Jeff Carlson’s college days are behind him, but the end of August makes him ponder: what Mac gear should students take to school? Meanwhile, Adam samples Indy, an innovative application that introduces him to new music he actually likes. Also in this issue, Matt Neuburg finds some desirable features in the new DEVONthink Pro, and we note the release of Security Update 2005-007 v1.1, which fixes a 64-bit computing bug introduced by the previous security update, as well as the start of Apple’s new Rev-1 iMac G5 repair program.
Security Update 2005-007 v1.1 Works with 64-Bit Apps — Apple has released version 1.1 of its Security Update 2005-007 for Tiger users. The only change in v1.1 is that it provides a combined 32- and 64-bit version of the operating system component LibSystem; the initial release of Security Update 2005-007 omitted the 64-bit version, breaking 64-bit-savvy programs like Mathematica on systems with G5 processors.
The 64-bit change for Security Update 2005-007 applies only to the client and server versions of Mac OS X 10.4.2 Tiger – folks using Mac OS X 10.3.9 Panther don’t need to worry about downloading a new version of the update. Apple is recommending that all Tiger users install the new version of the update, although – in theory – users of G4-based machines have nothing to gain if they’ve already installed the first version of the security update. (Except, perhaps, to prevent Software Update from nagging them about it.) The update sizes remain unchanged: approximately 18.5 MB for the client version of Mac OS X 10.4.2, and 20.6 MB for the server version. [GD]
Apple Creates Rev-1 iMac G5 Repair Program — Four months after my iMac G5 went "Up In Smoke" (see TidBITS-777), along with those of untold numbers of other users, Apple has finally admitted publicly that there’s a problem, instituting an official repair program for revision-1 iMac G5s. According to Apple, symptoms eligible for free repair include scrambled, distorted, or missing video (caused, I believe, by blown capacitors on the midplane) or no power (the problem I had – there is, of course, no mention on Apple’s page of smoke and an evil smell emanating from the computer). Apple lists the range of serial numbers of affected machines. These are all revision-1 17-inch and 20-inch iMac G5s; the revision-2 faster machines released starting in May 2005 are apparently unaffected.
The good news is that Apple will repair affected machines for free, even if they are no longer under warranty. The initial program is for two years from the date of purchase, but Apple may extend this at its option. The bad news is that in order to qualify, it appears that you must place your machine physically before the eyeballs of an Apple representative or service provider. It will be interesting to learn whether this means that repairs like mine, where Apple simply shipped the needed parts directly to my home, will no longer be available. [MAN]
DEVONthink is a snippet keeper, where a snippet can be anything from a few words of text to a Web page, a Word document, a PDF, or any of several other formats. Within DEVONthink’s database, documents can be organized hierarchically and mutually referenced via hyperlinks. DEVONthink can link to any file on disk, but its real power emerges when the file is something it can parse and index, giving play to its mighty powers of searching, cataloging, and cross-referencing.
When I reviewed DEVONthink in TidBITS-720, I praised its interface and its searching capabilities, but I pointed to one shortcoming in its architecture: there could be only one database. This, I suspected, would ultimately prevent me from using the program at all; and I was right. Now, however, that restriction is lifted, thanks to the long-awaited release of DEVONthink Professional 1.0.
In DEVONthink Professional, a database functions as a kind of document. Only one database can be open at a time, but I don’t regard this as an impediment. With separate databases for different collections of data, I’m at last able to use DEVONthink seriously.
The other major innovation in DEVONthink Professional is its AppleScript support. Earlier versions were a little bit scriptable, but DEVONthink Professional takes scriptability much further – and wears its scriptability on its sleeve. The program has a Scripts menu and comes with many example scripts that users can take advantage of immediately to make DEVONthink cooperate with other applications – fetching all links from the current Safari Web page, for example, or importing selected email messages. What’s more, a script can be attached to a file or a folder within the database, so the script is triggered when the item is opened; in the case of a folder, for instance, this capability enables the creation of a "smart folder" that populates itself automatically when opened. DEVONthink also comes with some Automator actions, along with example Automator workflows.
Another new feature is the capability to download Web pages linked from a given page. That’s a terrific idea, and I was eager to try it, but I found it nearly impossible to tweak the settings so as to obtain the desired results. (DEVONthink’s developers could usefully study the SiteSucker utility.)
