Posts From August 2011

Sweet App: Hues for Mac

This Sweet App review is the first in a new type of post I’ll be writing for the site: short, mini-reviews of apps that come across my path. I’ve had it in my head that the only valid software reviews I shall ever publish to shawnblanc.net are ones which exceed 3,000 words. Moreover, I shall only write about apps which have become an integral part of my day-to-day computing life.

Well, that’s baloney. What about the apps I like but which don’t change my life? What about the apps I want to talk about but don’t have 3,000 words for? The weekly Sweet App review is the answer to these conundrums. Enjoy.

Hues

Hues is a simple and useful color finding tool for your Mac. I came across this app when its developer, Zach Waugh, emailed me to let me know about it.

Hues Color Picker for OS X

I like Hues because it has the familiarity of the built-in OS X color-picker tool, yet it with a few special modifications of its own:

  • It gives you the HEX, RGP, and HSL values for any color you pick. Since I design live in a browser having a light-weight app that helps me find colors and their HEX values is super helpful. I’m embarrassed to admit that used to launch Photoshop for the sole purpose of finding a color I liked and copying its HEX value. Needless to say, Hues is much more economical for that purpose than Photoshop is.
  • It has 5 rows for saved swatches instead of one. (Update: news to me is that if you click and drag the little dot underneath the swatch palette you can adjust how many rows of saved swatches are visible.)
  • In the app’s preferences you have the ability to remove any of the color pickers from the toolbar that you don’t use. I, for instance, only ever use the color wheel, so I removed the Sliders, the Palettes, and the Crayons.
  • It works, looks, and feels just like the native color picker, just better.

Hues is $3 in the Mac App Store.

Speaking of things that make you go “huh”, HP is making more TouchPads:

Despite announcing an end to manufacturing webOS hardware, we have decided to produce one last run of TouchPads to meet unfulfilled demand. We don’t know exactly when these units will be available or how many we’ll get, and we can’t promise we’ll have enough for everyone. We do know that it will be at least a few weeks before you can purchase.

Huh. I laughed when I read this. I told Anna about it during dinner and she laughed. It’s funny because it doesn’t make any sense. Didn’t HP have their $99 fire sale so they could unload their inventory of these things and move on?

Perhaps the $99 TouchPad was the fastest-selling item that HP has ever sold. Maybe HP wasn’t expecting the TouchPads to sell so quickly and the sudden rush of attention and sales got them all fired up and now they want to fan the flame and feel that rush one more time.

Chuck the SEO Rapper:

I have a new client with a site that uses Joomla.
I seen that and told him that he sholda’ came soonah.

(Via Noah Stokes.)

Equal Parts Art and Logic

From start to finish I spent about a month building Tools & Toys. It was mostly during weekends and evenings. Working on the site reminded me just how much I love designing.

As much as I love writing there is no denying the fact that it is a quiet and lonely endeavor. When writing, I need long and silent stretches of uninterrupted time. I have to shut off outside communication to avoid distractions that would derail my train of thought.

But designing, at least for me, is much more lively. It’s more inviting for frequent social feedback, and I can design with the music turned up. Moreover, designing uses the right and left sides of my brain in a way that writing does not.

Writing certainly has its creative and problem-solving elements as well, but the way design combines art and logic is different. I enjoy both outlets, but design seems to be more equal parts painting and problem solving, and I love that about it.

What I also love is the way various creative and problem-solving outlets fuel one another. Designing and building Tools & Toys helps me to write better. And being a writer helps me do better design work.

It’s different for everyone, but that’s part of the fun. Don’t you love creativity?

I’ve been selling sponsorships of the RSS feed for almost a year now as one of the primary revenue streams that has enabled me take the site full time. Moreover, the feedback from advertisers has always been positive, and a handful of companies have booked repeat sponsorships.

If you’d like to promote your company, product, or service to an audience of nearly 11,000 daily readers then right now is a great time to book a week-long, exclusive sponsorship.

