Review

Review: Matias Tactile 3 Keyboard

As peripheral manufacturers seek new ways to add bells, switches, and levers to our keyboards, Matias takes a different approach with the Tactile Pro 3 keyboard: Matias pulled this keyboard from a time machine.

The Tactile 3 is built with mechanical switches. There is no electronic wizardry here, just high quality Alps mechanical switches. (The same switches used on the legendary Apple Extended Keyboard.) The Tactile Pro keyboard is really all about the typing experience. I could wax poetic about the keyboards of yesteryear. Back in the day, Apple (and IBM) made some really fine mechanical switch keyboards. Since then, however, everyone (including Apple) moved on to electronic key switch keyboards that (to me) feel either too mushy or too flat.

The Tactile Pro has a larger travel distance and, because it uses mechanical switches, you hear (and feel) a mechanical click when the key depresses. I find it both satisfying and useful as a touch typist. It has been so long since I used a mechanical switch keyboard that the extra travel threw me at first. I quickly adjusted. After using the keyboard for just a few weeks my fingers learned instinctively when the switch engages and I can move on. On some keyboards, there is a limit to how many keys can be typed at once resulting in the loss (or ghosting) of typed characters. The Tactile Pro has anti-ghosting circuitry that lets the keyboard keep up with fast typists. I can fly on this keyboard.

The key switches aren’t the only thing built to last. The key faces are laser etched with the key label and the Mac OS X alternative accented characters. Because they are etched on the keys, these symbols aren’t going to wear off anytime soon. The key tops are also sculpted, allowing your fingers to easily center on the keys as you type.

There are three USB 2.0 ports on the keyboard. Using it I was able to sync iPods and iPhones. It doesn’t, however, have sufficient power to charge the devices.

The Matias Tactile Pro 3 keyboard is music to my ears. As I hammer out text with it, the noisy keys clink and clack away filling the room with the sounds of getting work done. It isn’t cheap at $150. The switches are expensive and this keyboard is built to last.

I’m still trying to decide whether my attraction to a mechanical switch keyboard is because they are inherently better or just because I originally learned to type on one. Either way, I type faster on this keyboard. I’d be curious to hear from some younger hackers (who did not grow up using a mechanical keyboard) to see what they think. Regardless, if you hear the siren song of a mechanical keyboard for your Mac, the Matias Tactile Pro 3 is the best solution on the Mac. Matias has a 30 day refund policy so long as you buy the product directly from them.

Main Menu Review and Giveaway

Screen shot 2009-11-21 at 8.13.57 AM.png


Main Menu is a menubar application that runs a lot of those system maintenance tasks that anal retentive geeks like myself love to do. While traditionally a free application, developer, Dare to be Creative, recently released a paid version 2.0.

The new release includes some improved functionality, an informative system menu icon, a cleaner drop down interface, and Growl notification.

Screen shot 2009-11-19 at 3.53.53 PM.png


The Main Menu interface all drops down from its Menu Bar icon. On the first click it presents a list of categories including things like “System”, “Network”, and “Utility.” Upon clicking any one of these tasks, a separate list of commands slides out allowing you to perform the requested maintenance with one additional click. The list is exhaustive. Indeed perhaps too exhaustive including cache cleaning, flushing the DNS cache, and other computer tasks that mere mortals should be very careful about. Cleaning your system cache every week, for instance, would more likely slow your Mac down than speed it up.

Regardless, using this application I was able to easily rebuild my spotlight index, run my daily/monthly maintenance scripts, and secure empty my trash from the menu bar. The real beauty of Main Menu is its simplicity. It also has tabs to force quit an application, repair drives, and a variety of other tasks which normally require some degree of drilling into your Mac or (gasp) Terminal mumbo-jumbo.

Screen shot 2009-11-19 at 3.57.22 PM.jpg


There are also are several commands that, while not really system maintenance, are very handy to have easy access in the menu bar such as displaying invisible files, relaunching the dock, menu bar, and finder, and the Tim Verpoorten function that kills the dashboard.

