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Automate Renaming

Automator is another great productivity tool that was introduced with OS X 10.4. I've always been a fan of Applescript so I was no stranger to workflow automation, but Automator took things to the next level as far as accessibility and simplicity go.

One of my favorite Automator workflows makes the task of renaming a group of files extremely easy. In fact, creating the workflow itself is a piece of cake too.

Open Automator and choose these two actions:

Set them up like so, and under "options" on the second action be sure to click "Show Action when Run". Then select "Save as plug-in" under the "File" menu, and choose a name for your new workflow. I chose "Rename Sequentially". Now click save.

Navigate to a group of images or documents or whatever that you would like to rename, select them all, then hold "ctrl" and click on them. You should be able to select the workflow you just created through the Automator menu like this:

You should now see a display like this:

In the field where you see "untitled" put a word that describes all of your photos, something simple like "vacation06" or "jims_bday". Click continue, and watch all your files be magically renamed right before your eyes!

Advanced Spotlight Searches

I use Spotlight all the time and I love it. It hasn't replaced the old nested folder system for me yet, but I can't imagine operating without it. There are a couple things about Spotlight that I don't like however, and one of them is the lack of boolean operations.

If you're unfamiliar with the term, boolean operations refers to the terms "AND", "OR", and "NOT" in searches. Those terms make it possible to narrow down search results significantly. Spotlight will have that capability in Leopard, but that's a long way off. What can we do now?

There are a couple built in terms you can use with Spotlight to help trim the fat off of those huge search results.

By adding, "kind:" to your searches you can specify the type of file you want to be included in your results. For example, searching for "train" will return every document that includes that name, but searching for "train kind:music" will return only music that includes the term "train" somewhere in it's info. Try out some of these modifiers and see for yourself:

- Applications kind:application, kind:applications, kind:app
- Contacts kind:contact, kind:contacts
- Folders kind:folder, kind:folders
- Email kind:email, kind:emails, kind:mail message, kind:mail messages
- iCal Events kind:event, kind:events
- iCal To Dos kind:todo, kind:todos, kind:to do, kind:to dos
- Images kind:image, kind:images
- Movies kind:movie, kind:movies
- Music kind:music
- Audio kind:audio
- PDF kind:pdf, kind:pdfs
- Preferences kind:system preferences, kind:preferences
- Bookmarks kind:bookmark, kind:bookmarks
- Fonts kind:font, kind:fonts
- Presentations kind:presentations, kind:presentation

Keeping Secrets Secret

Mac OS X has a nice login system that keeps your whole computer inaccessible to unwanted users, but have you ever wished that you could keep some of your files safely hidden from prying eyes without locking down your entire system? What if you share your computer and you want other users to have unfettered access, with the exception of just a few files? Wouldn't it be great to keep your banking info hidden from your room mate or some intimate snapshots from your honeymoon away from your teenagers?

With OS X's built in Disk Utility tool and just a few steps that sort of security is easy to achieve.

Open Disk Utility, it should be located in the Utilities folder inside your Applications folder. In the upper left hand corner of the window you should see a "New Image" button, like this:

Click on it. This tells Disk Utility that you want to make a new Disk Image, which is a sort of self contained archive often used to transfer files from one computer to another. If you've ever run across a file with the extention ".dmg" then you've seen a disk image before.

A dialog should pop up asking you to specify a couple things about your new disk image. You'll be able to name it and select the location where you would like it created, and also choose it's size, format and encryption.

Lets say that I'm working on a iMovie project with some footage of my kids that I'm going to give my wife for her birthday. She and I use the same computer and I don't want her to find out what I'm planning, so I want to work on my project from a locked disk image. I name the new image something ambiguous like "lockup" rather than "Secret Bday Movie" and tell it to be created in my Documents folder. I know that iMovie files can get rather large so I use the "size" pulldown to select 2.6 GB. Next I select AES-128 for my encryption. This will ensure that my new image is password protected. I want to be able to access and change data on my image so I will leave the format as "read/write". When I'm done I should see this:

I hit the "create" button the select a password and thats it. Now there's a new file in my Documents folder named "lockup.dmg". I double click on it and enter my password (being careful not to select the "remember in my keychain" option) and presto! A new disk is mounted on my desktop and I've got 2.6 gigs worth of space for my secret iMovie. I save my project inside that image, and when I'm done I simply eject it and all my data is securely locked away until I want it again.

