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2004 Software Gift Ideas

We’re always amused when collating software gift suggestions because of their breadth. The Mac may have less software available than Windows, but there are still far more interesting programs than anyone could ever hope to try. Here are a few that our readers especially like. It’s worth checking out suggestions from previous years as well, particularly for people with older Macs.


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Collector’s Items — Many people find themselves, at some point in their lives, collecting something: stamps, or coins, or cereal box toys. For some people, the collecting obsession turns to music, and that’s where Jim Kane’s suggestion helps out. "I’ve been a music collector since I bought my first open-reel recorder at 14. I’ve collected music from interesting radio shows and recorded LPs from libraries for almost 40 years now, building a collection that’s diverse and includes artists that I never would have discovered without the introduction provided by ‘free’ music.

"Today I’m recording streams from several Internet radio stations with the same goal: hearing new artists in my favorite genres. These introductions inform my purchases of CDs, so I rarely make a purchase I regret. This year my collecting pleasure was increased immeasurably by two shareware products: RadioLover and MP3 Trimmer. Both products make it fun to be a music collector in the MP3 era.

"RadioLover records MP3 Internet radio streams as individual MP3 songs, automatically tagging each file with artist and album information. It allows you to schedule recordings and even record multiple streams at the same time, with nice integration with the iTunes radio tuner. It’s a beautiful piece of work, and very reasonably priced at $15. For the price of one CD, I have lots of fresh music every day.


"As good as RadioLover is, though, its capability to split a stream into individual song files relies on the broadcast of tag data, which is not always perfectly synchronized with the beginning or end of a song. MP3 Trimmer, another nice piece of shareware, facilitates any cleanup work required. Trim the start, trim the end, or join a pair of files and trim the result. Again, it’s beautifully executed, with tons of attention to detail, and well worth the modest $9 price tag."


Hans de Wolf offered another idea for collectors of books, CDs, and DVDs: the $40 Delicious Library from Delicious Monster. "A lot of people may intend to catalog their books, CDs, and DVDs. Sometime. But it is a lot of work. Boring work. I found that Delicious Library is a great tool to help you. It eliminates a lot of the boring work. It uses the iSight as a barcode scanner, and retrieves all relevant information from Amazon. You can even catalog items without scanning or typing in information: for items in the catalog, it can display similar items (same author, same subjects, same artist, and so on), and if you have these similar items you can just drag them into your catalog. The user interface is beautiful, very similar to the iLife software. Of course you can get a list (like iTunes), but there is also an iPhoto-like view in which your cataloged items appear as photorealistic thumbnails on shelves (the shelves are equivalent to playlists in iTunes, or albums is iPhoto). While the software shows great potential, it is still a 1.0 product. There is still some room for improvement: ‘Smart’ shelves and a way to distinguish items that you own from items that you want."


Lori Brooks-Manas seconded the suggestion, adding to Hans’s description, "Delicious Library syncs with your iPod, keeps track of what you have loaned out to people, and is very simple to use. I tried the demo version for about, well, a minute before I bought it. Check it out!"

The Sky Isn’t Falling — Hans de Wolf returned with a second recommendation. "Another nice piece of software is Freefall: a 3D satellite simulator ($30). It shows more than 800 satellites in orbit around a beautifully rendered earth. You can determine your viewpoint: fixed spot above the earth, or fly along with the satellite. Zoom in and out, select satellite, see how the satellites build radio connections to ground stations. If you do not understand the technical stuff, it still makes a very fine screensaver. Freefall is also still a bit of a 1.0 product: it shows great potential but there are some rough edges. Some features you can only access when you have read the manual, and it would be nice if you could save the animation as a QuickTime movie, or export an image in high resolution."


Get SideTracked — Kevin van Haaren proposed the perfect gift for the PowerBook or iBook user in your life: SideTrack. "SideTrack is a lovely little $15 utility that turns the trackpad on a laptop into an even more functional device. It’s primary use is to make tapping the pad a left-click and turning the regular button into a right-click (Control-click). This makes the trackpad so much more usable. Other features I use are turning sides of the pad into scroll areas, and assigning commands to tapping the corner of the pad.

