Apple widened its consumer offerings last week with updates to the iMac line, adding Intel Core 2 Duo processors and a 24-inch iMac model (and speed-bumping the Mac mini). Also in this issue, Adam details some of the behind-the-curtain changes we’ve been implementing and looks in detail at the new BBEdit 8.5; Glenn Fleishman praises the elegant coconutWiFi; and we cover the releases of OmniWeb 5.5, Interarchy 8.2, and a Mac Pro-compatible version of Parallels Desktop.
The Omni Group has completed a deceptively minor update to OmniWeb, their feature-laden Web browser that sports iconic tabs, workspaces, RSS news feeds, site-specific preferences, and more. New features in OmniWeb 5.5 include support for saving pages in the WebArchive format, a warning that appears upon reloading a page that would resend a form, and a global and site preference for user-defined style sheets. But OmniWeb 5.5 isn’t about features – the real news is that it’s now a universal binary, providing better performance on Intel-based Macs, and it’s based on a slightly customized version of Apple’s WebKit browser engine framework, which means greatly improved Web site compatibility, rendering performance, and stability. In short, OmniWeb should now perform like Safari, which also relies on WebKit. The $30 OmniWeb 5.5 requires Mac OS X 10.4.6 or later, is a free update for owners of OmniWeb 5.x, and is a 10.1 MB download.
Stairways Software has released Interarchy 8.2, the latest version of their highly flexible file transfer tool and network utility. Notable new features include support for Growl notifications (an independent system-wide notification method), file converters that automatically convert files on upload/download, and easier bookmarking via a Bookmark button in every window’s status bar. Most amusing, though, is the fact that Interarchy 8.2 now offers spell checking; as the release notes comment dryly, “Just what you always wanted in a file transfer program.” There are a slew of other minor enhancements and plenty of bug fixes, and since it’s a free upgrade for owners of Interarchy 8.x, it’s worth the 8.3 MB download.
Jonathan “Wolf” Rentzsch, who has contributed a number of articles to TidBITS over the years, and who was a fixture at the MacHack/ADHOC conference, has decided that if we can’t have MacHack any more, he’ll just have to hack together his own conference. The result is the C4 conference, which will take place in Chicago on October 20th and 21st, 2006. It’s looking like it will be short and sweet, with seven talks across the two days, along with appropriate food and libations. C4 costs $384 and attendance is capped at 75 people, so if you’re interested, send email to [email protected] to register. There are also three scholarship spots for students; see the conference Web site for details.
Parallels, Inc. last week announced a release candidate for an update to their Parallels Desktop for Mac, adding compatibility for Apple’s new Mac Pro computer and the developer builds of Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard. The “Update RC,” a free update for all Parallels Desktop users, adds additional improvements such as improved compatibility for Solaris and OpenBSD 3.8 guest operating systems, and an improved Parallels Tools package.
The $80 Parallels Desktop allows owners of Intel-based Macs to run Windows or other Intel-based operating systems in a virtual machine while still running Mac OS X. Apple’s Boot Camp solution, still a public beta until Leopard’s release, requires the user to restart the Mac to switch between Mac OS X and Windows operating systems. Parallels offers a 15-day free trial of their software. (Don’t forget that you can save $10 off the cost of a Parallels Desktop license using a coupon from Joe Kissell’s “Take Control of Running Windows on a Mac” ebook, rendering the ebook free.)
Another option for Intel Mac users who wish to run Windows applications is CrossOver Mac, a forthcoming product from CodeWeavers, Inc., released as a public beta late last month. This application doesn’t even require the user to install Windows. Based on Wine, which re-implements the Windows developer APIs, CrossOver Mac lets Mac users run many, though not all, Windows applications in their own separate windows under Mac OS X.
Wi-Fi networks are everywhere, but finding them often requires tedious use of the erratic AirPort menu in the menu bar, or a separately running application, like iStumbler, that shows more information than most people require. (iStumbler is great for learning more about and troubleshooting the local AirPort-space, however, and includes support for scanning for Bluetooth devices and revealing Bonjour services on the local network.)
