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Switching to Mac – Two Years Later

It’s now the two year mark for my switch from Windows to Mac. Over the last two years I’ve gone from a Windows developer exploring the Mac as a compliment to my Windows and Linux machines to a full time Mac user that spends the vast majority of my time in OS X.

I didn’t wake up one day and say “Wow, I hate Windows. I’m going to switch to Mac”. I bought a little white MacBook, put it on the desk next to my primary Windows machine and started playing with it. Though technically underpowered compared to the dual screen, custom built PC I spent all of my time on, I found myself constantly reaching over to the MacBook to use it. The environment was fresh and new to me and I began to really enjoy the user interface consistency that OS X and the vast majority of Mac applications shared.

For such a small device the performance was excellent too; though it was the least expensive of the MacBook line of computers it didn’t feel like a compromised machine. Applications loaded quickly and I could run several large applications at once and see very little performance impact. In the past when I purchased the least expensive Windows based laptops the machine was barely usable out of the box; it needed to be cleaned of all the “extra” applications and within a month of using it the performance would start to deteriorate. Not so with the Mac.


In relatively short order I went from having a MacBook to purchasing a Mac Pro, which replaced my primary Windows desktop. Whereas the MacBook was quick, the Mac Pro was—and still is—remarkably fast. With dual 2.8Ghz quad core Xeons and 12GB of RAM, I was suddenly able to run a huge number of applications seamlessly.


The bottom line is I’m really happy I decided to “try out” that MacBook two years ago. Computing—as a software developer the place I spent a huge number of my waking hours—became fun and exciting again.

Tips For New Switchers

Over the last two years I’ve learned a lot about helping people make a successful switch from Windows to Mac. Here is a quick summary of some tips that can help you or someone you know make the transition easier, along with some links to blog posts on the topic:

1) Learn the keyboard

As a touch typist the first problem I had when I started using a Mac was adjusting to the keyboard. A Mac has a Control, Option and Command key to the left of the spacebar, Windows has Control, Start, Alt in that same spot. The more advanced a keyboard user you are the more time it will take you to adjust. Keys like Home and End exist on a full size Mac keyboard but they don’t perform the same actions they do on Windows. Backspace and Delete swap labels but not functionality. All of this leads to a lot of missteps initially; invest the time to learn the keys.

Blog Posts: Windows to Mac Keystroke Mapping – a Quick Guide | Where did my Backspace key go? | Have you tried using the Option key? | Keyboard vs. Mouse | Switching to an ergonomic keyboard | The Page Up / Page Dn keys |

2) Be prepared to deal with MS Office files

Nobody at Apple would ever want to admit it but for now DOC, XLS and PPT files are the common language of the business world. You will want to find a solution to open, create and edit Microsoft Office files quickly and easily. The most obvious way to handle this is to get the Mac version of Microsoft Office. While I personally have it installed on one of my Macs, lately I’ve been using Neo Office to handle those types of files. Though technically you can use iWork to handle that, creating DOC and XLS files in Pages and Numbers requires extra steps that make it a challenge.

Blog Posts: I hate my Mac!

3) Learn about DMG files

If you download a new application over the web chances are it will be packaged up as a DMG file. A DMG file is a disk image and presents itself like a physical CD / DVD would when it is loaded up on your Mac. TUAW has an excellent 101 style overview of them. DMG files are important because of tip #4.

4) Learn to install applications

If you are coming from the Windows world you will need to adjust to how 3rd party applications are delivered on Macs. In Windows most downloaded applications come in the form of a self contained setup program. Double-click it and it starts an install wizard. On Mac you will generally receive a DMG file (see tip #3 above). Inside it may be a PKG file; which can be double-clicked to start an installation program. In some cases the application will just be contained in the DMG file; you drag that into your Applications folder to “install” it. The process is simple once you learn it but not obvious if you are new to Macs.

Blog Posts: Installing new applications

5) Time Machine is your friend

Go out and buy an inexpensive external hard drive that you can use to run Time Machine, the backup program that comes with OS X. It’s seamless, backs up your machine every hour and quickly allows you to either grab an older version of a file you’ve recently modified or perform a complete restore on the machine. I don’t need to use Time Machine for restoring files too often but when I do it’s a glorious feeling that I’ve got backups when I need them.

