Monday, October 30, 2006

Mac Design out of the box by Andrew Shalat

I consider myself a pretty darn good computer technician, but when it comes to design, I’m like a bull in a china shop. I can fix Illustrator or Photoshop crashes, but I don’t know the first thing about a path or a bleed (is that what that knife is for--to bleed?). I was excited to learn some basic design principles from this book. More importantly, I wanted to learn them without having to buy expensive software like Quark or InDesign.

Andrew Shalat deserves quite a bit of credit for tweaking lots of performance out of the basic applications that come with most Macs. Who would of thought you could do basic design in TextEdit? He earns the title of MacGyver of the Mac Design world. While I found his writing rather cheesy (he pretends the reader is stranded on a desert island and then starts a fruit import/export business), he teaches the reader how to make basic flyers, business cards, web pages, movies , soundtracks and DVDs. The target audience for this book is the Grandma or little league coach who wants to make some basic yet professional publicity materials for their organization.

This is not a tutorial about iLIie or iWork, this book is strictly project focused. MacDesign out of the box requires no previous knowledge of any of these programs. Statler walks you through the principles step by step with great screen pictures of any confusing steps. He also explains the design principles of what you are doing, so you can apply them to your individual projects. After reading the book, I feel much more comfortable using the basic Mac software to create a nice identity for any organization--however all my designer friends will still have a job for sure.

Pros: Excellent explanation on how to use the iLife and iWork suite to create flyers, business cards, web pages, and movies. Great book for someone delegated publicity duties for any organizations.
Cons: A bit cutesy. I’d prefer a straightforward explanation than an over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek approach. Not everyone has iWork preinstalled on their Mac

Monday, October 23, 2006

Fire the Phone Company by Dave Field

The title sounds pretty enticing…how to fire the phone company. The book is about Voice Over IP, or VoIP, which is a technology that allows voice chat over the Internet. Even though the book is copyright 2006, it really felt dated. That’s probably because this is such a fast moving field. No mention was made of some of the more innovative products out today such as the usb flash based phone from Vonage nor any info about Skype being bought by ebay. Unfortunately, the book also completely ignored Apple’s very high quality entry into VoIP—iChat AV.

The book’s subtitle is “A Handy Guide to Voice Over IP.” Not to nitpick, but I wouldn’t call it a guide, rather a overview. The book gave the reader a brief yet complex overview of the history of VoIP communications. The book took a simple straightforward subject and overwhelmed the reader with hundreds of acronyms (I actually started counting). Most of the acronyms, while interesting, are completely impractical as a guide. These acronyms have little usage for the average person wanting to dump the phone company. In addition, I think the book unnecessarily scared readers away from using VoIP. Too much time was spent on technical details such as home wiring or firewalls. In reality, this stuff generally works out of the box with little configuration from the user.

Based on the cover and title, I expected more of a guide on what options for VoIP were out there and which company would be right for me. Field did provide a chapter on how to compare VoIP companies, but left all the research to the reader. While I respect that if he included recommendations, they might change by presstime, but too often in the book instead of offering practical advice, he simply suggested that readers use Google to do their own research.

Personally, ever time I’ve used VoIP solutions, they work! I didn’t have to configure firewalls, check the wiring in my house, it worked like a charm. Same for any customer I’ve worked with. I almost wondered…does he work for the phone company…and is he being paid to scare readers. I don’t think he researched his subject very well, and he based all his recommendations on personal experience. Again, this stuff isn’t rocket science. I can confidentially say it’s harder to secure a wireless router than to chat with someone over the internet

Field did do a decent job of giving readers who want to switch to VoIP descriptions of realistic problems and how to handle them, most notably how to establish 911 access and how to switch your land line number to your VoIP number.

Buy this book if you need a historical overview of VoIP for your computer classes, but as a guide for someone wanting to switch to making phone calls over the Internet—avoid this book because it will needlessly scare you.

Pros: Great if you own stock in AT&T/SBC, as people will be afraid to fire the phone company
Cons: Endless fear mongering and complexity inaccurately portrays the ease in which you can fire the phone company

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Leo Laporte's Guide to Mac OS X Tiger

Leo Laporte's Guide to Mac OS X Tiger

by by Leo Laporte, Todd Stauffer

Celebrity endorsements can be both good and bad. When it’s a grill, an endorsement by George Foreman tends to work out. When OJ Simpson endorses you’re car rental service it’s bad. Given the general high quality of Leo Laporte’s podcast and TV shows, I had high hopes for this book. I was woefully disappointed. Same thing happened when I bought sneakers endorsed by a basketball star and my game didn’t improve at all. The book was really writeen by Todd Stauffer based on the screen shots of his Mac. Apparently Leo didn’t have too much involvement, just like that famous basketball player probably had little to say about the shoes with his name on it.

First, the book was very difficult to read from a design perspective. Looking at a page it was nearly impossible to find what you want. Anyone ever heard of the tab function or indentation. These tips are from Design 101..use your margins and indentations to emphasise certain points and organize them on the page. In addition, the table of contents and flow of the book was very confusing. A good intro book takes it for the User’s Experience perspective: start with the beginning when you turn on the mac and setup up a user account, and then setup email, and so on. Leo’s book starts with the essoteric aspects of the Finder. If you are a new user, that’s not very helpful until you understand more about your Mac and if you are an intermediate user, you already know this stuff. Finally, the book didn’t include enough screen pictures, and the screen pictures that were included were not very helpful. I wish I could tell you what pattern was used to determine what was pictures worthy and what wasn’t. Including pictures in a book help break up long text areas and the pictures get associated somehow with the topic being discussed. In this book, the pictures were not used to help balance the text nor did the layout effective use the pictures to illustrate the text being dicussed.

From a technical perspective, the book did a mediocare job of explaining Mac topics. Typical of many technical books, the book explained topics in a way that novice users wouldn’t understand and intermediate users would be insulted by. Granted, it’s a thin line to walk: explain it straightforward enough that a novice will understand it but insightful enough that an intermediate user would appreciate and learn from it. At least Todd and Leo aren’t alone in their failures. A great example is multihoming. Multihoming is an advanced way of using mutliple network connections. A novice would unlikely care about it and a intermediate user wasn’t given an explanation of how to set up multihoming--only that it exists.

Worst of all, this book is just plain wrong in some area. In the troubleshooting chapter, Todd recommends running Norton Utilities when you have problems. What? Norton Utilities is not compatible with Tiger. That’s been known since Tiger came out. He also indicates that hardware problems with kernel panics are usually related to drivers and never considers that hardware may be bad or incompatible. Those are some serious errors. Granted it’s only a few errors, but errors bad enough that a computer could be rendered unusable after taking some of his advise.

Generally, this is a below average introduction to Mac OS X Tiger.

Pros: Not terribly expensive, a quick read
Cons: Hard to read and understand. Technical errors and inconsistent topic depth

Been on Vacation!

With the Jewish High Holiday season coming to a close, I’m back to writing. Hope everyone has a great 5767.