Christoph Sinai’s coconutWiFi offers a simple menu bar indicator: a single dot. The dot is red when there are no networks in the vicinity, yellow when nearby networks are encrypted with WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) or WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) protection, and green if at least one unprotected network is in range. (Scanning isn’t sufficient to find other protection methods, such as WPA Enterprise, which requires a login, or MAC (Media Access Control) lockouts, with which specific Wi-Fi adapters are allowed access by their unique hardware number.)
Click the dot, and a list of networks drops down, including the method of encryption for protected networks. An optional number next to the indicator displays the number of networks found. The software is a universal binary and a 219K download; donations are accepted.
Last week, Apple announced two notable changes to the iMac line, available now. First, all iMacs now use Intel’s new 64-bit Core 2 Duo processor, which Apple claims can deliver up to 50 percent faster performance than previous Core Duo processors. However, in testing done by PC World on PC laptops, the Core 2 Duo chip improved performance by only 5 to 10 percent over identically configured laptops with the older Core Duo chip; Macworld’s benchmarks rated a 10 percent improvement. My guess is that the new iMacs with the Core 2 Duo will be faster, perhaps noticeably so in some tasks, but not so much that it would make sense to upgrade from an existing Core Duo-based iMac to a new Core 2 Duo-based model.
However, the second notable change in the iMac line may be sufficiently compelling to cause even a recent iMac purchaser to consider trading up to a new model. That’s because the top-of-the-line iMac now comes with a built-in 24-inch widescreen display running at 1920 by 1200 pixels (compare that with 1440 by 900 for the 17-inch display and 1680 by 1050 for the 20-inch model). The 24-inch display also offers a wider viewing angle than the smaller displays, is brighter, and provides a higher contrast ratio than the 17-inch display (though slightly lower than the 20-inch display).
Interestingly, there are a number of other differences between the 24-inch iMac and the smaller models besides some added size and weight. The 24-inch iMac uses a faster Nvidia GeForce 7300 GT graphics processor (or an optional Nvidia GeForce 7600 GT) in favor of the Intel GMA 950 (in the 1.83 GHz 17-inch iMac) or the ATI Radeon X1600 (in the 2.0 GHz 17-inch iMac and the 20-inch iMac). Instead of a pair of FireWire 400 ports, the 24-inch iMac features one FireWire 400 port and one FireWire 800 port. It also doubles the power of its internal digital amplifier from 12 watts in the 17- and 20-inch iMacs to 24 watts.
A Plethora of Possibilities — Configuring an iMac is a bit more confusing than in the past, since the low-end 1.83 GHz 17-inch iMac, priced at only $1,000, can be configured only with more RAM (512 MB standard, up to 2 GB), with an Apple Remote, and with a modem. It comes standard with a Combo drive, a 160 GB hard drive, Intel GMA 950 graphics processor, and AirPort Extreme, but not Bluetooth. This basic configuration was introduced in July 2006 for education buyers (see “New iMac Replaces eMac for Education“, 10-Jul-06); it’s now available to anyone (and it still costs $900 for educational customers).
The 2.0 GHz 17-inch iMac ($1,200) can be upgraded to a 2.16 GHz Core 2 Duo processor and comes with a 160 GB hard drive, upgradable to 500 GB. In contrast, the 20-inch ($1,500) and 24-inch ($2,000) iMacs both come with a 2.16 GHz Core 2 Duo processor, upgradable to 2.33 GHz, and they both have 250 GB hard drives, with 500 GB options. All three of these models come with an 8x double-layer SuperDrive, 1 GB of RAM (upgradable to 3 GB), and built-in AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth 2.0.
Standard equipment for all iMac models includes a built-in iSight camera, three USB 2.0 ports, two FireWire ports, Gigabit Ethernet, mini-DVI out, built-in stereo speakers, a built-in microphone, optical digital audio in/out jacks, Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, and iLife ’06.
