Archive for the ‘Software’ category

Convert movies for your iPhone (or iPod)

July 31, 2007

I’m not sure how you people can watch movies and TV shows on those little screens, but you sure are doing it! Every time I turn around on the bus or in the airport, somebody is watching video on her iPod. (If she’s supercool, she’s watching it on her new iPhone.)

 It’s easy to buy videos designed to view on those little screens, of course, but if you want to get your own DVDs and Web movies onto your iPod or iPhone, you’ll have to dive into the wide world of video converters 

The first thing you should know is that most commercial DVDs are copyright-protected and to break that copyright protection is a legal violation in many countries, including the U.S. None of the software on CNET Download.com will “crack” encrypted DVDs. 

The second thing to know is that iTunes itself is a decent converting tool. Simply select a file from your video list, right-click it, and choose “Convert Selection for iPod” to create an MP4 movie. If you’re dealing with Web video or DVDs, however, you’ll likely need another conversion tool. Also, in my experience, iTunes conversion is mighty slow. 

The iPhone and most video iPods support two basic video formats: MPEG-4 (.mp4 and .m4v) and MOV (QuickTime). The truth is that converting video files is all a matter of managing free codecs, and many programs will accomplish the same goal, but I’ve found a few interfaces and functionalities that I like.

One of the more interesting video converters I’ve seen recently is CinemaForgeLite, a tool for grabbing Web movies from sites like YouTube and transforming them into iPod-ready video files. A simple wizard walks you through the process, or an advanced interface lets you customize settings like frame size and bit rate. It seems to work best on YouTube and major video-sharing sites.

Become an MP3 master with Audacity

July 12, 2007

With professional music software selling for hundreds of dollars, finding a comparable freeware program is no small potatoes. Audacity is an impressive open-source audio editor that has upped its own ante in the new beta version, Audacity 1.3. If you’re attuned to the basics of fading and trimming, this guide urges you on the next step of your journey, mastering MP3 files for Web publishing, cell phone ringtones, and podcasts. Here are a few pointers.

If you haven’t yet, download the suite of Windows plug-ins from the Linux Audio Developer’s Simple Plugin API (LADSPA). When using plug-ins, remember to select the section of track you wish to affect before opening the tool. Also, if you’re planning to make ringtones, check out the special tips at the end of this article.  

 Step 1: Adjust the gain
Axing clipping, or buzzy distortion, is a main goal of mastering audio tracks. With Audacity, you can see if too-loud signals will cause your track to clip by watching the green bars in the Meter toolbar. If they bounce into red while playing, you’ve got a problem. To clip the clipping, you’ll want to ease the output level below 0 decibels (dB), which is the loudest volume you can attain without sacrificing quality.

Reducing the track’s gain, or volume, is the most obvious fix. Unfortunately, Audacity doesn’t reset its red clipping indicators until you stop and replay the track, so you’ll need to adjust the sound by trial and error. Note that if your track exceeds 0 dB in its original recording, you’ll never completely shake the distortion. In Audacity 1.3, the repair effect, used before adjusting the gain, can also help lessen minor clipping by fixing selected spikes and other flaws in a track.

Step 2: Compress your tracks
Reducing an audio track’s gain, or volume, will curb its clipping, but if that’s all you do, you’re also turning down the song’s presence and force. Counter with compression. The Compressor tool (in the Effects menu) will automatically attenuate the track’s volume, dramatically diminishing the gain after it reaches a specified level. It’s not a hard cap–the gain can still surpass your dB setting–but tapering the sound produces a more natural, polished finish than abruptly cutting off the track.

 Like adjusting the gain, the Compressor may require several passes until you find a sweet spot. As a general guideline, slide the threshold between -10 to -16 dB. If you set it too low (e.g., -18) then you forfeit audio definition. Set it too high (e.g., -8) and your sonic information will sprawl rather than coalesce.  

After setting the threshold, experiment with the compression ratio to determine where you set the attenuation. The higher the compression ratio, the less your track will rise above the threshold.

Next, set the attack time. If you want the whole signal to compress immediately, select 0. Set the slider in the opposite direction, toward 1, for a softer attack that compresses the track after pausing a few moments. After each change to the compression tool, be prepared to wait about 15 seconds on a midrange PC for Audacity to apply the modifications.

