Yes, it's Thursday and we're just now getting to the Pick of the Week ... sorry about that; I basically forgot about it due to some other commitments! I also cheated a bit for this week's pick, as I spotted it just yesterday in Dan Frakes' Mac Gems Weblog. URLwell is an organization tool for all those "temporary" URLs you may have strewn across your desktop or in various folders on your drive. URLwell lives in the menubar, and you can add a URL to it by simply dragging and dropping. It is not a full-blown bookmarks manager; it exists mainly as a convenient way to save all those sites you'll be visiting "any day now" but don't necessarily want to go through the trouble of bookmarking.
Dan provides a more detailed writeup of its features and operation, so head over to his weblog for the full scoop. Suffice it to say that I found URLwell to be very easy and intuitive to use (I love the option-click to remove feature), and you can't beat the price! Thanks, Dan, for the pointer to a most handy little utility -- my desktop and "temporary things" folder are now much less crowded!
EasyFrame is one of those cool little apps that just seems to work, and fills a niche. In this case, that niche is applying various artistic frames to images. As seen at left (click the picture for the large version), you work in a simple interface. The drawer holds all of the various frame types, sorted into categories, a simple toolbar offers fast access to often-used pictures, and the image area shows the frame applied to your image.
To use EasyFrame, you just drag an image into it from the Finder, iPhoto, etc. When you've created the frame you'd like to use, just drag the image back out again -- directly to Mail, iPhoto, the Finder, wherever. You control the output format, too, even during a drag-to-save: the settings at the bottom of the image window for image type, quality, and background, are used when you drag. So you can easily add a frame with a transparent background to an image, then set the type to TIFF and drag the image and its new frame into iPhoto. Using this technique, you can make some very impressive iPhoto slideshows.
Sure, you can do all of this in Photoshop (and/or Photoshop Elements), but unless you're a real expert, it's going to take a lot longer, and you can't use drag-and-drop to easily move your finished image around. EasyFrame is, well, really easy to use.
The one thing I wanted to do that doesn't seem to be possible is to position the image behind the frame; the frame is always applied with the photo centered behind it. It'd be great if there were a way to drag the image around behind the frame, much like the way iWork's masking feature functions. This also isn't the tool to use if you want to add the same frame to 250 images; you have to do each image one at a time. For a large operation like that, a tool like Photoshop would be the better option.
I probably won't use EasyFrame every day, but for adding a custom touch to iMovie and iDVD projects, it seems like the perfect tool for the job...
If, like me, your iPod is nearly always with you, but the same is not necessarily true of your PDA and/or phone, you might be interested in Pod2Go. This cool little application lets you put a large assortment of data on your iPod. You can load everything from news, weather, movie, stocks, driving directions, horoscopes, text snippets, data from apps like iCal and Address Book, and even song lyrics. As seen in the screenshot (larger version), the interface is elegant yet powerful, with each icon across the top controlling that specific data source. The shot shows the Applications icon, which controls what data you'd like to copy from certain Apple applications.
I've played with all of the tools now, and they all work quite well. You'll get varying results with some of the news feeds, as they're dependent on the various sites' RSS feeds. If you use the macosxhints.com feed, for instance, you'll get the hint title and the first 200 words of the hint. Unless it's a really short hint, that's probably not tremendously useful. Many sites will actually send headlines only, which is similarly not too useful on an iPod. But others send the entire article, which is perfect.
Price: $24.95 [15 day trial] ... free lite version also available
While digging around on Freshly Squeezed Software's site for info on last week's PotW, I stumbled across this RSS (newsfeed) reader called PulpFiction. I have tried a large number of news readers, and there are some very good programs out there. However, I had yet to find one I really liked well enough to use regularly (though I have called a few out with Pick of the Week selections in the past). I found the interface on most programs confusing or too limited, and I couldn't find one that had an easy way to manage the hundreds of stories that accumulate in even a lightly-populated news reader. So in the end, I just went back to browsing sites directly to check for updates. But PulpFiction is different, and unlike any of the other readers I've tried.
PulpFiction basically treats news feeds like mail messages, and has an interface design that is very reminiscent of Apple's Mail app. If you like Mail (which I do), that's a good thing. If you don't like Mail, you probably won't like PulpFiction. And I know that this pick will probably be controversial -- news readers are like Mail clients and calendar applications -- personal preferences come heavily into play. Hence the new poll that went up slightly before this hint! Feel free to add your picks as a comment to this story, of course ... but also vote in the poll for your favorite news/RSS reader. Note that because there are so many news readers out there, I wasn't able to list them all, so you may have to use the "Other" category...
With the recent conversion of my family blog site to WordPress, I decided to take another look at tools to put my "iTunes now playing" info on the site. Yea, there's no practical purpose for doing so, but it's something I've had on our family site for a long time, so I thought I might as well keep up the tradition. On my previous blog, I used Kung-Tunes (a previous PotW) to display this info, but I wanted some more flexibility -- I wanted a text display, not a graphic, and I wanted to control the formatting as much as I could.
