Hydra 2 Review

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It wasn’t so long ago that I reviewed Creaceed’s High Dynamic Range (HDR) application and Aperture plugin, Hydra. If you’ve never heard of HDR before, it is the process of taking multiple exposures of a subject and combining them into one picture that more closely resembles what you see with the human eye. When done right, it is wonderful. When overdone, it looks bizarre. Wikipedia explains it at length.
I was impressed with Hydra when I last reviewed it but recomended using the stand-alone application over the Aperture plug-in. At that time, the Aperture plug-in hadn’t caught up with the stand alone application feature set. With version 2, it does now.


The new Aperture interface is fantastic. If you can run iPhoto, you should have no trouble with Hydra. It has a live preview, sliders, and checkboxes which, with a little experimentation, can have you tuning your HDR photographs in no time without cracking the manual.
Hydra still does an excellent job of combining photographs and image matching. Creaceed has a lot of experience in this field from its other product, MorphAge, and it shows. Indeed the new version uses additional technologies to account for small distortions between your images. On or off the tripod, you can perform HDR using Hydra.
The new version also includes a loupe tool that previews your image at full quality allowing you to see the rendered image eliminating nasty surprises.


Tone mapping has also improved in the new version. Tone mapping is the part of the HDR workflow where the application takes all of the combined HDR data and makes it into a visually attractive picture. It makes the skies richly blue and the grass richly green. The new version includes a perceptive tone mapper which attempts to mimic human perception. I’m sure there is a lot of science behind this. I just think it makes the pictures look better.
More than anything, version 2 shows the maturity of an application on its second iteration. Slightly more polish, features, and more intuitive.
Whenever discussing HDR software, you can not ignore the 800 pound gorilla, Photomatix. I’ve owned Photomatix for some time. While there are several new tools to fine tune your image in Hydra, Photomatix still has more granular control than Hydra. However, Photomatix also is more expensive, comes with a steeper learning curve, and takes longer to use.


I am an amateur photographer. I’ve never sold an image to Life Magazine yet I get an unreasonable amount of pleasure from taking good pictures. Even though I own a license to Photomatix, I’ve done all of my HDR work in the past six months through Hydra. Without really thinking about it, I’ve discovered the speed, ease of use, and ability to perform the HDR function from within Aperture outweighs any benefits from the additional features in Photomatix. If you want to try your hand at HDR, give Hydra a chance. The pictures look stunning and there is no pain involved in operation.
Hydra is a Leopard only application and a license costs $79.95. You can download a trial from the developer at www.creaceed.com.
You can listen to this review on the MacReviewCast episode 201.

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G-Technology G-Safe Review

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With the ever increasing sizes of media files, data files, and Time Machine backups, external storage is becoming a necessity for all Mac owners. This year at Macworld I met with the people from G-Technology concerning their G-Safe drives and they were nice enough to loan me one for a little while for a closer look.

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The G-Safe is a self enclosed two drive enclosure. Like all G-Technology products, it is rock solid. The case is rugged aluminum and the power supply is built-in. The name “G-Safe” is not clever marketing. This thing is built like a tank. No cheap molded plastic here. It includes FireWire 800 and USB 2.0 connectivity. With the right cable, it will work via FireWire 400. It also includes G-Technology’s 3-year warranty.

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Inside are two drives up to 7200 rpm set up in a RAID 1 configuration. That means anything you put on Drive 1 automatically gets copied to Drive 2. Effortless redundancy. If either drive fails, you are already covered. If one drive fails and you replace it, the system rebuilds the backup.
I have to admit that when it comes to back ups, I’m paranoid. This product is, therefore, perfect for me. I know my files are not backed up once, but twice with no extra work. This is useful for any critical data. Obvious examples include iPhoto and Aperture libraries, critical documents, and family video files. If you share my paranoia, this is also perfect for a Time Machine backup. Think about it. In order to lose your critical data, your internal and two external drives would have to all fail.
The G-Safe delivered exactly as promised. Installation was simple and it comes pre-formated for Mac. Yes, that is not a typo. It comes pre-formated for the Mac. You’ve just got to love those guys at G-Technology.
I have a few quibles with the G-Safe. When the fans and drives all run at the same time, it can get pretty noisy. Perhaps a quieter fan would help, but this unit is more about data security than being whisper quiet. Another issue is that you must buy replacement drives from G-Technology. While G-Technology’s prices are about right, it would be more convenient if you could use any drive as a replacement. Since the device comes preloaded with drives, this is not as big of a deal as it first sounds.

