Reviews

Ristretto for iPad Review

Since my iPad first arrived, my poor MacBook has been increasingly neglected. The iPad goes with me everywhere. So the iPad needs a bag. Not just a bag for the iPad but one that can also hold the stand, the bluetooth keyboard, and the other bits and pieces; A throw it over your shoulder, get-some-work-done bag.

Apparently I’m not the only one looking for such a bag because there are a lot of them out there. I received a Tom Bihn Ristretto for iPad ($110) review bag and, after beating it up for six weeks, am reporting in.

The Bag

The Ristretto, made at the Tom Bihn Factory in Seattle, started life as a netbook grade computer bag. It is a vertical messenger bag with a built-in padded compartment for your iPad. Empty, the bag measures 12” x 9.25” x 4.75”. As a matter of coincidence it is perfect for the iPad and an Apple Bluetooth keyboard.

The bag has an inner compartment that contains a large bay, a zippered compartment, several smaller pockets, and the iPad compartment. It is all covered with an asymmetrical flap and sturdy plastic buckle.

The padded compartment is made with quarter inch open-cell foam laminated with durable 4 Ply Taslan® on the outside, and features an interior of brushed nylon. The foam surrounds the iPad. There is a correct way to insert the iPad, with the glass facing in and the aluminum facing the back of the bag. Once you put your iPad in the padded compartment, there is a top flap that can fold over enclosing your Precious.

The large compartment is the perfect height for an Apple Bluetooth keyboard. It has three O-rings that you can use to attach your keys or optional pouches. It is also a good place for a pocket leatherman. The stock bag includes a key strap. The built in pockets are the right size to hold pens, a wallet, and an iPod. (Your phone is in your pocket, right?) There is a slanted open pocket on the back of the Ristretto. It is too small for papers (unless folded in half) but does prove handy for envelopes and mail.

The Ristretto ships with waist straps to secure it to your body. This works great for bicyclists. More importantly, the waist strap hardware unclips and disappears when not in use.

The Strap

The Ristretto ships with the standard shoulder strap, a 1.5” wide heavy nylon webbing strap with a foam pad. For an extra $20, you can upgrade to the Absolute Shoulder Strap. At first blush it seems kind of silly upgrading a strap on an iPad case but after using the Absolute Shoulder Strap for awhile, you’ll get it. The Absolute Shoulder Strap uses a neoprene pad with an all metal snaphook (see note below regarding The Squeak). If you carry the bag for any length of time, it is a lot more comfortable. I’ve also found myself repurposing The Absolute Shoulder Strap with all my various bags.

The Squeak

After using the bag for about a week I began to notice a subtle squeak when carrying it around. The source of the sound is the metal snaphook from the strap rubbing against the metal eyelit on the bag. The connectors are both metal. I used some silicon based bicycle chain lubricant and it went away. I spoke with Tom Bihn and they recommend rubbing a graphite pencil on the offending pieces. I tested their fix and it worked. Tom Bihn reports they are aware of this and are working on it.

Usage and Recommendation

I beat the hell out of this bag. Over the last six weeks I carried it through the Canadian wilderness and down the Las Vegas strip. Its been thrown in trunks, dragged by kids, and schlepped around everywhere with me. It still looks like new.

More importantly, it has performed just as advertised. The Ristretto is a great solution for the iPad and just a bit more. If you routinely use Apple’s Bluetooth keyboard, it’s perfect. I liked it so much, I bought another one for my wife.

A Note About the Pictures

All of the pictures in this review were taken after I spent 6 weeks usage. Full size images are in my Flickr feed here.

Band in a Box Review

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Before I got a day job, I used to be a professional musician. This goes back some time. Back to the 80's and the days of big hair and skinny ties. That was also the time that MIDI really started to take off and there was a fantastic little application (that came on 3.5 inch floppy disc no less) called Band in a Box. I loved it back then and I'm very pleased to report (20 years later), Band in a Box continues to amaze.

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If you are a singer or a musician and want to practice a song, one problem you will face is the fact that your band members are not always around. Using this application, it doesn't matter. You don't need any musical talent to operate it other than the ability to type in chord changes for your favorite song. Once they are in you set beginning and ending points and pick a genre of music and hit "play". It is that easy. The application generates a convincing back up group, including piano, guitar, bass, and drums for you to play and sing along with.

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The genius of this application is that it creates a full back up band for any song in just about any style for you to sing along with or accompany on your instrument. The standard version comes loaded with backup styles from salsa to straight ahead jazz. You can also buy supplemental style modules to fit your taste and needs.

Since its inception Band in a Box has played through the MIDI instruments in your computer. That was great 20 years ago but, if you don't have the right hardware, can sound strangely like a bad e-card. Band in a Box has expanded beyond this applications MIDI roots and include wave files of actual musicians playing their instruments in place of MIDI signals. This "RealTracks" feature provides a noticeably better sound.

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Once you complete your arrangements you can freeze the song so there is no delay in loading and starting. This would be great for live performances.

You can record your melodies right into Band in a Box or export a MIDI file for use in GarageBand or Logic Studio. This can provide a great jumping
off point for laying down your basic tracks.

The newest release of Band in a Box also features the ‘Audio Chord Wizard’, which will take an MP3 file and extract the chords from it remarkably well. Think about it. Any MP3 song converted to chord changes. No fakebook required. I tested this on John Coletrane's "Giant Steps" which, has some complex changes and Band in a Box did well.

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For guitar players, Band in a Box also includes ‘RealCharts’ with an on-screen guitar display so that you can hear the audio performance and learn from on-screen notation, tablature, or visual guitar fretboard.

