Media Centers Sunday, December 11, 2005

More heresy, I know, but I’ve got a Windows XP Media Center Edition box connected to my HDTV, and—after about six months of use—I’m prepared to say that it’s actually pretty good!

We all know—from direct gotta-use-these-things experience—that this stuff is not easy. The general rule is that, if it connects to a TV, it’s got an awful, primitive, ugly and slow UI.

The best of these things is, without question, TiVo. While slow, TiVo tries to be relentlessly user-focused and friendly, and mostly achieves its goals. (Too bad about its recent compromises in that area, and the fact that, even with broad distribution and name recognition, it never really took the market by storm.)

At least for TV, TiVo sets a high bar. And, with some caveats, a high-end Media Center PC does a pretty darn good job with TV and DVDs (music and pictures, not so much, but I’m not using it for that).

So, keeping an open mind, let’s dive in.

There’s little question that the 10-foot UI on the MCE is—along with Smartphone—the very best attempt at a “new” UI I’ve ever seen Microsoft do. It’s very simple, reasonably attractive, scales well to different resolutions (from 480i to 1080p), and reacts quickly to user requests.

Despite the fun Steve Jobs had comparing the iMac’s remote to the generic MCE one, much like TiVo (whose remote it definitely resembles), normal use is accomplished with a similar set of buttons.

It’s important to note that a low “number of buttons” doesn’t necessarily mean “fewer controls”. Rather, it means “more on screen controls”. The real issue here is a balance between direct and indirect operation: a button, or a menu that you select from.

Super-simple remotes have been tried before, specifically by Bang & Olufsen in their BeoVision 1 product. That remote was very, very, very similar to Apple’s (no surprise there), and was abandoned quickly: users wanted more buttons and fewer menus for common operations.

With MCE, you’ve got the expected up/down/left/right navigation, select, play/pause, menu and back. And you could literally operate the thing with just that. Additional buttons are things like more complete transport controls (FF/REW, Chapter Skip FW/BK—and yes, it does a 30-second commercial skip), record, a number/alpha (phone-style) pad, power, volume and channel up/down).

The MCE team has clearly thought long and hard about the way users interact with video material, and with their TVs. It keeps your program running onscreen while you investigate the guide, record or search for other programs, verify recordings, pauses and resumes multiple programs, has a live TV buffer, smart FF/REW handling—all the things you’d expect are there.

Adding new individual recordings or series is simply a matter of searching and clicking a readily available onscreen button, and the recording modes cover the necessary exceptions, like one time/series, first run/repeat, how long to keep the show, channels to check, etc.

The unit itself can support a large number of tuners, something I think is pretty important, and will do simultaneous recordings from all of them transparently to the user. Conflicts are handled well, and all of this happens reliably. OTA HDTV is fully supported, as are video inputs from cable/satellite boxes.

The guide is right on target—and unlike TiVo, it’s free, with no subscription fees. It has some nice additional nice features like a “what movies are on right now” that shows you the movie’s video cover along with other information.

All this is handled with admirable simplicity and restraint, and it really does work well in person. That isn’t to say it looks even remotely Apple-like: the graphics don’t ever let you forget that it’s part of the Windows XP Family. But, within that, quite pleasant.

The fact that you can use an XBox 360 as an “extender”, and use the main MCE’s tuners and recorded material in other rooms, is a very nice bonus. Just turn the volume up up up, because the XBox makes a racket.

Where does it fall down? Apart from initial setup (getting this to work at 1080i through DVI was much too difficult), and an inability to really mix-up inputs with straight, non-decoder box cable, satellite and HDTV (admittedly a bit pathological, but one can dream), and no non-OTA HDTV recording (cable, satellite), it falls down where you’d expect: this is really an application, sitting on top of Windows XP—and ignore that fact at your peril. So, you have to run AntiVirus, Firewall, etc. If XP has trouble, your nice UI is relegated to a Task Bar button as you delve into the Device Manager and have your way with it. If your drivers stink, so will your experience.

