Great software for the OS X

Back in the dark days of Macintosh Computer circa System 7.5.5 (were talking 1997 or so and, ok, the days weren’t that dark, it just sounds romantic) – if you needed a bit of software that does a very specific thing, an applet, if you will, you could find it, and use it, for $10. Or $20. Or $35. But usually never for free. It could be the most mundane of tasks. If you want Oscar the Grouch the come out of the trash can and sing a song when you delete files, you needed to fork over the cash. Seemed as if everybody had their hand out on your way to Mac nirvana back in the day. I understand the need to make money and earn a living off of your talents, but sometimes you were paying cash so you could mimic the built in features of Windows. Silly. The days were, now that I think about it, actually kind of, sort of darkish – romance be damned.

9 years later. Count them on your hand. 9. Comes after 8. The Mac OS is X + 4 + .7 and I can get some real work done without the outlay of cash. All the tools that should be a part of the operating system are a part of OS X. And there is a plethora, a cornucopia, a bunch, a helluvalot of free software out there.

I guess I should be thanking you, Mr. Programmer, because without you, nothing happens. The blue box that is my Macintosh can hold a door open or I can put my feet up in it, but not much else. And I should thank you , Mr. Open Source Idealist, who thinks that giving away your programming efforts would change the world. You really have. Don’t kid yourself. Thank you. Not only are computers cheaper but also what they can accomplish is now easy to get at with smallish funds. And I am cheap.

In 5 months on the new old Mac, I have already amassed a collection of applets and applications for audio, video, podcasting, boring office garbage, and better websurfing. To be honest, if you use a Mac, you have probably heard about some or most of these, but my hope is that you have not run across all of them, that way the time you spent reading this instead of looking for gurley pictures on the internet is not wasted. If you think there is nothing to see here and you would like to get to those pictures now, here is a link.

Also, I will put a big “Duh” next to the ones you should and probably do already know about, though there reasons why they are worth repeating. Again. And again. And…

Audio:
Max – Max is an application for converting audio from one format to another. Works with CDs as well. If you want to convert FLAC to Apple Lossless to Monkey Audio to MP3 to AAC to WAV, you can.
Senuti – If you need to transfer music from your iPod back to your Mac – Bamo! This is the ticket.
Audacity – Free open source software for recording and editing audio. I would have given up a toe to have this program 9 years ago. Free. Easy to learn. Powerful.
Ardour – Ardour is a digital audio workstation (DAW). You can use it to record, edit and mix multi-track audio. This guy is deep and powerful. It takes some time to wrap you head around, but if you are a starving musician, devote some time to it and it will payoff in a big way. You can always go back to Garage Band.

Email:
Thunderbird – Duh. Email Program. It reminds me of Eudora circa version 3, which I really liked. Yes you have Mail on the Mac, but you have other options now, too.

Web Browsers:
Firefox – Duh. Fat ole Duh. But it is nice to float from OS to OS and still have a only one web browser interface to remember.

And now small rant…

(Note to Macintosh Internet Explorer users: Stop! Now! Please. If you are on a Mac and use IE bring yourself 4 years into the future and use Firefox or Safari or Opera or Camino. Pretty please. Pages will stop breaking. You will happier and your children will love you more.)

(Note to Windows Internet Explorer Users: Stop! Now! Please use Firefox. It is safer because it is dumber, meaning it does not have access to the deep internals of your system like IE does. I realize that there may be some of you who need to use IE because of your bank or some specialized application that only works with IE – Use IE when you have too and use Firefox – or something else – the rest of the time.)

(Note to Developers of Internet Explorer Only Applications: Stop! Now! Please. Go get a doughnut.)

…back to the list.

Optimized Firefox (Deer Park) – If you have an older Mac have a look at this version of Firefox. It definitely runs faster on older Macs. And the price is right.
Flock – A “hacked” Firefox that can share photos, browse the web and makes it much easier to make blog posts. It is also pretty. Nice work, flock team.

Video:
HandBreak – DVD to MPEG-4 ripper/converter. Handy for DVD backup and iPod video.
iSquint – iSquint is an iPod video conversion app for Mac OS X.
MPlayer – Video player. Plays most anything.
VLC – Video player on steroids. Plays most anything and makes video streams from computer to computer. Works great on older machines.
Avid Free DV – DV Video editor. I can’t actually run this program because my Mac does not have enough memory or power, but it is made by Avid and Avid has been making professional video editing suites for years.

