Mac gems

If you have Apple’s AirPort Express, then you probably know you can use iTunes to wirelessly send your music to speakers connected to the Express. But this technology, called AirTunes, has several drawbacks, the most significant of which is that it can broadcast only audio playing through iTunes. If you want to listen to RealAudio or Windows Media files, or audio being played in a Web browser, then you’re out of luck.

But never fear, for the folks at Rogue Amoeba can help. The company’s $25 Airfoil 1.0.1 (   ) lets you stream audio from any application to an AirPort Express. And it couldn’t be easier to use.

In Airfoil’s main window, you choose the application providing the audio you want to transmit. You can pick a running or recently used application, or you can navigate to any application on your computer. If you have more than one AirPort Express, you then pick which one to transmit to. Click on the Transmit button, and your chosen application’s audio will begin playing through the speakers connected to your AirPort Express. You can control the volume level of the signal via Airfoil or link the volume level to your Mac’s volume control.

Since it works with any program, Airfoil is a great way to listen to Webcasts of sporting events (or any other streaming audio) on your home stereo. However, keep in mind that just like with iTunes, there’s a slight delay between when a sound is produced by an application and when it’s played through your AirPort Express.

Airfoil even offers advantages for people who are simply broadcasting iTunes audio. For example, whereas AirTunes mutes local audio when broadcasting, you can set Airfoil to play audio on the local computer while it’s being played via your AirPort Express (although the two signals may be slightly out of sync). And audio-effect plug-ins that don’t work with AirTunes—the popular Volume Logic, for example—will work via Airfoil. Just tell iTunes to play locally—not via AirTunes to your AirPort Express—and let Airfoil send the audio.

One Airfoil quirk has to do with how it interacts with running applications. If you elect to install Airfoil’s Instant Hijack component, clicking on the Transmit button commences the transmission immediately. However, Instant Hijack uses Unsanity’s Application Enhancer—which some people don’t like using. The workaround is to either select the desired audio program in Airfoil before it’s launched, or allow Airfoil to relaunch it if it’s already running when you begin transmission.

Bright Light! Bright Light!

I recently bought a great 20-inch wide-screen LCD—but I didn’t buy it from Apple. Sadly, I couldn’t justify the $1,000 (plus tax) that the shiny aluminum model I’d been eyeing for so long would have cost. Instead, I turned to a third party and found a display with the same 1,680-by-1,050-pixel resolution as Apple’s display for a little more than half the price. It’s got one major problem, however: it’s too bright.

I don’t mean that it’s a little bit too bright; I mean that it’s “staring at the sun” bright. During the day, in a well-lit office, it’s almost bearable, but in the evening I pretty much need to break out the welder’s helmet. I’ve used the display’s controls to lower the brightness as much as I can, but on this particular model, if a level of 100 means “prison tower spotlight,” a level of 0 is still “police car floodlight.” And no amount of OS X display calibration has helped.

It turns out that I’m not alone in this experience. Scavenging the Net for a solution, I was fortunate to come across Splasm Software’s free Brightness Control 1.0.3 (   ). The latest entry in my library of one-function wonders, Brightness Control’s claim to fame is that it provides a slider control for dimming your display’s screen. Somewhere between the black screen and full brightness is the pleasant “just right” that made my new monitor’s light levels tolerable for unshielded use. (A Smooth option makes the transitions between brightness levels, well, smoother.)

If you accidentally set your brightness to 0, don’t worry—just press the escape key to restore full brightness. (Or press Command-Q to quit Brightness Control; its setting applies only when the application is running.)

Because it’s simply dimming the screen, Brightness Control doesn’t offer increased contrast to compensate for a lack thereof at the lowest brightness levels. Being able to dim multiple displays independently would also be helpful, although I understand why that would be technically difficult. And since its purpose is to adjust a systemwide setting, I wish it worked as a preference pane or a menu item instead of as an application that remains open (in the Dock and on screen). But those quirks aside, it has made my brand-new monitor usable, and for that I’m extremely grateful.

SMB Made Easy

With OS X 10.3, Apple made the Mac a full citizen on Windows networks. For many Mac users, the biggest advantage of this move was the ability to connect to shared volumes on Windows computers (and other computers providing SMB/CIFS shares). Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems with OS X’s built-in connection methods, which involve using the Finder’s Connect To Server dialog box. The first is that you need to know how to format the SMB URL of the target computer. (If you click on the Browse button in the dialog box, you may be able to see the desired Windows share, but only if it’s on the same network subnet—and even then it’s not guaranteed, due to a slightly buggy Network Browser implementation.) The second is that many users find that they have to type in their password every time they connect—for some reason, no matter how many times you select Add To Keychain in the password dialog box, it doesn’t work. Great for security; bad for convenience.

