Mac Skeptic: Fall Brings a Bumper Crop of Apple Gear

October was a big month for Apple, as the company rolled out a slew of new hardware and software that included the video iPod, Aperture professional photo-editing software, and professional-level, "quad-core" G5 Power Mac desktop computers.

On the lower end, the PowerBook G4 line of notebooks got upgraded as well, with higher-resolution screens and longer battery life on the 15-inch and 17-inch models--Apple says the batteries last up to 5.5 hours. More pixels on-screen is great for making icons and type look sharp, but this is a mixed blessing: It also makes everything appear smaller, and OS X doesn't make it particularly easy to change the size of desktop elements.

(11/7 update: A number of readers inform me that you can adjust the size of icons and type on the Mac desktop, in any of three ways: You can click on an open area of the desktop [the Finder] and then choose View, Show View Options from the menu bar at the top of the screen; you can right-click on an open area of the desktop and choose Show View Options; or you can press Cmd-J.)

(My correspondents are right: this isn't difficult, but I don't believe it's intuitive. I would expect these controls to be located in the Display System Preferences. But this information is available in the Mac Help, so I guess you can chalk this up to obtuseness on my part.)

The Living-Room Mac?

More intriguing was an update to the all-in-one iMac G5, which now has an iSight Webcam built into the case. The camera is completely enclosed, so all you see is a little black eye above the screen. And anytime you launch iChat AV or the new Photo Booth app, it turns on automatically.

Photo Booth snapshot

Despite the Webcam's small lens, I found the image was plenty bright enough; I was trying it in a brightly lit store, though. The autofocus worked very well, refocusing speedily when I moved. And Photo Booth is a trip: It takes still snapshots with the iSight, but also transforms the photo instantly, with effects like sepia tone or comic book-style, and distortions like stretching and fish-eye; for example, here's a shot of me with the colored-pencil effect used. And you can e-mail the snapshots directly from Photo Booth. This clever little app ought to be available for the external iSight cameras as well, and it wouldn't be surprising to see it unbundled from the iMac about the time of Macworld Expo 2006.

Photograph: Apple Computer
The iMac G5 is the only Mac that has Front Row, Apple's new media-player interface. Front Row is structured very much like Windows XP Media Center Edition, with screens that are easily viewed from across the room for playing music and viewing photos and video. Front Row is navigated with a tiny remote control that is the same size and shape as an iPod Shuffle, with similar-looking navigation buttons.

Unlike Windows XP Media Center Edition, Front Row doesn't include the ability to display broadcast TV and doesn't have digital video recording capabilities, although it does let you view TV shows that you've purchased from the iTunes Music Store in the new iTunes 6. It is too bad that the iMac doesn't have a built-in TV tuner, because its sleek profile makes it ideal as a dorm room or studio apartment entertainment center. The solution could be an external TV tuner/DVR box like Elgato Systems' EyeTV line of products or Eskape Labs' $149 MyTV.PVR.

Putting Front Row only on the iMac G5 sets up an inconsistency in the software platform that's pretty uncharacteristic for Apple. While it is just an application--it's not as if there are different versions of the OS--it is a departure from the uniformity of experience that Apple typically enforces. Apple may have decided to leave Front Row off the new PowerBooks because of screen size or because of issues with performance on the G4 CPU, although there have been reports of users successfully running the app on G4s.

It is hard to understand why the software wasn't included on the Power Mac G5s, even though those PCs are clearly aimed at business users, since it would look pretty great on an Apple Cinema Display. Here again, I would expect to see a change at Macworld Expo in January.

A Place for Everything

Last month I dug into the features and uses of VoodooPad, described by its developer as a "digital junk drawer."

You create your own categories for data in Formation.
You create your own categories for data in Formation.
This month's entrant in the digital organization derby is Radical Breeze's $30 Formation, currently available for both Mac and Windows. It's like a modular closet system: If you're the type of person who hangs your keys on a row of hooks rather than tossing them on the coffee table, Formation might interest you.

Starting with the preformatted sample set of data types, including to-dos, contacts, and passwords, you can create information storage that suits you perfectly. However, Formation works better for things like frequent-flier numbers than for large amounts of text, such as research for a master's thesis.

For one thing, getting large amounts of text into Formation isn't easy: I couldn't make file importing work with any file type, including plain text. Creating a new record and cutting and pasting, or dragging and dropping, is the only way to get preexisting text into the app.

URLs can be dragged and dropped into a list, and they are live links; you can use them to visit the site in your browser. (Note that you have to click an arrow next to the URL; you don't click on the URL itself.) Likewise, e-mail addresses can be used to open your mail client with a new message window. If you put your mail server information into the preferences, you can e-mail items directly from within Formation.

Once you've created a document, you can't put images into it, which is a pretty big hole. People expect to be able to incorporate graphics into any document, and Formation doesn't even come up to the capabilities of Mac TextEdit on this score. It does have a Media Browser tool that views images and plays audio files, but this is an awkward, unsatisfactory workaround.

Formation also has a calendar, but you can't use it to set up appointments--about its only use is for checking dates--nor does it currently integrate with iCal, the full calendaring program that comes with Mac OS X.

Formation is more like a rough draft than a finished product, but shareware developer Radical Breeze says that it is undergoing a major upgrade that will add quite a few features. The new version will be released for Linux as well as Mac and Windows, the developer says, but it is not predicting at this time when the upgrade will be available.

Though it currently has serious shortcomings as a productivity tool, Formation is fun to play with--if setting up and rearranging filing systems is your idea of fun. The unregistered version can be used indefinitely but limits the number of records you can create.

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