Friday, January 27, 2006

Other things to do on an Apple notebook

This is the third part of the "first time OSX survival kit" - you can also refresh your memories with the first one and the second post - and also with the funny story of how I got into the Apple mess ...

In the two posts before I was mostly describing system-related settings and configurations (together with some small utilities to manage those better, a better web browser and the very important and almost "part of the system" Commander-like file managers paradigm) - in this one I will first focus on more general applications and only at the very end I will also reveal a small system-extender gem that has made all the conversion pain almost acceptable ... so please read on :)

One of the first things that you need on a computer is an office-like application - if you have a high-end PowerBook you only have an evaluation copy of the Mac version of MS Office - buying that will be an extra 500 US$ but that might be just fine - if you had the money to pay for the highly overpriced Apple system (that will probably never stop taxing you) why not paying a little tax to Micro$oft too :))

If you have an iBook you are a little better - you probably have a version of AppleWorks - with a word processor, a spreadsheet, a database, a drawing program, a painting program and a presentation program it might seem like a nice bonus and probably it is ... but mostly for your grandmother or somebody that has never used a serious program/computer before ... since once you get past that initial stage you might want something more advanced/powerful ... are you doomed to pay more than the price of a new full Wintel notebook for that MS Office ???

There might still be another way - OpenOffice might again come to rescue - but there is a small trick ... OpenOffice itself is either a M$ Windows or a XWindows application - so that's another important thing to add to OSX - fortunately X11 is free (and is a standard part of the OSX DVD since 10.4, but it does not come installed by default so you will have to actually dig after that DVD).

If you have X11 installed on your OSX you can get the latest OpenOffice 2.x from this page - but the X11 integration in OSX is rather pathetic so on the same page you will also find something even more convenient called NeoOffice - which is basically the same OpenOffice core much better integrated to OSX!!! There is however a drawback - the version for NeoOffice is a little behind the main OpenOffice one but even like that it will be a huge step forward from AppleWorks - and is FREE and OpenSource !!! You might also need to use the X11 OpenOffice version if you have one of the new Intel-based Apple machines but what can I say ... life is not fair :)

One place where I still need that X11 is "picture handling" - while from the "famous Apple programs" iTunes is usable (but will probably spy on you and try to lock you into a closed format), iPhoto is awful and since my favorite free small image-related program - IrfanView - is not available on OSX I have tried about 10-20 other programs and for the moment I am using a port of a second-best free Windows alternative - XnView - which has a version for OSX - but unfortunately X11-based :( Anyway it is usable and nice, so that part was solved OK for the moment.

Since there is always so much fuss about how great OSX is for multimedia I was expecting that area to be covered automatically - I could not be more wrong - I do not like iTunes and the Apple QuickTime Player only makes M$ MediaPlayer look like a major winner ! The alternatives are MPlayerOSX (the OSX port of the popular open-source MPlayer - also handy on Windows) and VLC for OSX (from VideoLAN, also free and also handy even on Windows, but there BSPlayer is the first alternative). MPlayerOSX is easier to use initially while VLC might need a HUGE configuration effort - but in the end both will work very, very well and if you are ready to spend some time with it VLC can also automatically pick subtitles and use exotic fonts and codepages so now I have changed the default association for AVI files to VLC and never looked back :) VLC can also be used for small "on the fly" music playlists, so that was covered too (but XMMS might also be of some interest).

Another part of the modern internet life is instant messaging - but the OSX version of Yahoo Messenger is pathetic and also crashes all the time, GAIM is a much better open-source project but the default version is also using X11 so in the end the best alternative so far was Adium - another open-source project somehow derived from GAIM but very specific for OSX - and so far it seems to work just fine !!! (but I sometimes miss some of the "gimmicks" from the latest Windows version of YM).

Another tool that might sometimes be useful is VNC - a form of open-source remote desktop - for the client-end popular choices on OSX are VNCViewer and Chicken of the VNC , while on the server-end one alternative is OSXvnc !

But the program that I have used most during this first days on OSX is Witch - it simply covers some of the many usability holes in OSX (like how to get by keybord to a minimized window in less than 20 keys) and while the program is not perfect it is currently (in my opinion) one the most important things to be installed on any computer running OSX. After installation you need to "Enable access for assistive devices" under System Preferences / Universal Access and also enable Witch itself and then you can go to some of the settings - I have initially defined the hotkey for cycling windows forward as COMMAND+OPTION+TAB and COMMAND+OPTION+` for backward, but since I also needed a cancel key and I was pressing COMMAND+OPTION+ESC all the time (which is the OSX "Force Quit" hotkey) I have now moved the main triggers to CTRL+OPTION+TAB and CTRL+OPTION+` (and CTRL+OPTION+ESC will cancel things).

There are still many new things and some of them might "make it" to a future post so until then just take care and avoid paying more "stupidity taxes" to companies like Apple or Microsoft :)


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