This week’s issue spans the gamut, starting with releases of Suitcase 9, AirPort 1.2, and PowerMail 3.0.3. Next, we check out the acquisitions of Bungie Software by Microsoft and Farallon Communications by Proxim, then move on to a discussion of preventing or reducing the severity of RSI problems. Next, we look at changes in Casady & Greene’s SoundJam, and close with a review of RepairClinic.com, a clever Web site that sells appliance parts.
Suitcase 9 Packs Plenty Into Upgrade — The Extensis Product Group of CreativePro.com has released a new version of the venerable font management utility Suitcase, which was rescued last year from Symantec’s pile of acquired-then-expired software (see "Extensis Rescuing Suitcase" in TidBITS-466). Suitcase 9 features a central dialog box with all of the program’s controls, four font preview formats, and cross-platform support when Suitcase 9 for Windows ships in July 2000. The utility includes Suitcase Server, enabling groups of two or more to access a central font library; three free server connections are included in Suitcase 9. The upgrade also ties together a handful of previously separate add-ons, including Suitcase XT (which can automatically activate a font needed by a QuarkXPress document when the file is opened) and Suitcase MenuFonts (for displaying typefaces in Font menus). Suitcase 9 is available as a download from the company’s online store and costs $100, though upgrades from previous versions are $50. Competitive upgrades from Font Reserve and Adobe ATM Deluxe are priced at $60. [JLC]
AirPort 1.2 Update Available — Apple Computer has released AirPort 1.2, the latest version of its wireless networking software for configuring AirPort Base Stations and enabling any AirPort-equipped Mac to act as a software base station. AirPort 1.2’s base station software ships with a default configuration that disables AirPort-to-Ethernet bridging, does not assign DHCP addresses, or share a single IP address on an Ethernet network via Network Address Translation (NAT), but all these services can still be enabled from the AirPort Admin utility. We know that’s a mouthful: in a nutshell, these changes make it easier to introduce AirPort base stations into existing networks without disrupting services. AirPort 1.2 also supports closed networks in which the name of the AirPort network is hidden; this provides an additional level of obscurity in that users must know the exact name of the AirPort network to connect to it. Apple also says the AirPort 1.2 software improves stability and performance. The software is a 4.5 MB download and requires at least Mac OS 8.6 or higher (with Mac OS 9.0.4 recommended). Apple has also released a PDF document called Designing AirPort Networks and is conducting an online survey of AirPort Base Station users so Apple can prioritize future development. [GD]
PowerMail 3.0.3 Available — CTM Development recently released a pair of updates to PowerMail, the latest version of its multilingual email client with search capabilities based on the same technologies as Apple’s Sherlock. (See "Migrating to New Climes with PowerMail" in TidBITS-530.) Version 3.0.2 fixes an indexing bug that would cause some messages to be invisible to searches, corrects issues indexing upper-ASCII (accented) characters, among other fixes. New features include improved URL handling in messages and an improved First Aid feature. Mailboxes from version 3.0.2 can’t be opened with previous versions of PowerMail, so back up your message database before upgrading. Hot on the heels of 3.0.2, version 3.0.3 fixed several annoying bugs introduced in 3.0.2 and added the capability to make searches diacritical-insensitive. PowerMail 3.0.3 is a 2.2 MB download and requires Mac OS 8.5 or later; a 30-day demo is available. [GD]
Poll Preview: I Want My MP3 — The MP3 audio format is radically altering the music landscape in terms of playing and distributing recorded material. Now that MP3 is gaining a wider acceptance, which software MP3 player do you prefer? There are a ton of MP3 players available, including some less well-known applications we didn’t have room to include, so if you use a program we didn’t list, send a note to TidBITS Talk at <[email protected]> outlining what you use, why, and where others can find the program. Of course, if you prefer tunes from your old eight-track or cassette player – or even from real musical instruments – we’ve got a None option ready for you. Cast your vote on our home page today! [JLC]
This week brought two significant corporate acquisitions in the Macintosh world: Microsoft’s acquisition of game developer Bungie Software and wireless networking company Proxim’s purchase of Farallon Communications, currently a TidBITS sponsor.
