[This is the Pick of the Week for the week of October 9th]
We've run a few hints here about Apple's Safe Sleep mode, available on all portable Macs since the fall of 2005 (and certain older machines, as explained in this hint).
By default, all new portable Macs use Safe Sleep mode. Most of the time, you won't ever notice it -- if the machine doesn't lose all power while sleeping, it will awaken like usual. But if it does happen to run out of power, when you reconnect it to a power source, it will wake somewhat slower than usual, and with a different onscreen display. That's because it's not actually waking up; it was powered off, since it lost all power. But what you're seeing is Safe Sleep at work, restoring your machine's RAM state from the hard drive, which it wrote out the last time you put the machine to sleep.
Some people, though, prefer to use this "deep sleep" mode, wherein the laptop isn't using any power at all, all the time. To do that, you have to use Terminal to change the hibernatemode value -- not exactly user friendly. Enter the Safe Sleep widget. Install the widget as you would any other, then just activate Dashboard, launch the Safe Sleep widget, and click on it to send your machine into deep sleep mode.
If you decide to use this program, please read the included documentation on how to recover if something goes wrong (though that's not too likely; I've had no issues with the widget).
I don't use the deep sleep mode all that often, so the widget is perfect for me. Most of the time, I just close the lid and put my MacBook into normal sleep mode. But when I want to conserve battery life -- or even more usefully, swap out a dying battery for a new one on a long flight -- I can now do so via F12 and a mouse click.
[This is the Pick of the Week for the week of October 2nd]
One frustrating aspect of life as a Mac user is the bewildering array of semi-compatible video formats we encounter on a near daily basis. Some seem to play in QuickTime, others require VideoLan Client or mPlayer or FLV Player, while others require finding, downloading, and installing some obscure third-party QuickTime codec. If you're lucky, all the stars align and you're able to play your video back with QuickTime. If you're not lucky, you wind up cursing the encoder gods and perhaps launching Windows XP in Parallels to see if you have any better luck there.
Enter Perian. Although it's very early in this product's life cycle, I'm already impressed. As seen on their home page, Perian's goal is to become the Swiss army knife of video codecs for QuickTime. Download the package and drag the QuickTime component to the Library -> QuickTime folder of your choice: your user's Library (so it's just for you) or the top-level Library (for everyone on the machine). Restart any apps that use QuickTime (QuickTime Player, iTunes, your browser, etc.), and you're done.
You'll find that QuickTime can now magically handle a diverse array of additonal video formats: Divx, XviD, FLV, AVI, MS-MPEG4 v1, MS-MPEG4 v2, MS-MPEG4 v3, DivX 3.11 alpha, 3ivX, Sorenson H.263, Flash Screen Video, Truemotion VP6, and these formats when they are inside an AVI file -- h.264, mpeg4, AAC, AC3 Audio, and VBR MP3. And yes, I ripped that list right off their website.
Combine Perian with Flip4Mac (for Windows Media files), and you've got as close to a Rosetta Stone for Mac video playback as we've ever had. In the short time I've had it installed, I've been impressed with how well it's worked -- I no longer have to think about what player I might have to use for a given clip; they all just open in QuickTime.
[This is the Pick of the Week for the week of September 25th]
As a Mac user who enjoys auto racing games, the population of available titles isn't that large. Over the years, there have been some good ones and some bad ones, but few seem to have endured on my "play regulary" list. One exception is Nascar Racing 2003, which I still play with some regularity -- too bad the odds of a future version are nearly nil. Though there are many things I like about NR2003 is that it runs quite well at 1920x1200 on my Dual 2.0GHz G5. I'm more than willing to give up a bit of eye candy to have such a sharp, large field of view.
Enter Ambrosia's Redline Racing. Released last week, it took me all of, oh, two minutes to get hooked on it. Offering many modes, including racing, time trials, online play, and challenge mode, Redline Racing has something for nearly any fan of racing games. Though I've got many hours of gameplay in the books now, I've barely scratched the surface of what it has to offer. Why? Because I've been spending all my game time on the ridiculously addictive Challenges section. There are 12 challenges in all, over varying types of track and in different vehicles. The idea is simply to complete the challenge in the shortest-possible time.
