I know someone who just picked up a new Mac and it got me to thinking, I bet people new to the Mac platform don’t know about all of the great software you can find for the Mac. I thought I’d write up a post on some of my favorite free and paid apps.

  • Firefox
  • RipIt: DVD ripping made easy
  • Adium: Multi-protocol chat
  • Growl: Must have notification system
  • NetNewsWire: RSS reader that syncs with Google Reader
  • BootChamp: Simple menu for rebooting directly into your BootCamp OS installation
  • Tweetie: Twitter client
  • iTerm: I can’t let go of this great ssh client.
  • 1Password: Store all of your passwords. LastPass is free alternative that is more cross platform
  • Automator: Built in robot too useful not to mention
  • Caffeine: Sometimes you just don’t want your Mac to dim the display or go to sleep.
  • Colloquy: Decent IRC client
  • Cord: Remote Desktop Client for Mac.
  • CrashPlan: Time Machine is good but I just have to have a second way of backing up all of our photos. CrashPlan really does a good job and has saved me.
  • HandBrake: Very good video encoder and DVD ripper (requires VLC)
  • Loginox: Swap out that ridiculous login screen image.
  • MarcoPolo: Change preferences based on your location or “context.”
  • MacFusion: Mount/Map ssh/sftp servers in Finder allowing any app to directly access remote files
  • smcFanControl: The Mac generally does a good job with the fan but there are times when having it cranked up on high is a good thing, especially for your lap.
  • NTFS-3G: Mount NTFS drives as read/write
  • SmartSleep: Preference pane that allows you to adjust how your Mac sleeps or hibernates

I think that about covers it. There are far more applications in my applications directory but the apps I listed are must haves in my book. If there are any apps you think I missed leave a comment.

My wife and I don’t watch a ton of TV but we do have a few TV series on DVD. Lately I’ve been taking the time to rip the DVDs to hard drive so we can travel with them more easily.

The problem of course is they take up a lot of space after awhile so I’ve started to compress some of them to the h264 format. I picked h264 because I like the quality and because newer Macs are able to decode h264 using hardware acceleration. One problem with the h264 format is that by itself it has no support chapter markers unlike say, the mkv container. To get around this, I wrote a couple of scripts. One of them determines how many chapters (episodes) are available on a disc and the other one does the encoding.

In order to put all of this to use you’ll need to have the HandBrakeCLI program installed on your computer. The HandBrake is site (http://handbrake.fr/) has information about how to get everything installed for your OS. This post assumes you are using Linux, Mac OS X or other UNIX like system.

Here is the script that retrieves the number of chapters on from a DVD that has been ripped to a hard drive. You’ll need to modify it for your environment. I called mine getchapters.sh but the name is arbitrary.

#!/bin/bash
HandBrakeCLI -i $1 -t 0 2>&1| grep "title 1 has" | grep chapters | awk '{print $
6}'

This script is called within another script that I called h264encode_episodic and looks like this

#!/bin/bash
chapters=`getchapters.sh $1`
if [ "$2" != "" ]; then
title=$2
else
title=$1
fi

for I in `seq 1 $chapters`
do
HandBrakeCLI -Z "High Profile" -i $1 -o ${title}E${I}.mp4 -c $I
done

Running this script in the same directory as the DVD iso or VIDEO_TS directory you will end up individual video files, one for each chapter or episode of your show. Here’s how it is called

h264encode_episodic Scrubs_S1D2.iso Scrubs_S1D2

Scrubs_S1D2.iso is the iso of the DVD I want to convert and Scrubs_S1D2 is part of how the resulting files will be named. The first episode will be named Scrubs_S1D2E1.mp4.

Linux is such a love/hate relationship for me and this post from Facebook about sums up the reason why. There is so much it can do and yet so much it can’t.

“I’ve been having this hankering to just run flat out Ubuntu on my laptop again. However, I have iTunes thanks to a bunch of free music I got from a Pepsi promo so many years ago, and I don’t exactly have money to get cd-r’s to burn it all to re-rip it. I’ve found some new toys for Ubuntu that I wasn’t aware of and they make me crave it more. Maybe I’ll just end up running Windows in a VM. I still need to have something that can print photos relatively easy.”

A while back I installed Windows 7 on my work laptop so I could give it a real trial. Since installing it I’ve been using it to some capacity almost daily and now after a couple of months I thought I’d write out a few of the things Windows 7 gets right and a few of the things that could use some fixing.

What Windows 7 Gets Right

Windows 7 is a big improvement over Vista. It boots quicker, introduces a remixed taskbar, better window management, fixes a number of interfaces issues that Vista had like managing wireless networks and it makes Windows Explorer much more useful. And, while there are a lot of tests out there that show Windows 7 isn’t actually faster than Vista, Windows 7 certainly feels faster and that is arguably much more important.

