Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Yes, I'm still here. I'm just mousing around.

After my last posting, I took a break, ran into some real work projects (thanks, guys!), came down with bronchitis and then slammed into Christmas. So I have been a little tardy with my blogging. If you were having cold sweats about me not writing another article, fear not, there's more to come (scary, huh?). After beginning this post at the end of November, it's now the beginning of January (I'm embarrassed to say), so I hope you all have a great 2007.

As luck would have it, I have recently experienced mouse failure. Wow! A chance to do more research that I can pass on to (both of) my readers. So here goes.

I have been a Kensington mouse guy for years and years. I loved the TurboMouse trackball I used on my older, ADB-equipped Macs. Sturdy, smooth-scrolling, programmable, easy on the hand. Then came the PowerMacs and USB. No more ADB ports, no more trackball. Whaaa! I wasn't going to plunk down another $100 for a USB version or try one of those adapter thingys, so I coasted a while with the supplied Apple mouse.

But I was unsatisfied. I wanted multiple buttons (at least two!) and with the advent of OS X, two-button mice are not just nice, they are a necessity. Who in their right mind wants to use two hands to perform a right mouse click? So I turned back to my old friends at Kensington and found the Optical Mouse Elite. Great warranty. I know, I had to replace it about 3 years later. Now on my second one, and it finally gave up the ghost after faithful service.

(Update: I emailed Kensington and asked about the warranty, which had run out. They asked for my shipping address and sent me a brand spankin' new 800 dpi mouse for free! Now that is customer support! I wasn't really planning on that so I had already ordered my replacement mouse. So now I have two! Ok, back to the regularly scheduled blog...)

Times have changed. We have moved from mechanical mice, to optical mice, to laser mice and beyond. So where do I begin? Well, I started with the top 4 best-known companies that make mice – Apple, Microsoft, Kensington and Logitech. Then I decided whether to go wired or wireless. Easy decision there since I am at my desk, and have the space and ports, wired is the way to go and is cheaper than going wireless (not to mention more environmentally friendly).

Here's where I digress into the realm of tech specs. The quality of a mouse is measured in several ways, one of the most common and understandable is the resolution. Much like a monitor, printer or scanner, the higher the number the finer or more precise the device is. Mechanical mice labored to be precise at 100-200 dpi, the problem being dust, hand oils and wear. Then came optical mice which made for lighter, more accurate mice in the 400–600 dpi range. Laser mice are now the next thing with resolutions going from 800–1,600 dpi and higher. Apple's mice are still optical and that isn't bad. That technology will work for most people. If you are into drafting, CAD, design, or gaming, you may want to consider the laser mice. They aren't much more expensive (if at all) than the opticals put out by the "known" companies. Razer|Pro uses infrared tech in their mice.

Apple, of course, has the Mighty Mouse in tailed (wired) and tail-less models. It now ships with every new Mac (Although they disguise it as a single-button mouse and even preset the software to work as a single-button-on-top mouse, silly people. Geesh, they are as stubborn about upgrading as some of my clients!). It sports 5 buttons, two on top on either side of the scroll ball, one on either side of the mouse and the scroll ball also doubles as a button. Apple has a great team of designers and the MM is a good example of their skill. There are no breaks on the top to indicate buttons, which is cool, but could be confusing to new users of multi-button mice or older users used to a single button. Some people may find the omni-directional scrolling ball too small, but it works great. The big issue is with the side buttons, which are hard to press. For gaming they would be pretty much useless. The software is built right into OS X, so it can be programmed right out of the box, and you will want to do that immediately to make the right button a right-click. At $49 and $69 each respectively, it might serve for my daily desktop mousing functions, but I'm a gamer, too, so I want higher precision, better button response and more programmability.

Both Logitech and Kensington offer that, with the edge I think to Logitech for software. Kensington's MouseWorks software isn't bad, just isn't as full-featured as their OS 9 version. They made it a point to say that they are continuing to develop it, but c'mon guys, you think after 5 years you could catch up?

I had been using a Kensington Optical Elite for years, but it wasn't their top of the line model. Even so, it's response is decent in games, and was used to the way it worked. It, too, has 5 buttons in the same locations as the Mighty Mouse, though it doesn't attempt to hide the top buttons and uses a more typical scroll wheel rather than a ball. The side buttons work much better than the MM. You can even "chord" mouse clicks, that is press two buttons together to get another command, but only with the MouseWorks software. Even though the Optical Elite has five-button goodness, it harbors a small lack in programmability that I had to enhance with Alessandro Levi Montalcini's USB Overdrive, in order for it to work with TeamSpeex. I checked with their tech support and even using the newest version, and they still have not gotten around to being able to map function keys to the mouse buttons in their software. Kensington, your hardware is great, but get with the software times, baby! Why should I have to shell out another $20 to add functionality that should already be there?

