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2006 Software Gift Ideas

The days of worrying about how much software was available for the Mac are long gone, and these days, just trying to keep up with new releases is utterly overwhelming. That’s why we so enjoy being able to present these suggestions from readers – they can help you focus in on some of the best applications. Suggestions from recent years are probably still relevant too, though updates will almost certainly be necessary. If you have additional questions about these suggestions, direct them to TidBITS Talk.

Make a Silly Movie — Whether you want to give a silly movie as a gift, or give someone else the ability to make silly movies, you might check out the $40 iStopMotion from Boinx. Chik Foo explained it thusly: “I’m a fan of software that further adds value to hardware that we already have. This year, the number of Mac webcams out there must have increased dramatically, since most models of Macs come with a built-in iSight. So after sending each other facial contortions via Photo Booth, try iStopMotion, which allows users to create stop-motion animation resembling that from ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas.’ It includes onion-skinning and previews. Both are hard to describe, but are useful in the animation-making process. The movies on the site explain it better.”

Start a Web Site or Blog — If you know someone who’d like to design a simple Web site, give them the gift of getting started on the right foot. If you’ll be providing tech support, the best option is probably the software you are most familiar with, but if you aren’t sure which way to go, Allen Watson recommends the $50 Sandvox from Karelia. He enthused, “If you know anyone who wants to set up a blog, family photo album, or simple-to-moderate Web site, but who does not know HTML or CSS, I recommend Sandvox. Sandvox is template-based, with nice templates, and it produces standards-compliant HTML and CSS. The standard version is all they will need; the pro version benefits only those who know how to craft bits of HTML or JavaScript for insertion into the site. I put together a site for our church in a few days that looks great and serves all the church’s needs.”

Record Now, Listen at Your Leisure — Streaming radio is easy to locate on the Internet, but it’s harder to find time to listen live. Andy Affleck suggests recording Internet radio in the same way that you’d use a TiVo to record television, using the $16 Audio Hijack or the $32 Audio Hijack Pro from Rogue Amoeba Software. Andy wrote, “There’s this wonderful radio show called the Vinyl Cafe, and while you can buy CDs of the show – and I have bought some – the easiest way to follow the show is to listen to it streamed from CBC Radio online. However, I never remember to listen when the show is on. Enter Audio Hijack Pro.”

“I cover Audio Hijack Pro extensively in my ‘Take Control of Podcasting on the Mac‘ book and associated podcast because of its utility in recording podcasts – especially Skype, iChat, and Gizmo interviews – but I use it even more for recording favorite radio shows. Once it records, Audio Hijack Pro automatically tags the file and adds it to my iTunes library. I use the Pro version because I keep finding new, interesting uses for it.”

Noodle with Music — For those who like to play with sound digitally, Andy also gave Apple’s GarageBand a thumbs up: “GarageBand is another audio tool that I find indispensable. I use it for podcasting and for noodling around at home. I connect a large Casio keyboard, which serves as the family piano, to my Mac via MIDI and create all kinds of mayhem in GarageBand, mostly for my own amusement. A friend of mine, singer/songwriter Robert Burke Warren, uses it professionally to create children’s albums (the kind that adults really like listening to as well) under the moniker Uncle Rock, and his latest album, ‘Plays Well with Others,’ uses GarageBand.” GarageBand is free on new Macs and part of Apple’s $80 iLife software suite.

Alan Neubert also had a music-making suggestion: “For those looking for basic music notation software, you can’t beat Finale Notepad, especially at the price – free.”

Give the Gift of Ringtones — Want to turn your noodling (or any other sound on the Mac) into a ringtone for your cell phone? Mark Hamilton suggested the $32 Fission from Rogue Amoeba Software (you can save if you buy it with, or already own, Audio Hijack Pro). Fission is likely near the top of any Mac-based podcaster’s wish list, but you (or your gift recipient) could also – possibly – use it to make ringtones that can then be transferred to a cell phone. Why possibly? You need a USB- or Bluetooth-savvy phone that is capable of accepting free ringtone downloads. They are locked out on most Verizon phones (Wired had a blog post about lock-outs on the Motorola RAZR earlier this year), and you should check a specific phone with a specific carrier before assuming you’ll be able to transfer ringtones to it.

Mark noted, “Fission is a great little piece of software. It doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles, but what it does – basic lossless editing of sound files and metadata editing – it does very well. There are user-controllable fades at both ends of audio splits, and you can save (through QuickTime) in different audio formats, such as AIFF. The learning curve is pretty much flat. Fission is being pitched, in part, for the ease with which you can turn MP3 and AAC files into ringtones.”

Slow Down and Chill Out — This suggestion has nothing to do with the usual perky advice about remembering to take the time to hang out under the mistletoe, and everything to do with installing software to mess with the hardware inside a MacBook Pro. Casting aside some discussion among the TidBITS staff about whether this would be advisable (our general conclusion: we’ve heard it works, but it sounds like something you’d disable before calling tech support about a problem with anything), you may know a fellow geek who is truly unhappy about a too-hot MacBook Pro. Tomoharu Nishino explained how to work around the problem without resorting to laptop desks. “A software based approach might be: smcFanControl (free) + CoolBook ($10) = a $10 stocking stuffer.”

