Archive for the ‘Software Reviews’ Category

I was reviewing AppCoda’s Beginning iOS 10 Programming with Swift when the new versions of XCode, Swift, and iOS were released. The publisher also updated the book, so I decided to switch to the new material.

Instead of discarding the initial review and starting over again from scratch, I decided to publish what I’ve done already and will delete this older content once I reach the same point in the new book (Ch 14). I will leave out the screenshots for this older material as well, but will have plenty in the new material.

I intend to update this review once a week, even though it is the holiday season right now.  Please follow this post so you can see when it is updated.  Now on to the review.

Title: Beginning iOS 10 Programming with SwiftBeginiOS10Prgm
Author: Simon Ng
Published: AppCoda publisher
Length: 612 pgs (PDF) (30 chapters)

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2017, All Rights Reserved.

This book is for Swift 3, Xcode 8 and iOS 10, and the intended audience is people without programming experience as well as people wanting to learn the Swift programming language.

I’ve been a programmer a long time, and have dabbled in mobile development awhile but have not been happy with the iOS tutorials I found until now. I came across ‘Beginning iOS Programming with Swift’ after searching for iOS tutorials on Yahoo, and started following the online book. AppCoda provides part of the course at no charge, which is a nice approach and similar to other publishers providing free chapters to interest prospective buyers. After going through the first five chapters, I had created two new iOS apps fairly easily, so I contacted AppCoda and got the book so I could complete the course.

Before we get started, I want to point out that this book used Xcode 8.0. If you upgrade to Xcode 9 and iOS 11, so if you already upgraded to both, you may want to contact the publisher to see when the update to this book will be done.

During development, you need to select a target version of iOS – my mini tablet just has 9.3.5, but my old iPhone 5 has 10.3.3, so I used that as the default target iOS initially. Now lets get started with the review.

IMPORTANT NOTE!! My review was done using the iBook version of the book, not the PDF, so I use those page numbers in my references. Please be aware there are a lot pages in the iBook version of documentation than in the PDF version, so the page numbers do not match up.

The first three sections are: Preface, Ch 1:Getting Started with Xcode 8 Development, and Ch 2:Swift Playgrounds – all important if you’ve never developed, or new to development with a Mac. I’ve done both, but I still read over the material and did find it useful and accurate for setting up a development environment for Macs. Being anxious to create an actual iOS app, I pressed on to chapter 3 so I could see how easy it is to build an app.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The list in the table of contents at the start of the iBook lists the sections, but it shows Preface as the first. The actual chapters are not part of the items in the TOC, which is a small item I would suggest the author change, as well as update any chapter titles that might have been updated since initial publication.

Chapter 3: Build Your First App

This chapter has you build a simple Hello World app – the task most books have when teaching a programming language. Simon has you build an app with a single button, plus the code needed to tie the button to functionality.

The author gives you the specific steps you need to follow to create this app. It really is easy, and all I needed to do was follow the steps to build a Hello World app:

  1. Create a newXcode project.
  2. Select a template for your new project (Single View Application).
  3. Choose options for your new project (the book has the options plus what you enter for them – nice).
  4. Save the project (pick a location on your computer – I decided to use different ones for each book project).
  5. After selecting Next and Create, Xcode opened my new project (See below). The author points out the importance of learning a development environment, and I followed his advice and explored the Xcode Workspace. The author explains how to use the Xcode Simulator to run Xcode projects, and uses large and clear graphics to show what to select to see a project execute. I have an iPhone 5s, so I took the opportunity to change the Xcode Simulator to use that instead of the default iPhone 6. You could use newer iPhones or tablets too.
  6. To build the button for the Hello World project, you need to switch to the Interface Builder, where buttons and other interface items (like lists, other controls, etc are available to the developer).  I selected the Button and moved it to the middle of the View Controller area of the screen.  I positioned the button in the middle of the screen (easy the the Xcode alignment guideline, as shown in Fig 6), then renamed the button (per the book). The author says you can already test the app at this point so I did. It did take a few minutes for the Simulator to get started and render the iPhone with the new app, but it did – be patient. At this point, you have created a simple iOS app with a simple button that does nothing, but you still have created a app.NOTE: The author makes a great point about iOS development. The code and UI for apps are separate – this means you spend less time learning how to create a UI and more time on the layout and logic of app design. Sweet.
  7. To add code to the the app, which is executed when the button is selected, you need to switch to the ViewController.swift file.  I added the code is the first IBAction function (the other two functions were added later to extend my learning). As you see, Swift coding isn’t difficult. The book explains what each part of the simple code does, not too deep to slow you down at this point, but enough to understand what is happening.
  8. Now you need to connect the code you wrote in step 7, to the UI you created in step 6. This is easy. Just switch back to the Interface Builder, select the button and drag it to the View Controller under the View Controller Scene at the left of the UI.Now you can test how the code works with the button you added. This is better than the simple test you did in step 6, as you get to see your app do something. Run it with the simulator and there you are. Your first iOS works. Sweet.
  9. I wanted to learn more, so I did the end-of-chapter exercise and added a few extra buttons plus added two new functions to display different messages than the first button. It was intuitive and easy, and something I suggest you do too. The only way you get better as a developer is to learn all the ranges you have at your disposal, so play time in this case is actually very productive. Now play.NOTE: As this Hello World is very basic, I only used the Simulator to test it. I will deploy more advanced apps developed later in this book, using my iPhone and iPad Mini. The iPad mini will require an older version of iOS, so I will describe how easy that is to set before creating and deploying my apps.

Chapter 4: Hello World App Explained

This chapter goes into detail into what you just built. You must read this, as it clarifies the other options you have. I kept my Hello World app open while reading the chapter, and checked out the options as I followed along in the book.

The material in this section was just as useful as the earlier chapters, and keeping it separate from the first app you develop means you don’t get bogged down in language details while creating your first app, yet you still get the technical information needed to back up the process of creating an iOS app. I like this approach – very easy to make progress, while still learning detailed processes.

Chapter 5: Introduction to Auto Layout

Auto layout is where the UI elements can be arranged and can handle the different sized screens available to iOS apps. iPhone 4s – 8s use different screen sizes, as do tablets, so this is important unless you only want to develop apps for your own use.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time in this chapter, since it is no longer the way you develop apps for different devices. The author includes it so you see how it was done, but the next chapter gets into stack views, which is the newer method for developing multi-device apps.

To use auto layout, you set constraints to the sides and top or bottom of the screen, which help retain formatting when a device is turned on the side or when devices with different-size screens run your app. It takes a bit of work, but it works. Now on to the next chapter.

Chapter 6: Designing UI Using Stack Views

In iOS9, Apple introduced Stack Views to layout UIs. What is a Stack View? I asked that myself. As the author says:

“The stack view provides a streamlined interface for laying out a collection of views in either a column or row….
You can embed multiple UI objects into one by using stack views…
The stack view manages the layout of its subviews and automatically applies layout constrains for you. That means, the subviews are ready to adapt to different screen sizes. Furthermore, you can embed a stack view in another stack view to build more complex user interfaces.”
– Simon Ng, Beginning iOS Programming with Swift, Page 87

NOTE: This doesn’t eliminate the need for auto layout. You still need to define layout constraints for stack views. This is the chapter where we learn how to develop more advanced iOS apps.

Creating a New App

  1. You need to create a new project for this chapter. The author suggests StackViews, which is the same name I used for the directory to hold the new project. He provides the answers you need to create the project, so no guessing at this point.
  2. You will need some images (3 images, each in 3 different sizes), which he provides as a download. Xcode groups images in an asset catalogue (called Assets.xcassets in Xcode).
  3. Download the images and drag them to in the AppIcon list as described in the book. Once you need to access each image, you don’t need to specify size which is used – iOS does that for you.
  4. Open Main.storyboard for this project to add two labels to the new app. Drag a Vertical Stack View object (from the Object Library at the bottom left of Xcode) to the storyboard view controller.
  5. Now drag a label object and drop it on top of the stack view. Rename the label per the book, then resize it and change the font color as well.
  6. Drag a 2nd label object and drop it on the same stack view. Rename the second label, per the book. By default, labels left-justify, so change the stack view property from Fill to Center to center align both labels.
  7. Now add 3 images to the view. You place the 3 images side-by-side, then you will use another stack view to group them together. Add another stack view to the view and add the images to that stack view.
  8. Now you combine both stack views so all of the elements are positioned as a unit.
  9. Add constraints. This is where the free online material differed from the purchased book. The book says:

    “Now click the Pin button in the layout button. Set the space constraints of the top, left and right side to 70, 0 and 0 respectively. When the constraint is enabled, it is indicated by a solid red bar. Then click the “Add 3 Constraints” button to add the constraints.”- Simon Ng, Beginning iOS Programming with Swift, Page 100

    I found this unclear, so I looked around and noticed the button looking like a cutout of a tie fighter in the bottom right part of Xcode, so I selected it and was able to set the constraints as directed.

  10. The book then says that there will be problems positioning the stack view. I got (very) lucky and had no issues. Sweet.
  11. Now preview the app on other devices. It looked good, except some issues truncating the top label – easily fixed. I again got lucky and had no issue with the aspect ratios of each image (they did not appear stretched), which was due to my playing around with the app before receiving the book from the publisher. Compared to the first app, I was impressed.Per the book, I fixed the title truncation (very fast easy fix) and tested it and it worked fine.
  12. Add another 2 labels to the view, then add both to a stack view. Following the book, very simple. This app is starting to look like a real app. I adjusted position (relative to the bottom of the device) and size and spacing to keep the buttons looking good.
  13. Now it was time to learn about a new (since iOS 8) UI design concept: Adaptive Layout, which lets apps adapt the UI to particular devices and device orientation. You need Size Classes to achieve adaptive layout.

    “A size class identifies a relative amount of display space for both vertical (height) and horizontal (width) dimensions. There are two types of size classes: regular and compact. A regular size class denotes a large amount of screen space, while a compact size class denotes a smaller amount of screen space.”- Simon Ng, Beginning iOS Programming with Swift, Page 111

    “By describing each display dimension using a size class, this will result in four abstract devices: Regular width-Regular Height, Regular width-Compact Height, Compact width-Regular Height and Compact width-Compact Heigth.”- Simon Ng, Beginning iOS Programming with Swift, Page 112

  14. Size Classes made it easy to position UI elements, or hide them on certain devices. Sweet.

Chapter 7: Introduction to Prototyping

“A prototype is an early model of a product used for testing a concept or visualizing an idea.”
– Simon Ng, Beginning iOS Programming with Swift, Page 119

I’ve created many prototypes before and during projects over my career as a developer, as they help the customer see what you intend to deliver. Unfortunately, while prototypes can prevent scope creep with some customers. they encourage scope creep with other customers.

Scope creep is where projects change as work progresses, as customers decide to ask for more features or functionality. Scope creep is an enemy of any Project Manager, as it destroys estimated project timelines. You can’t prevent everyone from asking for more, but you try to get them to accept adding those after the initial project rollout or update.

With traditional enterprise-class software projects, writing a prototype on paper or in PowerPoint or on a whiteboard is usually faster than creating a software prototype. You draw the basic UI elements of each page and show the flow between design elements/pages. When you need to add functionality to an existing site or system, you just need to prototype the new functionality to demonstrate it works.

This chapter of the book has a list of good tools to help prototype iOS apps, including: Marvel,, Flinto, Principle, InvisionApp, POP, Sketch, Adobe Experience Design and Keynote. Of these, only the last four are described – no worries as well all know how to Google. For this review, the prototype tool I used was POP (Prototyping On Paper), which lets you create working prototype without writing any code – a real timesaver when preparing a quote for a client.

I downloaded from the iTunes store and installed on my iPhone, then grabbed the app prototype same the author provided (1.6M file available as a link in the book). I added the downloaded images from the author to my iPhone, opened POP, created a new project, then linked the pages together. Pressing the Play button allowed me to navigate through the prototype screens, which would look very good and useful to any client. Then, you just need to make the app in Xcode, test, and demo the working product to a customer. Nice.

I like this included. Prototyping isn’t included as part of Xcode (wish it was, Apple) but the tools mentioned in chapter 7 are worth time learning. I’d suggest initially POP and Adobe Experience Design, but the others are very good too.

Chapter 8:Creating a Simple Table Based App

“First of all, what exactly is a table view in an iPhone app? A table view is one of the most common UI elements in iOS apps. Most apps (except games), in some ways, make use of table view to display content. The best example is the built-in Phone app. Your contacts are displayed in a table view.”
– Simon Ng, Beginning iOS Programming with Swift, Page 130

This is where you create your third iOS app. After creating a simple table project in Xcode, I added a single table view to the view, then made the table view take up the entire view. Next, I set the Prototype Cells to 1. Why?

“Prototype cells allow you to easily design the layout of your table view cell. You can think of it as a cell template that you can reuse in all of the table cells.”
– Simon Ng, Beginning iOS Programming with Swift, Page 133

The app created in this chapter uses the UIKit framework, which provides classes to construct and manage the UI app interface. All objects in the Xcode Interface Builder Object Library are in UIKit.

The author mentions in this chapter he is not discussing classes and methods yet – OOP elements that some find confusing – but he does cover them later. A good idea when the audience is new to development.

Following the instructions, I created a simple table, using a list instead of a database, similar to the iOS Contacts app. Not terribly difficult, however I forgot to set the prototype cell identifier to Cell, so I had an error to track down – an email to AppCoda and I had the answer how to fix the issue, so I was back at it again. Good example, but now I am looking forward to using a database or data source that isn’t a fixed array list and I want to see how to add individual images to each item in the list – the second item is covered in chapter 9.

Chapter 9: Customize Table Views Using Prototype Cell

This is where we built a real app called FoodPin. After closing the SimpleTable app, I created a new project, similar to the project in chapter 8 but using UITableViewController and using individual images for each restaurant displayed in the app. It was easy using Swift, which is well worth learning for novices as well as experienced developers.

This app has custom labels for each cell, which I created by dragging 3 Label objects to the cell, grouping them with a stack view, then grouping the new stack view and the cell image in another stack view. Simple. Then, Simon points out an important fact about iOS development:

“By connecting the source code with the UI objects, we can change the values of UI objects dynamically.

This is a very important concept in iOS programming. Your UI in storyboard and code are separated. You create the UI in Interface Builder, and you write your code in Swift. If you want to change the value or properties of a UI element (e.g. label), you have to establish a connection between them so that an object in your code can obtain a reference to an object defined in a storyboard. In Swift, you use @IBOutlet keyword to indicate a property of a class, that can be exposed to Interface Builder.”
– Simon Ng, Beginning iOS Programming with Swift, Page 391

We created a new class for the project, where we defined variables for all four items in each cell (Name, Location, Type and ThumbnailImage) using @IBOutlet.

“@IBOutlet is used to indicate a property that can be connected with a view object in a storyboard.”
– Simon Ng, Beginning iOS Programming with Swift, Page 393

You use these outlets to change font characteristics or events to be triggered when a button is selected. Handy and something you must understand. You also need to set the prototype cell to use the custom class you create, which is also simple. The chapter also explains how to set the images to appear circular instead of square – a few extra steps, but the presentation is worth it. We also set the restaurant name, location and type values to be dynamically displayed, which was fairly easy too.

Chapter 10: Interacting with Table Views and Using UIAlertController

In this chapter, we select an item in the view, just like selecting a contact name in the Contacts app. We also are exposed to UIAlertController, which is commonly used to display iOS alerts. In this chapter, we improve the FoodPin app by using individual images and rounding them to improve the look of our app. We also add three labels for each restaurant (name, location and type) to each row in the table, plus add three arrays to provide custom information for each restaurant.

No real problems following along with the directions in this section. I did copy and paste some of the code to save time, but I did read the information on everything new we are exposed to, and suggest you do so too. After getting the custom information to show in each line, we add a button to show a checkmark beside a restaurant – to show when a restaurant is selected. Then we addressed a known bug on reusing cells, plus add a line of code to deselect a cell once an option is chosen from the new popup list.

Good chapter. A LOT more Swift coding was covered. Not too much, but more than earlier chapters. Now on to chapter 11.

Chapter 11: Table Row Deletion, Custom Action Buttons, Social Sharing and MVC

According to Wiki (–view–controller):
Model–view–controller (MVC) is a software architectural pattern for implementing user interfaces on computers. It divides a given application into three interconnected parts. This is done to separate internal representations of information from the ways information is presented to, and accepted from, the user. The MVC design pattern decouples these major components allowing for efficient code reuse and parallel development.

I’ve used this architectural pattern doing web development, but was unaware this was also popular for desktop GUI development. Sweet. I would suggest you read more about this pattern if you even think you may do web development some day.

“Separation of Concerns (SoC). The concept is pretty simple. Here, the Concerns are different aspects of software functionality. This concept encourages developers to break a complicated feature or program into several areas of concern so that each area has its own responsibility. The delegate pattern, that we explained in the earlier chapters, is one of the examples of SoC.

The model-view-controller (MVC) concept is another example of SoC. The core idea behind MVC is to separate a user interface into three areas (or groups of objects) that each area is responsible for a particular functionality. As the name suggests, MVC breaks a user interface into three parts: Model, view and controller”
– Simon Ng, Beginning iOS Programming with Swift, Page 446

To illustrate MVC using an iOS app, consider the SimpelTable app developed in chapter 8. The restaurantNames object is an array and is the model, the UITableView object is the view, and the UITableViewController is the controller.

On to deleting rows in a view. In iOS apps, data in a view is usually deleted by swiping across the row in the view. A good example: the iOS Mail app. The Swift code needed to delete a row and refresh the view is simple:

override func tableView(_ tableView: UITableView, commit editingStyle: UITableViewCellEditingStyle, forRowAt indexPath:IndexPath) {
// enables deleting a row in a table view
// Now u can swipe a row and a delete button is visible, but not enabled

// this code allows deletion of data from the 4 arrays:
if editingStyle == .delete {
// Delete the row from the data source
restaurantNames.remove(at: indexPath.row)
restaurantLocations.remove(at: indexPath.row)
restaurantTypes.remove(at: indexPath.row)
restaurantIsVisited.remove(at: indexPath.row)
restaurantImages.remove(at: indexPath.row)

print(“Total item: \(restaurantNames.count)”) // for debugging purposes
for name in restaurantNames {
tableView.reloadData() // refreshes the view to show revised data

Something I like about this example: being able to access Twitter and other social media. I added the UIActivityViewController code to enable tweeting from the FoodPin app, including embedded images, logged into Twitter on the Simulator and tweeted from the simulation of FoodPin – it worked. Sweet. Talk about a great real world example! One suggestion I’d make regarding this functionality, is mention it is a test in your tweet plus include @AppCodaMobile in the tweet so the book publisher is notified you are testing this functionality of the book.

Chapter 12: Introduction to Navigation Controller and Segue

Navigation controllers let you drill down into content. Using our FoodPin app as an example, selecting a restaurant in the view, a navigator would drill down into pertinent information on that restaurant.

“Generally, you combine a navigation controller with a stack of table view controllers to build an elegant interface for your apps.”
– Simon Ng, Beginning iOS Programming with Swift, Page 484

Yes, it’s finally time to have more than a single view in our FoodPin app. Yay, lol.

“add more view controllers in the storyboard, link them up, and define the transitions between them. All these can be done without a line of code. When working with storyboards, scene and segues are two of the terms you have to know. In a storyboard, a scene usually refers to the on-screen content (e.g. a view controller). Segues sit between two scenes and represent the transition from one scene to another.
– Simon Ng, Beginning iOS Programming with Swift, Page 485

To make storyboards easier to use, large ones can be broken up and linked using storyboard references.

I followed the directions in this chapter, using the Interface Builder to add a navigation interface to my FoodPin app. It was easy and took no coding to get it to work. After adding the navigator, I used the Interface Builder to add another view controller to display restaurant details. I then added a segue to connect the first controller to the detail controller, also using Interface Builder. Now I had two view controllers and a navigation controller, and now I needed to share the first images with the details view controller, so it was time to add another class.

“A segue manages the transition between view controllers, and contains the view controllers involved in the transition.”
– Simon Ng, Beginning iOS Programming with Swift, Page 674

This is the Swift code from the book for the segue:
override func prepare(for segue: UIStoryboardSegue, sender: Any?) {
if segue.identifier == “showRestaurantDetail” {
if let indexPath = tableView.indexPathForSelectedRow {
let destinationController = segue.destination as! RestaurantDetailViewController
destinationController.restaurantImage = restaurantImages[indexPath.row]

CH 13: Introduction to Object Oriented Programming

Swift and Objective-C are OOP languages, where you create and use objects. As the author points out, some of the iOS SDK objects we’ve already used up to this point include the UIViewController, UIButton, UINavigatorController and UITableView. Essentially, one uses OOP to develop complex applications using small building blocks, where each has a specific purpose. In OOP, you create a class and use that class as a blueprint to create objects (also called instances) with methods (to provide functionality) and properties.

In the FoodPin app, we have five arrays holding individual types of restaurant data. In this chapter, we modify that.  This is the Swift code used to make that new class:

class Restaurant {
var name = “”
var type = “”
var location = “”
var image = “”
var isVisited = false

init(name: String, type: String, location: String, image: String, isVisited: Bool) { = name
self.type = type
self.location = location
self.image = image”
self.isVisited = isVisited

The five properties for the new class are name, type, location, image, and isVisited. The 1st four properties are declared as blank strings (“”), while the 5th is boolean. init() defines the object initializer, which sets the initial property values for each new object created with this restaurant class. The restaurant data is now grouped by restaurant, instead of by number – data in the real world is kept in database tabes, grouped by a key value that is called instead of a relative position in an array. The code for this is:

var restaurants:[Restaurant] = [
Restaurant(name: “Cafe Deadend”, type: “Coffee & Tea Shop”, location: “Hong Kong”, image: “cafedeadend.jpg”, isVisited: false),
Restaurant(name: “Homei”, type: “Cafe”, location: “Hong Kong”, image: “homei.jpg”, isVisited: false),
Restaurant(name: “Teakha”, type: “Tea House”, location: “Hong Kong”, image: “teakha.jpg”, isVisited: false),
Restaurant(name: “Cafe loisl”, type: “Austrian / Causual Drink”, location: “Hong Kong”, image: “cafeloisl.jpg”, isVisited: false),
Restaurant(name: “Petite Oyster”, type: “French”, location: “Hong Kong”, image: “petiteoyster.jpg”, isVisited: false),
Restaurant(name: “For Kee Restaurant”, type: “Bakery”, location: “Hong Kong”, image: “forkeerestaurant.jpg”, isVisited: false),
Restaurant(name: “Po’s Atelier”, type: “Bakery”, location: “Hong Kong”, image: “posatelier.jpg”, isVisited: false),
Restaurant(name: “Bourke Street Backery”, type: “Chocolate”, location: “Sydney”, image: “bourkestreetbakery.jpg”, isVisited: false),
Restaurant(name: “Haigh’s Chocolate”, type: “Cafe”, location: “Sydney”, image: “haighschocolate.jpg”, isVisited: false),
Restaurant(name: “Palomino Espresso”, type: “American / Seafood”, location: “Sydney”, image: “palominoespresso.jpg”, isVisited: false),
Restaurant(name: “Upstate”, type: “American”, location: “New York”, image: “upstate.jpg”, isVisited: false),
Restaurant(name: “Traif”, type: “American”, location: “New York”, image: “traif.jpg”, isVisited: false),
Restaurant(name: “Graham Avenue Meats”, type: “Breakfast & Brunch”, location: “New York”, image: “grahamavenuemeats.jpg”, isVisited: false),
Restaurant(name: “Waffle & Wolf”, type: “Coffee & Tea”, location: “New York”, image: “wafflewolf.jpg”, isVisited: false),
Restaurant(name: “Five Leaves”, type: “Coffee & Tea”, location: “New York”, image: “fiveleaves.jpg”, isVisited: false),
Restaurant(name: “Cafe Lore”, type: “Latin American”, location: “New York”, image: “cafelore.jpg”, isVisited: false),
Restaurant(name: “Confessional”, type: “Spanish”, location: “New York”, image: “confessional.jpg”, isVisited: false),
Restaurant(name: “Barrafina”, type: “Spanish”, location: “London”, image: “barrafina.jpg”, isVisited: false),
Restaurant(name: “Donostia”, type: “Spanish”, location: “London”, image: “donostia.jpg”, isVisited: false),
Restaurant(name: “Royal Oak”, type: “British”, location: “London”, image: “royaloak.jpg”, isVisited: false),
Restaurant(name: “CASK Pub and Kitchen”, type: “Thai”, location: “London”, image: “caskpubkitchen.jpg”, isVisited: false)

After making the code changes to reference restaurants.*, I ran the sample in the simulator and it worked just fine. Introducing OOP concepts and making this change was the purpose for this chapter. One thing I want to point out: at the end of this chapter, the author includes some links to Swift OOP programming. I am impressed he included a link to a free online course from MIT. MIT is one of the best sources for free college classes, and I rarely see anyone link to them, so kudos to Simon.





Title: Beginning iOS 11 Programming with SwiftBeginiOS11Prgm
Author: Simon Ng
Published: AppCoda publisher
Price: $39, $69, $149
Length: 833 pgs (PDF) (30 chapters)
Book Website:

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2017, All Rights Reserved.

I’ve been a programmer a long time, and have dabbled in mobile development awhile but was unhappy with the iOS tutorials I found on the internet. I came across ‘Beginning iOS 10 Programming with Swift’ after searching for iOS tutorials on Yahoo, and started following the online book, since the developer provides part of the course for free. Other publishers also provide free chapters to interest prospective buyers, since you can try before you buy.

I went through the first five free chapters and had created two new iOS apps fairly easily, so I contacted AppCoda and got the book so I could complete the course. Two weeks after starting the iOS 10 course, Apple released an OS and development tool update, so the publisher released an update to the course. I got the new course and started over, so this review will be from beginning to end of the new course material.

This review covers “Beginning iOS 11 Programming with Swift”, which is for Swift 4, Xcode 9 and iOS 11. The intended course audience is people without programming experience as well as experienced developers wanting to learn the Swift programming language.

CHAPTER 1: The Development Tools, the Learning Approach and the App Idea

This chapter covers what you need to get started: essentially a fairly modern Mac with Xcode. Not too expensive these days, and the only way to go to develop iOS apps, The material is good, plenty of pictures to guide the users, and it should put new developers at ease before they start creating their first app.

CHAPTER 2: Your First Taste of Swift with Playgrounds

This gets you started writing Swift code using Xcode playgrounds. . When I started reviewing “Beginning iOS 10…”, I said that this chapter was useful, but inferred it was unnecessary for experienced developers. The author has enhanced this chapter for this new release of the book and, while it does have good setup information useful for non-developers, the rest of the chapter is worth reading for experienced programmers that are new to programming on a Mac.

Why use Swift instead of Objective-C? Swift is easier to learn as the syntax is closer to English. An example from the book:

Fig2-1 Objective-C vs Swift

Fig 2-1 Objective-C vs Swift

I’ve used Xcode for a number of years, but I like how the author gives an intro to using Playgrounds. Playgrounds are places where you test pieces of code – AKA snippets – during learning or development. Something true about learning to program that is shared with music: you can’t learn how to do it by merely reading theory about it.

The author gets into writing Swift code with Playgrounds in chapter two, but not in detail until covering how to install Xcode for people new to development. He explains the Playground environment so new developers understand how to test their code snippets during the course of this course – good idea.

The Swift coding topics covered after Xcode setup are:

  • constants, variables, and how/when to declare types
  • control flow (looping and using switch)
  • collections (arrays and dictionaries)
  • optionals

Swift can infer what type to use for a variable, but specifying by declaring the types makes code easier to read and helps avoid type issues.

Flow control statements are if-else and switch. I particularly like Swift’s range operator for lower bounds and upper bounds, as it simplifies coding when using switch statements. Collections hold groups of data, and arrays are familiar to developers familiar with other programming languages. Like Java arrays, Swift arrays begin with element 0. Swift has the familiar for loop, but also has a for-in loop to move through dictionary elements.

What are dictionaries? They are like arrays, but they use a key to reference each stored value instead of a number relative to the index. The key can be specific to the data, so this can be quite useful when writing apps that use keys like ISBN numbers for books, account numbers for clients, etc.

The code example for creating dictionaries is simple but useful for people new to them. The last code topic covered in this chapter is on optionals. Optionals let you specify variables without default values, which makes you verify the variable has data before you access it.

Fig 2-2 Optional Var Checking Unwrapping

Fig 2-2 Optional Variable Checking Using Unwrapping


Fig 2-3 Optional Var Checking Binding

Fig 2-3 Optional Variable Checking Using Binding

Time to get started building an app, so let’s move on to chapter three.


CHAPTER 3: Hello World! Build Your First App in Swift

Every new developer knows what a “Hello World” program is: it’s the first thing you write when learning a new programming language. In this chapter, we create our first Swift iOS app and we call it Hello World. We worked with a Playground in chapter two, but now we will create a project and test it with the Xcode Simulator.

The book uses screenshots with the step-by-step process to show how you create the HelloWorld project. Not difficult at all. When finished, you should see something like this:

Fig3-1 New HelloWorld Project
Fig 3-1 New HelloWorld Project

Make sure you take time to get familiar with the Xcode project screen. You are expected to know where to find each area as the course progresses. The editor area in the center changes, depending on which design element (AppDelegate.swift, ViewController.swift, Main.storyboard) is selected at the left part of the project. The right side of the project is the utility area, where you select properties. You can expose or hide the leftmost and rightmost areas as well as the debug area for a project – this is at the top rightmost part of the Xcode project screen:

Fig3-2 Three Areas of an Xcode Project
Fig 3-2 Three Areas of an Xcode Project

After creating a basic project and a new iOS app, you can run it in the Simulator. One note: the first time you run the Simulator, it takes a while to start, so be patient. The Xcode control to run an app is the right-pointing arrow at the top left side of Xcode:

Fig 3-3 How to Run Apps in Simulator
Fig 3-3 How to Run Apps in Simulator

In this chapter, Simon points out something nice in the new version of Xcode 9: you can now run multiple simulators at the same time. Now that I like, as you may want to have an Apple Watch sim going the same time as iPhone and iTablet simulators.

Now it’s time to add an interface to the HelloWorld app. The book points out you can easily add one or more views and link them together without writing a line of Swift code. It’s similar to some RAD products like Power Builder and Lotus Notes. Xcode uses one View Controller per iOS app screen. The Interface Builder is shown below, with the View Controller in the middle, with the Button object in the center of the View Controller:

Fig 3-4 Xcode Interfact Builder Screen
Fig 3-4 Xcode Interface Builder Screen

I ran the Simulator after adding the Hello World button and saw this:

Fig 3-5 Simulator with Hello World Button
Fig 3-5 Simulator with Hello World Button

That’s it. I didn’t need to write any code to make a simple iOS app. It is simple. Hopefully this encourages people with good ideas but no programming experience to try to make something for themselves or for others.

The next step in the book is to add some code to make the Hello World button do something. We access the ViewController.swift file in Xcode and add the following Swift code to have the button say Hello World:

@IBAction func showMessage(sender: UIButton) {
 let alertController = UIAlertController(title: "Welcome to my first app", message:
 "Hello World", preferredStyle: UIAlertControllerStyle.alert)
 alertController.addAction(UIAlertAction(title: "OK", style: UIAlertActionStyle.default, handler: nil))
 present(alertController, animated: true, completion: nil)

I want to echo the tip the author makes about entering code vs copying and pasting.  The easiest way to learn is to do, not copy.  Take the time to type, as you will see how easy it is to make mistakes, and when you fix them you learn a bit more. My 2 cents on developing:

A developer writes their own code, they don’t copy and paste and modify someone else’s code – that isn’t creating code, it’s appropriating.  If you want to work as a developer, you better remember this tip, because professional developers do not look fondly on people copying and claiming the work of another person.  It isn’t ethical.


Now you need to connect the Hello World button to this new code. Select Main.storyboard in Xcode, select the Hello World button and hold down the Control key and drag up to the yellow View Controller object at the top of the View Controller, then select showMessageWithSender: option in the popup box.