Microsoft & Bungie — Microsoft’s acquisition of privately held Bungie Software for an estimated $20 to $40 million was the most atypical. Microsoft games don’t enjoy (or suffer) the high profile of some of the company’s other products; however, Microsoft’s forthcoming Xbox video game console is reportedly impressive and Bungie was swayed from more lucrative offers by the opportunity to work on titles exclusively for Xbox. Although Bungie’s development teams will relocate to Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington, Bungie will retain some of its identity: the group is tentatively titled "Bungie Studio" and games will continue to be released under the Bungie name. Bungie’s founders, Jason Jones and Alex Seropian (who wrote a fascinating article about software distribution back in TidBITS-352), will head up Bungie Studio and decide which platforms to support. For additional details, see Bungie’s FAQ and Daily Radar’s coverage.
Microsoft’s recent support for Macintosh games is negligible, with only a couple of their roughly 30 game titles appearing for the Mac. The optimistic view would have Bungie’s strong pro-Macintosh influence impacting on Microsoft’s game development decisions, but there’s also concern that Macintosh games – even relatively popular ones – may not sell in quantities sufficient to meet Microsoft’s requirements, and thus meet the same fate as Microsoft’s Macintosh multimedia products.
Proxim & Farallon — Farallon’s complicated corporate history becomes more convoluted with this week’s acquisition by wireless networking company Proxim. Farallon started as an independent company, changed its name to Netopia in 1997, then spun back out of Netopia in the middle of 1998. Now, after almost two years of independence, Farallon is being acquired by Proxim for roughly $10 million in Proxim stock and $4 million in cash.
Although Proxim claims to be the leader in the wireless networking market, the move still extends Proxim’s product line significantly, adding HomePNA-compatible products like Farallon’s HomeLINE. Also, Proxim’s products seem to be available only for PCs, unlike Farallon’s cross-platform product line. Since Proxim wants to offer complete solutions to large customers like cable or telephone companies providing networking to homes, schools, and businesses, Farallon’s Macintosh products and expertise will help.
The Farallon division of Proxim will continue to support Farallon’s existing products and continue development on SkyLINE (wireless), HomeLINE (phone line networking), and NetLINE (wired Ethernet) product lines.
Last week’s quiz on our home page focused on ways of reducing or eliminating repetitive stress injuries, or RSI. Years ago, Tonya and I suffered from tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome respectively, and we recovered completely thanks to adjusting how we work and live. Although not all of the nine items offered as quiz answers are necessarily effective for any given case of a repetitive stress injury, we were pleased to see nearly 80 percent of the quiz respondents answered that all of the items can be effective.
Back in 1993, TidBITS and local designer Jon.Hersh created a Caring for Your Wrists poster which covered the basics of preventing RSI. The poster was designed to be printed and posted next to your (or your co-worker’s) computer as a reminder of good computing practices. The versions designed for print are still available (in PDF and PostScript format, as well as for an old version of PageMaker); we’ve also converted the document to the Web.
Here’s a brief description of how each quiz response can help prevent or reduce the severity of repetitive stress injuries.
Regular exercise: Exercising – particularly in ways that don’t use your hands or arms excessively – helps relax the body and the mind, and can both distracting you from your RSI problems and improve your overall health.
Ergonomic Keyboard: Although the standard QWERTY keyboard is almost ubiquitous, alternatives do exist (and we’ve written about several over the years). Be sure to test any keyboard that makes claims of increased ergonomics to make sure it works for you.
Some folks also use the alternative Dvorak keyboard layout, which was supposedly designed to be more efficient than QWERTY (although there is some question if that’s a computing myth). Mac OS 8.6 and later include two Dvorak keyboard layouts, accessible via the Keyboard control panel.
Trackball: The ergonomics of the mouse can be problematic for some people, since the weight of your hand adds to the force you need to apply to move the mouse. Plus, moving the mouse with your entire wrist and arm can be less comfortable than manipulating a trackball with your fingers (especially with large screens and multiple monitors). Some folks get good results from changing the behavior of their pointing devices with various third-party mouse drivers.
Proper Desk & Chair Setup: If you spend many hours in front of your computer, you owe it to yourself to set your desk and chair so they conform to basic ergonomic principles and are comfortable for you. See our Caring for Your Wrists document linked previously for a diagram of an ergonomic setup.
Staying Aware of Problems: Self-awareness is an important aspect of avoiding RSI – if you notice tingling or numbness early on, you may be able to change your behavior and environment before you experience real pain, which can make simple tasks like buttoning a shirt or brushing your teeth excruciating.
