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Mouse Locator - Cursor, cursor, where for art thou? Pick of the Week
Mouse Locator imageThe macosxhints Rating:
8 of 10
[Score: 8 out of 10]
About a year I ago, I made Mouseposť the pick of the week. This handy little app dimmed your screen, except for a bright circle around the mouse. I find it quite useful during presentations, to help the audience find the cursor. It resides in the menubar, and is invoked via a quick tap of a function key. It works very well for its intended purpose.

On my home Mac, though, I had a related but different issue. I have two fairly-sizable displays, and I'd often find myself flicking the mouse about wildly, trying to locate the cursor. This was especially true if I'd been away from the machine for a few minutes, as I wouldn't have any clue in which application I may have left the cursor. Sure, I could use Mouseposť and hit F1, which is what I had been doing until Friday. Under 10.4, I could also use the Universal Access panel to make a truly huge mouse cursor, but I didn't want it big all the time; I just wanted some way of spotting it a bit quicker.

Then on Friday, I caught this article by Chris Breen over at Macworld. Almost in passing at the end of the article, he mentioned Mouse Locator. This handy utility does one thing: it helps you find the cursor. It works automatically, activating itself after a user-defined 'no cursor movement' time period, anywhere from one second to 30 minutes. (If you'd like to always highlight the cursor, there's also an Always On checkbox.)

And what exactly does Mouse Locator due when activated? Nothing. Until you move the mouse. Then the locator appears, surrounding the cursor. It stays onscreen for a user-definable time period, from one to nine seconds. The default locator graphic is the concentric green circles, shown in the icon at the top of this hint. But you can also easily change the highlight, and there are other images available, from both the developer and third parties. You can even make your own, if you're so inclined. As seen in the screenshot at left, I'm using one of "Ian A's" designs at the moment.

Mouse Locator is perfect for what I need -- it stays out of the way until I need it, which is usually after a longish absence from the machine, so I have it set for a 20 minute delay. You can also use a hotkey to instantly display the locator, which can be very useful when editing a long Word document, for example.

I have only two small complaints about Mouse Locator. The first issue is the most annoying, and it has to do with the custom locator images. When you use a custom image, the program will only look for it in one spot -- in the top level of your user's Pictures folder. It just so happens that I use the Pictures folder as the source for my rotating desktop images on one monitor, so my custom image is now technically in the rotation. Thankfully, I have a lot of pictures in there, and it hasn't come up yet. I've written the author, asking for the ability to specify a location of our choosing (or at least to use any folder other than Pictures), but haven't heard back as of yet. If a fix isn't forthcoming, I'll end up moving my desktop images to a folder of their own, then specifying that folder in the Desktop preferences panel.

The second (minor) issue is that while the instant-on hotkey is user-settable, it's not completely customizable. You can use any combination of Shift, Command, Control, and Option, but only with Space or F1 through F15. I would prefer to use another keystroke, but there's no way to do that presently.

Outside of these two issues, though, I love this system preferences panel. I no longer have to do the repetitive mouse flick to find my cursor when I return after an absence. As soon as I start moving the mouse, it lets me know where it is on the screen.
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Scenario Poker - Hold'em in a widget Pick of the Week
Scenario Poker imageThe macosxhints Rating:
9 of 10
[Score: 9 out of 10]
Tiger only hintAs some of you may know, I enjoy the occasional game of Texas Hold'em poker. That doesn't mean I'm good at it, but I do enjoy it. So I've been sort of keeping my eye open for a good Mac version of Hold'em. Scenario Software makes the amazing iPoker, but it's a bit of overkill for my simple needs. Then a couple weeks ago, Scenario released a free Dashboard Widget called Scenario Poker. The widget offers just one game, but that one game is Texas Hold'em.

I installed the original release, and it was fun, but had some issues (primarily that the widget was so small that it was hard to see everything). Then last week, they released an update to the widget, and this new version is basically perfect. The widget is now quite large (840x640), and there are numerous options for card design and table color. You play against nine opponents per round, and you start round one with $1,000. Survive (win) round one, and progress to round two, where you start with $10,000, and the players are all a bit better. Admitting my poker incompetence, that's as far as I've currently progressed, so I'm not sure where it goes from there.

