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iOS & Mac reviews

Bartender: tidy up your Mac menu bar

Bartender, by Surtees Studios, is a natty wee Mac menu bar app that whisks up some or all of the clutter over on the right hand side of your menu bar and keeps it hidden away behind an icon of your choice. It’s perfect for keeping in check all those handy third party apps that put an icon up there, and can even manage the system items like the Airport, Date & Time, Bluetooth and Notification Centre menus.

For example, without Bartender my menu bar looks like this:

mac-menu-bar

With Bartender running I can reduce all of that to just one icon:

mac-menu-bar-tidy

Or I can tweak the settings to keep the most essential icons visible, like this:

mac-menu-bar-organizer

The app comes with a selection of icons to choose from, or you can create and use your own. Clicking the icon brings up another row containing all your other menu items, and clicking on one of those brings up it’s menu, like so:

mac-menu-bar-manager

The settings screen contains all the menu item appearance controls:

mac-menu-bar-icon-hide

Select each menu item, select where you want it to live, and that’s all there is to it; it’s that simple.

Bartender is in beta right now and available for free from their website. Once it’s out of beta you’ll have to buy a license to update to the final version but if you buy one while it’s still in beta it’s half price, less than £5.

Being in beta also means you shouldn’t be surprised to maybe find a bug here or there, but the big ones have all been ironed out and the most recent builds are perfectly stable. I highly recommend you pick it up and get some calm back in your menu bar.

And now, an insight into how my brain works

I tried turning off both Notification Centre and Spotlight, so the Date & Time is right up against the right edge of the screen and I didn’t like it, it felt unbalanced and ugly. I’m used to the clock being snuggled up next to the pleasingly angled Spotlight magnifying glass but since I got Alfred I rarely use Spotlight, and certainly never invoke it by clicking the icon, appealing as it is.

I had originally taken Notification Centre out too because the gesture is more intuitive and faster for me and I didn’t want unused icons up there. But, aesthetics are winning the battle and as I can’t (yet?) shift one of the other icons over there manually, I’ve reinstated Notification Centre for the balance.

I’ll probably change back to the Spotlight icon in the end, it just feels better…

Thanks for reading!

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iOS & Mac reviews Reviews

Review: Alfred for Mac, an excellent app launcher

alfred-mac-reviewToday I want to write about an app I recently got for my Macs that has completely changed how I use them for the better. It’s called Alfred and it’s a ‘launcher’ app that allows you to do almost anything on your Mac via the keyboard.

Such apps are not new but until now I’d had no interest; Alfred caught my eye with a bold, friendly design and a lot of recommendations. It’s available in a basic free version here with an optional ‘Powerpack’ for £15 that massively expands what it can do.

To really get the most from Alfred you need the Powerpack but you should definitely grab the free version and give it a whirl; I upgraded within five minutes of seeing what it could do and haven’t looked back so this review is based on features it provides – but not all of them, there’s just too many.

(All the Alan Partridge fans reading: insert your own “I wonder who got the powerpack?” gag here –>   )

Typing alt-Space brings up the Alfred box into which you type your command or keywords. Typing an application name launches it, like Spotlight; typing a URL or part of a bookmark opens your browser and takes you there; if you want to search the web Alfred offers a selection of search engines then performs the search; it can control iTunes, send emails, perform calculations, manage your clipboard history, search for and perform actions upon most any file on your computer – and that’s just ‘out of the box’.

alfred mac preferencesBy installing 3rd-party extensions in the form of Shell Scripts, AppleScripts or Automator Workflows, Alfred can integrate with many popular applications including Wunderlist, Fantastical, Things, Evernote, Spotify, and Omnifocus. You can even tweet from it. The Alfred user community has come up with all sorts of other cool computer stuff you can do with extensions, many of which are collected on the Alfred site here; have a browse and see if anything that you do often has an Alfred shortcut. If it doesn’t, just create your own.

If all of this still sounds a bit “so what?” then you’re thinking what I was thinking when I first read about launchers. I mean, what’s wrong with the Dock, right?