And here’s some good news: as of last week there is a new format for the sponsorships. The “thank you” post goes up on Monday and is more like a mini-review of the sponsored product. This has quickly proven to be more interesting for readers and more effective for sponsors.

So, in short, readership is up, the format is improved, and the value is higher. Click through for more details and to get in touch.

The Amazon Tablet

There is something fun about speculating and guessing. It’s part wish-list and part wild guess, and it’s fun to see how things actually turn out. And so, in the spirit of enjoyable speculation, here are my thoughts on the Amazon Tablet.

Right now there seems to be three potential concepts for what this rumored Kindle Tablet will be:

  1. A full-fledged tablet, powered by Android and with an LCD screen and glass display. (Basically Amazon’s entry to the tablet market.)

  2. An improved version of the current Kindle: one with no physical keyboard, a touch-sensitive black & white, e-ink display. (Basically Amazon’s version of the Nook Simple Touch.)

  3. Something in the middle. Like option number 2 but with color e-ink.

As someone who owns an iPad already, option 3 sounds the most appealing to me. A device like this would have all the advantages of the current Kindle (such as its light weight, low price, long battery, and great use as a reading device), plus some new advantages (such as color display and no keyboard). However, as Marco points out, the cost of color e-ink is still very high and its response time on a display is still very laggy. In short, color e-ink is still too expensive and poor in performance for a Kindle. So option 3 is likely out.

Marco is convinced option 1 is what it will be. And, while I think it is very likely that we’ll see a full-fledged tabled device with Amazon’s name on it, I have a hard time seeing it as being interesting at all.

But that doesn’t mean it won’t sell well. Again, Marco:

If Amazon can deliver a $249 tablet that does a serviceable job for reading books, browsing some top newspapers and magazines, watching movies and TV shows, and playing some casual games, that’s going to be very attractive to a lot of people.

We know for sure that the Amazon Tablet will have at least two things going for it:

  • The Amazon brand and ecosystem: which is strong, has a great reputation, and people love their Amazon Kindles. Regardless of the details about what the device looks like, how much it costs, etc., Amazon is one of a few tech companies with a household name and a positive reputation.

  • The Price: Every rumor and speculation I’ve heard has pegged the Kindle Tablet as being somewhere around $250 or less.

Perhaps it will be cheaper than an iPad, and perhaps it will be better than all the other me-too Android tablets out there. But I simply cannot imagine what would be compelling about a full-fledged Amazon tablet, powered by Android, other than the fact it would be cheap and carry the Amazon brand and ecosystem.

If Amazon is going to make an inexpensive device that is backed by their brand and ecosystem, then why not make a better Kindle rather than a crappy tablet? Is the Kindle market saturated? Are they trying to increase the perceived value of the Kindle by making a secondary, more expensive device?

However, if the full-fledged tablet idea is not true, and they are just going to make a better Kindle then why did they set up the Amazon Appstore?

Here’s a thought: what if the there are two future Kindles: something like a Kindle Touch and Kindle Touch HD.

Or, put another way, what if Amazon shipped both option 1 and option 2 above?

The Kindle Touch (option 2 above) would be black and white e-ink technology, no keyboard, and a touchscreen. The Kindle Touch HD (option 1 above) is the full-fledged tablet device.

And if the Kindle Touch HD were a 7-inch tablet, then that would help make it lighter and easier to hold (one of the biggest strengths of the Kindle and biggest complaints against the iPad as a reading device).

But what about the Retina Display iPad?

There is another elephant standing just outside the room: the iPad 3. An iPad with a Retina Display is Apple’s answer to the Kindle.

If and when the next iPad ships with its Retina Display, it will obviate the need for a “better” dedicated reading device in the minds of many consumers. Amazon doesn’t need another me-too tablet. They need something that pulls on all the strengths they already have: the high readability of e-ink, a low price, lightweight, a huge ecosystem, and a strong brand. If not that, then what?

