Archive for the 'Software' Category

Stopping the “Are you sure you want to open it?” dialog

Saturday, September 20th, 2008

If you’re an OS X Leopard user then you’ve no doubt encountered a dialog similar to this one from time to time:

This means that the file is “quarantined”; it happens whenever you first try to open a file you downloaded via your Web browser.

Generally speaking, this is a good thing, as it makes you think twice about opening something that may potentially be malware. However, if you’re downloading a lot of files that you know to be kosher then it can get quite annoying.

Fortunately, there are ways to disable the quarantine dialog, so that downloaded files open without needing confirmation. I found a good solution over at The Pug Automatic blog – this is basically a short AppleScript that you attach to your Downloads folder as a folder action. Then, whenever a new file is added to the Downloads folder, it’s automatically un-quarantined. Neat.

Isolator: Minimize distractions while you work

Tuesday, September 16th, 2008

Computers these days are wonderful; thanks to the joys of multi-tasking you can happily have ten apps open at once. There’s an argument, though, that humans work better when focusing on one task at a time, with minimal distractions.

The rather nice WriteRoom took this message to heart, giving you a full-screen word processor that’s just green text on a black screen. No frills, no distraction.

Recently a vaguely related app caught my eye: Isolator. Rather than being a simplified version of a word processor, Isolator is a free menu bar app that hides the windows of all applications except the one you’re using. You can even hide the Dock. (It would be nice if you could hide the menu bar too, and have it fade in when you move the mouse to the top of the screen. Maybe in the next version?) It’s easy to flip Isolator on and off when required with a key combo.

You can hide all other windows behind a completely black background:

…or you can customize the isolation effect in different ways. Here I’ve made the tint effect slightly transparent and added a blur filter:

Isolator is a nice way to block out distracting apps while you concentrate on the task at hand. I often find myself wandering off to check my mail in Mail, surf the web in Firefox or play with my iTunes playlists, and Isolator helps me avoid these apps and keep on track.

One slight problem is that many of the apps I use – Terminal, Firefox, TextEdit – tend to have multiple windows open at once, and Isolator can’t hide inactive windows within an app. So it’s quite hard to get it down to just one window along the lines of WriteRoom.

Having said that, Isolator is a handy little app, and it’s free to boot. If, like me, you’re easily distracted, then this might just help boost your productivity!

The new iTunes visualizer?

Monday, September 8th, 2008

Rumour has it that Magnetosphere, a really rather nice visualizer plugin for iTunes, will be incorporated into iTunes 8 (which could be out as early as this week). Magnetosphere is no longer available from Barbarian’s site (though you can still grab it via this blog post).

I’m not normally fussed about visualizers, but the original Magnetosphere produced some lovely organic effects, with swirling, pulsating stars and light streams. There are a few Magnetosphere videos out there that look even cooler (here’s one, here’s another, and here’s a third) – these all look like they were pre-rendered rather than real-time, but still, they might give a taste of things to come. Roll on iTunes 8 I say!

Have a Mac UI gripe? Tell the world!

Thursday, September 4th, 2008

Here’s an interesting new site: Aqua Taskforce. Launched last month, it’s the Mac version of the Aero Taskforce website for Windows users, which has been around for a few months.

Essentially, Aqua Taskforce is a bug tracking site that’s confined to OS X user interface quirks and annoyances, rather than full-on bugs. You register and login, then you can post your Mac gripes for all to see, vote for/against, and comment on. Sometimes the discussions get quite lively, as one person’s meat is often another’s poison (as evidenced by the comments in my recent 10 usability lows of Mac OS X post).

My favourites include List the apps that prevents unmounting (how nice would that be!), Dialog windows lack keyboard shortcuts and tabbing (by default), and the old classic, No Cut option in the Finder. 🙂

On the one hand, the idea seems rather pointless as presumably no Apple engineers are seriously looking at the site for bugs to fix (though the site’s creator reckons that various Microsoft types are scanning Aero Taskforce, so you never know). Then again, because Apple isn’t the most open of companies when it comes to feedback, it’s nice for people to be able to publicly share their Mac UI grievances and feel a bit of love from like-minded users. It’ll be interesting to see if the site pans out over the coming months.

