Archive for May, 2008

VirtualBox 1.6 review: free VM software for the Mac

Friday, May 30th, 2008

My recent comparison of Parallels Desktop and VMware Fusion attracted a lot of comments, many of which pointed out a third, free virtualization app for the Mac: VirtualBox. I confess that I’ve been blissfully unaware of VirtualBox, despite it being around for a couple of years. To be fair, the Mac version only came out of beta at the start of this month – at least, that’s my excuse! – and this is the version I’ll review here.

VirtualBox actually comes in two flavours: an open-source GPL edition, and a proprietary “VirtualBox Personal Use and Evaluation License (PUEL)” edition. The latter is free as in beer, provided of course it’s just for personal use or evaluation purposes. It also has more features than the GPL edition at the time of writing, including USB support and an RDP server for remote access (here’s a full list of the differences). For the purposes of this review I tested the PUEL edition.

VirtualBox supports a wide range of guest operating systems, including most flavours of Windows, many Linux distros, FreeBSD, DOS and even NetWare. VirtualBox includes tools for both Windows and Linux guests. These are called Guest Additions, and work in much the same way as Parallels Tools and VMware Tools – you get smooth graphics and mouse performance, as well as the ability to resize the guest desktop simply by resizing the VM window.

Creating a new VM. VirtualBox supports an impressive range of guest systems.

I gave VirtualBox a spin with both Windows 2000 and Ubuntu 7.10 guests. Installation of both operating systems was flawless. However, the Ubuntu installation process was noticeably slower than with VMware, taking well over an hour to install from the live CD. (more…)

Parallels Desktop 3.0 vs. VMware Fusion 1.1

Tuesday, May 27th, 2008

One of the great things about Intel Macs is that you can run Windows on them. Why would you want to run Windows on a Mac? Well, there are many applications – including most games – that are only available for Windows. By running Windows on your Mac as well as Mac OS X, you get the best of both worlds – the loveliness of MAC OS X, and the compatibility of Windows.

There are two applications that you can use to run Windows simultaneously with Mac OS X: Parallels Desktop and VMware Fusion. How do they compare?

I’ve been using Parallels Desktop since I bought my Mac back in 2006 (in fact I bought Parallels before the Mac!). It does the job well enough, but recently the nice folks at VMware gave me a review copy of VMware Fusion. So I thought I’d give Fusion a quick spin and see how it compares. The versions I’m reviewing here are Parallels Desktop 3.0 (Build 5582) and VMware Fusion 1.1.2 (87978).

Migrating virtual machines to VMware

I didn’t want to muck about installing a fresh copy of Windows, or deal with Windows XP reactivation grief, so I used the VMware Importer to migrate a Windows 2000 Parallels virtual machine across to VMware Fusion. The Importer was a bit ropey – it spent 15 minutes converting the drive before informing me that the VM was suspended, so it couldn’t finish the import – but to be fair, it’s still in beta.

Once I’d successfully converted my Parallels VM to a Fusion VM, I fired up Fusion. I have to say, I’m not a big fan of the Parallels user interface; it always seems odd how it opens new instances of itself for new VMs, and some of the dialogs seem like they were written by someone with English as their second language. I’m pleased to say that Fusion’s UI is a breath of fresh air in comparison, and behaves more like I’d expect a Mac app to behave. (more…)

The Apple iHome?

Saturday, May 24th, 2008

“Apple Inc. will become the hub of the digital home by 2013.”

So says Forrester Research, according to Darren Waters on the BBC News site. Forrester argues that Apple will build its home-entertainment empire on 8 key pillars:

  • The Mac platform
  • Apple TV
  • The bricks-and-mortar Apple Stores
  • iTunes
  • A home server
  • A universal music controller (whatever that is)
  • Network-aware devices such as music players, photo frames etc
  • Hardware installation services for home users

In fact Darren disagrees with this statement, arguing that many of the above 8 pillars are unlikely to ever make their way out of the Apple factory gates. I agree that some, such as Apple iPhotoFrames, sound a bit far-fetched. Also, why no mention of the iPod or iPhone? Does Forrester think these won’t be part of Apple’s digital media strategy?

