Mac Gems

One of my favorite features in OS X 10.3 is Fast User Switching, which lets you quickly switch between user accounts via a menu-bar menu. Unfortunately, the menu's title is the current user's full user name, which can take up a significant chunk of the menu bar.

You could shorten your user name, but a better way to lessen this menu-bar intrusion is Wincent Colaiuta's free (donations accepted) WinSwitch 1.2.1 (   ; ). With WinSwitch, you can choose how you want your Fast User Switching menu to appear in the menu bar -- as the current user's long or short user name, as a generic icon (that of the Accounts preference pane), or as the current user's account picture. Using the second or third option gives you all the benefits of Fast User Switching without the excessive space requirement.

Wordsmith Services

In a previous issue, I wrote about OS X's services ("OS X's Overlooked Shortcut," Working Mac, December 2003), which let you use one application's abilities from within another. In that article, I briefly mentioned some of the best services plug-ins, but one is so useful that it deserves more attention. Devon Technologies' excellent (and free) WordService 2.5.1 (   ; ) provides more than 30 functions for working with text. After selecting text in a services-aware application, you can perform a number of formatting and conversion actions on the text -- sort-ing lines, changing line endings, converting capitalization, creating smart quotes, and more. WordService can also insert the current date and time into a text field or document. If you frequently have to manipulate text, this plug-in is a must-have.

Mighty (Miniature) Mouse

In this space, I've recommended a few products for enhancing the trackpad on an iBook or a PowerBook, but when it comes right down to it, I still prefer to use a mouse. Unfortunately, it's tough to find a portable mouse that fulfills my personal requirements: small size, multiple buttons, and wireless functionality without additional hardware. One of the few that have all three is RadTech's $55 Bluetooth BT-500 Mobile Mouse (   ; ).

Less than three inches long, the BT-500 weighs two and one-quarter ounces and features the accuracy of an 800-dpi optical mouse in a compact, comfortable form. With two standard buttons (left and right) and a clickable scroll wheel, it provides enough functionality even for advanced users. (OS X recognizes all three buttons without additional drivers -- I use the scroll-wheel button for Exposé.)

My only criticism of the BT-500 is actually a consequence of a desirable feature. To preserve battery life (it operates on two AAA batteries), the BT-500 enters sleep mode after a few minutes of inactivity, and it takes a few seconds to wake up when you use it again. But I'm still on my first set of batteries after a month and a half of use, so there are clearly benefits to this approach. The BT-500 also has a convenient on/off switch that prevents battery drain when the mouse is rolling around in your laptop bag.

If you have a PowerBook or an iBook that's Bluetooth enabled via either built-in support or a USB adapter, the BT-500 is a great accessory that takes up less space than most mobile phones.

DVD Duplication

If you're a parent who just purchased your third copy of Finding Nemo because thrice-weekly viewings have destroyed the first two copies, or if you're a road warrior who prefers to take copies of movies with you so the originals don't get scratched, you've probably wondered how to make easy backup copies of your commercial DVDs.

There are many ways to copy such DVDs; most employ a multistep process involving various combinations of open-source and commercial products. But for a one-click approach, the only product I've found for OS X is Velan's $99 Fast DVD Copy 2.1 (   ; ).

For some DVDs, the process is as simple as clicking on Start, letting Fast DVD Copy extract the content of the disc, and then burning the copy. However, because single-layer recordable DVDs hold less data than commercial (dual-layer) video DVDs, many movies won't fit. For these movies, Fast DVD Copy lets you decide between further compressing the movie (resulting in lower video quality) or cutting disc features such as additional audio tracks and languages, supplemental material, subtitles, and so on. You decide the balance between these two options -- as you remove items, the resulting video quality will increase. Fast DVD Copy displays a graph of the expected quality of the copy, from Good to Highest.

As an extreme example, I recently made a backup of the 200-minute Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King DVD to watch on a trip. Even at the lowest quality, the movie was too big for a recordable DVD. I told Fast DVD Copy to eliminate the 5.1-channel audio track -- leaving just the 12-channel version -- and the copy then fit on a standard recordable DVD.

Fast DVD Copy isn't without drawbacks. It's expensive, and the multistep activation procedure is cumbersome. In addition, each copy of the program is licensed to a particular computer -- if you ever want to run it on another machine, the process can be a hassle. And while a Power Mac G5 with a 4x SuperDrive worked flawlessly, I experienced a few failed burns on a PowerBook with a 1x SuperDrive. But despite these complaints, Fast DVD Copy is the easiest way to make backup copies of your DVDs, and that alone makes it worth looking into.

Entourage Envoy

If you use OS X's Address Book to store your contact information, you can take advantage of Apple's iSync to synchronize your contacts with your iPod, PDA, and many mobile phones. In addition, many applications and utilities work with Address Book (including OS X's iChat AV and built-in fax functionality). If you don't use Address Book, you've probably felt left out in the cold. You can manually export and import information to and from other contact managers, but that can be rather frustrating -- especially if you frequently update your contacts.

If your contact manager happens to be Microsoft Entourage (X or 2004), you're in luck -- thanks to Paul Berkowitz's $19 Sync Entourage-Address Book 2.5.1 (   ; ). Based on the impressive AppleScript support built into both Entourage and Address Book, Sync Entourage-Address Book is a comprehensive set of scripts that lets you synchronize your contact data between the two -- so you can use your Entourage contact data with all the applications and services that support OS X's Address Book.

The first time you use Sync Entourage-Address Book, you run a special script that lets you tell the synchronization app how your computer is set up -- your Address Book display settings, what language you use for OS X, and so on. You can also choose how Entourage's Custom Fields correspond to Address Book fields, and choose between one-way and two-way syncing. (Since I never touch Address Book -- I always edit my contacts from within Entourage -- I use the one-way sync option.) Then you simply run the main application.

There are a few more options, and many other features to help you make sure your syncing is both accurate and complete. I highly recommend reading the (very thorough) documentation before using Sync Entourage-Address Book. You'll probably have to read through it only once. After the initial sync, you just run the app as often as you want to sync your contact information between Entourage and Address Book. (For more on scripts that work with Entourage, see "Get More from Entourage," Working Mac, November 2003.)

Note that Berkowitz also provides a similar, $19 utility, Sync Entourage-iCal, which synchronizes Entourage's calendar data with Apple's iCal.

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