Entourage and Google Calendar, (still) all sync’ed up

Spanning Sync 3Back in late 2008 I wrote a post about how I kept my Entourage and Google calendar in sync using a utility called Calgoo Connect. The process worked really well and the post generated quite a bit of interest from people who were in the same boat. A year and a half later and things have moved on, the most notable change being that Calgoo Connect for the Mac is no longer available. Not to worry though, if you still use Entourage and Google Calendar and you want to keep the two in step, then there s another way to do it using a neat utility called Spanning Sync.

Now the important thing to note here is that what we are doing here is taking your Entourage calendar and your Google calendar and effectively combining them into a single unified calendar. Unlike BusyCal (another great app I use) which lets you publish and subscribe to calendars so you can update them in multiple places, Spanning Sync keeps things neat by letting you ‘merge’ your Google and Entourage calendars into one. It’s actually a lot more powerful than that, but we’ll keep it simple for now. Like before, this method actually uses iCal on your Mac as a ‘conduit’ for the sync process, however you don’t need to be an iCal user of even open it up, except perhaps initially to check that everything is working ok. So, an overview of what  we’re looking at is as follows:

Calendar Sync Workflow

Keeping Entourage and Google Calendar in sync

Basically you keep Entourage and iCal in sync using functionality built in to Entourage itself, then you keep iCal and Google Calendar in sync using Spanning Sync. So how do we do that?

Well the fist step is to configure Entourage to talk to iCal by going in to the Preferences in Entourage and under General Preferences select the Sync Services heading just like in the picture below. Then it’s as simple as ticking the box that says ‘Synchronize events and tasks with iCal and MobileMe’. Don’t worry about MobileMe for now, if you don’t have a MobileMe account it will just be ignored.

Entourage Preferences

Getting Entourage and iCal to talk to each other

Ok at this point your Entourage calendar should be visible within iCal and you can check by launching iCal and under the Calendars heading on the left, make sure there is a check mark against the entry labeled Entourage. You should actually see any entries from your Entourage calendar showing up in your iCal calendar in whatever colour you’ve chosen (mine seems to default to purple). At this point you can forget about iCal and close it down again as the next step is to configure Spanning Sync.

Ok you’ve downloaded and installed Spanning Sync so at this point you need to tell it how to sync the Entourage calendar on your Mac with whichever calendar in Google you have chosen to sync with. Let’s assume you have already set up a Google calendar which you’ve called ‘Entourage’. Open Spanning Sync by going to the Apple menu and choosing System Preferences and then under the Other heading at the bottom of your System Preferences window choosing Spanning Sync. The first thing you need to do is tell Spanning Sync about your Google account by giving it your Google user name and password. Once you’ve done that it will go off and find your Google calendar(s). Now click on the Calendars tab in Spanning Sync and you should see a list of your iCal calendars on the left and your Google calendars on the right.You will see from my example below that I’ve got multiple calendars on both sides, and that my Entourage calendar in Google is actually called ‘Entourage (2)’.

Spanning Sync 1

Specifying which calendars to synchronize in Spanning Sync

Tick the box that says Sync Calendars then choose your Entourage calendar under the iCal Calendars heading. Now you can choose which Google calendar you want to synchronize with, so look for your Entourage calendar under the Google Calendars heading and choose that one. You should end up with something like the entry highlighted in blue in the picture above. Remember, because the two calendars you choose to will be synchronized, they effectively become a single calendar (which is actually what you want). Obviously you need to think about any entries you already have in the two calendars.

Spanning Sync gives you a lot of control over how the synchronization takes place. You can sync from your local calendar to Google, from Google to your local calendar or both ways (which is probably what you want). Here you also choose whether you want to sync alarms and items in the past. Once you’ve entered the settings you want, just click the Sync Now button and let Spanning Sync do its stuff. The final step is then to go back to the Account & Schedule tab in Spanning Sync and choose how often you want the calendars to sync, and that’s pretty much it. There are other options in Spanning Sync which you can explore, for example under the Advanced Settings tab you can elect to start over or overwrite one of your calendars if you’re having a problem. Personally I’ve never had to do this as Spanning Sync has just quietly got on with things, but if you do get stuck you can get help from Spanning Sync themselves or on the forum, or even just by Googling your problem.

