Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Multiple Operating System Disorder (MOSD)

Now please, have a seat on the couch and I'll tell you all about it. In my role as web developer and consultant, I have often had to look to the ugly step-sister of the computing world (Windows) in order to accomplish some of my tasks, whether it is integration of multiple platforms on the same network or seeing how a web page renders in Internet Explorer. I have experimented with applications as far back as Soft PC and Virtual PC, even with the Macintosh Performa with the PC add-in card (that was weird). But the best way to do Windows has been on a real Windows-based PC. So I have had to own and maintain a PC in my office for a number of years. Until now.

With the advent of the new Intel-based Macs, it has never been easier to have a true multi-platform environment on the same machine. There are several ways this is happening and all of them have an impact on how we do our business. The first is Apple's own Boot Camp 1.4. This beta software (which will become non-beta with Leopard), allows you to partition part of your drive into an FAT32 or NTFS format and then allows you to install Windows XP or Vista. You create a drivers CD you use at the end of the process to install all the drivers that allow you to interact with your Apple components as well as a Startup Disk icon representing your new Windows drive. Select it, restart and wham! Welcome to Windows. This is your best option for the PC gamer who wants full access to their video card's performance and 100% Windows compatibility.

However, this means every time you want to run Windows, you have to change the Startup Disk, Shut Down or Reboot and then boot up in Windows. Do your thing, change the Startup Disk, then Shut Down and boot up as a Mac again. Pretty lame. A big time waster if all you want to do is check something in IE, or run a quick Windows app.

Enter the realm of Virtual Machines (VM). This type of software allows you to create a container file that holds the virtual disk, operating system, applications and all created files. It doesn't require a hard drive partition and runs almost as well as Boot Camp. The advantage is that it runs within OS X. You can launch Windows in a window whenever you need it. The two major choices here are the $79.99 Parallels Desktop 3.0 (15-day trial), and the $59.99 ($39.99 with a $20 mail-in rebate) VMWare Fusion 1.0 (30-day trial). In this article, I will be discussing Windows since that would be the most often selected operating system, but be aware that you can run other operating systems as well, such as Linux, Unix and OS2.

To install Windows XP or Vista using either product, you must own a full copy of Windows XP SP2 or any flavor of Vista. Pop in the CD, then enter your name and Product Key and away you go. I laughed, because it's actually easier than running the install on an actual PC. It seemed to happen faster, too. Both applications also have the ability to use the Boot Camp partition as the source drive, making a reinstallation of Windows unnecessary. I had already done this with Desktop, but was unable to use Fusion with the same partition. My guess is that it didn't like having Parallels Tools on there, since it wants to place its own version called VMWare Tools on the partition as well, so I was unable to test that function for Fusion.

Using the VM
Fusion does nothing for many seconds, so I almost thought I hadn't double-clicked, but then it boots and all is well. It requires the typical Windows login. For some reason, Desktop doesn't and just boots right to the Windows desktop, much quicker than Fusion. However, Fusion has a Suspend feature which allows you to boot directly to the last saved state of your computer, as if you put it to sleep. Then it becomes as quick to boot as Desktop.

Ok, now to the nitty-gritty. We want to use these applications to either save time from booting into Windows, and/or save money by not having to buy all the same applications over again. So what kind of applications can they run? In a nutshell, every standard productivity app runs. All of Microsoft Office, Creative, Web, and Adobe's Production Suites, even programs like AutoCAD. Microsoft Update, AVG Anti-virus, Spybot Search & Destroy, Ad-Aware and Spywareblaster all installed and worked fine on both (good thing, because you'll need them in Windows...).

So, fine. What doesn't work? In another nutshell, games. Support for 3D acceleration, Direct X and OpenGL is iffy at best. Want to run games? Use Boot Camp. I tried a smattering of games from old to new (Ghost Recon w/Desert Siege and Island Thunder, Syberia I, Call of Duty I, GameTap) and only got partial success. The lower end stuff works pretty well. The new games need to access your video card directly. Until that happens, Boot Camp is your best bet.