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An obvious question is how this device compares to the omni-present Drobo. The G-Safe seems sturdier than the Drobo but doesn’t expand as much or as easily as the Drobo. On the question of price, there is no comparison. You can get the G-Safe with 500 GB of storage for $20 less than the cost of the Drobo alone with no drives. Regardless, a case could be made for both of these units and I think it comes down to specific needs. For instance, if you want a duplicated Time Machine, have a set amount of data, or plan on moving your drive away, the G-Safe is the perfect. If you want something that can easily expand over time, you should look at the Drobo.
The G-Safe includes G-Technology’s 3-year warranty and the price ranges from $479 for 500GB up to $879 for 1.5TB. There are cheaper solutions but in my opinion, the extra value is worth it. If you are looking for a safe, reliable place for your important data, take a good look at the G-Safe.
You can listen to this review on the MacReviewCast Episode 200.

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Drive Genius Review

As any self respecting Mac geek, I’ve put together a toolbox to address the various computer problems I come across. One tool I’ve come to rely upon is Drive Genius 2 from ProSoft Engineering.

Drive Genius 2 is a jack-of-all-trades for Mac hard drive maintenance and repair. It includes modules for troubleshooting, repairing, defragmenting, partitioning, shredding, and even editing sectors. The geek meter goes all the way to 11 on this one.

The diagnosis, repair, and drive slimming tools are excellent. I own a few drives that don’t have the automatic S.M.A.R.T diagnosis built in and Drive Genius is a big help. Likewise, the drive slimming module found several large files that had completely dropped off my radar.

The repartition tool must involve some dark magic. It allows you to repartition your drive without reformating. Using Drive Genius 2, repartition does not equal reformat. Amen. If you partition your drives, this one tool alone could be reason enough to buy Drive Genius. 2

With Drive Genius you can do just about anything you want to your hard drives and a couple things you may want to avoid. For instance, I have always avoided defragmenting my Mac hard drives.

I’ve read conflicting authorities as to whether or not this is a good thing. In the interest of science, I decided to take one for the team and repartition as part of this review. The results were inconclusive. While my computer did not turn into a burning hunk of metal, performance didn’t noticeably improve either. I don’t see myself defragging often, if ever, in the future. However, I know some users that work with large media files who swear by it. Regardless, Drive Genius 2 gives you the option.

One complaint I have with this application is the user interface. The application launches into a 3d environment with several (but not all) of the application modules available to you. There are no labels over the icons so in order to figure out what any one module is, you have to click on the icon and wait for the application go through a several second animation sequence that sweeps you down to the icon. If you clicked the wrong icon, you have to sweep back up to the large view and start over again. To further complicate matters, there is an arrow that rolls your current icons out and a new set in. At no point are all the module icons on the screen at the same time. It just feels gimmicky to me which is kind of bizarre in light of the fact that the actual Drive Genius modules feel rock solid. The application also has some animations and graphics in its individual modules. I did not find those obtrusive at all. So you have exceptional utility software tied to an awkward user interface. It would have felt so much better if they just had all of the icons on one screen with a little summary of what each one does with mouse-over. Hopefully this will get fixed in a future build. Thankfully, there is a drop down menu that simply lists the module names and allows you to skip the fancy graphics.

My heartburn with the interface aside, Drive Genius 2 is a trustworthy utility to keep in your Mac toolbox. It also is useful for routine maintenance. A license runs $99 and you can get more information at ProSoftEngineering.com. I would recommend this application as a good investment for anyone serious about drive maintenance and troubleshooting.

