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Simple Hack - Label Your Stuff

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I have always put labels on my tech stuff. A simple label with my name and cell phone number adorns most of my traveling gear like my Mac, its power supply, a portable hard drive, and even my iPhone (of course using a different contact number). This would allow any person to easily contact me if my Mac ended up in their hands. I realize that if my stuff were to fall in the hands of someone dishonest, this really won't do much good but I'm an optimist and think most people would return lost equipment. It certainly can't hurt.

Insuring Your Mac

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I mentioned in my hackintosh article that I keep a theft/damage insurance policy on my laptop. I also discussed it on this week's Mac Roundtable. I have received several e-mails from readers asking where I got it. I've used Safeware.com for several years. The policy costs $108 per year and insures my MacBook Air up to $1,800. Since I bring my laptop everywhere, it makes sense to me. Thankfully, I've never needed to make a claim. I can offer no opinion about their claims process but Safeware.com is the company I use. 

Also, I use this policy in addition to AppleCare. As I understand it, AppleCare covers any mechanical, internal problems and the Safeware policy covers theft and accidents.

Merry Christmas!

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Merry Christmas to all! I will be spending the next day with my family and "unplugging" a bit. May Santa stop by Cupertino on the way to your Christmas tree. If you have little ones, you may want to track Santa yourself right here.

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.

Mac Roundtable Episode 51

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Over the weekend, I was fortunate to participate in recording the 51st episode of the Mac Roundtable. As always, it was a lot of fun talking with fellow Mac geeks. We covered the new MacBooks, MacBook Pros and Allison's tale of woe when she wiped out her brand new MacBook Pro with a magnet. In the picks I covered PGP Whole Disk encryption which will get more attention here at MacSparky in the not too distant future.

Selling the MacBook Pro

Funny how these ideas develop. It has been bugging me that since I got the MacBook Air, I never seem to take my MacBook Pro off my desk. I've slowly come to the realization that an iMac would be much better suited to the way I am using the MacBook Pro. As a result, I'm toying with the idea of selling my MacBook Pro. It has the following specs:

* 17" MacBook Pro (circa April 2008)
* 2.6 ghz
* 4 gig Ram
* 320 Gig HD
* AppleCare through April 2011
* I'll also include a Rain Stand, case, and extra power supply.

This is the current MacBook Pro but I'm sure it will be replaced with the new model shortly. If any readers are interested, I'm selling it for $2,200 plus shipping. I'm not sure if I am being silly switching to an iMac but I'm going to put it up and let fate decide.


********* Update ********

I actually had a guy call me and offer my asking price but in the end I got cold feet. When the MacBook Pro needs to be replaced in a few years, I'll probably do so with a desktop machine but for now I'm going to stick with it. Thanks everyone for the ideas and notes.

Circus Ponies Notebook 3.0 Review

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My ability to resist information management programs ranks right down there with Homer Simpson’s ability to resist doughnuts. I just can’t help myself. As such, when Circus Ponies’ Notebook 3.0 recently released, I was first in line.

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In case you haven’t heard of it, Notebook is … well … a virtual notebook. It creates a digital version of that spiral bound workhorse you grew up using. You can pick the kind of paper, the color, even the type of binding. In addition to this eye candy, Notebook does a lot of things your traditional paper notebook couldn’t. You can clip to your Notebook straight from the web. It also lets you easily create bulleted lists and outlines and links to you data such as address book contacts. You can mark up your pages with a tablet or highlight sections with the highlight tool.

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Version 3.0 adds several additional features including the ability to add and annotate pdf files. This feature is very useful to me although I would have liked it even more if I could use my tablet pen to add highlighting to my imported PDFs. The new version also allows you to create simple diagrams. The diagram tool does not raise to the level of OmniGraffle but if you want to sketch out simple relationships on a notebook page, you are good to go. Another new addition are sticky notes. With this you can paste a tab or sticky note right on your notebook. If your tab hangs off the end of your notebook, you can still see it with the Notebook closed and jump back to that page with just a click. You can also easily publish your notebook to the internet. One of my favorite features in Notebook is its robust indexing. Just about any data you stick in your notebook gets indexed including words, tabs, names, and links.

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Notebook is probably the most mature application available for OS X. It was originally developed for NeXT and then it literally followed the operating system to Apple. That being said, there is a lot of competition for information management applications including online solutions such as Evernote.