This application could be extremely useful for students, musicians, singers, and music teachers. For music students in particular it is a fantastic tool teaching chord structures as well as providing an excellent back up band to play along with. It would also be nice for the karaoke crowd in that you could make a back up tape for any song you have chord changes to in the style of your preference.

You can learn more about Band in a Box at PGMusic.com. They have a variety of licenses starting at $129 and some versions (with the large real tracks and real drums files) ship on a USB hard drive. They also have an educational discounts and a generous upgrade policy. A few years ago I got the upgrade price from my original purchase of the application on an Atari ST in 1986. Check it out.

You can listen to this review on the MacReviewCast Podcast.

FTC (Keep MacSparky out of jail) Disclosure:

While I have paid for Band in a Box (several times) over the years. The version upon which this review is based was a review copy.

OmniGraphSketcher Review

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There is an old saying that, “there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Without passing judgment, I frequently have need to insert graphs and charts into presentations and a lot of times it is much harder than it should be. While I am a big fan of Apple’s Numbers application, it has its limitations.

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This is where the Omni Group's latest gem, OmniGraphSketcher comes into play. This application allows you to make very precise graphs. OmniGraphSketcher takes graphing out of the spreadsheet. It, essentially, combines a charting tool with a drawing application. In very little time you will be able to create accurate graphs with colorful data sets and highlights, curves, and shading without requiring an advanced degree in mathematics and statistics.

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Running OmniGraphSketcher, I was able to draw my own graphs or import data from Excel and Numbers sheets as a starting point for beautiful looking graphs. Once the basics were set up, annotations, shapes, arrows, and tick marks were simple and effective.

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OmniGraphSketcher also makes it easy to export graphics for use in other applications. After using this application for some time, it is obvious some of the OmniGraffle team was involved. Once again, the Omni Group has created an application I didn’t realize I needed, but now can’t live without.

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If you routinely work with presenting data, this $30 application is certainly worth downloading. As with all other Omni products, there is a student discount and free trial.

You can listen to this review on the Surfbit's MacReviewCast.

Chronosync Review

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Over the past few years I’ve podcasted quite a bit about one of my favorite Mac utilities, Chronosync, but never given it a feature review. It is time. Chronosync handles synching and backups from your Mac with style.

For instance, using Chronosync I have one script that looks at the contents of some of my most important document folders and copies them to a backup folder on my iDisk every week. This way my key documents get offsite backup. The best part is Chronosync does this on a schedule and it requires no user involvement.

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Selecting files for synchronization for backup requires selection of the volume and applicable directory and selecting, or unselecting, individual components for Chronosync’s attention. It is not entirely intuitive but makes sense once you understand it.

Once selected you cansynchronize or backup with just about any device. It will work with local or attached storage or even other computers. The developer’s separate application, ChronoAgent makes this particularly easy with other Macs and an excellent solution for synching between desktop and laptop machines.

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The interface makes it easy to choose between unidirectional and bi-directional syncing. So whether you are looking to simply create an archive or sync multiple changes between two working machines, Chronosync can handle it. The application can even sync non system files with a Windows PC. It analyzes your data and allows for trial synchronizations. Additionally, Chronosync can create version archives on your backup to allow you to fetch prior versions of files.

In performing this bit of magic, ChronoSync uses "Relative State Monitoring" that allows it to detect deleted, moved, or renamed files and folders, and resolve conflicts. ChronoSync protects data integrity by verifying data, ensuring proper copies are made before replacing data, and providing detailed logs. Because it only copies changed files, the process is remarkably fast.

The scheduling tool allows you to set repeating and single run backups with the precision of a Swiss watch. It even emails you when backups complete or, more importantly, fail.

Because each synchronization or backup process is its own file, you can save as many templates as you require. I’ve been using ChronoSync for several years and never had any problems with it.

A license will cost $40. Interestingly, that is it. There will never be an upgrade fee, ever. When the software recently updated to version 4.0, I got it for free. You can check it out at econtechnologies.com.

You can listen to this review on the Mac ReviewCast, episode 223.

FotoMagico 3 Review

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A few years ago, I needed to quickly put together a slide show and I needed it to look fantastic. While I knew this was possible in iMovie, it took a lot of time and, frankly, didn't look that good.

On a whim I downloaded the trial version of FotoMagico. Within five minutes, I had my wallet out and purchased a license. Since then, I've used FotoMagico often for family and professional events. Indeed, my wife will volunteer me as the "slideshow guy" at weddings for friends and family at the drop of a hat. I can't really complain that much however because using FotoMagico for this is really quite easy.

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The latest version, FotoMagico 3, adds several enhancements. FotoMagico produces professional quality slideshow presentations. It is very easy to operate with a similar "drag-and-drop" paradigm you see across the Mac platform. Take a folder full of pictures and drag it in FotoMagico and you have your slideshow. The application allows you to easily set transitions and animates individual slides with the Ken Burns effect. FotoMagico has sliders sliders for the before and after position of your photographs that make this very simple.

My workload has always been to drag the pictures in, sort them, adjust the Ken Burns effect for each picture, and drop in music. It really is that simple. You can similarly adjust rotation and insert text.

The newest version blurs the lines between FotoMagico as a slideshow application and a video application. You can now insert movies in your slideshows. You can set start and end points and even animate movies just as you would a photograph. Organizing and creating your slideshows is also now easier with an improved storyboard. Now that Boinx has teased me with this video support however, I'd like to see them take it further. Lower thirds would be very useful.

Another nice feature is the Aperture exporter plug in.