Mac mini Speed Bumped — Although the also-updated Mac mini doesn’t share the iMac’s switch to the Core 2 Duo chip, Apple has speed-bumped the low-end Mac, dropping the Intel Core Solo processor entirely while keeping prices at their previous level. The $800 Mac mini moves from a 1.66 GHz Core Duo processor to a 1.83 GHz Core Duo processor, and the $600 model drops its 1.5 GHz Core Solo processor in favor of a dual-core 1.66 GHz Core Duo processor. All other specs remain the same.
One of the great myths, in my personal experience, is that when you pull up the ratty carpeting in an old house that you’ve just bought, you’ll find a gorgeous hardwood floor. We always find plywood, but perhaps our luck is changing, since peeking under the carpeting in Bare Bones Software’s BBEdit 8.5 has revealed some seriously nice planks.
For those recently recovering from amnesia-inducing accidents, BBEdit is a text editor aimed primarily at people who work with pure text files, often involving code of one sort or another: programmers, Web designers, network sysadmins, and so on. BBEdit’s long history (it was first released in 1992) means that the program’s feature set is extremely mature; on a number of occasions when I’ve asked Bare Bones Software’s Rich Siegel a question about something I didn’t see, he simply pointed me in the right direction.
With BBEdit 8.5, fewer users should be unaware of what the program can do, since although 8.5 is a significant upgrade with some extremely welcome new features, much of the effort has gone into revamping the interface to reveal features that most users never realized even existed.
Old Features, Revealed — BBEdit has long had a glossary feature for inserting frequently used bits of text. Or so Rich tells me – I hadn’t known that until now, and it took me a few minutes even to find it (a palette in Windows > Palettes) in the previous version of BBEdit. Bare Bones dusted this feature off, renamed it to Clippings, and gave it a top level menu. You can now create clippings from selected text, store clippings in sets, and access the clippings via a palette that offers searching with auto-completion. Clippings don’t have to be just static text and can have intelligent placeholders that insert variables like the date and time; these placeholders can even invoke AppleScript or Unix scripts.
Also completely revamped is BBEdit’s toolbar, whose graphic style hadn’t been updated in years. The toolbar now has larger, more Aqua-like buttons, and Bare Bones rearranged them for a more logical layout, moving some functions to a status bar at the bottom of the screen and removing some entirely.
But where the most work may have been done is in the Preferences window. Arguably, you don’t spend a lot of time there, but the program has myriad options that, if set properly, could improve your productivity. To that end, Bare Bones completely overhauled the preferences interface, making the entire window larger and the controls more readable, rearranging items and entire sets of preferences to make them more easily found. An alternative access method is now available as well, via a search field in a drawer. Enter a term, and BBEdit shows all the related options, then you can double-click one to jump to the appropriate set. I’ve already found this useful when attempting to locate preferences for new features.
BBEdit has long enabled users to set keyboard shortcuts for any menu item, though that option was oddly placed in the BBEdit application menu. That functionality now lives in the Menus preference pane, but more interestingly, checkboxes next to every menu and menu item in the program enable users to turn off unwanted items. For instance, I have no plug-ins that appear in the Tools menu, so now I can just turn the entire Tools menu off and reclaim the menu bar space. With so many menu items in BBEdit, I’m going to enjoy paring it down to functions I actually use.
Lastly, although I barely realized that either existed, Bare Bones significantly changed the interfaces to both the FTP Browser, which lets you open files from FTP sites (I instead always use Edit with BBEdit in an FTP client like Fetch or Interarchy), and the Disk Browser, which gives you an alternate interface to files in the Finder. If you use either, you’ll probably appreciate the redesigns, and although I don’t use them, the Disk Browser looks like a great candidate for providing a better interface to folders under version control; BBEdit’s tools for working with version control systems essentially just issue directives at the command line, rather than providing a conceptual interface to the version control functionality.