And et. al:
Skype – Duh. Big freaking Duh.
TextWrangler – TextWrangler is a general purpose text editor. If you design for the web it is a cheapo no brainer.
OpenOffice – OpenOffice.org is an office suite and an open-source project. “Compatible with all other major office suites, the product is free to download, use, and distribute.” To buy from Microsoft or not? Duh.

And True Geek: (cover your eyes mom)
HamachiX – Hamachi is the most interesting virtual private networking concept to come about since, well, virtual private networking. Terribly secure and easy to set up. But if you are looking for an alternative VPN solution, listen to this from this.

I will probably have more later, but until then, the march of progress continues. To the future!

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Pick an OS. And stick with it.

I have said in a previous post that I am OS (operating system) agnostic. Seriously. I don’t care what I am using, as long as I am able to get the job done. And unless you are a geeky hobbyist, that’s all you should probably care about too.

Back in 1975 the first personal computer, the Altair 8800, made available, for the first time in the history of man, the ability to manipulate bits and bytes in the privacy of your own home by manipulating a series of switches on the front of a blue box. You did not have a display, you had a series of red lights that told you if you were doing something or not. Manipulate the switches (or “program” it) and if the light at the far left did something then, you were right, or wrong. It was a freaking light. I can turn on a flashlight and get the same effect. But hey, we had to start somewhere.

Fast forward 31 years. Now we can actually get work done with these things. And if you have purchased a computer in the last 6 years, there is nothing you can do on one operating system (OS) that you cannot do on another. Really, I mean it. No joke. Read on…

Some computer interfaces are prettier, some are more standardized and come pre-installed for your “convenience,” and some are given away on the internet. Since I daily use all three of the majors (Windows, Macintosh, and Linux), I can say this with a modicum of confidence – they all can do what the others can do. Sorry, but, it is the truth. Some just do it with more style than others. And even that concept of “stylish” is merging and probably sooner more than later, style will not matter at all, because they will all have style (or at least look better than they do now).

You can, right now, make movies, compress video, rip and burn CDs and DVDs, make Word documents, type up your blog post, make web pages and if that is not enough for you, you can even run other operating systems on YOUR operating system of choice. There it is, the nail, that is, that drives the point home, or in the coffin, or something (note to self: stay away from metaphors.) You can do what you want on your computer, even get it to behave like another computer.

Though, after having, much day to day experience with all three, I must say, you need to pick a team, a side, a horse, a metaphor, or whatever and stick with it. Since I have a fondness for older systems and getting them to do what they were not really meant to do, at some point I came to the conclusion that the older a system is, the smarter YOU have to be. You can still run an 400Mhz Pentium II with Windows 98, because the combination is ideal (old computer runs old OS quite well), but you better know what you are doing.

In the PII/Win 98 example, you need at least to become much more security aware, a part-time registry hacker and part-time program version tracker – and that is work.

Or you could change your OS to a current version of Linux, like Ubuntu – the easiest of the breed now, in my opinion. But you better get used to or at least understand how to use the command line. Sorry, even the program that makes installing all the finishing touches of Ubuntu (Easy Ubuntu) requires you to get to a command line. And in Ubuntu you need to get to know the “sudo” command and what it does. I am not complaining, that is just the way it is. And that too, is work of sorts.

Currently, I am running Mac OS X 10.4 on a 450Mhz G4. Getting smarter about the OS on the old hardware means shutting things off (Dashboard) and running better versions of Firefox (Deer Park complied for the G4.) To find that out is work.

Or go buy a new computer. They are so much faster for the price now and the newer stuff allows you to not have to be so smart about what you are doing. They just keep themselves up to date so you do not have to worry about ugly internals. You can get on with the business of computing without the hassle. Less work. More money.

Money is an option, unless it is not, then you have to use your brain (you’ll be fine, trust me).

If you are in OS limbo, welcome, have a look around, it is a neat place. Try other OSes. Feel that bold new look of Windows Vista Beta. Go to the Apple store and taste the Aqua goodness. Download a copy of Ubuntu and just boot it (the install disk just boots, giving you a preview of the OS without installing.). What ever your choice, rest assured that you can get it to do what YOU want it to do – because they all can. It may cost money or time but they ALL can do it.