Logitech was another possibility, but since I am not a paid reviewer, I can't just order a bunch of mice and try them all (companies, please feel free to send me yours for review...) So I had an older Logitech from another computer hanging around and I installed the software to check it out. Seemed to be pretty good, but I had to start comparing performance and feature specs because I didn't have them in person to try out, so sad to say, I was never really able to test a newer Logitech out.

As for Microsoft, well, you know... they may have a decent product and software, but it just doesn't feel right plugging an IntelliMouse into a Mac, ya know? It might be mean and unfair, but heck, it's my blog!

I checked reviews and ads in MacWorld and MacAddict, as well as on MacMall.com and GoGamer.com for other companies and found two other contenders I hadn't heard of before. MacMice and Razer|Pro Solutions.

MacMice seems to have the third party solution to Apple's Mighty Mouse, just at a lower price point. The Danger Mouse looks good, the reviews were positive and it's the only mouse that comes in white, black or [Red] which is not only cool, but helps grow a major orphan assistance program in Africa. However, it doesn't offer side buttons and the programmability that I was looking for. For a regular desktop mouse or upgrade from a single-button mouse, it's a no-brainer. $30 gets you 1,600 dpi resolution via laser and multi-button functionality, or $70 for the wireless version. Sweet!

Razer|Pro Solutions Ok, I want to confess. I'm a sucker for cool stuff. This is the definition of cool for me. Manta-like design, blue glowing scroll wheel and side panels, reputation for being a gamer's mouse, high-precision and great drivers – it's all here with the Pro|Click 1.6. If you haven't figured it out by now, I bought it. You can switch resolutions between 400 and 1,600 dpi on the fly, adjust sensitivity of the movement and the scroll wheel and it has 7 programmable buttons. After about a month, the post-marital glow has faded and has given me some perspective. In games, the mouse works great, but takes time to adjust the settings both in and out of game to make it work best. The side buttons are somewhat awkwardly placed for my hand and reduces my ability to use them in games. The scroll wheel in normal use seems not have a 1-1 response, that is, you have to sometimes move it additional "clicks" to get it to scroll a page. And, doh!, you can't map a function key to a button or even have separate application settings. Lastly, I needed to upgrade immediately to the 1.6.6 version of the software in order to use it with OS X 10.4.8 But all-in-all I think it was a decent purchase for $32.90.

Wrap up time. If you recently purchased a new Mac, check out the Mighty Mouse and it's driver in the System Preferences, you'll be happy you did. Looking to upgrade from a single-button for cheap? The Danger Mouse gets the nod. Want to get into the game? Look at the multitude of offerings from Kensington, Logitech, Microsoft and Razer|Pro Solutions. One last shot across the bow. If you're looking for a custom gaming device, check out Belkin's Nostromo SpeedPad N52, it puts all the typical gaming keys at one-hand's fingertips.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Spotlight: Remote Access

If only I could get to my computer from home, if only I could see what you are doing, if only I could do it for you... If only I could access your computer remotely. But you can. Windows to Windows, Mac to Mac or even Mac to Windows and Windows to Mac. Sound like Big Brother to you? Not to me. It has that magical adjective of convenience about it. There are a few ways to accomplish this, some adjustments to make, and even some limitations, but when you're in a fix and need to access your Mac or someone else's remotely, it can be there for you.

Talk the Talk
Okay, the way I see it, there are three major ways of remote access. Apple and Microsoft both have proprietary means built into their operating systems. The third method is VNC (Virtual Networking Computing). Let me briefly describe each.

The Apple software is called Apple Remote Desktop (ARD) and under OS X, is accessed through the System Preferences --> Sharing pane. This allows you to assign access and level of access to individual users. Please notice the "VNC viewers may control screen with password:" In order to control ARD-enabled systems, you have to plunk down the cash to purchase the ARD software that can administer these systems ($299 for 10-systems, $499 for unlimited). ARD can control Apple systems and VNC-enabled systems, but it's my impression that it's primarily geared toward Mac systems on a LAN.




















On the PC-side, you have Remote Desktop. You can initiate a request for assistance from a friend or professional help desk. I tried this yesterday PC-to-PC over the 'net and it seems that it cannot negotiate the router. Much like the Apple software, it seems to be designed primarily for LAN use. There is even a Mac client for this software, but I was unable to test it.

VNC is for Me
VNC (or Virtual Network Computing) is another method of communicating with a remote computer. There is a host (a server) and a viewer (or client) that can access the host machine for the purposes of working remotely, troubleshooting, showing off, etc. It's the most open and platform-navigable software out there, allowing a mix of computing platforms to control the others. Since the Mac can allow VNC access through Sharing (see above), there isn't much call for servers, so I will review the viewer options for Mac and server and client for PCs.

What's the Best Tuna?

