Dragon Express – $50 – Mac App Store
The problem with most dictation apps is that they are perceived as rather serious bits of software. It’s the sort of software, that you’d use to write your novel, or perhaps write up some scientific notes or that deposition for your court case. It’s certainly not the first thing you think of when you decide to update your Facebook status. But it’s precisely for updates on social media sites,and all those other real-world day-to-day tasks that Dragon Express has been created. This is dictation software for ‘everyone else’.
Unlike other dictation software, which you start when you want to dictate some lengthy piece of text, Dragon Express is designed to always be at hand. It’s activated by clicking on its icon in the menu bar or by hitting a preconfigured hotkey. Then all you need to do is dictate your text and direct the output to the application of your choice. By default, Dragon Express can send your dictated text to the clipboard, Spotlight, Google, your e-mail, face book or twitter. When you’ve finished dictating you can hit a hotkey such as Command-2 to capture your text to the clipboard.
In practice I found Dragon Express to be a a competent, but not terrific, dication app. The enrolment procedure only takes about five minutes, but if you decide to use a start using a different microphone then you have to repeat that process. It’s also worth noting that if you switch microphones (from say the internal microphone to a headset) then you lose all the text in the dictation window – found out about that one the hard way. Accuracy of dictation was lousy when using my MacBook Pro’s built-in microphone (in a very quiet office), but improved drastically when I plugged in my Logitech USB headset. Having to wear a headset to dictate text, cramps the spontaneity that this app is supposed to foster.
I can fully understand why Dragon decided to create this application. They want to tap into the home market and create something that has real-world use. However the logic is flawed; who in their right mind would use dictation software to bang out a 140 character tweet? And given issues surrounding the accuracy of the dictation, would you really trust it with your Facebook status updates? I’m not convinced, by the ‘social’ leanings of this application, but I think it’s perfectly good for things like email correspondence. It’s also worth pointing out, that at an (introductory) price of $50, it’s certainly not cheap and you’d have to consider if you needed the long list of extra features in the full suite which costs $189. An interesting application then, but not the solution to R.S.I. that I was hoping for.
Final Cut Pro – Apple – $299 (Trial available)
You may recall a certain bun fight that happened a couple of months ago. Apple released a brand new version of their best-selling video editing software Final Cut Pro. They had, they said, rebuilt it from the ground up, because the old code was well past its use-by date. Fair enough, you’d have thought. Only on release the software was nearly universally derided for being little more than iMovie Pro. Video editors the world over took to the Internet and spat gobs of wordy venom at Apple. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but it was free global advertising for what is, let’s not forget, very much a niche product.
Analog – $7.99 – RealMac
When I was a kid I got my first camera – a Kodak 126 Instamatic. It took little rolls of film that came in plastic containers, each with 26 exposures. When you’d taken all your photos you’d drop the film off at the chemists and a week later you got your photos and your negatives back. To be honest, it was a pain in the arse. It was expensive and, due to the costs of getting photos developed and printed, a painfully drawn-out process. I do not miss the mechanics of film photography but I do miss the soul that those old photos had.
When Hipstamatic came out for the iPhone it was in response to the somewhat sterile photographs that the iPhone (and indeed all digital cameras) take. With Hipstamatic on your iPhone you could reclaim a little bit of that old film photography feeling, even if it was the result of carefully created effects and not the random effects of light on cellulose and chemicals on paper. Hipstamatic went on to become a phenomenon, inspiring countless clones and knock-offs including most recently Instagram.
Up until recently however there wasn’t any way of bringing those retro photo styles to your Mac and, if you wanted a Lomo or Holga look to your photos you had to use Lightroom or Photoshop. Analog from RealMac Software is the first proper attempt to bring retro photography retouching tools to the Mac desktop and more importantly to everyday users, not just Photoshop experts.
Analog comes with 20 effects built-in and 14 different frames. To use the app you simply drag your photo into the window, select an effect, choose a border and export when you’re ready. The focus is clearly on simplicity first and foremost – there is no way to alter the effects or borders – all you can do is rotate, crop, filter, border and export. If you’re the sort of person who likes fiddling with settings then this is not the application for you – if you’re the sort of person that just wants a quick and easy way to enhance an otherwise dull photo then you’ll love it.