Alfred is quicker, less distracting & more comfortable

For a long time my Dock had been loaded with around twenty apps and four folders. I would have liked a less full Dock but I found that it was more annoying to have to go looking for them when I wanted them than it was to have the Dock looking a little busy.

Then I got a Magic Trackpad for my iMac. I like it in principle but it’s definitely suited more to gestures than it is precision; It’s probably no coincidence that around this time I started investigating apps like Launchbar and QuickSilver that I’d heard a lot about; I wanted a better way to get to apps than through precise mouse movements.

In the end I didn’t see the point installing and learning to use something new that I could approximate for free by using Spotlight to launch apps that weren’t in the Dock. Spotlight’s cmd-Space shortcut is easy to remember and type, and entering a few characters of an app’s name is far quicker and easier than invoking a new Finder window and navigating to the app and double clicking.

Having got used to launching apps via Spotlight like this, trying Alfred was like opening the floodgates as it grants the same easy access to almost everything you do regularly on your computer, and considerably more elegantly.

How could Alfred help you?

Here’s a few examples of how I use it day to day:

I rarely type URLs into browsers now, or search via the Google box in my browser (although I still don’t remember every time). I can connect to my other Mac via Screen Sharing with just two keystrokes (‘ss’) instead taking a good ten seconds of focus to do it manually. When working on my site I often use the same selection of apps so I’ve set an Alfred keyword that opens them all at once.

alfred mac growlA very useful shortcut that I’m using daily is for Wunderlist. Things I need to remember occur to me all the time; sometimes I try and record them with Siri and then get frustrated with Siri when I have to correct everything it got wrong; sometimes I remember to launch Wunderlist and create a new reminder; and most of the time I do neither because they’re both too much effort and then I forget.

With Alfred I type ‘wl remember to do that thing’ and go back to whatever I was doing while Alfred sends that off to Wunderlist in the background, displaying a Growl to confirm receipt. My fingers don’t leave the keyboard, I remain in the same app environment and I stay focussed on whatever I was doing. All I have to do is remember to check Wunderlist…

alfred mac search

Another example: I’ve been playing a lot of Skyrim recently (like, hundreds of hours of it) and occasionally need to look something up online. I’ve saved the two best Skyrim wiki sites as custom searches in Alfred and given them both the keyword ‘sky’. Now when I need the low-down on that Chillrend blade I looted I type ‘sky Chillrend’ and Alfred offers both wiki sites as possible actions. Rather than search one at a time I’ve set a keyboard shortcut to ‘action all results’ with ctrl-Return and both open in the background.

alfred mac utilityAnd then there’s the customisation and options; most of the keyboard shortcuts can be altered (although you should try the defaults first because they’ve been chosen deliberately); you can change the fallback search sites Alfred will offer to search with if it doesn’t recognise any keywords in your query; Dropbox syncing to sync extensions and settings across multiple Macs running Alfred; you can even style the Alfred box how you like it or download themes other users have created (my own attempt is available here – what I said earlier about Alfred being elegant obviously goes out the window if you go with a Sex Pistols colour scheme).

Alfred also learns quickly; the more you use it, the less characters you need to type before Alfred knows what you want. Using this I’ve trained it so that when I start typing ‘ph’ it offers Photo Mechanic first because that’s what I’ve picked the most when I’ve typed in just those two letters in the past, whereas if I continue to ‘pho’ it offers Photoshop first.

The finishing touches to an already wonderful app are the friendliness of the small team behind it and the support of an enthusiastic community providing extra functionality in spades. Every question I’ve tweeted at @alfredapp has received a prompt and helpful response and there are both official and unofficial Alfred tips sites to pore over.

Grab now, buy later

A full review of Alfred would take ages and I’ve really only touched on a very small set of the functionality; suffice to say it is extensive. The wealth of possibilities may seem overwhelming or you may be reluctant to give up the mouse. Don’t worry – it scales beautifully to users of all proficiencies and your mouse hand will definitely thank you. In fact, at first it took me by surprise how liberating it was to remove so many constant mouse interactions; even small movements down to the Dock are hassle compared to Alfred once you get into the habit.

