During the Pick of the Week's long hiatus, my coworker Dan Frakes was busy as usual with his Mac Gems column over on macworld.com. He covered some interesting apps during the last six months or so, at least a few of which I found interesting enough to add to my list of Pick of the Week candidates. Dan wrote about Finder Window Manager (FWM) back in June, and I think it's an interesting enough program to merit its selection as a Pick of the Week here on macosxhints.
Dan wrote about FWM in detail, so I'm not going to repeat everything he wrote, but suffice it to say that FWM is a very useful addition to the Finder. FWM lets you work with sets of Finder windows, swapping one set of windows for another when you select a set from its menu. I've created sets called Main, Macworld Columns, Site Work, and Household. Each one opens a unique collection of folders, and does so with the windows set up exactly the same every time -- size, position, and view options; FWM gives you control over all these settings.
Outside of sets, you can enable something called the Watcher, which ensures that your Finder windows always look how you want them to look. Then there are the Utilities, which are a collection of handy tools for working with windows. You can close all, close all but frontmost, display a dialog to cycle through all windows in all applications, and stack or tile open windows, to name a few of the utilities.
FWM is just an application, so there's nothing to install or uninstall. Just launch it and it runs, adding its icon to your menubar. If you work with the Finder a lot, it's well worth a download and trial run; read Dan's writeup for much more information about all the things that FWM can do for you.
This week's Pick of the Week is likely to be a little bit contentious, as it can be used in ways that violate many copyright laws. However, this can be said of many worthwhile programs (ahem, iTunes) and products (iPod), but that doesn't mean those programs and products aren't worthy on their own merits. Such is the case with HandBrake. Although HandBrake has been mentioned in a number of hints, it's never been a Pick of the Week winner, until now.
HandBrake is a DVD ripper -- a tool designed to help you copy your DVD movies from their shiny silver platters to the shiny silver platters of your hard drive (by converting them to MPEG-4 format). Why might you want to do this? Any number of reasons, really. As one example, I find it much more convenient to travel with a few 700MB movies stored on my laptop rather than lugging around the jewel cases and the original DVDs -- after leaving a few favorite movies in a hotel once, I decided that there must be a better alternative. Another reason why you might want to rip your movies are to use them on devices that lack a DVD drive, such as an iPod or iPhone. Sure, you can buy any number of movies from the iTunes Store, but what about movies you already rightfully own?
This is where HandBrake enters the picture. HandBrake automates the process of transferring your DVD movices to your hard drive. Just insert a DVD, launch HandBrake, click a couple buttons, and then wait ... and (depending on the speed of your machine) wait some more ... and maybe wait just a bit longer. When it's done, you'll find a version of the movie on your hard drive, typically taking up much less space than would the original movie.
With five Macs scattered around our home, I spend a fair bit of time accessing all of them for various reasons -- testing hints, looking for something on one of them, even just installing software updates. For these tasks, I rely on both file sharing and full remote GUI control. For remote control, up until very recently I've been using the built-in VNC server (see this hint), and Chicken of the VNC (CotVNC; a previous PotW winner) as the client. But a few weeks back, I stumbled on JollysFastVNC, and ever since (with an exception as noted below), it's become my VNC client of choice. Why? Because it's amazingly fast.
How fast? I was going to record a movie to demonstrate the differences, but then realized that the developer, Patrick Stein, has already done just that, in this post on his "teclog." As you can see, there's really no comparison -- JollysFastVNC is really, really fast. Not only that, but it uses substantially less CPU while being notably faster. It's actually possible to watch a remote QuickTime movie using JollysFastVNC; that's something I'd long ago given up on with CotVNC.
Another thing I like about JollysFastVNC is that you can scale the server's display -- as you resize the JollysFastVNC window, the display scales to match the window's new size. CotVNC displays cannot be scaled. This means I can open a window and shrink it down, still large enough to see (when a download finishes, for instance), but not so large that it covers my screen.
