Good image editing app for the Mac?

August 29, 2010

One of my favorite image editing apps is Paint.net,  a program that comes very close to matching the features of Adobe Photoshop. With Photoshop priced at $700 US, Paint.net is a steal since it’s free! Unfortunately, Paint.net is only Windows-Based, so there is no Mac equivalent.

I’ve explored running Paint.net using the app called CrossOver (which allows you to run Windows apps directly on the Mac), but it just wouldn’t install within CrossOver. Another alternative is to run Paint.net in a virualization environment (using VirtualBox, Parallels, or VM Fusion running the Windows OS), but that would just be a big hassle to setup, etc.

As such, I’ve been looking for something equivalent to Paint.net (or Photoshop) that I can use on my new iMac OS X. Unfotunately, I can’t seem to find anything that suits my needs. After Googling for such an image editor app, I came up with a short list of freeware and shareware apps. For my needs, I need to have the ability to use layers, have anti-aliased lines and text, and a few other advanced features. This requirement quickly eliminated most of the photo editing-based apps for the Mac.

The short list I went down included apps such as Pixel, Pixen, Cinepaint, GIMP, Seashore, Pinta, and Pixelmator. Nearly all of these apps had their flaws, as some couldn’t handle anti-aliasing of lines and text very well, while others just had a bad user interface. GIMP is a famous open source app that is recommended by many, but it runs under the X11 environment which gives it a very old user interface. I ended up narrowing my choices down to Pinta, Seashore, and Pixelmator.

Yesterday I worked with some basic image editing using Pinta and Seashore, and was disappointed in what I couldn’t do as they are limited compared to Paint.net. From what I can tell, the only real contender is Pixelmator, as it has lots of good features. The online help is really nice, as well as the very pretty user interface. Also, Pixelmator is a native Mac OS X application, which is a big bonus. The only bad thing I found during my testing, is that the app crashed on me twice which is a bad thing.

So for now, I’m planning to try using GIMP and/or Pixelmator for the next month. I have a feeling Pixelmator will win out, and I’ll then have to buy a copy once the demo period is over.


DIY system builder, no more

August 26, 2010

When I was at Fry’s Electronics yesterday picking up a TrendNet Wireless Gaming Adapter, I walked through the PC component and parts aisle and it suddently hit me: I’ll never have to buy another PC component again. Since I have an Apple iMac (which is an integrated system) I won’t be buying any replacement components. No more monitors, video cards, hard drives, DVD drives, PCIe cards, Power supplies, case fans, motherboards, CPUs, cases, etc. I was a little sad, but also grateful that I didn’t have to mess with all of that stuff anymore. If my iMac stops working or has a problem, I just take it down to my local Apple Store for free repair (with my AppleCare protection for 3 years).

I can remember all the times when I’ve driven back and forth to Fry’s because some component I bought just didn’t work or was incompatible with my motherboard, etc. Also, having to send back dead devices or PCIe cards when ordering online. Just a big hassle, gone for good now.

One thing that I did order recently was an external hard drive to be used with the Time Machine app to backup my iMac’s data files. I went to my favorite online store (Newegg.com) and found this little gem:

The product description on the Newegg.com web site stated that this hard drive was pre-formatted for the Mac and for use with Time Machine. Who says you can’t find Mac products? This hard drive has both a USB 2.0 and Firewire 800 interface, so I’m planning to use the Firewire 800 connection for the fastest possible data transfer with my iMac.

The only other thing I see upgrading on my iMac might be the RAM memory (which can be done easily through the small access door at the bottom of the monitor screen), but with the 8 GB of RAM I already have, I don’t thing I’ll need to do that upgrade anytime soon.

