Monday, March 31, 2008

Hardware Review: Contour Design Rollermouse Pro

Rollermouse proThey say there is no such thing as love at first sight, unless of course you are watching a Hollywood movie. On the big screen, you see your life partner from across the room and you both know you'll end up together, though it may take years.

I saw the Contour Design Rollermouse at Macworld '07 and instantly fell in love. I'm in that tiny minority that actually like track pads. I type pretty darn fast and hate having to stop typing and remove a hand from the keyboard to control the mouse. Also, it's an awkward strain to reach over all the time, and I have particular shoulder problems on that side of my body from repetitive mousing over. When I bought my first USB-only Mac I was devastated I couldn't use my old trackpad keyboard on the computer. It was my old pal from the days of my IIvx and was still running strong. I used an ADB to USB converter, but it's software was flaky and I eventually gave up.

When I gave up on my original ADB trackpad keyboard, I tried a few trackpad USB keyboards designed for PCs, but they were clunky and I hated not having the keys mapped for a Mac. I suffered along, accepting I couldn't have what I wanted and started doing more serious work on my laptop, because I could type faster on that unit. I accepted it was better to have love and lost, than to have never loved at all. At Macworld, I saw Sarah Bullock and found my next true love...ooops...we're talking about computers here. Seeing the RollerMouse was years later! As soon as I started using it, I knew I was hooked. I could type quickly and actually control the mouse better than I could on a trackpad. The RollerMouse is hard to describe, and much easier to see. Contour Design's website has a great video of it.

In a nutshell, the RollerMouse simulates a trackpad environment in that you can control the mouse movement without having to take your hands off the keyboard. Your thumbs do all the work. Best of all, it acts as a keyboard tray and wrist rest, so you can use any keyboard you want with the RollerMouse. Note that because it has it's own wrist rest, ergonomic style keyboards with their own wrist area do not work well with the RollerMouse. I had to give up my Logitech Wireless and Use a Macally Icekey instead. What we do for love!

Rollermouse close upThe RollerMouse is a rubberized rod that is placed in-between the two wrist rests, you slide the dowel right to move right, left to move left. However, it also acts like a scroll wheel, you can click the RollerMouse and roll up and down. The RollerMouse combines the best of a track-pad, a trackball, and a mouse. Unlike a track-pad, the faster I roll the the RollerMouse, the faster the mouse moves on the screen. One quick flick of the thumb and I've scrolled all the way up, because the momentum of the physical RollerMouse carries the icon up the screen. Unlike a mouse or trackpad, the RollerMouse allows 360 degrees of movement. It's very easy to move between any two points on the screen in one fluid motion. Although I'm not a video editor, I do occasionally watch TV shows via QuickTime. The RollerMouse accurately simulates the functions of the jogwheel video editors use. I can easily skip commercials and get right to the beginning of the show.

The RollerMouse comes in two flavors: Classic and Pro. The Pro features higher DPI for more precise movements and more programmable buttons. I tried out the Pro. One of the minor problems with the RollerMouse is an inability to program what each button does. There is a tiny "dip" switch that gives you 3 different combinations of what the buttons will do, which is somewhat limiting. USB Overdrive allows you a greater range of choices regarding each button's function, but other mice don't limit your choices as much as the RollerMouse. If we were scripting the Hollywood love story, this would be equivalent to not replacing the toilet paper when the roll is empty. Annoying, but unless you are Seinfeld, it's not a deal-breaker in the relationship.

Of course, love knows no price. I believe the going rate for a wedding ring is two month's salary, and my love of this mouth carries just a hefty price tag. The RollerMouse Classic is $189 and the RollerMouse Pro is $199. Ouch. Eliot Spitzer knows love sometimes comes at a high price. Fortunately, Contour Design has a generous 30 day free trial (how many relationships give you that?) I doubt if many people return it after using it for a while.

This mouse is not for the casual user. This is for the person who spends hours a day at the computer and in particular, begins to develop repetitive stress injury. If all you do is check email and surf the web on your computer, you are unlikely to see the true value in this input device. On the other hand (figuratively and literally), if your shoulder aches at the end of a busy day from using the mouse so much, then this mouse is for you! You can spend more time at your keyboard, and less time reaching over for your mouse. I'm truly in love with it and I wrote my old mouse a nice Dear John letter. It found a lovely home on eBay and is making a grandmother in Pittsburgh very happy. My MacBook trackpad is wondering why I spend so much less time with it. Yes, I've found another input device. When I need to do input on the road MacBook, your trackpad will satisfy my needs, but when I'm at my desk I'm delighted to see my MacPro will get my full attention with the help of my RollerMouse Pro.