Also new is that you can make a page that’s like a simple database table, where each column is a field and each row is a record; such pages (unaccountably termed "sheets") can’t have styled text, though, which limits their usefulness.
Finally, it’s worth noting one feature conspicuous for its absence: complex boolean searches are still not implemented, even after years of complaints from users and promises from the developers.
DEVONthink Professional is a big step closer to what DEVONthink should have been all along. Whether that warrants the "Professional" label or the price tag ($75), market forces will show. Meanwhile, you should definitely try this program for yourself; the demo download expires after 150 hours of use and is not limited in any other way. Mac OS X 10.3.9 Panther is the minimum operating system version required, but given the number of new technologies it uses, to run DEVONthink on anything less than Tiger would be a pity.
Some years ago, best-selling author Stephen King bought a local radio station in Bangor, Maine, reportedly so he could be assured of turning on the radio and hearing music that he’d probably like. Thanks to a brilliant little program called Indy from Change.TV, I don’t have wait until I’m a multi-millionaire to enjoy my own radio station.
Crystal Set with a Feedback Loop — On its face, Indy is incredibly simple. It displays a small window with basic controls: play/pause, previous/next, volume, and five stars for rating tracks. It also displays the artist name, track name, and elapsed and total time for each song. To start, you click the play button, and Indy starts playing a song it downloaded. Once you’ve developed an opinion about the current song, you assign a star rating, with one as the worst and five as the best. If you give a song only one or two stars, Indy instantly moves on to the next track; higher-rated songs finish playing after you rate them. If you don’t rate a song before it finishes, Indy waits for you to give it a rating before continuing to the next song, although you can play the song again if necessary, and you can even flip back through previously rated songs with the previous button. Although it can be a bit annoying to be forced to rate every song, it’s a key aspect of Indy’s interface, because otherwise it would be too easy to be lazy and not rate anything.
Behind the scenes, Indy downloads MP3 files to your computer (in ~/Music/Indy) and plays them from local files; it’s not streaming. Initially, the files start out in an Unrated folder, and as you rate them, they’re moved to folders corresponding to the number of stars they garnered from you. You can set how much disk space you’d like Indy to devote to each rating, from None to Unlimited, with stops for 50 MB, 100 MB, 500 MB, and 1 GB in between.
As you rate songs, Indy uses the Collaborative Filtering Engine (CoFE), developed by the Intelligent Information Systems group at Oregon State University, to compare your ratings to those from 20,000 other Indy users. The goal is, of course, for Indy to feed you an increasingly large percentage of music that you’re likely to appreciate. In the relatively short time I’ve been using Indy, I’ve noticed a definite improvement in its selections, to the point where I seldom rate anything as one or two stars any more, and I’m finding more four-star songs and even a five-star song or two.
As an aside, the Indy Help makes some good suggestions about ratings, particularly on the low end:
- One star: You don’t like the song, and you can’t imagine anyone else liking it either.
- Two stars: You don’t like the track, but you’re happy to admit that someone with different tastes might.
- Three stars: You like the song sufficiently to finish listening to it in Indy.
- Four stars: You like the song enough that you’d buy a CD that contained it (personally, I’d never buy a CD based on a single song, so I’d recast this to "You like the song enough to want to listen to it multiple times").
- Five stars: You like the music so much that you’d go see the artist in concert if possible (again, I think that’s overstating the case, and I’d change to "You like the song so much that you want to hear more from the same artist").
Clicking the artist or track name in Indy’s window loads the artist’s Web site in your browser. I’ve done it a few times for the songs I’ve most liked, but the problem is that the link to the Web site is visible only as long as the song is showing in Indy. As you might expect, the information is hidden away, in a playlist.dat file in the Indy folder for recent songs, and you can ferret it out of your console.log file as well. But neither is easy to access or permanent, and even Spotlight doesn’t seem to see inside either of those files. Ideally, Indy would automatically add this information to the ID3 tags for each song, but many songs lack even basic metadata, much less uncommon tags like Web URLs. That’s not Indy’s fault, since all songs are submitted by the artists themselves (or at least with the consent of the copyright holder), and it’s up to the artists to make sure that the ID3 tags contain Web URLs.
