Parallel Desktops

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.


Parallel Desktops

The Snowglobe: a high-end mic for my Mac

Lately I’ve been trying to build up some screencasts and found that the little RocketFish microphone I had was woefully inadequate. I had to doctor up the sound considerably with Audacity just to get it to come across reasonably well.

My friend Bob (who happily shares his marketing expertise) let me borrow his professional setup, complete with a Tascam US-122, a Sennheiser mic, filter and large desktop stand. He used to do professional voice-over work and after getting it up and running the difference was simply stunning.

Though I liked Bob’s setup, it was a little too much for my modest needs. Since I’m not an audiophile or accoustics expert I just wanted something that approximated the sound quality of a professional setup in a nice little USB based package. I hit up the local Apple store and the gentleman that was responsible for high-end creative applications said some good things about the Blue Snowball USB Microphone. I jumped up to Amazon and bought one.

Enter the Snowball
The Snowball looks kind of like a, er, Snowball on a small tripod. All I needed to do was plug it in then drop into System Preferences / Sound, select the Input tab and then choose the Blue Snowball as my device. There wasn’t much more to it than that.

As far as sound quality goes I couldn’t tell the difference between it and the Tascam based setup I was using earlier. Again, I’m really just a layman when it comes to audio so to my amateur ears the Snowball sounded just as good.

The best part for me was that with the stand it sat between my keyboard and dual displays perfectly, allowing me to view what was on the screen during the screen casts without having to twist my head sideways to speak into the mic. Here’s what it looks like while I’m using my Mac:

The Snowball’s stand is slightly adjustable. The top of the Snowball hits 9 inches at it’s lowest setting—which is what I use—and 10.5 inches at maximum extension. Just to round out (so to speak) the measurements, the ball itself is roughly 3.75 inches wide. If you are considering getting a Snowball grab a ruler and use those measurements to ensure it won’t block your screen if you want to use it like I am. My Samsungs are set at their highest level and this just makes it.

This is a really nice piece of hardware; it feels extremely solid and comes with a high quality USB cable. The screencasts I’ve been working on suddenly got much better and my everyday uses for the mic have improved dramatically. When I made a call to a friend I speak to frequently on Skype and asked if he noticed a difference his response was "clearly".

That summed it up nicely.

Do you have a mid to high-end microphone setup for your Mac? If so, please drop a note with the specs into the comments.


Parallel Desktops 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:

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.


Parallel Desktops

Skype + LaunchBar = Ultimate Landline Style Phone

Though I started playing with Skype a couple of months ago I did it primarily as an alternate video conferencing option to iChat. My family members in California running Windows never seemed to be able to get their video based AIM tools to work, yet once they installed Skype we were able to hook up quickly and easily. All was good and Skype became my occasional use tool for chatting with the family and a few Skype enabled friends.

The nice part about using Skype this way is that it’s completely free. Skype doesn’t allow you to call a land line for free though; for that you can pay as you go or set up a monthly account that gives you voicemail and unlimited calls (10K minutes) to various parts of the world. For access here in the US to any number in the US or Canada the cost is $2.95 / month. While you can’t use it to place calls to 911, it’s excellent for making a call wherever you happen to have a decent internet connection. That’s what I set up – unlimited calls to the US and Canada.

The other option available with Skype is purchasing your own local phone number and having it tied to your Skype account. By doing this people with land lines can dial directly into your computer if you are running Skype. Don’t have it running? The call rolls to voice mail, which you can see the next time you fire up Skype.

Using Skype
The calls to people through Skype—both to other Skype users or to people on land lines—are very clear. On my MacBook Pro I will occasionally get some very mild feedback if the volume is cranked up too high but it’s very minor; a headset solves that problem. On my Mac Pro with a USB based microphone (and no video camera), the sound quality is excellent.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a big LaunchBar fan. When you combine LaunchBar with Skype you get some great integration and the ability to call people very easily. Since LaunchBar can pull names out of my Address Book it makes looking up phone numbers and calling people very simple.

As an example, if I wanted to call my buddy Stuart I activate LaunchBar (Command-Space) and enter “stu”. His name is displayed in LaunchBar from his Address Book entry. I hit the right arrow and then select his phone number (work or cell), then hit Return. Skype fires up and dials his number for me. This does take a little configuration to work properly out of the box; if you want to configure it yourself go to the LaunchBar help and search for Skype.

Additional LaunchBar Scripts for Skype
A gentleman named Dennis created a nice series of AppleScripts to control Skype from LaunchBar that really help out a lot. The ability to quickly call any number is there as well as the ability to hang-up the Skype call.

If for example I want to hang up a call I don’t need to mouse over to the Skype window and poke at the red “Hang Up” button (unless I want to); I simply hit Command-Space and enter “hang”, Return and the call is terminated. This is something I really appreciate while I’m using Spaces and the Skype window is in a different region than where I am working.

I now use this set up to make most of my calls. No more looking up a phone number and dialing it manually or burning up my iPhones minutes while I’m sitting at my desk. The other benefit is when I have to call an automated system that requires touch-tone entry I don’t have to pull the phone from my face to see the keypad, instead I can use the nice big numeric keypad on my large Mac Pro keyboard.

I’ve always loved finding productivity boosters and this is one that has created a dramatic improvement in my ability to make and deal with voice calls.