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Deciphering the Graphic Format Alphabet

When it comes to graphics on the Internet, it’s easy to feel as though you’re swimming for your life in a giant bowl of alphabet soup, surrounded by shouting acronyms: GIF! JPEG! PNG! TIFF! What do those names mean? Why does your camera spit out JPEGs? What’s the best format for a web graphic? Grab onto a capital O and let’s get some answers.

First off, don’t worry about the acronyms, because expanding them doesn’t explain much. For example, JPEG stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group, which is the standards body that invented the JPEG format. Helpful? Not really. So think of them just as names, like Sally or Fred. That said, it can be helpful to know how they’re pronounced:

GIF: Either “jif,” as in jiffy, or “gif” as in “gift”
JPEG: “jay-peg”
PNG: “ping”
TIFF: “tiff”

Let’s take a look at each one of these:

GIF: The oldest of these formats, GIF was long the standard for computer-generated images. It worked well for graphics and logos with large areas of solid color, but less so for photos. Due in part to a patent licensing kerfuffle, GIF has been superseded by PNG in all ways but one.

GIF’s remaining use lies in flipbook-style animations, where each frame is a separate GIF image. Animated GIFs that run in short loops have become wildly popular on the Internet because they’re small and easy to embed in a Facebook or Twitter post, email message, or web page. Numerous utilities exist for turning a short movie clip into an animated GIF; check out GIF Brewery on the Mac or Giphy Cam for an iPad or iPhone.

JPEG: The most common graphics format on the Internet, JPEG owes its popularity to being the default format for photos created by all digital cameras, including those in iPhones and iPads. JPEG works well for photos because it can compress file sizes significantly while barely affecting the image quality.

For instance, a 20 MB photo saved in JPEG format might end up as only 4 MB, with reductions in image quality that most people would never even notice. Most graphics software lets you adjust a slider to specify different quality levels, and while the results vary by the photo, saving at a 75% quality level is usually a good compromise between quality and file size.

The downside of JPEG is that it achieves these minuscule file sizes by throwing away data in the file, which limits how they can be edited in the future. That’s why professional photographers generally shoot in what are called “raw” formats (which contain all the image data the camera sensor recorded when the shutter was opened). Raw files are huge but can be edited in ways that aren’t possible with a JPEG file. Once edits have been made, photographers save a copy as a JPEG for sharing or posting online.

PNG: Conceived as an improved, patent-free alternative to GIF, PNG is now the go-to format for online graphics such as buttons, logos, and screenshots that have large areas of solid color. That’s because PNG can compress such images well without introducing any fuzziness, as can happen with JPEG. Similarly, you can edit PNG images repeatedly without hurting image quality.

In another contrast with JPEG, PNG supports transparency, which means you can define one color in an image as “transparent” rather than an actual color. When the image is displayed on a web page, the transparent pixels are rendered in whatever the background color is. That’s tremendously handy for creating images that appear to float over the background.

Don’t use PNG for photos, since a photographic image saved in PNG format will be much larger than the corresponding JPEG.

TIFF: Like PNG, TIFF files can be compressed without losing any data. Because of this, TIFF is used extensively for archiving original photos instead of JPEG; TIFF files may be much larger, but that’s acceptable when it comes to preserving originals from which you could later make edited copies.

TIFF also boasts some additional color-related features that PNG lacks, making TIFF useful in the print world—if you were to write a book that was going to be printed professionally, the publisher might ask for any photos or other illustrations in TIFF format. Useful as TIFF can be, for most people, most of the time, JPEG and PNG are all you need.

Nearly any graphics program can open images in these formats and convert to the other formats, but look no further than the bundled Preview app from Apple on your Mac for basic image conversion features (for more info about using Preview, check out Take Control of Preview, by Adam Engst and Josh Centers).

Now that you know the basics of the Mac’s most important graphics formats, you are ready to put your best face forward whenever you need to pick a file format for your images.

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Tips and Tricks for Taking Screenshots on a Mac and iOS Device

Did you ever want to capture what’s on your screen, or at least a part of it? Screenshots aren’t just for technical writers trying to document app behavior—you might also use them to provide feedback on a photo, to document an error message for someone who helps you with your Mac, or to record a particularly funny auto-correct fail in Messages on your iPhone.

OS X and iOS have both long included built-in screenshot features that make it easy to take a high-resolution picture of what you see onscreen. You can, of course, use a camera to take a photo of your screen, but that will never look as good.