Ok, the one thing you need to know is that unlike the old Calgoo Connect solution, Spanning Sync is shareware and so needs to be paid for. Essentially it works by registering your Gmail address as being enabled for synchronization and you have a choice of paying $25 annually or making a one-off payment of $65 for life which is what I chose to do (I’m not planning to ditch my Mac or Google calendar any time soon).

There you have it – your Entourage calendar should now be in perfect harmony whether your using it locally in Entourage on your Mac or via a browser in Google calendar. Spanning Sync will do other things, like sync calendars between multiple Macs as well as syncing contacts (although I figure Google knows enough about me already without knowing who all my contacts are as well). Yes there are other tools that may be free or that go about things differently, but Spanning Sync does what it does nicely and has been pretty much ‘set & forget’ for me. I have to admit that I don’t use Entourage 2008 much these days as I’ve gone back to using Mail.app (because of its unified inbox) and BusyCal (which gives you nice features over and above what iCal does), but Spanning Sync still fits in nicely with my BusyCal usage. I’ve also got MobileMe Sync running in the background, so my calendars are everywhere. I can even access my Entourage calendar via CalenGoo on my iPhone 3G!

I’m also hoping for great things when Microsoft release Outlook for the Mac as part of Office 2011 – could that be what makes me switch back to using a Microsoft mail client?

BenQ G2420HDBL Monitor – not my greatest purchase

SAMSUNG 226BW

Out with the old... (Samsung 226BW)

OK to give it its full title, the BenQ G2420HDBL 24″ Widescreen LED Backlit Monitor, which I bought to replace my 22″ Samsung SM 226BW. The Samsung had been a great monitor and was my first foray into ‘big’ screens. Using it with Windows PCs (yes I was one of them once) and then on my Mac Pro since February 2008, I was really pleased with it. It ticked all the right boxes and gave me many happy hours whiling my life away – it even had real buttons, unlike the somewhat frustrating touch sensitive ones on my 24″ Samsung 2493HM.

Anyway, to cut a long story short the 226BW decided to pack up and it started by flickering for a few seconds after switching on. This became worse until eventually the monitor would be blinking wildly two or three minutes after being turned on so I figured it was on its way out and it was time to replace it. Now this is where I want to have a rant about widescreen… you know, the format that cinema goers have been raving about all these years. My 24″ Samsung 2493HM is my primary monitor and has a proper man-sized resolution of 1920 x 1200, however these days it’s almost impossible to buy a 24″ monitor with that resolution. Why? Because of widescreen. Now I don’t know about you but 85% or more of my time in front of my COMPUTER monitor is spent doing COMPUTER type stuff, you know, email, word processing, surfing the web, etc. When I want to watch movies I go and use my TV. So why must I be forced to have a 1920 x 1080 cinema/TV resolution on my computer?! Those 120 pixels I’ve lost at the bottom of the screen could easily be put to good use for my OS X dock, or my SnowTape window, or my WeatherDock icon, or any number of other useful things. But no, seems that virtually all 24″ computer monitors these days have to come in this wretched cinema/TV resolution. I’d quite happily have a thin black line at the top and bottom of the screen for those few occasions when I do want to watch 1080 line media on my computer, but that doesn’t seem to be the choice any more. To give an example, Overclockers sell no less than eighteen different 24″ monitors, yet only two of them (and the two most expensive ones at that) offer 1900 x 1200 resolution.

...in with the new (BenQ G2420HDBL)

OK rant over, time to choose a 24″ monitor with the obligatory 1920 x 1080 resolution (sorry, off again!). My main requirement is that it had to be VESA compliant as the two monitors on my desk are attached to Ergotron mounts (the Ergotron LX Desk Mount to be precise) rather than using their own stands, and the Ergotron mounts use standard VESA mounting points. Fortunately most monitors do seem to be compliant these days. After much searching I decided to go for the BenQ G2420HDBL because:

  • It was relatively cheap compared to many 24″ screens
  • It uses LED back-lighting which is new technology so it must be good, right?
  • It’s fairly slim & light and is VESA compliant
  • It’s sold by one of my favourite suppliers (Overclockers).

