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Utilities for Switching on the Cheap

by Terrie Miller
09/24/2002

The previous article covered some of the Mac OS X interface features for switchers. But if you're considering making the switch, you might be concerned about your additional software costs as well. Those basic utilities can add up fast! In this article, we'll look at some inexpensive options to get you productive on some common tasks:

Email

Before switching to OS X, I had used Outlook for a long time. Over the years, I developed my own habits of using Outlook's contact management, notes and journal features, habits that I couldn't give up lightly. So I was quick to download the trial version of Microsoft Office X, which includes Entourage, the OS X equivalent of Outlook. In fact, purchasing the $499 full suite of Microsoft Office X appears to be the only way to get Entourage. I thought it was worth a try. I planned to get email going at least for a month and then decide if it was going to be worth anything near five hundred bucks to keep it going.

If you just can't live without Entourage:

Check out the set of export-import scripts for Entourage X by Paul Berkowitz, described in this article by Dale Dougherty

Meg Hourihan blogged a mini-tutorial for importing from Outlook to Entourage on her megnut.com site.

Once the deed is done, be sure to read Derrick Story's article, Taming the Entourage Database.

I quickly had the same problem that all other Outlook-using switchers have: Entourage does not gracefully import Outlook files. After a couple hours of fiddling, I finally realized that I was jumping through all sorts of hoops for the privilege of purchasing a high-priced product that, given its reputation, would probably increase security risks on my computer anyway. I chucked the whole thing and turned to the built-in Mail (or "mail.app") client that comes with Mac OS X. Sometimes I still have to go to a Windows machine to get into my old email folders, but surprisingly enough that's not very often, and I could probably live without it. I exported critical information to text or .csv files, or transferred it to memos and contacts in my Palm Desktop (I've heard good things about DevonThink for notes and such also, but I haven't tried it yet). I've found that the AppleWorks 6 applications included with my iBook cover everything I used to do with the other MS Office features (including working with files from others who use MS Office). In one fell swoop, I was able to save a hefty bundle of cash.

I didn't say I was doing the most elegant and seamless switch in the world. This switch is all about fast and cheap.

Mail stands up to the test of daily use remarkably well. I do a lot of filtering of mail into folders and especially like the easy-to-use rules interface of Mail. It just works.

Screen shot.
The rules interface is simple and easy to use, especially if you want your spam filtered with the accompaniment of frogs. This screen shot was done under the Mail client used with OS X 10.1.5.

The Jaguar update brings even more functionality to Mail. You've undoubtedly heard about the great junk mail filtering, but perhaps like me you're a bit apprehensive about having a software program decide what is and isn't spam. Not to fear, by default Mail doesn't move any messages automatically. It simply tags suspicious messages as junk:

Screen shot.
Messages are tagged as junk mail using a trash bag flag and color change. Use the "Junk/Not Junk" toggle in the toolbar to quickly change how a message is tagged.

Mail stays in "training" mode, simply tagging messages as junk, until you change it via the Mail--Junk menu (don't look for it under preferences!):

Screen shot.
Changing the junk mail settings.

Changing junk mail into "Automatic" mode will tell it to send any messages tagged as spam into the "Junk Mail" mailbox, a mailbox created when you first switch to Automatic mode. You still have the option to review all of those messages, but they're nicely moved out of your way.

Mail's use of folders, mail boxes, and accounts might be troublesome for some switchers. If you're an Outlook user, for example, you might be accustomed to having all mail come into the Inbox by default and then filter mail by account into various sub folders. Mac OS X mail is a little different. Each account has a mailbox that essentially filters messages by account for you. There's a top-level mailbox, In, where you can see all new incoming messages.

In Mail, folders that you create for sorting and storing messages are created either at the top level, or can be created in the default "On my Mac" mailbox. Folders cannot be created underneath the individual account mailboxes, at least if you're using POP. I'm told that IMAP may be different in this respect. If you are accustomed to sorting mail first by account and then into sub-folders under that account, you may need to think of organizing your email a bit differently.

Screen shot.
There are some limitations in where you can create folders. In this screen shot, "Work" and "Personal" are account mailboxes. The "Family" folder can be at the top level, as it is shown here, or it could be under "On My Mac," but it cannot be placed under "Personal."

Another handy addition to Mail is the ability to view messages by thread. When you select a message, other messages with the same subject line are highlighted.

Screen shot.
Other messages in the same thread are highlighted automatically when you select a message.

It's not a hierarchical discussion view by any means, but it can be a great help in cleaning out your inbox once the flames have died down.

And there's more to come. Up until now, Mail has been pretty limited to handling email messages. But clearly, Apple is thinking of users who have the related needs of contact management and calendaring. Now that iCal is released, Mac users can share their calendars across the Internet. That's far more impressive than being limited to sharing over a your business LAN. The system-wide address book can already handle contacts and will be especially useful once iSync is out. These will help a lot for any former Outlook user who is accustomed to having these services in a nicely integrated package.

