Mac Gems

On-the-go laptop users frequently find themselves looking for wireless networks to connect to for a quick e-mail check or surfing session. In the December 2004 issue, I reviewed Marware’s $30 WiFi Spy (   ), my favorite way to check for wireless networks.

My one major criticism was that it didn’t differentiate between open and closed networks—you still had to open your laptop and try to connect. Now that Canary Wireless has released its $50 Digital Hotspotter (   ), my laptop bag has a new Wi-Fi finder. Like the WiFi Spy, the Hotspotter can detect the presence and strength of wireless networks (but, in my tests, with a slightly better range). However, rather than using multiple LED lights to indicate the strength of nearby networks, the Hotspotter includes an LCD that displays textual information about each network, including its SSID (displayed as “cloaked” for private networks); wireless channel number; signal strength; and, perhaps most important, security (that is, whether it requires a password). Road warriors will welcome this final bit of information with open arms, as it lets you keep your PowerBook or iBook in your bag until you’ve found an open network.

On the other hand, if you have access to a secure network but you’ve got a case of encryption paranoia, the Hotspotter will tell you whether that network is using WEP or WPA encryption. Even better, the Hotspotter can differentiate between multiple networks: after you press the scan button, the Hotspotter provides detailed information on the strongest network it finds in your vicinity. Pressing the button again displays information on the next-strongest network, and so on.

The Hotspotter does, however, have a few minor flaws. The most obvious is its size: the Hotspotter requires two AA batteries and is a bulky 2.5 by 2.2 by 1.0 inches—more suitable for a laptop bag than for a key chain. I also wish the LCD had a backlight for easier viewing in dimly lit meeting rooms. Finally, the company says that the default settings on a small number of access points prevent the Hotspotter from detecting them even when units such as the WiFi Spy can find them.

That said, in my tests using known access points from various manufacturers, the Hotspotter never failed to detect a network. For now, this Wi-Fi finder is in a league of its own. If you don’t mind its bulky size, it will make a great addition to your travel bag.

Watch It Wiggle

Although some Mac Gems picks are full-featured applications, others are simple tools that do simple things that only some people really need to be able to do. Take Stick Software’s free Jiggler 1.2 (   )—all it does is jiggle your mouse cursor periodically to keep your Mac awake. Why would you want to do this? Perhaps you’re running SETIhome. Or maybe you’ve discovered the bug in Final Cut Pro 4 that can result in an application freeze during rendering if you don’t move the mouse periodically. Or per-haps you’re engaging in the big no-no of installing an OS X software update on your PowerBook while running off the battery. In each of these cases, Jiggler can keep your Mac from sleeping.

Granted, you could set your Mac to never sleep, in the Energy Saver preference pane, but that isn’t necessarily good for your Mac or for energy conservation. And changing your settings just for specific tasks can turn into a hassle.

Simple as it is, Jiggler does provide a few handy options: you can choose how frequently it jiggles your mouse; set the app to jiggle only when you haven’t actually been using the mouse; and set particular conditions under which Jiggler should, well, jiggle (when the CPU is busy, when a writable CD or DVD is mounted, or when a particular application is running). Most people won’t need Jiggler, but those who do will find it exceptionally useful.

Port Access

Over the years, one of the most common criticisms of Apple’s Power Mac computers has been the lack of front-panel ports and jacks—you have to reach behind (or, if your Power Mac is on the floor, crawl behind) the computer to plug in or unplug accessories such as keyboards, printers, scanners, and speakers. And temporary peripherals—those you connect only when you’re actually using them, such as digital cameras, portable hard drives, headphones, and microphones—are even more of a hassle. Apple finally included single FireWire 400, USB, and headphone ports on the front of the Power Mac G5, but the truth is that Windows PCs have had such convenience features for years.

