Friday, September 30, 2005

Calendar sharing - for free

So, you have a PC or Mac and would love to either sync your calendar between multiple machines, or share your calendar with multiple users. And, you want to have access to your calendar online through a browser when you're out of the office.

And, of course, you want to do it easily, for free, and without having to upload or edit html files.

Are you wishing upon a star?

Actually, no - there are ways to do this for both PC and Mac. I'll talk about two of them here.

PCs and Yahoo!

One of the easiest ways on a PC to sync your calendar and have it available online is to utilize Yahoo! Calendar and the Yahoo! Intellisync utility. Using Intellisync, a free download, you can sync data between Yahoo! Calendar (and address book) and any of the following: Outlook, Outlook Express, Palm OS Handhelds, Pocket PC Handhelds, Lotus Organizer, and ACT!

And of course, since it's Yahoo! Calendar, it's always available online through your Yahoo! account. The only manual intervention is that you must launch intellisync manually to perform a sync.

To sync two machines, you need to have Intellisync installed on each system, and you'll want to configure the syncing on each to determine what should take precedence when a conflict arises. For example, I tested this on two separate desktop machines, in two different offices, and set it such that Yahoo! Calendar always took precedence. But I could also simply have it ignore the conflict or make a note of it and let me choose.

All in all this system works very well and is entirely free. But alas, it's not Mac compatible, so...

All good things end in "x"

On the Mac side, first looks make it appear you must pay $99/year for a .Mac account in order to get calendar syncing abilities. Well, either that or pay for a WebDAV server hosting account, or your own server. But none of these options meet the main criteria - Free.

Along comes a wonderful site/service called the iCal Exchange at iCal Exchange allows you to publish your iCal .ics files to their WebDAV server and then other people/machines can subscribe to your calendar. The great bonus of iCalx is that the site also provides a slick HTML interface to let you view your calendars online, as well as simply using the publish/subscribe feature.

In my tests, my wife has her iCal calendar set to "Publish" and she subscribes to my calendar. My iCal is set to publish mine and subscribe to my wife's. So, in essence, we always see one unified synchronized calendar in iCal.

The only downfall to this approach (as opposed to the .Sync approach on .Mac) is that you cannot physically change entries on "subscribed" calendars (ie. I can't change my wife's calendar items and she can't change mine) and when viewing the HTML version online at iCalx, we actually see two separate calendars.

But, hey... for free I'll take it!

Note that this approach should, in theory, also work across platforms (syncing a PC to a Mac) if you're using either Calendar or Sunbird from as your primary calendar software on the PC - since they are both based on publishing and subscribing to .ics files, just like iCal. However, I had mixed results in my initial tests. But these products are still in Beta, and will no doubt evolve over time.

Enjoy your scheduling!

Monday, September 26, 2005

Mac or PC? Tackling some myths...

You've heard the debate for years. Much of it goes:
PCs are cheaper to own than Macs
Macs are only for graphic designers
PCs have more software
Macs aren't compatible
PCs are fast - Macs are slow

Since I seem to be the go-to-guy for computer advice around here, I thought I'd use my first post to address the most oft-asked question I receive: What should I buy? Along with that, it seems more and more people are also asking: Is a Mac really an option? We'll see.

Truth, propaganda and hooey

First let's get one thing out of the way, the answer to another critical question: Which one will do what I want it to? The answer: both - there's not one thing that can't be done on either computer. The catch is that it's all a matter of trade-offs.

The only places these trade-offs are critical are in a few key niche areas (and you'll know who you are). For example, if you are a power-gamer and always want to run the latest 3D games you are pretty much limited to a Windows PC for two reasons: 1) most new-releases are available on Windows first, 2) most new video card hardware (needed for the new games) is available for Windows well before Mac. On the other hand, if you are a video professional using Final Cut Pro or Avid, well, then you're stuck on Mac. Most else is fair game.

With that key piece of information out of the way, let's look at busting some myths.

PCs are cheaper than Macs

If we are looking strictly at initial cost of hardware alone... yes, you're right. It's amazing how cheaply you can purchase a Windows PC for these days. But beware, many of these cheap machines are just that - cheap machines. And, you're never sure of compatibility with any of these.

Apple did one big thing right - they control the hardware as well as the operating system. Because of this, you can usually be assured that things will just work. With a Windows PC, since there are thousands of mix and match components and peripherals, you are more than likely to have some problem or conflict at some point. That's not to say this is Microsoft's fault - it's just the nature of the beast with so much variation.