You can listen to this review on Surfbits Macreviewcast #197

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Forklift 1.6 Review


A common battle cry among experienced Mac users is the plea for more power to the built-in Finder application. As a result, there is no shortage of third-party solutions. I seem to collect them like some people collect stamps. I’m not all that unhappy with the built-in Finder. I just love the ability to stretch the geek muscles.
One particularly good file management application is BinaryNights’ Forklift, which I previously reviewed. The gang at BinaryNights has been hard at work improving Forklift and with the release of version 1.6, I thought it was time to kick the tires, again.
Forklift provides a dual pane interface in which you can select any source for file manipulation. I use the term “any source” rather liberally. It is really more like an “all you can eat” file buffet on your Mac. This includes your local drive, remote drives, network storage, your Amazon S3 account, and FTP storage. The application remembers your logins and makes transferring data between diverse locations as easy as dragging a folder from one pane to the next. It provides a fast, reliable platform for FTP work. I use it for all file management at MacSparky.com.


While the application was originally developed to handle FTP projects, it has matured into a Finder replacement. It includes several useful features such as spotlight integration, smart folders, spring-loaded folders, and Growl support to make this application perfectly competent for file management needs.
With the newest version, several helpful features have been added. The user interface, which used to be exclusively dual pane, now may be used in a single pane mode. This is helpful when you’re operating on a small screen or simply don’t need the complexity two panes. While this is a welcome addition, I still find Forklift most useful with two panes. Thankfully, the developer appears committed to continuing support for dual pane and indeed explains on its website that several of the future modules will still support (and even require) the dual pane mode.
Another welcome addition is the adoption of a tab metaphor for switching between locations on individual panes. This implementation works better for me. If, however, you prefer the prior method for keeping track of your locations with the side panes, Forklift has a setting to bring them back. For keyboard jockeys, the new version also supports a great deal more keyboard control. In total, Forklift version 1.6 represents a substantial update without an update fee. I like that.
Forklift is, in my opinion, the “middle way” solution for people seeking a Finder replacement. While it doesn’t have as many features as some of its competitors, it sports an excellent “Mac-worthy” interface that is well designed and fun to use. The developer is enthusiastic and the application continues to improve. A license for Forklift will cost $45. There is a student license for $25. You can also download a free 15-day trial from the website, www.binarynights.com.

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Audioengine W2 Review


Audioengine’s newest product, the W2, is perhaps the coolest iPhone gadget on the market. Have you ever wanted the ability to stream music wirelessly from iPod or iPhone to your home stereo without monkeying through a remote interface? Now you can. The W2 allows you to connect your iPod or iPhone directly to your stereo wirelessly.
With the W2 you get a wireless receiver about the size of a pack of gum that is USB powered. You can attach it with the included USB AC adapter and plug the stereo out jack to any audio device, including your home stereo. The transmitter is an even smaller device the same width as an iPhone with an iPod connector pointing out the top.


There is no software to configure. You simply plug the receiver into your stereo and the transmitter into your iPod. I took it to a friend’s home and played Christmas music through his stereo off my iPhone. Lets just say, hypothetically, that you have a nice collection of Yo-Yo Ma on your iPhone but your wife would prefer Duran Duran off her iPod Touch. It is easy with the W2. Speaking hypothetically, you can simply pull the transmitter out of one device and attach it to another. Marital bliss restored. Streaming music from your iPod just became stupid easy. It will work on the iPod classic, 2g Nano or later, iPod touch, and the iPhone.
This device stems from the same technology in Audioengine’s W1. It creates a 2.4GHz network that works for about 30 feet. When you get out of range, the music starts cutting out intermittently or drops all together. When you get back into range, it picks right back up. Consider it a 30 foot invisible cord. Latency is reported at less than 20 milliseconds. My high-tech test for this involved watching movies on my iPhone while streaming the soundtrack through my stereo. I did not notice any delay.


The audio quality is good. The manufacturer reports it can keep up with uncompressed CD-quality. In my tests, it did. I played high bit rate music ranging from classical to rock and did not notice any difference between the sound through the W2 and the sound transmitted over a conventional stereo cord plugged directly into my iPhone.
I found the W2 even more useful than the W1. While I still like my home entertainment system streaming through iTunes on my Mac, the ability to change playlists, tracks, and volume using the built-in iPod interface is much easier and my kind of geeky.
The W2 includes both the sender and receiver units, the USB power adapter, the 3.5mm to RCA adapter and an audio cable for $169. You can find it at AudioengineUSA.com.

