Aqua Connect Terminal Server for Mac OS X

A few years ago I fell in love with Windows Terminal Services Server. Then I learned about the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP) and fell in love with it even more because I could bring old computers to life by booting them over the network with a brand new, full-featured, modern operating system. I love the idea of terminal computing because it gives you the ability to connect from any workstation and access all of your applications and data from each workstation you connect from. Businesses, schools and organizations can implement terminal computing as a way to give more users access to a computer without having to purchase a complete computer workstation for each user.

Since setting up a Windows and Linux terminal server it has been a dream of mine to get a terminal server up and running on Mac OS X. It’s a topic that I will occasionally do a Google Search for to see if there are any new projects trying to accomplish this. A couple of weeks ago I was doing a search on this topic and found two software vendors that offered a solution. I decided to tryout Aqua Connect because it would run on my iBook G3. Yes, ancient technology but it still works and I use what I’ve got!

Taking control of a remote Mac is already possible with VNC server software and of course Apple Remote Desktop. However, with a VNC server and Apple Remote Desktop only one user can use the system at a time. That is where a terminal server comes into play. Multiple users can connect to the terminal server at the same time from their workstation and use the computer they are connected to just like they were sitting right in front of it. Each user can use the applications that they need to without disturbing other users.

Once I found Aqua Connect I requested a free trial and about a day later I received the download link and a serial number. I downloaded the software and installed it. The software is extremely simple to install. If you can install applications on OS X, you can install Aqua Connect. Installing LTSP is much more complicated so I was pleasantly surprised. Once you get the server started, users added and a hole added in your firewall so the software can pass through it; you can connect from any computer on your network, using any VNC server client software (or a thin client that supports VNC connections). It’s that easy. Seriously? Yup!

A couple of cool features in the Aqua Connect preference pane are the ability to control priority for each connecting client and the ability to set the default resolution of the connecting clients.

As I mentioned above I was testing Aqua Connect on an iBook G3 which has Mac OS X 10.4 installed on it. Aqua Connect is designed to work best on Mac OS X Server and of course a computer with more resources. There are two versions of the software. One for OS X 10.4 Tiger and one for OS X 10.5 Leopard. The Leopard version has more features and unfortunately, I am unable to tell you about those as of this time. If in the future I am able to test the Leopard version I will update this article with updated information. I mention all of that so you can keep that in mind as you read the rest of this entry.

To connect to the server you can use any VNC client software (TightVNC Viewer, RealVNC, Chicken of the VNC, etc). The problem with this is that VNC is terrible for performance. For quick maintenance on a system it is okay but I don’t think anyone would want to browse the Internet or use many applications at a time due to the slow screen re-drawing time. Fortunately, the Leopard version of Aqua Connect supports connecting via RDP (remote desktop protocol) clients which should make the OS X terminal server experience a much more pleasant one.

There were a couple of quirks that I encountered while testing Aqua Connect. The first is console lockups. After connecting and logging off multiple clients I would try to login to the server (the iBook G3) but could not enter any login credentials. It looked as though there was a remote login being displayed over the real login screen. I don’t know if this was actually the case or not but the display had a much lower resolution than it normally does. I could not interact with the console and had to reboot when this happened. The second quirk was that I would sometimes be unable to login to the terminal server from a remote client without rebooting the server first. I just assumed that these quirks were due to it being installed on the client version of Tiger instead of the server version.

I did not obtain a direct quote from Aqua Connect for pricing but I did find information regarding a “Green Campaign” that they had earlier this year in which 20 concurrent connections of Aqua Connect were given away. The retail price of the 20 concurrent connections was $7,980. So, approximately $400 for each client license. While that is out of my price range it could be very beneficial for a business that is trying to save money on energy costs. (Out of curiosity I do wonder how much the cost of the license would drop if they had not licensed RDP technology from Microsoft.)

The alternative to Aqua Connect is iRAPP Terminal Server. It looks like a really great solution as well but unfortunately, it only runs on Intel Macs so I am unable to test it. They are more up-front about their pricing, which I like. Their pricing for 20 users is $5256.00. One user is $262.80 (at the time of this writing).

Both of these options are currently out of my budget, but, they’re definitely interesting projects to look at if you’re interested in terminal computing. I will be sticking with a simple VNC server since it accommodates my needs nicely.

Belkin Desktop Phone for Skype

Last year I purchased the SMC WiFi Phone for Skype and was extremely disappointed. Haunted by it would probably be a better phrase. A reader of this blog by the name of Wayne gifted the Belkin phone to me. Thankfully so, because I was still needing a phone to use with Skype since I use it as my main line. I was still struggling with the same problems I faced when I purchased the WiFi phone. That is, I was never able to quickly answer Skype when someone was calling.

I’ve had the phone for a couple of weeks now and have thoroughly tested it out. Fortunately, for the phone, I don’t feel like slamming it against the wall as I did with the SMC phone. With that said, it’s not perfect. However, it’s been a much more pleasurable experience than the SMC phone.

I think I’ll start this review off with reasons I like this model, problems I had with the phone and then we’ll get to my conclusion.

Reasons I like this model: When I was looking at this phone on the Skype Store, I really liked that it was a desktop form factor. I have saw others in the past but they didn’t have all the features that this phone has. I liked that you could plug it into the network with an ethernet cable. I thought the call quality would be much better because of this. Others that I have looked at require you to connect the phone to the computer via USB. I wanted something fully independent. There are times that I’m working on video and still want to be able to talk on Skype. I also liked the fact that it had a full color display and speaker phone.

  • Voicemail: I am really happy to report that voice mail works with this phone. That phone that I keep referring to, the one I hate so much, would never send a call to voice mail. This phone will send it to voice mail after four rings.
  • Speaker: Although I really don’t use the speaker that much it is nice to have. Sometimes I’ll use the speaker to listen to voice mails or to see if I’ll get a ring or busy signal to the person I’m calling.
  • Web Based Administration: The only thing you can do with the web based administration is upgrade the phone’s firmware. However, the geek in me thinks it’s really neat. For added security you’ll want to change the default password so others cannot gain access to the administration area.