Fig 3-6 Connect Button and Swift Code
Fig 3-6 Connect Button and Swift Code

Run the Simulator again and now you see that the button does something:

Fig 3-7 Working Hello World Button
Fig 3-7 Working Hello World Button

There are a couple of exercises at the end of the chapter. I wanted to see what I learned, so I added 3 more buttons, which is what exercise 1 is, however I wanted to use different messages so I added additional code to ViewController.swift and linked it to each button. It was fun, and the best way I know to really learn. If you want to learn how to write code or develop apps, you must do it, mot just read about it. I strongly encourage people to do both exercises and play around on your own. It helps.


CHAPTER FOUR: Hello World App Explained

This chapter explains in detail what happens in the first app you create: Hello World. Take time to go over this chapter, especially if you are new at learning to program, as the explanations here lay a foundation that grows in future chapters.

How does the interface you build connect to Swift code that you write? It is important to understand this now, so consider the TV remote example the author uses:

“The user interface in the storyboard is the interface, while the code is the implementation. The user interface objects (e.g. button) communicate with the code via messages.

Specifically, if you go back to the Hello World project, the button you added in the view is the interface. The showMessage(sender:) method of the ViewController class is the implementation. When someone taps the button, it sends a showMessageWithSender message to ViewController by invoking the showMessage(sender:) method.”
– Simon Ng, Beginning iOS 11 Programming with Swift, Page 95 & 96

As the author points out, this demonstrates the OO concept of encapsulation. The specifics of what happens is hidden when the button is pressed. For example, the programmer could choose to send an email as well as display “Hello World” when the button is pressed, and the button pusher wouldn’t know.

What happens when the Hello World button is pressed? The button is event-driven, meaning that it does something when the button is pressed or released. In this app, we made the action occur when the button was released. This illustration shows the process:

Fig 4-1 What Happens in Hello World App
Fig 4-1 What Happens in Hello World App

We used a method to specify the message we displayed when the button was released. Methods provide functionality to objects – they make things happen. In this example, the class ViewController has a method called showMessage() – Swift methods are declared with the func keyword, and the @IBAction keyword in showMessage() connects source code you wrote to the interface button object you added using the Interface Builder.

Fig 4-2 ViewController and showMessage
Fig 4-2 ViewController and showMessage

This chapter is loaded with great information for new developers, as well as people learning Swift. Take a day to cover the material the first time, then take a second day before progressing on to chapter 5. You will learn important information that will help you further into this course.


By Ted Bade,  © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Product: iBank 4
Company: IGG Software (
Price: $59.95 USD (single user license)
Available at: (Also available through the App store)
Required OS: Mac OSX 10.5.7 or higher

iBank is a terrific alternative to any version of Quicken. It is robust, has an intuitive easy to use interface, and offers a lot of useful tools for managing your personal finances. If you are looking for an alternative to the old Mac versions of Quicken and/or find you cannot stomach the pathetic “Quicken Essentials”, you won’t go wrong with iBank.

I will be looking at iBank from the viewpoint of a person who has been using Personal Finance applications for well over ten years. This also means I have many habits and expectations about a financial program (both logical and illogical ones ☺), as well as a LOT of financial history. Also, my data needed to be transferred to iBank manually, not imported from an old Quicken file, because I did try using Quicken Essentials for a time before moving to iBank. There is no way to import QE saved data into iBank. However, iBank will import files from the older versions of Quicken, including Windows versions. The import process brings in your various accounts, transactions, investment account information, and budget categories. It won’t bring in scheduled transactions, reports or budgets.

Getting Started

There is one issue to consider with regard to importing from Quicken. iBank doesn’t use the Quicken save or backup file to import, but it imports from an exported QIF file. In my case, I had already converted to Lion (MacOS X 10.7), and had been using QE for a while, so there was no QIF export available for me. If you don’t export from Quicken before you convert to Lion, you might not have any way to run the old version of Quicken to perform the export, which means that you will have to do the import manually. I expect that the same thing would be true if you were previously a Windows user, and didn’t manage to keep your old machine (perhaps it died, which is the reason you are converting financial applications). I imagine a Window’s user would have one option of running Quicken for Windows in a virtual Machine on the Mac to perform the export file creation.

Author’s Note: Being a curious kind of guy, I asked iBank’s customer service what my options are. I was pleasantly surprised by the reply. Essentially, their customer service department offered to do the conversion for me. They provided a small script app to grab the data and to create a secure file that could then be emailed to customer service. For QE files, they suggested asking Intuit to do the conversion. So, even if you made the jump, there are options. Great job IGG Software customer support!!

If you have a QIF file to import, the process is pretty nice. iBank analyzes the file you give it, and then asks you to verify the the account types. This is mainly due to the fact that iBank offers more account types than Quicken does. You can choose to change an account type to one of iBank’s more specific choices. iBank then translates the date into a new iBank file. Once it is done, you need to go through your accounts and make sure they are correct. In the case of the file I imported, it has a muddled history going back to early 2001, so the import would probably have required more work then just stating over. This was my fault, since I did a poor job of cleaning up my Quicken files and they had issues. I don’t expect there would be any real issues for people importing with only a few clean years of history, or even ten years of well kept files! Ideally, it would be terrific if you could run iBank side by side with Quicken (or any of the other financial applications it can convert from), to verify account data.

 One thing I have learned about financial programs (and it actually applies to any program), is that the people involved with creating it decide on a method for doing whatever it is that the program does. This method may or may not be exactly the method you are familiar with. When I attended elementary/high school, there wasn’t a course covering personal finances. So most of my methods have been monstered together from what I have learned from various sources, friends, books, and financial applications. Consider also, there is an element of anxiety in moving to a new financial application. A simple mistake might mean an important loan payment is forgotten or a checking account is over drawn. Because of this, one needs to pay particular attention to what actually happens when you use a new program. Don’t assume anything.

In my case with iBank, years of complacency using one version or another of Quicken left me expecting an application would respond in a particular way. iBank is not a clone of Quicken, and so it follows it’s own set of rules and processes. I say this not to criticize, but point out the way it does business. I want to point out iBank works differently than Quicken, and new users need to consider each action taken while learning the software. Once past this awkward application learning period, people should find that iBank is very intuitive and easy to use.

iBank provides a view of your finances when it initially opens. On the left side there is a column that gives access to various things, such as accounts, websites, and other functions. The right side is a window showing information about the item selected on the left side bar. For instance, if you have selected an account, the register is shown, if you select a web site, the browser function opens to load it, or if you select a report, the report is displayed. The side bar offers a lot of choices, more then will show on the screen, you will have to scroll down to find everything. Accounts occupy the top of the list, which makes sense, since you will spend a lot of time working with them. The side bar offers areas for Accounts, Websites, Reports, and at the bottom a Manage area providing a variety of functions (including syncing with the mobil version of iBank, which I didn’t test). Accounts are organized in order of creation, but the user can drag the icon to any position. I personally like to keep my most active accounts near the top, for easy access.

Transaction registers offer three views. The regular register looking view, a cover flow view, and a reconcile view. I am not totally sure what functionality the cover flow view actually provides. It allows one to slide along through the transactions in the account in a cover flow like method (displaying the icons related to the accounts). It also provides a chart on the bottom showing the value of the account over time. Clicking on the chart brings up the transaction you clicked. The chart lets you visualize the account value over time, so you can see the rise and fall of a checking account from paycheck to paycheck. It also shows the minimum and maximum values in the account. For a credit card, you can easily find the periods of most charging.

One things I really like about iBank is that it can be very visual. For instance, iBank uses icons for various category types to make it easy for you to recognize them in a register. You can use the ones included in iBank or find those of your own to use; the process is as easy as cut and paste. You can also set a color to a category, then the register line for a transaction of that type is tinted with the color. For instance, I use green for grocery transactions. When I look at the register, it is easy to locate all the grocery transactions by finding the green tinted ones. Both of these methods are a big benefit to people who are very visual.

You can choose to have a tool bar near the top of the iBank window, below the menu bar; the default tool bar option has buttons for several common features. The tool bar can be changed to satisfy your way of doing things. For instance, iBank has a calculator function, which can be added to the tool bar if you find it useful. Alternatively, you might not want the tool bar and be content to use the menus.

Finally, the iBank window offers a summary area (Summary Page) showing how much you have and how much you owe, it will also turn into a “Net Worth” bar graph if you click it’s top bar. This summary gives a quick overview of your financial picture. This area covers the lower portion of the side bar, and you can choose to hide it if you would rather see more of that area.

Before you start using iBank, you will need to create (or import) all your accounts. If you are in a position to import from another financial program I highly recommend doing this. Although you should spend some time making sure the translation was correct, you won’t have to spend the time it takes to create each account individually.

One improvement I would like to see with iBank’s manual is a section giving a logical method for people moving accounts in manually. Their manual is written with the view point that all accounts have been created and all you might need to do is create a new account to add to the picture. While the manual explains quite well how to create new accounts, it doesn’t suggest an order to create them in if you start from scratch. I highly recommend that you begin with the checking (or whatever other) account you use to pay the majority of your bills, followed by any others you use for this purpose, then create credit card accounts, loans, and finally investment accounts. The reason for this is simple, if you pay your bills, credit cards, loans, and investments from one or two accounts, it is a good idea to have them created before your download transactions for these other accounts.

iBank easily downloads data from your financial institutions. When you create an account, after naming it, you choose which type of account it is, savings, checking, credit card, and so on. Then iBank downloads the current list of institutions that fit into this category. Hopefully you will find your institution in this list. If not, then you can enter the company’s web site manually or enter all your transactions manually. iBank checks for new financial institutions every time you create a new account, unless you create several of the same type one after another. While this is a safe method of business, it does prove a bit tedious waiting the short time for it to check. I found myself tapping the screen muttering, “Hey buddy, I saw that company in the list yesterday, you don’t have to check again”.

In case your financial institution isn’t in the list iBank downloads, there is an option to select: “Other financial Institution”. If you select this option, you can either provide iBank with the company’s web address (where you can download account information), or choose to enter transactions manually. iBank puts this choice, alphabetically, within the list of the several hundred other institutions that are downloaded. Although it is selected by default, one might forget this or choose a different company option, then forget what it was called. It would be a lot nice if this option had a permanent space of it’s own, not part of the list, for easy location and selection when needed.  (Note: a recent upgrade to iBank now keeps the “Other” choice in the list even when you search for the name of your financial institution, which is almost as good as having a dedicated Other button!)

 One VERY cool feature iBank offers is an in program web browser. While some companies allow iBank to download data directly, many others require that you log into your account and download a file. While it isn’t a big deal to run Safari and get the files, the neat thing about iBank’s browser is that when the file is downloaded, iBank takes it in. You don’t have to save it, then open the saved file with iBank. I ran into one odd issue, more with my bank then with iBank. One of my banks requires Safari 4 on the Mac, which means that neither my Lion hyped Mac nor iBank can get transactions from this bank! I did manage to get the transactions using an old version of FireFox. While I can almost justify not having tested Safari 5 yet, I was aghast at needing to use Firefox 3.x!

Logging into the bank with iBank is identical to what you would do with Safari. You will still need your passwords and user name and any other pieces of information the bank might require. There is one issue with iBank’s browser. One financial institution required that a second browser window be opened to initiate the download. iBank’s browser cannot open a second window. In this case, you need to use a regular browser to get the data. Overall, it is very convenient having a browser built into iBank.

Day to day usage of iBank is simple. iBank keeps track of how you do transactions and uses auto fill to reduce your work. For instance, I download my credit card transactions. iBank opens a two pane window, the top showing the newest downloaded, the bottom showing the current register for that account. You look at the transactions and choose to accept them or not, when done you click to bring in all those you accepted.

As you begin using iBank, you teach it which categories various transactions refer to. iBank allows you to create a “rule”, that says something like, all payments made to a specific grocery store go into the category of “Groceries”. Now when iBank sees a transaction with that grocery store, it fills in the category for you. However, some stores have multiple purposes. You can choose to either not create a rule, which means you enter a category every time you download a transaction, or you create a rule, then change the category when the need arises. One issue with not creating a rule is that iBank asks to create a  rule every time a transaction from this company shows up, until a rule is created. Ultimately, this autofill feature saves a lot of your time.

I like to verify that a credit card transaction matches the receipt that I have. There are a variety of reasons for doing this. iBank doesn’t provide a check box or space to indicate that a receipt was verified. Sometimes I need to make sure that one or another transaction was actually made. I have been hit twice by transactions not made by the household showing up on a credit card. I like to take action quickly!

iBank comes with a lot of pre-made categories. As you type a name in the category field, iBank provides a list of categories that fit the letters you type, the list gets smaller as the word completes. While this is a real time saver once you know all the correct names, iBank doesn’t search for the string anywhere in the name, only from the beginning. This process could be made a lot easier if they had used a Keyword search, rather then a Browse search method. So there is a learning curve here. If you choose to use their method, you need to learn it.

iBank organizes categories in groups, then by sub-categories. There is a group called “Utilities”, with sub-categories such as Utilities:Cable, Utilities:Cell Phone, and Utilities:Electric (notice the use of the colon to designate the sub-category). I download a transaction that shows a payment to my cell phone company. If I type “Cell phone” into the category field, iBank finds nothing, since iBank lists this as “Utilities:Cell Phone”. You need to understand their syntax/structure to find the correct category. This is only an issue the first time the transaction comes up. Once you create a rule, iBank fills it in, so you don’t have to type anything unless you need to change the category. It also gets easier as you become comfortable with iBank’s category naming methods. When you need to find how iBank names a category, you can use the menu option to “Change Transaction Type”. Clicking on this menu item opens a list of all the category names, and you can visually search the list to find the appropriate one.

If you enter a category that iBank doesn’t already have, it opens a window to allow you to create a new category. You need to enter various bits of information about the category. iBank’s category organization structure is efficient and I recommend staying with their format. The need to locate a proper category occurs early on. Once you set up a rule or become familiar with the scheme, it becomes easy, however you can easily create all your own categories in a way that makes the most sense to you. This demonstrates another reason why iBank is a great choice for tracking your finances: there are so many ways to modify the application to get it to suit your personal methods.

Some transactions move money from one account to another. When you download transactions, iBank compares the downloaded transactions to those already in the register. If it finds one that already exists, it automatically un-checks the accept check box, since the transaction already exists in both registers. If you did import it, there would be a duplicate transaction. When importing transactions, you need to look over the list and make sure that only the transactions you want to import have the check box checked. Had I known this when I first started downloading transactions, I could have saved myself a bit of time. Luckily, if you do duplicate a transaction, you need only delete the duplicate. The issue is realizing that it was done, which is a good reason for reconciling an account on a regular basis.

I found a few inconsistencies with how iBank works with respect to transactions. The default transaction type often doesn’t make sense for the account type. For instance, when I download a new credit card transaction the type defaults to “Withdrawal” not “Charge” as I expect. For a new checking transaction that I enter manually as I write a check, it defaults to “POS”, not new check number. However, if I change the type to Check, it automatically chooses the next check number in my sequence. Note that if you create a rule with a particular store, the type of transaction is included in the rule, so the next time you download a transaction from that company, it is correct.

 iBank does a very good job of tracking investments. Overall, the process is very simple and intuitive, although there are a few things to remember. If you set up a new investment account to hold shares of various stocks, you need to enter the number of shares you own manually. The number of shares wasn’t transferred from the account I own. Once you enter the total number of shares, iBank will track the share value, provide a chart of the value over time, and even keep track of the cost basis of the stocks or mutual funds.

When you manually bring an existing account into iBank, there are a few things to be aware of. First of all, any past account history is not brought into iBank. While some companies will provide cost basis for an account for iBank, many do not. You can add this information manually. iBank shows only the cash available in an investment account in the register, so if your account has only shares of stocks or funds, it will show as a zero value. The actual value of the account, based on share values as of the current quote download, shows up in the accounts side bar. The value is kept up to date by downloading stock quotes (which includes mutual fund quotes).

Reconciling an account with iBank is easy. You choose the start and end dates and balances, then choose to either reconcile manually or automatically. In the auto mode, iBank accepts all the downloaded transactions between the two dates you gave it, marks then as reconciled, then you verify if this list matches your statement. Manually, it displays the entire register of unreconciled transactions, and you need to click on each transaction to indicate it was on the statement. Once you have a good reconcile, you click a lock icon to lock the transactions as reconciled. If you use the auto mode, you see only those transactions within the dates of the statement, but you need to create a manual method to record that you verified each transaction on the statement. I ran into a small gotcha when I forgot to use parenthesis around the negative balance of a credit card statement. iBank considers any number inside a parenthesis as negative and without a parenthesis as a positive value. When you enter a credit card, you need to be sure the negative balances are within parenthesis, or you get some unusual results. ☺

During my tests I found that for accounts for which you download transactions, the auto method almost always creates a register that looks exactly like the statement from the financial institution. This is a real time saver, as all you need to do is enter the numbers, make sure the difference is zero, and you are done! If there are issues, you then need to figure things out, but this method is significantly faster then the manual method of adding transactions.

Once you get all your accounts into iBank, there are two other things you might want to do. Track where your money goes and how much you have, and create a budget to help you better manage where your money goes and how much you save. iBank offers the tools to help with these items as well.

While recording transactions is a very important part of any financial application, it isn’t everything. Some people like to look at where their money goes, how much their savings is worth, and to keep track of tax related transactions. iBank offers some built in reports as well as a set of very useful tools to create reports of your own. The reports themselves are interactive, so you can easily dig deeper into them if necessary (or if you are curious). The best way to explain this is to consider one of iBank’s included reports. The report called “Last month to date expenses” is an income and expense report. Click on the report icon in iBank’s source list (the left side bar) to run that report. The program’s main window changes to show the report, and there are two pie charts on the top: one for expenses and one for income. Below the pie chart is a key, showing the names associated with the colors of the pie chart. Below the pie charts is a list showing the categories that make up the charts.

Both the pie charts and the list of text data are interactive. When you click on a piece of the pie chart or an area in the list, iBank generates a sub report showing the accounts and/or transactions that make up this section. For instance, if the category is $500 on groceries, you can click on this then see a list of the different grocery transactions which make up the total. If you are inclined to keep precise records of your finances, this is a good way to make sure you didn’t accidentally include a transaction that doesn’t belong. It is also a good way to see where the money goes. You might find that most goes to a particular store. People who might use iBank to take control of their “Fun”spending, as they will easily see where the money goes if they keep good records!

If you find reports useful, you will want to create your own reports. iBank makes the process relatively easy, yet offers the tools to do some very complex things. iBank lets you create reports by walking through a series of screens, each part setting up a different aspect of the report. You start with a report type, then specify specifically what items will be included and the dates to be covered. For example, one report I always set up is a list of charitable contributions I have made in the past calendar year. To create this report I choose Category Detail, include all accounts, but limit the category to charity contributions, set the date to last calendar year, and finally give it a name. Then, when I am working on my income tax, I can run this report, which will provide me with a nice list to print and include in my tax records.

When creating a report, you can get pretty complex using iBank’s “Smart Rules”, which essentially is a group of nested “and” and “or” statements that limit or extend the included items. I have to admit I am not really a report kind of guy, so my use of reporting is very limited. However, it is easy to see that there is a lot of power in iBank’s report wizard to do some very specific things.

Finally, you can easily create a budget for the next year using iBank’s budget tool. Just like the report tool, it is very easy to do. You predict your income first, then predict how much you will spend on various items in the budget. Obviously, any budget is only as good as the validity of the data you use. Often it is easier to create a home budget after you have collected a year or more of data on where your money goes (however, you might need to control the budget before collecting this data ☺). Also consider that people prone to spend too much might well served by creating a budget on specific “fun” or entertainment items.

Once the budget is created, iBank offers two ways of looking at the information. First is the traditional view, which is a window that lists your incomes (on the top of the screen) and expenses (on the lower part of the screen), showing the budget, actual to date, and  amount remaining (over). Each line is followed by a bar graphically showing how much of the budget is remaining (or how far past the value you are). The bar is green for under and red for over and yellow for getting close to the limit. Using this chart, you can easily monitor where you are. The bar graphs give a quick visual review of items. The middle of the screen shows a “remaining cash to spend” as a total, along with a bar graph, and a summary of total incomes/expenses, budgeted versus actual. This is a very useful to easily monitor and keep an eye on the budget.

As with many other screens in iBank, this one is interactive. If you click on an item, you go into an edit mode, allowing you to modify the budget item (come on, no cheating here, this is really important!!).  I do disagree slightly with their handling of incomes. People are paid on a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly basis. This means that for income, you will be under budget until some time near your last pay period, giving a negative impression for a normal sequence of events. However, budgets are more about watching where the money goes rather then where it comes from. Unless, of course, you are in a field where you have to create income and need a little push to get you going.

iBank offers another method of monitoring budgets, called the envelope method. This is a very practical method for people who don’t use a program iBank does a great job implementing this process. Using this method you have an envelope representing an amount of cash to spend on different budget items. There is one for food, one for housing, one for keeping the car going and so on. When you need to pay for something, you take money from the envelope for that item. You can also move additional money into an envelope if necessary. The idea behind this method, is that you can see how the envelope empties as you spend money. It is a very visual method and has been used by a lot of people to help them take control of their finances.

iBank shows a screen of envelopes; nice green bills stick out the top of an envelope and the envelope shows a black positive number when it is positive. For over budget items, the envelope is closed, the number is red and in parenthesis. The lay out is similar to the the first method with incomes on the top, expenses on the bottom and the middle with some summary information. With this method, it doesn’t show you where you are relative to the period, but the income area shows how much unspent money you have, while the expense area shows how much of each envelope’s total you have spent already. The summary area show how much over or under budget you are and offers a table of days left to the period (usually a month), how much is available (positive or negative), and how much reserve cash you have.

The vendor is very active in updating and improving this program. They host a very active forum where people can ask questions and get answers from users and staff. Their tech support was quick and very helpful. They appear to listen to the comments made by users, and act to modify the program when it makes sense. There were a couple of things that changed while I as working on this review, making the program even better. This commitment to customer service is another great aspect of iBank.


I highly recommend this program. Overall, iBank is a terrific program. Having used it for a while, I find that it is actually more comprehensive and logical than my previous version of Quicken. iBank offers tools for importing your data from other programs, and gives you a wealth of tools for controlling your personal finances. I found iBank to be very easy to use and relatively easy to covert to. The vendor even offer a free download with a 30 day trial period, so how can you go wrong with that?

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Software: Tides Calculator
Vendor: Wolfram Research (
Price: $.99

Wolfram’s Mathematica (now version 8.0.4) is a mature product used by many professionals and academics, and the past couple of years Wolfram has started getting developing mobile applications. I’ve already reviewed their Astronomy and Chemistry course assistant apps, which are excellent and inexpensive products for students. This review is on Wolfram’s Tides Calculator, one of their new Reference apps for the iPhone/Touch and iPad.

The tides are relevant to many people around the world that live on or near the coast, or that make a living on the sea. Wolfram provides a low cost ($.99) app that is easy to transport and provides good information about the tides, including Current Tide, High Tide, Low Tide, Average Tide, Tide Forecast/History, and Extras.

Getting Started

I downloaded the Tides app from the iTunes store and it was a typically easy install onto my iPod Touch. I selected the first option (Current Tide), and and the default location was set to Current Location (handy of you are on the go and want the tide info for your current site. As tides are not as much of an issue for us in Minneapolis, MN, I entered Maine for the Location and pressed the Compute button. In a couple of seconds, the app displayed a chart for the tides covering 24 hours, with the time and height of high and low tides for Maine. As I entered the search in the afternoon, the returned results covered the current and next days which is better than forcing one to go to a different path to get the tide info for the next day. One thing to note: this data was computed based on historical data and did not include weather-influenced factors like hurricanes, so take this into consideration if you need current information and bad weather impacts your location.

There is other useful data on the same screen. The tide reporting station for Maine is at Bangor, at the Penobscot River, and the coordinates of the station are included (good for using with Google Earth), along with the relative position of the station in relation to the state of Maine. Another bit of useful information on the screen is sunrise, sunset, moonrise, and moonset. Not all of the screen information is visible at the same time, but it is easy to move around or zoom out as needed.

Next I checked out the High Tide and Low Tide information. I again used Bangor Maine as the location and essentially saw the same information displayed as I saw at the Current Tide screen, although the graphs highlighted the high and low tides respectably. I used Bangor again for the Average Tide option, and there were a few extra bits of information (range of tide, average high tide, average of high and low tides, and average low tide), but had mostly the same information as was shown at the Current Tide screen.

The next option I tested was Tide Forecast/History. Using my favorite (Bangor, Maine) location, I retrieved the tides forecast for 11/24/2011 (Thanksgiving Day in the US) and saw a nice 24 hr graph of the expected tides, with times/heights of high/low tides along with sun/moon rise/set times. Good data for a forecast. Next I left the location alone and changed the date to 11/24/2010 and the app downloaded the historical tide data for last year – also, good data.

Finally I checked out the Extras options and they were: Sunrise and Sunset, Sun Exposure, UV Forecast, Weather and Forecast, Moon Phase, and Properties of Oceans. For Sunrise and Sunset, I retrieved the information for my current location (Minneapolis, MN) for tomorrow and saw the data, plus the duration of daylight (good to know as we edge closer to the shortest day of the year), the altitude and azimuth for my location, a nice graph of the sun path for tomorrow, some cool (to amateur astronomers) star properties, an image of the current Earth/Moon/Sun configuration (science teachers, paying attention?), and the 10 closest stars (including Wolf 359, mentioned once or twice in Star Trek: The Next Generation). Excellent information for educators and astronomers.

Another Extras option is Sun Exposure, where you can enter your location, date, and skin type to compute the most appropriate sun tan lotion needed to protect your body. Nice. With my skin type, I will need an SPF 15 if I head outdoors tomorrow. I like the UV Forecast option too – it gave the current UV conditions, along with a map of most of the country that showed this data, along with the expected time to get a sunburn (based on skin type and exposure), and the recommended SPF factor for sun tan lotion.

The next Extras item I checked out was the weather forecast. I regularly check weather when I fly, and I’m just as interested in the weather when driving in Minnesota in January and February, so this is one of my favorite extras.The forecast for the current day and next day is useful, and the graph for the temperatures for the upcoming week is also good to know (especially as the highs and lows for each day is also included). I also find the precipitation rate and wind speed forecast graphs to be very useful and both enhance this aspect of the app. I should add you can get weather forecasts for other locations than current location, so this could be a nice assistant when planning a vacation.

The next option in Extras is Moon Phase, which provides good info if you’re wanting to look at the Moon. The last Extras option is Properties of Oceans and it provides Ocean Information, Ocean Properties, Speed of Sound in the Ocean, and Pressure Under Water data. Good information for planning a dive, don’t you think?


  • The price is excellent, and the UI is simple yet functional.
  • This is a good tool to use to help plan a vacation.
  • The app does what good apps do – it retrieves information over the internet (from Wolfram servers), reducing the footprint of the downloaded/installed app.
  • I like how the locations default to the current location (great for lazy mobile device owners like myself).
  • The amount of information in Extras is excellent and really expands the app. Weather is my absolute favorite option in this app.


  • Didn’t like seeing the same information in Current Tides duplicated in the High, Low, and Average Tide screens. I’d rather have buttons at the Current Tide screen that would provide the additional information. I think it might have been better to release a Weather App, which includes Tide information, that a Tides App with weather information.


The information is useful to a lot of people, not just sailors. As a fiction writer, I may need to know past or future tides that affect the characters in some of my stories, and this inexpensive app would be an excellent resource. While I know many people (including me) prefer free apps, it is hard to argue with the low price for this app.


Buy it. Skip the burger on the McDonald’s value menu and buy this app. It is interesting information, and good, inexpensive apps need to be purchased to encourage vendors to continue to provide quality apps at a low price. Wolfram currently has another 8 Reference Apps available, and the next one I’ll review is their Fractals App.

Please let our readers know if you’ve tried this app and your impression of the software. Sharing experiences on expensive apps is important, but so is telling others about good, low cost applications.

Be well.

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Software: General Astronomy Course Assistant
Vendor: Wolfram Research (
Price: $4.95

Many modern students use their smart phones in school, and Wolfram understands this so they are releasing a series of course assistant applications for smart phones and devices like the Apple iPhone and iPod touch. I’ve already looked at Wolfram’s Course Assistant for Astronomy, and I wanted to look at Wolfram’s General Chemistry Course Assistant when it was released since I initially majored in Biochemistry when I first started my undergrad degree.

This Course Assistant is sold through the Apple Apps store for $4.95, and I downloaded and installed the app through iTunes, which was flawless. The data (just like in the Astronomy Course Assistant) was organized by categories:

  • Atoms, Molecules, Ions
  • Atomic Structure & Periodicity
  • Reactions & Stoichiometry
  • Gases
  • Chemical Bonding
  • Liquids & Solids
  • Acids & Bases
  • The Nucleus
  • Units & Chemical Properties

Atoms, Molecules, Ions

This category has these subcategories: Find an Element. Find an Isotope, Atomic Properties of Elements, Abundance of Elements, Properties of Monoatomic Ions, and Ion Groups.

I went to the ‘Find an Element’ subcategory and entered 8, and then pressed ‘Compute’ to see the information on Oxygen, which displayed the element name,the location in the periodic table, an image of the element, some basic element properties (symbol, atomic number, electron configuration, block, group, period, and atomic weight), thermodynamic properties (melting point, boiling point – in centigrade and fahrenheit – critical temperature and pressure, molar heat of fusion, heat of vaporization, specific heat at STP, and adiabetic index), material properties (density, molar volume, refractive index, sound speed, and thermal conductivity), electromagnetic properties, reactivity (valence, electronegativity, electron affinity, ionization energies, atomic properties (term symbol, atomic radius, covalent radius, and van der Waals radius), abundance (universal, crust, and human), nuclear properties (half-life, isotopes), and identifiers (CAS and PubChem numbers).

In addition to searching for elements by atomic number, you can also use the number of protons and electrons. My favorite subcategory of this category of the course assistant was the ‘Atomic Properties of Elements’, because the search criteria you can use to find information include atomic number/weight/radius, number of protons/electrons.neutrons, and the Lewis structure.

Atomic Structure & Periodicity

This category has four subcategories: Light & Matter, Electron Configuration, Periodic Properties of Elements, and Ionic Radii.

The ‘Light & Matter’ subcategory lets you compute EM Radiation, the energy of a photon, and photon energy. The ‘Electron Configuration’ subcategory lets you compute configuration information for atoms or ions. The ‘Periodic Properties of Elements’ calculates information for elements and element groups. The ‘Ionic Radii’ subcategory computes radii for monoatomic and polyatomic ions.

Reactions & Stoichiometry

This category has eight subcategories to Solve for Mass/Volume, Convert Mass/Volume, Calculating Molar Mass, Composition of Compounds, Concentration and Solutions, and Equations and Reactions. My favorite subcategory was Equations and Reactions, which lets you plug in data to compute Reaction Enthalpy, the Reaction Equilibrium Constant, balance chemical equations, and calculate theoretical yields. Each section lets you specify 1 to 4 reactants and 1 to 4 products. Very useful.


This category has nine subcategories to solve for Avogadro’s Law (V or n), Boyle’s Law (V or P), Charles’s Law (V or T), Gay-Lussac’s Law (P or T)/Density or Molar Mass, the Ideal Gas Law (P, V, n, and T), Graham’s Law, Average Kinetic Energy, and RMS Velocity.

Chemical Bonding

This category has two subcategories: Bond Properties of Chemicals and Lewis Structures of Elements. The ‘Bond Properties’ include dipole moment, bond types and bond lengths for water, ethanol, acetic acid, acetone, and chloroform.

Liquids & Solids

This category has three subcategories: X-ray Analysis of Solids (Bragg Equation), Boiling Point of Liquids, and Liquid Vapor Pressure. I really liked how the second subcategory lets find boiling points based on city, elevation or mountains.

This was the only area of the app that I saw an error. I went into all three subcategories and all were blank, even though I waited 10 minutes. I quit the app and after I went back into it I was able to see each subcategory, but then the app locked up for a minute. I was able to restart the app, but I have notified Wolfram about this issue and will update this review as soon as I hear back from them.

Acids & Bases

This category lets you look up properties of acids and bases, calculates the ionization percentage of a solution, determine acidity and basicity of solutions (calculate pH and pOH, H+ and OH-, and look up the pH of a chemical), calculate pKa, and solve for pH or pKa.

