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Can a wristwatch help you sleep better? Andrew Laurence sleeps on the job to determine if the Sleeptracker device keeps him from waking up feeling kicked in the head. Tonya tackles another tool designed to help at home, the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner. In Mac-specific news, Smith Micro purchases Allume, Apple counts down to the 500 millionth iTunes track sold, WiTopia makes corporate-grade Wi-Fi security free, Adobe fixes Acrobat security vulnerabilities, and Adam shares where he and Tonya will be at Macworld Boston!
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by Adam C. Engst <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Macworld Expo in Boston happens this week from 12-Jul-05 through 14-Jul-05 in the Hynes Convention Center, marking the second East Coast show that will not include Apple Computer as an exhibitor. The exhibitor list is once again a bit sparse, with about 50 to 60 vendors currently listed, so it shouldn't be a problem to see the entire show floor fairly quickly. Interestingly, IDG World Expo has tweaked the show hours this year, so the doors open at 11 AM Tuesday and Wednesday and close at 7 PM; Thursday runs from 10 AM through 3 PM. Hopefully the later closing hour the first two days will make it easier for Boston residents to stop by after work.
I'm not aware of any public after-hours events associated with the show, but Tonya and I will be attending and would love to say hello to any TidBITS readers who make it to the show. Here's a cheat sheet to where you can find us:
Tuesday, 12-Jul-05 brings another episode of the MacBrainiac Challenge, in which the "Intel Aside" team of Andy Ihnatko, Dan Frakes, Rich Siegel, and I attempt to defend our title against the Smart Folders: Jason Snell, Jim Dalrymple, Rob Griffiths, and Rick LePage. The MacBrainiac Challenge is a live quiz show, moderated by the estimable Chris Breen, and it has been huge fun in previous years. If you're around at 12:45 PM and have an hour to kill, don't miss it. Then, at 3:00 PM, I'll be talking about iPhoto, wireless networking, and Tiger at the Peachpit Press booth (#202).
Wednesday, 13-Jul-05 will be a long day. At 11:15 AM, I'll be giving my "Inside iPhoto 5" talk in the Users Conference. Then, from 4:00 PM to 5:00 PM at the Macworld Speakers booth (#433), Tonya and I will be answering questions about TidBITS and Take Control, signing books, and generally chatting about the show. Then, at 6:00 PM, I'll be talking to the Boston Macintosh User Group in room 106 of the Hynes Convention Center, probably about iPhoto, wireless network security, and Take Control.
If you're sensing a pattern of what I'm talking about, that's just what I have prepared, and I'm happy in the general sessions to veer off onto any topic you like, so please bring your questions and feedback about our work. See you next week, and for those not attending, note that my email responsiveness will be minimal the entire week.
by Geoff Duncan <email@example.com>
Smith Micro Software, Inc. announced its acquisition of Allume Systems, Inc. for $11 million in cash and $1.75 million in Smith Micro stock. Allume, formerly known as Aladdin Systems, is the maker of long-standard StuffIt compression products as well as Spring Cleaning and a number of other Macintosh utilities. The company also recently took over distribution of Corel's graphic products for the Mac under the name Creative Essentials, including CorelDRAW and Corel PHOTO-PAINT. Allume was previously acquired by International Microcomputer Software, Inc. (IMSI) in August 2004.
Smith Micro's interest in Allume focuses on the company's development of a new JPEG compression technology that further reduces image sizes by up to 30 percent without additional loss of image quality. Smith Micro plans to license the technology to wireless operators and handset makers, as well as apply it to MPEG video and MP3 audio along with images.
