Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Viva la Open Source!

Yes, muchachos, while my lime slice is slowly sinking towards the bottom of my frosted beer glass, let me speak to you of the desparado of commercial software, SeƱior Open Source! Bane to bloated, costly commercial software everywhere, cheered by the ranks of the unwashed (phew!) endusers. This type of software is free, available on multiple platforms, and strongly supported by developers and endusers alike.

Do you have to work in the Microsoft Office? Not sure if iWork will work for you? Want more features than TextEdit? Try OpenOffice! It's reads and writes to most popular formats (even some that MS Office won't read!). It even supports Microsoft's new .DOCX format. You can't beat that with a stick. Even comes in two flavors, the original and NeoOffice the first to deliver a Mac version of this productivity suite, which still supports the PowerPC chip. And they both come with equivalents to Word, PowerPoint and Excel.

And what's even better, OpenOffice is extensible, offering many plugins for additional features, templates, dictionaries, etc. This is the way to go for starving students, or for small offices looking to get multiple copies of software without the licensing hassles.

Recently, OpenOffice released version 3.1, which is a still more polished version of their software. A list of the improved features can be found here. I don't need to go into the specifics of each application, if you've used MS Office, you know how to use these. Have an old version of MS Office? Need a copy for a second machine? Don't want to pay for the upgrade? Or maybe just looking for a good deal? Check 'em out.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

David Goes Multifunction

Yup. I finally did it. After years and years of having a laser printer, ink-jet, fax machine and scanner, I decided to dump them all for a single multifunction printer. "Why now?" you ask. Well for several reasons. The quality and performance of these devices have really come along. You're not sacrificing the abilities of any individual device just to reduce the clutter in your office. Often, they will surpass the specs of your older devices and even offer some features that you didn't have before or weren't so convenient.

So after consulting Consumer Reports online, CNET reviews and MacWorld, I had it down to the Canon Pixma MX860. Let me tell you why:
  • 35 page auto-document feeder for faxes, scans and copies
  • built in auto-duplexing (prints on both sides)
  • wired and wireless networking
  • memory card reader
  • 9600 x 2400 max resolution
  • G3 fax machine
I even placed the order for $169.99 through Amazon. But as luck (and Fedex) would have it, the device never graced the entryway of my home. Lost in translation, I guess. Amazon (bless them) promptly refunded my money and I was back at square one. Do I just reorder, or do I look for something else? Well, what was interesting was that I forgot one critical feature that I use quite often that I would like in my printer that the MX860 did not address – CD/DVD printing. I make DVDs for both personal use and for my church and I like to print the info right onto the disk. So since I was using a Epson R200 to previously perform that task, I took another look at the Epson offerings and found the Artisan 800.

The Artisan 800 was a little pricier ($253.00), and had no auto-duplexer (which I would rarely use anyway), but it did have the print to media feature I was looking for, among these other features:
  • 38 page auto-document feeder for faxes, scans and copies
  • wired and wireless networking
  • memory card reader
  • 5760 x 1440 dpi resolution
  • print to media (CD/DVD)
And best of all, this one showed up! So here is the rundown of what I've used so far. The setup was pretty easy, if long. In order to use the wireless networking feature, you have to connect it first via USB (cable not included, and if you ask me is pretty dumb, since you can get cables for a song; even the MX860 even comes with one). I am told though it says the ink cartridges are partials, they are indeed standard ones, plus this package came with one additional black and a 4GB SD card.

The copy function is quite handy, since before I had to use my flatbed scanner to first scan and then print using my computer. Now I don't even have to have the computer on. Copies are remarkably crisp and print quite fast. The document feeder is nice to have as well.

Printing works fine, though I haven't tried printing a photo yet. Speaking of photos, I was able to poke my compact flash card from my Canon camera into the slot and pull up thumbnails on all the stored images. I could also print them all out or selected ones or even use the built in Photo Greeting Card Maker, pretty fun! I did try the thumbnails, which were fine, but haven't tried the other features yet.