Fantastic, poetic article on Steve Jobs by Jean-Louis Gassée.

I now publish two websites: shawnblanc.net and Tools & Toys.

Tools & Toys is a collection of items for the pickiest of gadget geeks, software aficionados, snowboard junkies, music lovers, writers, coffee nuts, and all around collectors of fine paraphernalia.

This new site is going to be a lot of fun. The writing is brief, relaxed and playful, and all the items posted are awesome. I hope you enjoy it.

You should follow along via RSS and Twitter.

How Jobs planned to spend his first day as an ex-CEO. (Via Viticci.)

My thanks to Alex Solonsky for sponsoring the RSS feed this week to promote his iPhone app, Saver.

Saver is, by far, the most attractive and clever expense-tracking app I have seen on the iPhone. It’s been featured by Apple, has been ranked as the #1 Financial App in iTunes, and has been praised by the likes of MacStories, Minimal Mac, and The iPhone Blog.

With its completely custom UI, Saver looks simply fantastic. It has a similar feel to what you would see from a Tapbots app, but custom designs in Saver are not quite as as heavy handed. And the design and attention to detail are still top-notch. It’s an app full of subtle animations and well-placed pixels, and they all add up to something wonderful. Only an iOS developer would take the time and the care to build a financial app that is so splendid looking.

But it’s not all looks — the functionality of Saver has also been well-designed. Regardless of the task — adding expenses, viewing past transactions, getting a high-level look at your budget, etc. — the app is fast and easy to navigate.

Here are a few things about saver that I find especially clever:

  • When looking at the overview of your budget, Saver shows you a colorful pie chart. Tapping on a color of the pie chart drills down to a detailed view of that category’s expenses.

  • Saver gets iPhone users: there’s an iTunes category that has sub-categories for music, movies, shows, Apps, and books. Clever.

  • You can set which startup screen you prefer. Most financial apps like this insist on believing that when you launch the app it must be so you can see the money you’ve spent. But 9 times out of 10 you’re launching the app so you can quickly add a new expense and be done with it.

    Since Saver lets you choose which screen you want to appear when you launch the app, you can tell it to bring up the New Entry pane upon launch. This way you launch it, add a transaction, and be on your way.

  • Automatic data backup to their secure servers. In case you don’t plug your iPhone in to your computer often (I sure don’t), Saver has an option to do OTA backups to

  • You can set a 4-digit passcode for when you launch the app.

  • You can add you own tags to expenses by sliding the tag chart over to the left and then tapping and holding on one of the three dots. Moreover you can add a note for each transaction, and you can even snap a photo or add a photo from your iPhone’s camera library. This is great for snapping a photo of a potentially-important receipt and then tossing the physical copy of it. (Lord knows I don’t like to keep receipts around, but sometimes there are ones which you know you’ll need.)

I see Saver as having a use case for both those with a complex budget, as well as for those with simpler budgeting needs. For the former, you likely already use an online or desktop financial tracking app — in which case Saver makes a great companion for helping keep track of where we spend that cash which is so good at burning a hole in our pockets. And for those with simpler budgeting needs, what better tool to keep track of your monthly spending than with an app that is with you all the time?

This week Alex is doing a giveaway to help promote Saver. Check out the Saver website for details.

If you don’t want to wait on, or take your chances in the giveaway, you can grab Saver for just $3 in the App Store.

Because you’re never too old to play with Legos. (Via Kottke.)

I’m embarrassed to admit that I think Dan’s right. And by embarrassed I mean that I’ve been assuming that an “Amazon Tablet” would be just another Android Tablet Device Flavor of the Week that just so happened to be powered by many of Amazon’s services. But what Dan is proposing makes a lot more sense. Dan and I may be eating ours words later, but I hope not. I hope Dan is right about the “Kindle Tablet Whatever It May Be”. And if he is, I’d buy two of them: one for me and one for my wife. And my iPad would likely get a little bit dusty (sorry, boy).