Keyboard Shortcut for Non-default Dialog Buttons

If you're anything like me you like to do as much navigating from the keyboard as possible. I prefer keeping my fingers in one place and avoiding any unnecessary mouse-ing.

That being said, default buttons in dialog boxes can be both a blessing and a curse. Just about everyone has had a window pop up at some point asking a question or giving a warning. Those windows generally give you a couple options to choose from, often "OK" or "Cancel", and most of the time one of those options is highlighted depending on what your computer thinks you ought to do. For example, I'm using iTunes and I want to delete a terrible song (let's say it's something by 50 cent). I select the song and hit "delete", which brings up this dialog box:

At this point I can either mouse over to the box and click my preference, or simply hit enter and the computer will select the default option, in this case "Keep Files".

That's pretty convenient if you do want to keep those files, but what if you don't and you don't want to use your mouse?

Try hitting command and the first letter of the non-default option. In this case that would be "command + m" for "Move to Trash". The computer reads my keystroke as the equivalent of a mouse click on that button. The same thing works with "command + c" for "Cancel".

This doesn't work in all applications, but it does in iTunes and a lot of others.

Smart Folders

One of my favorite aspects of mac OS X is the availability of smart folders. It took me a little while to really begin to find them useful, but now that I've gotten more comfortable with them smart folders are an integral part of the way I use my mac.

Really, a smart folder is nothing more than a saved search. Imagine having your computer search for a certain type of file that meets a certain set of criteria, then having it remember that search and automatically update it as files are created, manipulated and deleted. That's a smart folder.

Lets say I want a smart folder that contains all the presentations I've created for my job. I open a new finder window and choose File -> New Smart Folder. A window appears asking me to set some criteria for my new smart folder and I tell it to include items with the Kind -> Presentations. This lets the smart folder know that I want it to contain only items that are Keynote or PowerPoint presentations. Then I set the next set of criteria to Contents -> "Grace". This tells the smart folder that, not only do I only want presentations, but only presentations that contain the word "Grace". The name of my employer includes the word "Grace" so this should narrow the smart folder contents down to only presentations that concern my job.

I could set more criteria by hitting the "+" button on the right, but for now I'll just stick with these two. I select the "save" button in the upper right and give my new smart folder a name. In this case I've chosen "Work Presentations".

I hit "ok" and viola! A new smart folder pops up in the sidebar. From this moment on every presentation that contains the word "Grace" will be automatically added to this folder.

Smart folders can be nice in the finder, but I find them especially useful for organizing data in other applications like Mail, iPhoto or iTunes. In fact, I hardly use regular folders in Mail anymore at all, just smart folders. Here's a screenshot of my folder structure

As you can see, I only have two normal folders. When a new message arrives it's automatically sent into either "In the Book" or "Not in the Book" depending on whether the sender is in my address book or not. My smart folders then keep tabs on all the messages contained in those folders and organize them for me. One smart folder collects all my flagged messages, another collects all the messages from co-workers or customers, another collects all the bills, receipts and banking related messages, and so on.

It took a little tweaking to get all the smart folder criteria right, but it was well worth it. Now my mail sorts itself automatically, and unlike using mail rules the same message can be sorted into multiple categories without creating multiple copies.

I also use smart folders extensively in iTunes and iPhoto, but I'll save those details for a later post specific to those applications. How do you use smart folders? Feel free to post your most useful smart folder ideas.

WWDC Keynote

Well it appears that the WWDC keynote is over. A new MacPro and a new Xserve where announced, as well as a few features we can be expecting from Leopard. In keeping with the theme of this blog I'll skip some of the fluff and get right to the more practical features mentioned.