Blog Posts: I love Time Machine because… | Fixing a simple Time Machine error

6) Learn about windows

I’m not talking about Windows the operating system, but the windows in OS X. In Windows when you want to close an application people often just click the X in the top right corner of the window. On OS X the majority of the time clicking on the little red circle that turns into an X when you hover over it will also close the window of the application but not actually quit the application. Maximizing a window in OS X doesn’t make it full screen like it does in Windows.

Blog Posts: Tips for tabbing your way through windows | Avoid the potholes when switching from Windows to Mac

7) Find some great applications

OS X is a pretty complete operating system and comes with enough applications to get any web oriented person up and running. That said, there are tens of thousands of applications that you can use to make the most out of your Mac experience. Over the last two years I’ve cataloged the applications I’ve found and without a doubt those are my most popular blog posts. Whatever your interest is, chances are someone has created a nice little application to service that need.

Blog Posts: After 3 months, what’s really being used | My critical applications 5 months after switching | 8 months after switching, my favorite applications | My top 10 free Mac utilities | 10 little known Mac utilities

Hopefully this will help some of the more recent switchers out there. You can grab a complete list of my Switching to Mac blog posts (currently at 71) by clicking on the Switching to Mac label on my blog.

Have a tip for helping a recent switcher adjust to a Mac from Windows? Drop a note in the comments below!

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Two tips for Tabbing your way through a Mac

When I switched to Mac from Windows I had an adjustment period. The window model is a bit different, the menu is in a different location, the Dock Bar != the Start menu, etc. Those all took a little adjustment period but I quickly overcame them as obstacles to productivity. By far the longest adjustment period involved the use of the keyboard and more specifically the use of the Tab key.

For all of the keyboard power of a Mac (shortcuts are virtually everywhere) the Tab key seems to be forgotten on most Mac keyboards, yet that is probably the most used navigation key on Windows. Here are a couple of tips for making your Mac keyboard experience leverage the Tab key:

Enabling Tabbing
The first thing you will want to do is to enable tabbing in dialog/pop-up windows. For some reason Apple decided to make that an option you need to manually enable in order to tab your way through all of the controls on a modal dialog. You can change this by going to System Preferences / Keyboard & Mouse / Keyboard Shortcuts and enabling full keyboard access:


This means that when a pop-up dialog is presented you can hit Tab and Shift-Tab to quickly navigate the controls. When a button is highlighted you can hit Space to activate (or click) that button. The alternative is that not every control is a Tab stop.

Safari Tabbing
Again, unlike other applications (Firefox on Mac for example), Apple does not think all of the items on a web page should be a tab stop in Safari. Hyperlinks as an example—which are often used as buttons in some web page designs—are passed right over by default.

You can change that behavior in Safari by going to Preferences / Advanced and checking on the Universal Access setting for the Tab key:


This will allow you to tab through all of the elements on a web page, much like most of the other web browsers out there.

Given the keyboard power that Macs have—something I found quite surprising after I switched—I’m not sure I understand why the Tab key has been relegated to "optional" status by Apple in these cases. For people switching to Mac from Windows it’s a really good idea to make these two setting the default option; it sure would help with the adjustment period.

Got a tip for enhancing the keyboard experience of Mac users? Please drop a note in the comments!

 

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Switching from Windows to Mac – Power users can also play

Lately I’ve been thinking about why I enjoy working with Macs so much. Since switching to Macs from Windows a little over a year ago I’ve tried as much as possible to approach it objectively, calling out both the good and bad as I learned my way around OS X, and recording my findings here in this blog.

It’s easy to cite the UI consistency I enjoy with Mac based applications. As a software developer that obsesses with user interface design I have a deep appreciation for disparate applications using similar controls and metaphors. It’s difficult enough for people to understand the underlying tasks and logic a software application can perform, making them learn different control surfaces is like asking someone to navigate through their own family room after you have rearranged the furniture and turned off the lights; lots of stubbed toes and muttered curse words are sure to ensue.

Instead of the UI, I’m finding the real draw for me has been how productive I am as a power user. As a Windows user I never questioned the Mac’s user interface. It looked “pretty”, a back-handed compliment if there ever was one. What I did not know, and not a single Mac advocate ever mentioned to me for fear of scaring me away (I assume), was that Macs could channel that inner power user like no other machine could.