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With the pro version you can get much more control over the audio. You can include multiple tracks and even the voiceover track. Each is independently controlled and adjusted.

While putting pictures in iMovie is much easier now, for speed, granular control of the Ken Burns effect, and overall presentation, I think FotoMagico still has iMovie beat.

Once you have created your slideshow, you can export it, burn it to a DVD, turn it into a screensaver, or put it on your iPod or Apple TV. Of course you can also just play it through the built-in player. This is normally how I do my wedding slideshows. The best compliment paid to this application is by the "official" photographers at the weddings I have participated in. They always ask me afterwards how I did it and they always want to know where they can get their own copy of FotoMagico. A single-user license is $29 and a single-user license for the pro version is $149. You can find out more at Boinx.com.

You can listen to this review on the Mac ReviewCast #215.

Launchbar Review

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I'll admit I'm just a little bit crazy about Quicksilver. I've used it, tweaked it, and even produced screencasts about it. But as much as I like Quicksilver, I also like things that are new and shiny. So a few months ago, when the latest version of LaunchBar was released in beta, I decided to do an experiment and use it exclusively for a few months. Now that I've thoroughly kicked the tires, it is time to report in.

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LaunchBar begins as an application launcher. In this respect, it is no different from Spotlight or Quicksilver. The process of launching applications is painless with LaunchBar. You start typing and the application appears. You can hit return to launch it or, better yet, hit the space bar and it gives you a list of the most recent documents opened with the application. Using this tweak you can get your file open quickly.

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LaunchBar offers a great deal more however. You can access your address book and quickly start an email or display a contact's phone number on your screen. One nice touch is that it actually lists the person's name along with the number. This is an improvement over Quicksilver.

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You can also easily search and play iTunes by genre, album, or composer. You can also search Safari history or dig straight into the file system.

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Using the dot command you can enter a web site directly into LaunchBar and open it with one keystroke. You can also do a Google search simply by typing "goo", hiting the space bar, typing your search term and then enter. Once you get it, you will be working much quicker. This same method is used to search other sites like Wikipedia, Google Images, and iTunes.

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You can also manipulate, move, and rename files. You can even create and name folders. It has a nifty clipboard that allows you to keep a running log of clipped links, text, and other assets. There is also a simple way to add new iCal events direct from the LaunchBar command line. If you use iCal to-dos you can program those as well.

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So how does all this fancy gadgetry stack up against my beloved Quicksilver? Actually pretty well. Using LaunchBar you are trading in some of the high end Quicksilver commands for stability. I've had troubles keeping Quicksilver running as of late and in the two months I've ran LaunchBar (mostly in beta), it has never crashed on me.

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While the LaunchBar command line is very functional, I wish it was customizable like the interface in Quicksilver. I miss my cubes. Also, LaunchBar is a paid applicaiton, 24 Euros ($32 as of this writing). While I do miss some functions from Quicksilver, I think some of the features improve upon Quicksilver and it is definitely more stable. I know Quicksilver is open source now and it may get new life but for the time being. I'm sticking with LaunchBar. You can get a 30 day trial of LaunchBar from Obective Development at www.obdev.at.

You can listen to this review on MacReviewCast #209

Fontcase Review

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I’ve always found Apple’s Font Book application to be the ugly stepsister of the native Apple applications. It just doesn’t have the polish of most Mac applications. It seems everytime I need to find a unique font for a graphic or presentation, Font Book gets in my way.

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This is what led me to Bohemian Coding’s Fontcase. Fontcase looks like something designed by Apple. Specifically, if the iTunes team made a font manager, it would look a lot like Fontcase.

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The initial Fontcase import is painless. You click one dialog box and Fontcase does the rest. Fontcase can preview both active and inactive fonts. This means you don’t have to load all of your fonts in memory. Instead, you keep them all in Fontcase and activate when needed.

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Once imported, you can easily browse and navigate your fonts rating, tagging and organizing as required. The process of scrolling and previewing your fonts is much easier than Font Book. You can even print out previews. Browsing your fonts is also easy. You can quick look a selected font family simply by pressing the space bar. One useful feature is the “compare” button that allows you to compare multiple fonts. I also like the way you can preview a font as body text just in case you are feeling adventurous about replacing Helvitca, although you really probably shouldn’t. If you are on a network with multiple Macs, it also allows you to preview and share fonts through a Bonjour sync.

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The developers clearly spent some time on the user interface with this application. Fontcase walks that tightrope of having the tools where you need them without looking too cluttered.

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If you are a font nerd, don’t miss this one. A single license for Fontcase is $56 and a family pack of five is $92.

Focal XS 2.1 Computer/iPod Speaker Review

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I listen to a lot of music and I'll admit I'm a snob when it comes to audio equipment. I want speakers that sound great and look fantastic. The Focal XS 2.1 speaker system is a high-end ($600) entry into the iPod and Apple computer market that does both.

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These speakers look superb. The cabinets are solid and the cables are cloth wrapped. They were obviously designed with the current crop of iMacs in mind. Each unit has just the right combination of silver bezel and black body to make you think it was designed in a hidden lab in Cupertino. Additionally, one of the satellites includes a standard iPod dock. Using this dock, you can either sync your iPod to your computer or play directly into the speakers. This is controlled by a toggle switch behind the right satellite speaker. Keeping them next to my desktop machine it was no trouble for me to depress the button. It also includes a simple remote that magnetically attaches to the satellite post. Neat.