Start Up and Shutdown
Improved start up and shutdown speeds have been a selling point of most Windows releases since Windows 95 but no release has ever really delivered on that promise. If anything, better start up and shutdown speeds have been because of hardware improvements over the years, not the OS. Vista promised to bring with it improved start up and shutdown as well but it would seem the engineers had trouble actually delivering on that promise once again. Instead, Vista cheated by using sleep and suspend to mask the amount of time it took the OS to start up and shutdown. So, once Vista had been booted up choosing shutdown would put the computer to sleep or suspend. To truly shutdown or reboot the computer the user had to visit a secondary menu.

Of course, Windows isn’t the only operating system promising better start up and shutdown speeds but it wasn’t until this year that someone was finally able to really deliver on the promise of faster start up and shutdown. When Ubuntu 9.04 arrived, it shattered the status quo delivering start up times that seemed much more inline with the amount of power modern computers offer. While Windows 7 doesn’t seem to quite match Ubuntu’s speed it does seem that Microsoft was able to actually improve things enough that they no longer had to rely on the tricks that they used in Vista. Clicking shutdown now causes the OS to actually shutdown.

The Taskbar
The Windows taskbar isn’t something I’ve felt was an issue. In fact, I’ve always thought it was just fine. I’d typically expand the bar so it was a bit taller and put the quick launch icons under the application buttons. In Windows 7 however Microsoft has dramatically changed how it works and the end result works very well. It is clearly superior to the taskbar model it replaces by offering real time previews of running apps or even Internet Explorer tabs by simply hovering over a running application’s icon. From there you can hover your mouse over a preview and Windows will make all other Windows transparent so you can see the full version where ever it might be on your monitor. You can easily pin new applications to the taskbar by dragging them or right clicking the icon of a running application and choosing “pin to taskbar.”

There are however a couple of issues worth pointing out, both of which could probably be fixed in an update or service pack. Installing an updated version of an application will break the icon on the taskbar. It simply won’t work until you remove the old icon and place it there again. The other problem is that using the taskbar beyond it’s obvious functions is difficult to discover. Clicking the application icon always displays the running application, but what if you want a new window? The secret is to hold down the shift key while clicking the application icon. This will cause a new instance or window of the application to launch instead of simply showing the running version. If you want to launch an application and run it as Administrator, hold control and shift while clicking the application icon. Microsoft would do well by providing some way to educate the user on how to use the new taskbar.

Window Management
Microsoft is always being accused of stealing features and ideas from Apple and sometimes I believe they do. The new taskbar for instance is very dock like but does add an innovative new twist to the idea. But in the case of window management Microsoft has, for once, truly one upped Apple and Apple should really consider implementing a similar if not exactly the same set of features.

Windows 7 introduces several new ways of sizing windows automatically. A user has always been able to resize a window by dragging it bigger on any corner or side of the application window. Windows 7 however now allows you to simply drag the entire window to a sort of hot spot to resize it. Drag a window to the top of the screen and Windows 7 will maximize the window. Drag it to the left or right and Windows will resize it to the full height of the screen but only 50% of the width. This makes it extremely easy get two applications side by side on a single monitor.

Interface Tweaks
One of the things I simply couldn’t get over in Windows Vista was how poorly implemented the wireless network interface was. In fact, the entire networking interface was overly complicated. While most of the networking interface is just complicated as it was in Vista, the part that you’ll use the most is much improved and now works exactly as it does under OS X or Linux. You simply click the icon and choose an available wireless network.

The Explorer was another item in Vista I found awful. It was cluttered and confusing. Windows 7 again seems to have taken one from the Apple playbook and Explorer is now much more usable. A number of sensible default shortcuts are available on the left side and you can easily add more. Over all, Explorer feels much less confusing and cluttered.

What Windows 7 Gets Wrong
Despite all of the things Windows 7 gets right, there are a few things that simply don’t work or just aren’t useful. Below I’ve listed a couple of my biggest Windows 7 gripes.

Aero Peek and Show Desktop
Of all the new features of Windows 7, Aero Peek is arguably the most pointless. Placing the mouse in the lower right corner causes Windows to make all of the windows translucent so that you can see through them and see the desktop. This is great, except now that I can see the desktop I want to be able to access what is there. Moving your mouse away from the bottom right causes all of the windows to become opaque again. In order to actually access what is on the desktop you have to click the bottom right corner. This causes all application windows to simply go away, as if they’re minimized. Why bother with Aero Peek at all?

Also, show desktop is still a broken feature when compared to Exposé on OS X. Clicking show desktop causes all application windows to go away. If you click it again all application windows will, usually, appear back where they were with the right application in focus. If you click an application icon before clicking show desktop again, the whole “set” is lost. You can’t return your desktop they way it was unless you now manually click each application icon.

