Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Importance of User Groups

shapeimage_7-2010-09-26-19-22.pngIn August I was elected President of the Las Vegas Mac Users Group (www.lvmug.com). It is an honor to be elected and to have the opportunity to volunteer to help other Mac users become more familiar with their computers and facilitate their exploration of the platform. Computer User Groups have been around since the 70’s when hobbyist computer geeks assembled their Altair’s and other kit computers. The Homebrew Computer club in Northern California was a great example of where enthusiasts gathered to learn more about computers and to show off what they had built. Homebrew was where Steve Wozniak even showed off his first Apple I computer. Homebrew was also where Dan Bricklin first showed off his creation VisiCalc for the Apple II.

This was of course in the days before we all had Internet access in our homes and even on our phones where we can look up any information anytime or anywhere. So are User Groups still relevant? Of course they are still relevant. There are many things that all computer users can still learn from each other. I have found spending time with Users Groups people ask questions I may never have thought of, or show off a piece of software they found that I have never heard of that might fit nicely into my daily work flow. Besides learning new and interesting things it also gives me a chance to socialize with other Mac Users. It is fun to spend time with people who are as passionate about their computers as I am.

For the late 90’s in Apple dark days when things weren’t going well Apple relied on the Mac Users Groups and Apple faithful to keep them going and keep them going the Users Groups did. Now in the 2000s Apple is hugely successful and moved from just selling to computers to an array of consumer electronics and bringing more people back to Apple we are seeing a resurgence of the Users Groups again although this time with a slightly different focus. Todays Mac Users Groups tend to be less of the geeks and more regular users helping each other out. Everyday computer users meet in classrooms, restaurants, libraries, and other spaces to ask each other questions and share tips and tricks with one another. Of course there are some hard core geeks in every group like myself who love to answer questions and share with the group and if we don’t know an answer at least know where we can find the answer.

Las Vegas is home to three Mac Users Groups and with a little searching it is fairly easy to find a Mac Users Group in most towns or at least close to smaller towns all over the country. There is even a group for people who run the Users Groups http://www.mugcenter.com/ where they have resources for finding guest speakers and companies willing to offer discounts to User Group Members as a way to encourage people to become members of User Groups. There is also an advisory board for User Group leaders http://appleusergroupresources.com/ to help find speakers and connect groups with software companies to offer discounts to members and software demos.

So the Mac User Groups today are really more open and accessible to the average user today than they were twenty years ago. It provides users a space to ask questions and learn more about their computers and find new ways to use them. The thing that truly sets the User Group apart from the Internet is the camaraderie and it creates an environment where you may learn things that you didn’t even know to ask about.

So the next time you have a question about your Mac instead of spending hours Googling and reading and Googling again, try searching for your local Mac User Group and drop in and visit. You may make new friends, get your questions answered, learn something you haven’t even thought to ask. But you will certainly have a good time. Our community is still smaller than the Windows Market and Mac Users stick together and are always willing to share what they know with anyone interested and if we don’t have the answer we love going on the journey to find that answer together.

To find a Mac User Group in your area visit http://www.apple.com/usergroups/ and go to Find A Group or go to http://www.mugcenter.com/mug-event-calendar/ for a calendar of events for Mac User Groups across the country and visit one near you.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

What is Growl?

Screenshot2010-09-12at5.34.40PM-2010-09-12-17-33.pngGrowl is a way for Mac applications to tell you what they are doing without getting in the users way. Programs like Chax, Skype, Yahoo Messenger,Adium, Firefox, Thunderbird, Spam Sieve, NetNewsWire, Reader Notifier, Cyberduck, Transmit, EyeTV, VLC, Pandora Boy, and many more. All of these apps need to notify the user about events and Growl is a framework developers can use to send messages to the user.

From the users perspective Growl is a System Preference Pane that is automatically installed when the user installs an app that uses Growl. Once you open the Growl Preference pane you will find options that allow you to customize how you wish to be notified. Do you want Growl in your menu bar? Do you want notifications to stay on screen until you acknowledge them after you have been away for a period of time? What section of the screen do you want your notices to appear? In the Applications tab you will see a list of applications that support Growl and enable or disable Growl notices on a per application basis. You can also click Configure and specify what notices you want and how you want them displayed on a per application basis.

In the Display Options tab the user can choose what the notices look like when they appear. Do you want your notices with a Smoke look, to be spoken, or perhaps look like an iCal notice. Growl even supports OS9 style notices if that is what you prefer.

