A vacation is usually a retreat from work, but can you take a holiday without disrupting your business? Mac shareware author Gideon Greenspan offers his tips for carrying his company on his back throughout Asia. Plus, Arthur Bleich returns with advice on buying digital cameras, and we note revisions to Apple’s Power Macintosh G4 line, and the releases of QuarkXPress 4.1, ListSTAR 2.0, Frontier 6.1 Trexar’s MacWasher, and an update to Microsoft Office 98.
Aladdin Systems Sponsoring TidBITS — We’re pleased to welcome our latest sponsor, Aladdin Systems, the long-standing Macintosh company best known for the StuffIt family of programs. Aladdin went through a rough patch several years ago, culminating in the jerky release of the new StuffIt 5.0 format last year, which added better compression and made StuffIt archives fully cross-platform. Since then, though, the company has been firing on all cylinders, releasing fixes and upgrades to the StuffIt 5.0 products, bringing out new programs like MacTicker, and becoming publicly traded. The future may bring increased competition from MindVision, whose MindExpander took aim at StuffIt Expander recently. But Aladdin thrived on competition from DiskDoubler and Compact Pro back in the early 1990s, and new competition can only help move the compression market forward more quickly. We’re happy to have Aladdin on board, and we wish them well as they continue to offer new and upgraded Macintosh utilities. [ACE]
Apple Revs G4s, Adds Digital Video Options — Apple Computer has revised its Power Macintosh G4 offerings, expanding the more-advanced AGP architecture across the product line and adding a digital video interface. (See "Back to Class with the Power Mac G4" in TidBITS-496 for an overview of the initial G4 offerings; see "Speed Dips for Power Mac G4s" in TidBITS-502 for details of Apple’s subsequent downshift in G4 processor speeds.) Apple’s new G4s offer the same processor speeds (350, 400, and 450 MHz) and the same base prices (ranging $1,600 to $3,500) as their predecessors; however, the new machines all feature DVD-ROM drives by default, offer options for Airport wireless networking, and sport a new AGP-based ATI Rage 128 Pro video which provides improved graphics performance over earlier cards and adds a digital video interface to support the high-end LCD Apple Cinema Display and the just-announced Flat Panel Studio Display. The Flat Panel Studio Display is a digital 15-inch LCD screen with a maximum resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels; Apple says it will be available before the end of the year for $1,300, while the 22-inch $4,000 Apple Cinema Display won’t be available until January. Apple also announced it plans to make the AGP-based Rage 128 Pro video card with digital video output available in early 2000 to current owners of AGP Graphics G4 systems for $99; current owners of AGP Graphics G4s could then use Apple’s digital LCD displays with their existing systems. [GD]
Free QuarkXPress 4.1 Upgrade — Quark, Inc. has begun shipping its free QuarkXPress 4.1 Upgrade to registered users of QuarkXPress 4.0. The new version improves support for creating and importing PDF files, boosts QuarkXPress’s HTML text exporting capabilities, and bundles several new XTensions. QuarkXPress 4.1 also includes QuarkLink, a feature that allows you to access the QuarkTech Knowledge Base and online support forums (via a Web browser), plus send email to Quark’s customer service and tech support. Whether QuarkLink turns out to be a useful feature for users or just a glorified set of Web and email links remains to be seen. Registered users should expect their 4.1 Upgrade CD-ROM before the end of the year; the update cannot be downloaded. [JLC]
Office 98 Update for Mac OS 9 — Microsoft has released a 2.7 MB update to Microsoft Office 98 for Mac OS 9. The update is designed to address two specific issues with Office 98 under Mac OS 9: the Format Chart dialog in Excel and Graph should display correctly, and PowerPoint should be able to print to a USB Epson 740 printer. The updater works only with the English language edition of Office 98; Microsoft plans to make updaters for other languages available via its Mac Office Web pages. Also, note this update does not include previous updates to Office 98, which address issues with Mac OS 8.5 and the Memo and Resume Wizards, plus security concerns with unique identifier codes and OLE potentially embedding unrelated data from your computer in Office documents. [GD]
UserLand Releases Frontier 6.1 — UserLand’s Web site management and scripting system Frontier 6.0 was described in TidBITS-476; version 6.1 adds many technical improvements, but its most significant innovation is Manila, UserLand’s new content management system. Manila is laid on top of existing Frontier features, but you don’t have to have much (or any) understanding of those features to use Manila, because it is self-contained at the server end; at the client end, you just use a Web browser to create and edit Web pages. As a demonstration, UserLand has set up a public Manila server, allowing any participant in the UserLand public discussion group to make a Web site, hosted at UserLand, using only a browser. [MAN]