Aero Shake
Another new feature is Aero Shake. Aero Shake mimics an OS X feature that allows you to hide all other Applications. The problem with Aero Shake is that it is an awkward gesture. You activate Aero Shake by clicking and holding on the Window you want and then shaking it for a bit. In theory it seems sound and simple, in practice it feels awkward.

Another issue with Aero Shake is that it reveals a key difference between Windows and OS X. Under OS X, an application is NOT the same as the window. It’s entirely possible (and very useful) for an application to be running but not have any visible windows. When an application has focus in OS X you can hide that application by pressing command+H or by choosing “Hide ApplicationName” from the application menu where ApplicationName is the name of the application. The opposite of that is similar to Aero Shake does. From the same menu you have the option to hide all other applications, leaving any windows that belong to that application still visible.

Windows however doesn’t differentiate between a window and an application because in Windows, the window IS the application. This makes Aero Shake, aside from the goofy gesture, less useful in my opinion.

Conclusion
Windows 7 is what Windows Vista should have been. If you’re Windows fan then Windows 7 is something to truly be excited about. If you’re an XP user and you’ve been hanging on to it because of all the bad things you heard about Vista, wait no more. Especially if you bought a Vista “capable” or “ready” machine and then downgraded to XP. If you truly need XP for compatibility be sure to pick up at least the professional version and then download the XP mode package from Microsoft. XP mode is a preconfigured Windows XP system running in Microsofts VirtualPC and the end result is fantastic. You can upgrade to a modern Windows system and still run apps or hardware that will only work under XP.

Recently I removed Fedora 10 from my Linux server at home and installed Ubuntu 9.10 Server. I did this partly because I was tired of finding packages that weren’t available on Fedora but were available in Ubuntu. Ironically I ended up trading one mess for another. Under Fedora I was compiling software that simply wasn’t available, but under Ubuntu I need to recompile the provided netatalk package in order to enable support for newer versions of OS X.

Netatalk is the Linux package for providing the native file sharing protocol to Macs and also provides better performance than Samba under most conditions. The missing feature in this case seems like quite the over site considering it makes the software virtually useless on networks with modern Macs as it prevents them from authenticating. Lucky for me, someone else has gone through the work of figuring out what it takes to get things working again.

The information is Debian/Ubuntu centric but you should be able to apply the same fix on other distributions. Here’s the link http://www.kremalicious.com/2008/06/ubuntu-as-mac-file-server-and-time-machine-volume/

I recently tried to change my home directory on my Macbook to less than stellar results. In the end I couldn’t sign in to my one and only user account. Had I had another account I could have more easily fixed it, but without a second account here is one method you can follow.

Reboot your Mac and before the tone sounds press and hold command+s. This will tell OS X to load in single user mode, dropping you to a root shell. Next, type the following

DirectoryService &

and press enter. This will start a necessary service. Next, type the following

chfn

where username is the username you need to fix. An editor (vi) will load allowing you to change the home directory for that user. Edit the file and save the changes (search google if you’ve never used vi) and reboot the Mac by issuing the ‘reboot’ command. You should now be able to sign in to your once broken account.

For years we the consumer have demanded bigger and faster computers and for years we’ve gotten just that. Every month a new model is released that incrementally bumps up the specs a bit and satisfies that demand. Yesterday 17″ CRT monitors were an upgrade, today a 22″ widescreen LCD is common. Of course, software doesn’t just sit still either. Each new version of software finds some way of using your new hardware to the point where the net affect is virtually zero.

Recently however consumers decided they no longer wanted faster, they no longer wanted bigger. Suddenly they wanted small, portable and cheap. Enter the netbook.

The netbook, which was recently “defined” by Microsoft if you’re willing to accept it, is a small laptop like device with a 10.2″ or smaller screen and single core processor running at 2Ghz or less. Indeed, most netbooks today are powered by a 1.6Ghz Intel Atom processor and few have more than 1GB of ram. Early models usually came with a small SSD, maybe 16GB in size. One thing they all have in common is their size. They’re small. Smaller than a laptop but larger than a smart phone.

Size, ultimately, is why the netbook is destined to fail. The problem with the netbook is precisely because it is smaller than a laptop and yet bigger than a smart phone. It wants you to believe it can provide all of the capabilities of a laptop while being as portable as a smart phone. In reality it provides neither.

In order to be smaller and cheaper than a laptop a number of compromises have to be made. The keyboard is smaller and more difficult to use than a standard size keyboard. The touchpad and associated buttons are of lesser quality. Most netbooks I’ve come into contact with have glaring quality issues like buttons that feel unforgivably cheap or difficult to push. Couple the cramped keyboard with a netbook’s general lack of power and you’ve basically got a really large smart phone without the portability.