At any given time I’m running a dozen or so applications, many comfortably set up in their own Spaces window. I can switch between the programs by hitting the familiar Command-Tab. If I need to launch a new application I use LaunchBar, without question one of the best productivity tools you can get for a Mac (Quicksilver provides a similar capability). No reaching for the mouse and hunting for the application I want to run; I simply hit Command-Space, type 2-3 letters and hit Return and my application is loaded almost immediately. If the application is already running it just switches to it.

My Mac Pro serves as my communications center as well, serving up my email through Apple’s Mail program, AIM and Gmail chat through Adium, my Twitter feeds through TweetDeck and my incoming and outgoing phone calls through Skype. If I need to call a number I hit Command-Space, type “call” and enter (or paste) the phone number I want to dial.

If I decide I want to contact someone that’s not visible through Adium I’ll just hit Command-Space and start typing their name. Once their name appears in the LaunchBar menu I can hit the right arrow key and choose either an email address or phone number. If I choose an email address a new mail message is created with them as the recipient and I’m ready to start composing my message. If I select a phone number Skype takes over, gradually muting the John Coltrane track I have playing on iTunes as the phone begins to ring. I hang up the call and the music comes back.

Meanwhile down in my development Space I’ve got TextMate (my preferred programming editor), MySQL query browser and three terminal windows open. In one of the terminal windows I have an SSH session to one of my production servers open and am running a tail on one of my logs. The other two terminal windows are positioned in specific directories so that I can quickly execute commands for my Ruby on Rails based application and monitor the debug output from my local server instance. Safari is open in that same Space with the local version of SharedStatus up and running in it.

I even have Windows XP running in a VMware Fusion instance with Internet Explorer loaded and accessing my local version of SharedStatus so that I can be sure it works properly in that particular browser.

If you are a power Windows user that wants to dismiss the Mac as just a simplistic and trendy consumer machine—something I was guilty of—you may want to reevaluate that position. In my experience I’ve found Macs to be the computing equivalent of automotive sleepers; they look soft and simple on the outside but as soon as you push it you realize it’s capable of extreme performance.

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A new Mac Mini rounds out the house

Well, it finally happened. Late last week my 16 year old son came to me and said "Dad, my HP Laptop won’t boot up". Wonderful. I went to his room to check it out and sure enough the machine was just continually cycling on startup. It would get to the Windows logo and display the progress bar, suddenly show the briefest flashes of a blue screen (so fast it was unreadable), then the reboot and start the process over. I tried doing a safe boot with each of the types available in the Windows boot menu but no luck. I suspect that the hard drive on the machine had started to go and that a key driver file had become corrupted.

I played with it for a while but my efforts were half hearted. This machine was a hand me down from my wife, one that had been a bit flaky in the past. His was the last operational Windows machine still in use in our house. As I looked down on the HP endlessly flailing through the startup sequence a small smile formed in the corners of my mouth. I could finally be done with supporting aging Windows machines, at least the ones parked in my house. I would get him a Mac of his own.

Since he’s a Junior in High School any machine we got him would likely be carted off to college in a year and a half. There may be another generation of MacBooks before that happens (or at least a minor refresh) so I decided to go another way. I bought him the entry level Mac Mini, rationalizing that it would be plenty powerful for his basic needs. I figured that in a year and a half I’ll buy him a new MacBook and claim the Mac Mini as a media center machine.

Besides, I already had plenty of accessories around the house.


With a strategy in mind I headed off to the local Apple store and bought the machine, a 2.0 GHz system with 2GB of RAM and a 120GB hard drive. I brought it home and hooked it up to a 22" Samsung widescreen display I had from one of my previous PCs (now deceased) and let him use the full size Apple keyboard and Mighty Mouse I got with my Mac Pro.

I had a spare 120GB hard drive sitting around from my original MacBook after I upgraded it to a 320GB drive. A while back I picked up a small USB enclosure for it so that I could use it as an external drive; that became his Time Machine device. He’s had an older Logitech subwoofer 2.1 speaker system that generates some really decent sound so he’s got everything he needs to listen to his music. The last piece of the setup puzzle was installing iWork ’09, for which we have a family license.

