Ristretto for iPad Review

Since my iPad first arrived, my poor MacBook has been increasingly neglected. The iPad goes with me everywhere. So the iPad needs a bag. Not just a bag for the iPad but one that can also hold the stand, the bluetooth keyboard, and the other bits and pieces; A throw it over your shoulder, get-some-work-done bag.

Apparently I’m not the only one looking for such a bag because there are a lot of them out there. I received a Tom Bihn Ristretto for iPad ($110) review bag and, after beating it up for six weeks, am reporting in.

The Bag

The Ristretto, made at the Tom Bihn Factory in Seattle, started life as a netbook grade computer bag. It is a vertical messenger bag with a built-in padded compartment for your iPad. Empty, the bag measures 12” x 9.25” x 4.75”. As a matter of coincidence it is perfect for the iPad and an Apple Bluetooth keyboard.

The bag has an inner compartment that contains a large bay, a zippered compartment, several smaller pockets, and the iPad compartment. It is all covered with an asymmetrical flap and sturdy plastic buckle.

The padded compartment is made with quarter inch open-cell foam laminated with durable 4 Ply Taslan® on the outside, and features an interior of brushed nylon. The foam surrounds the iPad. There is a correct way to insert the iPad, with the glass facing in and the aluminum facing the back of the bag. Once you put your iPad in the padded compartment, there is a top flap that can fold over enclosing your Precious.

The large compartment is the perfect height for an Apple Bluetooth keyboard. It has three O-rings that you can use to attach your keys or optional pouches. It is also a good place for a pocket leatherman. The stock bag includes a key strap. The built in pockets are the right size to hold pens, a wallet, and an iPod. (Your phone is in your pocket, right?) There is a slanted open pocket on the back of the Ristretto. It is too small for papers (unless folded in half) but does prove handy for envelopes and mail.

The Ristretto ships with waist straps to secure it to your body. This works great for bicyclists. More importantly, the waist strap hardware unclips and disappears when not in use.

The Strap

The Ristretto ships with the standard shoulder strap, a 1.5” wide heavy nylon webbing strap with a foam pad. For an extra $20, you can upgrade to the Absolute Shoulder Strap. At first blush it seems kind of silly upgrading a strap on an iPad case but after using the Absolute Shoulder Strap for awhile, you’ll get it. The Absolute Shoulder Strap uses a neoprene pad with an all metal snaphook (see note below regarding The Squeak). If you carry the bag for any length of time, it is a lot more comfortable. I’ve also found myself repurposing The Absolute Shoulder Strap with all my various bags.

The Squeak

After using the bag for about a week I began to notice a subtle squeak when carrying it around. The source of the sound is the metal snaphook from the strap rubbing against the metal eyelit on the bag. The connectors are both metal. I used some silicon based bicycle chain lubricant and it went away. I spoke with Tom Bihn and they recommend rubbing a graphite pencil on the offending pieces. I tested their fix and it worked. Tom Bihn reports they are aware of this and are working on it.

Usage and Recommendation

I beat the hell out of this bag. Over the last six weeks I carried it through the Canadian wilderness and down the Las Vegas strip. Its been thrown in trunks, dragged by kids, and schlepped around everywhere with me. It still looks like new.

More importantly, it has performed just as advertised. The Ristretto is a great solution for the iPad and just a bit more. If you routinely use Apple’s Bluetooth keyboard, it’s perfect. I liked it so much, I bought another one for my wife.

A Note About the Pictures

All of the pictures in this review were taken after I spent 6 weeks usage.
Full size images are in my Flickr feed here.

Band in a Box Review


Before I got a day job, I used to be a professional musician. This goes back some time. Back to the 80’s and the days of big hair and skinny ties. That was also the time that MIDI really started to take off and there was a fantastic little application (that came on 3.5 inch floppy disc no less) called Band in a Box. I loved it back then and I’m very pleased to report (20 years later), Band in a Box continues to amaze.

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If you are a singer or a musician and want to practice a song, one problem you will face is the fact that your band members are not always around. Using this application, it doesn’t matter. You don’t need any musical talent to operate it other than the ability to type in chord changes for your favorite song. Once they are in you set beginning and ending points and pick a genre of music and hit “play”. It is that easy. The application generates a convincing back up group, including piano, guitar, bass, and drums for you to play and sing along with.

