A somewhat odd PotW this week, as there are actually two of them ... and neither one is really perfect for what I needed, but they were good enough to get the job done. While upgrading the forum site to the newest version of vBulletin, I wanted convenient access to the vBulletin documentation. The docs are available in HTML, printable (everything on one page) and CHM formats. I hadn't heard of CHM before, but it's apparently a Microsoft-proprietary technology for compiled help files in HTML format. Although the HTML version of the manual was easy enough to download (Save As in Firefox has an option to save the whole collection of pages and images), I was curious about the CHM manual, as I'd seen them on other sites (php.net, for instance). After a bit of digging on the web, I found two OS X CHM readers - xchm (open source) and CHM Viewer ($4.95 shareware), so I downloaded both for a trial run.
After playing with both programs for a couple of weeks, each definitely has its strengths and weaknesses. First, xchm is a free and open source application that leverages some other open source technologies, and thanks to Chanler White, it's a simple drag and drop install. Its major advantage over CHM Viewer is that it has a working search system, making it quite easy to see all matches for a given keyword(s). You can also create bookmarks, to make quickly finding an important page in a long manual much easier. However, xchm doesn't render the pages nearly as nicely as does CHM Viewer (see screenshot below), and I had it crash on me once or twice. Printing is present, though basic -- you can only print the currently viewed page. Finally, and this may be specific to my setup, I couldn't get any embedded internet links to open -- they would say "loading," but then nothing would happen.
Yes, it's Thursday and I'm just now getting to the PotW -- It's been a busy week :). And yes, I'm cheating by picking something that was mentioned on slasdhot and other Mac sites earlier in the week. And finally, I'm breaking all my rules by awarding a 10 to an application that clearly needs work.
But in this case, TrailBlazer's 10 is awarded for its ground breaking re-thinking of browser History files. I visit a lot of web sites each day, as I'm sure is true of many of you. I've found that the typical approach to history files is really not very useful in any of the available browsers -- they all take a date- and/or site-specific approach to maintaining History files. If you can remember when you visited a particular site, and/or its name, you'll be able to find it with relative ease in your history file. However, even when I know I went somewhere yesterday, that might narrow the search to 100 or so websites -- still not a quick find. Usually, though, it's more like "Hmm, what was that site I was at earlier this week that discussed 'foobar.' Trying to find a site with this bit of knowledge is basically impossible -- searching History is either very limited (Firefox and OmniWeb 5 beta find words in the page title) or non-existent (Safari).
Enter TrailBlazer. Written in Cocoa and usiing Apple's open-source Web Kit Framework for web page rendering, TrailBlazer represents a completely new take on History. As you browse pages in TrailBlazer's basic browser, you develop a visual history file, with pages organized by date and nice thumbnails, along with arrows showing your progression from site to site. But it also uses the Lucene search engine to index every page, enabling very fast content searching. So now, when I remember that the word 'foobar' was on the site I want to find, I just type 'foobar' into the search box, and the page(s) containing that term are highlighted. Between the visual representation of my browsing history and the powerful search capabilities, finding sites in the History file is a snap with TrailBlazer.
TrailBlazer is not necessarily 'ready for prime time.' I had it crash on me a couple of times, and there are times where it gets very slow and unresponsive. However, as I noted, it's receiving a 10 not for its current application front end, but for the rethinking of the whole concept of a browser History file. Since the project is open source, hopefully some of these ideas will be incorporated over time into browsers that have an open source component (Safari, the Mozilla/Firefox family, OmniWeb). I for one would welcome a greatly improved history function.
For those of you somewhat new to the Internet and iChat-type conversations, here's a brief history lesson. Internet Relay Chat (IRC) was one of the first person-to-person chat protocols. It continues in force today, primarily due to its large installed base and its excellent features for managing large group conversations (try to have a 10-person iChat, and you'll see how poorly iChat does at more than one- or two-to-one conversations). I primarily use IRC for two things -- the Geeklog developers channel (#Geeklog on irc.freenode.net), and the macosxhints chat (#macosxhints on irc.krono.net; more info about this is in the Chat link at the top of each page). I've tried a number of modern IRC clients, including xhintschat, ChatX, *censored*x and xchat in X11, etc. All of them worked, but none of them are very Mac-like in any way.
However, yesterday while searching for something completely unrelated, I stumbled on Colloquy (pronounced kä-l&-kwE). Colloquy is a full-blown OS X (Cocoa) application that looks and feels like the best of the Mac world. My IRC needs are light -- I read, I occasionally type, and I'd like to be able to save transcripts for future reference. Colloquy makes it easy to do all of these things, and it looks great in the process. It even comes with about 30 or so "styles" to change the look of the chat interface, and you can apply different themes to different chat rooms, making it easy to tell them apart at a glance. It also seems to support (though I haven't tested) file transfers, and there are numerous nice touches throughout the code -- multiple options for alerts, new window vs. same window for various events, full control over colors and fonts, etc. For all you uber-hackers out there, Colloquy is also AppleScritable, open source, and extensible via plug-ins.
