Installing iLife applications from a Mac OS X restore DVD

Last night’s blog post should have had a video with it, except I didn’t get it ready in time… so it doesn’t (yet).  I want to cut together a few scenes and iMovie will probably do the job for me without too much codec hassle but when I last rebuilt my MacBook I didn’t bother with any of the iLife apps (except iPhoto – and I only use that for photo books/calendars).

As it turns out it’s easy enough to install iLife apps without resorting to a complete restore – Apple Support Article HT2604 has the details and, after grovelling around in the loft for a few minutes, I found the OS X install discs that came with my MacBook, inserted disc 1, double-clicked the Install Bundled Software icon and, one customised installation later, iMovie is ready for me to use…

Recording ringtones for the Apple iPhone

In the western world (well, certainly in the UK), mobile phone ringtones represent a highly profitable market but, as I understand it, no additional revenue is passed to the recording artists – and on that basis I’m not going to line the pockets of music industry executives when I’ve already paid for music once.

One of the advantages of being an iPhone user and having a Mac at my disposal is the ability to record my own Ringtones. Whilst there are commercial products that can do this too (like iToner from Ambrosia Software), if you have Apple GarageBand 4.1.1 or later, you can record your own ringtones (40 seconds or less) and transfer them to iTunes to sync with the phone (as described in Apple support article HT1358 or with screenshots on LifeHacker). If you need to fade the ringtone in/out then adjusting the track volume is described in an AppleInsider forum post.

This capability is not new, and is pretty well documented, but I’ve spent far too much time playing around with it and now I need to go to sleep!

Calendar synchronisation… shouldn’t it all be a bit easier than this?

It was supposed to be easy. All I wanted to do was to synchronise Microsoft Outlook 2007 (at work) with Apple iCal or Microsoft Entourage 2004 (at home) using Google Calendar (GCal) as a broker (also allowing access from the web, wherever I am). I know that there are three software companies there who are largely competitors, but surely someone has done this before and anyway, isn’t that what iCalendar (RFC 2445) all about – the exchange of calendar data between applications?

Outlook 2007 also includes the ability to subscribe to other calendars using a process known as Internet Calendar Subscriptions but it’s a one-way process. The reverse process is known as publishing a calendar, either to WebDAV server (which I don’t have) or to Microsoft Office Online, which (in theory) is accessible from anywhere. This works, sort of, as long as I log in with a Windows Live ID or make my information public. The Windows Live ID option is fine from a browser but doesn’t work for other applications, such as iCal, which returns the following:

Error subscribing to the calendar
Unexpected secure name resolution error (code -9813). The server name calendars.office.microsoft.com may be incorrect.

Meanwhile, making my information available publicly is not a great idea (although iCal can subscribe to this, albeit read-only).

Next up, I tried getting GCal to subscribe to my Office Online calendar. Google refuses to read the webcal:// version of the address:

Error
Could not fetch the URL

and if I try the https:// variant then it says:

Error
Could not fetch the URL because robots.txt prevents us from crawling the URL

So that rules out the Office Online calendar.

I had some success with RemoteCalendars following the advice on Jake Ludington’s Mediablab site with a couple of changes for Windows Vista/Office 2007:

Unfortunately there wasn’t anything coming back the other way even though I was using version 6.3, which does include support for two way synchronisation and, despite checking the advice in the Grinn Productions post on incorporating Google Calendar into Outlook (there are lots of useful comments on this post), I didn’t get very far (the advice is to use a separate calendar in Outlook for a 2-way sync and that defeats the object of merging my individual work and private calendars into one universal calendar that I can access anywhere). I also noticed that somewhere along the way, my GCal entries were getting bumped forward an hour, probably as a result of timezone differences somewhere along the chain.

Next I looked at GCALDaemon (complex configuration and lots of articles for how to use it with other mail clients but not Outlook… which I suspect illustrates a contempt for working with anything from Microsoft).

SyncMyCal seemed to need me to make my GCal public (the opposite problem to syncing iCal with Office Online), so that’s a non-starter. It also threw an error during installation (probably because I had missed one of the many prerequisite applications that it requires) but then said installation had completed successfully, not exactly filling me with confidence in the error checking built into the product. Uninstallation also seemed to remove the buttons from the RemoteCalendars toolbar – possibly something to do with the fact that they both use the Microsoft Visual Studio Tools for Office (VSTO) second edition runtime.

SyncUpwards seems to be a dead project as the website says the latest version is 7 August 2006 (over a year ago) and that it doesn’t work with the Outlook 2007 beta.