One or the other! One of the biggest problems that I have faced while using the Belkin phone is that you can’t use Skype on the computer and the phone at the same time. Well, you can, but it causes a lot of problems.

  • Instance 1: I was using Skype on the computer to talk to someone and I had my web cam on. I was mentioning to them that I had got the phone and they wanted to see it. I unplugged the phone from the network (thinking it would be no big deal) and showed it to my friend on camera. I then plugged the phone back into the network and Skype on the computer completely crashed.
  • Instance 2: I was on a Skype call using the Belkin phone. I needed to grab a link that someone was trying to send to me in chat. So, I started Skype on the computer and the Belkin phone completely rebooted and updated it’s firmware.
  • Instance 3: I had been instant messaging with a friend and knew that they were going to call me. When I know I’m going to be on a call for a while I’d rather use Skype on the computer because it’s much more comfortable than holding the phone. When they called me I had answered the call on the computer but the Belkin phone continued to ring a few more times.

For the most part I’ve mostly been using Skype on the Belkin phone and not running Skype on the computer. This is annoying because when someone IM’s me I don’t know. Also, a lot of the people on my contact list don’t pay attention to the message that says “This user is using a version of Skype that does not support chat.” So a lot of them have been irritated with me for not responding, I apologize. Though, it does keep my computer from being overrun with more instant messages. 😉

Quiet calls. A couple of people have mentioned that when I am talking to them and pause, that there is no background noise. “Are you there?” tends to rear it’s ugly head several times during the conversation. Only a couple of people have mentioned this, though.

Call quality. The phone doesn’t have the absolute best call quality. Though, again, it’s definitely much better than the SMC phone. I have forwarded ports to the phone and it is directly connected to the DSL router (which has a firewall, if you were worried) to try and improve call quality. It’s not traditional telephone quality, it’s definitely not the quality you can get out of Skype on the computer, but, it’s not terrible.

Conclusion. I really like this phone. It works and operates as a phone should. Although I did have a few problems with this phone (as mentioned above), it’s a really great phone. I think it would make a great gift. Buy one, set up a Skype account, add yourself to the contact list and give it away. Just tell the recipient to plug and play.

I hope to see many software updates for this phone in the future. Hopefully, they’ll figure out a way to improve call quality. I would also like to see an addition to the embedded Skype software that makes it easy to silence the phone without going on “Do Not Disturb,” going through the settings and turning the ringer off or signing out of Skype on the phone. Signing back into Skype through the phone requires re-entering your password. Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s possible to silence the phone and it’s pretty simple to do. It just requires more clicks than I think there should be.

Most importantly I would like to see an update that corrects the problem of using Skype on the computer and the phone at the same time.

In a future model of this phone I would like to see the ability to plug in a headset.

Would I recommend this phone? Most definitely. Like I said, it works as a phone should. If you’re looking for a desktop Skype phone, this is the one to get.

Belkin Desktop Phone for Skype

Digital Stream DTX9950

In my best television announcer voice: “Digital TV has better picture, better sound and more channels!” Unless you’ve been living under a rock then you have probably heard that a million times by now. If you have been living under a rock then you need to check out the Digital TV 2009 website to learn more and to apply for a converter box coupon so you can watch free over-the-air digital TV on your analog televisions.

A couple of weekends ago I purchased my converter box, a Digital Stream DTX9950. I purchased it then because my coupon was soon to expire. I knew several people who had already purchased their converter boxes. A couple of those people had purchased the Digital Stream brand. After looking at the Digital Stream, GE, Magnavox and RCA converter boxes online, I felt the Digital Stream box was to my liking as well. I had helped my Father and Grandfather with their converter boxes. My Father had the DTX9900 and my Grandfather had one from Magnavox. The one from Magnavox felt really cheap and the on screen display looked even cheaper. I had considered getting an RCA converter box but after looking at the reviews and some YouTube clips I felt it was cheap and poorly designed like the Magnavox.

Almost all converter boxes are packaged with the same accessories: a very short RF cable, a remote with batteries, manuals and the converter box. If you’re going to connect the converter box to your television or VCR the included accessories will be enough for you. If you want to connect the converter box to your television using RCA cables (for better picture) you will have to purchase those separately.

Setting up the DTX9950 is really easy. When you power the converter box on it will walk you through a setup wizard which consists of: language selection, confirmation of the cables being plugged in correctly, channel scan and time zone selection.

After having the converter box connected I was able to pick up a lot more channels. Before connecting the converter box most of the channels were snowy. I am a bit disappointed, though. I was hoping to be able to pick up even more channels. I use to get more channels on my indoor antenna than we got on the television in the living room which has an outdoor antenna. That has changed and I now get less than the antenna in the living room. There are two channels I cannot receive and four more that if I move the antenna around I’m able to get but they are very weak signals. Two of which I was able to receive before connecting the converter box. If I move my antenna around I am able to receive them but they’re prone to cutting in and out. I’m probably going to have to purchase a better antenna to pick up anymore channels. The antenna I have now is 10 years old (the same age as the television) and is just an indoor antenna that’s not very strong so I’m not going to complain.

However, I do get two channels that I did not get before. I just don’t get everything that an outdoor antenna can pick up. I just wanted to point out that you may need to get a stronger antenna to be able to receive more channels.

The included remote works pretty well. I got it to work with my 10 year old 19″ RCA XL100. At first I could only get it to power off the television. I first programmed the remote using the codes in the manual. I then used the code search function of the remote (hold down the TV power button and press the channel up button until the television powers off). Using the code search of the remote I was able to get it to power the television on and off. The remote only controls the power, volume and inputs of the television (switches between channels 3 & 4).

The television we have in the living room has an older version of the Digital Stream converter boxes, a DTX9900. The only difference between the two that I have seen is that the DTX9950 has analog pass through which allows you to press a button on the remote and view analog broadcasts. Pressing the button again switches you back to digital television. This is handy in circumstances that you can pick up a channel in analog format but not in digital. When the switch happens next February I don’t know how useful this feature will be, there may be some low power stations that are allowed to continue broadcasting in analog. On the DTX9900 there is an “Info” button (instead of an analog pass through button) which brings up the program information for the channel you are currently watching. On the DTX9950 you can press the “OK” button to get the channel information to appear. There is a button for bringing up the Electronic Program Guide (EPG) on both remotes.