New Features — Most notable among BBEdit 8.5’s new features is “code folding,” which enables users to collapse ranges of text into tiny ellipsis lozenges so as to focus on other parts of a document. Code folding works on selected ranges or, when used with a particular language, it can automatically detect the appropriate areas to fold, such as the text within paragraph tags in HTML. Once text is folded into a lozenge, it can be moved around in the document or expanded via double-clicking.
Next, and of particular interest to us, is that BBEdit’s Find Differences feature now identifies changed lines and highlights the specific words within those lines that changed. In conjunction with BBEdit’s support for version control systems like Subversion, this feature makes BBEdit significantly more useful for comparing different versions of prose text files, where a “line” is a full paragraph of text, rather than just a relatively short line of code.
Speaking of prose text, anyone writing in BBEdit (including content for Web pages) will appreciate the addition of a contextual menu item for Look Up in Dictionary, and the capability to enable Check Spelling As You Type.
Although BBEdit is a highly stable application (it has crashed only twice on me in Mac OS X, with both crashes coming more than a year ago despite frequent use), BBEdit 8.5 adds a user-configurable auto-save feature, with automatic recovery should a crash or power failure cause a document to be closed without saving. Thankfully, BBEdit 8.5 does auto-recovery right, by automatically opening the backup file if BBEdit alone is launched, and automatically using the newer backup file in place of the original if the user launches BBEdit by double-clicking the file in question. (Compare this with Word, which opens the recovered file as a separate document, creating a massively stressful situation as you try to figure out the best course of action.)
Mac OS X automatically compresses old log files in gzip format, and BBEdit 8.5 can open and save such text files without requiring an additional expansion or compression step. This feature could also make it easier to share very large text files with other BBEdit users, since you can automatically create a compressed file by merely saving it with a .gz or .gzip extension.
BBEdit now supports a number of additional languages, including Ruby, several variants of SQL, and YAML. Plus, users can now adjust editing and display options (such as the color of comments, among much else) on a per-language basis, enabling anyone who works in multiple languages to have better customization. Codeless language modules are also more flexible now, enabling better handling of programming and tagging languages that BBEdit doesn’t support out of the box.
For those who regularly work with “camel case” variable names like firstName, BBEdit 8.5 now provides Control-Left/Right Arrow shortcuts for navigating to the next part of the word, rather than the way Option-Left/Right Arrow jumps to the next word. This setting is optional, and those who prefer the old horizontal scrolling setting for these keys can revert to it with special defaults.write commands.
Details — Along with the interface streamlining, BBEdit 8.5 sees a price streamlining with a cheaper price but no permanent cross-upgrades from other programs. The price is now only $125, with upgrades from previous versions of BBEdit 8.x priced at $30 and upgrades from earlier versions of BBEdit priced at $40. And for once, those nice round numbers aren’t the result of us rounding the prices for honesty’s sake; they’re what Bare Bones publishes.
A 30-day, fully-featured demo of BBEdit 8.5 is available as a 13.7 MB download; the addition of a registration code turns it into a registered copy. We’ve been using BBEdit 8.5 for only a few days now, and although it still isn’t writing articles for us, it’s a good upgrade for a program that many people consider an essential tool.
I’ve been pretty quiet about our recent transition to a new back-end infrastructure, mostly because I didn’t want to be talking about things that might change from week to week, and because I didn’t want to tempt fate any more than was necessary. Now, although we’re by no means finished with the changes we have planned, everything has stabilized sufficiently that I want to share what we’ve done.
From FileMaker/Lasso to LAMP — Our primary goal with this move was to transition our back-end databases from the highly evolved system that Geoff Duncan had built over many years to modern hardware and tools. Using then-current tools, Geoff had done wonders with FileMaker, Lasso, AppleScript, and yes, even HyperCard. However, performance wasn’t great, and only Geoff understood how the system worked and could modify it. Our long-planned content management system in Web Crossing hadn’t yet materialized, and in an effort to let Geoff extricate himself from day-to-day server babysitting, Glenn Fleishman offered to recreate Geoff’s system using a more-common and higher-performance combination of Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP, with some Perl code thrown in as well.