I’d been avoiding one approach that appeared to be the holy grail of calendar synchronisation – using ScheduleWorld/Funambol to manage the synchronisation. it did look pretty good, but I didn’t really want ScheduleWorld (or any other Funambol server) in the middle of my architecture. Nevertheless, I gave it a go and it was reasonably successful but I had some issues with the Funambol client (v6.0.14), which seemed a little problematic with unhelpful error messages like:

Sync not completed. Network Error.

Most critically the Funambol Outlook Plugin kept on prompting me for agreement to use or register a product called Outlook Redemption which it was obviously using to work around some of the Outlook security restrictions. That meant three products working together… as well as Outlook, GCal and the others – this was all starting to look a bit too Heath Robinson.

Then I panicked – all of a sudden Outlook had duplicate appointments, all an hour out of place and without any category information. It seemed that despite having supposedly uninstalled RemoteCalendars it was still working (I hadn’t rebooted) and I had a synchronisation loop from Outlook to Funambol/ScheduleWorld to GCal and back to Outlook. I quickly stopped Funambol and took full advantage of ScheduleWorld’s flexibility, deleting all entries in that calendar and forcing a one-way sync to GCal (effectively emptying that calendar too), which RemoteCalendars picked up and used to remove all the duplicates from Outlook. Phew! Once that was over, I rebooted the PC, removed Funambol and VSTO, and rebooted again, just to be sure that nothing was still running (I also manually deleted the RemoteCalendars VSTO toolbar from within Outlook).

Googling for other products that might help me, I looked at GMobileSync, Goosync and GCalSync, but they all seem to be primarily for synchronising between GCal and a mobile phone. There was also the cleverly-named Calgoo but it required me to register for an account and (much like ScheduleWorld that I tried earlier).

Then I found a link to David Levinson’s gSyncit. Not only is it a tidy Microsoft.NET application with minimal prerequisites that integrates well as an Outlook plug-in but its options appear to be well thought out and it is very clear about being able to perform single or bi-directional synchronisation between Outlook and GCal. I tried it out on a limited date range and synchronisation worked, including no timezone issues between the two platforms. Although I found the version that I used (v1.9.19) to be a little temperamental at times (sometimes clicking the sync button doesn’t seem to do anything, and annoyingly the GCal feed path changes of its own accord), when it works it does exactly what I need it to – bi-directional synchronisation between Outlook 2007 and a private GCal, although it would be nice if it also worked with Outlook in cached mode. I’ll was going to give it a bit longer and see if it settles down, thinking that if it works well enough then it would only be $9.99 to register but after waiting over an hour for it to synchronise almost 1500 entries with GCal, I noticed that some were missing. After a resync it didn’t copy the missing appointments to Google, instead it removed them from Outlook! Arghhh! If I can’t have 100% confidence in a synchronisation product then I might as well not bother.

I decided to have a look at another product I’d found – Oggsync. Oggsync tries to install the Office 2003 PIA (even if the Office 2007 PIA is already installed) as well as VSTO and shared add-in extensibility/support updates for Microsoft .NET framework 2.0 (see Microsoft knowledge base article 908002 for details) but unlike some of the products I tried earlier (RemoteCalendars and SyncMyCal), the OggSync installer does the work for me (much better than having to install a bunch of individual packages before installing the application I’m really after). I really wanted to like OggSync, and then it started doing weird things like moving events out of Outlook and into Google and syncing only a fraction of my entries across a wide time frame. I was not impressed. Thankfully I was able to pull them back from a PST export of my Calendar that I had made earlier today.

At this point, I was ready to give up on the whole process – but I decided to try one more option – CompanionLink for Google. Despite some initial synchronisation errors, the support team at CompanionLink were really helpful and I got it working quite well. I was seriously considering buying this product but my confidence in calendar synchronisation had been shattered by the earlier failures and I still hadn’t got everything working on the Mac end of things…

I found that Apple iCal can subscribe to a GCal calendar (to private calendars too – not just shared calendars as shown in the article) but I still needed to work out how to get iCal to sync with a GCal private calendar (iCal can subscribe to GCal calendars but only for read-only access). Calgoo or Spanning Sync may have been able to help me out there. iCal automatically detects the presence of Entourage and can edit the Entourage calendar but I still needed some further work on 2-way synchronisation (not just display) between iCal and Entourage (it looks as though there is another product that could help here)

In all, the whole experience was… problematic. I didn’t think I was trying to do anything difficult, but clearly there is still a long way to go before simple calendar synchronisation using the iCalendar protocol will be a reality for me.