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PDFPen Review


My day job requires me to spend a great deal of time working with PDF documents. For a long time, that meant I needed to have a license for Adobe Acrobat on all of my computers. This is no small task on the Mac platform since Adobe only sells Adobe Acrobat professional for the Mac which will cost you $450. Fortunately, there are other options. Apple’s own Preview application does a pretty good job of displaying PDF documents and allowing basic editing. For some people, this will be plenty. If you need something more robust however, Smile On My Mac’s PDFPen may be just what you’re looking for.
The tools in PDFPen are much more robust than those offered in Preview. Accessing a PDF document with PDFPen, you can add text, images, and signatures. You can also highlight a text field and open it as an editable text block. So when you receive a PDF document within mistake or typos, you can easily fix it yourself. Additionally, PDFPen has a variety of useful editing tools including highlighting, underscoring, and strike through. It even includes a library with common proofreading marks allowing you to simply drag and editing marks to PDF documents before sending them back for processing or correction. This isn’t as efficient as simply using a red pen yet, but when working electronically with someone in another state, you really can’t beat it. You can also add notes and comments just as in Adobe Acrobat.

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Another nice feature in PDFPen is the ability to use your digital signature. You can use a scanned copy of your signature and literally drop it in a PDF document before returning it to the sender. This provides a truly paperless option for entering contracts or other transactions. This works hand in glove with another PDFPen feature, the library. The library can hold frequently used images and information including your signature. If you work with PDF forms, PDFPen also will accommodate you. It allows you to fill out and save PDF forms easily. While it is possible now to delete pages and reorder pages using Preview, PDF Pen’s implementation of this feature is much easier to use.
One of the improvements with the latest version 5 is the inclusion of optical character recognition. Often PDF documents, when provided you, do not have OCR already performed. PDFPen can now either automatically or a request perform its own optical character recognition on your document. In my tests, the performance was not significantly better or worse than that obtained with Adobe Acrobat. As with all OCR functions, it is a function of the original source document. If you have something typed, the OCR will be much better than if something is handwritten.
For $49.95, I believe PDFPen to be an excellent value. If you need to create your own PDF forms, you can upgrade to PDFPen Pro for $99.95. Another added feature at the pro level is the inclusion of the table of contents. This works with the “bookmarks feature” of Adobe Acrobat. I often send PDFPen bookmarked documents to my PC brethren who are none the wiser.
If you currently are using Apple’s Preview application without feeling its limits, you’re probably okay in terms of PDF manipulation. However, if you are running into its shortcomings or wish you had some of the Adobe Acrobat features without the Adobe Acrobat price, you should take a serious look at PDFPen and PDFPen Pro. You can find them at Smile on My Mac’s website.
You can listen to this review on the Typical Mac User Podcast #161.

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ActionGear Review

by John Chandler from The Creativityist
For 15 years, I have managed my task list on my computer. Behind me lies a pile of discarded task management apps, including Starfish Sidekick, Lotus Notes, Outlook, and iGTD, not to mention a few others I’ve flirted with along the way. I switched over to OmniFocus when the beta went public, and the launch of the iPhone version earlier this year has landed me squarely in GTD utopia.
One of my greatest joys in life is checking little boxes next to completed tasks. (Sad, isn’t it?) As a result, my infatuation with task management apps rivals Imelda Marcos’ love for shoes. Even in my current task utopian bliss, curiosity draws me to explore every task app I run across. So when David asked me if I’d be willing to do a review of ActionGear, I knew I was the man for the job.
ActionGear is billed as Lightweight task management for Mac. That simple tagline captures some of what I like best about this app:

  • Quick and easy access – ActionGear feels more like a handy background utility than a resource eating app. It resides in the menubar for convenient access, though you can also assign a quick keystroke like command-space, option-space, or anything you choose, to open the ActionGear window.
  • Straight forward task management – ActionGear doesn’t require a PhD to manage your tasks. As tasks are added, you can drag and drop them into the folders you create. Whether you want to sort them by projects or contexts, it’s up to you.
  • Quickly capture reference and ideas – ActionGear is not confined only to tasks. It can also capture a screenshot, an iSight image, or a note if you want to grab an idea or other reference material in a flash. The item becomes a line item just like a task, and can be sorted quickly into a folder. QuickLook is built in, so you can take a quick gander at your saved information.
  • Tags and smart folders – Though ActionGear is simple and lightweight, it can scale for more demanding users. The ability to create tags and smart folders means that you can customize your tasks into multiple folders sorted by projects, contexts, due dates, or any combination of them.