The Nucleus

This category lets you look up information on isotopes (get element isotopes, look up nuclear properties, and find isotope half-life), as well as compute carbon-14 dating (if you believe that the earth is actually older than 6400 years). I went into the ‘Isotopes’ subcategory and looked up the isotopes for Oxygen, which showed all of the stable and unstable O isotopes. My favorite subcategory of this section was the ‘Isotope Half-Life’, as you can easily use element name or mass numbers to compute the half-lives of elements, which was interesting considering the reactor problems currently being experienced in Japan (as well as in Chernobyl).

Units & Chemical Properties

This category contains five subcategories: Unit Conversions, Physical Properties, Thermodynamic Properties, Element Properties, and Chemical Properties. The ‘Unit Conversion’ subcategory allows conversions based on length, mass, temperature, and volume. The four types of ‘Physical Properties’ are molecular weight, density,boiling point, and melting point. The types of properties found using ‘Thermodynamic Lookup’ are enthalpy of formation, entropy, free energy, heat capacity, enthalpy of fusion, and combustion heat.

I liked the ‘Element Properties’ subcategories, because it returns a ton of information for each element (the element name, periodic table position, an image, basic element properties, thermodynamic properties, material properties, electromagnetic properties, reactivity, atomic properties abundances, nuclear properties, and identifiers), but that seems to be the same as the data returned in the ‘Find an Element’ subcategory option in the ‘Atoms, Molecules, Ions’ category of the app.


Wolfram has expanded their offerings beyond the first 6 course assistant apps available for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. I tested this app using my iPod touch and was satisfied with the amount of useful information as well as the content layout. I did have a problem at one point and had to exit the app, but it then functioned normally.

As much as I enjoyed this app on my iPod touch, I’d love to be able  to retrieve all of the ‘Element Properties’ (in the ‘Units & Chemical Properties’ category) using a GUI image of the periodic table instead of the keyboard that was implemented in the app. To select elements not included on the keyboard, you just need to highlight the element that begins with the same first letter of the alphabet, then select the desired element. Preferring a GUI for this UI is a person preference and not a bug or error, but it might be more appropriate on the larger screen on the iPad.


A good value. Good data that will preclude the need to look up technical information in a textbook, which is handy for high school or college students.

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Software: Astronomy Course Assistant
Vendor: Wolfram Research (
Price: $4.95

When  I returned to college to earn my undergrad degree in Computer Science in 2007, I was surprised to see how many students used their smart phones in school. I started on a Masters degree (MS in SE) in the Fall of 2010 and was surprised to see how many students have embraced mobile devices to help with classwork. With the release of the iPad 1.0 product, I’ve seen little or no use of netbooks on campus, and huge numbers of students using mobile devices to access and retrieve information while studying and in classrooms. I bought a iPod Touch in March and have to admit I’m hooked. The apps I’ve tried look and function very well, so I was pleased to see Wolfram Research releasing course assistants for students.

For the 3 or so readers that are unfamiliar with Wolfram Research, they have been selling Mathematica for many years. Over the course of the product life-cycle they have constantly added functionality to their powerful software. Many universities provide Mathematica for their students at low or no cost, and it is a fantastic product for Math, Engineering, and Science majors. I started using Mathematica 5 and have enjoyed using and reviewing versions 6 and 7 for MacWorld UK, and I cover 8.0 (and 8.0.1) on this blog.

This review covers the Wolfram Astronomy Course Assistant, which is sold through the Apple Apps store for $4.95. I downloaded and installed the app through iTunes, which was as fast as you’d expect. After opening the app for the first time, I noticed the data was organized by categories:

Sky Orientation, Moon, Physical Astronomy, Light and Telescopes, Starlight and Atoms, The Sun and Stars, Black Holes, Cosmology, Solar System, and Life on Other Worlds.

Sky Orientation

This category has data on: Constellations, Zodiac, Reference Points, Basic Angles, Degrees to Right Ascension, Angular Diameter, Size Comparison, Seasons, Periapsis/Apoapsis. My favorite option was the size comparison, where you compare 2 astronomical objects. My least favorite option was Seasons, where you look up the nearest solstice/equinox for a specified date.


The moon is one of my favorite bodies to observe as it is so close that many features can be seen with binoculars. I liked everything in this category, which covers moon phases, lunar and solar eclipses, and the tides. I checked out the most recent solar eclipse yesterday, and it was yesterday (May 20), although it was not visible from many places as it was primarily seen over the Atlantic ocean.

Physical Astronomy

This section covers Newton’s Laws, Newton’s Second Law, Circular Orbit Velocity, Stationary Orbits, Escape Velocity, Moment of Interia, Rotational Angular Momentum, Kepler’s Laws, Kepler’s Third Law, Kepler’s Third Law with Mass, and Relativistic Energy. All are good to have when taking an astronomy or physics class, but my favorite was escape velocity where you can compute this information for astronomical bodies based on radii of AUs, kilometers, miles, meters, and feet. Mass is set using kilograms, pounds, or grams. Very useful.

Light and Telescopes

This section covers materials useful for building or using telescopes. It uses eyepiece focal length and objective focal length to determine telescope magnification. I also like how it calculated light gathering power, so you can compare 2 telescopes (very handy when you decide to purchase your next telescope).

Starlight and Atoms

There were a few options I really liked, but don’t see a need for the Temperature Conversions as this is fairly simple to calculate and I’ve seen the conversion formulas in more than a few intro programming books. My two favorite areas in this category were the Stellar Spectral Classes (determine the property of stars using class/subclass/luminosity) and the Relativistic Doppler Effect (determine speed of a light source using wavelengths). Good stuff!

The Sun and Stars

A ton of information about our sun and stars. It is useful being able to compute the physical properties of the sun based on distance from the surface.

The Star Properties section of the category provides properties for Sirius, Canopus, Arcturus, Rigel Kentaurus A, Vega, Capella, Rigel, Procyon, Achernar, Betelgeuse, Hadar, Altair, Acrus, Aldebaran, and Spica. The type of data returned for each star was useful, however I’d rather have a dynamic list of stars pulled from Wolfram’s servers than a fixed, hard coded list.

Black Holes

How can you not be interested in one of the most powerful objects in the known universe? This category provides a means to calculate Schwarzschild Radius, Hawking Temperature, entropy, surface gravity, surface area, and gravitational redshift for black holes. Excellent information, especially for students.


This category lets you calculate the wavelength of an object that is red shifted. Nice, but I wish there were more sections than the 3 that are provided.

Solar System

Some good, quick reference information on bodies in our solar system. I particularly liked being able to retrieve images of the planets – you first retrieve a thumbnail image and can select a larger image if you want. I like how much amount data you can retrieve on our solar system bodies. I did use some of the data in the Dwarf Planets section when I wrote my piece on Dwarf Planets (see the Astronomy page of this blog for more information).

Life on Other World

This category consists of inputs to compute the Drake Equation, which accepts various data to yield the probability of life on other worlds. Very handy.


Wolfram has 6 course assistant apps available for the iPhone, iPad, and touch. I tested this app using my touch and was satisfied with the amount of useful information as well as the content layout. I would like to see fewer hard-coded lists in future releases, as Wolfram’s data source servers are excellent sources of materials and I’d love to have the capability of this (and other) apps expanded without needing to download an updated version of the app.

I had no crashes or errors when testing, although 1 time I had a timeout when attempting to retrieve an image of Mercury. As much as I enjoyed this app on my iPod touch, I’d love to see it on an iPad.


A good buy for reasonable price. Good for students in high school or college, as they can have a good valid source of information that will help when they take a class in the fascinating subject of astronomy.

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

I know it seems like yesterday when Wolfram released Mathematica 8.0, but they just released an update: version 8.0.1. This version is not an incremental update, so the entire application must be downloaded and installed. This update is free for owners of Mathematica 8.0, and it can be installed over or in addition to version 8.0.

8.0.1 Enhancements

The list of updates from version 8.0 to 8.0.1 (courtesy of Wolfram’s site) are:

  • Many new automatic simplifications for derived distributions, including affine transformations, sums of variables, parameter mixtures, and censored and truncated distributions
  • Improved results for Dot with large (> 1,000,000 elements) lists of integers
  • Improved stability under Intel Sandy Bridge CPUs by including a new version of the Intel Math Kernel Library
  • Performance and robustness improvements for many graph and network operations
  • Improved startup time of the front end
  • Improved the creation of MathLink TCPIP connections under certain special network conditions
  • Improved export of Real and “Real32” images to TIFF, to be compatible with more external TIFF image viewers
  • Improved functionality and stability of Home Edition by including more 64-bit components

Click here for a complete list of changes/enhancements to Mathematica, going all the way back to version 1.0.

5-18-2011 Update

Last weekend I downloaded and installed the 8.0.1 release. It is not an incremental update, so it took awhile to download the >2 GB file. The installation of 8.0.1 in parallel with versions 7.0 and 8.0 still on my laptop was nearly flawless, but I had to exit and restart the program to get the application to run without any warning messages (something about an initialization that failed to complete). After the restart there were no more problems (or warnings) and my initial tests with the product have been fine. I did not use a stop watch to time it, but it did seem to start noticeably faster than version 8.0.

By Harry {doc} Babad, © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Product: PDFpen Pro 5.2.1 – a tool to split, combine, re-order, and edit PDF files
Vendor: Smile Software
(Developer’s Website)
: Price PDFpen $55.95, while the Pro Version is $99.95 [USD]. An upgrade from Pen to Pen Pro is available, if desired at a later date. An upgrade from PDFpen version 5 is available for $25. [USD]
Availability: Download (41.7 MB)
Quill Ratings 4.5
A Functional time-limited demo is available

System Requirements: System Requirements:

  • PDFpen 5.x and PDFpen Pro 5.x require: Mac OS X version 10.6 (Snow Leopard) or later.
  • For Macintosh OS X 10.4 and 10.5, use PDFpen 4.7.1 or PDFpen Pro 4.7.1.

Audience: All individuals needing to modify PDF, no matter their general level of Macintosh proficiency. This is NOT an Acrobat Pro replacement, nor is it meant to be, but it’s a darn fine PDF content ‘text’ and PDF page-editing tool.

Strengths: When it comes to modifying PDFs, SmileOnMyMac’s PDFpen far exceed the functionality of OS X’s free Preview and is a one-for-one feature competitor to Adobe’s $449 Acrobat Pro. At only $50, PDFpen goes well beyond Preview’s PDF processing power, yet it offers some of the same features you’ll find in the much more costly Acrobat Pro.

Weaknesses: Within its stated design and functional scope, I could find no serious or even significant flaws in the software. Like all complex and full-featured software packages, the product has both its strengths and an occasion weakness. The strengths includes include a clean but not quite intuitive interface, low cost and exceptional stability. None of my experiments crashed this program. However, an occasional task that isn’t intuitive only took a quick check at the instruction manual or help files. The combination of a Macintosh compliant design, an easy to explore interface, and acceptable availability of help made becoming comfortable with it an easy task.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Doc’s Introduction Including the Publisher’s Summary

Background On This Software Genre — I spend somewhere between six to eight hours a day on my iMac doing research for and writing many articles and an occasional book. I am passingly skillful at most non-graphics oriented software and even review Macintosh software genre tools for word processing, image editing and label creation, email, database creation and use, and internet search. Most of my time is spent either word processing in MS Word [MSW] and on occasion NeoOffice, or in editing and annotating downloaded (mostly) or scanned and OCR’d PDF files using Acrobat Pro or more recently PDFpen Pro.

By circumstance I’ve become quite proficient in using the editing and page reformatting = features of Adobe Acrobat Pro 9.x, in part from having had the opportunity to beta test version 9 for Adobe. I have also demonstrated Acrobat’s editing tools focused narrowly on cleaning up messily formatted web recipes for my local Macintosh users group and in articles for the now defunct macCompanion eZine.

I’m also half-way, perennially, through writing an ebook into which I crammed everything I learned about editing PDFs with Acrobat Pro, a fantastic Mañana project that will serve as a source of at least a baker’s dozen tutorial articles.

Never the less, or perhaps despite this focus, I’ve followed the evolution of Phil Goward’s Smile On My Mac’s (now, Smile software) PDFpen and PDFpen Pro software. Indeed, in back in 2009, for macCompanion [macC], I reviewed PDF Pen 4.0.4 giving it a stingy 4.5/5.0 rating. My June 2005 macC review of version 2.1 rated the product a 4.0/4.5.

Two Things Have Led Me To Re-Review This Product.

First and foremost it was a excellent, easy to learn and use PDF editing tool that met many if not most of my editing needs. The fact that the Smile products were moderately priced, did not hurt my incentive for a re-review.

I have no needs for doing collaborative reviews in PDF format, which I do in MSW. I have never needed to create interactive forms, seriously control document formatting for commercial publication and distribution, or using top-level securitization.

Second, unlike the introduction of Elements by Adobe as a poor man’s Photoshop, and Bento by FileMaker Corporation, it appears that Adobe has not committed to an Acrobat Elements for the rest of us at a reasonable non-business users price.

  • I found a $199 upgrade to Acrobat 9.x to X on the Adobe site,
  • A Student/Teacher edition for $199 or Adobe Acrobat X Professional Upgrade [Mac] for $183 both on Amazon, and
  • A student/teacher edition for $119 and the Pro version for $159 on the at the Academic Superstore site

I found the newest version of PDFpen for ca. $36 but not the Pro version on Of course Smiles Software offer an upgrade path. – The combination is what Consumer Reports would call a best buy!

Publishers Summary Product(s) Description — Edit PDFs easily with PDFpen! Add text, images and signatures. Make corrections. Fill out PDF forms. Merge, delete and reorder pages. Pro allows you to convert websites into PDFs, create PDF forms, and build a table of contents.

In the Appendix, I show Smiles comparison, using an edited version of the core abilities in PDFpen, PDFpen Pro and Adobe acrobat, with an added bit of Apple’s Preview for information. The short version is provided below.

Features of PDFpen Pro:

  • Replace text in original PDF with editable text blocks
  • Move, resize, copy and delete images in original PDF
  • Overlay text and images onto PDF (for example, sign purchase orders by applying signature image)
  • Perform Optical Character Recognition (OCR) on scanned documents
  • Insert and remove pages; re-order pages in a PDF by drag & drop
  • Copy and paste rich text; retain fonts and formatting when copying from PDFs
  • Select and copy text across multiple columns
  • Fill out and save PDF forms
  • Add (and print) notes and comments
  • Markup documents with highlighting, underscoring and strike-through
  • Save frequently-used images, signatures, objects and text in the Library
  • Use with Page Sender for a complete fax turn-around solution
  • Automate PDF manipulations with AppleScript

Getting Started

This is a well-developed Macintosh application. Drag it to your applications folder. Start using it in demo mode or type in a password. Decide which preference settings you prefer. Check out any readme files. Your good to go.

Working With the Product — My tough love choice.

I knew I was well trained (conditioned) both consciously and subliminally to edit any new PDF in the ‘acrobat’ manner. So, for most of this review, I turned Acrobat Pro off, and instructed the finder to open all PDF files in PDF pen. No you don’t really want to do this – I hated every minute of it!

However, I couldn’t think of any better way to force my self to do ALL my routine work in the Smile product.

Using the Software

Over 3-4 weeks of routine on and off PDF associated work, I did my thing with Smiles latest Pro Version 5.2.1

What thing(s)…

  1. Annotating several dozen downloaded (with Safari mostly) technical articles for my software and greening articles including some posted at a technical meeting site for which I am a peer reviewer,
  2. Cleaning up 10’s of downloaded recipes, both for my general recipes collection but mostly for my new ‘cooking for Kosher-keeping friends’. Cookbook. These download were created by (1) using Apple’s print to PDF feature and either Safari’s (2) new reader tool, or the (3) get a printer friendly copy on a site’s web page.
  3. Working with and extracting technical information from scanned/OCR’d documents, of the still to be shrunk down, collection of paper documents. Much of this was simply annotating the papers for easier future search [HoudahSpot a Spotlight front end] by adding key words, or other notes relating the document to other related technical work.

Some of the items I worked with were documents that I’d printed to PDF from MS Word files, others came to me as PDF files from my PC using colleagues — the remainder, were web downloads from technical information sites. A nice mix, if I do say so myself!

The Bad, but Only Transient, News — The user interfaces, menu and command structure in PDF Pro were sufficiently unique, that my knowledge of Acrobat Pro was a distraction if not a downright hindrance to my relearning the new software. I was also seriously distracted but the tool named created by the software’s developer, that bore little or no relationship to the semantics of the Adobe tool names and at times function. More about that later. As a result, for perhaps a long week of intermittent use, it slowed my work down. This was unlearning curve time, while I tuned in to, and became comfortable with the PDFpen interface. For me, a one time significant but quickly passing productivity problem.

Troublesome Tools Interface, At Least Initially — The lack of the ability to highlight the various icons shown below to show their names, unlike tools in in Acrobat, slowed me down. The help files told me that each tool did, but the icon functions were unfamiliar and their tool names/functions took time to learn.

But checking PDF Pen Help on line helped in making my review possible, but didn’t shorten my Acrobat trained, learning curve. …Old dogs, new tricks?

PDFpen Pro Toolbar [Customized]
Format Menu Text Tools Select Objects Tools

The Good News — I soon learned how to do everything I needed that was within the software’s functions, with the Smiles product. Once I’d learned the interface, it’s like owning and driving both a stick shift high performance car and a family automatic SUV. For less experienced users to those new to PDF editing tools, beyond a PDF reader, that learning curve is more normal, and not at all as steep.

Note — Apple has provided some PDF editing capabilities in its free Preview Application, but I’ve never knowingly tried to use it. Preview has some ability to view PDF files including read, search, and add notes to PDF files; as well as allowing you to annotate image files by adding your own notes, for highlighting text you want to remember, and circling sections you don’t want others to miss. It however it is not, nor claims to be, a full featured PDF editor.

Rather than continue this review, by summarizing the focus of PDFpen and Pro’s main features and where appropriate identifying each feature where PDFpen and Acrobat have functions in common — Reader, check out the appendix.

Note Apple has provided some PDF editing capabilities in its free Preview Application, but I’ve never knowingly tried to use it. Preview has some ability to view PDF files including read, search, and add notes to PDF files; as well as to annotate image files by adding your own notes, highlighting text you want to remember, and circling sections you don’t want others to miss. It however is not, nor claims to be a full featured PDF editor.

Software Focus and CapabilitiesAlthough PDFpen Pro can be used for tasks I don’t yet need, it serves mostly as a tool for PDF file creation, manipulation and ultimately content editing. It is software for people who want to work with, tweak of make major modification to PDF files rather than just read acquired PDF documents.

The product allows you to insert images, text boxes, comments, and links to other pages in the same document. You can also create hypertext links to website or email address, edit text, and draw almost any shape. PDFPen, since version 4.5.2 had added an improved OCR engine, and better scanner support in Mac OS X 10.6.

Specifically, features I value, I can replace text in original PDF with editable text blocks, move, resize, copy and delete images in a downloaded PDF and insert and remove pages; re-order pages in a PDF by drag & drop techniques. The software allows me to to copy and paste rich text from Word or other word processed documents into PDFs and to retain the original fonts and formatting when copying from PDFs into a document into NeoOffice or MS Word. When I need to, rarely, select and copy text across multiple columns that works with a minimal need to reformat the materials to unscramble the words parsed by lines not columns.

The software provides you the ability to use multicolored highlighting and

and remove the background color from imported images, neither of which interest me, yet. According to a tidbit by Rob Griffiths on Macworld, this is great for inserting your signature into PDF documents.

Although I have not yet used the software to develop a table of contents for a long PDF document, I’ll give that a try while working on my new eCookbook, useful since most of its example pages are downloaded and annotated web-blog recipes.

The original Smiles Features Comparisons List also contained information on PDFClerk Pro and Apple’s Preview, which I’ve eliminated as irrelevant to this review.


There were two small but useful things I was delighted to easily do in PDFpen that required a round about route in Acrobat Pro 9.x.

  • First adding a new black PDF page was a menu item – no need to import a blank page from the finder.
  • Second, scanning Prescription or Medical ID card, two images are obtained, one for each side of the ID card. Combining these images (two PDF pages) using PDFpen was easy; I never did figure out how to do this in Acrobat. My required pasting the two images to a MSW document and printing that to PDF. Oh, when doing this with PDF pen, DON’T OCR the image… for obvious reasons.


I would welcome an easy way to split a full pdf page in to two or more parts, each part becoming a separate new PDF page. I’ve done this with both acrobat and PDFpen, but it’s a several step process — tedious.

Conclusions and Recommendations

One strength of PDFpen, apart from its lower price, is its simple WYSIWYG graphic interface where you can all the changes that occur as you work, and can undo any actions that don’t meet your needs or intent. Although I’ve gotten quite skillful at using Acrobat 9, there are too my things going on under the hood, to allow me to relax with the software.

Phil G, I will not give up Acrobat Pro for PDF Pen Pro, call it teaching an old man new tricks. But I do thank you, here an in an accompanying article entitled “WYSIWYG or Not which I will post later in the week.”

However, I unabashedly recommend PDFpen and ultimately PDFpen Pro to all of you readers who have not been gifted a corporate copy, of Acrobat Pro. In addition, should you have a copy of an earlier version of Acrobat pro (say v.7 or 8) on your computer, and need PDFpen’s rich feature set — do not pass GO – do not collect (spend) 200+ dollars; check out and do a test run with the Smiles Product.


I will be shortly posting an article called “WYSIWYG or Not — Web Page Content Redesign in Acrobat (Pro) and Now PDFPen Pro, A Responsible Macintosh Column [MHReports]. It contains my adventures, with the help of Smile’s Phil Goward, in pushing PDFpen beyond it’ design limits to clean up a really cluttered web downloaded obtained by printing a raw blog page recipe to PDF.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – — – – – – – – – –


This Appendix contains an edited, truncated version, of the PDFpen and Pro product features as compared to Acrobat Pro 9 (Macintosh) posted on the Smile’s website. I have not, nor needed to validate the accuracy of Smile’s comparison for the all the itemized features of PDFpen, PDFpen Pro, and Acrobat 9. However, I vouch for those I used!

However, all the tools I needed for doing routine PDF file editing and reformatting were available to me. As I mentioned earlier, being a self acknowledged expert at editing in Acrobat was a liability. I’m guessing that most of you, my readers, will not be troubled by such skills so you learning curve will be shorter, or just perhaps just less frustrating than mine.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Copyright Notice: Product and company names and logos in this review may be registered trademarks of their respective companies.
Sidebar #1: Reviews were carried out on my iMac 2.8 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 2 GB 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM running Mac OS X version 10.6.4 with all security updates kept current.
Sidebar #2: Disclaimer: When reviewing software I will often use the developer’s product, functions and features descriptions. Because of this unless I’m quoting directly from another source, I do no cutter up the review with quotation marks. All other comments are strictly my own and based on testing. Why need I rewrite the developer’s narratives, if they are clearly written?

By Ted Bade, © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Software: Bento 4
Vendor: Filemaker
Price: $49.00 new purchase, $29.00 upgrade from versions 1-3
Format: Available as boxed product or download (93 MB)

System Requirements for Bento

  • Bento requires Mac OS X v10.5.7 Leopard or Mac OS X v10.6 Snow Leopard and will not work with earlier versions of the Mac OS.
  • A Mac computer with an Intel, PowerPC G5, or PowerPC G4
  • 867 MHz or faster processor
  • 512MB of RAM; 1GB recommended
  • A CD drive is required for installation of boxed product software


Filemaker has released version 4 of its popular and very capable consumer database program called Bento. Bento 4 offers all the abilities of the earlier versions and includes a list of enhancements that approaches my wish-list for this program.

Bento is a powerful database program that makes it easy for the home user to create and maintain databases for any purpose they can imagine. Programmers at Filemaker have obviously applied their years of experience with creating their professional level database program to develop a truly powerful program for the home and small office use. The interface is easy to learn. Most users will be able to apply an existing template, or even create their own layouts with ease.

This powerful database program integrates nicely with Apple’s iPhoto and Address book, and iCal programs. Allowing the user to take advantage of features these applications don’t offer but Bento does. For instance creating a “smart list” that instantly creates a subset of the data that meets specific criteria. A popular smart list in my house is one that extracts those close friends we normally exchange gifts and cards with, from a huge list of friends, business associates, and other contacts that reside in our home address book.

I and others have written many reviews of Bento since the release of version 1. If you are unfamiliar with this application and all its abilities I recommend that you search for one of these reviews. This review will primarily consider the improvements and new features of this program.

On with the Review

First of all, Bento 4 seems to perform very well. I have run into no issues, including upgrading my old database. The people at Filemaker say that this new version is faster. Not much has changed in the interface, except for a few new commands, so if you already use Bento there is only a short time to learn how to use this new version. It is important that the user upgrading to Bento 4 learn about the new features, since they are mostly well integrated into the program and you will only see them if you look for them.

For instance, one feature I have begged and pleaded for is for Bento to print labels. Now it does! Previously, Bento shifted the label printing functions to those native to Apple’s address book. This was okay for some purposes, but posed some challenges. For instance, Apple’s address book doesn’t recognize any smart list you create with Bento, so there was no way to print labels from a smart list, (although there was a work around).

The design of this new feature is well thought out. The default is a basic address label. When you select print, there is a button on the print dialog that says, “print labels”. Click on this and a new print dialog opens. The default layout makes a fine label. However, you can choose to include other fields from your database as well. There is an option to attach an image on the label. The program shrinks the image down nicely to fit into the small label size. Bento includes templates for Avery and Dymo labels by their number. If you need a specific label layout, you can easily create your own layout by adding fields and stacking them as you like. Which means you can use the Bento database to create labels or tags for just about any purpose you can imagine.

These printing routines give you a lot of control on how the label is organized. There is a print preview, so you can see how the labels will look. There is also the ability to start printing on some label other than number one. This is great if you have a partially used sheet of labels and want to finish it up.

Another useful feature is the ability to share the data in a database along with the template. You could share the database template, but not the data in previous versions of Bento. Now you can share the data as well. I can see this is very useful in a lot of situations. For instance, in an office where one person is tasked with maintaining a database which is to be used by others. In previous versions, you could share and even update a database from another computer that has sharing turned on, but this database would not be available when you are not connected to the local network. You could also export the database and import it on the other computer, but important items like the layout of data fields, images and other media would not be transferred. So a small business could not easily share a catalog of their products, with animations, and images with their own sale people or even customers.

With Bento 4, when you choose the export function, there is an option to include data along with the template. The data includes all the media as well as the text. I think this is a terrific new feature. Years ago there were programs on the Mac that gave anyone the ability to share organized data about something of interest to them to others who owned the application (Hyperstudio and Apple’s Hypercard for instance). Using the sharing feature of Bento 4, I could create a database of information and share it with students in a class or just friends who own Bento. This feature has a lot of potential!

Of course, this leads me to suggest one more step in the sharing process, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to share a copy of the catalog, information, or whatever with people who don’t own Bento as well? Some form of a licensed runtime only version of Bento. Just food for thought!

In any case, the export feature is easy to use and works as expected. Just one work of caution, since the export data is part of the export template dialog, be careful to turn it off if you intend to just share the template! Otherwise potentially personal information might go along with your template.

Speaking of sharing templates, Bento 4 makes it even easier to share with the template exchange. In the template export dialog you just need to click on share with template exchange and the template is sent. I assume you can share the data with the template exchange as well. It will be interesting to see what type of new templates along with data make their way to this exchange in future.

For people who want to include even more data in their databases, Bento 4 includes two new interesting features: Voice memos and automatic location. Automatic location uses the location services of your portable device to find and record your current location. Using an iPhone or iPad with cellular services, you could capture an image, or write some information, then have the location services record the exact GPS location of where this occurred. The location feature is also tied to Google Maps, so you can click on the coordinates and see a map of the location.

Using the voice memo feature, you can create a field in the database to record audio into. There are several practical uses of this feature, one that comes to mind is the classroom. A database could be created which includes space to take notes during the lecture as well as recording the lecture. After, when reviewing the notes, the lecture could be reviewed as well, and those points that weren’t clear or even missed will become available. I could also see  it being used to provide information about an object in a database that might not be apparent by looking at the object.

Another very useful new feature is the ability to lock a form’s layout. I don’t know about you, but I have a habit of accidentally grabbing a field when I click around a database. So instead of doing what I intended, I move or re-size the field I clicked in. In Bento 4, you can choose to lock the form. This turns off the ability to rearrange and re-size fields on a form. If you later decide you would like to work with the fields, click off the lock, and the fields become movable again.

A lot of people are not happy that they cannot move iCal tasks onto their portable Apple devices. It doesn’t make sense, moving your task list onto a portable device makes them available for review no matter where you are. With Bento 4 you can now sync the iCal tasks with Bento, then sync them to your portable device. You will see them and be able to edit them on the Mac.  This is a feature I think a lot of people will be very happy with.

Along with the release of Bento 4 for the Mac, Filemaker will be releasing new versions of Bento for the iPod Touch / iPhone and iPad. These new versions take advantage of the new features in Bento and add several new features to the portable device.

I am a big fan of the iPod Touch and tend to use it as a PDA as more then a music player. I have been using Bento on the iPod touch for a number of tasks, but the most important use is for shopping lists. Rather than wasting a scrap of paper, I created a database of products at various stores. Along with this list, I created a smart list that shows only the items that I designated when needed (using a check box). At the store, I load the smart list, and as I put items in the cart, click off the check box, which removes the item from the list. Really cool and efficient! In the previous version of Bento for the iPod Touch, I had to select the item, open the record, to be able to click off the needed check box. In Version 4, you can choose to have a check box field shown on the list view. This means I can click off items directly from the list view, without opening the record. I love it!

Bento 4 also makes accessing the smart list view easier. Previously, there were two ways to view one’s list of databases in the iPod version of Bento, list view and cover flow view. While any large database could have a number of sub lists, you could not access a sub list from the list view. To access a sub list, you needed to select the main database in cover flow view, click on a button to flip the cover view around, then select the sub list from those listed there. In the new version of Bento for the iPod Touch, the cover flow view is now used only for selecting templates to create a new database. Your created databases all show in a list view. If there are sub lists, an icon at the end of the database name shows the number of sub lists, touch this icon and you get a menu of sub lists, then select the list of interest. This seems a lot more efficient to me.

The new version of Bento for the iPod/iPhone also now allows you to change screen orientation. This is very useful when trying to read a longer entry. It also means that the virtual keyboard has a wider aspect when you need to type, a real benefit on this small screen.

Voice memos seem like a great feature for these portable devices. It would be a lot quicker to speak a comment, or thought, onto the device, then later you can transcribe it into text. Or remember a thought you had.

While this is not an issue for me, the newer version of Bento for the iPhone/iPod Touch will also be available in other languages including: Japanese, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Dutch.

Although I do like all the changes and improvements, I am still unhappy when a database created on the Mac is moved to a portable device. Most of my databases are simple lists of information and the arrangement of the data isn’t really that important. But I also keep a database of books I have either read or listened to the audio version. My list has names of books, author’s name and website, and other useful information which I use to find more books. The list is organized with the title on top, author’s first and last names, website link, then a description of the book. I also keep an image of the books cover art (just for fun). There is other information as well. When I transfer this database to my portable device, the fields are scrambled. The author’s first name ends up near the top, but the last name is someplace near the bottom, title is in the middle, and so forth. On the iPad, the cover art is given a field large enough to see the entire image, but the longer text description field defaults to 2 lines of text. (I realize on the small devices (iPhone / iTouch), only a little text can be seen on one page and I can live with that.)

On the iPad, I expected more. For my longer text field, there is a way to tell the iPad to give it more space, by choosing how many lines of text to show, not intelligently by how much data is in the field. Each database field takes up one entire line, so instead of a neat layout of the author’s first name on the left side of the line followed by the last name to the right, they are forced to be displayed on two separate lines. With the iPad and its larger format, I would expect some semblance of the layout on my Mac display would transfer to the iPad, but this was not the case.

I realize that the transferred database can be shifted around to make sense on the smaller device, but why not keep some of the original order? In both cases, the transferred layout still mystifies me. What I get bears little resemblance to how I had the field organized on the Mac. Granted, you need to tell the app which two fields, and which media or check box field to show (if there is more than one), when you view the list of records in the database. But when I enter the view showing the full record, the layout is scrambled. I expected data would be organized a bit more like it is on the Mac. And especially do on the iPad.