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There are two satellite speakers and a 6.5 inch subwoofer all driven by 130 Watts. In addition to providing excellent sound while you're sitting at your computer, the speakers have more than enough power to fill a room (or several rooms) when you walk away. The highs were sharp and clean and the lows (after tuning the subwoofer on the included rear dial) were solid without being too spongy.

There is no doubt in my mind that this is an outstanding speaker system. In terms of design aesthetic and shockingly good sound quality, you will be unlikely to find anything to match it next to your Mac. The real question is whether you can justify spending $600 on a set of computer speakers. While at first this price seemed outrageous, upon reflection it is not. A lot of people, myself included, spend more time in front of our computers than our televisions. When comparing this system to my existing JBLs, for which I paid $200, the improvement was immediately apparent. Every one who listened, including my seven-year-old, could tell the difference.

For a more fair comparison, I also spent some time with another $600 iPod speaker, the Bowers & Wilkins' Zeppelin. The Zeppelin looks, well, like a Zeppelin. The sound on these two systems was superb. At low volume the bass in the Zeppelin was slightly better but but the Focal’s bass sounded tighter at higher volumes. The higher trebles sounded universally better on the Focals. If I a had to choose, I would pick the Focals. These are both outstanding systems but I would give the edge to the Focals for sound. Furthermore, the Focals win big in terms of design. They are made to be next to a computer and compliment it where the Zeppelin is really just for playing an iPod.

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In this age where we use our computers for lot more than word processing, using a quality speaker system makes sense. Frankly, the Focal system is better than my television audio rig and I now find myself looking for excuses to watch video on my iMac. Whether you want to spend $600 on speakers is entirely up to you. If you do, however, I don’t think you will go wrong with the Focal XS system. Fortunately, the Focal XS is now featured at your local Apple store. So if you are interested, head down and listen for yourself to the difference.

You can listen to this review on the MacReviewCast episode 206.

Today Review

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One of the best features of Microsoft Entourage is My Day, a little window that summarizes your appointments and tasks. While I’m not an Entourage user, I must admit a little envy at that simple little window. Apparently I’m not alone. Developer Second Gear Software wrote their own application, appropriately called “Today” that works with iCal data giving you the benefit of My Day without the overhead of Entourage

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Using Today, in one narrow window I can get all of a particular day's events and tasks. Today reads works with the Leopard iCal calendar database so you have the same data without using the screen real estate. If you move an event in Today, it is also adjusted in iCal and all of your iCal connected devices. Switching to a different day is as simple as clicking on the date and selecting your new view from the drop down calendar. You can also move incrementally by clicking on obvious little triangles. Today recognizes the different colors of your iCal calendars and recreates them in its view.

Using Today you can do more than just view your calendar. You can also add events. The recent 1.6 update added natural language detectors for adding new events so setting a meeting for tomorrow, you can type the date or just “tomorrow.”

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If you manage your tasks through the iCal and Apple Mail database, you also have full control of them in Today. If you check off a task in Today, it automatically updated in Mail and iCal. I tested this feature and it worked. I didn’t use it extensively however since my task list system is outside the iCal/Apple Mail database.

There are several useful settings allowing Today to be as visible (or subtle) as you please. For instance you can make the Today window always on top of your desktop or hide it in you menu bar.

Once you get comfortable with Today, you will find yourself opening iCal a lot less often. For laptop users, that is a good thing. A Today license is $15. Second Gear has a free trial period.

You can listen to this review on the MacReviewCast Episode #203.

Curio Review

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I have to admit I’m pretty plugged in when it comes to Mac applications. That is why it is always fun to discover a gem I’ve never heard of. That happened recently with an application from Zengobi software, called Curio.

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Curio really doesn’t fit into any easy categories. I guess you could call it a project organization and data collection tool. I’ve come to think of it as a playground for my brain. It has several modules including outlines, notes, mind maps, "to do" lists, PDF annotation, images, and embedded web pages. I’ve used a lot of data collection applications and this one is truly unique. In a lot of ways it reminds me of a wall in my apartment I used in college. I’d tape on notecards, pictures, and ideas. It was very liberating being able to move things around and make new connections. Using Curio, I can now do this on my Mac. You can add and layout pages with whatever modules fit your needs. For instance on one project I have a page with a mind map, another page has a chronological outline, and a third page has images of relevant web pages. You really are limited only by your imagination.

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My biggest problem with Curio was getting my arms around it. Everytime I thought I had it figured out, I’d push another button and find another useful tool. You can even add voice annotations and draw with a pen tablet. One of the most recent updates ties Curio to your Evernote database. Now I can see my entire Evernote library from inside Curio and drag Evernote assets straight into my Curio projects. This makes both applications much more useful.

Curio gives you the ability to combine nearly unlimited capture with nearly unlimited format. Put simply, you can throw just about anything at it and organize it according to your own personal wiring. It is definitely the most flexible data organization tool in my bag of tricks.

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While Curio has a lot of tools, it does not match the functionality of exclusive use applications. For instance, OmniOutliner is a more powerful outliner than Curio’s. Likewise, the mind map function isn’t as robust as an exclusive mind mapper. I still use my more powerful single use tools for big jobs. However, the Curio tools are usually enough.

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Curio comes in two flavors, a standard edition for $99 and a professional version for $149. The pro version includes a additional tools including a status shelf, pre-built templates, a presentation mode, a dossier feature that helps you start new projects, and encryption. For students, there is a $69 academic license. You can download a free trial from the Zengobi.com. This one that is definitely worth checking out.

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You can listen to the above review on the Mac ReviewCast #202.