Ok, you've read enough to know that I am enamored with the user experience. It's gotta look great and work better. Now a VNC-server app can run on just about any platform and I found quite a few like RealVNC, UltraVNC, and others. Pretty much all of the have clients, users or viewers which allow you to access other VNC-served machines. But on the Mac, the best tuna, uh, I mean, viewer, is Chicken of the VNC. How can you beat a chicken coming out of a tuna can? It's a clean, simple viewer that allows you to make and keep a list of connections. The only downside I could see was that there is a disparity in the appearance of the PC screen on the Mac due to the pixel count or size, making the PC screen seem enlarged. Including a viewing size would just make it that much better. And it's free!





















Look for a "RealVNC" icon in your System Tray (bottom right corner). If you don't see it, go to Start > All Programs > RealVNC > VNC Server 4 (User-Mode) > Run VNC Server.

Right click on the icon, go to Options, and select the Authentication tab and where it says VNC Authentication click Configure, and enter "teknoziz."













To make the connection faster, you may also wish to make sure these settings under the Desktop tab are also checked (see left).

The only other thing to do is to make a small change in the router (the box that both computers are connected to before they get to the cable modem), which will give me access to your individual computer only when you are running the software. I was using it with a friend yesterday and it worked great.

You need to find out what the web access address is to your router. For example, for most Linksys products it's http://192.168.1.1 with the username "admin" and the password "admin." Then navigate to the section that may say Advanced or Applications and Gaming or Port Forwarding. You want to enter port 5900 thru port 5999 using TCP. Then enter the local address of the machine you want help on. For example, 192.168.1.100, again, typical for Linksys. (If you don't know what it is, check the tabs for a Status page and then look for the Local Network (or LAN) page to find the DHCP clients table. You can also find it by going to Show Network Connections in Windows right click on your active connection and select Status.) Then if your page has one, click "Enable."

I know this sounds a little complicated, but it's easier to do than to explain. And once it's set up, it works great.









Another Country Heard From
Of course, there are always those software mavericks who eschew standards for pursuing their own (sometimes better) way. And so it is with the folks from ReadPixel. They have a program called SpyMe, that, to put it in a nutshell, just works. In a couple of clicks, without the muss and fuss of router settings and the like, you can connect to a host and get right down to work. I tried this software with several clients and friends across the internet, and in each instance, it worked right the first time. It works along the lines of a call-back, where the host initiates the call and the viewer can then answer the call, very much like an invitation from iChat. It has all the right features, too, like hiding the desktop, locking the screens, drag and drop files, resizing monitor windows, update frequency, etc. There are two main windows, SpyMe Hosts and SpyMe Monitor Library. The only suggestion would be for more speed, it appears that a VNC connection works a little faster.

Way Cool Feature
: If you want to be Mr. Technical Consultant, you can plug your connection info into the SpyMe Help Center portion of the Host Preferences tab and then export it to a file. Then all you do is give your clients that file. They double-click, it imports into SpyMe and then all they do is select Call SpyMe Help Center under the Help menu and it connects to you! A 3-server license is only $15, that's only $5 a pop!
























But wait, there's more...
Oh yeah, you thought I was finished, but this is going to be the longest blog posting ever – maybe even get into the Guiness Book. In addition to the mentioned peer-to-peer (that is, computer to computer) method of connection, there are internet-hosted services available. One of the most popular is GoToMyPC.com. Through the web, it will let a Windows, Mac or Unix user to access the user's Windows PC remotely. Free 30-day trial. Another one I stumbled across today is Avvenu, which features, if you can imagine, the ability to access your computer from your internet-ready cell phone. Has a free basic account, the paid account gives you online storage so your home computer doesn't have to be on. Phone as storage device... now that's cool.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

One Ringy Dingy...

Convenience. From the Oxford Dictionary widget: The state of being able to proceed with something with little effort or difficulty. I'm all about that, especially while I am working. Anything that helps me focus on my work. Often people call me and want me to look at a web page, or I need to look something up on Google while I'm talking, so I wear a wireless headset. It's great. However, I still have to have the phone by me to identify the caller or I have to swing around and get out of my chair to look at the base station when it's ringing. I know, you're saying "Geez, what a lazy guy." Maybe, but when I am in the middle of something, I don't want to be interrupted even for little things like that. So I went in search of a phone app that would notify me of the caller on the computer. And boy, did I find one! It's called, humbly enough, Jon's Phone Tool.

