• Newsletter Issue #301

    September 5th, 2005

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    After a couple of weeks of testing several possible solutions, it appears we’ve gotten a handle on the network problem that prevented some of you from receiving the live show feed. Best of all, a few of the folks who dropped into our new chat room reported reception was loud and clear, so if you’ve been unable to hear the show until the archives are posted, give us another try. We also want to be absolutely certain that the fix is successful for everyone, even those of you who get the show via dial-up.

    On the September 1st episode, Chris Sage, of Luma Pictures, came on board to talk about the company’s use of Macs to deliver movie special effects for such films as “The Cave” and “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.” Jason Snell of Macworld and Playlist, brought us up to date on the latest news and views in the Mac universe, and also gave us a special insight into his passion: television. The show also included a lengthy session with photojournalist Derrick Story on how to discover the hidden power of your digital camera.

    For September 8th, Ted Green will bring us up to date on the battle against Spam. We’ll have an exclusive session with Playlist on Apple’s upcoming music-related product announcements, and you’ll pay another fascinating visit to the “David Biedny Zone.

    And don’t forget our weekly contests. So far we’ve given away such prizes as iPod shuffles, iPod accessories, memory upgrades, network music players, software and books. More great prizes will be offered in the weeks to come.

    If you haven’t heard our program, be sure to visit The Tech Night Owl LIVE Web site to listen to our archives. Enjoy.

    LIVING WITHOUT MICROSOFT WORD

    The other day I saw an article suggesting that, now that Apple was switching to Intel processors, a Mac was just another PC. Well, maybe the internal workings are all pretty much the same these days, but that’s not what makes a Mac a Mac. In addition to the fancier case design, there’s Mac OS X and the unique look and feel of many of your favorite applications.

    But to survive in this multiplatform world, many of you must rely on the very same applications whether you use a Mac or a Windows PC. Some of these applications, such as Adobe Photoshop, share the same features and functions, and differ only in ways that are unique to one operating system or the other. On the other hand, Microsoft tries to infuse the Mac version of Office with its own look and feel, even though file compatibility is near complete with the current Windows edition.

    But Office may be overkill for most of you. Take Word, for example. I dare say most of its sophisticated features are seldom used, and you can expect the next version will include even more features that you will never bother with.

    You have to wonder whether it’s really possible to find a word processor that’s simpler to use, has a small memory footprint, runs faster and is less prone to unpredictable behavior. At the same time, it has to be compatible with Word, because you need to share files with the rest of the world. Is that an impossible combination?

    It depends. Publishers and editors rely heavily on a Word feature called Track Changes, which allows you to keep tabs on the entire editorial process and know who changed what and when. Although I don’t write quite as many books, magazine and newspaper articles as I used to, I had come to rely on Word for this one reason alone. But I sometimes wonder whether it’s really necessary. For projects that don’t require recording the revision process, what are my alternatives?

    Well, of course, I need Word compatibility. Even if I don’t use Word except for a small number of chores, I have to be able to read documents created in that program and save them in the same format, so others can open them without trouble. Well, I suppose I can use PDF for the latter.

    In any case, all of the main competitors to Word’s on the Mac promise file compatibility, but can they deliver? That, my friends, depends, and it’s not just the lack of support for the Track Changes feature. In order to put the other applications to the test, I chose three documents at random with different formatting characteristics. None consisted of straight text, since I assumed that wouldn’t represent too much of a translation chore.

    The first document was a simple shopping list, but I used a Bodoni variant and four different text colors to make it stand out from the crowd. Another document consisted of a basic product inventory and contained a simple four-column chart. The final document was rather more complicated, since it contained the text of a legal contract and line numbers on a watermarked layer.

    So how well did the competition do? That depends. Before I get ahead of myself, I have to tell you that I tested the most recent release versions of each application, with one exception I’ll explain later. More to the point, translation perfection couldn’t be achieved, but some came close. Here’s what the results showed:

    AppleWorks: Even though it hasn’t received a significant update in over five years, it does include a Word translator. Strangely enough, the shopping list wouldn’t translate for some reason. The inventory came through almost perfectly and the legal document was a mixed bag. Formatting was intact, but the watermarked numbers were missing in action.

    Mariner Write: Advertised as a no-frills word processor with a rich feature set, it didn’t do quite as well as AppleWorks, although it managed to open all the documents. The inventory translated flawlessly, but the shopping list came through in the wrong font, although Mariner Write got the colors right. The legal document messed up a page break, and lacked the watermarked numbers.

    Mellel: This Israeli-bred word processor is a powerful tool for writers, with elaborate style sheets, table of contents generation and multilingual capability. But it’s not terribly good at handling Word documents. Only the legal document could be opened and formatting fidelity was mixed. The watermarked numbers were separated and placed at the right end of the final page. Go figure.

