The Computer Blog

Sunday, February 25, 2007

An Alternate Office (the software suite) Strategy

I’m finding myself in a dilemma. I really, really, like Office 2007 for Windows just a bit more than I like Office 2004 for the Mac and more, I suspect, than I’m going to like Office 2008 for the Mac when it’s released later this year. The Office 2008 user interface looks more cluttered than the Office 2004’s or Office 2007’s. At least, that’s the impression I’ve gotten from the screen shots floating around on the web. So, I’ve been looking at alternative ways to handle the situation.

I did buy a copy of Office 2007 and have it installed on the Windows partition of each of my machines. Since I’ve already spent the money on that and really like it, I started thinking that maybe the thing to do was run Office 2007 under Parallels. If it ran well enough, that might be a better and certainly more economical thing to do.

I tried it on my wife’s machine using the beta copy of Parallels that lets you use the BootCamp partition to run Windows from rather than a separate installation. I brought up Word 2007 okay but that’s as far as it went. While the mouse was recognized inside the application, the keyboard was not, no matter what keystrokes I used to try to get it accepted. That ended my flirtation with the Office 2007 idea, at least for now. I will try it later once the final version of Parallels is released.

Of course, the other routes I can take are simply to do nothing and continue to run Office 2004 for Mac or do more work in Neo Office, the Universal Binary port of Open Office. For the moment, I’m using Neo Office more, despite the fact that quitting it generates a “your application quit unexpectedly crash box” I have to respond to. Hopefully, an update will take care of that problem. (It did! As I was writing this, I visited the Neo Office website and downloaded Neo Office 2.0 Aqua Beta 3 Patch 14 and installed it on my MacBook Pro. The problem disappeared. I had been running Neo Office 2.0 Aqua Beta 3 Patch 10.)

If I was voting for a word processor on account of its speed, the Neo Office's Writer certainly would win.

Some folks are using Apple's Pages as their word processor. Pages is okay, but really is a better desktop publisher than a word processor. You have to know to use the Export function rather than the Save As function to get it into Word format and even to save it in the same every time you make a change. You’re really better doing the work in Pages’ native format and then doing one export at the end to get it into Word’s format. If you have nothing else to work with, then that will do; but since Neo Office and Word can move files back and forth rather effortlessly, why bother?

Admittedly, 99% of the world uses Microsoft Office. (WordPerfect was a better word processor than Word, but that's a whole 'nother story.) OpenOffice, and therefore Neo Office, does a good job with complex Office documents but not always a great one. I've got a couple of college age relatives who refuse to give Open Office a try, even though they say they can't afford Office. One of them uses a Mac and the other Windows. Neo Office is certainly pretty nice, and Open Office is, too. Most papers for a college class can be worked using either, and the professor will not be able to tell the difference. Nor will anyone else. So, if you're looking for an alternative office suite and especially if you don't have a lot of money to invest in one, don't be afraid to give one of those a try.

As for me, I'm going to use Neo Office more and continue to pay around with Office 2007 as I can. I'll take a look at Office 2008 when it is released and see if I think it might be worth the money. If so, I'll buy it. If not,...

Document Wallet – A PaperPort Equivalent for Mac OS X

Ever since I switched to the Mac, I’ve been hunting for a Mac application that would replace the capability I had using PaperPort for Windows. Finding nothing, I’ve continued to keep some Windows-running capability around so I could continue to run PaperPort. I use it as my electronic cabinet, and it really does let me keep lots of records without having to fill up my office with paper. I used it with a specifically designed sheet-fed scanner; but when the scanner started showing its age and couldn’t be replaced, I gave it up and replaced it with an Epson flatbed I could also use for other things. It took me a little bit longer to scan that way, but the overall result was the same.

Once the Intel Macs came out, that simplified things a little since I didn’t have to maintain a separate machine to run Windows. Since my flatbed scanner was driven by USB, I could use it on the same machine under both OS X and Windows. Still, since the first set-up was a dual boot using Boot Camp, I had to boot into Windows to get to the material. That actually was a little less handy than having the stuff on a separate PC. Secondly, PaperPort was one of my two main reasons for keeping Windows around. So, I have frequently gone hunting for some application that might substitute for PaperPort. Until last week, I had been unable to find one. Then, I stumbled across a little application named “Document Wallet”. Not only did it appear to do the major things PaperPort did, but it integrated with other OS X applications (like Mail), stored and shipped its files in the cross-platform .pdf format rather than the proprietary .max format PaperPort uses. If that wasn’t enough, the app only cost $29.99, was available as a Universal Binary, and could be downloaded as a fully functional trial version useful for 30 days.

I’ve been using it for a week now and I have to say I’m really happy with it. I’ve been converting all my Paperport files by exporting them as uncompressed .TIFF files and then importing them into the program. It’s probably going to take me another week to get all of the files, but I’m convinced it will be worth it when I am done. It’s really great to have access to all the information from my OS X partition.

