What’s on my iPhone (3G)?

iPhone screenIt’s fair to say that I take a certain amount of stick for being a Mac user, and in particular for being an iPhone user. Many of my friends seem to think that using an iPhone is more about it being a fashion statement than of any real practical use. That couldn’t be further from the truth because it’s the apps that make it what it is for me. As phone’s go, I’d be the first to agree that it does have it’s shortcomings – not so great battery life (and a battery you can’t easily change yourself), ‘only’ a 2 megapixel camera, limited Bluetooth support, the albatross that is iTunes, etc. However for me it’s the apps that are a real part of my life, and it’s wanting to continue using these apps that will see me upgrading to the iPhone 4.

So, what are these great apps that make the iPhone so worthwhile?

  • Maps – yes the built-in Maps app is actually really useful. Only the other day I was out with the family and faced with a diversion in an unfamiliar area, I was able to use Maps to help navigate the driver back to somewhere familiar, and even take in a few new interesting sights on the way.
  • Shazam – hardly needs any introduction. Numerous times I’ve heard something I like and have been able to use Shazam to find out what it is. The Record industry should be paying these guys commission!
  • Trains – live arrival & departure information. Sadly you can no longer download it (you’ll have to get  National Rail’s own offering), but it still works just fine for me.
  • MyBus – if you ever need to catch a bus, this little app is indispensable. Tells you where the bus stops are, what buses stop there and what time the arrive.
  • ATM Hunter – need to find a cash machine when you’re somewhere unfamiliar? This app couldn’t make it easier. It’s not perfect, but worth a download as it’s free.
  • DropBox – while I don’t do much file processing on my iPhone, but this at least keeps me in the loop with my Mac Pro and Mac Mini and even my Windows laptop (that I have to use for work).
  • Evernote – being able to take a note and have it sync’ed to every other device I’ve got is a real marvel (especially for someone as disorganised as I am).
  • Flook – tell others where the great places are. Find somewhere great to visit, a fantastic pub or restaurant, some hidden local secret? Just Flook it! Discover the great places that others have found nearby, and collect/follow your favourites.
  • 1Password – allows me to sync passwords and other secure info between my Mac(s) and iPhone. If I’m away from my Mac and need a password, e.g. to log in to a website on a friends PC/Mac, then it’s all in there in my pocket.
  • WalkMeter – fascinating app that logs where you’ve walked, how long it took, how many calories you burned, and even emails you a Google map of the trip! In fact it does even more, so best way to find out is to use it.
  • ConvertBot – if you’re old school like me (remember feet, inches, miles, ounces, etc.?) then this makes life a whole lot easier to deal with. Superb interface too. Note – I still can’t think in kilometers!
  • Postage – Take a photo of a scene, dress it up and send it to friends for fun. Kids seem to love this one.
  • RAC Traffic – very handy for spotting traffic jams before you become a part of them!
  • RedLaser – I have saved a few quid while out shopping thanks to RedLaser telling me I could buy something cheaper online.
  • Facebook – while I’m not a huge Facebook user, I can still dip my toe into that particular social quagmire when I need to thanks to this mobile app.
  • Osfoora – until recently my Twitter client of choice on the iPhone was Twitterrific. It’s still a great app, but Osfoora looks just as good and is taking the lead on features.
  • Doodle Jump – the most addictive game there is for the iPhone, and the best 59p you’ll spend. End of story!
  • Wurdle – cool little word game for when I want to tax my brain a little.
  • Frenzic – marvelous for getting the old hand/eye co-ordination back to full strength. What I would love to know is how the global high scores are so… high?!
  • t Chess Pro – I have always found chess fascinating, and if I’m feeling cerebral, then t Chess gives me a mental workout (and usually reminds me that I really should practice more).
  • FlightControl – such a simple idea, that very quickly gets completely out of control. Love that old style music as well.
  • Angry Birds – the sound effects alone make this worth it. Even so, it’s a great game.
  • Diamedic – a great way to track your blood sugar and other related info, and then have it easily to hand when the doctor needs it.
  • WiScale – paired up with the Withings WiFi Scale I purchased a while back, it’s a fun and informative way to keep your weight & BMI on track. Ok the app is free but the scales cost £100 – even so, they look really cool and work a treat! In fact if Apple design a bathroom scale, they’d probably look like this.

