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ChatFX - Real time video effects for iChat Pick of the Week
The macosxhints Rating:

[Score: 8 out of 10]
[This is the Pick of the Week for the week of July 17th.]

Dan Frakes and I both saw ChatFX about the same time. He, however, beat me to the punch in writing it up, so I'll let his review do the majority of the work in this case. ChatFX is a simple little application, designed to liven up iChat's video chatting feature. Using ChatFX, you can overlay any one of a number of different effects over your video window, producing visuals ranging from simple starbursts to real-time twirl distortions of whatever the iSight camera sees. Most of the effects are simply for fun (our eldest daughter is particularly fond of Bubbles and Fun House), but some (such as the Desktop feature) could be useful at times. (Check out Dan's gallery of sample images in his writeup.) But ChatFX's main focus is fun, and it does a good job of providing just that to your video chat sessions.

You'll want a fast Mac to take advantage of ChatFX -- since the effects happen in real time, they're quite CPU intensive. The authors also mention that it seems to run better on the Intel-powered Macs than it does on the PowerPC machines. You may also be disappointed in some of the bluescreening features if you're a pro user, and $20 is a fair bit of money to spend on a program that's mainly just for fun within video chats. But if you do a lot of video chatting with friends and relatives, you may find it money well spent -- presenting yourself as a ghostly x-ray to your buddies might just be worth a $20 bill!
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iLife - A collection of amazing programs Pick of the Week
The macosxhints Rating:

[Score: 9 out of 10]
[This is the Pick of the Week for the week of July 24th]

Typically, I use the Pick of the Week to highlight interesting but not necessarily mainstream applications and utilities. That's clearly not the case this week, with the selection of iLife '06, Apple's self-described "suite of digital lifestyle applications." Looking at the prior picks, I've never chosen iLife as a winner, though I did select iDVD a few years back when it was a standalone app.

So why a mainstream pick, especially from Apple themselves? Well, I've spent the last week or so working on a modest-sized video project for my wife's company--it's actually an update to a project I created for them back in 2000. I'm far from a professional video editor, and haven't ever taken the time necessary to learn to use Final Cut Express, which I also have sitting on the shelf. So that means I've spent most of my free time in the last week in iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD, and Garage Band, updating the video project, adding new content, and revisiting the soundtrack.
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Paparazzi! - Grab screenshots of an entire web page Pick of the Week
The macosxhints Rating:

[Score: 9 out of 10]
Have you ever wanted to capture a full screenshot of a web page that's many screens long, such as the main page at macosxhints.com? I don't have to do this very often, but when I do, it's always a bit of work -- grab three or four separate screenshots, then edit them together in Photoshop. But with Paparazzi! (hereafter referred to without its exclamation point), the process becomes quite simple. Just enter the URL and click Capture. When you do, the page will load in a preview window (showing the full length within the window, with the image's width shrinking as necessary to fit in the window). Then just click the Save button to save the image in a file format of your choice (JPEG, PDF, TIFF, or PNG). You can even create a separate thumbnail image (as well as an icon for the saved image) if you wish, which is great if you're putting the snapshots on a website.

You can also use Paparazzi to see what a site looks like at a given resolution -- just change the Crop Size pop-up to one of the presets (640x480, 800x600, 1024x768), or enter your own dimensions. When you click Capture, you'll get a sense for how well the site fits (or doesn't fit) in the window size you've defined. There's even a Delay field, which you can use to allow a Flash-based site, for instance, to fully load before capturing the screen.