Step 3: Equalize!
Equalizing can selectively increase or lower gain for any specific frequency, not just those that pass a given decibel threshold. By controlling and blending the frequencies between multiple tracks, you can tailor conflicting bass lines, or let a specific section of a track shine.

 Select “Equalization” from the Effects menu, and you’ll notice a horizontal line that keeps a steady 0 dB across all frequencies. Using the mouse, you’ll be able to click a series of points along the scale to create a curve that associates volume–measured in decibels–with high, mid, and bass frequencies, measured in hertz (Hz). On the equalizer, low volume falls below the 0 line, and high volume rises above it. Low frequency lies between 30 to 100Hz, while high frequency ranges from 1,000 to 10,000Hz. Clicking and dragging to curve the decibels below 0 dB on the vertical Y-axis and between 30-100 Hz on the horizontal X-axis will silence the bass line of that track, and allow the bass of another track to dominate.

Audacity 1.3 drastically improves its equalizer with enhancements that make for a far more roomy and navigable interface, and add controls that include extending dynamic range.

Step 4: Setting hard limits
While compression affects sound that rises above a certain level, limiting keeps your signal from crossing any given amplitude. In other words, limiting is the hard cap to compression’s soft ceiling.

In the Effects menu, select “Hard limiter” from the LAPSDA plug-in package. “Wet” and “dry” refer to the strength of an effect, with 1 being full effect and 0 representing no effect. In most cases, you’ll probably want to keep the dB at 0 and the wetness at 1, a setting that means any signal spiking above 0 dB will be completely attenuated back down to 0. In other words, the signal is restricted. For example, if you were to set compression to -12 and a hard limit at 0, Audacity will taper your spikes after surpassing the -12 mark, and will shave any peaks over 0.

If you’re making a ringtone, you’ll want to lower the hard limit, starting with -1 dB.

Step 5: Create an envelope
So far, our steps have been useful for editing individual tracks to mix them with others. The Envelope tool is a handy shortcut for mastering a prerecorded MP3 that’s free of encryption or Digital Rights Management technology (DRM). After you compress the MP3, you can use the Envelope button (the inverted triangles with the horizontal blue line between them, located in the top left toolbar) to differentiate the gain in various sections of the song. Clicking the newly-created envelope creates handles, or “control points” that you can then drag to raise or lower the volume between nodes. You can create as many control points as you’d like for maximum volume flexibility.

 Step 6: Export your finished product
Once you’ve learned how to master a song or track, your MP3 file is ready to feature in a podcast or personal Web site, like your MySpace page, for example. First, install the open source MP3 encoder LAME. In Preferences, set the bit rate to 80kbps or 96kbps for spoken word, 32kbps if you’re making a ringtone (more on this later,) or 128kbps for a music file. If you’ve got bandwidth to kill, a 160kbps or 192kbps bit rate is closer to CD quality, but your sound won’t suffer at 128 kbps and will be faster to load. In the File menu, choose “Export as an MP3.”
Making ringtones has its own set of rules, since most phones won’t support high-quality tunes. Trim your clip carefully; you’ll probably want it to last a minimum of 5 seconds and a maximum of 20 seconds before the tone loops. Most phones will automatically loop your ringtone file, which you can hear by selecting a range in Audacity and simultaneously pressing Shift and clicking Play.

Click the “Project rate” option on the bottom left bar of the Audacity screen, and set it to 11Hz. Depending on your phone, you may want to hike this up. However, a higher frequency will mean a larger file size. Compress the track as in Step 2, but when you equalize the tracks, you’ll want to remove the bass completely (slide the bar to -24 dB on the Y-axis) from 30-300Hz (on the X-axis), as your phone’s speaker cannot produce these frequencies. Since your phone is more sensitive to peaks, lower the limit to -3 dB rather than to 0 dB as you would if you were exporting your MP3 for your Web site. Following instructions from Step 4, open the Hard Limiter plug-in and set the limit to -3 dB.

Now you’ll want to reduce your output from default stereo to a single channel. In Audacity, you can do this by selecting “Split stereo track” from the drop-down menu on the track title. Canceling out the bottom track will delete it, leaving you with a mono output. In Preferences, set your bit rate to 32kbps (or higher if your phone supports it and you have enough free space). Before exporting the MP3, you’ll need to confirm the frequency that your phone will accept and adjust the project rate accordingly.