Note: Only digital TV signals will be sent through RCA cables. If you’re using RCA cables and want to watch analog broadcasts through the converter box you’ll have to use an RF cable.

Speaking of the EPG, this is another really nice feature. With the DTX9950 it seems that the program guide works really well and has a lot of useful information. Sometimes, more information than what is printed in the local newspaper television guide. I’ve noticed that there are some stations that have programming information for a couple of days and there are some stations that only have listings for the next few hours. Also, some stations have extended descriptions for upcoming programs and some don’t. Flashback: When I first got my RCA television the remote control had a program information button that sometimes displayed current programming information. Sometimes it would work, most of the time it wouldn’t. Hopefully, the EPG will work for the foreseeable future.

The Digital Stream and most other converter boxes allow you to take advantage of wide screen television broadcasts. If you have a wide screen television you’ll appreciate this the most. If you don’t have a wide screen television you’ll still appreciate this if you don’t mind letter boxing. I personally like it regardless of the letter boxing because it allows me to see a wider view. If you’re not a fan of the letter boxing you can zoom to fill the screen. You can also change to Anamorphic view which allows you to see the entire wide view in the frame. It doesn’t look all that great so I’d recommend sticking with the letter boxing or zooming.

A couple of other notable features are the ratings and emergency alerts. If you have children and don’t want them to view inappropriate content you can set up ratings for acceptable viewing and assign a pin number to keep them from changing the ratings. I won’t go into how stupid I think this is but I will say that I’m sure there are ways around this. Most of the converter boxes, the Digital Stream being no exception, allows you to view emergency alerts. I have not saw one of these come across the television (hopefully I won’t anytime soon) but I am guessing these would be for Amber and other emergency alerts (fire, weather, police). I don’t fully understand how the alerts would work or be shown on the screen, if you know feel free to leave a comment.

I have heard a lot of people say that they think this is a government conspiracy to get more money. I don’t agree with that. The government is freeing up the analog spectrum for other purposes and is giving you two coupons worth $40 each. The government doesn’t force you to watch television and they didn’t give you money to purchase your analog antenna or television. Besides that, digital television is truly a lot better in many ways.

Speaking of costs. The DTX9950 from Radio Shack is $59.99 ($65.84 after tax in Oak Ridge, TN). You have to pay taxes on the coupon (maybe this is a government conspiracy). After the coupon and taxes were applied I paid $25.84 for the converter box.

In conclusion I have to say I am very pleased with the DTX9950 (and the DTX9900). Like I have mentioned in this post already I think it’s one of the better converter boxes out there. I have read a lot of great things about it and in my experience with using it over the past couple of weeks I really do like it a lot. I think the features of the Digital Stream brand are far beyond those of other brands. I think it would be great if you’re someone like me who doesn’t pay for cable or satellite television and wants to receive free, local programming after the switch in February 2009. I could see this being used in campers for those who don’t want to sign up for mobile satellite television. Check out the Digital TV 2009 website to learn more about the switch to digital, sign up for two free $40 coupons from the government and find out what programming you can receive in your area with a digital television converter box.

High Dynamic Range (HDR) Photography

I have been seeing a lot of articles lately about high dynamic range (HDR) photography. I’ve always been fascinated by it. I read through a couple of blog entries and decided that I should try it myself. In the past I have said that I couldn’t do things like HDR due to the limitations of me only having a point and shoot camera. However, I have since learned that there is a lot that I can do with my camera it just takes a lot of practice, patience and a good eye. I went out and I took some photos and I wanted to make an entry about how I took the photos as well as show you how I got the final image.

The images above are as follows. The first image is a photo of the scene taken at normal exposure. The second image is a composited image created from 3 images at different exposures. The last image is after adjustments have been made to the composited image to make it look more like what I saw while I was taking the photo. If you click on the photos you can see a larger version of each in a light box.

Selecting a scene

The first thing you’ll want to do is to select something to take a photograph of, duh! Taking photos using the HDR process is a little bit more time consuming. I’ve noticed that since I have been using this process I’ve taken photos of fewer scenes. This also means that I have taken better photographs because I’m thinking about what would look best in the final output image.

Choose a scene that is not going to change for about 2-5 minutes. This time of course depends on how fast you can change the exposure of your camera to take the next photo. Some point & shoot cameras and dSLR cameras give you the ability to take photos at multiple exposures at the same time. If you have this feature you’ll definitely want to take advantage of it so you can take photos of objects that aren’t completely still. In the example below you’ll see an HDR image of the top of a tree. You’ll notice there is quite a bit of blur. Silly me wasn’t thinking about the tree moving whenever I took the photo. I think the photo is interesting but not of the highest quality.

Shoot something that you have shot in the past but it didn’t turn out the way you had hoped. Look for shadows and anything that will have detail in the final image. Taking the photos at multiple exposure values will allow many of the details that you see with your eyes to come out in the final image. I like to look for shadows cast onto the ground, rolling hills or a gorgeous blue sky.

Shooting the scene at multiple exposures

Although my camera has a manual mode I have been taking my shots using “Program auto shooting” which on other cameras is called “Aperture priority.” Using this setting the camera gives me more options for adjusting the focus and fine tuning the capture options. Once in Program auto shooting I set up the scene: zoom, white balance, ISO, etc. I would highly recommend taking your photos in this mode or a similar mode on your camera since you have more control over the photos. Don’t use the auto mode, your photos will never turn out all that great in my opinion.

Look for a setting that allows you to change the exposure compensation. On my camera it is in the menu options and is called “EV.” Most cameras allow you to go all the way up to +2.0 and down to -2.0. In the several photos that I have taken and used the HDR technique I have found taking shots at 0EV, +1EV and -1EV is plenty. The more images you take the more likely the images will be blurred due to something in the scene moving. If you want to take your photos by adjusting the shutter speed have a look at this tutorial.

Some cameras (even point and shoot) have a setting that will allow you to take multiple photos at different exposures at the same time. If you are lucky enough to have this on your camera take advantage of it.