If you don’t use it for anything but media, though, these problems are infrequent—but when they show their ugly heads, the illusion of friendliness and design is well and truly broken.

A more subtle thing is a detail that bothers me well beyond its importance: illogical transitions. MCE has a “zoom” effect that it uses when you go between “pages” of its UI. Mostly, the effect works, but when a playing video “zooms” down to a miniwindow when you go into the main UI, the zoom goes totally the wrong way. (It should shrink the video to the little window, exposing or zooming up the main UI, whereas right now the effect goes to the other corner, and just looks random and disorienting.)

When you’re whining about something that “minor” in the UI you know they’ve mostly got the big things right.

FrontRow—Apple’s first shot at this kind of thing, competes in a very different area. It doesn’t do TV at all, no recording, no input. Instead, it plays to Apple’s strength: music. And, in this, it does a better job that MCE does in that particular area. (Yes, I have EyeTV, and it isn’t part of FrontRow, has only a single tuner and poor guide integration. It really doesn’t compare favorably.) And, you’ve got the iLife things you’d expect: it’ll play your home videos and show your photos—as will MCE—both things I don’t, but it’s nice for those who do.

That’s as far as it goes, though. While I’m quite interested in where Apple takes FrontRow, it’s not really competition for this… yet. But I’m glad it looks like things are actually heating up in the space!

Emerging from the crush, relatively unscathed. Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Well, I think the initial support rush is mostly over. Mostly.

At the peak, I was getting 30 support inquiries in every 5 minute period—not all support questions, but all needing a reasonable reply, and it was pretty hard to keep up with. But, I’m caught up (fingers crossed), and we’ve just released 2.0.1, which corrects the issues that came up during the large rollout.

Fortunately, the problems were only encountered by a tiny percentage of users… but we wanted to get the corrections out as soon as we possibly could. Here’s what we fixed.

  • SuperDuper! was crashing for some users immediately on startup, or soon thereafter. We couldn’t reproduce that to save our lives, but thanks to a lot of helpful users, we finally determined that it had to do with large “crontab” files, and an off by one error in our reader.
  • Some users upgrading from 1.5.5 or earlier hit a problem where the upgrader fails to copy the unpacked executable. Alas, this is a known problem in 1.5.5, which we have fixed in 2.0, but since the upgrader is built into 1.5.5 we couldn’t distribute a fix beforehand. We’ve updated the “update text” to tell users how to work around the problem— simply download SuperDuper! from my website, and install manually.
  • Some RAID users found that their Apple RAID sets weren’t selectable in the source or destination pop-ups. Various calls at many levels of the OS return weird information for some of these RAID sets, and we’ve worked around the unexpected/incorrect values.
  • Panther users with low-level disk errors were experiencing a failure when we retried the copy operation using different techniques. Basically, the operation will fail and they’ll see something about “_copyfile” in their log. Basically, copyfile doesn’t exist in the expected place under 10.3.x, and so we shouldn’t have used it.
  • Users with symlinks in the path to their Home folder (such as FileVault users) got an error when a scheduled item tried to run. This is because Finder’s AppleScripting can’t get the container of an alias that has a symlink in it. News to us: fixed.
  • The previously mentioned goof-up that gives the old price in one of the windows in the application. The price is $27.95—that window is wrong.
I think that’s about it.

While I’d have loved 2.0 to be a completely bug free release, it was probably an unrealistic hope—as a previous post said, it’s always something. But, those particular somethings are now fixed.

Overall, SuperDuper 2.0 is working really well for the vast majority of our users, due to the efforts of our beta testers over the past years. Many thousands of you have upgraded over the past few days, and I hope you agree that this is the best release ever.

To all of you, again—thanks for your support!

There’s always something Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The rollout’s going well, though it totally killed my entire birthday—I’ve been SuperDuper!ing from about 7am until now (11:43pm), non-stop except for a 40 minute break for dinner.