Another feature that is impressive is batch tasks. Using this you can bunch your most common tasks into a batch to be run automatically. You can save your favorite batches allowing you to do routine maintenance even faster. This would be nice if you wanted to set up a series of maintenance tasks. Strangely it does not have a scriptable system shutdown which is what I would want to do after running such a script.

Screen shot 2009-11-19 at 4.02.37 PM.png


Using Main Menu (wisely) you can easily help your Mac run clean and mean.

While probably unfair, you can’t help but compare this application to other Mac system utility applications such as the $15 Cocktail or the free Onyx. These applications offer more of a dedicated application experience and offer more functions, tweaks, and twists than the $20 Main Menu does. Main Menu’s selling point is its simplicity. It is always present on your menu bar and system tasks are just a few clicks away. I think the batch task tool is also very intuitive and a definite plus for users.

This was a no brainer when it was free. It is still worthy of consideration at $20. The purpose of all of these system applications is to, essentially, put a pretty face and easy interface over the terminal commands and buried menus of OS X. Main Menu succeeds in doing this. You certainly could get by without any of these system utilities but probably would not want to. Whether Main Menu is the right system utility for you is up to you. It certainly should be a contender. I recommend you take the 15 day trial and decide for yourself.

The good news is that for a few lucky listeners, Main Menu is still free. The developer has kindly agreed to give away a handful of licenses. If you would like to be entered in the contest, simply send me an e-mail with the words “Main Menu Contest” in the subject line. Just one entry per person please. There will be a drawing next week. Good luck!

You can listen to this review on the Surfbit's MacReviewCast.

Pagehand Review

pagehand-icon 2.jpg


If you’ve been reading me for any length of time, you’ll know that I have a “thing” for word processors. This is partly because I spend so much time writing but also because I remember the cowboy days of word processing when our computers were 8 bits and there were 20 different developers trying to build a better mousetrap.

Gladly, the Microsoft Word stranglehold seems to be loosening and independent developers are once again bringing their own particular take on word processing to the Mac. One of the most recent additions is Pagehand.

This version 1.0 application is all about the words. The interface is simple and tasteful developed to stay out of your way and let you get to the hard work of writing.

Screen shot 2009-11-08 at 6.51.15 PM.jpg


Thankfully, you can spend a lot of time writing in Pagehand without ever straying into the menu listings and there simply are no inspectors. All of its tools are presented in the toolbar and sidebar. One nice touch is font are grouping by style so if you are looking for a nice decorative sans serif, they are easy to find.

Screen shot 2009-11-08 at 6.51.54 PM.jpg


It is always refreshing to see a developer create an application with no regard to feature lists. However, there are a few things missing from Pagehand that could make it a deal breaker for some. You can’t track changes and there are no footnotes or endnotes. For me, that severely limits my ability to use Pagehand. Likewise the page layout and table support is present but not nearly as robust as in Apple’s Pages application.

Screen shot 2009-11-08 at 6.52.32 PM.png


The thing is, those features that Pagehand does include are done extremely well. I’ve always used paragraph styles but I’m the only person I know who does (and I talk to a lot of writers). I think part of the problem is implementation. Pagehand has made developing, customizing, and naming paragraph styles very intuitive.

Screen shot 2009-11-08 at 7.00.21 PM.jpg


In terms of character and paragraph customization, Pagehand excels. There are four different styles of underline and four styles of strikethrough. You can apply shadow and control the angle, offset, blur, and opacity. The hyphenation control includes sliders for the current paragraph and entire document.

Pagehand also changes the rules with file format. Pagehand’s native file format is called Pagehand PDF. This way, any saved Pagehand file can be opened in any PDF reader on any platform. What a great idea. In addition, Pagehand also imports and exports to the usual suspects including Microsoft Word and several text formats. Although importing Microsoft Word documents that include unsupported features, such as footnotes, led to some grief.