As you are taking a photo of each scene you might want to make a new folder on your memory card for each scene. This will allow you to organize your scenes a little better and keep the multiple exposures of the scene in the same folder. If you take multiple sets of photos of the same scene this really helps.

Always shoot with a tripod. If you don’t have a tripod you’ll definitely want to get one. It is crucial. When you are shooting the photos at multiple exposures you’ll want to take a photo of exactly the same thing. During the compositing process the photos will be merged, any slight movement will show a blur. Along with using a tripod you’ll also want to use an auto timer of a few seconds to minimize camera shake.

Combining the images

Once you have got the images off of your camera you’ll need to combine them. I am using FDR Tools Basic on Windows which is also available for Mac OS X 10.3.9 or later.. I am using the basic free version which seems to do really well. Another freeware tool for Windows is HDRShop or Qtpfsgui. Qtpfsgui also works with Linux or the Mac. If you have Adobe Photoshop you can use the “Merge to HDR” function.

To edit the final output image you’ll need an image editing tool. If you have Photoshop definitely take advantage of it as you’ll be able to work with more than 8 bits which will give you a better output image. Although the GIMP only offers 8 bits I’ve been using it to edit the final output image and getting decent results. If you don’t have Photoshop I would highly recommend The GIMP, since it’s free and works on Mac (using X11), Windows and Linux. You could also use CinePaint which is capable of handling 8, 16 and 32 bit images.

Open up FDRTools Basic, click on Images >> Open, navigate to your set of 3 images, highlight them and click on Open. FDRTools will then begin to put the images together. Once the images are combined you can tone map the image (tone mapping button at the top) but I’d recommend simply saving the image out as a JPEG and editing the final image in The GIMP, Photoshop, CinePaint or another program of your choice.

Adjusting the composited image

Before you start editing the image that you saved out of FDRTools make a copy of it somewhere. On my computer I keep a folder for “Originals” and another folder for “Edited” photos. If you make a mistake or later decide you don’t like the adjustments you have made you can change them later. If you’re using Aperture, Lightroom, Picasa or another non-destructive editing program you won’t have to worry about this unless you are just a fussy person like myself who likes keeping things tidy!

When you open the image in The GIMP it will ask you if you want to convert the image to the RGB working space. You should always work with your photos in the RGB color space so I always have the image converted from whatever embedded format the photo has.

Once the image has been converted and opened the first thing I do is go to Colors >> Levels. Under “Input Levels” I move the sliders around until I get something that I like. You may have to add contrast or adjust the white balance but usually just moving the input level sliders around will give me a great result.

Another quick way of getting the colors right is by adjusting the white balance. In the Levels dialog box select the “white” dropper and choose a white spot on the photo. Then choose the “black” dropper and choose a completely black spot on the photo. This is usually better than adjusting the levels with the input levels slider but sometimes it’s very hard to find a white spot on a photo.

Once you have adjusted the image to your liking simply save the photo and share it! There are many groups for HDR photography on Flickr that you could join and post your images to and get tips on them for the next time.

I recorded a video tutorial for this post which you can download a high resolution version of using the link below. If you prefer to stream the video tutorial use the Vimeo player at the bottom of this post.

High Dynamic Range (HDR) Photography from andymelton on Vimeo.

DiscountLinuxDVD.com

A couple of weeks ago my DVD burner decided to kick the bucket. I was wanting to download Fedora 8 and burn it to a DVD so I could install it onto my computer. Unfortunately, that wasn’t going to happen. I decided that I would seek out a website that sold pressed copies of Linux distributions. I found DiscountLinuxDVD.com and am very pleased with their services.

I was only going to buy Fedora 8 but I wound up purchasing several others because they were a good price and I have been wanting to play with some of the updated distributions. I also prefer carrying around a pressed copy of some of the live Linux distributions that I use. People get weary sometimes of you putting in a home burned CD or DVD. I ordered the following: CentOS 5 DVD, CentOS 5 Live CD, Feespire 2.0, Slax 5.1.8 Live CD, openSUSE 10.3 DVD (i386 32-bit), openSUSE 10.3 (DVD x86_64 64-bit), openSUSE 10.3 (DVD PPC), Mandriva One 2008 Live/Install CD (KDE), Mandriva Free 2008 DVD, Ubuntu Studio 7.10, Fedora 8 (DVD PPC), Fedora 8 (DVD x86_64 64-bit), Fedora 8 (DVD i386 32-bit). All of that for $25.12. I thought that was a great deal to have pressed copies of all those distributions and different versions.

The other reason I enjoyed making my purchase at this site instead of the other sites out there was the fact that I did not have to order with a credit card. I simply ordered with my PayPal account and the funds were automatically deducted from my balance on PayPal. That’s how I like it and I greatly appreciate any company that allows me to do that.

If you’re looking for a easy way to play around with Linux and see what all the fuss is about I would highly recommend going over to DiscountLinuxDVD.com and purchasing a live CD. Slax, Puppy or Damm Small Linux (DSL) are great for older machines.

Mailplane for Gmail

Since I got this iBook G3 I’ve been primarily using it for communication (email, instant messaging) and multimedia (audio podcasts and my music collection). Unfortunately, the iBook doesn’t have a great deal of power since it is running Tiger which is a bit more resource intensive than OS 9 which is what the iBook shipped from the factory with. Checking my Gmail account was extremely painful because with all of the browsers it took an incredibly long time to load the interface and every email that I would click on would load painfully slow.

Fast forward a couple of months after getting the iBook I found an application called Mailplane. When I first saw the application I was extremely skeptical of it. I questioned why there was a need for such an application when I could simply load Gmail in a web browser and do everything I needed to do in the browser. I figured it was one of those applications that just made it easy for lazy people to gain access to their Gmail account. I didn’t sign up for the beta then but fast forward a couple of months and I got to wondering about it again.

I signed up for the beta and downloaded the application. Immediately it hit me as to why this application was needed. Accessing my Gmail account was extremely fast using Mailplane. Accessing Gmail using Mailplane was much faster than accessing the account with a browser even if I was using my best computer. I am not an application developer but my guess would be that there is some sort of caching happening behind the scenes. There has to be because it is so fast! When I get an email I am notified in the menu bar of Tiger and if I want to go view the message I can simply click on the Mailplane icon and have immediate access to my email.