In the Mac world, the acquisition will no doubt cause some trepidation. Allume has a long history with the Macintosh: for instance, its StuffIt compression technology served as the de facto standard for Macs beginning in 1986, and the ubiquitous StuffIt Expander has long been a part of every Mac user's toolkit. Conversely, in the Mac world Smith Micro is best-known (if not well-loved) for its FAXstf line of fax software products, although the company also develops QuickConnect connectivity software for wireless devices. At present Smith Micro seems to plan to keep Allume's products around in their current forms; considering that Allume accounted for about $2.5 million of IMSI's revenues during the first quarter of 2005, it seems unlikely Smith Micro will simply turn off the tantalizing, pre-existing revenue stream represented by Allume's existing products.
by Geoff Duncan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Apple's approaching another milestone with its iTunes Music Store: selling its 500 millionth track. In celebration, Apple has set up an online song counter so customers can see just how fast the 500 million mark is approaching. The tally's up to 491,295,326 as of this writing, and the counter is visible on the front door of the iTunes Music Store, as well as Apple's home page (so long as you're using a new-enough Web browser).
As part of the countdown Apple is once again giving away prizes to customers whose purchase(s) happen to span a nice round number. Customers who buy a track at a 100,000th song interval will receive an iPod mini and a 50-song iTMS gift card, but the real prize goes to the purchaser of the 500 millionth track: a whopping 10 iPods of their choice, a 10,000-song iTMS gift card, and an all-expenses-paid trip for four to see the band Coldplay perform on their current world tour.
My question is: Doesn't 10 iPods seem like an awkward first prize? Apple can't spring for some iPod-enabled clothing (iPod socks!), add-ons, or boomboxes? Maybe an iPod-enabled BMW to go along with them? What do you do with 10 iPods? Giving them to family and friends, as Apple suggests, seems like it could be a recipe for disaster. After all, those folks know you have 10,000 free songs coming to you, and outnumber you as much as ten-to-one: you could easily be left high and dry. And the members of Coldplay already have iPods of their own if they want them, so the iPods probably aren't an effective lure to get them to sign some part of your body with a Sharpie. The burdens we bear in this digital age just keep getting stranger.
by Glenn Fleishman <email@example.com>
The folks at WiTopia, a group that sells personal and small-office scale network security tools, are offering their WPA Enterprise service for Wi-Fi networks of up to five users and a single base station at no cost for a year. This is a boon to small networks because it allows you to have high-level security for each user - even if it's just you - without having to create and enter encryption keys.
WiTopia uses WPA Enterprise, which combines the strong encryption found in the algorithm used in WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) with individual usernames and passwords. Mac OS X 10.4 supports WPA Enterprise; Mac OS X 10.3 works too, with the latest AirPort firmware and software. When you connect to a Wi-Fi network that uses WPA Enterprise, Mac OS X prompts you for your username and password. If you enter your credentials correctly, the access point assigns you a unique encryption key - no one on the network shares that key with anyone else on the network. This effectively gives you a secure wireless link that can't be sniffed. (Someone can sniff at the Ethernet port if they have physical access, of course.)
WiTopia maintains your information on their servers, which you access in two different ways. To add, change, and remove users, you access their secure Web site and use a simple interface. Your access point also directly access a separate, secure authentication server using a separate password they provide (a shared secret) to confirm a user's login details when they connect to the wireless network. (A WiTopia staffer pointed out that an AirPort Express can become a portable secure WPA Enterprise network: if it's configured to point to their servers, all it needs is to plug into an Internet-connected Ethernet network that assigns it a valid local address, and it's secured.)
The one drawback to their service is that a bug in how AirPort Admin Utility works with the latest few releases of the firmware for the AirPort Extreme Base Station prevents easy entry of the shared secret. It's Apple's bug, and I alerted Apple months ago with no results. WiTopia has a workaround involving Apple's free AirPort Management Utility that's not too inconvenient, and you enter the shared secret only once during setup. They document the workaround on their support forums.
This $29 per year starter package comes with a $29-off coupon, making it free for the first year for up to five users and a single base station. Base stations cost $10 per year extra each, and additional blocks of five users are $5 per year each.
by Andrew Laurence <firstname.lastname@example.org>
If you're like me, an alarm clock wakes you at the same time five days a week. Usually I feel like I've been kicked in the head by a mule. I have to sit on the bed for a spell before my brain realizes that the eyes are open and it's time to start processing data. But on other days, I awake fully refreshed. I go to bed at roughly the same time every night, however, and the morning's outcome doesn't correlate with the time at which my head actually hits the pillow.
