Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A Vertical Moon a Risin'

Heaven knows I like not having to do things I can avoid – especially things that involve manual labor like mowing the lawn, raking the leaves, painting the house, oh and shoveling snow... yuck. This trait carries over into my work as well. And when it comes to things like programming and scripting (a euphamism for programming), sometimes it's better to use a one-trick pony that can do the job quick and easy than having to code something by hand and even better for you people who don't have or don't want to get into learning Flash.

Hence the rise (get it?) of Vertical Moon. They make niche products that allow you to build specific kinds of Flash files quickly, easily and for a very reasonable price. I have purchased three of their products and have used two of them already on a couple of client sites. The one I want to focus on in this article is Text-Osterone (TO). One of my sample text animations that I started in TO but ended up finishing in Flash can be found here.

This product gives you the ability to build Flash text animations, ready to integrate into your website as .SWF files. The coolest feature for me is that it also creates .FLA files ready to import into Flash for further editing, including the text effects!

But besides that, there are a lot of other features that are nice, too.

The ability to create multiple text blocks and have them animate separately, even to extent of having different text effects applied, is pretty cool. It's also great to be able to specify the location of each text block, it's duration and even how often it loops.

Another neat thing is the timing. If you have a series of text blocks animating one after the other, all you need to do is click "Start after previous" for it to instantly calculate when it needs to start. And it's self-correcting, so if you add a new effect or change the duration, it adjusts the timing. Nice! That should be an option in Flash.

There are over 200 text effects in TO and the options and timings can be varied and effects layered to create an almost endless selection. Of course, any good designer wouldn't want to overdo the effects, but it's great to have them and endless fun to try the different settings (yes, I am easily amused). Color, font and style are accessible as well.

But wait, there's more! You can specify separate and distinct in and out animations, with simply a click of a couple of buttons. Also you can assign actions to text blocks or the whole document to be a link to web page or to run other SWF files either at the end of a movie or by a mouse press. Document size, color, and even background image can be set. Reordering text blocks is as easy as clicking an up or down arrow. For such an unassuming interface, this program packs in a lot of time saving features.

Can you do this all in Flash? Sure. Are you a programmer? Most of us aren't so it would take some time to even set up the most basic of animations, and most of the more complex ones would be very time consuming. But here you only have to pick it from a menu and view the results in the Preview window. If you are exporting to Flash, make sure to do as much as you can first, because there is no going back.

There are a few things that would really solidify TO for me, that I hope they will consider in a future upgrade.
  1. Automatic text wrapping to the document. I wasn’t sure why it wasn't wrapping the text until I realized that the text wasn't wrapping to the document size, and that I had to put in hard returns.
  2. Leading should be either calculated as a percent of the text size, or starting from the text size. A leading of 0 doesn't make sense to a designer. It would either be 100% or 12 on 12.
  3. Extended character support. I can't use an “n” or “m” dash in the copy, curly quotes. or the three dot thingy. They show up in the edit window but don't show in the preview. I will see if they export properly to Flash.
  4. Support for an external XML text file. It would be really nice to be able to build a file that a client can edit without having to open the TXO file.
  5. Text styling. You should be able to style individual words in the text (bold, italic, bold italic) within the text item. And let's throw in multiple font selection while we’re at it.
  6. Apply fonts and effects over multiple slides. Maybe even have style sheets. It's a pain to have to apply the same settings over and over. Or simply allow me to duplicate an existing text block.
  7. Don't ask me to save an empty document. If you double-click to open an existing document, an empty window opens first which you are then asked to save.
  8. Don't ask to save a document I just saved. If you're like me, you save early and often, so it's annoying to be asked to save the file I just saved upon quitting, closing, or creating a new file.
I know, it sounds like there are a lot of issues. But when you get right down to it, these are niggling little details that only the most picky designers may even care about (like me, lol). But repeat the mantra of quick, fast and inexpensive and you'll feel better about Text-Osterone. It's only $39.95, and you'll make your money back on the first animation. Plus, if you buy one of the bundles which can include SWF, Lock & Load and/or SWF 'n Slide Pro, you can save a bundle.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Scientists Discover New Element!

In their noble quest for knowledge, scientists have discovered an amazing new element that will revolutionize the use of online chat. It is called Adium and its powers are prodigious. Although not able to leap tall buildings in a single bound or see through people's clothing with xray vision (darn), Adium unites every major chat protocol under a single interface – AIM, ICQ, GoogleTalk, MobileMe (otherwise known as .Mac), MSN, Yahoo – not to mention a horde of lesser known services. And it's easy enough to use by us mere mortals, while still giving us super chat powers. Take that, chat client villians!

Features - Text chat, file transfer, events, chat encryption, AppleScript support, Addressbook support, Spaces support, Growl support, yadda yadda yadda. Auto-login, password saving, auto-responders, insert web links, I could fill my entire article with the feature set alone. And what isn't built-in can be added through the use of Extras (otherwise known as plugins). The highlights are the Events, which you can target to groups or individuals that triggers responses by the program. The iTunes Token feature is pretty cool, too, which allows you to inject iTune's info into your chat or automated responses. There's a System Script feature that also does a similar thing but for system status messages. Nice. Suffice it to say that Adium covers all of the features of the other chat clients, plus adds a few neat tricks of its own.

Can we say everything including the kitchen sink? The interface sports themes, backgrounds, status icons, menu bar icons, dock icons, user icons, fonts and sound effects. Everything is customizable. The window can auto-size (or not) to accomodate the number of active users as well as snap to the screen edge (or not), and you can set the transparency of the windows (or not). You can create groups (like folders), and sort the listings by name.

Adium provides plugins for services, themes, icons, sounds, and more. I have never seen a program that can be so widely modified, which is great because you can really make it your own. For me, I am of the minimalist persuasion and like the contact window lean and mean. My chat window is a little Matrix-y, though... and no sounds, they drive me crazy. Adium even boasts its own Extras website. Crazy!

Denied requests for chats should not be logged in the Chat Transcript Window. I've had to shut off MSN auto-login because all I get from it is spam (shocking). Yahoo is the second worst offender, but nowhere near as bad.

