Sending a Text From Your Computer to a Cell Phone

Cell phones have had the ability to text for a long time and use a system called Short Messaging Service or just SMS to accomplish the task. For some reason texting is the preferred method of communication for teens. Maybe it's to prevent monster cell phone bills, but you don't need a cell phone to text someone. You can use your computer.

Using a computer offers some real advantages; It lets you use a full sized keyboard, doesn't cost you anything, and lets you keep a copy of your message in your email outbox. There's a couple of different ways you can text someone using a computer:

Use email

When you send a text via email you need to know two things: the phone number and the service (ATT, Verizon, T-Mobile, etc) that number is using. Open a new email and enter the phone number, the "@" symbol followed by the gateway of the particular service. 
For a full list of SMS & MMS gateways go here.

Most services have about a 160 character limit so keep your messages short! Delete your normal signature and any extra lines that may show up.

Use iChat or other chat program

Open the iChat buddy window and select the contact you want to send a text to. As long as you entered their cell phone number in your contact information you can send a text message. Just "Control-Click" the name and menu will appear. All you need to do is select "Send SMS."

A chat window will open up that looks like the standard chat window. Just type your message and hit return.  Any response will appear in the same chat window.

If you want to text someone that's not in your contact list you can use the phone number directly,  just make sure to add "+1" in front of the number. This works for chat programs like AIMAdium and Yahoo Messenger

Often when I show people how to text from your computer they get very excited and start texting right away. Then about an hour later I get a phone call asking "Why can't I send a picture?"  Ah yes, cell service companies don't make it easy on you because they want to be able to charge you extra for ever possible service. Of course if you are sending to an iPhone you can just send a picture to that persons email account but you can also use something called MMS. This also works for non-iPhones that don't have an email client. 

SMS is just for sending textual information. If you want to send a photo you need to use a service called Multimedia Message System (MMS).  Like SMS, MMS uses a gateway but the service is not the same.
The MMS file limit on the ATT network is about 3MB so make sure you don't send some huge file.  

Here's the hard part, most people use the JPEG format for pictures, but sending JPEGs from a computer doesn't always work the way it should. Since we use ATT in my house I've only tested that service but here's what I found:

  • No - If you send a MMS message using Apple Mail it will only work if you use the PNG format. Don't ask me why, but if you send a JPEG it won't work. 
  • No - If you use Thunderbird or an old copy of Eudora mail application it also fails for JPEGs.
  • No - If you use the web version of Mobile Me, JPEGs fail to send.
  • No - If you use the web version of Comcast mail JPEGs fail to send

Here's what works

  • Yes - If you use Apple Mail and attach a picture in the PNG format 
  • Yes - If you use Office for Mac and use Outlook JPEGs work just fine!!
  • Yes - If you use web mail application like Google Mail you can send JPEGs. 
  • Yes - Heaven forbid, if you use a PC and Microsoft Office sending JPEGs works fine.

As you can guess there's a lot of testing that I need to do to figure out if the same problems happen using Verizon or T-Mobile but I don't really have the time. Just guessing I would say that Apple has done something to Mail and MobileMe that somehow creates a format that is incompatible with MMS & JPEGs.

If you do use Apple Mail like I do here's an easy way to convert a picture from JPEG to PNG. Open your JPEG using Preview, select "Save As" and pick "PNG" from the drop down "Format:" menu and save a copy.

For now I'm sticking with Apple mail and PNG. It's easy and it works. Later on, if I find a fix that works consistently using JPEGs I'll post a follow up. In the mean time leave me a comment and let me know what works for you.

Happy texting!!


Ripping DVDs - Tips & Tricks

I thought I'd follow up my post about ripping DVDs with some solutions to some of the more common problems that pop up when you rip DVDs. In the process I'll walk you through some of the more advanced settings in Handbrake. 

Here are a few questions I've been asked before and how you can change the settings to solve them.

The sound quality isn't very good. How do I fix it?

Many movies and TV shows are nonstop action and massive explosions so having the best quality sound isn't always required. Some movies star Keanu Reeves and you may not want to hear any dialog. But some movies have a great soundtrack or maybe the dialog is just muddy and you want to improve it. To get the best sound go to the "Audio" tab in Handbrake and bump up the quality.

I use 224kbps or 256kbps when I want better quality. It will make the file larger but if you want some punch out of the soundtrack or crystal clear dialog, it's the way to go.

There are 99 Titles which one do I pick?