StarNine Releases Free ListSTAR 2.0 Upgrade — StarNine Technologies has released ListSTAR 2.0, a long-awaited upgrade to the company’s flexible mailing list manager and email auto-responder (which we use to distribute TidBITS each week – see "The Big Mailing List Move" in TidBITS-337 and "Not Your Grampa’s Mailing List" in TidBITS-420). Improvements in ListSTAR 2.0 include a PowerPC-native application, the capability to use secondary IP addresses (which lets you run certain other mail servers like WebSTAR Mail or Eudora Internet Mail Server on the same machine), integrated ListSTAR Template scripts, and better compatibility with current versions of AppleScript. However, ListSTAR 2.0 is SMTP-only, and StarNine has discontinued support for older versions that were dependent on separate mail servers, including ListSTAR/POP. Users of ListSTAR/SMTP 1.x can upgrade for free and use their existing serial numbers with ListSTAR 2.0; owners of other versions of ListSTAR 1.x should call StarNine sales for serial number information. New copies of ListSTAR 2.0 cost $295, require a 68030 or later with System 7.5 or later, and at least 4 MB of RAM for the application. A fully functional evaluation version is available as a 2.4 MB download. [ACE]
Trexar Improves Privacy with MacWasher — Trexar Technologies has released MacWasher, a Macintosh version of a program by Webroot Software that "washes" (deletes) pre-defined files from your hard disk to prevent later snooping and save disk space. MacWasher can empty the Trash to prevent electronic dumpster diving, and it cleans the Recent Documents and Recent Applications folders, so people can’t see what you’ve been working on. MacWasher also cleans the Temporary Items folder, MacsBug StdLog files, and enables you to set up custom folders or files for cleaning. MacWasher also cleans up after Netscape Communicator, Microsoft Internet Explorer, and America Online, deleting cache files, cookies (Netscape users can save selected cookies), and history to prevent someone from seeing where you’ve been online. MacWasher can also delete the Netscape Messenger Trash to eliminate deleted messages, but it doesn’t perform this task for other email programs. Of course, deleting a file doesn’t necessarily remove its data from your hard disk, so MacWasher lets you "add Bleach," which overwrites files up to ten times with random characters. Using the MacWasher application, you can change settings, simulate a wash (so you can see what it will do), or actually delete files. You can also set up automatic washing on a schedule or at startup or shutdown. MacWasher 1.0 is $30 shareware and is a 2.1 MB download. It requires a 68040 Mac or higher with System 7.5.1 and at least 5 MB of RAM. [ACE]
MacLaunch Web Portal Launches — After an extensive beta period, MacLaunch has opened its Macintosh-specific portal Web site to the general public, offering a range of common portal features with a Mac-centric approach. Services include free email and Web space, discussion groups, software updates, stock tracking, shopping, faxing of Web pages, chats, and more, along with Macintosh news from a variety of sources, including TidBITS. Although none of MacLaunch’s services are particularly unique (most of them being provided by partner sites), the breadth of the collection is impressive and might make MacLaunch a useful starting point for Mac-centric surfing. [ACE]
Send Us Your 1999 Gift Ideas — In preparation for our 1999 TidBITS holiday gift issue, we want to know which Macintosh-related gifts you’re planning to buy for friends and family (or hoping that they’ll buy for you!). We’ll collate the responses and roll the best into a special TidBITS Gift Issue this month. Like last year, we’re gathering suggestions using TidBITS Talk, so send your suggestion to <[email protected]>. We’ve already initiated gift-related threads you may want to check out for ideas and categories. Please send only one item per message, include a URL or other contact information, and please recommend only others’ products. We’re looking forward to your ideas! [JLC]
Poll Results: A Mouse in the House — Our most recent poll, which asked what sort of pointing device you use, proved quite interesting. Over almost 2,100 respondents, about a third stuck with their Apple mice, another third used a third-party mouse, and a quarter relied on trackballs. Trackpads ranked lower than I would have guessed, at 7 percent, but graphics tablets fared better than expected, with 3 percent. Only a handful of people use joysticks, game controllers, infrared pointers, touchscreens, or other pointing devices. The fact that such a large percentage of people purchase third-party pointing devices would seem to imply both that pointing device preferences vary tremendously and that Apple’s current mouse design is a good thing for aftermarket mouse makers. [ACE]
Poll Preview: Smile and Say "Pixel" — For many of us, the fast-moving digital camera world provides the ultimate objects of techno-lust. Digital cameras promise much, but until recently have tended to deliver high prices or low quality – or both. But digital camera prices are dropping as quality improves, and there’s no beating the ease of snapping a quick photo for posting on the Web or mailing to a friend. You can read the first part of Arthur Bleich’s annual look at digital cameras below; this week’s poll follows in step, asking if you currently own a digital camera, and if not, if you plan to buy one. Visit our home page and register your vote! [ACE]
Most travellers seem to be either away for business or specifically away from business – rarely do you hear about people who travel for pleasure but still maintain their day jobs. Although it’s not immediately obvious that one can maintain daily email contact and develop reliable software while living out of a backpack, I’m doing just that. Over the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to create a successful Macintosh shareware business while studying at university, and between 18-Oct-99 and 08-Dec-99 I’m roaming the Far East with my company, Sig Software, literally strapped to my back. If you’ve heard of NameCleaner, Email Effects, or Drop Drawers, you’ll know my work. (Potential or existing customers need not worry – a friend at home has been ready to pick up the pieces if anything goes wrong – but so far he hasn’t been needed.)
