Archive for the 'Software' Category

GrandPerspective: Quickly find big files on your Mac disk

Monday, January 26th, 2009

I recently ran out of disk space on my iMac (I regret buying the 250GB hard drive model and not the 500GB!). That meant I needed to delete some files – either a lot of small files, or a few big ones. Obviously deleting a few big files is less effort, which is why this Finder trick is useful.

However, I recently came across a better way to find big files. GrandPerspective is a free app that gives you a graphical representation of all the files and folders on your hard drive (or in a specified folder), using a clever technique known as treemaps.

Using GrandPerspective

When you open the app it asks you for a folder to scan. You can choose a folder, or click your hard disk icon to scan the whole disk:

Click Scan, and GrandPerspective reads all the files and folders (including subfolders) in your selected folder – this can take a few minutes. You then see a visual representation of all the files. Here are all the files on my hard disk:


TinkerTool review: Adjust hidden Mac settings

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

One thing that makes Mac OS nice to use is that it doesn’t have a million pointless preferences to tweak. The same is true for the apps that come with the Mac. Fun though preferences are to mess around with, too many settings tend to clutter up the interface and get in the way of real work.

However, many users like a bit more control than the Mac gives you out of the box, which is why Apple and other app developers often include “hidden” preferences in their apps. Such preferences aren’t settable in an app’s Preferences dialog, but you can adjust them by editing .plist (property list) files or by using the defaults shell command.

That’s all very well, but many users aren’t comfortable editing complicated settings files or running shell commands. What’s more, how do you find these extra preferences, if they’re not in the Preferences dialog?

TinkerTool to the rescue

Enter preference-tweaking tools like TinkerTool. This free app gives you a nice graphical interface to many of those squirrelled-away Mac OS and app settings.

The preferences are grouped into 9 tabs: (more…)

10 ways that Windows is better than Mac OS

Friday, December 12th, 2008

Having used both Windows and Mac OS X over the years, there’s little doubt in my mind that my Mac is, overall, nicer to use than any Windows PC. And of course, this is a Mac blog, so many of my posts invariably end up singing the praises of Macs and all things Apple.

However, as it’s the season of goodwill and all, I thought it fitting to redress the balance and list 10 things that Windows does better than Mac OS

1. Windows is more customizable

Change the desktop theme – including wallpaper, taskbar, window styles and fonts – to anything you like. Try doing that on a Mac.

2. Windows is more compatible

Let’s face it – practically all software and peripherals out there support Windows. (Though the Mac is getting better all the time in this regard.)

3. Choose your own hardware

With Windows you’re not tied into one manufacturer with a limited product range like you are with Mac OS (Psystar notwithstanding). On a budget? Any cheap clone will run Windows. Want something that exactly matches your lifestyle or situation? The range of PC options is huge so you’re bound to find something that suits.

4. Better keyboard shortcuts

You can access any menu option in a Windows app with 2 or 3 keystrokes, and they’re the same standard keystrokes on any Windows PC. With Mac apps you’re limited to the shortcuts chosen by the app developer. (You can add your own shortcuts on a per-app basis, but then you have to remember which shortcuts you’ve added for each app. And what happens if you get a new Mac, or use a friend’s? You have to redo all your shortcuts again!)

Furthermore, you can access pretty much all controls in any Windows dialog or window via the keyboard. Mac OS lets you turn on so-called “full keyboard access”, but there are still many things you can’t do with the keyboard (try moving from the Calendars pane to the Day/Week/Month View pane in iCal, for example, or activating the all-important Scan button in Image Capture). (more…)

Bitnotic chill: Instant ambient music at your fingertips

Monday, December 8th, 2008

Bitnotic’s recently-released chill ($19.99) is a Mac application that automatically generates soothing, chilled-out music that’s perfect for relaxing, meditating or working to.