People seem to be really liking it, though:

  • We have about 10 users who have reported a weird, crashes-as-soon-as-it-starts problem we’ve been unable to reproduce or figure out
  • Two users are reporting another weird crash with a pop-up
  • And a few people running into a bug where we don’t list Apple-created RAID sets as possible source or destination volumes (we do work, though, with SoftRAID).
Plus, one “please register” page in the application lists the old price, and one user accused of Bait-and-Switch because of that. (Honestly, it’s a bug, not an attempt to deceive. Sorry about that.)

Considering what 2.0 contains, that’s awfully good… but I’m totally exhausted. I think I responded to over 300 support cases today, some up to 30 round-trips, and it takes its toll. There will be a 2.0.1 in relatively short order to address these initial release issues.

Anyway, gotta sleep. If I’m slower tomorrow, it’s because it’s Thanksgiving and I’m going to take part of the day for that… thanks, everyone, for the reception you’ve given the new version!

At long last. Wednesday, November 23, 2005

PRESS RELEASE:

Shirt Pocket releases SuperDuper! 2.0
Heroic System Recovery for Mere Mortals - Better, Faster, Scheduled!

Weston, MA – November 22, 2005:  Shirt Pocket, creator of the 2004 Eddy
Award Winning netTunes, announces the immediate availability of
SuperDuper! 2.0, the most extensive update ever of its popular disk
copying utility for Mac OS X. Every aspect of SuperDuper has been
polished and re-engineered to add new functionality while improving upon
its legendary ease of use. Backups are easier and faster than ever!

SuperDuper can be used as a flexible backup program, but it goes well
beyond mere duplication. Its unique “Sandbox” feature lets you install
potentially risky drivers or system updates without fear of creating an
unbootable or unworkable system – or losing access to your critical
personal data.

SuperDuper 2.0 improves on the acclaimed original in many ways,
including: the ability to easily schedule backups; additional imaging
options; more control over shutdown; better AppleScript support;
hundreds of UI improvements; and a completely rewritten, task-based
User’s Guide.

"We’re incredibly excited about this major upgrade to SuperDuper,”
says David Nanian, founder of Shirt Pocket. “We’ve been working on
it for over a year, taking the time to include the things our users
have been requesting—as well as refining and improving the
usability they expect from us.”

SuperDuper’s power is accessible to all Macintosh users, thanks to its
easily understood interface and complete documentation. Everything that
will occur is presented in a clear summary section entitled “What’s
going to happen?”, ensuring that even the least experienced user is
guided through the process step by step.

“I really like SuperDuper’s speedy and reliable backups,”
says Rich Siegel, author of BBEdit and CEO of Bare Bones Software. 
“Scheduling and Smart Update make it fast and easy to protect my
important data, so I can concentrate on my next great
release—congratulations to Shirt Pocket on theirs!”

SuperDuper 2.0 supports Mac OS X 10.3.9 or later, and is available for
immediate download at the Shirt Pocket web site
http://www.shirt-pocket.com. It’s a free update for existing users. The
unregistered version will perform full backups for free. Registration
costs $27.95, and includes many additional timesaving features,
including Smart Update for faster backups, Scheduling, and others.

About Shirt Pocket
Shirt Pocket, based in Weston, Massachusetts, was formed in late 2000 as
a Macintosh-only shareware creator and publisher. Shirt Pocket’s first
product, the 2004 Eddy Award winning netTunes, lets customers control
iTunes on one Mac from any other Mac on the network with iTunes own
intuitive user interface. launchTunes, Shirt Pocket’s second product,
made iTunes’ playlist sharing practical by automatically launching
iTunes on remote servers when needed. SuperDuper!, which allows mere
mortals to back up and restore their systems accurately and confidently,
was released in January 2004.

Shirt Pocket was started by David Nanian, co-founder of UnderWare, Inc,
and one of the original authors of the BRIEF programmer’s editor and
Track Record bug tracking system.

One year ago today Monday, November 21, 2005

Somewhere in the world, it’s November 22nd.

SuperDuper! v2.0 emerged from our engineering labs and was placed into the hands of our first external testers one year ago today.