I see an easy solution for Bento on the Mac. Among all the layouts that one can create, there should be an option for iPad and iPhone/iTouch devices. This way one can take advantage of the Macs interface tools to create logical screens for the portable devices. The default layout of fields should at least, approximate that of the Mac’s layout.

This doesn’t mean I don’t like these two portable versions. I do. I regularly use Bento on my iPod Touch as a shopping list, to find contact information, and even to research what is going on with an author’s web site.  I would be lost without Bento on the iPod! I have yet to find a real purpose for Bento on the iPad, but that’s just me. I am sure there are thousands of users who have found this App to be very useful. I can see it used in classrooms, as a high end catalog with pictures and even animations, and other uses.

Overall, the new version of Bento is terrific. It is a must-have for all current Bento users. If you use the portable devices, the new versions of Bento is also a great idea and I would recommend downloading them. The cost of Bento 4 is the standard $49, and there is a $20 rebate for current Bento owners. A group of five licenses can be purchased for $99. The portable versions are $4.99 each and the update is free to current owners. I highly recommend Bento for anyone who has a need or interest in organizing data. It is the easiest database program I have ever used and by far the most powerful consumer one available.

By Ted Bade, © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.


As you have probably gathered, I really enjoy astronomy. I like looking at objects in deep space, gazing at the moon and the planets of our solar system, and sometimes even enjoying a glimpse of a comet. I enjoy using my telescope but often, at my home in New England, the skies are overcast, or the weather is rotten. (Especially this current winter with record amounts of snow fall.) So what does one do to enjoy a little astronomy when the sky doesn’t cooperate? Find an alternative, I say. This is easy for Starry Night users, who can look at the LiveSky menu and select ‘Online Telescope Imaging…’  which opens a browser window to access a site called SLOOH.

SLOOH the Site

Several years ago, I learned about The name SLOOH is a play on the word slew, which in Astronomy circles to slew a telescope is to move it’s position. What offers is access to large 20” telescopes, via the Internet. The telescope is controlled remotely and moved through a series of targets as the night moves on. The scope stays with each object for a period of time, giving the camera time to collect and even color the light, producing beautiful images.

SLOOH the Software

The SLOOH interface is the user’s window to what the telescope sees. You can watch as the image develops on your screen. Starting with a monochrome, then watch the colors revealed as various filters are applied. You can capture up to three images any time during the exposure, you select when. One of my favorite tricks is to make an image before the colors start, and one just before the end of the exposure. This gives a great comparison of  naked eye viewing versus a time exposure.

Granted, you are not specifically in control of where the telescope points, or how long the exposures are, but a great many of the objects available to see based on the time of year  are on the list. Also, don’t forget, two very important aspects of this telescope: It is large (20” reflector) and the position of the telescope.

When SLOOH started, there was one telescope on a mountain in the Canary Islands, which is close to the equator. This means that it can “see” most of the sky, north and south. Within the past year, SLOOH has added two more telescopes, one in the mountains of Chili and one in Australia. (They recently shutdown the Australia site because the weather conditions there we rarely good and they weren’t getting much use of the telescope.) With telescopes in these various locations, a member has the potential of being able to see any part of the sky.

After you log into your SLOOH account, you are then taken to the “Launch Pad” which gives you access to various features of the site. In addition to the three telescopes, there is a link to the images you have downloaded, banners telling you of “radio shows” the site provides, access to reservation of time slots, as well as a brief list of what is currently being looked at as well as what the next few targets are.

From the launch pad, you can choose which telescope you would like to see, providing that telescope if currently on line. Once you choose a telescope, a new window opens which is your window to accessing the telescope view and information about what is on the screen. This window provides your view of what the telescope is seeing as well as a lot of other information. Take a look at my screen shot.

First of all there is a big circular area which displays what the telescope camera is seeing. As the exposure continues, you watch see it change in this window. A button near the bottom of this circular area shifts the camera view into full screen. To the right of the circular view area there are three buttons that control the view you see. There are three possibilities, High Mag, which gives a view using the maximum magnification, Wide field shows the image in a wider field and with less magnification. (Note that some objects do not use the high magnification, because it wouldn’t make any sense. Looking at a small corner of a large object wouldn’t be of much use). The last view is “all sky”, which is essentially what you would see if you just looked out of the telescopes dome.

The left hand side of the window is the information area. There are several choices of information and settings to choose from. The default is “Mission data”, which offers information about the object currently being viewed. The other tabs provide other features, for instance, you can tune the program to your system and display, check the weather conditions at the dome, or get some help. When there is a radio event on there is usually a chat channel open for members to ask questions/make comments during the show. You can digitally enlarge an image, see how long the current exposure is and how much time is remaining, and more.

SLOOH has a presence on Facebook, Twitter, and interacts with Google Earth. There is also a forum to participate in if you like that. With Google earth, you can share your images of the universe with the Google earth (universe view) site. It’s a cool way to share your work!

One feature, I haven’t tried personally, is the ability to schedule a time slot to view coordinates that you are interested in. There are three options for selecting a target, choose from a list of objects, choose by using a catalog number, or enter the coordinates of an object or area of space you are interested in. The schedule window shows slots for the current week. So to schedule the telescope you choose an object and an available time slot. Just be sure that you will be able to view the scope when your time arrives! Otherwise, you will miss the view.

While looking at a live computer image of what the telescope can see isn’t as exciting as looking through one’s own telescope in the backyard, it is very nice. The images that you capture are tagged and dated, then stored for your later perusal or downloading.

The SLOOH site organizes the images you have captured for easy retrieval. The images are organized by category such as Solar System, Globular Clusters, various types of galaxies, and more. When you select a type, you are presented with a list of objects of that type, each object in the list also indicates how many images of that object you have collected. It also tells you the time and date of the most recent image. If you click on a specific object, you are shown a list of your images. Here you can enjoy looking at your images or download them for better processing. As with any astrophotography image, a little digital darkroom works can go a long way! You can also delete images you don’t like.

Besides downloading the image, you can share the image with your friends. SLOOH provides easy links to many different social networking sites.  Images have a SLOOH logo on them, so they get credit for the image, but they are your images to work with. Being a Mac guy, I collect and process my favorite images and have made a photo slide show of them. Mostly I use my favorites for backgrounds on my desktop and as a screen saver.

There are two basic plans for buying into SLOOH. First there is the “Commander Membership”. With this membership you pay an annual fee and can log in and view any of the scopes any time they are up and running. You also have a fair amount of personal scheduling time (When I started years ago the membership included so many minutes of scheduling time, currently it appears that, as long as things aren’t busy, you can use more time. The Commander fee is $50 a year, but I noticed that sells it for a discount.

The other method is called a Credit Membership. In this plan you buy an amount of credits which can be used anytime you log in. When you use them up, you can buy more credits. You can buy credits along with activity books and other things from various retailers. SLOOH links directly to as their retailer, but I have seen the packages at other locations.

I have been a member of SLOOH for several years. My activity varies, but when I have a bit of free time I like to log in and see what’s on the display. As with any telescope, weather conditions can be an issue. Cloudy skies, a full moon, and other factors can make the telescope unavailable. Sometimes the images are spectacular and at other times they are terrible. But this is typical for astrophotography. The radio shows have come and gone over the years I have been a member. It’s great listening to an astronomer (amateur or professional), as they share their insights and thoughts about astronomy.

I truly enjoy this site and the services they provide. I intend to remain a member as long as I am able. I really enjoy this site and have a great time watching the sky through their telescopes. If you want my advice, I’d encourage you to visit SLOOH’s site and see what they have to offer.

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Product: RedShift 7 Advanced
Vendor: United Soft Media (
Price: $79.90/£49.90 (Boxed), $59.95 (download)
Supported OS: Windows 7/Vista/XP/2000

Ted Bade and I are both amateur astronomers. We’ve both used a lot of commercial and open source products for different operating systems – some which we cover on this site (Starry Night Pro, Voyager, etc) – and since Ted reviewed RedShift for the iPhone/iPad, we felt I should take a look at the version of the product for Windows: RedShift 7 Advanced.

I contacted the product vendor and they were happy to provide a download of the software to evaluate, so let’s get started with the evaluation.

Using the Software

I downloaded and installed the product on the Windows XP partition of my 2.26 GHz dual core Intel processor Macbook (~ 14 months old) which has a 250 GB hard drive and 2 GB RAM. No problems during either phase of this process. The software was installed in the C:\Program Files\Maris Technologies folder.

I began by checking out the UI. First of all I like the Getting Started screen:

This is ideal for the first time user. I checked out all of the tabs to learn how to use the software. Very nice.

Next I decided to take some of the many guided tours included with the software. The tours were good, but the quality of the planets and moons was not what I expected. I poked around and found a few options that looked like they could help (‘Extras/Enable OpenGL’, ‘View/Surface Features/Planets’ and ‘View/Surface Features/Moon’), so I enabled them, then restarted the software and took a few additional guided tours. Now I saw a nice improvement when I took the tour of the 5 main Jupiter moons.

This is the screen shot I took using RedShift 7, which shows Jupiter and 5 of the largest moons. I like the perspective as the orbits are clear and the information (in the box at the top right of the screen) was interesting. Only comment – the text appears center-justified.

Callisto – one of the larger moons of Jupiter, Callisto has been viewed as a potential landing site for a Jupiter system exploratory mission. Callisto is further away from Jupiter, so the closer and larger moon might be a better landing site.

Ganymede – probably my favorite Jupiter moon. This moon is bigger than Mercury, and it was the site of Robert Heinlein’s ‘Farmer in the Sky’ science fiction story about future colonizing efforts of humanity. This moon is closer to Jupiter, but the radiation levels there may be higher than on a moon that is further away.

Next, I checked out some of the space flight tours. I took the Mars tour and liked the quality of the image of the surface of Mars:

The next tour I checked out was Cassini, which was interesting as it was a 6 part tour which shows each phase of the complex flight the probe took. The probe had a complicated route to Saturn. It made several near planet passes to gain speed: twice by Venus, once by Earth, and once by Jupiter (mostly for course correction than for speed) before arriving at Saturn. This was an important mission as we took many great pictures of Saturn and the moon Titan. I would’ve liked to see some mention that the Cassini mission has been extended far beyond the planned life of the mission – this is interesting information and relevant to astronomy students.

I then ran the tour ‘Guided Tours/The Essentials/A comet plunges to its death’ which is a re-enactment of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which broke up and the chunks plunged into the atmosphere of Jupiter. The impacts were clear and RedShift has some of the images of those impacts.

There are also spaceflights for Yuri Gagarin (first human to orbit our planet in 1961), Apollo 13 (ill-fated and near disasterous trip to the moon in 1969), Voyager 2 (deep space probe launched in 1977), Galileo (Jupiter mission – launched in 1989 and sent into Jupiter atmosphere in 2003), the Mars Express, and the MER Opportunity and Spirit missions. The Mars Express mission was the ESA’s first Mars mission and it is still active today (January, 2011). The Opportunity and Spirit rovers were sent to roam over the surface of Mars and take pictures. Both are still on Mars, however the Spirit rover stopped responding to NASA after a short while, but the Opportunity rover is still active and is currently parked at the Santa Maria Crater (January, 2011), where it is taking some revealing images.

I was surprised at some missions that were missing, like the Apollo 11 and the New Horizons missions. Apollo 11 was the first manned landing on the moon and is much a landmark as Yuri Gagarin’s first mission into space. New Horizons is on the way to Pluto and the Kuiper belt, which as also huge.

I only had one bad experience using this software. Three times when I was working with guided tours, RedShift 7 crashed with the following error message:

I am running with the most current Windows XP updates on my Macbook dual core CPU laptop. If anyone else sees this error, please contact United Soft Media so they have more information to use to address this problem. This is not a show stopper, and it may not be a problem for other versions of Windows.


I enjoyed using RedShift 7 Advanced. The guided tours are very useful, although a few seemed to take longer than I’d prefer. After getting comfortable with the user interface, I enjoyed using this software.  There is good information, although it would be nice to see more information. I love how the company website is positively loaded with astronomy-related content, which is available to people that don’t have RedShift.


  • Number of supported versions of Windows – good to see they still support Windows 2000 users, as well as Windows 7.
  • The price is right. A good value for the low-cost of the software, especially the download version.
  • The installed software didn’t kill my drive space. It only took 1.24 GB of space, which is pretty low when compared to other astronomy products.
  • Getting Started screen, which has many features new users will want to access immediately to learn how to use the software.
  • An excellent website to support the product, as well as provide a tremendous amount of astronomy-related content.
  • Guided Tours – very nice. A lot of them to help build interest in astronomy.
  • Number of configurable options – very good. It is useful to be able to specify actions to occur at start-up or when exiting the program. I wish more vendors did this, as most serious users want to have as much control of their environments as possible.
  • Telescope Control support – a must for serious users.

Areas for Improvement

  • The company needs to find and fix the uncaught exception that caused the software to crash 3 times over the months I was evaluating RedShift.
  • Some of the UI controls had an old school feel to them. They did function, but were not as modern as some other astronomy packages I’ve used. I’d love to see the UI updated in the next major release of the product.
  • I had to enable the software to use OpenGL for video, as well as turn on surface features for planets and moons. Both of these affected the quality of the software images and I’d rather be asked at first launch if I want those features enabled, instead of finding them after I look at the software. Initially I was not impressed by the quality of the images, but after enabling these features I was much happier.
  • I liked the tours, but some seemed to go without a lot happening. A nice sound track or slide show with thumbnails of the tour subject would make these more interesting. I’d also like to see planetary tours similar to what is done at, which are very informative and visually interesting.
  • Many good space flights/missions, but not the Apollo 11 or the New Horizons missions.


A good value and recommended for astronomy students of any level. The tours are a nice touch for students just learning about the missions and the planets and stars, as well as for older folk wanting to recall the things that so captivated television audiences in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and 00s.

By Harry {doc} Babad, © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Contextual Menus — A Tool Macintosh users too often miss

Responsible Macintosh Safe, Secure and Polite Macin’ — Things You Should Know or Practice


Several months ago I had the pleasure of making a presentation on contextual menus [CM] to the Mid-Columbia Macintosh user group here in the Tri-Cities Washington area. A contextual menu offers a range (often limited) set of choices that are available in the current state, or context, of the operating system or application. Because Apple blessed us with the one-button mouse, unlike our PC/Windows colleagues, we’re not as tuned to using the extra feature the Macintosh OS has made available for ‘right-clinkers.’

I, as I browse shareware offerings have found additional CM goodies easily accessible via my two-button Logitech scrolling mouse. All these and more are grist for what follows. Oh, don’t have a two-button mouse, Apple makes one or three, sort-of, try an option-click! See Note 1 for more specific details.

Note that in the graphic samples I have included, are only a samples, of two different selections from the same general environment (e.g., Finder Windows, MSW 2011 {this article} DEVONthink and a PDF of a Recipe.) So explore, you enjoy the new flexibility CM’s give you every day Macintosh work tasks.

CM Options — A Recipe PDF

MSW CM Image Optio

Contextual Menus Revealed

In some ways the Macintosh operating system reminds me of two medieval rabbis <scholars> discussing a line or paragraph of the Old Testament. Then and perhaps even now there were at least three alternatives for each ‘reading.’ And of course all of this invisible to the common rabbinical-Torah student.

Similarly, for the Macintosh there are at least 3 ways of working with files/folders/actions whether in the Finder or often (if supported) in other applications.

We all know and have gotten comfortable with a menu bar, tool bars in applications like the Finder and MSWord} and of course keyboard short cuts. There are also the added choice of using the Apple dock and when visible the open/active window sidebar. Huh, I always hide my sidebar in open finder windows, making them visible only if I have to do a sidebar-oriented task.

But there’s a faster more focused and faster way, in many cases, to deal with desired ‘short-cut’ actions while you work in a context specific way — Save time, spare your wrists and your mind from extra work — use contextual menus where they are available.

The tool you use on a 2-button mouse is a right hand click.) On Apple’s one-button mice, a bit more fuss, but still easy, an Option Key-Mouse Click. When this works, at the place where your mouse’s pointer is ‘hovering’, Shazam, a menu that focuses only the actions/options available to you magically appears.

That menu will change as the CONTEXT of what you are doing changes. It will focus ONLY on what you can-are allowed-to do from that point (location) in your work.

If you don’t yet use these tools, you will be surprised to know that contextual menus can provide unexpected useful features. For example, in Safari, a contextual menu can be used to easily view or print a web page or to view the source code (HTML code) of any web page. In addition, there are excellent free contextual menu plug-ins for Mac OS X 10.4 to OS X 10.6 that can be added to Mac OS X to let you easily view images, launch applications or organize files. I’ve share a few of my favorites later in  this article.

Like standard menus, contextual menus are sometimes hierarchically organized <think outline view>, allowing navigation through different levels of the menu structure. The implementations differ: Microsoft Word was one of the first applications to only show sub-entries of some menu entries after clicking an arrow icon on the context menu, otherwise executing an action associated with the parent entry. This makes it possible to quickly repeat an action with the same actions (parameters of the previous execution), and to better separate options from actions.

  • What are they and where are they hidden?
  • Apple’s OS X Contributions
  • Share/Free Ware CMs
  • My Favorite Access Tool – Fruit Menu

So, What Are CM’s?

In Mac OS X, when you hold the Ctrl key down and click an item (e.g., an icon or window), a pop-up menu appears. It is called a contextual menu because its contents depend on the item you click; the menu features a list of commands you can perform relative to, or within the context of, the item you click. For example, if you Ctrl-click a file icon, you can choose to open it, open Get Info or an Info window about it, give it a label, duplicate it, or make an alias of it. Other items will give you different menu options. Contextual menus appear with most items in the Finder, but won’t necessarily be available in other applications.

On systems that support one-button mice, the original and mist recent Apple Mice, contextual menus are typically opened by pressing and holding the primary mouse button (most often on one the icons in the Dock on Mac OS X) or more usually by pressing a keyboard/mouse button combination (e.g. Ctrl-mouse click in Mac OS); see Note 1.

Usually the available choices are actions directly related to the selected object. Most often, these are more focused ways of achieving a usual menu bar action, but accessed faster and with less mousing around, clicking and scrolling. However, if short-cuts are assigned to selected menu based actions, the keyboard short cut is faster. But who want to cram hundreds of shortcuts into their memory.

Actually there was, years ago, a CM for collecting shortcuts. I seem to have discarded it along the way of moving through OS upgrades. Any who can find it, please provide feedback in our comments window.

Macintosh OS X CM Actions///Try them out – Try accessing the CM’s in the following environments and see both what you get and how the difference CM differ in their choices based on where you mouse is pointed.

FinderIcon View on the Desk Top 

  • Document –
  • Folder –
  • Folder Alias –
  • Document Alias –
  • Background –
  • Link –
  • Get Info (Spotlight Comments)
Other Finder Windows 

Sidebar – No action

Main Window Area –

– List View

– Icon View

– Column View

Peek-a-Boo, see what you get!

Application Documents 

Open Apple “TextEdit” File

Open PDF File (Acrobat)

– Text

– Image

Open PDF File (Apple’s Preview)

GraphicConverter – Only a few universal ‘moves’

Safari –


Desktop Finder — Selected Folder

Desktop Finder Window-No Selection

CM of a Folder in a Finder Window

Other Share/Free Ware CMs I Find Useful

FruitMenu — My Favorite ‘super’ Haxie <Utility> FruitMenu is a haxie that gives you the ability to customize the Apple Menu and contextual menus. There’s more focused CM tools listed below.

Shareware and Freeware With Which I Work
A Better Finder Context Menu 



CopyPastePro Contextual Menu *

DEVONthink CM *

Doc Merge 2.4.1 *



PrintWindowCM *

Shortcuts 2.0.1


* Part of a parent application

These CMs and others can be found on the MacUpdate Site [

Shareware Item Details:

  • A Better Finder Attributes 4., Context Menu — A Better Finder Attributes allows you to change file and photo dates and times, as well as other useful file attributes that the Finder won’t let you touch. Quickly change the following file attributes: modification date and time, creation date and time, batch adjust the Exchangeable Image File (EXIF) time & date that JPEG pictures were shot to compensate for time zones or incorrectly set camera clocks, set the file creation date to the time that a digital camera picture was taken, lock or unlock the file (prevents the name and the contents of the file to be modified, set the Mac OS 9-style creator & type codes, show or hide the file extension for particular files.
  • ClipToIconCM 1.0 — ClipToIconCM is a contextual menu plug-in which adds custom icons to files using pictures on the clipboard.Suppose you have a file with a generic icon and you want to add an icon that conveys more information on the file’s contents. You can add a custom icon to this file using ClipToIconCM by first putting an image file on the clipboard. For example, you could use your web browser to find a web page with the desired graphic and then use “Command-Control-Shift-4” to select a portion of the screen to “capture” to the clipboard.
  • ClipToWebCM 1.0.3 — ClipToWebCM is a service application and contextual menu plug-in which tries to open the currently selected text (or clipboard contents if there is no selection) as a URL in your default web browser. Of course this isn’t anything a copy and paste operation can’t achieve, but it’s quicker. It’s also more versatile than the “Open URL” contextual menu item since it doesn’t require a full URL. (Note: As of version 1.0.2 the selection can also be a Finder file or folder; the text will be the name of the object.)
  • FilePathCM 1.2 — FilePathCM is a contextual menu, menu bar item and service for copying the:POSIX path, URL encoded POSIX path, Server afp URL, Abbreviated (Tilde) POSIX path, POSIX path for Terminal, HFS path and more
  • MoveCM 1.2 — MoveCM is a menu bar application, service and contextual menu item for moving, copying, aliasing, hard linking and archiving (zip compressing) files and folders quickly into common folders. i.e. without the need to drag and drop them, use aliases, etc. It is a generalization of the Finder’s “Move to Trash” contextual menu item, you can apply it to any folder you like. Use the System Preference pane to specify destination folders. The menu bar application or contextual menu will then consist of menu items that correspond to these destinations. Control click on one or more files and/or folders in the Finder, select a destination from the menu, and the files and/or folders will be moved (copied, archived) to that destination. You have the option, specified in the preference pane, to have the destination folder opened for you after the operation completes. You also have the option of having the menu items in the contextual menu named after the destination folder, or by its pathname.
  • PrintWindow CM 4.1 — Print Window offers the ability to print a file listing directly from within the Mac OS X Finder. No more taking screenshots of windows or settling for text-only printouts of filenames only. Print Window provides the works: icons, file information, sorting and so much more!
  • ShortCuts CM 2.0.1 — Shortcuts is a Mac OS X application to assign hot keys to contextual menu items. Version 2.0 also allows you to display a menu with items added by CM plug-ins. Since Apple removed contextual menu plug-ins support for 64 bit applications in Mac OS 10.6, Shortcuts is currently the only known way to use contextual menu plug-ins in 64 bit applications.
  • WordDumpCM 1.0.9 — WordDump is an application, contextual menu and service for extracting all the words from documents. Supported document formats include Text, PDF, MS Word, HTML and RTF. The WordDump service, available from the Services menu, also counts the characters and words in files and text selection. These menu items are called “Count Characters” and “Count Words.” You may need to turn on the option to display the service menu items in the Services Preferences of System Preferences.

DEVONthink File Item CM  

DEVONthink CM of a Found ‘Search” Item

Final Thoughts

Contextual menus are a great way to do things faster and more efficiently on your Mac. They also give you some added functionality to programs, while just giving you easier access to frequently used commands in others. Overall, I find contextual menus to be quite useful and periodically check MacUpdate site for new ones. <Note: I’m much less enamored with the Apple related services menu which I’ve not yet mastered and which my favorite applications do not support – More about that in a future article.>  If you haven’t considered using them, try them out- you just may start asking yourself how you could have lived without them.

References and Notes

More About Contextual Menus,

The Apple Macintosh’s Keyboard Option Key – Wikipedia

Contextual Menus, Wikipedia.

Note 1.

On systems that support one-button mice, context menus are typically opened by pressing and holding the primary mouse button (this works on the icons in the Dock on Mac OS X) or by pressing a keyboard/mouse button combination (e.g. Ctrl-mouse click in Mac OS). A keyboard alternative for Mac OS is to enable Mouse keys in Universal Access. Then, depending on whether a laptop or compact or extended keyboard type is used, the shortcut is Function + Ctrl + 5 or Ctrl + 5 (numeric keypad) or Function + Ctrl + i (laptop). [Wikipedia,]

AppendicesMore Than You Wanted To Know

For Lawyers and Philosopher Only! — A context menu (also called contextual, shortcut, and popup or pop-up menu) is a mouse-click activated menu in a graphical user interface (GUI) that appears when implemented by the user, It works by using a right mouse click or middle mouse click to operate.

The Gobblygook {double-speak c/o Wikipedia} Definition A context menu (also called contextual, shortcut, and popup or pop-up menu) is a “Mouse Activated pop-up menu in a graphical user interface (GUI) like the Macintosh OX that appears upon user interaction, such as a right mouse click or more rarely a middle click within a mouse operation. A context menu offers a specific limited set of choices that are available in the current state, or context, of the operating system or application. Usually the available choices are actions related to the selected object or “window.

More Complexities You May Not Need — A keyboard alternative for Mac OS is to enable Mouse keys in Universal Access. Then, depending on whether a laptop or compact or extended keyboard type is used, the shortcut is <Function + Ctrl + 5> or <Ctrl + 5 on a numeric keypad> or <Function + Ctrl + i on a laptop.>

Snow-Leopard CM Limits CM’s to 64 Bit Mode Only. — I don’t know what that statement means but all of my CM’s including ones dating back to 2007 seem to work just fine.

Acknowledgements: Unless otherwise noted I have provided the referenced source of the contents in these articles. I also found in my many notes I’ve stashed for future articles, that certain themes keep coming up, that parallel what I’ve read or practiced.  In many cases I have acknowledged as well as modified the original document(s) to personalize their content for our readers.

As needed the information provided was created, and as appropriate demonstrated on my iMac 2.8 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 2 GB installed 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM running the latest Snow Leopard Mac OS X version with all current security updates installed.

Copyright Notice: Product and company names and logos in this review may be registered trademarks of their respective companies. Some of the articles listed in this column contain materials that are copyright protected – their use is both acknowledge and is limited to educationally related purposes, which this column provides.

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

This afternoon I read an email in my St. Thomas account about the new Wolfram mobile apps for the iPhone/iTouch/iPad and Android, so I went to their site to see what they had to offer. There are three new Wolfram Course Assistance Apps for students ( Algebra, Calculus, and Music Theory) but more are planned for a lot of other courses. I checked out the Music Theory app and it was $1.99 at iTunes.

Then I noticed the Developer Products menu at the top and checked it out. You can download API documentation, download a widget for your website or blog, or build your own widget. I’m a developer, so I decided to build a widget.

Before getting started I decided to watch the demo video from Wolfram and it is very clear. So clear I wondered if it really was as easy as it was portrayed in the video. The demo example retrieved the distance between two cities. After retrieving the information, the speaker showed it is simple to replace the names of the initial cities with variables, and it is easy to add custom labels for the variables. He then showed how easy it is to change the color of the widget, to set the widget titlebar, and a description for users.

Being an amateur astronomer, the choice of topic for my widget was simple. Yes, astronomy. I tried some code I wrote that runs in a Mathematica workbook (it retrieves images of the 8 planets in our solar system) but it didn’t work. I then just tried ‘planets’ and it worked exactly as I hoped.

All you have to do is decide what type of data you want to retrieve and then enter that into the Wolfram|Alpha site. If the site understands the query, it returns the requested data. After seeing my query retrieved information on all of the planets (including images), I created the widget but changed planets to a variable so users can specify a planet of their choice. I entered Jupiter and tested it, and it worked – a lot of good data, Jupiter’s current location in the solar system, and a picture of the largest planet in the solar system. So simple.

I saved my widget with the name Planets in Our Solar System, and you can check it out in the Astronomy section of the Wolfram website at

You have to check this out  – go to Wolfram’s site and look at all of the available widgets. Watch the demo video, then create your own widget for yourself or for others. The only thing I’d mention is that I was unable to embed my widget on this site – I don’t host my own copy of WordPress and had not found a way to be able to add it with my current configuration. I am amazed how little effort it takes to create a widget and hope our readers will explore this aspect of Wolfram|Alpha.

Easy, fun, useful, and free. How can you beat that?

By Ted Bade, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Vendor: United Soft Media Verlag GmbH
Price: $11.99
Product Site:


RedShift is an astronomy application for the iPod touch/iPhone/iPad. This program offers the features you would expect from an astronomy title and has a couple of useful unique options. It also makes use of the device’s built-in compass to act as an information window to the sky.

This is the second Astronomy app for portable devices that I have reviewed here. So I am going to make references to my previous review of Distant Suns for comparison reasons. Redshift has all of the basics. You tell it where you are located and it will show you the sky, adding labels to identify the objects. You can increase or decrease the Field Of View (FOV), using a gesture. Tapping on a star or other object will provide more information about it. The program includes a huge database of objects, but is more designed for naked eye viewing of the sky then as an assistant for telescope viewing.

Getting Started

When you first start Redshift, it loads and then plays a neat animation of your view, moving from a point off the earth and flying down to the location you have set as your home location. Then the sky is filled with stars. When you D-tap on an object seen on the screen, a red hued information bar appears on the top providing links to the program’s built in database of information, a link to the Wikipedia entry for that object, a rocket icon that lets you take a “flight” to that object, and a lock for locking the object in the window. The Wikipedia link is pretty neat, the Wiki page for the selected object opens in a window over the app screen. Whatever information and pictures the page has can be scrolled to. You can click on the links within the Wiki page, to see even more information. Essentially you are using a very basic web browser within the application. To return to the view of the sky, there is a “back” button. The biggest issue with this feature is that there is no way to navigate back and forth between pages in the simple browser window. The Wiki page offers links to lots of information. When you click on one, it loads the page. But Redshift provides no means of getting back to the previous page. The “back” button only brings one back to the main Redshift window. This makes a potentially terrific educational feature simply a good feature.

Another really cool feature on this information bar is a link to the devices compass feature. If you touch it, arrows on the screen direct you to move the device back and forth and up and down, until you are facing the object! So not only can you look at the simulated sky, but you can use the application to actually find where an object is in the real time sky. Making this a truly terrific way to learn how to identify what is up there. If you don’t select an object, and turn the compass on, Redshift will show the sky you are facing with names and constellations shown – a neat tool.

Side note: I didn’t have a compass device when I did my previous review of Distant Suns. I now have an iPad and can make use of its compass. Distant Suns also makes use of the device’s compass, and I will make an effort to include extra information in the previous review.

There are some options for labeling the sky in Redshift, although not as many as I would like. You can change the star density up and down using a slider, which decreases and increases the magnitude of stars that show as a dot. Another slider increases or decreases the density of labels displayed on the screen.  But this mostly affects stars. Other types of objects are in the database, but Redshift doesn’t provide symbols or labels to show their location unless the field of view is small enough to show the object. If you go to the extreme density of labels, some deep space objects will appear, but the screen is way to cluttered with information to be of use. Which means Redshift isn’t a good choice for locating objects that require a telescope to see.

However, the objects actually there. Some larger objects, like the North America Nebula, can be seen graphically on the screen, and a label for it will appear if the FOV is small enough. I know other objects are represented because, as I was perusing the sky of Redshift, I saw a pixel flicker. I thought there was a defect in the program, so I tried to figure out what was causing it. It turned out to be the crescent nebula. The program was trying to represent the image of the crescent nebula with one pixel, as the angle of view to the object changed, the light of the image changes, so the one pixel representation flickered. When I shrunk the FOV down enough, a very nice image of this nebula appeared then grew. All deep space objects in Redshift are represented by photo-realistic images, which can be see when the FOV is small enough.

Redshift offers basic search features for locating objects that might not be visible, or that you might want to see a better image of. There is a feature called “Observatory” which lets you choose from one of four categories (Solar system, Stars, Constellations, Deep Sky) to search in. Selecting one provides an alphabetical list of well-known objects. Selecting an object first centers the sky on its location then changes the FOV until the object is visible. There is also a magnifying glass icon on the screen that lets you enter a text string to search for an object. You can search in any of the four categories or all of them. A history of your recent searches is kept so you can return to them. The text search is useful, but it is very basic. It browses names rather then looking for keyword matches. For instance, when searching for the Saturn nebula, you enter Saturn, and see two hits, one for the planet and one for the nebula. However, if you are looking for the little dumbbell nebula, enter the keyword dumbbell won’t find it, but entering “Little” will.

