The APEXvj project is an interesting one – it started life last year as an online browser based visual effects suite. The idea being that you connect your laptop to a projector and add some funky visual flare to your event or party. The developers have been hard at work on their creation and the good news is that APEXvj is now available in a downloadable standalone format.
The new desktop APEXvj enables you to create cool visuals for music on SoundCloud, YouTube or Audiotool, or input via Microphone or hard drive. You can now create playlists, adjust visuals, best of all, save your creations for later playback or sharing. The app’s a cross-platform Adobe Air creation which is still in beta. It’s completely free and well worth a look if you’d like your visuals to match your mad beat-matching skills. Aiiiight.
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.
Dropbox is an incredibly useful facility, whether you’re happy to plod along with the free service or pony up for the larger gigabyte subscriptions. Increasing numbers of apps now support Dropbox syncing, whereby your store your app’s preference and configuration data in Dropbox and it’s made available to any other device you connect to your Dropbox.
Now app developer Joe Workman has released DropboxAppSync for Mac, which enables you to leverage this syncing facility for any application. This neat utility will relocate your data into a special Application Support directory in Dropbox and then create the correct symlinks to fool your application into looking elsewhere for its configuration data. You run it once on the source machine to copy the data over to the cloud and then repeat the process on your other machines.
Apple often comes in for abuse regarding the applications they ship with their operating systems. They certainly copped a bit of flack for the implementation of Safari on iOS devices and while I wouldn’t go as far as saying it was a bad mobile browser, it’s certainly a little dull. There are of course many alternative browsers already in the App Store, such as Mercury, Opera, Atomic and Skyfire, but Dolphin is, as far as I’m concerned, the first real contender.
Dolphin has landed on iOS by way of Android, where it enjoys a well deserved reputation as being innovative, stable and beautifully designed. It works equally well on iPhone and iPad, but we took it for a roadtest on iPhone because if you can get the browser experience working well on that diminutive screen, then you’re onto a winner.
For all the bells and whistles that you get with modern web browsers, there are actually very few features that have crossed over into the mainstream. Principle amongst these is tabbed browsing and this is something that Dolphin handles particularly well. Rather than creating ever tinier tabs as you open more of them up, they stay the same regulation size and you simply swipe backwards and forwards through the list to the one you want. It’s effective and slick and entirely intuitive.
Swiping left or right on the main browser window reveals the two main toolbars. On the left, you get all your bookmarks and on the right you get the control bar featuring full screen, downloads, gestures, clear data and settings buttons. As with everything else in Dolphin, it’s really well implemented and fits in perfectly with the whole iOS ecosystem in a way that other browsers simply don’t.
At the bottom of the browser window is a navigational toolbar that features backward and forwards buttons, a gesture toggle, bookmarks, coverflow and URL management. If you’re not a fan of pushing buttons, then you might like to give the gestures ago – these are actually easy to use and close at hand and if you don’t like the way they’re set up then you can change them.
Along with tabs, one of the other features to enter mainstream use is the Speed Dial. Originally introduced by Opera, these enable you to keep your absolute favourite websites close at hand. Create a new tab and you’ll see your speed dial buttons ready for access. The design of the speed dial page is crisp and clean and perfectly designed for podgy fingers instead of clicky pointers.
Tapping on the address bar initiates the on-screen keyboard so you can manually enter an address. So far so obvious. However where Dolphin differs from Safari is that the keyboard is tailored to URL entry and features prominent .com, period and back slash buttons along with special buttons for .net, .org, .edu and space. Underneath the address window are a list of your most recently visited websites, in case you want to return to any of them. It’s all imminently useful and cleverly designed to make mobile web browsing a joy and not a grind.
One of my favourite features in Dolpin is the Webzine. This is like a mobile version of an RSS feed in which you can add up eight content-focused websites to your reading list. Feeds are organised in broad categories such as news, health, science & tech and entertainment and you simply choose your favoured feeds from the supplied list. The only drawback to this great feature is that you’re only allowed eight webzines in total and you can’t ‘roll your own’ – you have to choose from the pre-defined list.
Browsing the web on a smartphone sized device is always going to be a testing experience – those tiny screens were simply never designed to show sprawling web pages. And yet with a browser like Dolphin you don’t feel restricted by that screen size in the way that you do with Safari – particularly if you use the fullscreen mode. Apple’s Mobile Safari had all but beaten the desire to browse the web on my iPhone out of me, but Dolphin’s a game changer and has now taken a coveted place on my phone’s main dock. If you struggle with mobile web browsing too or if you’re simply frustrated by Safari – give Dolphin a go and I’d surprised if you went back.