Hydra 2 Review

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It wasn't so long ago that I reviewed Creaceed's High Dynamic Range (HDR) application and Aperture plugin, Hydra. If you've never heard of HDR before, it is the process of taking multiple exposures of a subject and combining them into one picture that more closely resembles what you see with the human eye. When done right, it is wonderful. When overdone, it looks bizarre. Wikipedia explains it at length.

I was impressed with Hydra when I last reviewed it but recomended using the stand-alone application over the Aperture plug-in. At that time, the Aperture plug-in hadn't caught up with the stand alone application feature set. With version 2, it does now.

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The new Aperture interface is fantastic. If you can run iPhoto, you should have no trouble with Hydra. It has a live preview, sliders, and checkboxes which, with a little experimentation, can have you tuning your HDR photographs in no time without cracking the manual.

Hydra still does an excellent job of combining photographs and image matching. Creaceed has a lot of experience in this field from its other product, MorphAge, and it shows. Indeed the new version uses additional technologies to account for small distortions between your images. On or off the tripod, you can perform HDR using Hydra.

The new version also includes a loupe tool that previews your image at full quality allowing you to see the rendered image eliminating nasty surprises.

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Tone mapping has also improved in the new version. Tone mapping is the part of the HDR workflow where the application takes all of the combined HDR data and makes it into a visually attractive picture. It makes the skies richly blue and the grass richly green. The new version includes a perceptive tone mapper which attempts to mimic human perception. I'm sure there is a lot of science behind this. I just think it makes the pictures look better.

More than anything, version 2 shows the maturity of an application on its second iteration. Slightly more polish, features, and more intuitive.

Whenever discussing HDR software, you can not ignore the 800 pound gorilla, Photomatix. I've owned Photomatix for some time. While there are several new tools to fine tune your image in Hydra, Photomatix still has more granular control than Hydra. However, Photomatix also is more expensive, comes with a steeper learning curve, and takes longer to use.

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I am an amateur photographer. I've never sold an image to Life Magazine yet I get an unreasonable amount of pleasure from taking good pictures. Even though I own a license to Photomatix, I've done all of my HDR work in the past six months through Hydra. Without really thinking about it, I've discovered the speed, ease of use, and ability to perform the HDR function from within Aperture outweighs any benefits from the additional features in Photomatix. If you want to try your hand at HDR, give Hydra a chance. The pictures look stunning and there is no pain involved in operation.

Hydra is a Leopard only application and a license costs $79.95. You can download a trial from the developer at www.creaceed.com.

You can listen to this review on the MacReviewCast episode 201.

G-Technology G-Safe Review

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With the ever increasing sizes of media files, data files, and Time Machine backups, external storage is becoming a necessity for all Mac owners. This year at Macworld I met with the people from G-Technology concerning their G-Safe drives and they were nice enough to loan me one for a little while for a closer look.

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The G-Safe is a self enclosed two drive enclosure. Like all G-Technology products, it is rock solid. The case is rugged aluminum and the power supply is built-in. The name “G-Safe” is not clever marketing. This thing is built like a tank. No cheap molded plastic here. It includes FireWire 800 and USB 2.0 connectivity. With the right cable, it will work via FireWire 400. It also includes G-Technology’s 3-year warranty.

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Inside are two drives up to 7200 rpm set up in a RAID 1 configuration. That means anything you put on Drive 1 automatically gets copied to Drive 2. Effortless redundancy. If either drive fails, you are already covered. If one drive fails and you replace it, the system rebuilds the backup.

I have to admit that when it comes to back ups, I’m paranoid. This product is, therefore, perfect for me. I know my files are not backed up once, but twice with no extra work. This is useful for any critical data. Obvious examples include iPhoto and Aperture libraries, critical documents, and family video files. If you share my paranoia, this is also perfect for a Time Machine backup. Think about it. In order to lose your critical data, your internal and two external drives would have to all fail.

The G-Safe delivered exactly as promised. Installation was simple and it comes pre-formated for Mac. Yes, that is not a typo. It comes pre-formated for the Mac. You’ve just got to love those guys at G-Technology.

I have a few quibles with the G-Safe. When the fans and drives all run at the same time, it can get pretty noisy. Perhaps a quieter fan would help, but this unit is more about data security than being whisper quiet. Another issue is that you must buy replacement drives from G-Technology. While G-Technology’s prices are about right, it would be more convenient if you could use any drive as a replacement. Since the device comes preloaded with drives, this is not as big of a deal as it first sounds.

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An obvious question is how this device compares to the omni-present Drobo. The G-Safe seems sturdier than the Drobo but doesn’t expand as much or as easily as the Drobo. On the question of price, there is no comparison. You can get the G-Safe with 500 GB of storage for $20 less than the cost of the Drobo alone with no drives. Regardless, a case could be made for both of these units and I think it comes down to specific needs. For instance, if you want a duplicated Time Machine, have a set amount of data, or plan on moving your drive away, the G-Safe is the perfect. If you want something that can easily expand over time, you should look at the Drobo.

The G-Safe includes G-Technology’s 3-year warranty and the price ranges from $479 for 500GB up to $879 for 1.5TB. There are cheaper solutions but in my opinion, the extra value is worth it. If you are looking for a safe, reliable place for your important data, take a good look at the G-Safe.

You can listen to this review on the MacReviewCast Episode 200.

Drive Genius Review

As any self respecting Mac geek, I’ve put together a toolbox to address the various computer problems I come across. One tool I’ve come to rely upon is Drive Genius 2 from ProSoft Engineering.

Drive Genius 2 is a jack-of-all-trades for Mac hard drive maintenance and repair. It includes modules for troubleshooting, repairing, defragmenting, partitioning, shredding, and even editing sectors. The geek meter goes all the way to 11 on this one.

