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  • Newsletter Issue #362

    November 6th, 2006

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    Have you downloaded a movie lately from iTunes or another — legal — source? I’m not at all certain that such services are terribly popular, except among early adopters. So on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, I talked to Macworld Senior Editor Christopher Breen about the subject. We didn’t agree on everything, of course, but I think he saw my point that it would be nice if you could make a DVD version that was playable on any normal DVD deck. You can’t do that today with the movies you download from Apple and Amazon, and that’s a serious deficiency.

    Now during the course of my conversation, we indulged in a little politically-incorrect humor about President Bush, and that didn’t sit well with one of our very sensitive listeners. He got rather bent out of shape on the subject, and said we needed to apologize right away for attacking the president in time of war, claiming that our little humorous crack also insulted everyone who voted for Bush and our troops. Of course, one of the great freedoms we have in this country is the ability to poke fun at our politicians and institutions. When you hear the episode, you’ll also notice that nobody said anything about the people who voted for the president or our armed forces.

    We’ll probably lose a listener, but there will be no apologies, simply because there is nothing to apologize for.

    In another part of that episode, we had Joe Kissell, the author of one of the most important books you’ll ever want to read about your Mac, “Take Control of Passwords in Mac OS X.” Shannon Jean, Founder and President of TechRestore.com, talked about his various 24-hour upgrades for Mac note-books, the iPod and other products. In fact, we made arrangements with Shannon to put a 160GB drive in my first-generation 17-inch MacBook Pro and we’ll report on that subject in the next few weeks.

    On Sunday’s episode of The Paracast, David Biedny and I interviewed ghost hunter Linda Zimmerman, a prolific author on the paranormal, who talked about her own experiences with strange entities, as David and I explored the facts behind ghost sightings. After listening to that episode, you might just come away with a little more respect for things that go bump in the night.

    Also, with government conspiracies a hot and heavy topic in the paranormal field, we had an illuminating discussion on how to take back our freedoms with noted talk show host and author Thom Hartmann.

    THE LEOPARD REPORT: SHOULD APPLE TINKER WITH THE INTERFACE?

    As some of you may have heard, Microsoft has been making an effort to be a trifle innovative in the user interface of Internet Explorer 7 and the forthcoming Office 2007 for Windows. The default look, for example, ditches the traditional menu bar, which means you no longer see such familiar labels as File, Edit, View and all the rest. These are conventions that have been part and parcel of graphical user interfaces on personal computers for over two decades.

    Instead, all commands and drop-down menus are accessed by icons. I suppose, once you remember which icon engages which function, you might get used to the new scheme, or you can just use the “Tools” settings to revert to the “Classic” menu, which will end your struggle.

    While I suppose some might actually prefer the change, if only to be different, it seems to be a feature in search of a purpose. I don’t know about you, but I fail to see the logic in making a change for change’s sake, and ditching tried-and-true graphical elements without having a strong reason to do so.

    That, of course, takes us to Apple and how much it should meddle with Leopard to deliver new eye-candy and, perhaps, to alter a look and feel most of you have become comfortable with.

    Now I realize that Apple has been roundly criticized in recent years for giving applications different color schemes, such as the infamous brushed metal, in addition to Aqua. At the same time, window behavior loses consistency too.

    For example, you can only drag the title bar of an Aqua window, but brushed metal adds the ability to move a window by its sides and bottom; the latter, assuming the lower segment also contains this interface component.

    I’ve objected to this inconsistency because it forces you to remember two different ways to move a window. Worse, on a large screen, your overworked hands must labor that much harder when an application developer selects Aqua. Does this make sense to you?

    Now I kind of suspect that the executives at Microsoft somehow believed they were being innovative by zapping the menu bar, that they’d actually be praised for muddying the waters. Maybe so. In fact, the end result doesn’t look bad if you view it while keeping an innate anti-Microsoft prejudice to a minimum.

    But Apple is supposed to be different, a not just because of that “Think Different” motto. The Mac OS is supposed to just work, which means that form and function should blend together naturally. Once you learn a set of skills, you shouldn’t have to stop and think because one application or another defies conventions.

    At this point, you’ve only seen a glimpse of Leopard, in the form of previews at Apple’s site. The interface elements appear to have been tidied up somewhat, but there don’t seem to be any truly drastic changes. For now, that’s probably a good idea, although it’s clear that there’s a lot to Leopard that we haven’t seen yet.