Moreover, the program acts as both a storage cabinet and a database. You can use Search functions in the program or via Spotlight to find what you’re looking for. Thumbnails of the actual scans are viewable in the lower part of the program’s main window as well as the text listing of the file in the upper window. Selecting the name in the upper window puts a little blue box around the thumbnail to help you identify it. A sidebar on the left side of the main window shows the hierarchy of the database; data is put into collections which can stand alone or as collections within a folder of collections.

The only bug I’ve found is that the program doesn’t recognize my Epson Perfection 1660 flatbed scanner unless I run it under Rosetta. An “FAQ” at Document Wallet’s website says this is a function of the scanner drivers not truly being Intel-based and is not a problem with the program. (I am running the drivers listed as “for Intel Macs” on the Epson website.)

I went out on jury duty yesterday and needed an electronic copy of the work release issued by the county for my employer. I got it this morning by scanning the document into Document Wallet and telling it to “Send” from the File menu. It pulled up Mail complete with a new e-mail letter and the document attached. I simply typed in an address and hit the Send button and the pdf copy of my work release was on its way. I couldn’t ask for more than that.

I am actually surprised at how relieved I am to be getting off PaperPort and Windows.

I’m one step closer to not needing Windows at all.

Mac OS X, My Mac Pro, and DVD-R DL Support

I haven’t been writing any blogs because all my time has been taken with building up my Mac Pro. Just as I was finishing up the Windows XP configuration on the machine, I found a neat little OS X application called “Document Wallet”. For years, I’ve been looking for a Mac application I could use to replace PaperPort for Windows; and I’ve finally gotten it. So, much of my time has been and continues to be taken up converting the library of PaperPort files into TIFF files that Document Wallet can import and turn ito .PDF files. More on that later. For now, I’d like to focus on the other thing I’ve discovered this week, i.e., there is no DVD-R dual layer support in OS X.

The primary optical drive supplied with my Mac was a Sony DW-150A. This is a rebranded and cripped NEC 4570. One of the things Apple wrote out of the drive was its support for DVD-R dual layer support. Apple has a bad habit of supplying crippled drives for one reason or another, opening the door to bragging rights by our PC-toting friends.

Frankly, I like Pioneer drives; and Apple has a history of supplying Pioneer drives with its machines. Currently, Pioneer is marketing a drive that has both DVD+/-R DL support, and it is often listed as DVR-1810B5PK. This is actually a DVR-112D along with some Nero software that forms the “1810” retail pack. The plastic and the tray in this item is black, which is what the “B” in the serial number is for. In any case, Pioneer’s specifications show the drive is capable of reading and writing DVD-R dual layer disks. So, I went down to Best Buy and bought one and stuck it in my Mac Pro as my primary drive. It mounted easily. As I expected, the System Profiler showed “Burn Support” as “Yes (Unsupported)”, meaning it has not yet been “officially” listed as an approved burner by Apple. I have yet to try it with iDVD, iPhoto, or iTunes to see if it will work anyway. I plan on doing more testing tonight, after I go by Fry’s and buy some DVD-R DL media.

Apple’s System Profiler also does not show the drive supports DVD-R DL capability. That means that the version of OS X I’m running does not, and there is no good reason for that. I watched Apple play “catch up” with earlier versions of Jaguar and Panther with regards to DVD burning capability, and Apple needs to enable this capability as well. I suspect that OS 10.4.9 might have that support but feel more strongly we’ll see it in OS 10.5 Leopard. In any case, Toast 8 says it supports it, so I’ve got some DVD-R dual layer burning capability even if the operating system doesn’t come along anytime soon. It’s not clear to me yet whether that’s just “whole disk” burning capability or whether it’s “multi-session” capability. On the Windows side, NERO just gave Windows users that, so both Apple and Toast need to catch up.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Making a Mac Pro

Okay, I broke down and bought a Mac Pro. I didn’t have a compelling reason to do it other than I knew I’d upgrade sooner or later; two of my sons were doing video work and could use better systems than they had; and I was on vacation with too much time to think. Once I finish building up my Mac Pro, I’m sending my dual 2.0 GHz G5 PowerMac to one of them and he’s giving his dual 1.25GHz G4 PowerMac to the other. The latter has a dual 1.0 G4 GHz Quicksilver PowerMac he’s sending to me; and after I check it out and outfit it, I plan to send it to one of Connie’s relatives (if he wants it) to get him into some Photoshop work on the Mac.