These aren’t the only apps on my phone, just the ones I use the most and there are many more I could mention like – CalenGoo, Tube Deluxe, Air Sharing, The Good Beer Guide, National Trust, FlickIt, ShowTimes, Family Tree, Road Trip LE, Skype, AirVideo, Spotify, Snowtape, SnowRemote, Glyder/Glyder 2, Crayon, Traffic Rush and Tap Tap to name a few.

It’s the sheer wealth of apps, many of which are very high quality, that make life just that little bit easier… and if you ever needed an excuse to buy an iPad, well many of these are available in iPad-specific ‘HD’ versions too.

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?

Taming the new NetNewsWire adverts box

I’m a bit of a news junkie and I waste far too much time reading RSS news feeds. It doesn’t help when there’s apps like NetNewsWire which make it all so easy. I’ve been using NetNewsWire since I got my Mac and it’s one of those apps I’d install on any new Mac (note to self – no you can’t afford that new 15″ Macbook Pro you’ve been lusting after).

Anyway, for all this time I’ve been happily using NetNewsWire with its clean, uncluttered interface and happily keeping it in sync with my iPhone and with FeedDemon on the one or two Windows machines I find myself obliged to use every so often. And then the holy grail of features comes along in NetNewsWire 3.2beta… synchronization with Google. That’s right, you can now sync NetNewsWire with Google Reader making it even easier to satisfy your news feed habit wherever you are. Unfortunately there’s a catch and that’s adverts – that’s right, in order to support the free version of NetNewsWire, you now have adverts popping up in a little window at the bottom left of your news reader.

I HATE ADVERTS! Every time I tune in to a commercial TV station I seem to get the start of a 5 minute advert break. A 30 minute TV show is actually 10 minutes of adverts, 2 minutes of credits and only 18 minutes of actual TV. And the web is becoming saturated with adverts now, there’s barely a web page you can look at now that doesn’t try and sell you something (including the very page you’re reading if WordPress has anything to do with it).

Now I know you’re going to tell me that the adverts make a lot of this free software viable, and enables a lot of great content to be free and you’re probably right, but it doesn’t stop me from running Firefox extensions like NoScript and AdBlock Plus to try and minimize the amount my eyeballs get fried with animated banners trying to sell me something I don’t want or can’t afford. Ok, enough of me ranting about the commercial world, how did I get rid of the adverts in the latest version of NetNewsWire? Simply by using LittleSnitch to block where NetNewsWire is getting its advert content from.

Picture 40

What you need to do is to deny NetNewsWire access to http://www.northmay.com, either just on Port 80 or on any port to that site. You may need to go into LittleSnitch and delete the rules for NetNewsWire to then allow LittleSnitch to recreate them by prompting you for what access NetNewsWire is allowed when you next launch it. So far this workaround has worked a treat. The advert box is still there in my reader, but thankfully it doesn’t contain anything distracting that changes every 30 seconds or so.

Look Ma, no adverts!

Look Ma, no adverts!

I was fortunate in that I picked up LittleSnitch as part of a MacUpdate Promo Bundle last December, so I got it for a great price, but it’s well worth the full price as an extra level of security and control for your Mac. If you don’t have LittleSnitch and want an alternative, then I’d highly recommend the free and opensource news reader called Vienna. I’ve been using Vienna for less than twenty four hours, however the look and feel of it is just as good as NetNewsWire, and it’s got the functionality to match – apart from the sync features that the NewsGator products have of course.