If there was ever a Bass-O-Matic in software form, this would be it. It slices, it dices, it juliennes (is that a verb?). You can make calls via Vonage, Skype, CallVantage, Phlink and your modem. Address Book, Entourage, Palm Desktop integration? Yup. Dial from any of these sources, or view caller's info sorted by Alpha, Companies, Geographical, Groups or Recent with the convenient menubar icon. Has reverse lookup (find contact info from number), convert text to number, call timer. Displays Caller ID info as a popup within a couple of rings (your phone service has to have this feature and your modem has to be compatible with it – most Apple internal modems are). Call logging, time logging, note pad, number pad dial – the only negative thing I could say about it is that it may have too many features. But for such a modest fee of $15, you can have them all! The interface is cool, it reminds me of an MP3 player skin for Audion, but in saying that, not all the icons are easy to understand or see. I love the rotating gear logo! It may be true that you can't judge a book by its cover, but I believe you can very often judge a program by the effort put into the design of the application's interface and the website.

Ring, ring! Jon's Phone Tool is for you.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Keep on Trucking.

FTP (File Transfer Protocol) has been around pretty much as long as HTTP as one of several internet services. But lately it has become a common part of the creative individual's software arsenal. It allows you to transfer files larger than can be easily attached to an email. Many printers and clients now offer FTP sites where files can be posted and downloaded. There are many FTP applications available for the Mac, each with its own take on features and interface. I have settled on the one developed by Panic software (how can you not love that name?). It's called Transmit. High points all around for the web site and program design, the look, feel, icons and more. And if they care that much about those details, the software must be equally great. And it is. In a light-hearted approach to computing, the main dialog opens to reveal two windows, "Your Stuff" and "Their Stuff."

You can enter the connection information and save it as a Favorite. The Favorite can save the password and local default directory. So if you always upload from a certain folder while connected to a specific client, you can automatically open that folder when you connect. You can organize Favorites into Folders. You can drag and drop file from the program or from the Desktop to transfer. You can link files to specific editors and edit files remotely without maintaining a local copy. You can Synchronize files between Your Stuff and Their Stuff. Compatible with iWeb, Automator, Dashboard, iDisk, Spotlight, geez these guys are well-connected. These along with all the standard FTP features available in most FTP apps certainly makes this a great choice. And again, the same thoughtfulness in designing an easy-to-use but powerful interface in the Macintosh tradition is why I give Transmit the nod. $29.95 from Panic. And check out their other apps, too!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Weather or not you care, this is cool product.

What's the first thing you do in the morning? Check the weather. For me, it's the sound of my daughter coming into the bedroom before school (sound only, because my eyelids are glued shut from the previous night's sleep) and asking, "Dad, what's it going to be like out today?" I could switch on the TV or the radio, but I would have to wait around for them to get to the forecast. Get on the computer? Sure, but then I have to boot up the browser, go to the site and enter my location. All before my morning coffee. And that just makes me irritable. What if I said that you could spend the equivalent of a couple of visits to Starbucks and be able to know what the weather would be as soon as the computer booted up and have it always available throughout the day? Enter Weather Pop Advance from Glucose Development.

Like the name suggests, it's a menubar application that displays the current weather condition and temperature. But it also allows you to control all of its features from a popup menu as well. Shows you a 5-day forecast, shows relative temperature, humidity, wind, barometer, visibility and more. You can have multiple locations and switch between them at will. It also maintains several sources so that if one is down, you aren't without the weather. Version 2.5 now supports radar imaging when available, so you can see the weather, too. I use it to track several of the places we mountain bike or travel to as well as some of places my relations live. Pretty cool. Can't beat it for $8.00. Give it a try.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Spotlight: Share and Share Alike

This week's article concerns printer sharing. Those of us that use equipment until it falls into pieces (you know who you are) should be especially pleased to know that you can often share your older printers not only with newer Macs, but also with PCs on the same network. For example, I am currently using an Apple LaserWriter Select 360 that's as old as the hills on my Mac and PC network. Amazed? Astounded? Then read on to uncover how this amazing feat was accomplished and how you, too, can be a network printer guru.

About Connections

Most of the older Apple-specific printers connected to the Apple Printer Port, a round (DIN8) connector. Many of these also sported a standard Parallel port connection for hooking to a PC. Then printers came out with the AAUI port, which allowed various types of Ethernet connectors to be attached using an adaptor. After that, many network capable printers came with or had options for adding a standard RJ45 connector for use with 10-base T or 100-base T connections. Current printers come with USB ports and may even have WiFi connections, requiring no cables at all!

About Communication Protocols

Older printers communicated with the Macintosh using a LocalTalk cable. It's not typically a cross-platform type of conenction, but we'll address how to overcome that later in the article. EtherTalk is the more common of the network communication languages and is used by pretty much all computer platforms.

About Printer Languages

So the printer and computer can "see" each other on the network. Now what? Well, now they need to talk the same graphic language in order to properly process print requests. Like LocalTalk, QuickDraw was the original language spoken by Mac printers. Then Adobe Postscript arrived to smooth things out and give much better results. Of course, there then came a few reversed-engineered Postscript clones. And not to be outdone, the PC world came out with their own printer language called PCL.

