Like the bulk of an iceberg, much of the Mac market hides beneath the surface. For every Microsoft Office, FileMaker Pro, or Adobe Photoshop, there are 50 products you may never hear about. Whether it’s a vital shareware utility or a cool gizmo you just shouldn’t be without, these overlooked gems can transform your Mac from something you work with to something that works for you. I’ll use this monthly column to point out some of these smaller Mac programs that I think deserve a closer look.
The MP3 Lifestyle
By placing my entire music collection at my fingertips, Apple’s iTunes and the iPod have spoiled me. Even though I’m a serious music hound, I no longer listen to music in my living room — my CD player just can’t give me the instant access to my 23,000-song library that I’ve come to expect.
But that’s changing. Thanks to Slim Devices’ $249 SliMP3, even my stereo has gotten MP3 savvy. This thin box can read MP3 files from an OS X Mac (as well as a Unix computer or PC) via an Ethernet network and play them through a stereo. Sure, I could connect my Mac’s audio output to my receiver or plug the iPod into the stereo, but when I’m in the living room, the last thing I want to do is stare at a computer screen or fiddle with a mouse. The SliMP3 integrates elegantly with the rest of the audiovisual equipment in my cabinet, right down to the infrared remote control.
Setup was a breeze: I just connected the box to my home network and to my stereo receiver’s inputs.
(I don’t have Ethernet in my living room, so I bought Linksys’s $116 WET11 wireless bridge to connect the SliMP3 to my AirPort network.) Then I launched the small server application on my Mac. It automatically found my iTunes Music Library file and was ready to go.
You use the remote to navigate through menus on the SliMP3’s small LED screen; you can browse your collection by artist, genre, album, or playlist. iTunes playlists appear on the SliMP3 automatically, and you can create and edit additional playlists by connecting to the SliMP3 server via a Web browser.
Of course, there are less costly ways to get music from a computer to a stereo. But I really don’t want to set up a Mac in my living room. Now I don’t have to.
On the subject of MP3s, if you’re going to have a 23,000-song MP3 collection, you’ll need to organize it. For that task, I use the Swiss Army Knife of MP3 utilities, Chaotic Software’s $25 MP3 Rage.
It helps you look up and fix improper ID3 tag data, rename files based on that data, look up lyrics and album covers, find duplicates, create a catalog file (for use with a database program), move and reorganize files, and even convert MP3 files to different audio formats. Yes, iTunes can do some of this — and for most people, that’s enough — but MP3 Rage does more. I find it indispensable, and anyone with a large collection of MP3s will, too.
Essential Utility Collection
A long time ago, a company called Now Software published a collection of extremely useful system-enhancement programs called Now Utilities. The package was an excellent and inexpensive way to supercharge a Mac, and most power users — including me — owned a copy.
Aladdin Systems, the purveyor of StuffIt Deluxe and Spring Cleaning, has borrowed a page from Mac history with the very cool Ten for X, a $50 group of utilities that improves OS X in some excellent ways. Combining the efforts of nine shareware developers, Ten for X includes 12 utilities for OS X (apparently “Twelve for X” didn’t have quite the same ring). Some of the programs, such as FruitMenu, Xounds, and WindowShade X, add OS 9 features (the Apple menu, system-sound customization, and collapsible windows, respectively) that Apple removed in OS X. Others, such as Pseudo, make it easier to work under the OS X hood. There are also two file-launching applications (LaunchBar and piPop) that work very well together, a utility for printing selected text from within any program (PrintMagic X), a full-featured alarm clock and task scheduler (AlarmClock S.E.), and a file-synchronization tool (Executive Sync).
Few people will use all of the utilities in Ten for X, but anyone who uses OS X for more than an hour a day will find three or four must-have utilities — I can’t live without LaunchBar, WindowShade X, and FruitMenu, for example.
All of the Ten for X utilities are licensed from their authors and are fully functional and registered versions. They’re all available individually (and you can get fully functional versions of some of them without having to pay the developer), but I think it’s vital to pay shareware fees, and Ten for X delivers a hand-picked collection of excellent utilities.
OS X for Retro Printers
As the piles of printers strewn about my basement will attest, printing is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. And my heart was heavy when OS X came along, because of the problems I (and many other Mac users) had getting older printers to work with the new OS.
While we’re not likely to see companies developing drivers for five-year-old printers, there is a free solution for many users with older machines. Gimp-Print is an open-source print driver for OS X 10.2 that supports hundreds of older, non-PostScript printers, including most ink-jets from Epson, Canon, Hewlett-Packard, and Lexmark.
Gimp-Print is fairly easy to set up, and it runs transparently once it’s installed. However, you should carefully read the included installation notes several times before getting started — this will help alleviate potential problems down the road. (I’m not kidding.)
Gimp-Print is not a panacea. While the developers have done a great job, the driver works best when printing text and business graphics, and it won’t necessarily support all of a printer’s features. When I ran Gimp-Print with seven older, supposedly supported ink-jets, two of them didn’t work at first, although a subsequent update fixed the problems. (Gimp-Print is constantly being updated and improved.)
You can go to the Gimp-Print support forums to see if the printer you own might benefit from Gimp-Print. The developers often hang out online to help with support issues and snag feature requests.
Keep Track of Files
While I back up my most important files with Dantz’s Retrospect, I also have stacks of CDs and Zip disks with digital images, articles I’ve written, and tons of older applications. When I want to find a file, I don’t bother rummaging through multiple CDs. Instead, I just fire up Portents’ $30 DiskTracker, which keeps a catalog of all my media. I do a quick search and then flip through my CD holder right to the CD I need.
DiskTracker catalogs any removable media connected to your Mac. It can create catalogs for multiple discs in a batch mode, saving file information in a master catalog that’s searchable by name, date, label, file type, and more. DiskTracker can also read the contents of StuffIt archives — a nice touch.
Once you’ve found the file you’re looking for, just double-click on it in the Search Results window, and DiskTracker prompts you to insert the disc or disk containing the file. And, after you’ve gone to the trouble of cataloging everything, DiskTracker can print labels for almost all removable media — including CDs and floppy and Zip disks. The product even includes a simple tool for designing custom labels.
OS X Crosswords
I don’t play a lot of computer games, but I do love crossword puzzles — particularly the daily puzzle in the New York Times. I used to do the puzzles on my Mac with Literate Software Systems’ Across Lite program, but it hasn’t been upgraded for OS X. So I’ve had to take a more old-fashioned approach lately: pencil and paper. Luckily, Advenio Software has since developed MacXword, an OS X application that lets you read and solve crossword puzzles based on the Across Lite format (used by the Times and the Washington Post, among others). Simple in design, MacXword offers quick puzzle navigation, printing, hints, and a clue-lookup feature that’s connected to the OneAcross Web service (www.oneacross.com). At $15, it’s a steal.
to see an index of all of our Mac Gems reviews.