While I really don't spend much of my rare free time playing games, I've always liked Bungie's products (Marathon, anyone?), and so I put Halo on my Christmas list (four years later than it should have been, but that's not the point of this review). I wasn't sure how well I'd like it, but it seemed like a pretty safe bet based on prior publicity. And now, 30-some-odd hours of gameplay later (I finished it this weekend), I can say that the prior publicity was correct -- this game is a lot of fun!
The basic premise is ... well, not too basic! You're an elite soldier, and your ship has been attacked, leading to your crash landing on Halo, an odd ring-shapeed structure that's vaguely Earth-like in its features. From the landing on, you're on a survival and exploration mission, managed by the AI from the ship, which you're carrying about on a small card. You have a series of tasks to accomplish, sort of like missions, which fit together to help you understand the real secrets of Halo. To tell any more than that would be to give away too much of the story!
While browsing macupdate.com (my personal fave replacement for versiontracker) recently, I did one of my usual "grab a bunch of stuff and see what cool things are out there" tricks -- download 20 to 30 programs of all sorts, and then just try them all to see what's out there. In the process of working through the selection, I got sidetracked (quite effectively!) by Android. Android is a "clone" of one of the all-time classic Apple ][ game Lode Runner.
If you never played it, Lode Runner (and hence Android) is a deceptively simple, deceptively addicting "platform" game. The objective is to collect a number of objects on each level, and then make your way to the exit. You do this by climbing ladders, bouncing on springs, and swinging on vines to reach the objects. Preventing you from accomplishing this goal are the level designs themselves (which forc you to plan your routes carefully), as well as enemies who kill you if you come in contact with them. Your sole offensive (and defensive) weapon is a small bomb. Using the bomb, you can create temporary holes in the platforms. You can fall through the holes to avoid the enemies, or force your enemies to fall through the hole (or get stuck in it, depending on what's below the hole you dug).
Android features some very creative and tough level designs -- you can play 10 levels for free, out of 100 total levels spread across five different "worlds." One nice touch is that the program remembers your last cleared level, so you don't have to repeat history each time you restart the game. I did have one crash while playing that wiped out my progress in the game, which is the primary reason I gave it a 9 instead of a 10. If you wish to back up your progress file, duplicate the android.cfg file (located inside the jade folder in the Android game folder) every so often -- you'll be glad you did!
Android is a very competent update to the Lode Runner legacy, and I think my wallet will be $15.00 lighter in the near future!
I haven't featured a game on the PotW since July, so it seemed it was time ... last week, I heard about the iDevGames gaming contest (their site seems to be down right now). I visited the site and downloaded a bunch of the entries. While all of them are interesting and there are clearly some incredibly talented folks out there, I was most impressed by Chopper. Years ago, I was addicted to Choplifter on the Apple ][ (check out these screenshots ... amazing how far we've come! Note - those are C64 shots; can't find Apple ][ shots! ) ... and Chopper is a nicely updated version of this side-scrolling classic. Now taking advantage of OpenGL and photo-realistic scenery, the basic premise is the same as the original - rescue folks with your helicopter while avoiding bad guys. You have missles, bullets, and bombs (in limited numbers) with which to defend the copter. You land next to the folks that need rescuing, they climb in the chopper, and you ferry them out to safety.
Simple in principle, addicting in execution, Chopper is a perfect way to waste a few spare minutes ... and it runs in either a window or full-screen mode, and has some other nice touches -- note the way the menu background cycles from daylight to night time if you just leave it sitting there. Chopper is a fun and interesting diversion from the usual workload...
This is a somewhat non-standard Pick of the Week, but I felt this program was worth a mention. We were out and about the other evening (dialing for dollars at our local PBS television station) and someone asked if I had any pictures of our daughter ... I pulled out the one I carry in my wallet, and they then noticed my Palm Pilot (which I had brought to call up relatives and friends for donations!) and said "Geez, why don't you have a bunch of pictures on there?" For whatever reason, I'd never even thought about doing that ... so when I got home, I set out on a mission to find a good photo viewer and management app for my Tungsten.
A quick visit to the various Palm software sites found tons and tons of viewers, but very few with Mac front-end clients. After some more digging, I found SplashPhoto, and I've been quite happy with how it works. After installing the program on your Palm and your Mac, you launch a Mac-based (10.2 or newer) program (SplashPhoto Desktop) to manage the images on the device. SplashPhoto Desktop looks and works like any well-written Mac application, and it includes drag-and-drop support -- I just dragged images from iPhoto to SplashPhoto. The application's default view is a thumbnail image browser, as seen here:
You can also view your images in list, detail (photo plus category info), or gallery (small images, no name below them) modes, and the info provided in list view mode can be customized.