I turned the machine over to him with a couple of quick pointers: don’t just click the close button on an application’s window, click App Name / Quit. I also explained the Dock bar and the basic concepts around the Finder and how to use Spotlight. While my son can touch type incredibly fast he’s really not all of that into his computer; it’s mainly a tool for accessing his music, the web and writing up papers for school.

Mac Mini Performance
When he first started using it he immediately set about doing multiple things at once: updating the music library in GarageBand (adding in the 1GB worth of stock music from Software Update), adding his music collection into iTunes from it’s temporary home on my internal server and actually listening to music at the same time. These little tasks seemed to bring the Mac Mini to its knees, making it slow to respond. I introduced Davey to spinning beach balls.

I told my son to slow down a bit and not spend too much time exploring the machine to form an opinion while it was doing such intensive tasks. Once GarageBand had finished updating the Mini started to perform at an acceptable level.

iTunes and the Disappearing Disk Space
A couple of hours after he started playing with it he called me over to tell me that it was reporting he was out of disk space. Huh? How could he be out of disk space so quickly? Sure, it’s only a 120GB hard drive but sheesh, he had over 75GB free when I gave it to him.

It turns out that he not only wanted to add his 10GB music collection to his machine but also wanted access to my rather large music collection as well. The problem is the default setting for iTunes. It copies all of the music into the local storage when adding it to a collection:

My collection—which is over 100GB in size—was being added to his local hard drive and he was blowing out his remaining disk space. In addition Time Machine had started a cycle and he nearly blew that drive’s space out as well.

Since my Mac Pro holds my music collection and it’s always on he didn’t need to have local copies of the music in order to listen to it. We changed the above setting, deleted the local copy of the music then re-added everything and it worked great. I also ended up erasing the Time Machine drive and starting that over. After another couple of hours everything was back to normal and running very nicely.

My son is completely into GarageBand. He is by far the most musically inclined of our house and is a pretty decent guitar player. At some point in the near future I want to get his electric guitar hooked up to his Mac Mini so that he can incorporate his own music into his GarageBand work. I have no experience at all with that so if someone has suggestions on the best way to proceed please drop a note in the comments.

Of course Macs have personality and I’m fond of coming up with Star Wars themed names for our computers. In this case I decided to break from my standards and use a name that also acknowledges my son is named after me. His new Mac is named Mini Me.

 

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Reflections on my first Mac

With all the talk of the 25th anniversary of the Mac I started to wax nostalgic about my original Mac experience.

Though my blog got a lot of page views last year because of my switch from Windows to Mac, the reality is the little white MacBook I bought in February of 2008 was not actually my first Mac. From ’83-’84 I worked at a small retail computer chain in Southern California named Sun Computers (not Sun Microsystems). We sold IBMs, Compaqs, DECs and Apples.

When the Mac was introduced Apple provided special training to the authorized dealers and I went off for a day of presentations in early ’84. At the end of the presentation Apple gave us all forms that allowed us to purchase one Mac directly from Apple for a ridiculously low price. We could get a 128K Mac, an Image Writer dot matrix printer and a padded carrying case (for the Mac). To be honest I don’t even remember the price, though it was considerably lower than its $2,500 retail price; so low that I quickly took them up on the offer and bought the machine, maxing out my one and only credit card in the process.

Keep in mind that in today’s dollars the retail price was over $5,000, a princely sum of money for a 20 year old geek to be spending on a computer. Though I had been spending a lot of time around various computers that Mac was a completely different animal. It’s hard to appreciate how much better it was than the DOS based PCs of the day.

It took a while before the machine was actually delivered—a couple of very, very long weeks—but when it finally came I remember spending countless hours playing with MacWrite and MacPaint, the only two programs that I had available. I would happily jam my Mac into the padded carrying case and take it with me the first couple of weeks I had it, though that got old fairly quickly. My girlfriend at the time was unimpressed with the machine, likely because I wasn’t paying attention to her when I was using it.