Blah, Blah, Blah

Sure, ok, but what does all this gobbledegook mean? Well the general trend indicates that most newer printers are more easily connected to a network and shared among platforms. The older printers may have a harder time, but it can be accomplished. Here's how. If you have a printer with a Apple printer port, you will need to do one of two things. First, you can connect it to your networked computer and share it via software. The two main drawbacks is that it requires an older computer (but you can pick one up cheap and just use it for that purpose) or a PCI card that sports Apple printer ports, and that the computer needs to remain on in order to share the printer. The more elegant solution would be to acquire what is known as a printer bridge. As the name implies, it is a means of bridging the LocalTalk connection with the Ethernet connection. You plug the LocalTalk cable into one port on the box and an Ethernet cable into another and voila! the printer is now available on the network. I found one on Amazon or you could try your luck on eBay, but they are out there. I have one from Asante called Micro AsantePrint.

About Cross Platform Printing

Great, my printer is now on the network but my PC can't see it. That's easy to explain. The PC does not natively support AppleTalk. The solution is Computer Associates' PC MacLan. It allows bidirectional printer and file sharing. Problem solved.

Driving Miss Daisy

Whoops, the article was just going to press, when I forgot to mention something pretty important. Drivers. They are the softare your apps need to talk to the printers that we spent sooo much time hooking up to the network. The original disks or CDs (if you can find them) are probably hopelessly out-of-date. If it's an Apple Printer, no-prob. The drivers are built into OS X and OS 9. Even a few in Windows. But other than that, the best thing to do is to check with the Support, Software or Drivers section of the manufacturer's website. Other than that, try your luck at DriverGuide.

Beware the Pricking of my Thumbs...

There's always things to be aware of when dealing with legacy equipment as well as legacy protocols. If your network is all wired, that is, no wireless connections, then this should work great for you. However, depending on your router, you may experience problems going from wired to wireless. Your wireless computers may not see your now networked printer because it may not support AppleTalk over wireless. Sad to say, Linksys is one of those brands. Check with the manufacturer before diving in.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Peace, Man...

Like every good mechanic, there's a tool that you have that you may only use once in a great while, but when you need it, it's there, and you can sigh a contented "Ahhhhh" of relief, knowing that it will do the trick for you. Pacifist from CharlesSoft is that one-trick pony that does its trick very well indeed.

The description from the web site says it all: "Pacifist 2.0 is a shareware application that opens Mac OS X .pkg package files, .dmg disk images, and .tar, .tgz, and .tar.gz file archives and allows you to extract individual files and folders out of them. This is useful, for instance, if an application which is installed by the operating system becomes damaged and needs to be reinstalled without the hassle of reinstalling all of Mac OS X. Pacifist is also able to verify existing installations and find missing or altered files, and Pacifist can also examine the kernel extensions installed in your system to let you see what installer installed them, and whether the installer was made by Apple or a third-party."

For example, while overzealously cleaning up your Applications folder, you delete GarageBand. Or, when you installed iLife, you decided not to install Garageband. With Pacifist, simply open the installer package from the CD/DVD and drag the GarageBand folder to your Desktop or Applications folder. Nice! And like I said, you probably won't use it much, but when you need it, it'll be there. "Ahhhhh." Great tool for tech support consultants. $20.00.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Say "Cheese!"

On the PC, screen capture apps are a dime a dozen (okay, maybe $29.95 a dozen). Even the Mac has built-in screen capture functions using the CTRL-SHIFT-3 and CTRL-SHIFT-4 commands. But sometimes you need more capability, like choosing the download location, naming convention, graphic format, showing/hiding of the cursor, etc. Enter SnapzProX 2 from Ambrosia Software. Yes, this great game developer is also a fine purveyor of utility apps like WireTap Pro, Easy Envelopes and iSeek. And with all those previously mentioned features, it can also take movies! For those to whom a picture is worth a thousand words, a motion picture is worth a million, especially for training and education. You can even have it take over the default Apple screenshot command. $29 for image capture, $69 for movie capture. Try the demo. Intel Mac ready. Oh, yeah, don't forget to try their addicting line of games!

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

DragThing, you make launching... groovy.

Apple's Dock was made to be simple and useful. Drag mostly anything into it and you can launch it from there. But the Dock has some built-in limitations to keep it simple and therefore not useful in all occasions. Launcher applications are a personal thing. They need to behave the way you want them to behave (Oh, behave!) or you won't use it. You want to customize where they appear, how they look and how they function. Like an earlier application in OS 9 called DragStrip, the application I use in OS X is called DragThing from TLA Systems. It makes my heart sing. It makes launching... groovy.