The effects themselves are somewhat disappointing. There’s some classics in there, such as cross process, Lomo, Fuji and Holga, but none of them slap you in the face with their funkiness. Best of the bunch are Kyoto (nice light leak filter), Lomia and Noir. The borders are fairly unexciting too, with the usual smattering of Polaroid style squares and film negative embellishments. Once you’ve settled on a filter and/or border, you can export your photo, send it via email or upload to CloudApp, Facebook, Flickr or Picassa.
RealMac have endevoured to bring some variety to the filters by adding random elements to them. Light leaks appear in different sizes and locations, dust and scratches are positioned randomly and grain is applied differently each time, so it’s worth clicking on and off the same effect a few times to achieve the look you want. It’s also worth adding that’s a well written application that performs well and is bug-free.`
We’ve all come to see the possibilities of retro-styled digital photo retouching, but the problem is that apps like Hipstamatic hammered the living shit out of the concept and Instagram slammed its coffin shut. For someone with no technical expertise at all and a taste for cheesy photo effects, Analog will be a big hit. However if you’d rather your photos didn’t look like everyone else’s, or you don’t feel the need to festoon your snapshots in light leaks and bokeh (no matter how simple it is), then this is not the app for you.
With over a billion monthly pageviews, Reddit has rapidly risen in popularity and is now one of the elite top 100 most viewed websites on the Internet. Its rise coincided with the implosion of Digg and the disappearance of Delicious amongst link spam and chronic apathy. While both Digg and Delicious may yet turn things around, Reddit’s currently sitting pretty amongst the link-sharing sites thanks to a great user-administrated culture, simple link voting tools and, amazingly, popular ‘sub-reddits’ such as science and atheism.
As functional as Reddit is, however, the site is certainly not a thing of beauty. It features a sparse text-based layout that eschews all graphic adornment as needless frippery. This means that the site’s quick and efficient, but also very bland to use. Well now Mac users can have the best of both worlds, thanks to the launch of Envelope – the first full-blown Reddit client.
There’s little doubt that Envelope has been heavily influenced by the look of the new Mail client in Lion and by Reeder the RSS feed client. On the left of the screen you get the topic headings in the Reddit section, on the right you get content and/or comments. To change to a different sub-reddit, you just click on the link at the bottom of the topic pane or alternatively you can hot-key back and forth between them.
The main panel can be configured to show a post’s content, its comments or both in either vertical or horizontal modes. Neither of the hybrid modes is perfect,particularly if you’re viewing a picture posting of some kind, because there’s no way to zoom in or out of any pictures. Also, there’s no reflowing of text in the comments panel, so you usually have to scroll horizontally to view all the text in a comment.
While Envelope borrows many design cues from Reeder, it lacks that app’s brutal attention to detail. Text is not rendered in a very attractive way and while you can configure the font size and choose between either Helvetica Neue or Lucida Grande to display text, neither of them look particularly great in this context. It doesn’t help that there’s no gutter around the text so it tends to set right next to the edges, adding to the cluttered feel of the app.
If a post you’ve clicked on references a web page, then Envelope renders that in the main content window, but again, there’s no text reflow so you have to scroll horizontally to read all the text if you’re in vertical display mode. YouTube and Vimeo videos will play happily in the content window, because it uses the WebKit (Safari) browser engine and so will display anything your browser does. This means you don’t have to keep flicking between browser tabs.
Commenting is probably Envelope’s strongest feature. Comments are rendered clearly and you can up or downvote directly from the window. If you want to reply to a post, you can do that too, but you’ll see none of the formatting tips that you’ll find on the website, so unless you know your Reddit shortcodes off by heart, you’ll need to reference the website.
Amongst the other quirks we noticed while testing the app was the fact that the full-screen button for Lion disappears from the button bar once you use it. Also comments when viewed all conform to the same 640pixel wide column, no matter which view mode your in – it would surely make more sense to have this reflow across the width of the screen? Even worse, there’s no indication in the topics panel of which articles you’ve read – formatting does not change once you’ve read something.
