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Tutorials as you like them with N.E.D. and its family

David Winograd

Nonlinear Educating Inc., has been selling tutorials on a wide variety of subjects for years. Their catalog of 146 video tutorials cover just about everything from all the programs in the Adobe CS4 Suite, to iLife 09 and iWork 09, or virtually anything you could want to learn about Mac software. To get a tutorial from Nonlinear in the past, you would buy it, download it, and play it on your computer.

Things have changed with the introduction of new ways to buy and watch tutorials. Nonlinear now gives you three ways to learn on any Mac or iPhone/iPod touch running OS 3.0, using three N.E.D. (Nonlinear Education Device) products. Now along with buying individual tutorials, you can subscribe to their streaming library, giving you access to tutorials on demand either from the web using The N.E.D web player, or N.E.D.i [Free iTunes Link], an iPhone/iPod touch app. The idea of total flexibility is wonderful, but the complexity of all the subscription and purchase options are a bit daunting.

The tutorials are excellent. The few I had a chance to go through were totally professional, complete and entertaining. The trainers are some of the best in the field, including Jim Dalrymple and Maria Langer. The tutorials are broken down into many 1-4 minute movies that progressively teach you the software. I'm not going to review the tutorials here, since I feel that they are just about perfect.

The only problem I had with the catalog is that some courses are really quite old. The Mac OS X 101: Mastering Your Mac course was released in April of 2006 and deals with OSX 10.4.5. While it's true that a good deal of the information is still valid, there have been a lot of changes in the last two years and a new course for each major OS software release would increase the value of the instruction. The description of this US$29.50 course did not tell which OS version was addressed and I had to dig into the videos to find out.

N.E.D. 3.3 is a free program that downloads and plays purchased high definition videos at a 1280 X 720 pixel resolution. It works very well showing you the video titles in the left pane of the screen, and presenting sliders allowing you to change playback speed, zoom to full resolution, and control playback of the videos. There is an option for full screen, but if your screen is very large you'll find that you can't make the display window larger than its native resolution. You are allowed to burn a copy of the course files and may use it on up to 3 computers with N.E.D. installed on them. Since the course cannot be played from the burned DVD, It must be imported into the N.E.D. library which copies the data to your documents folder, or is linked to via its path. This works quite well, but the courses are large and file size is a consideration. The iMovie 09 101 $29.50 was made up of 133 movies, played for over 6.5 hours and weighed in at 1.53GB.

The price of the courses for purchase range from about $20 to $385.13 for a 13 course set covering everything in Adobe CS4. Depending on how much want to learn, streaming may be a better, more cost effective option. This is where it gets a bit complicated so I'll just lay out the plans.

  • Free: allowing streaming of 10% of each tutorial to decide if you want to subscribe.
  • $1 for 3 days: allowing full streaming of all 146 courses.
  • $15 per month: allowing streaming of 96 core courses giving you 304 hours of training.
  • $25 per month: allowing streaming of all 146 courses giving you 424 hours of training.
There is no minimum subscription period and subscribers can cancel at any time. When watching a stream using the online N.E.D. web player, less options are available and the screen resolution isn't as good as the purchased course. The N.E.D. web player is set up similarly to N.E.D., but the only controls you have are choosing a video and starting or stopping playback. The resolution provides a smaller less detailed picture coming in at around 750 X 560 pixels and is not re-sizable. I found this to be a bit of a problem in some programs that use a lot of screen real estate and complex crowded menu bars. In such an event, it's sometimes hard to see exactly which pull down menu is being used and which item is being selected. The reduced screen resolution can make busy dark screens hard to read. I don't feel that this is a deal breaker though, since if needed, you can always go back and watch a video as many times as it takes to get the message. At the difference in price between buying and streaming, I'd suggest taking the free trial and deciding yourself if the streaming image quality is to your liking.

The Using N.E.D.i, the iPhone/iPod app, I discovered a few significant problems. The app allows you to either download bought programs, or stream the library if you are a subscriber. File sizes become more of in issue here, and downloading a course could well be made easier. In downloading the iMovie 09 101 course to my iPhone, I found that screen sleep had to be turned off, since otherwise the iPhone would sleep closing the program and killing the download, and that the device needed to be plugged in because the download took many hours. Sometimes the download would just fail and have to be re-started. The biggest problem, especially for devices without a lot of storage, is that the one course took 901.77 MB of storage. That's a big number and if you are downloading a few tutorials, you could be cutting into GBs of your precious storage.

The usability problem extends what I mentioned previously when streaming to a Mac using the N.E.D web player. If you had problems deciphering specific things viewing a resolution of 750 X 560 pixels, or thereabouts, imagine how much trouble you'll have seeing what's going on using the iPhone/iPod touch screen? In trying a few dozen movies showing screens of varying complexity, I almost always had trouble following along since the picture was to small for me to differentiate menu bars items, or to read dialog boxes that appeared within programs, on the little screen.

I can propose a bit of a solution to this, which isn't perfect, but it may be enough. Since streaming to the phone is quick enough, and the resolution is no better than a download when viewed on your iPhone, I would think a good way of using it is to stream the tutorial to your computer to learn the program, and then use N.E.D.i as a refresher for things you've already learned but have partially forgotten. Doing this can jog your memory, and hearing the narration (with some help from more or less seeing the video) can help. Since each of the tutorials is an aggregate of many video files, each clearly marked with the objective, you can choose an appropriate video if you are away from your Mac as a reminder of what you've learned earlier. I've found that doing this has helped me since I often have a pretty good idea of what's going on and just need to relearn one or two minor points.

The only one of the the three products that I would recommend with no hesitation is N.E.D., which downloads purchased high quality versions of the tutorial to your Mac. If your eyes are good and you find that the quality is acceptable, N.E.D. web, a subscriber service which streams the videos to your Mac at lower resolution while giving you less controls, can be a good option, but you'll have to decide that for yourself using the free trial. I cannot recommend N.E.D.i, the streaming and downloading iPhone/iPod touch app, unless you just intend to use it to refresh your memory.

What Nonlinear Education came up with is really commendable in theory, but in practice, large file sizes and lower than optimal screen resolution when using the N.E.D web player or N.E.D.D.i can wind up being problematic.

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