Mailplane has other features but I will be honest with you, I don’t use them. The icon toolbar at the top of the application allows you to navigate your Gmail account, add stars, archive, access the online version of Google Talk, access your photos for sending via email. All of that is great but again, I don’t use them because I still primarily use the interface that is provided inside of Gmail. The only feature that is available that I will probably use in the future is the multiple accounts feature which I’ll be using once I get my domains set up with Google Apps (which is also supported by Mailplane).

I don’t have a complaint about the application however I would definitely like to see the application upgraded so it can take advantage of the new features availalbe in the updated version of Gmail. I especially like the ability to easily filter my messages and would like to be able to do that using Mailplane instead of going to another computer to access my Gmail account to create filters. I realize that you can do filtering via the settings and I have been doing that ever since I got my Gmail account in 2004 but the updated version of Gmail allows you to “Filter messages like this” very easily via the drop-down menu in your message pane.

The application is still in beta but I was able to purchase the application at a special discount since I was a beta user. I am not sure what the pricing will be once it is out of beta. I don’t regret purchasing this application due to the convenience it has added to using my Gmail account and I do recommend it especially if you are like me and have an older machine or hate having to wait on your Gmail account to load.

I think the developer of Mailplane has done a tremendous job and I look forward to more updates. I’d also love to see the developer create an application like Mailplane but for Google Reader. That would be really useful, too!

Mailplane for Mac OS X

Article update: Sunday, December 2, 2007: The latest unstable beta of Mailplane that I just installed does take advantage of the latest version of Gmail 2.0. Thanks!

Article update: Wednesday, October 1, 2008: I have updated this article with a screen shot from the latest version.

Since writing this article in November of 2007 the developer has made many improvements to Mailplane. When Gmail 2.0 was first supported it was very slow. That has been improved and the application is much more responsive with the latest version of Gmail.

Basic photo enhancements with The GIMP

For a while now I have been using the trial version of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. The trial expired and it’s still a bit too much for me to pay for. I love Picasa but it doesn’t have all the features that Lightroom spoiled me with while I was using it. Fortunately, there is The GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Program). It’s free which is the part that matters to most people. It’s got a ton of features and is comparable to Adobe Photoshop in many aspects. I’ve been using The GIMP on and off again since 2003. I have always wanted to switch to it because I love free and open source software. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to completely switch because I haven’t taken the time to sit down and learn it. Fortunately, with the latest version of The GIMP I am able to say that it can become my primary photo enhancement/editing tool. One of these days I hope it will become my tool for creating web graphics, but that’s another post for another day.

Although I am not very fluent with the GIMP for creating web graphics I have been using it for the past couple of weeks to enhance my photos before I upload them to Flickr. I don’t know how to do really cool effects, yet. Those will take time. But for the most part whenever I pull images off of my camera I really only need to do a few things like: increase saturation of individual colors, white balance correction, brightness/contrast and sharpening. Picasa from Google will do most of those but it doesn’t really allow you to fine tune color saturation like I was spoiled with while using Lightroom. Now, some people may think that it’s wrong to increase the saturation of colors in a photo but in my opinion I am going to make the photo look exactly like I remember it.

White Balance

Whenever I first open a photo to enhance the first thing that I do is use the auto white balance tool (Colors >> Auto >> White Balance). It’s a very quick and simply way of ensuring that your whites are whites. It’s like bleach for your photos. The great thing about this bleach is it’s color-safe, too! Ok. Seriously though it really does help, for the most part. A lot of times I will take a photo of an object, like a flower, on a white piece of paper with two desk lamps hovering above it. The two desk lamps have regular incandescent light bulbs in them and they generally produce a yellow cast in my images. Using the auto white balance the yellow cast is usually removed quickly and effortlessly.

If the auto white balance tool doesn’t work to your liking (which it sometimes won’t, count on it) another way to get the white balance correct in an image is to use the levels tool (Colors >> Levels). When the dialog box opens you can use the eye dropper tool on the far left to choose a spot on your photo that is completely black. Using the eye dropper tool on the far right you will choose a spot that is completely white. I have generally found that if there isn’t a completely white point in my photo choosing only the black spot works pretty well for correcting white balance. The same goes if there isn’t a black point in my photo, simply choose a white point. Also using this tool you can choose a gray point in your photo using the middle eye dropper under “All Channels.”

Color Enhancement

A lot of times when I pull images off of my camera and get to looking at them I think the colors are a little duller than what I remember the object I took the photo of being. In actuality it may not have been but what I remember isn’t what I’m seeing so I want to correct these. By going to Colors >> Hue-Saturation you can improve what you see by adjusting the hue of the color, the lightness and the saturation of the primary colors (red, yellow, green, cyan, blue and magenta). The lightness setting is really useful if you have a photo that came out dark and you have a photo where you really only wanted that color to stand out anyways. Increase it’s lightness value and optionally it’s hue and saturation and it will really stand out.

I will caution you on one thing. Don’t use too much saturation. One obvious reason is that your image will wind up looking fake (leaves are generally not neon green!). Also, if you increase the blue too much you’ll notice it really quickly because you will start seeing spots in other parts of your photo where you didn’t even know there was blue. The same holds true for any color. Just be realistic with this tool. In my opinion as long as it looks good and is believable then it’s okay, unless of course you want neon pink grass!

Brightness/Contrast

Before I talk about contrast I want to say something quickly about brightness. I don’t use the brightness tool of image editing applications a whole lot. I do, just not often. I only use it in extreme cases. I find that when I use the brightness tool that my images become too grainy to be accepted by my extremely critical eyes. Also whenever I use the brightness tool I find myself quickly adding more contrast to a photo. I try to avoid the brightness tool. You however may have different opinions on this so experiment with it.