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The genius of this application is that it creates a full back up band for any song in just about any style for you to sing along with or accompany on your instrument. The standard version comes loaded with backup styles from salsa to straight ahead jazz. You can also buy supplemental style modules to fit your taste and needs.
Since its inception Band in a Box has played through the MIDI instruments in your computer. That was great 20 years ago but, if you don’t have the right hardware, can sound strangely like a bad e-card. Band in a Box has expanded beyond this applications MIDI roots and include wave files of actual musicians playing their instruments in place of MIDI signals. This “RealTracks” feature provides a noticeably better sound.

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Once you complete your arrangements you can freeze the song so there is no delay in loading and starting. This would be great for live performances.
You can record your melodies right into Band in a Box or export a MIDI file for use in GarageBand or Logic Studio. This can provide a great jumping
off point for laying down your basic tracks.
The newest release of Band in a Box also features the ‘Audio Chord Wizard’, which will take an MP3 file and extract the chords from it remarkably well. Think about it. Any MP3 song converted to chord changes. No fakebook required. I tested this on John Coletrane’s “Giant Steps” which, has some complex changes and Band in a Box did well.

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For guitar players, Band in a Box also includes ‘RealCharts’ with an on-screen guitar display so that you can hear the audio performance and learn from on-screen notation, tablature, or visual guitar fretboard.
This application could be extremely useful for students, musicians, singers, and music teachers. For music students in particular it is a fantastic tool teaching chord structures as well as providing an excellent back up band to play along with. It would also be nice for the karaoke crowd in that you could make a back up tape for any song you have chord changes to in the style of your preference.
You can learn more about Band in a Box at PGMusic.com. They have a variety of licenses starting at $129 and some versions (with the large real tracks and real drums files) ship on a USB hard drive. They also have an educational discounts and a generous upgrade policy. A few years ago I got the upgrade price from my original purchase of the application on an Atari ST in 1986. Check it out.
You can listen to this review on the MacReviewCast Podcast.
FTC (Keep MacSparky out of jail) Disclosure:
While I have paid for Band in a Box (several times) over the years. The version upon which this review is based was a review copy.

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OmniGraphSketcher Review

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There is an old saying that, “there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Without passing judgment, I frequently have need to insert graphs and charts into presentations and a lot of times it is much harder than it should be. While I am a big fan of Apple’s Numbers application, it has its limitations.

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This is where the Omni Group’s latest gem, OmniGraphSketcher comes into play. This application allows you to make very precise graphs. OmniGraphSketcher takes graphing out of the spreadsheet. It, essentially, combines a charting tool with a drawing application. In very little time you will be able to create accurate graphs with colorful data sets and highlights, curves, and shading without requiring an advanced degree in mathematics and statistics.

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Running OmniGraphSketcher, I was able to draw my own graphs or import data from Excel and Numbers sheets as a starting point for beautiful looking graphs. Once the basics were set up, annotations, shapes, arrows, and tick marks were simple and effective.

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OmniGraphSketcher also makes it easy to export graphics for use in other applications. After using this application for some time, it is obvious some of the OmniGraffle team was involved. Once again, the Omni Group has created an application I didn’t realize I needed, but now can’t live without.

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If you routinely work with presenting data, this $30 application is certainly worth downloading. As with all other Omni products, there is a student discount and free trial.
You can listen to this review on the Surfbit’s MacReviewCast.

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Chronosync Review


Over the past few years I’ve podcasted quite a bit about one of my favorite Mac utilities, Chronosync, but never given it a feature review. It is time. Chronosync handles synching and backups from your Mac with style.
For instance, using Chronosync I have one script that looks at the contents of some of my most important document folders and copies them to a backup folder on my iDisk every week. This way my key documents get offsite backup. The best part is Chronosync does this on a schedule and it requires no user involvement.


Selecting files for synchronization for backup requires selection of the volume and applicable directory and selecting, or unselecting, individual components for Chronosync’s attention. It is not entirely intuitive but makes sense once you understand it.
Once selected you cansynchronize or backup with just about any device. It will work with local or attached storage or even other computers. The developer’s separate application, ChronoAgent makes this particularly easy with other Macs and an excellent solution for synching between desktop and laptop machines.

