Archive for category Dashboard

Suping up your iTunes experience

This all started when I was walking down the street with my iPod in “Shuffle Songs” mode. I was totally groovin’ and then suddenly a slow song came on and tanked my momentum. Yes, I know I could’ve just skipped to the next track, but it was kind of a bummer and I thought that there must be a way to make a playlist of only faster songs. There’s a BPM (beats per minute) info field on all my music tracks, but alas none of them have the info filled in. So I turn to the internet for more free software to help me supe up my iTunes/iPod experience.

bpmscreenshot_1.jpgiTunes-BPM Inspector (and Tangerine)

The solution I found for adding BPM information is called iTunes-BPM Inspector. It’s not a new program, but it’s good. A floating window appears with a button that you click while playing a song in iTunes. As you press the button to the beat, the program tells you the BPM of your clicking. Once you reach the correct number (the number turns blue), simply hit Set and iTunes-BPM Inspector will drop it straight into your track’s meta-information. It’s really very easy and iTunes-BPM Inspector even has a little graphic that switches and two little lights that toggle to the beat so you can test that you’ve got the number right. Once all the tracks have their BPM info, it’s a snap to create a smart playlist for tracks that have a certain BPM and up — pure uninterrupted strutting can commence! (By the way, it may seem like a lot of work to do this for each track, but it actually becomes kind of fun. There’s no easier way to get into a song than to tap the mouse to its rhythm.) There’s also a cool program called Tangerine which does all the BPM analysis for you (at a zippy 3 songs per second), but you have to pay $25 for it. For those of you without the time or inclination to do it all manually Tangerine’s an incredibly painless way to go (you might want to check out the free trial).

While we’re on the iTunes topic, I thought I would mention a few other little add-ons that I like to use.

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Sing that iTune!

If you are interested in lyrics, this free little Dashboard widget will grab them for you every time you play a track in iTunes. (It’s a bit of a trick because you have to switch on your Dashboard for it to do the lyric search, but that’s not too tough.) You can follow along with the song as it plays, or the widget also includes the option to write the lyrics to the audio track each time it finds them so you can take them with you on your iPod.
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Amazon Album Art

For those of us fond of album art (especially for using with Cover Flow, where we just can’t tolerate the generic clear square that appears when we don’t have album art for a track), this widget is perfect. Whenever you encounter a track that just doesn’t seem to retrieve any album art using the handy dandy right-click in iTunes (like Madonna’s Grammy-winning album, Ray of Light), just click on this widget and it will go to Amazon.com to retrieve all the different covers that it finds. Click the bar to set the album art in iTunes and voila!

Gimme Some Tune

This is another free program which you can set to run whenever iTunes is on. It will display a semi-transparent window at the bottom of your screen with the track info and album art. If you turn on a setting, it will get song lyrics for you as well. There are many other settings that you can customize to your own style (for example, one option will make the window vanish whenever the mouse pointer runs into it.)

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Bottom line is that while iTunes is a great program to use for your many music needs, there are a number of add-ons to make things even better.

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Widget Watch

One of my favourite part of OS X is the Dashboard. There are always lots of cool, useful widgets for all kinds of convenient purposes. If F12 isn’t becoming one the most worn out keys on your keyboard, you’re really missing out on some great, free stuff.
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iStat Pro

This is one of the best widgets available. It’s not new, but an updated version just came out recently. Basically IStat Pro displays all kinds of useful statistical info about your computer, including CPU usage, memory usage, disk space, system uptime, system temperatures, etc. There’s also information about your network/IP addresses and running application processes (both not pictured above). Even if I don’t quite understand all the more technical info, it’s still great for keep an eye on how your computer’s running. It’s very customizable and displays in a tall or wide configuration and various colour schemes. It all looks quite sleek.

screenshot_2-2.jpgTV Forecast

For TV fanatics like myself, this widget is the answer for finding out when new episodes of my favourite shows will be on, what their episode titles will be, etc. It’s linked into TV.com (the most comprehensive site for info about TV shows). If you click on the name of the show or episode in the widget display, your browser opens up to the corresponding detailed info. It’s as simple as picking your shows and letting the widget do the rest to keep you up to date.