Using the contrast tool (Colors >> Brightness-Contrast) is something that I am very fond of. Adding contrast to an images is one of the quickest and easiest ways to enhance your photos. Adding contrast to a photo deepens the dark colors of an image while still allowing the bright colors to shine through more brilliantly. Let’s take a photo of a flower as an example. The flower petals are bright and beautiful but there is a slight problem, they aren’t as brilliant as we remember them. Adding just a little bit of contrast will help increase the beauty of the photo immediately.

Again, this is something to use in moderation. Using The GIMP I generally start out with 5, 10 and 15 but try my best to stay under 15 if it’s at all possible. Play around with it though and see what it does. See what works best for you!

Converting Color to Black and White

When my parents were growing up the only option for photography was black and white. Now the default is color and you have to either buy black and white film or change your camera’s setting to black and white. I normally tend to only shoot in color and adjust the colors after I have taken the images off of my camera. That way I can decide whether I want the image to be in color, black and white, infrared, cyan or any other number of wacky color combinations.

There are many different ways to change a color image to black and white using The GIMP. The quickest and easiest way is to click on Image >> Mode >> Grayscale. You can also click on Colors >> Hue-Saturation, making sure that “Master” in the center is selected and move the Saturation slider all the way to the left or enter a value of -100.

Image Sharpening

Sometimes we are not able to capture an image as sharply as we remember. Fortunately for us sharpening is a standard feature in image editing applications today. It’s a bit harder to find in The GIMP than you’d expect but it’s located at Filters >> Enhance >> Sharpen. In that same area there is another tool called Unsharp Mask that you might enjoy playing with. I won’t go into detail about sharpening images because that’s pretty straight-forward. There are plenty of techniques you can use in The GIMP to sharpen an image, one in particular I am wanting to try out soon is called “Smart” Sharpening.

Image Cropping/Rotation

Another simple alteration that you’ll probably want to make on some of your photos is to crop them. Crop someone out or crop just the important part of a picture. Select the rectangle select tool from the tools dock (on the left by default), draw a selection of what you’d like to crop and adjust it to your liking and click on Image >> Crop to Selection and there you have a cropped image. Remember to not crop your images too much or when you print them you won’t have enough of an image to stretch out across the paper and the image will be blurry or pixelated.

Along with cropping an image you’ll probably occasionally have to rotate a few of them. That’s very simple as well. Go to Image >> Transform and choose which direction you would like to rotate your image.

Final Thoughts

I realize that this tutorial is fairly basic. I wanted to write it because when someone new to photo editing opens a program like The GIMP they are blown away by all the features and options that it offers. My hope is to give you a few tips that you can use to jump into The GIMP and start editing your photos. I think once you do jump into the program you’ll start to learn more about it. You’ll find many other tutorials online and like I said, I’m still learning it as well so when I learn something new I will be writing a new tutorial!

One other thing I would like to suggest is to make sure you follow my advice for backing up your digital media collection. What I have been doing is pulling photos off of my camera, copying the ones I like and want to edit into another folder. If I edit them there and save them and later decide I don’t like the change that I made I can go back and retrieve the original photo and adjust the photo again.

When you do save an image, make absolute certain you are saving the image at the highest quality possible. The GIMP defaults to something in the 90-98 quality range. If you’re uploading your photos to Flickr or going to print these photos, increase the slider to 100% and save it as the default. Also, make sure that you go to the advanced options to make sure the “Save EXIF data” option is checkmarked. This is one really great thing about digital photos if you can get the exposure, time/date, frame, camera model, etc from the data saved in the file. Make sure this data is retained!


Basic photo enhancements with The GIMP from andymelton on Vimeo.

When DRM Sucks

A couple of weeks ago my younger brother asked me to buy some songs for him from the iTunes store. So I thought this would be no big deal. Normally I buy, download and burn the songs to a CD and also put them onto his iPod shuffle for him. Well, that wasn’t the case this time. I had some issues and thought I would share them.

The music was bought and I transferred it over to my PC because the iBook doesn’t have a CD buner. No big deal. I get the tracks into iTunes on the PC and put them into a playlist and click on burn, no luck. There is an error that it can’t find a burner. The drive was being recognized by Windows as well as Nero. I got to thinking about it and I decided to disconnect the hard drive that was also on the same cable as the CD/DVD burner. Ok, first of all. I know it’s probably not wise to do that but I needed to connect the drive to the computer and it worked, so shush! Anyways. After taking my computer case apart, unplugging the hard drive and getting it all put back together again I turn the PC on and I still get the same error in iTunes. The drive is still being recognized by Windows and Nero but not iTunes.

I then realize that Nero is not displaying the drive as a CD or DVD Burner. I don’t know what the deal with that was. I’m still having issues copying CDs or DVDs. I’m thinking that I’m either needing to re-flash the optical drive, re-install Windows or buy a new DVD burner. But anyways. That’s not why I am writing.

Once I finally got the music over onto the PC and found out that I was not going to be able to burn the music using iTunes, I needed to try and burn it using Nero or something else. Of course you can’t do that without removing the DRM from the music! So I found myFairTunes, a Windows only application. DRM Dumpster does the same thing for Mac users but you’ll need a CD-RW drive and disc. Also, the software is not free. I removed the DRM, converted the tracks to MP3 format in iTunes and tried to burn the music using Nero. Of course I thought the music had burned succesfully because it went through the entire process and said it was successful. However, looking at the CD after it came out of the drive you can tell that there was nothing on the disc. When you put it into a CD player it makes the blank disc noise and when you put it back into a computer it says it is blank.

My point to this entire entry is that DRM is only making it harder for people who actually purchase music. We all know that. However the music industry still does not understand that fact. Thankfully, iTunes is now offering DRM free music. Also, fortunately, there are amazing companies like Magnatune who are against DRM. Magnatune allows you share the music you purchase with 3 people and they also let you license the music for videos, podcasts and other productions under a Creative Commons license.

The issue I had isn’t the only reason DRM needs to be sent to the dumpster. People want to buy music players and put their music on it. When a player is tied to one music store and one DRM format, you can’t do it. Maybe one of these days this will be a thing of the past and our descendants will look at us like we were crazy for using DRM (along with many, many other things).