    No, I don’t subscribe to the concept that Apple has kept some key details “Top Secret” simply to prevent Microsoft from copying those features and putting them in its own operating system. After all, Vista is on the verge of being declared fit for manufacturing, and significant changes can take months or years to accomplish.

    Besides, Microsoft is a privileged Mac developer, as most of you know, so it’ll get prerelease seeds of Leopard as quickly as anyone. No secrets there, because their Mac Business Unit needs to make sure that the next version of Office is fully compatible. In addition, they’ll want to ensure that the current version runs properly, without serious side-effects.

    There are two more plausible reasons why Leopard’s full set of new features hasn’t been revealed. The first is that some may not be ready to demonstrate, and the second is marketing. Apple wants to keep you guessing until the time is right to spill the beans, and that’s likely to happen at the Macworld Expo in San Francisco in January.

    That also means, Apple has time to tweak and tinker and make sure that Leopard is everything it wants it to be. Without knowing the full extent of the features, I hope Apple’s developers will go over Mac OS X from end to end and make sure that everything functions reliably, and consistently. I’m sure at least some of you have expressed your concerns that things don’t always work predictably, and that Apple might have lost its way over the years.

    I have a mixed view of such matters. I do believe that all movable windows and other interface elements should function in precisely the same fashion. A specific color scheme shouldn’t inflict motor skill confusion. At the same time, I have no problem if there are subtle color and shading differences from application to application to provide a little variety; the spice of life and all that.

    This calls for careful user testing, to see what confuses them and what empowers them. While it’s quite true that Steve Jobs has an incredible, almost uncanny ability to prod his troops to producing insanely great products, Mac users who have difficulty getting used to the lay of the land ought to be considered as well.

    After all, when you have to stop and figure out how to make something happen on your Mac, you can’t say it just works.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: TWO MICS FOR PRO PODCASTS

    In an ideal world, you’d have a fully decked-out production studio if you wanted to try your hand at making your own Podcast. But in the real world, most of you can’t afford that luxury, nor do you need it.

    The most important thing you can do, however, is select the best-sounding mic you can afford. Most Podcasts are devoted to spoken word content, be it interviews, commentaries, or whatever. If you don’t sound your best, the impact of your show will be sharply reduced.

    In fact, this is such a critical purchase, I’ve decided to cover two reasonably affordable mics here, both of which will greatly enhance the audio quality of your show. Since they both use your Mac’s USB port (they operate on a PC too), you won’t even need a mic mixer. Of course, if you want to mix multiple sounds from guests, musicians, etc., you’ll still want to look at a set of conventional mics and a mixing device of some sort, but that’s beyond the scope of this discussion.

    On the conventional side of the ledger, there’s the Samson Audio C01U USB Condenser Mic, which has a street price of around $80 or so. It is big and robust and the large grill and overall shape resembles a conventional studio mic. A “cardioid” pick-up pattern means it is highly directional, so it provides the best reproduction of sounds from the front, but suppresses sounds from other directions.

    You can plug it in directly to your Mac using the supplied USB cable. It is supposed to operate without any software, but you might run into problems optimizing volume levels without the special application that you can download from the company’s site. In theory, the application should allow you to fine-tune levels, prevent clipping, and make such fine adjustments as low-cut and phase.

    In practice, the application can be buggy, with levels either too low or too loud, making it a tad difficult to find the sweet spot. But sound quality is first rate and the price is right.

    Another contender is the Snowball from Blue Microphones, a company that prides itself on giving its products a unique look and professional features. The “Snowball,” which has a street price of around $159, consists of a large globe with multiple grills that sits upon an adjustable tripod.

    In addition to costing twice as much as the Samson Audio mic, the Snowball contains dual capsules, and offers switchable cardioid and omnidirectional pickup capabilities. The middle position of the switch cuts input by -10dB for loud instruments.

    Although the Snowball doesn’t require any special software, I found the input level to be a tad low. I then discovered a set of firmware updates at Blue’s site that adjust gain for various purposes. The high gain application, for example, increases input levels to a more acceptable level, and I left it at that setting.