Time Machine - 10.5 will include a new backup application called "Time Machine" I'm not clear on the specifics but it seems pretty comprehensive. Automatic backup, full system clone and restore as well as the ability to restore individual files. The interface looks really cool, sort of like you're flying through space as you browse your back up. This may not be in the top ten most requested features, but it sure will save a lot of people a lot of time and heartache.

Spaces - Leopard will also include a built in desktop switcher. This is great news for those of us who have limited screen real estate. It will enable users to switch between virtual desktops and groups of active applications. For example, you could have your screen filled with Safari, iChat and some sticky notes, then switch over to another desktop displaying Mail and iCal without having to close any windows or quit any applications. You can even display all your desktops at once and drag items between them. It'll be nice to stop carefully resizing and layering all my windows to keep track of what's going on.

Spotlight - Spotlight will be updated with several new features in 10.5. You'll be able to search other networked machines and servers. Boolean operations will be available, better application launching, and incorporated recent items. Spotlight will be automatically pre-populated with the files you've been working on so you might not even have to search. Pretty cool.

Mail - Some major enhancements are coming down the pike for Mail also. Steve mentioned three new features: stationary, notes and a to do tracker. The stationary is pretty self explanatory and the notes feature appears to be a way to leave messages for yourself in a dedicated malibox within mail. I'm not 100% clear on the specifics of the new to do's, but it appears to be a system wide feature that is accessed by Mail, iCal and various other apps. Those three features are pretty exciting by themselves but Steve made it sound like there where even more improvements coming to mail with Leopard's release.

iChat - In 10.5 iChat will get several new features including multiple logins, animated icons, video recording, tabbed chats, the ability to show presentations, slideshows and even desktops. Thats great news, not only for those of us who use iChat to communicate at work, but for personal purposes as well. It will be great to show my in-laws a slideshow of our kids and be able to tell them about each photo as they see it, or even take control of their desktop for a couple minutes to walk them through something. Very exciting.

There was a lot more mentioned in the keynote today that I wont get into, head over to Apple's Leopard Preview page for some videos or to Engadget for a rundown of the whole keynote. Hopefully Apple will have the entire video available soon.

Apple's WWDC 2006

Alright, there are only 10 minutes left before Steve Jobs is set to hit the stage and you can almost hear a million mac geeks holding their breath. I'll be keeping up with the keynote as it happens via Engadget, Macrumors and MacNN, and as soon as it's all over I'll post some thoughts on Steve's announcements.

iPhoto's Secret Retouch Options

Have you ever tried to use the retouch tool in iPhoto on your cousin's pimple only to discover that the area it effects is so large it blurs his entire face? Have you ever attempted to use the red-eye tool on some photos from your family reunion and ended up with an even more demonic looking grandmother than before? Well, there is a solution to these problems.

As it turns out, iPhoto's retouch and red-eye tools are very much customizable. Try this:

- Select either red-eye or retouch, then press Caps Lock, Ctrl and 9 simultaneously.
- Press Tab. If the cursor changes you did it right.
- Now press the "[" and "]" keys to resize the brush. (If you are using the retouch tool, try using the "{" and "}" keys as well to change intensity, or hit Tab again to adjust lightness)
- Retouch till your heart's content. Blemished friends and family rejoice!

Facinating eh? Now why on earth would this useful feature be entirely undocumented?

via MacOSXhints - a hint I submitted, actually

News Readers Reviewed and Compared

As the internet becomes an increasingly large part of our lives it becomes increasingly difficult to keep up with all the information available to us. Unlike the nightly news or the paper on your doorstep every morning, the websites we read are being updated continually, anytime day or night. How can we possibly monitor dozens of sources spontaneously posting new information?

RSS technology

Just like any such technology, the means through which you access and organize the information is as important as the information itself. And just like all televisions and radios are not the same, there are a variety of unique RSS news readers available for mac OS X.

