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Have you ever wanted to pilot NASA's Mars Rover from the comfort of your Mac? Matt Neuburg comes close with Plantraco's Desktop Rover and Telecommander software. Back on Earth, Microsoft today released Microsoft Office X Service Release 1 - Tonya Engst has the details of what's new (and what's not included). We also note the releases of Virtual PC 5.0.3, Eudora 5.1.1 (now running under Mac OS X), ConceptDraw 1.8, and Spring Cleaning 5.0.
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Virtual PC 5.0.3 Released -- Connectix has updated Virtual PC to version 5.0.3, adding new features and fixing bugs. The program's new Password Protection feature prevents users from modifying a virtual machine's settings, exiting full-screen mode, or creating or deleting virtual machines. Virtual PC 5.0.3 also adds Sockets-Based Shared Networking (SBSN) under Mac OS X, improving access between computers on a network, and adds more control over COM port usage in the virtual machine. Addressing performance issues, Connectix also added CPU usage controls, which enable you to dictate how much processor time is used when Virtual PC is the foreground or background application. And for users whose keyboards lack a forward-delete key (such as PowerBooks and iBooks), a new Type CTRL-ALT-DEL menu item is available when Windows locks up. The 5.0.3 update is a free update for owners of Virtual PC 5.0 and later, and is a 10.1 MB download. [JLC]
Eudora 5.1.1 Finally Ships for Mac OS X -- Qualcomm has released the long-awaited final version of Eudora 5.1.1 for both Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X. Eudora users still running Mac OS 9 will appreciate a few small bug fixes, but the big news is the availability of Eudora for Mac OS X. Don't expect major changes - what you'll get under Mac OS X is almost all of Eudora's capabilities in a carbonized application. One important change with Mac OS X: Eudora is now a package containing all the ancillary files and folders for plug-ins and user dictionaries (Control-click the Eudora application, choose Show Package Contents, and open the Contents/MacOS folder for access to the Eudora Stuff folder). Eudora 5.1.1 is a free update for those who paid for Eudora during or after April of 2001, while upgrades for those who bought Eudora before then cost $30, and new versions cost $40: details are on the Eudora Web site. Of course, you can still use all of Eudora's features for free in Sponsored mode with ads, or a reduced set of features without ads in Lite mode. Eudora 5.1.1 for Mac OS X is a 4.0 MB download; 4.3 MB for Mac OS 9. If you're already using Eudora, you can get links to the installers and documentation by clicking "Find the latest update to Eudora" from the Payment & Registration command on the Help menu: if you're using Paid mode, the page will also tell you whether you need to pay for the 5.1.1 upgrade. [ACE]
ConceptDraw 1.8 Adds XML Support -- CS Odessa has released version 1.8 of its charting and diagramming products ConceptDraw and ConceptDraw Professional (see "Make the Connection with ConceptDraw" in TidBITS-553). The major new feature is round-trip import and export of ConceptDraw documents in XML, enabling you to render a graphical document in an easily transportable and modifiable text format. Other improvements include enhanced finding and replacing of text, an easy way to check for new versions of the application, page-specific links between ConceptDraw documents, new shortcuts for zooming documents, improved Copy/Paste support, better support for Mac OS X interface standards and file types, and more. The update is free to registered users; ConceptDraw 1.8 is a 2.6 MB download, whereas ConceptDraw Professional is a 3.0 MB download. [ACE]
Aladdin Releases Spring Cleaning 5.0 -- Aladdin Systems has released Spring Cleaning 5.0, adding a number of new features to the company's system clean-up and uninstaller utility. New in Spring Cleaning 5.0 is support for drag & drop to limit searches (useful on today's Mac OS X volumes with hundreds of thousands of files), a system menu for Mac OS X, support for actions that require root access in Mac OS X, improved Web cookie management, more customizable searches, and more. Aladdin claims improved performance under Mac OS X, but many actions under Mac OS X are still extremely lengthy. Spring Cleaning 5.0 costs $50, with upgrades from previous versions available at $30 (the same price is available to owners of many other Mac disk utilities). [ACE]
by Tonya Engst <email@example.com>
Microsoft has released the first major update to Microsoft Office X in the form of Office X Service Release 1 (SR1). The update, an 11.9 MB download, updates each primary Office program (Excel, Entourage, PowerPoint, and Word) from version 10.0 to 10.1. The ReadMe files for SR1 enumerate many changes ranging from specific fixes (you can now type accented and other special characters reliably) to expanded features that did not survive the transition from Office 2001 to X (pasting in custom toolbar buttons) to improvements in speed and stability.