So, it’s a little sad that I won’t be able to upgrade my computer system whenever I want, but that may be a blessing in disguise… 🙂


The great Apple ecosystem

August 26, 2010

When it comes to my computers and high-tech gadgets, there’s been a lot of change for me as of last year. At the beginning of 2009 I had the following products that I used on a daily basis:

  • Windows 7 Desktop PC
  • Motorola Q Smartphone (running Windows Mobile 5)
  • Microsoft Zune HD media player

As you can clearly see, I pretty much used all Microsoft-driven products. The big change started early in 2009 when I bought a Palm Pixi Smartphone, which I liked because of the iPhone-like interface. I also started doing app development for the Palm WebOS phones, so that was a big reason to switch. I just loved the touch screen interface and the ability to do so much with my Palm Pixi over my aged Moto-Q phone.

Later in 2009 my wife’s old HP Pavilion Desktop PC started to slow down and had froze on her several times. I tried a complete, clean install of Windows Vista on her PC which worked for about a week until the freezing began again. I would guess that the problem was a a bad software driver, etc. but I couldn’t be certain. It was then my wife proclaimed that she wanted to switch to a Mac so off we went to the Apple Store and I bought her a MacBook Pro (which she continues to love using).

For Mother’s Day in 2010 I bought her an iPad (because she’s a bigger gadget freak than I) and that was a big hit. I played around with her iPad a bit and thought it was cool, but I didn’t want to spend $500+ dollars to get one myself. Later in the year her Zune 120 media player stopped working (bad hard drive) so I bought her a Apple iPod Touch 32 GB media player for her birthday (another big hit). So my wife now has a MacBook Pro, iPad, and iPod Touch. The only thing she doesn’t have is an iPhone, which she refuses to get because she hates the AT&T network. Instead, she is currently using a HTC EVO on the Sprint network.

So as you can see, my wife joined the Apple ecosystem before I did. As an observer, I noticed she could check her email and access her important files from any of her Apple devices, as everything was synced with the help of MobileMe and the cloud. And, the interfaces for all her devices looked and worked the same, whether it was her laptop, media player, iPad, or through a web browser on the internet. I could try to achieve that same synchronicity with using Microsoft Windows-driven products, but it would just be a big kludge and not work so seamlessly.

For myself, I didn’t own any Apple products until I bought my iMac last week. I made the switch for a few different reasons, but the biggest one was to switch to something fresh and different. I’ll admit, that all the Mac ads you see on TV did have a big influence on me. Also, visiting our local Apple Store with my wife didn’t hurt either. Again, I just love the total integration between the Apple products and the ease of use.

I suppose my next purchase will be an iPod Touch to be used as my media player (replacing my Zune HD). I really like my Zune, but the fact that I can’t use it with anything but a PC is quite limiting. At some point, I’d like to shutdown my Desktop PC and just use my iMac, so my Zune’s days are numbered.

I can also see myself getting the EyeTV HD device for recording TV shows on my iMac, which I can use with an iPod Touch or iPad very easily. Again, very nice integration of Apple products and apps.


For Macs, it really does “Just Works”

August 26, 2010

For Apple’s Mac slogan of “it just works” it really does just works. For example, I bought the TrentNet Wireless Gaming Adapter yesterday and it came with a $20 rebate offer. So, I needed to jump through the usual hoops of filling out the rebate form, cutting the UPC symbol off the product’s box, and providing a copy of the receipt. With everything filled out, I of course needed to make a copy of the form and receipt in case it got lost in the mail.

To start, I used the HP Photosmart C4700 All-in-One Printer that I bought at the Apple store along with my iMac (which had a $100 rebate offer, that made it free) to scan the rebate form. I initiated the scanning using the convenient HP scanning app on my iMac. Once the rebate form was scanned, the app asked if I had any other items to scan (which I said yes), and I then scanned the receipt. Once I was done, I had two images scanned showing up as thumbnails in the HP scanning app. I then had the HP app print the images to a PDF file which was conveniently placed on my desktop screen. At first, I thought I would need to print each scanned item separately and then try to figure out how to combine them into a single PDF document (for my convenience), but the HP scanning app did that for me automatically.

Next, I needed to print the send and return address on an envelope to send off my rebate. Fortunately, I found a nifty free dashboard utility called EasyEnvelopes that did the job nicely.