The photo-realistic image of the sky is very nice and this makes it easier to compare to the real sky. If you take it out at night and are concerned about night vision, Redshift has a button to instantly enable night vision, giving everything a red hue, which should not reduce your night seeing abilities while still being readable. You can also turn on or off the effects of daylight, giving you the ability to see what is going on in your day sky. A few images are provided to fill in the area below the horizon, which show to occlude the space below the horizon. If the Daylight effect is off, this image is translucent, allowing you to see through it. Markers on the display the altitude and azimuth of the screen center.

To zoom in on a part of the sky, or in more astronomy parlance, to change the FOV, you use the pinch and expand hand gesture. You can also use the rocket ship feature to zoom in on a particular object. It the object is a planet, you can simulate an orbit of it, a very nice effect. Zooming in is a lot of fun, but zooming out, back to the standard FOV using gestures is a bit of work. Luckily, there is an icon on the screen to restore the display. One issue I had with this feature is that it restores both the time and the view. I often find myself considering this evening’s sky at lunch. So I set the application’s time to evening and poke around a bit. When I use this button to return, I have to remember to reset the time to the evening, or I will find myself perusing the daytime sky! I know they can reset the view without resetting the time, because a simulated rocket flight to an object offers a reset which doesn’t reset time, just the view.

Redshift can make access of the devices location services and compass. If you let it, it uses location services to determine your location on earth. Since I am new to the iPad and I have the base model, I am skeptical about the function of its GPS. Luckily, RedShift used a neat model of the earth, showing a dot on the image of the earth representing your home location, as well the Lat/Long. Between the Touch and the Pad, Redshift has me somewhere in the vicinity of where I live, which is a whole lot more accurate then say, choosing the nearest major city, which is many miles away. You can also zoom into the image of the earth, and if you know your relative location, tap on the image to set it.


The only thing that I find lacking in programs like this is real time event information. For instance it won’t tell you the name of that satellite you see flinging across the sky, but more importantly, it can’t be used to help you find that neat comet that is there either. While I realize keeping track of thousands of satellites might be an issue, this program has a lot of power and should be able to at least offer some information about current events, things to see, and interesting conjunctions. There is no need to keep track of events that are not currently happening and all it would require would be to download somer data on a regular basis. That’s my wish for Redshift!

Overall Redshift is a pretty good astronomy application. I like some of the features and the image it shows of the sky is very nice. It is a good choice as an astronomy title for your device. It worked flawlessly for me. You won’t go wrong if you decide to give this a try. Personally, I don’t put this on the top of the list astronomy apps I have tried. Not because there is a problem, it’s my overall experience and preferences. I do like this program and give it a very good rating!

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Wolfram Research (

Hardware Requirements:

  • CPU:
    • Intel Pentium III 650MHz or faster for Windows/Linux
    • Intel CPU for Macs
  • Hard drive space – 4 GB
  • Memory – 512 MB (1 GB recommended)
  • Internet access

Operating Systems:

  • Windows – 7/Vista/XP/HPC Server 2008/Server 2008/Server 2003
  • Mac OS X – 10.5 and 10.6 with Intel CPU
  • Linux – Ubuntu 7-10/Red Hat Enterprise 4/CentOS 5/Debian 5/openSUSE 11


  • Standard New License $2495/GBP 2035/EURO 3185 (download or shipped media)
  • Standard Upgrade (need your serial number for pricing information) *
  • Academic New License $1095 (download or shipped media)
  • Academic Upgrade (need your serial number for pricing information) *
  • Student Regular New License $139.95 (download or shipped media)
  • Student Annual $69.95 (download only)
  • Student Semester $44.95/starting at GBP 20/EURO 29 (download only)
  • Student Upgrade (need your serial number for pricing information) *
  • Home/Hobbyist New License $295.95/GBP 195/EURO 295 (download only)
  • Home/Hobbyist Upgrade $99 (available as of 01/02/2011)

Network licenses offer discounts and special pricing is available for use in education, government, and non-profit organizations.

* Upgrade pricing varies depending on version owned.

Introduction to an on-going review

Wolfram released version 8 of Mathematica on November 15, 2010, and it is similar to the version 6 update where there are many enhancements and improvements over the previous version. This review will be ongoing – I will revise and add to it as I become more familiar with the product and so I encourage readers to periodically check back to see updates to the material.

BREAKING NEWS (4-27-2011)

Wolfram released an update to Mathematica 8, version 8.0.1 is now available. Click here to see our post on the new version of Mathematica.

BREAKING NEWS (3-8-2011)

I was informed by Wolfram’s PR firm on 12/01/2010 that the Player plug-in for interaction with Wolfram Demonstrations will not be available before January, 2011, and the plug-in would support the latest versions of all major browsers on Mac/Windows, including Firefox, Safari, Chrome, and Opera on both platforms, and IE for Windows. Under Macintosh, the plug-in requires that you run the installer in the disk image–i.e., copying is insufficient to set it up.

As of today (3/8/2011) Mathematica Player and Player Pro have been replaced by the CDF (Computable Document Format) Player, which is available for download from Wolfram. The Mac OS X version includes plug-ins for Safari, Firefox, Chrome, and Opera. The Windows 7/Vista/XP version supports the same browsers as the Mac OS X version, but includes support for IE. The Linux version currently is a desktop application – browser plug-ins are currently under development.

Click here if you want to test whether you already have the CDF Player installed.

Mathematica users that want to publish MM6 and 7 Notebooks for Player can still do so, using Wolfram’s online service.

RELEASE DATES FOR FOREIGN LANGUAGE VERSIONS OF MATHEMATICA 8 (Updated 3/30/2011): Per Wolfram’s PR, Mathematica 8 Japanese Edition was available on 1/20/2011, and Mathematica 8 Chinese Edition was available 3/23/2011. Mathematica 8 Spanish Language Kit will be available in early 2011 (Unlike fully localized editions, this plug-in kit localizes the interface (menu, palettes, error messages) but not the documentation)-still no release date as of 1/20/2011.

Getting Started

I downloaded the 1 GB file from Wolfram and installed it on my 2.26 GHz dual core Macbook laptop, where it took up nearly 2.9GB for the installation.

Tip! If you have an older version of Mathematica already installed, rename the executable by appending the version to the file name, so that older version is not overwritten during installation of version 8. NOTE: Wolfram’s PR firm confirmed this was intentional in an email to me I received on 12/1/2010.

The initial version 8 screen is shown here:

The Welcome screen is new – better organized than earlier versions.

First, the new browser plug-in

One of the first things I wanted to check was the new browser plug in which comes with the software. Be aware that the new Mathematica 8 Player was not available when this product shipped in mid-November, so people strictly using the player will need to wait to test this added functionality.

This was seen while using a Safari plug in – Mathematica launched Safari even though I already had Firefox running. I now have the list of browsers that will have this plug in (see Very Important Notes below). I suspect user demand will drive the plug in release for other browsers.


Busy day yesterday, but I received more information from Wolfram’s PR about the browser plug-in that I want to share with you. Per the PR contact:

“The browser supports notebook content in two modes.  The first mode is a full-screen mode, which you can easily see right now by going to any web page which hosts a notebook file.  For example, go to and, for any demonstration, click “Download Live Version.”  This will work for any notebook linked on any website (so long as the web server isn’t configured to override the MIME type, at least).

The second mode is an embedded mode.  For example, you could embed a Mathematica Manipulate output in a regular web page.  Right now, we only have one public example of that, which is shown as part of the installation here:

I tested the first mode this morning by going to Wolfram’s Demonstration Project page and went to the Physical Sciences/Earth Sciences/ Meteorology page and checked out the Sea Level demonstration (contributed by Herbert W. Franke):

I selected DOWNLOAD LIVE VERSION and saw this in my browser as the plug-in loaded:

The first time I used the plug-in in Firefox (ver 3.6.12) I had to reload the page to see and use the demonstration. The demo was accessible within my web browser and I could manipulate the controls just like working within Mathematica.

Next (because I’m currently working on a Genetic Programming project) I checked out the Order of Operations Tree demonstration (contributed by Sarah Lichtblau) and was able to change the formulas to use for the tree:

Finally I went to the Physical Sciences/Astronomy page and selected the Bump Map of Mars (contributed by Yu-Sung Chang) and selected DOWNLOAD LIVE VERSION and was able to manipulate the controls from the browser:

I rotated the planet and saw Olympus Mons (as well as the three smaller shield volcanoes that make up the Tharsis Montes region below it). Nice detail in the demonstration – not as much detail as I’d prefer, but still usable to show geological features of the red planet.

NOTE: Two times when I tried to open demonstrations (including Bump Map on Mars) they did not display properly: there was a gray box in place of the demonstration. Both times I reloaded the browser page and it fixed the issue each time. I am using Firefox 3.6.12 on a Mac running OS X 10.6.5 and did not test on another browser or operating system, so I informed Wolfram’s support about the issue – they were unable to reproduce the problem.

Moving on beyond the browser plug-in

Time to get back to our review of new Mathematica features. I started the software and did a spot check to verify previous functionality. I periodically use Mathematica to gather astronomical data and so I tested the AstronomicalData function. I produced a table with the 8 planets names and images:

This function provides extrasolar system data as well as planetary information and is my favorite function from version 7 – still works fine. The version 8 documentation says that this function was improved in this release – an email from Wolfram’s PR firm explained that this function was only enhanced in the ability to access data from Wolfram|Alpha.

OK,  lets take a look at the new features in Mathematica 8.

New Features

1. Free-form linguistic input/Integration with Wolfram|Alpha

Free-form linguistic input is a fancy way of saying that you enter content using plain English and still get results. Nice. When I saw this feature during the demo for this release, I understood the rationale. Wolfram is helping new users start using their software before they need to learn all of the aspects of the software’s programming syntax.

I opened a new notebook and entered “= radius neptune/earth” to test this functionality – I just wanted a comparison of the size of Neptune versus Earth. The results I saw are below:

I like this, because it provides both the solution to the query plus the equivalent Mathematica syntax. This test also demonstrates the Integration with Wolfram|Alpha functionality as it retrieved the data from Alpha.

Wolfram’s decision to add the ability to retrieve data from Wolfram|Alpha right into notebooks is appreciated. For some excellent examples of notebooks from Wolfram, check out this link.

A Quick Overview of Wolfram|Alpha

My previous post shows the integration of Mathematica with Wolfram|Alpha, Wolfram’s computational knowledge engine. Since I never reviewed that new service I want to mention it now. I went to their website and did a few searches. I first search was requesting data on extra solar planets this is what I saw:

It took a lot of scrolling to go down through the list of data returned by this search, and I saved the data as a PDF for future reference. I believe this was always available since Wolfram|Alpha was made available, but this was the first time I used it and I like what I see.

My next search was to see if real data agrees with the pseudo-experts that deny global warming and this was the result:

After looking at the graph, even thought I’m no expert I’d have to say it appears that the temperature on our planet is increasing after all.

I like having internet access to scientific and technical data without needing to be concerned about the validity of that data. I would reference Wolfram|Alpha if citing from it, but I would never use data from Wikipedia in a paper. On back to the review of new features in the software.

2. New algorithms for real time image capturing

During the demo, Jon showed how easy he could configure Mathematica to act like a security system by enabling his web cam and utilizing the ability of Mathematica to only send updated images when he moved. This is important for people doing image analysis for security identification systems as well as pattern recognition.

For one test I used the built-in camera of my Macbook (although you can specify a different camera for input) to capture a picture of my alma mater t-shirt using ImageCapture to produced a picture in the notebook. This was the Mathematica screen:

I could save the image in my notebook to a free-standing file in a number of different formats including JPEG, JPEG2000, GIF, etc. Not a major feature but still useful.

Mathematica can capture a single image or record a series of images. Consider how companies could take advantage of this feature. A company using 12 web cams to cover their warehouses need to handle the constant bandwidth of 12 signals, which also requires one or more people to stare at the screens looking for movement, If the only time a camera sends a signal is when something moves, no signals are transmitted so no transmission bandwidth is needed and this changes a dedicated task to a side job for an employee. This is my favorite enhancement so far during my evaluation of this software.

3. New Import and Export Formats

The 26 new import/export formats are:

There are a lot of new import/export formats to test, so I’ll test the C and ICS import/export functionality to save time for assessing other improvements. Why? I already expressed an interest in exporting C, and I have my old Palm Pilot LifeDrive with years of data that I want to move to a more modern (and supported) hardware platform.

4. Automatically convert Mathematica programs into C code

I like writing C and now Wolfram lets you take a Mathematica program and directly convert it into C code for free-standing or integrated use. Nice. No, very nice! During the demonstration I asked about converting programs into object-oriented code (C++/C#/Java) and was told that decision was market-based. Wolfram does sell a C++ solution called MathCode C++ which is compatible with Mathematica 7, but not (as of 1/20/2011) listed as compatible with version 8. If enough users request it then it could happen in a future release. Wolfram didn’t promise this would happen, but they do listen to customer suggestions so let them know if you too would like to see support for object-oriented code generation.

Important Note (3/7/2011)

I spoke with Wolfram’s PR dept on 1/20/2011 and they said that the MathCode C++ is on the list for updating to Mathematica version 8 compatibility, but they do not have a date when we can expect that update. They did say they don’t have any known issues with MathCode C++ and Mathematica version 8. If anyone reads this post and has seen problems with this combination, please let us (and Wolfram) know.

I also requested a list of add-ons being updated for version 8 – the coordinator said all add-ons are being tested for compatibility with Mathematica 8, but there is no date when that testing will be finished.

MathCode C++ is still listed as Mathematica 7 Compatible as of 3/7/2011.

5. Dynamic Library Loading

Incorporate external C and C++ libraries, which is nice for developers integrating Mathematica with other lab systems. Mathematica can share data with external libraries using LibraryLink functions to pass integers, reals, arrays, strings, Mathematica expressions, as well as pass messages.  Sweet.

6. Enhanced 2D and 3D Graphics and Drawing Tools

The primary area where Mathematica 7 stood out over version 6 was the enhanced graphics capabilities. Version 8 has enhanced scaling and surface texture mapping for 2D and 3D images. In truth, a picture is worth a thousand words and improving the way Mathematica represents data is much needed. I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess this enhancement was based on user feedback, so it does pay to speak up.

Version 8 also has enhanced illustration and drawing tools, which may not beat Photoshop or Illustrator, but they do enhance the quality of work that can be done within Mathematica so this enhancement is a time saver. I do wonder why it took this long to add an easy way to align drawing elements, as that has been a part of most graphic packages for a long time. A new color picker is nice, although I am more inclined to use my browser plug-in or Photoshop for that functionality.

7. UI and Usability

The look-and-feel seems the same between versions 7 and 8, although text processing is improved in version 8. There is a new Custom Style dialog or you can select (and preview) a style using the Format/Style menu options. It is simple to use the supplied styles or create a new one. Something I didn’t see was a way to use external styles from other external word processing products like Word – couldn’t find a menu item or a place on the Classroom Assistant to import styles (but there is a menu option to import stylesheets). If the capability to import or use external styles doesn’t exist yet, it would be one of the enhancements I’d like to see in release 9.


  • Tons of new features and enhancements. I like how the free-form linguistic input will help newcomers learn the correct way to enter Mathematica syntax, and I like the integration with Wolfram|Alpha. I should add that internet access is a necessity if you want access to Wolfram’s dynamic data.
  • Modest hardware requirements – very little needed in the way of processor, system memory, and disk storage space.
  • I love the new Home license, introduced in version 7. One of my previous complaints was the price of this software precluded many home users from buying and using it. The college I attended for undergrad courses did provide current students with a free 1 year licenses for Mathematica and that did influence my decision to go there. I was pleased to learn the school I’m attended for graduate classes also offers a free 1 year license to current students, but eventually I will no longer be attending classes and appreciate being able to afford to buy this useful product when I complete my degree.
  • Improved image capturing and analysis. Capture a single image or a sequence, where sequences can consist of an image that changes over time. The version 7 release was heavily oriented towards working with graphics and I’m pleased to see they continue to improve that aspect of the program.
  • C code generation from Mathematica programs. (Note: I will test this and post my findings during this review-the fact that Wolfram provides this functionality means a lot to me).
  • Integration with external libraries is huge for multiple system environments. A big plus in my eyes.
  • Technical support response is excellent. I contacted them 3 times during my review and they were prompt in responding and helpful.


  • No longer support for OS X running on PPC Macs. This bothers me considering the modest hardware requirements for this upgrade. The problem for most Mac users is that Macs continue to run well even when they are replaced by newer and more powerful computers. I understand other vendors like Adobe made this same business decision, but my 20″ G5 PPC Mac works fine even though it lacks an Intel CPU and now I have to restrict it to version 7 of this software.
  • I also saw that Solaris is no longer in the list of supported operating systems and that is a shame. I didn’t install Mathematica 7 on my Sun workstation but feel others in academia use Suns as well as Linux and would like to see it continue to receive support. I also believe that the Mathematica Player was not supported for Solaris, so perhaps Wolfram felt they did not hear enough from Solaris users when release 7 was released to be a valid reason to drop support for version 8 of Mathematica on Solaris.
  • While it supports creating new styles for text processing, it does not appear to support importing or integrating with external styles. I hope I’m wrong – let me know if I missed that and I’ll correct this review.


Very, very positive so far, and strongly recommended as a new or upgrade purchase. It will take awhile to cover all the improvements and additions in this version of the software, so my final conclusion when come when this review is finished.

By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

IntelliJ IDEA (


I’ve been using IntelliJ IDEA since version 9.0.0 and really like this IDE. I wrote a review about the 9.0.2 CE (click here to see it) and  IntelliJ was kind enough to let me evaluate the Ultimate Edition for 3 months. I used it and Eclipse ( at the same time on my last undergrad project of using Java to write a C compiler. I liked using the J2EE-enabled functionality, the C programming functionality (which was present in 9.0.0 CE but no longer in versions 9.0.1 CE and 9.0.2 CE), and the overall speed (startup, execution, and shutdown) of the IDE.

I felt it was much easier to use Ant in IDEA 9.0.2 UE than in Eclipse, and the overall startup and execution speed was also better in IDEA than Eclipse. I really appreciate how IntelliJ organizes the options in all four borders of the IDE – very easy to become familiar with the organization. I also have to give IntelliJ kudos for their tech support and sales support – they really listen to their customers.

Don’t get me wrong; I love using Eclipse. I just find IDEA Ultimate Edition (the commercial one) to be more fun and easier to use when coding than Eclipse. I don’t feel that way about the Community Edition (the free one), because so much functionality I need (web, C) is disabled. I do like that JetBrains gives educational discounts – I’m a student and like whenever companies realize that and help us cash-strapped folk. Another kudos to JetBrains.

I understand IntelliJ’s business decision to provide more functionality in their commercial product, but do web development for a living and I can’t ignore the cost and wide-spread preference at most of my clients for Eclipse. I also should point out it was much easier for me to find Eclipse plug-ins than IntelliJ, which was a shame.

IDEA 10 Coming Soon

Good news for IntelliJ IDEA IDE users – version 10 is coming soon and there are nice features for both editions of this powerful development environment. I received an email about the pending release and wanted to share some of that content with you, our readers, since our IDEA 9.0.2 CE review is in our top ten most commonly-read reviews since it was posted in July of 2010, so I wanted to post some of the new release information I recently received from JetBrains:


IntelliJ IDEA v10 will feature a faster environment and improved performance, as well as new GitHub integration and XML completion features. More details on the next version are available here:

For our free Community Edition users, we are pleased to introduce the addition of the Android development plug-in beginning with version 10. More information on this is available on the IntelliJ IDEA blog here:


I want to encourage the programmers that follow our blog to download version 10 upon release. I think the XML completion support in the UE (commercial) edition and the Android support in the CE (free) edition are excellent enhancements. A lot of developers on the Mac OSX Java Dev List like and use IDEA, and their comments are what prompted me to give it a try and it was absolutely worth taking the time to use it.

My recommendation: Download the CE, try it out, and if you like it better than your current IDE then you can see if your company will pay for UE licenses. It might be worth the effort to contact JetBrains and ask for a time-limited eval of IDEA UE to demo to your employer – I can’t say JetBrains will or won’t provide one, but it is still worth the effort to ask if you like the CE version.

By Harry {doc} Babad, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved. 

System Requirements
: Mac OS X 4.x or later; (e.g., MacBook, MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, iMac, Mac mini, Mac Pro, PowerMac, iBook and PowerBook)
Release Date
: January 15, 2010
Download Size: 18 MB
Shareware Cost: Single Computer – $29.00, Site License (5 computers) – $39.00 USD. In the trial version a reminder window appears and forces you to wait for some seconds every time you open the application. The print feature for is disabled only a limited number of notes can be added to the database.
Doc’s Previous Reviews: – Apimac Note Pad v.1.6.6 macCompanion, July 2005; and Mac Note Pad 3.0.2 macCompanion January 2007.
Star Ratings 3.5 Stars

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Audience: Everybody that wants an alternative to the Mac OSX text editor.

Strengths: Mac Notepad helps you organize any piece of text you may want to keep on hand.

Weaknesses: list, separated by commas.

Previous Reviews: links to previous macCompanion reviews on the same product.

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Copyright Notice: Product and company names and logos in this review may be registered trademarks of their respective companies.

Sidebar #1: Reviews were carried out on my iMac 2.8 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 2 GB 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM running Mac OS X version 10.6.4 with all security updates kept current.

Sidebar #2 Disclaimer: When reviewing software I will often use the developer’s product, functions and features descriptions. Because of this unless I’m quoting directly from another source, I do no cutter up the review with quotation makes. All other comments are strictly my own and based on testing. Why need I rewrite the developer’s narratives, if they are clearly written?

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Introduction, including Publisher’s Summary

Just to make things clear to our readers, notepad applications come in two distinct flavors. One is a place to put your ToDo and schedule them, checking the as done when indeed you completed them. The second is a repository of notes, actions, memorabilia snippets that you want to save for future memory or use. <Apimac’s Mac Note Pad is of the later type. This is not to say that you can’t collect To-Do’s in the application, but it is not designed to optimize the ‘scheduling’ function.

Babad’s Mac Notepad Database
The Original Memoblock ToDo Collection

Mac Notepad is a straight-forward (standard) application built around notes. Using a standard three-pane window similar to Address Book’s or Mail’s, you can create individual notes, give them titles, customize text fonts and colors, and sort them into categories. You can also password-protect them, back up your database of notes and email them. To save screen space, you can ‘iconize’ the application down to a floating palette containing just a search box. New to version 8 is the ability to drag and drop text into and out of Notepad.

Publishers Description — “Hold that thought! Now you can store any piece of text right at your fingertips thanks to the new Mac OS X note pad program from Apimac. Mac Notepad is the “missing notepad application” you’ve been waiting for. You’ll never be at a loss for words again! 

Now designed from the ground up to support the latest Apple technologies, Mac Notepad allows you to save, copy, paste and organize all your favorite snippets with ease. You can drag the text from other applications, drop a text file from Finder or, of course, write it yourself. 

Mac Notepad is a great tool to boost your productivity and creative output by not letting those great thoughts and ideas just slip away. You can assign a title and category to each note. Notes are easily retrieved by category or content by simply typing the text in a search field.” Many more features have been added as noted below.

Getting Started

This is a well-developed Macintosh application. Drag it to your applications folder. Start using it in demo mode or type in a password. Decide which preference settings you prefer. Check out, if you like, any readme files. You’re good to go. The developer’s site has a short Help file, but I never need to seek aide. I did skim the file at but it I more designed to trouble shoot than to get a new user started with this application. However if you can use the basic Macintosh editing skills as found in applications like Apple’s TextEdit, and understand the simple [Category > Notes > Notes details] logic, using the product is a no-brainer.

Using the Software

I kept this review to a KISS level. I copied and retagged, as appropriate, several dozen of the notes from my Memoblock list to Notepad 8.0.x.  The transfers of data were simply a combination of copy (from Memoblock) to paste into Notepad. Redoing the tags, the organizing feature that groups items was also straightforward but required a little forethought. Why? Because Memoblock organizes categories by color-coding and had so set up my categories from the color-coded ‘lists’ Also Memoblock has only two windows so sub-tasks to an item are tiered in ‘outline” form, compared to the three provided by Notepad X.  The left hand side is a principal task list (coded to an appropriate cation category. The right hand window list is a set of subtasks which can’t be ‘flagged out individually.

You can paste text into it, by dragging it from other applications, drop it into the application as a text file from the Finder or type often-used boilerplate yourself. In addition, you can assign each note to a standard (defined by its developer) or a user-named category. This added feature allows users to retrieve notes on a category-basis using a popup menu. Users can search note contents via a find function from within the application. For completeness, you can assign a password to your notes or hide your notes folder.

Notepad X, on the other hand, with its simple [Category > Notes > Notes details] hierarchy allows for a simpler to modify and organized set of tiered ‘data content” descriptions.

Where Is The Database Hidden — To backup data of Mac Notepad to a different disk, or to create a backup copy the Notepad file that contains all your data. Here’s the location of Notepad’s data file:

[/Users/<you>/Library/Application Support/Apimac/Notepad/Notepad File]

Annotated Selected Key Features List

The notes are all kept in a separate Valentina database []. There is an effective multiple format export facility for saving notes in a variety of formats or to some iPods, but the later requires manual intervention and is no better than Text Edit’s export functions.

You can assign a title and category to each note. Notes are also easily retrieved by category or content by simply typing the text in a search field.

Recents menu — A handy Recents Menu keeps track of your latest edited notes. Notes can be edited at will and text can be customized with a choice of fonts, styles and colors. If you need a hard copy, go to the “Print” function in the menu.

Iconized Search Window Mac Notepad sports the brand new Iconize feature. Just click and your notepad becomes a small, handy search window that floats on top of all other windows. To access the note again, just make a search or click on the icon.

Password ProtectionThe products unique privacy features allows you to protect your personal notes with a password. If this option is selected, a password dialog box will be displayed when the Mac Notepad database opens.

Advanced SearchMac Notepad gives you two search options:

  • Easy Search: Matches any text you enter in the search field, even if it’s not an exact match. For example, “nice girl” will match “Mary is a nice girl” and “Bernice is a little girl.”
  • Regular Expressions: An advanced search method based on patterns. For example, “nice|girl” will match either “nice try” and “pretty girl.” More information on this topic can be found on many websites such as the dedicated page of Wikipedia [].

•    Drag and Drop to Import and Export Notes — For exporting, dragging notes to a folder or the desktop will export the selected notes into that location. The reverse is obvious.

Mail Notes Feature — There are new mail note features that I’d previously not tried. I was and am delighted that the feature works well with my long of tooth, totally extinct version 6.2.4 of Eudora. What a Joy!

•    New Expanded Import and Export Formats — Supported formats now are: Plain text, Styled Text (Simple Text), RTF, HTML, Open Office .odt, Word (.docx), Word XML .xml, and /or Word (97- 2004) .doc


Where Notepad is superior to the baker’s half-done applications I’ve tried is in its speed as well as its ability to organize and search large numbers of notes. It also has a convenient Recent Items menu for quick access and you can search by partial text or by means of a “regular expression.”


General — I wish there was a way, from a reviewer’s perspective to intelligently extract the contents of one notepad product to another. I know the databases or other data organizational tools differ between products, bit it sure would save time when I again review a new notebook/notepad product – transferring the whole database from the old product as tab-delimited for to a new one, e.g. Bento and FileMaker Pro; would be great.

Synchronizing Databased Between Devices — There’s no import facility available to get your existing Mac OS X notes into Notepad. There’s also no MobileMe syncing to sync notes between different computers, no Spotlight integration, no iPhone app with which to sync your notes and no option to attach files to notes. This is all true, albeit I have no need for these missing functions.

Creating Additional Separate Databases Collections — I prefer, as I’m enabled to, in DEVONthink, to create separate databases for items that are clearly totally unrelated to each other. Therefore I have a separate personal/professional database and a separated focused uniquely on the Environmental-Energy articles, which I collect as a basis for my greening articles and occasional book. Finding an article I need thus, although its time consuming to create, is easier than the alternatives. These are search in though a separate drive partition nested folded for articles <5.6 GB and growing> or doing HoudahSpot front ended Spotlight search.

If Wishes were Horses… — It took me less than an hour to transfer about 40 items in my Memoblock program while both updating and reconfiguring them to avail myself of the Apimac software’s greater flexibility Along the way I sprinkled a dozen or so items I wanted added to NotePad from DEVONthink into the mix. Why, it added a bit more robustness to the notepad file contents. During this time I came across a number of wish list items that would further enhance this fine program. I list them below in no order of priority. Remember I managed a speedy transfer/update/expansion of my records without having the extra features available. However several of items are additional feature I would welcome.

  • I would welcome a menu item to insert a date item and perhaps time into a note
  • For this kind of use, casual and continuing w/o disrupting my work cycles an Auto Save feature would be helpful.
  • I couldn’t color code note names in the note listing (2nd Column of the application window, I would have used that to assign my notes an order of priority.
  • Having the ability to customize the tool bar, which many products have now added, would be useful and timesaving.  At a minimum, I could put the text color wheel into the toolbar.
  • Need ability to use Apples spell checker and to check spelling in real time as I type.
  • I would ability to create single or space and a half and double space formatting.
  • A feature like the ability to transform caps to lowercase/title case etc. would be nice.


Yes I know, this sound s like word processor 101, but if I’m actively using a note pad tool, it makes things both easier and more attractive.

Conclusions and Recommendation

In reflecting about note pad applications, that over the last few years I’ve been using two and a half applications to keep tract of snippets of information. The two main products are both database engine based and therefore have great search and ‘tagging’ capabilities. My favorite for heavy lifting is DEVONthink Pro Office in which my main database has grown to 176 MB in size.

As an experienced reviewer of checklist and notepad software I had no trouble leaning to work with the product but a less experienced user deserves at least a short manual or access to a help file. For a twenty-nine dollar license fee, a bit of available help, just in case, is something a user deserves. After working off my irritations with the product, due in part because I’m a heavy user both of FileMaker Pro and occasionally Bento, as well as DEVONthink Pro, I’ve been slick features spoiled. I, however, recommend the product to those users for whom my specific concerns don’t matter. Using something stronger like one of the FlleMaker products seems like overkill, and my DEVONthink database configuration is too rich, broad and complex to suit me for simple notepad/to do functions.

I’ve otherwise alternated between the freeware Memoblock 4.9.5 by Blocksoft and Apimac’s Notepad X 4.0.x, the last version I regularly used. After testing v. 8.0.x of Notepad Pro, I am returning to the Apimac product. I maintain (see the postscript) that for most users who are not hooked on the need for i-Synchronization features, Apimac’s Notepad X is a fine, easy to use, trouble-free product. Try it — you’ll like it.

Oh the remaining half — shadowClipboard, the best multi-clip application I’ve yet found,

Therefore, I am delighted again to give the product a 3.5/5.0 score. It’s still not perfect but gets better with each major release. Now if I could only color code notes to create an urgency scale.


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Post Scripts

First: A number of reviewers have down rated this product for lack of iPhone and iPod synchronization and its price. From my perspective, as an extremely casual iPhone use the lack of such a feature is irrelevant to my needs. The price is also not a criterion since Apimac has allowed users of its version 3.0.x product <Aug 2006> to continue to use their old registration number free of charge.

Second: After competing this review I was surprised that my of the download sites I checked, had the product priced at $39.00, about 25% higher in price then the developer’s site list. No wonder some folks balked at the price. The later is the price for a site license for five people.

Third: I would suggest the developer do a price/sales tradeoff to see if revenues would increase were the product priced at $19.95. Under $20 for most shareware products seems to be a major marketing inflection point. Despite this being a fine product there was too much ‘BG’ on the web about price.