When you have made you choice, and you will, stick with it. Get it to do what you want it to do. Learn about it. Tweak it. Buy a good book or two about it. Spend time with it. Get to know it. As much as you may know you can always know more. And don’t give up on it. Depending on the road you will go down, half the fun will be the trip.

Skype will make you cheap

A couple months back, the lovely Christi and myself were approached by Kerri with the concept of interviews for our podcast, diabeticfeed. Hello Skype. I had known about Skype for some time now. Never used it. Phone call type things over the internet came and went (at least in my head) in 1998 with Dialpad. Dialpad was, at the time, a free-ride, crazy internet, “make money by giving it away” VOIPish service that allowed you to make free calls to any land line. The very idea of using your dial up modem to make phone calls and skirting the phone lines BY USING THE PHONE LINES was fascinating to me. My brother an I used it a couple times but we were mostly unimpressed with the quality and the fact that it took 30 minutes to have a 10 minute conversation because of all the dropouts. Dialpad circa 1998 over dial-up sucked. Bless them for trying.

Enter Skype – There were others, and there were and are many others, but Skype seems to be the only one that matters in a big way. So here we are in a remote undisclosed location wanting to do an interview with Kerri in Rhode Island (which is the size of Rhode Island – tired of that comparison) and Skype allows people to talk for free and the quality of the audio is very good. Lights went on I had an absolutely brilliant idea. Unfortunately most of my brilliant ideas have already been discovered, in this case, it was Doug Kaye of I.T. Conversations of how to effectively use Skype for interviews for podcasts. He even had a diagram. I can read diagrams.

So now Skpye has become the cheapo tool par excellence for creating interviews for the low to no budget of podcasting. Seriously folks, this whole internet thing is going to take off, I can just feel it.

Well if we an use it for podcasts, we could actually use it for making actual phone calls. Huh? Leave it to me to come upon the brilliance of a service backwards, first realizing some complicated way to do cross country audio interviews to, hey, just talkin’. With Skpye I could do it for 2 cents per minute (it’s free now.) But I hate wearing headset/mic combos because it is, get this, not like using a phone. I went in two directions

Direction 1 – The Linksys CIT200 Skype (only) phone has been welcomed into my growing pile of gadgets. I spent $112 us a few months ago (I’ve seen it recently for around $80) so I can use Skype away from the computer and use the Skype service like a, well, a phone service. Genius. Call quality is pretty good for a wireless 2 GHz phone and I can go across the house without losing signal. Software installation was a breeze and it kind of just chugs along, working well. We also purchased a Skype-In phone number ($40 for the number for a year, unlimited calls, voice mail thrown in.) Since we both have cell phones, the fact that emergency service is not available is not an issue. I would have loved to have had this available back in the day when money was tight and most of the calls I made were long distance. It is a solid product.

Direction 2 – OK, have you ever found a product that the makers of the product seemed so ashamed of it that they did not even bother to give it a name, or a model number, or a serial number. And normally if you saw one of these nameless products you would pick it up in your hot little hands, think “Hmmmmm,” put it back down, and get on with you life. Well I bought one, in box with big sans-serif letters that say “High Performance USB Phone.” A wired internet phone, no brand, just product. Oddly it works, and well at that. After an exhaustive internet search, I have a model number and a company – the AU-100 and the company is ATCOM China. I was able to get the phone from geeks.com for free (with a rebate)(UPDATE 7/30/06 – I got my rebate, so it is officially free.). I can afford free. And if the rebate goes through It will actually be free. “You have to spend money to lose money,” is what I say. You can find this phone on the web for about 12 to 17 dollars and if you spend more than that on lunch daily, brown bag it for a day, and get this phone if you want to make free calls across the US and Canada on a device that works like a phone. It just works. There is what looks like a display that is not a display; it is just dark plastic. The buttons only work on Windows with special windows drivers. So what – I’ll dial with Skype. The computer, any computer, sees it as a generic USB sound card, works with Windows, Mac and Linux (yes – I tested all three), doesn’t care which VOIP software you use and is cheap. I’m cheap.

So now that Skype has decided to give away free land-line calls to America and Canada till the end of the year and I can take advantage of it fully with out headset/mic ala Janet Jackson. You have no reason at all not to call your mother now.