 Special thanks to Matt Stone for expert assistance.

 

 

 

 

 

Macromedia Studio MX

July 12, 2007

The awkwardly named product suite favored for interactive and Web design receives a number of improvements, including better CSS support. But is the sum of Dreamweaver, Flash, Fireworks, and FreeHand better than its parts?

Let’s start by getting the obvious out of the way: The name Macromedia Studio MX 2004 is a mouthful. I had my doubts when Macromedia launched the Studio MX moniker more than a year ago, deciding to append all its major application names with MX and launch Studio MX as its product suite. Well, now Macromedia is facing the music of such flagrant product naming schemes. The company tacked on 2004 as the differentiator from previous versions. Sadly enough, the trend shows no signs of going away, with Adobe announcing a similar marketing tactic with its introduction of Adobe CS (Creative Suite). I still don’t understand what’s wrong with version numbers.

Once you get over the name itself, you wonder what this new installment of the Macromedia power suite really has to offer. The suite consists of Dreamweaver MX 2004, Fireworks MX 2004, Flash MX 2004 or Flash MX 2004 Professional, as well as FreeHand MX, which has not been upgraded to a 2004 edition. You can buy either the standard Studio MX 2004 or a version that includes Flash MX 2004 Professional (see what I mean about those names?). Note that both come in a single box with a single CD. You can also buy the individual applications separately.

Read on as I detail some of the more compelling features found in the suite as well as some of its downfalls.

Dreaming with Style
If you’re the creative type who designs Web sites or Web-based applications, chances are you use or consider using Dreamweaver. Since Macromedia’s solid release of Dreamweaver 4, many designers and developers gravitated towards the software as their Web layout/coding tool of choice. Dreamweaver MX, released last June, built on the success of the previous version and combined many of the features found in two other developer-friendly applications: Ultra Dev, for building dynamic Web-based applications using server-side technologies such as PHP, JSP, ASP; and HomeSite, a robust code-based editor. Now with the release of Dreamweaver MX 2004, Macromedia offers up new Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) features, cross-browser checking and a handful of other improvements.

Whether you are designing with Web standards in mind or just want to employ a better method of quickly changing the overall design of a site, then you probably know the importance of CSS. Macromedia acknowledges that designing a site fully with CSS is not only a best practice for keeping your pages lean and clean but helpful with staying within Section 508-compliance, a federal law that requires Web sites to be accessible to people with disabilities.

 Code hints introduced in MX to help auto-complete HTML tags and attributes now support CSS properties (see Figure 1). The Relevant CSS tab found in the Tag Inspector allows you to see exactly which CSS properties are being applied to a selected element (see Figure 2). This is a helpful tool as you begin to use contextual rules (aka descendants) in your style sheets. Macromedia decided to license the Opera HTML-rendering engine just as they did with Contribute 2 to provide more faithful layout rendering than before, although this does seem to come with a performance price at times.  

Figure 1: Code hints now support CSS properties which makes the feature even more helpful for users who need some hand-holding

Figure 2: The Relevant CSS panel provides quick access to which style rules are being applied to a selected element.Aside from improved CSS handling, I found the new dynamic cross-browser checking to be one of the other top features worth the price of admission. The feature allows you to define a set of popular browsers (Internet Explorer, Netscape, Mozilla, Opera, and Safari) and their minimum versions on both Mac and PC for Dreamweaver to take into account (see Figure 3). If any of your pages use code not supported by a particular browser, Dreamweaver informs you of the problem in a subtle yet effective manner (see Figure 4). You then can decide to adjust your code or set Dreamweaver to ignore the problem. This is a godsend for anyone struggling to keep his or her sites as platform and browser-agnostic as humanly possible.

