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.

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What’s in the dock?

Following my post on OS X uninstallers, Matt asked about what applications are in the dock in my screen shot. So here’s a quick run down of the extra apps I’ve got in the dock, plus what’s loaded and showing in the menu bar.

What_s What

The Dock (from left to right)

Path Finder – I use this instead of the default Mac OS X Finder for most of my file management on the Mac, mainly because I can open it with two panes visible and drag & drop between them, but it’s got a whole host of other file management goodies besides.

OtherInbox/Fluid – OtherInbox is great for managing my mail and an absolute must in the fight against spam (I wrote a separate post about it). Here I’ve got the web interface to it bundled as an application using Fluid, so I can quickly launch straight into it from the Dock.

NetNewsWire – the best way to keep on top of all those RSS news feeds. I’m a bit of a news junkie (hmmm, might even post about what feeds I follow at some point), and NetNewsWire makes it easy to get my daily fix, oh and it’s free.

Microsoft Messenger – After moving to the Mac I still had a lot of friends using Messenger, and the Microsoft client gave me the best compatibility even though it lacks some of the features of it’s Windows counterpart (like audio & video in the personal version). I do like Adium as an IM client, but for some reason keep going back to Messenger. Old habits die hard!

VMware Fusion – If there’s one indispensable app on my Mac, this is it. It’s neck and neck with Parallels when it comes to running Windows on your Mac, and I typically run three Windows VMs side by side during my working day. VMware has been rock solid and we use it at work so I can move VMs between machines if need be.

1Password – I keep all my logins. passwords and secure notes such as software licenses in 1Password. Browser integration makes it a snip to quickly and safely log in to web sites, plus with the iPhone app I’ve got all my passwords safely backed up on the phone.

Pages 09 – This was my first choice for word processing on the Mac, although I had to add MS Word later.

Word 2008 – I bought MS Office 2008 for the Mac simply because so many of my colleagues use Word on their Windows machines and this gave me the best compatibility for sharing those docs.

Excel 2008 – Not much of a number cruncher but have written a couple of complex spreadsheets in Excel 2007 for Windows which I use weekly and Numbers 09 had a few issues handling them, so Excel 09 was the natural choice. Even so, there’s still a couple of compatibility issues between Excel 07 and Excel 2008 – ahem, thank you Microsoft.

EyeTV – how else to get my daily fix of pulp TV without leaving my Mac? Bought an Elgato EyeTV Hybrid and this is the software that came with it. Works brilliantly and dead easy to use.

Spotify – The revolutionary music streaming service that everyone’s talking about. A good range of music to suit all tastes, and relatively unobtrusive adverts for the free service.

Last but not least, there’s an icon in the dock that lets me quickly connect to my Mac Mini (standard built-in OS X screen sharing stuff).

The Menu Bar (left to right)

Skitch – Superb for capturing screen shots and then editing/annotating them. All the text and arrows in the screen shot at the start of this post were done using Skitch. It also lets you easily upload and share the fruits of your labours.

Evernote – Great dumping ground for all those notes I would otherwise be scribbling on bits of paper, plus I can sync my notes between computers, and with an iPhone version I can sync notes to that too.

DropBox – Another great way to share files between computers, and even with friends. 2Gb of online storage for free!

OpenDNS Updater – I’m a great fan of the OpenDNS service, keeping me safe from dubious websites, phishing attacks etc. I even wrote a blog post about it a couple of months ago. The OpenDNS updater is a free little app that syncs your IP details with the OpenDNS service.

GMail Notifier – A handy way to keep tabs on new Google mail. This was Google’s own version, but I’ve since switched to the leaner GMail Notifr app.

Yahoo Widgets – A hangover from my Windows days, thousands of widgets to put on your desktop, and I like the fact that you can change the transparency of any widget.  I know OS X has the Dashboard for widgets, and with a little hack you can put Widgets on your desktop, so it’s horses for courses. (To be fair, I think Yahoo Widgets are on the way out as there’s fewer and fewer new widgets appearing these days).

Smart Reporter – A little menu bar app that monitors the SMART status of your drives – green is good. I’ve got four drives in this Mac Pro, so any early warning of an impending failure is a plus.

Mozy – Online backup tool (this is me and my backup paranoia again). Mozy offers a good balance of functionality and cost (just $4.95 a month for unlimited storage).

Little Snitch – I was actually quite happy with the built-in OS X firewall, but I got Little Snitch as part of a MacUpdate Promo Bundle. I installed it and found that it’s nice to have that little extra bit of control and information about what your firewall is up to.

iStat Menus – An assortment of useful menu bar indicators for various aspects of your system. Here I’m using the memory meter to keep an eye on how much of my 12Gb has been gobbled up by my VMware virtual machines.