Another action-packed episode:

Shawn and Ben start with some Keyboard Maestro tricks as weed whackers run in the background. Then they start talking about the new The Brooks Review design(s) and blog design in general. Shawn gives us a sneak listen to his LaunchBar review that he has been working on like it’s TextMate 2. And, of course, we talk about Steve Jobs and Shawn shares some very insightful thoughts on the timing of his resignation as CEO of Apple.

Brought to you by the heroes at Paste Interactive.

Fantastic article by MG Siegler on the timing of Steve Job’s resignation. This is the best piece I’ve read so far on the news this week; I wish I had written it.

Macchiato is a simple and beautiful Markdown editor. Designed for a clean and pleasant writing experience, Macchiato is a tool made by and for the modern nerd: The coffee-drinking, Markdown-writing, shawnblanc.net and Instapaper-reading Apple lover.

TextEdit is neat and Pages is powerful, but Macchiato is an app that is one hundred percent focused on creating the ultimate Markdown-writing environment. What’s even better is that, this week, Macchiato is 25% off, so check it out on the Mac App Store!

Daniel Bogan’s Sweet Mac Setup

Who are you, what do you do, etc…?

I’m a web dork living in San Francisco, avoiding the sunlight and working for Flickr (primarily as the dude who breaks the site most often – sorry about that). As a side project I interview all sorts of people about their hardware and software three times a week.

I live near a park with three dogs, two kittens and one wife. I like coffee. A LOT. And you. But not you.

What is your current setup?

Daniel Bogan Sweet Mac Setup

Daniel Bogan Sweet Mac Setup

Quad-core i7 15 inch Macbook Pro. My last Pro had issues with the NVIDIA card, so this is a very very new beast. It’s pleasantly shiny and speedy and un-kernel-panic-y, which is nice. A Nikon D5000 and an iPhone. ATH-FC700A headphones (I am constantly destroying headphones somehow, but these are both my favourite and also not broken, so). A Time Capsule for backups/wifi, an Apple TV and a Mac Mini for streaming/watching stuff. That’s pretty much it; I like simple and minimal.

At home I sit on the floor with the laptop in my lap. I should probably think about a desk and a chair or whatever it is people use.

Why this rig?

Truth be told, if I wasn’t such a tragic, obsessive video gamer I’d totally gun for an Air, but I need a decent enough graphics card (obviously) so I stick with the Pros. I also hate the idea of having multiple computers and I tend to use this one for both fun and for work (my actual work one is a very very very old Pro with the silver keyboard that lives a quiet life in a drawer in my desk at FlickrHQ), so I stick with laptops.

What software do you use and for what do you use it?

Some sort of text editor, mostly. I’m actually having a bit of a crisis of faith over which one to use, which sounds a lot lamer when I type it out. TextMate, usually, though it likes to choke to death on enormous projects (like, say, seven years worth of Flickr code) when regaining focus. I’ve tried neckbearding in vim, but the whole home row key thing really messes with my head (I type like a mutant, I guess). Currently I’m sticking with TextMate because I have a nice custom bundle set up for work, and I’m so used to it.

Chrome for browsing, because I love the omnibar. Adium for annoying people online in real-time, because it’s multi-protocol and works well. The official Twitter client nee Tweetie for annoying people in almost real-time. Colloquy for IRC. Boot Camp and Windows 7 and Steam for gaming. So much gaming. Aperture for storing my photos and punting ‘em to Flickr — it’s pretty good, though a little slow at times. I use the new Mail in Lion for work email, and it’s pretty awesome. iTerm 2 for nerding it up (mostly for committing code or publishing interviews).

Google Apps for email and calendar fun times, mostly accessed via the browser. And I use CalendarBar to — in theory — keep track of calendars via the menubar. I’m also using OfflineIMAP to slurp in all my mail locally, just in case. Not that I don’t trust Google, or anything. Yeah.

