[This is the Pick of the Week for December 11th, 2006]
Many years ago, I wrote about playing Zork on OS X using a Unix program called jZip. While this worked, it was never the ideal experience -- the program errored out on quit, it had to be run from Terminal, and there were quite a few text adventure games it wouldn't play. But it worked. After writing the story, I didn't pay all that much attention to it, until I got back in playing a bit of Zork in my free time recently.
When I revisited the story, I found a link in the comments to Zoom, a newer interpreter for Zork (and other Infocom and interactive fiction games). After a brief trial, it's obvious this is a much better solution. It plays Zork. It plays all the other Infocom games, even those that rely on some graphics. And it plays tons of other interactive fiction games. If you like interactive fiction, check out Zoom. And for a collection of games to play with it, visit the Interactive Fiction archive (the original MIT Zork is listed there under zdungeon.
[This is the Pick of the Week for December 25th, 2006]
This week's pick is a simple app that provides a service that some may find useless while others, like me, find it invaluable. Unplugged simply tells you the status of your portable Mac's power cord. And why might this be useful? Well, if you've ever used your laptop for a few hours, thinking it was plugged in, then moved it to another location only to have it die relatively quickly, you'll know why.
But instead of talking about it myself, I'll let you read what Dan Frakes wrote about it (including some screen shots of Unplugged in action) in his Macworld Gems column.
When I first heard about this app, I shrugged it off, too -- heck, the battery status is right there in the menu bar. But when you're involved in something, you don't tend to notice such details. Unplugged makes sure you don't wind up powerless, as its alerts really can't be ignored. I've now got it installed on both our laptops, and love its simplicity. While I undertsand how many may view this as a worthless app, I definitely don't think that's the case.
[This is the Pick of the Week for the week of December 18th]
It's that time of year again -- the dreaded holiday card season. That means lots of envelopes to be addressed, cards to filled out and stuffed, stamps to be applied, and then a trip to the post office to send off the pile of cards. Of all the tasks involved in this process, it's the addressing of the envelopes I dread the most. Hand-addressing is the most personal, printing labels the easiest, and printing directly on the envelopes is ideal, but more difficult. For the last couple of years, we've just used printed labels, but I wanted to try printing on the envelopes this year.
I started with the obvious candidate, Address Book, but quickly gave up once I found you can't set a different font size for the return address and the destinaton address. I think I then tried nearly every solution listed on MacUpdate and VersionTracker under a search for envelope in the process of discovering Snail Mail.
I found Snail Mail perfect for the job for a couple of key reasons. First, its interface was easy to understand, and neither too feature-laden nor too stripped to be useful. Second, control over the placement of the return and destination addresses was good, though still not as simple as a visual drag and drop operation. Third, it was easy to take an address from Address Book, and then modify it for the print job only -- this makes it easy to add a spouse or partner, for instance, who might have a card of their own in your Address Book. Fourth, you can use either your card from the Address Book as the return address, or a manual entry -- and you control which fields from Address Book show up on the envelope. Finally, I had full control over the font and color for both address blocks. Printing bar codes is also an option, though I chose not to use that feature.
After a short bit of work, we had a full set of printed envelopes, thanks in no small part to Snail Mail. It's a simple program, but it does its job very well.
One of the things I often complain about in OS X is the Finder. While the rest of the system reflects some truly revolutionary advancements in application design and user interface, I've always felt that the OS X Finder is pretty much the same as the OS 9 Finder ... which was pretty much the OS 8 Finder ... which was, well, you get the idea. Apart from a sidebar and a column view (hooray!), things are pretty much status quo with the Finder. While it's a capable file manager, I've often felt myself wishing for something better with more features.
Way back in March of 2002, I found SNAX, an advanced file manager that worked well as a replacement for the Finder. I liked it well enough then to select it as one of the very first Pick of the Week winners. However, SNAX wasn't perfect, and there were a number of things the Finder did better and/or faster. So over time, I migrated away from SNAX and back to the good old (with the emphasis on old) Finder. At some point, the SNAX name vanished and was replaced by Path Finder. While I didn't use it regularly, I kept an eye on its continuing development, as I felt it had great potential. In August, CocoaTech released Path Finder 4.5, and after some testing, I started using that version on a daily basis. Sometime after I got back from the Geek Cruise in November, I decided to go "cold turkey" and replaced the Finder with Path Finder (which is easy to do via a setting in Path Finder's preferences).
A few years back, I was looking for an easy way to create online photo alubm pages for my family's website. After trying all the tools I could find, I started using jAlbum, which did basically everything I wanted (it was a Pick of the Week back in 2003). Recently, however, a colleague at Macworld told me about Galerie, and I'm now using it for my online photo albums.
Galerie has a ton of features; to name just a few, you can: specify what text is associated with both thumbnails and larger images (comments, EXIF, date, etc.); set the horizontal and vertical spacing of thumbnails; add a watermark; add the full-sized images to the upload (optionally zipped); set the size of thumbnails and larger images; upload to your FTP server automatically; and much, much more. In addition to all the album setup features, you can choose from 18 different templates that control the appearance of your album. If that's not enough, you can download 50 more free templates. Many of the templates use CSS for styling, and can thus be easily customized.