When NetNewsWire 4.0 is released in however many weeks time, I guess it’s going to be a choice of a free version with adverts or a paid version without. Whether or not the above trick will still work remains to be seen as I’m sure the NetNewsWire developers are well aware of this sort of workaround already. Will I upgrade to the next free version of NetNewsWire or end up buying an ad-free version? Maybe, maybe not. I have been trying out Vienna and apart from sync’ing it ticks all the boxes for me, and in fact anything that helps ween me off spending hours reading newsfeeds by not offering sync between multiple devices, might actually be a good thing!

Quickbitz – CleanApp, Netgear DGN2000 + Airport Extreme, Camera Tip

CleanApp

CleanApp

A while back I did a little review of an uninstaller called CleanApp by Synium Software. One of its main strengths was that it goes into a lot more depth than other uninstallers because it can track what files a particular application is using. However, I spotted that this could also be a drawback in the wrong hands as it was all to easy to blast a file that was needed by other apps. Synium have now fixed this and have made a great app even better. CleanApp can now detect if a file is used by other apps and if so will ‘uncheck’ it on the list of files to delete and tag it with a little icon to show that it’s needed elsewhere. They’re definitely on to a winner with that feature.

So on to routers and my ageing D-Link G624M ‘MIMO’ wireless router was beginning to struggle. Seems every time it had to handle large numbers of connections, as one might experience with BitTorrent, the router would simply disconnect after a few minutes, and recycling the power was the only way to get it back online. I was loathed to replace it though, because it worked fine with my Mac Mini, XBox 360 and work laptop. However it started to disconnect more frequently and so I eventually plumped for a new Netgear DGN2000 Draft-N job. I have to say my fears about switching were unfounded and the Netgear works brilliantly with everything. What’s more, I also have an Airport Extreme (Dual Band) daisy-chained off the Netgear (seeing as the Airport has no way of connecting directly to my ADSL line). Once I discovered the correct setting on the Netgear, the Airport Extreme worked perfectly with it. On the Netgear you should go to the LAN Setup page and set RIP Direction to ‘Both’ and set RIP Version to ‘Rip-1’… job done.

Netgear DGN2000

Netgear DGN2000

Oh and another thing – I bought a Razer eXtremeMat mouse mat a little while back, but after only a short while I decided I didn’t like it. Now this mouse mat has two different surfaces (one for speed and one for accuracy) and is made of aluminium. However, I found that placing it under my D-Link G624M wireless router, it actually IMPROVED the signal!? (That’s as measured by Air Radar on a MacBook in the lounge, and also by the XBox 360). However, the complete opposite is true for the Netgear router. When sitting on the aluminium mouse mat the signal strength was 67%, but removing the mat boosted the signal to 78%. How weird is that?

And finally… I wrote a tip a while back about how to prevent iPhoto loading every time you plug your iPhone into your Mac, while still being able to load iPhoto for your camera. Well now there’s an even better solution. It a little freeware utility called Cameras by Flexibits. It installs as a Pref Pane and lets you easily control what happens when you plug in any device that has photos on it, and that includes card readers. I strongly recommend you check it out – I’ve ditched my little Automator Action in favour of cameras and haven’t looked back since. If you want a good review of exactly what Cameras does, then check out the MacWorld review.

Stop iPhoto loading when your iPhone is connected

I have a Canon digital camera and an iPhone 3G, and while the iPhone can take reasonable pictures (that look best when they stay on the iPhone), I tend not to use it much for photography. So every once in a while I connect my camera to my Mac Pro and up pops iPhoto ready to transfer my new images. Great, that’s just the way I want it. However, every day I connect my iPhone to the Mac, usually just to charge it or sync some application or music… up pops iPhoto and I have to wait for it to scan whatever images are on the phone before I can dismiss it, and I have to say it bugs me somewhat.

Automator

Automator

Now if you Google for a solution to this little irritation you’ll find slick scripts that, if you find out what name your Mac recognizes your camera by, can automatically launch (or not launch) iPhoto as required. I went for the easier option which was to create a simple Automator Action to take some of the frustration away. It’s not a complete solution, but it does save you having to wait for iPhoto to do its thing every time you plug in your iPhone.