Over this past year, we’ve released—on average—a build every two weeks. We’ve done thousands upon thousands of test runs, and ended up with over 80 individual testers who put the product through its paces and offered incredibly valuable feedback. We’ve torn into nearly every aspect of SuperDuper!, and have tried to improve the experience in as many ways as we could.

It’s not an easy thing, writing backup software—and it’s not easy to ask testers to depend on a Beta version, no matter how thoroughly tested it was before put into their hands. Every tester contributed to improving the reliability, usability and polish of the product as the months went on.

We had 13 external testers who ran over 200 individual backups each over that time, and one who ran over 600 (655, as of this writing). Major props to each and every tester: you all know who you are, and you should feel incredibly proud.

So, we’re coming to the end of the long process. The web site is ready to go. The press release is written. The documentation is complete. The software is just about as ready as we think we can make it.

Get ready, people. SuperDuper v2.0 is nearly in your hands.

We hope you love it as much as we do.

In praise of Bruce Saturday, November 19, 2005

I come before you today to sing the praises of Bruce Lacey, my collaborator on SuperDuper!

Bruce doesn’t get a lot of direct play in these pages, mostly because it’s my personal blog, but SuperDuper! wouldn’t exist at all without him.

A few years ago, Bruce and I were both testers on some software that most of you use on a daily basis. Bruce had written a little tool—“Seed Volume Utility”—that made dealing with testing a lot easier. What was great about SVU is that it had a terrific copying engine, fast and reliable. Good stuff.

I saw a lot of potential there, and I approached Bruce with a proposition: if he’d agree to have me publish the program, I’d redesign the UI, write documentation, take care of marketing and support, and work with him to do the product planning. Basically, he could concentrate on the programming—the fun stuff—and leave the rest to me.

I’d been doing this with my own products for a while (since 1983), but had always shared in development, so this was a new thing for me. Bruce thought it over for a while, and—even though we’d never met in person—he took a chance, and agreed. We’ve been working together ever since.

You may not see him up here every day, but you certainly benefit from his hard work. Bruce spends a lot of quality time implementing, polishing and improving SuperDuper!—not to mention dealing with my constant tweaking of wording, behavior, layout, functionality—and always with dedication, good humor, and a shared focus on producing a high quality product.

So, while I might use I a lot when I talk about the stuff that’s going on with SuperDuper!, behind the scenes here Bruce is working like crazy to turn our shared product dreams into coded reality.

Here’s to you, Bruce!

Hello? It’s your other anchor calling. Hello? Friday, November 18, 2005

I’m sure I’m in the minority here, but I’m a fan of the i-mate SP3 Windows Mobile Smartphone.

Mobile phones are one of those things that are difficult to generalize: your reaction to the phone is likely based entirely on what you expect to get out of the device. So, if you’re looking for style and “fun”, there are phones for you. You want an email monster? Got that covered with the Treo or—for the truly disturbed—the Crackberry.

I have some basic requirements:

  1. The phone has to be GSM.
  2. It has to be able to be used as a bluetooth, tethered modem for my PowerBok.
  3. It has to be a good phone, of course.
  4. It has to be reasonably pocketable.
  5. It should work well with Salling Clicker.
  6. It has to support a bluetooth headset.
  7. It has to have a full-featured, totally synced phonebook that isn’t just a list of names/numbers.
  8. The mail client has to be full-featured, with IMAP support and folders.
  9. The web browser has to be fast, reasonably modern, and render well on a small screen.
  10. The calendar/tasks module has to sync, too.
I’ve gone through a lot of phones—a disturbing number—and the big problem I had was getting the “balance” right: they were either focused too much on being just a simple phone (Motorola v600, Sony T610), had flaky software (Sony P800/P900), weren’t phone enough (i-mate PDA2k, i-mate JAM), or just plain sucked (HP 6315).

But, with the SP3, i-mate/HTC got it right, at least for me.

It’s small, light, fast. Unlike a lot of Microsoft stuff, you can tell they not only thought about what the user needed, but actually came up with good solutions for those needs. A perfect example of this is the way you look up names in the phone book—you just start typing on the keypad, and it finds names that match those keys by number, any of the various letter combinations, etc.