This is a promising application, but it feels unfinished and sloppy for a first release. If the developer was aiming for the look and feel or Reeder, Mail or Sparrow then he fell well short of the mark. There are bugs, display issues, inconsistent navigation and strange formatting errors everywhere. With some time and attention to detail I feel that this app could equal the quality of the afore-mentioned apps and over time I’m sure the developer will take care of the issues mentioned in this review, but at the moment I find it hard to recommend this over simply visiting the website in your browser.
Envelope – $4 – App Store
Hunting for domain names is a pretty depressing task. Normally you have a bit of a think, scribble some word ideas down and then search for those domains on your favourite domain registration site. Occasionally you get lucky, but most of the time you spend an hour or two hunting and then inevitably end up doing for the domain you thought of first.
Well fret no more, because the excellent Domain Name Analyser takes all the pain out of domain hunting. It can search for domains based on keywords and templates and can check for the availability of anything it turns up at the same time. It can search on a huge variety of international domains and you can add to the list if required. It’ll also check domains about to expire, past expiry or even newly registered.
When HP decided to pull the pin on their promising TouchPad tablet, it lead to some extraordinary events. Faced with warehouses full of virtually valueless stock, HP gave retailers permission to slash the price of their WebOS powered devices. The fire sale lead to long queues outside electrical retailers all around the world as word spread on Twitter and the link-sharing sites that the $99 was now the sort of bargain you simply couldn’t ignore. Within about 24 hours all the units had been sold and thousands of people regretted not hearing about it sooner.
The TouchPad debacle lead to increased interest in budget tablets and soon the social networks were abuzz with news of another tablet which, while it was nowhere near as good, still represented excellent value for money. Here in Australia the ZTE9 tablet was being sold by local mobile telco Optus as the MyTab for $99AUD with a 6Gb data package. Within about 36 hours all stocks of the tablet had gone and all retailers both high street and online had sold out. As a Mac and iPhone using geek, I was interested in finding out just what use a $99 tablet is, so I picked one up from electrical retail chain Dick Smiths via their online store. With postage and packing it cost me the grand total of $129. Two days later I took delivery of my cheapo tablet and started to take it through its paces.
There have been a few occasions where I have regretted purchasing software, but the number one occasion on which I mutter under my breath and fling an exotic curse or two in the direction of software companies, is when something I paid good money for gets released for free. Skitch is just such an app – I bought it in the App Store about six months ago and now it’s in there for free because Evernote bought it. My loss is your gain and the fact that it’s now free does not detract from the fact that Skitch is a great app.
Skitch is a screen-grab tool of the same type as LittleSnapper. It enables you to grab fullscreen, app or Finder windows, frames, cross-haired selection or cam images either via hotkey or the menubar icon. Once you’ve got your image in Skitch’s view window, you can manipulate and/or modify it and then transfer it somewhere else. You get a selection of drawing tools to doodle on your image with (boxes, circles, speech bubbles, text boxes etc) and useful features such as rotate, resize and crop.
Once you’re happy with your annotated image, you can transfer it somewhere else. You can save it out to your hard drive, email it, Bluetooth it and upload to Evernote, or Flickr or any FTP service. Skitch is the sort of app that’s going to have wide appeal – if you see something online you can grab a screenshot, annotate it and get it online with minimum fuss. It was a good deal when it cost $20, now that it’s free you’d have to be crazy not to grab it.
There’s been some real innovation lately with Twitter clients, with slick interfaces that reflect the nature of the micro-blogging environment. The best Twitter clients enable you to flick easily between trends, check mentions and retweets simply and navigate your way through the users that you’re following.
TweetComb is a great looking and beautifully designed free Twitter client for Android Honeycomb. The main Dashboard screen is split three ways and can display your Timeline, Mentions, Direct Messages, Profile, Search and Favourites as you wish. It’s a great interface for swift and efficient navigation of all those accounts that you’re following.
The app supports the usual Twitter goodies such as Bit.ly, Twitlonger, Twitpic and yFrog and updates in the background so you always get the freshest feeds when you check back. Tweetcomb can be set to notify you when a fresh tweet appears in the timeline, but if you’re following more than a couple of people this can get annoying. It’s a great Twitter client for tablet users, although it’s somewhat disappointing that it’s only available for Honeycomb and not any earlier iterations of Android..