Scanner was a little trickier to use, since the software defaults to a local connection and the actual method of setting the location is through a separate program installed in the Utilities folder called Epson Scan Settings. That's pretty weird. But once that was set properly, the scanning software worked fine. And now that it's native, my other apps can use it, too, via the Twain driver.

Another bump came with the media printing. For the life of me, I couldn't get the Epson CD or Disc Cover to recognize the CD tray, they would just print to paper. Annoying as all get-out. So I tried attaching the printer to the computer via USB. Whaddya know, it works! The media is inserted into a special tray that is between the paper tray the LCD control panel. You need to tilt up the control panel to get adequate access to the tray. At first I thought that I broke the tray, since I hit the tray button without first raising the LCD. But no, the tray was jammed somehow. But through the grace of God and some pushing and prodding, I got the tray seated properly and now it opens and closes fine. I hope that this was not a "feature" of the printer, because I hate the feeling that something you just bought is broken.

I then went back and re-installed the software for a local printer to see if that would install what I need for network media printing. And now that appears to work as well. It also seems to print faster on media than the R200 did.

I did get in touch with Epson tech support for both the media tray problem and the CD printing problem over the network. They were less than helpful on the first occasion and only slightly more helpful on the second (they also recommended the software reinstall).

So, all-in-all, the printer is now fully functional and I am fairly pleased. As usual, there are some downsides with using a Mac like no access to the memory card as a volume (there is in Windows), and no access to the Scan To (MC, OC, PDF, Email) functions unless you are connected directly to the computer via USB. I think that's a universal problem. If I find otherwise, I will edit this post. Otherwise, consider a multifunction with the features you need a definite option to reduce the clutter and make wireless network printing a reality.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

A Marvelous Night for a Vertical Moon

This is the second installment of my review of the products from Vertical Moon. This one covers their Flash slide-show building application, SWF 'n' Slide Pro.

Everyone is using Flash these days. And just about 99% of the browsers out there support some version of it. But everyone is not a Flash programmer. Yes, Adobe Flash has a slide show object built into the application, but it's very basic. I want to do cool things like different transitions and layouts and images that link to other sites. SWF 'n' Slide Pro (SNS) does it all and then some. And get this — no programming.

SNS has much appreciated support for Drag and Drop from the Desktop or iPhoto. It also sports seven different layouts including Album, which has a page turning effect, an Image Strip (horizontal scrolling images) with and without mouse view (a feature that allows mouse control of direction and momentum), Strip View (that has horizontal scrolling thumb nails you click on to display enlargements) with and without mouse scroll, a Simple slide show and a simple Strip Show (maybe I should rephrase that).

There are a multitude of customizable features, and I mean multitude. In fact, there are so many, with some applying to individual slides or the entire show, that it can easily get confusing. The options are split into two tabbed windows, one for the show and one for the slides and that does help, but maybe a strategic use of icons or mini-animations would be a just the way to aid the user. Some of the key features are adding sound, captions, adding URL links to photos, linking the slide show to other SWF files or HTML pages, and support for a bunch of transition and image filter effects.

There have only been minor patches and no real significant updates since 2006, which means the interface is getting a little long in the tooth, but it's still very functional. It would be nice if they reorganized the interface for easier use and conservation of screen space. I don't have a problem with a 24" display, but others might. No support for Default Folder, which means you have to constantly navigate the Open and Save dialog boxes – annoying as heck. Uses the SWF Player 8.0 for file previews and we're on version 10.0 – it's not even Universal Binary, the preview player, that is, the SNS application is, however.

So, my conclusion? A great little app, with minor interface issues and for $65.00 gives you the ability to create Flash slideshows in minutes with no programming. That alone will save you huge amounts of time and if you're doing this for a living, time is money. You can recoop the cost in one job alone. You can see a sample of my use of the program on action here.