One big item to note is that when installing multiple CD games, I had to manually disconnect the CD drive from Fusion, eject the CD under OS X, put in the new disk, switch back to Fusion, and re-enable the CD drive. Blech... The installs under Desktop were flawless. Odd, but during that time, I couldn't eject the CD using the keyboard eject either, which also worked fine under Desktop. The other strange thing using both apps was that the virtual system window resized when launching a game to the game default and didn't always resize normally upon return. At least Desktop managed to return to the right size most of the time.

Both apps have the ability to "blend into" OS X. Desktop calls it Coherence mode and Fusion calls it Unity mode. They both allow the user to use the entire screen for applications, rather than for interfaces, so you see only the program windows from either platform when called for. Coherence allows you to see the Start menu and Taskbar along the bottom and functions as it does in Windows, Fusion has a Launch bar for you to access your Windows apps. In Desktop, your Mac Desktop and files are as readily available and usable in Windows as if they were right in the drive container, whether in Coherence mode or not. And conversely, your PC drive icon and shortcuts can appear right on your Mac Desktop as well. At first I wasn't thrilled with the way Fusion handled this feature, but after getting annoyed with the Start menu bar Parallels places at the bottom of my screen and interfering with DragThing, I think I would prefer using Fusion's way.

One Trick Pony
One trick up Fusion's sleeve is the ability to convert a Parallels VM to a Fusion VM. Just download a converted on the Parallels VM and run it, then quit and boot Fusion and tell it to open the Parallels VM file. Poof, done. Nice little trick, that. Combine that with the cheaper price along with the discount, and... it's still not quite enough to make me want to switch. Desktop is a much more refined and functional version of a VM. So, go ahead and try it out and you'll see what I mean.

And now for something completely different.
I have been discussing these three methods – Boot Camp, Fusion and Desktop – but there is one more method I will mention. It's not something you buy to run Windows apps, but rather what developers can use to bring Windows apps to the Mac. It's called Cider. Basically it allows Mac Intel machines to run Windows apps without the need of Boot Camp or any VM software. A great example of this is GameTap's Myst Online: URU Live game. You can download and use it for free and it's the exact same application as on the PC only running through Cider on the Mac. This might be able to more affordably bring some Windows apps to the Mac that we would otherwise not see.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Fresh Squeezed Media!

Have a corrupt file you are looking to recover text and graphics from? Or how about a PowerPoint slide show that you need the photos from? What about grabbing icons and program elements to be used in an application your building? A long time ago on an OS far, far away (OS 9), we had CanOpener from Abbott Systems (and I just recently found out, we still do.). Now we have File Juicer, a modern media extraction tool from echo one software. I would have done a feature comparison, but since CanOpener does not offer a trial version, I couldn't. That and the fact that File Juicer is only $14.95 to the whopping $65.00 for CanOpener, I didn't want to spend the cash.

Ok, you heard it enough times from me already, I am an interface addict. But I give as many points for simplicity as I do for glamor. This gets the nod for simplicity. Drop just about any file type on it and it does its thing automatically. Even compressed and PC files, too. Keep the file in the Dock and drop files on it from the Desktop and you never even have to run the application.

The Preferences allows you to customize your extraction for various file types, should you be looking for something in particular, say just for Flash files or PNG files. Here's a list of formats it supports:

Images – jpg, jpeg 2000, gif, png, pdf, wmf, emf, tiff, eps, pict, bmp

Video – mov, mpeg, avi, wmv

Sound – mp3, wav, System 7, au, aiff

Text –
ascii, rtf, html.

These types can be extracted from: avi, cab, cache, chm, dmg, doc, emlx, exe, ithmb, m4p, mht, mp3, pdf, pps, ppt, raw, swf, xls, zip, and other formats. Even data from partially damaged files can be retrieved. You can optionally sort the results into related folders and even generate an index page for you to see the results at-a-glance.