If you’re anything like us, then your Windows archiving software doesn’t extend much further than the Shareware version of WinRar. However you can now bring a bit of interface sparkle to your file archiving pursuits, thanks to ZipArchiver from Hamstersoft. This stunning looking little utility looks terrific but also features a finely tuned compression algorithm so you can squeeze your files down to their maximum extent. It supports all popular compression formats ZIP, Rar, 7z etc and even includes special functions (preset) for e-mail, RapidShare, CD, DVD, and others.
We are, it must be said, loving all these Metro styled apps that have been appearing of late for Windows. Taking their design cues from the great Windows Mobile interface, they utilise slabs of colour in what (if I was feeling pretentious, which I am) I’d say were influenced by the work of modernist artist Mondrian. Anyway – they not only look great, but they’re very useable too and ultimately that’s the main thing isn’t it?
MetroViewer, which has been developed by SalvatoreG is a Windows image viewer with a funky Metro styled interface. It has a drag-and-drop interface and includes a navigational interface so that you can quickly zip through a directory of images until you find the one you’re after. It has a multi-lingual interface and is, of course, free.
The information bar at the top of the window enables you to view (and copy to clipboard) the path, dimensions, size and extension of the image you’re viewing. The navigation bar can be minimised to hover-mode and there’s an auto-update feature so you can stay on top of new releases. What are you waiting for – go get it. Incidentally – for a sneak peek of what the next release of MetroViewer may well look like, check this out.
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.
Windows has Explorer and OSX has Finder – they both do the same job, but they both go about it in totally different ways. Finder has evolved over the years into a flexible file management tool and, in its latest iteration under Lion, sports some genuinely useful refinements such as improved sorting and folder merging.
However there’s always room for improvement and TotalFinder from BinaryAge aims to fill that gap. It has two features in particular that in thensekves makes it worth purchasing – tabbed windows and dual mode. When you want to copy or move files in Finder you need to open up one window with the source files in it and then create a second Finder window showing the destination. It’s all a bit crude. With TotalFinder however, you can quickly flick to dual mode and enjoy having two folders side-by-side.
Amongst the applications other party tricks are a system file toggle, default ‘folders on top’ in file listings, cut and paste files and a visor mode that gets you instant access to TotalFinder whatever application you’re in at the time. It’s a mature bit of software and the ideal tool for anyone that does a lot of file management or who simply wants to improve Finder. It costs a very reasonable $18 and there’s a 14 day trial version in case your hesitant.
Here at Geekosity Towers (oh alright, it’s a suburban home in semi-rural New South Wales) we have a Mac Mini in the living room which runs EyeTV and Plex. Between the two of them most of our multimedia digital entertainment itches get scratched. However the bottom line is that all we really use Plex for is watching movies on – we hardly ever touch the streaming online video, the pictures function’s pointless, the music facility’s clunky as hell and even the weather module’s crap. So given these requirements, a solution that combined iTunes with Plex’s video facility would be very welcome.
Enter stage left, iFlicks which the developers undramatically suggest enables you to “easily import your Video Collection into iTunes.” The description sells the end result short. What iFlicks enables you to do is import your videos into the comforting world of iTunes, re-encode them if necessary, download all the relevant meta-data (covers, IMDB scores etc), watch them and export them to iPad, iPod or iPhone if required.
Let’s break that feature list down a bit further. Firstly, the iFlicks is a separate application that functions outside iTunes – its job is to ease the transition of your TV and film entertainment. Services enable you to encode your video in a format best suited to the medium you’ll be playing it back on. Meta-data that’s downloaded automatically for each TV show episode or feature film is added in an iTunes friendly format.
Meta-data downloads tap into either themoviedb.org or TheTVDB.com depending on whether you’re working on a film or TV show. Lots of useful info is sucked up from these two mighty databases and added to your newly converted video files. In addition a funky cover is downloaded and embedded for use in a funky Cover Flow environment.
iFicks can convert video for iTunes, Front Row, Apple TV & Apple TV 2, iPod, iPad & iPad 2, iPod, iPod Nano and iPod Classic along with iPhone and iPod Touch. You simply drag the offending video file into the main window, choose a preset and destination location for the finished article. Obviously processing speed of conversions depends entirely on the source material and the Mac you’re running it on, some won’t need any conversion and can be added directly, others such as MKV files will take longer – we converted a 4Gb MKV and it took four hours on our 2010 Mac Mini.
iFlicks is an impressive application and the ideal addition to a home media centre setup. Some may prefer the cloistered environment of something like Plex, but from where we’re sitting, embedding all this content into iTunes is an elegant solution that cuts out the middleman. If you simply want to fold your video collection into iTunes and don’t need the fluff of a full media centre application it’s the ideal solution.
iFlicks is available online or in the App Store and costs $22 – there’s a 30 day trial version available on the website.
