I’m being tempted away from my Mac…

XP desktopMy step-mother has a Sony Vaio laptop that has to be about 5 or 6 years old and runs Windows XP. Her needs are simple, but she comes from a generation that really doesn’t get computers. She refers to the hourglass timer as a ‘christmas cracker’ and has no idea that Windows Explorer and Internet Explorer are entirely different animals. When I built the laptop for her I loaded it with all the necessary security software, but for someone who doesn’t have the intuition about what one should or shouldn’t do (or rather click on), then it’s a recipe for disaster (aka repeated ‘support’ calls).

Every so often I completely rebuild the laptop, but it’s only a stay of execution and it’s becoming obvious that she needs something a bit more modern, a bit more simple and a bit more robust. So I’m thinking about an iMac, a Mac Mini or perhaps even an iPad. Email, a very small amount of web browsing and online shopping, being able to look at photos and the odd brief document are all she needs and it seems that any one of these devices will serve her well. To this end I picked up an iPad for her, the thinking being that it was the one device that would do all of the above, be intuitive to use and free her up from locking herself away in a room (much to my dad’s dismay) when she needs to ‘compute’.

It’s a 32Gb WiFi model and I’ve been using it to see what it can do before offering it as her new computing partner (of course she’ll still need a PC/Mac running iTunes plus a wireless router, but that’s another story). I have to say that having had no intention of buying one myself, as I already have my Mac Pro and iPhone 3G, I am now rapidly changing my mind. Firstly, I read a lot of RSS news feeds using Vienna on the Mac. I do occasionally use Google Reader but Vienna gives me the clean interface I want and if you want a free (and ad-free) news reader for OS X then this would be my recommendation. But then there’s NewsRack on the iPad. I can laze on the sofa in the lounge and flick through my RSS feeds so easily, browsing in detail the articles I’m more interested in, or adding them to InstaPaper for later. Yes there are other news readers for the iPad, but NewsRack has a clean and intuitive interface that just seems really natural when you’re coming from an OS X (or even Windows) based reader. What’s more it does this whole Google Reader sync thing if you feel the need to read news feeds on multiple devices, plus has many other features besides.

Then there’s the mail app on the iPad. It works exactly the way you think it should and I find I can process 95% of my mail here, just resorting to the Mac where I need to do something a little more complicated. The result is that I can now go for days without using the Mac to do these routine things. There’s other things too… Weather Pro HD gives me detailed weather forecasts rather than having to use WeatherDock on the Mac. Osfoora HD on the iPad is now my preferred way of monitoring Twitter, while Nambu is my choice when on the Mac, and if I want to read a PDF I’ll generally be doing it in GoodReader on the iPad rather than in Preview on the Mac.

IMG_0013It’s not that the apps on the Mac aren’t any good, in fact they’re the best ones I’ve found in my years of Mac usage. It’s just that I don’t have to go and sit upstairs in front of the Mac to dip my toe into the computer world. What’s more, I’ll often find that when I start using the Mac just to do a quick email for example, I’ll often get sidetracked and then ‘waste’ an hour or two doing something I hadn’t intended to. With the iPad I pick it up, do the email or read the news then put it down. Having said that, the games on the iPad are pretty distracting!

Now don’t get me wrong, the Mac Pro is still great, and for content creation the iPad doesn’t come close. For starters, the WordPress app for the iPad is a bit of a lame duck if you ask me, and I’d far rather use the WordPress dashboard on the Mac to create or edit blog posts. Similarly, for photo editing and processing, long documents, spreadsheets, downloading, listening to music (even though SnowTape and Spotify can run on the iPad), and for many other more involved tasks, the Mac is still king.

So, when my step-mother takes this iPad off my hands will I be tempted to spend the money on getting one myself? Do bears sh*t in the woods?! Hell yeah…  Of course I could just recommend she gets a cheap Windows 7 laptop for her needs and keep this one, but I suspect the whole Windows support cycle thing will just start afresh, and I’m not sure my nerves could take it. Besides, if she has the iPad then there’s always AppleCare to ease my burden 😉

By the way, in case you’re interested here’s a few of my favourite iPad apps (note, clicking on links may prompt you to open iTunes):

  • WeatherPro HD – detailed weather for your location for the next seven days.
  • Pages – I’m just a sucker for being able to write stuff wherever I am, and as a Pages user on the Mac…
  • Life Browser – iPad Safari is good, but in many ways I prefer this.
  • Instapaper – great way to save web pages for later consumption.
  • NewsRack – elegant and intuitive RSS reader with all the right features.
  • Evernote – wouldn’t be without it, whatever device I’m using. (I think my brain is backed up to Evernote!).
  • DropBox & SugarSync – love ’em both and can’t decide which I prefer.
  • Osfoora HD – does all a Twitter client needs to do for me on the iPad (and lots more besides).
  • Magic Piano – I’m no impresario but this makes me sound like one!
  • GoodReader – is to PDFs what FireFox is to the web.
  • IMDb – how cool to watch a film and be able to learn more about it as you watch?
  • eyeTV – let’s me wirelessly stream recordings on the Mac to my, ahem… the iPad. It can do live TV too, but I’ve got a TV for that. (Note, you need eyeTV on your Mac for it to work).
  • tChess Pro – attractive and challenging chess game with all the features I need to remind me I’m rubbish at chess!
  • Angry Birds HD – ok you have to catapault various types of birds into pigs. Sounds daft, but it’s very entertaining and the sound effects are just lovely.
  • Words with Friends HD – sort of a multi-player (across the web) Scrabble clone. (Multi-player as in my friends can mock me with their prowess!).
  • Real Racing HD – first person racing game with incredible graphics and gameplay.
  • Hexius – a bit like Bejewelled but perhaps more challenging and complex… and with multi-player capabilities.
  • Soosiz HD – a platform game where gravity isn’t always what you’d expect. Good fun.
  • Monkey Island 2: SE – Monkey Island meets the iPad, this game is entertaining, funny and looks fantastic.
  • Osmosis for iPad – mesmerizing, challenging, addictive, relaxing, a must if you have an iPad.