One ‘next day delivery’ later I’m £170 poorer but the proud owner of a new 24″ monitor. My first minor niggle is that the user guide does not tell you how to remove the stub assembly for the stand as it assumes all owners will want to use the desk stand supplied. Even so, it’s fairly easy to work out and within ten minutes of unboxing, the monitor was securely fitted to my Ergotron mount and connected to the Mac. Time to switch on…

Whoaa!! Talk about bright – it’s like these things come out of the factory set up to be used as floodlights!! To cut a long story short, I spend the next hour or more going through various settings trying to get the picture I want and not really getting there. I also spent a long time calibrating it through the Mac, but the end result is… well, disappointing to be honest. It seems the overall picture is a compromise – if you want sensible brightness and contrast levels, then you have to make do with a washed out looking colour palette. If you want vibrant colours, then the picture is just too bright, and the real cruncher is the ‘sharpness’ setting. You can have your fonts soft and ever so slightly fuzzy (Sharpness = 1) or you can have them blotchy and uneven (Sharpness = 5). In the end I’ve settled for a setting of 2 as it seems impossible to get pin sharp black text on a white background, which has never been a problem on any other monitor I’ve owned. To describe the problem, imagine black text printed on ever so slightly absorbent white paper – it ends up ever so slightly blotchy with orange fringing and uneven thickness downstrokes. You have to look closely, but it’s there.

Ergotron LX

Ergotron LX - excellent piece of kit

Of the monitor itself, well it’s pretty slim and light, has a thin gloss black bezel, VGA and DVI-D inputs, and it uses a standard 3-pin ‘kettle’ lead, rather than one of those transformer jobs. There are various picture modes, being – Eco (slightly too bright), sRGB (too dark), Photo (ridiculously bright), Game (also ridiculously bright), Movie (another way too bright one), and Standard which is just about acceptable. Individually you can adjust – brightness, contrast, sharpness, colour (where you can choose from various colour temperature presets), dynamic contrast (not a good idea), H/V position, pixel clock, phase, the various picture modes, on-screen display settings, language and input preferences. It’s all there, and after a short period of time is reasonably intuitive.

So, would I recommend one of these to my friends or would I buy one again with the benefit of hindsight? Simple answer – No. It’s the lack of being able to get crisp black text on a balanced white background and realistic colours all at the same time that puts me off. If you want a middle of the road, cheap(ish) 24″ widescreen (bah!) monitor, then you may be happy with this BenQ model. Personally I’d only give it a 6 or 7 out of 10. Maybe, just maybe I’ll get the picture to just how I want it with a bit more fiddling, trouble is – seems a lot of effort to get something that should come naturally to any half-decent LCD screen these days.

ADDENDUM

BenQ Issue CloseupIt’s very difficult to reproduce a monitor problem so your readers can see what you’re talking about, but I’ve had a go. Using Skitch I have taken a screen grab of an entry in one of my Twitter feeds where you can see the end of the word ‘football’ (no I’m not a fan!). It’s not perfect but it does demonstrate what I mean when I say that text appears muddy and uneven on the BenQ monitor. Enlarged, the final two letters of the word should look identical but they don’t. The first ‘l’ is much more clear and well defined, while the second ‘l’ looks smudged and slightly darker. Note that I am running the BenQ monitor at its native resolution of 1920 x 1080 so there should be no scaling going on.

You can clearly see from the enlargement that the second ‘l’ is a lot less distinct than the first.

One could argue that it’s down to the nVidia graphics card in my early 2008 Mac Pro, however it’s safe to say that no other monitor that I’ve plugged in to this Mac has had the same problem and that includes both my Samsung 22″ and 24″ monitors, plus a Samsung 20″ monitor I tried. All had pin sharp text. Also, what I’m seeing is a horizontal distortion of the text even though the horizontal resolution of the two monitors I’m using right now is the same, i.e. 1920. The final ‘proof of the pudding’ so to speak is that when I drag the Twitter window from the BenQ monitor across to my Samsung monitor, the text is clear, sharp and even on the latter.

ksurl – make yourself at home, take whatever you want…

SubterfugeThe other day I invited some friends round. I cooked them a nice meal and we enjoyed drinks and a movie, then as the hour became late we said our goodbyes promising to catch up again soon. I didn’t realize quite how soon though…  The following day I was working at home as I usually do, when I heard a noise downstairs. On investigating I found that my new friends had let themselves in, were helping themselves to my snacks and were watching a movie on my TV, using my electricity and generally making themselves at home.