The lack of software and the paltry 128K of memory meant that my first Mac quickly got less and less use. There were only so many MacWrite documents and MacPaint images I had the energy to do. Software started to trickle in to our store for the Mac over the late spring and early summer but it was expensive and I was already tapped out because of the cost of the Mac. In September of 1984 I landed my first job as a programmer working with DOS based PCs and my Mac quickly became expendable. I ended up selling the machine to buy a PC clone so that I could continue to learn the programming tools I was using during the day.

For the next 24 years I rarely touched a Mac, spending the vast majority of my time on DOS/Windows and later various Linux flavors. When I finally did rediscover the Mac last year it was a great experience; I felt like a kid again, exploring all the new features (well, new to me anyway) and playing with the wide range of software that is now available.

With all the coverage about the 25th anniversary of the Mac’s launch I’ve been looking at original announcement videos and news stories and for just a few minutes I am that 20 year old budding computer geek, carefully removing that original Mac from its white box.

So what about you? If you are a Mac user when did you get your first Mac?

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First Impressions: Picasa for Mac

When I switched from Windows to Mac nearly a year ago the only thing that I really missed from Windows was Picasa, Google’s free photo management software. I’ve struggled getting iPhoto to work the way I wanted it to. I had used it for years and since I take a LOT of digital photos I have a pretty extensive photo library for a non-professional (25K photos, 55GB of disk space that span the past 8 years). Today Google released the beta version of Picasa for Mac and I immediately set about installing it and checking it out.

Here are my first impressions of Picasa for Mac.

Picasa is very comparable to iPhoto in terms of functionality. It indexes all of your photos and presents them in a scalable film strip interface. You can double click on a picture and it will zoom in to it. When I first loaded up Picasa and had it index my photos it took about 25 minutes to find them all; on my dual processor Mac Pro the CPUs barely moved while this was going on. The quality of the thumbnail image in the film strip on Picasa is not nearly as good as it is in iPhoto; I haven’t figured out if this is a setting, standard behavior in Picasa or simply a function of it being beta software. Here’s an example:


Not long after I created this comparison image I checked it again and the Picasa version is now much clearer. Again, this may be a function of the beta or a delay in the update process for the quality of the thumbnail.

You can do many of the same photo retouching jobs that you would in iPhoto with Picasa, though the approach is a little different. In iPhoto you can see a traditional profile of levels; Picasa does not display a profile, just buttons and sliders to manage the effects.


One button that Picasa does have is the "I’m Feeling Lucky" button, which will auto-adjust lighting and colors and has an uncanny knack for making pictures look great quickly. In addition the Red-Eye removal tool will first make an automatic pass to try and pick out the red eyes in your photos. Though the automatic mode doesn’t catch everything all the time it does a nice job with the obvious ones, making it very quick to run through lots of night shots.

Switchers Have It Easy
If you have switched from Windows to Mac and used Picasa in the past you will be immediately comfortable with Picasa on OS X. The interface is markedly similar to the Windows version, including the quirky scroll bar that Picasa uses in the main viewing area.


If you happened to copy your original photo folders from your Windows machine to your Mac then you’ll be pleased to note that the Mac version recognizes your old settings (tags, stars, descriptions, etc). I kept my files in their original state, simply moving them to the large hard drive I have in my Mac Pro so it recognized everything immediately.

The reason I like the idea of having my photos stored on a separate disk and stay there is pretty simple: I share my photos with the rest of my family. So I have a 1TB data drive that has a Photo folder and within that are sub folders for the year / month-day that I took the pictures. This Photo folder is then shared on my network and my wife and kids can get to it easily if they want to grab photos and place them in Facebook, etc. Even my son, still running Windows XP, can get to them.

If you edit a file in Picasa (adjustments, red eye, etc.) the new version replaces the old version on your hard drive. A hidden folder is created under the folder where your originals are contained. This folder (labeled .picasaoriginals) contains a .picasa.ini file and the original copy of your picture. Again, this is hidden so unless you have enabled the ability to see hidden files in the Finder you will not see them.

Where the Pictures are Stored
One of my favorite features of Picasa is that while it can recognize when a camera is plugged in to it and import those pictures it will also allow you to monitor folders so that if photos are placed in them (or their sub-folders) then they will be automatically added to Picasa:


Just select the folders you want to monitor, set it to Scan Always and you don’t need to worry about importing the pictures into Picasa; all you need to do is copy the pictures from your camera over and they will automatically be picked up.