    Over the past few months, I’ve used the Snowball for remote recording on my two radio shows. It provides excellent, robust reproduction of the human voice, and the switchable pickup patterns give it added flexibility, particularly for group interviews. The adjustable stand allows you to raise and lower the unit and tilt it for the perfect setting.

    I’ve also discovered that some of my regular guests, such as Christopher Breen and Bob “Dr. Mac” LeVitus, are devoted Snowball fans and use them regularly.

    Despite the higher price, I’m partial to the Snowball. It looks great, sounds great, and it definitely merits serious consideration if you want to give your Podcasts and other recordings a touch of class.

    THE FINAL WORD

    The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
    Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
    Worldwide Licensing and Marketing: Sharon Jarvis



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    9 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #362”

    1. gopher says:

      Apple should not tweak the interface, at least not with an option to revert back to the old interface.
      With the demise of http://www.resexcellence.com/ to find themes for Mac OS X easily, Apple’s obligation to the Mac community
      to at least keep the same interface grows. There are people who will never switch to Mac OS X because the interface changed so much from Mac OS 9. If Apple would simply realize that Windows has an advantage here in that you can use the old interfaces from previous operating systems, as well a bunch of other windowing options, I think it could gain market share a lot more.

      Apple needs to consider the ability to control window resizing from all edges, and not just the bottom right corner. SGI Indy provided an innovative way of doing this. It actually highlighted the edges a different color as you passed the pointer over it. That is much more easy to see than a change to a bunch of arrows. And to top it off, larger window frames of the brushed metal appearance make it even easier to control the edges if it should so desire.

    2. Scott Schuckert says:

      Fiddling with the GUI, is in my opinion, based on the intended audience. Existing customers will almost always want things to remain the same; new eye candy is to attract new customers.

      I’ve been doing tech support since 1983; on Mac, Apple II, DOS, Windows, Novell, and various Unix and Linux variations. I HAVE to know how the default settings for the UI work. Still, on my own computers I invariably turn off all the visuals. Windows XP I can set up to look much like 2000; and with a little work I can almost get Tiger to behave something like OS 1 through 9. (Who on earth decided that EVERY SINGLE WINDOW needs, by default, to have a set of shortcuts hanging off the left side? wouldn’t they be better off in a centralized location, like, oh, the desktop?)

      But I digress. I have many customers (still!) who stick with OS 9 because they refuse to re-learn; worse yet, several large customers actually switched to Windows, on the theory that “If I have to learn a new GUI, I might as well go with the industry standard!”

      I view each new OS introduction with dread. If they REALLY wanted me enthusiastic, they’d tout the fact that no GUI changes have been made. But I’m apparently not the target market.

    3. Perhaps a relevant thought for Apple might be:

      “You don’t have to be different to be good. To be good is different enough.”

      – producer & songwriter Arthur Freed to Allen Jay Lerner, as quoted by the New York Times

    4. Aaron says:

      Gene,

      I recently bought a Shure SM-58 for my podcast, what are your thoughts on that mic?

    5. I recently bought a Shure SM-58 for my podcast, what are your thoughts on that mic?

      This is a professional caliber dynamic cardioid mic that’s extremely popular for voice recording and public address systems. That’s what I use in my studio.

      Peace,
      Gene

    6. Rob In NZ says:

      Scott is absolutely correct. Every new iteration of Windows brings its new GUI to learn and support, with new oddities and worse, different locations for simple things such as where ‘Services’ is etc. Over time, they have made it less and less accesable and now its generally far quickier to do a Windows-R and type ‘services.msc’ than navigate the maze to get to the icon. This is especially the case when trying to support servers over slow WAN links.

      I havent seen such a major change in OS X, by comparison, but a few things have moved around. The GUI, compared to Windows, is still comparitively a haven of standardisation. Lets keep it that way, or else move to a final new standard and leave it there for a while. Fingers crossed that the latter will be the case. I suspect it will be similar to the new-style iTunes type of look. I do have to admit that a little bit of diversity is helpful in ways, as it makes it easy to identify edges of windows hidden behind others and the basic operation is little different. Just keep following the basic ‘this works for everything’ of dragging the title and resize from bottom right corner.

      By the way Gene, in IE7, if you hit the ALT key (ie the standard Windows menu modifier key), it pops up the menu bar.

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