Ok, so it really doesn't make my heart sing, but it does everything I need it to. For example, it lets me organize my apps in categorized layers for easy access. It has a Process dock and Volume dock that shows my currently launched apps and mounted volumes. I can customize each docks to show icons, backgrounds, colors, titles, 3D effects and shadowing -- separately! It can be launched at boot time, and will re-open previously open docks. It even saves backups of your dock settings. Files, folders, volumes -- plus -- windows, URLs and Clip Board items (cool!) can all be added to DragThing. You can modify Item, Layer and Dock Preferences as well, again, individually. What other utility do you know of that comes with its own paint tools?

And again, it's an elegantly designed Mac application, right down to the animated splash graphic (my personal favorite) and psychedelic About screen (wait for it). When you have an application that you use so much that you can't work normally without, you know you have a winner. DragThing should be the new Apple Dock. Only $29.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Go Bananas!

If you remember my previous posting on FontCard from Unsanity, then you will appreciate this next jewel called FruitMenu. It provides the same functionality in OS X as the Apple Menu Items did in OS 9 – that is, to allow you to add commonly used applications, files, folders and disk volumes to the main Apple menu list for instant access. But wait... You can actually reconstruct your entire Apple and Contextual menus, add and remove items, change font size, show icons, show previews and more – all in your menus. I thought it was worth it just for the Apple Menu links, and the fact that you can access a specific Preference Pane just like the Control Panels in OS 9. And it's only $10. Crike!

From the professional and practical functionality of their products to their slick website and even to the design of their application icons, Unsanity is a true Macintosh software company. Another excellent reason to support them by purchasing their products.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Spotlight: Database Publishing

Mailing lists, company directories, product catalogs — any type of "bulk" information that has a uniform structure — belongs in a database. By structure I mean something that can be broken down into records and fields. For example, a simple database of contact information where a record would be comprised of the fields first name, last name, address, city, state, zip and phone number. Or a catalog record with the fields product name, model number, description, price, photo. You can do amazing things with the data once in the database — all kinds of searches, sorting, reporting, estimating — everything except professional graphic design and layout. That is what tools like QuarkXPress and InDesign are for. What if you could marry the two and be able to publish your data to a layout tool? You can using the concept of database publishing.

Quark and InDesign both support a plugin architecture and there are a few companies that offer database plugins. I use XData from Em Software. They have a great walkthrough that explains the whole process here that can be applied to the Mac or Windows version and that also holds true for both XPress and InDesign.

You aren't limited to print publishing, either. Many web hosting providers support MySQL (UNIX platform) and Access (Windows platform) allowing you to add your data to your web pages. In this fashion, you can maintain the data and avoid having to maintain hundreds, possibly thousands of static HTML pages by generating web pages in response to your users' requests. Take a look at one example I developed for wine distributor Hand Picked Selections. Check out the links Find HPS Wines, the Top 40, and Appellations & Varietals. They are all accessed via PHP queries (in the HTML files) to several MySQL tables. And as in the print version, all you need are a few HTML templates to display the results of the query. To change the look of the pages, you simply change the templates.

TeKno Ziz provides the knowledge and expertise to create print and web projects such as these. Please call when you are considering a project of this nature, and I'll be happy to discuss it with you.

The MacGyver of Graphic Apps

There are advantages for professionals to having a full-featured, robust and extremely complex applications like Photoshop for doing certain kinds of graphic work that require $800, hours of training, and the processing power of MIT's Computer Development Lab. Then, of course, there are the rest of us who get by using graphic apps that do many things really, really well. And inexpensively. And fast. And inexpensively. Who would think that a shareware program costing $30 could rival many of the features of Photoshop? Did I mention it was inexpensive? What else could I be talking about other than Lemke Software's GraphicConverter? So much more than the name implies, GraphicConverter should be your default application for opening, browsing, basic editing and translating of your graphics. For a while, it was even included on new Macs, which shows you how much Apple thought of it.

Feature packed? You bet. Like MacGyver whipping out his trusty Swiss Army knife, you can wield it's amazing graphic puissance (look it up) for Liberty, Justice and the American Way.

  • Universal Binary version for Intel-Macs
  • Imports 190 graphic file formats
  • Exports 79 graphic file formats
  • Image Browser (rotate, email, slideshow, batch conversion, etc.)
  • Batch conversion (format, rename, resize, recolor, etc.)
  • Slide show, slide show to movie feature
  • Easy creation of optimized images for the internet
  • Basic images manipulation
  • Enhanced image manipulation
  • AppleScript support
  • Supports Mac OS 8, 9 and X, optimized for G4 and G5
  • Support of new technologies like the JPEG2000 format
  • Acquire images from scanner or camera
  • Corrects "red-eye"

    Holy feature overload, Batman! About the only bad thing about this application I can think of is its lame icon. Well if it's going to save me $770, I'll take it! You should, too. Go to the website and try it out.
  • Thursday, July 20, 2006

    Picture This...