So, open Automator from your Applications folder and choose to create a Custom workflow. From the Library list choose Utilities then drag the Ask for Confirmation action across to your workflow. Give the action a suitable title, then enter some text for the prompt that will appear – in my case I simply entered “Do you wish to open iPhoto for this device?”. Finally, give the two prompt buttons a description – I labelled the button on the left “No thanks!” and the button on the right “Launch iPhoto”.

The next step is to select the Launch Application action and drag that to your workflow underneath the Ask for Confirmation action. Use the picklist on the Launch Application action to choose iPhoto. That’s it, all you have to do now is to save your actions as an Application, so just choose File – Save As then give it a meaningful name like ‘iPhone_iPhoto’, choose the format ‘Application’ (rather than Workflow) and save it. I have an Automator Actions folder in my Documents folder where I save all my workflows.

The final thing is to attach your new ‘iPhone_iPhoto’ application to the Image Capture utility that detects cameras attached to your Mac.

Image Capture

Image Capture

So, open up your Applications folder and launch the Image Capture utility. Go to the preferences for Image Capture and for the application to be launched when a camera is detected use the picklist to choose your new application.

That’s it. Next time you connect your iPhone you’ll just see a prompt asking if you want to launch iPhoto and you can quickly dismiss it if you don’t want to, saving a few precious seconds to waste on something else!

It’s not the perfect solution, but it takes just a couple of minutes to set up and gives you a really good idea of just how useful Automator Actions can be.

So, do you wanna?

So, do you wanna?

To hell with market share – why I like the iPhone

Contrary to what you might think, I am not an Apple ‘fanboy’ despite writing this blog about Mac-related bits. There’s plenty I don’t care for in the way Apple conducts it’s business but then that’s the nature of large corporations, they all have something to dislike about them. It’s the fact that they’re all profit-driven faceless (and often feckless) entities that I simply can’t identify with, but hell it doesn’t stop me buying their products and services.

On the backs of these lumbering corporate giants are a million and one parasites, feeding on every rumour, on every 0.1% of a market share change, predicting this, speculating that and criticizing them for the other. If you follow the news at all you can’t help but notice commentators continually spouting about RIM vs. Apple, Microsoft vs. Google, Windows vs. Linux and every other perceived battle that’s going on. Personally, I don’t care if only 30% of people planning to buy a new smartphone are now thinking about getting an iPhone, compared with 34% who want a Blackberry Storm, I mean – why should I?

My choices are usually random and are often spur of the moment. When my ageing Orange SPV C500 decided to give up the ghost I had planned to buy an HTC Touch Diamond to replace it. This had nothing to do market share, I simply though the HTC phone looked neat. Shame then that Orange UK treated me so badly after 10 years of unwarranted loyalty, or that the salesman in the Phones4U shop was so pushy. I walked into the O2 shop, played with the iPhone 3G and thought “that’s fun” and the rest is history.

Does it matter that it’s not perfect? Hell no (in fact I suspect that if ever there was a perfect product it would make lousy news, there would be nothing for people to complain about). Yes the battery life is poor, I don’t like the fact that I’m tied to O2 on an 18 month contract, I think Apple is reaming me by not giving it a user-replaceable battery, and the lack of MMS seems a bit odd. But I don’t care. I don’t care because the phone is still an ‘enabler’ – it’s more now than the lump of plastic & metal I bought back in August. I look up train times, cinema listings, the weather, entertain the kids, check locations, send the odd email, record voice notes and take the odd photo. It seems that more than other phones, the iPhone 3G ‘expands’ to do more and more things where you think “that’s just plain useful”. What’s more I don’t knock the Blackberry Storm or the HTC Touch Whatever and the people who prefer them – each to his own I say.

So that in a nutshell is that. A bit of a waffle and with Christmas just round the corner I hope you all have a wonderful time and that it brings you whatever joys you wish for.

