Brent's bits

Just another weblog

Lion thoughts part 2

Less than a minute after I posted my initial thoughts on Lion yesterday I remembered at least two other things I really liked or thought were nice touches. So…here they are along with a little bit of the interface inconsistency I mentioned previously.

If you ever use command+space bar to invoke a Spotlight search you will be familiar with the list of results that pops down and updates as you type. I’ve used it as a launcher and dictionary lookup method for years. In OS X Lion, Apple has taken the search results one step further and provides a quick-look preview of each result as you will see in the picture below. What you don’t see is the animated graphics that are preserved in the preview. It sure takes some of the guess work out of finding “that file” you were looking for. Pretty slick!

Lion provides previews of Spotlight search results

Another nice update is the System Profiler. In previous versions of OS X if you clicked the More info…button in the About This Mac dialog you would be taken to a detailed report of all of your computer’s hardware specs. In Lion Apple has added an intermediate step. When you click that same old button you get a small summary screen with all the info you might need if you called technical support or were checking to see if your system met the requirements for Diablo III when it comes out. From that summary screen you can still click a button at the bottom that will take you to the same old detailed report. I think most people, especially those new to the Mac, will appreciate this summary approach.

The hardware summary screen in Lion's System Profiler

There are tabs at the top of the window that provide other info in a similar fashion. The Displays tab gives info on your screen resolution and the model of graphics card in your machine along with the amount of video memory. As an aside, this is the one tab that seems to provide little additional information from the Summary tab.

The Displays tab of Lion's System Profiler

The Storage tab, however, is much more handy. It provides a graphical snapshot of your hard drive showing how much space certain types of files are taking up. iPhone, iPad and iPod touch users will instantly recognize the storage bar as iTunes provides the same storage overview for those devices when connected to your Mac. Below the storage bar is a list of all of the formats your optical drive will support (assuming your computer has one – the new MacBook Airs and Mac Minis don’t). This can be handy for those two times a year you need to burn a DVD and can’t remember what kind of discs your computer can use.

The Storage tab in Lion's System Profiler

Finally, the Memory tab not only tells you how much memory is in your machine but tells you how many memory slots your computer has, what kind of memory it takes and what is currently in each slot. I wish I had discovered this gem before I went RAM shopping. It took me a little more poking around before I was sure that I was buying the right kind of memory.

System Profiler's Memory tab in OS X Lion

Although I don’t use this last feature all that often, both of these updates are welcome and seem right in line with Apple’s philosophy of making things even easier for their users, especially the newbies.

I’ll close this post with a brief look at the interface inconsistency that I mentioned in my last post. One of the noticeable changes in the Finder’s interface is the replacement of the colored icons in the sidebar with gray versions of the same icons. The reason Apple has given for this is that they want to make the User Interface (UI) as subtle as possible so people can focus on their work. While I can appreciate that sentiment, I think the all-gray icon look actually makes the UI harder to navigate. This is one instance where color increases usability in the UI. With all of the icons the same color I really have to look at each entry in the sidebar list to make sure I’m clicking the correct one. The color icons in Snow Leopard and earlier made choosing an option much easier.

But here is my real complaint: The monochrome approach is not universally implemented in the OS. If you compare the two pictures below you will see the icon for the Desktop highlighted in a standard Lion Finder window in the first picture. It is gray like all of the others. But in the second picture you will see a color version of the same icon in an Open/Save dialog box.

An example of the all-gray icon approach in Lion

An unexpected use of color in OS X Lion

It is possible that this is just something that slipped through quality control at Apple. Or it may be that Apple isn’t as convinced of their UI approach as they seem to be. Personally, I hope they return the colored icons in a future update. But if they don’t I’d at least like to seem them bring some consistency to their use (or lack thereof) of color.


September 10, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

OS X Lion thoughts

OS X Lion

I’ve been wanting to write some thoughts about Apple’s new operating system release, OS X Lion for a while now. Being the nerd that I am I upgraded the day it was released and have been using it on my primary machine since. So far, there is a lot that I like and most of the things I don’t like are pretty trivial. So after a month’s worth of daily use I thought I’d post some thoughts for my few followers out there. Before I dive in though, I want to acknowledge that my thoughts on Lion reflect the way I use my computer and the regular tasks I use it for. People who work differently or use their machine for different tasks may have a very different experience.