    Just took those great shots of your summer vacation, or your kids' graduation or a friend's wedding and want the whole world to see what a great photographer you are? Get them up on the web! But wait, you're no web guru. You can get the photos off your camera and into iPhoto, but what do you do then? You could email them, but they would have to be made smaller and loose the quality or they'd be too big to send over email. You could use your .Mac account to upload them, if you had an account or iWeb to create a photo page and upload it to your, uh, right, your .Mac account.

    I have found no better stand-alone product, commercial or shareware, than the free, yes free, program Galerie from Myriad Software. It allows you to drag and drop pictures from iPhoto or your desktop and create quick, easy-to-navigate photo pages that you can then just upload to an existing website. Pretty much every service provider offers web space for their account holders so you don't even have to buy a domain and web hosting service, unless you have a ton of pics to post. You can apply dozens of pre-made templates to your photos and if you get bored, you can change it anytime you want. You can even design your own, if you want to match an existing site.

    You can size the thumbnails and the enlargements, add titles, allow for comments and save your settings for future use, even create slideshows. No need for any other graphic or web program (other than to upload the files or link it to an existing site). I have used it extensively on my mountain biking site GratefulTread. And you can't beat the price! Check it out.

    Tuesday, June 20, 2006

    Spotlight: SCSI Voodoo and USB Anomalies

    Ever try to shut down your Mac and it simply restarts or freezes? Maybe you try to do the simplest things like run the Software Update in System Preferences or Repair Permissions in Apple's Disk Utility and the program crashes. Ever try to install the recent version of OS X and the install program fails, even when booted from the CD/DVD? It's not supposed to be this hard to work in OS X. Well, you're right. In the land of the Impossibly Ideal, where you take a brand new Mac out of the box and never install a piece of software or peripheral, these things would probably never happen. But in our world of the Common Occurance, we add printers, scanners, cameras and software, software, software. You get the picture. And in this land, not everyone plays nice together. Granted, they play nicer than in OS 9, but there is still the occasional squabble. That's when you have to come in and mediate.

    First, when doing anything related to the OS, make sure to avoid any conflicts by turning off or unplugging everything not Apple. In the case of SCSI devices via the Adaptec 2906 PCI card or similar products, unplug the SCSI cable from the back of the computer. Even some third party USB devices like card readers, scanners and the like, might interfere with the normal operation of your system. Most of the time, powering them off should work, but when the device is powered by the USB or FireWire port, you may need to disconnect it. Second, make sure that all of your devices have the latest drivers. This often solves many of the conflicts that occur.

    I have had one client that suffered both these problems. One was a USB 2.0 memory card reader, that when plugged in, would not allow the system to shut down. It would simply reboot. The other problem was with the Adaptec 2906. I could not upgrade the system from 10.3.x to 10.4.x (Jaguar to Tiger) without disconnecting the SCSI cable. Couldn't run off the Tiger DVD, couldn't Repair Permissions, couldn't run Software Update. Very strange, you wouldn't think that the card would have anything to do with it. But remove the cable and voila! everything worked.

    Moral of the story: Beware everything. Even the most unlikely of suspects may be the one giving you trouble. And when it comes time to upgrade your OS to the next version, remove those pesky peripherals first.

    Wednesday, June 14, 2006

    DeepVacuum. It Sucks.

    Deep within the labyrinthine layers of OS X, there lies an untapped wealth of programming power (how's that for alliteration?). Even for us Masters of the Mac, UNIX is shrouded in mystery. However, with enterprising entrepreneurs like HexCat, we common folk can tap into that power.

    DeepVacuum is one of those apps that harnesses the power of the underside of OSX. It wraps the wget function in a nice Mac shell that allows users to download copies of web pages or entire sites to a local drive – a boon to website designers for cost estimation and to developers for code review. It even maintains the folder structure and can also download related files like images and movies. Helpful if you forgot the FTP access info for your or your client's website and need to grab a copy. It's only $12, for crying out loud! Just go buy it.

    Thursday, June 01, 2006

    Tom Cruise, step aside.

    It was easy to do routine maintenance by rebuilding your desktop and optimizing the hard drive on OS 9. With OS X being at its core UNIX, there are many maintenance tasks that are far from routine that should be performed but often aren't because either you are a good doobie and turn your system off at the end of the day (thus preventing automated execution of these tasks) or are simply not familiar technically with the UNIX environment. Well relax, and have a Cocktail. This program handles all the routine UNIX tasks and allows you to make subtle but useful changes to how the Finder, Safari, Dock and Network software work. Cleans your system logs and cache files, and much more. Even has an autopilot that allows you to schedule specific tasks routinely. Has a clean and easy-to-navigate interface. Belly up to the bar for a $14.95 single-user or $29.95 (a steal) for a five-user family license. Cheers!