Figure 3: The settings for the cross-browser validation offer up a comprehensive list of popular browsers and current versions from which to choose

Figure 4: When the cross-browser checking finds problems with your code, you get a warning indicator in the browser check button as well as red squiggles below the code in question.There are several other changes found in Dreamweaver MX 2004. The Find and Replace panel has been touched up to accommodate larger chunks of text and the overall user interface has been revamped yet again in an attempt to make it easier to find commands and give you the optimal working space. Curiously, the Timeline feature offered in previous versions has been dropped. Macromedia found few users were using Timelines so they decided to cease its development in favor of concentrating on new features. So if you are one of those who rely on this feature, you will have to look towards the many number of Dreamweaver Extensions available to hopefully accomplish your tasks. Regrettably, I experienced a fair share of bugs first hand that make it difficult to use the product as intended (as many bugs do) and discovered that many others are experiencing serious performance issues even though Macromedia states an enhanced performance in key areas. Macromedia is aware of many of the bugs I experienced and I can only imagine they are working quickly on an update to address these issues since it’s really the only thing standing in the way of this being an otherwise solid offering. You can monitor known isssues here.

Not Another Flash in the Pan?
Along with Dreamweaver MX, the heavy hitter in the 2004 suite is Flash MX, now in two flavors: standard and professional. That’s right, there’s now a Macromedia Flash MX Professional 2004, which I think, qualifies it for one of the longest software product names ever. Both versions include easy-to-use Timeline Effects, a new version of ActionScript (2.0), and support for CSS (via ActionScript). The Professional edition of Flash MX also provides the support for creating forms and slides, plus more developer-directed features such as a project panel, data-centric enhancements, and improved video encoding and playback.

Skimming over these features, you may notice that the emphasis in this version isn’t on interactivity and animation. Flash MX 2004 and especially Flash MX Professional seems to be migrating toward the hardcore developers of the world. I’m not talking about the JavaScript coders who could easily pick up ActionScript and run with it, but Java coders who understand Java classes, method calls, and object handling. Macromedia is attempting to win over this user base in hopes of Flash becoming the ultimate platform for creating Web-based applications — be it rich-media or not. Nevertheless, I wonder at what expense this all comes to Flash’s existing user base of visually oriented designers. How much will this shift in direction alienate the designers who are trying to create a compelling interaction or interface for their sites? I suppose the desire to expand its audience is what prompted Macromedia to segment the product into two flavors, but even the standard version strays a bit too much toward the technical in my opinion.

For those looking to continue to work with Flash MX in the conventional way, you’ll be happy to find some rather nice features to ease the creation of your Flash files and speed up your development time. Most noteworthy is the addition of Timeline Effects, which are Flash-based assistants, that aide in the creation of sophisticated effects such as artwork breaking apart and adding drop shadows (see Figure 5).

 Figure 5: Timeline Effects automatically create effects that would require several steps manually. Unfortunately, you must enter or dial in the values instead of intuitively dragging and clicking between the start and end keyframes.

You can now import PDF and Illustrator 10 files directly into Flash. Many Flash producers have been asking for native support for aliased text — it’s here in this version (see Figure 6). Borrowing from Dreamweaver’s notion of Behaviors, Flash MX now includes a Behaviors panel that houses organized sets of commands that present simple dialog boxes for you to insert the necessary information and have Flash write the ActionScript behind the scenes for you (see Figure 7).

 

 

Figure 6: It’s now possible to set native text in Flash to render aliased (no smoothing) which is often needed for type at small sizes.

 

 

Figure 7: Behaviors in Flash MX present simple dialogs such as this one to help write the ActionScript for you.

On the downside, I’m a bit disappointed that Flash has yet to see major improvements in keyframe sequence creation, symbol management, and native raster effects. Although Timeline Effects are meant to help with keyframe sequence creations, they leave a lot to be desired, especially in contrast to the elegant way in which Adobe LiveMotion 2.0 accomplishes the same tasks. Sadly, Adobe seems to be putting that application out to pasture to die a slow death. Meanwhile Macromedia shows no signs of altering its convoluted course. I find it takes four to five steps to make a simple motion ‘tween in Flash, compared to one step in LiveMotion.

If you use Flash MX today to make a living, then any major upgrade is essential to you. That being said, this version of Flash has put me off more than any other, largely due to its technical nature. Those out there dabbling with Flash MX or striving to learn it now have even more to learn. Perhaps you’ll want to stick with your current version until you have it sorted out. As for the Web-based application developers out there who are taking a curious peek at what Flash MX Professional has to offer, I urge you to consider what Macromedia is attempting to do, download the 30-day trial, and if it works for your requirements, start using it. After all, according to Macromedia, some version of Flash is installed on 98 percent of all desktop computers, with 516 million users across a variety of platforms.

