Threadbox.net: Relaunched!

So I finally resurrected my website from the crash it suffered on AWS. I was managing my own linux system, running my website on Amazon EC2, and somehow — completely unknown to me — my partition table on their elastic block storage disappeared. This resulted in the server freezing up. (Perhaps it was a kernel panic… don’t recall, exactly.) When I dug in, I found my storage volume entirely unusable.

Luckily, I had a reasonably recent backup. Well perhaps it wasn’t all that recent, but with my weak post frequency, it was fairly complete.

So you can call my corner of the internet resurrected and open for HTTP.

Edit 2014-10-18 – The podcast is live, once again. Subscribe!

Sunday, September 28th, 2014 General No Comments

Sennheiser HD8 DJ

HD8 DJImagine my surprise a few weeks ago when I received note from Sennheiser, offering me the unique opportunity to review the new HD8 DJ headphone, freshly announced at CES 2014 in Las Vegas. With piqued curiosity, I agreed to share my thoughts on this headphone.

As both a DJ and a Head-Fier, I happen to have a couple DJ headphones already on hand. For several years, I’ve been happily using the Adidas Originals, a special edition of the venerable and delightfully named Sennheiser HD 25-1 II — henceforth referred to as HD25. I recently picked up an AKG K550 to see how I liked the design. I like how the K550′s swiveling cups allow me to cue from the neck, but the cups are funky-large. They also have a very loose grip on the head. The HD25, by contrast, grips the head quite tightly. This is nice for mixing but not so great for extended listening. While I’ve seen DJ’s pull off the crooked head cue technique with the HD25, it’s really not ideal.

HD8 DJThe physical design of the HD8 DJ easily bests both of these headphones. For general listening, the circumaural grip they put on my head is perfect. They aren’t going to move around, and they isolate from the outside world *very* well. I find them to be very nice street headphones (especially for these snowy days in Detroit) though a shorter cable would be better for this. While the cups don’t fold flat like the K510, they do rotate much of the way. Between that motion and the nicely flexible headband, neck cueing is definitely easy and comfortable to do — and the cups funnel the sound in.

HD8 DJThese headphones seem to have very robust build qualities. When I shake it in my hand, I can tell it was made with the intention of withstanding years of physical abuse. One of the key improvements over the HD7 DJ is the use of metal parts in key locations like the round hinge clearly visible on the sides. This allows the cup to swivel between a few notched angles, including up into the headband for easier travel. The replaceable cable plugs into a 2.5mm locking port on either the left or the right side of the headphone.

Along with the headphones, the box also contains a nice, though rather large carrying case. To be honest, I’ll probably throw these headphones in my bag without the case. The headphones came with a pair of soft velour earpads installed, but I think I slightly prefer the slightly grippier leatherette pads also included. A curled cable and a straight one are included, both 3 meters in length. (Coiled cable is 1.5m without stretching.)

HD8 DJCompared to the already dynamic and punchy sound signature of the HD25, the HD8 DJ seems to have the same perspective, but better. When the HD8 DJ makes its comfy little seal around your ears, you’re delivered a big, dynamic sound with plenty of bass that is smooth, accurate, and deep. This is definitely not the laid back, bass-neutral sound signature of the K550. I’m actually finding the sound quite fun and engaging.

So in the end, not only does the HD8 DJ best the form and ergonomics of my other two pairs, but it is a comfortable and fun-sounding headphone for general listening, too. I honestly don’t recall using a DJ headphone that I prefer. Sennheiser deserves proper respect for this well-designed piece! I want to give a big thanks to Rosmadi Mahmood from Sennheiser for the headphones and for the opportunity to share my thoughts on them ahead of release. Also thanks to Jude Mansilla for recommending me.

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014 Audio, Reviews No Comments

The Enticing Sound of the ATH-W3000ANV

Note [2014-09-28]: I had nice photos in this post, but I lost them in the website crash. The backup didn’t include them :(

I’ve been enjoying Audio-Technica’s ATH-W3000ANV since I picked them up 6 weeks or so ago. My good friend Jose had them for some months before I was able to give them a listen at his place. Needless to say, I was fond enough of them to bite.

The ATH-W3000ANV is a beautifully built and finished headphone that Audio-Technica has released to celebrate their 50th anniversary. Interestingly, these have the same wood style and (for me at least) very similar sonic characteristics to the ATH-ESW10JPN that I’ve written about before. I still use the ESW10 all the time at work, and recently the W3000 has given me more of the same but bigger (in size and sound) at home.