My general experience with Lion has been that it is fairly stable and snappy. I’m running it on a late 2008 Aluminum MacBook with a 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo processor and 8GB of RAM. That said, there were a couple of initial experiences with things running more slowly than expected.

When you first fire up your computer after installing Lion the operating system begins reindexing the hard drive for the purpose of speeding up searches in the future. You will know it is happening because of the pulsing dot in the middle of the magnifying glass icon in the upper right corner of the menu bar. While this process is going on everything slows down. It took a minute to figure out what was going on but once I did I just let the process run its course (it took about five minutes) and then things worked very smoothly.

The other initial problem was one that has been highly documented. The new version of Safari (v. 5.1) that ships with Lion tends to bog the system down over time. I won’t go into the technicals of why that is but because I usually keep Safari open I noticed that as the day wore on, I would start to see spinning beach balls. If I quit Safari and relaunched it everything got snappy again. There is hope that this issue will be fixed in a future update. The solution I opted for was a memory upgrade from 2GB to 8GB (something I was wanting to do anyway) since RAM is incredibly cheap right now (I only spent $50 for 8GB). If you don’t keep Safari open all of the time or use a different browser this likely won’t be a problem for you.

With those initial speed bumps dealt with my experience has been almost entirely positive. It only took about two days to get used to the new “natural scrolling” method which inverts the traditional scrolling direction in an attempt to unify scrolling conventions between all of Apple’s iDevices and their desktops. This is a feature that you can disable in System Preferences if you don’t want to mess with it. As an iPod touch user I was familiar with it and wanted to embrace the change. I do think that working primarily on a laptop made the transition easier.

Speaking of scrolling on the MacBook brings up one of my favorite new features: multi-touch gestures. A good number of tasks that used to require pushing a button on screen or using the keyboard can now be accomplished with gestures on the trackpad. (As an aside, I use a Magic Mouse at work which also supports many of the new gestures.) Paging backwards and forwards in Safari or iCal is an easy two-finger swipe sideways. Moving between Dashboard or any of my virtual desktops (Spaces) is a simple three-finger swipe sideways. Invoking Mission Control (more in a moment), three fingers swiped up. Even at work where I use an external monitor I occasionally find myself reaching over to the MacBook’s trackpad to use a gesture I can’t get on the Magic Mouse.

It has been the above mentioned gesture to invoke Mission Control and the one that allows easy cycling through virtual desktops that has finally got me using the Spaces feature that has been a part of OS X for some time. In Lion, Apple has integrated Spaces and Expose to put not only window management but desktop management in one place. The three-finger up-swipe instantly lets me add a new workspace or arrange applications in the ones currently running. The ability to three-finger-swipe from one workspace to another has mostly replaced my old habit of using the application switcher to move between open programs. It’s fewer movements and much easier than hunting through the dock for the appropriate icon. I know people have been using Spaces for years but gestures has finally made it usable for me.

As for other parts I’ve liked so far, the new version of Mail is wonderful. I had been using an extension with the previous version of Mail to get the preview pane on the right side instead of below the list of messages. Lion’s version of Mail uses this setup as the default. With today’s widescreen formatted monitors the left-to-right approach really does make more sense and it allows you to see a longer portion of the message list than when it was above the preview pane. Threaded conversations are really helpful as well. In my work there are always a series of conversations going on with different groups of people. Having them automatically grouped by conversation thread helps me tremendously in finding messages and following a flow of thought. I know that there are probably other email clients out there that have had these features for a while, but I’ve always liked the speed and clean look of Apple’s Mail versus something like Microsoft Entourage.