Photo Drop

It’s hard to believe that they could fit a picture editor into a widget, but they have. Granted, you won’t be airbrushing out wrinkles with this tool, but for resizing and cropping pictures without opening a full blown application, this is a really awesome widget. Included are a few special effects, including reflection, shadow, and even pushpin (an image of a pushpin is added to your photo to make it look like it’s pinned to a bulletin board) just for fun. The interface is a bit tricky to get used to, since there isn’t the tool palette that these kinds of applications usually have, but once you learn it, this will become an invaluable tool for quick picture editing.

screenshot_1-2.jpgBackpack

Part of an online service, the Backpack widget allows you to access lists and other pages that you’ve created as part of that service. It’s a subscription service that you need to join, but they offer a free level as well (which is what I’m on). They only allow about half a dozen pages at the free level, but it’s enough for me to use. It allows you to access this information simply and easily from any web browser. The full blown service is full of features for creating some pretty fancy pages, but for me I just create lists of movies I want to see, or things I want to buy, etc. I can add or check off items from all my lists using the widget, and if I click the backpack icon to open the browser, I can reorganize and manipulate my lists as well. Backpack is a great tool for keeping all your little snippets of information stored in one easy-to-access web location.

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More Mac Apps

I want to talk about some software that I’ve picked up. I haven’t had too much time to become an expert in all of it, but here goes:

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Quicken 2007 for Mac
You know that I’ve been trying to not pay for software, and it seemed most appropriate not to pay for personal finance software. I tried every program I could get my hands on, from the cute but useless Cha-ching, to Moneydance to Checkbook to Money (not Microsoft) to Cashbox and so on. I tested them by trying to record transactions and assign categories to them; and I also tried to import my transactions from Scotiabank online. Most of the programs just didn’t have much functionality. They couldn’t really do anything and it was difficult to keep things straight (i.e. It was hard to tell one account from another, it was difficult to put categories to transactions, and there was hardly any reporting feature available.) I remembered using Quicken on my first Dell and though I had gone over to MS Money (that was before I hated MS), I remembered that Quicken was pretty good. I looked at the web site for Quicken and it felt like they (like everyone else in the business arena) put a low priority on Macs. In fact, the Quicken.ca web site clearly indicated that if you wanted Mac software, you had to buy it from the US web site. Short story long, I got it and it’s pretty good. It has way more features than any other finance software I tried, and even though it seems to recognize Scotiabank, I haven’t yet gotten it to directly connect (however, it is really easy for me to download my transactions into Quicken and reconcile and categorize them all).The winning feature, hands-down, though is the dashboard widget. The widget allows me to enter transactions directly from the dashboard, so I don’t have to open Quicken every time. This was a bit of a problem for me before because I would start to lose track because I didn’t keep updating my information in Quicken. This makes it so much easier (and you know how I likes me widgets!)

More Widgets
On that note, here are a few that I recently found that are fun and cool.

singthatitune.pngSing-that-iTune downloads lyrics to songs for you as you listen to the song in iTunes. I don’t always sing along, but it’s a fun thing to have. It even puts the lyrics into the music file for you so you can read them any time.

Xcuts is a keyboard shortcut reference that is always there to provide handy quick key combos to do everything you can on Mac OS X. It’s really useful, especially when you’re still new like me and want to use the keyboard shortcuts. Who else is going to teach you?

 

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Quote Conjurer is just something fun for the Potter geek (like myself). It gives you a new quote each day from the Harry Potter canon. Plus, it’s got awesome Disney-style drawings of the characters we know and love. It makes me smile.

todos.pngTodos

Another program I love (and this one’s free) is called Todos. It is just an easy way to get at all your applications. You tell the program to scan your applications and when you activate the program (using a quick key combination like ctrl+option+command+space, then the screen pops up with all your application icons in one window where you can click them to activate. I love it because I don’t have to hunt through my applications folder anymore. They’re all at my fingertips. Cool!

Zuma
Finally, I wanted to recommend a highly addictive game from the makers of the highly addictive game, Bejewelled. It’s called Zuma and the basic premise is that you are at the centre of the screen, shooting coloured balls at the line of coloured balls snaking around you towards the hole (Hole bad!). When you get three balls of the same colour in a row, they disappear and the when the gap closes, you could get a cascade reaction of coloured balls vanishing. Once in a while you get special balls that do things like move everything backward, explode or pause. It’s a really fun game. Windows users can play it free online via PopCap Games), but I could only play the demo. When I found myself playing the demo until 3am (since I knew that once I stopped, I couldn’t get back in). I decided to pay for a licence (something generally unheard of from me). Try Zuma!

