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Skype-Out is Free… For Now

The big news for yesterday concerned Skype, the broadband based voice over IP (VoIP) chat client.  Skype revolutionized online chat by using VoIP to allow users to actually speak with each other over the internet using the instant messaging client.  Those conversations were free as long as both users were using the Skype client for the Mac or Windows.  The Skype-Out service was later added allowing computer users of Skype to actually make calls outside of the Skype network and reach users of actual landline based phones.  The Skype-Out service was available for a charge that varied depending on the destination of the call.  Calls inside of the US were billed at 2 cents a minute.

Yesterday Skype announced that its Skype-Out service would be available free of charge to United States users through the end of 2006.  Following that deadline, the powers that be at Skype will decide what to do.  They will either go back to charging for Skype to phone support, or they might continue to offer the service for free.

Skype’s announcement follows the increased internet chatter concerning Vonage’s recent IPO announcement.  Vonage, as some know, is an internet based phone company that uses broadband access to bring phone service to users at rates dramatically cheaper that traditional phone service providers.  While Vonage’s services literally replaces the big bell’s service in the home, Skype still requires that users place and receive calls via their computers.

Skype’s announcement of free services is likely an effort to draw further attention to its product and possibly pull some of the wind from the sails of the Vonage IPO.  Whatever the motivation, its Skype’s customers who are reaping the rewards of the announcement— at least until the end of 2006.  At which time, no one knows what Skype might do to its rates.

This story would have made it to our site yesterday when the news hit, but when I tested the free Skype-Out service for myself I found it completely nonfunctional.  I simply could not make a call from Skype to a landline.  Web forums flurried with conspiracy theories as well as support request.  In the end, it seems that Skype had somehow blocked access to some of the network address that major ISP use.  This left the services useless for massive amounts of the population.  That being said, I tried the services again, 24 hours after the initial news headlines hit, and the services now appears fully functional.

Most people have heard of VoIP by this point.  The early adopters have already jumped on the bandwagon with dedicated services like those Vonage offers.  With Skype now offering its service for free, it seems an ideal time for anyone interested in testing the technology to get their feet wet.  Download and install Skype.  It has support for all major operating systems and the price is certainly right.  If you are happy with the quality of your phone calls, consider a more mainstream alternative like Vonage.  Vonage utilizes much of the same technology as Skype, but it allows the use of an existing phone system and frees users from the tether of their personal computers.


Steve

Apple Releases the MacBook

Apple announced the long awaited successor to the iBook laptop line this morning.  The new laptop is known simply as the MacBook.  Though the MacBook is the little brother of the MacBook Pro, it sports an impressive set of specs nonetheless.  To start with, the MacBook is available in both black and traditional iBook white.  The black option is only available on the high-end version of the laptop, but is a stunning addition to the lineup.

Apple is currently offering the MacBook in three standard configurations.  The base model sports a 1.83GHz Intel Core Duo processor, 512MB of RAM, a 60GB hard drive, and a combo optical drive.  This is a lot of computer for $1099.  For $200 more, Apple upgrades the processor to a 2GHz Core Duo and adds a SuperDrive.  But for those looking for that little something extra, Apple offers a third version of the MacBook for $1499.  That machine includes an 80GB hard drive and is available exclusively in black.

Apple currently offers free shipping on all three configurations. Both white models list a shipping date of 1-5 days, while the black model ships in 3-7 days.

The rest of the specs on the MacBook are impressive as well.  For example, the screen is now larger than the previous iBooks.  The new display is 13.3” and runs a native resolution of 1280×800.  The machines support up to 2GB of RAM and the hard drive is now SATA.  The entire line comes standard with both AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth 2.0 support, and now includes an integrated iSight video conferencing camera.  The new machines ship with Apple’s FrontRow support including the wireless remote.  There is one FireWire 400 port and there are two USB 2.0 ports.  And, for those concerned with battery life, Apple claims the MacBook can run for up to 6 hours on one charge.  Wired networking now supports Gigabit speeds, and the entire iLife 06 software package is included.

All in all, the new MacBook gives consumers a lot to work with.  But there are a few down sides.  To start with, the new machines ship with both memory slots occupied.  For anyone looking to avoid Apple’s overblown memory upgrade prices, this means having to remove one of the 256MB chips in order to add more third-party memory.  On top of this, there is no dedicated video memory to drive the display.  The laptop uses the Intel GMA 950 graphics processor.  This chip shares system RAM with the computer and thereby offers hindered video performance.  The integrated graphics chip is a disappointment, but also to be expected.  Customers looking for a more performance conscious machine will be encouraged to upgrade to the MacBook Pro.