I just copied the rebate center address from the web site where I got the rebate form, pasted it in the EasyEnvelopes send address box on the dashboard app, and printed the envelope label right on the envelope from my HP Laserjet printer.

Using my old Windows PC, I would need to do the following for the same procedure:

  1. Use my Canon LiE30 scanner to scan the rebate form and receipt into two separate images into my Paint.net application.
  2. Create a MS-Word document and paste both images in as two separate pages.
  3. Print the Word document as a PDF file using the printer driver app called PDF995 (commercial app).
  4. Open MS-Word again and type in the rebate send address.
  5. Highlight the send address in Word and select “Envelopes” to print out the envelope label to an envelope on my Laser Printer.

I could have probably tried to streamline this process, but I was never able to find a good, simple envelope printer app for my Windows PC. Also, I wasn’t able to find a simple app for scanning images as with my Mac. This is just an example of how easy it was for me to do this simple task on my iMac, and be more productive.

As for another example, I recently bought an Apple Remote for my iMac ($20) which I thought I’d try out when watching movies, etc. I removed the remote from the packaging and followed the instructions on how to pair it to my iMac (simply hold it 4 inches away from the screen and hold down a button). I then just clicked on the menu button and my iMac’s screen faded to black and up came the app called FrontRow, which looked similar to Windows Media Center on the PC.

So from here I could watch current movie trailers, videos that are stored on my iMac, listen to my music, etc. Again, this is a great example of “it just works”. I don’t have to navigate through popup dialog boxes, etc. to do what I want to do. This is a real productivity boost to me, and shows that Apple has given a lot of thought to user usability with their products.


My new clutter free desktop!

August 25, 2010

One great advantage to switching to an integrated system like my iMac, is a big reduction in cables. With a wireless keyboard and mouse and built-in WiFi, the only cable I have is the power cord! Before I made the switch, I had tons of cables stretching from my desk over to my side table (where my main CPU box resided). Two DVI cables for my dual monitors, two power cables, a speaker cable, several USB cables, etc. were all tangled under my desk. Now, I removed all of them and just have my lovely 27″ iMac sitting center stage on my desk.

As of now, I’m totally off of my Windows 7 PC. The only reason why I still have it turned on, is for recording TV shows using its built-in TV Tuner card. Also, I still have a Zune HD that I use to watch my recorded TV shows, so I need my Windows PC to run the Zune syncing software (Microsoft doesn’t make  an equivalent syncing software for the Mac). Nevertheless, I removed my keyboard and monitor for the Windows PC running it “headless”. I can always connect to it via a remote desktop software package from my iMac.

At some point, I’ll probably switch to an iPod Touch and use the EyeTV HD to record my TV shows directly on my Mac. In that case, I can completely shutdown my desktop PC and have a nice, quiet office to work in.


Getting old perpherials working with my iMac

August 25, 2010

It seems that as time goes on various standards just become obsolete. For example, some of the new LCD monitors with the DVI inputs use a slightly different cable connector than the LCD monitors from just a few years back (I discovered this when I bought a 2nd monitor for my old PC). Also, video card slots in PC motherboards seem to change every year, so upgrading a PC for a DIYer usually means upgrading more components than you may want.

In my case, I have a very old HP Laserjet 4000N printer that has been my workhorse printer for over 10 years. For the longest time I used it with my various PCs making a connection to it via a parallel printer port (remember those?). A few years ago I upgrade my PC’s motherboard and it didn’t a parallel port, which made sense since most printers now use USB connections. As such, I was stuck until I found a Parallel Port-to-USB conversion cable that allowed me to extend the life of my HP Laserjet printer (yeah!). It did require a special PC driver, but after finding the right one on the web I was back in business.

Flash forward to today, I now have a nice shiny new iMac sitting on my desk with just a few USB ports on the back. Of course, the kludge I use with the Parallel Port-to-USB cable won’t work with my iMac. So what now? I hate to dump this laser printer since it still works (and I have an extra $100 toner cartridge for it in my closet). Fortunately, this is a network printer and has an ethernet port on the back of it. If I can connect the printer to my home network I can just print to it using its fixed IP address. Also, since it is a postscript printer I can print to it from my iMac… sweet!