The Chat Transcript Window needs a sort option for service. I would like to see those all grouped together so I can easily remove them. Of course, should my first issue be addressed, I wouldn't need this option, at least for that purpose, but it still would be a nice feature.

I would like to see Button Wrapping™. I know this is not quite Apple standard, but I miss out on some of the options while keeping my windows narrow that then can only be accessed by cliking an arrow and selecting a feature. Bah! I want to just be able to click on the command no matter how narrow the window is (I'm lazy). So just wrap those buttons when the window is too narrow, okay?

The current version is 1.3.1 but I am still using 1.2.7 for the simple reason that in version 1.3 and above, the authors have implemented a new Extras protocol and one of the added service Extras that I use called XBlaze (which supports XFire chat), has not yet been rewritten to support the new protocols.

The Future
The authors are looking towards supporting audio and video chat across services in the future, so that is something also to look forward to. In the meantime, you can get audio/video functionality by checking out the MeBeam Extra (requires Adium 1.3 or later).

Did I mention that this application is free? They do ask for (and deserve) donations for it's constantly being updated and supported. Reduce the clutter of multiple chat windows and applications by checking this great app out. And if you use it, consider donating.

Monday, July 28, 2008

If it's broke, do you have to fix it?

In the recent demise of my wireless router, no! Just last week, after several days of freakish weather including thunderstorms that shook the house, I entered my office to find that the lights were out on my TrendNet wireless router, and absolutely no one was home. Funny thing was, it was plugged into my APC BackUPS 500 CLR and no other devices were damaged, so I'm left scratching my head, trying to figure out if it was related to the storm or simply a failure of the device. Of course, I will replace it eventually, since the temporary solution is just that – temporary. But you can breathe easy knowing if you ever experience a failure of your router and can't immediately replace it, there is an option that will help you out until you do.

First, I am assuming you are using DSL or Cable as your connection to the internet, that you are using more than one computer, and that you are using a router to connect the other computers to the internet via wire or wireless means. If the router is part of your internet service device, you probably need to call your service provider.

Next you need to turn off everything – Cable/DSL modem, router, and computers. Then connect your modem to your primary computer directly, bypassing the router (it's broken, remember?). Turn on the modem, wait for the startup test to complete and then turn on your computer. You should be able to get online at this point. Pretty easy so far. Now, if you are planning on using a wired LAN, you need a switch or a hub. Most of them have an Uplink port. Unplug the cable from the back of your Mac and plug it into the Uplink port on the switch/hub. Now plug another cable into any of the numbered ports and then into the back of the Mac. Now turn the switch/hub on. You should still be able to connect to the internet through this method. Go ahead and attach any other computers or printers that were wired before into the numbered ports, but don't turn them on just yet.

Now it's time to set up the software. This little gem is found in the Sharing control panel. On the left, you'll see the line Internet Sharing. Wait! Don't check it just yet. To the right you'll see a popup that says Share your Ethernet connection from:. Make sure to select Ethernet, since this is how the connection is currently being made to the modem. Then just below that is a widow that has a series of check boxes with the title, To computers using: Just check off the ones that are appropriate. If you only use wireless, select Airport, if you only use CAT5 network cables, select Ethernet. Select both if you are planning to use both. If you use Parallels or Fusion, you may also need to check off other options as well. When you click Ethernet, you will get an error message. Say ok and move on. If you experience problems with this later, you may not be able to use this solution. Then simply place a checkmark next to Internet Sharing on the left and you are done. You should be able to power up the other devices on your LAN and connect. I was able to connect both my wired and wireless computers this way (PCs and Macs).

So it works, great! Why not just use it this way? Well, mainly because it means leaving your computer on all the time. For me, that's a no-no. Also, I noticed that while it works, things are a little slower on the other computers and some functionality is lost on my main system, mainly AV chat through iChat. Certainly nothing major but it's an energy waste and and annoyance both of which I can live without.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

What's the secret word?

Anyone who remembers the old Groucho Marx TV Show "You Bet Your Life" knows that Groucho would always ask, "What's the secret word?" at a particular point in the show. Today, in our heightened concern for security, we are getting asked for the secret word everywhere we go – especially online. Stores, banks, for making purchases, filling out forms, etc. And we're supposed to remember all of them? Gimme a break. Or better yet, write them down on a piece of paper, Post-It or store it a file on the computer. Sure, I know you do that, because I do it myself. There's gotta be a better way. Apple has tried to fill the gap using the System Keychain, but it's not very secure and doesn't hold all the data you might like it to.

Enter the folks at Agile Web Solutions and their product 1Password 2.7 (1P). It is the program that handles all of your online security and form processing. With a single password, you can access every single secret tidbit you use across the entire breadth of the internet. You don't ever have to remember each individual password again. Plus, it can also auto-generate Strong passwords that are tougher to crack. My problem with Strong passwords in the past were that they were easy to forget and a pain to type. 1P handles both with ease, keeping your info safe and secure and making entry easy for you.

After launching the app for the first time, it installs an internet plugin that can be used in any browser that supports them. You then create a single password you will use to access your info in the application or through your browser. 1P automatically will import all the existing data stored in your browsers. Afterwards, make sure to turn off the Remember Passwords feature in the browser(s) you are using and then clear the data from your browser, you won't be needing it anymore.

That's pretty much it. Now when browsing, you'll notice a new key icon at the top of your browser window. Anytime you come to a site where you've been before, pop that baby open and select the login from the list and Poof! 1P fills it out and even hits the submit button for you. For those of us who like to make purchases online, 1P can keep your credit card info secure as well. You can create a Wallet file for each of your cards and choose which to use during checkout. It does remarkably well handling the forms from most of the online retailers, making checkout a breeze. Also, you can create and store multiple Identities so if the computer is being used by multiple people or you are using other people's credit cards (with their permission, of course), you don't have to type that info over and over.

What about new sites? 1P knows when you are entering data on a new site and asks to store the info for you, optionally providing you a dialog to name the location. Even sites that are password protected through dialogs, you'll find a little key icon right in the dialog box, for either storing or recalling info from a previous visit.

