December 20, 2011

A Small Holiday Gift

I call this: mac,tech — Posted by KP @ 6:15 pm

This is not so much a holiday gift, as it is a re-gift. It’s a gift I’m giving to myself, that thanks to the wonder of digital property, I can re-gift to you at no cost to myself, with virtually no effort.

I have been a Mac user for almost 10 years now, and there are still a couple very basic, very useful keyboard shortcuts that I can never remember. And they’re the ones that aren’t just handy, you actually need them when you need them. Like how to bring up the Force Quit screen when your app has frozen and you can’t mouse over to it in the menu. Or how to put the computer to sleep when you’ve gone and unplugged the mouse (I don’t know exactly why, but this comes up more often than you might expect in my life).

So for a while I’ve had these two shortcuts (as well as another that I can never recall: how to bring up the dictionary) written on a post-it, because I got tired of having to Google them (on another computer or my phone, because of course the computer I’m trying to use them on is out of commission). But a post-it is rather ugly for something on long-term display, so I decided to print out a nicer-looking cheat sheet that I could tape to the shelf over my monitor with a little more dignity. I’m still embarrassed that I need them at all, but perhaps within the next decade I can actually learn them.


*Results would be even better if you don’t use a crappy printer!

If you’d like to have one of these of your very own, just steal the image up at the top of this post and print it out at 100%. It will be ever-so-slightly smaller than a business card (which is largely unintentional, but hey — you can bring it in your wallet if you’re really afraid of being caught without these shortcuts).


June 21, 2010

Resize Images for the Web Using Folder Actions

I call this: mac,tech — Posted by KP @ 2:38 pm

One repetitive task I do a lot is resizing images to be placed on the website. On the blog I don’t have to worry so much about it because WordPress handles all that stuff in the image uploader, but for the main site, I have a couple standard sizes I use.

No image on the site is ever wider than 500px. If it is, then a smaller images is created at 500px and I will build a link to the bigger picture. Sometimes I want more of a thumbnail, and the size can vary a bit, but 150px is kind of my standard.

Today I decided to play around with folder actions a bit. A folder action in Mac OS X is basically a script that runs when you drag a file onto a folder, that does something to that file. This seemed like a good project for a simple one.

I created the folder action using Automator, which is the GUI scripting tool that comes with OS X. It’s pretty simple to drag and drop different actions to perform basic tasks. Here’s what my folder action looks like:

The other one is the same except it reduces the image to 150px, and adds “_thumb” to the end of the filename.

November 3, 2009

Dear Windows XP

I call this: computers,mac,pc,tech — Posted by KP @ 5:27 pm

Hi, what’s up?

Sorry to bother you, as I know you are a highly complex operating system that is the result of decades of development by presumably the most brilliant minds in computing that money can buy, and I am just some girl with no formal training in computer science who is trying to do a clean install of Windows, but I need to tell you a few things.

My hard drive has two partitions

I’ll put this in really simple terms you can understand.
One, which you call drive C:, is formatted for NTFS, because I knew you’d like it. With a little help from my friends at Apple, they gave me this thing called Boot Camp, which helped me to install you, since my Macbook Pro doesn’t have a floppy drive. Boy was I glad they were around!

So you’re installed on drive C: (which I assumed would be something you’d be interested enough in knowing that I don’t have to tell you in a blog post).

There’s also another partition, which until now you have been calling drive F:. This is my Mac partition. It’s a lot bigger because that’s where I get actual work done. Anyway, you don’t need to know anything about that. It’s formatted in HFS+, which I know you don’t like, so I was hoping you’d just ignore it and we’d both be happy.

I needed to install SP3

I’m sure you were very excited to take advantage of whatever features it has, probably really obvious things that I wouldn’t believe weren’t in any earlier versions of XP if I bothered to look it up.

So I downloaded SP3, and you happily began installing it. You never asked me where to put it, and I didn’t expect you to, because hey, you’re not a bad OS, and I figured you knew the difference between an install of WindowsXP and well, anything else.
This is a bunny with a pancake on its head. It, also, is not a valid install of WindowsXP, and will not accept an upgrade to SP3:

So I thought you had this under control, but then you started giving me those error messages. And I started to think, “Why does Windows always do this? Why is it when I’m performing an installation that should have no conceivable way for the user to screw it up, does it say things like, ‘Cannot find file: xp_something_really_important_sounding_4226s.dll’?” And then you look at me, like I have it, like I’ve been hiding it from you.

I was disappointed in you. All I’ve done on this drive is install Windows, and continue installing Windows updates. How could you not know where this file is? There’s also this new thing called the Internet, which I know you know about cause I’ve been using it since 3.11, and maybe you could find the file there, since that’s where you got this whole service pack from anyway. But no, you just expected me to have it.

So I did a google for it. And I happened to find one result that was talking about getting the error while installing Boot Camp. And you know what I found? In that case it was because you were trying to install SP3 on the user’s Mac partition.

