Squeezing that Notebook Battery for Everything It’s Got

Apple PowerBook Battery in BoxBattery life has got to be one of the most affective aspects of a mobile computer’s performance. Often, it’s not how well a notebook performs unplugged, it’s how long it’ll actually stay lit through that trans-continental flight that really matters.

There are endless myths about what can keep your mobile unit going longer, one of which I find ironically manifest in the PC notebook: the hardware Wifi switch. So I was quite interested by a very scientific analysis that Tablet PC Review published this morning.

In “Tablet PC Battery Life: How Wireless Affects Power Consumption,” they found that wireless components really don’t suck as much power as many people believe (or even as much as would warrant a hardware switch). Instead, they basically confirmed a set of rules that I live by to conserve power on a portable unit:

  1. Dim the lights! Your LCD screen is a power pig. Reducing its brightness to as minimal a level as possible results in massive power savings.
  2. Turf the disc. Leaving an unused DVD or CD in an optical drive can kill a battery fast.
  3. Drive slowly. Underclocking your CPU will buy tons of time and have a very minimal impact on your workflow.

If you have a notebook computer and need it to stay alive for as long as possible without its power cord, adopt these three simple rules. You can tinker with Wifi and Bluetooth all you want, but these services offer only meager power savings in comparison to the three I’ve listed above.

Supercharged iPhoto Keywords

Keyword ManagerThe lamest thing about iPhoto is its keywording functionality.

It’s quite surprising, actually, considering how much benefit a more advanced keyword system could bring to other, more capable features like smart albums.

I investigated using Aperture as an alternative. Unfortunately this pro-level software from Apple is extremely resource intensive. With just a few thousand photos loaded into its library, Aperture brought my dual-core Power Mac G5 to a grinding halt. In comparison, iPhoto handles my 33,000+ photo library without issue. I also took a look at Adobe’s Lightroom, but didn’t like the photo management process it tried to force me into.

So I was pretty stoked to find a way to supercharge iPhoto’s keyword capabilities a few months back.

Keyword Manager is a plug-in for iPhoto from Swedish developers Bullstorm that provides keywording capabilities that rival either Aperture’s or Lightroom’s. It doesn’t operate very differently than iPhoto’s built-in keyword system, save for the fact that it uses semi-transparent “Heads-up Displays” (HUDs) for its interface. It also ties in very nicely with other Mac OS apps like Address Book to automatically draw in information like the names of photo subjects.

I’ve read in online forums that some people find the $19 licensing fee a bit steep for this product. But when you consider it could potentially save you the upgrade cost to either Aperture or Lightroom if all you want is better keyword capabilities, then it’s a very small price to pay.

Good-Bye Mouse and Keyboard, Hello Fingers

Let Your Fingers Do the WalkingI like my fingers.

They can do really cool things, like tickle my son, or point a visitor in the right direction. They help me figure out a melon’s ripeness. They’re good at manoeuvring a thread through the eye of a needle.

In fact, my fingers are really quite capable of a wide variety of wonderful things. I bet yours are, too.

It’s nice to see that the technology industry is finally figuring this out. More and more devices are being introduced that can truly be called digit-al (get it?).

Because of this I’d say we’re on the cusp of a minor computing revolution.

The method of controlling technology by moving your fingers over a screen is called “touch computing,” and it will soon liberate us all from the painful limitations of the keyboard and mouse.

Touch computing isn’t especially new. We’ve had touch screens on kiosks for years and even my own mobile phone, a 2-year-old Palm Treo, is touch-capable.

The difference is that “touch” is no longer such a specialty technology. It’s becoming more accessible to the finger-tips of average consumers. It’s also becoming more capable, having matured through its use in niche technologies such as the Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC).

UMPCs are basically handheld computers. However, most don’t offer a trackpad or keyboard, as you’d find on a laptop. Instead, they are driven by touch, typically with a stylus, which is basically a plastic, inkless pen. Of course, fingers work too, but with less precision.

Despite their styluses, UMPCs are not great for “digital ink,” or actually writing on the screen. They use “passive” touch displays, which cannot discriminate what type of object is touching them.

That’s where the Tablet PC comes in. They’re larger, more the size of a standard notebook computer, and they typically don’t respond to fingertip touch. Instead, the Tablet PC is operated using an intelligent stylus that communicates with the “active” touch screen. As a result, Tablet PCs excel at digital inking.