The challenges range from the seemingly simple (accelerate-and-stop as quickly as possible) to the frustratingly tricky (I've ground-looped the Downhill Corners challenge more times than I care to count). Since the challenges are all short in duration, it's easy to pop into the game and run through a couple trials with only a few minutes spent. For me, the fun lies in trying to constantly improve on my best time, figuring out the secrets to each vehicle's handling. For each challenge, you earn gold, silver, or bronze medals depending on your results. When you earn gold in certain challenges, you unlock additional vehicles. Complete all 12 challenges with gold medals, and you earn an extra-special vehicle -- one with which you can post some truly impressive lap times :)
Beyond the challenges, there's the regular racing, of course. There are six tracks and thirteen standard vehicles to pick from, and you can even drive in the rain, if you wish. Time trialing in some of the more powerful cars is quite fun -- nothing like sliding around a track, steering with the throttle! It may not lead to the quickest lap times, but it's sure a hoot.
[This is the Pick of the Week for the week of September 18th]
A recent posting on Command-Tab reminded me that I had downloaded Burn a while back, intending to take a look. So I did, and like what I saw, so here it is as a Pick of the Week. So technically, yes, I'm cheating by backdating it for last week's pick -- but I have had it on the hard drive for a while, if that counts...
Burn is an alternative to Disk Utility (free but somewhat limited) and Toast (not free but feature rich). Using Burn, you can burn data discs (in five formats), audio and MP3 CDs, movies in VCD, SVCD, DVD, and DivX formats, and disk images. There are lots of settings in the Preferences for the various formats -- you can set the audio and video bitrate for your DivX burns, for instance.
I've never found the need for all of Toast's features, but I've been looking for a tool with a bit more flexibility than Disk Utility. Burn seems to fit my needs quite well, and it's hard to beat the price!
This is the Pick of the Week for the week of September 4th
Tired of everything on your 232 satellite TV channels? Bored with 400 repeats per day of Law and Order? Then try Democracy, the Internet TV player. Democracy is a bit like an iTunes video podcast player on steroids, but that's really not doing it justice. Democracy is a really nice Mac application for viewing and managing 600+ channels of community-provided internet television. Just like "real" television, you won't find something you like on every channel, and much of what you see may have the feel of the local cable access channel. But there are some gems out there, including many with production values that rival that of traditional television.
To browse 600 channels, Democracy presents a searchable channel guide organized by categories. I found it relatively easy to browse, and the buttons are large and easy to identify. I also liked the active downloads interface, as well as the overall "feel" of the app -- it feels like a Mac app, and I much prefer it to watching video podcasts in iTunes. By default, videos are saved locally for six days, then erased automatically. However, you can click a Save button to retain anything you'd like to permanently keep.
I'm not sure if this is the future of television or not. But as a look at what's possible in a system not controlled by large media companies and expensive access, it's quite interesting. The fact that it's all presented in a nice looking, easy-to-use native Mac application is just icing on the cake.
This is the Pick of the Week for the week of August 28th
If you grew up in the early days of IBM-compatible personal computing, the odds are good there was a DOS-powered PC in your home. And if you liked games, that means you were playing games that ran on top of DOS. Classics such as Prince of Persia, Duke Nukem 3D, and numerous others. Who can forget the days of limited sound, low-res graphics, and stilted gameplay? Still, if you long for those days, long no more -- now you can run the oldest graphical games on the latest and best operating system.
DOSBox is a DOS emulator that runs on OS X (as well as other platforms). Installation is simple; it's just an application, so drag it wherever you want it. Launch the program, and you'll be staring at the familiar white-on-black DOS interface. So what next? Well, you probably don't want to just sit in DOS all day, so go grab some games. There are many sites out there that have collected fully legal shareware, freeware, and demo versions of many DOS games. DOSGAMES.com and DOS Games Archive are two such sites. (There are probably also sites where you can find games that have less apparent legal status -- full versions of old DOS games whose ownership and copyright may not be completely clear. Using such sites, of course, is at your own risk.)
So what do you do after you download an old DOS game? Expand the archive, and then place the folder somewhere easy to get to. Launch DOSBox and then mount the folder as a virtual C drive: mount c: ~/DOSgames/whatever. Then just type C:, find the .EXE files, and run them. The small shot above left, for instance, is from Epic Baseball (click the image for the larger version). I managed to get most everything I tried running, though Duke Nukem 3D was giving me some user interface issues (as in I couldn't select any items on the menu!).
DOSBox isn't rich on user interface features, but it works quite well. There's even SoundBlaster support, so you get in-game sound. I'm sure DOSBox could be used for more productive tasks as well, but it's great as a flashback gaming machine!