In the network tab you can opt to have Growl notifications sent from one computer to another. For instance if you have a Mac server at home and set it to transcode a DVD into an iTunes format to watch on your Apple TV. When the transcoding is done the Handbrake application will notify Growl and Growl will notify the Mac server it is running on and your Mac laptop over the network. So you can be aware the job is done without even being in the room. Growl also makes an iPhone app that uses Push notification to let you know when your computer receives a Growl notification.

This allows you queue up things for your computer to do and notify you when the job is done while you are out and about. This gives application developers a great way of providing messages to their application users and the users a flexible way to manage notifications and decide when and where they want to get those notifications. Growl is useful for everyone from the novice to the professional. As a novice you have to do nothing and Growl just works. For those who can’t resist customizing or for someone who wants to be notified of events in a particular way it is highly configurable and customizable.

So that is Growl in a nutshell. Feel free to get in and try different settings and figure out what is right for you. For more information on Growl or to download Growl visit http://growl.info/ and download the latest version.

Monday, September 6, 2010

iPods, iOS, and AppleTV Oh My!

Apple-Media_Event_September_2010-2010-09-6-18-30-2010-09-6-18-30.jpgThis past Wednesday Apple made their September music announcement at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco. In typical Steve Jobs fashion this presentation was a three act play. First getting, the numbers out of the way quickly, he announced Apple retail is doing well with 300 stores worldwide. The second stores in China and France just opened to huge fanfare as well as a new store in London. Ten countries now have Apple Stores and soon to be eleven with a new store opening in Spain. Some days these Apple Stores are seeing over 1 million visitors in a single day. Over 80,000 one to one classes are being held every week and over half of the new Mac buyers are first time buyers.
The First Act of Steve’s three act play was to discuss iOS. Over 120 million iOS devices have been shipped since the iPhone was introduced in 2006. Currently Apple is activating 230,000 iOS devices per day. These devices have downloaded 6.5 billion apps from the app store, about 200 apps per second. This week Apple will be rolling out iOS 4.1 for iPhone and iPodTouch. The new version fixes issues with the proximity sensors solving problems users have had when holding the phone up to their face. This release is also correcting issues with Bluetooth connectivity. Also some enhancements have been included to solve some iPhone 3G performance problems. I have been running this for the last week on my iPhone and the Proximity Sensor is fixed. I haven’t noticed any issues with my bluetooth so I will have to talk to some other people on that. I have heard online that 3G performance improved a little bit.
Some new features that have been added to iOS 4.1 are HDR (High Dynamic Resolution) photos. This is the first camera phone to support this feature. Only a few pocket cameras have even started including this technology. When you shoot a photograph where you have sky and shadow a normal digital photo will blow out the lighter part of image and the dark parts will just show as black. With HDR the camera will take three pictures quickly one with the exposure it thinks is correct and one an F-Stop higher, and another an F-Stop lower. Then the software will blend the three images to create a single photo that displays all three images in a balanced way revealing details that couldn’t be seen before. This is an exciting new technology and one that, in my testing, I have been impressed with.
HDR doesn’t work with action shots or where the scene is changing rapidly and parts of the image that are in motion while photos are being taken tend to blur. So if you are taking pictures of moving people or objects turn HDR off. If you are shooting a still scene or one with little motion by all means use it.
Apple has no added the ability to upload HD videos over WiFi so now you can shoot, edit, and upload video to You Tube right from your iPhone. TV Show rentals have also been added to the iTunes Store on the phone. So if you are heading out for a flight, or to catch a train and you missed last nights episode of Eureka you can rent it right on your phone and watch it on your trip.
We also now have Game Center, a social gaming platform for the iPhone. Currently the iPod Touch has over 50% of the portable gaming market and this coupled with the Unreal Game engine coming to the iPhone this winter is just going to grow that gap even further. Now people can challenge their friends and see what they are playing online through the Game Center app or in any Game Center enabled game. Game Center is on the iPhone, iPod Touch, and later this fall the iPad.
iOS 4.1 for the iPhone and iPodTouch will be available later this week.
Apple also gave us a sneak peak at iOS 4.2 coming in November. This will bring multi-tasking, Game Center, Folders, HDR photos, message threads, unified inbox, and wireless printing to the iOS. I have head other people commenting this must mean that iPad is getting a camera. While I have no doubt Apple will someday add a camera to the iPad I wouldn’t look for it before next April. I believe iOS 4.2 just brings iOS for the iPhone and iPad together so they can start releasing one OS for both. iOS 4.2 will give us printing from our iPad and iPhones, so if you wish to print a document just click on Print, and tap the Bonjour printer in range you wish to print your document on.