This kind of “generative music” has been around for a long time, with software such as SSEYO Koan (now superseded by Noatikl) providing a lot of control over the music created, allowing you to tweak over 100 parameters that affect the “composition”.

chill has more modest aims, and is consequently easier to use, with just 10 adjustable parameters:

  • Mellow controls the overall “chilled-ness” of the music. High values result in major scales and chords, happier sounds, and cheerier ambient noises (sea, bells, and so on). Low values kick the track into minor keys, accompanied by distinctly un-chilled ambient sounds (such as sirens and something that sounds like a machine gun!).
  • Beats sets the music’s beats per minute. Because this is ambient music, the maximum BPM is 80, with the minimum being a very leisurely 30.
  • Click Swell to create a crescendo at the start of the next bar, with chords, melodies and ambient sounds played together.
  • Pulse shows the activity level – the higher the graph, the more things are happening in the music. It varies automatically over the course of the track, but you can click it to influence the activity level (in some mysterious way).
  • Pad determines the volume level of the pad sound that plays the main chords.
  • The left Melody slider controls the volume of the two melody instruments, while the right slider adjusts the mix of the two instruments (both their relative volumes and how often they’re played).
  • Ambience adjusts the volume of the ambient noises in the track.
  • Click Heartbeat to add a heartbeat sound to the start of each bar.
  • Click Effects to control whether the music includes fades, echoes and reverb. You can turn this off to create a dry mix for processing later (with Cubase or Logic, for example).

chill gives you lots of options for listening to your creations. You can save the last track to iTunes, AIFF, MIDI format and so on, and create continuous music with the chill Radio option. You can also control the app using your Apple Remote, and send real-time MIDI events to other music apps, allowing you to augment the music with your own sounds and beats.

The music produced by chill isn’t half bad; it sounds generally coherent, with enough variation to keep things interesting. Some of the melody and ambience sounds can be a bit cheesy in certain contexts, and some of the transitions can be somewhat jarring and “computer-like”. However, with a bit of tweaking you can get some quite professional-sounding results.

Even better, the music produced by chill is royalty-free, making it an affordable way to acquire ambient music for playing in public spaces or massage/relaxation clinics. You can download a free trial that doesn’t have the export options and stops playing after 7 minutes – enough to give you a decent taste of the app.

[via Cult of Mac]

FluidTunes: Control iTunes by waving your hands

Thursday, December 4th, 2008

FluidTunes is an interesting new free app from Majic Jungle Software. The idea is that you can move between tracks in your iTunes library by waving your hands at the screen. Your waving is picked up by the Mac’s built-in camera, and FluidTunes analyses the image to work out what you want to do.

Unfortunately the reality doesn’t quite live up to the promise. I was envisaging some sort of background app that detected right-to-left swipes across the screen to quickly advance to the next track, and left-to-right swipes to go to the previous track (and possibly top-to-bottom to pause, and so on). This would have been both cool and futuristic, and genuinely useful to boot.

In practice, you have to switch to the app in order to use it (which hardly makes it quick to use), and you then have to look at an image of your hand in the app window, guide your hand to a button, then shake it about a bit to activate the button. By which time you might as well have switched to iTunes and clicked the track skip buttons (or, for that matter, hit a key combo using the excellent SizzlingKeys).

You can also swipe through the list of tracks Cover Flow-style, though it shows each track as a separate image rather than grouping by album, which makes the list massive, and it’s quite hard to locate an individual track. What’s more, if you move from the “next track” button to the “play” button to play the track, you sometimes end up inadvertently swiping through about 50 tracks as you go.

So not much practical use, but a cool tech demo, and a taste of gesture-based interfaces to come. Using the camera to read your gestures is a great idea, especially as practically all Macs now have some sort of built-in camera. It’ll be interesting to see how this idea develops over time. Could this be a viable alternative to multi-touch displays?

Anyway, the app’s free, so download it and see what you think!

Parallels 4.0: Triumph or train wreck?

Monday, December 1st, 2008

Parallels recently released version 4 of Parallels Desktop, their Mac virtualization app that lets you run other operating systems such as Windows and Linux alongside Mac OS X. The new version promises even better integration with the Mac, and up to 50% faster operation.