The only problem, is that my home office is upstairs and the wireless router is downstairs in my wife’s office. I would need to keep the laser printer downstairs near the wireless router since I would need to physically connect it to the router using a network cable. Ugh!

Fortunately, I came upon a solution using a wireless network adapter that is used primarily for gaming machines (Xbox, Nintendo Wii, etc). The device I chose was a TrendNet Wireless N Gaming Adapter which has a CAT5 ethernet port for connecting to a network-ready device.

Basically you configure this device to connect to your wireless router and you can then connect whatever you want into it (via the ethernet port). I tested it using my laptop PC and it worked great, allowing me to surf the Internet in a web browser.

Getting this device connected to my D-Link wireless router was painless using the new WPS method (where you click on a button on the router and then click on button on the wireless adapter device). All the WiFi security WPA2 security stuff was completely taken care of.

I then configured my HP Laserjet to “Network Mode”, connected it to the wireless adapter and viola I was in business! On the Mac side, I just added a new line printer and entered the IP address of my HP laserjet printer and I was able to print out test pages. To make sure the IP address doesn’t change, I configured the D-Link router to assign a static IP address.

So, with a little luck and some ingenuity I was able to get my workhorse laser printer working again with my new iMac. Who knows how long it will last, but for now I’m able to continue using an ancient peripheral with my futuristic iMac computer.


Why do switchers love their Macs?

August 24, 2010

When you ask a recent PC-to-Mac switcher why they love their Macs, they usually can’t give you a definite answer. You hear responses like, “… it’s great!”, or, “… it runs so well and fast”. Nothing very definitive. For me, it was the advanced hardware (27″ LED screen with Intel i7 Quad-Core processor, 64-bit OS) that lured me in, but what’s really exciting me are the little things you find in the Mac OS X.

For example, when you highlight a file name in Finder and tap the spacebar, you get an instant preview of that file. Whether it’s a PDF file, Word document, text file, JPG image, etc. a preview is rendered in seconds on the screen. A very handy and helpful feature. You can also setup Finder to preview your files in “Coverflow” format, where you can scroll or flick through them very quickly (like in the iTunes app).

The fact that everything seems to work out-of-the-box without any significant fiddling with dialog boxes and drivers is refreshing also. The installation of software is a breeze, often just requiring you to drag the single application file over to your Applications Folder. Viola!

If I find an image on a web page that I want to copy, I can simply drag that image from the web page to my Mac’s desktop and it is saved instantly. No need to right-click, select “Save As…”, give it a file name and location, etc.

One really cool app that I’ve got loaded is called Growl, which is a notification system for various apps installed on my system. So for example whenever I get an email message I get a banner rolling up from the bottom of my screen notifying me of the new message. Sure, MS-Outlook has a similar notification box, but Growl’s notification looks much more polished. Again, it’s the little things that makes me like the Mac OS X.

To compress or zip a file, I just right-click on the file (or folder) in Finder and select “Compress”. A zip file is created instantly, and I didn’t need to find and install some Zip compression product.

On my PC I created a batch file that contained some cryptic commands to zip up files in a folder and then copy it to my DropBox folder for syncing to the Cloud. On my Mac, I used an interactive utility called Automator (comes with the Mac OS X) which allowed me to build up a similar script with easy-to-understand building blocks. I now have the same functionality of my previous DOS batch file, but it was much easier to create and use.

So as you can see there’s lots of small things that makes me more productive on the Mac, and thus justifies my move over to the Mac platform. It certainly is a big switch, and I’m surprised that I’m adapting so well in just two days. So we’ll just see if this enthusiasm continues… 🙂


The big Email migration

August 24, 2010

Email has become a very important part of our lives, for both past, present, and future. I’ve got years of emails archived in MS-Outlook which I often search for from time to time. Thus, I can’t just abandoned my old email files when moving from the PC to the Mac.