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.
It might have a funny name (it’s a reference to horology – the art of measuring time) but this free Windows clock is a worthy addition to anyone’s desktop. Released by amine5a5 and available for free download over at DeviantArt, Horloger is a customisable clock/date app.
Horloger comes with five built-in skins configurable through the settings windows, including a retro-styled ticker clock and a Metro styled clock/date design. You can tweak the placement and transparency of any of the clocks and the main designs are available in large or small versions. The date and time can be configured to your taste and has support for ten languages.
Bootcamp’s a useful way of booting into Windows for Mac users, but forcing that reboot isn’t the easiest process on Mac. At the moment you need to fire up the System Preferences app, select the Windows partition as the startup disk and then reboot. When you’re in Windows, you can boot back to OSX from a handy shortcut located in the system tray – which is far more convenient. Also, selecting your Bootcamp partition as the startup disk means that every time your Mac starts it will boot to that particular partition.
Bootchamp is a small free utility that emulates the Windows system tray shortcut in OSX. More than that, however, it emulates the Option key shortcut on Mac startup which leaves your OSX partition as the default and only boots to Window on that occasion. It’s fast and convenient and one of those features we feel should have been built into OSX.
[Via kvachon on Reddit]
Writing tools for PCs have really come full circle now. As companies like Microsoft added feature on top of feature, the ‘word processor’ changed from being a simple text tool and morphed into bloated desktop publishing applications. The fact that most people used them to simply write letters to the local council and shopping lists seemed to escape the attention of the software companies for a long time.
Minimalist writing apps are the polar opposite of the Microsoft Words and Apple Pages and Abiwords of this world. Where word processors sport myriad menu bars, they sport none. You will not be able to embed an ActiveX slideshow into your page, add a realtime horoscope or render the page in five shades of gold. The main feature of these apps is a gloriously simple blank canvas.
ZenWriter ($9.95) from Beenokle is equipped with the usual array of writing-centric tools. It has a simple page layout, with a brief menu list on the right. The background can be switched from ‘day’ to ‘night’ modes (black on white or white on black) and you can choose from one of five screen fonts according to your tastes. There’s a selection of tasteful (and not so tasteful) backgrounds and you can toggle typing noises on or off. Text is pleasingly centred in the middle of the screen and there’s a spell checker on hand if required. It’s a great little app – well written and bang on task for hammering out words.
OmmWriter Dāna has enjoyed considerable success on the Mac platform thanks in part to an incredibly uncluttered interface. Windows users can download the original version for free or purchase version two for whatever they choose to pay (the average is $7). The software itself is virtually identical to its Mac counterpart and makes much of the restful sonic soundscapes that can be played while writing – in fact you’re advised that it’s best used with headphones when you first start it. There are a series of tasteful backgrounds, four fonts to choose from, four font sizes and the main window can be scaled according to your tastes. Try the free one and if it appeals, pony up for version two.
Dark Room makes ZenWriter and Ommwriter look like Adobe InDesign. This free application takes minimalism to new heights, presenting you with a stark and gloriously retro green on black interface with the old courier font. This can be changed to any other font in the preferences, but there’s something so utilitarian about courier that suits this app. Maybe I’m showing my age, but it has echoes of the old Amstrad PCW screens. It launches full-screen and can be set to automatically load the last document you were working on meaning you can sit down at your PC, fire up Dark Room and begin working with no fuss or complication.
If Dark Room’s that little bit too stripped down for your liking then WriteMonkey could well be exactly what you’re looking for. It sports a similar green courier text on black interface but is far more configurable. This free app is shortcut and markdown code friendly, meaning you can leave your mouse unmolested while you put your thoughts down onscreen. Extra dictionaries, typing noises, white noise effects, language packs and fonts can be downloaded from the website. WriteMonkey also includes such useful additions as timed writing, a progress screen and (my personal favourite) segment focus so you can concentrate on just the bit of text you’re currently writing. Oh and it’s also designed to be portable too, meaning you could bung it on a USB stick and get busy writing anywhere there’s a Windows PC available.
Given that the idea of these apps is to create a calm and simple writing environment, it’s amazing how much they differ. If I had to pick one app for my desert island, then I’d plump for WriteMonkey – it neatly balances the need for simplicity with genuinely useful tools. That said, all four are great applications and I suggest you take them all for a spin and find the one that best fits with the way you write. Remember, a writer writes always.