Pros: Saves valuable time and effort by putting a mouse accessible to your hands without leaving the keyboard. Perfect for fast typists
Cons: Lack of button choices, cost.




Five out of Five Dogcows
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Article was republished by the Lawrence Apple User's Group 2.0 here as well as other groups listed on the right

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Hardware Review: Laptop Desk Futura

Laptop Desk Futura


My laptop tends to be my best friend ..tagging along with me places I wouldn't ask my worst enemy to follow. Unfortunately, using a laptop in these conditions take their toll. Balancing a latte and a $2,000 laptop is a recipe for destruction. That is, if you don't have a Futura Laptop Desk. The Futura combines elegant design and world-class ergonomics to provide a 'body-friendly" workspace at almost any location.

The Futura serves two main purposes: a laptop desk for, well, your lap, and a ergonomic desk stand. First, the Futura folds out flat to create a portable stable surface across your lap. No longer are you straining your back and folding your legs to create a faux stand. My leg always falls asleep doing that. Before I got a Futura, I would keep an old breakfast-in-bed tray in the car for when I wanted to go to a coffee house. Not only was the tray bulky, but I looked like such much of a dork that Napoleon Dynamite seemed GQ in comparison. With the Futura, my dorkiness is solely attribute to me and not my laptop accessories. The Futura folds to about one inch think and fits snugly behind my Macbook in its laptop bag. I like the fact the Futura creates extra stability in the bag and provides an extra level of protection. I worry a little less each time I put my laptop underneath the seat on an airplane. Our bodies have redundant protection for vital organs...and my laptop is a vital organ of my brain! The unit helps keep the heat of a laptop away from your body and helps with cooling, but the ol' leg across the thigh will achieve a similar goal and I wouldn't buy it solely because it keeps things cool.

When I actually find a desk somewhere to work with my laptop, the ergonomics are often the pits. Because I'm taller than average, I have to hunch over to use my laptop. Shoulders, back and neck are all in a position that would make a chiropractor weep. The Futura folds up to create a 45 degree angle stand to raise the laptop to a more "neutral" position for my body: elbows at 90 degrees, neck not pointing down, etc. In fact, their website, www.laptopworks.net, has some great ergonomics tips. I may not follow them all, but my chiropractor has to feed her family, so I can't completely put her out of business.

Generally, the unit is well constructed, though the gun-metal grey won't win any fashion awards. Sources indicate more colors are "on the way". I wonder what color ribbon is for "back pain?" Might be a good tie in. The rubber feet keep the unit from slipping off the desk or the laptop base. This is a simple device that really saves your back, neck and shoulders. The only potential design flaw I see is a "mousing" surface for those people that prefer mice rather than a trackpad (though a trackpad is better for you in reducing strain).

A Futura is a must have accessory for any road warrior struggling with their laptop in awkward locations. At $30 retail, the price is right and is a no-brainer.

Pros: Makes almost any work surface ergonomically friendly.
Cons: Could come in more colors and have a mousepad, could reduce the income of your chiropractor

Five out of Five Dogcows.


Article was republished by the Lawrence Apple User's Group 2.0 here as well as other groups listed on the right

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Sunday, March 02, 2008

Hardware Review: ElGato EyeTV 250 with QAM

EyeTV

Elgato EyeTV 250 with QAM

Watching TV and using a computer are fairly distinct activities. TV programs do not crash. The characters on "Lost" don't start walking slowly and stuttering when too many people are watching the show at the same time. Unlike Microsoft Office, Dwight Schrute from "The Office" won't unexpectedly quit at the worst possible time (which is more then can be said for his writers!)

Still, TV does have a lot in common with your Mac...both require you to watch what goes on on a screen, and these days, both contain digital content that you, as a consumer ought to be able to watch and use at whatever time you see fit. In our brave new world of TiVo, video on demand, and YouTube, television is no longer "broadcast" to your home on the schedule of some fat cat TV executive; consumers today have more control then ever of how and when they watch their favorite shows.