This may not be an app you need often, but when you do, you'll be glad it exists. And with a price of free (donations accepted), it's tough to beat -- I've seen similar utilities with $20+ pricetags, so Paparazzi is a great bargain. (Note that Paparazzi was also a MacGems selection back in August of 2005.)
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Smultron - A nicely-done text editor Pick of the Week
The macosxhints Rating:

[Score: 8 out of 10]
  • Developer: Peter Borg / Product page
  • Price: Free (open source)
I'm always on the lookout for nice text editors. For many years, jEdit has been my editor of choice -- not necessarily because I find its interface the prettiest, nor its features the easiest to use and figure out, but simply because it has the right combination of features I'm looking for (more on that in a bit). However, the main downside of jEdit is that it's written in Java, and Textpander (now TextExpander shortcuts just don't work right in jEdit (it's got something to do with the pasteboard). This impacts my workflow (I have to toggle out/in of jEdit to make a new shortcut work), but the feature set in jEdit keeps me coming back. There's also no on-the-fly spellchecking, which I find nicer than running my completed text through a spell checker.

Smultron was first released a couple years back, and showed promise but was missing some features, at least based on my needs. The recent release of version 2, however, has addressed those missing features, with just a couple of exceptions. And just what are these features that I find so compelling in jEdit? There are really just three things that jEdit does that seem to be somewhat unique:
  • Split a window and show a different file in each split. jEdit can actually do this vertically and horizontally, as many times as you have the screen real estate to handle. But just one simple horizontal split is really enough for me. I use split view all the time with a CSS file open in one split, and an HTML file in another, so I can easily see the class assignments. Smultron 2.0 now allows a single horizontal split, with a different file open in the split area.
  • Easily close open HTML tags. In jEdit, typing </ will close the presently-opened HTML tag. In Smultron, Command-T will close the open tag.
  • Work with files directly on servers, via FTP or SFTP. jEdit has a very nice File System Browser that shows the directory structure and file for the currently-active directory, be it local or remote. Smultron, unfortunately, lacks this feature, but it does allow itself to be registered as the external editor for FTP/SFTP apps, such as Transmit, which is at least a halfway solution.
Some are probably saying 'BBEdit is it, why muck with anything else?' Well, BBEdit doesn't support split windows with different files in each split, and that's probably the most important item on my list. It also has a number of other little things that seem to annoy me, so I don't use it much. The other upsides of Smultron over jEdit are also quite nice -- my Textpander shortcuts work perfectly, and there's on-the-fly spell checking. You can also run Unix commands, and the Services menu is fully functional, unlike in jEdit, so I can use the HumaneText.service to format my text into XHTML.

Overall, I'm very impressed with Smultron 2.0, especially given that it's open source and free (donations are accepted). As of version 2.0, it's got a very polished feel, and has very nearly every feature I find important in a text editor. It's now been put into the macosxhints production cycle, as I'm using it for the daily hint publication (including this one) -- though I'm still falling back on jEdit for working on the site's PHP and HTML files, as the in-program SFTP support is just so convenient. But for most everything else I do, Smultron has earned a spot on my very short list of preferred text editors.
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Shortcuts -- Add keyboard shortcuts to contextual menus Pick of the Week
The macosxhints Rating:

[Score: 8 out of 10]
Dan Frakes wrote up Shortcuts in a recent MacGems entry; it was the first I've heard of it, despite having picked a couple of Abracode projects as prior Picks of the Week. You can read Dan's review for an in-depth look at Shortcuts, but here's my nutshell version.

Shortcuts lets you assign keyboard shortcuts to some, but not all, contextual menu items. You can't assign shortcuts for built-in items such as Get Info, but you can for any added contextual menu entries, such as those from Abracode and others. For me, though, the real key is the ability to add shortcuts for Automator-created Finder plug-ins. I have a bunch of these that I use for all sorts of things, including uploading files to various servers via Transmit. Using Shortcuts, I can now send those files with a simple keyboard shortcut, instead of having to navigate into my ever-growing Automator contextual sub-menu. As seen in the image at left, the red-colored entries are those that have hotkeys assigned. So to upload an image to the hints site, I just select it and hit Shift-Control-Option-I.

The Shortcuts interface takes some getting used to, since contextual menus exist for three types of items (text selections, files, and folders). Once I figured out how it worked, though, I was hooked. I've long wanted an easier way to access some key contextual menu entries, and now it exists.

