working on.

Design
This Space is reserved for OmniGraffle Pro. Since it has lots of additional windows and pallets I tend to let it take over both monitors. I use OmniGraffle for mocking up wire-frames of my application pages and working through flow charts for application logic.

iPhoto
Though I don’t keep it open all the time I do have a dedicated space for iPhoto, mainly because I let it take over one monitor while I have Finder windows open in the other if I am moving pictures to different media for transfer or import. I’ll also do my editing with Gimp in that Space.

Word Processing
I’ve become quite fond of Pages because of it’s simplicity and have a Space dedicated to the times when I am in letter writing “mode” or creating marketing materials.

As you can see I also maintain a few open Spaces that I can jump to if I have some application or task that falls outside of my pre-defined areas. The benefit to all of this is that I can jump into a Space and focus on the task at hand. If I have the mouse in hand I’ll press the button for Spaces and just click on the area I want to be in. If I’m in keyboard mode I’ll usually press Command-Tab and pop to the application I need, which will also switch the Space for me.

I use a similar setup on my MacBook Pro, though since it is a single monitor and used primarily when I travel or am in a meeting I have it set up very differently. The principles however are the same: group applications into Spaces based on the mode of work I want to be in.

As a high-tech entrepreneur I have a tendency to be running at top speed throughout the day. Over the years I have learned how to multi-task well, allowing myself to flow from one task to the other when the situation warrants it but shutting down music, alerts and external distractions when I need to focus on deep tasks. The set up I have created with Spaces works great for me and I feel considerably more productive than I did back in the old days with multiple layered windows competing for my attention.

Do you juggle multiple applications at once or try to keep one application running at a time? Have a better way to keep your applications running smoothly? Please drop a note in the comments.

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Categories
Parallel Desktops

iShowU HD – capture that video easily

Have you ever wanted to capture video that you see online? Say for example you want to capture a highlight play on NFL.COM—which has some very high quality video clips online—integrating the results into your own video. I was looking for just such a solution the other day and found iShowU HD, a nice little application that can capture virtually any video you can view on your Mac, including Flash based videos from YouTube, etc.

Using the application is pretty straightforward – just set the video capture area, the quality of the output video, click the Record button and off you go:


iShowU HD also provides a way to put together basic screencasts, capturing either the entire screen or just a portion of it while scrolling the viewport with the mouse movement. It can display mouse clicks with a radar-like circle animation and audible click.

The only problem I’ve had with it was that recording audio (narrating my video capture) had a technical problem with my USB based microphone; it only recorded to the left channel. Shiny White Box—the manufacturers of the software—assured me that a fix would be coming for that within the next month. Fortunately the built in mic on my MacBook Pro doesn’t have the problem so I can work around it for now.

For $30 it’s a nice little piece of software. I haven’t done too much research on the topic so if you’re aware of a good piece of video capture technology—including something for making screencasts—please drop a note in the comments.

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