I've selected five news readers to talk about today: NetNewsWire, Vienna, Shrook, Safari and Newsfire. There are of course many more like RSS Owl, Pulp Fiction, NewsMacPro and NewsFan but I've chosen these five for review based upon a combination of their simplicity, ease of use, prettiness and price.
First: NetNewsWire

NetNewsWire is the 800 pound gorilla of desktop news readers. At one point in 2005 FeedBurner reported it was the most popular reader on any platform, Mac or PC. It's simple interface and abundant features make it a real workhorse and the reader of choice for such productivity-savvy individuals as Merlin Mann and Walt Mossberg. Some of the stand out features that I find useful in NetNewsWire are smart folders, integration with Del.icio.us, and compatibility with Automator and Applescript. I like being able to include NetNewsWire in my workflows, and it's really nice to be able to throw together a smart folder that contains all the news items from local sources that contain information about crime in my neighborhood, or this time of year, to automatically collect all the news that makes reference to WWDC.

All things considered, I would say that NetNewsWire's flexibility is it's primary strength. Everything that I could ever want to customize is customizable, and it's very easy to make changes. Chances are that NetNewsWire can be tweaked into just the right news reader for you, if it isn't that already.

On the other hand, I think that NetNewsWire's greatest weakness is it's price. I'm not going to get into the sticky topic of application pricing here, and I would be very hesitant to ever accuse a developer of overpricing. Considering all the work that went into it I think NetNewsWire is probably well worth the $30 it costs. The problem is all the free or cheaper news readers out there. Is it really $30 better than some of it's free alternatives?

There is an aptly named free version of NetNewsWire called NetNewsWire Lite. It looks and acts the same but lacks much of the feature rich flexibility that makes it's big brother so useful. Most notably it lacks smart folders, searching, flagging and scriptability. I think it's a great idea to offer a stripped down version of an app like this, and I am sure that more than a few folks have used the "lite" version only to later upgrade for the missing features. For my own use however, NetNewsWire Lite is a bit too lean to be my primary news reader, and $30 is a bit too steep for my wallet.

Bottom Line: If you're a power user who thrives of features and customizability, spend the money and get NetNewsWire.
Second: Vienna
Vienna was my news reader of choice for the better part of last year. It's simple and clean and has most of the features that I use. It's also free and open source, which I think is a huge plus.

Among other things, Vienna includes smart folders, an embedded browser, flagging, and feed importing/exporting. Certain aspects of Vienna are customizable, but nowhere near to the degree of NetNewsWire. You can select from a few different layout options and article styles and decide how often you would like your feeds to be refreshed, but that's about it.

Other than that, there isn't too much to say about Vienna, and depending on how you like to read your news that could be a good thing. Sometimes an unobtrusive application that just does one thing very well is exactly what you're looking for.

One complaint I have with Vienna is a quirk in the way it sorts articles. I generally organize my feed items by read status, those that I have not read yet being at the top. This allows me to select a feed and quickly scroll through the newest items first. The problem is that when I click on an item to read, it loses it's unread status and is resorted by date or whatever secondary criteria Vienna is using. This can be frustrating when I'm going through a feed with 100 items, 20 of which are new, and every time I select one it suddenly jumps halfway down the list. The "next unread" shortcut takes me to the first unread item in the next feed, so I'm forced to scroll back up to the top of this list and select another item, which then jumps down the list again. This may be an error on my part rather than a problem with Vienna, but I have yet to be able to find a solution.

Bottom Line: If you don't need all the features of NetNewsWire but you would like a little more than NetNewsWire Lite offers, download Vienna. You can't beat the price and it has a cool icon.
Third: Shrook
Shrook is something of an enigma to me. It's billed by it's developer as a "next-generation news reader" that "offers advanced features not available to Mac users anywhere else". It definitely offers unique features, but I have yet to fully understand their usefulness.

In addition to the usual options like smart groups and an embedded browser, some of the features that make Shrook unique are online synchronization with Shrook.com, a distributed checking mechanism, learning smart groups and iPod syncing.

While all that sounds pretty cool, I hardly ever used Shrook's advanced features in the weeks when I was using it. The iPod synching feature and learning groups where a little too cumbersome to be convenient for me and I was unable to see the benefit of the distributed checking mechanism. It may have been working flawlessly in the background, but I didn't notice the difference. Also, Shrook's four column layout didn't sit well with the 12 inch screen on my iBook. I can see how it might be nice on a much larger screen, but on my machine it felt cramped.