JollysFastVNC isn't nearly as polished or feature-rich as CotVNC, but it's under constant and rapid development, with bug fixes and new features coming at regular intervals. That's why I've only given it a "7" on the rating scale, even though I think it's a great program and I use it regularly. You may find that the missing features and bugs in the current version make it unsuitable for current use (Patrick describes it as an alpha, meaning that some things don't work, new features are coming, but it shouldn't crash). For me, the only time I revert to CotVNC is when I have to connect to my main machine, with its two displays. CotVNC displays the windows at full size in a window with scroll bars, which works out all right. JollysFastVNC, however, scales both displays to fit in one window. If I'm on the MacBook Pro, the end result is an unreadable screen, as its size has been so greatly scaled down.
Other than that one issue, though, JollysFastVNC has supplanted CotVNC for my typical remote control duties -- its raw speed is simply amazing (and as most any racer will tell you, speed is addictive!). If you spend a lot of time working with remote Macs, give it a shot.
CUPS-PDF is a free little package that was mentioned back in March in this hint as part of a solution to batch converting Word documents to PDF. However, CUPS-PDF is actually an amazingly useful little add-on for nearly anyone who regularly prints to PDF. CUPS-PDF installs a "virtual" PDF printer, which you can then select and use just as you would a normal printer. When you print a job to the virtual PDF printer, the output shows up in a cups-pdf folder on your desktop.
Yes, you can do exactly the same thing by clicking the PDF button in the Print dialog, then selecting Save as PDF from the drop-down menu. But CUPS-PDF makes the process much faster and easier. With the built-in solution, you have to not only click a button and choose a menu item, you then have to pick a name and save location for the resulting file. CUPS-PDF print jobs are always named after the document that you printed (prefixed by a job number), and they're automatically saved to the cups-pdf folder on your desktop. So if you set the virtual PDF printer as your default, you can print to a PDF by just pressing Command-P then Return. This makes it a snap to convert a number of existing documents, or to easily save all your web receipts during an extensive online shopping trip.
Another way to use your virtual printer is to make a desktop printer out of it (in Printer Setup Utility). Store it in your dock for fast access, and then just drag and drop print jobs to it when you need something turned into a PDF. And yes, Adobe Acrobat Pro includes a virtual PDF writer ... but this solution is completely free, works very well, and integrates perfectly into the Print dialog. Well worth a look if you're a heavy user of PDF printing.
A week or so ago, I was looking for a fairly flexible timer application -- I wanted to run and track a number of different stopwatches, with more than one potentially being used on at the same time. I dug around quite a bit, looking at various widgets and utilities until I stumbled on Meridian. This program is very much the kitchen sink of time-related tools. It's not necessarily designed to be used by consultants and others who bill by the hour, but if you need another time-related solution, Meridian may very well offer it.
So what all can you do with it? For starters, Meridian provides a more-capable menu bar clock that can show the time and date, with full control over font face, size, and color -- separately for the date and time, if you wish. Beyond that, you can create up to 10 instances of each of the following:
Clocks: Add a mix of analog and digital styles, covering any time zone you wish. You can also make them show as drop-downs from the Meridian menu in the menu bar.
Timers: Set the start time, window and font info, and notification options. Again, they can be show in windows, or as items in the Meridian menu.
Stopwatches: Display with or without tenths of a second, change the background and foreground colors and font, and view in the menu or a window.
Alarms: Set as once, daily, or selected days, and set notification options.
The stopwatches worked great; with different colored backgrounds, I was able to visually distinguish them while using up to five at a time. Notifications (for alarms and timers) can't be emailed, which would be a nice addition. Other than that, though, I was thrilled with Meridian. At $19.95, it's not something you'll purchase if you just need a simple stopwatch or timer, but if your needs are a bit more complex than that, it's worth the price. The demo version works just like the full version, but you're limited as to the number of each type of timing device you can create.
Yes, a PotW with a $149.95 pricetag. Off the top of my head, I think this is the most expensive PotW I've ever listed (though someone might prove me wrong by browsing the archives). However, if you're the type who looks at your home and wonders "what if we moved this wall over six feet?" or "I wonder how a sunroom off the family room might look?" or even "someday, I'd love to design a new home," then Home Design Studio (HDS from here on) is a must-have application. As far as I know, it has no real competition on the Mac -- Google's Sketchup might be the closest thing, but they're really not direct competitors. It reminds me most of the old Virtus Walkthrough, which was around in the early 1990s. But HDS goes well beyond that program's abilities.