 Live Fireworks
The other two products found in the suite are Fireworks MX 2004 and FreeHand MX. FreeHand being the most recently updated MX product to find its way into the suite, received nothing more than a minor update and no new features. For further details on FreeHand MX, you can read my previous review.
However, Fireworks MX does get the 2004 treatment and is afforded a fair number of new features and improvements. The vector-side of Fireworks now has Auto Shapes, making it easy to edit the look of a common shape, such as a star or arrow, while the bitmap-side includes red-eye removal, color-replacement tools, and non-destructive live effects (see Figure 8), so you can edit filters and settings at any time. Macromedia Fireworks MX also boasts an 85 percent gain in performance on some operations.

 

 

Figure 8: Live Effects in Fireworks MX 2004 gives you non-destructive effects that you can apply and then tweak later on.The new features found in Fireworks MX gives its big brother, FreeHand MX, a run for its money. The Auto Shapes feature makes customizing a shape less of a chore by providing strategic handles for you to drag and get immediate feedback. For instance, add an Auto Shape arrow and you have several handles that control the arrowhead’s shape, size, and the tail’s thickness and angle (see Figure 9). Auto Shapes can be found in the Vector area of the toolbar and tucked away in the Shapes tab of the Assets panel that create tabs, perspective grids, cubes, and cylinders.  

 

Figure 9: Auto Shapes, found in Fireworks MX, are a novel approach to alleviate the tedium of trying to customize basic shapes.Selective JPEG compression is now available for any layer mask, text, and buttons. Making bitmap text as legible as possible for the Web has always been a challenge, as I’ve discussed in an earlier column. Fireworks MX makes it much easier by allowing you to take advantage of the anti-aliasing technology native to your operating system (Quartz for Mac and ClearType for Windows) or select from an abundance of custom anti-aliasing settings (see Figure 10).

 

Figure 10: You can now rely on your modern operating system’s anti-aliasing technology or choose from a myriad of custom levels.

All these additions go a long way to making Fireworks MX 2004 come off as a mature and a solid offering. It’s probably the best part of the suite even though it doesn’t get the recognition it sometimes should. If you aren’t using the Photoshop/ImageReady combination to produce and optimize your Web graphics, then you should certainly factor the improvements found in Fireworks MX, in your upgrade decision. Fireworks MX will serve you well with all your Web graphic needs.

Are you MX-perienced?
Although all the MX 2004 applications received a number of specific features and improvements, the unified MX 2004 experience brings new overarching features to the suite. First, you’ll probably notice another new user interface theme spread amongst the suite that translates into refined buttons, panels, and even more colorful icons that attempt to live in harmony with both OS X and Windows XP interfaces. If you’re running the suite on Windows, you get the added benefit of multiple open documents appearing as tabs in both Dreamweaver and Fireworks. When I asked why this isn’t offered on the Mac, a representative stated that OS X doesn’t allow for a multiple-tabbed window. This is a peculiar statement since many modern browsers for the Mac (Safari, Mozilla, Camino) offer tabbed-browsing in one window.

Mac users, by the way, will need to have made the jump to OS X before running Studio MX 2004. All the applications except FreeHand MX require OS X 10.2.6. On the bright side, you can finally share files between your long-file naming Windows co-workers.

The new versions also tout deeper interoperability between the applications. Both Fireworks MX and Flash MX Professional include the Check In/Check Out features found in Dreamweaver MX. Dreamweaver MX now shows parameters of an imported Flash file in the contextual Tag Inspector. What’s more, Flash MX can read in your Dreamweaver MX site definitions. So there is something to be said about using all the products from the same company, just as there is something to be said about using the same brand of shampoo and conditioner, if you buy into that sort of thing.

 One other interesting new addition to the mix is product activation. In an attempt to thwart software piracy, Macromedia has started to introduce product activation into their software. The process is painless so there’s no need to worry unless you get your software through unscrupulous channels. When installing, the software essentially imprints itself to your system. Similar to how digital rights management software does for music, such as Apple’s iTunes Music Store. If you decide not to activate your product after installing, the software functions in trial mode for 30 days. If you wish to install the software on another system, you will first have to transfer your license, an option found in the Help menu of every MX application. It’s a well thought-out setup that’s virtually painless and a long time coming. I’m sure some will take issue with this new method of installing and activating software, but if it helps to cut down on piracy and pay the people who make the software, then I’m all for it. Incidentally, other vendors, such as Quark for QuarkXPress 6 and Adobe for Photoshop CS on Windows, are also introducing activation schemes.   