To date, however, both UMPCs and Tablet PCs have really just replaced the experience of a using a mouse with either a stylus or a finger. While this is still pretty cool, upcoming technology will soon make these devices seem downright old-fashioned.

Apple’s iPhone, for example, is a touch-driven device that can respond to up to 16 simultaneous points of contact. UMPCs and Tablet PCs can handle only one.

That means that you can use multiple-fingers to register control instructions on the iPhone. For example, using a forefinger and thumb together to “squeeze” an image larger and small has been demonstrated.

The iPhone also responds to touch-based gestures. Long lists of items, such as songs or contacts, can be scrolled through by swiping a finger up and down the screen at variable speeds.

Even more interesting, XM (the satellite radio company) recently patented a method of combining touch with the unique attributes of our fingers (PDF).

In essence, each finger would mean something different to a computer. Tapping the screen with your thumb might tune a radio to a particular station, whereas a forefinger might represent a particular phone number you want to dial.

XM’s patent is particularly interesting because it represents the best potential replacement for the physical keyboard.

So far most touch screen devices, including Apple’s iPhone, just fake a keyboard by displaying a graphical representation on-screen. You’re supposed to “type” on the displayed picture.

The problem with this, of course, is the lack of tactility. Because you can’t feel the keys, you really can’t take your eyes away from the screen to be certain you’re hitting the correct characters.

Using XM’s touch method, each finger combination could represent a different letter or symbol. Tapping once with the index finger on your right hand could represent the letter “A,” tapping with both index fingers together could mean “B.” Screen location wouldn’t matter anymore.

In fact, keyboards wouldn’t matter anymore.

Two companies, Toshiba and an Italian design firm called V12, have both demonstrated conceptual laptops that do away with a physical keyboard. Instead, a second display on the bottom of the unit contextually adapts as an input and control device.

For writing, it might display a keyboard. If you’re working with video, it would change into an editing console.

Nintendo’s DS handheld game system is a good example of this two-screen control methodology already on the market.

Considering that the layout of the QWERTY keyboard was originally designed for maximum inefficiency and the mouse only makes use of one of our hands, touch computing offers substantial benefits to computer users.

The only question that remains is, how long until someone invents the ticklish computer?

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, April 6, 2007.

The High Art of Information Integration

Integration by Malcom J. TibbettsI recently spent some time examining the fascinating new Highrise application from Web 2.0 wünderkind 37 Signals. Without a doubt, it’s totally cool. It has that simple, pretty look that all their apps live by and usability was up to their traditionally high level. It has many unique features that I’ve not found in comparable desktop applications.

However, I was struck by how trapped my data felt once I’d input some of it into the web app. Highrise rounds out 37 Signals’ stable of web-based applications nicely, but data integration between the various environments is very poor. For example, I was able to import my contacts from my Basecamp project management environment into Highrise, but the two data environments otherwise exist in isolation and ignorance of one another. I was quite disappointed by this.

As well, if you consider all of the features in their various applications, there’s a fair amount of overlap between them. For example, they all do task lists, but each slightly differently and in complete isolation of one another. Personally, as I look at the various 37 Signals applications (Basecamp, Highrise, Backpack, and Campfire) I want them all under one roof, with fully shared and integrated data. Instead, 37 Signals wants me to invest in a number of different products, each with a unique interaction and data model, with a fairly high degree of data redundancy.

And then there’s that age-old Web 2.0 problem with Highrise: it requires internet connectivity. I suppose this alone is what will keep me using the Mac OS Address Book and .Mac: the natural combination of desktop and web environments.

Recently I’ve spent a lot of time researching full-blown web-based Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems such as Salesforce.com and NetSuite. I find that they all tend to do everything the various 37 Signals apps do, but much better and with a much higher level of integration. In fact, web-based CRMs are all about data integration, it’s their hallmark attribute. Furthermore, these CRM systems are designed for desktop synchronization. They typically work best in a Microsoft environment, such as Outlook, but there is a tool available to hook NetSuite into the Mac OS.

The point of entry for taking advantage of web CRMs is relatively high, ranging anywhere from $45 to $125 per user. However, to attain a similar level of service across all 37 Signals products is even more dear: to go top-of-the-line you’d be looking at a monthly bill of about $260. You could have as many users in the system as you like at that level of pricing, but you’d be giving up desktop accessibility and data integration.