(Yes, that’s right, Linux. Glenn runs several beefy Linux boxes at digital.forest for his other sites, so that’s where we’re pointing tidbits.com now. We may someday purchase a second Xserve and move the system over to Mac OS X Server, where the same tools are also available, but that seems unnecessary at the moment.)
Glenn is an eternal optimist, and although his estimate of how long it would take to recreate the search and results features of the older database wasn’t far off, he didn’t realize just how many tweaky approaches we’ve accumulated over the years (heck, even I didn’t realize quite how much we were doing), so it took a bit longer to implement all our quirks. But at this point, we believe that the new system handles all the tasks the old one did, and we’ve thrown in some improvements that I want to call your attention to.
No More MailBITS — Long ago, MailBITS was meant as a sort of “letters to the editor” column (hence the name), but as the amount of email we received became greater than could reasonably be published, we turned it into collection of short pieces and directed most of the chatty messages to TidBITS Talk. I’ve long been uncomfortable with collecting entirely unrelated bits of information under the MailBITS rubric, so we eliminated MailBITS entirely and are now giving short articles equal status with longer ones (although shorter articles will still come earlier in the issue). We were already breaking the MailBITS column into its constituent chunks in the article database, so this move merely clarifies what is and isn’t an independent article in the email editions of TidBITS. (Take Control News and Hot Topics in TidBITS Talk remain collections, since their constituent items are all related.)
New Persistent URL Formats — You may have noticed that we’ve changed the persistent URL format that identifies every article and issue and article series we’ve ever created. Our previous format relied on the GetBITS CGI that Geoff Duncan wrote, along with a query for an article, issue, or series number. Since it was easy to change all these URLs in our new system we’ve implemented a new system suggested by Geoff that’s significantly more obvious. So, although our system will continue to respond appropriately to the old GetBITS URLs, the new URL formats to use when linking are:
Issue and Article Links — When we streamlined the boilerplate text in our issues as part of the transition, we initially removed the link at the top of the text edition that linked to the issue on the Web. After all, linking to the issue from the issue seemed redundant. However, a surprising number of people told use they used that link. Since all of our editions are now generated from Glenn’s database, it was easy to add not just a link to the issue, but also links for each article; you see those underneath the title of the issue and the title of each article.
Numbered URLs in the Text Edition — Everyone who subscribes to the full text edition of TidBITS has noticed that we started using square-bracketed numbers as a way of connecting link references to their URLs below the paragraphs. The reason for that is that we’re now using a variant of John Gruber’s Markdown format for writing our issues (Markdown was based in large part on the setext format we used to use, so it was an easy switch), and Markdown format uses the square-bracketed references as a way of identifying link text for embedding URLs in the HTML version of a file. In a fit of indecision, I decided to try leaving the references in the text edition for a few weeks to see what I and others thought. Although responses were mixed on TidBITS Talk, most of us on staff, including me and Tonya, disliked the way the references cluttered the text. In fact, we disliked it quite a lot, and as of this week, we’ve removed those references entirely in the text edition, returning to our previous method of including the URLs related to a paragraph directly below that paragraph.
In addition, the particular format we used for the URLs – with the square-bracketed number, then the URL in angle brackets, without a space between the two (because the space caused horrible wrapping on long URLs) – flushed out a bug in Microsoft Outlook 2003. Without a space or carriage return before the starting angle bracket, Outlook was incapable of recognizing the URLs as URLs, and wouldn’t make them hot. This problem will disappear for anyone using Outlook as of this issue; my apologies if you would prefer that we instead made Outlook itself disappear, but that’s a bit beyond our power at the moment.
A number of other people have reported all the links being broken in the issue, but that was unrelated to anything we did. It turns out that everyone with this problem used Yahoo Mail’s Web interface, and it was incorrectly parsing the closing angle bracket as part of the URL. I reported it to Yahoo and they said it should be fixed as of this week.