Interface Oddities
There are a couple of things about the Picasa UI that take getting used to. First off, double clicking on a thumbnail pulls up a large view of the photo. If you then click and hold the mouse button it will zoom the photo to 100%. When the image is zoomed don’t expect to use the scroll wheel to move around within the image like in iPhoto; in Picasa that will jump you to the next or previous image. If you want to scroll around in zoom mode you need to click and drag or use the thumbnail viewer to position the viewing area. A single click pulls you back out of zoom mode.

Even with the little zooming quirks this method is FAR superior to zooming in iPhoto; the only way you can zoom in on the current version of iPhoto is to place the photo in Edit mode.

The software is still in beta so there are problems; as an example when I tried to remove a folder from Picasa (Right Click, Remove from Picasa…) I got the spinning beachball of death and had to Force Quit Picasa. That said, having played with it for several hours I was comfortable with it pretty quickly and am looking forward to using it more in the coming days.

If you decide to give Picasa for Mac a spin note that it only runs on Intel based Macs; PPC based Macs are out of luck. The Picasa for Mac Forums are also an excellent resource for getting questions answered.

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Anti-virus software and Macs

Yesterday’s Washington Post Security Fix disclosed that on November 21st of this year Apple put out a technical note where they recommend the widespread use of anti-virus software for Macs, including specific recommendations for Mac AV utilities.

I’ve never believed the "Macs cannot get a virus" mantra that some people spread. The reality is that any computer where the user has the ability to write to the hard drive or install applications is subject to a program doing evil deeds without their knowledge.

I’ve been a Mac user for 10 months now—a relative neophyte—but have learned a couple of things that have carried over from my Windows days. The single most important one is to be very careful about which software I allow to get installed on my Mac. When I install something that comes from the web I get a little confirmation dialog:

In addition when I try to run full installation programs I will often get prompted to enter the administrative password for my Mac:

Some applications, like those based on Adobe AIR’s development platform include their own warning dialog:

In all of these cases it’s critical to stop and think about what you are doing. This is a virtual knock on your door where you get a chance to either turn someone away or let them in your home. It’s critical that you take a moment and think about what you are doing; don’t just blindly enter your password or allow software to be installed. If you have gotten into the habit of blowing past these dialogs then you need to stop doing that and think it through.

The other thing is to stay current with Software Update. When that little globe is bouncing on my Dock Bar I generally install the updates that it recommends.

Do you run anti-virus software on your Mac? Though I’m very cautious with my own machines I do worry that my wife and teenage children will not be as diligent.

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RegistryScan.cc tells my Mac I have a Windows Malware infection

I was happily working along this afternoon when suddenly I received a Skype pop-up text message. I rarely use Skype for text messaging, sticking with Adium for that. It’s usually some Skype SPAM asking me to come to some lonely woman’s web page to see pictures of her. This time the message looked pretty ominous:

Obviously this is just a SPAM attempt to get someone to jump over to a web site. Kind of tough for my Mac running Leopard to get a Registry hack installed. At the bottom of the message was a link to go to the offending site:

http://www.registryscan.cc/?q=scan

Out of curiosity I decided to jump over and take a look at the page. I’m running a Mac and it was pretty clear this was targeting Windows machines. What I got was this:


Just trying to navigate away from the site presented me with this little pop-up:


What do I love about all of this? Let’s see:

  • The animation leading up to the above screen shot looks like a Windows progress dialog
  • The Windows XP style dialogs were very nicely done
  • The ScanAlert motto: Making the web Hacker Safe! (technically doesn’t that mean it’s making it safe for hackers???)
  • The line “You PC is still with spyware!” makes me think a LOLCat is responsible
  • That I’m running a Mac

Needless to say the people that pull this crap need to be removed from the Internet. Funny thing is I did a quick search and found this reference to the problem on a Microsoft discussion forum where a Windows user fell for it. There’s even a blog post from nearly a month ago from Alex Eckleberry identifying this same site and issue, yet it’s still running around today.

Anyone out there know how to stop people like this? Is there a good place to report this kind of behavior? I can see non-technical people falling hard for things like this.


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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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