By Harry {doc} Babad, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Publisher: Isaac Wankerl
, Kerlmax LLC
System Requirements
: Mac OS X 10.4 or later, including Mac OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard)
 Mac computer with either an Intel or PowerPC processor
 8.9 MB Hard Drive space
Release Date
: September 15, 2009        Download Size: 4.2 MB
Shareware Cost
: $15 USD — Free to try for 30 days.
Star Ratings
— 5.0

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Audience: Anyone who takes screenshots

Strengths: Sharpshooter is a helper utility designed to give you more control over your screenshots. It lets you choose what to do with your shots as you take them.

Weaknesses: None, I wish I had this tool when I was writing my nuclear textbooks. I was so overloaded with screen shots and cropped clippings that I almost screamed into my coffee.

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As an author and blogger, not they are not the same; I often have the need to capture images. These may originate from screen shots taken within the software I review, or are clipped parts of images googled. [Trimming an image does not require a graphics program such as iPhoto, PSE or GraphicConverter].

Over the years I’ve tried my programs that propose to help me do screen capture, including such stalwarts as:

An early simple version of Voila, [] which as version 3.0 is now a full featured tool; to the elegant and full featured Snapz then standard and now Snapz Pro X 2.2.3 [].

I also played with a few other freeware/shareware products such as:

All of these products were and still are highly regarded in both Macworld and MacUpdate reviews and indeed I gave SnapNDrag a “5” in the October 2009 issue of macCompanion. However, I’ve most part I’ve stuck with Apple’s finder commands and the use of Apple’s Grab application. Why — That’s all I needed, then and now.

Apples Screen Capture Tools Limitations — But that didn’t/doesn’t stop me from grousing about the limitations of Apples tools. The image below shows the Sharpshooter solution.

One gripe was my desire to capture all my images as JPEGs, something I figured out how to do, but now don’t remember how.

  • The second was my desire to give the images names at the time they were captured getting way from the ‘picture 1 – picture 2… metaphor. After all I knew what I was thinking about when I captured the image, and really wanted to label it appropriately, in real-time. That would save me from dinking around when narrowing down the number of images I used, an editor’s constraint, in my articles.

Eureka, I found Sharpshooter meets my added ‘naming’ needs, as well as allowing flexibly in changing their format, it a real find.

Publishers Description — Sharpshooter is a small application, which aids the management of screenshots. When you take a screenshot on Mac OS X with Command-Shift-3, Command-Shift-4 (or with another variation). Sharpshooter is a background agent application so you. I did, may want to add it as a login item to always have it running in the background. You can control Sharpshooter through the menu status item on the right side of the menu bar.


Getting Started

Drop the sharpshooter application into your, you guessed it, application folder. Use it free for 30 days or pay the modest shareware fee and enter your license code. There it was, its icon sitting neatly in my menu bar. The develop claims that begin able to name your images, while the subject is still fresh on your mind, is a great time saving advantage. I agree. You can even, if your addicted to scanner naming conventions or those on your camera, use its default name with or without the extension.

As always, in a hurry, I instantly found a screen shot I wanted to capture. In less than two blinks of an eye, there it was. The software’s’ main window was there ready to use as described in the review. Type in what you want for an image title, change to the format you want – your done. I actually used the product for a few days before I decided to check to see what it’s preference panes offered. If you use two monitors, that’s the place to ‘tune’ things up.

Review Limitations

I found the product to be rock stable.

There’s two attributes (features) I did not test.

  • First, Sharpshooter has the ability to work with screenshots that span multiple monitors, If you have more than one display connected to your Mac. My iMac screen although 24” in size, lives alone on my desk.
  • Second, an attribute identified in an Aug 13, 2007 review of Sharpshooter version 0.4.1, review in Macworld by Dan Frakes was its ability to deal with the output from other screen capture tools. Since I don’t use any, I could not pull this string. Check

    The product also has a folder-watching watching feature that I did not test because all my screen shots go to my desktop!  Then I can sort them out and put them into the folders that best reflects the project in which I to use them. However, this is not a problem since the software has a first class help function so I can get the information should I ever need it.

    A Wish, Unfulfilled

    Real Time Ability to Input Information to Get Info — I would welcome, either from this or any other screen capture tool, the ability to quickly add information to a file’s spotlight comments [-I] because unless I remember to, I usually have to do an extra search to document the source of the images I capture, especially from Google images. Yes I know this is not a function of a screen capture tool, but “if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”

    An Added Sharpshooter Preference Desired — I would welcome the ability to select a ‘preference’ to make JPEG conversion my default graphics format. Except for an occasional use of TIFF, JPEG is my image format of choice.

    Conclusions and Recommendations

    This as a simple to use, intuitive and great product. By using its main, and ‘only’ window Sharpshooter where you can review the picture and choose what to do with it. You can either rename, move the screenshot to the Trash, or cancel the operation keeping the captured screenshot as is. The Move To Trash option, combined with an in-window preview, is useful for quickly spotting and deleting obvious screenshot mishaps.

    From the perspective of time it already saved me, it is well worth the $15 shareware fee — a 5 ‘Flower” product!


    What Mac OS X keystroke combinations are used to take Screen shots?

    Action Shortcut
    Take a picture of the whole screen ⌘-Shift-3
    Take a picture of part of the screen ⌘-Shift-4, then drag to select the area you want in the picture.

    To cancel, press Escape.

    Take a picture of a window, a menu, the menu bar, or the Dock. Press ⌘-Shift-4, then press the Space bar. Move the pointer over the area you want so that it’s highlighted, then click.

    To drag to select the area instead, press the Space bar again. To cancel, press Escape

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    Copyright Notice: Product and company names and logos in this review may be registered trademarks of their respective companies.

    Reviews were carried out on my iMac 2.8 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 2 GB 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM running Mac OS X version 10.6.4 with all security updates kept current.

    Disclaimer: When reviewing software I will often use the developer’s product, functions and features descriptions. Because of this unless I’m quoting directly from another source, I do no cutter up the review with quotation makes. All other comments are strictly my own and based on testing. Why need I rewrite the developer’s narratives, if they are clearly written?

    Voyager 4.5.7 Sky Simulator
    Carina Software (Phone: 1- (925) 838-0695, Mon – Fri, 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM PST)
    Price: $179.95 w/DVD, $129.95 w/2 CDs, w/CD download $99.95
    Upgrade prices and educational discount information available at Carina’s website.

    By Ted Bade, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.


    Astronomy buffs or anyone looking for a solid astronomy simulation program should take a serious look at the Voyager Dynamic Sky Simulator software package developed by Carina Software. It offers a good user interface, easy to understand controls, along with the ability to control computer driven and certain motorized telescopes. Voyager provides a huge sky catalog, complete with images and a variety of ways to view the skies. It will satisfy just about any amateur astronomer’s needs.

    Let me qualify myself on the subject of Astronomy before I begin this review. I am a true amateur, who enjoys employing technology to make observing the sky more fun and informative. I own a decent computer controlled telescope, (6” Newtonian), and I live in southern New England (USA), where light pollution and overcast skys are the norm. It is important to me to own a good sky simulation program, so I can plan for those few nights when the sky is clear and I can actually use my telescope to view the sky. It’s also important that the program can help me learn what my sky would look like if the clouds (and light pollution) weren’t there.

    My experience with Astronomy software packages has been using Starry Night Pro and an earlier version of Voyager (3.x). My apologies to those people who have written shareware programs, I have not taken the time to give any of them a serious look, (but I am open to doing that).

    I would like to explain what a sky simulation program does, for those of you who might not be familiar with this type of software. We are all familiar with planetariums, an auditorium with a domed ceiling on which is projected a simulation of the sky. Although they are used mostly for entertainment, their real purpose is to allow us to study the motion of stars. Combining what we have observed in our short history with the laws of physics and motion, scientists can predict the motion of the stars, and be able to simulate where they have been and will be at any time. Using this technology, a program can display what the sky looks like from any point on the earth at any time in the future or in history. Obviously, the simulation cannot predict unexpected events and is limited by the mistakes we have made in calculations. But it is pretty accurate and I doubt I will ever observe a mistake in my lifetime.

    System Requirements

    Voyager runs under Mac OS X or Windows.

    Mac Mac OS X

    • Mac OS X 10.4 or higher
    • PowerPC or Intel 1 GHz or faster processor (2 GHz or faster recommended)
    • 700 MB of hard disk space (4.2 GB for DVD version)
    • 512 MB of memory (1 GB recommended)
    • 1024×768 display with 32-bit color
    • CD-ROM drive (for CD version) or DVD-ROM drive (for DVD version)

    Windows Windows

    • Windows XP or Vista
    • Pentium 1 GHz or faster processor (2 GHz or faster recommended)
    • 700 MB of hard disk space (4.2 GB for DVD version)
    • 512 MB of memory (1 GB recommended)
    • CD-ROM drive (for CD version) or DVD-ROM drive (for DVD version)
    • 1024×768 display with 32-bit color
    • Adobe Reader or similar software to view on-line User Guide in PDF format

    Using the Software

    With this software, you can see what you sky will look like tonight, next year, or even a thousands years ago. You can view what the sky would look like from many locations, your back yard or places you might never visit like Australia, the north or south pole, or even the moon! While it is not currently available in this version, I expect in the future advanced features should let you explore the surface of planets and moons that we have data on.

    I am not going to try to analyze the validity of the star catalog and other astronomical information provided in Voyager. I am no expert on this subject and I trust that a reputable company like Carina checks the data. The program can check for updates that give the latest information and ephemerides (orbital data) for comets, asteroids, and satellites. It also will check for updates to the application. I am reviewing specifically version 4.5.7, which is the current version as of this review.

    Voyager’s main window is the Sky Chart. This is your view of the sky. You can have more then one sky chart open at one time. A reference line near the bottom of the window represents the circle of the horizon around where you “stand”. In the program the line shows the cardinal points (N, NE, E, etc.) and is also marked in degrees, with North being zero. When you click and hold on the screen you can move the view around the horizon or up and down. As you do, the view of the sky changes as if you were moving your head to look at different parts of the sky. Additionally, when you click and hold, small windows pop up displaying the current altitude and azimuth of the center of the screen a great feature to let you know where you are, especially in more zoomed views.

    How much of the sky you see on a single screen is controlled by the Zoom window. The default is set to about what a human would see standing outside. You can zoom in or out from this view using the zoom controls. Zoom in far enough and you will see the object as if looking with a powerful telescope, zoom out enough and the view of the sky becomes a bowl.

    The star field you see will be what you might see if the sky were perfectly clear and dark. Voyager falls a bit short on simulating light pollution, for those of us who would like to see an image of the sky as we see it. You can choose to show a “Natural Sky” which brightens when the sun is up and darkens as it sets. But there are no controls to simulate the effects of the lights of a nearby city. You can control the minimum brightness of stars to display. If you know your local limitations, this can be used to show only those stars or objects that you could actually see wit ha naked eye.

    In the real world, you cannot see below the horizon, so you can chose to fill in the areas below the horizon. Voyager offers different options from just opaquing the area below to using a photo. Since most users don’t live in an area with 360 degrees of unobstructed horizon, the images obstruct a little above the horizon as well. The program comes with a handful of photos to use. My home location includes a lot of trees that block a good portion of the lower sky. I was pleased to find that you can create your own image, if you have the time and patience to do it. Instructions are provided with the program, but I didn’t give it a try.

    Voyager does a lot of things, offering many ways to simulate the sky and the objects one can see. There are many very useful tools included in the package. One could easily write volumes about all the things that can be done. For this review, I am going to hi-lite some of the features I found especially useful. If I don’t mention a feature you think is important, check with Carina Software to see if Voyager does that.

    Voyager lets you easily turn on and off all types of labels and information related to the sky. A name label can be shown for every object that can be shown on the screen. By default the popular name (if one exists) is shown, and there are plenty of options for selecting a specific list or catalog number. There are a lot of stars and other objects in the sky. If you turned on all the labels, the sky would be covered with the labels. Voyager offers a couple of options for limiting labels. The best one for naked eye observations is to limit labels to those stars of a certain magnitude or greater, which can be adjusted by the user. There is also a very nice option to show spectral colors for stars.

    Planets and moons, when observed from earth, might be seen as having phases. You can choose to show the phases or not. What this means is that when looking at the Earth’s moon, the program will display it with the same phase as it currently has. In addition to moons, you can show asteroids, comets, and satellites on your simulated sky. There are options for how these show and how they are labeled.

    I found the comet options especially useful. At the time of this writing a comet was passing our night sky (103P Hartley2). The comet had a magnitude of 5.3, which means it might be visible to the naked eye or a good pair of binoculars. On the screen it shows as a typical comet symbol. Using Voyager, I was easily able to locate where to sight my binoculars to see the comet in real time. I was also able to plan the best time to go out for the observation, ensuring the comet was above the trees in the open sky.

    There is a lot of stars and other interesting objects in the sky that are not visible to the naked eye. You can tell Voyager to put symbols on the screen showing a symbol for the object at the location and even the name of the deep sky object. This is very useful for creating a list of objects to observe. What I did was set Voyager to the time and date I planned to take my telescope out, and then use the symbols to locate objects in the sky. Knowing the limitations of my telescope and sky, I could then select a variety of objects to try observing.

    If you mouse over any star or object, it’s name (if it has one) or star designation appears on the screen. If you left click on it, an information window pops up. The pop up window provides various bits of information about the object depending upon what is available. The information window offers information, images, and some controls. Getting the mouse on the correct point was relatively easy for stars, but a lot more difficult for the symbol of the comet, since the point you have to have the cursor on is significantly smaller then the symbol.

    Voyager does a great job of simulating the sky. It offers many images of popular objects. One thing that is especially interesting is the ability to link to another sky chart, allowing you to see a simulation of an event from two different locations at the same time (provided you have enough screen space!).

    Conjunctions are very popular viewing events, since they generally can be see without a lot of special equipment. Also, some major historical events occurred along with significant conjunctions. Voyager includes a “Conjunction Search” tool that will search a range of dates for Solar Eclipse, Lunar Eclipse, or Planetary conjunctions. The range of dates you can search includes 498000 BC to 502000 AD. The search creates a list of events indicating what time and date they occur and whether they are visible from the location of the sky chart you currently have opened. Voyager doesn’t provide any information to help if the event isn’t visible from your current location.

    Another nice tool is the “Planetary Report”. This tool provides various information pertaining to planets in our solar system and some major moons.  A pull down menu offers many types of information including distance to the object, phases, rise and set times, apparent magnitudes, and more. Some very useful information for the backyard observer. For instance, you can plot a chart showing where the major moons of Jupiter will be, so when you observe, you will know which is which. Along the same lines, there is another tool that plots the orbits of specific man-made satellites from a giant list of choices. After looking at this list, I was amazed at just how much stuff is up there!

    Other tools Voyager provides are more scientific in nature, although they can help with observing as well. The Binary Star Orbit tool lets you choose a known binary star system from a huge list. Choosing a system brings up a graph, many of which can be animated to show the secondary orbiting the primary star. This tool offers a number of ways to organize and search for the binary system as well as facts about the stars. You can even center the chosen binary on the main sky chart, to see where it is in the sky.

    There is a Star Survey tool, which provides a graph of information concerning the stars in the program’s database. Options are Star count by distance or magnitude, Color magnitude diagram, and Mass-Luminosity. The tool lets one select from all or various sets of stars.

    There are three tools to simulate views off the earth. The solar system gives a view of the solar system from 1 to 200 AU (Astronomical Units *1) out.  The Solar neighborhood chart that simulates a view with our sun at the center, showing the universe from 20 to 4000 ly (light years *2), and a Redshift Distribution Chart. All these charts are interactive and simulate a 3D view. You can use sliders to change the orientation of the chart. The first one also lets you see the orbital motion in large time increments. Each of these charts provides a bunch of information related to the topic. A lot of fun and a great tool to use to learn about the stars.

    *1 – An Astronomical Unit equals the average distance between the Earth and the Sun, which is approximately 150,000,000 kilometers (93,000,000 miles). Mercury is 1/3 AU from the Sun, while Pluto is 40 AUs from the Sun. AUs are typically used for measurement within the solar system, and light years are used to measure distance between the Sun and objects outside the solar system. – Ed.

    *2 – A light year is the distance that light travels in 1 year, which is 9,500,000,000,000 kilometers. – Ed

    Voyager and Telescopes

    Voyager 4.5 can control a variety of telescopes with computer controls. There is a large list of options, including controlling a telescope that has just drive motors and no computer. I found connecting to my Meade LXD75 to be very easy. All options to set up the program for working with a telescope are in the “Telescope” menu. To turn on the controls, you first need to know and set up the specifics for your type of telescope. This includes the type of telescope you are using, (there are over 30 options for many popular manufacturers), the correct communication port, Baud rate, and telescope mount type. Choosing the telescope type doesn’t automatically select the standard mount type. For instance, my LXD75 comes standard with a German Equatorial mount, byt Voyager defaults to equatorial fork. Which means you need to consider all the choices before making the connection.

    Since this is a real time connection, you cannot do much with it until you have hardware connected. For instance, I use a serial to USB interface to make the connection. This option doesn’t show up until the interface is actually connected between the telescope computer and the MacBook. However, you do see other communication ports that the MacBook has. Align your telescope if necessary before making the connection to Voyager.

    Once the connection has been made a telescope window pops up, showing some information about the connection. The view of the sky also changes to align with the orientation of you telescope. Since the program has no way to know what eyepiece you currently have in the telescope, the field of view remains where every it was. I like keeping the zoom level the same as normal eyesight. This way, I can look at the screen, and then at the same area of the sky, to make sure there isn’t an obstruction before slewing the telescope to that location.

    Assuming your telescope is properly aligned, you can select anything you can find in the Voyager program and slew your telescope to that object. The alignment process for lower end scopes (like mine), isn’t an exact or easy process. Even with a very good alignment, the scope is off by a little bit. But a little bit is a lot when you consider the effect a small error has when trying to find something thousands of light years distant! After the scope has moved to where it thinks an object should be, one normally fine tunes the position to center it in the viewfinder. Once it is centered, there is an option in Voyager that lets you feed back to Voyager that this is where the object really is. By doing this with several objects, one hopes that this improves the alignment of the scopes computer making it easier to find objects as the night goes on.

    There is an option to turn on “night vision” when connected to the telescope. This feature dims the screen and gives it a red hue. Doing this is similar to using a red flashlight, you can see it, but it doesn’t reduce your night vision ability. This effect extends to other applications you might have running, in case you switch to them. I will often listen to internet radio when I am out with my telescope and sometimes will have a need to check something on the internet. By affecting all applications, this means that switching to another App doesn’t kill your night vision.

    By default, the Voyager screen is locked to the view of the telescope. This can easily be switched off, allowing you to scan the skies as shown by Voyager, for an object to visit. Once an object is located, select to move the telescope to it. Pretty easy.

    If you are organized and plan your night session, Voyager offers an observing list. Before your nightly session use Voyager to plan what objects in the sky you intent to observe. Add the ones of interest to the observing list. When the telescope is attached to Voyager, there is an option to “Go To” the object on the list. The observation list provides other options as well. You can jump to the objects information screen, show the object on the sky chart (a flashing circle appears around I for a few seconds), or move the telescope to it.


    The only issue I had with Voyager’s interface was that the telescope command is at the bottom of the standard object right click menu. It is a long list, and for most objects many of the standard choices on this menu are grayed out (not functional). It’s a minor issue, but still inconvenient! This leads to another complaint: this menu isn’t contextual, so the same menu is shown for every object, whether any of the options are valid or not and there are many that apply to only planets. While non-valid options are grayed out, they still take up menu space.


    There is a lot more that one can do with this program. As I mentioned, I discussed only a few of the items I found most useful. Voyager is a true encyclopedia of the sky, with many options for accessing and viewing the data it contains. One could easily spend hours just perusing the skies Voyager simulates, looking for interesting objects, learning about them as well as looking at some very nice images. It’s a terrific program.

    This version of the Voyager Sky Simulation program is a great tool for learning about the skies above us and a useful tool to help people interested in astronomy and observing the sky with both the naked and enhanced eyes. I am not sure I could easily choose a favorite between Voyager and the other commercial applications I have tried. All the information is available in these programs, but the methods that the information is made available or accessed is different. I have been using Starry Night Pro plus as my telescope assistant tool for a number of years. As I tested Voyager, at first I was put off by these differences, but as I continued using it, I realized that some of the differences actually make sense as well as streamlining the process. I doubt I will be able to make a final choice until I have used Voyager for a lot longer time.


    If you are considering buying a sky simulation program that provides many tools to help with your observations of the night sky, you should definitely consider Voyager. Price-wise it is competitive. Choices include a DVD version (with a lot more star/object information) for $180, a two CD version with less information but all the important stuff for $130, and an option to download the CD version for $100. The boxed versions come with a printed manual (a nice feature these days). I highly recommend giving this program a close examination; it will be worth your time.

    By Harry {doc} Babad, © Copyright 2010. All Rights Reserved.

    90% of Photoshop’s Features, automated for the Newbie, at 10% of the price.

    Vendor: Adobe Systems, Inc.

    Trial Download —
    Release Date:             October 19, 2009.
    Cost: $99.99 USD (List Price, currently $79.99 with rebate); $99.48 CND. No price was found for a UK or Euro version of PSE 8 (Mac)
    Ratings           4.5  or whatever

    Minimum System Requirements: Multicore Intel processor, Mac OS X v10.4.11 or later including Snow Leopard, 512 MB RAM, 64 MB VRAM, 1 GB available hard disk space, DVD drive. QuickTime 7.2 (is required for multimedia features, and an Internet connection for Internet-based services. Processor Compatibility: Multicore Intel only

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – — – – – – – – – –

    Audience: Novice and to busy to learn Photoshop intermediate-level Macintosh users needing a simple but powerful photo-editing program, that is more powerful that Apples iPhoto.

    Strengths: Simple intuitive photo editing, manipulation and sharing.

    Weaknesses: No that affects a newbie like me.

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    Many people use Apple’s free iPhoto for organizing digital photographs, but if you capture pictures that are almost perfect with some flaws, you can do minor corrections within iPhoto itself, such as straightening out a crooked picture or removing red-eye caused by the flash.

    However, for heftier and more serious photo editing, you’ll need a program like Adobe’s Photoshop or Corel Draw. Since Photoshop is a tool for graphic designers, it’s usually far too complicated for casual users to tackle.

    As an alternative, consider Adobe’s Photoshop Elements 8 ([PSE 8] instead. The price for PSE is far cheaper ($99 <$79 with the rebate> vs. $699 for Photoshop). In addition, also Photoshop Elements provides tools specifically designed to help you, a non-photography editing expert, modify and correct digital images. All of this ‘accomplished’ without having to go through a multiple of obscure-seeming steps required in earlier PSE versions. Worse yet would be a need to become a Photoshop expert to edit photos.

    With this release, Adobe Systems continues to set a new benchmark for power and convenience with its release. From my perspective, PSE 8 for the Macintosh has finally come to the point that FileMaker Pro achieved with Bento… a tool for the rest of us. In fact, the new program hosts a wealth of new features with many of the new tools, features and interface elements that come from Adobe’s Photoshop CS4

    For Example, the useful ability to recompose images is now simpler (more intuitive) to use. For example you captured an image of several people, but they’re standing too far apart? Photoshop Elements lets you smash an image together, eliminating the space between people, and create a new image that makes objects appear closer to each other than they really were. Not only is the composition more attractive, but also your focus changes from the scenic background to the people you care about.

    In the past, photo editing required a lot of patience and skill, but with Photoshop Elements, you can let the program do most of the work automatically. It goes without saying that if you’re more interested in creating images from scratch then you should prefer the full-blown Photoshop or a similar program such as Corel Painter. However, if you just want to fix digital images as quickly as possible with the least amount of pain and effort, then you’ll probably want to use Photoshop Elements 8.  Its low cost and multiple features make it a bargain especially for someone who can’t afford the leaning time or money.

    Features Summary — Some Meat and Let’s Not Forget the Potatoes

    Photoshop Elements 8 offers some very useful tools, both old and new, that are fairly simple to use once you get the hang of them. Learning the new program, despite the lack of a good Adobe based getting started guide, is relatively simple, albeit not intuitive. ‘That’s okay by me’ sez Doc.

    The Family Spread Out in the Field

    Together Again

    “For instance, you can recompose your photos without harming its key elements. Let me explain visually. In the original photo above on the right. The Problem — I have a picture of my kids, and me but we’re fairly separated in space across the field.Let’s say I want to put this in a portrait frame, but not a horizontal frame. 

    In addition, a feature called recomposing allows one to alter the orientation by simply dragging the frame, keeping the important elements without distorting them, and merging the rest. Sometimes, dragging is enough. More often than not, however, it’s better to specifically tell the program what to keep and what to lose. You can see that I’ve {Wang} have painted over what I want with green what I don’t want with red. <Wang Review>

    “Elements 8 gives you other powerful tools as well, such as photo-merge, which allows you take multiple images at various exposures to get a perfectly lit image. Use the same basic tool(s) and working steps can be used to remove unwanted elements from an image. Take the same shot multiple times to sample various elements and cleanup the background. Along the way, although there were a total of about five images used to produce the clean image on the right. Source: Appletell reviews Adobe Photoshop Elements 8 for Mac OS X by Kirk Hiner — Nov 7, 2009. Doc Sez, not there’s no magic wand, but I’ve watched friends do this in Photoshop, loosing me completely. Using Elements is easy and intuitive by comparison.

    Doc Sez, not there’s no magic wand, but I’ve watched friends do this in Photoshop, loosing me completely. Using Elements is easy and intuitive by comparison. Recomposing the image; the selection process.

    Not all of the features in Elements 8, new and existing, are quite so delightfully and drastically ‘automated’. Many are simply the use of traditional Photoshop filters, transferred to PSE. These allow touch up or add interesting effects to your photos. You can, as noted earlier, correct red eye and brighten teeth with a simple click, or you can add or remove some unwanted space in your photos, as in the samples below. I am under the impression that many Photoshop filter work with PSE, but until you try, you’ll never know.

    “Even for my graphic professional friends, Photoshop is work. It’s fun work, quite often, but it’s work nonetheless. You had to start using it after successfully mastering an initial steep learning curve. To become as master like Scott Kelby, you had to keep studying. With Photoshop, there’s a lot to initially learn, more to gain professional level expertise. Doing so requires learning (and relearning), and patience ding extended periods of plenty of trial and error.

    Quite honestly for my needs, although I received an NFS copy of the CS4 package including I know its overkill for my needs. [I’ve served as an Adobe beta tester (Acrobat Pro).]

    My friends, graphics professionals, and serious hobbyists all love the program, and I love watching (awestruck) them demonstrate its capabilities. For the many Mac users who have never tried it, it’s quite intimidating (and, of course, too expensive). I know expense in a relative thing, which relates to your needs… FileMaker Pro is a better database tool for me than the easier to use more consumer oriented Bento. But for graphics needs its Photoshop Elements all the way.

    Thus, Adobe has continued bringing us the less expensive Photoshop Elements (Macintosh) for years, but although I’ve chippied with earlier versions, these earlier versions never caught my fancy. This new version has, for the first time a friendlier image manipulation program whose interface has become more task/goal/effect oriented and automated. Adobe’s claim ca. 90% of Photoshop in a low cost easy to use package is true.

    Even the export features have been enhanced and simplified.

    With Elements, you don’t get nearly the amount of power or control you get with Photoshop, but you do get enough to produce some very cool images from you photos or downloaded stock images.

    With this iteration, Adobe has not only added some great new editing tools, by also improved the way you organize and share your photos.


    Working with PSE’s Smart Brush ToolsExcerpted from Gary Coyne’s review. Since I’ve not yet tried to master, these seemingly mysterious tools. I must rely on others’ words to share my findings and research. “Whether in Quick or Full Edit mode, using the brush tools is a very interesting process. PSE does a variety of very sophisticated tricks and techniques that are mostly invisible to the PSE user. Trust me, I say this in a good way. What it boils down to is if someone were to look at your PSE images in Photoshop, they’d assume that you were astute in your Photoshop activities. Meanwhile PSE is doing a lot of things under the covers to help give you some excellent results.” Do read Gary’s fine review. Read Gary Coyne’s AppleLinks review for more explicit details.


    Integration With iPhoto — Despite Adobe’s claim to the contrary, there is no active well-integrated support for iPhoto in PSE 8. In order to import your iPhoto library (or portions of it) to Elements, you have to drag the photos out of iPhoto to your hard drive, or dig into the archaic iPhoto folder hierarchy from within Elements. It’s a pain, but it’s what you’ve got. The hidden benefit is that your iPhoto images remain unharmed, as all Elements 8 work will be done on the duplicates. I’m not an active iPhoto’s user, but do collect and catalog my photos with Apples tool so am not seriously bother by this limitation, but many of my friends are.

    Lack of An Adequate Getting Started Guide — Another complaint about Elements 8 is that the included Getting Started guide is useless. Even $15 dollar shareware products have better guides. Perhaps main worth is the 13 blank pages that were perhaps meant to describe the new and improved PSE features. Alas the getting started guide mentions only a couple features for this excellent program and only in passing, and provides no detail on any of them. Indeed I learned more from the description proved on the MacUpdate site, which abstracts the features detailed on Adobe PSE’s site. []

    Photoshop Elements Online Help Resources and Tutorials

    You’re going to need a third party manual for Elements 8 to become more than a casual and limited user. , However, while waiting to buy and read a book, (I’ve proved a suggestions in the appendix) you might be able to rely on the Adobe online videos.

    Providing on-line tutorials is a fairly common practice for developers these days, but many of us like to work with written text in a book that can be annotated with marginalia. Finally, considering that many Mac users are used to the intuitive interface and capabilities of iPhoto, Adobe is kicking itself in the privates by not providing a smoother transition to Elements 8.

    Review Summary

    There’s far more to Elements 8 than I or any other reviewer can cover but you can read about the new features, see video demos (that I recommend you watch so you can see how easy all of this is to learn, if not perform) and compare product versions at Adobe’s website. Many features are purely for fun, but others are there specifically to make your photos look better: bluer skies, more striking black-and-whites, etc.

    I don’t usually share more than a few images, none to any social networking or other externally accessible photo-sharing site. Despite this, I suggest you check out image sharing, as Adobe has gone out of their way in Elements 8 to make sure you can show off your work.

    Of course, as in iPhoto, you can print your images, but you can also create photo books, collages and scrapbook pages, create a PDF slideshow, publish them to a web gallery, share them via iPhone, and more. And as if to spite Apple (the inability to communicate with iWeb and iPhoto apparently wasn’t enough), you can create CD/DVD jackets and labels. Take that, Apple! — Adobe actually wants to burn discs!

    Regardless, Adobe Photoshop Elements 8 is a great program that provides some amazing capabilities. It’ll be a bit frustrating at first when your results aren’t as impressive as those in the samples, but with some practice and the acceptance that every image will require a slightly different approach, you’ll be surprised by what you’re able to accomplish. Just don’t tell anyone how easy it was. This is your chance to use “Photoshop” as a verb, and I suggest you do it.

    In short, Adobe has done a fine job with the new Elements-8. What Adobe is trying to do, and mostly succeeds, is to create an image processing program that lets you obtain the same results as the professionals. If your images are the right kind of images, you will get great results right off the bat. On the other hand, a few subtle differences can cause an “easy to fix” image into a “oh, this will take some work” kind of image. I think they are promising more than can really truly be delivered at this point in time. If you try to use these tools and do not obtain suburb results, the features within Photoshop Elements 8 in the Full Edit mode are there to get your desired results–you will have to learn how to do that, it’s not really hard.

    The amazing thing about Photoshop Elements 8 is that it can do so much of what Photoshop can do at 1/10 the price. I am not sure if Adobe considers Elements a gateway drug into the full Photoshop program, that’s your call. But there’s no doubt Photoshop Elements is a great tool

    Try It — Buy It — Make it your tool for optimizing your photo-based graphics with a minimal learning curve. Although I’ve bought and tried earlier version of PSE, this is the first time I’ve felt I’d gotten my money’s worth. For me, at 74 young, it a question of how I spend my time and photo-shopping was never my choice even in the earlier versions (PSE 7.0 and earlier.) So for me it’s a worthy 4.5. what-ever’s

    PS: Some of the comments in this review were abstracted from sources such as Wally Wang’s review listed in the references below. Where this was done, I quote the other reviewer’s material despite having paraphrased it.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – — – – – – – – – –


    Photoshop Elements 8 (Mac) Features Set

    Recompose Photos To Any Size With Out Distortion (New) — Ever want to change the size or orientation of a photo to fit a certain frame? Now you can quickly resize — even going from landscape to portrait or vice versa — without distorting key objects like people or buildings.