Need to make changes? You can go into the application itself and either edit existing entries or build new entries (Wallets, Identities, Passwords or Notes only) from scratch. The only thing I will add is the more thoroughly you fill out the new entries, the more time it will save you down the line. More features, you say? Well, what about syncing your secure data on Agile's secure servers? Now you can access your password info from anywhere! How about syncing your info to your Palm, iPhone or iPod Touch? Yep, it can do that too.

Unlock 1P once either in the app or in your browser and it will stay unlocked during use, even if you switch between browsers. If you run off for a bit, the program and browser access will automatically lock out after a period of time. New to version 2.7 is the Bookmarks feature, which will allow you to both navigate to and auto enter your data for that site, saving you from navigating to that site first in your browser.

Down sides? What happens when you have the program set to automatically record new logins and you make a mistake? You now have multiple listings for the same site and unless you go in to the app immediately and take it out, the next time you login you will have more than one option to choose from, some which will have the wrong data. Also when you are filling out, say, a registration form for a site that you only need to do once, 1P will remember that too and may or may not fill in the login properly next time, which might call for either an edit or another entry.

Another problem I have is with multiple systems. It seems that syncing online establishes a new connection with each system. What if I want access to the same passwords on more than one system and I don't want to use the web feature? I couldn't seem to find a way to sync passwords for multiple systems.

But those issues aside, this is a worthy time-saving product that will put many of your security fears to rest. As you can see, I have over 500 web form entries, and I am sure there are many instances of duplication. But you really can't fault the app for that. Most of the time, it doesn't even distract me. And at $34.95 really is a good price for an app you will probably use every day. There are even times when there is a special discount and the deal becomes that much sweeter. But why wait? Buy it now and save yourself hours of re-typing and a few brain cells to boot.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Web Builder's Review – Sandvox (1.2.7)

Finally, we come to the last installment of my Web Builder's Review series. Today we are looking at Karelia Software's Sandvox (SV), Apple Design Award's 2007 runner up for the Best OS X User Experience. The folks at Karelia were kind enough to give me a temporary license key to allow me to test the full features of this app, for which I and my readers are grateful.

It appears at first blush that Sandvox and RapidWeaver (RW) were identical twins separated at birth. They both sport a similar interface that shows you the page list on the left, the current page on the right and an Inspector for many of the features with which the user can modify the pages. But upon closer inspection, you can see that they took different approaches to the user experience. RW works in Edit mode and allows you to Preview. In SV (as in iWeb), you edit in Preview mode. I like this approach better, especially for handling things like the sidebars, which are kind of a pain to edit in RW. In fact, it goes one step beyond either of the other apps by allowing you to edit the raw HTML (Pro version only), which seems to be one of the major drawbacks of this level of software. For someone like me, this is a necessity, for basic to moderate users, maybe not so much.

Another page building feature I like is their use of Collections, Pages, and Pagelets. Collections are basically folders for similar types of items, such as photos, blogs or lists. Pages give you a wide range of standard page types from text to photos to contact forms. The Pagelets cap it all off by giving little code "cheats" of popular features on many sites like counters, Digg list, Amazon list, Flickr badge, IM status and many more. If that isn't enough for you, you can use the Code Inject feature to insert code common to every page in the site or use the Raw Edit feature to customize individual pages. One last thing is the ability to name every page and add individual keywords, which is nice for when you export, or if you decide to hand the site over to someone else who is using another app.

There is also a collapsable panel at the top showing you the various site designs. Coolness is in the details and it shows when you click the arrow to scroll through the designs. The angling of the icons is a nice touch. Still, it would be nice to be able to see all the thumbnails on a page rather than having to always scroll the entire list to find what you want. You can apply a new design to the site with one click of the mouse, just as in RW. SV comes with 37 designs and you can get 5 free by signing up for their email alerts.

Another excellent feature is it's iLife integration. It sports a Media Browser that allows you to drag and drop photos, movies and audio files on your pages from your iLife apps or from other locations on your drive. They also added the ability to do the same with web links. Karelia even makes this available as a free standalone app, so you can use it system-wide. That's a nice touch.

Picture handling was so-so, compared to iWeb but similar to RW. One annoying thing is that it seems to have done something funny to my opening image which didn't appear in the other apps. You can check out the entire sample site here.

On the Info page I tried to create an iFrame for a Google Map, but was unable to get the map to come up by itself, I always ended up with the whole page which couldn't display in a tiny window. I was able to accomplish this fine in RW.

Another issue is the use of the parent/child sidebar. It's a good concept, being able to check a button that automatically uses the code from a parent page, but if the child page also has similar code, such as a link to an RSS feed, there then would be two of them on the same page, which was a little confusing to me so I know it would be confusing to less experienced users.

I couldn't find a way to make bulleted lists other than typing the code in Raw mode, other than simply typing the text with numbers or bullets manually. That's kind of odd. RW has a nice graphical shortcut list of common HTML stylings at the bottom of the page which is quite convenient.

As for the blog and podcast pages, it's both simpler and more complicated than RW. In RW you have a list where you can view titles, add new items, delete items, etc. In SV, you have a Collection (folder) and within the Collection are pages, but with no centralized way of looking at them. And there are no pages specifically for podcasts, you just have to add text pages and then add a Movie pagelet to the sidebar or where ever. I don't know maybe I am too used to the way it's done in RW, but if you have a large number of these items, I think it would be harder to manage them this way. On a positive note, it appears that looking at the XML data, the date and time of the listings are posted, but not the length.

Ok, now for the summary. iWeb started it all, it's free with new Macs, part of the impressive iLife collection that nets a bounch 'o apps for short money, is completely integrated with the Mac and iTunes and it very easy to use. The downside is that it lacks the ability to edit the content of the pages, has too few Themes, is not extensible and caters to its own .Mac service.

Sandvox is impressive for its level of editabilty, user interface, greater number of Designs and Pagelet code snippets. The downside is it doesn't exactly support podcast pages and is also not directly extensible.

For me, Rapidweaver gets the nod for the huge number of Themes, its ability to edit blogs and podcast in a central location, and its outstanding extensibility (there are plugins for virtually everything – most 3rd party themes and plugins cost money). But it's not perfect either, with its Edit/Preview modes, no direct compatibility with iTunes RSS tags and its lack of dedicated support (saying that their developers are making better versions of RW and don't have time to answer questions is not a plus for me).