On the Road Again — Being a relative youngster at age 23, I enjoy travelling far outside my home town of London, England. When my travel bug recently began pressuring me to hit the road again, the first obvious question was: where to go? I live in Europe; I’ve been to the Middle East, the U.S. and to South America; so, my sights were set squarely on Asia. Thanks to the Lonely Planet Web site, I checked out dozens of potential locations and eventually settled on the Far East. While Australia and New Zealand looked tempting, I felt the culture there would be too similar to what I see around me every day.
Ideally, my trip would take me somewhere far off the beaten track, but I had to consider more than just my itchy feet. Wherever I went I needed good phone lines, plenty of Internet cafes, and reliable transport. So although China, India, and Vietnam looked enticing, I had to strike them off my list. I would have considered Indonesia, if not for the political instabilities it is currently experiencing, and Japan is a little too developed for my liking.
So I decided on a well-worn route, starting in Singapore and working my way up through Malaysia to Thailand. This path would have no shortage of Internet cafes, plenty of other travellers to meet, good communications, safe transport and, most importantly, a wide variety of things to do and see. I tried a few Internet flight agencies but none could beat the price of USIT so I booked with Lufthansa from London to Singapore and back from Bangkok to London for about $700. Actually, there were several cheaper flights, but they all stopped in countries who refused entry to anyone with Israel stamped in their passport. I have Israel stamped in mine 10 times, so I took the hint.
The Computer — World travellers have found free, Web-based email accounts to be invaluable for connecting from any Internet cafe, but running my business using HotMail or another free account is not a viable option. First, my payment processing system requires HyperCard, FileMaker Pro, and Emailer, all linked together via AppleScript. There was no way I was going to replicate all that in a Java applet! Second, I would want to do some programming as I travelled and (gasp!) there might even be some bugs or incompatibilities which would require fixing. It was time to buy a laptop.
Unfortunately, if you are a Mac user, you don’t have many options when it comes to portable computing. Luckily, the one option you do have is superb. I began by looking in the second-hand PowerBook market but everything seemed wildly overpriced compared to a new bronze-keyboard Apple PowerBook G3 Series. I read some specs, looked up some benchmarks at the Mac Speed Zone and settled for the lower end of the two existing models.
But let’s be clear about what "lower" means: a PowerPC G3 at 333 MHz, 512K cache, 64 MB RAM, 4.5 GB hard disk, a luscious 14.1" screen at 1,024 by 768 resolution with 8 MB VRAM for 24-bit colour using an ATI Rage Pro graphics controller, 24x CD-ROM, built-in 10/100Base-T Ethernet, VGA output (mirrored or as a second monitor), S-Video output and a 56 Kbps modem. Mac and More had the cheapest price in the UK – before sales tax it cost me about $2,600.
Connecting to the Internet — While abroad, there are two sensible ways of accessing the Internet – either by connecting to the Ethernet network of a laptop-friendly Internet cafe, or dialing up through any old phone line. While the former method is clearly preferable, I reckoned I’d be spending plenty of time connecting by phone.
I considered several options for telephone access. First, there are the three major global Internet service providers – AOL, CompuServe and IBM Global Services. I checked each one, looking up how many POPs (points of presence) they had in my destination countries and what they charged for roaming. It became clear that none would be able to provide reasonable service for a reasonable price, with access in Thailand seeming especially problematic.
Next, I thought about purchasing a dial-up account with an ISP local to the region and tried to discern who was offering what, at what price. But I couldn’t read (let alone understand) the languages on the ISPs’ Web sites, so I quickly gave up on that front. I also had no idea of how reliable regional providers might be.