Parting Thoughts
Is this rendition of Macromedia MX a must-buy? It’s difficult to say. I’d like to see some of the bugs weeded out of Dreamweaver first before I start recommending it whole-heartedly. Also, the Web-application developer-heavy direction Flash MX is taking will make it less attractive to the designer folks out there, in my opinion. That means Fireworks and FreeHand are key deciding factors if upgrading to the entire suite is worth your while. Therefore, I can only recommend doing so to those for whom the new features are compelling enough.

 Those longtime users of Dreamweaver who find the CSS improvements and cross-browser validation essential additions and are willing to trade it for some minor bugs and possible performance issues should certainly go for it. And the advanced Flash users and highly technical application developers out there who are familiar with visual IDEs (Integrated Development Environments) and who are willing to break new ground in what’s possible with rich applications and Flash should buy it. Otherwise, I find the new Studio MX 2004 a mixed bag that should be carefully considered before upgrading. Fortunately, Macromedia provides trial downloads of all the software included in the suite. Let’s hope Macromedia does something about the name and the downsides I mention in the subsequent product release.

iAudioize Turns Your E-Mail and Docs into MP3s

July 6, 2007

Here’s a cool little program that automatically processes and converts Windows Outlook and Mac Mail e-mail, Microsoft Word documents, PDFs, and other texts into MP3 files that are 4 to 5 times smaller than the average song.

Created by MagneticTime, iAudioize uses more natural-sounding voice technology (named Heather) to make you feel like you’re a successful CEO who can’t be bothered with mundane tasks like reading.

Instead, you are read to. Files that have been “audioized” can be played back on your computer and/or exported to a number of portable devices including MP3 players, PDAs, and cell phones. The free trial allows 10 uses; otherwise the program is $40.

 

Apple Mac OS X v10.4.6 Tiger

June 26, 2007

Apple has shipped the latest update to its flagship product, Mac Tiger OS, and has included several useful new features, such as Spotlight desktop search, Smart Folders (which add new items to saved searches), and Safari RSS–all features that Microsoft has promised its Windows users in Longhorn, yet so far hasn’t delivered. We think the new Mac Tiger OS is a solid release and is worthwhile for those who skipped Panther or have waited until Tiger’s release to purchase their new Apple hardware. Even casual Mac users will immediately see the difference between 10.4 Tiger and 2003’s 10.3 Panther because of flashy new native utilities, such as Dashboard. In addition to the visible new features, Tiger includes significant overhauls under the hood, debuting a 64-bit architecture to take advantage of more addressable memory space and several core technologies that range from accelerating onscreen graphics to offering new programming interfaces that, if developers take advantage of them, could significantly change how we use computers. If you’re tired of Microsoft’s many promises, or if you’ve been thinking of replacing your PC with a new Mac, Tiger may well be your best incentive to switch. But we’re holding back on our highest honor, our Editors’ Choice designation, until we complete our formal testing. Early indications suggest that Tiger’s a winner, but check back next week for the full story. Also, check out our Tiger slide show to get a sense of the look and feel of Apple’s new OS.