After some hunting, I found Recent Tunes. Recent Tunes places a small icon in your menubar, through which you control the program. When you click the icon, you'll see the "Now Playing" song, and a list of the recently played songs. This is a nice touch, as it provides an easy way to jump back to a recently-played favorite song you might want to hear again. The preferences allow you to change the number of songs displayed, the color and style of icon, and whether or not to display album and artist info in the menu. There are four other tabs in prefs -- CurrentTune and RecentTunes control the files that list your current and recently played songs -- where to save them, whether to upload them to a server, and (for recent tunes), how many songs to list. The Upload tab gives you four upload options (FTP, SSH1, SSH2, and HTTP Get).
Do you take screenshots? Lots of screenshots, for publication on the web or in print? Do you get tired of playing the "setup everything" dance every time you need a screenshot? You know the game; change your desktop image to something bland and acceptable, move your desktop icons out of the way, make sure just the right windows for the chosen application are visible, etc. It's a very time-consuming and annoying process.
Enter Backdrop. With Backdrop running, you get a desktop-covering borderless window as a backdrop for all your screenshots. You can control the color of the backdrop, or even specify an image to use as the backdrop (and whether to center, stretch, or tile that image). You can also specify where the backdrop itself "floats." If you specify "In between," then your backdrop is just another application window. If you choose "Behind icons," then your backdrop becomes your desktop image.
The only annoyance I have with Backdrop is that it has a dock icon when running. If you're taking Dock screenshots that require a backdrop, this is a pain -- you'll have to Photoshop the final result if you don't want the Backdrop icon visible. You can avoid this by modifying the info.plist file within the application package (as described in this really old hint (ignore the Panther Broken bit; it now seems to work again as expected; I just tested it myself). However, if you make this modification, then you cannot access Backdrop's preferences, and you have to quit it via Activity Monitor or the Terminal. It'd be great if it was a true faceless background app with some method of accessing its prefs (System Preferences panel, contextual menu, etc.).
Other than the dock icon issue, I love Backdrop -- it saves me quite a bit of time whenever I need screenshots for the site, book, or some publication.
Disclaimer (and Background): This week's PotW is the result of a suggestion I made to Peter Maurer, author of Butler, probably my favorite OS X usability enhancement tool. It had always bothered me that you could minimize a window to the dock without touching the mouse (Command-M in most applications), yet you had to mouse down to the dock and drag back and forth in order to then find a particular minimized window. I asked Peter if it were possible to write a Butler extension that would add in a "minimized window" management hot key. If I'm recalling correctly, less than two days later, the first version of Witch was in my in-box. Aside from providing the creative spark, I've got no direct involvement in this product...
As usual with Peter's stuff, he's gone well beyond the basics of a minimized window manager with Witch. Witch is a full-blown enhanced Command-Tab switcher, with a ton of additional features. Instead of merely switching apps, you can switch directly to a window within an application. You can set hot keys to switch between windows in various spots: all applications, only minimized (how I primarily use it), non-minimized, frontmost app, frontmost app minimized, and frontmost app non-minimized. Whew! I just leave the first two choices enabled; I've set Control-Option-Tab (and Backtick) to be my "all windows" switcher forwards (and backwards), and Control-Command Taqb (and Backtick, again, for backwards) for managing minimized windows. I've left the other options disabled.
After installing and activating Witch, you can now manage minimized windows with a hotkey. Press your chosen key combo, and your minimized windows will appear in a fully customizable pop-up (font size, colors, shadows, or choose from some pre-created settings). Select the window you wish to de-minimize, and it slides out of the dock, ready for use. You can also do things like add a "Cancel" item in case you change your mind, or an "Activation" item, so Witch can activate faceless background apps. The window list can be sorted by the application's name, launch order, "last use order," or by the window activity order (which will actually inter-leave application names, based on how you've been using the various open windows).
Witch isn't perfect, mainly due to some OS X limitations. First, applications that draw windows in non-standard ways (such as Circus Ponies' Notebook) don't show in the switcher. Second, if you have hidden an application, and that application does *not* have any minimized windows, then it will also not show in the switcher. If it's hidden with a minimized window, though, it will. Since I primarily use Witch to manage minimized windows, these limitations don't bother me too much -- and I love the convenience of unminimizing a window from a pop-up list. It's about 100 times faster than the old "visit the dock and scroll" method, and means I'm actually using minimize again as a means of organizing my workflow.