Get a Mac? Maybe, but Windows Vista offers a more complete package than you might think

I’ll freely admit that I have been critical of Windows Vista at times and I’ll stand by my comments published in Computer Weekly last November – Windows XP will remain in mainstream use for quite some time. Having said that, I can’t see Mac OS X or Linux taking the corporate desktop by storm and the move to Vista is inevitable, just not really a priority for many organisations right now.

Taking off my corporate hat one evening last week, I made the trip to Microsoft’s UK headquarters in Reading for an event entitled “Vista after hours”. Hosted by James Senior and Matt McSpirit it was a demo-heavy and PowerPoint-light tour of some of the features in Windows Vista that we can make use of when we’re not working. Not being a gamer and having bought a Mac last year, I’ve never really paid attention to Microsoft’s digital home experience but I was, quite frankly, blown away by what I saw.

The first portion of the evening looked at some of the out-of-the-box functionality in Windows Vista, covering topics like search, drilling down by searching within results, using metadata to tag objects, live previews and saving search queries for later recall as well as network diagnosis and repair. Nothing mind-blowing there but well-executed all the same. Other topics covered included the use of:

  • Windows Photo Gallery (which includes support for the major, unprocessed, raw mode formats as well as more common, compressed, JPEG images) to perform simple photo edits and even to restore to the original image (cf. a photographic negative).
  • Windows Movie Maker to produce movies up to 1080p.
  • Windows DVD Maker to produce DVD menus with support for both NTSC and PAL as well as 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios.
  • Windows Media Player to organise media in many ways (stack/sort by genre, year, songs, album, artist, rating, recently added, etc.) and share that media.

Apple Macintosh users will think “yeah, I have iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD and iTunes to do all that” and they would be correct but Apple says (or at least implies in its advertising) that it’s hard to do these things on a PC – with Vista it’s just not… which moves me on to backup – not provided (at least in GUI form) by the current Mac OS X release (only with a .Mac subscription) and much improved in Windows Vista. “Ah yes, but Leopard will include Time Machine!”, say the Mac users – Windows has had included the volume shadow copy service (VSS/VSC) since Windows XP and Windows Backup includes support for multiple file versions right now as well as both standard disk-based backups and snapshots to virtual hard disk (.VHD) images, which can then be used as a restore point or mounted in Virtual PC/Virtual Server as a non-bootable disk. Now that does sound good to me and I’m sure there must be a way to make the .VHD bootable for physical to virtual (P2V) and virtual to physical (V2P) migrations… maybe that’s something to have a play with another day.

Regardless of all the new Vista functionality, for me, the most interesting part of the first session was Windows Home Server. I’m a registered beta user for this product but must confess I haven’t got around to installing it yet. Well, I will – in fact I’m downloading the April CTP as I write this. Based on Windows 2003 Small Business Server, it provides a centralised console for management of and access to information stored at home. Microsoft claim that it has low hardware requirements – just a large hard disk – I guess low hardware requirements is a subjective term (and I figure that my idea of low hardware requirements and Microsoft’s may differ somewhat), nevertheless it offers the opportunity to secure data (home computer backup and restore, including scheduling), provide centralised storage (a single storage pool, broken out as shared storage, PC backups, operating system and free space), monitor network health (i.e. identify unsafe machines on the network), provide remote access (via an HTTPS connection to a defined web address) and stream media, all controlled through a central console. Because the product is aimed at consumers, ease of use will be key to its success and it includes some nice touches like scheduled backups and automatic router configuration for remote access. Each client computer requires a connection pack in order to allow Home Server to manage it (including associating account information for secuirity purposes) and, in response to one of my questions, Microsoft confirmed that there will be support for non-Windows clents (e.g. Mac OS X 10.5 and even Linux). Unfortunately, product pricing has not yet been released and early indications are that this will be an OEM-only product; that will be a great shame for many users who would like to put an old PC to use as a home server.

Another area covered in the first session was parental controls – not really something that I worry about right now but maybe I will over the next few years as my children start to use computers. Windows Vista includes the ability for parents to monotor their child’s activities including websites, applications, e-mail, instant messages and media. Web filters can be used to prevent access to certain content with an HTTP 450 response, including a link for a parent to approve and unblock access to the content as well as time limits on access (providing a warning before forcing a logout). Similarly, certain games can be blocked for younger users of the family PC. The volume and diversity of the questions at the event would indicate that Vista’s parental controls are fairly simplistic and will not be suitable for all (for example, time limits are on computer access as a whole and not for a particular application, so it’s not possible to allow a child access to the computer to complete their homework but to limit games to a certain period in the evening and at weekends).

