Interesting stuff

A few notes of interest.

1. MacUpdate Spring Bundle: Yet another bundle for $49. Standout included applications are TechTool Pro, Parallels, Circus Ponies Notebook, and NetBarrier.

2. Google Wave: What would E-mail look like if it were invented today? Check out this video preview from the Google I/O developer conference. Pretty interesting and ambitious (and it’s open source).

3. Adobe CS4: Dvorak and WebKit. I recently learned two interesting bits about Adobe CS4. First, CS4 drops Opera as a built-in rendering engine and replaces it with WebKit (the open-source browser engine used by Safari and Chrome, among others). That will fix the problem I encountered with Opera. And for Dvorak users out there, I received word from a reader that Adobe CS4 now correctly handles Dvorak and Dvorak-Qwerty. Finally.

4. QIDO: A company called KeyGhost in New Zealand is now offering a hardware device that plugs into a USB keyboard and allows one to convert from Qwerty to Dvorak instantly without relying on spotty operating system support (especially from Windows) and even spottier application support. They’re sending me one to test out and review. More to come.

5. History of the Earth in 60 seconds. I came across this several months ago. Watch 4.6 billion years of history compressed into one minute. Cool.

6. MIT Media Lab Center for Future Story Telling. I also came across this many months ago and have been meaning to post it. Here’s an excerpt:

Research will range from on-set motion capture to accurately and unobtrusively merge human performers and digital character models; to next-generation synthetic performer technologies, such as richly interactive, highly expressive robotic or animated characters; to cameras that will spawn entirely new visual art forms; to morphable movie studios, where one studio can be turned into many through advanced visual imaging techniques; to holographic TV. It will draw on technologies pioneered at the Media Lab, such as digital systems that understand people at an emotional level, or cameras capable of capturing the intent of the storyteller.

The MIT Media Lab does some very interesting work. The new Center is slated to open in 2010, but research is already underway. Sounds intriguing. Can I work there?

Three Day Panic Sale

Just in case you haven’t heard, Panic software is offering all of their applications at a 50 percent discount through 11:59 Pacific, May 29th.

The folks at Panic make some of the best software out there for the Mac, so it’s worth checking out. I’m a huge fan of Transmit, their FTP client. I think of Transmit daily when, at work, I’m uploading files using the notably inelegant WS_FTP Pro.

What could be so exciting about an FTP tool? The answer to that gets at why Panic is so well-respected: Transmit—not unlike Panic’s other apps—is elegant, simple to use, and beautifully designed. It’s the kind of app I like to show people who wonder what I mean when I say ‘it’s very Mac-like.’ It’s a steal at the discounted price of $14.50.

You can also pick up Coda (a slick all-in-one web development tool) for $50, CandyBar (a tool to easily customize your icons and dock) for $14.50, and Unison (a Usenet reader that’s so pretty it makes me wish I cared about the Usenet) for $12.

Audio editors for podcasting

In my work life, one of my tasks is to produce an audio podcast. I use Soundtrack Pro and GarageBand to do the job. However, I recently tried out a few audio editing alternatives. I evaluated Adobe Soundbooth, Adobe Audition, and Audacity. I thought I’d share my conclusions:

Adobe Soundbooth CS4 ($200). I found Soundbooth was a bit hard to use (read: non-intuitive) and had limited features. You can only split stereo tracks to mono by exporting them, which is silly. Even the free Audacity can split stereo tracks and convert to mono on the fly. You also can’t divide clips (at least, I couldn’t find how to do it after a reasonable period of time spent searching around). I was also unable to locate a scrubber, mixer, amplitude filter, and several other key features. They may be there somewhere, but I lost patience.

Audacity (free). I found this to be an excellent open-source, free editor. Available filter and effect extensions (add-ons) give this editor most of the features available in pro-level applications. For a simple audio project, this would be sufficient. However, I discovered several limitations which render the current iteration of the app ineffective for large, complex multitrack projects: (1) for me at least, the app starts to crash periodically when I have more than 15 or so tracks, (2) When you split a file, it creates a new track (instead of leaving it in the same track as Soundtrack Pro and Audition do). This is a problem when you are editing an hour-long recording and need to pull out only about 10 minutes of clips. You soon end up with tons of separate tracks and it’s a pain to manage them; (3) You cannot drag and drop tracks around. You must manually select ‘move up’ or ‘move down’ from a drop-down list. This may not sound like a big deal, but it’s a huge deal when you have many tracks and need to order them. (4) While you can mute select tracks (so you can edit one or two clips at a time) and shrink the size of each track to save screen real-estate (necessary when you have many tracks), these settings aren’t saved. The next time you open up the app, all the tracks are ‘unmuted’ and expanded to the full size. The good news about Audacity is that the development community is active, there’s lots of online documentation and support, and the app continues to get better and better.

Adobe Audition 3 ($350). Clearly, this is intended to be the main competitor for Soundtrack Pro. It does everything that Soundtrack Pro does, but several aspects of the design and layout of the application make it hard to use (at least from the perspective of someone very used to Soundtrack Pro). Overall, this is a very competent and powerful editor. However, I could do the same job in Soundtrack in about half the time. Again, I stress that this is coming from someone who knows Soundtrack Pro very well. I would recommend this to someone who has intensive audio editing needs, but does not wish to purchase or need the full Final Cut Studio.