As each hand is played out, you get a readout of the odds of completing certain things -- "Straight Draw: 16%" or "Flush Draw: 20%." As a relative beginner, I find this quite helpful to learning the game. You can also see some cumulative stats on the back of the widget (I'm presently winning a whopping 16% of the hands I play, which is just slightly better than the random odds (10%) of being the winner of any given hand). Gameplay is pretty fast, though I'd like to see an option for a 'finish hand immediately' when you fold. The speed does increase when you bow out, but I'd love to have the option to just jump to the end of the hand when I'm merely spectacting.

I love the fact that this is a widget that can be called up and dismissed whenever I want to play a quick hand or two. The computer players all seem to be pretty decent, and my only complaints are minor. First, you can't just declare "all in" at any point (you have to basically bet all your money away progressively). Second, it's not possible to bluff everyone out of a hand, ever -- at least one computer opponent will stay in, even if they're only holding seven-high junk. In any real game I've ever played, there have been at least a few hands where someone walked off with a pot simply because everyone else bailed. But these are minor flaws; if you enjoy Texas Hold'em, Scenario Poker is a fun, easy-to-play, and addictive 'widgetized' version of the game.
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Chax - Add new features to iChat Pick of the Week
Chax imageThe macosxhints Rating:
9 of 10
[Score: 9 out of 10]
  • Developer: Kent Sutherland / Product Page
  • Price: Donationware
I use iChat quite a bit. OK. I use it a lot. It's my primary interface for reaching the far-flung members of Macworld's editorial team, and it keeps me in touch with friends and family who would otherwise have to wait for me to write a letter or email (yea, right!) or pick up the phone. As such, I'm always looking for ways to make iChat better -- and yes, I've tried the various replacement options, but keep coming back to iChat for its great audio and video chat support.

One such enhancement is Chax, a donations-accepted plug-in for iChat. Installation is a simple double-click and relaunch of iChat, after which you'll find a new Chax section in iChat's preferences. Without covering everything Chax does, here are a few of the features I find especially useful:
  • Change the font face and size of a user's name or status message. Unfortunately, the row height doesn't change with a smaller name font, but decreasing the size of the status font will let you see longer status messages. You still can't, however, override iChat's 45 (I think) character limit on status messages; that's all the characters you'll see of anyone's message, regardless of font size.
  • Automatically reconnect after disconnection. This one's important to me, as my iChat connection drops when I connect or disconnect from the VPN at work.
  • Automatically accept text chats. No more annoying windows that require a response (which I can't select without the mouse) to initiate a simple text chat.
  • Hide the Smiley button on the text input line.
  • Show unread message counts (or the sender's names) on iChat's dock icon. This is particularly useful with the auto-accept feature enabled.
  • View chat logs within iChat. While you can't search them, as you can with Logorrhea, it's great being able to quickly open an archived chat directly within iChat. Unlike using File: Open, the log viewer groups all chats by person, so it's much easier to find a specific conversation.
Chax does a lot more, too -- Dan Frakes covered it in detail in a Mac Gems writeup a month or so ago. Read his review for the scoop on everything it offers, or visit the Chax web page for a full feature list. Just be aware that there's no real documentation, and not every new feature is found in the Chax preferences screen. For instance, hiding a given buddy's status line is in the View menu, and the log viewer is in the Window menu.

These minor quibbles aside, I love this addition to iChat!
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Service Scrubber - Take back the Services menu Pick of the Week
Service Scrubber imageThe macosxhints Rating:
10 of 10
[Score: 10 out of 10]
A while back, I ranted about Services on Macworld's site. In that article, I mentioned a new utility, Service Scrubber, that Peter Maurer had just created to deal with the problem of an out-of-control Services menu. Service Scrubber has now received a couple of updates and has become an indispensible tool to help me keep the Services menu under control. As such, it's this week's Pick of the Week. Instead of going into great detail here, though, you can read more about it in this Mac Gems article I wrote for Macworld.