Music Discovery Service — The comparison to Stephen King’s radio station isn’t quite fair, for two reasons. First, Indy never plays rated songs more than once. If you like a song enough to keep it, you must add it to the rest of your music collection in iTunes (it would be helpful if Indy would automatically add songs of particular ratings to iTunes playlists). Second, unless you’re way more in tune with the independent music scene than I am (which wouldn’t be hard, admittedly), you won’t recognize many, if any, of the artists. Because of this, Indy is more of a music discovery service than a radio station, at least the sort of radio station that plays commonly heard music. I must admit, though, as it has become more accurate, Indy is doing a pretty good job as a radio station too. If I want to listen to music I already know, I can listen to my collection in iTunes.
What’s particularly cool about Indy is that it’s not attempting to maintain a centralized archive of songs, nor should it in any way run afoul of the jack-booted thugs of the recording industry. That’s because, as I noted earlier, all the music is submitted by copyright holders, and because it’s served directly from the artists’ sites. In other words, Indy is a completely legal front end for discovering music you’re likely to enjoy from all around the Web. At the moment, Indy knows about 10,000 songs, which should keep you busy for quite some time.
If you’re an artist, I strongly encourage you to submit some of your music to Indy as a way of introducing more people to your work. Just be sure to include your Web site’s URL in the ID3 tags of your file! One caveat: although Indy isn’t likely to cause a Slashdot effect, the increase in downloads may affect your hosting bills if you pay for bandwidth.
Although Indy serves only music right now, there’s no particular reason it couldn’t support other forms of media, including photos, video, and more, and the Indy FAQ states that such enhancements lie in Indy’s future. For the moment, though, I’m happy listening to whatever Indy sends my way, and if you’ve wanted a way to expose yourself to new music, give Indy a try. It works in Mac OS X 10.3 and later, and Windows and Linux; it’s a tiny 466K download.
As August winds down here in the United States, students and parents are looking ahead to the start of the school year in a few weeks. Although I’m not currently in school, this time of year always tingles my memories of new textbooks, the transition to autumn, and strolling a college campus.
I’m also deeply envious of today’s students and the technology options that are available. I arrived at school with a Commodore 64 system in four bulky boxes, and the newest advance on campus at the time was having telephones in every room, versus shared phone booths in each hall.
If I were headed to college in September, these are the things I’d want to bring with me. I realize many TidBITS readers are already familiar with what I’m going to talk about here, but you probably know someone who’s gearing up for school. If you’re reading this article on the TidBITS Web site, you might want to click the Send via Email link to share the information with a student you know; if you’re reading in email, click the link below to send just this article.
Laptop versus Desktop — A student’s academic life tends to be limited to small spaces when it comes to computing. The Mac mini is appealing for this reason, particularly if you’re budget conscious, but it still requires an external keyboard, mouse, and monitor (which you may already own), all of which take up valuable room and are a pain to schlep back and forth on school breaks. I’d much rather use a laptop that incorporates all of those elements in one package. Better yet, a laptop is portable, so you can work on research papers in a dorm room, library, or coffeehouse. During my senior year of college, I packed a Classic II into a bulky case, slung it over my shoulder, and biked to the campus newspaper office or a study room in the English department when I felt like getting out of my dorm room; a laptop would have been so much easier. To this day, I use a laptop as my main machine because I work in several different locations (in fact, some people would say that my freelance life is just an extension of my college days, complete with the occasional all-nighter to finish up projects).
I currently use a 15-inch PowerBook G4, but I’d probably be more inclined to go with an iBook G4 for school. It’s more durable, costs less (especially given a typical college student’s budget), and offers enough processing and graphics power for most general schoolwork. Since it’s something I’d be carrying most of the day, the smaller and less-expensive 12-inch model ($950) is more appealing to me. However, the 14-inch model ($1,200) offers a DVD-burning SuperDrive instead of a Combo Drive (both can be configured with more RAM – up to 1.5 GB – and a larger hard drive – up to 100 GB). If you’re enamored of the 12-inch size but want a SuperDrive and an overall faster machine, the 12-inch PowerBook G4 costs $450 more. (All prices are from Apple’s online Store for Education; individual colleges and universities may offer slightly different deals or special bundles.) For more specific Mac buying advice, don’t forget to check out Adam’s "Take Control of Buying a Mac" ebook.