All things considered, the new MacBook will be a solid performer for Apple.  It offers what customers want, and at prices that most can afford.  Like the rest of the Intel based Mac lineup, the MacBook can also utilize Apple’s Boot Camp beta and boot into Windows XP.  Other users might be interested in Parallels as an alternative that allows them to run Windows side by side with the Mac OS.  And with the iBook line officially phased out, only two machines are left before Apple finishes its transition to an entirely Intel based lineup.  Look for replacements for the G5 tower and G5 based servers before the years end.


Steve

iWoz Available for Preorder

Amazon just made Steve Wozniak’s biography available for preorder.  Wozniak is not only credited for being a founding member of Apple Computer, but he is also considered to be the father of what we known as the personal computer.  And, while Amazon does not yet list the release date of the book, orders are now being taken.

Woz has been elevated to near iconic status in the personal computer industry.  Despite this, he has remained very down to earth and is widely considered to be a man of the people.  He routinely gives talks at computer conferences as well as for charitable organizations.  A self-confessed prankster, he has recently gained notoriety for his involvement is Segway polo.  As the name implies, polo matches are played while riding Segways.

Controversy over the book may yet ensue.  One news report stated that Steve Jobs, current head of Apple Computer, had originally agreed to write the forward to the book.  When the time came for Jobs to provide his content, he changed his mind and declined involvement.  As Jobs has been known for his somewhat tyrannical management style, it is possible that Woz’s new book will show Jobs in a less that angelic light.  Until the book actually ships, this is only speculation.

Click here to preorder this book from Amazon.com.


Steve

Google Adds Digg.com Support

Digg.com is a great source for technology news.  It makes it easy to keep up on the latest headlines.  Rather than publishing entire stories on Digg.com, Digg users simply submit a brief synopsis of the story and a link to the original article.  Other Digg users then browse the site and, if they like the story, they Digg it.  Digging a story is done simply by clicking the Digg icon beside the stories summary.  Every user’s digg is essentially a vote for the story.  The more votes that the story receives, the higher it climbs on the list of most newsworthy stories.  The higher the story moves on the list, the more people see the story.  This insures that users can easily find and view the most popular content.

To the users of Digg.com, this is old news.  For the initiated, Digg has added a powerful new feature… Google.  Well, maybe it’s more accurate to reverse the statement, as it’s actually Google that has added support for Digg.com.  It is now possible for Google users to add Digg.com results the existing Google search result pages.  Sound a confusing?  It is a little, until you understand how it works.

In order to use the new functionality users must have to have a Google account.  If you already have Gmail, you’re set.  Otherwise, create an account by clicking here.  Next, users need to login into their Google account.  Visit Google.com and click the link in the upper right corner of the screen to do this.  The new Digg functionality can only be added to the Google search results of users who are logged into their Google account.  Finally, visit this link and click the subscribe button.

Once these simple steps are followed, users search Google as they normally would.  The only difference is that, in addition to the normal Google search results returned, the top of the page will also contain the results for the same keyword phrase run against Digg.com.  Simply, painless, and useful!

This functionality is not unique to Digg.  Other sites have implemented similar functionality using Google Co-Op program.  Co-Op is Google’s API to allow external information to be added to Google search results.  To date, Digg’s implementation seems the most powerful use of this functionality as Digg already includes a massive amount of information that only stands to enhance Google’s search results.


Steve

Teleport: Simply Powerful Remote Control

Every once in a while I run across a piece of freeware that forever changes the way I get work done.  Two months ago I moved my office home.  When I did, I was able to consolidate some computer hardware.  At the office, I had been working full time on a 1.25GHz PowerBook 15”.  At home I had an old Quicksilver tower upgraded to a dual 1.6GHz processor.  When I moved my office home, I was finally able to transition and use my Quicksilver tower as the primary computer.

While the dual processor tower makes for a much faster workstation, I still use the PowerBook for a number of day-to-day activities.  But after a day or two of using both machines it became apparent that a pair of keyboards on my desk was simply too much clutter.  That is when I decided to take a second look at a freeware application I have tried in the past.  That application was called Teleport, and it allows Mac users to share a single keyboard and mouse with multiple machines.