If you’re even a bit of a geek or use your computer frequently I think you’ll love Alfred for Mac. Grab the free version now and see how long it takes you to resist the Powerpack and open up it’s trove of possibilities. It really does change the way you use your computer.

(Okay that last line sounds so much like a radio sponsorship blurb but I assure you this is from the heart, not the wallet; I love using Alfred so much I want you to as well – no kickbacks here.)

Thanks for reading. If you’d like to comment on anything I’m @myglasseye on Twitter.

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iOS & Mac reviews Reviews

Cathode for Mac – an alternative to Terminal

Cathode for Mac OS XI’d like to share and recommend an app I very rarely have need to use; in fact I really only use it when I’m re-jailbreaking my Apple TV, which hopefully I’ll not need to do again for a good long while. However, I wish I had chance to use it much more often. It’s called Cathode (Mac App Store link, $10) and it’s a fun alternative to the Terminal utility that comes with OS X.

For those who don’t know Terminal (and nobody would blame you if you don’t) it’s used for accessing the command line of the computer. The command line is kind of one level of sophistication up from the system’s guts. When you do something in the graphical user interface of your app, the resulting commands come here to do their thing; you can make the computer do anything you want from here, including committing computer suicide, making it an intimidating place for the inexperienced.

(I know pretty much zero about working with the command line except what I copy and paste from reputable sites when I’m jailbreaking. I have gathered that ‘sudo’ is a powerful and oft-used command that makes something ‘do’ something, so I allowed myself the luxury of smiling knowingly at the recent Penny Arcade guest strip about that one, although I probably shouldn’t have.)

So whether you’re an occasional user or you pretty much live in the command line, you may appreciate Cathode for putting a friendlier face on it than the cold, blank stare of Apple’s Terminal.

Cathode, alternative to Terminal
clockwise from top left: three preset display types, plus one with custom tweaks to make it glitchy

You can tweak almost every option on the screen including font family, size and colour ; background and foreground colour; monitor curvature and reflection opacity; rate and opacity of the scan-line; character flicker; a whole bunch of retro sounds you can turn off completely if you like, including a beep every key press just like the movies; you can even put an iSight photo of yourself at the keyboard into the screen reflection.

It’s all completely cosmetic but it certainly makes digging into the command line on a Mac a much more enjoyable experience. At the moment I have a setup inspired by the Swan computer in Lost:

This is just a slightly tweaked 'Viti Green' preset

Thanks for reading. If you’d like to comment on anything I’m @myglasseye on Twitter.

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How-Tos iOS & Mac how-tos

One way to fix an iTunes ‘Error 1013’

Last night I was updating my iPhone 4 to iOS 4.3 (from 4.2.1) and it got almost all the way through until it sought to verify the update with Apple and failed with error code 1013. The support document said this was likely to do with security software preventing iTunes from connecting to Apple but I had no problems with the iTunes Store (usually a dead giveaway) so I looked further and found that it’s to do with the hosts file on the computer needing a line edited.

I was just about to give it a try when I stumbled across references to the application TinyUmbrella causing this problem. I have used TinyUmbrella to grab the SHSH blobs for my AppleTV 2 so that I could jailbreak it safely (jailbreaking the ATV2 is highly advisable as it makes the device incredibly useful for things like XBMC). There’s actually a preference setting in the TinyUmbrella app that automatically alters the hosts file so that it forces checks to go through Cydia and not Apple and therefore allow jailbroken iOS software to go undetected.

Open the app, click the Advanced tab, uncheck the box marked ‘Set Hosts to Cydia on Exit’ and the update problem goes away.

Thought I’d post this in case it helps somebody else with the same problem without having to go editing the hosts file themselves.

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Apple Editorial Photographic

Pixelmator: they’re not ripping you off

With the launch of the Mac App Store recently, Pixelmator, amongst a few other existing Mac apps, went Mac App Store Only. This means that eventually (once the application reaches version 2.0) users that already bought it from their website will stop getting free updates through the app, and will need to ‘transition’ to the App Store version to upgrade to 2.0 and continue getting point-release updates.

Buying it on the App Store currently costs $29 (£17.99 in the UK), due to rise in around two months to $59 according to their Twitter feed, @pixelmator. If you already own the app, having purchased from their site or on disc over the last couple of years, you can’t get an App Store version for free, you have to pay.