I never gave the "mule kick" phenomenon much thought until I read about the Sleeptracker from Innovative Sleep Solutions, a device that claims to have powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal alarm clocks: instead of sounding klaxons at an arbitrary time, it wakes you at the optimal time for you, and you awake feeling fully refreshed. Sounds like hokum, you say? That's what I thought.
Deep Background on Dozing -- First, a bit about sleep cycles. As we sleep, the body passes through a set of cycles that govern sleep's restfulness, recuperative powers, and dreams. Sleep is considered to be divided into five stages of varying levels of activity and restfulness.
Stage 1 is a transitional state in which the body relaxes and the heart rate slows, until you arrive at stage 2, or baseline sleep. From stage 2 the sleep becomes increasingly relaxed and the heart rate slows further, until you reach stages 3 and 4, or delta sleep; delta sleep is the deepest sleep. It's very hard to wake a person in delta sleep, and such a person is usually disoriented to find themselves awake. Stage 5 is REM, or "rapid eye movement," the stage in which dreams occur. REM sleep is considerably less deep than stage 4; it's actually closer to awake than stage 2's baseline sleep. After the REM stage, we return to stage 1 and the cycle begins anew. The average adult goes through four to five such cycles over the course of eight hours' sleep.
Over the course of a night's sleep, the overall cycle lessens in duration and depth, until we finally awake in the morning. While the first cycle might take two hours, thirty minutes of which are in delta sleep, the last cycle might be only half an hour and be no deeper than Stage 2.
Counting Sleep from Your Wrist -- The Sleeptracker looks and is worn like a wristwatch, but not a particularly flashy or stylish one - by all appearances it's an average, non-interesting digital watch. It doesn't have features you'd normally expect in a digital watch - no stopwatch, 24-hour clock, countdown timer or multiple time zones - because it's really marketed as a sleep aid.
To use the Sleeptracker, you set the time at which you want to be awake - probably the time for which you'd set a normal alarm clock. You also set the interval leading up to the alarm time, during which the Sleeptracker may wake you, and the time at which you'll go to bed at night. (This last time is required so that it knows when to start monitoring.) During the night the Sleeptracker's accelerometer monitors your physical activity, and from that determines the peaks in your sleep cycles. As your target wake time approaches, the alarm goes off at a time during the specified interval in which you are closest to being awake. If your sleep cycle doesn't supply an "almost awake" peak during the interval, Sleeptracker goes off at the designated wake time. It also has a Data screen that lets you review the peaks in the last night's sleep cycles.
Does it work? Actually, it does. If I set the Sleeptracker to wake me up no later than 6:30 AM, with a wake interval of 30 minutes, it usually gets me up around 6:20, without that mule-kicked sensation. (I know from experience that, had my normal alarm gone off at 6:30, I'd sit on the bed for 15 to 20 minutes waiting for the cobwebs to clear.) To wake up 10 minutes earlier and feel fine, well, it feels wrong on some basic cosmic level. What's more, the next day I feel generally more alert, drink less coffee to "stay sharp," and I don't sneak a nap when going out to "get some air."
So, it works, but it's not a panacea for getting enough sleep, and it doesn't cure my penchant for being a night owl. It doesn't help you get to sleep at a decent hour, and it doesn't make four hours feel like eight. My wife wishes it had a buzz option instead of beeping. (She doesn't seem to mind our clock radio alarm, perhaps because she's used to ignoring it.) On a couple occasions I slept through the beeping, because my arm was either under several layers of blankets or a couple pillows; my wife wouldn't like a louder beep, but it might be a good idea for me.
As a $150 wristwatch, Sleeptracker seems ludicrously expensive. As a $150 sleep aid that helps you wake up feeling refreshed, it might be a fair price. Adjust your expectations accordingly. [Alternatively, Tonya and I highly recommend falling asleep to an audio book, which helps us fall asleep faster and wake up more easily. See "iPods Defeating Insomnia" in TidBITS-768. -Adam]
Sleeptracker does what it claims: it wakes you up at the optimal time. My inner geek is always excited by new opportunities for optimization, but I still wonder... what if I just went to bed at a decent hour?