Hope you found this useful and I apologize for taking so long to complete this series. Hopefully, I get some shorter reviews out there in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Web Builder's Review – RapidWeaver (4.0)

Following close in the footsteps of iWeb, comes RealMacSoftware's RapidWeaver (RW). The timing of this article (meaning I waited so long that this article...) coincided with the just-released version 4.0 of the company's software, so that is the one I will be referring to. Version 4.0 is for Leopard users and 3.6 is for Tiger users. While tipping it's hat to iWeb in several ways, the company has made strides of its own to distinguish itself from Apple's product. Regularly priced at $79.95, it currently has a special promotion for $59.95, which is good for versions 3.6 and 4.0, current 3.6 owners can get the 4.0 upgrade for free, pre-3.6 users can upgrade for $30. And while normally the program costs as much as the entire iLife suite, it's still a pittance compared to programs like Dreamweaver, GoLive (which is officially being abandoned by Adobe), and even Freeway Pro (Freeway Express is the same price).

On to the product. When a file is first launched it appears similar to iWeb in layout. Pages on the left, content on the right, although it is not showing the page initially in Preview mode. In iWeb, you essentially work in preview mode. In RW, you work in Edit mode and can switch to Preview to view the results. Neither product allows you to work directly with the underlying code, but RW allows for a little more control, plus the wealth of addons accessible from their site cover pretty much all the things you would want to do from having CoverFlow (3rd-party) for viewing images, to injecting the site with Google Analytic code (built-in).

Text can be styled on the page using the familiar Text and Color palettes, links can be added as well as other HTML code, images can be inserted and formatted complete with borders and shadows, if desired. RW lacks iWeb's image dragging and positioning, as well as the iPhoto-like image control, which does leave you a little wanting, but otherwise stands well on it's own. The over 40 built-in templates (iWeb has 26) can be viewed in the main window and instantly applied to the entire site. You can't apply them on an individual page basis like iWeb, but then again, why would you? Site design should be consistent. And speaking of which, if you don't like the built in themes, you can access another 233 more (as of this writing) from multiple vendors directly from their website. Or using the RWMultitool (3rd-party), you can modify any of the existing templates or build your own.

Another constant are the floating Inspectors – the Page Inspector and the Media Inspector. The Site Details, which was an Inspector in version 3.6, is now a Sheet on the main site window. They allow access to the various features available such as Side Bars, Style Sheets, Optional Colors and Fonts, Podcasts, Image formatting, etc. Many of the options are theme-constant but some theme and add-on vendors will expand or offer other options in these Inspectors, so while the extensibility is unarguably superior to iWeb, it can have the tendency to get confusing.

Downside #1: Podcasts. This is not as well-implemented as I would like. The Inspector is confusing and many of the standard iTunes tags seem not to be standard in RW, like duration and Release Date, leaving you uninformed and out of order on iTunes.

Downside #2: Cost. While the initial cost is low and comes with many options, you are going to want to buy at least some of the many addons and themes. RWMultitool and Blocks appear to be almost standard addon purchases. And while we are not looking at huge prices ($9-$30) they are going to increase your investment in the application. It's major strength in comparison to iWeb is also it's major weakness.

Upside #1: Publishing. Supports .Mac but more importantly, supports standard web hosting services and will easily publish site updates only to both types of services, no exporting to a folder first (but you can if you want). One of my biggest gripes of iWeb is it's content size. With RW you can elect to Normalise (UK spelling) the site so all the images are sized down to 100%, decreasing file size, upload time and loading time.

Upside #2: Extensibility. Hundreds of templates, hundreds of addons, you only need to add them when a client or a project calls for it and then at a modest price. If you are working for a client, you can often build that into the cost of the job. Or, write your own.

Because I use a standard web host, I was having to export the entire site to upload each time I made a change using iWeb. With RW, I can just publish the changes, which makes my work easier. I was able to pick a theme similar to iWeb and move the content over in only a couple of hours. And although RW was able to support multiple iPhoto Album, I found it was easier just to collect all the photos I plan to use into a separate Album, placing each set of images for each RW Photo Album into it's own folder.

It's own issues aside, RW is the tool I use now to create and maintain this particular site (see it live here, see the iWeb version live here). In the next article, we look at Sandvox 1.2, by Karelia Software

Monday, April 28, 2008

Web Builder's Review – iWeb '08 (2.0.3)

Everyone using a Mac probably has some version of the iLife suite of apps on their system. iLife comes with iTunes, GarageBand, iPhoto, iMovie HD, iDVD and iWeb. For the price (free with new systems, $79 otherwise) it's a tough act to follow. Even though iLife '08 has had a hard time convincing people to use the new version of iMovie HD, the remainder of the apps have been improved one way or another. So, my suggestion to you, if you are considering using iWeb, it's worth the upgrade for it and all the other apps iLife includes.

That being said, iWeb is not without the typical love/hate relationship that many popular apps suffer from. It's slick, it's easy to use for most design requirements, has 26 very well-designed templates, plays very well with .Mac, is integrated with the other iLife apps like iTunes and iPhoto as well as Apple technologies like QuickTime, Drag and Drop and CoreServices.

However... (you were waiting for that, weren't you?) However, not all is roses in Appleville. For instance, iWeb wants you to have only one website. Yes, you can create multiple sub-sites, but they are all contained in a single file. Loss or corruption will either have you running to TimeMachine to recover an earlier version, or screaming to the nearest cliff. Luckily, there is at least one third party solution that allows to create and manage multiple iWeb site files, called iWebSites.

Another issue is the publishing problem. If you have a .Mac account, great! You can publish the entire site or only changes directly to your account – it couldn't be easier (maybe a little faster, though). But if you want to publish to another server, well, you can't – directly. You need to publish to a folder on your hard drive, then upload it to your site using an FTP program like Transmit or Fetch. Ugh. And if you make changes, you have to re-publish the entire site and then re-upload the entire site, because you can't be sure of which were just the changed files. On the church site, I make changes at least once a week. I have been wasting huge amounts of time doing this.

*Update 7/1/2008* I just came across a small app from Plyxim software called Easy iWeb Publisher that allows you to publish changes to your own hosting service, and it's free (donations accepted)!