You can't see your shortcut definition in the contextual menu itself, though, so you'll have to remember what you assigned (or open Shortcuts to see the list). Still, that's a minor trade-off for the added functionality Shortcuts brings to the contextual menu. Read Dan's reviews for more on exactly how it works, but if you're a keyboard and contextual menu junkie like me, it's a must-have.
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OmniDazzle -- Add visual highlights to mouse movement Pick of the Week
The macosxhints Rating:

[Score: 8 out of 10]
Having a large screen, and often walking away from my machine, I admit to having a soft spot for utilities that help find the mouse cursor when I return to my machine. That's why both Mouseposť and Mouse Locator have been prior Picks of the Week. This week's entry is the third such utility that I've chosen as a Pick...but to say OmniDazzle is just a mouse location utility is shortchanging everything this little application can do.

OmniDazzler features eleven different "effects" you can apply to your mouse. These vary from a simple bullseye cursor to comic style "bammo!" splashes to highlighting the active window to drawing a highlight shape around something on your screen to the visually engaging pixie dust mouse trails. The interface for selecting these effects is an innovative little browser window with panes for each effect, as seen at right. As you click each pane, that interface comes forward, showing a small demo of the effect, as well as its available settings. Since it's hard to describe, I recorded a brief movie (333x285 [276KB] or 666x569 [696KB]) showing it in action.

One downside of this interface is that it will suck up some CPU power -- about 25% on my Dual G5, and 40% to 50% of my MacBook, depending on which effect is on screen. But once you've chosen an effect and closed the window, OmniDazzle takes no appreciable CPU until activated. Even then, CPU usage is much less than when browsing the effects interface. Using Pixie Trails, for instance (which is so interesting you'll find yourself moving the mouse just to watch it), I saw about 12% CPU usage on the G5, and 30% on the MacBook.

Each effect can be activated by either a keystroke, a press of a mouse button, or by simply moving your mouse back and forth a few times ("shake"). Many effects have multiple configuration options to help you get just the effect you're looking for. Once active, the effect will stay active until you toggle it off again.

OmniDazzle won't replace Mouse Locator for the simple task of locating my mouse when I return to my desk, simply because it lacks an "activate after X minutes of no motion" setting. But for giving presentations, or highlighting things in video recordings, it will be a welcome addition to my toolkit. And thinking forward to April 1st, installing it on someone's Mac and setting the pixie trails activation to a mouse click will bring some interesting results :).
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Super Collapse 3 - Tetris meets BabelBlox and more Pick of the Week
The macosxhints Rating:

[Score: 9 out of 10]
If you're a fan of Tetris and BabelBox, you'll probably get a kick out of Super Collapse 3. This unique game twists together elements of both games, along with some classic puzzle-solving bits, and turns them into an enjoyable diversion. There are seven game variations, including my favorite, Sliders, in which colored blocks are sliding horizontally, leading to ever-changing mixtures of blocks. There's also a quest mode, combining all of the game types into one long adventure.

The demo version will allow you one hour of gameplay, which is more than enough time to determine if you like the game or not (I do). After that, you'll need to fork over the $19.95 to keep playing (I did). One possible note of concern for you privacy advocates: the software will phone home occasionally to verify your license. At least they come out and tell you this right in the Read Me:
After purchase, this game may occasionally communicate with GameHouse servers to verify the license is still valid. The license may be invalid if it is shared with third parties or if a refund is issued on the purchase. GameHouse does NOT record any information about your machine configuration, location or how much you are playing the game.
So if such things concern you, this probably isn't the best choice for you. For me, though, it's a near-perfect game. It's easy to play for a few minutes at a time, it's addictive and fun, and it's not a huge system resource hog. If you'd like to know more before you play, look for a full review coming soon in Macworld's Game Room.
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Audacity - A powerful audio recording and editing tool Pick of the Week
The macosxhints Rating:

[Score: 8 out of 10]
[This is the Pick of the Week for the week of May 29th]

Lately I've had the need to do more audio recording -- I've had a couple talks on the Macworld podcast, and did a tutorial video on using Butler a while back. For both podcasts and the video project, I found myself needing an audio application with the ability to record my voice, and then edit those recordings. Sure, I could have used QuickTime Pro, but it's audio recording tool is fairly simplistic, and the editing tools leave much to be desired.

