I was struck by a Windows software oddity I simply don't see on the Mac: Windows programs can sport literally any interface imaginable.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

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Mac video conversion: 3 programs that make everything easy

March 27, 2007

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2007, Al Fasoldt

   In my Technofile column for May 27, I reviewed Windows software that can convert Flash videos to other, more common, formats. I especially looked for the capability of converting to Apple's iPod and iTunes formats, because those are so popular and work on both Macs and on legacy PCs, running Windows, as well as on modern PCs running Linux.
   I mentioned in that column that I also did the same kind of conversions using OS X software on my Macs. Doing it on a Mac was so different that I thought you'd like to know about it in a separate article. So here it is.
   There are many similarities between programs for Windows and programs for Macs. Some, like Adobe Photoshop, look and work exactly the same, if you substitute the Windows Alt key for the Mac Cmd key. Others are slightly biased in one direction or another, perhaps because the software author preferred the way Windows or the Mac did things.
   But when I downloaded and tried out dozens of Windows programs in the space of one day while researching my Technofile article, I was struck by a Windows software oddity I simply don't see on the Mac: Windows programs can sport literally any interface imaginable. And that makes them much harder to use.
   When I wanted to import movie files into any of the Windows converters, the method I was supposed to use varied from program to program. I could drag and drop to the main program, open a file browser window from the main program window, open a list window and populate the list with files I dropped on it, open a list window and populate the list with files I chose from a file browser, or click a totally nonstandard button and navigate to the files and choose them by selecting them and clicking "OK" or "Import."
   There were other methods, too. I've forgotten most of them.
   And that's the point. Consistent user interface design isn't supposed to make things easy. It's supposed to make things memorable -- easy to remember, easy to make sense out of. If that makes a program easier, fine. But often the software is just as hard to use as one that has an inconsistent interface -- but it's much easier to remember how to do things.
   (Photoshop has a consistent user interface. It's very hard to use. But imagine making your way around in Photoshop if it had the interface of its Open Source rival, The GIMP: That program has the worst interface of any serious software I have ever used. It's a nonsensical, non-intuitive, non-memorable interface. And that keeps The GIMP from being taken seriously.)
   All Mac OS X software works pretty much the same way. Apple's interface guidelines are strict. Apple itself gets away with violating its own interface rules now and then, but only in ways that would make a Windows maven wonder if Apple users go around looking for something to complain about. For example, Apple fans seem horrified each time Apple changes the background pattern in windows and title bars. Horrors!
   But Apple's software is much easier to use than Microsoft's. I'll name three interface reasons:
   1. Menus are always at the top of the screen. Always, ever, no exceptions, no other place. How do you get to the top of the screen? You wave your hand up in an arc and there you are. Hunting for Windows menus is a waste of time. They're at the top of the program window, which can be anywhere on the screen.
   2. Menus always follow Apple's conventions. Or almost always do. (No doubt there is some kind of freeware out there for a Mac that misses one of the conventions. But I haven't seen it.) For example, the first menu item is the Application's own menu, and the first item is always "About (this application)" -- with the actual name of the app in place of (this application), of course. And that menu item always gives you more info about the program. It's always in that location. Always.
   3. Keyboard shortcuts for common operations are always common-sense, and always work. To quit a program, press Cmd-Q. Close a window with Cmd-W. Hide an application with Cmd-H. Compare those (and there are many more) with the way Windows does this. Quitting a program? Alt-F4. Hiding an application? Oh, sorry. Windows can't hide an application.
   (Did I actually write Alt-F4? Does anyone at all know that this totally oddball key combination closes a program? What's keeping Microsoft from using Alt-Q? (I'll tell you. Microsoft doesn't care. If it cared -- and this is my motto, folks -- it would start showing it by recalling Windows.)
   But in truth, Microsoft does not care about this kind of interface quirk. It simply does not care.
   Back to reality. The Mac programs I chose to try in my quest to convert videos on the Mac are Visual Hub, Video Converter and Viddy Up.
   Viddy Up -- the name is such a pad pun that I don't know how to deal with it -- is the easiest to use. It costs $10. Go to www.splasm.com. You simply drag video files onto Viddy Up and click away.
   (OK, OK, I'm bursting to tell you the WORST pun in all of Mac software. It's a program that is supposed to create written music from audio files. In honor of Steve Jobs, hotshot of Apple and probably the single most influential business executive of the last 10 years, the program is called -- don't make me say this twice! -- Stave Jobs.)
   Visual Hub has become essential, and it's what I use to the exclusion of all others. It's got the most options, works fast and can convert any video to a DVD in one hands-off operation; it does everything, including burning the DVD, without any further attention from you after you click OK. Other conversions are superb, too. Go to www.techspansion.com. The software costs $23.
   Video Converter is a nice compromise between Viddy Up and Visual Hub, and I recommend it highly. It's obviously not from a native English speaker, based on some of the oddities in the way things are worded, but a lot of effort went into the interface. You can even set up Video Converter to work on multiple videos at once, by choosing from 1 to 10 in the appropriate option in the program's preferences, under "General." Get it from www.mp4converter.net/video-converter-mac.html. It costs $49.
   This also appears as an entry in my newspaper blog. The main blog address is blog.syracuse.com/technofile/.