Microsoft also released MSN Messenger 3.0, which adds the capability to transfer files, import and export contact information, and create groups of contacts. This version also updates the interface to more closely resemble Mac OS X's Aqua look and feel. MSN Messenger is a free update, and a 2.3 MB download.
Bug Fixes -- The Service Release ReadMe files list a number of fixes. For instance, you will no longer experience "out of memory" errors when trying to open an Excel X file in Excel 98. Plus, you can now print from Excel X with a setting other than "High" chosen in Excel's Page Setup. And in a fix especially welcome to anyone doing PowerPoint presentations from a PowerBook or iBook, Microsoft has squashed a crashing bug that could appear when waking a laptop that went to sleep while connected to a second monitor or projector.
Improved Database Support -- Microsoft has improved Office X's FileMaker support - you need not have the entire FileMaker database on a local machine to work with it; instead it can be on a server. ODBC support has returned as well, though it is not everything that ODBC users have wanted. The 10.1 version of Excel includes the necessary hooks to talk to Microsoft Query, the software necessary to create ODBC queries, but you need the separate Microsoft Query for Excel X to make it work. Microsoft plans to release Microsoft Query for Excel X at some point, but it's not in Service Release 1.
However, you can refresh queries created in some other version of Excel in Excel X, assuming you have a driver installed. The gotcha there is that Microsoft no longer supplies ODBC drivers; they suggest that people purchase drivers elsewhere, such as OpenLink Software. It also might be worth checking out ODBC Router from August Software, and other ODBC drivers may be available.
In other database news, the database file that holds a user's entire collection of Entourage X email, contacts, and calendar events can now grow as large as 4 GB instead of the previous 2 GB limit. (That file, in case you want to locate it to back it up, lives in your user folder in /Documents/Microsoft User Data/Office X Identities/Main Identity/Database. If you named your identity something other than Main Identity (or have multiple identities), navigate to the appropriate folder within the Office X Identities folder.)
Palm Synchronization and Transparent Fills -- Palm synchronization for Entourage did not make it into SR1; it will be available on 15-Jul-02, according to Microsoft. Another fix you won't find is the capability to print the slick, transparently filled chart objects that the Office X press materials emphasize as an example of how Office X takes advantage of Mac OS X's Quartz display technology. Transparent objects with simple, single-shade transparencies should print from Office programs, but as soon as you apply a gradient (as you must in Excel X), the object prints solid, not transparent. Though this is a minor problem overall, as a press person who blindly jumped on the "wow-that's-a-great-feature" bandwagon, I was chagrined to discover this limitation. (The clumsy workaround is to take a screenshot and print it; instead, I recommend making more chart elements visible by rotating the chart or changing the series order.) Microsoft claims a fix may come in a future update to Mac OS X.
Stability and Performance -- While using the Office X SR1 beta versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint (but not Entourage) on a 733 MHz Power Mac G4, I noticed fewer outright crashes. In addition, under the 10.0.0 version of Office, I often found myself unable to switch to an Office application (especially Excel) by clicking an interface element, such as a toolbar or window; instead, I had to click the application's icon in the Dock. This problem has disappeared for the most part, though not entirely.
I haven't noticed speed improvements in Excel or Word, though in my small and medium-sized documents performance was already quite good. The ReadMe files suggest that Excel's speed should remain the same, whereas Word's speed should pick up in only a few specific situations such as scrolling in long documents.
However, Microsoft specifically touts speed improvements for PowerPoint 10.1, so I decided to compare a few real-life files between PowerPoint 10.0 and 10.1. I solicited files from a few family members, plus a few people who posted PowerPoint complaints on the Internet. Testing files in this way can be incredibly time-consuming, but it can also reveal information that I'd never stumble upon otherwise.