Even though ripping your DVDs is legal doesn't mean Hollywood wants to make it easy to do. Disney DVDs are usually the culprit here but many Hollywood studios try to use subterfuge to prevent you from making copies of your own Movies. This is kind of strange to me because Disney of all people should understand the need to keep fragile DVD disks away from little kids. How many times have you tried to read a scratched or cracked DVD and it doesn't work? That's one of the big reasons you should back up your disk or make a digital copy, so your kids don't ruin it. 

If you open Handbrake and select the DVD as the source and see something like this,

don't panic. You can easily figure out which of those 99 titles is the right one to rip. 

Open DVD player and after all the introduction, coming attractions, and ads for stuffed animals are over start playing the movie. Once it's started to play, pause it and go to the "Go" menu and look at the "Title." Whichever title is selected is the one you pick in Handbrake. In the case below, it's title number 29.

When I play my movie everything looks squished. How do I fix it?

First let's talk about aspect ratio. That's the ratio of the width to height of a movie. Today's movies usually have an aspect ratio of 16:9. If you watch old TV shows they have an aspect ratio of 4:3.  Why do you care about this? Well, the aspect ratio of the original movie might be different than the screen you are watching it on. That can make your ripped movies or TV shows look squished if you don't take it into account when you rip a DVD. DVDs are encoded differently when you buy the widescreen version. This is how Wikipedia describes it:

"A DVD labeled as "Widescreen Anamorphic" contains video that has the same frame size in pixels as traditional fullscreen video, but uses wider pixels. The shape of the pixels is called pixel aspect ratio and is encoded in the video stream for a DVD disc player to correctly identify the proportions of the video. If an anamorphic DVD video is played on standard 4:3 television without adjustment, the image may look horizontally squeezed."

What you need to do is set your video to encode using anamorphic processing.  Quoting the Handbrake manual: "... 'anamorphic' means the movie doesn't have a single, native shape that you watch. Instead, it shape-shifts. If you're watching it on a standard TV, it morphs to fit it. When you play it on a widescreen TV, it morphs to fit it, too."

Here's how you set things up to encode using anamorphic settings.  First load your DVD, make all your usual settings then go to "Picture Settings" and "Size."

You just need to make sure is that Anamorphic is set to either "Loose" or "Strict." Strict is more precise but Loose is more flexible. Just stick with "Loose" and you will get a movie that always looks good no matter what screen you watch it on.

How do I get rid of those lines on the screen?

Those lines are there because of something called Interlacing. It's a common way to compress video. Each frame of an interlaced video signal shows every other horizontal line of the image. As the frames are projected on the screen, the video signal alternates between showing even and odd lines. When this is done fast enough, i.e. around 60 frames per second, the video image looks smooth to the human eye.

Those lines usually show up when you rip an older DVDs or in animation. Before you hit the start button it's always a good idea to open the "Picture Settings" icon in Handbrake and use the "Preview" button to view the movie and see if the movie has bad interlacing. Here's an example from one of my kids favorites, Rescue Rangers. 

Notice the double image and interlacing? It's annoying in the extreme. To get rid of it just open "Picture Settings" and click the "Filters" button.

It's counter intuitive but don't pick "Deinterlace". Use the slider and pick "Decomb" and "Default". When you process your file it should solve your problem.  Decomb uses a method to search for interlacing problems and only fix those frames that need it. If you use Deinterlace then it will deinterlace every frame making for a lower quality picture. You can read more about it here.

How do I rip TV shows on DVD?

Movies aren't the only thing people like to watch. DVD sets of your favorite TV shows are a hot seller and even old shows are getting a new life on DVD. To rip your TV shows from DVD here's what you need to know. 

Today's "hour" long TV shows are usually about 41 minutes long. The "half" hour shows are about 21 to 23 minutes long.   As you might guess if you've been a TV watcher for a while, the newer the show the shorter the length. An episode of "I Love Lucy" might be 25 or 28 minutes long but "The Big Bang Theory" is only about 21 minutes long or as short as 19.  what you need to look for is a consistent set of titles that are about the same length. Just insert the first DVD of your TV show and look for a bunch of titles that are about the same length.  

In the case above titles 3-10 are all about the same length and based on the description on the case match perfectly with the number of episodes on the DVD. Just select the first one and make all your settings then click the "Add to Queue" button. Then select the second, make sure the settings are all OK and add it as well. Go through and add all the episodes until you have them all in the queue.  IMPORTANT - Just make sure you type in a unique name for each title so they don't overwrite each other.  Once you are finished adding them to the queue just click the "Start" button and they should all process like normal.

Here's a second hint on TV shows, if you are picky you can always use the same trick I wrote about above in the "99 titles" question. Open up the DVD in the Apple DVD player, start the specific episode and check which title is playing. That way you will know which episode is which. It will take more time to do but is a sure fire way to get it right. 