So while I was hitting “cancel” in every place I could find it while simultaneously shaking my other index finger and saying, “oh no, you d’in’t!”, I noticed a progress display in one of your many redundant install windows showing you nonchalantly trying to uninstall files from drive F:, thinking I wouldn’t notice, and you could tell me it must have been some virus I have that screwed up the install, right? And then you could pop up that little shield again in my taskbar, cause, you know, dismissing it multiple times a day for years wouldn’t give you the hint that I don’t want antivirus software slowing down the OS that doesn’t contain any data valuable enough to need protecting.

What the hell were you thinking?!

What ever possessed you to think that volume had anything on it you could use?
Was it formatted in a file system you can run Windows on?
Did it currently have anything resembling Windows on it?
Was there another drive, perhaps named C:, (cause I know for you that tends to mean it’s the primary hard drive, but maybe you just call it that because you like the letter C) that you could also have used?
Does this suspicious-looking drive C: contain an install of Windows?
Is it possible it’s the very drive and installation of WindowsXP that you’re currently running in??
Did it occur to you that maybe that’s where you should be installing SP3?!?

In Conclusion

My friends over at Apple actually have a knowledgebase article about this. Their solution is different than the one I used (which was to disable the drive letter for the Mac partition while installing SP3). Either way, maybe you could pass this on to the next hapless person who tried to accomplish anything with you.

And lest you think I’m ungrateful, thanks for not being Vista.

August 11, 2009

15″ Macbook Pro Now Available with Matte Screen Again!

I call this: computers,gaming,mac — Posted by KP @ 12:43 pm

A followup to this post, in which I debate whether I can handle buying a 17″ Macbook Pro, partially as a result of the fact that it was (until today) the only Mac laptop still offered with a matte screen.

Well today I read on TUAW that the 15″ is now being sold with a matte option again.

This is good, since if I decide the 17″ is just too big, I have options. On the other hand, if you look at the other post you will see that although the screen was the dealbreaker, there were other reasons I was still considering the 17″, mostly related to the idea of having a more desktop-like experience while living on the road.

That being said, I have lived my entire professional life with a 15″ Mac laptop, and have rarely used a larger computer or external monitor for work purposes, even when living at home. Of course a larger screen would be nice, but it has never been necessary, and the balance of the 15’s size being large enough to work on for long periods, but small enough to walk around with makes it possibly the ideal form factor.

I could use a larger screen and higher resolution for seeing more of a spreadsheet on one page, coding my website with code on one side and a larger preview on the other, those are legitimate purposes, but the main reason I felt I needed a larger screen was for gaming on the road. I was starting to get a bit of cabin fever gaming in 15 inches for a year on end, and getting ready to go back for at least six months more of that.

Gaming isn’t necessary, but it also is part of my life that I enjoy and I think it is a professional concern, as there have been times when circumstances have prevented me from enjoying certain activities that are normally part of my lifestyle, such as listening to music on my commute, having alone time in the car at Reagle, and when these things are taken away they start to affect the delicate balance that keeps me sane and calm. Somehow I have found a way to enjoy doing a job that most people refuse to do because it’s too stressful, and my continued ability to do my job well requires that I take care of my mental health and give myself opportunities to unwind so that I can go to work happy and with a positive attitude that will filter down to the rest of the people on the production.

I don’t know if an inch-and-a-half of additional screen real estate will make the difference, but if so, the ultimate benefit is that I would not resent my job for taking me away from things that I enjoy, and on a day-to-day basis, I think that’s a huge deal.

On the other hand, I have to consider how much the size of the laptop will negatively affect my work and free time. On the road I find myself actually using it on my lap — or balanced precariously on something else — a lot more often, since I’m often in improvised situations where I have to make a desk out of what’s available, and I will probably be writing the show report from a couch, either at the venue or on the bus.

I looked into how much Tekserve charges for Macbook Pro rentals, and it’s $100 per day, or $200 per week (and upwards from there). As much as I’d love to have an opportunity to run around with a 17″ for a while before dropping $2,500 on it, I don’t think it’s worth nearly 10% of the total cost to have just a week to decide if I like it.

Anyway, the decision is still far away (I hope), but I need to keep paying attention to all the ways I use my computer during the day, and how many of them would be impractical with a larger machine.

July 31, 2009

Entertaining Notions of the 17″ Macbook Pro

I call this: computers,mac — Posted by KP @ 1:01 pm

First, an astronomy lesson.

Our Solar System


As you can see, with the new unibody design, the 17″ Macbook Pro is now slightly smaller than Jupiter. ¬†If you count Saturn’s rings (which also do not fit on airline tray tables), you could even say it’s smaller than Saturn. ¬†Which brings me to the point of this post. ¬†For the first time in my life, I’m letting myself even entertain the notion of maybe for some reason in the future considering one.