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The interface makes it easy to choose between unidirectional and bi-directional syncing. So whether you are looking to simply create an archive or sync multiple changes between two working machines, Chronosync can handle it. The application can even sync non system files with a Windows PC. It analyzes your data and allows for trial synchronizations. Additionally, Chronosync can create version archives on your backup to allow you to fetch prior versions of files.
In performing this bit of magic, ChronoSync uses “Relative State Monitoring” that allows it to detect deleted, moved, or renamed files and folders, and resolve conflicts. ChronoSync protects data integrity by verifying data, ensuring proper copies are made before replacing data, and providing detailed logs. Because it only copies changed files, the process is remarkably fast.
The scheduling tool allows you to set repeating and single run backups with the precision of a Swiss watch. It even emails you when backups complete or, more importantly, fail.
Because each synchronization or backup process is its own file, you can save as many templates as you require. I’ve been using ChronoSync for several years and never had any problems with it.
A license will cost $40. Interestingly, that is it. There will never be an upgrade fee, ever. When the software recently updated to version 4.0, I got it for free. You can check it out at econtechnologies.com.
You can listen to this review on the Mac ReviewCast, episode 223.

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FotoMagico 3 Review


A few years ago, I needed to quickly put together a slide show and I needed it to look fantastic. While I knew this was possible in iMovie, it took a lot of time and, frankly, didn’t look that good.
On a whim I downloaded the trial version of FotoMagico. Within five minutes, I had my wallet out and purchased a license. Since then, I’ve used FotoMagico often for family and professional events. Indeed, my wife will volunteer me as the “slideshow guy” at weddings for friends and family at the drop of a hat. I can’t really complain that much however because using FotoMagico for this is really quite easy.


The latest version, FotoMagico 3, adds several enhancements. FotoMagico produces professional quality slideshow presentations. It is very easy to operate with a similar “drag-and-drop” paradigm you see across the Mac platform. Take a folder full of pictures and drag it in FotoMagico and you have your slideshow. The application allows you to easily set transitions and animates individual slides with the Ken Burns effect. FotoMagico has sliders sliders for the before and after position of your photographs that make this very simple.
My workload has always been to drag the pictures in, sort them, adjust the Ken Burns effect for each picture, and drop in music. It really is that simple. You can similarly adjust rotation and insert text.
The newest version blurs the lines between FotoMagico as a slideshow application and a video application. You can now insert movies in your slideshows. You can set start and end points and even animate movies just as you would a photograph. Organizing and creating your slideshows is also now easier with an improved storyboard. Now that Boinx has teased me with this video support however, I’d like to see them take it further. Lower thirds would be very useful.
Another nice feature is the Aperture exporter plug in.


With the pro version you can get much more control over the audio. You can include multiple tracks and even the voiceover track. Each is independently controlled and adjusted.
While putting pictures in iMovie is much easier now, for speed, granular control of the Ken Burns effect, and overall presentation, I think FotoMagico still has iMovie beat.
Once you have created your slideshow, you can export it, burn it to a DVD, turn it into a screensaver, or put it on your iPod or Apple TV. Of course you can also just play it through the built-in player. This is normally how I do my wedding slideshows. The best compliment paid to this application is by the “official” photographers at the weddings I have participated in. They always ask me afterwards how I did it and they always want to know where they can get their own copy of FotoMagico. A single-user license is $29 and a single-user license for the pro version is $149. You can find out more at Boinx.com.
You can listen to this review on the Mac ReviewCast #215.

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Launchbar Review


I’ll admit I’m just a little bit crazy about Quicksilver. I’ve used it, tweaked it, and even produced screencasts about it. But as much as I like Quicksilver, I also like things that are new and shiny. So a few months ago, when the latest version of LaunchBar was released in beta, I decided to do an experiment and use it exclusively for a few months. Now that I’ve thoroughly kicked the tires, it is time to report in.


LaunchBar begins as an application launcher. In this respect, it is no different from Spotlight or Quicksilver. The process of launching applications is painless with LaunchBar. You start typing and the application appears. You can hit return to launch it or, better yet, hit the space bar and it gives you a list of the most recent documents opened with the application. Using this tweak you can get your file open quickly.


LaunchBar offers a great deal more however. You can access your address book and quickly start an email or display a contact’s phone number on your screen. One nice touch is that it actually lists the person’s name along with the number. This is an improvement over Quicksilver.


You can also easily search and play iTunes by genre, album, or composer. You can also search Safari history or dig straight into the file system.


Using the dot command you can enter a web site directly into LaunchBar and open it with one keystroke. You can also do a Google search simply by typing “goo”, hiting the space bar, typing your search term and then enter. Once you get it, you will be working much quicker. This same method is used to search other sites like Wikipedia, Google Images, and iTunes.


