I don’t spend much time in coffee shops when at home, probably because until recently there really wasn’t a good coffee shop near my home. Whenever I’m away from home whether for the day or on a longer trip, however, I find a coffee shop a nice place to catch up on the world and get some work done between more enjoyable activities. I can work in a quiet hotel room for a while, but I often find a little time in the lobby a more productive environment than the traditional quiet hotel room or office.

I’ve always found working in complete silence to be more distracting than having sound in the background. Even just a television or radio turned on in the background can give me enough noise to feel more comfortable. Research also supports a moderate level of background noise prompts more creative thought. The problem with these is the chance of a movie, show, or song pulling you in and distracting you from what you’re working on. Luckily I’m not the only person that prefers something in the background at work and there are plenty of apps and websites built to provide nice background sound. Let’s look at a few.

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The least enjoyable part of setting up new computers is installing apps, for me anyhow. The Mac App Store makes this a lot easier, but many essential and valuable Mac apps are not present in the App Store either by choice from the vendor or due to the limitations placed on apps located in the store. Instead, you have to find the installer, download it, install it, then rinse/repeat a dozen times.

In the Windows ecosystem, Ninite offered a way around this problem. It allows you to install a number of popular apps from their library by running a single application. It’s simple and convenient, and made setting up a new PC or reinstalling Windows a little bit less annoying.

While you need to reinstall OS X far less often than Windows, it’s can still be a time consuming task when needed. Plus, you still need to setup apps anytime you get a new Mac. That’s where Get Mac Apps comes in. Their home page says “It’s like Ninite for mac!”, so let’s take it at its word and see how well it works. (more…)

When I first started using a MacBook after years on PC laptops, I instantly noticed the better trackpad. After becoming used to gestures on iOS devices being able to bring some of them over to a laptop seemed a welcome idea. Scrolling by dragging two fingers on the trackpad worked much better than most other methods I’d seen on laptops before. It’s these subtle enhancements to getting around Mac OS that I really feel separate using the MacBook from other computers. Still, Mac OS X supports only a few gestures by default and it would be nice to have more options.

I find tools that speed the small things to be very beneficial. It may take only a few seconds to move and resize a window, but I could do that dozens of times a day which quickly adds up. So I always look for utilities that can ease this process and help me be more efficient when working on my computer.

Enter BetterTouchTool, an app that lets you create custom actions for gestures using your Magic Mouse, Macbook Trackpad and Magic Trackpad. We’ve mentioned it in roundups and more a number of times, but haven’t reviewed in depth by itself. Let’s correct this and take a look at this useful free tool.

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If you’re worried about security, you might be wondering if you should stop syncing files via Dropbox and other cloud services. But then, who really wants to give up the convenience of having your files synced between all of your devices and seamlessly shared with others?

That’s why many — and even Dropbox itself — suggest encrypting your files before saving them on Dropbox if you’re worried about snooping eyes seeing them. And while that might sound like too much trouble, SafeMonk claims to provide an answer by merging the convenience of Dropbox with pre-upload encryption so that no one other than you can read your files even if they can get a copy of them.

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Earlier this year, I made the move to a MacBook Pro being my primary machine after years of having a desktop with a supplemental laptop. This change really just acknowledged the way I already used my computer since I seldom sat down in front of my several year old desktop. Over time I’d moved to doing almost all my work on my MacBook. In fact, for much of the last six month before making the change, the most common way I accessed my desktop was by remoting to it from my laptop.

This change lets me be more mobile and that brings a lot of freedom when working, but also adds a few challenges with having a computer that’s meant to be on the go. Over the last couple of years while gradually making the switch from my laptop being a supporting machine to my primary computer, I’ve come to use several apps that help simply the job. Let’s look at a few of them.

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When I get into the flow of working I often lose track of time. I find that my best work often comes in these periods when time seems to almost disappear. Much of the time this poses no problem, but sometimes I need to be reminded of something no matter how engrossed I am in my work. There are also times when I start something that will take a long time to finish, but I want to be able to work on something else and still be reminded when it’s complete. Either way, I need something to remind me what’s going on.