Oh, and custom naming or the ability to organize file placement or common images? Forget it. iWeb uses it's own way of doing things, and you just have to live with it. Every page has its own folder for HTML and images. Yuck. While we're on the subject, iWeb uses a lot of PNGs to create some of the layered looks in the templates, which dramatically increases the loading times, even on fast connections. Hello? (knock, knock) Anyone home? Looks are important, nay, even critical, but only if you can download it to your system fast enough to see it.

Building the site is very WYSIWYG, but there is no way to edit the code directly. Now many end-users probably don't care about that. But I certainly do. As a developer, I want to be able to access the code directly and make changes. Yes, you can add an HTML web widget to inject custom code, but still you can't access the entire page directly. Search and replace? Yeah, but on a single page only, not the entire site. And, of course, no way to search the code.

As I mentioned at the start, iWeb does some things very well. I won't let all the negative comments stop me from still recommending this app for certain users doing certain kinds of projects. Adding slide shows, movies, blogs, journals, is easy, fun and fast. Almost everything in a template can be modified in some way from location to color to font. Even templates can be switched with a click of the mouse on a page-to-page level, and still maintain your content. The Inspector and Media Browser give you control over the pages and imported files. Apple does pay attention to design details and the control over content as well as the interface, show that. It even allows you to insert Google Maps and Adsense onto your pages.

Another benefit of iWeb is it's relationship with iPhoto. With the Core Image functionality it shares, iWeb offers some nice tools to adjust your photos without having to go back into your other applications. It also offers the Instant Alpha option, allowing you to intelligently drop backgrounds out of most images.

There are some companies that provide iWeb templates, after the original ones get a little stale. And with as many people probably using iWeb, that could be faster than you think. But you have to go out and search for them, there is no central place to review vendors or designs. Also, other than the basic Web Widgets, there is no way to add custom widgets to your pages. So you're pretty much stuck waiting on Apple to upgrade the features. I have come across someone who has written an Automator script to add Google Analytics, but it's a post processing function not integrated into the program. There may be others who have done similar things.

All that being said, I like iWeb. I used it originally when I wanted a new look for the church site, and I was able to move the content over from the existing site pretty easily and took me only a few hours to convert. But I realized that after having it in there for a while, there were a few things that began to irritate me. However, I was stuck for the time being with seemingly no other option than to go back to my original Dreamweaver and Fireworks files. Until... (read exciting continuation next week!)

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Special Software Bundle

For those of you who read my blog... thanks. I just wanted to let you know of super software deal, I just came across. Macupdate has special software promotions and this one rocks. Check it out below.


If they sell 6,100 copies (they have sold over 5,110 as of this writing), Parallels will be unlocked and included in the bundle, even if you already purchased the bundle! If I didn't already own Parallels and Sound Studio, this would be a must have for me.

Only five days left, so check it out. You can also read my previous review of Parallels.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Back on the Chain Gang

Like the old Pretenders song, I am back on the chain gang. Work has been going gang busters and I have neglected my blog, waiting for that next article idea to come up, hopefully in conjunction with some insight I have gleaned (no, I didn't have to look up that word) from my recent work. I have been mulling over a review for some time, knowing like the photo books, that it might take some time to complete. But finally I have come across the opportunity and occasion to do it.

I have been maintaining my church's website for, oh, I think forever. And it has gone through many incarnations (or should I say resurrections, since I'm Baptist). Some of the previous designs are displayed here. There are several concerns I have as a webmaster that are particularly germane to this site, but also to many of my other sites and I'm sure your sites as well.

  1. Content – This site is a great example of content – there is text, PDFs, photos, movies, a blog, a calendar, podcasts, multiple sub-sites, sometimes a bulletin board, an occasional form – basically everything you might see on a site. It has tens of pages, and is hundreds of megabytes in size.
  2. Maintainability – How do you maintain all this information? How easy is it to post new material and link it to the existing pages? What about adding pages or whole new sections? What if I want to introduce a new design?
  3. Technical ability – The web and its related technologies are always changing. How easy would it be to introduce new technology into your site.
  4. Portability – Last but by no means insignificant, is your easy easily accessible by multiple development tools or are you locked into an application that has you at it's mercy?
These are some of the concern I have wrestled with and I will use this site and maybe a couple of others as a jumping point to explore some of the newer alternatives to the large, complicated and costly web development applications.

If you have worked with me in the past, you know I am a Dreamweaver/Fireworks fan. I pretty much do all of my development work in those two apps. Now, with Macromedia having been bought by Adobe and having their products integrated into their Creative Suite, it's even easier to import designers' files in Photoshop and Illustrator and produce working HTML and images.

However, there are some clients that can't afford to spend the money on design and production for their sites, or their clients are on a tight budget, or they feel they are not up to designing their own site, or they are home users just wanting to put some of their photos, movies, and journals online. There are a few mid-range development tools that have made an appearance, starting with iWeb and continuing with RapidWeaver and Sandvox, that have made this a much easier process.

Over the next few weeks, I am going to review these apps, contrast and compare them, and also mention other apps that are here or on there way that might ease the complexity of learning and leave more cash in your pocket. Next week, we'll start off with iWeb.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

DVD HD is dead, long live BluRay!

Well, they finally gave in. Paramount, the last major film studio to hold out for the HD DVD format, has given in by throwing their support behind BluRay. So what does that mean for the rest of us? Right now, Amazon has most of it's collection of HD DVDs on sale for a substantial discount. Are they worth the price? No, even if you already purchased a HD player. And if you haven't, you can congratulate yourself. But wait, does that mean we need to rush out and buy a BluRay player? No again. Not right now, and maybe not for a while. I mean come on, the players start at about $225 and go up from there, and a regular DVD player can be had for half of that. The movies, I was shocked to learn, where about 50% more expensive as well. And while more people are buying widescreen format LCD or plasma HD TVs, not everyone has one, so no need for a high-def player if you don't have a high-def TV.

So what's the benefit? Now that the BluRay format has won out, we should be seeing prices drop on players and media over the next year or so. What does that mean for the standard DVD? Will it go the way of the dodo? Probably. It's just a matter of time. Most likely the standard format will continue to be supported for a number of years, until the media changes so much that it won't be feasible to maintain. Look to Apple for an example of that with the transition from OS 9 to OS X dual-boot to OS X and Rosetta, to now only OS X.

