Friday, 21 November 2014

iPad – What, no File Manager ?

Having dashed off a few masterworks of modern literature on my new iPad Air, I naturally wanted to save copies of those documents on my PC. I looked for the iPad File Manager. And I looked again. But I could not find it. Which should not really be all that surprising as there isn’t one. To my bafflement, iOS doesn’t provide any way of browsing around its folders and files. So how, then, was I to get the documents from the iPad onto my desktop computer?

I turned to the iPad User Guide. This told me there were two ways to transfer files: either I could upload them to iCloud and then download them, again onto my PC; or I could use Apple’s iTunes software to receive documents one at a time after explicitly ‘sending’ from the iPad. To be honest, neither of these alternatives appealed much. I don’t like the iTunes option because sending documents one at a time rather than copying a whole directory of files is pretty slow and, what’s worse, I frankly hate the iTunes user interface. Uploading them to iCloud is even less appealing. Why on earth should I send my private documents to some unknown location quite possibly halfway across the globe just to transfer them to a computer sitting here on my desk?

Here, I have dragged files from my iPad using iBrowse (top) right into the Windows Explorer on my PC. There is also a free version of iBrowse for the Mac - that version has a somewhat different user interface but similar functionality.

I soon discovered that other alternatives exist. Indeed, there is a small industry devoted to letting people get at their iPad documents more easily and transfer them to and from other computers. I won’t list all the products available – just Google for “iPad file transfer” and you’ll find them. The one I eventually opted for was a free program called iBrowse (made by Macroplant, a company that also sells a more complete file browsing product called iExplorer). iBrowse is available for both Windows and OS X. Once installed onto your desktop computer it lets you browse the folders and files of an iPad or iPhone that is connected via its USB Lightning cable. The only real limitation is that it can’t browse the root directory of your iOS device unless that device has been ‘jailbroken’. I don’t need root access so that has not been a problem for me. I do need a way to copy files around easily, however, and iBrowse does that very well.

One thing iBrowse doesn’t do is allow me to access my iPad wirelessly (with WiFi). There is another free product, RemotePC (including the free ‘Lite’ version), that can do that. I haven’t tried this out yet as iBrowse works fine for my current requirements and, what’s more, unlike Remote PC it doesn’t require that I install any additional software on my iPad. However, if I decide that I can’t live without WiFi file transfer, maybe I’ll try out RemotePC at some future date?

Monday, 17 November 2014

BB FlashBack Pro 5 - review

BB FlashBack Pro 5 (£116 + VAT)
Blueberry Software

These days, it seems that just about every computer user need s to make some screencasts at one time or another. Maybe you want to publish software courses on YouTube or on an eLearning site such as Udemy or FutureLearn? Maybe you need to record simple tutorials for the benefit of the people in your company or to make software demos and promotional material? For all of the above, you will need a screen recording tool and, ideally, an editing environment for putting the finishing touches to your videos. If you are a Windows user, the recently-released BB FlashBack Pro 5 could have everything you need to take you from recording to editing to rendering.

If you’ve used previous versions of BB Flashback the first thing you’ll notice about this new release is the redesigned user interface. Not only does this have a new carbon-grey colour scheme but it also places the timeline at the bottom of the workspace (just like most other video editing applications) rather than at the top as it did before. If you prefer the appearance and layout of earlier versions of FlashBack (light colour scheme, timeline at top of the screen), tough luck – there is no way of customising the user interface to adopt the old look.

The Player (editor)

Recording and Editing

Before doing anything else you need to record one or more clips from which the final movie will be assembled. The BB FlashBack recorder lets you record your entire screen or (on a multi-monitor system) from one or more monitors simultaneously. Alternatively you can select a specific window or record from a rectangular area drawn on screen with a mouse. You can optionally make recordings with or without sound and you can even record from a webcam.