The diagnosis, repair, and drive slimming tools are excellent. I own a few drives that don’t have the automatic S.M.A.R.T diagnosis built in and Drive Genius is a big help. Likewise, the drive slimming module found several large files that had completely dropped off my radar.

The repartition tool must involve some dark magic. It allows you to repartition your drive without reformating. Using Drive Genius 2, repartition does not equal reformat. Amen. If you partition your drives, this one tool alone could be reason enough to buy Drive Genius. 2

With Drive Genius you can do just about anything you want to your hard drives and a couple things you may want to avoid. For instance, I have always avoided defragmenting my Mac hard drives.

I’ve read conflicting authorities as to whether or not this is a good thing. In the interest of science, I decided to take one for the team and repartition as part of this review. The results were inconclusive. While my computer did not turn into a burning hunk of metal, performance didn’t noticeably improve either. I don’t see myself defragging often, if ever, in the future. However, I know some users that work with large media files who swear by it. Regardless, Drive Genius 2 gives you the option.

One complaint I have with this application is the user interface. The application launches into a 3d environment with several (but not all) of the application modules available to you. There are no labels over the icons so in order to figure out what any one module is, you have to click on the icon and wait for the application go through a several second animation sequence that sweeps you down to the icon. If you clicked the wrong icon, you have to sweep back up to the large view and start over again. To further complicate matters, there is an arrow that rolls your current icons out and a new set in. At no point are all the module icons on the screen at the same time. It just feels gimmicky to me which is kind of bizarre in light of the fact that the actual Drive Genius modules feel rock solid. The application also has some animations and graphics in its individual modules. I did not find those obtrusive at all. So you have exceptional utility software tied to an awkward user interface. It would have felt so much better if they just had all of the icons on one screen with a little summary of what each one does with mouse-over. Hopefully this will get fixed in a future build. Thankfully, there is a drop down menu that simply lists the module names and allows you to skip the fancy graphics.

My heartburn with the interface aside, Drive Genius 2 is a trustworthy utility to keep in your Mac toolbox. It also is useful for routine maintenance. A license runs $99 and you can get more information at ProSoftEngineering.com. I would recommend this application as a good investment for anyone serious about drive maintenance and troubleshooting.

You can listen to this review on Surfbits Macreviewcast #197


Forklift 1.6 Review

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A common battle cry among experienced Mac users is the plea for more power to the built-in Finder application. As a result, there is no shortage of third-party solutions. I seem to collect them like some people collect stamps. I’m not all that unhappy with the built-in Finder. I just love the ability to stretch the geek muscles.

One particularly good file management application is BinaryNights' Forklift, which I previously reviewed. The gang at BinaryNights has been hard at work improving Forklift and with the release of version 1.6, I thought it was time to kick the tires, again.

Forklift provides a dual pane interface in which you can select any source for file manipulation. I use the term “any source” rather liberally. It is really more like an “all you can eat” file buffet on your Mac. This includes your local drive, remote drives, network storage, your Amazon S3 account, and FTP storage. The application remembers your logins and makes transferring data between diverse locations as easy as dragging a folder from one pane to the next. It provides a fast, reliable platform for FTP work. I use it for all file management at MacSparky.com.

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While the application was originally developed to handle FTP projects, it has matured into a Finder replacement. It includes several useful features such as spotlight integration, smart folders, spring-loaded folders, and Growl support to make this application perfectly competent for file management needs.

With the newest version, several helpful features have been added. The user interface, which used to be exclusively dual pane, now may be used in a single pane mode. This is helpful when you're operating on a small screen or simply don't need the complexity two panes. While this is a welcome addition, I still find Forklift most useful with two panes. Thankfully, the developer appears committed to continuing support for dual pane and indeed explains on its website that several of the future modules will still support (and even require) the dual pane mode.

Another welcome addition is the adoption of a tab metaphor for switching between locations on individual panes. This implementation works better for me. If, however, you prefer the prior method for keeping track of your locations with the side panes, Forklift has a setting to bring them back. For keyboard jockeys, the new version also supports a great deal more keyboard control. In total, Forklift version 1.6 represents a substantial update without an update fee. I like that.

Forklift is, in my opinion, the "middle way" solution for people seeking a Finder replacement. While it doesn't have as many features as some of its competitors, it sports an excellent “Mac-worthy” interface that is well designed and fun to use. The developer is enthusiastic and the application continues to improve. A license for Forklift will cost $45. There is a student license for $25. You can also download a free 15-day trial from the website, www.binarynights.com.

Audioengine W2 Review

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Audioengine’s newest product, the W2, is perhaps the coolest iPhone gadget on the market. Have you ever wanted the ability to stream music wirelessly from iPod or iPhone to your home stereo without monkeying through a remote interface? Now you can. The W2 allows you to connect your iPod or iPhone directly to your stereo wirelessly.

With the W2 you get a wireless receiver about the size of a pack of gum that is USB powered. You can attach it with the included USB AC adapter and plug the stereo out jack to any audio device, including your home stereo. The transmitter is an even smaller device the same width as an iPhone with an iPod connector pointing out the top.

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There is no software to configure. You simply plug the receiver into your stereo and the transmitter into your iPod. I took it to a friend’s home and played Christmas music through his stereo off my iPhone. Lets just say, hypothetically, that you have a nice collection of Yo-Yo Ma on your iPhone but your wife would prefer Duran Duran off her iPod Touch. It is easy with the W2. Speaking hypothetically, you can simply pull the transmitter out of one device and attach it to another. Marital bliss restored. Streaming music from your iPod just became stupid easy. It will work on the iPod classic, 2g Nano or later, iPod touch, and the iPhone.