I love love love my current 15″ Macbook Pro (I forget it’s official designation, I guess it’s 2nd gen, 2.4gHz Core 2 Duo). ¬†I bought it the day they released the model with the LED backlight. ¬†June 2007. ¬†First of all, when it died on the road this past spring, I had to face the possibility of needing to replace it. ¬†I was not happy about this, in that “oops! my computer’s broken, I guess I need a new one!” kind of way. ¬†The problem is that ¬†Apple in their infinite catering to the non-Pro users of their Pro lineup, have done away with the option of getting the 15″ with a matte screen. ¬†Apparently, despite the fact that the Macbook Pro now comes in three sizes, only the 17″ is now Pro enough to include the features professionals need like a matte screen or Expresscard slot. ¬†The nomenclature is all screwed up now. ¬†It used to be if you wanted an OK laptop you got a Macbook (or an iBook). ¬†If you were a professional, and needed more power or options (which you were willing to pay for), you got a Macbook Pro (or Powerbook). ¬† Now the division between those two things has nothing to do with where the word “Pro” appears in the lineup, it’s inexplicably between the 15″ and 17″, as if all the professionals of the world are giants who only fly first class. ¬†OK, rant done about that. ¬†But it’s the first step in understanding why we’re even having this discussion.

First of all, the timeline. ¬†I’m not shopping for a new computer. ¬†As I said, I love the one I have. ¬†Aside from the fact it completely up-and-died on me an hour before a performance in Phoenix, it’s been otherwise rock solid, and with its new logic board and battery, it’s in many ways only a few months old. ¬†The only feature it’s lacking is the new touchpad that can do zoom gestures, and it still has a separate physical button, which I find just fine. ¬† It’s just over two years old, but lately I’ve started to think long-term about its life. ¬†It just love it so much. ¬†I do not love the current model, so an upgrade essentially would be a downgrade. ¬†But someday, there will be a feature much better than the glass touchpad, that will start to make an upgrade a must-have. ¬†Maybe it will be processing or graphics power. ¬†Maybe built-in GPS (after a year with an iPhone, I go to Google Maps on my laptop and I’m like, “‘Enter starting location.’ ¬†Oh that’s easy — here. ¬†What do you mean, you don’t know where here is?! ¬†Do I have to do everything for you!?”) . ¬†Maybe Blu-Ray will become useful for something and Apple will start including it. ¬†Anyway, although I see no reason to upgrade now, my average satisfaction with any computer I’ve ever owned is about three years. ¬†After four years I become willing to sell my body or carry out hits for the mob in order to raise the money necessary for an upgrade. ¬†There’s also the unfortunate possibility my current computer will have another catastrophic failure, get run over by the tour bus, or be stolen, and I will have no choice but to upgrade.

But since in all likelihood its desired retirement is about a year away, I have (quite responsibly, in my opinion) begun to make plans to ensure that whenever that time comes, I will be ready for it.  Mostly that involves having a large pile of cash saved up over a long period of time, rather than having to scrounge it together and go into debt when out of the blue I realize I need to upgrade.  This includes decisions about which jobs I take, what I buy at the supermarket (no Pom juice this week), ways to pocket more of my per diem on the road, and careful consideration of any expenses that are not rent and food.   So I am very proud of myself that hopefully I will be able to afford an upgrade before I even know I want one.

So as I said, this upgrade is still a ways away, I hope, and the current lineup of Macbook Pros is not necessarily a reflection of what my options will be when the time comes. ¬†But instead of looking at the current lineup and praying it changes because I don’t want any of them, I have recently begun to think if I had to make the decision today, maybe the 17″ is an acceptable choice.

Some thoughts:

  • Matte screen. I covered this in my rant. If I go with anything other than the 17″, I will have to settle for the glossy screen. Not cool. I’m not always trying to fit my computer on a tray table. Percentage of the time I spend looking at the screen… hmm, maybe 100%.
  • Screen size Speaking of gaming. The biggest reason I’m thinking about this is because of a discussion I had with someone who also plays Battleground Europe, and happens to be a lighting designer who travels a lot, and also plays on a Macbook Pro, except on a 17″. The thing that makes me miss being at home the most is the screen size — it’s just not the same gaming experience playing on a laptop, largely because everything is so small and it’s hard to aim effectively when everything is compressed to just a couple pixels. A 17″ is not going to compare to a desktop monitor, but that extra 1.6″ and 1920×1200 resolution (which is the same I play at home) would help a lot in easing my frustration with being on the road so much. The larger screen and resolution would also help with the graphics work I do, and make for a more comfortable user experience in general.
  • OK, the size So the thing is big. My primary bag (see review) is designed to accommodate up to a 17″ MBP, so no problem there. The sleeve I bought to go with it would have to go (even if I replaced it, I don’t think sleeve+Macbook would fit in the slot). Some of my other bags are designed for 15″, but at least one of them was really designed for the Powerbook and never quite fit the extra millimeters of the MBP anyway. The 17″ would be more inconvenient to carry around casually (and my casual laptop-and-little-else bag is custom fit for the 15″ and would need to be replaced), but it depends on what the circumstances of my life are. There is no “casual” mode when I’m on tour or doing summer stock anyway. There’s one bag. It has all the stuff in it all the time.
  • A lot of the sacrifices I’m talking about making are adjustments to the idea of never being home. Of course as soon as I invest a lot of money in making that lifestyle more comfortable, then I’ll book a Broadway show and never need to leave New York again. But should I be so unfortunate as to have that happen, at least I could afford to buy a different Macbook Pro every month!
  • 8-hour battery life This is kind of inconceivable to me. I refuse to believe it’s even remotely possible. If the thing lasts for five hours for more than a year, I will still consider it a miracle of science. But at any rate, the 17″ reportedly gets an hour more battery than the 15″ due to the extra room.
  • Extra USB port Not a huge deal, but I could do my gaming without needing a USB hub, which is one less thing to unpack and plug in every day. I would also imagine it would provide slightly better performance than my $5 Radio Shack hub.