SMC WiFi Phone for Skype (WSKP100)

The Reason For Purchasing

A couple of years ago I had a no-contract cell phone and before then I had a pre-paid cell phone. I got rid of those in 2005. They were simply too expensive. Ever since then I’ve been using Skype, Gizmo or just using the house land-line to make telephone calls. I’ve recently started getting more calls on my SkypeIn number because that’s what I give to friends, clients, recruiters and potential employers. Lately though, I have not been able to get to the computer quick enough to answer Skype. The problem is I have to go to the computer, sometimes login (usually locked when I am away), un-mute the microphone in Windows volume control, un-mute the microphone on the headset cable, put the headset on and answer the call. Heaven forbid if I’ve been using a piece of software that change’s my Skype input/output devices because if that’s the case I have to change those, too!

So you see the problem! I needed to get something that I could answer very quickly. For a while I had been wanting to get a WiFi phone for Skype. The problem is that they were still really expensive. Most of them were between $150-200. I didn’t want to spend that much. I thought about getting one of the cordless dual-mode phones but the ones that were actually affordable required you to connect them to your computer. There are models that do not require you to connect them to your computer but they cost more than the WiFi phones. The problem for me is, if I’m still in bed and a potential employer calls I wouldn’t know it because I have been turning the computer off during the night because it’s really loud and of course, I’m in sleep land. Also, the idea solution was to get something that I could take with me if I were to go on a trip, interview, vacation (ha, ha, whatever) or somewhere that was out of the area and possibly had a WiFi Internet connection.

I got onto Skype’s website a couple of weeks ago and saw the SMC WiFi Phone for Skype for $99 which I thought was a great deal. Everywhere else has the exact same model for between $130-170. The Belkin model (which is exactly the same as the SMC model other than the color and branding, in my opinion) was more expensive. I pondered on purchasing the SMC model for about an hour and I went ahead and purchased it. I have been using the phone for a week now and although I have already wrote in length about why I purchased the phone, I have a lot more to say about the phone (features, likes, dislikes, etc).

Arrival, setup, included features

The phone was shipped quickly and arrived in packaging that reminds me of typical cell phone packaging. The box contained the SMC Skype WiFi Phone, earphone, power adapter, USB cable, battery and a CD containing the user manual (nothing else is on the CD), printed user manuals (in 3 languages). In the box there is also a gift of 120 SkypeOut minutes and 3 month’s free voicemail. I was pleased with this because with my SkypeIn number I get free voicemail. With the card I was able to extend my voicemail for 3 additional months and I had just extended it a few days prior to receiving the phone. So I won’t have to do that for 6 months which is very nice. Of course I also got the 120 SkypeOut minutes but for me I do not worry much with those as I paid for the entire year of Skype Unlimited. Regardless, it’s still very nice.

Before turning the phone on and setting it up it says to charge it for 8 full hours which is fairly a standard suggestion on almost all electronics. After the phone had been on charge for 3 hours it said that it was charged. I decided to keep my anxious fingers away from the phone for a few more hours and let it continue to charge for the full 8 hours even though it said it was charged. I’m not sure if the battery was charged partially from the factory or if there is a bug with the phone. More than likely it was charged partially from the factory.

Once the phone was charged setting it up was very easy although it did take me a couple of tries getting my password in. It took me a couple of minutes to figure out how to input upper case letters. The phone joined my wireless network without any issues and once I got the username and password into the phone it logged onto Skype without any issues. The phone said that it was downloading contacts for quite a long time. I turned the phone off after 30 minutes, turned it back on and my contacts were there. Other than getting my contacts to appear, set up was very simple.

What I dislike about the phone

The biggest complaint about the phone that I have is how it handles voicemails. The Skype website states: “Voicemail Support: With the purchase of Skype Voicemail, the SMC WiFi Phone will record a short voice message from the caller when your are away.” I assumed that the phone would work much like the Skype software. I assumed that if I did not answer the phone after a few rings the phone would send the caller to voicemail. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In my tests and when others have called me at no time does the call ever go to voicemail. If you let it ring long enough you will get a busy signal but no voicemail.

Although the phone interface is very easy to use, the actual buttons on the phone are very annoying. I find myself having to press the buttons harder than I should at times to make them work. Sometimes it seems as though there is a delay from the time you press the button until the action you desired happens.

The phone supposedly has the ability to update itself over WiFi. I have not been able to test this because the update that I installed when I got the phone enabled the feature and there have been no updates since I installed the latest firmware. When you first get this phone you will definitely want to update it. The phone I received had year old firmware installed. Unfortunately, if you do need to update the software you can only update it on Microsoft Windows with the included USB cable. I find this amusing considering the fact that the phone is running on an embedded Linux distribution.

The time on this phone is always incorrect. Every single time I go into the time settings and change them it will always go back one hour. No matter how many times I have updated the time on this phone it always goes back one hour. Speaking of time, whenever you hold the phone up to your ear you can hear a ticking sound. It sounds exactly like a ticking watch (and no, I do not wear a wristwatch!).

When you are holding the phone up to your ear, ticking is not the only noise you hear. If you are not in a call you can hear the phone making a continuous electronic noise. If you are listening to your voice messages and you have the phone to your ear you can hear the phone downloading each message one piece at a time onto the phone’s internal memory card.

I have made many calls to the Skype Lady (echo123) and whenever she starts speaking it’s really loud, then really quiet. Then when the bells dings for you to start or stop speaking they are really loud and can really hurt your ears. When I have made SkypeOut and calls to other Skype users it is really difficult to hear sometimes what the person is saying unless you hold the phone really close to your ear. Forget using the included earphone, it’s even worse.

The phone is awkward to hold. I really hate the back of the phone because when your run your fingers across it’s surface it sounds like sandpaper. Fortunately, it doesn’t feel like sandpaper! I wish the entire phone was as smooth as the front.

What I like about the phone

I know this is not the most important aspect of the phone but I am really pleased that it is running on a Linux distribution. I love Linux devices and love to see more and more products putting it to use.

I like the fact that this phone is upgradeable. I think that is extremely important in almost any device you purchase these days. I only hope that SMC will kick out some updates to make this phone even better.