Now you might think this is a bit off. It’s one thing to invite your friends round when you’re ready to entertain and give your house over to them, but it’s another thing entirely if they abuse that trust and without so much as a “Please may I…” they just do as they please with your place. Well if like me you’ve tried Google Chrome, then you’ve got these same friends as well!

You see a while ago I installed Google Chrome after reading how quick it is, and how it makes Firefox (my current browser of choice) look Google Chromelike some lardy pizza shop owner. Indeed Chrome does feel quite sprightly, and I must say I do like the Speed Dial extension, which looks far superior to its Firefox counterpart. However what I didn’t realize when I installed Chrome, and which is probably buried in the small print somewhere, is that Chrome will run a process on my Mac even when Chrome itself isn’t even running. It’s called KSURL and at least four times a day it will attempt to call home, presumably to see if there’s a new version of Chrome or some other Google component that needs updating.

In fact, had it not been for Little Snitch blowing the whistle on ksurl, I would never even have known that it was running and helping itself to my Mac’s CPU and memory resources. You see up popped a warning that process ‘ksurl’ was trying to connect to a Google web address (cache.pack.google.com), but looking in Activity Monitor there was nothing, not even when I chose to view all processes rather than just my own. So, even though Chrome isn’t even running, some process has been spawned by installing Chrome, that periodically runs and calls home to see if there’s an update. Ok, the resources used by this process are probably tiny, but that’s not the point. It’s the fact that the authors of Google Chrome decided to let it behave like this – basically to run on your Mac without your knowledge or permission.

Little SnitchNow I’ve got quite a few applications on my Mac that check for updates and the accepted way seems to be a preferences setting that says ‘Automatically check for updates on start-up, or daily, or whatever’. Basically when you run the app then with your permission the first thing it does is to check to see if there’s a newer version of itself. Why isn’t that good enough for Google Chrome? Why do they have to be sneaky about it? Sure there’s a, ‘Update now’ button on the About Chrome dialogue, but if Chrome is constantly checking for updates in the background, then what’s the point? Imagine if every single app you installed on your Mac took the same approach – you could have potentially hundreds of background processes always running, always calling home, always consuming your precious resources.

Now it just remains for me to find the process that triggers these ‘ksurl’ warnings in Little Snitch, so that I can kill it off.

Quickbitz – Steve says…

No not that Steve. Over at TrustedReviews they recently published an article listing ten things they’d change about the iPad. A reasonable list of points, many of which Apple will probably address in due course. What interested me the most however was a comment by someone called Steve that went like this…

“You would have to be insane to buy any first-generation Apple product. The iPad’s inevitable successor will be lighter, thinner, more powerful etc etc etc.”

Has to start somewhere

Let’s think about this for a second. Steve is seriously suggesting that no-one buy any first-generation Apple product. Ok, how does that work? Every single device that Apple makes is initially a first-generation product, in fact pretty much every single piece of technology in the world starts out as a first-generation product. So, following through Steve’s advice – not one single person purchases an iPad when it’s first released. Likewise, every other new product they’ve ever launched remains unsold because people have heeded Steve’s wise words. Result? Apple, unable to sell anything it launched, packed up and went home. There is no MacBook. There is no iMac. There is no iPhone or iPad. There is nothing that is Apple, and certainly no second-generation products.

Are anyone else’s first-generation products any better or is it simply Apple who can’t get it right? Well I don’t think I’ve ever seen a piece of technology that didn’t have shortcomings in it’s early life and that couldn’t be improved upon in subsequent iterations, well except for those products that bombed so badly to start with – like the Sinclair C5 or the Amstrad Email Phone perhaps?

Just because a first-generation product may not be perfect out of the starting gate, doesn’t negate all the good things it does do. I have seen many many positive reviews of the iPad, particularly from open-minded writers who don’t feel the need to bash Apple because it’s fashionable.What’s more, it’s often the experiences and feedback of these ‘insane’ early adopters that drive improvements.

So maybe insane is a good thing…