There can be little doubt that home digital entertainment is the direction in which Apple is headed. The signs are all there:

  • Its renaming from “Apple Computer, Inc.” to “Apple, Inc.
  • Its stubborn refusal to get seriously into the corporate server market
  • The Apple TV, and Front Row on the Mac
  • iTunes, the iPod range, and AirTunes
  • The way the iTunes Store is going with movie rentals and so on

Sure, Apple will continue to make great inroads into home entertainment, but will it be the “hub of the digital home”? I’d say it’s quite likely for existing Apple users like myself, who already watch and listen to most of their content on the iMac or Apple TV in the living room. But I’d imagine that most families of the future will likely have a mixture of brands making up their digital life, much as they do now. (more…)

Web developer features in Safari

Thursday, May 22nd, 2008

If you’re a Web coder, Safari 3 offers some really nice debugging features – if you know where to look for them. First, you need to turn on Safari’s Develop menu (hidden by default). To do this, choose Safari > Preferences, then in the Advanced tab check the Show Develop menu in menu bar option. You’ll see the new menu appear to the right of the Bookmarks menu in the menu bar.

The first option, Open Page With, lets you open the current page in any other installed browser – handy for cross-browser testing. The second, User Agent, tells Safari to masquerade as another browser when viewing websites. Safari still renders pages as Safari, but sends another user agent string to the Web server. This can be useful if you’re testing browser detection code, for example.

Call in the Inspector

The fun really starts with the next option, Show Web Inspector. The Web Inspector window is reminiscent of the Firebug Firefox add-on, and shows you the syntax-highlighted markup (or, by clicking the button in the toolbar, the DOM tree) of the current page, the contents of any linked style sheets, the images used in the page (with info), the source code of any JavaScript in the page, and info on any other page elements it finds.

Click the Console option at the bottom left of the window, and you can see JavaScript errors and other messages; click on an error to jump straight to the JavaScript line that caused it (nice). You can also type your own JavaScript commands into the single-line box at the bottom of the console window and see the results appear above – great for finding out the current state of variables and so on. (more…)

Free alternatives to iCal for managing To Dos

Monday, May 19th, 2008

I’ve ranted at great length about the usability nightmare that is iCal – and the fact that Leopard’s iCal is, if anything, worse than Tiger’s. One saving grace of Leopard, though, is that Apple have opened up the iCal framework, allowing other apps to create and edit events and To Dos. And sure enough, such apps are starting to emerge. Here’s a quick look at a couple of free To Do applications for Leopard.


One new app I’m currently playing with is FlexTD. This app’s sole objective is to make it quick and easy to enter new To Dos. It installs itself as a preference pane; all you have to do is assign a keyboard shortcut to it. Then, whenever you want to add a new To Do, you press the keyboard shortcut (from within any app) and start typing. It’s fully keyboard accessible, so you can set the calendar, priority and due date easily via the keyboard.

It’s nicely done, but it’s a shame you can’t edit the Note field as you’re creating a To Do, which makes project entry a la GTD a pain.


Another free To Do app is Anxiety. Unlike FlexTD, which only lets you add To Dos, this one also lets you view and edit your To Dos. Well, sort of. You can scroll through your current list of To Dos by calendar and mark To Dos as done, but you can’t edit a To Do’s title or other info; to do that you have to double-click (Arrgh! No keyboard shortcut) a To Do to open it in the dreaded iCal. Also, like FlexTD, you can’t view or edit a To Do’s Note field without switching to iCal. (more…)

Nice wallpaper for your widescreen Mac

Friday, May 16th, 2008

Apple’s bright Mac displays are great for showing off beautiful photos, and I love having stunning wallpapers on my iMac’s desktop. However, not all wallpapers are a good fit for the widescreen displays used on current Macs. So I thought I’d hunt around for some really good quality widescreen images.

Here, then, are 5 wonderful widescreen wallpaper sites that I discovered on my travels:


InterfaceLIFT provides a nice selection of over 1,500 high-res widescreen wallpaper images – perfect for the Mac’s screen. They also provide nice icon sets that you can use to customize your file and folder icons (info on how to do this).

Widescreen Wallpaper Flickr group

Then there’s the Widescreen Wallpaper Flickr group pool with all sorts of highly original wallpaper images from around the world. New ones are added all the time, too. (more…)

Leopard review part 9: Random stuff and conclusion

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

Well this review of Mac OS X Leopard could fill a book, so I’m going to wrap things up now. I’ll briefly talk about other new features of note, and attempt to reach some sort of conclusion about the latest Mac OS.


Apple have added tons of snazzy new features to iChat AV. Major ones include Photo Booth-style effects, the ability to have a picture or movie backdrop, screen sharing, audio/video chat recording, tabbed chats, and iChat Theater – a feature that lets you show movies, Keynote presentations and other media to your chat buddy while you’re talking to them. I haven’t had a chance to use most of these new features yet, but the backdrop effect is quite fun – though the backdrop tends to leak through quite a bit. One simple but nice improvement is that the Buddy List window now allows buddy groups, making it much easier to organize your list of buddies.