The program is also very new-user-friendly. There's an extensive user manual available from within the program, and each setting has a pop-up tooltip that further describes how it works.
One of the main things that made it easy for me to switch from jAlbum is Galerie's integration with iPhoto. Just create a selection in iPhoto, then switch to Galerie and click the Generate button. Galerie will automatically grab the images from iPhoto and create the album. With jAlbum, I had to manually export my images first. It will also work in this manner with selections in GraphicConverter, iView MediaPro, and Extensis Portfolio 7. You can also drag and drop files or folders from the Finder.
Macworld.com covered Galerie in a Mac Gems writeup a couple years back, but somehow I missed it. I wished I'd found it sooner; it's a great timesaver for me -- with two small kids in the house and no local family, I spend a lot of time making online photo albums! My only wish for Galerie is that it supported more than simple FTP as the upload mechanism; I use SFTP on our server, so I have to do the upload myself. But that's a very minor complaint for a well-documented, easy to use program -- and it's free!
[This is the tip of the week for the week of November 20th]
I'll be the first to admit that my email filing scheme is far from efficient. I use multiple nested folders and subfolders to keep my archives organized -- I like that I can view any correspondence about a given subject or project by simply selecting that folder in Mail's folder list. The downside of this method, of course, is that I have a great number of folders and subfolders: 110 as of today. And yes, I probably only look at 10 of those regularly, but I like the fact that my archived mail is there for me to look at, should the need arise.
From a productivity standpoint, I know this is bad. Really bad. Merlin Mann of 43Folders tells me as much. But I can't help it; my mind works better with compartmentalized buckets of information, so I rely on folders (that I find Smart Folders not so smart, and Spotlight not quite there yet, also comes into play).
The thing about folders in Mail is that filing messages into those folders is time consuming. You can use drag and drop or the contextual menu, but with 100+ folders, either solution isn't the best. Enter MsgFiler. This Mail plug-in does one thing, and does it very well: it lets you file messages much as you'd launch a program using Butler, Quicksilver, or LaunchBar. Press Command-9 to activate MsgFiler, and a small launcher-like window appears. To file a message, just type a few letters of its name. MsgFiler will display a list of matches which gets shorter as you type more ltters. When you see the mailbox you want to use, highlight it with the down arrow key and press Return. That's it; the message will be filed.
Given my byzantine folder structure, MsgFiler is a huge timesaver. I used to put off filing older emails, just because of the work involved. But now, I can file as quickly as I can type a few letters, letting me clear out the inbox more quickly.
MsgFiler isn't perfect; this is just it's first week of release, and the author has noted some of the current issues on his site. And though it's a Mail bundle, it's a standalone application when launched, meaning it takes up space in your Dock and shows in the Command-Tab application switcher. But I can live with these minor inconveniences, knowing how much time MsgFiler saves me each day. I doubt I'll ever approach the simplicity of Merlin Mann's folder setup, but with MsgFiler, I won't spend as much time being non-productive!
[This is the tip of the week for the week of November 13th]
Everyone here is probably familiar with Folder Actions -- Automator actions and AppleScripts can be attached to folders, and they'll run when something in the folder is changed. As a non-programmer, I find the concept intriguing, but I've always stumbled a bit trying to implement just what it is I want to do.
Enter Hazel. Hazel is a System Preferences panel that sort of acts like a global implementer of Folder Actions -- but you can write actions based on simple rules, and you'll never have to touch Automator or AppleScript. You work with Hazel by adding the folder(s) you'd like to a window in the Hazel interface. You then define a rule (or multiple rules) that will apply to items added to that folder. The rules interface is very similar to that of Mail -- choose Any or All as the condition to meet, define the rule(s) that must be met, and then define the action(s) to be taken when those rules are met. You can choose from 14 different rule criteria, including "Date Added," which is just what one needs for the downloads folder, for instance. On the action side, you can do things like copy or move the file, set its label color, add keywords or comments, and run AppleScripts, shell scripts, or Automator actions.
As but one simple example, consider the screenshot at right, which is a portion of my Downloads folder. The orange files are those that are over 10MB in size, and anything blue (just one at this point) has been added to the folder in the last eight hours. This makes it easy for me to keep my window in column view, and yet still quickly identify the largest and newest downloads.
I also have an Installers folder, where I keep local copies of many of the apps I install. Inside the top-level folder, I have a series of alpha folders (A-C, D-G, etc.). Using Hazel, whenever I drop a new installer into the top-level folder, it automatically files itself in the proper subfolder, using a rule built around filename starts with. While not a huge thing, this is a useful timesaver.
Hazel isn't quite perfect -- I've found that the rules sometimes don't seem to "take," especially if you're using the "Run Rules Now" option from within Hazel. But it makes it so easy to add custom actions to folders that I feel it's quite worthy as a Pick of the Week. A free time-limited demo is available to see if you think it's worth $16 -- and yes, you can probably do this all yourself with AppleScript and Folder Actions, but Hazel makes it simple for even those of us with minimal to no AppleScript skills.
