EventBox beta – a review

For the last week or so I have been trying out a new social network aggregator application called EventBox from The Cosmic Machine. It allows you to manage your Twitter, Facebook, Google Reader, Flickr and Reddit accounts from the same window. You can also subscribe to RSS feeds.

I had read some glowing reviews on Smoking Apples and thought I’d give it a try. After all, I love Twitter and regularly use Flickr. I also subscribe to 40 or so RSS feeds. I must confess to not liking Facebook much and only check on my account once a month or so. I don’t use Reddit at all. Having everything together sounded like it could be quite convenient. Plus, I just love trying out new software!

Currently EventBox is a beta application. In other words, it isn’t yet complete. Some of its features are missing and there are still a few bugs. Now, most developers offer beta applications for free while users test them and give feedback. Then once the application reaches its final version beta testers are usually offered a discount off the full price. EventBox gives a 2 week free trial but then you have to pay $15 to continue using the beta. (The full price will be $20.) I can’t deny I was a bit annoyed when I discovered this is the system. I’ve never before paid to use a beta product and I felt it was rather cheeky to expect payment for an unfinished application, even it it is at a lower rate. I am ashamed to say I had pretty much decided I wouldn’t like EventBox even before I had started using it.

Prior to using EventBox I had been using Twitterrific to access Twitter from my Mac and NetNewsWire to subscribe to 40 or so RSS feeds. I was visiting the Flickr website most days and was only checking on the Facebook website once a month or so. I don’t use Reddit. So as things stood I wasn’t paying a penny to access any of these services. I figured EventBox would have to be pretty good to make me want to actually pay for it.

Anyway, I downloaded it and I must say I was impressed with how easy it was to set up. It asked me which services I want to use (I  selected Twitter, Flickr and Facebook), I input my username and passwords, and it synced them all. My initial impression was of a clean, attractive interface – the main window has an iTunes-style sidebar and the events appear to the right. An input area for typing tweets and dragging photos is at the bottom of the screen.  It also had an HUD (heads-up display) that looks very much like Twitterrific and works with Growl.

So far so good. I then decided to start working with keyboard shortcuts and hotkeys. This is when I became frustrated. I didn’t work in the same way as Twitterrific. The keyboard shortcuts were different. The hotkeys worked differently. In Twitterrific, when the HUD appears I clicked my hotkey to make it the focus and then used the up and down arrows to navigate. In EventBox I clicked my hotkey but this made the HUD disappear. I then had to click it again to make it reappear and then I can use the arrow keys. When I closed the HUD I had to click back on whichever app I had been working with previously – it didn’t automatically go back to it. These may seem like minor issues but I found them intensely annoying and pretty much gave up on EventBox at that point.

A few days later I decided to take a look at EventBox’s help page. I really don’t know why I hadn’t checked it out before. I’m someone who usually won’t use anything until I’ve read the manual cover to cover. Here I found a list of all the keyboard shortcuts and preference settings including, hooray, the ability to make EventBox inactive when you close the window so that it automatically goes back to whatever you were using before. No solution to my hotkey problem so I tweeted @eventbox. I received a prompt reply saying they’d see what they can do about it.

Once I’d sorted the HUD I realised there was a lot I could do in EventBox that Twitterrific can’t such as search, retweet and shorten URLs.  I also like that it tells you how long it is since each tweet was posted. On Twitterrific you have to hover over each tweet to see this information (and it doesn’t always disappear when you move the pointer). I would still like to see threaded conversations (such as in Tweetie) and I see it is on The Cosmic Machine’s roadmap. I did miss the chirping bird sound that Twitterrific uses to alert you of an incoming tweet but my family were glad to see the back of it – they all found it really annoying! Something else I’d like to to is the the ability to have Growl only alert you to @replies and direct messages. At the moment it alerts you to all tweets so I turned it off as it was all getting too much.