So these are the considerations currently floating around in my head. Of course whenever the decision needs to be made the current Apple product lineup will need to be compared, as well as what my job prospects are looking like at the time. I wish I could borrow somebody’s 17″ for like a month. If I had no dignity I should tape blocks of wood to the sides of mine and count how many times a day they piss me off.

UPDATE: I had to go to the Apple Store today, so while there, I took a look at the 17″ which was conveniently next to the 15″. It’s huuuuuge! In both the good way and the bad way. I picked it up a few inches off the table, and it’s noticeably heavier than my current machine. I actually sometimes get nervous that I’ve left my MBP behind when I’m carrying it because I can’t tell it’s in my bag. I don’t expect that would ever happen with the 17″. It’s definitely not small, but I’m not opposed to the idea of getting one.

UPDATE: New Post

July 1, 2009

iCal, iChat and Your Parents

I call this: mac,theatre — Posted by KP @ 1:05 am

Here’s a tip that you might find useful:
I live about two hours away from my parents (something like 40 miles as the crow flies, but that’s New York for you), but as you probably know, I’m out of town for a good chunk of the year.

When I was going on tour, naturally my parents were very interested to know where in the country I was on a given day, whether I was traveling or had a performance that night. My folks are Mac users, but they had never gotten into using iCal. Before going on the road I published the two calendars I was using for the tour (one for each show) on my MobileMe account, and set up my Mom’s computer to subscribe to the calendars.

Every morning my Mom could open iCal and see where I was and what my day was like, and it would be updated in pretty much real time as our schedule changed. By using time zone support, it also gave her the correct local time (i.e. if I had a show at 8PM in Colorado, she would see it listed at 10PM on her calendar).

There are several advantages to this. First of all, it automates the process of “So where are you? Do you have a show tonight?” This is not to say that I was avoiding actual human contact, it actually made our conversations more interesting because it would cut to the chase: “How was your show in St. Louis last night? I was looking at pictures on their tourism website yesterday. Did you see the arch?” The other advantage is that they can see at a glance what my general day looks like. Is it a day off? Is it a crazy one-nighter where I probably won’t have a free moment? Are we on the bus all day? This helps them to decide when is the best time to call me.

Now that the tour is over, I’ve kept up this practice with my summer stock schedule. It’s a little less complicated than being on the road and crossing cities and time zones every day, but it still helps to keep them involved in what I’m doing. If having your parents know your every move concerns you, keep in mind that I’m only sharing my work calendar. Parties and other personal appointments go in a different calendar!

While I’m at it, I should also mention how much iChat has helped me to keep in touch with family while on the road, out of town, and even from the relatively short distance when I’m at home. One of my first blog posts was about how I bought a webcam for my parents so we could video chat (mostly to save money on phone bills). Bear in mind the tech specs in this post are way out of date (it references the recent release of Mac OS 10.4.9, and a camera purchased at a store that is no longer in business, for starters.)

Video chat is still my usual form of communication with my parents (when my internet connection allows, which even worked well on the bus, until the bus internet started to suck). It became especially important when I was on top of a mountain in Colorado and my aunt had to go in for a serious operation. In the middle of the load-in day I was able to go to the back lounge of the bus and spend an hour video chatting with her the day before the operation, and that made me feel a lot better about not being able to see her, compared to how it would have been if we had simply talked on the phone. I felt like I had actually been there, which was very helpful emotionally during the five days it took her to wake up after the surgery.

One of the things that often sucks about doing theatre, especially touring, is the inability to take a day off work whenever you feel like it. Often you have to miss weddings, funerals, and other major life events. If you’re going to be in a situation where you know you will be stuck if something important happens, I recommend setting up your loved ones with a web cam if they don’t already have one. Even if nothing dramatic happens, they won’t give you the “we never see you!” thing quite as much if they can see your lovely face!

April 24, 2009

My Newfound Love of OmniFocus

I call this: computers,mac,phones — Posted by KP @ 9:40 pm

Among my favorite types of computing applications has always been the organizer/checklist/outline kind of app. Back in my PDA days, the Palm apps Bonsai and ShadowPlan competed for my heart with each new update. When I got a Mac it came with a version of OmniOutliner which I loved a lot, but alas because it was one of those “came-with-the-Mac” things, as soon as I tried to install a new update it broke my fragile registered version, and I was pissed about it and refused to pay for it, so it was gone (I’m currently having that relationship with ComicLife).

The other problem I have with tasks in general is that the default Apple apps have a really stupid way of handling them, or at least stupid to me, growing up with Palm’s big four apps: Datebook, Contacts, To-Dos and Memo. Apple seems to hate to-dos and memos, so much so that after what seems like centuries in technological time, we may soon finally be seeing them sync between iCal, Mail and the iPhone. What, I ask, was the damn point of using them at all until now? First I stopped using tasks, because I could never get them to sync properly between iCal and my Treo. So I just wrote everything as a note. Now as an iPhone user my notes don’t sync with anything (???!!!!WTF??!!), and yet I still write everything as a note. Occasionally I will email that note to myself if I really need it in another format.