Happily, all of Apple’s laptops now include AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth 2.0 wireless capabilities for connecting to Wi-Fi networks on campus and coffee shops (wireless Internet and caffeine… is there a better college combination?).
I’d forgo buying an extra battery, since power outlets seem to be in abundant supply in the usual college haunts, but it’s not a bad idea to carry a small power strip on occasion to share the outlets with fellow students. And definitely buy a Kensington security cable ($45) to anchor the laptop to a desk when you’re not using it; theft insurance is worth looking into as well.
To carry the laptop, you’ll need a good bag, a topic I’ve covered in TidBITS before (see "Buying a Laptop Bag" in TidBITS-725). Although I’m partial to messenger-style bags, a sturdy backpack might be better for carrying books, too. No matter what you choose, I recommend getting some sort of laptop sleeve to help protect your laptop (some bags include a padded laptop pocket).
In either case, I (and most IT support staff) highly suggest paying the extra money for AppleCare ($185 for iBooks, $240 for PowerBooks). Although it doesn’t cover problems that arise due to neglect or accident, components that fail after the initial warranty period are covered.
And speaking of problems, don’t go to school without an external hard drive for making backups, or at the least a large spindle of blank CDs and DVDs. Your data is just too important to work without backups, as I’ve learned first hand and from numerous horror stories about students losing important papers (even dissertations!). For more advice on backups, see Joe Kissell’s "Take Control of Mac OS X Backups."
iPod — I suspect that most students will want an iPod (if they don’t already own one) for their music. I listened to tunes constantly while working on homework, and the portability of the iPod can’t be beat. It also means that you won’t have to pack boxes of heavy music CDs to cart home when next summer rolls around.
But if I were headed to school again now, I’d also buy a microphone for the iPod, such as Griffin Technology’s iTalk ($40). I’m not a good paper-based note-taker, so an iPod recording device would be great for capturing lectures for review later.
Of course, the basic combination of iTunes and headphones is another good option for the budget-conscious or students who always have their Macs at the ready. The iTunes music sharing feature, which allows other students to play (but not copy) your music sees heavy use on some campuses.
Speakers — Another change from the days I was in school is amplification. I owned a bulky shelf-sized stereo system for playing music, but these days all you really need are decent speakers. I use a set of $170 Harman/Kardon Soundsticks II at the office, but the company’s Creature II speakers, at $100, would work just as well in a dorm room. Either set plugs into a Mac’s audio out port, or an iPod’s headphone jack. In addition to playing music from either device, you can host movie nights by playing DVDs on the Mac.
If an iPod is the center of your music universe, dock speakers such as the Bose SoundDock ($300) or Altec Lansing’s InMotion3 ($180) are pricier but more portable options. I haven’t used either, so I don’t know what type of sound quality they offer, but it could be enough for a small space such as a dorm room. (Playlist Magazine has a good collection of reviews of this type of speaker.) Remember too that an iPod connected to speakers makes a fine alarm clock, and believe me, you’ll be needing one of those.
iSight — They try to put on a brave face and stiff upper lip, but parents miss their kids when the brood are away at college. To stay in touch without paying long-distance phone charges, equip both sides with iSight cameras and use iChat to engage in audio or video chats. An iSight also enables freshmen to keep tabs on the high school friends you vowed you’d always write and stay in contact with, but who, over time, normally drift away. The fat bandwidth pipes at most colleges and universities make videoconferencing a pleasure, as long as the folks have a decent broadband connection at home.
Remember, too, that you don’t need an iSight to do audio and video – I just like it because of its design, small size, and ease of use. An iBook or PowerBook includes an internal microphone that you can use for voice chats, and a FireWire-equipped camcorder (if you have one) will also work. I’m hoping the day will come when digital still cameras, which mostly seem to be equipped with a video feature, can be plugged in and used as a video chatting source.
If you’re not interested in video or audio, plain text is a great way to communicate; it’s how I now spend most of my time touching base with my mother who lives in California. Where before you’d have to set aside a block of time to talk on the phone, now you can pop into iChat (or Microsoft Messenger for communicating with Windows-using parents on the MSN instant messaging network), check in with the folks, and then head off to class.