For events that take place at a specific time, the calendar works well. A reminder for a meeting at 10 A.M. or to meet someone for dinner at 7 P.M. does the job simply. It doesn’t work as well for things that are less tied to the clock. When I start laundry I just want to be reminded to check on it in thirty minutes. When I start a backup I want to be reminded to check on the status in an hour.

Timebar is an app in the Mac App Store that provides a simple countdown timer in your menu bar. This lets you keep an eye on the timer while keeping it out of your way. Let’s see how well it works.

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Writing my contribution to the Apps We Use Feature after several others makes it interesting see how many applications we have in common. Like several of the other writers I’m a recent convert to the Mac, having started using a MacBook less than two years ago.

I now use my MacBook as my main computer; however, I’ve not made the complete switch and still spend as much time within Windows during my normal day as I do my MacBook. In addition to writing here, I have a day job as an IT manager and also do consulting, mostly in networks and web development. I tend to use apps I can use in both environments, or at ones that are compatible with similar Windows programs. Here are a few apps that I turn to every day to work and organize my work.

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AirPlay Mirroring was one useful new feature Mountain Lion added to Mac OS. AirPlay Mirroring allows sending the screen of your Mac to display on a TV connected through an Apple TV. The usefulness for presentations is obvious, but I’ve found it most useful as a way to share a video to the room. While iTunes allows sending to an Apple TV, its limited in usefulness. AirPlay Mirroring let’s anything that can be displayed on your Mac to appear on an Apple TV. Instead of huddling around your MacBook display or the monitor on your iMac, everyone can watch it on the larger television screen your Apple TV connects to.

It’s not a perfect solution as the quality isn’t always great with stutters and pauses in the video a common problem. It also ties up your Mac when the display is mirrored. This works fine when watching short videos off YouTube or other online sites, but sometimes you don’t want to give up your computer for an hour or more to watch a longer video or move. Perhaps your roommate or significant other wants to watch a movie, but you’d just as soon catch up on email or finish a presentation.

Beamer offers a solution. It promises to send a video file to your Apple TV without having to completely give your Mac over to showing video. You can play any video from your Mac on your Apple TV. Since it’s an application the video can play while you continue doing other things. Let’s see how well it meets the promise.

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A computer network exists to ease the transfer of data from one computer to another. Before networks became common in homes and offices, moving even a small file would require transferring the file to some temporary medium, often a floppy disk, taking that temporary storage to the other location, and then copying the file onto the new destination computer. It took more time and effort and moving a file to a computer in another building or location required someone to walk or drive the disk there. Now with the ubiquity of networks this task has become an almost transparent action. We routinely move files around our local networks with little more difficultt than moving files within on our computer.

This easy transfer still only holds in when the source and destination are two computers on a local network. Once you need to transfer a file over the Internet, that is to a computer somewhere else, things get more complicated. This is such a common need and over time several dedicated protocols such as FTP and SFTP arose for this task. Unlike the seemingly transparent transfers on the local network, transfers with these protocols require a specialized client such as Cyberduck or FileZilla to move files between the remote location and your local computer.

The ExpanDrive app seeks to bring the convenience of a local drive to remote storage normally accessed through FTP, SFTP, and on Amazon’s S3 service. It makes a FTP, SFTP, or Amazon S3 connection appear like a USB drive plugged into your computer and transfers to these remote systems as simple as moving a file to an external hard drive. Let’s look at how well it works. (more…)

Note taking application are probably second only to task management apps in the App Store now. I’ve used many of them, but keep coming back to the same few programs that best meet my needs. I would probably would count Evernote as my favorite cross platform version, but in truth my favorite note taking application isn’t on the Mac. It’s OneNote for Widnows. While most Office programs come in a Mac version, OneNote is a notable, and frustrating, exception.

While OneNote compatible programs aren’t unknown, there are few and most have fallen far short of replacing OneNote. Microsoft’s SkyDrive includes a web based version that functions for many basic editing tasks, but loses some of the powerful features that make OneNote so useful. Many Mac users find themselves resorting to keeping OneNote installed on a virtual machine to keep access to the program.

Outline is a new program in the Mac App Store that promises to bring OneNote to the Mac. Has OneNote finally arrived for the Mac? Let’s find out. (more…)

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