So of course I looked to the App Store to see what the third party developers had come up with that might serve as a basic tasks app. I honestly wanted a basic tasks app — a list and a bunch of giant checkboxes. I tried, I really did. But at the time the basic apps were either ugly, overpriced, or reported buggy and lacking basic features. Who knows, since there are no free trials. But the one that sounded the best to me was the most complicated of all — OmniFocus. At $20, it’s one of the more expensive apps in the App Store, but that was back in the day when an average game was $10, so it didn’t seem as expensive to me then as it might now when everything else is 99 cents.

Using OmniFocus brought some kind of order to my life. I use it sometimes for shopping lists, generally more of the long-term stuff, not like “what I need to get from Duane Reade in 3 hours,” which is usually a straight list. I write down things I want to work on with my computer, like reinstalling Parallels, which I forgot to do the last time I was home; and things I need to pack for the next leg of the tour, or what I hope to accomplish during my down time on the next load-in day. I also have a special project for fight call, which is really not what OmniFocus is designed to do, but I tried it anyway. With both Henry V and The Spy, we have a rather extensive fight call, running through distinct sections of fight choreography with different actors. There is a standard order which we have developed for that, and especially because we perform The Spy so infrequently, Nick and I needed a way to keep track of that order and make sure we’ve hit all the proper scenes. So I have a project for Fight Call and a sub-project for each show, and inside each are the actions representing each individual fight and the actors needed. I’m not sure exactly what app Nick uses for his list, but he has it on his Blackberry. This allows both of us to open our phones at the top of fight call and Nick runs the current fight while I can let the actors know who is up next and which scene it is, and make sure they have their weapons ready when it’s their turn. This is sort of a recurring checklist rather than a regular list of tasks, and the blending of the two types of lists is kind of weird to me, but I think OmniFocus can be made useful for things like this, or prop checklists, with a little work.

Anyway, I was very happy with my purchase. Of course it’s designed to sync with the desktop version of the app. That is, if you’re willing to pay $80(!!??!!WTF??!!) for it. It’s kind of all or nothing. There’s not a way to say “Gee I’d like to be able to see and edit my OmniFocus file on a desktop machine” without fully committing to using the software to run your life. I’m not sure exactly what happened to me, I think it was a conversation over drinks with a few of my colleagues about organization and task lists that led me to question if the fact that my technology has failed me, and is driving me closer and closer to having to etch my tasks on tablets, might someday result in me screwing something up. I’ve done OK with this seat-of-the-pants way I’ve been running my life and career with the occasional iCal appointment (with or without an alarm) to remind me to do things, or with a plain-text list in my iPhone’s notepad. But really, how far I have fallen since the days when there was a checklist for home and shopping, and work stuff was laid out in fancy outlines with multi-part projects and due dates and things!

So I decided — by way of writing an action in OmniFocus on my iPhone — that when I got a chance I would download the 14-day trial of OmniFocus desktop. I have been using it for about two days, and so far I am hooked. It’s got an even steeper learning curve than the iPhone version, but the larger screen in some ways makes the relationship between the different views and types of data clearer. I’ve also been watching some of the introductory videos on the website. After that, I discovered a great set of video podcasts called ScreenCastsOnline, which do in-depth screencasts of popular Mac apps. I’ve only watched a couple, but they have tons available that I want to see. They also offer podcast subscriptions in HD or iPhone-compatible sizes. I sense this will be a new favorite podcast of mine. You can get the links to either of these feeds on their website.

In all, I’ve been having fun trying to think of every little thing I need to accomplish and entering it into OmniFocus and categorizing it. I think I’ll be much more efficient using the desktop app since the majority of what I need to accomplish either requires me to be at my computer, or in an environment where my computer is out. This way, the iPhone app, which is a little more cumbersome to use due to the fact that it can’t run in the background, is only really needed when I’m out and about. More thoughts to come as this experiment goes on…

UPDATE: there is now an entire page of the site dedicated to OmniFocus tips!

February 14, 2009

My Inner Monologue in Weather Widgets

I call this: mac,On the Road Again — Posted by KP @ 9:56 am

Our wardrobe supervisor has nicknamed this tour “The Big Thaw” as we are (theoretically) moving from one of the coldest places national tours go, in the middle of winter, to the warmer climates of the US as we get towards summer. After two months in Minneapolis, we are all a little bit obsessed with the weather. It’s a constant topic of discussion among both cast and crew. What is the weather like tomorrow? Will it rain on load-out day? What’s the forecast in our next city for the day we arrive? What did your mom/brother/spouse/roommate tell you on the phone this morning about the weather in New York?

I currently keep four weather widgets running on my dashboard at all times, which usually have to be updated every day or two as we travel. Below is an example of a current screenshot, and the purpose that each of them serves. Bear in mind when looking at these that a week ago the crew was in Nashville on our day off, wearing tee shirts and eating outdoors at a restaurant when it was 73 degrees.