My youngest sister sent a presentation created for a college assignment. Slides with larger graphics loaded somewhat slowly in 10.0, but 10.1 handled them smoothly. My father's slides had scads of complex graphics illustrating data warehousing, and these graphics did indeed load extremely slowly in PowerPoint 10.0. Happily, Microsoft's improvements enabled PowerPoint 10.1 to handle them efficiently; it moved from being annoyingly slow to offering a smooth user experience.
However, other files suggest PowerPoint could stand another round of improvements. My other sister shared a presentation about chestnut tree growth, which contained many embedded Excel charts, each based on four columns of data. She noted that PowerPoint 2001 couldn't even open the presentation, and that instead of PowerPoint 98 on the Mac, she uses a Windows machine because switching between Excel and PowerPoint to edit the charts takes too long. PowerPoint 10.0 opened her file but ran into trouble with the charts; I expect the actual problem relates to OLE (Object Linking and Embedding, Microsoft's method of sharing data between Office applications). Switching into Excel after double-clicking a chart took about ten seconds, as did returning to PowerPoint. Editing the chart in Excel was unacceptably slow, with several-second pauses just to open a menu. Office X 10.1 performed slightly better - the time to switch between PowerPoint and Excel was a few seconds faster, and editing in Excel was okay. Someone using Office X 10.0 would welcome this improvement, but I still can't recommend that my sister switch to Office X, given this sluggish behavior and her need to switch fluidly between Excel and PowerPoint.
Another source sent a 40-slide presentation that his company exported to a QuickTime movie to play in a public kiosk. Most of the slides contained a few graphics, which both PowerPoint versions handled smoothly. Three of the slides contained QuickTime movies, each about 30 seconds in length. Though performance in PowerPoint was fine, exporting to a QuickTime movie (which Microsoft terms "PowerPoint Movie" format) took about ten minutes in both versions of PowerPoint X. Removing the QuickTime movies didn't decrease the exporting time. Other presentations exported much more quickly (about 30 seconds for one of my father's 33-slide shows); presumably something about the original presentation's graphics is causing the delay.
Further, though the necessary QuickTime movies were in the same folder as the PowerPoint file, neither version of PowerPoint X could find them or recognize them as QuickTime movies until I reinserted them by hand. In limited testing, failing to recognize movie files appears to be a general problem, perhaps related to creating the presentation under a previous version of the Mac OS, and perhaps similar to a problem in Office 2001 that Microsoft fixed in Service Release 1 for Office 2001.
All Together Now -- Office X Service Release 1 also installs fixes previously made available by the Office v.X Combined Updater 10.0.03, which in turn brought together the Entourage X Hotmail Update, the Network Security Update (summarized in Microsoft Security Bulletin MS02-002), and the URL Security Update (explained in Microsoft Security Bulletin MS02-019).
Service Release 1 doesn't fix every problem in Office, but it does represent a decent effort on Microsoft's part to chisel away some pesky problems. I do recommend installing the service release - your Office experience is unlikely to change profoundly, but you'll hopefully avoid future problems.
[Among many other projects, Tonya Engst just completed a big chunk of the manuscript for Office X for Macintosh: The Missing Manual, which should be available shortly.]
by Matt Neuburg <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The Desktop Rover, from Plantraco, is four inches long, charmingly cute, and utterly without purpose. It does have some relevance to Mac OS X - that's the excuse for describing it in TidBITS - but just barely. The fact is, the Desktop Rover is a toy. And, if I may admit this without damage to TidBITS's reputation for sobriety, it's fun.
Let's Get Physical -- The $60 Desktop Rover is a tiny tank, about the size of your palm, an inch-and-a-half in height, and slightly heavy. On each side of it are four wheels and a horizontal guide, with rubber treads running round them. One of the wheels on each side is a gear, to drive the tread; each gear is driven by a small electric motor. Each motor is either going forwards, going backwards, or stopped, and you steer by combining these: if both motors are going forwards, the Rover goes forwards; if one motor is going forwards and the other is stopped or going backwards, the Rover turns; and so forth.
The Rover is quite peppy. It goes 10 feet in less than 30 seconds, and is strong enough to climb a steep slope, such as your car windshield. The main obstacles it can't negotiate are bad footing such as grass, where it can't get traction, and sudden steep elevation changes, not because it can't climb them, but because when it does, its short length causes it to assume a near-vertical position, sufficient to flip it over helpless on its back - a one-inch-thick book lying flat on the floor is too much for it.