[Andrew Laurence is a writer and editor at modmini.com, which provides in-depth Mac mini reviews and analysis.]
by Tonya Engst <email@example.com>
Pop quiz: can you think of a round, computer-driven device that has four buttons, is not made by Apple, and ought to be in every household by the end of the decade? In case you don't pay much attention to the domestic scene - and by domestic, I mean the low-down world of dust bunnies, dog hair, and cookie crumbs - the answer is Roomba, the robotic vacuum cleaner from iRobot.
Roomba is about the size of a medium pizza, and about as thick as a pizza box. Its four buttons - Power, Clean, Spot, and Max - make it possible for virtually anyone to vacuum a floor with minimal effort. Plus, that someone doesn't have to be a geek. All he has to do is put Roomba on the floor, press Power, press Clean, and walk away. Sound too good to be true? It's not.
The low-end Roomba model, the Roomba Red, costs about $150. At the high end, you can pay as much as $300 for the Discovery SE. The primary differences among the models, besides their colors, are which accessories they come with. (Roomba is readily available in the U.S.; the International page of the iRobot Web site - found via the About iRobot link - has Web URLs for European, Australian, Japanese, and a few other distributors.)
I received the Roomba Discovery, a mid-priced, second-generation model, for Christmas last year. I was initially concerned about all the batteries and running the remote, and if it would prove to be yet another gizmo that didn't live up to its promise, but I've found that it not only does the job well, it also does the job with cheerful enthusiasm. Roomba is my first experience with owning a robot, and I appreciate that it saves me time instead of giving me more to do. And if you don't believe me about its good cheer, listen to Roomba's chirps and see it in action on the iRobot Web site.
You don't have to be the sort who can program a digital watch or run a VCR to run Roomba, though it wouldn't hurt. Although I am the Roomba expert in our household, primarily because I figured out how to clean it and how to set up its floor-based docking station so that it returns to it automatically after vacuuming to re-charge, I have yet to investigate some aspects of its operation, including the point of the aforementioned Max button and the use of the remote control.
Preparing to Run Roomba -- Before you let Roomba loose, you must pick up the usual clutter that infests everyone's floors: magazines, rubber bands, drinking glasses, and so on. This step is far more important than when you're using a regular vacuum, because you know enough to vacuum around clutter, if necessary. Roomba lacks common sense and will cheerfully attempt to vacuum anything in its reach, including shoelaces and electrical cables. In fact, running Roomba in my and Adam's offices is challenging because we have so many cables and fragile electronic devices. In my office, I made a wall out of old computer books to protect the cables under my desk and positioned a recycling bin in front of the cable nest that connects my office and printer into the network. I also worry about Roomba bumping into my Mac, which sits on the floor, so I always block that off as well. I keep Roomba out of about a third of Adam's office because he has far too many cables snaking around the base of his desk. With a normal vacuum I might spot-clean around the cables, but now I use a virtual wall to protect them from Roomba. The Roomba Discovery comes with two virtual walls, small plastic boxes that shoot an infrared beam up to 8 feet long. Roomba will not cross the beam, and it's important to use them to keep Roomba away from trouble; a friend reported that her Roomba met a bad end when she accidentally let it get into her fireplace.
Running Roomba -- Watching Roomba vacuum is like watching an engrossing screen saver. It usually starts moving around on the floor in a tight spiral, but then, for no particular reason, travels in a straight line until it hits a wall or other obstruction, such as a table leg. It then bounces off at a random angle and goes straight until it hits something else. If it encounters a particularly dirty spot, its Dirt Alert light goes on and it circles tightly on that spot for a few moments. It goes on like this, moving among the different rooms that it can reach, until it thinks it is done. My son, Tristan, who is 6 years old, loves to watch Roomba, especially if I let him run around positioning his feet so that it can go under his legs like a boat under a bridge. You can also let it bump into your feet (probably best if you're wearing shoes); it's a bit like having a small animal in the room with you. Roomba demos well, but I urge caution if a lot of children are around, since they will want to play with it. The directions for Roomba, alas, note that children should not ride it.