A tag-team combination of Time Machine and CrashPlan for backing up our laptops at home.

I keep my notes and to-do lists stored in SimpleNote, which is amazing – it’s syncing that actually, like, y’know, works. On the Mac I use Notational Velocity and on the iPhone I’m actually accessing it via Listary, which lets you interpret selected notes as to-do lists. I love it — I use it to keep track of who I’ve interviewed on The Setup and which groceries I’ve forgotten to buy yet again.

Oh, and LaunchBar for launching apps — I am so totally not taking advantage of all the power under that little popup bar, that’s for sure.

How does this setup help you do your best creative work?

Everything just works!

How would your ideal setup look and function?

This is pretty much it. Faster and faster Interweb pipes would be nice. I basically want less stuff, not more, so give me a laptop with power and Internets and some puppies and kittens and I’m golden.

More Sweet Setups

Daniel’s setup is just one in a series of sweet Mac Setups.

Quoting Tim from Apple’s earnings call in January 2009:

And the values of our company are extremely well-entrenched. You know, we believe we’re on the face of the Earth to make great products, and that’s not changing. We’re constantly focusing on innovating. We believe in the simple, not the complex. We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products that we make, and participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution. We believe in saying no to thousands of projects, so that we can really focus on the few that are truly important and meaningful to us. We believe in deep collaboration and cross-pollinization of our groups, which allows us to innovate in a way others cannot. And frankly, we don’t settle for anything less than excellence in every group in the company, and we have the self-honesty to admit where we’re wrong, and the courage to change.

And I think regardless of who is in what job, those values are so embedded in this company that Apple will do extremely well.

Cook’s official bio was updated last night along with the Apple Leadership webpage.

The poem David Pogue wrote for Macworld in 1999.

Culture

Last night, when I heard the news that Steve Jobs was stepping down as CEO, I was out with a friend. The first thing he asked me was, “Does this mean Google is going to take over?” A few minutes later, I got a text from someone else: “Does this mean the iPhone 5 is going to be delayed?” The answer to both of those questions is, of course, no.

When Steve Jobs returned to pilot Apple 15 years ago he pulled the company up from a nose dive. It was a huge comeback, and since Apple prides itself in its secrecy, we mostly see the public-facing products of that comeback. We see OS X, the PowerBooks, the MacBooks, the iPod, iTunes, iPhone, the iPad, and iCloud. And we think that without Steve none of these products would ever have happened. And that is true.

It raises the question: “Without Steve as CEO, what about the next 15 years of Apple products?”

What Steve has done over the past 15 years to build up the company is not only found in the software and hardware that Apple has made. His work is also found in the values and goals of the company itself.

There is more than one person in Cupertino who cares about quality, craftsmanship, art, and innovation in Apple’s products. Steve’s values for product design, user experience, and changing the world are seeded all throughout the company. His world-famous attention to detail is something that his fellow employees hold as a standard, not a burden. His painstaking determination to constantly improve and simplify the user experience is why people go to work there.

Steve isn’t holding Apple on his shoulders any longer. He’s built it up so it can stand on its own. And in the midst of all his innovations and ideas, perhaps the greatest “product” Steve Jobs has built isn’t a product at all — it’s a culture.

See? He hasn’t always worn a black turtleneck.

He’s not quitting nor is he leaving the company. He’ll serve as “Chairman of the board, director and Apple employee.”

We all knew this announcement would come sooner or later, and no doubt it will bring with it a lot of negative press and speculation about the future of Apple. People already think it’s a fluke that Apple is so wildly successful and they like to attribute it to the “Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field”.

In his resignation letter, Steve wrote:

I believe Apple’s brightest and most innovative days are ahead of it. And I look forward to watching and contributing to its success in a new role.

Agreed. Apple will be fine and continue to be wildly successful. It’s Steve whom we all hope is okay.

“Consuming Content”

There is a common phrase that, though it makes sense as to its usage, doesn’t seem like the best option. The phrase is “consuming content”.