Awaken: Turn your Mac into an alarm clock

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

This week I have mostly been playing with Awaken ($13), a nifty little app that effectively turns your Mac into a glorified iTunes-driven alarm clock. Awaken’s core function is to start playing an iTunes playlist at a set alarm time, so you can wake up to your favourite music. Now this is hardly revolutionary; there are many free apps that do exactly the same thing, or you could no doubt write your own AppleScript-driven cron job to do it for you. However, Awaken does offer some nice features that make it stand out from the crowd.

Three types of timer

Awaken features a standard alarm that can be set to run at the same time every day (confusingly the menu option for this is called Weekly, though I can kind of see the logic), or alternatively you can set up a one-off alarm to go off at a certain date and time. The alarm can play an iTunes playlist or a range of nice alarm sounds, and it can also display a reminder note. You can also drag an item (such as an application or script) to the alarm window to launch it when the alarm goes off, adding a fair amount of flexibility if you need it. (more…)

Photon: A super-quick photo sorting app

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

I’m always on the lookout for a faster, more efficient way to sort through the hundreds of photos I seem to take each month. I don’t care for iPhoto’s way of organizing images, so most of the time I use Adobe Bridge (since it came with my copy of Photoshop). I really like sifting through photos with Bridge. It’s reasonably fast, and it supports stacks, batch renaming, in-place rotation, and detailed metadata viewing.

However, Bridge isn’t perfect, so when other digital asset management (DAM) apps drift into view I tend to give them a shot.

Enter Photon

Photon ($69) is the latest such app to appear on my radar. While nowhere near as comprehensive as iPhoto or Bridge, it sports a slick interface, and is ridiculously easy to use. Drag a folder of photos into the area at the top of the window – or plug in a memory card – and Photon instantly imports all the photos into a new stack. And I mean “instantly” – this thing is blazing fast, and before you know it you’re happily browsing all your photos at full resolution.


10 usability lows of Mac OS X

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

This article worshipping at the temple of Mac OS usability has garnered a lot of attention recently. While I agree that the Mac is generally pretty easy to use, it’s by no means perfect. So in the spirit of rational debate – and, frankly, because I’m a bit grumpy this morning – here’s my top 10 list of Mac usability disasters (in no particular order):

  • Menus unforgiving of mouse slip-ups. A menu disappears if you accidentally click the separator bar between two menu options. Grrr.
  • Dialogs hard to use with the keyboard. Not being able to type a shortcut key for all of the buttons in a dialog (a la Windows).
  • Terrible keyboard control in general (try using iCal with just the keyboard).
  • Horrid mouse acceleration. First thing I did with my new Mac was whack the tracking speed up to the max, and even then it’s not as nice as in Windows. And no way to control the acceleration either.
  • Only one menu bar on multiple monitors. Results in frequent RSI-inducing mouse marathons from one display to the other. (Though you can at least choose which monitor displays the menu bar.)
  • Nasty keyboard navigation of text documents. Having to use the fiddly Command-Left and Command-Right keyboard shortcuts to do the extremely common tasks of going to the beginning and the end of a line. Yet the easy-to-press Home and End keys jump you to the start or end of the document without moving the caret, which is next to useless in my book. And I don’t think this is a “coming from Windows/Linux” thing either, as I switched to the Mac 2 years ago and this behaviour still pisses me off. Windows and Linux have simply done it better.
  • Hamstrung open/save dialogs. Why can’t I do even basic things like rename a file or folder?
  • No cut-and-paste in the Finder. You can only copy and paste stuff. Uggg.
  • Non-intuitive Print dialog. How do I print multiple copies? Oh, I have to click a little arrow to the right of the currently-selected printer – which you’d have thought would change printers, but no, it brings up the hidden print options. And talking of the Print dialog, why can’t you move focus to the “PDF” drop-down menu with the Tab key?
  • Shift-clicking to select a range of files in the Finder doesn’t work in Icons view. You have to switch to one of the other views to do this.