iCal is another application that I use regularly and although it doesn’t seem to have had as many changes made to it I still like what I see. In the Lion version Apple has removed the calendar list on the left side of the screen to make more room for the actual calendar. The list can still be accessed via a pop-over, a feature borrowed from the iPad version. I don’t tend to do a lot of turning calendars on or off so I don’t miss the persistent list and I like the extra calendar space, especially when I’m in laptop mode. Overall, the presentation of information seems cleaner to me. The Day view is just like the iPad version with a scrollable list of upcoming events on the left and the day’s schedule on the right. The week view is largely unchanged from what I can tell but I don’t use that view very often. My default is the month view and I like what they’ve done with it. The current day is highlighted in with blue text and the shading of all day events is lighter making the text more readable. My only mild complaint, and it really is mild, is that Apple has borrowed the leather desk calendar look from the iPad version. It isn’t bad I just don’t think it adds anything. I’d personally prefer a return to the metallic look of Snow Leopard.

The one cool feature that I’m really looking forward to using but haven’t yet is AirDrop. AirDrop allows you to find any other Lion-running computer on your current network and quickly send a file to it without having to do all sorts of pairing or logging in. It really is drag-and-drop file transfer. I’ve been using DropCopy for years to do the same thing but Apple’s implementation looks super slick. All I need now is some Lion-using people in my life that I can send files to. 🙂

This has gotten much longer than I intended so let me wrap up with a few dislikes. None of them are deal-breakers or even that annoying to me, I’d just prefer a different approach. One of my favorite Leopard and Snow Leopard features was the incremental volume control. By pressing option-shift with volume up or down you could increase or decrease the volume by one quarter of a block instead of a whole block. It really let you fine-tune your volume. This feature has been removed in Lion and I hope it will be restored in a future update.

Another omission from previous iterations of the operating system is the show/hide sidebar widget in the upper right corner of all Finder windows. Most people never used it and probably won’t know it is gone. Personally, I used it a lot when unmounting installer disk images. Much of the software we install is presented in a Finder window with a custom background image with the application and an alias of the Applications folder in it. You simply drag the application to the alias and it gets installed in the appropriate place on your computer. But then what? You can close the window, find the open image on your desktop, unmount it and then delete the disk image file. Pre-Lion you could click the little widget in the upper right of the window and the sidebar would appear which would allow you to eject the image (and close the window) with one click. It only saved a few clicks but I install software often enough that taking the extra steps seems a little less efficient.

There are a couple of other little things (one is an interface inconsistency) but they aren’t really worth getting into. Overall, I’ve been very pleased with Lion and enjoy working with it daily. I’d love to hear about your Lion experiences so far so feel free to comment.

September 9, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Favorite Mac Apps: Things

I know that I haven’t written in a while, but my hope is that I’ll be able to get something out at least once a week from now on. I’m trying a new method that I hope will make the process easier for me and, if it works, I’ll likely blog about it later.
For today, I’d like to feature one of my favorite Mac apps. Things is a powerful to-do list/planning application from the folks over at Cultured Code. The beauty of the application is that it is easy enough for someone with basic to-do list needs to figure out quickly but it also contains powerful filtering, organization and project tools for the most complicated of task-management needs. Another wonder of the application is that the interface keeps the power-user stuff from cluttering up the work environment so that basic users don’t feel overwhelmed by all of the options.

Things is based on the Getting Things Done model (GTD) but you don’t have to use that system of planning to use the application. Again, the folks at Cultured Code have managed to provide those features without making use of the application cumbersome for beginners. I’m not a full-fledged GTD guy although I appreciate the system. I do like the idea of a general inbox for all tasks and then some provided filtering categories such as Today, Next, Scheduled and Someday for more focused planning. This allows you to quickly create a list of tasks that need to be done Today so that you only have to look at the that subset all day instead of your possibly overwhelming master list. The Someday category is nice too. You can throw anything in there that you want to get to eventually but don’t want to see every day – like house projects. 🙂 The application also lets you assign tags to each task so that you can filter large lists by related characteristics or locations. For example: Phone, at Computer, at Home, in Car, with Bob, etc. This helps you not bounce back and forth between the phone and computer or the office and home as much.

One of my favorite features is the Projects section. Things will allow you to create individual projects with their own set of tasks. If you are like me and work better with larger chunks of time, this is a great help. Being able to focus on one particular project at a time is really helpful for me. It makes me feel like I’m making more significant progress on my work. This is just another way of keeping only the tasks you need immediately in front of you.