So what exactly is HDS? Remembering that I'm not an architect or a builder (nor do I play one on TV), I would describe HDS as a professional home design tool that's very usable by rank amateurs (now that's a better description of my skill set). Using HDS, you could design your entire home, starting with the foundation and floor plan, and including all the behind-the-scenes stuff such as electrical, plumbing, roofing, and HVAC. You can even do decks, terrain, and landscaping (and the landscaping can be shown at any age, to see how plants will grow over time). You can apply textures (paint, wallpaper, carpet, stone, rock, etc.) to the plan's walls, floor, ceiling, and other objects, to give your plan a better level of realism. With the click of a button, you can then move through, around, over, and under the 3D space, seeing exactly how it might look if built.
I use Camino as my main (but by no means only) browser. I couldn't really tell you why, other than I like how it looks and works. It's the browser I tend to use when posting hints, and when I'm doing web research that involves opening lots of tabs. Like this weekend, we were looking for some info on how to safely remove a huge mirror that's been glued to the wall (answer: piano wire, it seems). I was using Google and command-clicking links, looking for tips. I had about 15 or so tabs open, and then ... blammo ... Camino gave up the ghost.
When I restarted Camino, though, nothing was lost -- all 15 of my tabs were there, ready to go. Why? Because of a tool that works so well that I always forget it's there: CaminoSession. (Coincidentally, Dan Frakes wrote about CaminoSession for MacGems last week. I swear I didn't know that until I started doing the writeup today!).
CaminoSession, as its name implies, is a session saver for Camino. Its preferences offer but three options: save session on quit, auto-restore on Camino launch, and auto-restore when launching Camino after a crash. I typically have the first and last options checked, but not the middle one (if I quit Camino, it's because I'm done doing whatever it is I needed it for). And when I experienced the crash on Sunday, CaminoSession did its thing, saving me quite a bit of rework, bringing me right back to where I was just before the crash.
It's not glamorous, it's not feature-packed, but it works very, very well. (Future versions of Camino will include some form of session saving, but for now, this is the best solution I've found.)
While putting together my presentations for Macworld Expo last week, I needed a few widgets to help demonstrate a particular tip. So I headed over to Apple's widget page and just grabbed a few at random. One of the ones I grabbed was iStat nano, which has turned out to be a most useful widget.
iStat nano is a small system information widget that provides lots of details on what's going on with your machine: CPU and memory usage, remaining disk space, network activity, top CPU using processes, uptime, system temperatures, battery status, and fan activity. (You have to approve the installation of a small extension to track fan and temperature information on Intel machines.)
My only complaint is that, with my aging -- though still 20/20 -- eyes, I wish the widget were just a bit bigger. While I don't have to squint to read it, if the widget and its text were just a bit larger, everything would be easier to read. Other than that, though, iStat nano works well, and provides a lot of useful information in an easy-to-use package.
Given everything going on at Expo for the next few days, there won't be a Pick of the Week for this week. I'll be updating the templates for 2007 (and adding in the 2006 picks that aren't yet on the table), though, so everything is ready to go for next week -- as I have a feeling we may see some things this week (perhaps even at 9:00am today!) that are worthy of consideration.
[This is the Pick of the Week for January 2nd, 2007]
CoreDuoTemp is a handy menubar item that monitors an Intel Mac's CPU temperature (as well as CPU load and frequency, if you wish). You can also choose to display a small floating window that shows temperature, CPU usage, system uptime, and the minimum, maximum, and current CPU frequency. Finally, you can also install a Dashboard widget that shows CPU usage, temperature, and frequency (although it seems the temperature displays in Celsius only, unlike the menubar item and floating window, where Fahrenheit is also available).
I know there are many utilities out there that do this, but I like the simplicity of seeing a single number in the menubar (I don't have it show frequency or CPU usage).