So how am I going to get my MS-Outlook emails from the PC over to Apple Mail? Unfortunately, Apple Mail can’t read the PST file format that MS-Outlook uses to store the emails, so I needed a way of converting my Outlook emails to a format compatible with Apple Mail. After doing a brief Google search, I came upon two possible solutions: (1) Use an intermediary email client app called Thunderbird to import the emails from a PST file, and then export them as a MBOX file for Apple Mail, or (2) Use a commercial app called Outlook2Mac which will convert the mail in the PST file to MBOX format.

I opted to pay the $10 US for Outlook2Mac and do the conversion directly, as I didn’t trust Thunderbird to handle the in-and-out conversion. So after several minutes of processing I had my emails from Outlook in a several MBOX files and was able to import them into Apple Mail. Yahoo!

It took me a while to clean up my emails and get them organized into folders, but that task was completed in very short order.


Day two with my new iMac

August 24, 2010

Today is my second day with my iMac, and I’m totally consumed by it. I mentioned to my wife that I feel like I’ve been transported 10 years into the future as the iMac with the OS X operating system seems so streamlined and futuristic. I’ve spend most of the past two days searching and installing apps which are equivalent to those I’ve used for years on my Windows PC machine. Here’s what I’ve converted to with going to my iMac:

Email: MS-Outlook to Apple Mail

Apple Mail is a very streamlined email client which on the surface seemed too lite for my needs, but in time I realized that it was totally sufficient. For a while it was a toss up between Apple Mail and the 3rd-party freeware called Thunderbird. Both apps look very similar, but the Thunderbird app had many more plug-ins and “themes” to help customize the application. In the end, I decided to stick with Apple Mail since it is designed to be integrated into the Apple OS.

Calendar: MS-Outlook to Apple iCal

I use my calendar for very basic stuff, so I didn’t need a “power” calendar app. What I did need, however, was a way to have 2-way syncing with my Google Calendar in the Cloud. With MS-Outlook on my PC, I needed to have a small background app running continuously to sync my Outlook Calendar with Google Calendar. Fortunately on the Mac, iCal can handle this two-way syncing automatically.

Web Browser: Firefox

I used Firefox on my PC and fortunately I could do the same on the iMac. All of my favorite plug-ins were available, however, the theme I was using on my PC wasn’t available on the iMac. Apple’s Safari browser is good, but I really like using the plug-ins from Firefox. And best of all, Firefox is still free!

Office Suite: MS-Office to iWork

Although I do have MS-Office for the Mac 2008 installed on my iMac, I prefer to use Apple’s iWork suite of products. For $49 US (after the $30 rebate), the iWork suite seems to be a good deal compared to MS-Office. Pages is the counterpart to MS-Word, Numbers to MS-Excel, and Keynote to MS-Powerpoint.

Palm WebOS Development: VirtualBox, Eclipse, WebOS

For my Palm WebOS development work, I’m using the exact same software as I did on the PC platform. So no changes there.

Text Editor: Notepad++ to Text Wrangler

I really loved using NotePad++ on my PC for code editing, and was lucky to find a similar product with Text Wrangler for the Mac. In fact, the Mac counterpart looked much better and fuller featured than NotePad++.

Media Player: Windows Media Player to VLC

VLC is a freeware video player which does a good job playing various windows formatted video files such as WMV. I tested it with some of my Zune-formatted WMV files and it worked great.

Notes Clipping App: EverNote

EverNote is the same for the PC and Mac, so this was a no brainer move.

So that’s a short list of the major apps I had to deal with during my Mac transition. I also installed apps for file compression (zip), remote desktop connection, screen capture, WiFi scanning, and cloud storage (DropBox). So I’m now at the point where I can be productive again.

In addition to all my apps, I also copied over my documents and files from the PC to the Mac. This was my chance to clean house a bit, and spent a few hours deleting old files which I wouldn’t need on my Mac. So I’m feeling good now with all of that over with, and I can now focus on exploring and learning how to use my new iMac!