For those of you who are Franklin/Covey fans, Things will allow you to create Areas of Responsibility and assign tasks accordingly. This feature works similarly to the Projects section but encourages thinking in terms of Roles and Responsibilities rather than Projects.

Another favorite feature is Things’ ability to sync with their iPhone/iPod touch and iPad apps. It is completely beyond me why Apple has not made a single visible effort to provide syncing of tasks between iCal and the iPhone/iPod touch. That one seems like a no-brainer to me, especially if they already allow syncing of Contacts, Calendars and Mail. It makes me wonder how the folks at 1 Infinite Loop handle their own mobile task-management needs. 🙂 Currently, Things does all of its syncing via wi-fi but the company is working on a “cloud sync” feature for a future release. I don’t always need my entire laptop with me so it is nice to have all my tasks with me on my iPod touch when I’m out and about.

Things for Mac is a little pricey at $49, but the project management features and its ability to sync with the iPhone/iPod touch made it worth it for me. Things for iPhone and Things for iPad are sold separately and are priced at $9.99 and $19.99 respectively.

(Image property of Cultured Code)

July 26, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

1Password update

Hey all, sorry for the dearth of posts recently, but we have had a run of sickness in the family. Just a quick update on the recent 1Password post. The good folks at announced today a beta version of 1Password for Windows. You can follow this link for the download:

According to the site, you can use DropBox to sync your data between Macs and Windows machines. I’m really glad the guys developed a Windows version as I think it could help greatly with password security issues. No word on pricing of the final release yet, but stay tuned. See, I told you I was Windows friendly. 🙂

April 23, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My Mac History part 6

The venerable 12" PowerBook G4

On a cold January day in 2005, after selling my trusty iBook to a friend, I carried my brand new 12″ PowerBook G4 to the usual favorite coffee shop to unpack it and begin another long laptop relationship. I remember taking it out of the box and its protective sleeve and ooh-ing and aah-ing over the aluminum case. It was so compact and yet sturdy at the same time. Upon opening it and pressing the power button I was greeted with the familiar start-up chime and then the Welcome to OSX screen. The PowerBook came with 10.3 Panther (eventually upgraded to 10.5 Leopard – as far as it can go) and an upgraded 768 MB of RAM. Only in its fifth year did it start to feel slow.

The 12″ PowerBook was the most durable computer I’ve owned so far and was a joy to use. Its 1.33 GHz processor handled most tasks nicely. Complicated Flash animations bogged it down (nothing surprising there) and I wouldn’t have tried to play many an FPS on it but it did run the World of Warcraft 10-day demo nicely. Its rugged case survived a three-foot drop onto carpet (not my fault) without affecting its performance in any way and protected it well as it traveled to Mexico, Israel and Italy (not to mention all over the U.S.).

When I sold old faithful on eBay last December, it was a sentimental moment for me. I used that computer to write emails to my then-girlfriend, now-wife while I was overseas during the early part of our relationship and iChat with her while we were in different classes at seminary at the same time. It was also used to start my first blog, plan our wedding and write the words I spoke at my mother’s funeral. That little machine served me well for almost five years and now (thanks to a new battery I purchased before I sold it) is being used by someone else to manage his life/business.

Got a favorite computer from your history? Share about it in the comments section.

March 28, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Favorite Mac Apps: Delicious Library

Delicious Library

A few years ago, I stumbled onto a cataloging application called Delicious Library. I’ve heard of other apps that have a similar function, but I’ve always loved the metaphor of a library for cataloging. The app, produced by Delicious Company, allows you to enter books, CDs, DVDs, video games and basically anything else you might ever loan out to others (including tools and clothes). It organizes all of your items by category and gives you the option of creating sub-sets of your stuff and giving each sub-set its own shelf.

Shelves can be really helpful when you don’t want to see your entire library at once. You can create shelves that contain all of the books for a certain class you are taking; separate video games by console, books by author, etc. A friend of mine who is in the process of moving created a shelf for each box of books he packed so that when he moves he can find what he needs quickly even if he doesn’t get unpacked for a while.