Once you’ve saved the recording, it is loaded into the FlashBack Player editing environment. Here you can cut out any mistakes, then add captions and annotations such as boxes and arrows. You can also add zooms and pans to focus in on specific parts of the recording. To do that you just draw a box on screen to indicate which bit of the screen needs to be zoomed or panned to. Then you click a button to apply the effects. Unfortunately once applied you can’t resize the zoom area using the interactive box on screen, though you can do so by editing numeric fields in a dialog box [Correction: Blueberry Software informs me that you can resize a zoom area interactively if you first disable 'Apply Effects' and then re-enable the effects after editing].

The Recorder
There are several other ways of drawing attention to specific areas on screen. For example, a magnifying tool lets you increase the size of a selected circle as though a hand magnifier had been placed over it. You may optionally add effects to highlight the mouse or mouse clicks. And you can add text and annotations such as arrows and ‘speech bubbles’.  You can also import previously FlashBack recordings or audio and video clips in standard formats such as .avi, .mp3, .mp4, .wmv, and .wav. When you want to blend one clip into another you can add a transition to create a fade effect.

Pros and Cons

All of which may sound pretty good. However,  by comparison with some other competing products, such as TechSmith’s Camtasia Studio 8, BB FlashBack suffers from a number of limitations. For example, the editor provides just one video track (plus various audio and ‘objects’ tracks) and all video clips must be placed sequentially on this track (in Camtasia, the number of video tracks, which can be placed one under the other, is theoretically unlimited). FlashBack also has rather basic annotations (unlike Camtasia, arrows and boxes cannot be ‘animated’ – just ‘faded in’) and it has just three simple transitions: cross-fade, fade-through-white and fade-through-black (Camtasia has 30 transitions as standard including fancy effects such as page-turns, a rotating cube and Venetian blinds). I won’t go into any more detail on the editing. Suffice to say, the Camtasia editor is vastly more powerful in almost every respect. An area in which BB FlashBack is stronger is in precise frame-based editing. Its editing timeline shows each individually captured ‘frame’ and you can edit these one by one. For example, you could select one or more frames and then delete them or crop them (that is, delete the frames on either side of the selection).

Magnifying glass effect

I also like FlashBack’s easy mouse-cursor smoothing tool. If you happen to have made a recording in which your mouse pointer moves irregularly around the screen you can tell FlashBack to get rid of all the irrelevant movements by making the pointer move smoothly between two critical points (say a button click and a menu selection). This is particularly useful when creating software demos in which you want everything to look as slick as possible.

Moving Making

Creating a movie from a number of separately recorded clips is unnecessarily difficult, however. You can’t simply drag videos into FlashBack from the Windows Explorer. Instead you have to select them via a dialog box and then ‘import’ them. The importing of video clips is horribly slow.

One thing I particularly dislike is that BB FlashBack insists on loading each separately recorded clip into a new ‘instance’ of its editor. So if I record ten short clips I end up with ten FlashBack windows, each of which contains one clip. This strikes me as weird. Why would anyone ever want to do that? In Camtasia, each newly recorded clip is appended to the end of any existing recordings in a single instance of the Camtasia editor, so that it is ready to be included in the movie you are currently making. When I asked Blueberry Software if there was any way to have newly recorded clips loaded into a single instance of  the editor I was told that there wasn’t as “That’s not anything we’ve ever been asked about before,” which (to be honest) I find rather astonishing.


While BB FlashBack Pro 5 provides a decent combination of a screen-recording tool and a fairly simple editing environment, there is no doubt in my mind that Camtasia Studio 8 is a superior product. That being said, if you are making a choice between the two, the deciding factor in favour of FlashBack might be its lower price. Camtasia Studio costs £206.50, compared with FlashBack Pro at £139.20 (both prices are inc VAT).

There are two other, money-saving editions of BB FlashBack: the Standard edition (£62.40 inc VAT) and the Express (free). The free edition does basic screen recording and rendering to Flash or AVI format but does not include any editing features; the Standard edition exports to a larger range of formats (such as MPEG4, QuickTime and GIF) and it also includes the core features of the video editor including the ability to add text boxes, selectively highlight or blur regions and highlight the cursor. The Professional edition has all the features of the Standard edition but adds additional editing capabilities such as frame-by-frame editing, multi-track audio, zoom, pan and cursor smoothing. For full details of these three editions, refer to Blueberry Software’s comparative chart.