I’m a relatively happy Parallels 3 user, but I’m not upgrading to 4 – at least, not yet. The Parallels support forums are inundated with upgrade problems, reports of v4 being slow as molasses, horror stories involving Windows BSODs and Windows activation issues, complaints about poor technical support, and lots of irate users demanding their money back. Enough to put me off for now, thank you very much.

This Register article paints a pretty gloomy picture of the whole torrid affair. Of course, you’re going to get problems and complaints on a support forum, but nevertheless it does sound like version 4 has some serious issues.

I had a hunch this would happen sooner or later. Parallels strikes me as a company that has grown at a faster rate than it can handle. They caught the Intel Mac wave at just the right time, trouncing the market leader, VMware, with a solid, fast app that let a whole bunch of new Intel Mac users run Windows on their Macs. Along with Boot Camp, Parallels was probably a big contributor to the success of Apple’s move to Intel.

Now, Parallels may have become a victim of its own success. With over a million Parallels Desktop users (and all the sales and support issues that entails), and growing competition from the likes of VMware and VirtualBox, the company seems to be groaning under the strain. In their rush to catch up with VMware’s Fusion 2.0 release, it sounds like Parallels’ developers may have rushed Desktop 4.0 out the door without proper Q&A or beta testing.

This is all a shame because, at its heart, Parallels Desktop is a very nice product. I’ve used Parallels versions 2 and 3 for years now, and, for those times when I do have to hold my nose and boot Windows(!), it’s perfect. What’s more, it sounds like Parallels Desktop 4 is potentially a big improvement over both version 3 and VMware Fusion 2.1 – if only it worked properly.

I hope Parallels manages to sort out the version 4 issues soon, before their reputation gets too badly tarnished and more disgruntled customers jump ship to VMware Fusion or VirtualBox. Personally I’m holding out for 4.1 before I consider upgrading.

ClickNoMo review: Pain-free mouse clicking

Monday, November 17th, 2008

If you suffer from wrist or hand pain when using your mouse then you know how infuriating it can be. My wife uses the excellent Smart Cat touchpad to alleviate her wrist pain, and finds that just 1 minute of using someone else’s mouse is enough to bring the pain back.

It turns out that a lot of the pain when using a mouse is caused by the clicking action. One way round this problem is to use an application that enables so-called “dwell clicking”. The idea here is that the software senses when you haven’t moved your mouse for a short while, and automatically “clicks” on your behalf.

I recently tried one such app, ClickNoMo ($29). Fire it up, and it presents you with a floating palette of option buttons (shown at right).

Menu displays the app menu (which is usually hidden). On/Off toggles the dwell clicking feature. The remaining 4 buttons determine what happens when you stop moving the mouse: Select Click and a “click” action is made; select Dbl. Click and a “double click” is sent, and so on. By default, ClickNoMo reverts back to Click after a double-click, drag, or right-click action.

A nice touch is that the option buttons themselves can be “dwell-clicked”, even if ClickNoMo is currently off. So you never have to click that mouse button again!

The app’s preferences let you change things like the palette transparency, the amount you have to move the mouse to register a new “click”, and the time delays before a click is performed and before dragging ends.

In practice

ClickNoMo is especially welcome when using the stubbornly mouse-intensive Mac OS. You’d have thought that “downgrading” your mouse by not using its buttons would be awkward, but in fact there’s something strangely liberating about not having to click (even if, like myself, you don’t generally suffer from mouse-related pain). You just have to remember not to do things like idly moving the mouse while in the middle of typing!

Some apps, such as Photoshop, don’t lend themselves too well to the dwell clicking concept, but for things like Web browsing and document editing it’s great.


The downsides? For one thing, it’s a PowerPC app, so it’s a bit sluggish to start up on Intel Macs (which most folks have these days). It could use an update. Secondly, I’d like to see an option to enable some sort of audio feedback so you know when you’ve “clicked”.

The app also seems somewhat pricey for what it does. Still, if you suffer from any sort of mouse-related pain then it can’t hurt (pun not intended) to download the trial and take it for a spin!