I can’t help but really like this application. The simplicity of the user interface and the moxy of simply ignoring several of the word processing features everyone expects is endearing. If you don’t need those missing features, Pagehand may be the answer you are looking for.

I suspect there will be some feature creep with future versions and look forward to seeing how the developer does this and keeps the elegant simplicity.

You can download Pagehand from Pagehand.com. The introductory price is $40 but that will eventually go to $50.

You can listen to this review on the Mac Review Cast.

Camtasia Review

camtasiamac_right.jpg


Making and publishing screencasts has become much easier the last few years. It used to be that screencasting applications only captured your screen movements. Current screencasting tools are much more powerful. The latest addition in this space on the Mac is the Windows screencasting champ, Camtasia.

I spent the last three weeks trying out Camtasia and while the application definitely shows promise, it also still needs a bit more cooking.

I’m going to break this review into the three phases of screencasting: capture, edit, and export.

CamtasiaforMac-Editor.jpg


Capture



Camtasia’s biggest stumble is during screen capture. Camtasia is resource intensive and hits the processor, hard. If you have the computer busy already, Camtasia will peg your meters.

camtasia process.png


Not only does this slow down your Mac while recording, it also shows up recording. The video recorded in Camtasia on my 6 month old iMac came out choppy and washed out in comparison to the same recording in Screenflow. This was particularly noticeable when capturing video or advanced graphics.

For audio, Camtasia relies upon a version of Soundflower, an open source application, to perform some of its audio capture. This is a bit concerning as a result of Soundflower’s sometimes erratic behavior. I didn’t experience any troubles with it while testing Camtasia but I’ve had issues with it in the past. Installing it on my drive again is a bit like inviting a toddler into your home that that broke all your china during his last visit.

Editing



Once your capture is complete, Camtasia opens its editing window. Despite its strong Windows roots, Camtasia for Mac most certainly is a Macintosh application and the developer clearly is not trying to just throw an ill conceived port at Mac users.
The UI is generally clean and self explanatory. You could get this application running with little training but Camtasia’s excellent online tutorials are worth the time.

Camtasia has several interesting editing functions. It supports built in transitions. This is an innovative feature that allows you to transition your shots right in the screencasting application, which I’ve always done in Final Cut or iMovie. The transitions are limited but probably enough for most uses.

Camtasia 4.png


It also has a small library of graphical assets you can drag onto your screencast which can be useful as a visual aid. Strangely, all of these assets are filled in shapes which prohibits you, for instance, from putting a circle around a screen button. Using OmniGraffle, I created several PNG shapes that easily imported into Camtasia which solved this problem but also pulled me out of the “single paradigm” experience Camtasia seems to be going for. There is also a way to color shade your screen but it is an all or nothing proposition and I’m not sure how useful that is for producing screencasts.

Camtasia 3.png


Strangely, it doesn’t allow for voice over recording in the edit phase. You must capture your audio during the original recording or go and record your voice in some other application and import it into Camtasia.

Perhaps my favorite editing function is SmartFocus that automatically determines where to focus and zooms to the surrounding area. While I was initially skeptical about turning this responsibility over to software, Camtasia did the job remarkably well. Application of this feature, however, required that you have extra pixels to move. If you capture the entire screen and keep your resolution at full screen level, there is no room for SmartFocus and it doesn’t work.

My least favorite thing about editing in Camtasia is the way it makes me tear the clip into multiple pieces to highlight a single window. You must isolate the section where the window exists by cutting it out of the existing clip and then apply the effect the entire cut. Screenflow makes this much easier by applying the effect to an adjustable portion of an existing clip.

Editing and scrubbing in Camtasia was laggy and imprecise. It often took me several times to get the playhead in the right place. In contrast, Screenflow is snappy and more accurate.

Also, Camtasia does not provide any control for the curser. There is no ability to hide or highlight it. This is another omission that makes me wonder exactly what the developer was going for.