Diet & Vitamin Supplements: Various nutrients, including vitamin B6 and E, have been found effective in helping with RSI problems in some studies. It’s worth taking a look at your diet to make sure you’re getting enough of these vitamins. Also, make sure to drink plenty of water to keep your body properly hydrated (and the resulting bathroom breaks will force you away from the keyboard regularly).
Massage: Aside from the fact that it just feels good, gentle massage can help relax the muscles in your hands, wrists, and arms so tense muscles don’t exacerbate your discomfort.
Relaxation & Stress Reduction: Although everything here can be useful, it’s perhaps most important that you learn to control your reactions to stress, since mental stress can have a significant impact on your physical well-being.
Handeze Gloves: Since we first wrote about them back in 1993, we’ve heard from numerous people who have had good luck with the form-fitting Handeze gloves reducing hand and wrist pain. The results aren’t universal, of course, but the gloves are definitely worth a try. You can find important sizing information and an order form on the Handeze Web site.
Casady & Greene last week released SoundJam MP Plus 2.1, a free update to the company’s popular (if awkwardly named) MP3 player and encoder. That reminded me that I’d somehow missed writing about the update to version 2.0, which added numerous features and introduced a free version called SoundJam MP Free, which offers a reduced feature set and the capability to encode only 30 songs. Let’s catch up quickly.
SoundJam 2.0 — The April release of SoundJam 2.0 added several major features along with numerous enhancements to the basic functionality that Casady & Greene had been improving through versions 1.1, 1.5, and 1.6. Among the features and enhancements were:
Support for contextual menus, so you can Control-click a song to get more information about it, find the original MP3 file, or convert the song’s ID3 tags. As we’ve become accustomed to using contextual menus, support for them in new places becomes increasingly welcome.
An alarm clock feature that can start playing music at a specified time and day. Also included is a sleep timer that plays music for a specified period of time, then either stops, quits SoundJam, puts the Mac to sleep, or shuts down.
A Playlist Composer that, although slow, builds playlists based on criteria you specify and can limit the playlist to a specific amount of time or file size (if you’re downloading to a portable MP3 player).
The capability to submit information to the CDDB (the Web-based database that publishes information about CD names, track titles, and more). No more being annoyed that your work in entering track titles won’t benefit anyone else.
The capability to apply equalization settings, volume adjustments, and custom start and stop times to individual tracks. These features can be handy since volume levels vary between different CDs. You can now also trim unwanted time at the beginning of a track or unnecessary applause at the end of a live song.
Improved AppleScript support.
A karaoke mode, presumably so you can embarrass yourself at home before attempting it in public.
Support for playing and recording from the sound input set in the Sound control panel. Finally, you can encode MP3 files directly from records, cassette tapes, electric guitars, voice, or anything else you can hook to the microphone or audio in jacks on your Mac.
Substantially reduced CPU usage during playback and improved performance while adding large numbers of files to a playlist. SoundJam can also preload an entire file into memory to save battery life on PowerBooks and iBooks.
SoundJam MP Free — Although the changes in SoundJam 2.0 probably warranted a full version number change on their own, the move that really justified the number bump was the release of the free SoundJam MP Free 2.0, now also updated to version 2.1. SoundJam MP Free acts as a demo for the full version for a period of 14 days, although you can encode only 30 songs within that time. After 14 days, you lose encoding capabilities entirely, along with the playlist composer and the alarm clock functionality. Other features that aren’t available after the 14 trial period include:
- Access to the equalizer and per-track volume and equalizer settings.
- Support for skins (alternate interfaces for the player).
- Support for video and audio plug-ins, in case your lava lamp is broken.
- The capability to connect to portable MP3 players.
SoundJam MP Free ends up being a perfectly reasonable MP3 player with a solid feature set. I think Casady & Greene did a good job in removing the more interesting functionality that could entice users to spring for the full SoundJam MP Plus. If you’ve had trouble overcoming the inertia to try working with MP3s, try SoundJam MP Free – it’s a 2.5 MB download and will work fine for encoding songs on two or three of your favorite CDs to MP3 format.
SoundJam 2.1 — The recently released SoundJam 2.1 continues to add new features without requiring users to pay for an update. The major new feature in 2.1 is the capability to work with Adaptec’s Toast 4.1 or later to create audio CDs directly from SoundJam. Other improvements include:
Continuous CD playback without interruptions between adjacent tracks.