Ripping DVDs

In 2010 the U.S. Government Library of Congress Copyright Office announced policy changes that let owners of electronic devices break security protections within the device to allow non-authorized code and programs to be run on the operating system.  What does that mean? It means you can load non supported software on your game system or cell phone but it also means  you can copy your own CDs & DVDs to play on your computer, iPod, iPad or any other device you might want to put them on. Legally. Today I'm going to focus on how to encode your DVDs to play on your iPod or iPad. In the tech community it's called "ripping" a DVD.

There are a lot of different software tools that you can use to rip a DVD but some of the best ones are free. For Mac, some of my favorite tools are RipIt, MacTheRipper , and Handbrake.  Handbrake & MacTheRipper are free and RipIt is a paid for application. My default  for ripping a DVD is Handbrake. 

Handbrake is a great application with a lot of options. It's easy to use but can be intimidating if you are a first time user. To create a file in the right format with the right combination of quality and file size takes a bit of practice and experimentation. You may want the best quality possible so it looks gorgeous on your 42" TV. You might want a small file size to fit on your iPod or iPhone. Whatever your requirements, Handbrake can do it. Just be aware that quality, file size & the time it takes to encode it are all related. If you want high quality file it will take longer to rip and your file size will be bigger. If you want a small file the rip time will be shorter but your quality may suffer.  All that and you have to consider what file type you want as well. 

Not everyone uses the same computer operating system. Not only that but there are companies out there pushing to get you to use their proprietary standards because it makes them money. Adobe has Flash, Microsoft has Silverlight and Windows Media Files (WMV) and Apple has Quicktime. Everyone has a stake in the game. Since we are all about Apple on this site I'm going to talk about one of the better codecs out there, H.264 .MP4 &.M4V files. It sounds like some military program but these file types offer a great compression (small file size) but with high quality picture. It does take a little longer to encode but it's worth it. Best of all it's the default file type for all things Apple (iPod, iPhone, AppleTV & Mac).

DVD Ripping

1) download the Handbrake application making sure to get the 64-bit Intel version if you are running the latest Mac OS:

2) To rip DVDs you will also need an application called VLC. It will allow you to read the encrypted DVD:

Install both Handbrake and VLC and make sure that the VLC is in your application folder in order for Handbrake to find it. Don't squirrel it away somewhere else or things might not work.

3)  Once you've loaded the applications start up Handbrake. It should look like this:

4)  Click the source button in the upper left corner and select the DVR disk icon. As an extra bonus you can also select a single file to convert as well. This would allow you to convert from one format to another in case someone emails you a file that you can't play on your Mac.

5) Now you're ready to start setting up the variables for encoding your DVD. If you don't see the Presets list to the right of your screen click the "Toggle Presets" button.

6) There should be a list of standard conversions that you can choose from. My list in the fist screen shot above has the standard list as well as some extras settings I saved for different qualities and formats that I want to use over and over again.  If you find you are using a single setting repeatedly you just click the "+" at the bottom of the list and save it. 

In the Presets list there are a lot of different settings you can choose from. For playing on an iPod touch, iPhone, iPad or Mac click the "Universal" preset under Apple. It doesn't give you the best picture but as the name implies the file that you create should play on all Apple devices.

7) Next make sure that "MP4 File" is set in the Output Settings and H.264 is set in the Video Codec:

There are a lot of subtle changes you can make to your output file. To give a good quality output file I use the  "Average bitrate (kbps)" setting.  This allows you to change the bitrate of the encoding process to your liking. Basically the higher the bitrate the better the picture quality. You don't want to go crazy with it, just find a value that gives you a picture quality you want. Just be aware that the higher the value the longer it will take to encode the video. Depending you the Mac you have (older is slower) it can take a while. 

I've found that a value of 1200 - 1500 works very well for portable devices. You can push that way up to 2500 or larger if you want but for a DVD the max you want is 2500. That's about as good as it gets and the higher value just costs you time. The picture isn't any better.

Clicking "2-pass encoding" and "Turbo first pass" will also help picture quality. But that means that the encoding will take longer time. As the name suggests it makes 2 passes over the video and optimizes the quality for the bitrate you have chosen.

8) Now all you do is make sure that the "Destination" is set. Click "Browse" and select the folder you want the video to be written to and make sure you have a unique name for your movie file. Hit the start button at the top and you should start processing.

Depending on the length of your movie, how complex the video is (lots of action, is it dark or light) and the other variables I talked about above in step 7, you just sit and wait for it to finish. It may be as much as an hour  or more so be patient.  Once it's done, take the output file and drag it into iTunes so you can sync it to your iPod, or other Apple device.. 