[Found via ATMac]

Things: Elegant task management on the Mac and iPhone

Sunday, November 2nd, 2008

Before I get into reviewing this app (or rather, apps), a bit of background is in order. I’m a big fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done system, which I have been using on and off over the years with my trusty combo of my iMac with iCal, a Palm Tungsten T2, and Missing Sync to glue everything together. It’s worked well enough, though I find it can get a bit overwhelming once you start having lots of actions and projects.

We don’t need no stinkin’ To Dos

Being a bit of an Apple convert, I’ve obviously been interested in this thing called an iPhone for a while. If you’re a keen follower of this blog, you’ll remember that I was put off buying an iPhone by its inexplicable lack of a To Do list system, which makes it kind of tricky to replace my Palm with an iPhone. (Mind you, it’s hardly the only feature missing from the iPhone.)

So before rushing out to buy an iPhone that would have less functionality than my 4-year-old Palm (ha ha), I started researching third-party To Do apps for the iPhone to see if I could close the gap that way. That’s when I came across Things. Not only is it a To Do app, but it even follows the GTD methodology of projects, contexts, Someday/Maybe actions and areas of focus. What’s more, it’s available for both the Mac and the iPhone, and the two apps sync together over wi-fi.

In fact, the whole setup sounded so impressive that Things ended up being the catalyst that led to me finally buying an iPhone. So was it worth it? (more…) 3 released: Native Aqua at last!

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008

Like a bolt from the blue, version 3 burst onto the scene today. You can grab it now from The poor server is groaning under the strain – there’s obviously a lot of demand for free office apps – but with a bit of patience you should be able to download it OK:

I’ve taken it for a quick spin, and so far I like what I see. There are quite a few notable improvements over 2.x, including:

  • Speed. The new version has a much quicker startup time than 2.x, with the welcome screen appearing around 4 seconds after launching (on my 1st gen Intel iMac). The UI feels a fair bit snappier, and document opening and saving seem a little faster.
  • Support for the latest MS Office formats. 3 can read the controversial Office Open XML (.docx/.xlsx/.pptx) formats – although it can’t yet save files in these formats.
  • Easier app launching. The new UI features a nice welcome screen (see below) that you can use to quickly launch Writer, Calc, Impress, Base, Draw, or Math.
  • Better Vista compatibility. Always good if you happen to use Vista!

However, one of the most noticeable changes to the Mac version is – you guessed it – native Aqua support. Finally, looks and behaves like a Mac app! No more having to boot up X11 and put up with an interface only a mother could love. (NeoOffice helps to get round some of the UI problems, but it does lag behind the main release by a few months.) (more…)

What’s Keeping Me? – Find the app that’s using a file

Friday, September 26th, 2008

How many times have you tried to unmount a hard disk or memory card, or empty the Trash, only to be told that a file is in use by an application? It’s happened to me a few times. Unfortunately Mac OS doesn’t tell you exactly which application is using the file, which can make it tough to track down the problem.

One way out is to logout or reboot the Mac to clear the file lock, but there is a less drastic solution. What’s Keeping Me? is a handy little app that lets you search for an open file (you can also search for a disk name to find all open files on a mounted disk). It then tells you which app or process is using the file(s). For best results select the As Administrator option to find all files.

Now the more observant/tech-savvy amongst you have probably spotted that this is remarkably similar to opening a Terminal window and typing:

sudo lsof | grep -i <filename>

And you’d be right. Still, What’s Keeping Me? is more user-friendly – especially for those who tend to approach the command line brandishing crosses and waving garlic – and it conveniently allows you to quit or kill the offending app at the click of a button. Plus it’s only 5 bucks (voluntary donation) so you can’t go too wrong. And it has a cute icon. 🙂

By the way, here’s a quick tip. If you ever need to do the opposite – that is, find out which files an app is using – fire up Activity Monitor, select the process in the list, then hit Command-I to inspect it. You can then click Open Files and Ports to view a list of files being used by that app.