Obligatory disclaimer: I was the initial inspiration for Service Scrubber. I was ranting to Peter about how out-of-control my Services menu was, and he thought he'd be able to do something about it. Literally a few hours later, I had the first rough version of Service Scrubber in my hands. Beyond the concept and initial testing, though, I am not involved with Service Scrubber in any way. I don't get a cut of the donations, and I don't determine new features (though I have emailed Peter ideas for future enhancements, as anyone can via the Contact link on his site). I'm just a very satisfied user, having trimmed nearly 100 entries from my Services menu thanks to Service Scrubber.
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Google Earth - A world exploration tool Pick of the Week
Google Earth imageThe macosxhints Rating:
9 of 10
[Score: 9 out of 10]
Google Earth has been out for the PC for quite a while, but the Mac version was (finally!) officially released during Macworld Expo a couple weeks ago. (There was an unofficial beta floating around the net for a month or two before that.) If you haven't downloaded it yet, I highly encourage you to do so. It's an entirely different way of looking at our planet, and you may quickly find that hours have vanished as you play with the program. It's hard to explain exactly what Google Earth is, but think of it as Google Maps with an interactive 3D interface and (in many cases) higher resolution imagery.

You'll find yourself visiting cities just to see the high-res pictures, measuring distances between distant points on the planet, finding islands in the middle of the ocean, looking for airplanes captured during flight (as seen at left near Portland International Airport), and exploring some of the wonders of nature, such as the Grand Canyon and Mt. St. Helens -- I made a short movie [6.8MB] of a visit to Mt. St. Helens so you can get a sense for how the program works, showing the zoom, tilt, and spin features. It really is quite amazing, especially in the areas with high resolution imagery.

There are useful tools for measuring distance between points, either in a straight line or via a path, and if you thought directions on Google Maps were cool, wait until you see them in Google Earth. With a 3D perspective and instructions printed right on the map, they're quite impressive. Another fun thing to do is pick a spot (Denver, Colorado, for instance), and then just enter a faraway destination (Sydney, Australia), and watch Google Earth fly you from point to point. If air travel were only this fast and easy!

There's a lot more that I haven't even touched on, obviously. Give it a download and test drive -- and make sure you visit the Preferences section, where you can control a ton of little things about how the program works.
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iWork '06 - Nice improvements to Apple's 'suite' Pick of the Week
iWork '06 imageThe macosxhints Rating:
9 of 10
[Score: 9 out of 10]
Last week was Expo, of course, and many new products were introduced. iWork '06, though, had an immediate impact on my work, and as a result, I spent quite a bit of time using it (well, half of it!) last week. Despite the minimal amount of attention iWork received during the keynote, there are some truly substantive improvements in the package.

Since I do a lot of presenting, I was most interested in the changes in Keynote, and whether they would address my number one gripe with the program. My gripe has to do with bulleted lists; namely, that when you have a bulleted list on a slide, you can (a) only have one such list per slide, and (b) you can't do anything else while those bullets were appearing on the screen. Assume the first bullet in a list is "Mail's new interface look," for instance, followed by "iTunes' new video features." In prior versions of Keynote, you couldn't insert a screenshot of the Mail interface after the first bullet, then have the screenshot vanish before the second bullet. This led to all sorts of stupid workarounds, most of which involved duplicating large numbers of slides.

In Apple's booth Tuesday after the keynote, a rep demonstrated that Apple had fixed my gripe in Keynote 3. You can have as many bulleted lists on a slide as you like, and you can now do things during the bullet builds. Since my presentation wasn't until Thursday, I went to the Apple retail store in San Francisco and bought a copy of iWork. I then spent much of my free time on Tuesday and Wednesday updating my presentations to take advantage of the new Keynote 3 bullet building feature (and inserting some of the nice new slide transitions). I found Keynote 3 to be a great improvement over the prior version, and hence, iWork earns this week's Pick of the Week on the merits of Keynote alone.