This is the Pick of the Week for the week of August 21st
This week's selection is a bit odd, as it's something that I don't actually use regularly. However, I find the concept quite interesting, and keep coming back to it on occasion, so I thought it worth sharing. Onlife is a bit tricky to describe, so I'm going to borrow the description from the program's homepage: "Onlife is an application for the Mac OS X that observes your every interaction with apps such as Safari, Mail and iChat and then creates a personal shoebox of all the web pages you visit, emails you read, documents you write and much more." Basically, Onlife watches what happens in a number of different applications, logs that activity, and then indexes it. You can also tag activities, as well as place them into one or more groups. Your activity in each app can then be viewed in one of six modes (day, week, month, table, thumbnail (for web pages), and summary.
For different apps, different things are tracked. iTunes songs played, Camino, Firefox and Safari web pages visited, Mail messages received, Word and TextEdit documents, QuickTime movies, etc. Every time you do something in one of these apps, an entry is created in Onlife. Over time, your usage patterns become clear, and it's also simple to go back in time to find something you worked on in the past, whether that be an hour ago, a month ago, or more. You can view an info screen for stored data, or actually view the web page, listen to the song, read the email, etc.
The list of supported apps isn't overly extensive -- 17 as of the latest beta. But there's a good selection of "baseline" apps that many users are likely to use (Mail, Safari, Camino, Firefox, TextEdit, Word, NetNewsWire, and QuickTime, among others). There is a price to pay when Onlife is running: it will use some CPU cycles (and RAM, obviously) as it sits there in the background, watching and recording the activity in the apps you use. On my Dual G5, this was usually in the 3% to 7% range, spiking upwards of 20% depending on what was happening.
As for exactly what Onlife might be used for in the long run, that's one of the reasons this is an interesting pick: I'm not really sure. I find the visualizations of usage kind of neat, as it shows which apps are getting the majority of my time throughout the day. I've also used it to quickly find, for instance, an email that I know came in a day or so ago, but has long since been filed in my monstrous maze of Mail folders. But mostly, it's a pick just because I find it an interesting concept ... and since it's free, it doesn't cost anything to take a look.
This is the Pick of the Week for the week of August 14th
SleepWatcher has been mentioned here in a number of hints -- it's the best way I've found yet to have actions happen on sleep or wake (or even idle). Note that it's not a GUI application, so you'll want to be comfortable in Terminal before trying to put it to use. But with the ability to have different sleep and wake actions per user, as well as a number of different configuration options, SleepWatcher is a powerful tool for those trying to make their Macs behave in a certain manner on sleep or wake.
I'm not going to say much more about it in this writeup; read the linked hints above for some real-world examples of how you can put it to use. If you want control over the sleep and wake activities on your Mac, SleepWatcher is a great solution.
As I headed to San Francisco for the WWDC this week, I was looking forward to a nice hour's ride with my iPod and a good book ... shortly after takeoff, I plugged in my iPod and pressed Play. Instead of the sound of music, though, I was greeted by the sound of silence. Odd, I thought. I glanced at the iPod to see what might be wrong, and found it was restarting. Odder, I thought. So I repeated the process a few times, and had varying degrees of success -- sometimes I heard a few seconds of music, other times none at all. But every trial ended with the iPod restarting. Sigh. So much for my hour of music.
Even worse, though, was that I was headed out of town for a week, and my iPod was going to be the sole source of music for use during my early-morning hints updates, and any other writing assignments that came up. What to do...
If your gaming preferences are on the 'casual' and 'puzzle solving' end of the spectrum, I think you'll really enjoy Professor Fizzwizzle (PF from here on out). PF is a classic two-dimensional side-view game. At first glance, it looks like your typical horizontally scrolling game, but that's not what it is at all. Rather, PF is a massive (230 levels) brain teaser. The game's objective is decidedly simple: get the Professor from his entry point to a specified departure point. To accomplish this task, you can move up, down, left, or right (but no jumping). Of course, nothing is ever simple, and there are typically any number of obstacles between the Professor and the exit -- everything from holes that he can fall into but not climb out of, objects such as crates and barrels, surfaces of sand, grass, and ice, each of which cause differing behavior for both the Professor and objects on those surfaces, and much, much more. Here's a look at one of the simpler early levels (click the image for the larger version):
On the pictured level, the objective is to get the Professor to the blue disc on the left side of the screen.