Printer — I’ve heard that some professors accept assignments via email, but most seem to want cold, hard paper to mark up with their vicious red pens. There are, no doubt, plenty of places to get something printed (campus computing center, library, local Kinko’s, etc.), but you’ll find yourself at the mercy of building schedules or per-page printing charges. Instead, buy the least expensive inkjet printer you can find. When a project is due and you don’t have much time, it’s much better to print out your own copies than to rely on someone else to do it for you. Check Dealmac for specials; you can easily find a decent printer for under $100.
Make sure to keep extra paper and a spare cartridge around too – it’s painful to run out when you’re under a deadline, and believe me, that is exactly when it will happen.
Phone and/or Handheld Organizer — Finding a college student without a cell phone these days is almost impossible. I couldn’t begin to go into the various models and options, since the phones change often and are offered by different carriers. (Check with the college to see which cell phone providers have the best on-campus reception.) But I can suggest a few guidelines.
I still couldn’t care less about having a digital camera in my phone (though the image quality continues to improve over time), but I’ve reached the point where Bluetooth is essential. I hope to never again manually enter a name and phone number using a phone’s keypad. With a Bluetooth-enabled iBook or PowerBook, use iSync to synchronize your contacts from Address Book. (If you have too many phone numbers to fit into your phone’s memory, create a new group in Address Book called "Cell phone" and then, in iSync, specify that only that group be synchronized.)
Many of the recent crop of phones include rudimentary calendar features, but if you’re schedule-challenged, consider a Palm Treo 650, which incorporates a Palm OS handheld with a cellular phone. Palm lists the Treo 650 as "starting at $300," which means the price depends on the phone carrier you choose; a phone and a calling plan deal can offer it for as low as $250, but if you already have a plan and just want the phone, the price can head north of $600 just for the Treo. You can find better deals on the older Treo 600 model, but it doesn’t include Bluetooth.
If you prefer to keep your calendar separate from your phone, you might want a separate Palm handheld. Although I’m hearing from more people who don’t use their Palm handhelds anymore, I think college is an ideal environment for electronic organization. With so many class schedules, study sessions, and things to do, having all of that information manageable in one handheld device makes sense.
Of the current lineup of Palm OS handhelds, I like the $250 Tungsten E2: it’s thin and light, has a bright color screen, and includes Bluetooth for easy syncing. The included Documents to Go software is a nice addition for being able to store Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents, but not essential. For those on a tighter budget, the $100 Zire 21 is a bare-bones organizer that does the basics and not much else.
What about handhelds that run the Pocket PC/Windows Mobile operating system? Honestly, I don’t have much experience with the current crop, and have never liked the cumbersome Windows-Light interface. They also don’t communicate with the Mac out of the box, though you can get around that by purchasing Mark/Space’s Missing Sync for Windows Mobile ($40) or PocketMac Pro from PocketMac ($42, but educational pricing is also available).
Mac to Class — Looking back over this list, I realize that the costs can rise pretty quickly, especially considering that tuition isn’t cheap, either. Fortunately, as noted earlier, students can take advantage of education pricing from Apple and other companies, which helps cut the costs. But I also think college is a special environment these days, where a computer is much more than a glorified typewriter. Perhaps more so than in the business world, a Mac and its orbiting accessories are as much a part of the student life as coffee and ramen noodles. They’re used at all points of the day: studying, completing assignments, communicating with friends and family via email and instant messages, watching DVDs, listening to music, organizing schedules, and even playing games.
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VPN Article Update — Kevin van Haaren posts some updates to his article about virtual private networks from last week’s issue. (3 messages)
iBook and peripheral questions — A reader looking for iBook buying advice receives a heap of information ranging from screen quality (the 12-inch and 14-inch models feature the same resolution, for example) to buying AppleCare and finding the best price overall. (39 messages)
Tech support forums — Which tools make it easier for companies to track user feedback and bug reports? A reader soon to start a new job gets insight. (5 messages)
Software for editing and printing multiple timed streams — A reader needs to synchronize printed text with audio and video, and is looking for software solutions to make it happen. (3 messages)