It just works. And that can be said for the whole package: it works. Well. That’s a really good thing, and too rare in this market.

And now, they’ve gone and one-upped themselves with the SP5/5m.

The SP5 uses Windows Mobile 5, rather than 2003, and WM5 has made a lot of subtle improvements that definitely make things better, in little ways. The screen has been massively upgraded to a full QVGA unit, and it’s bright, sharp and gorgeous. And, somehow, they’ve put in both EDGE and WiFi support, while keeping the battery life and—for the most part—the small size.

It does have some faults, of course. It’s slightly underpowered, and has some problems pushing all those bits on the new screen. The radio stack, as is the case with most just-released HTC units, is a bit flaky. And it doesn’t have as much free memory as I’d expect it to have.

Plus, Salling Clicker doesn’t work with it yet, though it does work very nicely with the SP3. C’mon, Jonas—the SP5 needs some love!

But the biggest issue right now is that it doesn’t sync directly with my Mac, because it’s not supported by Missing Sync for Windows Mobile yet. No doubt they’ll fix that, but in the meantime I’ve actually managed to get things working reasonably well by making use of my Kerio Mail Server’s Exchange functionality and—of all things—Entourage. More on Entourage and this whole sync solution in another post.

In the meantime, it’s good stuff, and recommended.

Full stop. Thursday, November 17, 2005

As of about five minutes ago, I finished the new SuperDuper! v2.0 User’s Guide. Barring any egregious errors (there’s always one), I won’t have to revisit again for a little while… a relief.

I hope that all of you out there in Blogland find it an improvement and if not—when you get to see it—please drop me some feedback.

On to the next task!

Yakity yak. Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Yeah, clichéd title, sorry.

Well, the Computer America show went pretty well last night—it’s amazing how fast an hour can vanish. For those interested, here’s an archive of the show that’ll be up for about a week.

Thanks to Craig and the staff of Computer America for asking me to appear!

Scribble, scribble redux Sunday, November 13, 2005

Writing a manual can be fun, or it can be tedious, but it’s usually a combination of both, which is where I am right about now. But Fun Land is now clearly visible in the rear-view mirror.

At this point the guide is 64 pages long, and it’s pretty much content complete. 64 pages for a program that has a total of 8 windows or so, and maybe 30 controls. Shouldn’t this thing just say “install, and have at it—best of luck, we’re all rooting for you”?

It’s not so much the UI that needs so many pages: as you (may) know, I’ve tried to make the UI as simple as possible. And I think I’ve done a decent job with that. But you can do a lot of things with that UI, and those things are often nerve-wracking, and performed by users who have never done anything like this before or—if they have—they’ve never understood what they were doing.

In the new guide, I’ve reworked much of the existing material, and have added more based on the common questions and tasks I’ve seen users do over the past year or so. There are many sections right up front that cover these common tasks, and I’ve tried to answer the common questions about those tasks right in the section.

Each can pretty much stand alone, and be read without referring to the remainder of the guide. So, there’s some repetition, but I hope it improves the usability of the document. Not that there was anything terribly wrong with the existing User’s Guide—we’ve had great feedback on it. But, constant improvement, in all things. No stone left unturned. Except maybe the about box. Maybe.

What’s left is lots of proofreading, tweaking, and re-shooting a huge pile of screen shots.

And then, when the whole thing is finally locked down, Adobe Acrobat hell.

As I said in the previous post, Acrobat, on the Mac, doesn’t automatically take the structure of a document, and cross-references therein, and generate appropriate tagging for PDFs to produce the nice table of contents and hyperlinking that a long document, like this one, needs. Which sucks. So, my last task is taking the large number of cross-references—which all had to be hand-formatted to look like hyperlinks—and manually tag the PDF to support them. And then, tag the whole thing to generate a real table of contents that’s separate from the main text.

Needless to say, by the end, I’ll be well into Tedious Territory.

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