August 17, 2007

iWork 08 Review – Pages

I call this: computers,mac — Posted by KP @ 10:25 am

While in the five years since I switched to Mac I have grown to love Apple’s style of hardware and software that “just works,” I still like to know that I have control over the way things work and can customize them to my liking. For the most part I haven’t felt that being a Mac user has taken away my ability to customize, but sometimes that means replacing Apple’s built-in apps with 3rd party replacements. Missing Sync instead of iSync, Firefox instead of Safari, and the biggest of all, Office.

I have tried. I have no love for Microsoft, and their Office apps are buggy and slow, especially because they just don’t seem to have gotten around to updating their software for Intel processors like, oh, I don’t know, pretty much every other Mac developer on earth. But still, I don’t seem to be able to tear myself away from Office. But with each release of iWork, I try again.

When Apple first released Pages, I was excited to see what it could do. I became frustrated very quickly. With Word, even when I don’t know exactly where to find a certain function, I usually instinctively look in the right general direction. Every time I try to use Pages I find myself searching the whole app, in menus, preferences, the Inspector, contextual menus, all the while wondering if I’m even going to recognize the name of the option when I find it. And when I do find it, it’s usually somewhere that makes no sense to me and took way too many clicks to get to. I just don’t like the layout of these kind of Apple apps with the Inspector, and the giant Font menu that pops up and gets all in the way just to make a simple change. Having this in an app as important as a word processor was driving me crazy. I never realized how much I’m tied to the Microsoft way of doing things, although it makes perfect sense since I’ve been using MS word processors exclusively pretty much every day since the age of nine. There are certain things I just expect in the UI and the menus, and can’t conceive of doing any other way. Knowing that Apple is often right about these things, I keep trying to get used to their way, but every previous attempt has sent me quickly back to Word.

I worked with a director last year who did everything in Pages 2, and his stuff looked great, and I made another effort to force myself to use it, but when I couldn’t get things to look exactly as I wanted, again I had to give up and do it in Word where I knew exactly what to do.

When 42nd Street started rehearsals last month, there were a lot of changes in the schedule every day, and I needed to produce new and easy-to-read schedules pretty much on the spot. Taking time to format them and make them look pretty was time we didn’t have. And they had to be easy to read as they were being made, so that we could see problems, like time overlaps or too many rehearsals scheduled in one room. Despite being in full anti-Pages mode at the time, I knew that this particular job was perfectly matched for Pages. It can look pretty, and it can look pretty immediately. I made a table, created the right number of columns, and began dragging things around to form our schedule, merging and dividing cells as needed. At right you can see an example. Stuff is just typed in without any thought to formatting, and it looks clean and legible. I would save a copy every day as a PDF to be e-mailed to the cast. Pages can also save in .doc format, but I prefer PDFs more and more as different versions of Office can screw up margins and formatting, and if the document won’t need to be edited by the recipient, I prefer the safety of knowing it will look exactly as I intended.

As the weeks went on, I came to appreciate the ease of Pages more and more, and sometimes would play around a little with settings, and got used to where to look for various options. So I was already in the right frame of mind when Steve Jobs announced the new version of iWork last week (yeah, I’m totally one of those people who sits at home following IRC chats and liveblog updates any time Jobs gives a keynote, and then watches the video of it once it’s available for download). A new version of Pages, plus a brand new (but not at all unexpected) spreadsheet app called Numbers, had me very excited. I use Keynote quite a bit in my career (as discussed here), but nothing in the new version has particularly caught my attention, it’s all been about Pages and Numbers.

The Pros

The big thing that got me all excited while watching the Stevenote was when he mentioned a contextual formatting bar. The best thing possible — all the easy-to-reach formatting goodness I miss from Word (you know, drop-down font menus, font size, alignment buttons), and contextual, to make space for only the options I need at a given moment. So exciting!

One other thing that seems to be improved is that Pages appears to be remembering my preferred settings for default documents. By default it has this maddening setting to add 12 points of blank space every time you press the enter key. It’s some sort of “paragraph break” or whatever, but I’m fully capable of hitting enter twice when I want such a thing, thank you very much. It’s nice to have a style option like that, but it drove me nuts that it was enabled by default and when I finally figured out where the hell to change it, I had to do it every time I opened a blank document. It doesn’t seem to be doing it to me anymore now, so either it’s teasing me, or it has learned that I don’t like it and will remember that from now on.

Pages has always been better than Word at page layout, and one of the new features is a separate page layout mode, which lets you start a document which is totally blank and waiting for you to add text boxes, images, etc. and you don’t have to worry about the regular typing area. It also has a feature I have long loved in Keynote: a line that shows up when you get close to aligning objects to sensible things like horizontal or vertical center of the document, or aligned with an adjacent object. It makes it really easy to arrange things perfectly. I’m not 100% sure this is new to Pages 3, but I think it is, and regardless, it’s something SO much better than Word. Have you ever tried to perfectly align an image or text box in Word? Enough said.