The web is booming like never before. More and more businesses are setting up online portals and funky new web services are starting up every day. Which is all well and good, but it also means that web surfers spend a lot of time entering the exact same details into online forms over and over again. But it doesn’t have to be that way – by installing a form filler add-on for your browser you can complete mundane form entries in a single click.
itDJ – Free – Macroplant
There are some excellent free DJing suites available for the Mac, some great budget ones and a redundant record box full of full-blown commercial apps. Currently Mac owners can download Virtual DJ Home and Mixx in the App Store, both of which have large user bases and, in the case of Virtual DJ, a clear upgrade path to a more comprehensive package should a bedroom DJ decide to move up to the DJ booth.
itDJ certainly has the feel of a free app and while I realise that this means we ought to take it easier on the software, there are other free DJ apps available for the Mac and itDJ has to be reviewed with this in mind. So the first thing to say about this software is that the interface is all over the place – metal styled knobs, old school folders and nasty buttons. It’s probably best to say that it isn’t a thing of beauty but I’d forgive the ugliest of interfaces if the functionality made up for it.
In terms of layout you get a vaguely Serato Itch style interface, with a couple of decks at the top and the music list at the bottom of the screen. There’s pitch and gain controls for each deck, along with EQ knobs per-deck. Music you cue up by dragging it onto either of the decks is shown at the top of the screen in over-lapping waveforms – red for the left deck and blue for the right. There’s a master BPM setting in the middle of the decks along with the obligatory cross-fader. It’s a fairly ramshackle arrangement.
In terms of sonic goodies, there’s actually some fairly cool tools to play with. Principle amongst these is a neat beat mixer that enables you to chop a track up in 2, 4, 8 or 16 beat chunks. It works surprisingly well and syncs nicely between beat modes. There’s also an effects tab with the obligatory reverb and flanger and a wahwah which can be set to match beats and works well when combined with a loop.
The loops and cues tab, an essential tool for any digital DJ these days, is a bit hit-and-miss. This comes down to the fact that itDJ’s beat detection isn’t exactly world-beating and so while the cue points function well, getting a loop on the money is not guaranteed. There is a cool loop shifter slider that enables you to flick your 1/4, 1/2, 1, 2, 4 or 8 bar loop up and down the track.
Many digital DJs either don’t know how to beat-match tracks or choose not to and so the Sync feature is all-important. We found this to be lacking – unless there was a crystal clear bass or high-hat for the sync to latch onto, it failed to find the beat. In comparison to Virtual DJ Home’s syncing facility, it’s woefully inadequate. This wouldn’t be so bad if it was easy to mix the ‘old fashioned’ way, but the virtual decks are non-functional and did nothing no matter how we moved the mouse pointer on them, so to beatmatch you have to use the top waveform to nudge, speed up or slow down the track and it simply doesn’t work in any useful way.
Hidden behind a toggled FX Panel button are four sample decks, 16 effects slots which you can fill with your own police sirens and ‘woo-yea’s and a full sequencer. The latter seemed like a vaguely bizarre thing to add to a DJ mixing application and its painfully simple design wouldn’t add much to any set beyond, possibly, getting you out of trouble if a track comes to its end before you’re ready to cue up the next one. itDJ also appears to have some basic support for MIDI mixing panels, but it’s not clear which ones it supports or indeed if you need to do the button mapping yourself.
The bottom line is that this digital DJing package simply doesn’t cut it in any meaningful way. If I was being charitable I’d say it was a step up from using iTunes to DJ with – but only just. Given just how good the also free Mixx and Virtual DJ Home are and given the fact that many people get Traktor LE free with their digital DJ decks or MIDI panels, you’d have to be fairly desparate to consider using itDJ. It does have a nice icon though.
In the past, during previous released of Mac operating systems, the ability to customise the desktop was built right into the code. As the years passed, however, Apple locked its operating system down more and more and it soon became possible to update only with specialist tweaking applications. With Lion, if you want to fully customise your icons you’ll need CandyBar, but if you want to customise the rest of the desktop then you’ll need an app like GeekTool.
Designed to bring system information directly to the desktop, GeekTool is an extendible PrefPane that enables you to display various kinds of information on your desktop through three default plug-ins: file plugin, image mode and shell mode. While it’s perfectly possible to get deep into the customisation yourself, through some basic coding, you can also download pre-written setups for GeekTool called GeekLets.