This device stems from the same technology in Audioengine’s W1. It creates a 2.4GHz network that works for about 30 feet. When you get out of range, the music starts cutting out intermittently or drops all together. When you get back into range, it picks right back up. Consider it a 30 foot invisible cord. Latency is reported at less than 20 milliseconds. My high-tech test for this involved watching movies on my iPhone while streaming the soundtrack through my stereo. I did not notice any delay.

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The audio quality is good. The manufacturer reports it can keep up with uncompressed CD-quality. In my tests, it did. I played high bit rate music ranging from classical to rock and did not notice any difference between the sound through the W2 and the sound transmitted over a conventional stereo cord plugged directly into my iPhone.

I found the W2 even more useful than the W1. While I still like my home entertainment system streaming through iTunes on my Mac, the ability to change playlists, tracks, and volume using the built-in iPod interface is much easier and my kind of geeky.

The W2 includes both the sender and receiver units, the USB power adapter, the 3.5mm to RCA adapter and an audio cable for $169. You can find it at AudioengineUSA.com.

PDFPen Review

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My day job requires me to spend a great deal of time working with PDF documents. For a long time, that meant I needed to have a license for Adobe Acrobat on all of my computers. This is no small task on the Mac platform since Adobe only sells Adobe Acrobat professional for the Mac which will cost you $450. Fortunately, there are other options. Apple's own Preview application does a pretty good job of displaying PDF documents and allowing basic editing. For some people, this will be plenty. If you need something more robust however, Smile On My Mac's PDFPen may be just what you're looking for.

The tools in PDFPen are much more robust than those offered in Preview. Accessing a PDF document with PDFPen, you can add text, images, and signatures. You can also highlight a text field and open it as an editable text block. So when you receive a PDF document within mistake or typos, you can easily fix it yourself. Additionally, PDFPen has a variety of useful editing tools including highlighting, underscoring, and strike through. It even includes a library with common proofreading marks allowing you to simply drag and editing marks to PDF documents before sending them back for processing or correction. This isn't as efficient as simply using a red pen yet, but when working electronically with someone in another state, you really can't beat it. You can also add notes and comments just as in Adobe Acrobat.

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Another nice feature in PDFPen is the ability to use your digital signature. You can use a scanned copy of your signature and literally drop it in a PDF document before returning it to the sender. This provides a truly paperless option for entering contracts or other transactions. This works hand in glove with another PDFPen feature, the library. The library can hold frequently used images and information including your signature. If you work with PDF forms, PDFPen also will accommodate you. It allows you to fill out and save PDF forms easily. While it is possible now to delete pages and reorder pages using Preview, PDF Pen's implementation of this feature is much easier to use.

One of the improvements with the latest version 5 is the inclusion of optical character recognition. Often PDF documents, when provided you, do not have OCR already performed. PDFPen can now either automatically or a request perform its own optical character recognition on your document. In my tests, the performance was not significantly better or worse than that obtained with Adobe Acrobat. As with all OCR functions, it is a function of the original source document. If you have something typed, the OCR will be much better than if something is handwritten.

For $49.95, I believe PDFPen to be an excellent value. If you need to create your own PDF forms, you can upgrade to PDFPen Pro for $99.95. Another added feature at the pro level is the inclusion of the table of contents. This works with the "bookmarks feature" of Adobe Acrobat. I often send PDFPen bookmarked documents to my PC brethren who are none the wiser.

If you currently are using Apple's Preview application without feeling its limits, you're probably okay in terms of PDF manipulation. However, if you are running into its shortcomings or wish you had some of the Adobe Acrobat features without the Adobe Acrobat price, you should take a serious look at PDFPen and PDFPen Pro. You can find them at Smile on My Mac's website.

You can listen to this review on the Typical Mac User Podcast #161.

ActionGear Review

by John Chandler from The Creativityist
For 15 years, I have managed my task list on my computer. Behind me lies a pile of discarded task management apps, including Starfish Sidekick, Lotus Notes, Outlook, and iGTD, not to mention a few others I've flirted with along the way. I switched over to OmniFocus when the beta went public, and the launch of the iPhone version earlier this year has landed me squarely in GTD utopia.

One of my greatest joys in life is checking little boxes next to completed tasks. (Sad, isn't it?) As a result, my infatuation with task management apps rivals Imelda Marcos' love for shoes. Even in my current task utopian bliss, curiosity draws me to explore every task app I run across. So when David asked me if I'd be willing to do a review of ActionGear, I knew I was the man for the job.

ActionGear is billed as Lightweight task management for Mac. That simple tagline captures some of what I like best about this app:
  • Quick and easy access - ActionGear feels more like a handy background utility than a resource eating app. It resides in the menubar for convenient access, though you can also assign a quick keystroke like command-space, option-space, or anything you choose, to open the ActionGear window.

  • Straight forward task management - ActionGear doesn't require a PhD to manage your tasks. As tasks are added, you can drag and drop them into the folders you create. Whether you want to sort them by projects or contexts, it's up to you.

  • Quickly capture reference and ideas - ActionGear is not confined only to tasks. It can also capture a screenshot, an iSight image, or a note if you want to grab an idea or other reference material in a flash. The item becomes a line item just like a task, and can be sorted quickly into a folder. QuickLook is built in, so you can take a quick gander at your saved information.