IMG_0012And one final word on usability. The father of a friend of mine has Parkinson’s disease and finds it extremely difficult to interact with the world around him. Trying to show him photos on a laptop and to let him feel he has any sort of control was frustrating for him, and printed 4×6 shots were just too fiddly (let alone time consuming to create). It was great to put an iPad on his lap and to see him smile and enjoy the photos in a way in which he can be in control.

PS – Both iPad wallpapers are from VladStudio, a talented artist whom I heartily support.

Fun with customized folder icons on Mac OS X

How often do you come across a piece of software that does exactly what you want it to do? Well it seems that iconCompo has provided me with the means to do something I’ve wanted to do ever since getting my Mac. Now I actually quite like Leopard’s minimalist cool blue colour scheme for it’s folder icons. I ust wished there was a way to ’emboss’ selected folder icons with something that gives a clue as to the contents so that I don’t have to scan the labels underneath. I still want the folder icon to be clearly visible so that I know it’s a folder (rather than an app or an archive for example), but some extra visual cues would be nice.Similarly I don’t want anything too colourful as that can be distracting.

So it was almost by accident that I ended up downloading iconCompo. I was looking at another icon editing app on MacUpdate and I happened to look at the ‘Other People Suggest’ where someone had mentioned iconCompo. A few minutes later I was staring at a very simple interface with three boxes on it thinking ‘what comes next’? Well the premise is very simple – box #1 represents one layer, box #2 represents another layer and box #3 represents the result, which is the essence of how you come up with a customized folder icon that combines the image you want with Leopard’s standard folder icon, as the picture below demonstrates.



So for example, to create a customized folder icon for the folder where Email Backup Pro stores backups of my mail file, I pasted the Mail.app icon into box #1, the default folder icon into box #2 and hey presto…! However, the capabilities of the program don’t end there. You can resize and reposition images, as well as changing the hue, saturation, brightness etc. I wanted to stick with Leopard’s blue colour theme so I altered the top layer of each of my custom icons to give it a blue hue, and I’m pretty pleased with the results.

Start small, then go for it!

Start small, then go for it!

I then decided to have some real fun and create custom folder icons for TV shows I have recorded through EyeTV. You could just as easily create custom icons for your favourite bands, or anything else.

Custom folder icons

How about folder icons for your favourite TV shows?

iconCompo has a lot more features than I have described here. For example you can alter the pitch and angle of each layer, you can add text (written in any direction), and of course you don’t just have to create custom folder icons – you can combine any two images you like. Your imagination is your only limit.

Little bundles of… Well, it’s not joy

Having recently added a new hard drive to the Mac, I thought I’d check its ‘SMART’ status just to make sure everything was OK. There’s a neat little app called SMARTReporter that sits on the menu bar and alerts you if any of your drives start to feel a sick – probably long before you experience any data loss. It sends output to the Console at specified intervals, so when I asked for the status of all my drives, SMARTReporter kindly opened the console for me. Having checked everything was normal, I went on to launch Mail.app to check for mail. As luck would have it, the Console was still open and up popped this message:

08/03/2009 21:29:05 Mail[1322]  DEVONMailConduit 1.2.1 loaded

What? DEVONMailConduit is loading when I launch Mail.app? But I don’t have any DEVON products installed. Ahh, but I did try out DEVONThink Pro a few months back and it seems that even though I thought I’d uninstalled it OK, there were still (quite a few) traces of it left behind. So let’s start with the message above – it’s obviously a mail plug-in so where better to look than in the <username>/Library/Mail/Bundles folder and sure enough there it was… DEVONMailConduit.mailbundle nestling inside. It’s then just a simple task to delete it and then relaunch Mail.app to check the console and make sure it’s gone.

Next up, there’s cached data that DEVONThink Pro left behind. So, it’s off to my <username>/Library/Caches/Metadata folder and what do we find? Yes it’s a DEVONThink Pro folder – not huge, but something I don’t need, so to the trash it goes.

DEVONThink Pro scripts

DEVONThink Pro scripts

Now part of how DEVONThink Pro works is by integrating itself with various aspects of your system. This means that there will be scripts allowing you to ‘clip’ things to DEVONThink amongst other things. Sure enough, I found no less than 2 more folders and 34 DEVONThink scripts on my system, as you can see from the picture. Same treatment, ‘move to trash’!

Having done a few more checks, I think that’s all traces of DEVONThink Pro removed from my Mac. Now when I search on ‘devon’ all I see is a dictionary entry for a small county in southwestern England.

This isn’t a criticism of DEVONThink Pro, many other apps are the same – it just goes to show that when you install an app there is often a lot more to it than what gets put in your Applications folder. Software like AppZapper does help, but be prepared to get your hands dirty if you want to remove all traces of some programs. Also it’s a good idea to move the files and folders in question to a safe place and then to check your Mac is still running smoothly before finally consigning them to the trash bin… just in case!

Why don’t I use DEVONThink Pro? Well it’s a great program, it’s just that at the time it was overkill for what I needed, although I’m now re-visiting it as it happens to use as a document management platform. I’m currently using Evernote for storing all my web clippings, notes and odd bits of information. It’s free, cross-platform plus you can sync it to your iPhone after a fashion. Horses for courses though, so check ’em both out.