Happy Christmas!

iPhone app – Take A Note

Whenever I buy myself a bit of tech’ I always feel slightly guilty. After all, I obviously managed to survive before the gadget happened on the scene so why the indulgence? What’s more, if you’re going to indulge then there’s few more hedonistic gadgets around that Apple’s iPhone 3G, so anything that pushes it further into the ‘really useful’ side of my life rather than the ‘shiny shiny’ side is always welcome!

Now I know there’s people out there that hate Apple, there’s those that hate the iPhone, and there’s those that hate both, but whatever the criticisms are that people level at the iPhone (and I’d be the first to admit it’s not perfect), you have to admit that this little device is a wonderful enabler. The list of truly useful things I can do with it like:

  • Read and send email from pretty much wherever I am.
  • Find a route without asking if I happen to be lost (it’s a bloke thing!)
  • Check train timetables and even see if the train I want is running late
  • Look up viewing times at the local cinema

…goes on and on, and half the fun is discovering something new that pushes those little feelings of guilt a bit further away because you know it’ll make life just that bit easier.

Take A Note

Take A Note

Enter Readdle’s Take A Note application. Often when I’m out shopping I’ll see something and think what a nice gift it would be for someone. Or I might see an idea for the house, or perhaps something in a magazine in a waiting room, there’s no end of situations where a scatterbrain like myself wants to record a note for later use, and that’s where Take A Note gets my award for just plain useful!

In essence it lets you quickly create a note by typing on the iPhone’s virtual keyboard, drawing with your finger, speaking or using the iPhone camera. Each note can then be given a tittle and other comments, and can also be given a category for sorting. The resulting collection of notes can be viewed by type, category or searched, and even viewed on your Mac or PC via the iPhone’s WiFi connection. The interface is elegant and simple, showing you exactly what’s needed to get the job done, whether you want to create, view, edit or delete your notes and I’d challenge anyone to be unable to intuitively find their way around (well almost). The screenshots tell a much better story and you can guess what’s going on for the most part, in fact the only thing that caught me out was one aspect of the Mac/PC WiFi connectivity, which thinking back about it is actually quite logical.

In a wee bit more detail… Text notes are just that – stuff you save in a note using the iPhone keyboard. Audio notes are created by selecting New – Audio Note then pressing the record button, then the pause or stop button as necessary. For drawings you select pen or erase, choose your brush size and use your finger! Unfortunately you can only draw in one colour, but perhaps a later release will enhance that. Finally photo notes are just that, notes with photos in them that you either take with the camera or choose from your photo roll. The icing on the cake is that by touching the envelope icon at the bottom of any note, you can quickly email it as an attachment.

To view your notes on your Mac or PC you simply press the WiFi button in Take A Note and make a note of the number and port it shows you. In fact the port number will always be the same so it’s just the iPhone’s IP address you need. Then in the case of OS X, open Finder, select Connect To Server from the Go menu and type in http://nnn.nnn.nnn.nnn:8080 (where the n’s are the IP address the application tells you). Hey presto, you’re now browsing your iPhone notes which you can open in your favourite application. You can also add new notes by simply dragging them into the relevant Finder window. The gotcha? The Take A Note application must be open on your iPhone as you’re doing it. If it’s not running you’ll just get a message telling you the ‘server’ can’t be accessed. If your iPhone automatically locks, then the connection will be cut. Logical really seeing as the Take A Note software is acting as a server.

My only other minor complaint is over the voice notes recording feature. It’s simplicity itself to use, but there seems to be a lot of gain on the microphone, certainly in my case and when playing back recordings – while the voice or whatever else is recorded is clear, any silent bits (such as pauses when someone is speaking) are replaced by a loud hissing noise. Perhaps it’s my phone, who knows, however the voice notes facility is still perfectly usable.

So there you have it – £2.99 and you’ve got a really useful addition to your iPhone apps. Now that I can capture all those snippets of the world going on around me, I’ll become a master of keeping on top of my information overload. Then again, I’ll lose one more excuse for forgetting the things I need to forget.