I don't want to sound overly negative towards Shrook however. I understand most of it's advanced features and I can imagine how they might be wonderful for certain users. Unfortunately, I am not one of those users and I found Shrook to be unintuitive and a little confusing. Also, in April of this year it became freeware as part of an effort by the developer to compete with NetNewsWire. The developer has also committed to make Shrook into "the greatest newsreader in the history of the cosmos". So, sometime in the near future Shrook might be seeing a major overhaul. Until then I think that Shrook will probably the preferred news reader for just a small portion of the market that find it's more quirky features useful.

Bottom Line: If you have some unique feed reading needs that require features unavailable in most applications Shrook might be perfect for you. If not, you may find it frustrating and cumbersome.
Fourth: Safari
As you may or may not know, you already have access to a news reader through Safari's RSS feature. Safari 2.0 and above has the ability to gather and display RSS feeds built right in. When you navigate to a page that offers a news feed Safari displays the RSS icon at the right of the address bar like this:

By clicking that icon you can read the content of the feed and access some of Safari's RSS options. Clicking that icon again (it's colors are now inverted) returns you to the regular page. When you bookmark an RSS feed in Safari it will display the number of unread articles in parentheses to the right of the bookmark.

Safari's RSS feature is convenient in it's integration with your browser, but it's lacking in flexibility and advanced features. You might find that Safari meets all of your news reading needs, but in my case it doesn't quite cut it. I spend a lot of time in my browser and when I was trying out Safari as a news reader I found that it was actually a little annoying as new feed items where continually popping up and distracting me. I prefer a separate news reader that is only active when I want it to be.

Bottom Line: If you just want to keep track of a few news feeds and you don't mind being interrupted while using your browser, Safari's RSS feature might be just what you need.
Fifth: Newsfire
I'll confess, Newsfire is my news reader of choice. I've paid the $19 and it was worth every penny. The features it offers are exactly what I'm looking for, it's very clean and attractive and it operates just like I want it to.

Unlike the rest of the news readers I've tried out, Newsfire uses only two panes in it's user interface. The left pane contains your feeds and folders or smart folders if you prefer. I was used to using a lot of folders for organization when I used Vienna, but when I switched to Newsfire I quickly saw that folders where superfluous. The feeds themselves swoop around as they update and reorganize dynamically by number of unread items. Every time I open Newsfire all my unread items are right at the top and they automatically get out of the way when I'm done with them. The right pane displays both the list of items in a selected feed and the content of each article as it's selected. At first I was a little put off by losing sight of my item list when reading an article, but it didn't take long to start preferring it that way.

When I open Newsfire it updates all my feeds and automatically organizes them. I am then able to navigate through them all using only the spacebar. Hitting spacebar once selects the feed with the most unread items and displays it's contents in the right pane. Hitting spacebar again selects the first unread item in that feed and displays it's contents. Hitting spacebar yet again either scrolls down or moves directly to the next item depending on the length of the article and the size of my window. This process continues until all items in all feeds are read, and I never have to take my finger off the spacebar.

Bottom Line: If you subscribe to a moderate number of feeds and you want an intuitive and attractive application to organize them, Newsfire is worth buying.

I hope you found this discussion of news readers for mac OS X helpful. If you have any questions, comments or criticisms please feel free to speak up.

1st post: in which the purpose is made known

I like macs. I like the way they look and the way they run, but what I like most are the practical ways they make my life better. Computers are supposed to be tools we use to be more productive rather than the time consuming hassle that they often become. I like the fact that my mac does things that make my life simpler and easier.

I realize that there is no shortage of mac-centric blogs out there, I have about a dozen I read daily. I'm not all that interested in the latest Apple rumors or the nuances of international iPod politics though, and I frequently find myself picking through RSS feeds looking for something useful. This blog is intended to be a source of genuinely useful information for the practical mac user. I'll be posting software reviews, productivity tips, workflow solutions and hints about some of the more obscure but useful features in OS X.

If you want to contribute, please feel free. I hope you find this useful!


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