In addition to running macosxhints.com, in my 'spare time,' I try to keep our family and friends up to date with the goings-on in our lives. Over the years, I've tried various ways of doing this: a version of Geeklog hosted on my home machine, a homebrew solution also hosted at home, and using iBlog (a previous PotW) to update the site on .Mac. While each of these had benefits, they all had downsides. I couldn't sleep the home machine (and upload speeds were limited), Geeklog was overly complex for a home blog, my homebrew solution was a real pain to update, and iBlog really works best if you do your updates from the same Mac all the time. I wanted to find a solution that would work from anywhere, and that was hopefully simple enough that my wife Marian would enjoy using it, too. (Trying to explain how Geeklog works is quite the challenge, since it's a complex system).
Enter WordPress (WP). I had looked at this app a couple of years ago, and wasn't overly impressed. But just this week (today, in fact), they have released version 1.5. It has come a long, long way, and now meets nearly every need I have in a simple-to-use blog package. Since WordPress makes development versions available, I've been using 1.5 since late last week (thanks for the pointer, Merlijn!). In that time, I've managed to migrate all of our various blog posts (we're not prolific, with something under 100 posts in four years :) ) into WordPress, and I've been thrilled with the results.
WordPress is, by far, the simplest MySQL/PHP app installation I think I've ever done. Assuming you have MySQL and PHP working, and you've created the database, installation takes well under two minutes. They claim five in their documentation, but I think that's conservative! I first installed it on my OS X box, and it ran perfectly. I experimented with the engine a bit, and like what I saw, so I uploaded it to our personal site, and started migrating, finding themes, etc.
I am not a huge user of screensavers; my Macs are usually either awake and working for me, the screen has been dimmed if idle for a few minutes, or they're in sleep mode. In fact, I have but one third-party screensaver installed on my system, and it's this one.
I'm not much for most of airline travel -- I dislike the drive to the airport, the parking hassles, the check-in and security process, the waiting, the relatively cramped cabins ... but I do enjoy the actual flight, once it's started and assuming I've managed to snag a window seat. I love watching the planet go by from 35,000 feet; it makes the trip go faster, and there are some great sights to be seen from above (flying over the Grand Canyon into Phoenix, for example).
Enter Holding Pattern, an "out the airliner's window" screensaver. Now you can have those same views without the travel hassles ... OK, not quite the same :). As you sit in your virtual window seat, you'll see various scenery drifting by below, as you can see in the short (1.9MB) movie linked at left (click the photo to play). There's a wide variety of scenery, as well as varied seats within the airplane. And the flights do eventually go somewhere, though you'll have to let the saver play for quite a while to see the end result.
If you're not using an LCD screen, then Holding Pattern may not be the best screensaver -- there are parts of the image (sometimes big parts) that are fixed (the window, a wing, etc.) for a few minutes at a time. It shouldn't be long enough to cause any burn in, but ideally, a screensaver wouldn't have any fixed objects on the screen.
More "screen entertainment" than pure screensaver, Holding Pattern will let you see some nice landscapes drifting by when your Mac's idle ... and it's free! (There is a $200 limited edition that includes even more imagery and other niceties, if you're interested in directly supporting the developers.)
With the recent release of iWork, many folks seem interested in using Pages to replace their current word processor. As I noted in my preview for Macworld, there are many things that Pages will not do. Depending on your needs, this may make using Pages as your everyday word processor impossible. There is, however, a nice workaround for one of Pages' limitations -- the inability to count words and letters for anything other than the full document. Most anyone who has written for any publication will need a feature like this, as there are many things (captions, sidebars, etc.) that may not count in your total word limit, so an overall document count isn't that useful.
Enter WordService. As seen in the image at left (larger version), WordService will give you a nice summary of the characters, spaces, letters, lines, and words in any selection of text. But how does it work? Simple, it's a service. Once installed, it's an entry on your Services menu. This means it will work in all Cocoa (and some Carbon) applications -- and Pages is Cocoa. So just highlight a bunch of text, then choose Services -> Statistics, and you'll get that nice count window.
But wait, that's not all! You'll also get three more amazingly useful services menu entries, each of which contains multiple tasks. The Convert service lets you change the case of text (including initial caps of words or sentences), change straight and "smart" quotes, convert line endings (Mac vs. Unix), and convert tabs to spaces (or vice versa). The Format service offers up options to reflow text, remove multiple spaces between words, sort lines in ascending or descending order, and various trim options. The Insert service lets you add various forms of the date, time, or date and time, or the contents of the path. There's actually a fourth service as well, called Speak Text, which will speak the selection in your native language or German (as well as Stop Speaking, in case you started a long one and don't want to let it finish).
I'll admit I haven't used the Speaking service much (OK, at all!), but I really like the others. With Pages in particular, it's doubly-useful: Pages not only lacks selection counts, but any form of text case conversion other than "all caps" or "small caps" -- what about "sentence case?" With WordService, those two features are fairly easy to access, and basic text manipulations are but a text selection and Services-menu-item away, in any Cocoa application (Mail, TextEdit, Keynote, Safari...).