Support for a variety of new portable MP3 players, including the Rio 500 and Rio 600, the Nike psa[play, and the Nomad II and Nomad II MG. SoundJam can also update the firmware for several of these devices.
The capability to start playback when you open a playlist. Plus, SoundJam can now re-shuffle playlists each time you open them.
Support for RealJukebox Music Package (RMP) files. You can also enter .pls, .m3u, and .rmp files as URLs to play them.
Shortcuts for expanding and collapsing playlists folders.
Improved encoding quality, even beyond the improved quality in 2.0 and previous versions. It’s good to see Casady & Greene focusing on encoding quality, since few people are going to go to the effort of testing each MP3 encoder to find the best one, as Jerry Kindall did in his two-part "Making MP3s" series.
SoundJam 2.1 costs $40 online, or $50 if you want a CD, a stereo cable for your Mac, and a printed manual in a box. Keep in mind that it requires a 100 MHz PowerPC 603-based Mac or faster, and prefers a PowerPC G3 or PowerPC G4-based Mac for best results. The update is free to registered users; it’s a 2.7 MB download.
SoundJam for Mac OS X — For programmers who are running developer releases of Mac OS X and can’t live without music on the Mac, Casady & Greene has posted a free update to SoundJam MP Plus so it works under the pre-releases of Mac OS X. Needless to say, it’s unsupported, but it’s good to see Casady & Greene putting the work into developing for Carbon and letting developers have access to the results early on.
Future Enhancements — Tonya and I are serious users of SoundJam and have been since early versions. Although some of our irritations with the previous versions have been addressed over time, others remain.
It’s still too difficult to find and play songs from a specific album or artist. You can type to select a song title, but that typing should either also match artist and album names (if showing in the playlist), or typing should be linked to the Listed by setting in the playlist; for instance, if your playlist is listed by artist, typing should select artist names, not songs.
Although the Playlist Composer is a major step forward in creating playlists automatically, it’s too slow to use more than occasionally (searches through 900+ songs take about 45 seconds on my 450 MHz Power Mac G4). Since you’re never sure what you’ll get, the slow speed makes experimentation painful. It also feels as though it was designed more for creating playlists to download to portable MP3 players than to give users a fast way of creating ad hoc playlists (play rock recorded before 1975, for instance). SoundJam still needs a better way of letting users quickly create and play categories of music.
SoundJam would benefit by mimicking Eudora’s clever Option-click to select similar items shortcut. That way, no matter how a playlist was sorted, you could Option-click on an artist, album, or genre to select matching tracks.
Better network support would be welcome. I’m now serving my MP3s from a Power Mac 8500 running AppleShare IP 6.3, and until I made sure to mount the disks containing the MP3 files via TCP/IP rather than AppleTalk, short freezes were common as SoundJam loaded the next song in the playlist.
Since SoundJam installs an extension that assigns names from the CDDB to audio CDs and their tracks, it would be helpful if it could also provide a system-wide pause hotkey to make it easier to pause SoundJam when the phone rings.
By default, SoundJam has a huge database of music that I like. I’d like to see Casady & Greene add some sort of music recommendation service based on collaborative filtering with other SoundJam users. A competing program, MusicMatch, offers this functionality already, and they’ve just released a beta version of their software for the Macintosh.
These suggestions are relatively minor, but SoundJam has progressed to the point where the basics are well-covered, so what remains is interface polishing and work on innovative new approaches to dealing with digital music.
Kirk McElhearn’s article last week about the emptiness of pages of links highlights why we don’t maintain a list of Macintosh-related Web sites, and why we only infrequently write about specific Web sites. We’re mainly interested in creating content, not acting as a waypoint to other parts of the Web.
But every now and then we run across a Web site that stands out by virtue of a truly innovative idea, unusually excellent execution, or some facet of design. We’ve written longer articles about some of these sites, including HomeGrocer.com and Priceline.com. Now, however, we’re starting a sporadic column where we’ll review those Web sites that we find ourselves telling our friends about because they do something in an innovative or unusual way. Although it’s possible that some of these sites may be related to the Mac, that won’t be a criterion for inclusion – we just want to tell you about the most interesting sites we find. You’ll have heard of some of these sites – innovation isn’t limited to the small – but we also hope that we’ll be introducing the sites mentioned in this series to many of you.