Rising from the Rover is a six-inch piece of insulated wire - the antenna. Yes, the Rover is driven by remote control. The transmitter is about the size and shape of a cigarette pack, and has two levers which you press forwards or backwards to control each motor. There's also a third lever for making the Rover "shoot." I'll talk more about that later.
The Computer Connection -- The way this relates to Mac OS X, providing me with an excuse to obtain one of these little goodies for free so I can write about it in TidBITS, is as follows. Separate from the Rover, you can also obtain for $70 a CD-ROM and a small cord with a USB connector at one end. From the CD, you install software, called Telecommander, onto your computer; then you run the cord out the USB port and into the remote transmitter, and start up Telecommander. Now, instead of the levers, the transmitter is controlled by the software.
It's fairly simple software, but not trivial. Nine buttons represent the nine possible combinations of motor behavior - both motors forwards, one motor forwards and the other off, and so on. In "manual mode" you simply click a button and the Rover responds briefly, then you click another button, and so on. In "default mode," clicking a button causes its action to appear as a tile in a large composition area. A sequence of tiles in this area represents a sequence of actions you want the Rover to perform. The tiles can be rearranged, cut and pasted, deleted, and so forth; each tile also has a time value, which you can edit. Pressing the "play" button causes your sequence to be sent to the Rover; you can also save a sequence as a "macro," where a single tile represents the entire sequence.
Now, to call this programming, or even educational, would be something of a stretch. There are no tiles for looping and branching, so all you can do is play your sequence of tiles straight through. Nevertheless, our scientific test subject, a 13-year-old boy abducted from a neighbor's house, was entranced. He understood the program instantly, and promptly spent nearly an hour writing and refining an assigned sequence to negotiate a small course laid out on the floor with found objects. He also had a great time just playing outside with the Rover, making it climb around on dirt mounds and such. The result was a sizeable portion of the afternoon not spent watching television or playing electric guitar. After consultation with the boy's parents, I am officially authorized to declare this toy a resounding success.
Telecommander, by the way, is a Java application, which is why it requires Mac OS X. It comes with all the baggage that being a Java application usually entails: it's sluggish even on a 600 MHz PowerPC G3-based Macintosh, so that simple actions like selecting a tile or editing its time value take forever; and of course it has a non-standard interface, with the menus inside the window. On the other hand, it's cross-platform; I installed it on my neighbor's Windows NT box and it ran identically to my Mac. A nice feature is that the software is self-updating; if you're connected to the Internet when the software starts up, it checks to see if a new version of itself is available, and downloads it if so. Unfortunately this feature isn't clearly documented and is purely automatic; there is no Check For Updates menu item.
Other Extras -- Also available from Plantraco is a miniature video camera module; you snap the upper half off the Rover and snap the camera module in its place, adding perhaps an inch to the Rover's height. The camera broadcasts a UHF signal (channel 16 or 19) that can be received by any nearby television. Thus, you could watch the television and control the Rover remotely without being able to see the Rover itself; in theory you could even feed the television signal into your computer and control the Rover from Telecommander, for an all-computer experience. Unfortunately, my influence as a reviewer was insufficient to merit a free sample of this module (my description of it is based on Plantraco's pamphlets and QuickTime movies). That's probably just as well, since I've no office mates to send the Rover round to spy on - though I could easily envision strapping a flashlight to the assembly and sending it down some gopher holes in my back yard.
Another feature I didn't get to try, because it requires a minimum of two Rovers, is the built-in laser tag game. The idea here is evidently that you shouldn't be the only person in the office goofing off - everyone should get involved. The third lever on the transmitter, you may recall, controls the Rover's "gun," which makes a noise like some Star Trek weapon, but is actually an infrared light. If this light strikes another Rover, that Rover emits a "hit" sound. Transmitters and Rovers come in one of four different frequencies, so a four-way battle is possible. The rules of the game are dictated by the Rover's on-board electronics: after six shots, you must pause to "reload" by pulling the gun lever backwards; if you try to shoot faster than one shot per second, all your ammunition is expended instantly, requiring a reload; and if you receive 10 hits, your Rover is disabled until you physically power it off and on again. As the documentation notes, the penalty for losing the battle is thus that you must get up out of your chair to reset the Rover.