“smcFanControl allows you to raise the minimum fan speed from Apple’s default 1000 rpm. At 3000 rpm my MacBook Pro is still quiet (not noticeable unless you are sitting in a silent room), but about 8-10 degrees C (15-18 degrees F) cooler on average. CoolBook allows you to underclock the maximum CPU speed (in increments all the way down to 1 GHz) and undervolt the CPU. For most daily tasks, I rarely use the 2 GHz CPU at full power anyway, so reduced processor performance as a result of underclocking isn’t much of an issue. Undervolting the CPU reduces power consumption (and thus heat dissipation) by reducing the voltage supplied to the CPU. You also get the side benefit of reduced power consumption. With the CPU underclocked to 1 GHz, most ordinary tasks are still quite responsive, and you get an additional 1 hour of battery life.”

“You have to find out how far you can lower the voltage without affecting stability (too low and you will get kernel panics) through some trial and error, but once I found a low but stable voltage, the MacBook Pro has been rock-solid stable. The two combined have generally reduced the CPU temperature (as reported by smcFanControl) by 15-20 C, or about 30 F. Now the MacBook Pro runs somewhere in the reasonably comfortable 45-50 C (113-120 F) range, rather than the toasty 60-65 C (140-150 F) range.”

Optimize Organization — A utility that should make using Address Book as a contact-management center more fun is BuddyPop. Mare had this to say about it: “BuddyPop is a tiny background application that you can use to access your address book without opening Address Book. Press a configurable key combination, and a small window pops up. Type some letters and press Return to pop up the best-matching Address Book entry. Click fields in the entry to copy the phone number or email address; send a message with your preferred email application; dial the number (via modem); and perform various other actions, like opening Address Book to edit a entry. BuddyPop also shows caller ID when your Bluetooth-enabled cell phone rings. There is a universal binary version, and it costs only 10 euros (a bit more than $10).”

Protect Passwords — If organizing passwords has someone on your shopping list in a state of confusion, perhaps password-management software would be welcome. Jochen Wolters recommended Waterfall Software’s Wallet as a great choice: “Wallet’s elegant interface has the same look and feel as Apple’s Address Book, showing a list of groups, the list of entries within the selected group, and the selected entry itself. What makes Wallet special is that, unlike most similar applications, you can create your own groups and freely configure the data fields for entries in each group. For example, the pre-configured credit card group has Type, Number, Security Code, and Expiration Date for each entry, but you could easily add ATM PIN or Emergency Phone Number fields. Additional features include autofilling Web forms in Safari and syncing selected entries with your iPod. Of all the password management applications I know, Wallet is by far the most pleasant to use, and with a price tag of $15, it provides a lot of peace of mind for the buck.”

Adam has long used the $20 Web Confidential for keeping track of passwords and other sensitive data, and the favorite of “Take Control of Passwords in Mac OS X” author Joe Kissell is the $30 1Passwd, which integrates nicely into most Web browsers.

Surf Better with Safari — Any Safari user who is ready to up their power-user rating would likely enjoy Hao Li’s $12 Saft. Allen Watson explained, “For the person who spends lots of time surfing the Internet with Safari, Saft is an indispensable plug-in that adds a host of very useful features to Safari, such as saving bookmarks directly into subfolders from the Bookmarks Bar menus (navigate to the folder you want and select Add Bookmark Here); crash protection that restores pages that were open when you crashed; the capability to consolidate open windows into tabs; and so on.”

Utilize Utilities — A handy utility can speed your work or give you a new way to think outside the box about the way your Finder functions. Ryoichi Morita contributed two ideas for giving snazzy gifts in the form of utilities. “I love utility programs. Two of my favorites are Versomatic, which automatically makes a backup copy of your file every time you make a change to it and Path Finder, which is what Apple should have done with Finder.” The $50 Versomatic comes from Acertant, and the $35 Path Finder is from Cocoatech.

Give Three Wishes to eBay Devotees — If that special someone on your list has turned an eBay hobby into a career, help him keep track of everything with AuctionGenie from Luxcentral Enterprises, which costs $50 for a year-long license. Al Woodcock wrote, “I have found eBay auction-management applications for the Mac to be few and far between, and batch insertion virtually unavailable. Just insert your auction information in AuctionGenie’s item-by-item records, and you are set to make a fortune. You can also use AuctionGenie with FileMaker Pro 5, which is just what I need. It imports data from my database and with a little work on my part, tailors it for eBay batch insertion. The only drawback is that it does not import from later versions of FileMaker Pro. I hope that will come soon. It is a universal application so it will work at top speed on Intel Macs as well as on others running Mac OS X 10.1 or later.”

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