How will we find sites for this column? Mostly by happening on them, via recommendations from friends or TidBITS readers. For instance, this week’s subject, RepairClinic.com, was featured in a recent issue of the Web Informant essays from David Strom, a friend and occasional TidBITS contributor. So if you know of a Web site that truly stands out from the crowd, send a note to TidBITS Talk at <[email protected]>, and we’ll be sure to take a look at each one for future installments of this column.
RepairClinic.com — I grew up on a farm, and the experience gave me a familiarity with tools and the belief that it’s both expensive and somehow cheating to call a repair person to fix simple problems. I like to understand the systems in our house, ranging from the initially inexplicable heat pump to the still confusing AT&T box that provided multiple phone lines via bulky red phones with illuminated push buttons. I usually know when a repair is out of my league, but I also hang out with the repair person so I can see what they’re doing and perhaps learn to do it myself.
Specialized parts and tools frustrate this part of my personality. Sometimes it’s not feasible to buy the right tool for a given job, and I may not even know such a tool exists. I haven’t found a solution, but thanks to RepairClinic.com, I can at least now easily acquire parts to a number of our large appliances, something that was difficult or impossible previously.
There’s nothing sexy about selling appliance parts on the Web, but after my frustrating search for replacement consumer electronics batteries on the Web (see "Finding the Power Online: Buying Batteries" in TidBITS-494), RepairClinic.com ranks among the top ecommerce sites I’ve ever used.
Here’s my story. The silverware rack in our dishwasher has been somewhat broken for a while, and although it was annoying when I had to fish around in a rack of sticky dirty silverware for the knife or spoon that slid through the bottom of the rack, it wasn’t a major problem. I’d been thinking about fixing it, but I couldn’t see any obvious fix, and I’ve never been good at fixing plastic items anyway. Aside from the annoyance, there was the worry that an escaping piece of silverware might cause more serious damage.
Finding the Part — So when I read about RepairClinic.com in Web Informant, I immediately went to see if I could get a new silverware rack. RepairClinic.com’s PartDetective is an impressive front end to a huge database of parts. First you enter the appliance type and brand, which are required, and then the model number if you can find it (and they even provide help on finding model numbers on the appliance type you’ve selected). Next you answer one or more questions to determine characteristics of your appliance, such as whether the dishwasher is built-in or portable, where the freezer compartment is on a refrigerator, or whether a washing machine is top or front loading. Then you come to the heart of the PartDetective, where you attempt to describe the part you want.
The questions here are somewhat odd but have the effect of identifying the part quite closely. PartDetective asks if you know what type of part you need, if it’s electrical, if it’s 100 percent metal, if it’s 100 percent plastic, if it’s all the same color, and what its longest dimension is (to the nearest half-inch).
Obviously, results will vary with the type of part you’re looking for, but in my case, the silverware rack for our dishwasher popped up instantly even though I hadn’t bothered to enter a model number initially. Verifying the model number and entering a more accurate longest dimension provided duplicate results. Most of the results included a photo of each item, and clicking that photo provided a larger picture of the item superimposed on a sheet of graph paper so you could confirm that the item looked right and was about the right size.
The closest I can come to a criticism is that the part seemed a bit expensive at $22, but appliance parts are always more expensive than you think they should be, and I’d saved so much time and mental energy in not having to find a local part supplier or call a repair person that I was more than happy to pay the price.
In short, whereas the PartDetective was a innovative approach to identifying hard-to-identify parts, the rest of my interaction with RepairClinic.com showed a stunning level of execution.
RepairClinic.com also offers a service called RepairGuru, which provides information about how appliances work, maintenance tips, troubleshooting information, and answers to common questions. If you need additional information, you can even send them email. One thing I appreciated about RepairGuru’s information was that it was nicely factual and aimed at helping people handle the repair without the assistance of a professional, but it also recommended that a qualified appliance technician be contacted in some situations, such as certain problems with appliances like microwaves. In other words, some things you simply shouldn’t try at home.
I haven’t the foggiest idea if the sort of people who read TidBITS are into fixing their own appliances, but I’d recommend that anyone interested in seeing how well an ecommerce site can be done check out RepairClinic.com. They’ve done an excellent job, ranging from a clean design to a clever part identification scheme to impeccable execution on packaging and delivery.