But for now, standard DVD is the cheapest, best way to get high-quality video from the majority of your devices.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Final Word? (part 4)

This is the fourth installment of my photo book service review. I hope you have had as fun reading them as I have had reviewing them. As I mentioned at the series start, my goal was to do four reviews and then by judging the response, perhaps do four more. Well this is where you, the audience, come in. Let me know if these reviews were useful, informative and fun, and whether you have any stories to tell. Have you done other printing projects – Prints, calendars, mugs, etc? Let us know how they turned out.

Company: Kodak
Binding: Hard
Size: 9 x 10.25 (landscape) other sizes and bindings available
Cost: $29.99 (matte, linen), $34.99 (martha stewart), $39.99 (leather)
Added Pages: $1.99 (2 pages)
Shipping: $6.99 via USPS
Max Pages: 100 (double sided)
Layout Software: Website

I'm sure you won't be shocked to discover that this web application is very similar to the one offered by Snapfish. Also, that you need to signup for a free account and upload your pictures before starting your project. However, there are some differences worth noting. There is an iPhoto plugin that allows you to upload images straight from iPhoto. Also there is a desktop application called Ofoto that allows drag and drop from iPhoto or the hard drive. Lastly, there is Kodak's EasyShare software that allows you to both create projects (though not books) as well as upload photos. So many choices! This is a much easier process than Snapfish for Leopard users.

Once the images are uploaded, you can use the online wizard to guide you through the setup process, allowing you to choose the book, cover, single-sided or double-sided printing, background, and Autofill or manual image layout. Whoa! Definite do not do autofill here... While it does allow you to choose the number of images per page and keeps the page count pretty low (I got 24 pages), it doesn't seem to know the difference between horizontal and vertical images and will throw the pictures willy-nilly into frames that may not be orientated properly (and only in order of uploading). So far there seems to be no intelligent automation of this process that would suit me or you, I'm sure.

Backgrounds and borders can't be changed per page. Backgrounds and borders can't be seen in Edit view, only in Preview. You can rotate, zoom, move, and remove the image within the photo frame. Not all layouts are available in all page designs, why, I don't know. The results of which may mess up the position of your photos if you decide to switch between them so review your pages after you switch. I think there were 3 layouts not available between the page designs I swapped between. There is no marking/hiding of used photos. Like Snapfish, the web app runs smoothly, constantly shows you book style, color, number of pages and current cost. I do like that if you are working within a budget.

Alright now to the nitty gritty. The book arrived in a Kodak-branded cardboard box, in a similar cellophane envelope to iPhoto. The suede like material has a nice feel. There is no printing on the cover or spine, no slip cover. There is a diecut in the cover as well, but the preferrable thing to Snapfish's version is that it has a vellum sheet to protect the photo. There are white end papers and a Kodak logo on the back page. Color reproduction is good, paper has a nice feel and the contrast is also good. Again, wasted space due to non-existant captions. There are some mirrored layouts, but no caption-less pages, no page numbers, no header and footers. I would have like to have used some of the more stylish backgrounds, but they didn't have the same layouts that I wanted to use. Oh well.

So, who is the winner? Out of the four I reviewed, iPhoto is by far the best at layout, purchasing and has so many of the details that the others overlooked, it's hard not to make that #1. Out of the others, it's a mixed bag depending on what you are looking for. If simply the most bang for the buck, go with Blurb and its 40 page book. If you are looking for good software and good layouts, go with Snapfish. Kodak's product has promise, but the software is a major block to choosing it. There are four more services I reviewed that are included in the spreadsheet.

A Few Words More (part 3)

Okay, here we are at part 3 of our 4 part series on photo book services. This installment is going to deal with HP's Snapfish photo service. Originally self-owned, it was purchased by HP about a year ago. Seems to be the most inexpensive of all the services (not taking into account Blurb's 40 page max for the same price).

Company: Snapfish
Binding: Soft, Hard
Size: 8.5 x 11 (landscape) other sizes available
Cost: $19.99, $24.95 (leather), $27.99 (custom jacket)
Added Pages: $1.99 (2 pages)
Shipping: $6.99 via UPS Ground
Max Pages: 100 (double sided)
Layout Software: Website

This products stumbles out of the starting gate, but in the end finishes pretty well. There's a Safari plugin that allows you to upload your images, but it doesn't work in Leopard. Dang, and I just upgraded all my systems. I contacted them for assistance, and they said "Wait a couple of months and check back." Nice. Luckily, I am not without resources. I moved the photos over to my PC and uploaded them from there. The process was pretty quick and painless other than that. Once in a Snapfish album (yes, you need to sign up for a free account), you can then start a Project. This is the first of the services I discuss where you have to upload your pictures first. The upside is when you're done laying it out, you buy it and voilá, you're done. The down side is getting the photos uploaded sometimes can be a pain.

The website offers a wizard to walk you through the selection process from Project type to Cover style and also offers an EasyFill or Create from Scratch option (I think you know what I did here). I did go back and tried the EasyFill. It did have a nice option to either stick to the number of pages and have it select photos, or to add the number of pages it would take to use all the photos, or to allow you to choose the photos yourself. It wanted to use 48 pages for 90 photos or would only use a mere 34 photos for 20 pages. You can try redoing it a few times, it gives you different numbers each time. Again, you're better off laying it out yourself. Since you are maintaining your photos on Snapfish, you can use photos from multiple albums and you can also elect to use the captions in the existing albums rather than retyping them in the project.

There is a nice Tabbed navigation bar at the bottom with all of the options you need to build your project. A little out of order, in my opinion – Pages, Backgrounds, Layouts, Borders, Themes and Covers. They should read Covers, Themes, Pages, Layouts, Backgrounds and Borders, don't you think? Anyway, they each have a popup menu with categories. They have selection of 21 Covers, 11 Themes, 58 backgrounds (!) and 5 Photo borders. The backgrounds were especially nice. The page layouts were certainly more in keeping with iPhoto than with Blurb – the proportions were right and mostly were designed to maximize the full letter size. The Layout popup was grouped by photos-per-page which is fine, and there were quite a number to choose from, with even a few mirrored pages! Someone was thinking...