When I went looking for a screenshot of DarkForest (see my comment to last week's Pick of the Week), I fired up an app I've been meaning to try for a while - Beholder. Beholder allows you to easily search for images on any of three pre-defined web sites (Google images, AllTheWeb, and AltaVista). If you have some HTML knowledge, you can even create your own search engines for other image sites -- you just need to be able to dissect the URL that the engine spits out and input it into Beholder's prefs. One quirk is that, by default, the searches are named "Default Set (1)," "Default Set (2)," and "Default Set (3)." I just opened the prefs and renamed them to reflect the services they search. Using Beholder is simple - enter your search term, pick an engine, and hit Start.
As seen here (full size image), you get an iPhoto-like browsing interface for scanning the results. Thumbnails are on the left, and on the right you get a "zoomed" version of the image, along with relevant URLs (copy and pastable, or clickable) for the image, the page, the search link, and any associated image text. Double-click an image and it opens in a new window and you can save it to your hard drive.
Watson and Sherlock, of course, both have image search features. Sherlock only searches Getty for licensed images, and Watson doesn't include the Google search engine (in either the Google tool or the Image tool), so many pages aren't found -- for instance, the DarkForest screenshot I found on Google wasn't found by Watson's Image tool.
The one nit I have with the program is relatively minor -- search results open to full-screen size, though a quick click of the green button will get you a nice "minimal" browsing window -- you see one image and the URL information, and can page through them with the up and down arrows. If you resize the results window, though, those settings are not remembered on the next search. The window type (normal or minimal) and window size settings should be user-controllable; I don't really like it when an application takes over my entire screen.
Yes, you could use this tool to steal images from the web ... but then again, if that's your intent, you could do it just as well from Google's image search page! Used properly, Beholder makes it easier to find those obscure image references you might need for a project ... or a Pick of the Week comment :).
This week's Pick of the Week is a simple little app that does one thing very well -- help you see what's taking up space on your hard drive. WhatSize opens two windows; one displays a summary view for each of your hard drives; the other, as seen at left, displays a columnar view of a particular location in your file system.
In the shot at left, the view is set to my home folder, with the Pictures directory selected. As you can see, the files are sorted by size and color-coded (megabytes in purple, kilobytes in green), making it easy to see exactly what's taking up the room in any given location. WhatSize also displays all normally "hidden" directories, as indicated by the normally hidden .FBCIndex file in the left pane of the screenshot.
You can, obviously, do all that WhatSize does in either the Finder or via the Terminal (in fact, it was a comment to an earlier hint about using du that tipped me off to WhatSize). However, WhatSize makes it very simple, and it's expandable column-view window lets you easily traverse a folder hierarchy to see exactly what might be taking up unexpected amounts of drive space. If you're not a fan of column view, you can switch to a "browser" view that's somewhat like list view in the Finder. In the browser view, you can easily see the actual size of the files in any given folder (along with the disk space actually used, and those two numbers can differ appreciably for large folders). You can also use the familiar disclosure triangles to drill down the hierarchy.
WhatSize is one of those useful little utilities that you'll try a couple times and then find that it's quickly become a key part of your maintenance routine -- I use it to keep an eye on my Downloads folder, which I sometimes let get a bit out of control! The fact that it's free is simply an added bonus...
[Note to readers: This is actually last week's Pick of the Week. In a fit of stupidity, I wrote the whole thing up and ... left it sitting on my local server all week! Later this (Tuesday) morning, I'll post this week's Pick of the Week, and I'm going to try to fit both of them in the header since this one got the short end of the "time on site" stick.]
With family and friends spread across the globe, I spend a fair bit of time in iChat. Early on, I enabled logging of iChat sessions so I could later find those tidbits that always seem to go drifting by in conversation. What I quickly discovered, though, is that there's no Apple-provided means of searching and browsing iChat logs -- you have to open each one as a separate iChat, and then just page through it. That means that in order to find some historical tidbit, you not only have to remember who your were talking to, but what day you were talking to them! With over 200 iChat logs per user, there was no way I could find anything in my logs.
Enter Logorrhea. Using a simple two-tab (Browse and Search) interface, Logorrhea makes finding things in iChat logs a much simpler proposition. The Browse tab shows all your chat logs in a vertically split mode -- participants on the left, log date and time on the right. Click a person's name on the left, and the right displays their logged iChats. The bottom of the window displays a scrollable preview window so you can browse conversations with ease.
The Search tab has a data input section, a results pane, and a browse pane. Enter your search term(s) and hit Find. The results pane shows any logs that contain the search terms, displaying the buddy's name and the date/time of the chat. Click any entry in the results pane, and the browser area pops up the chat with the search terms highlighted in yellow. After trying it for the first time, there's no going back to manually searching iChat logs!
Why only 8 out of 10? There are two improvements which could make Logorrhea truly powerful. The first is a simple change -- in the Results pane, autmoatically scroll the log to the first occurence of the highlighted search term (you have to scroll by hand right now, and watch for the yellow highlight). Then give us a "Find Next" button that would jump to the next occurence. The second request is much tougher, but it would greatly increase the power of Logorrhea -- I'd love an "advanced" search mode that allowed boolean finds -- "Father and not in-law" for example. But even lacking these final touches, Logorrhea is indispensible to me for its ability to easily manage a large number of iChat log files.