The EyeTV 250 (with QAM) from Elgato brings the party to your MacOS computer in a big way. This small (about the size of two desks of cards) USB device allows anyone with a modern Mac to enjoy TV on their computer. At its most basic, the Elgato device is a TiVo for the Mac; you can watch live TV, pause shows in the middle (great for bathroom breaks on your schedule), and record your favorite shows. Recorded shows can be watched faster then if they were live, because you can quickly fast-forward through commercials. You can enjoy shows on your Mac's crisp LCD display, or if you want, export them to your Apple TV to watch on your big-screen in the living room, or save shows to your iPod to watch on the go.

The EyeTV works in conjunction with the free TitanTV online programming guide to give you an interactive listing of TV programs, similar to what you might see on a TiVo or TV Guide. As you view a listing of channels and shows in the familiar grid, you can click on any show title to get a complete description of the episode and schedule it for recording. If there's a show you watch every week, you can set up a "season pass" to have the EyeTV automatically record each week's new episode.

In addition to a more traditional computer-like interface, with an on-screen 'virtual' remote control for controlling normal TV functions, the EyeTV has the capability to enter a full-screen mode. This can be controlled using the Apple remote as well as EyeTV's own included full-function remote. Utilizing a view similar to the Apple TV, you can scroll through the channels you receive to watch live TV, or browse your previously recorded shows. This mode works great with the new iMacs, and watching TV on one of these systems (especially HD programming) is an amazing experience.

But, we are getting ahead of ourselves. Before you can enjoy all of this, you do have to set up the EyeTV. Luckily, Elgato's software walks you though most of the process automatically (with one big exception - more on that later). You hook the USB device to the back of your Mac, install the software, enter your activation code, and then EyeTV will ask you some basic questions about your setup, such as where you live (so it can download the correct program guides for your cable service). After scanning for channels (which takes a few minutes) you are ready to go.

The EyeTV 250 (with QAM) works with analog cable TV (the cable most of us have) as well as with digital over-the-air television (if you have an external antenna). There is also a port to hook up a VCR or other analog input device such as a game console or older camcorder. The newest EyeTV 250 also supports free digital cable, which is known by the industry acronym QAM. Both over-the-air digital signals and QAM digital cable signals can optionally, depending on the station, be high definition, which the EyeTV supports (both 720p and 1080i for those who speak geek).

Now a brief digression (if you were watching "Mythbusters" right now, you would see the "Warning: Science Contents" alert at this time!):

QAM is a geek feature. For those lucky enough to have cable companies using unencrypted QAM, and those with the geek skills and patience to use it, the EyeTV 250 will give you many dozens of crystal-clear digital channels, including (possibly) many HD channels, all for free (well, free beyond the normal monthly fee you already pay for cable). QAM is not documented much by Elgato, and not at all by your cable company, so actually using it is an arcane art, primarily because the cable providers do not provide the "channel mapping" for QAM that they do for regular, old-fashioned analog cable. QAM channels also sometimes (but not frequently) might "jump" to different locations depending on the whims of the cable gods. Anyway, if you use the QAM feature of the EyeTV, you end up with a list of some 100 or more unlabeled channels with names like "105-14." You, the geek, can then manually tune each of these channels, figure out what network it is by the programming being shown, and then label the channel in the EyeTV interface. Once you do this time-consuming step, you then will have a nice list of properly-labeled channels and can use the program guide. It is well worth the effort it takes to do this - your reward is usually a bunch of crisp digital channels and a lot of glorious high definition programming. If any non-geeks have ready this far, please do not be scared away - you can enjoy easy-to-use program guides and properly labeled analog cable with the EyeTV without doing anything at all beyond running the installation wizard. QAM and its complexity is just for the geeks. Nothing to see here, so move along.

Obviously, you can use the EyeTV for simple channel surfing, but you'll probably start using it to record shows. As I mentioned above, the interface to do this is very easy, a matter of simply clicking on a show's title in the on-screen program guide. When it is time for a show to be recorded, the EyeTV software will launch (if it is not running) and record the show. After a show is recorded, you can watch it in EyeTV itself, or automatically have the show exported to iTunes where it can then be transferred to your iPod or an Apple TV. This is a very powerful feature, since the Apple TV doesn't include DVR functionality. Even if you do not have an Apple TV, the EyeTV software itself supports streaming over your household wireless connection to other computers, so you could record television on your Mac in the home office and later watch it on your MacBook in the bedroom.