You can also manipulate, move, and rename files. You can even create and name folders. It has a nifty clipboard that allows you to keep a running log of clipped links, text, and other assets. There is also a simple way to add new iCal events direct from the LaunchBar command line. If you use iCal to-dos you can program those as well.


So how does all this fancy gadgetry stack up against my beloved Quicksilver? Actually pretty well. Using LaunchBar you are trading in some of the high end Quicksilver commands for stability. I’ve had troubles keeping Quicksilver running as of late and in the two months I’ve ran LaunchBar (mostly in beta), it has never crashed on me.


While the LaunchBar command line is very functional, I wish it was customizable like the interface in Quicksilver. I miss my cubes. Also, LaunchBar is a paid applicaiton, 24 Euros ($32 as of this writing). While I do miss some functions from Quicksilver, I think some of the features improve upon Quicksilver and it is definitely more stable. I know Quicksilver is open source now and it may get new life but for the time being. I’m sticking with LaunchBar. You can get a 30 day trial of LaunchBar from Obective Development at www.obdev.at.
You can listen to this review on MacReviewCast #209

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Fontcase Review

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I’ve always found Apple’s Font Book application to be the ugly stepsister of the native Apple applications. It just doesn’t have the polish of most Mac applications. It seems everytime I need to find a unique font for a graphic or presentation, Font Book gets in my way.

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This is what led me to Bohemian Coding’s Fontcase. Fontcase looks like something designed by Apple. Specifically, if the iTunes team made a font manager, it would look a lot like Fontcase.

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The initial Fontcase import is painless. You click one dialog box and Fontcase does the rest. Fontcase can preview both active and inactive fonts. This means you don’t have to load all of your fonts in memory. Instead, you keep them all in Fontcase and activate when needed.

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Once imported, you can easily browse and navigate your fonts rating, tagging and organizing as required. The process of scrolling and previewing your fonts is much easier than Font Book. You can even print out previews. Browsing your fonts is also easy. You can quick look a selected font family simply by pressing the space bar. One useful feature is the “compare” button that allows you to compare multiple fonts. I also like the way you can preview a font as body text just in case you are feeling adventurous about replacing Helvitca, although you really probably shouldn’t. If you are on a network with multiple Macs, it also allows you to preview and share fonts through a Bonjour sync.

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The developers clearly spent some time on the user interface with this application. Fontcase walks that tightrope of having the tools where you need them without looking too cluttered.

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If you are a font nerd, don’t miss this one. A single license for Fontcase is $56 and a family pack of five is $92.

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Focal XS 2.1 Computer/iPod Speaker Review

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I listen to a lot of music and I’ll admit I’m a snob when it comes to audio equipment. I want speakers that sound great and look fantastic. The Focal XS 2.1 speaker system is a high-end ($600) entry into the iPod and Apple computer market that does both.

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These speakers look superb. The cabinets are solid and the cables are cloth wrapped. They were obviously designed with the current crop of iMacs in mind. Each unit has just the right combination of silver bezel and black body to make you think it was designed in a hidden lab in Cupertino. Additionally, one of the satellites includes a standard iPod dock. Using this dock, you can either sync your iPod to your computer or play directly into the speakers. This is controlled by a toggle switch behind the right satellite speaker. Keeping them next to my desktop machine it was no trouble for me to depress the button. It also includes a simple remote that magnetically attaches to the satellite post. Neat.

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There are two satellite speakers and a 6.5 inch subwoofer all driven by 130 Watts. In addition to providing excellent sound while you’re sitting at your computer, the speakers have more than enough power to fill a room (or several rooms) when you walk away. The highs were sharp and clean and the lows (after tuning the subwoofer on the included rear dial) were solid without being too spongy.
There is no doubt in my mind that this is an outstanding speaker system. In terms of design aesthetic and shockingly good sound quality, you will be unlikely to find anything to match it next to your Mac. The real question is whether you can justify spending $600 on a set of computer speakers. While at first this price seemed outrageous, upon reflection it is not. A lot of people, myself included, spend more time in front of our computers than our televisions. When comparing this system to my existing JBLs, for which I paid $200, the improvement was immediately apparent. Every one who listened, including my seven-year-old, could tell the difference.
For a more fair comparison, I also spent some time with another $600 iPod speaker, the Bowers & Wilkins’ Zeppelin. The Zeppelin looks, well, like a Zeppelin. The sound on these two systems was superb. At low volume the bass in the Zeppelin was slightly better but but the Focal’s bass sounded tighter at higher volumes. The higher trebles sounded universally better on the Focals. If I a had to choose, I would pick the Focals. These are both outstanding systems but I would give the edge to the Focals for sound. Furthermore, the Focals win big in terms of design. They are made to be next to a computer and compliment it where the Zeppelin is really just for playing an iPod.