In summary, for demanding users needing to create and edit high-quality screencasts on Windows, I would recommend Camtasia Studio 8. If you only need basic editing capabilities, you can save yourself some money by going for BB FlashBack Pro. But if saving money is your main concern, and you don’t need frame-by-frame editing, FlashBack Standard might be a good choice.

See  also, my previous reviews:

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

iPad Air – the best laptop I’ve ever had!

I am seriously in love with my iPad. Pah! those are words I never expected to write. Until a few years ago I would have considered anything made by Apple to be beneath contempt. I mean, i-This and i-That – they are all just glitz and slogans aimed to syphon money from the weak minded (I might once have said).

My iPad Air with the Logitech keyboard - a great combination!
My descent down the slippery slope started a few years ago when (rather against my better judgment) I bought an iMac. There was a good reason for this. I was teaching some online programming courses  and many of my students were Mac users. They started requesting help about using the Mac, running programs in the Terminal and so forth. The only way for me to answer those questions was to buy a Mac and try it out myself. I have to admit that the Mac is a lovely piece of kit – both the software and the hardware look so much nicer than any PC I’ve ever used. Even so, most of my day-to-day work continues to be done on Windows (version 7) on my PC.

Windows Pains

Yes, there’s the point. I still use Windows 7. That’s significant. I first used Windows in version 2. I started using Windows as my default operating system with version 3.1. I’ve used every version of Windows ever since (including the unlovely Vista) right up until Windows 8 appeared. I took one look at the Windows 8 user interface and read one or two glowing reviews written by journalists who seemed to think it was the bee’s knees and decided Windows 8 would never darken my PC screen. Microsoft was clearly trying to nobble the established mobile marketplace by forcing its desktop users to switch to an operating system that was designed for a mobile device. I would have none of it!

But what Microsoft also succeeded in doing when it launched Windows 8 was making me rethink my long-term dedication to Microsoft operating systems. Windows 8 made me realise that I could no longer trust Microsoft to provide me with the system software I needed. My experience with the iMac had convinced me that there was no essential reason why I should use Windows when OS X ran all the software (mainly programming, word processing and multimedia editing) that I require. And when I finally decided that I needed a mobile device, it never occurred to me even for one split second to think about something that ran Windows. Only two realistic choices presented themselves to me – Android or iOS. And iOS won.

Air Today, Gone Tomorrow

When Apple launched its new iPad Air 2 recently they dropped the price of its previous iPad Air  model. The entry-level 16GB iPad Air used to cost £399. It now costs £319. Having glanced over the new features of Air 2 it didn’t take me long to decide that I could do without the new gold colour scheme and 1.4 mm decrease in thickness. I’d rather save the cash and get an Air 1, which is what I did. I decided to go for 32GB model which set me back £359 (including VAT and delivery). This comes with a very decent range of software including audio and video editing packages (Garageband and iMovie) plus the Pages word processor.

The Logitech keyboard attaches to the iPad so I can 'close them up' like a regular laptop.
Now I plan to user my iPad principally for word processing with the possibility of also doing some programming at a later date. While you can type text using an on-screen keyboard, this is definitely far from ideal for my purposes. So the next thing I needed to get was a keyboard. There are many keyboards available for iPad but the one that pretty consistently gets the best reviews is the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover. Once again, my decision to go for the last version of the iPad rather than the latest one saved me some money. The Ultrathin keyboard for iPad Air 1 used to cost about £90 but now you can get one for under £30. And what a fantastic addition to the iPad this is! The iPad slots into a magnetised groove to hold it at an angle on the keyboard or closes over the keyboard area to create a sort of hinged-cover that transforms my iPad into a fantastic, lightweight alternative to a conventional laptop computer.

I must admit that I had my doubts when I first decided to buy an iPad. But once I added on that keyboard the doubts vanished. This is absolutely perfect for doing work pretty much any time anywhere, at a desk, at home or on the move. Definitely the best portable computer I’ve ever owned.