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Widgets are wonderful

In my ongoing quest for free software, I rediscovered the world of widgets on my iMac. (I had tried them for a while on my Windows PC before, but dropped them because of suspected technical problems.) Widgets are tiny programs that do essentially one function. You can put them on the Dashboard (it’s like a screen overlay) like so many fridge magnets–magnets that are connected to the internet. They are often cutely designed as well. Mac OS X comes with a bunch of standard widgets, but there are plenty out there that can be downloaded for free as well. Here’s what I’ve got on my Dashboard so far:

  1. Standard Weather, Clock, Calculator, Sticky Notes and Calendar widgets for all that kind of info (I think they’re self-explanatory).
  2. A bunch of “look up” reference site widgets to quickly access: Google, Internet Movie Database, Wikipedia, or a dictionary/thesaurus, Yellow or white pages, or my own Address Book (the funnest one is logoSearch, which retrieves eps graphic files of any logo from Decepticons to United Nations based on a keyword search).
  3. Movie widgets: I would have loved a widget to give me movie times (but alas the ones out there don’t work for Canada), but I do have one that shows me the top ten movies of the week, and another that automatically connects to the latest online movie trailers
  4. Word of the day – displays a new word (with definition) from dictionary.com each day
  5. iCal Events connects directly with my iCal calendar to list a week’s worth of upcoming events/appointments
  6. POP shows me a number representing how many new email messages I have (this is for POP accounts. There are better widgets for Gmail and other webmail systems). I don’t really rely on it because I don’t find it to be very accurate.
  7. Changesomething widget presents a tip each day from changesomething.org – little things we can do to be healthier and live better

Widgets are definitely an optional part of the system, but they are one of the things that can make computing (especially on a Mac) fun.

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Open Source: An adventure in free apps

As part of my iMac plan, I a) didn’t want anything more to do with Microsoft and b) didn’t really want to pay for software but c) didn’t want to rely on pirated software either (um … not that I ever did … heaven forbid!). So, that left me with two options: for some purposes, I could use the great software that comes with the iMac out of the box (I love the new iTunes, but I’ll save that for a post of its own); and for others, before I got the computer I did a lot of research on the free, open-source programs that are out there for the Mac (here’s a really good, simple web site for that http://www.opensourcemac.org/). So it’s been a week since getting my iMac and I’ve been busy getting all my software set up. Here’s the story:

Web Browser

The very first question is obviously which browser I’m going to use. It’s the gateway to the Internet (where all the other software is going to come from). Apple’s own browser is Safari (which didn’t seem to bad), but I had to replace it almost immediately with Mozilla Firefox for the simple reason that it wasn’t compatible with my email or blog apps (I already mentioned this in a previous post).

E-mail

At first I was happy to use Apple’s Mail application. There was the ability to use filters on incoming messages, it seemed pretty comprehensive, but there were two things that I missed from Outlook XP. Number one: I missed the preview window on the right hand side. At work and at home I had been having the preview windows on the right, so I was used to having the email display nicely in a page-shaped window. Mail (like many email programs) displayed the preview in the bottom half of the screen, so I could only see a few lines at once and I kept having to expand the bottom window at the expense of the inbox listing at the top. Along came Mozilla Thunderbird:

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In addition to having support for the right-frame preview, the folders were organized in a tree structure more like what I was used to with Outlook, more so than Mail was. So that’s app switch #2.

 

Office suite
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So since I have a no-Microsoft policy, I was in a bit of a quandry with regard to Office software. Everyone’s always talking about MS Office for Mac and how it’s very good and just like the Windows version, but I was not convinced. It may be good, but I don’t want to be in Microsoft’s pocket for anything. I decided to try on of the open source office suites and decided to try Neo Office, since it has the more Mac-like appearance. It was easy to install, but I have only used it a few times so far. I have opened Excel spreadsheets, Word documents, and PowerPoint files (not really a full blown presentation) and all seem to come out OK.In reality, my need for an office suite at home is not that much. At work we’re all used to MS Office and we feel like we want to use it at home, but I don’t really need the full power of Excel to track some minor expenses, or the full features of Word to type up a vacation packing list. While Neo Office supposedly has a lot of the features of MS Office, I’m not sure if I’ll ever put that to the test.

Other stuff

I’m still planning to grab a whole bunch of other open-source applications for: personal finance tracking, RSS reading, picture editing (I couldn’t see any way in iPhoto to resize a simple screen cap for this blog!), graphics editing, desktop publishing, possibly music editing (I tried Garage Band yesterday and couldn’t figure out how to get into a music editing mode).

Plus, I’ve fallen in love with Widgets (which I had already used before with Konfabulator on Windows) but I’ll save that for another post as well. There’s still some more work to be done (I haven’t migrated all my old emails over yet) but it’s only been one busy week since I got the Mac. I’ve done pretty well, I think.

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