If you ever wished that you hadn't deleted those photos off of that Flash Card – go no further. File Juicer can make a Disk Image (dmg) of the file and then extract whatever data is available. Lastly, the current version can also recover thumbnails images from your 3rd gen iPod nano.

Related Story
I had a PowerPoint presentation given to me that contained a series of images I wanted to save, but not within the PowerPoint file. So using File Juicer, I was able to extract over 100 jpgs and then drag them into iPhoto – just the solution I was looking for. The current version supports PP files up to 250MB.

The developer is very forthcoming in regards to what the program can and cannot do as well, which something more developers should do. I won't list those here, but you can view the ReadMe for the limitations and other useful information. All in all, you get quite a lot for the money. This is one of the better deals in the shareware world. Go get yourself a copy.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Mr. CD/DVD Disk Art Designer Guy

Here's to you, Mr. CD/DVD Disk Art Designer Guy. After all the time, effort and money is spent developing those slick multimedia and music titles, the producers give you one hour to design the disk art. You suck down a frozen grandé mocha latté (decaf, with soy milk), put in a quick call to your psychiatrist and get started. But where to begin?

Luckily, life is not a Bud Light commercial. There are three apps I want to review here that help you design professional-looking disc art, be it for a label or, for those who have the proper equipment, for printing directly onto the media.

Print CD by Epson, version 1.2.1E
The first product I ran into was Print CD which came with my Epson Stylus Photo R200. It has a media tray that you slip into the manual feed slot which can print directly to ink-jet printable CD and DVD media. Very cool. The software interface is not strictly up to Mac standards, but it is pretty easy to figure out. It is comprised of a series of palettes which allow to manipulate the various graphic elements – the images, the text, and objects. It only has 3 Zoom settings, 50%, 100%, and 200%. It should have a Fit to Window and the palettes should snap to the main window but doesn't, so you have to futz with the palettes when you resize the main window.

You can insert pictures of any type into the Background and resize them, rotate them and apply these basic effects to them – Contrast, Blur, Brightness, Spot Color, Blur and Mosaic. Text can be added with the usual style options (including shadow and character spacing) and then you can Distort the text á la Microsoft Word (although not as many options). You can also add lines, circles and rectangles (constrained or not, with outline or not) but I find that I rarely use these.

While there is no layering per se, there is a separate Background image and you can Bring Forward, Bring to Front, Send Behind and Send to Back items in the foreground. It's not true WYSIWYG, since you have to select an item and enter the changes in the appropriate palette, but as I said, it gets the job done. And it's free with the printer. You can change the inner print diameter for various media types as well as Fine Tune the Print Position, in case it doesn't align properly. That setting is remembered, so you need only set it once.

I printed a lot of media with this app and found it reliable and consistent. The other great thing about it is there seems to be no ink wasted. That is, ink is not smeared onto the outer edge or the inner circle that you have to wipe off. It's also Twain compatible so you could scan right into the application. Unfortunately, the version I have is not Universal Binary and not quite up to date for OS X, which is why I moved on, and works only with Epson printers.

Discus 3.16/4.1 by Magic Mouse Productions
It's always good to explore what comes bundled with your applications. Toast 7 for example, came with several nice utilities to do such things as digitizing LPs, cataloging disks and for this review, designing cover art. Specifically, it came with a lite version of Discus 3. Again, a non-standard interface, but with some nice features, one of which is the New/Old Projects dialog which comes up immediately upon booting. I would love an option to pick the Old Projects tab by default, since after designing a few files, I like to edit existing ones to create new ones. Plus it shows thumbnails of the designs, which is also cool.

Discus combines everything into a single window, which is nice so that resizing doesn't effect the placement of palettes. It also sports 4 levels of zoom as well as a Fit to Window option. It has silly sound effects for commands which reminds me of Fontographer and Kid Pix, but luckily, you can turn that off before you are driven insane. Discus relies heavily on a tabbed, progressive interface that guides you through the design process, but doesn't force you to do each step in the same order every time. And you can go back to any step when you want.