I am still trying to sort out exactly the best way to manage my bits of information. I like Evernote but can’t see myself putting all of my data in the cloud. In the past, I’ve used OmniOutliner and Bento to keep information. With its new features, Notebook is now a also a contender. I think the advantage of Notebook is its open flexibility and the ease of use in combining different kinds of data and files. It is not as robust at its individual components as stand alone applications. For instance, the outliner in OmniOutliner is better than that found in Notebook. What makes Notebook special is that you have all of these tools in one place. In writing this review I sent out word to the Twitter nation asking fellow Mac users how they used notebook and got a variety of interesting responses ranging from managing lawsuits to blog posts to wine lists. I think it boils down to personal preference. My wife, for instance, has no interest an outlining program but completely “gets” Notebook. I’ve used Notebook to plan vacations, work projects, and simply to collect ideas. In the end, I don’t think there is any one perfect application for information management. I do think, however, Notebook is an essntial tool in the never ending battle against lost data.

You can download a 30 day trial of Notebook at circusponies.com. A license will cost $49.95 and an upgrade from the previous license will cost $19.95. They also have an academic licnse for $29.95. This application would be perfect for a student.

You can listen to this review on Surfbits episode 181.

Google Reader v. NetNewsWire, Round 2

I've had several mac-savvy friends extol the virtues of NetNewsWire to me lately. About a year ago I tied my wagons to Google Reader because of its ubiquity and very good iPhone interface. As you can probably tell from the low post count, I've been under water with the day job lately. So this is exactly the sort of diversion I needed to get a break from the salt mines. I've downloaded NetNewsWire (again), installed it on the iPhone, and reactivated my NewsGator account. I'm going to live with it a few weeks and report back. Where do you fall in the RSS debate?

Can You Really Buy "Hip"?

Microsoft is getting lots of press about its $300M campaign to fix the Vista public image. My first thought is, "Why not spend $300M to fix Vista?" I have to admit I haven't used it much but there are no shortage of web reports by Windows enthusiasts panning it. I do know a few of the guys in the Microsoft Mac business unit and they seem to me like stand up guys trying to make a good product. Then again, they work on Macs.

Regardless, part of this campaign involves paying $10M to Jerry Seinfeld to pitch Windows along side that famous straight man, Bill Gates. This just seems wrong to me on so many levels. First, let me say as someone who has never met either man, I generally like and respect both Jerry and Bill. However, I don't see them making much of a difference for Visata's problem. From my very casual sideline seat, it seems to me that Microsoft is really losing this battle on the college campuses and 20-somethings. If they really wanted to stop the avalanche of switchers, they should use somebody younger than a 90's sitcom star (where his character always used Macs) and a retired CEO. Also, even if you could buy "hip", are these guys really selling it? Maybe I will be proven wrong but I'm already thinking these commercials are going to do more harm than good to Microsoft.

Hydra HDR Software Review

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The latest rage with digital photography is high dynamic range imaging. The problem faced by anyone holding a camera is that the dynamic range of their camera sensor is a fraction of that available to the human eye. Put simply, that gorgeous sunset and dark foreground you're looking at simply cannot be captured with a single exposure from your camera.

This is where your Mac comes to the rescue with high dynamic range imaging, often referred to as HDR. Using HDR, you can take three shots of the same thing, one that is over exposed, one that is underexposed, and one that is just right. If you are really tricky and there is enough data in your image files, you can even make three copies of a single shot with different exposure levels. HDR software can then take these three images and combine them on your computer. This allows you to combine a gorgeous sunset with a foreground image. The results of this process vary from spectacular too surreal.

This week I'm taking a look at a software application designed specifically for the Mac to make HDR photography available to the masses. I'm talking about Hydra 1.6 from Creaceed Software.

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Hydra is unique in that the $60 license gives you both a standalone application and an Aperture plug-in. Interestingly, the two iterations of this application are not identical. While I generally prefer to use the Aperture plug-in for its ease of use, there are a few additional tools in the stand-alone version of Hydra that I really like. Fortunately, the developer informs me that with the next major release of Hydra, the stand-alone tools will catch up with the Aperture plug-in.

One of the first steps of HDR image processing is to make sure the three pictures are aligned. In this regard, the Hydra developers did a very good job. The software or the user can pick specific alignment points and get everything straight. While generally you’re supposed to take HDR bracketed shots on a tripod, this feature allows Hyrda users to process images without assistance of a tripod. The software aligns the images for you. This could be quite handy when sun begins to rise and you realize you left the tripod in your car. My tests with this feature showed that it did actually worked and, generally, the automatic alignment did much better than my manual attempts.

Regardless, once your images are aligned, Hydra combines them into one image with all of the dynamic range data. This is where the fun really begins. The Hydra standalone application has a convenient histogram that allows you to blend the influence of your various images. While it’s not that easy to describe, it is very intuitive when you start doing it. The histogram is not in the Aperture plug-in yet but this is one of the tools the developer assures me will be in the next major update around the new year. Once your images are tweaked just right, you can export it to 8-Bit TIFF, JPEG, or 32-bit OpenEXR.