Export



The export features in Camtasia are good. It has a “Share” menu item that lets you easily send your screencast to iTunes, YouTube or Screencast.com. Under the advanced tab it allows you to customize your export with the familiar set of Quicktime options. There does not appear to be a lossless export.

Conclusion



While Camtasia tries to be that single purpose, do everything, screencasting application, it doesn’t quite get there. It reminds me of a really nicely decorated cake that, when you get it on your plate, tastes bad. In failing to nail the capture portion of the screencasting workflow, Camtasia falters out of the gate. No matter how interesting the transitions are, if the capture is choppy, the final product is lousy. With iMovie free on every Mac, the developers' time would have been better spent nailing the screencasting functions before tacking on the bells and whistles.

While I'm pleased to see TechSmith bring Camtasia to the Mac, until it sorts out the capture quality, I would hold off on this application. This is a 1.0 release and I look forward to seeing if they can improve upon it. A license for Camtasia is currently $99 but that price will move up to $149. There are several good tutorials on the website and there is a free 30 day trial.

MercuryMover Review

MercuryMover.png


I am most certainly what you would call a keyboard jockey. As much as I like my mouse, I'd prefer to keep working on the keyboard. One task that, until recently, always took a bit of mouse work was the process of sizing and moving windows. That was, until I discovered Helium Foot Software's MercuryMover.

MercuryMover is a preference pane that enables keyboard shortcuts to move and resize windows directly from your keyboard. While I found the default keyboard shortcuts to work for me, you can easily change them to suit your needs.

mercury mover.png


Once activated, you can resize and move your windows on the fly in 1, 10, and 100 pixel increments. If you go overboard and overshoot your window movement, there is undo support. I particularly like the shortcuts that allow you to slam a window into a border or center it on your screen. Both of these are instantly useful on a laptop. This is also very helpful on those occaisions where you have a window nearly off screen and no "handle" to grab with the mouse.

If you have particular sizes of windows, you can save them as a preset. This feature is very helpful if you have different configurations in certain applications. For instance, in Keynote I normally run it in two sizes: a large size that fills the screen and a smaller one that affords room for inspectors and other applications. Using the hot key presets I can force the application into these predefined configurations with just a few keystrokes. This sets the window exactly where I want it in a fraction of the time it takes to accomplish driving a mouse.

I have been running it on two Macs for three weeks and experienced no stability problems. It has no troubles with multiple displays.

The tipping point is the fact that you have to memorize a few hot keys. If you are a fellow keyboard jockey, that shouldn't be a problem. If you'd rather reach for the mouse, this one isn't for you. After using it for a few weeks, it has become second nature to me and is much faster than my prior methods involving rodents.

A license is $20 and can be obtained from Helium Foot Software. There is a free trial so give it a try and see if it helps you.

You can listen to this review on the Mac ReviewCast, # 220.

Pixelmator Review

pixelmator_icon.png


A lot of Mac photographers remember that Adobe took a long time to get Elements on the Intel platform. In that void several independent competitors appeared. I started using Pixelmator shortly after it came out and it has quietly replaced Elements for me.

sprinklesmall.jpg


Pixelmator is a $59 pixel pushing beast. It uses your graphics card and makes quick work of most common graphics tasks. Pixelmator delivers many (but not all) of the core features of Photoshop in a better, and more Mac friendly, interface. The general layout is very similar to Photoshop. It even recognizes most Photoshop keyboard combinations. It uses a dark grey interface similar to Apple's Pro applications that is easy on the eyes.

temposmall.jpg


Pixelmator ships with tools, masks, layers, and several useful image filters. I primarily use Pixelmator with photographs and there is the usual assortment of levels, color curves, balancing and other photography tools. I really liked the way it renders gradients in real time. I, frankly, don't need a lot of tools as Aperture has become so robust. When I do need to roundtrip to an external editor, Pixelmator is usually enough.

draftsman-small.jpg


Having used Pixelmator for some time, I'm also impressed with the slow march of new features the developers are releasing with each new update. They are not throwing in the kitchen sink but instead spending time on UI design and polish with each new feature.

layers-front.png


Once your image is done, you can easily export the usual formats including PSD, TIFF, GIF, JPEG, PNG, and PDF just to name a few.