So if the netbook is so bad why does it exist at all? The netbook was born out of a desire for a small and inexpensive device that could be used to do basic internet tasks while on the go. At the time smart phones couldn’t provide the internet experience users were really looking for so boom, an even smaller laptop! The problem for the netbook is that the iPhone changed what a smart phone was expected to be capable of. The iPhone raised the bar for what a smart phone could do as internet device. Since then numerous others have made an effort to compete with the iPhone with varying degrees of success.

So what’s the point? The point is that with the improvements in smart phones the netbook now looks like the odd man out. It isn’t truly as portable as a smart phone. The moment you want to do something the latest (good) smart phones can’t do you’ll want to be on a full sized laptop or computer.

Oddly enough, improvements in the smart phone aren’t the only reason the netbook is destined to die. In the end, the consumer will be the reason the netbook slowly goes away. The netbook will follow the same track of any car ever made. Consumers will want the next version to be bigger and better the last until it is no longer what it started out as. Eventually the netbook will simply be like any other cheap laptop and the smart phone will replace it, if it hasn’t already.

I decided to download the Windows 7 Beta and I’ve gotten it installed on my laptop. I don’t have a lot of time into it but so far some of the things I’ve seen are big improvements to the disaster that is Vista. Along the way I’ve also unearthed some very obvious Apple envy, most of which is poorly implemented or thought out at this point.

One of my biggest gripes about Vista was the way you interacted with the networking hardware, specifically joining a wireless network. It seems like such a small thing but on a laptop it is something a person deals with on a nearly daily basis. Under Vista the process was overly complicated, convoluted even. The process required far more clicks than should be necessary to join a wireless network. Windows 7 actually copies OS X and provides a simple button near the click that when clicked, reveals a list of available wireless networks.

Windows 7 also sports a controversial new task bar. The new task bar strongly mimics the Dock from OS X in that it houses both running and non-running applications at the same time. Windows deviates from the OS X formula by intermixing application shortcuts with folder and document short cuts. I really haven’t spent enough time with the new task bar to really decide if I like it or not. I can say however that I like being able to hover over an icon and see all open windows complete with screen shot. This is actually a pretty nice feature.

So really, that about sums up what I really like so far. There are however a few things that don’t seem fully thought out.

One new feature is the ability to see through any open windows so you can see what is on the desktop. This is fine and all but typically a person doesn’t just want to see what is on the desktop, but probably wants to use something from the desktop as well. They also force you to place the shortcut in the lower right, or where ever you have your task bar positioned.

Another odd choice in Windows 7 is the decision to not include some very basic functionality by today’s standards. Windows 7 doesn’t provide, out of the box, any email or instant messaging clients. Even more bizarre is that Windows 7 doesn’t include Windows Movie Maker, but it does include Windows DVD Maker. Email, IM and Windows Movie Maker (among others) are available as part of an “essentials” package. If they’re so essential why not include them. As some might point out, Microsoft has gotten into some anti-trust trouble in the past for including these functions. Despite that, not including such basic functionality in today’s world seems inexcusable. Obviously OEM’s will most likely provide these functions for end users.

Despite my critical take on Windows 7 thus far, I actually like it much better than Vista. As I spend more time with it I’ll get a feel for some of the others things I didn’t like in Vista like Windows Explorer and UAC.

It is bound to happen at some point. You’ve installed the latest kernel or you’re attempting an upgrade and now your system just won’t boot. The screen shows nothing more than GRUB. If your system isn’t able to get past the GRUB prompt and it isn’t because of a hard drive failure then chances are very good that you can rescue your system. This routine will work best if you created a non LVM boot partition or if your rescue cd includes the LVM tools.

This post assumes you are running a RedHat or Fedora based system but the concepts apply to all systems that use grub to boot. It also assumes you have a relatively recent install cd.

To get started, insert your install cd. In my rescue scenario I used a CentOS install cd. When the install has loaded to the initial screen enter ‘linux rescue’ and press enter. The cd will boot like normal and ask about your preferred language and keyboard layout. Continue until you are asked if the rescue routine should find any installed systems. If your root directory exists in LVM you should say no, unless you the rescue cd you using includes LVM tools. It isn’t important to mount root anyway, just your boot partition.

When you are at a prompt, create a boot directory at / and mount your boot partition there. In a typical RedHat/Fedora setup it will be on /dev/[h|s]da1. Next, rename the current device.map files to some other name. We’re now ready to reinstall grub.

Type grub and press enter. You’ll now be in the grub interface. Type ‘root (hd0,0)’ and press enter. Next, type ‘setup (hd0)’ and press enter. Some text will flash by with, hopefully a success message. If you see success you should now be able to reboot into your Linux system.