The Web Clip widget in Leopard's Dashboard

I was already using Safari 3 on Tiger, so there’s not much new here. The only difference appears to be the Open in Dashboard button/menu option that lets you capture part of the current page and save it as a Web Clip Dashboard widget. This is a very handy feature in certain situations – for example, I use it to display the current Sydney weather radar on my Dashboard for quick access, as shown on the right. (Looks like a storm brewin’ in the Pacific!)

However, the widget doesn’t work so well with things like AdSense report pages that require a login. When your login times out, the widget can’t cope with the changed page and freaks out. (more…)

Leopard review part 8: Front Row

Sunday, May 11th, 2008

In my ongoing Leopard review I’m currently looking at the Apple applications that are bundled with Mac OS X – at least, the apps that I personally use on a regular basis.

I was going to write about just Mail, iCal and Preview, but then I remembered there’s another app that I use that has had major changes in Leopard: Front Row. We actually use Front Row fairly extensively; we don’t have a TV (shock horror!), so we watch DVDs and a lot of video podcasts on the living room iMac, as well as listen to music on it (streamed from the iTunes on my Mac).

Front Row in Mac OS X Leopard

So is the new Front Row a step forward like Preview, or is it one step forward, two steps back, like Mail? Let’s see.

The good

On the plus side, the daft swirly effect when you launch/exit Front Row is replaced by a simple fade, which makes for a smoother transition to Front Row and back. The new Front Row interface on the whole is slicker – much like the Apple TV interface, in fact.

The fonts are a lot smaller than Tiger’s Front Row, so if you plan to watch movies on your MacBook from across the room, you might be squinting a bit. On the other hand, this means that you can see more of song/movie titles while you’re browsing. Even better: When browsing, the titles for both audio and video media now scroll horizontally if they’re too long to display in one go. This feature is wonderful, as I’m no longer having to play “guess the podcast” with long podcast titles, for example.

Viewing theatrical trailers is generally a nicer experience in Leopard’s Front Row. You now get some blurb about each movie as you’re browsing it (replete with the occasional HTML character code – oops!), and you can also see the download progress of a trailer as it loads – a feature sorely missing in Tiger. However, in Tiger you browsed movies by poster artwork – a nice, intuitive way to find movies. Now you just get a list of titles, and you can only view the poster for the currently selected movie.

Browsing theatrical trailers in Leopard’s Front Row

Another nicety is that Front Row can now play a VIDEO_TS folder from a ripped DVD – handy if you like to have your movies on your hard drive. In Tiger you had to resort to a hack to get this working. (more…)

Leopard review part 7: Preview

Thursday, May 8th, 2008

Many of the core applications in Mac OS X have been significantly upgraded in Leopard. I’ve already taken a look at Mail and iCal in my review. Here I’ll concentrate on Preview, Apple’s PDF and image viewer.

As the built-in apps go, Preview is a bit of an unsung hero. It pops up when you view a PDF, then you close it when you’re done – you don’t tend to think about it much. However, it’s a supremely useful and well-written application, and with the release of Leopard, it’s now even better.

Preview in Leopard


Preview in Leopard has vastly improved annotation features. You can highlight text, and add sticky notes, ovals, rectangles, and URL links. (I was disappointed that you can’t constrain ovals to circles and rectangles to squares, but hey, you can’t have everything I suppose.) You can add your name to annotations too (enabled by default in Preferences > General). All annotations are retained when you save the PDF.

Here I highlighted some text in a PDF (which, by the way, is from the excellent book Future Files, by my good friend Richard Watson), and also added a note:

Adding a note and highlighting text in Leopard’s Preview

PDF editing

You can move or delete pages within a PDF, and combine PDFs using drag and drop. Although you can’t create PDFs from scratch or edit the actual text of a PDF, these basic editing features are still useful for those times when you want to make a quick change. (more…)

Leopard review part 6: iCal

Monday, May 5th, 2008

My epic Leopard review continues. At this rate I’ll have to give it its own blog category.

Today I’ll take a look at iCal, the calendar/task manager app that ships with Mac OS X.

I’ve bitched about Tiger iCal’s hideous user interface before – particularly its heinous lack of keyboard shortcuts for basic tasks. So does Leopard’s iCal mark an improvement over Tiger’s?

Well, yes and no. The iCal interface has had a makeover, and definitely looks and feels slicker than Tiger’s iCal. In addition, as with the new Mail, the interface feels more responsive, too.

The new iCal in Leopard

Unfortunately, the interface, despite its makeover, still sucks like a fleet of Hoovers. In fact – and Apple have had to try really hard here – the new interface is even less usable than Tiger’s. (more…)