If you already have an Apple TV, the EyeTV is a perfect companion, especially if you would prefer to record shows yourself rather then pay Apple $2.00 per episode. Likewise, plugging in your iPod in the morning and having last night's TV shows copied to it is a great convenience if you need something to watch on the morning train ride to work. Shows are exported as they were recorded, which means the commercials are included, but the EyeTV software includes a basic video editor, so if you have the time, you can edit out the commercials directly from the EyeTV software interface prior to watching or exporting the video.

Finally, the EyeTV has the standard RCA component inputs, allowing you to hook up a VCR or old camcorder. This is a great way to digitize your VHS video collection or any old camcorder tapes you might have. Once your video is in EyeTV, you can then edit it or export it into iMovie or another dedicated video editing application.

The EyeTV is indisputably one of the most useful and fun devices available for the MacOS. However, it is not without a few flaws. The EyeTV software, which just recently got updated to version 3.0, is somewhat buggy, and I have had it crash on me a few times. Elgato is aware of many of these problems and just released 3.0.1, which I am hoping improves stability. My EyeTV 250 also initially would not properly display analog signals from cable or a VCR, resulting in a screen full of wavy lines. I was able to resolve this issue by power-cycling the unit, but still, this was not a good first impression. Since then, the unit has performed fine, however.

Another issue with the EyeTV is not so much a technical failure of the device itself, but rather a risk that Elgato may be left behind by rapid technical changes in the cable television industry. Analog cable is gradually being phased out, and future digital cable technologies may require additional equipment from cable companies to utilize new features such as video on demand and encryption of digital content. The EyeTV cannot receive encrypted content, such as premium channels (like HBO). Future Elgato products may support the addition of a special card, called a cable card, to allow it to receive encrypted channels, but for now, you cannot use the EyeTV to watch this content.

One additional concern is that the Elgato technical support is very, very slow. I reported an issue with the EyeTV in order to test out their support process, and it took over a week before I got any kind of response through Elgato's formal channels. Luckily, Elgato offers an online forum where other uses, and Elgato technical staff, often visit, which got me a quick answer to my questions. Unless I had to, I would skip the "official" support system and just use the forum.

These minor issues aside, I strongly recommend the EyeTV 250 to any Mac user who wants to watch television on their computer. Simply put, the EyeTV is one of those "wow" devices that will make both your television and computer experiences better. The software and hardware is well-designed and easy to use, yet also offers advanced features for experienced users. It is a winner.



Pros: excellent hardware and software design, very easy to use, packed with features, supports both analog and digital sources and HD content

Cons: doesn't support encrypted digital cable

4.5 out of 5 dogcows
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Article was republished by the Lawrence Apple User's Group 2.0 here as well as other groups listed on the right

Book Review: Getting StartED with Mac OS X Leopard

Gettomg StartED with Mac OS X Leopard

Getting StartED with Mac OS X Leopard

Apress and the freindsofed division is a fairly new player to the Mac book industry, having focused in the past on heavier topics for programmers and hard core web designers. They are a welcome addition to the Mac Family.

Justin Williams wrote a very first-person account of his adventures with OS X Leopard. This should not be considered a beginners book, especially given the family this book is in. The book is designed for Tiger or other OS X users wanting to know what is new in Leopard. The book is a great effort, but at points I got annoyed that he was stating the obvious things a OS X user knows. Williams writing however was spot-on: easy to understand with plenty of screen shots and detailed examples. He also includes the basics of iLife '08, which is a bonus, though makes the title a bit misleading and leaves the reader with the assumption Leopard includes iLife '08. Unless you upgraded to iLife '08 and Leopard, 30% of the book isn't applicable to you. Even with the iLife '08 the book is refreshingly short and can't be used a child's booster seat like so many technical books can be.

Though I'm an experienced Leopard user, I even learned a few tricks from this book, based on Williams personal experience with the operating system. This would be a good book to give a experienced Mac user that wants to know "what's new" in Leopard. It was quick, straightforward and to the point: a good book for people who don't like to read manuals.

Pros: Excellent tips, easy to understand for a experienced OS X user new to Leopard
Cons: Covers iLife '08 which adds unnecessarily to the book, covers thins many in the target audience would consider obvious

Three out of Five DogCows

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Article was republished by the Lawrence Apple User's Group 2.0 here as well as other groups listed on the right