There we go! That’s set the world to rights. 😉

LazyMouse: A helpful hand for RSI sufferers

Monday, August 11th, 2008

I recently came across LazyMouse, a little Preference Pane app that snaps the mouse pointer to the default button in dialogs when they appear. The idea here is that you’re most likely to click the default button, so why not have the mouse cursor move there automatically and save the wrist-ache?

To be honest, I’m surprised this isn’t a standard option on the Mac; I seem to remember this being an option in Windows since way back in the mid-nineties. To add insult to injury (sorry – bad pun), you have to pay $10 for this app. And you can usually just hit the Return key to activate the default button (or Esc to back out of a dialog) anyway.

That said, for what it does, LazyMouse is nicely done. You can choose to snap the mouse cursor to the default button (such as Open) or the alternate button (such as Cancel). You can also have the cursor snap back to where it was before the dialog appeared – a very useful feature (though unfortunately it doesn’t work if you move the mouse at all when the dialog is open). LazyMouse also comes with a nice, easy-to-read manual.

If you do a lot of mouse-work and have problems with RSI or other hand/wrist injuries then LazyMouse is certainly worth a look. It’s shareware too, so you can try it out before you buy.

[Via ATMac]

Dying iMac hard drive; Time Machine to the rescue

Tuesday, August 5th, 2008

Well I’m glad I took out the three-year AppleCare Protection Plan. Over the last few days my iMac’s hard disk started making ominous clicking sounds when powering on, resulting in a flashing folder with a “?” icon appearing on boot (which can never be a good thing). Once it warmed up a bit, the drive would kick in OK, but from a cold start it was a no-go.

As the problems were mounting up – see my green pixel issue – I decided yesterday that it was time to call Apple tech support. On the whole, the phone call went about as smoothly as I expected. The Apple support staff do sometimes seem robot-like in their troubleshooting approach, and they treat you like it’s the first time you’ve seen a computer, but they were friendly enough. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, they eventually arranged for a local Apple service centre to send someone out to look at both the hard drive and green pixel problems. On-site service – fantastic!

Sure enough, a friendly chap arrived this morning with a new hard drive under one arm and logic board under another. Unfortunately he couldn’t fit the logic board (to fix the green pixel issue) as Apple had shipped him the wrong board, but he did at least swap out the hard drive. (Slightly terrifying seeing him take the iMac apart – not for the faint-hearted. Apparently though, the newer aluminium ones are even worse, involving suction cups and god knows what else.)

Once the new drive was in and the iMac’s guts put back in their place, we got the Leopard install under way. When done, it was simply a case of choosing an option to restore from my Time Machine backup: (more…)

Plex: A free alternative to Front Row

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

Over the last couple of days I’ve been having a play with Plex, a media centre app for the Mac that does much the same job as Apple’s built-in Front Row. You can watch DVDs, movies on your hard drive, and movie trailers from Apple’s site; listen to music; and browse photos. However, Plex takes things further than Front Row, letting you watch YouTube videos, view weather forecasts, and even play a game of Tetris. And you can do all of these things with your Apple Remote, from the comfort of your armchair.

Plex is based on XBMC , an open-source media centre originally built for the Xbox. XBMC has been ported to many platforms; Plex is the new name for the Mac version. It supports a wider range of codecs than Front Row (although the free Perian QuickTime component makes Front Row much more capable on the codec front).

So what’s Plex like in reality? Well the version I’m running is 0.5-RC3, which is very much an alpha release. And, to be frank, it shows. While the app has a lot of promise, and it has lots of great features (many of which I’d like to see in Front Row), it’s too rough around the edges to compete with Front Row in our family room. (more…)