I’ve finally found an elegant solution to this problem in Marathon Computer’s $59 RePorter (   )—put simply, it’s an extension cord for your ports. Connect the cables at one end of the RePorter to the ports on the back of your Power Mac, iMac, or eMac. At the other end of the RePorter’s 5-foot-long cable is a 3-inch globe with a flat face that provides six ports: FireWire 400, FireWire 800, headphone (audio out), audio in, and two USB 2.0 ports.

You obviously lose these ports on the back of your Mac, but if you don’t need easy access to a particular port, or you prefer to use the one in back, you can simply choose not to connect the RePorter to that port. One nice touch is the unit’s internal light: when the RePorter is connected to a USB port on your computer, this light casts a subtle blue glow around the ports on the device’s body, making them easier to identify in the dark.

My only significant complaint about the RePorter is that its round body gives it a tendency to roll around a bit when sitting on a desk or on top of a computer. But I’ve been waiting for something like the RePorter for a long time. It’s one of those “Why didn’t anyone else do this sooner?” products that provide an important feature: convenience.

Point and CLIX

You may love Mac OS X, but using Terminal can be a bit intimidating. If you’ve used a few Terminal commands that you’ve seen on the Web but you don’t really understand the ins and outs of the command line, you’re a prime candidate for Rixstep’s free ; CLIX 1.5 Command Line Interface for OS X (   ), a utility for storing and running Unix commands.

CLIX includes a default database containing more than 450 Terminal commands that perform useful actions in OS X—many of them usually inaccessible—categorized by the aspect of the interface they affect (Dock, Finder, Security, and System, for example).

Double-click on any command, and CLIX presents a dialog box that shows a title, a category, and a description, as well as the command itself. To execute the command, click on the Run button (you can use the Copy button to copy this output to the Clipboard for pasting into another application). You can also edit or customize commands in the Command Line field.

Because you’re working with valid, proven commands, CLIX is a useful tool for learning Unix. But what really won me over was CLIX’s ability to store personalized commands—either in the default database or in a new database. This feature is so useful on its own that CLIX may become a reference guide for your collected Unix tidbits even if you never touch its default database.

Some of the commands in CLIX’s default database do pretty serious things, so read a command’s description before running it; if you don’t understand the command, then don’t run it. This is especially true for commands that require administrative access.

Changing Names

Products featured in Mac Gems usually get a mouse rating—but since I was involved in creating the following utility, this is an exception.

One of the most frequent questions I get is how to change short user names in OS X. Apple makes it easy to change your long user name. But if you try to change your short user name—your official account name in OS X, most easily identifiable as the name of your user folder—you’ll find that this field is grayed out and inaccessible.

When working on my book Mac OS X Power Tools I decided to include a thorough procedure for changing your short user name. With nearly 20 steps, though, it wasn’t exactly user-friendly. So I enlisted the help of James Bucanek—the book’s technical editor and a Unix scripting expert—to turn my manual procedure into an easy-to-use utility.

A lot of hard work on his part resulted in the free (donations accepted) ChangeShortName 1.1 , a Unix shell script and accompanying GUI helper application that lets anyone change a short OS X user name with a minimum of fuss. If you’re a Unix geek, you can run the ChangeShortName shell script from within Terminal; if not, you’ll want to use the included ChangeShortName Helper utility.

Before you rush off to download ChangeShortName and start changing all your user names, a warning is in order: Changing the short user name is a procedure that involves the modification of some serious system files. Be sure to check out the Read Me file that comes with the utility.

[ Senior Writer Dan Frakes is the author of Mac OS X Power Tools , second edition (Sybex, 2004), and he is the reviews editor at Playlistmag.com. Send your thoughts on this column, or on things you’d like to see in future columns, to macgems@macworld.com. ]

Sniff out Wi-Fi hotspots with Digital Hotspotter.Jiggler keeps your Mac from falling asleep at the wrong time.The RePorter puts your ports within easy reach.CLIX stores—and runs—your favorite Terminal commands.
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