The project comes with 20 pages already in place and you can adjust the layouts on-the-fly by drag and drop. You add pictures by drag and drop, you change backgrounds by drag and drop, you change the borders by drag and drop. I think you get the picture... For the backgrounds and borders, you can apply them to all pages by clicking the check box before dragging. Sweet. I found that going back to my book, I can apply a new background, but was having trouble with the borders. That may bear some looking into. Like the other services, you can hide used images, and otherwise they have a checkmark. In-line editing includes rotation, sepia colors, zoom, brightness, enhanced color, and flip horizontal/vertical. When done, you can preview the book and then make a purchase. The preview shows the low-res images. Your book size, number of pages and cost are alway displayed (which I like). The software is fast for a web application.

Onto the printed piece. The response email was very detailed with links back to the order. The shipping email is also detailed but with no tracking info. Amazingly, it shipped 3 days after I placed the order and was first to arrive. Yet out of all of the ones I reviewed, it had the poorest packaging. It came uncovered in a cardboard box. They die-cut a hole in the cover to show the first image underneath. That certainly will be subject to dust and abuse. No printing on the cover or spine. The custom version has a printable slip cover, but for more money. White end pages (funny, they were black online). Color balance of the photos were good, especially the flesh tones. Snapfish logo on end page, no headers, footers or page numbers (that doesn't bother me – it's a photo book).

What would I like to see? More mirrored layouts. Layouts with non-caption options, like iPhoto. Working border selections (I tried it in FireFox and Safari). Overall, I see this placing above Blurb because of book size, layouts, backgrounds and image quality, but falls short in the cover and software of iPhoto. However, it's a great price and also a fast turnaround for those last minute gifts. Next week we are looking at the KodakGallery.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A Thousand Words and More (part 2)

The saga continues with the search for the holy grail of photo book printing. Last week, we reviewed Apple's iPhoto and printing service. This week, we are looking at the online service called Blurb. As I was cruising Apple's forums regarding photo books, I came across several mentions of this service, so that determined where my next stop was. Blurb appears more to be a written book publishing community rather than specifically a photo printing service, but they certainly are in the running with the rest of the services I reviewed.

Company: Blurb
Binding: Soft, Hard
Size: 8 x 10 (landscape) comes in other sizes as well
Cost: $18.95, $29.95
Added Pages: based on page ranges
Shipping: $7.83 via UPS Ground
Max Pages: 440 (double sided)
Layout Software: BookSmart

BookSmart is a free application to all users, but you must register and set up a free account to use their printing service. It, like iPhoto, is a stand-alone application, I am guessing that is may have been done in Java, since there are Mac and PC versions and it's interface is not entirely adherent to the Apple Interface Guidelines (a.k.a. not quite Mac-like). What's great about BookSmart is that you can access photos from a variety of sources – iPhoto, Flickr, Picassa, SmugMug, as well as pictures on your hard drive not in iPhoto. Again, like iPhoto, you can begin the process of laying out your pages right away.

You can choose one of fifteen themes. Of course, like clip art, it's always hard to find one just right for your project, but I selected one that I thought would work with an album that was youth-orientated. Once on a page, you can live-preview the different background colors, patterns, page ornaments and photo borders, with many more options than iPhoto. Here's a cool feature, you can make almost an unlimited amount of variations, since you can change the foreground and background color of each item (where applicable) and apply those changes to each page individually or to the whole document. Nice.

In my opinion, however, I found the layouts to not be very conducive to the photo book layout style. They were too often not the right proportion for the photo, causing unnecessary cropping, or having to shrink them too see the whole image, or had too much area dedicated to text. In their attempt to be artsy, I think they lost sight of the goal – to display photos in a efficient yet pleasing manner, with room for a little tweaking. Again, it seems like more of a written book app.

Headers and footers work in a similar way, allowing you to change individual pages or the whole book, with control over font, size color, alignment, line spacing and indenting. You also have a pop-up index for layout categories and a thumbnail of each layout, split vertically on the left with thumbnails of your photos. You can elect to hide the used photos so that you don't have to scroll as much, a feature all the services but iPhoto seem to have, though iPhoto does mark the photos you've used (but so do the others).

Since this is a layout tool and not an image editing app, you need to adjust your photos in another app like iPhoto, Photoshop, Graphicconverter, etc. before importing. But while in the program, you can zoom, move, rotate and flip within the frame borders. You can view page in single, spread or thumbnail modes. BookSmart also warns you of low-resolution images. It too has auto flow, but I didn't even bother trying it. There is an auto-save feature, which is nice and the ability to zoom your pages, import additional photos and invite contributors to add to your book.

You lose two pages at the beginning to the title page and copyright page. And you can't hide the Blurb logo on the copyright and back pages without spending more money. Humph. I don't like having branding forced on me, but I wasn't going to pay more. Oddly, I couldn't find mention to what the premium charge actually was on the website, it just said I could drag and drop my own logo if I wanted. If they no longer charge for this, they certainly should update the application.

While I'm at it, another thing that can be both good and bad is that if you use an iPhoto album, it knows when you have modified photos in the album, and will ask you if you want to update the photo in the current album. A couple of times it seems to ask for a few then stop, so I wasn't sure if it updated all the changed ones or not. And it really doesn't understand multiple iPhoto databases, so be sure you are in the correct one before opening the app or it ask to change all your photos to the ones it finds in the current catalog.

Next, a click of the button and you are in Preview mode. After review, you can then place an order for a book. If there are issues, a warnings dialog will display, and then a checklist of things to review in order to get the most out of the service. Then you sign in or sign up and upload your masterpiece. Afterwards, you go to the website to order the book. Upon completion, you are sent a confirmation and later a shipping notification with tracking number (with link) and link back to your account.

I received the book the day after the iPhoto book after being ordered the same day. Again, not too bad. It came in a plain brown cardboard book box, and inside it was nestled in several layers of bubble wrap. There was a Blurb bookmark inside the front cover. The end pages were plain white. The cover was some kind of coated fiber or vinyl. Seems pretty durable. No printing on the cover. The glossy slip cover had a photo on the front with the title on it as well as on the spine, no printing on the back (my choice since it was text only), but with photos and text on the inside flaps. At 8 x 10, it's smaller than the other books and it's a noticeable difference. Photos on the whole appeared a little on the dark side, the paper quality felt nice, thick and smooth.