Now I was able to take a look at EventBox’s other features. Earlier this month I signed up to the 365/2009 group on Flickr. You have to post a photo taken on each day of the year. (One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to take more photographs so I figured this would be an good way to get me using my camera.) So now that I’m using Flickr daily (well nearly, I have missed a few days) I found easy access to my and my Flickr pals’ photos really handy. You can view full size photos from within the app as well as upload them. (I haven’t tried the upload feature as I like to do it from iPhoto.) You can also view and add comments.

The Facebook integration is quite nice to have but to be honest, I could take it or leave it. You can view photos and statuses. You can also upload photos and update your own status messages.

I thought I’d try out the RSS reader so imported one of my folders from NetNewsWire. It all works well but the interface isn’t as good as NNW. Each news item has a title and a small preview with another preview pane below. I’d rather just see the titles of the items so that I could see more at once. I’d never used Google Reader but I thought I’d give it a shot so that I could try out the syncing with EventBox. I imported my feeds from NNW into Google Reader (which turned out to a surprisingly easy process) and then synced with EventBox. It worked very well, with all my folders coming through too. I would love to see the addition of Instapaper support.

So, having spent some time reading the extensive help pages I came to realise that EventBox is actually far more powerful than I had originally thought. It comes with an enormous number of keyboard shortcuts and the preferences allow for a great deal of customisation. Having set out with the intention of not liking EventBox I found myself rather enjoying it. It really is quite handy to have everything in one place – especially if you want to switch things off for a while. There is a mute button to switch off all notifications until you click it again. Saves you having to go to individual apps to switch them off when you need peace to get on with something.

All in all I’ve come to the conclusion $15 isn’t a bad price and once it’s finished and fully featured $20 will probably be reasonable. I’m still not sure of the wisdom of charging for a beta. I think it may put a lot of potential users off. However, in the current economic climate developers may be finding it increasingly difficult to work on applications without any income. Maybe this is the way things are going to go. Anyway, I have stumped up the money and am now a fully fledged EventBox user. Twitterrific has been abandoned. NetNewsWire is on probation. (I thought I might carry on with Google Reader for a while as it syncs nicely and I rather like the stats it gives you on its webpage.) I’m looking forward to seeing what further features The Cosmic Machine come up with in the final release of EventBox.

Note: At the time of writing the price for EventBox is $15. However there is a discount code in Smoking Apples Magazine giving 20% off. I don’t think this code will be valid for much longer though.

Posted in mac, review. Tags: , , . 4 Comments »

Gmail as a replacement for MobileMe Mail

There are three weeks to go until my MobileMe subscription is due for renewal. The service isn’t cheap at £59 so I thought I would look into possible free (and maybe even superior) replacements.

The only feature of MobileMe that I use on a daily basis is email. It has worked almost flawlessly for me and I love the way it integrates seamlessly with my Mac and iPhone. Deleting or moving an email on one it is almost immediately mirrored on the other.

I have had a Gmail address (or Google Mail as it has be called in Britain) for quite a while but have almost never used it. There didn’t seem much point when the MobileMe mail worked so well but I thought maybe now was the time to give it a try.

I spent hours (make that days) trying to get Gmail properly set up with my iPhone and with Apple Mail on my Mac. There were two reasons I had difficulties (and both were down to my own ignorance). The first is that I need IMAP Gmail for syncing between the server and my Mac and iPhone. Unfortunately Apple Mail sets up a POP account by default. Handy hint: Follow the directions on this Gmail help page – had I read this in the first place I probably could have saved myself an hour!

I then went on to set up my mailboxes as directed by this Gmail help page. And this is where I ran into my second problem. What was this “All Mail” folder? Why were my emails duplicated – one in the inbox, one in All Mail? Where were my deleted emails going to? Not the trash, that was for sure. After a day of tearing my hair out, moaning and fiddling with settings I finally looked at the Gmail help pages and all was revealed. All Mail is just a smart folder. The emails aren’t duplicated at all. (Why I didn’t read the help pages first I don’t know. I usually love instruction manuals. I won’t touch a new gadget until I’ve read at least half the manual.)

