New Mac Setup Recommendations: 2009

Ever since I was seven, people have always asked me for computer advice. In the last few years, it’s been all about the Mac inward now due for an update.

So here’s a quick list of things I believe most new users to the Mac will find useful to incorporate into their workflow:

  1. Skype-free; and now it lets you do audio, video and remote control the other person’s computer.
  2. Evernote-basic version is free and that is fine for most people. Lets you create rich notes on your desktop and also access them with your iPhone application.
  3. Splash ID-$20 for desktop application that syncs with my phone; and $10 for the iPhone application from the AppStore.
  4. Mojo-free; lets you access your own or friends iTunes libraries for media download and streaming across the Internet.
  5. OmniFocus- about $100 for the combination of desktop and iPhone application. Just about the best task/to do organize you can get which follows the GTD system.
  6. Omni graffle- about 80 bucks for the basic version. It is a Mac user’s Visio for all things graphical shape drawing oriented.
  7. Dropbox — free for a 2 GB account; pay plans for more storage. Great for syncing your files to the cloud and across computers. Useful even if you have just one computer. It provides a backup in the cloud for your most critical files. I recommend setting it up so that your own documents folder is synced to the cloud via dropbox. It’ll have to be good with symbolic links to set this up in a clean way. Friends and family: contact me to help walk you through this.
  8. SugarSync – $25 for 10 GB a year; bigger plans available. Very much like dropbox, this is what I started out with and it doesn’t require a custom dropbox folder; it will sync arbitrary existing folders. If you use one it don’t need the other.

More to come in future updates and a broken arm heals!

Understanding VOIP and lowering your phone bill with Vonage and Skype

I’ve written earlier about configuring Skype on your computer and how to get the best sound quality. To save money, there’s actually a multi-pronged approach I recommend.

First, in both of these cases you’ll need a high speed Internet connection. I’m not talking about DSL though. That’s generally not fast enough. You need a good cable modem connection in the home to typically get the performance (speed) that Voice Over Internal Protocol (VOIP) requires.

Already have a high speed Internet connection? Great. Here are your options (generally, both make sense).

1. Make computer-to-computer calls anywhere in the world with Skype

In this setup, Skype is like an IM client. Think Yahoo! Messenger or MSN Messenger, except Skype does and specializes in high quality audio and an interface that just works.

Both parties in the “call” must have Skype setup and with a high speed Internet connection. This gives you calls that are completely free, though you’re generally tethered to your computer.

2. Use a commercial VOIP provider for your telephone service

In this scenario, you get to use your familiar telephone equipment and call people in the traditional manner – by dialing their phone number. Services like Vonage (my favourite) give you a little device that plugs into your home network. Into this little device, you plug in your regular phone (there’s traditional phone jack on the back of these devices). Now calls to your phone number get routed over the Internet, into your home, onto your home network, into your little telephone adapter box and then they cause your phone to ring. You pick up the phone and it’s a normal telephone call to you.

In this space, there are quite a few companies. The front runner is Vonage and they do this service well. You get voicemail, name and number caller ID, call waiting and all the other typical features you normally pay extra for, all for a fraction of the regular cost. My phone bill went from $70/US a month to $35/US a month.

The only downside, is that if your cable modem connection goes out, you have no phone service at home during the outage. However, calls still go to voicemail and everyone has cell phones – so you’ve really not lost anything.

In my Vonage plan for example, I get to call anywhere in North America (yes, that includes Canada) for free – any time. And, places like the UK, Pakistan and India are really, really cheap to call. I also got a “virtual” Toronto number. It’s a local call for folks in Toronto and it routes to my phone in the US. The conveniences are great.

If you want to save money, have cell phones in the household and already have a broadband connection, you should take a look at Vonage. They’re available in the US, Canada, the UK and I believe a couple of other places as well.

Enjoy the savings!

Skype Upgrades and Contacts

For those of you on Skype, I’ve noticed that when you install on different computers, one’s list of registered contacts doesn’t move to the new computer the way mainstream IM clients like MSN, Yahoo! and AOL do. This is a minor inconvenience and I imagine at some point in the future, Skype will remedy this.

On a related note, Skype tends to have a minor upgrade available every couple of months. I tend to install these as soon as they come out, if for no other reason, so that it’ll stop nagging me!

I’ve just upgraded to the latest and am happy with it; everything still works great. And of course, you won’t lose your contacts when upgrading on the same computer as you currently have it installed at.

Configuring your audio setup for Skype

Skype is great for calls over the Internet if you have a broadband connection.

If your audio hardware is decent and your configuration of such is optimal, you should be able to enjoy excellent sound reception and transmission for all your Skype calls. Of course, both parties in a call need to have a decent setup in order for the conversation to be as effortless and as smooth as regular phone service.

I’m often asked and help out with getting an audio setup configured right for Skype. The two main sources of audio problems are:

  1. Low end audio hardware (i.e. cheap sound card)
  2. Feedback in non-headset mode

Audio Hardware

If you’ve got a Mac, you have less to worry about here. Your audio hardware is very good.

If you have a PC, you may have an issue here. Low-end sound cards that sound decent for basic sounds and some music often have much worse audio in (mic input) sub-systems. Furthermore, if the sound card is really cheap, the driver software and utilities that come with it usually are too. Not being able to properly configure mic input volume levels and basic things of this sort can make it frustrating.

In my Dad’s computer, we had a basic sound card that used to do the job well before we pushed it with two-way voice over IP telephony. Frustrated with the confusing driver software and performance, I picked up an external, brand name sound “card”. The beauty with these, is that they can move with you to the next computer, much like your keyboard, mouse and monitor.

For about $70 CDN, you can get an entry-level SoundBlaster external sound device from Creative Labs. These guys are a mainstream brand name. Therefore, decent software and driver support (as well as above average sound hardware) is something you no longer have to worry about.

As for mics, I’m a big fan of the Logitech USB microphone and for headsets, I like anything Plantronics makes. In both cases, there’s an above average quality you can trust in that makes the configuration/troubleshooting phase that much simpler.

Audio Feedback

This is where the bulk of the problems come. We often have our speakers so close to our computers for every day applications, that we don’t realize this is just way too close for using Skype, in most cases.

If you are using a computer headset (more common with PCs), you pretty much eliminate the feedback issue. If you are using a microphone and your speakers, then you have to be careful that the sound from your speakers doesn’t feed back into your microphone. If you’re not sure this is the problem, replace your speakers with regular audio headphones, but continue to use your microphone. With no other sound except that going to your ears, you eliminate the possibility of feedback. Does this sound better? If so, then as far as you think your speakers are, they are still too loud and/or too close. Only experimentation will tell you what works.

If all else fails, use a headset or headphones to kill feedback.

I have found that placing the speakers on the ground created more feedback and rumblings, but that placing speakers behind me and pointing sideways (instead of having the sound come directly at me from behind) worked very well.

In my own setup, I keep a couple of speaker sets around the room. If I’m doing a Skype call, I’ll kill the power on the nearby speakers to eliminate the feedback. Now I can walk around the room and have a Skype call, hands free.