Enter Audacity. This open-source app, which runs on OS X, Windows, and Linux, was the perfect solution to my needs. It's built-in recording tool worked quite well, and the editing tools more than met my needs. I was able to zoom in on my audio track and find the break points, so that I could seamlessly splice in my corrections (more corrections than I care to remember). There also a number of effects that can be added, though I resisted the temptation to put myself in a large auditorium through the liberal use of the Echo effect.

Audacity may not meet the needs of people who work with audio for a living, but for my needs, it was more than enough. I've barely scratched the surface of its feature set, though -- it can do much more than I asked of it. So if you work with audio and are looking for a useful and free recording and editing tool, Audacity is probably worth an audition.
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10.4: Image Tricks - Play with 10.4's Core Image effects Pick of the Week
The macosxhints Rating:

[Score: 9 out of 10]
[This is the Pick of the Week for the week of June 5th]

If you have Xcode 2.0 installed, you've got access to a nifty little application called Core Image Fun House (look in /Developer -> Applications -> Graphics Tools). This app lets you apply Tiger's Core Image effects to images, layer upon layer, building up some very interesting images. However, its interface isn't necessarily completely intuitive, and I found it to be somewhat unstable in use.

Enter Image Tricks. This free app is basically a new front end to the Core Image effects, along with a set of mathematical image generators you can use to create a new picture from scratch. Usage is simple -- load a picture you wish to modify, choose an effect (a Filter in Image Tricks), and apply it. Layer effects by repeating the process. There are even a number of masks you can apply to make interesting frames around your images. When you're done, you can save your image or copy it to the clipboard.

You can also build images from scratch, using the Generators tab. With a generated image, click Render then Edit, and you can then apply Filters to the created image. I was able to create some interesting effects in this manner. If you buy the Pro version, you can control the settings on some of the more interesting generators.

Not a world-changing application, but a fun one, and a good way to see the power of Core Image effects.
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Skype - Internet telephony app with free LD calls Pick of the Week
Skype image The macosxhints Rating:
8 of 10
[Score: 8 out of 10]
Note: This is the Pick of the Week for May 15th

Skype is one of a number of Internet-based phone services, and it's been out for quite a while. I've never featured it as a Pick of the Week because, well, I hadn't used it much and saw no need for it -- we don't make a lot of long distance calls, given that the whole widely-flung family is iChat (or AIM) enabled. But two recent changes have given me another reason to use Skype. The first change is that I've been doing more interviews -- for both Macworld podcasts and Gene Steinberg's Mac Night Owl. Skype is the tool of choice for both of these shows, so I've had an excuse to play around with the app -- and I've come away impressed.

While not technically perfect (there are occasional connection issues, and sometimes the sound will dropout for a brief period of time), Skype works very well. There's a built-in chat client, too, so you can type to contacts in your Skype address book (in case you're having connection difficulties, for instance). Most of the time, though, connecting is as simple as clicking a contact's name, and waiting for them to answer. And overall, I've been impressed with the quality of the audio.

The second change is a biggie -- Skype announced that all calls to a landline in the United States and Canada would be free for the remainder of the year. Before the announcement, I hadn't ever bothered to use Skype for long distance calling -- I don't do a lot of it, and our rate is pretty good already. But free is an even better rate, so I'm taking advantage of the offer. I've called a fair number of people now, in both the US and Canada, and came away impressed again. Call quality, while not quite that of a land line, is very good, and I haven't yet had an issue with dialing a land line number.

So if you're in the US or Canada, and want to eliminate your long distance charges (and don't mind dialing from a computer), give Skype a try. It's a pretty impressive technology demonstration, if nothing else.
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