 Setup and interface of Apple Mac OS X v10.4.6 TigerMac Tiger OS ships by default on DVD, although those with older Macs that lack a DVD drive can get a set of CD-ROM install discs for $9.95 through Apple’s Media Exchange program. Installing Mac Tiger OS is easy: Load the Tiger disc, click an installer icon, and, with the disc still in the drive, the computer automatically reboots into the Tiger installer.As with previous versions of Mac OS X, the installer offers three options: upgrade from a previous version of Mac OS X (this saves all your data and settings); erase and install if you want to eradicate all data on the computer’s hard drive; or archive and install, which saves all of your system data to a special folder and puts a clean install of Tiger on your computer (you can copy all of your settings and data from that folder into the new system). After another reboot, Tiger presents a professionally produced welcoming video that leads you through an optional registration process, then you’re done. It’s at this point that Tiger starts indexing all of the file data and metadata on your hard drive for later use in Spotlight searches. The whole process takes between 15 and 30 minutes, depending on the contents of your hard drive. If you’re not only migrating to Mac Tiger OS but also moving to a new Mac, the Mac OS X Tiger Setup Assistant makes this task, thankfully, much easier than it was in the past. Simply connect the two Macs with a FireWire cable, and the Assistant will transfer all of your personal data, settings, and files. Features of Apple Mac OS X v10.4.6 TigerApple lists more than 200 new features for Tiger, but the list includes many items that aren’t really that new, in our opinion. The truly notable changes fall into two distinct categories: user enhancements and technological changes.The former is what most users will notice, and with good reason. Spotlight, an embedded desktop search feature, indexes your entire hard drive for file data and metadata. This means that you can search for content, editing history, format, size, and more, and not just search text files but also images, calendar events, contacts, e-mail, images, and PDFs. An even more powerful feature enabled by Spotlight is Smart Folders. These are basically saved Spotlight searches; that is, you can create a folder that lists all of the elements on your computer that meet certain criteria, and this folder updates automatically whenever you make changes to the file system. For example, you can have a Smart Folder that shows all items related to Tiger, and when new e-mail arrives that mentions Tiger, the Smart Folder displays a link to that e-mail.  Also new and prominent is Dashboard, a flashy interface accessed via hot key and populated by widgets, which are single-purpose mini applications, such as a dictionary or a weather chart. Seizing Apple’s command of desktop graphics, the widgets appear to fly onto the screen with the touch of a hot key, then they fly off when you tap the key again or click elsewhere on the screen. Widgets can be useful for quick glances at utilities, but longtime Apple users will note that almost every element of this feature clashes with the standardized UI guidelines Apple so carefully built up over the years. 

Tiger also includes updated versions of iChat AV, which gains support for the Jabber instant-message protocol and expands iChat’s videoconferencing and audioconferencing capabilities. QuickTime 7.0 gains the support for the H.264 video codec for high-definition video. However, current owners of QuickTime Pro license keys will have to pay for the new version, which doesn’t seem fair. Safari RSS adds a built-in Real Simple Syndication (RSS) reader to the Web browsing application. This one change makes Safari stand out in the field of Web browsers; that it works well and is elegantly implemented is icing on the cake. Safari RSS also gains a new JavaScript engine and renders pages much faster than the previous version.New is Automator, a standalone application targeted at software developers that offers visual scripting of almost any application and of the OS itself. Though to use it, one must have a grasp of how to manage a step-by-step process that lends itself to automation, the drag-and-drop process offered by Automator will probably open up scripting to millions of new users. Even more powerful is the fact that these scripts, called

Workflows, can be saved and shared, potentially opening up a new cottage industry. However, the market will be made up of only Tiger owners; Automator is not compatible with prior versions of Mac OS X.  What’s under the Mac Tiger OS hood, however, is potentially even more powerful. Tiger has been called by some a “developer’s release,” and that’s especially evident in two new central technologies: Core Image and Core Data.Core Image is a framework open to all developers; it gives all applications easy access to fast, OpenGL-based visual effects, such as sharpening, blurs, and more. As a result, it could be easy to incorporate Photoshop-like capabilities in every shareware application. In addition, Core Image takes advantage of your computer’s graphics card (if it is modern enough), serving to accelerate user interface effects.Core Data, another framework, allows developers to let the operating system manage data objects and models. This means that instead of every application requiring the developer to build a data model from scratch–and all applications need a data model–developers can have Core Data do the work for them and rapidly design and test applications for the Mac Tiger OS. Together, these developments, plus a similar Core Audio framework, can help deliver the promise of rapid application deployment on this and future versions of Mac OS X.

 

ComVu: TV studio in a browser

May 16, 2007

I tried livestreaming a panel I was participating in last night using ComVu‘s new (and not yet public) Windows streaming service. I think it was a technical success–the stream worked, but the software gave me neither viewer numbers nor a way to chat with people. Slightly disappointed in the lack of feedback, I sat down with ComVu CEO William Mutual this morning to learn more about the company and its products.

While Mutual vaguely acknowledged that he plans to add user interactivity (chat) to his service, he doesn’t think his product should be lumped in with the current popular livestreaming hotness, UStream. He’s trying to build a more robust and profitable business by providing cutting-edge technology solutions as well as services of interest to people and companies that will actually pay for them.  