Pages has some nice upgrades, too, though I didn't spend nearly as much time on it. Of the changes in Pages, the addition of an auto-correct tool is quite welcome, as is the new integration with the Address Book (for doing mail merge documents). I covered what I found to be the major new features in each program (and the suite overall) in my iWork First Look writeup for Macworld. The writeup includes a demo movie of the bullet building feature in action, amongst other things.

I know some will complain that there's no upgrade price for iWork (or iLife, for that matter). But to me, even at $158 for two years, iWork has been well worth the money just for Keynote alone. There are still some things PowerPoint does better, of course, but Keynote is now a very worthy competitor, and at a substantially reduced price. Throw in Pages, and iWork is a bargain. (You'll probably feel differently if you don't do a lot of presenting, of course; Pages isn't a replacement for Word, and a program like The Print Shop may out-do Pages' layout skills).
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SafariStand - Add many useful features to Safari Pick of the Week
SafariStand imageThe macosxhints Rating:
8 of 10
[Score: 8 out of 10]
This week's pick is a bit odd in that ... I'm not even sure I can tell you everything it does. The developer is Japanese, and the product is "mostly" translated into English. What that means is that the documentation is somewhat sparse, and some features may be hard to understand. With that said, however, SafariStand is an amazingly useful plug-in. SafariStand adds a Stand menu to Safari, and through that, you have access to a ton of interesting features, including:
  • Separators (both lines and labels) in the Bookmarks menu, as seen in this screenshot.
  • Add a sidebar showing icon views of presently-opened sites, ala OmniWeb.
  • Add a New Tab button to the Bookmarks bar.
  • Display a floating window with bookmarks, history, and even a page viewer and RSS reader.
  • Use a 'shelf' to store collections of tabs in an easy-to-access manner. This is tricky to describe, but basically, you open a bunch of sites in tabs, then use the 'Create Shelf from Current Workspace' menu item to put those tabs into a shelf entry. From now on, you can open all those sites via the shelf. This is a great way to temporarily store visited sites, and to re-open them in tabs in a hurry.
  • Use keywords in the URL bar to do quick searches -- typing mu screenshot into the URL area, for instance, will search MacUpdate for entries that match "screenshot." You can add your own search shortcuts as well.
  • Let ordinary keystrokes do useful things. If you're not in the URL bar or the search field, Safari ignores your typing. SafariStand lets you assign a few useful keys to often-used tasks: the +, - and = keys on the 10-key, for instance, can be used to increase, decrease, and reset the text size and/or image scaling for a web page. And (very useful), you can use , and . to select the previous or next tab.
  • Supports 'site alteration,' which is a way of customizing what happens when you visit certain sites. For instance, for cnn.com, you can disable plug-ins, meaning those annoying flash ads won't be displayed. In addition, you have control over images, JavaScript, pop-up windows, Java, page encoding, default and minimum font sizes, and user agent. You can even specify your own style sheet to be used, on a site by site basis.
  • Auto-close the Safari Downloads window automatically, after a user-settable period of time. Hooray! I hate the fact that that window opens every time I start a download!
  • Colorize HTML in the View Source mode.
There's more, but those are the main things I found interesting. As noted, the interface and documentation can be a bit daunting, but I found it well worth the learning curve. I especially appreciate the control over individual sites. My bank's site, for instance, requires pop-up windows to be active, so I had been manually enabling and disabling the pop-up blocker in Safari. Now I have a custom setting for their page that allows the pop-ups. Very nice.

So far, I haven't had any crashes or other issues, but note that this is (a) technically beta software, and (b) something that extensively modifies Safari's behavior. As with most things in this category, having a current backup is a Very Good Idea.
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Transmit 3 - Powerful file transfer app Pick of the Week
Transmit imageThe macosxhints Rating:
8 of 10
[Score: 8 out of 10]
I've been doing a Pick of the Week since early in 2002. Even accounting for various missed weeks (and, in 2005, months), that's a lot of software -- about 175 titles in all. It also represents a fair bit of calendar time, during which a product could change greatly. So in some cases, a product can actually be re-listed as a Pick, if there were enough substantive changes over time. Such is the case with Transmit 3.