While Pixelmator most certainly is not Photoshop, it is feature rich and a respectable competitor with Photoshop Elements. In my testing, I found Pixelmator easy to use but with fewer bells and whistles than Elements. At a fraction of the cost of Photoshop, you really can't go wrong with either application. Regardless, the Mac polish and excellent interface make Pixelmator the winner for me. For $59, it takes care of all of my imaging needs. You can download a free trial from pixelmator.com.

You can listen to this review on Surfbits MacReviewCast #218.

MacSpeech Dictate 1.5 Review

Macspeech dictate icon.png


It wasn't too long ago that I reviewed MacSpeech Dictate version 1. At the time I concluded it was the best dictation application on the Mac but is still wanting against the DragonDictate on the PC.

Because MacSpeech Dictate uses the Dragon speech recognition engine, I've always felt it is only a question of time before MacSpeech catches up with the feature list on the more mature PC application. Recently, MacSpeech Dictate came out with version 1.5 that takes several important steps on that path.

Since the original release of MacSpeech Dictate, the Dragon engine has been updated to version 10 on the PC. MacSpeech Dictate 1.5 brings that Dragon version 10 engine over to the Mac. It is both faster and more accurate than the Dragon 9 engine in the prior version. The developer states the accuracy improved "up to 20%." Even using the prior version, my accuracy was very good. Having used speech recognition software (off and on) for over 10 years, I simply cannot understate the accuracy of the Dragon engine if you spend a little time and are careful with your dictdion. Frankly, my biggest accuracy problems are not the software but my occasional sloppy dictation habits. While difficult to quantify, the improved accuracy and speed with the new version is noticeable. Indeed, the engine upgrade is, in my opinion, the most important reason to move to version 1.5.

Another reason to upgrade is the addition of the vocabulary editor which allows you to train individual words and add them to your dictionary. It can be anything: technical jargon, latin phrases, even "MacSparky." This is one of the PC features that I missed on the Mac. Thankfully, you can also save your profile so the additional words and nuances of your voice can be captured by the system.

The application now also recognizes 13 distinct English dialectic variations. The new "cache document" command allows you to navigate a document and perform edits. In practice, I still found it easier to use the mouse and keyboard for proofing and editing following dictation.

The interface has not changed significantly. It still provides you with a list of available commands and an easy to use control window. Once you get used to MacSpeech Dictate, I recommend you turn some of these additional windows off. These days I use this application exclusively through its menubar icon.

As I get older, I find myself using speech recognition software more and more often. This results from the fact that I'm getting older and my fingers get sore after long typing sessions. Also, I'm really busy and using MacSpeech Dictate allows me to write much faster. Most of then content at MacSparky.com and, for that matter, this very review started out with MacSpeech Dictate.

MacSpeech Dictate remains the only option on the Macintosh for speech recognition. Thankfully, the developer is aggressively moving forward with the addition of new features and support. If you are buying it new, the price is $199 and includes a microphone. For the upgrade to version 1.5 it is $55. You can learn more at macspeech.com.

You can listen to this review on the MacReviewCast Episode 214.

Elgato Turbo.264 HD Review

elo_ws_image_gallery_2.jpg


A few years ago I bought an Elgato video encoder at Macworld. This little thumb device immediately became a regular part of my video encoding workflow. Recently Elgato released its upgraded HD version, the Turbo.264 HD which has improved upon the original in every way.

The Turbo.264 HD uses a new HD encoder that handles more formats and is faster than its predecessor. How fast? Really fast. I’ve been using the device a month and usually encoding goes twice as fast with the Turbo.264 HD than it does without it. Sometimes quite a bit faster.

elo_ws_image_gallery_6.jpg


The science behind the Elgato Turbo.264 HD is its ability to take the video encoding work from your processor and do it with the Elgato’s own hardware encoding accelerator. In addition to accomplishing this faster than your Mac’s processor can, this also gives the added benefit of freeing up your processor for other jobs.