› Continue reading

Saturday, November 3rd, 2012 Audio, Reviews No Comments

ZNC + Irssi + Bitlbee = CHAT WIN

So I recently made some adjustments to the way that I do my chats and thought it might be interesting to share. So in keeping with my extremely nerdy and sparse blog posting, I bring you this installment.

The objective: maintaining a bunch of connections to IRC and IM networks as persistently and easily as possible.

ZNC

ZNC is a very nifty IRC proxy. I’ve used IRC proxies in the past, but I remember not being entirely satisfied with whatever I tried, so I haven’t played with them in some time. Well, Darren Kitchen of Hak5 did a little segment (13 minutes into episode 1104) about ZNC that really interested me.

Apparently, ZNC is written in raw C++, so it’s fast and efficient, it’s exceedingly simple to set up, and it even has a very nice web interface that allows you to manage everything. Being an IRC proxy daemon, ZNC launches, gets and stays connected to any IRC servers or channels that you have configured, and awaits the user to connect. The user is then able to use any IRC client to “reattach” to the IRC sessions in progress: all the channels appear, and the last X (configurable) lines of conversation are thrown at your IRC client, with timestamps.

It can auto-authenticate with nickserv services, prevent you from accidentally parting channels, change your nick/status when you disconnect, try and keep your nick on a server with no nickserv, and a whole bunch of other features through loadable modules. Again, I was really impressed at just how straight-forward ZNC is to set up and use.

So I was just using irssi under screen on my server for IRC, and various GUI apps for AIM/GTalk (Adium on OS X and Pidgin on linux). When I reboot the server or restart irssi, I reconnect to all the servers and usually have to manually identify with a couple nickservs. (I’m sure there’s an irssi script for this; just never bothered.)

Now, ZNC launches when I boot up the server and it connects to about 7 different IRC servers. (I wasn’t even participating on a few of them, just due to the annoyance of rejoining them with the old setup.) I then use irssi under screen (just like before) except this time, I can restart it and nobody can tell. I can even connect with more than one client, so I could leave my irssi running under screen all the time, and also use a GUI or Android IRC client if I feel like it.

Bitlbee

I suppose it was after I had ZNC up and going that I remembered a tool I used some time ago. It’s called Bitlbee and it’s essentially an IRC server with a built-in “service” that allows you to connect to any of the popular IM services. So all your buddies are just in the channel with you and you can use “Nick: Hi” to chat with them, or use a PM for a dedicated window.

So, living up to my AIM “screen name”, ThreadUsesIRC, since they wouldn’t make the switch with me, I just made it look like they did. :D

End

Oh yeah, and if you’re on OS X and want Growl notifications when someone highlights or PM’s you on irssi, this page has a great solution. I have it set to automatically restart 60 seconds after wake on my Air, so I get them even if I haven’t reattached to the session yet.

On Android, using Trillian is still loads easier on the battery than an IRC client for being connected all day.

I think I’ve covered all the big stuff. I really like irssi and its themability, split windows, and its ability be long-running under screen on the server. It means reattaching is an instant away via a global hotkey.

And now I’ve found a really easy to use, full featured tool to keep all my IRC and IM connections open all the time and in one place.

Do leave a comment if you have any thoughts or questions !

Update 2012-08-20: Per request, I’m providing the oscar-thread irssi theme which is basically px’s oscar theme on the irssi themes page with some modifications of my own. Extract the zip and drop the .theme file in your ~/.irssi dir and use /set theme oscar-thread from within irssi to set the theme. Another trick I enjoy is using a particular color profile within my terminal app to visually differentiate it from my other terminal windows.

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012 Reviews, Software 3 Comments

MPD on Mac OS X

My story really starts with Trackbox, an experiment of a perl script daemon I wrote long ago that worked like a headless jukebox daemon and allowed a client program to connect to it to provide a user interface to allow the user to browse the collection of music, manage playlists, play, pause, change volume, and all the other things you expect from a media player. It was pretty hacky, but it did the job. When Shank got MPD, the Music Player Daemon, working properly in raw C, though, I retired Trackbox. MPD is very similar to Trackbox: a super lightweight daemon that sits in the background, performing the duties of of music player. If I don’t need to interact with it, I don’t even need to have a client running — like when my linux tower boots and the init script starts it up. MPD resumes playing where it left off before I even launch X. I’ve obviously been a long time fan of even the idea of MPD.