As I mentioned, my IRC needs are basic, so Colloquy may not be right for everyone. But for me, it's the first IRC app I've used that really and truly feels and acts like any other Mac app -- and since it's Cocoa, you have full access to the services menu as well. In short, now that I've found Colloquy, I can't imagine using another IRC client for my basic needs.
Reader Adam Salter pointed me to Curio, this week's Pick of the Week. Curio is a Cocoa application designed to help create, organize, and manage a creative professional's idea stream. I'll be the first to admit I am not the proper target for Curio, and as such, I don't think I'll be buying it ... but I still felt it was worth a PotW mention due to the uniqueness of the program.
Curio acts as a searchable, organizable "idea bin," into which you can sketch thoughts on new designs. You start by creating a project, and then adding "ideas" to that project. Each idea can contain objects, text, and images, and can be organized using a nesting system very similar to folders in the Finder -- your top level idea might be "Home page for company X," and then nested within that would be "Contacts page," "Corporate info page," etc. You sketch the designs using a few basic tools (text, various lines and shapes, a stylus with five different tip styles, and an eraser). You can control the size, position, opacity, line and fill color, and a number of other settings for each object on the page. While it's not a full-blown design program by any stretch, you can easily "rough out" an idea with a fairly good level of detail.
What makes Curio quite powerful, though, are the features designed to help manage your collection of ideas. You can use a search box to find text on the various idea slides, a library of objects is built up for easy re-use on multiple slides, and a Sleuth feature will search the internet for items that match your search term. Matches are displayed in a mini-browser window, with all links clickable. When you see something that you'd like to use for inspiration, just drag and drop it from the Sleuth window onto your idea, and Curio will keep track of the object and its parent URL. Sleuth comes with a selection of predefined search locations in a number of categories (fonts, stock images, stock movies, reference, search engine, sounds, and translation). Using Sleuth, it's easy to find stock imagery for use in your ideas, and you can drag and drop just about anything from the Sleuth window onto your idea.
Finally, you can create a "dossier" for each project that lets you specify information such as date, version, who prepared the concept, and fill in client info, including a free-form section to hold business issues that you're trying to solve for the client.
Although the interface takes a bit of time to get used to, Curio is a very powerful program that could prove useful to creative professionals -- at $99, it's not cheap, but you can download a fully enabled 30-day demo to see if it's right for you.
A short and simple Pick this week ... in the course of setting up the new house, I was trying to find the best spot for the Base Station; the range with my 12" PowerBook is not all that great and seems very location-dependent (even with an external antenna attached to the Base Station). So I was looking for something that provided a bit more detail on the signal strength than just 0 to 4 bars. After some digging, I found AP Grapher, which did exactly what I wanted it to do -- a real-time graph of signal strength, with options to display link and comm quality, as well as signal and noise (though those were always zero for me). You can also control the rate of updates; increasing the rate takes more CPU time, of course, but makes it a bit easier to keep an eye on the signal.
After some walking around the house with the PowerBook in hand and AP Grapher running, I think I've managed to find a spot for the Base Station where I've got the whole house covered.
I'll admit it; I'm a fan of system monitoring widgets. I have a collection of them, and I can't say I use any one of them regularly (though MenuMeters,a previous Pick of the Week, is probably the one most likely to be running on my machine). However, I like looking at such tools, just to see what people are doing with them. An email pointer sent me to X Resource Graph's (XRG for short) homepage, and after playing with it for a week or so, I've added another monitoring tool to my collection.
XRG runs in a window, either vertical or horizontal, and can graph a number of objects, such as CPU usage, memory usage, battery status, network activity, and disk usage. You can also track weather at various reporting stations and various stocks that you're interested in. You have full control over fonts, color, transparency, anti-aliasing, drop shadows, and other such eye candy (there are even downloadble themes); here's a shrunken view of how XRG looks while running at the bottom of my screen (full size version).
While running, XRG does use a bit of CPU -- about 7% on my PowerBook, less than 1.5% on the G5. However, I've never noticed its impact on anything else I've been doing on the PowerBook, so I'm not overly concerned about the CPU usage.
Yes, there are tons of other tools out there that do similar things -- the Pick of the Week isn't meant to identify the best product at doing something. Rather, it's just my way of identifying programs that I think are unique, useful, or interesting ... and XRG is just such a program.