  • Tags and smart folders - Though ActionGear is simple and lightweight, it can scale for more demanding users. The ability to create tags and smart folders means that you can customize your tasks into multiple folders sorted by projects, contexts, due dates, or any combination of them.




ActionGear is a new release -- I'm reviewing 1.0.3. (Actually, I started reviewing 1.0.2, but found a bug. The developer was prompt with his response, and a new version was released within a few days.) As you'd expect in a 1.0 product, ActionGear still has lots of room to grow, but it is already a capable task manager. Priced at $24, it's reasonable too. If the complexities of Things or OmniFocus feel like too much for you, ActionGear might be just what you are looking for.

John writes Creativityist, a blog about shaping good habits for your soul, and your Mac, to practice creativity.

RichardSolo 1800 Review

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To be honest, I’ve never been much for iPhone accessories. I don’t keep my phone in a case and except for an upgraded set of headphones, I’ve skipped over most of the accessory madness. However, the limited life of my battery has become enough of a problem that I found myself looking for a solution. I found one with the RichardSolo 1800 iPhone backup battery.

The RichardSolo 1800 on first glance looks a lot like a slightly smaller iPhone. It has a similar design aesthetic and shape to the first generation iPhone. It is slightly slimmer and slightly shorter. It is also much lighter than your iPhone. Regardless, it fit in my pocket nicely and was very easy to carry around in my bag.

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Sticking out the end of the RichardSolo 1800 is the standard iPhone/iPod connector port. Once charged you simply plug it into your device and the RichardSolo starts recharging it. There are several charging batteries that require you to plug the iPhone in through a separate iPod cable. I hate having to bring extra cables and the built in solution is much better. The built in connector on the RichardSolo 1800 is firm and actually locks on to your device requiring you to squeeze two points in order to unhook it not unlike the older iPod cables. It also includes two plastic connectors that lend a little more support to your phone while it is charging. In a pinch, you can use your phone while it is charging but it does feel a bit funny talking into it with the battery attached. On the other hand, I found holding it with the battery convenient while watching a movie.

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Because the battery plugs in from the bottom instead of the wrap-around design of some of its competitors, the RichardSolo can charge just about any iPod with the 30 pin connector. I used it successfully on a first generation nano, third generation 30 gig iPod, and an iPod Touch in addition to my iPhone.

With 1800 mAh, you can recharge your iPhone and then some. I let my iPhone drain down to 10% and then plugged it in. In about 80 minutes, it was fully charged again. Charging the RichardSolo simply requires you to plug it in through the MiniUSB connector to your computer or any USB charging device. Speaking of which, the RichardSolo 1800 includes home and automobile USB chargers along with the required cables. I thought this was a great touch allowing me to recharge the battery from just about anywhere. You can also charge the RichardSolo and iPhone together simply by leaving them connected while you USB charge the RichardSolo 1800. Charging the RichardSolo 1800 from my MacBook Pro takes about 5 hours.

I find the RichardSolo 1800 perfect for days when I use my phone a lot and when I travel. If I know I will be stuck on a plane or relying on my phone and away from extra power, the RichardSolo 1800 is a champ. Once in awhile I will mistakenly leave the iPod running on my iPhone and suddenly find I’ve drained my battery. The other nice thing about having this device in my bag is that it pretty much shuts up that inner voice that tells me I’m not allowed to watch long movies, play games, or otherwise carelessly use up my battery. I don’t care anymore. I’ve got insurance. I don’t need the RichardSolo 1800 everyday, but when I do, it comes in very handy.

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As an added bonus, the RichardSolo 1800 has an included LED flashlight and laser pointer. While these extras may seem like window dressing, I actually find them quite useful. I most often need the RichardSolo 1800 when I’m on the road giving presentations. Having a flashlight and laser pointer in my pocket is quite handy. You can also use the laser pointer to torment cats.

The RichardSolo 1800 is a great solution for anyone in need of extra power for their iPhone. It retails for $69.95 and you can purchase it directly from the RichardSolo website.

This review was recorded and published on the NosillaCast podcast.

Hyperspaces Review

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The Spaces feature in OS X Leopard is one of those things you either love or hate. Since I do a lot of my computing with a 13" laptop screen, I find it very useful. The trouble is quite often I'm clueless as to which space I am actually occupying. I know I can display the number in the menubar but that just gets me more befuddled.

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Hyperspaces is a small application designed around this specific problem. It allows you to set a custom wallpaper for each space. It also allows you to give each space its own specific name. So, instead of seeing "Space 3" in my menubar, I see "Writing", I also have spaces for OmniFocus, iCal, Mail, and a few others. You can display the label up in your menubar or even right on top of the current desktop. The application offers several ways to navigate including custom hot keys to switch directly to a certain space or add and remove spaces.

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Be warned that if you are running an older machine or one without a dedicated video card. Loading up multiple wallpapers could eat into clock cycles. Fortunately the developer also allows you to configure it so it just changes color or, if you really like one specific wallpaper, you can rely on Hyperspaces other notification methods such as the menubar and on top of the desktop.

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One feature this application begs for is a customizable dock. I know this is a 1.0 release, but if the developer could allow you to additionally customize your dock for each space with this single application, he will please a lot of unsatisfied Spaces users.

With the demonstration version you can customize three of your spaces. If you want more than that, you can buy a license for $13. The developer gives out his email on the application website and encourages feedback. It appears to be a well loved project with a bright future. While Hyperspaces is still a bit rough on the edges (this review is of final candidate 1.0), I see this application getting traction with Spaces power users soon. You can find it at Hyperspacesapp.com.

This review was also recorded and published on the MacReviewCast episode 122.