I have always downloaded all my MobileMe mail and stored it on my hard drive rather than leaving it on the server. With Gmail, the emphasis is much more on retaining all your mail on the server. You are given so much storage (currently over 7GB) that there is no need to delete an email. Just archive them all and they’ll still be there, in All Mail, should you ever need to refer to them again. Well, there has been much humming and hawing over whether I should carry on as I have been or should I embrace the cloud. I could potentially free up a fair bit of hard disk space by keeping all my email on Gmail’s server and just use Apple Mail as a more attractive interface. But I’m still not sure how comfortable I am with cloud computing. What if my internet was down? What if Gmail was down? After three days of pondering on this (with useful input from family and Twitter pals) and trying a multitude of different setups, I have finally decided to continue to download email to my hard drive for storage. I just feel more comfortable that way.

Advanced IMAP controls (in Google Mail Labs) has been very useful. It allows you to select which Gmail labels you don’t want to appear as folders in Apple Mail. So now I no longer have All Mail and Spam in my Mail sidebar. (Thank goodness. I didn’t much care to see how many spam emails I had building up.) I also mapped Sent Mail, Drafts and Bin to their corresponding folders in Mail. (Select the Gmail label in the Mail sidebar, click Mailbox (in the menu bar at the top), click Use This Mailbox For and pick the appropriate mailbox.) This makes everything look nice and tidy.

Now that everything is up and running properly I’m very pleased with Gmail and, assuming everything runs smoothly over the next three weeks, it is more than capable of replacing MobileMe Mail.

How I use Things by Cultured Code

I am currently using Things by Cultured Code to store and organise my to-do lists. My usage of it is based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done but Things can just as easily be used by someone who isn’t into GTD. Here I describe how I use Things.

Adding to-dos

I usually add to-dos using the Quick Entry panel.

 

I have this mapped to F2 and it can be activated no matter what application I am in (so long as Things is running). I don’t usually add any details such as tags at this point. I just click return, the to-do will be sent to the Things Inbox, and I can get on with whatever I am doing.

I often turn emails into to-dos. If you drag an email onto the Things dock icon it will open the Quick Entry panel with a link to the email as a note. (There is a bug in Things at the moment – you have to drag the email onto the dock icon twice.) Similarly a URL can be dragged onto the dock icon to create a to-do with the link as a note.

And of course I sometimes create to-dos directly within Things.

Organising to-dos

Next I add tags which are analogous  to GTD contexts. I find tags most useful for keeping track anything I want to read. I then add a work or leisure tag and another with an estimate of how long it will take to read. Then, say I find myself with a half hour spare that I’d like to spend reading. I select reading, 30min and either leisure or work depending on the mood I’m in. And, hey presto, I have a list of suitable articles to peruse.

 

If a to-do is part of a project I drag it to the appropriate project in the Projects list in the sidebar. If it is a single task I drag it to the Next list. The Next list contains all active to-dos (whether individual or part of a project), not just next actions. I have my Next list set to display only the top item in a project thus creating a Next Action list. Read the rest of this entry »

Yojimbo vs Together vs Evernote: a review

I have been trying to choose an information collector and organiser for the last few weeks. There are quite a few available for the Mac and I thought I would write about how I came to my final decision.

What exactly is an information organiser? Basically it is an application that can collect and store pieces of information as notes. Little bits of text, web page archives, snippets from a web page, photos, PDFs, all sorts. These applications are enormously versatile with as many uses as there are users.

What do I need it to do?

I have three main uses.