Taking a screenshot in iOS is super simple, and it works the same on an iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch. Just press the Home and Sleep/Wake buttons simultaneously. You’ll see the screen flash, and iOS saves the screenshot to your Photos app—look at the bottom of the Camera Roll or, if you’ve turned on iCloud Photo Library, the All Photos album. The same technique works on the Apple Watch, where you press both the digital crown and the side button simultaneously. Accidental presses of those buttons explains why random Apple Watch screenshots might appear in Photos.

On the Mac, you can take your pick from three built-in methods of taking screenshots: (If you take a lot of screenshots, consider memorizing OS X’s keyboard shortcuts.)

  1. For a full-screen screenshot, press Command-Shift-3.
  2. For a screenshot of an arbitrary size, press Command-Shift-4 and drag out a rectangle.
  3. To capture just an object like a window, press Command-Shift-4, hover the pointer over the window, press the Space bar to show the camera cursor over the highlighted object, and then click to take the screenshot. (The Command-Shift-4 shortcut is the only way to capture a menu. All screenshots are saved as PNG files on your Desktop and automatically named with the date.)

If that sounds geeky and hard to remember, try Apple’s Grab app, which is hidden away in the Utilities folder inside your Applications folder. It’s a simple app, but it can take full-screen, window, and selection screenshots, and it walks you through the process. You can also use Grab to capture a full-screen screenshot with a timer, which is handy if what you want to record appears only while you’re dragging an icon or other object, for instance. Captured screenshots appear in Grab as Untitled TIFF documents that you can close, copy, save, or print.

Whatever method you choose, remember that a picture is worth a thousand words, and the right screenshot can be even more valuable.

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iCloud Photo Sharing Makes Sharing Easy

I took a bunch of photos on my recent trip and while I shared a few publicly on Facebook, others I want to share with a more select group of family and friends. Thanks to the iPhone, more people are taking pictures than ever, and with an iPhone you always have your camera!

While you probably don’t want to share all of them, friends and relatives might like to see a “Best Of” collection. Or you might wish to share the photos of your new puppy with your dog friends or pictures of your new city with friends back home.

With iCloud, it’s easy to create a shared album, invite other iCloud users to subscribe to it (handy for viewing on an iOS device or Apple TV, in particular), and to create a public web page of the photos that anyone can see, even if they don’t use any Apple devices.

Let’s set it up:

On an iOS device, go to Settings > iCloud > Photos and turn on the iCloud Photo Sharing switch.

On a Mac, open System Preferences > iCloud, click the Options button next to Photos, select iCloud Photo Sharing, and click the Done button.

Next, follow these steps, which are similar regardless of the device you’re using:

  1. In the Photos app, select some photos or videos. In iOS, that involves tapping Select before tapping the items to select; on the Mac, just Command-click the items you want, or drag a selection rectangle around them.
  1. Hit the Share button , and then pick iCloud Photo Sharing.
  1. Select an existing album or create a new shared album.
  1. For a new album, provide a name, enter the names or email addresses of any iCloud users with whom you want to share the album, and add an optional comment.
  1. When you’re done, tap Post in iOS or click Create on the Mac.

To add more photos, repeat those steps to select photos and then add them to a shared album. Alternatively, start with the shared album, though the steps vary slightly between iOS and the Mac:

  • In Photos for iOS, if necessary, back out of the view until you see the Shared button in the toolbar. Tap Shared and select the shared album. Then tap the + button, select the items to add, tap Done, enter an optional comment, and tap Post.
  • In Photos for the Mac, in the sidebar, select the shared album in the Shared category. Then click “Add photos and videos,” select the items to add, and click the Add button.

It’s easy to tweak the options for your shared album or to create a public Web page for it. The process is again similar in both operating systems:

  • In Photos for iOS, tap Shared in the toolbar and select the shared album. Tap People to bring up a screen where you can share the album with more people, control whether subscribers can post their own photos, create a public web page, enable notifications, and delete the album entirely. To share the URL to the public web page, tap Share Link and select a sharing method.

  • In Photos for the Mac, select the shared album in the sidebar, and then click the People button in the toolbar. From the popover that appears, you can do the same things as in iOS, although sharing the link is best done by either clicking it to visit it in a web browser and then copying from there or Control-clicking it and choosing Copy Link from the contextual menu.

After practicing these steps a few times, you’ll be able to create shared albums in a flash, and share them easily.

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Make The Most Of Reminders

The Reminders app built into Mac and iOS is a simple to use yet often underutilized app for many of us. I have been a long-time user of the calendar app and notes for my reminders and to do lists, frankly, out of habit. I’ve been trying to use reminders more and wanted to share a bit about how to get the most out of this app.