Note to readers: This is actually last week's pick of the week, which I failed to get online before the end of the week! This week's Pick of the Week is Panther, but I'm not going to write about it, as the vast majority of the content here will refer to Panther for the next several weeks. So here's a week's worth of exposure for last week's pick...
I've been looking for a good system utilization tool for quite a while. I wanted something with an unobtrusive GUI that tracked things like memory usage, CPU utilization, and disk usage. A reference in a previous hint pointed me to MenuMeters, and it's exactly what I've been looking for. MenuMeters lives in the menubar, and tracks all sorts of details in many formats -- you can view data on CPU usage, disk usage, memory allocation, and network performance. Within each of those categories, you can usually choose one of several viewing methods (text, graph, pie chart, etc.), with a bunch of options for refresh rate, size, colors, etc.
Instead of explaining it, though, here's a 30-second clip of it in action on my machine while I did some stuff this morning -- click here (or on the image itself) to watch the movie.
The Tx/Rx data shows the data transmit/receive rates, the U:/F: is the Used and Free RAM, the green/red lights are disk reads and writes, and the two graphs are CPU utilization. These are just my settings, obviously -- MenuMeters has so much customization you can create just about anything you want.
If you're looking for a nice, unobtrusive system monitor that doesn't seem to suck up a ton of resources (either screen real estate or CPU!), check out MenuMeters.
In working with my new G5 and the old G4, I did a lot of work with one monitor for two machines, using the free OSXvnc server package. With the server running on one box, you need a client on the other to access the server, and I had been using VNCThing. I wasn't thrilled, however, with its speed or lack of support (perhaps my configuration issues) for my mouse -- it worked, but I couldn't click and drag at all.
So I went looking and stumbled onto Chicken of the VNC. Not only did this make my mouse work much much better (click and drag worked, as did contextual menus and my scroll wheel!), but "the Chicken" also supports the "tight" VNC protocol, which greatly speeds the client/server interaction. Once installed (simple!) and running, I had a much more usable remote access setup.
I'm not sure how well it works over slower connections, but the VNC server/client combo on a LAN makes for a fairly speedy remote experience. I haven't yet tested it from the office to the house, where my cable connection upload speed is the limiting factor, but I expect it will still outperform VNCThing. This won't be useful to everyone, but if you have a need to see a remote Mac / PC / UNIX box on your Mac, check out Chicken of the VNC.
If you've ever used a PC laptop, you may have become addicted to the variety of functions that are available via their trackpads and multiple buttons. Usually you can program the pad and buttons to do whatever you like, through some sort of control panel interface. You can set scrolling areas on the pad, remap buttons, etc. to your liking.
While we can't do anything about the physical one-button nature of our Mac laptops, SideTrack will let you take care of the programmability aspect. SideTrack is a replacement trackpad driver (though the original mouse/trackpad driver is not uninstalled!) for OS X laptops -- it's not a hack or system tweak, so there's not as much fear of tweak-related instability. Installation is a simple double-click and a restart, after which you'll find a new SideTrack item in the Other section of the System Preferences application. Activate the panel, and you'll find settings for the functionality of the trackpad button, tapping on the trackpad, creating vertical and horizontal scroll areas (location and size), and scroll speed. Use the pop-ups to set things to your liking, and then just start enjoying the new functionality. Once nice touch is that the preferences are multi-user aware, so you can have different settings for everyone that uses your laptop.
I set my PowerBook to have vertical and horizontal scroll areas at the right and top of the trackpad. So while browsing the web, there's no more using the arrow keys or the mouse to navigate around the on-screen display. When I want to read further down a page, a quick drag down the right edge of the trackpad scrolls the window. Very useful! Since SideTrack works by emulating a scroll-wheel mouse, it will only work in applications that already support such devices -- so if your favorite app doesn't work with a scroll wheel mouse, it won't work with SideTrack either.
Since I can't do anything in hardware about the lack of a second mouse button, I used the "Trackpad tap" setting to emulate it -- one of the available pop-up settings is "right click." So now a quick tap on the pad, and I get the contextual menus. Click the physical button, and it behaves as a normal "left" click. This removes one of my greatest PowerBook annoyances -- having to reach for the control key whenever I wanted a contextual menu.
Although SideTrack is in beta, I've had it installed on two machines for a couple of weeks without any issues. If you need to temporarily disable it, you can do so by booting with the shift key down. Permanent removal instructions are included in the Read Me. But once you've tried it, you may find you don't want to ever uninstall it -- SideTrack is, to me, one of those small, functional, and seemingly instantly essential pieces of software. I'm giving it a 9 out of 10 only because it's still in beta...