As with Print CD, you have a Background, here called Canvas, then separate layers for Paint, Photos and Text. Where this breaks down is not being able to click on a particular item and being able to edit it immediately (in Fireworks CS3 it's called Single Layer Editing). It's kind of annoying to have to go one more step and pick which layer, then pick what you want to edit.

In Canvas mode, you can select from one of the many images included with the software from the scrolling preview at the bottom or pop up a separate preview window. The lite or RE version comes with about 230 but the full version unlocks about 850 more. You can preview those locked images but can't use them unless you upgrade. My personal philosophy on clip art is that you use it much less than you hope to. However, that being said, I made pretty good use of the restricted set of images for the disc art files I have created. Luckily, you can also use the Photo mode to add photos to be used as a substitute for Canvas mode. You can flip, invert and rotate these Canvas images as well.

Paint mode has a whole MacPaint-like tool set including brushes, objects and clone tools. Again, for me, these features have been largely unused, but it's nice to have the option.

Photo mode has a more comprehensive set of tools than Canvas mode, including duplicating , cropping, scaling, stretching, corner radius, edge softness, lightness/darkness and opacity. Again, having numbers for precise measurements would be nice but the sliders work ok.

For text editing, there are many similar options to Print CD and also includes line spacing, angle and opacity. I would've liked the standard text window here to pick specific sizes, but a tool tip shows you the actual number and a sample of the choice you are making, which is a nice touch. The fonts are displayed WYSIWYG in a 4x4 grid at the bottom and you can pop up another window that shows them in a 6x42 grid on several pages. I think it would've been easier with just a font menu, since this doesn't support family groups and makes the list very long.

The last tab is Print. This is where you can select the proper template for your printer, make a test print, adjust the inner and outer diameter and fine tune the print area, with some nice visual feedback on the right side. Two last features I would mention is the ability of the program to import track names from Toast, JAM, Dragon Burn and iTunes and to export the disc art to BMP, JPG, PICT, TIF and Photoshop formats. It would be nice to have the option to export with or without bleed and with or without the center whole. It also is not Universal Binary, though the new 4.1 version is.

Disc Cover 1.5 from BeLight Software
Moving to our final contestant, we have another bundled application, this time with Toast 8, called Disc Cover. Here we may have reached the pinnacle of disc art applications. This app is Universal Binary and iLife integrated as well as being much more Mac like than the previous two reviewed.

The interface is similar to Apple's suite of iLife and iWork apps, using a combination of main window and more detailed palettes of information and control. It sports a foreground and background mode like the others and gives you an iLife media browser on the left side. There are commands to open the standard Color and Text palettes as well as context-sensitive Inspector palette. The program appears to have almost infinite Zoom in and out settings along with Fit Page, Fit Width and Fit Height. There is a Recent documents menu, sadly without thumbnails.

You can access iTunes (an audio CD or even Toast) for playlists, iPhoto to import photos and iDVD to import DVD chapters and backgrounds. You can access any file through the Open File command and navigate the huge quantity of backgrounds, objects, default Picture folder, create a collage of images or even generate a geometric image to create your artwork. It also ghosts the image on the bleed and non-printable areas, so you can position your artwork more accurately. Lastly it gives you the option to build an entire project of documents from disk to cover to folding booklet to insert to keep the design consistent as well as all in one place.

Ok, downsides... No Revert command (Discus does), no image preview of recent documents (I really like that feature), palettes don't snap to main window, no export as image option, Single-Layer (Background or Foreground) editing only, and maybe the most annoying is that upon printing, it does produce some excess ink on the non-printable areas of the disk.

So while Print CD does a good job, I am tossing it because it's not UB. Then I am left to choose between Discus and Disc Cover. The version of Discus I own would need to be upgraded for UB support, which I guess is ok, but it's support for Apple technologies is lacking. However, Disc Cover has that annoying issue with the excess ink that makes me hesitate to fully endorse it. Yet Disc Cover is the one I am going with since it supports many current OS technologies, timesaving features and can do whole projects. But guys, clean up your act, huh?