Our cat, who is easily scared, will leave the room if Roomba is running, but he otherwise ignores it. Some dogs, however, have a more dramatic reaction, as you can see in these videos:
Different people report different satisfaction levels with the quality of the cleaning that Roomba does. Overall, I think it does as good a job as I would. Roomba occasionally misses an obvious piece of dirt that a person would always get with an extra pass from a normal vacuum, but it also has no problem with vacuuming under the couch, which, honestly, I'd do at most once per year.
Roomba has "cliff" sensors that help it avoid falling over the edge of a staircase. Our dining room is separated from the living room by two separate four-step staircases, and it has almost fallen down several times, probably because the steps are tile, with extremely rounded edges. It drives a little bit too far over the edge and then hangs over or topples down, half onto the first stair. At that point, it shuts down its wheels and vacuum and chirps for help. If I plan to be home when Roomba is working, I figure I'll rescue it if it has trouble; if we're out while it's going to be working, I set up the virtual walls.
Roomba works well on our wood floors, wall-to-wall carpeting, and uneven tile floors. I've had poor luck with it on a new area rug: although it can usually negotiate the one-inch height difference between the tile and the rug, it often leaves crumbs and bits of new-carpet fluff on the tile next to the rug, necessitating a quick run with the traditional vacuum to finish the job. I have to roll up one other area rug, because it has fringes, which Roomba would undoubtedly eat. We'll eventually replace it with one that Roomba can manage.
Roomba does a great job on the fur from our long-haired cat, and friends who have a dog that sheds constantly (plus three children) report running their Roomba every morning before leaving the house, just to keep the dog fur under control. They went through three units of a first-generation Roomba model, and the only thing they didn't like about it was waiting to get it back after it broke under warranty. Roomba also picks up human hair, but my shoulder length hair tends to get wound up in Roomba's rollers, and it's best to clean Roomba right away after cleaning our bedroom or my office.
Besides the regular cleaning mode, Roomba also has a Spot mode, which you trigger by pressing the Spot button. Spot mode is for small messes that you want to vacuum quickly. Max mode (which I learned about by reading the 8-page manual) causes Roomba to run for longer than it would otherwise, presumably to clean up a truly bad mess.
Roomba is quieter than my relatively new Kenmore canister vacuum, and a lot quieter than my former Eureka upright. Still, it makes too much noise for most people to want to spend time in the same room with it for long, and if your home has an open floor plan, that may mean that you'd prefer to be elsewhere while it works. Although our house has four levels, three of them are basically "downstairs," and open to each other. The upstairs hallway is separated from downstairs by only a waist-high wall. I can ignore the noise level if I am upstairs in my office, with the door closed, while Roomba works downstairs, or if it's upstairs vacuuming behind a closed door while I am downstairs.
Cleaning Roomba -- Roomba stores vacuumed-up debris inside its case, and needs to be emptied much more often than you'd change a vacuum cleaner bag. I've found that it works best to empty it after each big vacuuming session. The debris bin pulls out like a drawer, so it's easy to extract it, remove the filter, and dump the debris into the garbage. You're supposed to change the filter every one or two months, and a three-pack of filters costs $15. You must also clean the two rollers and four sensors. Cleaning the sensors is quick, but the rollers take some effort. I often cut cat and human hair out of them.
The first time I cleaned Roomba, a little yellow cap fell off the end of one of the rollers. I discovered a wad of my hair in the hole where the cap connects to the roller, and it appeared that the hair had pushed the cap off kilter. I used a toothpick to remove the hair from the hole, but the cap wouldn't fit back on quite properly after that. Roomba operated just fine, but the cap often fell into the garbage accidentally as I was cleaning. I finally called Roomba customer service to find out if the yellow cap was supposed to be loose. Emily, a friendly customer representative, verified that the cap should stay on properly and promised to send me a new roller. Assuming the roller arrives reasonably soon, the customer service was excellent.