The Mac Switch After One Day…

August 23, 2010

I’ve had a chance to work with my iMac for about one day, and here are my initial impressions. Note, that I’ve never used a Mac at great length before (other than my Great Mac Experiment), so this is all coming from a Microsoft Windows user’s prespective.

My 27-inch LED Mac screen is probably the best feature of my new iMac. It’s HUGE (2560×1440), vibrant, and very clear. It’s so big, that it can replace my dual LCD monitors (both with a 1680×1050 resolution) quite nicely. the iMac is a completely integrated system, so all I currently have is the power cord to deal with (as the keyboard and mouse are both Bluetooth wireless, and the iMac has built-in WiFi).

The most difficult thing in the transition is getting use to the Mac OSX environment. Here are a list of things that stood out for a PC user:

  • Finder is similar but slightly different than File Explorer on the PC. It works fine, but took a bit of getting use to.
  • The application title bar and menus are not at the top of the application’s window, but rather at the top of the screen. That took a bit of getting use to, as I often thought the app just didn’t have a menu bar.
  • The fonts on the display are rendered differently than on the PC, and they look a bit fuzzy to me. I knew to expect this (see The Great Mac Experiment posting), but the super high-resolution monitor seems to minimize that effect for my eyes.
  • The Mac mouse does indeed have a right-click button feature, but it is not turned on by default. I needed to go into the system preferences and activate it.
  • Clicking the “X” button at the top of the application’s window doesn’t exit the program as with the PC, but rather puts it in the background. You need to issue a “Quit” command to completely exit the application.
  • There is no “Start” menu button, but rather an “Applications” folder on the main dock (at the bottom of the screen) where you can access the installed apps by clicking on their icon.
  • Highlighting a file in Finder and clicking the “Return” key on the keyboard will initiate renaming the file, not opening it.
  • You can’t delete a file by highlighting it in Finder and pressing the “Delete” key. You must right-click on it and select “Move to Trash” or drag the file to the trash can icon at the bottom of the desktop screen.

Now, none of the above listed items are a big deal… it just takes getting use to. It’s like driving a new car and having to figure out where the door lock buttons are, adjusting to the brake pedals, etc. Now, here are some features that I really like in Mac OSX:

  • When highlighting a file in Finder, I can tap the spacebar and get an instant preview of that file. It can be a jpg image, pdf file, text file, html file, etc. This works really well and fast!
  • By default, you can print to a pdf file with any application.
  • The system setup for the Bluetooth keyboard and mouse and my home WiFi was a breeze. No complicated questions in dialog boxes or long waits for searches… it truly just works.
  • The integrated system is whisper quiet, and I don’t hear the internal fans or hard drive.
  • The system is very fast, and responsive. I can open most applications within seconds.
  • The small wireless keyboard is great and easy to type on. The new Magic Mouse is great also, with the top surface being a gesture area where I can flick my finger up and down to scroll a web page or document, and swipe it left and right to change pages in certain applications (e.g., Safari and iPhoto).
  • The iMac comes with basic applications for mail, calendar, and address book. It also has more full-featured apps such as iMovie, iDVD, iTunes, and iPhoto.
  • The Mac OSX comes with a built-in dictionary and spelling checker, as well as speech voice synthesis which can read highlighted text.
  • The calendar app (iCal) easily connected with my Google Calendar account and has 2-way syncing (no need for 3rd-party apps running in the background).
  • Spotlight is the indexed search feature in Mac OSX, and it works great. Windows 7 has a similar feature, but I could never get it to work and it just seemed overly complicated.  With spotlight, I just type in some words and the system quickly displays a list of apps, files, emails, etc. that matches my search string. Works great!

So after one day I’m happily exploring the features of the Mac OSX system, realizing it will be a while before I will feel comfortable with the new apps and environment.

I’ve spend most of today wrestling with transferring my emails from Microsoft-Outlook over to the Apple Mail application, so next will be the transferring of my files and documents. Wish me luck! 🙂