Office 2007 for Windows was released at the beginning of this year and it features new document formats which are supposedly smaller and better. I have been living in 2007 for eight-and-a-half months now, and have never crossed paths with one of these documents. I guess they’re slow to be adopted as many people and businesses haven’t upgraded to the new version of Office, or are using the old formats for the sake of their non-’07-using colleagues. For Mac users who need to open these documents, MS has recently made available a beta version of their conversion tool, which supposedly will be built into a future Office update… someday. In the meantime, while Office cannot presently open documents in the current Office format, there are some other apps that can. Such as Pages and Numbers. (In fairness, so can the open-source office suite OpenOffice, but it’s more fun to point out the irony that Apple’s apps are more Office-compatible than Office.)

The Cons

Two of my favorite things in word processing are tables and comments. I use tables a lot as you can see in my schedule example above. Now imagine I’m making that schedule. As I’m typing I say to myself, “do we need Julian to come to the ‘Go Into Your Dance’ rehearsal?” So now I want to put one of Pages’ oh-so-sexy comments pointing to the cell for that rehearsal and say something like “Julian?” Problem. A comment attached to a table attaches to the entire table, it can’t be used to indicate a particular cell. Bummer. It was a bummer last year when I was trying to get into Pages, and it’s a bummer in this version. In fact, in trying to test this, I find I can’t even get a comment onto a table at all in word processing mode, only in page layout. Not sure what’s up with that.

In Summary

I think the new version of Pages includes enough of the features I want to finally get me over my Word withdrawal so that I might actually be able to make the switch. When I’m old and gray and Office 2008 eventually comes out, I may have to still buy it just in case, but that’s still a long time away. If I can get Word and Excel out of my life, I will look again at getting rid of Entourage, but e-mail and PIM functions are the most important data I work with, and I find Mail + iCal + Address Book very weak in comparison to the power of Entourage. Thankfully, Entourage can be purchased separately if it comes to that. I look forward to seeing what happens to those three built-in apps in Leopard, maybe they will come closer to what I want, and I won’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on Office anymore.

A review of Numbers will be coming soon!

June 27, 2007

The Life of a Retired Powerbook

I call this: mac — Posted by KP @ 8:39 pm

My new Macbook Pro has received lots of interest and attention from blog readers and real-life friends alike. But what of the faithful old Powerbook that was so unceremoniously upstaged on the morning of the MBP’s release?

When I was planning my summer, I was aware that in all likelihood I would be returning home with two laptops, which is kind of inconvenient for someone who likes to travel as lightly as I do. My solution was that I would have to ship some stuff home on the day I left, mostly soft, durable, low-priority items like clothes and scripts, so that I could carry all the delicate computer stuff by hand on the train. You may recall that I had to make a quick trip back to New York on my day off during the run of Singin’ in the Rain. This would have been the perfect opportunity to solve my problem by bringing the Powerbook and its accessories home.

But I just couldn’t do it. One reason was professional: the Macbook Pro, little more than a week old, was running projections for Singin’, which I considered a risk in itself, only tempered by the fact that my trusted Powerbook was kept loaded with the current show file, and was standing by. Well it seemed like a risk, until I had 4GB of RAM overnighted to the theatre and we saw the MBP run a massive video file with no stutters or digital artifacts. The next day I was given a DVD full of new versions of every video in the show, using a higher-quality codec, eliminating all artistic concerns about the movies looking too digital in a show set in 1927. The Powerbook could never have run the final show file, but still I was not about to take it back to New York when there was a slim chance of it being needed to rescue us if the MBP completely flaked. I could have thrown together a lower-quality version that would have run well enough to at least allow the show to go on. Thankfully the MBP did fine, although it sometimes required an especially firm press on the space bar to advance to the next cue, which would have been a huge problem in a show with more precise video cues, and I’d like to investigate that further.

The other reasons I had for keeping the Powerbook around were more personal. First of all, I wanted a pretty clean start with the MBP and was selective about the files I transferred over from the PB. But having had the MBP only a week or two, I had the nagging feeling there were still files on the PB I would need, but I might not realize it right away.

The one thing I was looking forward to about getting “stuck” with both computers all summer was that I could leave the PB at the apartment to record TV programs using my EyeTV. The EyeTV is useful for watching TV when I’m home, since I don’t bring a physical TV with me to Reagle, but the recording features don’t help me much, since if I’m at rehearsal, my computer is with me and unable to stay home and play VCR for the night. With the Powerbook in retirement, it has nothing better to do while I’m out of the house. The other thing I’ve discovered is that my EyeTV seems a little buggy with the MBP. I still use version 1.x of the software, because they wanted some ridiculous amount to upgrade, like $50, when I was perfectly happy with the present features. As it turns out, it looks like the version I have predates the Intel Macs, which might explain why it’s flaky. I’ve been thinking of getting some newer EyeTV hardware, like the little tiny USB thingy, so I don’t intend to pay for a software upgrade when I could get a better value by having it included in the cost of improved hardware. So the PB has continued to be my TV, which is nice because it frees me up to do other things with the MBP without using up screen real estate or system resources, and I can restart or boot into Windows without losing my TV.

Other things the Powerbook continues to do:

  • It’s writing this post right now. I was backing up my MBP when I got the idea for this post, so I started writing it on the PB. The files are not yet too out-of-date from the MBP, so most tasks feel exactly the same on either machine.
  • I have a perhaps unhealthy ability (or need) to multi-task, and I like to have two computers on at once if one is doing something where I can’t keep a browser window open. This allows me to use the idle computer to browse the web while waiting for the primary computer to complete a task, or to search for solutions to issues I’m having with the other machine.