I’ve been using a Mac increasingly over recent years. It started with a 15″ MacBook Pro for work, and eventually I got a 13″ one for personal use. My current and second Mac is a 13″ 2011 MacBook Air, and I’ve been frankly thrilled with it. Macs are great, but but I think a lot of folks endure the frustration of hunting for a great music player that simply doesn’t seem to exist.

Currawong started this excellent thread on head-fi which gives a really great overview and discussion on the most visible Mac music player options. I’ve tried most of them, but never really found one to my liking. Each was either buggy, lacking features, stupid expensive, or didn’t maintain a library, making practical use limited. I have gone back to iTunes every once in a while, and I’ve always been disappointed with crashing or general bloaty slowness. I finally went as far as to uninstall it from my system entirely, reclaiming hundreds of megabytes. (After removing the iTunes.app, I simply used the Preferences screen of “Software Update” to disable future update notifications.) I must say, I don’t miss it, not one little bit.

I finally decided to give MPD a go on the Mac. After using it for perhaps about a month now, I can happily say it is absolutely my new favorite. At home, I mount my server’s RAID array, and at work, I mount my off-site backup, a 3Tb external drive at my desk, so I always have my full collection of mostly lossless music readily at my disposal. I’ve even found a nice way to start mpd with different config files so I can aim it at the server or the local collection, depending on what I need. Being a global hotkey junkie, I’ve mapped restarting mpd with each config to a different key.

MPD is only as nice to use as the client you’re using. Theremin is nice native Mac one, but seems fairly unmaintained at this point. It scrobbles and has album art, but its main drawback for me is that it doesn’t allow browsing the collection by directory structure like most clients. I would recommend giving this one a try; it may fit the bill. There are countless others to choose from, though. I managed to get the excellent, GTK-based Sonata client to run under OS X with the help of MacPorts, but it is a bit kludgey. Client175 is a very nice, web-based one.

I’ve actually found myself liking the terminal-based ncmpcpp client best. It is jam-packed with features, remains blazingly quick, and even has the ability to add a random album, artist, or track to the playlist! I can understand why many folks might not like using a console client, but it works really well for me. Bind it to pop up with a global hotkey, and you have a slick, quick-launching client that you don’t even need running most of the time!

The other client I use is mpc, the command-line interface client. I barely ever actually use it on the command line, though, but through global hotkeys to toggle (play/pause) and play next track. I’ve also written a wrapper for mpc that allows me to play (or append to the playlist) random tracks on random albums. The most unique feature of my tool is the ability to specify “top-level” directories by a pre-designated “short code” and add random tracks or albums only from within one top-level dir at a time. The main directories of my collection are genres, so I can throw on some random ambient music or random drum ‘n bass. For example, with my Alfred extension, I do my ⌘+space to open him up, and type, “rt db” — immediately 10 random drum ‘n bass tracks are added, and the first one plays.

Honestly, this has revolutionized how I listen to my music. I often don’t even have the patience to drill down my folder structure or otherwise hunt for something to listen to. Now I can tell alfred “rt ch” and have random chill out beats. If I want to hear the entire album for one of the songs, ⌘⌥5 will play it.

I use and adore Alfred for many things including setting up these global hotkeys, and I feel it is worth plenty more than what Andrew is asking for it. But if you want something that is free, I recommend BetterTouchTool. Here is the key configuration I use on my Air:

  • ⌘⌥1: play/pause toggle
  • ⌘⌥2: next track
  • ⌘⌥3: play 10 random tracks from entire collection (hold shift to append)
  • ⌘⌥4: play 1 random album from entire collection (hold shift to append)
  • ⌘⌥5: play the album the currently playing song belongs to (hold shift to append)
  • or all the above, holding Control as well causes the command to be directed at my server, which drives the living room speakers/headphone system
  • Control+⌥+n: launch ncmpcpp under iTerm2

(Note: I use Control+⌥+letter to launch / switch focus to my most often used apps. This makes me very efficient and I love it.)