You can make an alias of a mounted Windows share and then double-click on that alias to initiate the connection in the future; you still need to provide your password, but at least you don’t have to remember and type the URL format. Or you can create an AppleScript to mount a Windows volume without having to enter your password. But if you connect to a number of Windows volumes, it’s a pain to create one of those scripts for each share.

All of this is a long-winded way to say that I’m glad I came across Supinfo’s free SMB Manager 1.5 (   ), which saves your login information and lets you quickly connect to frequently accessed Windows shares. Enter information for as many favorites as you like, give each one a descriptive name and even a custom icon, and never enter a password again. (If you’ve been using the Finder’s Connect To Server dialog box for a while and have added a number of favorite servers, SMB Manager can even convert them to SMB Manager Favorites.)

Once you’re set up, the application’s Easy mode lets you choose the favorite to which you want to connect (via a pop-up menu), and you then click on Connect. You can bring SMB Manager to the front by pressing a systemwide keyboard shortcut, so it works much like the Finder’s Connect To Server dialog box. (You can even set SMB Manager so that it doesn’t show up in the Dock.) And if you frequently connect to the same shares, you can tell SMB Manager to connect to those particular shares at launch.

If you often connect to Windows SMB shares, forget the Finder; SMB Manager will make your connections much easier.

Accessories Mini

When Apple announced the new Mac mini, I knew it wouldn’t take long before companies started making accessories for it. The first products came from Plasticsmith (previously known for its Lapvantage laptop stand). Easily the most interesting product in Plasticsmith’s mini lineup is the $50 mini Tower (   ). If even the Mac mini’s tiny 6.5-inch-square footprint is too big for you, the mini Tower lets you turn the Mac mini on its side in a stand that takes up only 7.25 by 2.75 inches of desktop space.

But that’s just the functional side of the mini Tower—it also happens to be quite attractive. The stylish stand is made of a pair of polished acrylic slabs connected by another piece of acrylic, just over 2 inches wide, that wraps around three sides. (The fourth side is open to allow you to slide your Mac mini inside.) Each narrow edge has two long slits; the ones on the front accommodate your mini’s optical-drive slot—so you can insert the mini with its top facing either left or right—and the others provide ventilation. (My initial concerns about ventilation were put to rest when, in my testing, the Mac mini’s fan turned on no more often when in the case than when out of it.)

Another useful Plasticsmith product is the $40 mini Grandstand (   ). Available in either laser-cut steel (the mini Grandstand steel) or the same polished acrylic as the mini Tower (the mini Grandstand clear), the Grandstand is a monitor stand that’s just tall enough to fit over the top of your Mac mini, and that supports displays as heavy as 60 pounds—it’s an effective use of space. The clear version is more eye-catching, but the steel model looks a bit more professional and hides cables and such.

The final product in Plasticsmith’s Mac mini accessory trio, the mini Skirt (   ), just may take the award for best accessory name of 2005. On the other hand, it won’t win too many awards for functionality, since it doesn’t really do anything—it’s just an acrylic base for the Mac mini. But it looks cool, and Plasticsmith has done a great job of making the Skirt a perfect fit for the Mac mini; I give it plenty of aesthetic props.

The $25 standard mini Skirt is outdone only by the $40 mini Skirt glo, which features a built-in blue or white LED and frosted, nonpolished edges (which diffuse the light). Plug the glo’s USB cable into one of your Mac mini’s USB ports, and you’re glowing (a power switch lets you turn this effect off when you get tired of otherworldly illumination). Unfortunately, the Mac mini’s two USB ports leave little room for luxuries such as a glowing computer stand, but the company promises that a USB hub version is in the works.

If you have a Mac mini and want your desk to hold it in the most space-efficient manner possible, the mini Tower and mini Grandstand are both great accessories. If you just want people to stop and look, slip on a mini Skirt. It’s all form and little function, but it’s nice to look at.

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

Airfoil frees your AirPort Express from its iTunes-only audio shackles.Brightness Control tones down the brightness of non-Apple displays.Connections With SMB Manager, connecting to Windows shares is easier than ever.
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