    Nisus Writer Express: Unlike the others, this is an almost release-ready version, 2.5fc2. I will test again with the final release, but won’t report further unless something changes. In any case, you have to regard this application as essentially a recreation of the original Nisus for Mac OS X, rather than a simple port. It started out with the essentials of the original, including the powerful search and macro functions. And, as with Mellel, it’s a worldwide word processor with multilingual capability. Version 2.5 adds such features as right to left text input, an important element missing from previous versions, plus enhanced text formatting capabilities. Of the applications covered so far, Nisus Writer Express got almost everything right, except for those watermarked numbers in the legal document.

    Pages: This is Apple’s underperforming component of the iWork suite that is slated to be the successor to AppleWorks some day. Although it features reasonably robust word processing tools, it works best as a low-end page layout application. Pages is great for simple brochures and newsletters, where the power and complexity of Adobe InDesign or QuarkXPress are wasted. To my amazement, Apple’s software engineers came unexpectedly close to perfection with this application’s Word translation capability. Even the watermarks on that legal document were preserved. However, text spacing differed sufficiently to result in adding a third page to the two-page document. Now if Apple would give iWork some renewed attention, and add a spreadsheet application, this could be the Office substitute of choice.

    TextEdit: It’s not much of a word processor, but if all you need to do is open a Word document from time to time, it has the advantage of being free. Sure, the formatting of the legal document and the inventory were somewhat messed up, but they were still readable, and maybe that’s all you need.

    Before you ask, I choose not to explore any of those open source Office alternatives, such as NeoOfficeJ, since they are presented as replacements for the entire suite, not just a single application. But I may cover them in a future article. For now, if you require a decent word processor with accurate Word translation capability, you’ll want to put Pages at the top of your list.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: REDISCOVERING RADIO

    Radio has been declared down and out more times than I can remember, but it keeps bouncing back in a new, fresher form. When TV largely (but not completely) supplanted radio dramas, the rock disk jockey became ascendant. FM was the province of classical music enthusiasts until someone decided that it needed to rock and roll. AM? It’s still there, but it’s pretty much talk, talk and more talk these days.

    Some speculate that satellite radio, Internet radio and Podcasting will combine to bury terrestrial radio stations. But the broadcasters still have a few tricks up their sleeves, such as digital, where AM will sound as good as FM does now, and FM will give satellite radio a run for its money in terms of audio quality. In addition, stations will be able to transmit more than one signal at a time. Call it a “narrowcast” of a narrowcast, I suppose.

    In any case, rather than disappearing, the number of choices has mushroomed incredibly. You’ll even be able to find some vintage radio dramas on some stations, and if you get hooked, subscribe to one of the satellite radio networks and you’ll be in your element. They’ve also spent some time restoring the old programs, so even The Shadow’s fabulously evil laughter comes through loud and clear.

    But this is just the starting point in your journey through the world of radio. During the current rescue effort to locate survivors of that frighteningly devastating Hurricane Katrina, amateur or “ham” radio operators have been working overtime. They used shortwave radio to radio transmission to reach into areas that were left stranded when mobile phone towers failed. Even though it’s probably not as popular as it used to be, ham radio is a great hobby and, in times of emergency, can be a valuable companion for rescue workers.

    If you really want to explore the nooks and crannies of radio, you might even want to look at one of those shortwave or “world” radios that can receive just about anything on the traditional broadcast bands. Although you can find one of those models for less than $100, paying more money gets you both higher sensitivity and a greater number of reception choices.

    Recently, the folks at C. Crane Company sent me one of their $259.95 Sangean ATS909 multiband receivers, and I was in shortwave radio heaven. The ATS909 gives you AM, FM and a wide range of shortwave bands. It has built-in timers, electronic tuning, a whopping 306 memory presets, both narrow and wide band, and dozens of other adjustments. For a gadget with this much sophistication, it’s remarkably small, just eight inches long, five inches high and an inch-and-a-half deep.

    There are lots of extras, including a portable shortwave antenna on a retractable wheel, and perhaps the longest extensible antenna I’ve ever seen. When fully opened, it measures 45 inches, and it seems the relatively small radio is about to topple over, but it won’t.

    For shortwave aficionados, it’s sensitive enough, but you’ve got to spend extra time carefully positioning the antenna for optimum reception. If you’re willing to take the time to read the tiny manual and explore its many features, you’ll discover a world of radio listening you may may have never suspected existed.

    As you probably know, I’m an old time radio freak, and I was soon in my element. But then I switched on my satellite radio to hear one of my favorite late night talk shows. Maybe all this variety is just too much of a good thing? No, I’ll return to the ATS909 again real soon now to explore its fascinating possibilities.

    THE FINAL WORD

    The Mac Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
    Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
    Worldwide Licensing and Marketing: Sharon Jarvis



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