    Monday, May 22, 2006

    Welcome to Fontasy Island

    When we joined the ranks of OSX users, we left many good friends behind in OS9. Adobe Type Manager and Type Reunion were two especially loved programs, the first for its font management capabilities (which thankfully, Suitcase Fusion, FontAgent Pro, Master Juggler and others have supplied), the second for its ability to group font families into hierarchal menus and show the actual fonts in the menus.

    The folks over at Unsanity (love the name) have contributed many "haxies" for OSX users, maybe none so under-appreciated as FontCard . For a mere $17, you can have all the font info you could want in any application, at your fingertips. Font name, format, family, and WYSIWYG display. You can turn individual features on and off and disable for particular programs in the Preference pane. Wrangle that ever-scrolling font menu down into something more manageable and more organized. Try FontCard.

    Tuesday, May 16, 2006

    Default Lies Not Within the Stars...

    Don't you hate wasting time navigating to your folders in Open and Save dialog boxes? Drives me crazy. It feels like I spend more time doing that than working in my programs. Or how about doing a Save or Open and realizing you need to Delete, Rename, or Trash a file or folder? You have to cancel, switch to the Finder, perform the operation and then switch back to the program. What a hassle. The people at St. Claire Software thought enough was enough and came up with Default Folder.

    Default Folder is a natural extension of OSX which adds a special menu on the right side of every Open and Save dialog box. Here you can find many of the same commands available to you only when you're in the Finder like Rename, Get Info, Trash, plus navigation shortcuts like a Favorites list, Recent list and Window switching. Two great additional features are the "Bounce Back" command that automatically will return you to the last place you navigated to and the ability to click on a file in the dialog list, making it the default Save name.

    I use it so much I don't know what to do when I'm on another system without it. Like going from a two-button mouse to a single-button mouse. A great program. Only $34.95. Try it out and see.

    Tuesday, May 09, 2006

    Spotlight: To Repair and Protect

    Here are some of the tools and methods I employ on my and my client systems in order to protect them and to fix them when they are having problems:

    • Anti-Virus. Yes, it's true that Macs are less susceptible than PCs when it comes to viruses, but that doesn't mean impervious and that also doesn't mean your computer can't pass on a virus. So use some kind of anti-virus software that allows you to download periodic updates. The ones that come to mind are Intego Virus Barrier, Norton Anti-Virus, Sophos Anti-Virus, or ClamAV. I have only used the first two in any real capacity and strongly recommend Intego's product because it's fast, unobtrusive and automatic.

    • Disk Repair & Maintenance. MicroMat TechToolPro, ProSoft Engineering Drive Genius, AlSoft Disk Warrior and Norton Systemworks are most often mentioned in tekno geek circles. Systemworks is no longer supported by Symantec, although at one time, it was my first choice. I now avoid using it except for machines that are older or on older operating systems. TechTool has pretty much taken Systemworks' place for general repair and maintenance. But a smart enduser would have alternatives in case one application fails to work. Drive Genius would be an alternative to TechTool and Disk Warrior for repair and optimization of the hard drive's catalog file, the file that keeps track of all your files on the hard drive.

    • Methodology. The best overall strategy is to run your utilities from another location other than your problem drive. That way, the program can either repair the drive or pull the files off that you want to recover. Never, ever write to a drive that you are having problems getting to boot or reading files from. You could just finish off the drive and lose valuable data. If you have a big hard drive with a lot of space, breaking it into partitions is one way to allow your utilities to run from another location (even though it's on the same drive). An external hard drive is even better, since you can have a backup OS on there in the event of drive failure, and have enough room to copy files onto. A CD with an OS on it, like Apple's System Software CD or DVD and the Apple Hardware Test (AHT) would be great and many of the above mentioned programs come on a bootable CD. MicroMat just released a sweet new gizmo called the Protege that packs an OS and repair utility all on a firewire keychain drive. Sweet. But in the last two instances, you would still need some additional method of storage to recover files onto.
    So what are your strategies? What software do you rely on? Comment here and let others know your successes and failures.

    Thursday, January 19, 2006

    Delicious After Taste?

    As with any other program, there are a couple of things that I can see improving with Delicious Library. First off, when doing a title search, any title with an apostrophe comes back with the wrong result. Solution? Skip the apostrophe and it works fine. Secondly, even slightly older books, movies and games don't show up while scanning (although often they do after title searching). Special publishers like BMG music or Scholastic books don't have standard bar codes, thus forcing a title search, which isn't really Delicious Library's fault, but something they could look into. I stand by my original review, it's a great program, but even great programs have room to improve.

    Tuesday, January 10, 2006

    Delicious Library

    Delicious Library

    OMG! I saw, I tried, I bought. Unbelievable. I have looked at and tried other cataloging programs, and this is it. It even is friendly with my Alchemy video capture card and the iSight, which I couldn't get to work with other programs. The interface, the little added import touches ("I am your father"), the ease-of-use, it's so fun to use. I'm sorry, I really can't say enough about this program. Where have you been all my life?