MPD does the trick for me. It is slim, efficient, and invisible. I can do 90% of everything I need with a simple global hotkey, and Growl gives me feedback. When I actually do want to browse around or manage the playlist, ncmpcpp or other client lets me do that. There are some folks who look for an “audiophile” player, but the fact is that if the program can decode the file and feed it to the audio device in a “bit perfect” manner, every app should sound the same. I think there are apps that are broken and don’t do this quite right, and I also think there are people who get fall victim to the placebo effect. I really see no reason to worry about the sound quality of MPD — I trust it.

I’ve uploaded my mpct.php script to GitHub in case anyone is interested in it. If you use it, I would love to hear about your experience. If you have any questions about any of this, I would really love to hear from you in the comments!

Installing MPD

Installing MPD on OS X is really easy according to their instructions. Simply install homebrew with

/usr/bin/ruby -e "$(curl -fsSL https://raw.github.com/gist/323731)"

then use

brew install mpd

I really like this brew software manager! I can even install packages they don’t provide with something like

brew create http://unkart.ovh.org/ncmpcpp/ncmpcpp-0.5.8.tar.bz2

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011 Audio, Computers, Reviews, Software 11 Comments

My JH-3A Journey Ends

So the latest news about the JH-3A broke a few days ago when JHAudio sent out an email update to their customers informing them of the latest developments. It seems that a patent that Jerry filed when he was operating Ultimate Ears finally went through, and so he is no longer able to use the active crossover design.

He has a clever solution, though. The original JH-3A design had the crossover in the digital domain, before even conversion to analog. This seems even better to me than the basic requirement for an active crossover: to have the crossover happen before the amplification. But what Jerry had to do in order to protect himself from UE is move the crossover into the earpiece, turning it back into a passive one.

So now, he’s still using 6 discrete channels (3 per side) of DAC and amplification, but instead of each being assigned a narrow band of the audio spectrum (which is supposed to increase driver control and dampening), all 6 channels output the full spectrum. The crossover (high-pass/low-pass filters) needed to separate the highs, mids, and lows is now in the earpiece.

Jerry says he can hear no sonic difference with this new approach.

But the big plus for this box still remains, thankfully for Jerry. Because he has the 6 discrete channels in the digital domain, he is able to calibrate the channels by adding tiny delays to make up for where the drivers are mounted in the earphones so that the waveform that exits the earphones has all the separate channels “in phase” with each other, adding coherency across the audio spectrum. This is really what gave the JH-3A the great leap in performance in the first place.

Apart from all the dropped features, though, the way in which JHAudio has communicated and treated their customers throughout this story has been bothersome. It took immense coercion to get updates out of them, with the juiciest of bits coming from leaked private correspondence. They gave a hard time getting refunds, ranging from complaining to outright refusing until they learned how they could be sued for it, without a product to ship. The latest evidence is this patent that Jerry filed himself, having been granted in January, that we haven’t heard anything about.

Folks evaluating this product should probably be looking at what it is and not what it is not, but for myself having been within the first 10 preorders, placed when Jerry first unveiled this thing at CanJam 2010 in Chicago, it’s been really interesting watching the feature list erode over the last year and a half.

In the end, I don’t think any one aspect of this journey could have deterred me all by itself, but when you add it all together, well.. it really adds up. Maybe if I was to find this product after release I could have jumped on board and loved it, but I really haven’t enjoyed watching and experiencing its development much — especially with the expectation that the product was going to ship in 1-3 weeks at all times. (Like basically since last November.) Peel feature after feature from what I thought I was paying for when I plunked down the cash, and the value this energy-sucking box has for me quickly diminishes.

Oh yeah — did I forget to mention that they took our money on day one? Consequently, it sure seems to me that they should be held to a transparency standard. Many have taken their refunds at various stages before me, but I’ve been serious about this device all along, staying the course through thick weather. I was mildly debating taking the refund recently until JH made it easy with the latest news about the great secret of the UE patent and the new design.

I think I summed it up on the forum:

I took my refund today because my original expectation of — having a breakthrough IEM system with a rust-color chassis, 24/192-capable DAC/DSP chip possibly capable of accepting flash updates, 3-way, active crossover, 20-hour battery life, absolutely silent background, and the ability to charge while listening, from a company who treats their customers with dignity and respect — wasn’t nearly met.

At the end of the day, the JHA folks are just operating the business the way they know how, and I’m sure they’re doing the best they can. This company is usually known for being friendly and easy to work with, so I can’t dismiss them completely for this experience alone. Maybe next time, Jerry.