Setting up multiple lists can be a huge time-saver in the end. I’m often splitting my time between my house and a summer camp, so I am forever needing to make a reminder about what to bring either home or to camp next. Separating lists makes it much easier to keep track of what you needed when and why. When in Reminders you simply need to hit the add list or + button located to the left either at the top if it’s iOS or bottom if it’s a Mac.

Use Siri to add to a list rather than typing in what you wanted to add. If you have a list called groceries and need to add milk to it, you can simply say “add milk to grocery list” and Siri will add the information for you. My favorite feature is to tell Siri to remind me about something when I reach a destination. If you’re worried you are going forget to call your mom when you get home you can ask Siri to remind you when you reach home. You will need to make sure that location services are enabled and that the address for the location is entered in your address book.

Sync your reminder lists. Your reminder lists are stored in iCloud, so they are automatically shared among all your devices as long as each device is signed in to iCloud and has Reminders syncing turned on. On the Mac, look in System Preferences > iCloud, and in iOS, navigate to Settings > iCloud. The syncing feature can be an invaluable feature and saves you tons of time if you’re someone who jumps from device to device.

Share a reminder list. If you need to share a list with your spouse or colleagues and they to are on iCloud you can quickly share your reminder. To do this on the Mac, hover over the list name in the sidebar to click the Sharing button and then enter one or more iCloud-connected email addresses. In iOS, go into the reminder list you want to share,** tap Edit > Sharing > Add Person** and then either enter email addresses or tap the + button to select someone from your contacts.

One downside of Reminders is that you cannot view them within the calendar program on your Mac. Apple made Reminders its own app, even your timed reminders won’t show up in Calendar, forcing you to check both Calendar and Reminders as you plan your day. For me this is one draw back as I have my calendar program open all day long on my computer. However, there are some solutions. If you want reminders intermixed with your calendar events, check out BusyCal, from BusyMac. I have used Busy Cal for many years and have always been pleased with it.

I still find myself putting reminders in my calendar app or still using my notes, so I’m not yet fully integrated into Reminders. But, the more I use it, the more I like it.

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Take Advantage Of Group Messaging

Group text messages can be an incredibly convenient way to communicate with several people at once, but it can also be a bit of a headache! Messages has become an extremely versatile app, and knowing some of the tricks to group messaging can easily turn your frustration into one of the most valuable way to talk to a group.

Locating the right group conversation on your phone can be a real struggle, perhaps you’ve even has a similar conversation with two different, yet similar list of names. Consider giving the conversation a name that’s more descriptive than the truncated names of the people in the conversation. On the Mac, just type in the Group Name field; in iOS, pull down on the Details screen to reveal the Group Name field. At any time, you can add more people to the conversation; just click or tap Add Contact and select the desired contacts.

Similarly, people can be removed from the conversation. On the Mac, click the person’s name and press Delete; in iOS, swipe left on their name and tap Delete. Be careful with this feature since there’s no opportunity to confirm the deletion, so you’d have to add any mistakenly deleted people back manually. Plus, the iOS version of Messages doesn’t always let you remove people.

You can even “delete” yourself. If you’ve been included in a group conversation accidentally or ended up in one that doesn’t interest you, click or tap Leave This Conversation at the bottom of the Details screen. Once you’ve left, you can’t get back in without someone else adding you.

Is leaving a little drastic? Perhaps the conversation is just being too chatty while you need to get work done. Turn on Do Not Disturb to mute notifications from the conversation; turn it off again when you’re ready to be alerted to new messages again.

Did you know that everyone in the conversation can send or share their location from an iPhone or iPad? Sending a location is like posting a message saying “I’m at the library now” along with a map to where you are. Sharing your location allows the others to see where you are at all times, for one hour, until the end of the day, or indefinitely. Of course, if you opt to share indefinitely, you can revoke that sharing later.

When anyone in the conversation is sharing their location, a map appears at the top, showing the locations of those who have shared. This is fabulous for keeping track of relatives during family reunions where different groups might head out on separate outings.

Finally, at the bottom of the Details screen, you can see all the attachments that people have shared within the conversation. Messages gives you control over attachments, letting you preview, copy, save, open, delete, and share them. It’s all easy; on the Mac, select attachments and Control/right-click to display a contextual menu, or press the Space bar to invoke Quick Look. In iOS, press and hold on the attachment until additional options appear.

Hopefully with a better understanding of some key features in group messages you’ll find yourself enjoying group conversations more!

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