A third option proved to be the best. I found out about two global ISP roaming alliances which allow their member ISPs to provide dial-up access throughout the world by using the POPs of other alliance members. I had heard of iPass previously, but Gric provided a wider range of points in the countries I required – it covered over 50 towns in Thailand alone.
It looked like prices would be fairly steep but then I stumbled across Atlas Internet, a British ISP willing to provide global roaming access for under $20 per month. I signed up with them the same day and downloaded the dialer software from Gric’s Web site. It’s quite slow, since it is written in Java and runs within Metrowerks’ now-discontinued Java Virtual Machine. Nonetheless, I tested the roaming by dialing up through various countries from the UK and it works great.
Finding Internet cafes was a relative breeze. Apart from the few mentioned in the guide books, there is the well-known Internet Cafe Guide which lets you search by town or country. The main drawback, however, is that the search results are provided as unstructured text. After a couple hours of patient dragging and dropping, I put together a FileMaker Pro database containing all the information I needed.
Most entries gave no details on whether cafes allowed travellers to plug in their own laptops. My own product, Email Merge, came to the rescue and in a few minutes I was able to fire off over 70 seemingly individualized email messages asking for availability and pricing for connecting via Ethernet. I received about 20 replies, mostly positive.
Peripherals and Add-ons — Mac and More suggested I should wait as long as possible before buying PowerBook add-ons since accessories since new products are always priced at a premium. But eventually it was time to acquire extra RAM, an internal Zip drive for backups, a spare battery, and a security cable.
Everything except the Zip drive was easy to find. 64 MB of RAM, a spare battery, and a Kensington security cable came to a total of just under $400. I doubt the security cable will stop a determined thief but at least it’s some deterrent, and I have insurance. Thanks to the spare battery, I can now expect about nine hours of unplugged life (I’ve tested it) which is enough for all but the longest flights. Some of my RAM will be put aside for a RAM disk to save some extra power, allowing the hard disk to spin down more often.
The Zip drive was a completely different story. Only one place in the UK had one in stock and wanted almost $400 for the VST model. Thankfully, the helpful people at MacSupplies, who sold me the other peripherals, offer an HDI-30 to SCSI adapter for under $40 and were willing to throw in a Zip carrying case for free. So instead of buying an internal Zip drive, I’m taking my trusty Zip Plus with me. It’s a little bigger, but it’s fairly light and works fine.
The Zip drive, along with many other bits and pieces, would go in my free Zip carrying case, but what about the PowerBook? I looked at standard carrying cases and most seemed too bulky for my needs. Instead I fished out an old FedEx shipping box, lined the inside with bubblewrap and the PowerBook fit perfectly. Best of all, it disguises the computer, so it hopefully won’t attract too much criminal attention.
I also bought an Ethernet crossover cable, an RJ-11 phone cable, a few different power plug adapters and a three-way power splitter cube (I may want to use my PowerBook, Zip drive and shaver all at the same time!) Steve Kropla’s extremely helpful site for travellers provides information on phone and power plugs used in various countries; I double-checked the information with my Lonely Planet guides to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei.
Backup Plans — I mentioned that a friend at home has been equipped to take over in the event that I lose contact with the outside world. He has a replica of my payment processing system and a document describing how everything works. If he doesn’t get a "checking-in" email message from me for two days, he will start work and continue until he next hears from me. Synchronizing the sales databases will be a bit of a pain but can be done with a little inventiveness.
If something less dire happens, such as a system corruption, I need to be able to recover. To that end, I’m taking the PowerBook G3 system CD-ROM which came with the machine, the CodeWarrior Pro installation CD-ROMs, and a CD-R containing other applications I might need, along with a recent copy of all my documents. To save carrying any more, I’ve made MP3 copies of my favourite audio CDs onto my hard disk using Xing’s Audio Catalyst.
Lastly, I looked up Apple’s Asia site for a list of Apple dealers in Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. I was pleasantly surprised to see a fairly long list, which means I can get hardware support if I need it and that Apple’s worldwide operations are in better shape than I’d thought.
Summary — After several weeks of intermittent preparation, I was as ready as I was going to be. I’d spent about $3,500 on new equipment – a significant sum, to be sure, but it’s money I’ve earned through my shareware business and it would be ridiculous if that were to tie me down so early in life. In any event, the products won’t be obsolete when I return – I could probably sell them for two-thirds of what I paid. But I doubt I’ll do that – I’ll go travelling again, and, considering the expense is tax-deductible, it’s a worthwhile investment.