Instant Messaging

It took me a long time to see instant messaging as anything other than a toy. But now I use an AIM client every day for serious work. And for serious work, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything better than Adium. Adium is free (as in beer) and is distributed under the GNU General Public License.

Adium was designed to be fast, with low CPU usage. Even its interface is compact, using a minimum of space. It uses a unique tabbed interface to help you keep track of multiple chats.


Screen shot.
You can jump between chats without cluttering your workspace thanks to a nifty tabbed interface. ID's have been blurred.

Adium by Adam Iser
Free; distributed under the GNU General Public License.

Similarly, the log viewer (File--Log Viewer, or Cmd-L) presents a neat interface for viewing previous sessions by person and date. I really appreciate this, as my biggest complaint about instant messaging in the past has been that information is too ephemeral, and it was sometimes difficult to get key bits back after closing a window. Adium's log viewer solves this nicely.


Screen shot.
Adium's log viewer makes it easy to retrieve key bits of information. You can jump to different log files by selecting the person in the drop down box at the top and then selecting the date in the left column. ID's have been blurred.

There are some subtle interface features in Adium that I've also come to appreciate. The bouncing squawking bird icon in the dock is one of them. In AOL's AIM client, I could be typing away in email, but a message from a Buddy would suddenly appear, and I'd be typing away in that window instead. Oh, the embarrassment of sending a co-worker a string of x's and o's meant for an email message to my husband. In Adium, the bird on the dock flaps its wings, bounces, and squawks, but you aren't switched over into Adium automatically until you do so intentionally. If the squawking bird sounds "cute," it is. But the more I've used it, the more I realize that it's a great interface feature as well. It gives you a chance to finish a thought or an email message before dealing with something new.

Even though Mac OS X now comes with its own iChat client, Adium is full of useful and thoughtful features. And since it's free, there's no reason not to give it a try. The only drawback to Adium is that it's strictly an AIM client. If you need to chat with users on other services, you're out of luck. (In that case, you may want to try Proteus.)

Mac OS X for Unix Geeks

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By Brian Jepson, Ernest E. Rothman

Uploading files -- SFTP clients

When I switched to Mac OS X, it was pretty important to find a good SFTP client. Otherwise, how would I get those lovely banners up on the server? It's true that I could do this from the command line using scp (for more scp info, type man scp in your terminal window), but it's just not that efficient. It's much faster for me to drag and drop a file called 111-vbdotnetcore.gif than it is to remember how its spelled, let alone remember where I put the darned thing.

I actually tried three programs for SFTP. Each one has its own advantages and limitations, but each also offers a free trial period. I tried RBrowser, Gideon, and MacSFTP:

Client

Price

Trial Version

Protocols

RBrowser (basic)

$29

20 days

FTP, SFTP

RBrowser (professional)

$49

20 days

FTP, SFTP, UNIX, SSH

Gideon

$25

yes -- w/nag screen

FTP, SFTP

MacSFTP

$25

15 days

SFTP


RBrowser

RBrowser available in two versions: a $29 basic version and a $49 pro version. The basic version supports FTP and SFTP, while the pro version includes remote file system browsing with UNIX, SSH, and SCP. Other features supported only in the pro version include direct secure file transfers between remote hosts with SSH/SCP and SSH access through firewalls with tunneling.

When you connect to a server with RBrowser, you get a window showing the remote host as well as a window showing your local directories,pretty standard stuff. You don't have to use that local viewer, however, you can also drag files from a Finder window into the remote directory.

Screen shot.
RBrowser's local viewer shows several file attributes by default, but you can also drag and drop from a Finder window.

In addition to the standard file transfer features, RBrowser lets you open, edit, and save files all on the remote host. You can make changes to files without downloading them to your local drive and then re-uploading them again. I find this a convenient feature when I need to make a quick change to a graphic file.

Screen shot.
You can choose to open a file in its default application, or you can use the tools viewer to choose from among all relevant apps.

Rather than configuring the program to open certain file types with specific applications you choose, RBrowser gives you the opportunity to search your hard drive to add applications automatically. Instead of opening all graphics files in Photoshop to edit, for example, you might simply want to open one in a Web browser to view or to display the dimensions. With RBrowser, you can do this easily without a lot of configuration steps.

RBrowser is a little powerhouse of features and works very well, but in day-to-day use I was sometimes frustrated by slow response in the interface. Sometimes I seem to need to click down and hold before dragging a file over to the remote view window. I asked Robert Vasvari, the creator of RBrowser, if he had any comments on this and whether or not this might be improved with the new Finder in Jaguar. He said that some of RBrowser's refresh troubles might come from issues in the current Cocoa dragging kit. Some of this may be fixed in Jaguar, and that has been, in fact, my experience. Updating to Jaguar seemed to make these problems disappear.