    Quickly Clean Your Scene Of Unwanted Elements (New) — You took five shots of your subject, but pedestrians and cars distract from the scene in every one. Now, use Photomerge Scene Cleaner to simply brush away any elements that changed positions between photos and create a composite with just the look you want.

    Select and Apply Changes to Your Images with a Single Stroke (New) — Simultaneously select a specific photo area and apply incredible effects with a single stroke of the Smart Brush tool. Improve an images lighting, add rich textures, and more with eight libraries of over 50 sophisticated effects.

    Choose the Best Result (New) — Perform a full range of common photo adjustments —including color, contrast, and lighting changes — with just one click. Then choose the best result from a group of adjustment previews.

    Give Your Creations a Fresh Look (New) — Experiment with new artwork and templates to give your printed creations fun and stylish new looks.

    Count On Step-By-Step Assistance (Enhanced Capability) — Need to touchup a scratch or blemish but not sure how to begin? Let Adobe Photoshop Elements 8 software for Mac walk you through each editing step to easily get the results you want. New Guided Edit options help you achieve both basic and more sophisticated artistic effects.

    Quickly Retouch Skin and Soften Other Surfaces (New) — Soften surfaces while keeping edges and details crisp with a Surface Blur filter that works great on portrait shots.

    Share Photos On The Web In Fresh Ways (New) — Share your photos in new, eye-catching web gallery templates that you can easily preview before uploading.

    Go From Flawed To Phenomenal In Seconds (New) — Get just the photo fixes you’re looking for with new one-step shortcuts that whiten teeth and change grey skies to a vibrant blue.

    Recompose Photos To Any Size With Out Distortion (New) — Ever want to change the size or orientation of a photo to fit a certain frame? Now you can quickly resize — even going from landscape to portrait or vice versa — without distorting key objects like people or buildings.

    References to a Few Other Well Written PSE 8 Reviews

    A PSE 8 Book of Potential Worth

    I’ve not yet reviewed this, my only PSE-8 book. I’ve only casually skimmed it contents, stopping occasionally to read the authors comments on a topic of interest. Of course, I did not have the time to work my way though the detailed tutorial examples and exercises… soon. However mastering The Photoshop Elements 8 Book for Digital Photographers is part of my plan to enhance my ability to make Photoshop Elements 8 my own. Oh you want details — The book was written by Scott Kelby and Matt Kloskowski for New Riders Press, © 2010, Amazon Price $31.50 (List $50.)

    There are a myriad of choices for other books on – read the descriptions, Goggle and read their associated book reviews— go out and master PSE 8 (Mac).

    And as an added reader gift check out…

    20 Years of Image Editing: Photoshop from 1.0 to CS4, Mac Life Magazine, dated 02-18-2010

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    Copyright Notice: Product and company names and logos in this review may be registered trademarks of their respective companies.

    Sidebar #1: Reviews were carried out on my iMac 2.8 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 2 GB 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM running Mac OS X version 10.6.4 with all security updates installed.

    Sidebar #2: Disclaimer: When reviewing software I will often use the developer’s product, functions and features descriptions. At times I paraphrase key parts of a well-written review whose author I always acknowledge. Usually, unless I’m quoting directly from another source, I do no clutter up the review with quotation marks. All other comments in the review are strictly my own and based on testing. Why need I rewrite the developer’s narratives, if they are clearly written?

    By Ted Bade, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

    Distant Suns 3 is a nicely designed astronomy program for the iPhone/iPod Touch. It includes lots of information, images, and easy navigation of the skies. It’s an excellent choice for an astronomy buff.

    This application, which was originally designed for the Commodore Amiga computer in 1985, has been updated to take advantage of all the power packed inside our modern portable devices. Don’t worry about how long this program has taken to reach your finger tips. 25 years is less then an instant in the life of our universe! There are 130,000 objects in the App’s database, 6000 you can see in a good sky and a lot more that require a telescope to see. A lot of information is packed into this App. In addition to the coordinates of all those objects, there are images, text descriptions, and other information about many interesting objects.

    If you are an astronomy buff, you might have looked at a few of the many astronomy programs that are available for the iPhone/iTouch family. I know I have. There are several things I like about this App including easy selection of objects one can see, images of objects, Easy means of turning on and quickly off labels of objects, and easy to see cardinal point markers. Since it was designed for the iPhone which has a nicer display, GPS, and compass, there were a few features I was not able to test nor take advantage on my Generation 3 iPod Touch.

    Distant Suns can take advantage of your device’s location services to determine where it is (even using WiFi) or you can tell it where you are by entering nearby city names or coordinates (longitude and latitude). If you have an iPhone, your GPS would also be able to tell it where you are. You don’t have to use your local coordinates, if you want to see what the sky might look like anywhere else in the world. This App will also use the compass feature included in some iPhones, so as you move, so will the view.

    After the App starts, you are presented with a slice of the sky facing north at the coordinates that you entered for a location. The time starts with that of the iPod and you can change the time and/or date to anything you like. Your point of view can be easily changed by swiping along the screen. Cardinal point markers scroll along the bottom of the screen to keep you oriented. The sky below the horizon can be visible or invisible. If you like, an image can be used to cover the areas that would be below the horizon. The image also gives a realistic view of the sky, since few of us are blessed with a clear horizon to horizon view.

    For more information on any object on the screen, you just tap the screen twice, a new cursor appears, now moving your finger on the screen moves this cursor. When the cursor moves over an object on the screen, it locks on the object for a moment and basic information about it appears on the bottom of the screen. Leave the cursor on the object and click a button labeled “More” to bring up a lot more data about the object, usually including an image. The App includes images of a great many of the deep sky wonders.

    There are a number of preferences that control how the information on the screen is displayed. Here you can tell the App to show names or numbers for a variety of different objects like stars, galaxies, nebula and so forth. You can also turn on or off constellation information. A very useful button turns off all labels, in case you need to see a natural sky, but doesn’t change the preferences. Which means a second click of this button turns everything quickly back on.

    The bottom of the screen provides three different sets of functions that let you control Distant Suns. Quick movement to the major cardinal points, compass information if your iPhone has that feature, and a tour guide (more on that below). The next set has links for setting the clock, various preferences, and more. A feature called “What’s Up”, gives a quick chart of which planets/moons are currently above or below the horizon. The final set provides search functions.

    The tour guide is a very useful tool for observing. It shows where, in your sky, the current best viewed objects are to be found. After you start the tour the image centers on the first item. Just as if you selected the object, a small window appears at the bottom with some basic information and a button linking your to a lot more. If the tour object is a constellation, it shows the classical drawing and the names/numbers of the major stars. When you click on the next (or back) arrow, it moves the view so the next object is centered, arrows on the screen hi-lite the location of the object.

    The search section of this program is limited, but in a very effective way. Here buttons provide links to menus for the moon, our  Sun, the planets, constellations, and “other” (deep sky wonders). Select one of these items and you are presented with a menu listing related objects. For instance, selecting planets provides a list of planets and their moons. Click on the name to show the planet on the screen, select a rocket ship icon to go to a view near the object, or click on the arrow for more information and a picture. For other types of objects, the choices are related to the object. For instance, you don’t get to fly to a constellation, but you can get a view of it and the classical image associated with it.

    Of course, you can explore the sky manually, by turning labels on and off to see what is located in various parts of your sky. If you are lucky enough to live in an area with dark skies you might even see some of the brighter objects.

    While you can shift the device into a landscape view, when you do you loose all the menus and controls. In this mode, you can scroll the sky but not change time or select an object, etc. I like this view better, but the lack of menus hampers it.

    Overall, I think Distance Suns 3 is a very good choice for an astronomy App. I really like the fact that it provides not only a lot of information about objects, but an images as well. This could be enhanced, of course, if links to sites with even more information were provided, especially now that multitasking makes it easy to switch back and forth between the browser and an App.

    If you are considering an Astronomy app for your device, definitely consider Distant Suns 3.

    By Harry {doc} Babad, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.


    In a moment of passing enlightenment, I finally figured out how to speed of my almost daily searches for explicitly selected articles I wanted to collect and archive. These are the items I tabbed for downloading while reading my paper magazine subscriptions. The consolidated information in most downloaded articles appears as illustrated below.

    However the articles as published in the paper edition of the Economist had information on the magazine’s name, issue date, and page numbers, in the magazine page header or footer. The actual article name or category is exemplified above. The general headlines of the article show up first. A descriptor or perhaps subtitle, is located below the article ‘headline.’ At times an author’s name is listed. Now, readers, what is the real ‘searchable’ title of the article. We can all, if not in the general listed information, then in an articles first paragraph, figure out its subject.

    But for what do search on the publisher’s web site. Well, folks, it depends… depends both on the magazine and the mechanics of a site’s search engine. If one entry doesn’t work, say “Good Policy and Bad” then try another such as “Some mitigation policies are effective, some are efficient, and some are neither”. If there’s an author listed that the third item I check. Struck Out?

    Dig deep and look at all the special reports or whatever the article category lives in, but do so within a range of publication dates. Why a range? An article, initially posted on the web edition of a magazine may have a different date then that listed for the date the paper copy was printed. Sometimes it takes more than three strikes before you get a hit.

    Dumb, getting long in the tooth, Harry. The solution for me is Google it.

    Most of the time any of the three choices I’ve provided works when googling, and using the find feature of your browser you can skip thought irrelevant items at a click of a mouse. I usually do this by entering the magazine into the pages find field, no not into the search field!

    Read on for the rest of the story, I’ve provided you the punch line. Don’t be a kitten on the keys.


    As many of you are aware, I spend most of the time, when not actually writing, doing searches on my Macintosh. What I’m looking for is fairly eclectic. My interests range from climate change, nuclear science and energy, folk music, technology especially energy related themes, to all things Macintosh, with side trips for fining obscure widgets and gadgets needed by someone in my family. After burnout usually around 10:00p, I turn toward recipes, cooking related (free) eBooks and on occasion obscure movies that I saw in art deco movie houses in the 50-70’s.

    I have not yet worked with Microsoft’s “Bing” [] or the new beta search engine from Wolfram, and will not until I read that its gotten more robust — Its an omission I can live with. I also, for now, have not learned to use data mining software and methods.

    I also subscribe and read almost cover-to-cover, a variety to magazine, no e-editions for me, ranging from Time to the economist and Scientific American. As I read these, I mark (PostIt tabs) articles I want to collect for future use, either as references of as a basis for future exploration – most of my curiosity cats are dead, but there’s so much of interest out there; so… I keep on truckin‘.

    A few generalizations — Searching individual websites for information can be either easy or maddening. If a site has opted to use the Google engine to power its search, it is easy to use, tolerant of syntax errors and even forgives my frequent misspelling. But first, I’m from the government and am here to help you! Let us count the ways.

    Department of Energy [DOE] and most other Federal Sites such as that of the EPA and NRC Sites — Please note, I have published over 100 documents, papers and articles during my 30-year career as a supporter of DOE’s waste management effort. Therefore my criteria for success are “how many of these Babad co-authored goodies will a search find. In addition, I have an extensive list of citations, again form my professional work at the Hanford Site, how many of these can I find to replace shelf-hogging paper copies.

    Note this does not include my academic or industrial career, or the articles I’ve written about folk music and the Macintosh. They would be out of scope for most of the Federal databases to which I have free access. (I’m sure big brother is watching me, but I can’t check what he’s seen.)

    The various government sites I need to check for background or reference materials, supposedly peer reviewed or at least check for quality, when writing books and articles is pure horror. I habitually check the DOE, NRC, EPA and IAEA sites and on occasion the NSF and NIH portals.

    One of the most exasperating are the two DOE OSTI (Office of Science & Technology Information) on which I can usually find public domain references to R&D and DOE programs, but pot with multiple rephrasing of either search criteria or syntax. Specifically most simple searches, say for instance the publication of Harry Babad (me)

    First I Tried To Work With Science Accelerator — This is a ‘newish’ gateway to science, including R&D results, project descriptions, accomplishments, and more, via resources made available by the Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI), U.S. Department of Energy. Using the ‘Science Accelerator” to do a global database search turned up one item, a shared patent issued in 1980. [] Checking “Harry Babad:” turned up zilch, as did “Harry Babad” Author and other {thinking cap} input variations.

    Okay, the Since Accelerator doesn’t do authors. However my search for ‘Desalinization” gave me 184 hits, which I could sort by date or even burrow down into by limiting the list by subset subsets; the later did not help because the indexer and I didn’t obviously see eye to eye on what a subset defines. That’s a matter of selecting key words we’d both label a document. Since I don’t have the data dictionary for Science Accelerator, I can’t get into the site sysop’s mind. However accelerator contains helpful links to Wikipedia, which I used to my advantage — a springboard to digging deeper [].

    A data dictionary is a concept/term most often used in database creation and use. In part, a data dictionary is a bit like the cloud ‘items lists you find on a few websites or the tags you now find on many individual web pages, like our blog. The difference is that the data dictionary is more formal and constrains the choice of key words a use can use to search with. See:

    Let’s Try The OSTI Bridge Site. []  — It comes in two flavors, only one of which is accessible by the general public. Although dealing with cleared and released documents, the DOE/DOE contractor option, which also deals with so called Freedom Of Information Act [FOIA] contents such as correspondence or guidance, requires a password, which I not longer had. Wow – Instantly I got 101-matches which I could sort by date or even focus by doing an advanced (field related) search. Great, I’ve solved my problem and have my citations to guide me to the references I want. Not so fast, Doc.

    That’s the good news. The bad news is that those 101 hits contained articles by many of my colleagues, in which I was not a contributing author. My only relationships to the papers were the fact that some of my work was referenced therein. Only 11 of the papers contained my work. Searching H Babad turned up 991 hits, some of which were clearly mine. A narrower ‘field’ search [H. Babad] correctly turned up 30 relevant documents, while Harry Babad turned up none. Hmm!

    The Mostly Private Sector My magazine article collecting experiences

    As mentioned earlier in passing, I subscribe and skim/read/study to Consumer Reports, Business Week (now Bloomberg’s BW), Chemical and Engineering News (ACS), Chemical Heritage, Discover, Time, Nuclear News (ANS), National Geographic, The Economist, Technology Review (MIT) and Scientific American. Were applicable I have a subscribers access to content. Of course, this does not count other subscription, both electronic and hard copy that are science and technology oriented, including my Macintosh related items.

    Periodically, usually every-other month, I recheck the paper copies, go to the publisher’s web site and download the articles of interest as well as any other closely associated documents linked the highlighted original. All of this lives in a 40 GB partition collected ion nested folders. Although I’ve developed a database (FileMaker Pro] I’m to busy to do the data entry so live with a combination of title searches (EasyFind by DEVONtechnologies) and contents (Houdah Software’s HoudahSpot, a great front end for Spotlight).

    Now I can give you a blow by blow of the strengths and weaknesses of doing searches on each of the magazine publisher’s web site. Search capability ranges from fair to good, and often require either varying the search terms, or changing the display order (usually by Date.) NO I will not, it is a waste of all our time.

    However, I finally made a discovery, after blundering around d individual sites for years.  The closer a site has come to adapting or mimicking the Google search engine, the easier it is to find things. Our macCompanion site uses this tool, although the site also provides search by ixquick, which did not meet my needs since its output was broadly focused and mostly irrelevant stuff from the entire WWW. However, the Google engine on the macC site turned up over 200 hits. Searching “Doc Babad” turned up 1580 hits, many more then the 250 or so items I’ve published. The truth lies somewhere in between, it just takes more time to ferret it out.


    Okay, this is a little bit like the number of angels on the head of a pin. “To Site Search or to Google, That is the question.“ The answer is both!

    If you only need to search a few webs sites, over and over again, consider mastering is search tools. If you stay close, then all the hits or misses are limited to the site you are searching.

    If you however have broader multiple-site specific needs… Google them to pieces!


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    Appendix — Advances Search’s

    Almost all search sites such as Google, MSN (Bing), and Yahoo as well as many others including MacUpdate, ‘stute magazines and newspapers, have advanced search features. The image below is what Google offers. Alternatively, like a good reference librarian, you can take advantage of Boolean search methods to sometimes narrow down your search, More on this can be found in my July 6, 2010 blog posting called Google to the Max at In addition there’s lot of generalized information on Wikipedia at It’s a bit of heavy reading, but well worth the time.

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    End Notes:

    An earlier version of this article was posted in the March 2000 edition of the now defunct eZine — macCompanion. Since it’s no longer accessible, I updated it and am posting on our blog.

    Product and company names and logos in this review may be registered trademarks of their respective companies.

    Reviews and tests were carried out on my iMac 2.8 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 2 GB 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM running Mac OS X version 10.6.4 —Snow Leopard.

    By Harry {doc} Babad, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

    Publisher: Isaac Wankerl
, Kerlmax LLC

    Web site:

    System Requirements: Mac OS X 10.4 or later, including Mac OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard)
 Mac computer with either an Intel or PowerPC processor
 8.9 MB Hard Drive space

    Release Date: September 15, 2009        Download Size: 4.2 MB

    Shareware Cost: $15 USD — Free to try for 30 days.

    Star Ratings — 5.0

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    Audience: Anyone who takes screenshots

    Strengths: Sharpshooter is a helper utility designed to give you more control over your screenshots. It lets you choose what to do with your shots as you take them.

    Weaknesses: None, I wish I had this tool when I was writing my nuclear textbooks. I was so overloaded with screen shots and cropped clippings that I almost screamed into my coffee.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –


    As an author and blogger (no, they are not the same), I often need to capture images from software I review or clipped parts of images I find on Google [Trimming an image does not require a graphics program such as iPhoto, PSE or GraphicConverter].

    Over the years I’ve tried programs that do screen captures, including such stalwarts as:

    All of these products were and still are highly regarded in both Macworld and MacUpdate reviews and indeed I gave SnapNDrag a “5” in the October 2009 issue of macCompanion. However, I’ve most part I’ve stuck with Apple’s finder commands and the use of Apple’s Grab application. Why — That’s all I needed, then and now.

    Apples Screen Capture Tools Limitations — But that didn’t/doesn’t stop me from grousing about the limitations of Apples tools. The image below shows the Sharpshooter solution.

    • One gripe was my desire to capture all my images as JPEGs, something I figured out how to do awhile back, but now don’t remember the necessary steps.
    • The second was my desire to give the images names at the time they were captured getting way from the ‘picture 1 – picture 2… metaphor. After all I knew what I was thinking about when I captured the image, and really wanted to label it appropriately, in real time. That would save me from dinking around when narrowing down the number of images I used, an editor’s constraint, in my articles.

    Eureka, I found Sharpshooter meets my added ‘naming’ needs, as well as allowing flexibly in changing their format, it a real find.

    Publishers Description — Sharpshooter is a small application, which aids the management of screen shots. When you take a screen shot on Mac OS X with Command-Shift-3, Command-Shift-4 (or with another variation). Sharpshooter is a background agent application so you. I did, may want to add it as a login item to always have it running in the background. You can control Sharpshooter through the menu status item on the right side of the menu bar.

    Getting Started

    Drop the sharpshooter application into your, you guessed it, application folder. Use it free for 30 days or pay the modest shareware fee and enter your license code. There it was, its icon sitting neatly in my menubar. The develop claims that begin able to name your images, while the subject is still fresh on your mind, is a great time-saving advantage. I agree. You can even, if your addicted to scanner naming conventions or those on your camera, use its default name (e.g., Screen shot 2010-09-01 at 2.10.50 PM), with or without the file extension.

    As it always when I’m in a hurry, I found a screen shot I wanted to capture. In less then two blinks of an eye, there it was. The software’s’ main window was there ready to use as described in the review. Type in what you want for an image title, change to the format you want – your done. I actually used the product for a few days before I decided to check to see what it’s preference panes offered. If you use two monitors, that’s the place to ‘tune’ things up.

    Review Limitations

    I found the product to be rock stable, but there were two attributes (features) I did not test.

    • First, Sharpshooter has the ability to work with screen shots that span multiple monitors, If you have more than one display connected to your Mac. My iMac screen although 24” in size, lives alone on my desk.
    • Second, an attribute identified in an Aug 13, 2007 review of Sharpshooter version 0.4.1, review in Macworld by Dan Frakes was its ability to deal with the output from other screen capture tools. Since I don’t use any, I could not pull this string. Check

    The product also has a folder-watching watching feature that I did not test because all my screen shots go to my desktop!  Then I can sort them out and put them into the folders that best reflects the project in which I to use them. However, this is not a problem since the software has a first class help function so I can get the information should I ever need it.

    A Wish, Unfulfilled

    I would welcome, either from this or any other screen capture tool, the ability to quickly add information to a file’s spotlight comments [-I] because unless I remember to, I usually have to do an extra search to document the source of the images I capture, especially from Google images. Yes I know this is not a function of a screen capture tool, but “if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”

    Conclusions and Recommendations

    This as a simple to use, intuitive and great product. By using its main, and ‘only’ window Sharpshooter where you can review the picture and choose what to do with it. You can either rename, move the screenshot to the Trash, or cancel the operation keeping the captured screenshot as is. The Move To Trash option, combined with an in-window preview, is useful for quickly spotting and deleting obvious screenshot mishaps.

    From the perspective of time it already saved me, it is well worth the $15 shareware fee — a 5 ‘Flower” product!


    What Are Mac OS X Key Combinations For Taking Screen shots?

    Action Shortcut
    Take a picture of the whole screen ⌘-Shift-3
    Take a picture of part of the screen ⌘-Shift-4, then drag to select the area you want in the picture.

    To cancel, press Escape.

    Take a picture of a window, a menu, the menu bar, or the Dock. Press ⌘-Shift-4, then press the Space bar. Move the pointer over the area you want so that it’s highlighted, then click.

    To drag to select the area instead, press the Space bar again. To cancel, press Escape

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    Copyright Notice: Product and company names and logos in this review may be registered trademarks of their respective companies.

    Reviews were carried out on my iMac 2.8 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 2 GB 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM running Mac OS X version 10.6.4 with all security updates kept current.

    Disclaimer: When reviewing software I will often use the developer’s product, functions and features descriptions. Because of this unless I’m quoting directly from another source, I do no cutter up the review with quotation makes. All other comments are strictly my own and based on testing. Why need I rewrite the developer’s narratives, if they are clearly written?

    By Harry {doc} Babad, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

    — Apple’s tools to shortcut your daily workload


    A few months ago I attended a very interesting Mid-Columbia Macintosh club (Tri-Cities, WA) and listened to Scott Armstrong our president discuss Snow Leopard and his favorite Macintosh 101 things. At that time, I once again realized the degree of redundancy and flexibility of the OS X operating system, which allows you to ‘compute’ in your own personalized way.

    In Apple advertising lingo:

    • “The Power to Be Your Best”
    • The Computer for the rest of us”

    As Scott discussed the dock and sidebar with our members, I again became aware of how many tools, Apple’s and those created by others, there were to support accessibility and access to your files, documents and applications. These do and will allow you to organize and quickly access items in your startup hard drive, network and mounted volumes. Such tools, those I’ve set up and work with daily, to make life easier during the 6+ hours/day I spend ‘mac-puting’ — but otherwise pay no attention to.

    I’m not going to tell you how to organize your files and folders in a manner that suits your working style but yet allows you to understand/remember in 6 moths, where stuff is stashed. I did that several times over the years:

    • Thank Goodness — Your Mac is Not a File Cabinet, One person’s guide to hard disk organization [MacNut 2003]
    • Organizing Your Mac, The Responsible Macintosh Column, macCompanion, Nov 2008.
    • There’s one more 5-7 years ago, but I named it weird and haven’t time to play Spotlight games to find it.

    Triple Play – Full House, Whatever!

    Actually your choices create at least a full house with a little help from shareware and freeware. I use DEVONtechnologies free XMenu  1.9 (Snow Leopard compatible) and have used Unsanity’s shareware Fruit Menu, being updated to snow leopard. More on these and other possible file/folder accessibility program alternatives, below. Now the details…

    My Menu Bar (Apple OS X) — Without the use of an add-on application, this is the least flexible of Apple’s OS related tools. But I do use enhancement tools, since mousing to the menubar is a good way for me to go.

    A few samples

    My Dock (Apple OS X)

    As you know the left hand side of the dock is reserved for applications I use it for my frequently used items as well as temporary storage for applications I’m testing. The dock’s right side focused on storing frequently used folders or documents.  I’ve illustrated this by four example, read the Apple help files to learn more about configuring your dock.

    Doc’s Dock, A Snapshot – An Ever Changing Mix

    Professional FilesHousehold Files

    Nuclear Energy Book I Revision

    MacUpdate site link

    Main Professional Societies Link


    Energy Books and Projects

    Orders and More-Taxes 2010

    Asian Recipes plus Pasta & Seafood

    NON-Asian Recipes w/o Pasta & Seafood

    Home Related—to Finish or File

    Databases and FilesComputer Related – General

    Three Rivers Folklife Society

    Active Links

    Seldom Used Installed Applications

    Burn to CD/DVD Images

    Current Active Consulting Projects

    Library {Apples}

    Applications {Apples}

    Documents {Apples}

    Harry’s Documents

    Harry – Home


    Note — Temporary Items are marked in blue. The contents of my permanent folders change but the categories usually don’t.   I also store some of these permanent  and temporary folders on my sidebar, but I do prefer using the Dock or augmented menu based tools most of the time.

    I here share just the barest how-to summary:

    • To add a file or folder, drag its icon from a Finder window to the right hand side of the Dock
    • To add an application, drag its icon from a Finder window to the left side of the Dock
    • To arrange or rearrange items in the Dock, drag them into the order you prefer. (This can be tricky since icons vary in grab-ability, so don’t give up)
    • To remove an item, drag it off the dock — Poof, it’s gone. No, not the item on your hard disk or mounted volume, it’s only an alias.

    My Side Bar (Apple OS X)

    Finder windows have a sidebar on the left side of the window that displays icons for items you use frequently, including disks, servers, and folders. To open a Finder window, click the Finder icon in the Dock. If the sidebar is not visible, open the View menu and choose Show Sidebar. If Show Sidebar is dimmed, choose Show Toolbar. [From Apple’s help.]

    To add, remove, and rearrange items in the sidebar:

    • To add a file, folder, or application to the sidebar, drag its icon to the Places section.
    • To remove an item, drag its icon out of the sidebar. Although the icon disappears, the original is still in its place on your computer. 
You can’t remove items from the Shared section.
    • To rearrange items, drag to where you want them in the sidebar.
 Note, you can’t rearrange items in the Shared section.

    My Other Goodies to Supplement Apple’s Tools.

    X-Menu 1.9 —XMenu adds one or more global menus to the right side of the menu bar. They give you access to your preferred applications, folders, documents, files, and snippets. Launch any application or insert text snippets or URLs into your email messages or Pages documents with a single menu choice. Freeware from Devon Technologies)

    FruitMenu 3.8 — FruitMenu is a haxie that gives you the ability to customize the Apple Menu and contextual menus. Using a visual editor you can edit the contents of the menus to suit your needs and taste. FruitMenu will also display the contents of the FruitMenu Items folder inside of your Library folder, launch applications and shell scripts from the Apple Menu and contextual menus, to allow easy file navigation and launching. To make the haxie completely flexible and customizable, you can assign hotkeys to particular menu items. (Shareware $15 from Unsanity LLC) now for Snow Leopard

    Other Possibilities

    …More than we would ever need, at least most of us. These tools are either supplements to and/or enhancements to Apple’s dock, or add to the flexibility of the Apple Menu bar. They go by various category names, so read the application titles below and re-learn the jargon. Although I’ve tested a few of these items and continue to do so, I’ve not been convinced I need my than my present ‘full house’ of tools.

    Dock-It 2.7.4 — Dock-It is a multifunctional launcher and Finder enhancer for the Mac OS X operating system. It utility allows for multiple docks & more. (Shareware $10.00 – Gideon Softworks).

    Dock Spaces 3.10 — Have 5 different docks and swap them from the menubar. Freeware Patrick Chamelo)

    AppMenuBoy 1.0.4 — When Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) changed the way that folders are represented in the Dock, I lost a handy start menu made by dragging the Applications folder to the end of the dock. AppMenuBoy is a small Cocoa application that creates a hierarchical menu of your apps in the dock and menubar Freeware David Phillip Oster

    DragThing 5.9.5Tidy up your desktop with this versatile launcher. DragThing, the original dock augmentation software, is designed to tidy up your Macintosh desktop. It puts all your documents, folders, and applications just a single click away. Highly flexible, it allows multiple docks, each customized to suit your exact needs. It stores frequently used clippings such as text and pictures, and lets you easily paste them into other applications with just a click. Shareware $29 by James Thompson)

    Application Switcher Menu 2.3 — ASM (Application Switcher Menu) is a small utility that adds a system-wide menu to the right side of the menubar. This menu lists all of your open applications, so you can easily switch between them. And you can set ASM to automagically hide other apps when you switch to another app! This is one utility you must have! Brings back the application switcher menu (and more) to Mac OS X. It’s highly customizable and offers some nice extra features, such as Classic Window Mode (orders all windows of an application to front when it becomes active) or Single Application Mode (automatically hides applications other than the front-most one). Frank Vercruesse $9.50)

    Overflow 2.5.7 — Overflow is an application designed to quickly launch applications, open documents, or access folders while reducing the number of items needed in your Dock. Anything you want can be added to the Overflow interface, making it accessible through a few simple mouse clicks or keystrokes. The interface is resizable, and fully customizable. Create separate categories for your applications, work files, games, or anything else you want to be able to access quickly. After using Overflow, we think you’ll find it just as indispensable as we do. Stunt Software Shareware 14.95

    LaunchBar 5.0.2 — is an award winning productivity utility that offers an amazingly intuitive and efficient way to search and access any kind of information stored on your computer or on the web. It provides instant access to your applications, documents, contacts and bookmarks, to your music library, to search engines and more, just by entering short abbreviations of the searched item’s name. Shareware, Objective Development $35.00

    QuickAccessCM 1.7.1 — QuickAccessCM is a contextual menu plug-in for easy access to frequently used folders, documents and applications. It can be used as a launcher, file commander or installer. QuickAccessCM plugin provides a number of access augmenting feature has independent modules to your contextual menus.

    Final Thoughts

    If this is NOT enough to get you moving then go use Google — Check: Organizing Your Mac. Also check the MacUpdate site for utilizes of you choice and updates to the ones you use.

    In addition you might try, Apple OS X Spaces (a tool which I ignore.) – its purpose is to organize your main windows into ‘project’ groups to decrease desktop and window clutter and increase access to project specific tools and documents. Perhaps if I were using a small screen based computer and traveling with it, I’d try it but my iMac’s 24” screen is plenty large enough for my work.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – — – – – – – – – –

    Copyright Notice: Product and company names and logos in this review may be registered trademarks of their respective companies.

    Acknowledgments: Unless otherwise noted I have provided the additional sources for the material in these articles. I also found in my many notes I’ve stashed for future articles, that certain themes keep coming up, that parallel what I’ve read or practiced.  In most cases I have acknowledged as well as modified the original document(s) to personalize them for my own use and for you our readers.

    As needed the information provided was created, and as appropriate demonstrated on my iMac 2.8 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 2 GB installed 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM now running Snow Leopard Mac OS X version 10.6.4 with all current security updates installed.

    This article was originally published in the April issue of macCompanion, and has been updated for our readers. Alas, macCompanion is no longer published so we’re cherry picking the best and most relevant our recent writing for the MHBlog.

    by Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

    I’m an amateur astronomer. I had a refracting telescope long before I owned a personal computer, and I used my telescope  to take more than a few photos of solar eclipses as well as planets in our solar system.I don’t own a telescope right now, but have my eye on a nice Celestron when the budget will enable me to make the purchase without raising the ire of my supportive wife.

    What is an astronomy fan to do without a telescope? My preferences are to watch shows on the Discovery Channel and the Science Channel or use computer software. I’ve been a long time fan of astronomy software for computers and have used and reviewed a lot of different products on a wide variety of platforms. One of my older favorites was Distant Suns, which I used on my old Amiga 3000. A couple of newer products I use on my Macbook and PC laptops are Starry Night and Voyager 4.52, both excellent products and absolutely worth the cost of the software.