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In this age where we use our computers for lot more than word processing, using a quality speaker system makes sense. Frankly, the Focal system is better than my television audio rig and I now find myself looking for excuses to watch video on my iMac. Whether you want to spend $600 on speakers is entirely up to you. If you do, however, I don’t think you will go wrong with the Focal XS system. Fortunately, the Focal XS is now featured at your local Apple store. So if you are interested, head down and listen for yourself to the difference.
You can listen to this review on the MacReviewCast episode 206.

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Today Review


One of the best features of Microsoft Entourage is My Day, a little window that summarizes your appointments and tasks. While I’m not an Entourage user, I must admit a little envy at that simple little window. Apparently I’m not alone. Developer Second Gear Software wrote their own application, appropriately called “Today” that works with iCal data giving you the benefit of My Day without the overhead of Entourage


Using Today, in one narrow window I can get all of a particular day’s events and tasks. Today reads works with the Leopard iCal calendar database so you have the same data without using the screen real estate. If you move an event in Today, it is also adjusted in iCal and all of your iCal connected devices. Switching to a different day is as simple as clicking on the date and selecting your new view from the drop down calendar. You can also move incrementally by clicking on obvious little triangles. Today recognizes the different colors of your iCal calendars and recreates them in its view.
Using Today you can do more than just view your calendar. You can also add events. The recent 1.6 update added natural language detectors for adding new events so setting a meeting for tomorrow, you can type the date or just “tomorrow.”

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If you manage your tasks through the iCal and Apple Mail database, you also have full control of them in Today. If you check off a task in Today, it automatically updated in Mail and iCal. I tested this feature and it worked. I didn’t use it extensively however since my task list system is outside the iCal/Apple Mail database.
There are several useful settings allowing Today to be as visible (or subtle) as you please. For instance you can make the Today window always on top of your desktop or hide it in you menu bar.
Once you get comfortable with Today, you will find yourself opening iCal a lot less often. For laptop users, that is a good thing. A Today license is $15. Second Gear has a free trial period.
You can listen to this review on the MacReviewCast Episode #203.

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Curio Review


I have to admit I’m pretty plugged in when it comes to Mac applications. That is why it is always fun to discover a gem I’ve never heard of. That happened recently with an application from Zengobi software, called Curio.

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Curio really doesn’t fit into any easy categories. I guess you could call it a project organization and data collection tool. I’ve come to think of it as a playground for my brain. It has several modules including outlines, notes, mind maps, “to do” lists, PDF annotation, images, and embedded web pages. I’ve used a lot of data collection applications and this one is truly unique. In a lot of ways it reminds me of a wall in my apartment I used in college. I’d tape on notecards, pictures, and ideas. It was very liberating being able to move things around and make new connections. Using Curio, I can now do this on my Mac. You can add and layout pages with whatever modules fit your needs. For instance on one project I have a page with a mind map, another page has a chronological outline, and a third page has images of relevant web pages. You really are limited only by your imagination.

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My biggest problem with Curio was getting my arms around it. Everytime I thought I had it figured out, I’d push another button and find another useful tool. You can even add voice annotations and draw with a pen tablet. One of the most recent updates ties Curio to your Evernote database. Now I can see my entire Evernote library from inside Curio and drag Evernote assets straight into my Curio projects. This makes both applications much more useful.
Curio gives you the ability to combine nearly unlimited capture with nearly unlimited format. Put simply, you can throw just about anything at it and organize it according to your own personal wiring. It is definitely the most flexible data organization tool in my bag of tricks.

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While Curio has a lot of tools, it does not match the functionality of exclusive use applications. For instance, OmniOutliner is a more powerful outliner than Curio’s. Likewise, the mind map function isn’t as robust as an exclusive mind mapper. I still use my more powerful single use tools for big jobs. However, the Curio tools are usually enough.

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Curio comes in two flavors, a standard edition for $99 and a professional version for $149. The pro version includes a additional tools including a status shelf, pre-built templates, a presentation mode, a dossier feature that helps you start new projects, and encryption. For students, there is a $69 academic license. You can download a free trial from the Zengobi.com. This one that is definitely worth checking out.

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You can listen to the above review on the Mac ReviewCast #202.

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