Friday, October 14th, 2011 Audio, Reviews, Technology No Comments

Persistent IRC

I’ve gotten some favorable comments on the way that I do IRC, so I wanted to just share the approach that I’ve been using for some years now.

Of all the IRC clients I’ve used, I always seem to prefer irssi. Not only is the interface very simple and predictable, but using it with the screen utility is simply baller. Screen allows you to detach from a running terminal session without disturbing what’s running and reconnect later. (You can even connect from multiple locations at once!) The power with irssi should be obvious — the IRC session runs indefinitely and you can come and go as you please, all while keeping that connection to the server (or servers).

The requirement for my approach here is that you have a server that is always connected. The idea is that the screen/irssi combo is running there, and you connect to it from your workstation.

I always set up a global hotkey on my computers to open up a terminal and reconnect to the session on the server. I use Openbox on linux and Alfred on the Mac to accomplish this. In Openbox, I just launch my terminal app with the execute command flag, usually -e, passing in the command to execute the magic script on the server (seen between the quotes on the “do script” line below). On Alfred, I bind a global hotkey to this simple bit of AppleScript:

tell application "Terminal"
    activate
    do script "ssh -t user@server /home/user/.bin/irssi_screen.sh"
end tell

A “trick” I employ here is a little shell script I found somewhere* that checks for an existing instance of screen/irssi, resumes it if one exists, and fires up a new one if not. This way, you can do the exact same action whether you’ve started the irssi session since boot or not. Here is that script, placed at ~/.bin/irssi_screen.sh on the server. Be sure and set that executable bit!

#!/bin/bash
# Start a new screen session with irssi or attach to an already running one.
if screen -list | grep "\.irssi" > /dev/null
then # running
    screen -x irssi
else # not running
    screen -S irssi -t irssi irssi
fi

You can also set up desktop notifications for mentions/PM’s! I just actually set it up on my Mac with Growl according to this article. I did it once under linux, too.

If anybody out there finds this post helpful or has questions or comments, I would appreciate a comment! It’s quiet around here. :)

* Sorry I can’t give credit on this one; it was some time ago that I set this up. Edit: Actually, I just googled the comment and found about the only place it could have come from, this article on gregoa’s blog. Some other tips there, too.

Friday, August 5th, 2011 Computers, Software 1 Comment

My Sennheiser HD 25-1 II

I’ve been enjoying my Sennheiser HD 25-1 II for a month and a half now, and I wanted to share my thoughts on them. I’d been using my Audio-Technica ESW10JPN headphones a lot at the office because I like the ease of throwing them on and around the neck as I’m invariably interrupted. For this casual use case, I really appreciate the form factor of this type of small, supra-aural headphones. I also find these headphones to be extremely durable. I have no problem just throwing them in my bag whereas I need to be more careful with the ESW and its beautiful wooden cups.

One thing I really like is that the phones are so modular and user-serviceable. Perhaps in part related to how the HD 25 is 23 years old, you can buy every single piece separately. You can get replacement cables, ear cushions, cups, etc in many different colors. They also seem able to withstand much abuse without issue!

I ultimately decided that I was a fan of the blue accents on the Adidas-branded version over the straight black one. I’m not really an Adidas fan at all; I just like the blue. :) Yes, I could have gone crazy and bought a modded one or got the paints myself, but it would have been a bit more time or money than I wanted to invest. (Jfunk does some jaw-dropping work on these phones and others.)

The fit of these headphones on my head is very interesting to me. While my ESW10JPN clamp very lightly and have sort of stiffly-swiveling cups that make it possible to direct the pressure to the temples rather than the ear, the HD 25-1 II does what I feared the ESW’s would — clamp hard and non-discriminately over the whole ear. It doesn’t bother me nearly as much as I expected, though. I find the head clamp cozy on these phones and only after some time (maybe 1 hr+) does it begin to bother my ears a bit. Usually a little adjustment or couple-minute break is all that is needed. This nice, padded grip does give you really great isolation and I find the comfort surprisingly acceptable.

The HD 25-1 II is known for being a good choice for DJ’s and studio engineers. Apart from the left earcup flipping forward and back to allow one-ear monitoring, the sound quality is quite decent. When I compared Jude’s HD 25 vs his Beyerdynamic DT1350, the HD 25-1 II had a *much* more exciting sound with punchier bass. I was actually quite surprised. If you were purely after clarity of sound, the Beyers might do it for you, but when I casually tested these headphones, I found the Senns to sound hugely more appealing for the attributes that I wanted in them — fun sound and punchy bass with great clarity.