Most people fulfill this sort of need by adding a KVM to their computer systems.  A KVM switch shares a keyboard, mouse, and monitor with multiple computers.  This is ideal if you only have one monitor.  But in my case, my PowerBook already had a perfectly good display and I wanted to use it.

Teleport is a system Preference Pane that installs on each of the computers.  It allows the two machines to share the same keyboard and mouse by sending the keystrokes and mouse coordinates over the network to the second computer.  Since both computers already have monitors, this was an ideal solution.

 

My Quicksilver tower already has 2 screens attached to it.  The primary display is a 24” Dell LCD.  The secondary display is a 19” Dell LCD and is located on the right of the main display.  For anyone who has ever had the pleasure of working on a Mac with dual displays, Teleport work in much the same way.  The Teleport Preference Pane contains icons for each screen attached to the main Macintosh (the same with that the Display Preference Pane depicts them).  Once the Teleport software was installed on the PowerBook, another display icon showed up in the Teleport Preference Pane.  I simply had to align it beside my existing displays and I was able to seamlessly move my mouse from my primary display and onto my PowerBook display in exactly the same way I could move my mouse to my existing secondary display.  Now, rather than having 2 displays attached to my tower, it works as though I have 3 (two actual monitors and the screen of my PowerBook).

There are a few catches.  Using the two attached monitors, I can drag windows from one display to the next.  This is not the case with my PowerBook when it’s attached using the Teleport software.  Only the mouse and keystrokes and be transported over the network to the PowerBook.  It is not possible to drag a window between the two machines.  This is unfortunate, but it only stands to reason.  Teleport is only sending keystroke data and mouse coordinates to the PowerBook.  No video is actually transmitted over the network.  This means that my work on the PowerBook is performed just as fast as it would be if I had attached a keyboard and mouse directly to the computer.

Even though I can’t drag a window to the PowerBook display and I can’t drag a file there directly, the developers of Teleport did make it possible to transfer the contents of the Mac clipboard between the two machines.  This means that I can select an email address from the Address Book on my PowerBook and copy it to the clipboard.  Then I can mouse back over to my main screen and past the email address into a document.  Teleport takes care of transferring the contents of the clipboard over then network for me.  This makes it much easier to use both machines efficiently.

In many situations, Teleport brings additional functionality to any secondary computer.  In my example, I used it on my PowerBook.  It could just as easily be used with an iMac, or most other Mac’s for that matter.  Computers with integrated screens are ideal, but any computer will work just as well.  Teleport is a simply utility that does one thing very well.  It my case, it made it easy for me to continue using my PowerBook for day-to-day work while letting my tower do all of the heavy lifting.  Now, if I could just get my wife to stop rolling her eyes every time she sees 3 displays on my desktop.

Download Teleport here.


Steve

IP-TV: Democracy Player

As broadband works its way across the US and the rest of the world, uses for the technology have grown as well.  With the popularity of podcasts, it only stands to reason that IP based television shows would grow at the same time.  But until set-top boxes gain the ability to play web distributed content such as IP-TV based shows, content will stand to be much less mainstream.

That is where Democracy comes it.  It is an open source IP-TV aggregator that uses RSS feeds to find and download video content.  Just add a video feeds RSS URL to Democracy and it will download new shows as they are released.  And, once the content is downloaded, Democracy Player will make it easy to view the show on the computer.

Democracy is available for the Mac, Windows, and Linux.  Some platforms differ in the video formats they support.  The Mac version uses the OS’s built-in QuickTime implementation so it will play any video format that QuickTime supports.  On the Windows side, Democracy uses an embedded version of VLC.  This means it also supports all of the popular video formats.

In order to make video feeds more readily available, Democracy incorporates it own Channel Guide.  It’s essentially a content guide providing feed information for regularly published programs.  The Channel Guide makes it easy to subscribe to shows that are more mainstream.  And if your favorite show isn’t listed in the guide, just add the RSS feed URL to Democracy and you will be able to download that as well.

Democracy player is similar to the vidcast support Apple has built into the current version of iTunes.  But Democracy includes many more features aimed at downloading and viewing content.  And while watching videos in iTunes can be arduous at times, Democracy makes videos very easy to play.   Democracy also makes it easy to view the video at full screen making it ideal for IP-TV viewing on the computer, or on a TV screen if the computer is used as a media center.