But back to cost. If your goal is simply to write simple text letters and send an email or two, then the built in WordPad and Outlook Express will work fine for you on a PC. But above that, everything on that new super-cheap PC of yours will cost you money. Sure there may be a few free applications included on the PC, but for the most part they are worth only what you paid for them - nothing.

In contrast, every Mac comes with a suite of applications that are worth quite a bit when compared to equivalent programs on the PC. The iLife suite of iPhoto, iDVD, iMovie, iTunes and Garage Band is a significant suite of applications. Additional built-in applications like QuickTime, iChat, Mail, Address Book, Font Book, Preview and iCal are also exremely polished.

And, all Macs have the ability to create PDF files straight from any application - built-in - for free. Compare that to needing to purchase Adobe Acrobat for the PC at a cost of $299 and that $500 cheap PC gets costlier and costlier.

Note: since first writing this article, I have found the open-source PDF-Creator software for Windows, which is free and performs similar functionality to the built-in Mac pdf creation.

The bottom line on cost is knowing, or figuring out, what it is you want to do on your computer. And then finding out what the real cost to be able to do those things will be.

Macs aren't compatible in a Windows world

If this were 1990 you'd be right. But it's not 1990 and that's not the case at all. If you use a Mac today, it's doubtful your friends or associates will ever know you're not working on a Windows PC. The compatibility issue is a dead one.

There's not much software for Macs

Hooey - pure and simple. There's plenty of software for the Mac. Commercial applications (like Office), shareware and freeware all exist in abundance. The only problem, as previously stated, can be in newest release gaming.

However, you should note that finding Mac software can be a little more difficult. Big retailers like WalMart, Target, SamsClub, and Costco generally carry Windows-only software on their shelves. Unless it's a hybrid disc that has software for both PC & Mac, you're out of luck at these stores. As a Mac owner, you'll learn to grow fond of and the Apple Store.

Macs are slow

Again, in days gone by this may have been the case, but not any more. In raw speed tests it depends on the application and the machine configuration as to which platform performs better. It's not a "one is better than the other" across the board result.

The bottom line with speed is this: no matter what you get, in 12 months you'll always want a faster one!

It's the OS

And now we get to the biggest difference of all between the two types of machines: the OS.

Windows has come a long way in the last few years towards becoming a stable and usable operating system. Even with the crashes, Windows XP is a far better operating system than almost every other variant - with the exception of maybe Windows 2000. But Windows downfall has been security (viruses and malware), added to a confusing choice of products. Windows XP Home or Professional anyone?

And the confusion is only going to get worse. It has been reported that the next version of Windows (code-named Vista) will have a mind-numbing seven variants (yes, I said "7") to choose from. On the flip side of that is Apple OSX - with one single OS for everyone from home users to corporate professionals. Yes, there is a Server OS as well, but I'm not counting that because Microsoft also has a separate server OS.

And where these OS's really differ are in two places that should be near and dear to your heart: your time and your money. Put bluntly: Windows PCs take a lot of time to protect against viruses and malware - Macs take, well... none. Period.

I recently read a three-page article in PC World describing protecting yourself from malware, and yet they still said that "eventually you will be effected". A second article the following month discussed how to reinstall the OS because, as they stated: "when your system gets bogged down with spyware, as it will..." you'll need to know how to start from scratch again. As a computer geek, I can attest to that. I used to spend hours cleaning, fixing and protecting my PCs from spam and viruses - or reinstalling Windows and all my applications. Last December I spent the better part of a week (40+ hours) digging out from a virus on one computer, spyware on another, and a corrupted registry on the third. I was, in a word, done.

Since that day, when I put all three for sale on eBay and went on and bought Macs, I haven't spent one minute doing anything about viruses or malware (really - not 1 minute) and my systems have never been at risk, The peace of mind, not to mention the actual time saved by not having these problems, is priceless.

So, where do I lean? Without regard to security, I think both platforms have things to offer and can meet most people's needs. But in general, until the virus and malware problems are removed from the Windows platform, I'd recommend Macs in a heartbeat.

And until Microsoft starts losing a lot of market share, that may be a while.


Snips of... blogs proudly presents: Technology.

You've heard the hype - Technology is here to make life easier, right? Does it live up to its hype? You be the judge.

From PCs and Macs to digital imaging and peripherals, the world of consumer technology keeps getting harder and harder to keep up with. We can't cover it all here, but hopefully we'll be able to shed light on a few topics from time to time.

Welcome to the information superhighway - it's time to drive!