The original Transmit was a Pick of the Week way back in 2002 (in what must have been one of my shorter writeups ever!). Since then, Transmit has progressed greatly, and version 3 is, in my opinion, the best yet. This is especially true if you're running 10.4, as there are many Tiger-specific new features, such as Automator support, a Dashboard widget (watch it in action), support for Sync Services, and Spotlight favorites (i.e. access favorites via a Spotlight search). In addition, there are some other great UI additions in version 3 -- column view browsing mode, a sidebar for often-visited locations (both local and remote), spring loaded folders, auto-zooming previews, SFTP and other secure transfer methods, and (hooray!) tabs, for multiple transfer sessions in one window.

I really like the Automator support; with a very simple two-action script, I can create an "upload these files to this directory" action for my most-used directories (the 'dlfiles' downloads directory on Hints, for example). So now uploading files is as simple as control-clicking on the file(s) in question and choosing the appropriate action from the Automator menu.

Unlike Transmit 1, I didn't give version 3 a perfect score this time out. Though I haven't had any issues with it, I have friends who have reported problems with high-ascii filenames, sync services not working on some servers, and some random quits. However, in my experience, it's been quite stable (no quits), and has been working great, especially since the 3.2.1 update came out. I love its very Mac-like interface and its extensive feature set. Note that there are quite a few free/cheap FTP apps out there, but if your job requires heavy FTP usage, as does mine, Transmit is well worth checking out.
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Document Palette - Slick 'new document here' app Pick of the Week
Document Palette imageThe macosxhints Rating:
9 of 10
[Score: 9 out of 10]
One thing that's easier to do on Windows than on the Mac is to create a new document at a given location. For instance, I have a folder for each week's weblog entries on macworld.com. To create a new entry, I would have to activate my text editor, type some content, then do a File: Save, and navigate to the proper weblogs folder to save the new file. On Windows, there's a New Document Here (or something close to that) option available in the contextual menu. There are workarounds available, such as using touch in the Terminal, or creating an Finder plug-in using Automator's New Text File action, but neither are really ideal.

While digging through the Mac Gems archives, I stumbled across Document Palette, which Dan reviewed back in March. This handy background app lets you create a new document in the current Finder folder with the touch of a hot key (Control-Command-Option-N). As shipped, Document Palette can create new plain text, rich text, and HTML documents.

But the real power in Document Palette comes from the fact that it's easily extensible with your own templates. Open the program that you'd like to use for your new document, enter whatever text you'd like, save the document somewhere, and then add it to Document Palette's preferences. This lets you set up a basic templating system, wherein you can create different templates that can be created with the touch of a hot key. For instance, I set up a jEdit template for my Macworld blog entries, and another for posts to my personal site. Both templates are jEdit documents, but have compeltely different starting text. So now, if I want a new blog entry, I hit the Document Palette shorcut, then 'b,' which is the shortcut key I assigned for blog entries. If I hit 'g' instead, I get a new document for my personal site.

This handy little utility, though I just discovered it this weekend, has already saved me quite a bit of Finder navigation time (as well as copy-and-paste time for the setup info I include in each blog entry). As a result, my shareware payment is on its way today...
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DockStar - More detailed counts for new Mail messages Pick of the Week
DockStar imageThe macosxhints Rating:
9 of 10
[Score: 9 out of 10]
Ever been frustrated with Mail's simplistic new message count in its Dock icon? You get one number, representing only the messages in your inbox. But if you use rules to filter messages, you probably have unread mail in a number of folders, too. Enter DockStar. This Mail plug-in lets you view the unread count for up to five different mailboxes in Mail. I'm on a number of mailing lists, and I find this little tool is quite helpful for tracking new activity on four of them (in addition to my main inbox).

The UI is quite intuitive, though I found the color-changing wheels to be somewhat tricky to use -- I'd love to see a pop-up for the standard color picker instead. But beyond that, it's well thought out, and you can even pick from a set of different graphics for each badge's background. Dan Frakes wrote about DockStar in this week's Mac Gems article, and he's got a lot more detail if you're interested.
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