I still haven’t brought myself to let go of my Shure SRH750DJ for my mixing habit, though. The Shures have nice big cups that swivel to allow a quick preview of the next track while they’re around the neck, crooked-head style. I do just fine mixing with either pair, though.

Overall, I’m extremely pleased with these phones. They’re robust enough that I’m not afraid to throw them in a bag or get them a bit scratched up, and they sound good enough to satisfy my inner audiophile for the casual listening I intended them for. They’re not the cheapest of their class at around $200, but I feel they were worthy of the cost.

Saturday, July 30th, 2011 Audio, Reviews, Technology No Comments

My JHAudio JH-3A: Attempt #2

It’s been a while since I sent my JH-3A back to JHA for the second time. I wasn’t looking forward to writing this unfortunate update, but figured I should in order to keep current.

Given the loudness of the hiss the first time, the continued issues of other folks on the forum, and the speed with which JHA turned around on my amp had me somewhat pessimistic about what was headed back to me when I got the second shipment notification indicating the amp was on the way for round 2. I wasn’t sure if a firmware change could truly solve the noise floor problem. After fully charging it, flipping it on, and inserting the earphones, I heard almost the exact same somewhat headache-inducing buzz as the first time. I think it was a little reduced, but it was still loud enough to hear with even loud music if the specific frequencies were not adequately masked. The gain setting was still much too high.

Phoey.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, though. A couple folks on the forum report NO hiss at all! Had it not been for this testimonial, I might not have thought it possible with the hardware design.

On another note, when JHA reduced the gain enough that the noise cannot be heard, they found that a PCB (circuit board) change was needed in order to gain-match the analog level to the digital one. Someone pointed out that they’re not technically matching gain, but tweaking the analog one so they’re both “usable”. So, here’s hoping we’ll see a finished JH-3A in fewer weeks rather than more.

Edit: I just wanted to add to this pretty negative post that I still have every reason to believe that this product will ultimately be extremely satisfying. I can’t wait to enjoy the full effect of the 3A and share my experiences.

Saturday, July 30th, 2011 Audio, Reviews, Technology 3 Comments

My OS X Setup

I’ve been sort of wanting to do a little brain dump of some of the tweaks I’ve done to my Mac OS X desktop to make it a better experience for me. I’ve been a linux user for about 12 years at this point, and I’m the sort of guy who likes to set things up to maximize comfort and efficiency.

I bought a 13″ MacBook Pro at the end of last year so I could have a solid, well-built laptop on which I could load my favorite distribution, Arch Linux. I knew I wouldn’t mind OS X much, either, since I’d been running it on a 15″ MBP at work for a few years at that point and had already figured out a bunch (plus I could share many sw licenses between the two). I’ve had many problems in my various attempts to get linux up and running on this hardware, mostly relating to the EFI bios and the fact that the hacked up touchpad drivers that you can find *still* don’t come close enough to how OS X handles this button-integrated, multitouch touchpad. Until the touchpad is optimized further, I’m not sure I can be comfortable under linux on this laptop.

Anyway, OS X is just fine with me. Of course, it’s still unix-based, but with a better polished user experience. Let’s face it; under linux, you have a million projects with different goals and quality standards, all trying to coalesce and work together. Some distros make it easier than others, but really — it’s a bit difficult to manage sometimes! There is only one OS X for developers to target, and it’s seen enough adoption to get their attention: this causes commercial software! While I totally disagree with Apple’s direction with iOS and refuse to even consider “owning” such a product, I don’t mind (too much) owning one of their computers.

So with that background, allow me to briefly discuss some of my favorite tweaks and tools.

Alfred

At the most basic level, Alfred is a quick-launch tool, similar to Quicksilver. It carries all the functionality of Spotlight, serving as an extremely handy application launcher and file finder, but it also can quickly look up words in the dictionary, do math, or look up things on arbitrary websites with custom searches. You hit your global hotkey (I use ⌘+Space) then type a keyword. When one purchases the very modestly-priced “Powerpack”, however, a startling number of options open up: one can access their contacts, email, clipboard history, eject drives, lock your screen, suspend, and even use fancy, quick navigators / remote controls for your filesystem and iTunes.