iOS 4.2 is also going to bring us a new technology called Airplay. Airplay will allow us to stream movies, TV shows, or music from our iOS device to an Apple TV but more about that a little later.
In Steve’s second act he announced their have been over 275 million iPods sold and an entirely new line of iPods are being introduced this week. The shuffle got its click wheel back and kept voice over and its clip to make it wearable with 15 hours of battery life and comes in five colors for $49.00. He never said in the keynote but I assume it is still 1 Gig of storage. The iPod Nano gets a total facelift making it nearly half the size and weight. Apple did away with the click wheel and replaced it with a small multi-touch display and the new nano appears to be running at least a stripped down iOS. It makes me wonder if the iPod apps will reappear at some point for the Nano. The Nano also dropped its camera and video recording capabilities in favor of the much smaller size. Also included in the new Nano is an FM Radio, pedometer, Nike +, and a battery that boasts 24 hours of music play back. It doesn’t appear they included an accelerometer either to determine which direction is up as the screen doesn’t rotate on its own. It requires the user to make a multi touch twist motion on the screen to set the orientation. The new Nano comes in an 8 gig form factor for $149 and 16 gig for $179.
Last in the line up is the new iPod Touch. The iPhone without a contract. iPod Touch is being updated to include a new retina display just like the iPhone. The unit is thinner has Apple latest A4 chip in it. A 3 axis gyro was added for more accurate game play and a front facing camera for FaceTime video conferencing. Also an HD camera on the other side for recording and uploading HD video. Now iPod Touch and iPhone users can call each other using FaceTime over a WiFi network. The new touches will come in 8 gig for $229, 32 gig for $299, and 64 gig for $399.
Also in the area of music Steve announced iTunes 10. First thing I noticed that is missing from iTunes 10 besides color is it still isn’t 64 bit for the Mac, and Apple has not given us a brilliant Apple like way of managing the content on our devices. This was the one thing that was and is still sorely lacking in iTunes. What we did get is apparently faster syncing with our devices. My iPad takes half the time to sync up as before. The iPhone has always been fairly quick but it even got faster. Since digital downloads are poised to overtake CD sales this year the CD has been dropped from the logo and now we have a music note on a blue background. It looks nice in the dock but makes the other icons around it start to look a little dated.
The new hybrid view is a great way to look at your music and see album art for albums where you have more than five songs and it takes up no more space. The view is nice and I will probably start using it as my default view.
Also new to iTunes Apple’s foray into Social Networking with Ping. If you want to follow me on Ping and see what I am listening to just click here. It is like Twitter or Facebook but dedicated to music. This may be Apples way of sticking their toe into the Social Networking water. If the music social networking goes well perhaps Apple will expand ping to be a direct competitor to Facebook.
And as a third act Steve talked about Apple’s hobby. AppleTV is now smaller, cheaper, and easier to manage. AppleTV was introduced in 2006 and was not a big hit. It wasn’t what the main stream user was looking for. The average user doesn’t want to think about syncing their device. So the new Apple TV doesn’t have any storage on board and no way to buy new movies or TV shows. Currently the Apple TV is rental only. $0.99 for HD TV shows and $4.99 for HD first run movies and the price goes down for movies as time goes on. Also Apple TV can stream content from any computer with iTunes on the network. It is equipped with HDMI, Ethernet and 802.11n wireless and comes with an aluminum Apple remote control. Streaming of Netflix and YouTube has also been added to the new AppleTV. Also with the new Airplay feature coming in iOS 4.2 you will be able to stream content from your iPhone or iPad to your Apple TV device at the touch of a button. This still gives users who want to buy a movie or TV show the ability to buy on the iPad and download it, then watch on the Apple TV. The one question I have is will Quicktime X see an Airplay feature added?
I have already placed my pre-order so I will have an in depth look at the new Apple TV when it arrives.
Many people were expecting a TV revolution this week that didn’t seem to come. There was no mention of the North Carolina datacenter and what it will be used for later this year and we still haven’t heard when FaceTime will be coming to iChat. There was no mention of apps on the AppleTV or a streaming TV show service. I would love to download apps for the channels I watch and just pay for the channels I like instead of everything. Apple can revolutionize TV just like they did with music and multi-touch applications on smart phones. But they apparently have decided to a take a slow steady approach.