Friday, February 21, 2014

Automator - just one MORE reason why I use an Apple Mac....

Mac vs PC debates have raged through the ages, of course. And I can't hope to summarise the pros and cons of each in a simple blog post here. But I did want to shout about something that delighted me in recent months about my Mac and that's discovering how to use the Automator utility.

Here's the use case. I had a bunch of photos and screenshots, all of which I wanted resized to 600 pixels wide, for inclusion in a Wordpress blog post elsewhere. Painstakingly, I opened each in Seashore (v0.1.9, the older one, is the best to use, IMHO) and resampled down, then saved. There must be a better way, I thought.

I started browsing through the Mac App Store and did find a few batch resizers, but they all cost money and seemed too complicated. I wonder.... I remembered seeing Automator a few times in my app list on the Mac, so I gave it a whirl:

  1. Start Automator
  2. Click on 'Application'
  3. Click on 'Photos'
  4. Drag the 'Scale images' action to the application pane (you'll be prompted to add a 'copy' action, so as not to replace the originals - this is a good idea for most people)
  5. Change the scale value as needed
  6. Use 'File/Save' to name and save the application somewhere sensible (e.g. the Applications folder)
  7. Drag this application onto the Mac's dock

And that's it. Took all of 45 seconds. Now, when I want a batch of images scaled down to 600 pixels wide, I just drag them all en masse from Finder to the icon on the dock. A few seconds later, the OS has done its work and my images are ready.

In fact, it proved so easy that I made a second one, for resizing to 800 pixels (for the All About sites). 

Then, a month later, I had a similar problem. I was creating (and downloading) a lot of images in PNG format (from screenshots, usually) but they were all way too big in terms of byte size. What I wanted was to convert them all on an ad-hoc basis to JPG. Again... I wonder....?

Automator to the rescue again, this time using the 'Change type' action from the 'Photos' section. Again, I now just drag any PNGs onto this icon on my Mac dock and bingo, they're all JPGs.*

This facility to just 'create' utilities with zero programming knowledge, and all built into the OS, is just tremendous - and, as something of a beginner, I feel as though I've only just scratched the surface of Automator here! See here for a list of 10 top uses in more detail.

* in fact, I also often then drag these files into JPEGmini, also a useful tool!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Rolls Royce of smartphone belt cases: PDair

In a mad world where I change my smartphone almost weekly, as part of the review process, one thing has remained constant: the case I carry said smartphone in. You see, and I realise I run a huge risk of being declared uncool here, I'm a passionate believer in belt cases. As slimline and unobtrusive as possible, of course, but a belt case nonetheless.

Cynics will point to the fact that I'm already married and thus don't need to attract the opposite sex in quite the same way as younger folk might need to, and I accept that there's a certain 'geek' impression created by a belt case - but then aren't geeks supposed to be cool now too? Aren't we geeks supposed to inherit the earth, etc.?

The advantage of a belt case are:
  • you don't have to keep standing up and taking a phone out of your trouser pocket - the case is accessible in any position
  • you can't easily leave your phone behind somewhere - less lost phones
  • there's greater protection than if a phone is in your pocket - you can't sit on it or stress it by bending the wrong way

Against these 'pros' there's the con of geekiness, as mentioned above (not helped by the big key/penknife ring in this case!!), plus a possible security risk in that a thief might be able to withdraw the phone - I address the latter by swinging the case around to my tummy in crowds, so that it's far less accessible to third parties.

All of this is building up to a recommendation. If you want a belt case, get the best. PDair's range of genuine leather slip cases with really, really tough (and yet slimline) belt clips, has been my mainstay now for many years. Here are just four of the variations I've used (I have half a dozen more scattered around or lent out):

(For the sake of disclosure, I've bought about half of the 10 or so variants that I own, and the remaining half have been for review purposes.)

Every other vertical format belt clip case I've tried has been too cheap (falls apart), has a top flap (gets in the way) or (my pet hate) has a belt clip 'swivel' that makes the case stand out a mile - looking terrible and also ending up very fragile.

The latest in the series here is for the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and Note 2, but of course it's wide enough to take just about any other modern large screened smartphone too, so I don't have to keep swapping belt cases when I swap phones.

Build quality, as ever, is tremendous and I can't recommend this particular design highly enough. You can browse PDair's vertical belt cases cases here - and then follow your nose for where to buy (e.g. on Amazon here).

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Mini-review: JPEGmini (for PC and Mac)

Sometimes a product just works like magic. This is just one such....

The problem is this, you see - JPGs. Photos, screenshots, scans, just about anything graphic uses the JPG compressed image format these days. As a journalist I use a lot of JPGs and there's always this terrific push-pull going on between quality and byte size.

Not many people realise that a JPG can be any size. it's essentially a lossy approximation of your original image (e.g. from a camera or screenshot or scan), but intelligently degraded such that you don't notice any difference.

Take a 5MP photo from your phone. Uncompressed, you'd be looking at 20MB or so, but the device probably spits it out at 2MB or so, applying a particular JPG 'quality' (usually about 85% or so) - your eyes can't tell the difference most of the time, but look down at the pixel level and you'll see artefacts.

So the photo could be represented by a 5MB JPG with almost perfect 'quality' and almost no artefacts, or a 100KB image of the same physical size but terrible approximations and degradations. Where the 'quality' is set depends on the settings in your camera or software utility or scanner or whatever.

My problem is that I often want to use images that are very high quality, just in case I want to print them or crop them later - at which point I might be very miffed if I found that, deep down, they all had artefacts. So I leave the quality settings quite high in my image editors.

Yet, when I use photos online, byte size is much more important than absolute quality. So, for web page use, I'd like a lower JPG quality - yet it's a pain having to keep switching settings. And that's not counting the number of apps and devices for which JPG quality is set and unchangeable.

One option is to re-save each JPG in a utility, but I hadn't found anything useable or convenient until I came across JPEGmini, here shown running after processing some screenshot JPGs on my Mac:

Essentially, if I have a batch of JPGs (usually photos or screenshots in my case) that are all intended for inclusion in an article or post, I drag them all into JPEGmini before uploading. Each image is cleverly analysed and then optimised to the point where it has the minimum size before any visual degradation becomes apparent.

So, for example, I'd have a folder of 30 screenshots and a photo. Total original byte size would be about 8MB, meaning that anyone reading the article would essentially have to download all of these in order to be able to view the page in full. JPEGmini typically optimises these same JPGs down to about 4MB all-in, effectively halving the load on the web server and halving the download time for each user.

I do keep trying to catch JPEGmini out and looking for a photo it has optimised which looks 'worse' than the original, to no avail so far. Its secret is not to try to optimise the file size too much. So you really do get byte savings without any visual impact.

My only gripe with JPEGmini, on the Mac at least, is that you can't drop JPGs directly onto its dock icon - you have to have the app open and then drag into its window. Apparently dock integration is on the to-do list for the developer, so we'll see....

You can try one of your own JPGs online here and then give the utility a try - I can't recommend it highly enough for this sort of targeted JPG byte size reduction.