Clearly, the 37 Signals line of products is targeted at a different market than Salesforce.com or NetSuite, so comparisons are somewhat unfair. However, with the addition of Highrise, they are edging in on the territory of these much larger players, and they don’t offer the same range of services, functionality, and features. After all, they do describe it as, “simple CRM.”

I like 37 Signals’ products, I really do. They’re clean, fresh, and easy to use. And to be honest, I really want to use them. However, I’m stymied by their lack of data integration and the fact that they’re completely web-based. To be totally honest, however, I don’t find that any solution on the market totally suits my needs, be it on the desktop or the web. I’m still waiting for the next generation of software that bridges the gap and gives me my data wherever I might be, online or offline, and allows me to easily share it with others.

Bookmarks, Bloody Bookmarks

Bookit IconIt’s not a one-browser world anymore.

Web sites, despite their best intentions, tend to work best in a certain flavour of web browser. Some like Firefox, others like Safari, still others prefer Opera (yeah, go figure). Then there are those times when I personally seek the unique functionality of a particular browser, such as Omniweb‘s “workspaces”

There’s never a moment that I don’t have multiple windows from at least two different browsers open and I often cycle between them without regard for which window belongs to what web browser. Until I go looking for a bookmark, that is. Each browser features its own method of bookmark storage and they simply don’t share real nice. So if I happen to be in Firefox and go looking for a bookmark I stored in Safari, things can get frustrating really fast.

Well, it used to be that way, actually. Recently I came across a killer little app called Bookit from Everyday Software. Bookit is a beauty conduit that maintains perfect bookmark harmony between all my web browsers. And if you subscribe to .Mac, it can maintain this synchronicity across multiple machines, too.

Now my bookmarks are always identical in all my web browsers. So if I save one bookmark in Firefox, I can use Bookit to sync the change across to Safari, Omniweb and even up to .Mac. (And those are just the browsers I use; Bookit also supports Shiira, Camino, Mozilla, iCab, Opera, Internet Explorer and Netscape.)

If you’re a Mac user with multiple browsers in your life, the $12 licensing fee is a small price to pay for an app that makes things so much easier.

It’s 2007. The Yukon is still an internet backwater

Yukon Internet ShackRoughly a decade ago a backhoe dug up some cables in Fort St. John and cut the Yukon off from the internet.

I wonder what’s caused it tonight?

Well, it’s the morning, actually. 1 am to be precise.

I’ve only just managed to get my toddler’s sweltering fever down and him asleep. I’d planned to sneak away for a few hours and finish up some research for this column, which was originally about the future of computer user interfaces. But it seems that won’t be happening. I can’t load any web pages other than the Yukon Government’s or Northwestel’s (read: local stuff).

So instead I’m forced to explore why Yukoners must still endure only one internet connection that continues to be legendary for its lack of stability. Continue reading

Apple iCal + Google Calendar = True Love

Apple iCal Icon“Hey, you got your chocolate in my peanut butter!”

I used to love those ads and, to this day, adore Reese’s Peanut Butter cups as a result.

So it’s kind of cool to find two of my favourite software applications in the same sort of cross-dipping action, thanks to a new intermediary.

My life is in Apple iCal. But I really dig the flexibility and portability of Google Calendar. Until recently I haven’t had much use for the latter environment, as I wasn’t too interested in managing my schedule twice.

Enter Spanning Sync, the magic software that dips iCal in Google Calendar. It’s a delicious treat that automagically syncs calendars between the two environments.

It’s also a good example of what my idea of a quality, shall we say, Web 3.0, app should be: a hybrid desktop/web tool. I’ve been using Spanning Sync for about a week and found it to be flawless. The price is a bit steep, but for this sort of unique solution, it’s worth every penny.

(Yet Another) Yukon Internet Outage?

Internet in the YukonA couple hours ago I arrived back at my Mac to find the internet dead. I reset my ADSL modem and rebooted a few times to no avail. Based on my last incoming email and the RSS feeds in my reader, things went down at about 11:30pm.

An operator at Northwestel told me that, as far as they were concerned, everything was okay. She set me up with a trouble ticket.

It’s 3:15am now and some web sites are becoming accessible. Did my call shake things up, or is it just coincidence? It’s pretty pathetic to consider that end users might represent the company’s network monitoring system.

Either way, it doesn’t matter. The downtime was just enough for me to compose a grumpy column about the lame internet service in the Yukon (I’d originally intended to write about something that required online research, but was stymied by the outage).

Did anyone else in the Yukon experience connection outages overnight tonight (on Thursday)?