ComVu’s technology efforts are visible in its mobile phone streaming product, PocketCaster. I couldn’t get the PocketCaster streamer to work on my Blackjack phone, due to (Mutual said) an unfortunate interaction with Cingular’s proxy service and my Blackjack’s BIOS. But I did get it working on a Nokia phone, and during our meeting Mutual showed me streaming working from several Microsoft- and Symbian-powered phones. He says that Nokia’s latest phone, the N95, will even send 640×480 streaming video at 30 frames per second, “If it’s right next to a cell tower.”  

ComVu also has a very cool livestreaming control console, called the Mobile Video Studio. This product lets streaming directors monitor video feeds from a variety of live sources as well as a library of archive videos, and select which feed they want to push out to users. It also interleaves location data into the stream (from GPS-equipped phones or other location-finding technologies, including selecting your location from a menu if all else fails) and displays to viewers, on a Google map next to the video, where video is coming from. This adds a whole new level of context, and I am really looking forward to seeing it used in newscasts. If you have a ComVu account, this link will take you to a live demo of the Studio service, where you can experiment with the controls but not add video sources. (Be advised that I could only get it to work properly in Internet Explorer.)  

ComVu’s mobile streaming service, PocketCaster, is in free and open beta right now, but will eventually be a paid service, starting at $10 a month for 80 hours of streaming with bandwidth limits. Prices will go up for enterprise-class products such as the
Mobile Video Studio. The company is also working with Microsoft’s new Silverlight Flash-busting technology, but Mutual wouldn’t say more about it. I’ll be at Microsoft’s Mix conference next week and will have more info about Silverlight from there.

 

Microsoft makes copying Vista a monster task

April 17, 2007

With Windows XP, antipiracy measures were a bit of an afterthought. But with Windows Vista, Microsoft had pirates in its sights from the get-go.  Even the unique Vista retail packaging–a plastic box with one round corner–was designed, in part, to thwart counterfeiters. And the packaging is just the start; most of Microsoft’s antipiracy work is built-into the software itself, meaning that just copying the code and getting a product key isn’t enough.  

“It’s a different game for the counterfeiters,” Cori Hartje, director of Microsoft’s Genuine Software Initiative, said in an interview. “They’re having to resort to this full attack on the product.”

One such exploit was dubbed “Frankenbuild” because it merged bits of the beta versions of Windows Vista with the final product in an effort to defeat the validation checks built into the software. But, thanks to technology built into Vista, Microsoft was able to update its defenses and start flagging such systems–even those that initially passed activation–as illegitimate.

The antipiracy effort has been building slowly inside Microsoft. Microsoft began quietly testing a Windows Genuine Advantage program in 2004 with an optional check that offered no benefits for taking part, nor penalties for machines that didn’t pass. The company quickly expanded the program, adding some incentives for those machines that were verified. The company later made the checks mandatory to download most Windows updates and add-ons.

Microsoft has seen reducing piracy rates as a way to boost its sales, particularly given that the fastest PC sales growth is coming in emerging markets where piracy rates tend to be higher.

 “It’s a different game for the counterfeiters. They’re having to resort to this full attack on the product.” –Cori Hartje, director of Microsoft’s Genuine Software Initiative

With Vista, checking for pirates was always part of the plan. Technology built into Vista allows Microsoft to periodically evaluate the OS to make sure it is legitimate, rather than just having one opportunity, when the product key is first entered at activation.

That’s important if Microsoft learns, say, that a once-valid product key has been compromised. Microsoft also used the validation mechanism after Frankenbuild was discovered, forcing machines to go through validation, which the Frankenbuild systems failed because the software was not an intact copy of the OS.

 There are a number of features, including the new Aero user interface, that require genuine validation. As part of Vista, machines that fail validation go into reduced functionality mode if not remedied within 30 days, meaning such systems can be used only to browse the Internet for an hour at a time.

Microsoft has also tightened the rules on volume licenses, largely eliminating the ability for businesses, even those with bulk purchase deals, to use one product key across an unlimited number of machines. Microsoft has two options with Vista. Companies can either use their own PC or server as a sort of hall monitor to make sure which Vista systems are out there, or they can get a multiple-use key from Microsoft, though such keys have a set number of activations. Businesses can also use a combination of the two approaches.

 It’s a little early to tell how all of the efforts are working, but Hartje said there are some reasons for optimism.