Loaning items out is as simple as dragging an item to a friend’s name in your Address Book. Delicious Library then marks each checked out item with a red ribbon and dims its icon on your shelf. It also creates a new shelf just for that borrower which is nice, especially if they borrowed more than one item, because you can quickly see who has what. This alone was worth the program’s $40 price tag for me. For years I, like many others, put my name in the front of books I loaned out so they would know whose book they had. The problem was, I didn’t always remember who had my book. With DL, I always know who has what even if it is months later.

As great as the organizing features are, entering items into the library is half of the fun. There are multiple ways you can enter information for an item. You can type it manually, have it look up the info on Amazon via ISBN or UPS code or, and this is the fun way, use a web camera like Apple’s built-in iSight to scan the item. That’s right, just activate the bar code scanner feature and hold the bar code on an item up to your web cam. You will hear a beep when it recognizes the code (just like at the grocery store) and then the program will look it up on Amazon and add it to your shelf. Viola! I was able to enter over 300 books in just over an hour. If you have a large amount of items, you can purchase a dedicate bluetooth barcode scanner and scan even more quickly.

Delicious Library also lets you export your library to a pdf file or publish it to the web for viewing when away from home. It even provides an iPhone/iPod touch friendly web version. This feature makes DL a great home inventory program. If you ever lose some of your possessions to a fire or break-in you can provide a complete, detailed list to the insurance company when you file your claim. This assumes, of course, that you have either published your library to the web, printed out the pdf or backed up your library file with a service like DropBox.

Delicious Library is only available for the Apple Macintosh and requires OSX 10.5 or later. You can download a demo version from their web site that allows you to create a library of up to 25 items so you can try it out. I’ve been using version 1 for years. Version 2 has been out since late 2008 and I’m considering upgrading for the web publishing features. I’m hoping they will update it again soon since I would like to see a version optimized for OSX Snow Leopard.

March 27, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Favorite Mac Apps: 1Password

Manage log-ins in the main application

This is the first in a series of posts covering a number of my favorite applications and utilities for the Mac. Some of them you may have heard of, others you may not. All are part of my regular computing experience and I can’t imagine working without them.

One of my all-time favorites is an application/browser plug-in called 1Password by AgileWebSolutions. The application allows you to store all of your different log-ins and passwords in one place and then access them all with one master password (hence, 1Password). The included browser plug-in puts a 1P button in your browser bar and allows you to automatically enter your username and password for any site. No more remembering all those different passwords and user names.

Not only does 1Password help you remember less, it can also help you be more secure. The program includes a strong password generator that you can access from the 1P button in your browser. Any time you sign up for a user account at a new site, you can use it to generate a totally different (and probably seriously more secure) password for you. It will then allow you to save your new login and password for that site for later easy access. This is a huge help in an age where digital security is becoming more important. Now if someone gets one of your passwords, they don’t have access to your entire online world.

Login to websites or shop online with ease via the 1P browser button

Another great feature is the ability to store credit card info in the program’s “wallet” (all stored securely and accessible only by entering your master password). This makes online shopping so much easier. Just choose the desired credit card from the 1P menu and all the needed information is automatically filled in for you. No more running to the other room to grab your wallet to double check your card number or security code on the back. Just click and go.

1Password also allows you to store software licenses in its database. No more typing (or often mistyping) those long license codes if you need to reinstall software. Even after a hard drive crash, as long as you use a service like DropBox or MobileMe to back up your 1Password keychain file, reinstalling applications is much easier.

I use 1Password every day and can’t imagine the internet without it. The application allows you to sync your keychain file between multiple computers using DropBox. And their companion iPhone/iPod touch application allows you to sync your info to your mobile device so you can take the info with you. A single user license is $39.95 and a family license is $69.95. I’ve been using it for a year-and-a-half and it is totally worth it. I’ll be upgrading to the family license soon so my wife can enjoy the 1P goodness too. 1Password requires OSX 10.5.8 or later and has been updated for compatibility with Snow Leopard.