The main shortcoming of all this equipment is the combined weight: a hefty 6 kilograms (about 13.25 pounds). That’s more than 50 percent extra weight – most of my other items are lightweight. I’ll let you know in the next installment of this article how I got on – in the meantime, if anyone has any ideas for my next trip, feel free to drop me a line.
Each year, when I write this article for TidBITS, I say: "This is the year to buy your first digital camera." (See the "Digital Cameras" series of articles beginning in TidBITS-407.) But this year really is the year, because for between $750 and $1,000 not only can you get a quality camera, but also a great printer, a charger and batteries, a card reader, and even an additional higher capacity memory card.
A few features and specifications have changed or improved since I wrote about them last, so let’s first run down a checklist to give you some guidelines. In next week’s issue, I’ll wrap up with my personal camera picks.
1. The digital camera you buy should have at least 1,280 by 960 true optical resolution (that’s roughly 1.3 million pixels, commonly referred to as 1.3 megapixels). You’ll then be able to get excellent prints up to about 8 by 10 inches. If this is your first digital camera, it’s not necessary to go into the 2 megapixel range although there is one inexpensive 2.1 megapixel digital camera worth considering.
2. There’s an old saying: "Familiar things are best." Look for a digital camera that operates most like the film camera you’ve used. This means fast start-up and fast shot-to-shot time. Many digital cameras are still slugs when it comes to these two features.
3. If possible, check out the camera’s menus. I recently reviewed a digital camera for MacAddict that had menu items festooned around the LCD monitor in such a disorganized manner that a 747 cockpit instrument layout looked like it’d be easier to learn. Menus should be intuitive and easy to navigate.
4. Cross off any camera with only an LCD monitor for pre-viewing. They are notorious for washing out in sunlight and you usually have to hold the camera in an uncomfortable position to use them. A well-designed digital camera has an optical viewfinder in addition to the LCD monitor for easy, eye-level viewing.
5. Digital cameras that use standard floppy disks may seem like the ideal way to go but most fall short on speed and resolution. Besides, floppies are fast fading away in the Mac world.
6. The digital camera should come with written documentation so you can refer to it with camera in hand. You’d be surprised at how many so-called quality camera manufacturers try to save a few bucks by putting the documentation on CD-ROM, expecting you to print out 150 pages after you’ve spent close to $1,000.
7. Read a few reviews before you decide. Most digital photography Web sites have very thorough and detailed reviews. On the other hand, read digital camera reviews in computer magazines critically; the reviewers are not usually experienced photographers, and get sidetracked with bells and whistles.
8. Be prepared to buy a couple sets of rechargeable NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride) batteries and a good charger unless your digital camera comes with them or uses Lithium-Ion batteries. Quest and Kodak batteries are long-lasting, and the Maha C204F charger is an absolute jewel. Two sets of batteries and a charger will set you back about $50 to $70 from places like CKC Power.
9. Transferring images to your computer can be tedious unless both camera and computer have USB. But USB on a digital camera should not be a prime requisite. You can get inexpensive USB and SCSI memory card readers that let you transfer pictures to your computer in a flash. The Microtech USB CameraMate ($85 from places like CKC Power) takes both Compact Flash and SmartMedia cards, used on most digital cameras today. And Norman Camera has a couple dozen discontinued Minolta SCSI readers ($120) which, with the appropriate PC card adapter work fine with older Macs.
10. Printed pictures will only be as good as the printer you use, so plan to buy a decent photo-quality printer. Printers are like the speakers in your stereo system. It does little good to have the finest electronic components pushing sound through a set of tinny speakers. Although the Epson Stylus Photo 750 ($250) has traditionally been the choice of most Mac users, the new USB HP 970 Cse ($400) delivers absolutely stunning output.
If I had to choose between an expensive digital camera without the extra peripherals (batteries, card reader, printer, etc.) and a less expensive digital camera with them, I’d go for the lower priced camera with all the goodies. Why? Because you’ll eventually be buying another camera based on what you’ve learned from your first digital camera. But in the meantime, you’ll be getting the most convenience and best output from the digital camera you’ve bought.
In part two of this article, I’ll tell you just which cameras fit all or most of the above requirements, and how their features stack up. Although I’ve said this is the year to get your first digital camera, even those who already own a digital camera may be persuaded to upgrade to the current generation.
[Arthur H. Bleich <[email protected]> is a photographer, writer, and educator who lives in Miami. He has done assignments for major publications both in the U.S. and abroad and is currently Contributing Editor of Digital Camera Magazine.]