ActionGear is a new release — I’m reviewing 1.0.3. (Actually, I started reviewing 1.0.2, but found a bug. The developer was prompt with his response, and a new version was released within a few days.) As you’d expect in a 1.0 product, ActionGear still has lots of room to grow, but it is already a capable task manager. Priced at $24, it’s reasonable too. If the complexities of Things or OmniFocus feel like too much for you, ActionGear might be just what you are looking for.
John writes Creativityist, a blog about shaping good habits for your soul, and your Mac, to practice creativity.

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RichardSolo 1800 Review

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To be honest, I’ve never been much for iPhone accessories. I don’t keep my phone in a case and except for an upgraded set of headphones, I’ve skipped over most of the accessory madness. However, the limited life of my battery has become enough of a problem that I found myself looking for a solution. I found one with the RichardSolo 1800 iPhone backup battery.
The RichardSolo 1800 on first glance looks a lot like a slightly smaller iPhone. It has a similar design aesthetic and shape to the first generation iPhone. It is slightly slimmer and slightly shorter. It is also much lighter than your iPhone. Regardless, it fit in my pocket nicely and was very easy to carry around in my bag.

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Sticking out the end of the RichardSolo 1800 is the standard iPhone/iPod connector port. Once charged you simply plug it into your device and the RichardSolo starts recharging it. There are several charging batteries that require you to plug the iPhone in through a separate iPod cable. I hate having to bring extra cables and the built in solution is much better. The built in connector on the RichardSolo 1800 is firm and actually locks on to your device requiring you to squeeze two points in order to unhook it not unlike the older iPod cables. It also includes two plastic connectors that lend a little more support to your phone while it is charging. In a pinch, you can use your phone while it is charging but it does feel a bit funny talking into it with the battery attached. On the other hand, I found holding it with the battery convenient while watching a movie.

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Because the battery plugs in from the bottom instead of the wrap-around design of some of its competitors, the RichardSolo can charge just about any iPod with the 30 pin connector. I used it successfully on a first generation nano, third generation 30 gig iPod, and an iPod Touch in addition to my iPhone.
With 1800 mAh, you can recharge your iPhone and then some. I let my iPhone drain down to 10% and then plugged it in. In about 80 minutes, it was fully charged again. Charging the RichardSolo simply requires you to plug it in through the MiniUSB connector to your computer or any USB charging device. Speaking of which, the RichardSolo 1800 includes home and automobile USB chargers along with the required cables. I thought this was a great touch allowing me to recharge the battery from just about anywhere. You can also charge the RichardSolo and iPhone together simply by leaving them connected while you USB charge the RichardSolo 1800. Charging the RichardSolo 1800 from my MacBook Pro takes about 5 hours.
I find the RichardSolo 1800 perfect for days when I use my phone a lot and when I travel. If I know I will be stuck on a plane or relying on my phone and away from extra power, the RichardSolo 1800 is a champ. Once in awhile I will mistakenly leave the iPod running on my iPhone and suddenly find I’ve drained my battery. The other nice thing about having this device in my bag is that it pretty much shuts up that inner voice that tells me I’m not allowed to watch long movies, play games, or otherwise carelessly use up my battery. I don’t care anymore. I’ve got insurance. I don’t need the RichardSolo 1800 everyday, but when I do, it comes in very handy.

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As an added bonus, the RichardSolo 1800 has an included LED flashlight and laser pointer. While these extras may seem like window dressing, I actually find them quite useful. I most often need the RichardSolo 1800 when I’m on the road giving presentations. Having a flashlight and laser pointer in my pocket is quite handy. You can also use the laser pointer to torment cats.
The RichardSolo 1800 is a great solution for anyone in need of extra power for their iPhone. It retails for $69.95 and you can purchase it directly from the RichardSolo website.
This review was recorded and published on the NosillaCast podcast.

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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.

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