One word of caution…  Democracy is still in beta.  It can be a little unstable at times.  I have been using the software for the last 6 months and have been relieved to see that the latest betas have done wonders for its stability.  Despite this fact, I highly recommend taking the time to download this media aggregator.  Democracy free, and it provides easy access to hours of fresh new content each week.

Download Democracy by clicking here.

Also, if you are a fan of old school TechTV style content, be sure to checkout DL.tv.  They are adding new tech programs all the time!


Steve

Apple to Open Second Campus

Apple made new headlines yesterday when it officially announced plans to build a second campus in Cupertino, California.  The new facility will rest on 50 acres of land that were cobbled together from smaller properties.  The property alone is reported to have cost Apple $160 million and includes parcels purchased from companies such as HP.  By the time Apple completes construction of its new facility in an estimated four years, it is possible for Apple to have spent as much as $500 million.

It goes without saying that Cupertino is one of the most bustling property markets in the country with only 7.7% of the areas offices vacant.  Apple’s conviction to remain near its primary campus was a costly one.  So why spend the money?

Apple currently has employees is as many as 30 different office buildings around Cupertino.  Putting everyone under one roof can do wonders for communication and encourages interaction.  And, as we all know, Apple is known for its corporate paranoia— err… security.  Putting its entire staff in one location allows Apple to tighten up its internal security even further.

Reports indicate that Apple’s new campus will shelter as many as 3,500 employees.  Considering the style and flare Apple has shown in its designs for the now multiplying Apple Stores, it seems obvious that the architecture of the new campus will be something unique and interesting.  But don’t expect to see building plans leaked to the public.  Word is that Apple has been as tightlipped about the new campus as it has about any of its other new projects.  As it stands, it will be hard enough to keep Microsoft’s geek squad from bugging the place before construction is complete!  :-)


Steve

Google Calendar Supports Apple’s iCal

Google released its much anticipated web based calendar solution last week.  Designed to work in tandem with Gmail and Google Talk, Google Calendar attempts to free the user from the tether of the computer workstation.  Since the information is web based and maintained by Google, it is available to the user whether they access it from their home, office, or even from the local internet cafe.

Since the release of Google Calendar, dozens of stories and blog posts have described its feature set.  Reviewers seem to have mixed emotions about the new web based technology.  Some think it is one of the best technologies Google has released in years.  Some think it only mimics functionality provided by other solutions.  Few reviewers touch on one of Google Calendar’s most powerful features… its Apple iCal integration.

It seems obvious that there are some Macintosh fans among the engineers at Google.  Google Calendar is still beta, but even the beta release boasts powerful Mac only integration.  Google’s initial implementation includes support for Apple’s iCal.

Since Google would like users to replace all existing calendar solutions with Google Calendar, it seems only logical to offer users a way to import information from their existing calendar solutions.  With that in mind, Google engineers made it easy to import delimitated data from just about any source.  In addition to this, there is a specific import just for iCal users.  This makes it easy for any Mac user to switch to Google’s calendar solution.

That’s not all.  Google has gone much further and implemented extensive iCal support.  Since calendar sharing is a main feature of Google Calendar, support was built in allowing iCal users to subscribe to shared Google Calendars.  Simply copy a user specific URL from the preferences of Google Calendar and open iCal.  Select Subscribe from the Calendar menu of iCal and past in the URL from the Google preferences.  iCal asks for a custom title for the shared calendar and allows the users to specify how often iCal should check the calendar for updates.  Once the calendar has been added, iCal will update itself at the specified interval and retrieve updated information from Google.

These shared calendars are ideal for families and businesses that need to make sure everyone is on track with the same information.  Google’s integration with iCal is a powerful feature unique to the Macintosh.  It makes it easy to subscribe to Google Calendars without forcing users to abandon their existing calendar solution.

But while the integration is powerful, there is one major shortcoming.  It’s not possible for users to post new events to the shared calendar from inside of iCal.  iCal can simply import events and changes made to Google Calendar.  The shared calendar is read only from inside of iCal.  To make changes, the user must either open the calendar directly in the web browser, or create their own Google Calendar that has been assigned read/write permissions for the shared calendar.

All things considered, Google Calendar is a very powerful solution.  It offers some very powerful sharing options to other users of Google Calendar.  The iCal integration is simple and effective.  Since iCal is designed to let users subscribe to 3rd party calendars, it is nice to see that Google took advantage of Apple’s iCal API.  Will two-way event support be added in the future?  We can only cross our fingers and wait to find out.  Remember, Google Calendar is still in beta, so anything is possible!