Gideon

Gideon, from Gideon Softworks, is a $25 shareware SFTP/FTP client for Mac OS X.

Gideon's default interface is quite a bit different than that of RBrowser. It presents a single-window side-by-side view that former Windows users (especially those using WS_FTP or Secure FS) may find especially comfortable. Like RBrowser, however, it also allows you to drag-and-drop from a Finder window.

Screen shot.
Gideon's one-window, side-by-side view may be more familiar to folks who used applications like WS_FTP under Windows.

Gideon also lets you open and edit files on the remote host, though it takes a bit more pre-configuring of applications than RBrowser. With Gideon, you can pre-select one graphics editor and one text editor.

In my use, under Mac OS X 10.1.5, Gideon tended to quit unexpectedly every once in a while. In those cases, I was able to simply re-start and continue. To be fair, the Gideon Softworks site does warn: "We would like to remind you that this application is not finished. You may find a bug or two."

All in all, Gideon doesn't quite have the flexibility and power of RBrowser, but it's a very capable, easy-to-use SFTP/FTP client. Since it's free to download and try, it's well worth trying out for yourself. You may prefer its interface to other clients.

MacSFTP Carbon

MacSFTP Carbon is exactly what it sounds like, a no-nonsense SFTP client for OS X. It only supports SFTP. You can't use it to connect to regular FTP clients.

Screen shot.
With MacSFTP, you simply drag-and-drop between the connection window and local directories in the Finder.

MacSFTP beats both RBrowser and Gideon in terms of speed. Files upload quickly, and in general it's a pretty snappy application. If you ONLY need to SFTP files, MacSFTP may be the choice for you. But if you also need to connect to servers which support FTP and not SFTP, you'll get more for your money with either RBrowser or Gideon that let you do both in the same environment. I decided to spend my money on RBrowser.

GraphicConverter

GraphicConverter
by Lemke Software
Shareware, $30US in Europe, $35US in rest of the world; trial version w/nag screen available.

At $600+ for Adobe Photoshop, graphics editing can be a significant hurdle to switching from Windows to a Mac. Adobe won't even let you upgrade between the two platforms. The loyal Windows Photoshop user has to pay full price to move to the Mac. Fortunately, there's a great low-cost alternative: GraphicConverter.

As you would expect, GraphicConverter gives you access to just about any type of graphics files. About 160 different formats can be imported, and you can export to about 45 of those formats. But GraphicConverter does much more, making it a serious contender for its pricey rival. It features a full set of basic image manipulation and optimization tools.

Screen shot.
GraphicConverter has a number of image manipulation tools which may be all you need.

With GraphicCoverter, you can batch-convert images with a number of options, including rotating and resizing, and you can create "catalog" pages--generated html pages with clickable thumbnail images. You can even use AppleScript to automate routine tasks.

GraphicsConverter probably won't be for you if you need to do lots of image creation. But if your needs are more of the tweak-and-convert variety, it may be just the thing.

Digital Photography Pocket Guide

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PixelNhance

PixelNhance
by Caffeine Software
Free.

Even though it's more lightweight than the robust GraphicConverter, CaffeineSoft's PixelNhance offers seven valuable image adjustment tools for absolutely free:

Each of these tools works great, and surprisingly, the noise reduction filter is more effective than many included with more expensive packages. The one function that's missing, for some inexplainable reason, is image rotate. But that's not a problem if you're using PixelNhance with iPhoto since you can crop and rotate there before making your other adjustments. In fact, the two applications complement each other very well, and you can't beat their combined price.

Screen shot.
PixelNhance offers several ways to enhance your images.

The split-screen view in PixelNhance is a great feature. You compare the effect of your changes to the original image as you work on it. You can even click on the divider to move or rotate it to refine your workspace.

More, more, and more:

The number of good, inexpensive software programs for Mac OS X is ever increasing. If you have the time, it makes sense to try several options for any given task. One of these sites may help you find your own favorite utilities:

And whether it's finding the perfect software application or learning the most elegant keyboard shortcuts, the most important way to make a fast switch to OS X is this: find others who are doing the same. I'm incredibly lucky to be in an environment where I'm surrounded by people like Derrick and Rob and Peter There's really no substitute for the friendly guidance of those who have been there. Try a local (or virtual) user group, or perhaps immerse yourself for few days at a conference. You'll be pleasantly surprised how quickly you're dishing out the tips yourself.

Terrie Miller is an amateur naturalist, citizen scientist, permaculturist and writer from Northern Calfornia. Her personal weblog is TerrieMiller.com.


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