"I only use vertical scrolling, but horizontal is available too. I run my finger down the left side of the trackpad and the window scrolls down, just as with a scroll wheel mouse. I’m right handed so the left side of the pad doesn’t get much use, this feature never gets in the way of my normal mousing. You can assign scrolling to left, right, or both sides of the pad (or top/bottom for horizontal scroll). Tapping the upper left corner of my pad activates Expose for all windows (same as F9). Lower left is Expose for the current application (same as F10). All settings are per user, so if one user doesn’t like trackpad clicking they can turn it off."


News Junkies — Thanks to Robert McGonegal for thinking of those of us who don’t have nearly enough time in the day. He suggested an RSS newsreader, which can make it fast to browse the headlines on numerous Web sites. "There are several good Mac newsreaders to choose from, but I recommend the full version of NetNewsWire ($40). I’ve bookmarked about 200 Web sites which, despite occasionally having very interesting content, aren’t worth my time to visit on a regular basis. By using NetNewsWire I can find out in about 10 minutes if any new content on those 200 sites is worth loading into my Web browser. As I skim through the newsfeed list, the Web pages I select load in the background and are waiting for me. It’s almost like TiVo for the Web.


"A nice touch to the gift would be to use the newsreader’s Export function to make a custom-tailored list of which newsfeeds you think the recipient will be interested in."

Software Utility Belt — Perhaps we’re weird, but we love utilities – the little applications that provide helpful features and modify the standard ways in which we use our Macs. David Weintraub clearly thinks so as well, considering the four utilities he suggested.

  • textSOAP from Unmarked Software: $25. If for nothing else, textSOAP is great for straightening out and requoting email messages. It works like a charm in Apple’s Mail, but not so well in Eudora. It cleans up DOS/Unix/Macintosh end-of-line problems, rewraps and unwraps paragraphs, changes capitalizations, etc. (Andrew Laurence agreed with David’s assessment of textSOAP in general, but prefers the Eudora plug-in.)

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  • Path Finder from Cocoatech: $34. Path Finder is Finder replacement. Extra features include a built in Terminal application and the capability to display Word, RTF, PDF, and text files in the preview pane without launching another application. My favorite is the Drop Stack that allows me to drop a bunch of files I’m moving and copying into a spot on the Path Finder window before I actually perform the move. It’s packed full of all the features that Finder should have had in the first place.


  • LaunchBar from Objective Development: $20/$40. LaunchBar eliminates the need for placing all the applications I want quick access to on the Dock. [David isn’t singing the praises of LaunchBar sufficiently here; it’s a utility that lets you tap Command-Space and then type a few characters from the name of an application, file, folder, volume, URL, or Address Book entry to open the item. It’s a brilliant application, and is improving significantly in version 4. I almost can’t use a Mac without LaunchBar any more. -Adam]


  • GraphicConverter by Lemke Software: $30. I’m not a graphics person, but I still have to pull GraphicConverter out every once in a while just because program "A" has the picture in one format, and program "B" insists it must be in a different format. GraphicConverter can import about 175 formats and export about 75; it also provides a host of basic image manipulation features.


The Contemplative Mac — Adam here. A word you seldom see applied to software is "thoughtful," and in this case, I mean it literally, as in "full of thought." But I can think of no better label for Brian Thomas’s "If Monks Had Macs," an interactive multimedia CD-ROM title that defies prosaic description. It’s packed with original texts from the like of Henry David Thoreau and G.K. Chesterton, highly readable essays and critical analyses, a visual exploration of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Tower of Babel painting, a telling of the story behind an underground newsletter called The White Rose from an underground student resistance group in Nazi Germany, and far more. A playful sub-current swirls through everything – there’s an illustrated medieval text adventure game (you’re a monk, needless to say) in which you find cards for a solitaire game. A journaling application helps you record your impressions and musings as you meander through the application’s many byways. "If Monks Had Macs" started out life years ago as a HyperCard stack (now converted to Runtime Revolution, supported by a separate ebook reader), and that retro aesthetic now merely adds to the whimsy. The $30 program works in both Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X, as well as in Windows 95 and later, making it the ideal present for anyone with a healthy intellectual curiosity.


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