There are a lot of options you can change in Handbrake. These include some subtle tweaks you can make  to get rid of the interlacing, changing the sound quality, adding subtitles and other fun variables. I plan on revisiting this topic later and covering some of those in a separate blog post.

If you want to learn more you can always read the Handbrake Manual .


Rotating videos

When I was young, some of my favorite times were spent visiting my grandparents. We didn't visit often because they lived quite a ways away in Los Angeles and it was a 2 day drive just to get there. All I could think about on the drive down was how wonderful my grandmother's homemade lemon meringue pie was going to be, the fun I would have playing with my cousins, and how awesome it was going to be to visit Disneyland!  My grandparents have long since passed away but I am able to reconnect with those memories by looking at all the old photos. Better yet, because my grandfather was kind of the techno-geek of his day, I also can watch the old home movies he took.

These days no one takes 16mm movies any more and even nice quality video cameras are gathering dust. Most people just use their cell phones to take videos of family events and special occasions. Since a cell phone is easier to hold vertically a lot of the video plays sideways and unless you have software that came with your PC or Mac to rotate it, you end up with video that hurts your neck to watch. I'm going to show you how easy it is to rotate that video so you can start sharing it without embarrassment or a visit to the chiropractor.

The first thing we need to do is open iMovie and start a new project.

Once iMovie is open you need to add the movie that you need to rotate. A lot of Mac users with small compact cameras download their photos and videos to iPhoto. This is a great place to store all your photos and videos in one place and since iPhoto and iMovie talk to each other it's easy to edit any video stored in iPhoto with iMovie. look at the bottom of the iMovie screen in an area called the "Event Library." You should see "iPhoto Videos" listed. Just select it and all the videos in iPhoto will show up to the right of the Event Library.

If you don't store you movies in iPhoto it's still easy to edit them in iMovie. Open iMovie and use File -> Import Movies… select the video you want rotated and import it. If it's a large video iMovie can take a few minutes for the full video to import.

Once you have your movies loaded your iMovie window should look like this:

You now need to add it to your "Project Library."  This is just a matter of dragging or copying from the "Event Library" to the "Project Library."  That's the upper left part of the iMovie window.  It sounds easy but sometimes dragging can be difficult to do and cause you to pull your hair out when it seems like the cursor has a mind of it's own. If that happens to you don't worry. Just select the movie in the "Event Library"  and use the standard Mac copy keystroke of Command + "C". Click into the Project Library window and use Command + "V" and it will be pasted into your project.

Now deselect the clip from your Event Library, and select the copy in the Project Library. Make sure it's outlined in yellow. To rotate your video, open the Crop menu, make sure it’s set to ‘Fit’, and use the rotate buttons. When you’re sattisfied, press Done.

That's it!! You’ll notice that you’re video has now been rotated in your Project Library. To export it, go to Share -> Export Movie or press cmd+E and save your movie. 

Now you are ready to upload your movie to Facebook or YouTube and show it off to all your family and friends. They will thank you for helping to reduce the number of chiropractor visits since they now don't have to crane their neck to view your videos. 

Here's the finished project showing my own little Ninja Warrior in action. I think the head butt in the middle is classic.  Enjoy!

Update 5/6/2013

I've written another post about rotation of video here. Although iMovie will do the job there are now several stand alone applications that are even easier to use. 


IT is IT is IT

My wife has been blogging for several years now and has one of the best baking blogs on the internet (cookie baker Lynn). I've watched as she developed her writing skills and her photography skills and made her blog a must stop for all those home bakers out there. Her blog started out great but she has made huge strides since her first post and now it positively shines. The one area of blogging she doesn't do well is the computer part. She hates it. Why spend time learning to edit HTML or figuring out how to format pictures when she could be baking?

This is where I come in. I'm the family tech support. And by family I mean everyone who knows me not just those that are related to me. My day job is designing large scale IT infrastructure to support a large unnamed aerospace company in the Seattle area. I worry about latency of computing systems thousands of miles apart; Back up & restore of petabytes of data; How to allow remote graphics visualization of complex hardware when the server is around the globe. Just your basic IT stuff. What many people don't realize is that as big as that job may seem, the same principles apply to your computer at home.

Do you do backups? I hope so. Do you want access to your data when your sitting at the local Starbucks or on vacation in Hawaii?  It might make your life easier. Do you need to help your mom on her computer and she lives across town or on the other side of the state? What do you do? Who do you ask for help? That's what this blog is going to be about. It will be a place to post some of my computing problems and issues and what I did to solve them. Hopefully it will help others but if no one else reads it at least I can use it as my home for great information when I don't have access to my home computer but do have internet access.