One of my favorite features and in fact things I wanted to specifically mention in this article, though, is global hotkeys. Not only do I put often used AppleScripts and shell scripts under easy-to-access hotkeys, accessible from anywhere in the OS, but I put often used applications, too. This allows me to launch and switch to my browser, IM, etc even faster that Alfred normally allows. That means no more fumbling with ⌘+Tab; I just go straight to the app I want. (I use Control+Option+<letter> for most of these.)

Andrew recently began working full-time on Alfred which makes me even that much more happy to support him. He seems to add all these amazing features without slowing down the app, and that’s something that he’s called out as being a key point for the tool — it will remain FAST, and apparently extremely stable, too. He has shared screenshots of the upcoming “extensions” preference screens which should allow for insane levels of customization. I’m excited to see and take advantage of what is to come.

I should add that Alfred is probably my favorite app on my Mac and it would be the one app I would want to take back with me to the linux side if I could.

Better Touch Tool

Better Touch Tool is a free app, and an extremely useful and flexible one, too. It has the same hotkey ability as Alfred, with in fact richer options. It also allows you to bind commands involving the mouse and even define custom gestures for a multitouch touchpad. One of my favorite things it does is let me move/resize windows without hunting for the little corner or titlebar! I hope Alfred will eventually obsolete this tool for me, but I do find myself still using it for a couple things.

Divvy

I actually don’t find myself using this one on my 13″ as much, but at work when I have 3 screens and really like tiling my windows so I don’t waste any space, I find this one very useful. It allows you to very quickly place windows in predefined rectangles that you can draw in a grid that divides your screen into a number of sections that you define. (I use 6×6.) It’s a very handy app when you know you want to put windows in particular positions often.

MacVim / TextMate

I’m a web developer by trade, so my text editor very important to me. I’ve been a Vim user for a very long time, but I used TextMate full time for a few years. It was only about a year ago now that I finally got fed up enough waiting for TextMate 2 that I switched back to Vim for my text editing, and now that I’ve learned a bunch more and found the plugins, I haven’t looked back for a second. I’d highly recommend TextMate if you don’t want to put in the effort to learn Vim, but the payoff of being really comfortable in Vim is really huge to me. I’m constantly amazed with just how easy things can be in Vim… if you know how. :) I still use TextMate for a lot of casual things, though… like writing this post, actually!

Edit: I forgot to mention that I would be lost without PCKeyboardHack which remaps my caps lock key to make it another escape key. Swapping out a never-used key with a mega commonly used key (in Vim) is a mega win.

SparkleShare

I’ve known about the security considerations of storing my data in Dropbox for some time, but when they broke their authentication for 4 hours recently (any or no password would log someone into any account) I was nudged over the edge. Now I use a git repository on my server and the SparkleShare tool on my machines. SparkleShare adds Dropbox-like functionality to my git repo, keeping all machines in sync by automatically pushing and pulling updates as needed.

Bonus Hacks

  • Make the dock icons dim a bit for apps that are hidden with this tip.
  • Once you’ve replaced it with Alfred, hide the Spotlight icon in your menubar with the trick in the highest rated response over here.

A Few Others

  • iStat Menus is my favorite menulet package. It replaces the clock/cal/battery indicators and adds every cpu/net/ram/hdd/temp/etc monitor you need, with plenty of features along the way. It’s smooth to me. If you want something free, MenuMeters is a good alternative.
  • Sparrow is, bar none, the best gmail experience I’ve ever had. I would say it’s well worth the price if you’re a moderate Gmail user.
  • Chrome is my favorite web browser by a pretty long shot.
  • Adium is an excellent IM client supporting most protocols.
  • Audirvana and Vox are both great music player options if you’re like me and want to play FLAC files and/or hate iTunes.
  • Cyberduck is an excellent free ftp/sftp client.
  • LiquidCD is my favorite CD burning app.
  • My beloved Mixxx runs on OS X! (Although I always use it on my tower under linux.)
  • The Unarchiver is a free archive compression/decompression tool.
  • Onyx is a great tool that does many system tweaks including clearing logs (opening gigs of tied up drive space) and moving the OS X dock over to one side. I am a huge fan of cornering the dock this way so I get a bit more usable screen real estate.
  • XLD is a most excellent cd ripping and transcoding tool.
  • TeamViewer lets you easily share a desktop for remote support etc. It’s free for my purposes.

Whew! I hope that was useful to someone. :)

Sunday, July 3rd, 2011 Computers, Reviews, Software 6 Comments

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