I said on the day I got the MBP that once I loaded it up with my files I hardly felt like I was using a different computer. For the most part it continues to be that way. These are the occasions that I notice it:

  • When I try to do something really simple on the PB and it beachballs, or gives no reaction at all for several seconds, then beachballs, then finally completes its task while the hard drive cranks in protest.
  • The trackpad scrolling. This one confuses the hell out of me. I’ve always had trouble getting the hang of the two-finger scroll when I’ve played with other people’s Macs, but now that I’ve been using it full time I find that I’m quite good at it, although I do sometimes scroll slightly horizontally when I don’t mean to. I’m also no longer bothered by the wider trackpad and button, or at least not enough to notice it. But now that I’m used to two-fingered scrolling without thinking about it, I inevitably hop onto the PB and can’t figure out why it won’t scroll. I’ve gotten so comfortable with the new scroll that I don’t even consciously know I’m doing it. Then when I look at my position on the desk and remember that the machine on the left is the PB (the hardware differences are subtle enough that I really don’t notice them when I’m using both machines), I see my problem and attempt to do the SideTrack-driven edge scroll, and I realize how annoying it is to need to feel for the edges, instead of just throwing two fingers down anywhere I please. Then of course if I spend too much time on the PB, I go back to the MBP and can’t figure out why I can’t get it to scroll by dragging one finger down the edge. I can’t win. I wish someone would come out with a driver to make either one behave like the other so I can have some consistency!
  • I swear something is different about the keyboard. I don’t know what it is, I can’t see it from a casual look, but when I first got the MBP I kept making typing mistakes, as if a couple keys were not exactly where my fingers expected them to be. I don’t do the real touch-typing method of keeping my fingers on the home row at all times, I just know where all the keys on a given keyboard are and somehow decide which fingers are most convenient for hitting them at that particular time. I’m a fast typer (thankfully I’ve never had the kind of job where it was necessary to give my typing skill a numerical value), but I tend to be slower on an unfamiliar keyboard because I don’t actually touch any of the keys except the ones I’m pressing, so if I misjudge my location in mid-air over the keys I don’t have any way to tell until I hit the wrong button. When I got the MBP I started making more mistakes than I would on the PB, and now using the PB again I find I’m making more mistakes than I do now that I’ve been using the MBP for a while. It’s subtle, but I swear something is different. Mostly what’s happening is that my aim is slightly off and I don’t hit the key hard enough or in the right place to make it register. Maybe it’s not the location or size of the keys. Maybe it’s the travel, or the tension, or the size of the wrist rest area in front, or the fact that the PB is thicker, and therefore elevating my wrist a little higher off the table. I don’t know, nor does it bother me very much, but I do notice it when switching back and forth.
  • The higher screen resolution of the MBP was at first more subtle than I expected it to be. It’s when going back to the PB that I notice things take up more of the screen — sometimes in a good way, like when text is bigger and easier to read, but sometimes in a bad way, like the menu bar and tool bars in apps taking up more screen real estate. I don’t mind the smaller objects on the MBP. The brighter screen makes up for any need to squint, in fact I find myself squinting and putting my face close to the PB, which you would think would be the opposite.
  • Working with the lid. I’ve got one of those original Aluminum Powerbooks with the white spots and the bad latch. I won’t count the white spots, as I consider that cheating, but since the latch is not just a defect, but a change in design from one latch to two, I will mention it. My PB has never wanted to stay closed. If left to its own devices, it would be waking itself from sleep every few seconds when in a bag or carried by hand, or in any sort of motion, which can’t be good for it, not to mention what it does to the battery. I let it do this for a couple weeks when it was young, before giving it the terminal command sudo pmset -a lidwake 0, which tells it that it can’t be trusted to know when its lid is open or closed, and it is hereby instructed to wait for me to press a key before waking from sleep. This solved the problem quite well, but when faced with the MBP and its very authoritative double latch which leaves no doubt that this notebook is now closed, I decided to leave it at its default setting with lidwake on, and see if it annoyed me for any reason (like maybe there would be times I’d want it to stay asleep after I open it). So far I like being able to open the lid and have it wake up right away. I have my machine set to ask for a password upon waking, so it requires some key-pressing either way. It really doesn’t make much of a difference to me, but it’s very nice — and to me still unexpected — to close the lid and feel it lock securely instead of bouncing back open. Part of this is the defect with my particular revision of Powerbook, and part of it is the improved design of the MBP which used two latches on the 15″ models for a much more secure feel.

I’m not sure if I’ll keep it when I finally return home from the summer. I’d like to, it would still be useful around the house, but my parents could also use a new computer. If you think this PB is obsolete, you should see their iMac. With a new battery the PB would work well for their needs. I’ve been getting more and more annoyed with it (and frightened of it suddenly having a massive hardware failure) in the last year or so, but in the end it’s really amazing that it’s held up so well and in many ways can hold its own on the same desk as the very latest model sporting more RAM than any laptop really has any business having.

Enjoy retirement, Powerbook. You’ve earned it.

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