To get an idea of what’s possible, have a look at the screenshot library on the official website. These show-off the extra large clocks, calendars and system information that you can embed directly on the desktop. So if you’ve had a hankering to step beyond the default wallpaper, icons and desktop furniture that Apple supply, you can download it directly from the app store and tweak to your heart’s content.
XSlimmer – $14.99 – LateNiteSoft
In the modern era of operating systems, no programmer creates every facet of their application – frameworks and programming environments are utilised and libraries (usually created by the developer of the OS) are deployed. While this means that a programmer doesn’t have to be fluent in binary to create software, it does mean that many applications carry a lot of unnecessary bloat. This bloat means that they take up more space on your hard drive and, more importantly, take longer to load.
So the whole point of XSlimmer is to strip out the unnecessary code from Mac applications and save them out in a slimline version with the end result being speedier loading times. The code that XSlimmer targets are the bits that aren’t relevant to your Mac and therefore never get executed – these are located inside the Universal Binaries. In addition the software will expunge all those redundant foreign languages that just unnecessarily hog hard drive space.
To compress an application you just drag it into the main window and XSlimmer will then analyse the app in question. Before any compression takes place, the software checks its software blacklist to make sure compression won’t break the app, then it determines if there are any space savings to be made. Once it’s happy it will determine how much space you’ll save and you can decide to proceed with the sudden weight loss diet or not. For safety reasons, XSlimmer will back up your applications before compressing them so that if anything goes wrong you can just revert the app back.
By way of a test we compressed the latest version of iMovie which weighed in at 407Mb. We did a test load of the software and it took 25.4 seconds to start up on a 2009 MacBook Pro with 8Gb of memory. Then we put iMovie through the XSlimmer wringer and it emerged the other side at a svelte 332Mb. Not the most massive massive space saving, but we were pleasantly surprised by the load time – it now took just 16 seconds to load on the same system. We had no issues using the application either – the slimming procedure didn’t appear to have harmed iMovie.
The principle downside to this application is that most of the apps we were most interested in compressing in order to speed up loading times, were on the blacklist. Most of the Adobe CS5.5 suite was ruled out (including Dreamweaver, Flash, InDesign and Photoshop) and so was the whole of the Microsoft Office 2011 suite. iTunes was also blacklisted, but Pages and Numbers were given the green light as was (surprisingly) XSlimmer itself. So where it can be deployed there are useful load time and hard drive space reductions to be made, but don’t expect to be able to trim those traditionally sluggish apps from Adobe and Microsoft, they don’t want to be the biggest losers.
It might be under assault from services like Twitter and Facebook, but the humble RSS feed remains one of the most compellingly useful ways of extracting useful content from sites and displaying it in a readable format. The majority of websites have RSS capabilities, thanks to default integration in services like WordPress and Blogger and most web publishers understand that it’s a useful way of getting your content out there.
The RSS feed received a welcome revitalisation when Google created their own web based Reader and enabled users to add predefined feeds from a large selection of user-created content or to just add feeds from your favourite websites on an ad-hoc basis. Google Reader quickly became a de facto standard and is the preferred method by which many news feed readers manage their subscriptions.
There has of course been a long history of good application-based news readers for the Mac, though most people will only have encountered RSS feeds in Mail, with Apple’s own obligatory news updates. In recent years terrific applications have evolved and you have plenty of choice when it comes to getting your news fix. We’ve taken a look at five of the best applications – free and commercial.
The Internet has brought revolution to the worlds of music and films, altering forever the commercial landscape and bringing once mighty chain stores to their knees. Books took a kicking too, but it wasn’t online sales that killed the book shops, but eBooks for devices like the Kindle and the iPad. Now that same revolution is sweeping through the world of comics – whether it will affect the already niche world of the comicbook store remains to be seen – but it is certainly opening up the world of graphic novels to a whole new audience.
There are plenty of comicbook readers available for both Windows and Mac and we’ve tried most of them. Some, like ComicBookLover for the Mac have received a fair bit of coverage on the other blogs, but we found that particular application seriously lacking in just about every way. So we’d like to introduce you to the best comicbook readers for Windows and for Mac.