  • I want to be able to store little snippets of text, such as a reference number for something I just bought online. The type of things I could write in a notebook but could more quickly add to the computer if I’m already sitting here.
  • I buy loads of stuff online. Almost everything except groceries. (And the only reason I don’t do that is because the service isn’t available where I live.) When I’m researching something I want to buy I want to keep track of all the items I’m considering. For example, last week we bought a new TV. (It’s not arrived yet but that’s a whole other story!) I looked at multiple websites comparing plasma and LCD, features and cost. I could have bookmarked each page (or kept multiple tabs open) but I would have ended up with a large number of pages, flipping back and forth all the time. Instead, it is much easier to save relevant snippets of each webpage (or sometimes an archive of the whole page). I want to be able to save web archives, with a link to the original page and have the ability to add my own comments.
  • I need to keep track of reading material I use for work. I read a number of online journals and websites and need to record and archive anything I have read – a mixture of web archives, bookmarks and PDFs. They need to be kept well organised – I have an annual appraisal where I have to present evidence of what I have read with comments that I may have added.

Features I consider important

  • Add a URL or web clipping with only one mouse click (or an easy keyboard shortcut)
  • Preview a web archive or PDF within the application
  • Tags for organisation
  • iPhone or web access (only necessary to access my reading material at work)

Having looked at a few applications I decided to trial Yojimbo from Bare Bones Software, Together from Reinvented Software and Evernote. Read the rest of this entry »

LaunchBar vs Spotlight

I have written previously on keyboard shortcuts that I frequently use to save time on my Mac. You can bypass the mouse even more if you use an application launcher.

Quicksilver is probably the best known and has received much attention from Merlin Mann on 43 Folders. A few months ago I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about and download it. However, I just couldn’t get it to run properly and so gave up. (This was just after the release of Leopard so it may be that the version I downloaded wasn’t yet compatible.)

Then, a few weeks ago I read (and watched) an interesting review on Macworld of LaunchBar from Objective Development and thought I’d take a look. You can try it for free – after seven uses it will remind you that you are using the demo. You are however able to continue to use it for free beyond seven uses which gives you a chance to fully evaluate it. I set it up to launch on command-spacebar. All you need to do then is type the first few letters of an application and LaunchBar will bring up a list of suggestions. Most of the time I found it correctly selected what I wanted at the top of the list so all I needed to do was then click return. If the required application is further down the list you just use the arrow keys to select it. In time LaunchBar comes to learn what applications you use most and they will tend to appear at the top of the list. If you want to be really speedy, type a couple of letters (or in some cases just one will do), hold down the last one, and you will go straight to the application without needing to click return. 

Some examples:

  • To open Safari I type command-spacebar and then hold down s
  • To open Mail I type command-spacebar and then hold down m
  • To open Moneydance I type command-spacebar, then mo, keeping the o held down

It doesn’t just work with applications. You can also open files. All you need to do is start typing the name of a file, LaunchBar will find it for you and then open it in the default application. Read the rest of this entry »

Some useful Mac keyboard shortcuts

Generally I prefer using the keyboard to a mouse. I can touch type at a reasonable speed and every time I have to take my hands off the keyboard I feel I’m slowed down. (Less use of the mouse means the batteries last longer too!) So I tend to try and use keyboard shortcuts when I can remember them. But this is the problem with shortcuts – you have to remember them. If you’re sitting there trying to recall which keys you need you would probably have been quicker using the mouse. It’s best to have a small range of shortcuts that you regularly use as they should then be easier to remember.

These are my favourite Mac command-key (⌘) shortcuts that I use on a regular basis: Read the rest of this entry »

Goodbye iBank 3, hello Moneydance

moneydance-pic.pngRegular readers will recall my disappointment with iBank 3. The upgrade from the previous version was going to cost $30 and I didn’t feel I was getting good value for money. I decided to retry Moneydance for a while. This had been my previous personal finance app before I was won over by iBank 2 eighteen months ago.

I’ve used the Moneydance 2008 beta in place of iBank for the last two weeks. I wanted to see if I would miss iBank 3 and if so, was it worth paying $30 for the upgrade?

What do I miss from iBank?

  • It has the feel of a proper Mac application
  • The ability to only view recent transactions
  • The widget to enter today’s transactions

What have I gained using Moneydance? Read the rest of this entry »