Yet another extra feature, which I did get to try, is a kind of doubly remote control. It turns out that the Telecommander software consists of two threads: the user interface thread, and an invisible background thread that communicates with the USB port. This background thread is actually a tiny TCP server running on port 1111; when the user asks to send a command to the Rover, the user interface thread functions as a TCP client to communicate with the server thread. The implication of this factored architecture is that you can drive the Rover using Telecommander software on a different computer, over the Internet! (Unfortunately, Plantraco does not publish the protocol used, so you can't write your own client software.)
I don't have two Internet connections in my house, so instead I made a miniature network by assigning my computers fake IP numbers and connecting them directly via Ethernet. On the machine with the USB cable running to the transmitter, I started up Telecommander and put it into "server mode," disabling the user interface. On the second machine, I started up Telecommander and put it into "remote mode," telling it the IP number of the other computer. Sure enough, I was then able to drive the Rover from the second machine - the commands were going across the network to the first machine's copy of Telecommander and from there out the USB port.
You can test this feature yourself, right now, through one of Plantraco's Web pages. When you click the "Care for a Test Drive?" option, another page with a Java applet loads, and you are shown a webcam view of a Rover at Plantraco's offices. If someone else is playing, you're put in a queue; when your turn comes, eight control buttons will appear. If you're lucky and no one else is playing, the control buttons appear right away. Press a button and wait a couple of seconds; the Rover will respond and you'll see a new image showing its current position. It's fun and easy. This Web-based Java applet is not the same as the home version - it involves a webcam, and it's using HTTP through a Web server and a browser, not two copies of Telecommander - but it gives you the flavor of controlling a Rover across the Internet. To use the home version to control a Rover you can't see, I suppose you could run a webcam and Apache on the server machine, and the client machine could run Telecommander and a web browser, as described by Adam in "Driving FireWire Webcams in Mac OS X" in TidBITS-619; but I didn't have a webcam to try it with.
Icing on the Cake -- A toy is largely imagination, and the Desktop Rover is no exception. It's not a Mars Rover, it doesn't go very fast, the remote-control "communication" is almost ridiculously simple, and you're (probably) neither a NASA scientist nor an astronaut. Nevertheless, there's something alluring about the Rover. I don't know what component of our psychological makeup subconsciously causes us to want to animate small scurrying things, but the Rover certainly brings it into play; the darned thing is so cute as it huffs and puffs its way towards you across the room and stops at your feet. Moreover, the illusion that the Rover somehow represents something larger and more technologically sophisticated is delightfully perpetuated by Plantraco's marvelous sense of humor and of design.
For example, both the Rover's top half and the transmitter are made out of translucent blue plastic, suggesting the original iMac's computer iconography. The transmitter is covered with pictures of the Mars surface, it's inscribed with a warning "For Use on Planet Earth Only," and its on/off switch is labelled "Groove" and "Snooze." The box, which describes the Rover as "Yoga for the 21st Century Ubergeek," is covered with true but somehow amazing exclamatory claims as to the Rover's powers (such as "Explore the Alien Landscape around Your Home!"), and contains photos of several mad scientists, along with the obligatory gorgeous babe who is draped head to toe in an astronaut suit so that only her eyes are visible. The Telecommander software starts up with some appropriate interterrestrial launch noises, and while you're using it, unnecessary technical-sounding status messages scroll by, some real, some bogus:
nautical miles (34,584 km)
High Gain Antenna (HGA) on
Starting client communications
Length is 25
Data is 10
Finished writing data 10
Roger. Good morning.
In short, Plantraco gives you a feeling that they're having a great time, and that they want you to have one too. While you're having a great time you might want to look into some of their other products; they also make a remote-controlled fan-driven helium-filled mylar blimp that can float from room to room, optionally carrying a miniature camera so you can spy on your office-mates. I want one.
Non-profit, non-commercial publications and Web sites may reprint or link to articles if full credit is given. Others please contact us. We do not guarantee accuracy of articles. Caveat lector. Publication, product, and company names may be registered trademarks of their companies. TidBITS ISSN 1090-7017.
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