Browsers, browsers, everywhere ... even with Safari dominating the Mac landscape, there are still lots of alternatives out there. Mozilla has long been one of my favorites (it has a spot in the hall of fame), but I'd stopped using it as my primary browser due to its strange UI on the Mac, its slow initial loading speed, and a few other such quirks. Then along comes Firefox...
Firefox is the second release (the first was called Firebird) of Mozilla's next generation dedicated browser. Whereas Mozilla (the product) was a browser, news reader, mail client, and HTML composer all rolled into one program, Firefox is just a lean, mean, browsing machine. The first time I loaded it, it took quite a while to launch, and I thought "Oh no, shades of Mozilla..." However, all subsequent loads have been quite speedy -- while it's not quite as quick to load as Safari, it's only about a half-second behind on my machine. Once loaded, you'll find all the usual "leading edge browser" features, such as tabs, tab groups, a good bookmark manager (including bookmarks in the sidebar, which I like), decent image blocking features, "type to select" link activation, and support for the most popular browser browser plug-ins (including the indispensible PDF Browser Plugin).
To test Firefox, I put it to use on my daily macosxhints' updates. I post the stories each day by working on a local copy of Geeklog and working through the submissions queue. I'll command-click 10 to 12 stories at a time, opening each on a background tab. Using Safari, this maxes both CPUs in my box for three or four seconds while it loads all the tabs, and the fans in the G5 will spool up a notch from their normal idle levels. With Firefox, the CPUs max for under a second, and I never hear the fans spool up -- this is an amazing difference in CPU utilization (previously, I had thought Geeklog/MySQL were responsible for the CPU spikes, but it seems it was all browser-driven).
Although Snapz Pro X already has a spot in our Hall of Fame (see the top of the Pick of the Week table), I felt the recently released version 2.0 is worth a repeat mention. Why? Basically because version 2.0 is a total rewrite of the program, and it offers improvements in user interface, features, and (most notably) movie recording performance.
In the first release of Snapz Pro X, the interface for controlling the various options was quite confusing. With version 2.0, Ambrosia has taken huge steps in simplifying the interface, as seen below:
On this new palette (which floats and scoots out of the way when needed), the Preview button is extremely useful -- set your options for color change, border, watermark, etc., then click Preview, and you'll get an on-screen peek at what your final image will look like. This feature alone will save hours of work when produces the hundreds of screenshots required for any good-sized book or documentation project.
Read the rest of the hint for the remainder of the review, including a number of movie grabs...
Fugu is a freeware GUI front-end to the UNIX sftp, scp, and ssh protocols. Of these, the reason I use it most of the time is for its sftp support -- sftp is secure FTP, which is much like FTP except that your transmissions are encrypted, so you don't have to worry about password (or other data) intercepts while you're FTPing files back and forth.
If you've used Panic's excellent Transmit, the Fugu interface will look familiar -- a two-panel window with your stuff on the left, and the host files on the right. Drag and drop from one side to the other to upload or download files. One other nice feature is an in-program image preview -- double-click an image on a server, and it will download and then display in a small window directly within Fugu. While this won't save any download time, it's nice in that I don't have to switch apps to make sure I downloaded the right image file.
Fugu reads existing SSH connection information, so if you've already set up password-free secure connections, you won't have to re-enter your passwords to use Fugu. Overall, this is an amazingly professional piece of free software -- kudos the University of Michigan's Research Systems UNIX Group!
If you're fascinated by the Mars landers (Spirit and Opportunity), then you'll want to take a look at Maestro. Maestro is a "lite" version the software that NASA uses to work with the two rovers. Written in Java, it's relatively easy to get working, though you'll have to have 10.3 -- you need Apple's Java 3D and Advanced Imaging Update, which requires 10.3.1 or newer. Both Maestro and the Java updates are somewhat sizable -- about 45MB in total, so you'll want a fast connection or a lot of time on your hands!
Once you've downloaded and installed Maestro and the Java 3D updates, you head back to the Maestro site to download data updates. These smaller (under 4MB) files contain data that's been sent back by the rovers. At present, there are two Spirit data files, but none for Opportunity. Download the data files, launch Maestro, and click on the Spirit button on the main page. There are two windows - a Conductor and a Browser. The Conductor is pretty nifty, and gives you a series of images and audio of Spirit's arrival, step by step.
My only real gripe is that the installer wouldn't let me specify the install directory, only the drive. I had a bit of trouble when I first tried moving it after install, but a reinstall and re-move seemed to work just fine. Probably user error on the first try :).
There's a lot more you can do with Maestro, but it's this week's Pick of the Week for the amount of pure science imagery that it enables anyone to see and use. Pretty amazing stuff...