If session one had whetted my appetite for Vista, session two (Vista: Extended) blew my mind and by the time I went home, I was buzzing…

I first heard of Windows SideShow as a way to access certain content with a secondary display, e.g. to provide information about urgent e-mails and upcoming appointments on the lid of a laptop computer but it actually offers far more than this – in fact, the potential for SideShow devices is huge. Connectivity can be provided by USB, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth – Windows doesn’t care – and the home automation possibilities are endless. I can really see the day when my fridge includes capabilities for ordering groceries via a SideShow display in the door. There is at least one website devoted to SideShow devices but James Senior demonstrated a laptop bag with a built-in SideShow controller including a cache for media playback. Typically used to expose information from a Windows Sidebar gadget, SideShow devices will wake up a sleeping computer to synchrosise content then put it back to sleep and can be secured with a PIN or even erased when logged off. Access is controlled within the Windows Control Panel and there is an emulator available to simulate SideShow devices.

As elegant as Apple Front Row is, for once Microsoft outshines the competition with Windows Media Center

Next up was Windows Media Center. Unlike with the Windows XP Media Center and Tablet PC editions, Microsoft no longer provides a separate SKU for this functionality, although it is not enabled in all Vista product editions. Media Center is a full-screen application that offers a complete home media hub – sort of like Apple Front Row but with support for TV tuners to include personal video recorder (PVR) functionality. As elegant as Apple Front Row is, for once Microsoft outshines the competition with Windows Media Center – multiple TV tuners can be installed (e.g. to pause live TV, or to record two items at once, as well as the elctronic programme guide (EPG), controls, etc. being displayed as an overlay on the currently playing content. As with Windows Media Player, visualisations are provided and in theory it ought to be possible to remote control a Media Center PC via Windows Home Server and set up a recording remotely. Individual programs, or whole series, can be recorded and many TV tuners include DVB-T (digital terrestrial) support (i.e. Freeview), with other devices such as satellite and cable TV decoders needing a kludge with a remote infra-red controller (a limitation of Sky/Virgin Media network access rather than with Windows). Other functionality includes RSS support as well as integration with Windows Live Messenger and some basic parental controls (not as extensive as elsewhere in Windows Vista but nevertheless allowing a PIN to be set on certain recordings).

The event was also my first opportunity to look at a Zune. It may be a rather half-hearted attempt at producing a media player (no podcast support and, crucially, no support for Microsoft’s own PlaysForSure initiative) but in terms of form-factor it actually looks pretty good – and it includes functionality that’s missing from current iPods like a radio. If only Apple could produce an iPod with a similarly-sized widescreen display (not the iPhone) then I’d be more than happy. It also seems logical to me that as soon as iTunes is DRM-free then the iTunes/iPod monopoly will be broken as we should be able to use music purchased from the largest online music store (iTunes) on the world’s favourite portable media player (iPod) together with Windows Media Center… anyway, I digress…

I mentioned earlier that I’m not a gamer. Even so, the Xbox 360‘s ability to integrate with Windows PCs is an impressive component of the Microsoft’s digital home experience arsenal. With its dashboard interface based around a system of “blades”, the Xbox 360 is more than just a games machine:

As well as the Xbox 360 Core and Xbox 360 Pro (chrome) systems Microsoft has launched the Xbox 360 Elite in the United States – a black version with a 120GB hard disk and HDMI connectivity, although it’s not yet available here in the UK (and there are also some limited edition Yellow Xbox 360s to commemorate the Simpsons movie).

Finally, Microsoft demostrated Games for Windows Livebringing the XBox 360 Live experience to Windows Vista-based PC gaming. With an Xbox 360 wireless gaming receiver for Windows, Vista PC gamers can even use an Xbox 360 wireless controller (and not just for gaming – James Senior demonstrated using it to navigate Windows Live maps, including the 3D and bird’s eye views). Not all games that are available for both PCs and the Xbox will offer the cross-platform live experience; however the first one that will is called Shadowrun (and is due for release on 1 June 2007) bringing two of the largest gaming platforms together and providing a seamless user experience (marred only by the marketing decision to have two types of account – silver for PC-PC interaction and gold for PC-XBox).