Centralized Subscription Interface — So you’re thinking, “Maybe I’ll give that HTML edition a try. I wonder how I switch?” Good question, and before this week, the answer was significantly uglier than I liked. However, anticipating lots of people wanting to switch, I was able to work with Michael Landis of Web Crossing to create a centralized subscription interface. Before I point you to it, though, some background.
Although many people don’t realize it, by virtue of being subscribed to TidBITS, TidBITS Talk, Take Control Announcements, or any other of our mailing lists, you have an account on our Web Crossing server. You received your TidBITS account information when you signed up for the list, or when I added you manually during our big mailing list move several years ago (see “Important News for All Subscribers: Mailing List Migration,” 20-Dec-04). Don’t worry if you’ve lost that information; you can use your subscribed email address as your username, and you can always request a new password.
Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), you need to log in to our server to be able to manage your subscriptions; otherwise anyone could subscribe or unsubscribe you to our mailing lists. But whereas the subscription interface was awkward and confusing before, we’ve now reworked it so you can see and subscribe to all the public mailing lists we offer, including all the editions of TidBITS, TidBITS Talk, Take Control Announcements, and even our TidBITS translations. You can also unsubscribe from any mailing lists (including some which are private, such as the update notification lists for particular Take Control ebooks) to which you might be subscribed. And for those lists where digest subscriptions make sense, TidBITS Talk in particular, you can switch to and from digest mode. It’s all done with checkboxes; select a checkbox to subscribe, deselect it to unsubscribe.
Our new Manage Mailing List Subscriptions page handles everything; the only trick is logging in. If you have logged in before, our server should remember you, thanks to a cookie that prevents you from needing to login repeatedly unless you explicitly wish to log out because you’re using a public computer. If you haven’t yet logged in, or if you logged out after your last visit, enter your email address in the field at the top of Manage Mailing List Subscriptions page and click Update to load a login page where you can either login or request a new password by clicking the Problems Logging In? link. (The next iteration of this interface, which may appear as soon as later this week, will make it possible for people new to TidBITS to subscribe as well.)
We have more plans already in the works, and I’ll be sure to alert you to new services as they’re ready for the real world. Thanks for reading TidBITS, as always!
Airline Ticket Ebook Now Available in Print — Anyone who’s interested in reading “Take Control of Booking a Cheap Airline Ticket” on paper, rather than onscreen, can now purchase a print-on-demand version of the book, although we strongly recommend using the links in the ebook when it comes time to visit booking sites on the Web. Since pricing is based on page count, the 152-page book costs $13 in black-and-white, or $37 in color. The overall costs have dropped, though, since QOOP now offers USPS Priority Mail and USPS Media Mail options for shipping. Priority Mail is almost exactly the same price as DHL Ground, but the book might arrive as much as three days sooner, whereas Media Mail is less than half the cost, but shipping might take more than a week. As before, to access the print-on-demand ordering link, click the Check for Updates button in your copy of the ebook. You can learn more and see pictures of what the print-on-demand copies look like on our Web site.
Comments on: Mac to School 2006: The $2,000 Challenge — Dan Pourhadi’s back-to-school article elicits praise and discussion of laptop memory. 7 messages
Preserving digital media across the ages — Remember those CDs you burned your important files onto? They may not last as long as you once thought. Readers talk about ways of preserving data, both for your own backups and for the next generations. 5 messages
Learning to programme — What advice can TidBITS readers (many of whom are programmers) give to someone who’s looking to become a programmer? What languages should one focus on, and what type of background is needed? 25 messages
Programming cage match: Languages or Discipline? Is the large number of programming languages due to sloppiness and corner-cutting by developers? The discussion also moves from programming languages to spoken languages and how each evolve. 24 messages
Pathetic nostalgia for old CDs/DVDs — You probably have a box somewhere in your office or house, filled to the brim with old data CDs and DVDs that you’re never going to need… but you don’t have the heart to just throw it away. What do you do with it? 5 messages
Is iPod the panacea? The iPod is regarded as a current pinnacle of design by some, but is its reliance on few buttons actually a benefit? 14 messages