Confusing the issue, some apps that people already own and which now have App Store versions show up as ‘Installed’ in the Store, even though the user did not buy the app from the Store. This leads some users to believe that their apps are going to be updated via the Store even though they didn’t buy them there, and, therefore, that it must be possible for people like Pixelmator to provide them with free updates too and that they are choosing not to for financial reasons.

This is due to a misunderstanding between the Store and the app you already own. Here comes the science bit: there’s a bit of code in the application that identifies it to the hard drive and which the Mac App Store searches for when it’s working out if you already have an app installed. Think of it as sort of like a nameplate outside your house. The App Store version of an app should have a different identifier to the same app bought elsewhere – even if they are otherwise identical. Where such apps are showing up as Installed, the developer hasn’t used the correct identifier in their App Store app.

Bottom line – unless you specifically buy an app in the App Store, even ones you already own, it will not update via the App Store. Apple will probably make this clearer soon, or require that developers fix their identifiers.

Back to Pixelmator. Some existing users are claiming they’re being made to pay twice to continue getting the latest version while new users that buy from the App Store are paying once and what’s more, getting it at half price. It does seem that way at first glance, but it’s not the case at all, and while the guys at Pixelmator have got a page up explaining why, a lot of people still don’t get it.

Here’s how Pixelmator isn’t ripping existing users off:

If you already have Pixelmator, you’ll continue to get free updates to your non-App Store version until 2.0. The release of 2.0 would have cost you an upgrade fee (probably around $39 but that’s a guess). Therefore, if the App Store did not exist, you would have had to ‘pay again’ to continue using the latest version of the app anyway.

If you ‘pay again’ now from the App Store, up until around March-ish, 2011, you’ll get the current version of Pixelmator for $29. Yes, you are paying a second time to receive exactly the same version of the app that you currently have and yes, this does seem like you’re being had, but because of the nature of the App Store update process, you’ll get 2.0 for free – remember, you’d have had to buy that upgrade anyway. You’re essentially buying your update to 2.0 several months in advance (no word on when it’s due out yet).

So, if you are an existing user of Pixelmator and don’t expect to want 2.0, don’t buy it again from the App Store and continue to get free updates to 1.x. If, however, you decide you do want to upgrade and you wait until it’s actually released, the only place to get it will be the App Store and it’ll be $59 again.

There’s no hiding the fact that brand new users can currently buy once and get it for $29, a whole $59 less than existing users will have paid, but that’s life, the market changes – look at it like this: they’ve not had the pleasure of using Pixelmator since it was launched, and if they’re not quick they’ll have to pay $59 anyway.

Compare Pixelmator’s approach with what’s happening with Coversutra 2 where the developer has also gone Mac App Store Only, but for her own reasons (which I sympathise with) has had to go back on her similar pledge to existing customers to provide free updates until 3.0 – she’s ceasing support for the non-App Store version, which will not receive the 2.5 update currently on sale on the Store. This means all current users that wish to continue to 3.0 will have to pay again, albeit only $5, but the principle of the promise made is under heavy attack. It’s a bit of a mess all round with the absolute worst examples on internet rage spewing forth all over her blog. Unpleasant for everyone.

Well, I hope Google picks this up and that even a few people giving Pixelmator a bad name on the social network will realise that, if anything, they’re probably saving a bit of cash on their eventual upgrade to 2.0 if they buy now.

UPDATE, January 11th, 2011:

I just want to add that I’ve seen a lot of calls for Pixelmator to give us some kind of development roadmap to version 2.0 so that existing users can gauge for themselves if the update is going to be worth the cash and hence worth buying now while it’s cheaper.

I’d echo those calls. If the Mac App Store didn’t exist I’d say a roadmap would be nice but by no means essential, but given the way this whole thing has had to go down, and given the understanding that Pixelmator seems to me to have about how their users feel, I think they should get something out there pronto that gives at least an idea of some of the major new features planned to be included.

I’d like to think that if they did that, the vast majority of this fuss would die away pretty quickly.