MobileMe – Apple’s online service needs no introduction. I keep this in the menu bar simply to give me quick access to go and check up on it or force a quick sync.

On the desktop there are two Yahoo Widgets visible. The one on the right is the standard Yahoo Weather Widget that comes bundled with the app. You can see it here at around 50% transparency so it blends into the background. The one on the left is something called Neon Gauges which will give you a graphic representation of various aspects of your system. Here I’ve used circles to indicate CPU and disk usage and have blended them in with the shapes on the background wallpaper.

There you go, a lightning tour of what’s on my OS X desktop. Obviously I’ve done the rebuild since taking that snapshot, but I still use most of those apps, so hope this gives people a few ideas. This has given me a few ideas for other posts I might do in the future, like:

  • What news feeds I’ve got in NetNewsWire
  • What’s on my iPhone
  • A sum up of what’s in (and around) my Mac Pro

Spotify’s (not so little) little secret

Spotify_logoWhen Spotify first launched I was mightily impressed. A proper Mac client, seemingly unlimited amounts of music that I could listen to for free and unobtrusive adverts. I still love Spotify although as time has progressed some of the shine has worn off. The audio adverts are still thankfully limited to 60 seconds every five or six tracks, but a lot of music seems to have disappeared from the catalogue, and the client now seems to constantly show me banner ads at the bottom and right hand side of the window. Well yes I could pony up £9.99 a month to get rid of the adverts but there’s a bigger problem that’s stoppoing me… performance.

Between about 2pm and 8pm GMT Spotify is unusable. I click on a track, it starts playing for a few seconds then it pauses for about a minute. Then it plays a few seconds more, then pauses again. This cycle is repeated until I get fed up and revert back to listening to my own library of music in iTunes or SongBird. Now I’m not saying this is Spotify’s fault at all. I understand that it streams music to the listener using a variation on P2P technology and that as such it is subject to the vagaries of the internet. My internet connectionm happens to drop from about 6.5Mbps overnight and in the morning to around 1.5-2Mbps in the afternoons. I don’t know who’s fault this is – I am still using British Telecom as my ISP and they aren’t reknowned for their high performance. Then again, the neighbourhood I live in isn’t great either so maybe all my neighbours go online in the afternoons to stream TV shows or surf questionable websites containing top-heavy women and plumbers whose clothes fall off??

Whatever the cause, Spotify is a victim and I can’t use it most afternoons when I’m working from home which pretty much rules me out of paying a monthly premium for a service I can’t enjoy. However, what I have found is that tracks I’ve listened to before and have added to one or other of my playlists will usually play just fine – even during the 2pm-8pm ‘slow’ zone. So Spotify is obviously caching tracks I play which is no surprise.

Wind forward a few months to where I’m looking at another piece of software that claims to be the latest, greatest thing to

The Spotify cache

The Spotify cache

uninstall apps and keep your Mac clutter-free. The imaginatively named CleanMyMac v1.2. Aside from uninstalling apps, CleanMyMac offers a few other housekeeping facilities, one of which is to clear out old caches and I let it do it’s scan to see what it found. Hmmm, it found 4,291Mb of cache files and using the facility to drill down and see what’s there I saw that Spotify had squirreled away no less than 3,652.1Mb of data in Users/~/Library/Caches/com.spotify.client/Storage. Inside were lots of folders containing files with cryptic file names and ranging in size between 400Kb to 2.5Mb. Well it’s not rocket science to guess that they’re music files or pieces of music files that Spotify has ‘downloaded’ whilst I was playing them.

Fortunately, space isn’t at such a premium on my Mac that I need to delete this Spotify cache, and if it means I can still play my playlists without the dreaded play-pause-play effect then it’s a small price to pay. It’s also worth noting that you can actually control the size of this cache from within the Spotify preferences. Now as a little experiment I tried renaming one of these Spotify cache files to have a .mp3 extension to see if it would play in VLC. That really was a longshot and naturally enough VLC had no idea what the file was. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the files are encrypted or specially mangled in some way that only Spotify understands, by way of appeasing the record labels over copyright etc. But you know how these things work, and I’ll wager that right now some geek-types somewhere are trying to figure out how to take these cache files and turn them in to something that other apps can use.

Ok now I know this wasn’t really a review of Spotify, but if you haven’t already tried it, then where have you been?! I mean, where else would you discover the Buddha Bar version of Pink Floyd’s – Any Colour You Like? Couple that with Shazam on the iPhone… I was watching the film Mr Brooks with Kevin Costner and in the closing scene a really haunting peice of music starts playing. Let Shazam listen to a few seconds of it and moments later I was listening to Vicious Traditions by The Veils.

As for CleanMyMac, I’ll have a closer look at it and maybe report back in another article.