Elgato has also improved upon the software. The new version has easy to use presets but also allows you to tweak away.There is also a lightweight editor that allows you to trim and merge clips. The merge function is particularly useful for joining tracks. The QuickTime settings, not present on the older device, give you a ground zero way to export your video. You can set up multiple projects at once and the Elgato will rip through them without further interruption.

elgato-turbo264-hd.jpg


Import and export are also easier with baked in support for AVCHD camcorders which converts what used to be a very tedious process into lickety split drag and drop. You can also directly export and upload to YouTube from within the Elgato software.

The device itself still looks like an oversized USB thumb drive. This time there is no cap for the USB plug but it does include a short USB extension cable that is handy when using it on a laptop with close set USB ports.

At $150, this product is not a necessity but it is wonderful luxury. It is good at what it does, consumer level encoding acceleration. It is fast and the final product is good. I don’t see it getting used for any feature films but for the stuff I make, it is just fine. The tipping point is if you are having troubles with video encoding or the process of encoding is interrupting your work. If you encode video once a month and start it off before heading to bed, you can move along. If, however, you are all too familiar with a sluggish Mac and endless encoding of files, you owe it to yourself to take a look at this product. The Elgato Turbo.264 HD can pay for itself in saved time.

You can listen to this review on Surfbits #213.

Voila Review

Voila.jpg


I must admit I lost interest in screen capture utilities once I got comfortable with Skitch. It is such an easy-to-use application that I simply stopped looking.

A few months ago some of the nice people at Global Delight asked me to look at their screen capture utility, Voilà. I was skeptical at first but after using it for a month I must admit I am impressed.

Voilà goes much farther than a traditional screen capture utility. It takes advantage of many of the core graphics functions in OS X to provide the user interesting ways to capture, edit, organize, and share screen captures.

When capturing screenshots with Voilà you have several options. In addition to rectangles, you can capture others geometric shapes such as circles, polygons, and even freehand. You can also capture menus, objects, and a full screen. You can even time the captures so you can place your mouse at exactly the right position before the shot is taken.

Voilà also captures images from your iSight camera or third-party web cam. One interesting feature is the ability to make multiple selections and take several screenshots with one snap.

If you are looking to capture specific webpages, you can type in the URL and use Voilà's built-in web browser to take a shot of the complete page. If you are a web developer, you can also take shots of specific DOM elements.

Once you capture your image, Voilà will handle just about any type of editing tools you would require with a screen capture. In addition to the obligatory resize and crop tools, you can blur sensitive information, insert text annotation, and add variety of arrows, lines, and shapes to help get your point across. There are also edges and filters you can apply. I was particularly impressed with its ability to skew an image.

Voilà uses Apple's common paradigm of organizing data with a left column group of folders. It includes its own categories including such things as screen snaps, camera snaps, and imports but also allows you to make your own collections including smart criteria such as date, URL, tagged and annotation flags.

Once you have your images edited and organized, you can share them easily via Apple Mail or Microsoft Entourage with one click. You can also configure it to talk to your FTP and Flickr accounts. While there did not appear to be anything particularly revolutionary about Voilà's sharing abilities (most screen capture utilities these days have them in one form or another), they were easily configured and reliable.

Two years ago, it was unimaginable to conceive of editing functions this deep in a screen capture utility. But times, they are a'changin. There is a healthy competition with some excellent screen capture utilities. Voilà presents a feature rich, stable option. You can purchase it at globaldelight.com for $39.95. There is a 30 day free trial. As to the question whether you want to spend $40 on a screen capture utility, there is no simple answer. If you're satisfied with the built-in screen capture tools in OS X or free applications, like Skitch, you are probably fine. If, however, you're finding yourself exporting screen capture images into higher end photo editing software, getting a beefier screen capture tool is worth investigation and may be worth the investment.