    Why all the background? Because we now live in the age of the internet, where data and  data access is far greater than any time in the history of our culture. Some recent uses of the internet have been of special interest to students, namely Google Earth and Microsoft’s WorldWideTelescope. Most people are probably familiar with Google Earth, so let’s spend a few minutes talking about WorldWideTelescope.

    What is WorldWideTelescope? A browser-based (or Windows client) product from Microsoft that provides impressive images of the planets in our solar system, as well as guided tours of nebula/galaxies/planets/black holes/star clusters/supernova. It is easy to select an item to examine, and there are a number of ways to view the images. Once you select a planet or stellar object to visit, just double-click on it to move in for greater detail.

    One negative point about the tours. I took the Mars tour, which streamed from The audio was either out of sequence with the video, or the speaker’s voice was drowned out by the musical soundtrack. The video also was not smooth, but it was watchable. I also saw the video on extrasolar planets, and the audio and video were much better than the Mars tour.

    Why bother with a web-based astronomy product? It is 1. An excellent way to learn about space, and 2. is free. Stop by and check it out here.

    by Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

    I downloaded and installed the free Barnes & Nobel Nook software recently and I like it as much as the free Kindle software. It is easy to install and use (even for even computer neophytes), and everything I examined was easy to read. I did have three things I want to point out about the software:

    1. The Good:  The Nook provides 10 free SparkCharts: Anthropology, Astronomy, Biology, Calculus 1, Chemistry, Essays and Term Papers, Macroeconomics, Psychology, Research Style and Usage, and Sociology. All are excellent references for new undergrads, and this will save you around $69.95 (with an average purchase price of $6.95).

    2. The Bad: Unlike Kindle, I could not download free books without entering credit card information, even though I wanted to download free books. Why?

    3. The Questionable: When an update installed, it used 7 significant digits to show download progress. Why would anyone want to see the download progress is 92.4577522 percent complete?

    I honestly haven’t decided to buy the Nook or the Kindle. I do really like the Apple iPad , which is more than an electronic book but is also quite a bit more expensive than the Nook or Kindle. Students in the near future may only have the option of buying (or renting) electronic versions of textbooks, so I’d suggest downloading both free products and give them a try.

    By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

    Sporty’s Private Pilot Online Training Course
    Download Price: $215.00

    Flight Simulators vs Instructor Training

    I once worked with a guy that heard I was a pilot, so he approached me and said “he had hundreds of hours using flight simulators.”

    I like flight simulators as they can be useful when practicing IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) approaches and said “That’s nice. Simulators are a lot of fun.”

    He then said “If he was on a plane that had problems with the pilots he would offer to land the plane. Wouldn’t he be the best person to save the other passengers?”

    “No,” I replied.

    He was shocked and sputtered that “He had more time in simulators than I did and who did I think the tower would want in the cockpit?”

    I said “One of the flight attendants.”

    “Why?” he asked. “I have hundreds of landings in my simulator, so it would be simple for me.”

    “Landing a Cessna isn’t the same as landing a jet,” I said. “And landing a real Cessna is much different than landing one in a Flight Simulator.”

    “I don’t believe that,” he said. “Why would the tower want a stewardess to land a jet when I could do it?”

    “I doubt they’d believe you could do it,” I said. “Commercial flight simulators have multi-axis motion to train professional pilots how it feels when landing a real plane. Programs like Flight Simulator that run on a PC are static – they don’t move. Flight attendants know how jets feel during takeoff and landings, so the tower could tell them what to do and they could convey their concerns if something felt wrong.”

    He said “You don’t know what you are talking about. I’ve read bunches of postings on the internet where people said the same thing!”

    “I’ve made hundreds of landings in real planes,”  I said. “I don’t think it would be easy to land a jet. Impossible? No. Easy? No. You have made zero landings in a real plane and yet you disagree with me, so why would you think the tower would trust lives of hundreds of people on someone that prefers to argue?”

    He made it clear he didn’t agree with me and stormed off. A while later he sent a couple of followup emails where he copied internet postings from kids saying the same thing he believed: that they could land a real plane if necessary. He never did send a testimonial from a military pilot, a CFI (Certified Flight Instructor) or a licensed pilot that validated his opinion, so I was glad when he finally let it go. And no, this guy was not 10 years old. He was an adult. Seriously.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love flight simulators. The first person that gave me flight lessons hated simulators and she said they were completely inappropriate for new students, so I didn’t touch them while getting my license. I did use Elite’s simulator when I worked on my IFR rating, as it really helped to rehearse the approaches before we went out to do them. Tom, the CFI that taught me could always tell when I’d practiced before a lesson, and he was very supportive of the way I used the software. I’ve also used software to improve my communications skills as well as learn more about weather and new technologies, so software has a place in learning. I just disagree that playing a game on a personal computer or game console  is as good as being trained by professionals in real aircraft. New pilots must learn to recognize when to trust and when to ignore sensations during a flight, which is impossible in a self-taught environment using a rigid motionless flight simulator.

    Sporty’s training software is not a flight simulator. It shows you how to prep, plan, and go on a flight. You get to see sections of actual flights and hear how pilots communicate with other pilots and control towers. You learn some of the many things you need to know to get your pilot license, but this course is not a simple solution that will save you thousands of dollars typically spent on ground school, materials, and lessons. It is a good, useful, and a much better investment of your hard-earned dollars (if you want to fly a real plane) than a video game. Enough of the background – let’s get on with the review.

    Sporty’s Private Pilot Course Review

    I earned my private pilot license in 2002 after attending ground school and flight training at Crystal Airport in Crystal, MN. The ground school was 6 weeks long, but there was so much to learn that I bought the Sporty’s Private Pilot DVD course to use for review. It helps a pilot when a passenger has some experience navigation or dealing with emergencies in flight, so my wife also went through the lessons. We both liked Sporty’s courses, and so after I saw they now offer online training I wanted to check out their latest training materials. I contacted Sporty’s and they were kind enough to set me up with a 30 day access to test their materials using a web browser, so I went to their site and started the course.

    Note: Sporty’s provides more than just the course materials for the price (see the image at the top right of this article), and they offers the course materials on DVD ($215) or online and on DVD ($322).


    Since I am testing this materials via online streaming, no installation was needed. I went to Sporty’s website and logged in with the user name and password they provided. I watched the 9 minute product tutorial, then went to the videos section which is divided into 6 volumes: The First Few Hours, Practicing Landings, Your First Solo, Your Dual Cross Countries, Your Solo Cross Countries, and Your Private Pilot Test.

    Volume One – The First Few Hours

    I started with the first lesson of the first volume and liked what I saw. The screen is divided into 3 main areas: the volume lessons at the top left of the screen, the video takes up the entire right side of the screen, and there is a place to take notes at the bottom left of the screen. The ability to take notes while training is invaluable and these notes can be saved and printed at a later time – a huge plus for the product. As I watched the video I was impressed with the quality of the video as well as the smooth flow while streaming. The graphics are well done, easy to read and very useful for new pilots.

    I watched the entire first volume, which has ~ 26 chapters varying in length from 1 minute to 10+ minutes. The material was covered in a clear and professional manner. I didn’t take any notes, but believe this feature alone will be extremely valuable for student pilots and hope it is included in the DVD version.

    I enjoyed the videos titled When Should You Fly, Weather Junkies, Intro to the Airplane, Training Airplanes, and Intro to the Cockpit. The Weather Junkies clip is from Sporty’s Air Facts series, which I bought years ago and found them very useful. I should add that the first night of ground school, our instructor (Gina) said we would become weather junkies, because the weather has a huge impact on flying. You cannot fly small aircraft all of the time. There are weather issues (snow, thunderstorms, hail, high winds) that are too much for a small plane to handle, so pilots become very weather-aware.

    The chapter titled Closer Look-Cockpit Variations is excellent. Airplanes have different cockpits and so the types and locations of  instruments varies considerably. When I was working on my license, I only flew in a Cessna 172, but afterwords started flying Pipers (Warrior, Cherokee, Archer, Arrow, Six) and know this section of the material opens up this course to schools that use other planes than Cessna 152s or 172s for their students. Good material and it also includes glass cockpit instrumentation, which is valuable for long time pilots. The picture at the right is a glass cockpit, which is found in planes like the Cirrus SR20 and SR22 aircraft, as well as in newer Diamond and Piper aircraft. I won’t go into the reasons why this is so superior over the traditional mechanical gauges, but I much prefer this type of instrumentation over the old school aircraft. It should be mentioned that many flight schools use older planes for training, so don’t get locked into the idea that you only need to learn a glass cockpit. Most planes with glass cockpits have some mechanical gauges as backups in case of electrical failures (which do happen – I’ve lost electrical systems 2x since I started flying).

    There is a chapter in volume 1 called Getting the Message, which deals with communications. This is a good introduction, but there are programs available where you can learn how to communicate when making VFR (Visual Flight Rules) and IFR flights.

    The last chapter I’ll mention in volume 1 is “Air Facts-Takeoff Tips,” which shows the plane from the inside and the outside during acceleration and takeoff. I really like how well it shows the way it really looks out the windshield when taking off, as that is something that is important to remember. I always felt takeoffs were the easiest things to do, flying the traffic pattern was next easiest, and landing was the most difficult. I bring up landings because Sporty’s devotes volume 2 to landings, covering the maneuvers students practice to get better at landing the plane.

    Volume Two – Practicing Landings

    The first chapter in this section was one of my favorites in flight school: ground reference maneuvers.  You are learning how to make a specific pattern (rectangular, s-turns, and turns around a point) over a fixed point on the ground. The reason? Because wind comes from different directions and landing strips have one or multiple runways aligned in the directions that are most likely to face into the prevailing winds for the area where the strip is located. And since runways are fixed, you need to be able to adjust the plane to fly in a regular pattern even when the winds don’t accommodate the airport. I didn’t have problems doing reference maneuvers, but found the rectangular reference maneuvers the most fun. I usually went to an outlying farm and used the house and surrounding roads as my reference points, and had the most fun during the windiest days.

    The next chapter I watched was Slow Flight, which is necessary to learn how to control the airplane when it is going slow, near stall speed. This is important because the plane is going slowest on takeoffs and landings. When you actually do slow flight, the controls are mushy. The stall horn is going off as the plane is near the stall speed for the plane. This is the time to learn how to maintain altitude when flying slow, how to turn when going slow, how to gradually climb and how to descent when going slow. The video is excellent – exactly as I remember the lessons in a Cessna 172. Gina, the CFI, telling me to go slower and slower. At first it was nerve-racking, but then became fun as I saw how much I could turn or climb without changing the airspeed. One thing I would have liked to see would be more split screen actions showing the theory behind the maneuvers.

    The next video in this volume I watched was on Stalls. The instructor talked about power on and power off stalls while they were  demonstrated (looking exactly the same as what I remembered), as well as imminent stalls (a favorite of CFI Gina’s) where you sit on the edge of a stall. One windy day Gina and I were out practicing imminent stalls  and I had the throttle completely at idle and the plane wouldn’t stall. We sat over an intersection, about 1000′ above it. I couldn’t get the plane to stall, so Gina took the yoke and pulled until the plane was nearly vertical, which did make it stall. That was the first time I ever hovered over a fixed point at 1000′ and it was a blast.  Having the stall horn going off during the maneuvers was a nice touch and it definitely adds to the realism. Oh, and when you stall a Cessna (not easy to do) and the plane is not coordinated (ball in the center), one of the wings drops and you start to head for the ground. A bit startling but easy to catch. Cessnas are easy to recover from stalls – much easier than Piper Tomahawks  with that T tail – but it still gets your attention when you stop moving forward and start heading down. I did like how the video shows how to recover from the different types of stalls, because the acts you take depend on the type of stall. And yes, the video was accurate in the way it shows the plane pitching during the stalls.

    The next chapter I watched was Stall Rhetoric, which was interesting because my GFI Gina said that Cessna 172s are extremely difficult to spin, but it was easier to spin a Cessna 152. I’ve had spin training, but not in a Cessna or Piper; I went up in an acrobatic plane. Spins are, well let’s just say they’ll wake you up. The first time we did it the plane pitched over backwards and we spiraled into the ground. That acro plane did not auto-recover the way a Cessna does, so the instructor had to correct to prevent us from plowing into the ground. Like the man says, “that’ll clear your sinuses.”

    The last chapter I saw in volume two was Normal Landing. No  stalls, no spins, no emergencies, just landing the plane in controlled (with tower) or  uncontrolled (no tower) airports. I like how they continue to show what a pilot sees inside and outside of the plane. Something I noticed in this version versus the version I bought, was the illustrations showing the planes and the flight paths over the terrain look better than those I recall seeing. I also believe Sporty’s improved the descriptions of the actions, considerably enhancing the quality of the training provided by the course. I liked how they used split screens to show the same landing approach from different altitudes (so you can see which is right vs which is wrong), as well as showing the plane from the inside and from the pilot’s view while landing.

    The next four volumes of the course are: Volume Three – Your First Solo, Volume Five – Your Dual Cross Countries, Volume Six – Your Solo Cross Countries, and Volume Seven – Your Private Pilot Test. No, that was not a mistake. No volume four was included in the list. The reason could be that volume four is for a different course, like the Recreational Course. I am finished writing this review for now, but may continue to add to it after publishing it – I wanted to get this out to our readers and yet I didn’t have enough time to go through all of the materials yet. Stay tuned, as I will add content as time allows.


    Overall, I like the course and the updated material is very good. The video quality is more than acceptable, the teachers very clear and focused, and the shots showing a pilot controlling the plane while the illustrated results are shown in another area of the screen are superb. I would have no problem ordering this material if my flight school recommended it, and I would order it for future review after earning my license. I have reviewed these lessons every two years since 2002 and expect I’ll continue for awhile longer.

    Don’t buy this course and expect to be ready to fly to see a friend or relative – this material needs to be used in conjunction with a certified flight instructor or someone trained to teach ground school. It is very good material and is an excellent source for reviewing material after you earn your pilot license, so I’d suggest going with the DVD course instead of the online course unless Sporty’s does not limit how long this material will be available online for your use.


    • The quality of the images is excellent. I did not look at the low resolution images, but the default ones were fine.
    • The instructors were easy to understand, very professional, and knew the subjects quite well.
    • The material has been updated since I bought the course in 2002, so it covers newer technology which is appropriate.
    • The length of the videos varies, so it is easy to watch a few and then come back later to watch more of them.
    • Being able to take, save and print notes while watching the material is excellent. Kudos to Sporty’s.
    • The videos showing takeoffs and landings look was clear, easy to follow, and useful for any student. And I liked how they incorporate the ground reference maneuvers students learn (while working on their license) that help to learn how to be safe when approach a new airport.
    • The slow flight and stall videos were excellent – the viewer really sees what happens in those instances.


    • I had problems streaming content two or three times, where it would hang up but then continue on. Nothing catastrophic and no crashes, but it may or may not happen to you, depending on your internet connectivity.
    • The length of at least 1 chapter video in the first volume was wrong – the left side list showed the ‘Closer Look-Engine Variations’ video to be 2 min 11 seconds, while the progress bar under the video showed it was 3 minutes 36 seconds. Minor issue, but one none the less.


    I like it and would suggest it for students, however it would be a good idea to check with your flight instructor before purchasing it as they might have other training materials they prefer you use to prepare for lessons. For computer pilots (those that love flight simulators), this could be the thing that pushes them to leave the PC at home and learn how to actually fly a real plane. Try the online demo of the course to see if it meets your needs, or speak with anyone you know that is a pilot. The price is reasonable, the quality of the videos and material is excellent, and it covers a wide range of aircraft in addition to Cessna 172s.


    by Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

    I’ve been working with Adobe’s CS5 suite the past few months and I am impressed. The three applications I’ve used the most in the past few weeks are InDesign, Fireworks, and DreamWeaver, and they are nice! The best thing about InDesign CS5? The ability to generate PDFs, ePubs, and Flash content without the need of another program. I love using Flash to make catalogs with pages that flip (see the weekly ad at, and it is simplicity itself to does this in InDesign CS5.

    To see my reviews of these and other CS5 applications, check out Software Latest. The reviews should start posting this week.

    – Mike

    by Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

    Have you tried any of the excellent astronomy packages on your home computer? One of my favorites is Starry Night, by Imaginova. I originally installed Starry Night Pro 6 on my iMac and reviewed it for MacWorld UK, and recently installed it on my 2.26 GHz Macbook. I had received the 6.0 release, so I downloaded and installed the 6.0 to 6.3.3 and the 6.3.3 to 6.3.9 updates, which took much less time to install than they did to download.

    One of the nicest thing about Starry Night is the ability to create and save movies, which I’ve done for some of our space missions like the New Horizons mission to Pluto. To see the mission, click on this link to NASA’s video.

    I’m hoping to have more reviews of Starry Nights products on our site in the future, as using astronomy software on your local PC beats standing outside in subzero weather, trying not to freeze as you peer through a telescope lens.

    Let us know if you use Starry Night or any of the other excellent astronomy packages out there, and why you like or dislike them.

    6.3.3 Updates


    • New minor planets and their moons have been added and updated.
    • Distance Spheres can now be added to any solar system body with any radius and color. (All programs except C.S.A.P.)
    • Shadow Cones can be displayed to show the shadows of orbiting bodies.
    • New update technology built directly into Starry Night. Will check for updates automatically if registered.
    • Animated trips between planets now use more visually appealing planet avoidance.
    • Tully galaxy rendering now implemented as particle systems.
    • Tully database improved to allow for more galaxy types.
    • Saturn’s rings and ring shadows now draw even more precisely, and look much better.
    • Universal Time can now be displayed and edited in the toolbar. (Pro, Pro Plus, Astrophoto Suite only.)
    • The precessional path of the celestial poles can now be displayed.
    • The circumpolar region, based on your latitude, can now be displayed.
    • The value of DeltaT has been improved and can now be overridden by the user. (Pro, Pro Plus, Astrophoto Suite only.)
    • All planets now draw with softer edges.
    • Updated LiveSky links and images.
    • Some lines now draw thicker on high-DPI displays to maintain visibility.
    • Added more features that can help Customer Support track down issues.
    • Spaceship responsiveness dramatically improved.
    • Various space mission data sets have been broken into smaller, logical segments to improve rendering speed.
    • Added 5 new horizon panoramas.
    • Improved Find feature for multiple objects of same name.

    Bug Fixes

    • Exported data of the sky view now contains a header row.
    • Galaxy types in several databases have been fixed.
    • Horizon drawing improved when looking at the nadir.
    • Spaceship speed controls now work when Starry Night time is stopped.
    • Telescope name now indicated in Windows 3-pane print settings dialog.
    • SkyCal. Adding event times between 12am and 1am now save properly.
    • Pluto now correctly classified as a Dwarf Planet in the orbit editor.
    • Satellite eccentricities now correctly imported from source file.
    • Moons can now be added to dwarf planets.
    • Adding/editing planet surface images or 3DS model assignments now works.
    • User-specified images are now correctly rendered on moons.
    • One-pane printing FOV fixed.
    • Print legend now shows correct size on all Windows machines.
    • Cardinal points can now be controlled independently of horizon using horizon layer labels.
    • Increased delay in Find search box autosearch.
    • Observing list filters fixed.
    • Comets are now correctly indicated on printed output.
    • Observing lists can now display the objects constellation.
    • Coordinates now export in the format selected in the preferences.
    • Peak times for Meteor Showers are now listed.
    • Ambient sound has been restored.

    by Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

    Company: Masterwriter, Inc (
    Licensing: $9.95 (1 month), $99 (1 yr), $199 (purchase)
    Technical Support: (805) 892 – 2686 (
    Click here for a video product tour from MasterWriter.

    Most writers either make trips to the library or use web browsers online to gather background information for their works of fiction. Masterwriter is a tool to help organize writing data – words, grammar, and reference sources – for creative writers. It gathers a wide range of data sources so they are ready for access when needed. The software contains a word processor, thesaurus, dictionary, the Bible, and Word Libraries.

    System Requirements

    PowerPC G4 1.42 GHz or better or Intel Core 2 Duo 2.0 Ghz
    OS X 10.4 or better
    512 MB or more RAM, 1 GB recommended
    Built-in or External Microphone
    QuickTime 7.5.5 or better

    2.4 GHz or better Processor of Intel Pentium/Celeron Family or
    AMD Athlon/Duron Family
    Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7, XP recommended
    512 MB or more RAM, 1 GB recommended
    Built-in or External Microphone
    QuickTime 7.5.5 or better

    Getting Started

    I installed the software using a disk onto my 2.26 GHz Macbook and did not encounter any errors during the process. The first time the product is launched, it requires registration, so make sure you have the serial number on hand at that time. It also checked for updates and took care of it, but there was no status bar that showed the progress of updating, so I had to wait for a update complete message before proceeding.

    To test Masterwriter, I wrote a new short story just to get a feel for the user interface. To start I selected ‘File-New Title’ and  started a fantasy short story I called Second Best. The left half of the Text screen is devoted to the text of the story, and the right side of the screen contains dictionary searches. There are different areas of Masterwriter that are accessed by the icons across the top of the screen, which is useful but I’d like some buttons to navigate to a previous screen instead of re-selecting the category at the top of the screen. I like the UI of the software, as the organization is logical for writing fiction and so it is easier to compose stories.

    A brief word about Word Families. These are from Masterwriter, and they associate words in a relevant manner that makes it easier to find that special or different word you need to avoid being too repetitious. I used this tool a couple of times and really like it, and Masterwriter told me they continue to enhance these entries over the evolution of the product.

    The file created when I exported my story was XML, and the file name was Songdata.xml – not exactly what I’d expect for a writing program, and the story I wrote was not discernible in the XML file, so what is the purpose of exporting in the first place? I contacted Masterwriter support and they told me the exported content is in a format for Masterwriter, and that I need to use the ‘Export text file to’ icon to get my story out for access by MS Word. I used the icon and was able to read the story in Word and a text editor.

    Note: You can set the file name and file extension so you choose what program is used to open the exported content. I view this as a positive feature.

    After a bit of composing, I set out to explore some of the nicer features of the product. I looked at the dictionary and thesaurus and was pleased to see Masterwriter uses the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary and Thesaurus in their product – both good enough for use in many English classes at university. Next I looked at the entries in Pop Culture and was definitely pleased with the number of categories I could use for research, which included The World, The Famous, Food and Drink, Products, and the Bible. I read some of the scriptures in the Bible but did not see the translation, so I can’t share that with you.


    I enjoyed using the software to write a couple of stories. It was handy to have so many writing tools without needing to leave my word processor.

    Masterwriter lacks a mechanism to navigate back and forth between sections of the program – I left my story to look up a phrase in Word Families and had to reselect the Text menu item to be able to resume work on my story.

    I liked this version but there are some things I’d like to see included in the next major release of the software:

    • A status bar to show software update status. Something small but nonetheless needed in a future revision of this program.
    • A way to navigate back and forth between sections of the program without needing to select the main categories for those areas.
    • Better online help – either Robohelp or PDF (or both formats).
    • More Word Families.

    Notes – March 20, 2011

    On February 3, Masterwriter emailed me with news about some improvements they made to the product. A portion of that email is below:

    We did update all users with Synonym Finder about 2 weeks ago.  If you haven’t already, open MW, leave it open for up to 5 minutes, you will eventually be prompted to update, at which point, install, then once you restart the program, go to Thesaurus, and the new one will be there.  It’s a major improvement in my opinion, we also continue to update Word Families with new words and refinements to existing families.

    I installed the update – this is the screen I saw when starting MasterWriter:

    I like seeing vendors make constant product improvements, and I would ask any people using Masterwriter to commend on their impressions of using this well-designed product either as amateur or professional writers. Personally I enjoy using it.

    Notes – January 18, 2011

    There have been some updates since this review was originally posted in August of 2010, including more Word Families and improved online help.

    This software automatically checks for updates when the software is launched, or you can manually check using the ‘Help/Software Updates’ menu option. The software still does not prompt that it is checking for updates; the only prompt displayed is to notify you that an update either is or is not available. I’d still prefer to have a status message that the software is checking for an update.

    As of today, the most current version of the software (Shown by selecting the ‘Help/About Masterwriter’ menu) is (R11).

    I did not test this software on Windows, so I’d suggest anyone with Windows/Masterwriter issues contact Masterwriter with questions about issues with that operating system. Newer versions of Windows like Windows 7 may require that the installer be logged in with Admin rights, but that is typical of a lot of applications.


    • A nice product with decent UI that does a good job at simplifying creative writing.
    • Modest hardware/OS requirements, so many people can use this software without needing a massive system upgrade.
    • An impressive list of industry pundits that like and endorse this software.
    • Supports importing and exporting text content.
    • Includes the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary and Thesaurus.
    • I like the number of categories of pop culture items covered in Masterwriter – very useful.
    • Word libraries are nice, and MasterWriter intends to continue to improve them in the near future.


    • Pricing seems a bit high with a $199 purchase price. MS Word 2010 was $139.99 from the Microsoft store on 7-31-2010, but Masterwriter does include a decent thesaurus and the bible, as well as their expandable Word Families, so the product is more than a mere word processor.
    • I’d prefer to have both icons and menu items for options as some people prefer to point-and-click, while others  prefer to use keyboard shortcuts. Initially I was unaware that there is only an icon for exporting stories as text, which threw me off.
    • The packaging is adequate, but I’d like a PDF of help content if no help documentation is included with the product. The online help was not adequate for the few time I needed help, but MasterWriter’s support team quickly responded to my questions.


    Try it. This product is worth the time you’ll spend to check it out. If you’re fiscally conservative, you can use the free download to see how you like it and then buy a monthly or yearly license, or purchase it outright. Download the free evaluation copy and give it a try. I like that I don’t need to switch to a browser or a third-party program or grab a book to look up information when doing creative writing, which interrupts the flow of creative writing.

    By Mike Hubbartt, © Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved.

    Eschalon: Book II
    Version: 1.04 (Updated July 14, 2010)
    Publisher: Basilisk Games
    Price: $24.95 (Download), $35.95 (DVD)
    To contact them via email:
    Free Demo via Download: click here.

    Role Playing Games (RPGs) have been around for a long time. The first RPG games needed books that had stats for players, treasure, and obstructions. In the book-based version of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), a Dungeon Master (DM) drew the map of the site of the action on paper with obstructions, treasures, and Non Player Characters (NPCs – essentially extras that can provide help when asked). I played D&D in college and we had an excellent DM (Smaug the Unpleasant) and a great group of players that spent hours exploring and fighting (Beaudrow the Elf) and opening doors (Aragon the Strong).

    RPGs were among the first games produced for home computers, and my favorite type of software was D&D. I played simple versions of it on the Commodore 64 and more advanced versions (graphically as well as depth of play) on the more advanced Amiga. I played Dungeons and Dragons, Ultima, and Might and Magic and really liked them, so you can understand that I was looking forward to playing Eschalon: Book II.

    Basilisk Games says that Eschalon: Book II is “a turn-based role playing game” based on the RPGs of the 1980s and 1990s. Like the classic games, Eschalon players have attributes that affect how well they do, there are objects scattered throughout the game that are useful, and there are missions to undertake where players can improve their character attributes.

    The game system requirements are:

    • CPU: 2GHz or faster
    • RAM: 512 MB
    • Video: 3D Accelerated
    • OS: Mac OS X 10.3.9 or greater, Windows 2000/XP/Vista, Linux
    • Display Options: full screen mode (1024×768) or within a window

    Getting Started

    I downloaded and installed (expanding the downloaded .dmg file and dragging the folder into the Applications folder) the software on a new 13.3” 2.26GHz Intel Dual Core CPU Macbook with a 250 GB hard drive. No problems during the installation and it takes up less than 300 MB of space on the hard drive.

    I started the game and like the options/info at the initial startup screen, which has good information that can help Basilisk’s support in the event of problems getting the software to run on your machine. I selected Launch Game to get to the intro, which I can skip it after learning the necessary story background, but do suggest first time players watch the intro.

    Per the manual, my first task was to create a character, so I created Doc Beaudrow.
    Basilisk gives each character an extra 20 attribute points beyond the main ones generated by the game (Strength, Endurance, Wisdom, Perception), which I used to enhance my elf’s fighting abilities. After Beaudrow the Elf was ready, I went to the game rules screen and selected the easiest options to see how the game plays.

    The game starts in the character’s home, where I found items in the drawers in cabinets inside the house and took them for my adventure. A tip… take everything (including the journal) from all of the drawers in the house, look in the barrel outside the house (it sometimes has gold), and don’t forget to take a drink and fill your water skin at the well before leaving. Characters need to eat and drink. Upon leaving the house I found a message from someone that wanted to contact me, so I set off to an inn in a nearby town. I stopped along the way and bought some supplies and weapons, which I would need very soon.

    I spoke to NPCs that I met on the trail and in the buildings of the town (this is how you learn about additional adventures for each level) and then made it to the inn to meet the person that left the message at my home, and he just gave me enough to get me interested when he was killed. I set out but had forgotten the  RPG player’s prime creed: save early and save often. I had accumulated money, resources and experience but my poor elf was about to journey to the afterlife. I encountered some nasty dragonets that easily overwhelmed me, so Beaudrow was no more. But, to my chagrin, I lost everything: the character and the experience, so I had to create a new character and start over.

    Armed with knowledge that a lesson learned is not a bad one, I recreated my elf, picked up all the goodies in and around the house, then saved the elf before heading to town. This time I bought the supplies and weapons, found more gold, met the person in the inn, and saved my character before going any further. I now had a starting point, plus a point where I had some experience points and no damage.

    I went to a home under siege by dragonets, barely evading them and entering the home of a man that needed someone to find and destroy the nest of these creatures. I used a game feature to take a screen shot of the game at that point. My elf stands by a table while the dragonets (they look like oversized dragonflies, but their bite is much worse) are buzzing about outside the home. These creatures attack fast, and the best way I found to kill them was to use arrows, so make sure you buy plenty when you get the chance on the way into town.  Your character status (damage and ability to continue to fight) and available weapons are easily accessible on the screen. Note the floppy disk icon at the far right of the list of icons – that is you way to save the game at the current point in the adventure. As I’ve said before, save early and save often. Also note the map with visible and hidden regions at the top right area of the screen. It shows where you’ve been in each level of the adventure.

    I think you get the idea now. This RPG is like others from the past. It is simple to learn for people already familiar with this type of game, yet also easy to pick up if this is the first time you are playing it. The screen layout is useful yet not overwhelming.

    I have explored most of the first level and am going on to the others as time allows. I intend to continue playing the game and will update this article from time to time. If any readers want to contribute tips (just hints, not explicit instructions) for other readers, please feel free to post them here.


    Excellent manual – I was impressed with the desktop publishing, as well as the way the game information is covered so well and yet without being too much to wade through.

    Very minor system requirements to play the game, so people with older computers can enjoy the game as well as people with new, cutting-edge equipment.

    Reasonable price, and available as a download or on a disk for installation.

    Viewing the game full screen or in a window is a nice touch, especially for those playing (during breaks or lunchtime, of course) while at work.

    I really like first person shooters, but a good RPG should be more than just chopping down opponents. Basilisk provides good background information in the manual and the intro that make it an adventure with goals to accomplish

    Configurable Difficulty Modes – this makes it so easy for a newcomer to learn how to play the game without getting bogged down in details that are more important to experienced gamers.

    Finally someone is making an effort to get decent games to people running Linux. I would like to hear from anyone that runs this under Linux – any issues with a particular version/type of Linux, like/dislike, and general impression when compared to other Linux games.

    I love how easy it is to take screen shots within the game – what a great way to help reviewers as well as people that post their players on a blog or website.


    One minor problem (missing material on page 2-explanation for Left Ctrl at the bottom of the page) with the manual, which does not affect the quality of an otherwise outstanding piece of  documentation. I wish the manual had page numbers (which I added), as it is necessary to sort through it to find useful tips throughout the manual.

    I’d also prefer that it was easier to find details like the location of saved games and screen shots. For example, mine was located in /Users/mikehubbartt/Library/Application Support/Basilisk Games/Book 2 Saved Games.


    Fun, and I recommend it as a good value for the money and a good buy. If you played any of the older RPG games like D&D, Ultima, Might and Magic, then you will enjoy this game. If you are new to the RPG genre, download and try the trial of this game. You just might be pleasantly surprised.