I also love the fact that no PC is required in any aspect of setting up or using this phone (other than the initial update that I made). If I am to go on a vacation (unlikely) it will nice to be able to stay in touch using Skype.

Final thoughts and conclusion

Although the phone has it’s flaws I think the phone is a really great idea, especially for someone like me. My computer is really terrible at running Skype while it is running other applications. I normally have to close Skype if I am using Lightroom or Photoshop. For that alone it is worth it. It’s nice to be able to have a standalone device to be able to use as my phone.

It’s also a great concept for people who travel and need to stay in touch with their family, friends, etc. Skype is free for users calling each other and extremely affordable for calling out of the Skype network. When I am able to move into my own place I do plan on using Skype as my land-line alternative. I do plan on having something for emergency calls, though. Don’t forget that you cannot make emergency calls with this phone.

With all the above said I have hard time trying to decide whether I should keep the phone or smash it to pieces. The phone is useful to me in the fact that it does the primary task that I needed it for, that is to be able to answer it quickly when someone calls. However, the fact that it is very hard to hear, the people on the other end have a hard time hearing me and the problem with voice mail really makes me consider sending the phone back. I don’t want to send the phone back because I really love the concept. Regardless, I feel as though I paid for a device that in my opinion does not live up to my expectations.

Photos of the SMC WiFi Phone on Gizmodo
SMC WiFi Phone Homepage
SMC WiFi Phone Firmware Update Page
SMC WiFi Phone on Skype Store
My photos of the phone on Flickr

Article update: Thursday, September 11, 2008: I meant to update this article a long time ago but forgot to. I did send the phone back and received a refund. To my knowledge SMC has not updated the phone’s hardware. Skype has also jacked up the price of this phone from $99 when I bought it to $149. I would definitely stay away from this phone. It’s been almost a year now and I’m still bitter about this phone. I had such high hopes for it. Oh well, at least I got my money back.

20" ViewSonic Optiquest Q20WB LCD Monitor

If you recall from the Taco HTML article I wrote back in June, I mentioned that my 3 year old Envision LCD (Envision EN7100) decided to kick the bucket. Ever since then, up until the 5th of October (earlier this month, for me) I had been using my backup CRT monitor. I got paid for a web design project in September and I decided that I had put up with the CRT long enough and purchased the 20″ ViewSonic Optiquest Q20WB from NewEgg.

There are a couple of reasons I purchased this monitor, specifically. The first reason is that the monitor has DVI and VGA inputs. One of these days I am eventually going to be able to afford a new computer, hopefully a Mac. The good thing is I won’t have to get a converter for the Mac and if I still have my PC I will be able to switch between the two computers by using the on screen controls. Then just switch between the mouse and keyboard with a KVM switch.

The other reason I purchased this monitor over an Acer or another cheaper brand was because I really wanted something with a good brand name. I realize that Optiquest is a low-end model on the ViewSonic line, at least that is what I read on one of the review sites. I still figured that since all ViewSonic makes is display products that it would be better to go with something from them. I was very much considering an Acer display that was only 19″, it was the same price as the display I bought. I just got to thinking about it and thought that since they made computers and other equipment they might not have the best product.

I was fairly confident that this monitor would work with my system. I was wondering because my PC is a few years old now (I built it in 2003). Luckily I was able to pull it out of the box, plug it in and it worked without any problems. I increased the resolution to the highest resolution (1680 x 1050) and it didn’t puke. I did install the drivers for it, don’t know that it was a necessity because the screen looked great even without the drivers.

I’ve been using the new monitor for over a week now and I am absolutely in love with it. However it has a problem. It shrinks! I’m joking. Just when I pulled it out of the box when I got it and had it on my desk it looked humongous. I kept thinking to myself “How in the world did this thing fit in the box!?” Now don’t let that negate the fact that it is still a large display. It’s really nice to open Lightroom and be able to leave all the panels open and still be able to work on my photos with a large sized editing window. The same goes for coding. I can open Aptana and have all the panels open and still see most of my code. I can also have some code on one side and an IM window on the other side and a document above that. It’s very nice.

There are a lot of controls in the on-screen display. Many more than my Envision had. This Optiquest has controls for adjusting colors, contrast/brightness, the location of the on-screen display, on-screen display language, resolution notices (when you enter a low resolution it displays a message to increase the resolution for optimal performance). You also control the input selection through the on-screen display.

At 20″ the display is larger than my 19″ television. I still have to use the television for playing videos streamed online because for some reason they just appear brighter on my television. I am not sure if it is how the video files are encoded (very low resolution videos) or if it’s just a drawback of LCD technology. Again, don’t let this negate the fact that this is a great display.

The only real problem that I have noticed about this monitor and it’s really not even an issue for me, but, it is wobbly if you bump into the desk or even lightly touch it. It’s not going to tip over but the display sort of wobbles on it’s stand. Again, it’s not an issue. It may even be designed to do that so that the display simply wobbles instead of the stand being pushed back and maybe accidentally turned over.

The only other thing that may be a concern to some people is that widescreen content still does not fill up the entire screen, even though the display is a widescreen display. I don’t have any higher resolution video to try out but I assume with higher resolution video it would fill up the display with no problem at all. When you play a widescreen DVD at the highest resolution there is still letterboxing.

Again, the display is simply gorgeous. It’s very bright. When I look at my iBook now I realize just how dark it is and then wonder how much darker the CRT was because I considered the iBook to be brighter than it! I’d always use the iBook to make sure my photos looked ok after I uploaded them to Flickr! Working on my photos and videos with the CRT monitor just was not cutting it. Whenever I look at photos on the new monitor I am much more impressed with them. I enjoy them a lot more. Whenever I am on Flickr viewing photos from my friends I enjoy them much more because they are brighter and much more spectacular.

At roughly $180 this monitor puts the Apple 20″ Cinema Display to shame. The Optiquest has a 5ms response time whereas the Apple display has a 16ms response time. The Apple display has a 300 cd/m2 brightness rating, so does this Optiquest. I am glad I bought this monitor so I can better save for a new Mac desktop or laptop. Who cares about color coordinating anyway? Heck, sometimes a domino color scheme can be quite interesting!