I sense that Roomba's main weakness lies in the sturdiness of its parts, and that was the consensus of advice that Adam received when he was researching the purchase, although the second generation Roomba models appear to be more solid than the initial generation. Based on this advice, Adam purchased my Roomba at Sears and spent $40 more to get an immediate replacement warranty that lasts for two years.
Wrap Up -- Much of what prevents me from running Roomba routinely is that my house has too many levels and requires too much prep before it can run. If I lived in a single-level home, I'd probably position the docking station under the couch, learn how to use the remote, and turn it on every time we left the house.
When talking about Roomba, it's easy to say, "You just press a button, walk away, and return to a clean home." In our house, with its four levels, child-related clutter, and throw rug, prep time can end up being longer than you might anticipate. Even so, setting Roomba loose is vastly easier than the noisy tedium of running a regular vacuum. The testimonials section on the iRobot Web site includes several notes that discuss how Roomba is especially helpful for the elderly or people with bad backs or more serious physical difficulties, since it takes most of the physical labor out of vacuuming.
iRobot continues to improve the Roomba line. In August 2005, iRobot plans to release a new model, the Roomba Scheduler, which will come with a remote control and virtual walls that you can use to schedule when it runs. The company will also release a new, $60 remote control and virtual wall set for several existing Roombas that will allow them to be scheduled. The scheduling feature isn't all that exciting to me, because of the necessary preparation. I'm more excited about the soon-to-be-released Scooba, which will vacuum, wash, and dry the floor, all in one pass. Roomba has improved the cleanliness of our floors, but since most of the downstairs is tile, mopping is needed far more frequently than we get around to it.
Although it would be enough if Roomba just cleaned the floor, what makes Roomba a great product is that it is pleasing to use. It doesn't require anyone to install drivers or update an operating system, the interface is simple to understand, and it makes cute noises. In the end, it's telling that we've anthropomorphized this little device so much; we always call it "Roomba" or "she" rather than "the Roomba," we reflexively say "Thank you!" when we return home to a clean floor, and we always rush to help it upon hearing a "Help me!" chirp. But the fact is, Roomba is the first new piece of technology we've found that, like the washing machine, dryer, and dishwasher, actually improves our domestic lives. As such, I can recommend Roomba highly to anyone who would like a hand with the chore of vacuuming.
by Adam C. Engst <firstname.lastname@example.org>
"Take Control of Buying a Mac" Updated -- The last Macworld Expo in San Francisco saw the release of the Mac mini, and Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference last month brought us the news that Apple would be transitioning the Macintosh to use CPUs from Intel in place of IBM's PowerPC chip. I've now updated my "Take Control of Buying a Mac" ebook to take account of these important events. The update also builds the Mac mini into the buying discussions; updates details that have changed since the previous update; and includes information about Apple's Government Stores as a way for U.S. local, state, and federal government employees to buy Macs at a discount. Those who have purchased the ebook may access the free update by clicking the Check for Updates button on the cover of the ebook; for anyone who hasn't yet bought a copy, it's $5 and includes a coupon worth $5 off any order at Small Dog Electronics, making the book free if you buy through Small Dog.
by TidBITS Staff <email@example.com>
The second URL below each thread description points to the discussion on our Web Crossing server, which will be faster.
Modifying Microsoft Word for the elderly -- An 80-year-old man who is new to the Mac needs help viewing the text cursor in Word, as well as formatting text; TidBITS Talk readers provide solutions. (7 messages)
Apple Releases iTunes 4.9 with Podcasting Support -- Following last week's article about iTunes 4.9, readers discuss the types of shows available and how to deal with future for-fee podcasts. (5 messages)
Non-profit, non-commercial publications and Web sites may reprint or link to articles if full credit is given. Others please contact us. We do not guarantee accuracy of articles. Caveat lector. Publication, product, and company names may be registered trademarks of their companies. TidBITS ISSN 1090-7017.
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