The really scary thing about buying the Mac Pro isn’t what it costs to buy the machine. It’s what it costs to upgrade it into truly workable condition. My stock 2.66 GHz dual processor, dual-core Intel Xenon powered tower only came with 1 GB of RAM (in two 512MB sticks) and a 250GB hard drive. I want to take the machine to 4 GB of RAM and that will cost me $550 (adding 3 GB to the one that’s there). For the moment, I’ve compromised by accepting a 3GB configuration with its $350 cost, figuring I’ll add in the other GIG of RAM once I’ve paid off some of the other expense. I bought a second 250GB SATA II hard disk to run with the stock hard disk in a RAID 0 “scratch disk” set-up and plan to buy a 500GB SATA II hard disk to use as a boot disk for OS X and some brand of Windows (either XP or Vista). Together, those latter two disks cost another $220 plus tax. My current cost of making the machine workable is $570 more than the cost of the machine itself, and the extra RAM later will raise that to $770 over the purchase price of the machine. Unfortunately, that only covers the hardware.

Software upgrades that take advantage of the Mac Pro’s excellent performance will cost me at least another $1000 over the next year, most of which will be spent upgrading my four Adobe applications. Currently, I’m running Adobe Photoshop CS2, Illustrator CS2, In Design CS, and Go Live CS. While they run acceptably well under Rosetta, what’s the point of having a Mac Pro if it’s slower than my old dual G5? So, buying a Mac Pro commits me to buying CS3 versions of those products when they’re released in the next few months, and I am expecting them to cost me $600 – $900. The same holds true for a new version of Microsoft Office, though not to the same degree. I’m happy enough with Office 2004’s performance under Rosetta. I will not upgrade it unless Office 2008 has some compelling features other than just being faster as a Universal Binary. But if I do buy Office 2008, it will run $150-$300 depending on what version I have to buy. I have to also confess to costs associated with new or additional Windows software since I will probably run some version of Windows as well as the new Microsoft Office 2007. Those costs will be $380-$440. And all that doesn’t count the $50 I spent to upgrade Print Shop to Version 2, a Universal Binary, or the $200 I spent to upgrade Final Cut Pro. Add that up and it comes to a total that ranges from $1380 to $1890. Pretty staggering, huh?

Needless to say, this whole thing is putting me in debt for some time.

With the Mac Pro buy, though, the planned upgrades of the Mac systems in our house come to an end. Unless they break, I intend to run these systems for at least five years. As a user, I am not pushing my software though I am learning to not only to produce art, photos, and videos that fascinate family and friends but turn a buck at some point. That’s not to say there won’t be some things I do to upgrade our now current systems (like more memory, hard disk swaps, or operating system upgrades), but major purchases are done for a very long while (unless we win the lotto, in which case I have one more system to buy for a family member).

That said, I was running as many as four systems not more than a year ago. I had a PPC powered G4 PowerBook, a G5 iMac, a dual G5 PowerMac, and an AMD 2800+ XP powered PC. They were a hassle from a time and mental standpoint, but I needed all of them for different things. Now, I can do it all with two machines. Additionally, over the past few years, Connie and I have spread our “old” machines throughout the family. Today, a majority of folks in both our families are Mac users; and there are a number of them, including me and my wife, who would not go back to Windows-only PC’s unless forced to. I like to think we’ve improved their quality of life in some small way, though I’m not sure you can ever argue that computers of any shape or size do that. They are definitely a mixed blessing.

Still, Apple has learned with each generation of machine; each has been more powerful, better looking, and quieter than the one before, making me happier with each succeeding generation. I have no regrets about switching to Apple’s camp. It’s been a positive move for me in almost every way, and I’m not spending any more than I was when I was building and upgrading my own PC systems. I’m getting more work and play done, now; and in the end, that’s what buying a Mac or “making” a Mac Pro is all about.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Is Office 2008 Already a Bust?

I’ve been using Office 2007 for a little while now, and I’ve written about how impressed I have been with the new interface design. So, when MacWorld Expo was running about a month ago, I was really interested in seeing if Microsoft would release any details about Office 2008, the new updated version of Office for the Mac. They did.

The more I think about what I saw, however, the more I wonder about whether Microsoft may have taken the wrong direction with it. Most of the redesign seems to have focused on making Office competitive with Apple’s Pages. In doing so, at least based on the screenshots I’ve seen, Microsoft may have created a product that will sell but not be the “Wow!” product it could have been. Office 2008 would sell a fair number of copies just because it was a Universal Binary and may do just because of that, but I’m not one of the customers who will bite just because of it.

That’s not to say we won’t have any copies here in the house. My wife most certainly will want the new version and she’s a university professor, so we’ll grab the Student and Teacher Version if it exists (and there is every sign it will). I’ll at least take a look at the new version based on that.

In the Windows version of Office, the goal of the new Ribbon interface was to unmask the myriad commands and make it easier for the user to find the ones he wanted. The interface in Office 2008 looks like it was designed to make templates and desktop publishing features easier to get to at the expense of interface simplicity and screen space, since there now seems to be at least one or two extra rows of buttons between the topmost toolbar and the document. If I’m right, then Microsoft has taken the Mac version of Office in the wrong direction. I’d like to be able to explore that, but there are no beta copies of the software on the web. I suspect there won’t be, so I’ll probably have to wait for the product’s release before I can tell for sure.