We say “consuming content” as a way to sum up the act of reading, listening, viewing, and other ways of taking in various forms of media and entertainment. We keep using that phrase. I do not think it means what we think it means.

Consume (verb): eat, drink, or ingest (food or drink); buy; use up.

Content (noun): everything that is included in a collection and that is held or included in something.

To say that I am “creating content” for this website is a fancy way of saying that I’m writing. The phrase creating content could be boiled down to simply creating. Or, when we talk about creating content, why not be more specific? Writing, drawing, designing, building, working.

If you were to say that you are “consuming the content” on this website, it would be a fancy way of saying you are reading. But consuming has far more relation to food than it does to words. It would be awkward for me to say that this website doesn’t have readers, it has consumers.

On the other hand, it would not be as awkward for someone to say they are “consuming a novel”. Though there are better ways to say it. In context the meaning of the phrase is meant to imply that the novel is fantastic and the reader is reading it quickly and eagerly. Therefore, in place of the word “consume”, perhaps “devour” would be better — “I am devouring this novel.” Or, if you simply must use consume, how about: “This novel has consumed me.”

Where these phrases have especially begun to irk me is in sentences like this: “The iPad is for consuming, not creating.” For one, it’s not true — you can create things using the iPad. And secondly, what does it even mean to say that the iPad is for consuming and not for creating?

Using the current lingo, I would be perfectly in line to say that I use my MacBook Air to create content and my iPad to consume it. However, what I actually mean by that sentence is that I do most of my writing, developing, and designing on my laptop, and I do most of my reading on my iPad.

When people say that the iPad is for consuming and not creating I think what they mean is that it’s better as a reading device than as a writing device; it’s better for watching videos than filming and editing them; it is better for surfing the Web than for building a website.

And I think that is fair. I know in my real-life usage I “consume” on the iPad far more than I “create” on it. But I long for a better way to describe that. A description that is more in line with what it actually means. The term “consuming” brings with it the idea of haste and need, something I don’t wish to imply when what I’m actually doing is enjoying a well-written article while drinking a fresh cup of coffee.

Content is something in a collection. Such as the contents of a magazine, the contents of a library, or the contents of my Instapaper queue. A magazine may be full of content that I read, but when would I ever say that I am “consuming content” when what I’m actually doing is “reading a magazine”? Moreover, when we use a blanket statement like “consuming content” to say what the iPad is for, then it brings in other actives and media types such as reading books and watching movies.

Would I say that Last of the Mohicans is “content”? Of course not. It’s a movie; it’s art. I’m not “consuming content” when I go to the movies — I am “watching a movie”.

On my computer I do create things — sometimes it is content for my website, but sometimes it is something else. On my iPad I don’t “consume content”. I read, I watch, I share, I learn.

A winning combination: vintage, design, and Volkswagen. (Via Antonio Carusone.)

Ryan Cash asked me some great questions about writing and life.

I type like Randy does: with the my pointer, middle, and ring fingers while staring at the virtual keyboard. And I would add another iPad typing tip: cut your fingernails.

But you know what? Even after using the iPad for a year and a half, I rarely ever type long-form on it. Yes I got the memo that the iPad is for creating and not just consuming, but in real life I mostly consume. (Speaking of which, we need a new phrase to replace “consuming content”.)

Add this tip to that beloved list of Little Ways to Simplify, Tidy, and De-clutter Your System.

And, so long as we’re on the subject, here’s another new-to-me tip: Not only does TextExpander not have to sit in your Dock, it doesn’t have to sit in your Menu Bar either. Just go to TextExpander’s Preferences → Appearance → Un-check “Show TextExpander in menu bar”.

I am only taking t-shirt orders for one more day. The shirts go to print this Wednesday morning and will begin shipping around the second weekend in September. If you don’t order yourself a handsome t-shirt by Tuesday night then you’ll have to wait until next time.