Steve

Virtualization Now Available to Mac Users!

Hot on the heels of Apple’s release of Boot Camp, Parallels.com has released a public beta of Parallels Workstation 2.1 for Mac OS X. Parallels Workstation is virtualization software for the Mac and it promises to make emulation software like VirtualPC obsolete.  And, according to early reports, it will eliminate most users need to dual boot their Macs into Windows.

Virtualization software is the future of computing for users who need access to more than one operating system.  It eliminates the need for multiple workstations as well as the need to dual boot a computer between OS’s. Virtualization lets us open up virtual computers within the main computer’s desktop and access entirely different self-contained virtual computers.

Prior to Apple’s transition to Intel based processors, in order for a Mac to run a similar virtual environment it was necessary to first emulate an x86 based processor.  This was something that PowerPC processors were not well equipped to do.  The emulation of a single x86 clock cycle took multiple clock cycles on the PPC chip.  This mean that no matter how well written the virtual environment code was, it would always suffer from severe performance degradation due to the hardware emulation.

Since Apple is now in the process of transition to Intel based processors, the playing field has been leveled.  Macs, Windows boxes, and Linux boxes all run on the same hardware so there is no longer a need to emulate another processor architecture.  This means that there is no performance loss to hardware emulation.  This also means the end of products like VirtualPC and the beginning of a bright future for virtualization.

Parallels Workstation is virtualization product for Macs running on Intel based processors.  It is capable of running a dizzying array of alternate operating systems within a virtual window on the Mac.  And while the product was just released as a beta, initial performance reports are amazing!  Check out the video below.  It was recorded by one user running Windows XP on a MacBook Pro with 256MB of VRAM 1.5GB of RAM.

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Be sure checkout Parallels.com for more information on this amazing new product.  It can run Windows 2003 Server, XP Pro, XP Home, 2000 Pro, 2000 Server, NT4, as well as Windows 98… just to name a few operating systems.  A wide variety of Linux distributions are also supported.  Check out this link for a complete list.


Steve

Macs Now Run Windows with Boot Camp

It’s tough to write about something when you’re speechless.  It’s April 5th, and I still suspect that Apple is playing an elaborate April Fools Day trick on us all.  Today, Apple announced a public beta of software it calls Boot Camp.  Though only a beta, the software allows users to easily repartition their hard drives and install Windows XP on an Intel based Macintosh.  This is a shocking move for Apple but one that appears to have caused its stock value to rise 6.7% following the announcement.

Since the new lines of Macintosh computers now run on Intel processors, the technical walls that prevented Mac users from running Windows have crumbled.  On March 16th, two enterprising hackers found a way to install Windows on an Intel based iMac and claimed at prize in excess of $13,000.  Prior to that, Apple had stated that it would not prevent users from installing Windows.  Apple simply would not support it.

Today’s news from Apple changes all of the rules.  Since narf2006 and Blanka claimed their prize as the first people to develop an installation procedure for Windows, Windows drivers for the Apple hardware have been the single largest problem.  Each component in the computer needs to have a drive in order for the operating system to properly utilize it.  Windows contains an untold driver set, but no one has ever had the need to write Windows drivers for Apple hardware.  The real beauty of Boot Camp is that it includes all of the drivers necessary to properly run Windows on Macintosh hardware.  It also allows easy partitioning of the Mac’s hard drive without data loss or the need to reformat.

Boot Camp requires that you have a new Intel based Mac in order to install and run Windows.  As of today, that lineup includes the iMac, MacBook Pro, and the Mac Mini.  New Intel based towers are expected in June or July of this year.  Users must also be sure that they are running the latest firmware for their computer.  Aside from that, we just need a legal copy of Windows XP SP2, 10GB of free drive space, a blank CD, and the Boot Camp installer from Apple’s web site.

I am, admittedly, uneasy with this development.  I can see both good and bad in the future.  Mac users will finally have access to the vast catalogs of Windows compatible software including games.  Mac users will also have new insight into the horrors of spyware, viruses, security holes, and data loss.

But either way you look at it, this is a momentous day for Apple Computer and Macintosh users everywhere.  It’s also a day that computer manufacturers like Dell and Gateway have long feared.  Apple has found a new way to step-up competition.  Apple was instrumental in bringing about the personal computer revolution.  Today, the playing field has been altered yet again. Who knows what the future will hold!

Read more about Boot Camp and download the installer here.


Steve

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