Amnesty Singles takes Dashboard's devmode hack, whereby you can permanently move Dashboard widgets to the desktop, one step further: it lets you convert any widget into a true standalone application.
Usage couldn't be much simpler than it is. Just drag and drop a widget from either your user's or the top-level Library/Widgets folder onto the Amnesty Singles large drop zone. You can then create an app that's dependent on having the original widget around, or (if you've registered) a standalone app that includes a copy of the widget. Click Build, specify a save location, and you're done.
Launch the newly-created program, and you'll find a Widget menu in each app you create. Using this menu, you can set the program's level--floating above all other windows, standard window behavior where it will interleave with others, or a neat desktop option that "embeds" the app on your desktop. There's also a menu to set the refresh interval, along with a Get Info option for the widget (which may or may not provide useful info, depending on what data the original widget author included in their project files).
This is somewhat naggy shareware--you'll get a pop-up window over your converted apps until you register--but it's not overly expensive, and it provides a really useful service. Apparently the converted widgets will also run on 10.3.9, but I don't have a machine around on which I can easily test that.
Price: Free (up to three Macs); $25 (larger networks)
This handy little application, which Macworld's Dan Frakes looked at back in 2004, is great for moving files and folders quickly between machines on a local network. DropCopy puts a small mostly-transparent circle on your desktop (along with an optional dock icon and menubar icon). Run a copy of DropCopy on each of your machines, drag a file over the circle on one machine, and the names of the other local machines will then pop-up right next to the drag zone. Continue dragging onto the destination machine of choice, and the file is transferred.
You control the notifications and warnings, as well as the destination location and other related preferences. You can even change the drag zone image (and sounds) by simply replacing a few files within the application package. Also, if you control-click on the drag circle and choose a machine, you can send a quick pop-up message to the chosen machine (and the recipient will have the option to reply).
I've been using DropCopy now for a couple weeks, and find it more convenient than keeping aliases to each of the other machines. With DropCopy, I just start a drag, hit F11 to clear the screen, drag into the DropCopy circle, choose a machine, and off goes the file -- I have its preferences set to never ask for confirmation, so it all happens dialog-free.
DropCopy isn't perfect -- the program won't copy resource forks by default, for instance. It can do so, but you'll need to remember to hold down the Option key before dragging. Also, DropCopy sends folders by first creating an archive of that folder. When you transfer a relatively large folder, you'll experience a delay as your host Mac first creates the archive (you can see this in the status window below the drag zone), then sends the archive. On the receiving end, however, the archive is automatically expanded, so it's seamless for the user. Finally, I think DropCopy needs an in-between price point ($10 or $15) to cover those with more than three Macs, but not enough to qualify as a large network. For while I find the tool useful, I wouldn't fork over $25 if I needed it to cover all four of our Macs (I rarely transfer anything from our older PowerBook, so I don't run it there).
There are other tools that handle network transfers, of course, and it's quite simple to build your own system of aliases and hotkeys that would work nearly as well as DropCopy. I just like how well DropCopy works, and find its drag-and-drop interface elegant and easy to use.
[This is the Pick of the Week for the week of October 16th]
When the MacBooks were announced, I made my purchase decision relatively quickly -- I wanted something faster than my PowerBook G4, but didn't want to spend $2K+ for a MacBook Pro. The price and performance of the MacBook struck a sweet spot with me, and I purchased one of the first black units to show up in the Portland area (I waited to see them in person so I could judge the reflective screen's performance for myself). Generally, I've been thrilled with the MacBook's performance, despite having to send it back to repair a way-too-warm power adapter (the repairs were successful).
The only two things I'm disappointed in are the size (I love the 12" form factor) and the high case temperature (especially in the bottom left corner). While I can't do anything about the first problem, thanks to smcFanControl, the second issue is now completely within my control. As seen in the picture at left, this simple app gives you a slider to set the minimum speed for your laptop's fan(s). It works with the MacBook, MacBook Pro, and Intel-powered minis, and it works well.
Apple sets the fan's speed at 1,500rpm, and this works well when I have the machine on the desk. But on my lap, it gets just a bit too warm. Using smcFanControl, I upped the speed to 3,000rpm, and saw a notable (two to four degrees Celsius) temperature drop. The case was cooler to the touch, too. Later today, I hope to get some more empirical data through a USB temperature probe. When I set the fan to max speed, I saw an even nicer temperature drop ... but I was having trouble enjoying it, thanks to the 747 that seemed to be landing nearby. Perhaps if you're wearing noise a cancelling headset it would be bearable...
The downsides? More fan noise, obviously -- although 3,000rpm was fine for my ears (though I probably wouldn't use that setting in a library). Perhaps slightly reduced battery life, and a bit more wear and tear on the fan components. But in exchange for a cooler lap, I think it's worth it. It's important to note that smcFanControl is just an app -- it doesn't install any components (unless you want it to run at startup). I've been using it to increase the fan speed when I have the machine on my lap, and reduce it again when it returns to the desk.
smcFanControl won't allow you to set the fan speed lower than Apple's default, so there shouldn't be any risk from using this app. Still, when mucking with hardware, you never know what might go wrong, so no warranty is expressed or implied with this hint!