There a lot of positive things to say about Blurb publishing. The BookSmart software has way more features than iPhoto, can import from many popular sources, is available cross platform, and you can have up to 40 pages (twice more than any other service reviewed) for the same price. Wow. For volume, you can't beat that. However, the un-Mac like interface, slowness, odd uses of photo frames and layouts, having to use the applications and the web to place an order, as well as the smaller print size leaves me wanting more. Maybe future upgrades will address some of these issues.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

If a Picture is Worth a Thousand Words...

What is a book full of pictures worth? That's what I'm going to be looking at over the next few weeks as I delve into online photo books. After getting the suggestion from my wife that she wanted some of the 1,200 or so of our digital photos printed out, I started looking at several methods and sources. Of course, as an Apple user, the first place I turned to was Apple's iPhoto. But then as I was looking around at some of the other picture services, I found several others that also offer photo books (like Blurb, Kodak and SnapFish) and several more after that (like Photoworks, Viovio, Lulu and Shutterfly).

The only way I figured I could compare the products was to actually have the same photos printed by each company and then look at the actual results, so that's what I did. I used the first four to start me off. I may do the others as well, but it's an expensive proposition. If I get a lot of feedback, maybe I will. So I started with about 80-90 photos and wanted to lay them out in the default number of pages offered (20 pages seems the default), in a hard cover print option, as close to 8.5 x 11 as possible. The soft covers were typically $10 cheaper, but of course, more fragile.

I developed some ground rules for the study. I will discuss three primary areas 1.) layout software, 2.) purchasing and shipping and 3.) product quality. Lastly, I will offer any general comments I may have. Sound good to you? Ok, let's go! Oh, I forgot to mention that for the sake of length, I will be discussing one vendor per article, so hang in there.

Company: Apple
Binding: Soft, Hard, Spiral
Size: 8.5 x 11 (landscape) comes in smaller sizes as well
Cost: $19.99, $29.99, $19.99
Added Pages: $.69, $.99, $.69
Shipping: $7.99 via Fedex
Max Pages: 100 (50 sheets double sided)
Layout Software: iPhoto

Where else would I start? We have been taking digital pictures for the last 6+ years and have been keeping them in iPhoto. When it came time to decide to print them into photo books, it was natural to look at the options there first. I have to hand it to Apple, it was simply a breeze to do this. First, I organized the pictures by year using Smart Albums. Then I selected the album and clicked "Book." This made a new book project with those photos. Then I picked a design theme. It offered at that point to flow the photos into the book for me, so I tried that first. Never let a program do your designing. It used up more pages than necessary and couldn't interpret the content of the photos, so it had no means of grouping the photos by event. Besides, it's fun to layout the pages – especially in iPhoto.

You have the editing power of iPhoto at your fingertips at any time to crop, rotate, fix red-eye, add effects and adjust the color settings of each photo. Inside the book you can zoom the photos in frames, and move them around inside the frames. Pretty much all the page layouts have caption and non-caption versions and actually are arranged with the mind of a designer. What's amazingly cool is that the layout software seems to anticipate your requests. When you add a vertical picture, it adjusts the layout accordingly, when you pick several pictures, it attempts to determine the best layout for the selected items. It even appeared to anticipate the layout based on the next few photos in the album. I'm sure I saved a lot of time testing different options because of this. The style dictates the type, size and position and borders of the photos on the layouts, but you still have color options for the backgrounds. You can even use an image as a background and fade it back as desired.

And since it is a local application, it was fast. There was even a warning when your photo was not of high enough resolution to print well at the size on the layout – a must for this type of work. Another plus, there was no logging in or registering or uploading of photos before you started – you just began laying them out. There is the ability to swap between the pages and the source photos at the top (like the clips and the timeline in iMovie 6) and seeing your work in progress at the bottom, always visible (no having to go to Preview mode). Page numbers are automatic and optional as well as the Apple logo. They print on the cover as well as the slip cover (you can even add photos and text on the inside flaps). It allows for a title page with intro as well as the content on the inside flap, so you can write about the author... you!

Ordering the book was easy. While still within iPhoto you simply click the Buy Book button and let the software walk you through. If you have an Apple ID already (say for .Mac or iTunes) you log in, otherwise you create an account. It's only after you purchase the book that the photos are uploaded – the only service to do this other than Blurb. On a Broadband connection, it only took a few minutes to upload. You do have a Broadband connection by now, don't you? You then receive an email confirmation of the purchase and an email when it is shipped, along with a tracking number and a link to the tracking service. Details, details.

I ordered the first four books all on the same day, January 4, 2008. I received the Apple book on January 15. That's 7 business days from order to delivery. Not bad. It came first in a plain cardboard box to reveal an even nicer Apple messenger-style, white and silver box nice enough for gift giving. The book itself was inside wrapped in a resealable clear-plastic envelope. The book has silver end papers and is foil stamped with the title (no spine printing) on suede-like material with the printed slip cover (which does have spine printing). The attention to detail is what makes this book stand out. Is there anything I would add or fix? Sure. First off, mirrored layouts or a button that flips layouts horizontally. It would have been nice to balance the page spreads. Also, I have read and heard that the images should be lightened overall to improve print quality, which tends slightly to be dark. Why not have an auto brightness checkbox for the book? And in this particular book, the red seems to be a bit on the strong side. Other than that, I am perfectly happy with the results.

The old adage still applies, G-I-G-O (garbage in, garbage out). If you start with low res or blurry pictures, they won't magically get better when printed. But that being said, I could see all the subjects pretty well, even the out of focus ones. Make sure to use a 3MP or better camera if you plan on using one of these services. Overall, I really enjoyed using iPhoto, and believe me, I had plenty of practice since I made 7 photo books in all. It's not the cheapest service, but it's not outrageously expensive either. And the ease of use and quality make up for the difference in price. Sadly, there is no PC version of iPhoto or they could corner the market on this industry. Stay tuned for next week's review and please send me your experiences and comments. I will also have a downloadable spreadsheet of the results as well at the end.