My conclusion: I’m ready to head back to Soundtrack Pro. Maybe it’s because I’m most-familiar with it, but it’s the easiest tool I’ve found to put together podcasts. Another benefit of Soundtrack is that it seamlessly meshes with the other Final Cut tools for creating more complex multimedia and video projects (or for, say, pulling an audio track from a video interview to use in an audio podcast).

It’s not my preferred tool for creating enhanced podcasts or exporting AAC/MP3 files, though. I use GarageBand for this. GarageBand exports MP3s and AACs faster than Soundtrack Pro and produces smaller files. This shouldn’t be too surprising, considering it’s tailored to podcasting. Soundtrack Pro does podcasting as well, but I’ve found that the best way to use it is to export an uncompressed AIF file, and then work with that in GarageBand. It’s also the easiest tool to use for creating enhanced podcasts (adding chapters, pictures, and links to the audio podcast). And, it’s worth noting, it’s the only tool to use other than Soundtrack Pro that I’m aware of that allows one to create an enhanced file. GarageBand is, of course, also an all-in-one solution to create a podcast. You don’t need Soundtrack Pro. What you get with Soundtrack Pro is much greater control in terms of editing, filtering, and mixing. For many people, though, GarageBand will do the job nicely. And it’s cheap. Conversely, Soundtrack Pro only comes as part of the Final Cut Studio, which is quite expensive. I really wish Apple would offer the choice to by the apps in the Studio a la carte (an option they discontinued). If you’re on a Mac and wish to try your hand at podcasting, definitely start with GarageBand.

Audacity is a good general-purpose editor that does the job for simple podcasts (no interviews, or simple Q/A interviews that do not require a lot of nonlinear editing, and those podcasts that are 10 or less tracks). It is a good ‘starter’ solution for those who wish to try their hand at creating a podcast, and it runs on PC, Mac, or Linux. Audacity projects created on one platform open on any platform, which is nice. For more complex audio editing on a PC, Adobe Audition is a solid next step up. And if you want to go the Adobe route, you can always try out Audition and Soundbooth first with Adobe’s free 30 day trial and see which works best for you.

In a few weeks, I’ll have a completed screencast demonstrating how I put together a podcast, which I’ll share in this space.

SpaceTime3D Public Beta

SpaceTime3D. I was intrigued, and E-mailed the developer to ask if a Mac version was on the way.

Well, a browser version of SpaceTime3D is now in public Beta. It works on any platform and in any modern browser (with Flash plug-in installed). The browser version of SpaceTime3D is not as feature-rich as the stand-alone Windows desktop application, but it offers the main feature: visual 3D representation of search results. I tested out SpaceTime3D using FireFox 3.

My take? It has potential. While it’s not going to supplant Google search, I view it as more of a complement to traditional text-based searching. Unlike text-based search results, SpaceTime gives you results and full-page previews at the same time, so you don’t have to toggle back and forth between pages and search results. This can be time-saving in some instances. However, it would be nice to be able to toggle back and forth between visual and text views of search results on the fly. I say that because I don’t feel like I get the same at-a-glance feedback that I do with a text search page. I don’t get a good sense of where I am or how well my search term returned what I was seeking. Perhaps it’s just a matter of getting used to a new way of searching.

There are some nice touches in the SpaceTime3D Beta. For instance, the search field presents ‘autosuggestions’ of words or phrases as you type. And you can switch between search engines while retaining your search term so you don’t have to type it in again. It also looks great. For a Mac user, the eye candy of the 3D presentation of Web pages will not be too surprising (we’re accustomed to reflective-surface eye candy). Windows users may be more impressed. The glaring exception to the nice presentation are the Google Ads, which are distracting and not well integrated. They look like an afterthought.

While there are many features that would make SpaceTime3D more useful as a powerful search tool, I’m not going to go into that in any detail. And that’s because it’s not really a powerful search tool. If I’m in serious search mode, I’ll use Google. But what if I’m in casual-browse mode? I think that’s where SpaceTime3D has most to offer, and there’s a lot of room within this space. I found that it was quite enjoyable to browse through images with this tool, for instance. And I could imagine it might be a fun way to navigate through social media sites. For example, it would be a nice way to browse through Flickr photos tagged with a given search term. Or to surf random sites within a topic or set of topics via StumbleUpon. It would be interesting to see tighter integration in this realm. The main point here is that I see SpaceTime3D as a tool for discovery, not for focused searching.

Here are the main shortcomings. First, it can be pokey. I find that it’s fairly responsive on my broadband connection and Intel iMac, but I often have to wait a bit for all the image previews to load. That’s not unexpected and it’s not meant as a criticism. It’s an observation that some people may be disappointed by the speed relative to the nearly-instantaneous search results that we’ve come to enjoy from Google. Second, the search results you get are screenshots of Web pages, not the pages. This means you can’t click on a link on a page in the 3D browsing environment. You can only click on the image of the page, which then opens up that page in a new window. Third, there is no easy way to refine a search without starting all over again.

Still, I see SpaceTime3D as an interesting foray into the world of 3D visualization on the desktop and in the browser, something that will likely become commonplace within a few years. I’ll be interested to see how the tool develops over time. I’ve sent in some ideas to the developer about adding more filtering options to refine search results, and I’ve found them to be very responsive and open to ideas. And, I should add, they have a lot ideas in the queue to make this a better tool. Give it a try and see what you think.