While the Aperture plug-in does not have the convenient histogram yet, it does have a variety of sliders and checkboxes to customize your HDR image. Because it is part of the plug-in architecture, all of this is done from within Aperture making the process of exporting images out for HDR and then dropping the finished product package back into your library quick and painless.

Creating an HDR images is much more an art than a science. Every picture is different and the tone map balance is never the same. For this reason, the real-time preview is a blessing. Also, like so many up-and-coming image applications on the Mac, Hydra takes advantage of your graphics card. The wait time to combine three RAW images on my MacBook Pro into an HDR image with Hydra's Aperture plug-in was less than one minute. Obviously, your mileage may vary.

One problem I had was that Hydra stripped some of my metadata from its finished image. My lens information was gone and Hydra appended its name to my camera type. I understand the exposure information is probably no longer relevant but the lens information is very helpful and should remain. Again, the developers are already aware of this and a fix is in the works.

I think some comparison with the other popular HDR applicaiton, Photmatix, is appropriate. I own a license for Photomatix and have used it for some time. At $99, a Photomatix Pro license costs $40 more than Hydra. Having used them both I would say that Photomatix has Hydra beat with respect to the number of controls and adjustments. You can get very specific with the modifications to your image in Photomatix. With respect to the final product however, I couldn't really tell much of a difference. This may be more a function of my lack of skill with Photomatix's multiple controls but it also makes a point. If you are not looking for the most complex program but still want to make nice HDR images, Hydra may be in your sweet spot. Another point in Hydra's favor is that it was created by a Mac developer and looks like it. It has a nice interface and doesn't feel clunky like so many multiplatform applications. Fortunately, both Hydra and Photomatix have trial versions so you can give both a try and see which works best for you.

Hydra requires MacOS X running leopard 10.5.4 or later. While the developer says it can run on a Power Mac, they "highly recommend" you run it on an Intel Mac. Head over to their website and give it a try.

You can listen to this review on the MacReviewCast episode 172.

Happy Fourth of July!

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Happy Fourth of July to all of my American readers. Without getting all "political" on everyone, our nation is, in many ways, a freak of history. We were formed by taking on the most powerful empire in the world, we have a diverse population that amazingly sticks together (although it isn't always pretty), and we have the longest running democracy on the planet.

So today in between barbeque and fireworks, stop and raise a glass to our amazing experiment.

If you want to read last year's rambling about the founding fathers, click here.

Airport Express Bumps up to "N"

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The Airport Express has received a radio upgrade. It is now an "N" device and will not be responsible for slowing down you "N" network. I'm sure there is probably a good reason, but I really wish they had done this at the same time they released the "N" speed airport extreme.

The Airport Express is a device that should not be overlooked. For $100 you can stream music to your stereo, put a printer in the closet, get the internet to a computer with no wireless, hook your xbox into the network, or increase your network signal. Obviously you can't do all these things at once but having it around sure is handy. Since Apple TV also does AirTunes, I was able to liberate mine from my stereo and now I've got it managing a printer that just does not like to play nicely off a USB hub.

FotoMagico Rides Again

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My receptionist got married yesterday and somehow I got recruited to do the slideshow. FotoMagico makes it so easy. You literally drop the pictures in and the "Ken Burns" effect is done for you. This used to take me a lot of time in iMovie. I don't really care much for the way it incorporates music. It should automatically adjust the slide length to match the song length but for assembling the pictures it makes it too east.

I had the slideshow done when I showed up for the wedding but I did drop in one picture of them at the alter at the end and that one got a lot of response from the guests. The funniest part was the "official" photographer (who also drives a Mac) practically assaulted me and wanted to know the name of "that program."

MacSparky on the Typical Mac User on March 9

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Some of you may know my friend Victor Cajiao over at the Typical Mac User website and podcast does an excellent Sunday afternoon podcast over at TalkShoe.com where the listeners and hosts talk about all things Apple. Victor usually has outstanding guests. This week, however, he had to scrape the bottom of the barrel and I'll be co-hosting with him at 5:00 p.m. pacific time. We'll be talking about the new iPhone SDK, how I exist in a windows office with my Mac, my shiny new MacBook Air and anything else that comes to mind. I'd love to hear from the MacSparky readers so if you find yourself looking for amusement tomorrow afternoon, head on over to TalkShoe and join the fun.

New MacBook and MacBook Pro

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It is Tuesday again. This time Apple announced some very nice updates to the MacBook and the MacBook Pro. They include processor and hard drive bumps. Likewise, the MacBookPro 17" is now getting an LED display and the MacBook Pro line is getting the MacBook Air gestures on the track pad. You can see the product details here.

I know several people who have been waiting for this update (including my friend Victor from the Typical Mac User podcast) and I expect we'll be seeing reviews of the new hardware in no time at all.

I'm still quite satisfied with my slightly aged MacBook Pro. If any readers are buying one of the new machines, chime in on the comments.