Apple’s Get a Mac campaign draws on far too many half truths that will only become apparent to users after they have made the decision to switch… and then found out that the grass is not all green on the other side

So, after all this, would I choose a Mac or a Windows PC? (or a Linux PC?) Well, like so many comparisons, it’s just not that simple. I love my Mac, but Apple’s Get a Mac campaign draws on far too many half truths that will only become apparent to users after they have made the decision to switch, splashed out on the (admittedly rather nice) Apple hardware and then found out that the grass is not all green on the other side. In addition, Apple’s decision to delay the next release of OS X whilst they try to enter the mobile phone market makes me question how committed to the Macintosh platform they really are. Linux is good for techies and, if you can support yourself, it has the potential to be free of charge. If you do need support though, some Linux distros can be more expensive than Windows. So what about Windows, still dominant and almost universally despised by anyone who realises that there is a choice? Actually, Windows Vista is rather good. It may still have far too much legacy code for my liking (which is bound to affect security and stability) but it’s nowhere near as bad as the competition would have us thinking… in fact it hasn’t been bad since everything moved over to the NT codebase and, complicated though the product versions may be, Windows Vista includes alternatives to the iLife suite shipped with a new Macs as well as a superior media hub. Add the Xbox integration and Windows SideShow into the mix and the Microsoft digital home experience is excellent. Consumers really shouldn’t write off Windows Vista just yet.

Ripping analogue recordings using GarageBand and iTunes

In common with many people, I’m in the process of digitising my music collection – and my collection is not small. At last count I had something like 250 compact discs (CDs), 500 CD singles and a couple of hundred compact cassettes and MiniDiscs as well as some vinyl, a few VHS cassettes and digital versatile discs (DVDs).

Of course, ripping CDs is no big deal – iTunes takes the pain out of that for me (I rip as 192kbps MP3s – maybe not the ultimate quality, although good enough for most people’s ears) but the analogue content is not so easy. Over the last week or so I’ve worked out a method to rip from analogue sources, using standard software on my Mac… this is how it works:

  1. Firstly, open GarageBand. I’d never used this package before but it’s amazing – only a few years back this sort of application would have cost thousands (and I’d have been mixing using a standard mixing desk and recording to MiniDisc, not a computer). GarageBand looks scary at first, indeed I originally used iMovie to record my analogue feed and then transferred that to GarageBand but that step is unnecessary – simply create a new real instrument track and set it to record as you play the analogue source through the line in jack on the computer.
  2. Using GarageBand, edit the recording to cut out unwanted sections, adjust volume levels, etc., then view the Podcast track and add episode artwork and other information. You can also add markers for chapters within the recording.
  3. Set the audio podcast settings to Higher Quality in the export preferences. Optionally chose a Composer Name and Album Name in the general preferences (these can be changed later in iTunes).
  4. Once the recording is complete, save it, and then either select Export Podcast to Disk… or Send Podcast to iTunes from the Share menu in GarageBand (the result is the same – an MPEG 4/AAC file with an .M4A extension – but depending on the menu item selected it will either be in the chosen folder on the disk or within the iTunes Library).
  5. Open the recording in iTunes and edit the ID3 tags using Get Info option on the File menu.

That’s all that’s required for an AAC recording, but if you want to convert to MP3 (unfortunately this means double compression, leading to further clipping and a slight loss of quality), check that the advanced preferences in iTunes are set to import (yes, import – even though the conversion is an export process) using the MP3 Encoder at Higher Quality (192kbps). Finally, select Convert Selection to MP3 from the Advanced menu in iTunes. You can also use a similar method for Apple Lossless, AIFF or WAV conversion.

There are a couple of extra points to note: whilst AAC supports markers for the chapters added on the Podcast track these will be lost as part of a conversion to MP3; and GarageBand recordings are limited to 1999 measures (1 hour, 6 minutes and 16 seconds at 120 beats per minute) – to capture longer recordings it is necessary to adjust the tempo (beware of the Follow Tempo & Pitch checkbox on each track/region).

Changing the iPhoto library location

Apple iPhoto is one of the iLife applications that ships with Mac OS X to facilitate importing, organising, editing and sharing digital photos. I use Adobe Photoshop for my digital photo work but the integration of iPhoto with Apple Front Row was enough to make me want to look at iPhoto a bit more closely.

By default, iPhoto copies digital photos to a new location in order to work on them, leaving the originals intact (sounds like a good idea to me) but because Mac upgrades are horrendously expensive, my Mac Mini only has an 80GB hard disk (and I take a lot of photos) and I keep my data on a 320GB external hard disk. Unfortunately, there’s nowhere in the application preferences to set the library location but I did find a way around this. By deleting the existing iPhoto library and launching the application, I was prompted to create a new library:

Apple iPhoto

Then, selecting a location on my external hard disk allowed me to set up a new library exactly where I wanted it.