March 16, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Unusual Computer Behavior part 2

The aluminum iMac

A few weeks ago while working at ye olde coffee shop, I again saw something that I didn’t expect. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone carrying their computer into the meeting room to set up and do some work. When I turned my head to get a better look I was surprised to see that the guy was carrying his desktop computer, in this case an aluminum iMac. He had the 20″ computer under one arm and the keyboard, mouse and power cable in the other hand. In less than a minute, he was set up and booting the iMac.

This is one of those cases where you find yourself thinking, “a PC user would never do that.” I know that there are a few companies that make all-in-one PCs, but the vast majority of PC owners have the traditional tower-plus-monitor configuration. Most of the time, that isn’t a problem. But if you ever want to move the thing, it takes a couple of trips or someone else to help you out.

The iMac, on the other hand, is a different story. Its unique construction, with the computer components built into a slightly over-sized monitor housing, makes for easy set-up and transportation. Before we had a television in our bedroom, we would sometimes bring our iMac in from the office to watch a movies. It worked great and the remote that came with it allowed us to control movie playback without having to get out of bed.

The guy in the coffee shop worked on some project with a friend for about an hour and then quickly packed up and left. I’m not sure what kind of work made him want to haul his desktop computer to a coffee shop, but with an iMac at least it was an option for him.

March 12, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

My Mac History part 5

iBook G3 Dual USB

Not a whole lot of men can say that they have lived in a sorority house, but I happen to be one that can. Every odd-numbered year during the summer, the non-profit I worked for held a six-week leadership training program in Fort Collins, CO at Colorado State University. Twice during my sixteen years with the organization I spent the summer at CSU. In 2001, I lived with forty local leader trainees in the vacated Kappa Delta house.

My job for the summer was administrating the local leader training which, among other tasks, included tracking all of the finances using Quicken. So, I loaded the trusty PowerMac G3 (accessories and all) into my ’97 Saturn SL1 and hauled it the 500 plus miles to my room in the sorority house. I had done the same thing two years previous and, as you can imagine, dragging that big old thing all over creation was starting to get old.

Thankfully, Apple had just released a retooled iBook a couple of months earlier. So one afternoon when I had some free time, I drove down to a CompUSA in Denver and picked one up. I can still remember sitting with my friend, Mark, that evening in a makeshift coffee house in the basement of Durrell Dining Center testing out wi-fi for the first time and installing OSX 10.0.

The white 12″ iBook G3 Dual USB was twice as fast as my PowerMac and significantly smaller. It was the first of Apple’s laptops to adopt the white polycarbonate casing that characterizes the familiar MacBook line. In addition to having a monochromatic case (previous models were clamshell-shaped and brightly colored), as the name suggests it included a second USB port as well as a tray-loading CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive. Despite having coffee spilled on it at a conference a few years later and having to replace the keyboard and backlight for the display, this was my main computer for almost four years. It traveled all over the U.S. with me and to central Mexico twice.

March 12, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

My Mac History part 4

By the summer of 1997 I was feeling that familiar three-year-itch that most computer owners eventually get. The PowerBook 520 was still working fine, but having to unhook it from a monitor, keyboard, mouse, modem and external Zip Drive every time I took it anywhere was starting to get annoying (not to mention hooking it all back up when I got home.) So in the fall of that year I took the plunge and added a PowerMac G3 to the family. It was the first time that I didn’t sell my previous computer to buy the next one. So for a while, I actually had two functioning computers, a laptop and now a desktop.

The PowerMac G3 had one of the most noticeable jumps in performance of any migration I’ve made. Equipped with a new generation of processor and hard drive storage measured in gigabytes it screamed in comparison to its aging portable little brother. It was also able to run Apple’s newest operating system, System 8, which was released in July of the same year.

Having a dedicated desktop unit was wonderful. Full-sized ports meant I didn’t need all the adapters I had been using with the laptop. And a larger hard drive and a built-in CD-ROM drive meant I was able to get rid of some of my peripherals. Because I purchased the model at the low end of the line, an internal modem was optional, so I had to use my old external one for a while until I upgraded to cable-internet. Unlike the one in the picture, mine didn’t have the internal Zip drive. It was also the ugliest Mac I’ve ever owned and my last floppy disk-equipped computer.

March 4, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 3 Comments