in Mac apps, tip

Lessons Learned: essential apps, a few tips

I spent the past month on a ship out in the Gulf of Mexico serving as a data manager for a research expedition. I won’t bore you with details about what I was doing, but I want to share some observations about my computing experience. I brought aboard a new 15″ Macbook Pro running Leopard with a virtual install (using VMWare Fusion) of Windows 7 Beta. Windows was essential, as the database in which I did my day-to-day work was not Mac compatible. Here are some highlights:

Data sharing: While many of the people on the trip used Macs, several people used PCs. Among us, we probably had about 30 Terabytes or so of external disk storage. Problems arose when we needed to share data. The PC people’s drives were generally formatted in NTFS. The Mac people typically used HFS+. The NTFS-formatted drives would mount on a Mac, but were read-only. The HFS+ drives would not mount on Windows PCs. No one used the FAT32 format, which is the only format that I’m aware of that is read/write on both platforms. We ended up formatting a few drives in the FAT32 format so these drives could be moved around and shared. Since my disk was one of the external drives that had to be shared around more than others, my solution was to set it up with multiple partitions: an HFS+ partition to use for my SuperDuper Clone backup, and a FAT32 partition for shared data. One interesting note: I formatted a 1TB drive with multiple partitions on a Mac in a matter of minutes. In comparison, it took about eight hours to format a 1TB drive with one FAT partition on a very robust and powerful PC laptop. Egads.

Data backup: I was surprised that many people did not have a backup solution on the cruise. If their laptop tanked, they would not only potentially lose data, they would be out of commission for the duration of the expedition. I choose a cloned backup over Time Machine for this trip. The reason is simple: if something went terribly wrong with my laptop’s OS, I could at least boot from the cloned external drive and keep working until a point in time when I could take a time out to restore from the clone back. With Time Machine, I would have had to stop working until I solved the problem or restored the backup to the laptop (which can be very time consuming).

Force-eject a CD: It’s good to know how to do this. At one point during my trip, I placed a corrupted DVD in my SuperDrive and couldn’t get it to eject. Usually, I can get a stuck disc to pop out by evoking terminal and typing the command ‘drutil tray eject.’ That didn’t work. I tried disk utility. That didn’t work. The solution: I had to disconnect the drive from Windows, as it was in use by Windows via VMWare Fusion.

TextExpander: Data entry often entails typing the same thing over and over again. TextExpander is unbelievably useful for these sorts of repetitive tasks. In my case, I needed to paste the same blocks of text into my Windows database. I wasn’t sure if TextExpander would work from Mac to PC, but it did. It wasn’t as easy as it is on the Mac (i.e., I couldn’t use TextExpander abbreviations in Windows), but it did the job. Once I had TextExpander populated with a slew of repetitive text snippets, all I had to do was select a snippet from the Mac drop-down menu, then click on it to paste it to the clipboard, then paste into the relevant field in my Windows database. It was a bit cumbersome, but much easier than typing the same thing over and over again.

Screenshots: I was planning to use Little Snapper to capture screen shots, but found this application to be too cumbersome and bloated for my tastes. I like the idea behind Little Snapper. It looks great. But it just didn’t fit into my workflow. I found myself turning to Yellow Mug’s SnapnDrag. It’s tiny, unobtrusive, and does the job well. It stays out of the way. I’ve tried so many different screen shots apps, and I keep coming back to SnapnDrag.

iPhone: The only entertainment I brought on my trip was my iPhone. I brought music, books-on-tape, games, and some books to read via the Kindle and Stanza book reading apps. Overall, the iPhone did the job. I was duly entertained. The one exception is this: the tiny screen didn’t cut it for reading a book. It’s a nice idea. It’s not bad for quick reads like poetry or short stories. But it’s just not a comfortable or enjoyable experience when it comes to reading an entire book in my opinion. Next time I’ll bring a real book. Or perhaps I’ll have one of those Mac tablet-touchscreen-Kindlesque-thingies rumored to be just around the corner. Final point: the iPhone also served me well for screenshots on the go. In case you didn’t know this, if you press the two buttons on your iPhone or Touch at the same time, you device will take a snapshot of your screen and place the image in your Photo library. Very handy.

VMWare Fusion: I can’t speak highly enough about this app. The ability to seamlessly run Windows alongside my Mac, to switch back and forth on the fly, to share folders, and to drag-and-drop between the two operating systems was priceless. Perhaps we take this for granted now, but just a few short years ago this would have been unthinkable.

  1. I read full books on my iPhone all the time. It’s especially nice at night with the backlight, something the kindle doesn’t have.

    It’s perfectly readable, just takes more page turns than normal. I think for some people it’s not going to work, but for some, like me, it’s great.

    Replace a book? No. But for times I don’t want to bring anything but my iPhone? Sure.

  2. I’m not sure why you need a screenshot app, when shift-command-3 or shift-command-4 work very well for that (or a subsection of the screen).

  3. SuperDuper is awesome.

    Adam, I suppose Troy wanted to take screen shots of portions of the desktop, not necessarily the entire desktop.

  4. Apple’s built-in tool does the job, but SnapNDrag does a better job. With SnapNDrag Pro, I can quickly and easily change image format (png, TIFF, or JPEG). I can choose the JPG image quality. I can scale a screenshot down on the fly without needing to open Photoshop. I can choose between a crosshair-selection, or choose to capture just one window, or the whole desktop. I can also take a shot after a ‘countdown’ period in the event that I need a few seconds to set up my desktop. The app also maintains copies of my recent shots within the app so they don’t clutter my desktop (which persists across user sessions). I can customize my file naming convention for my shots, auto-add borders, and even add a date/time stamp if I want. That’s quite a lot of functionality for such a tiny little app.

  5. Hey Troy, I wrote an app similar to TextExpander that runs natively on Windows, called Breevy:

    http://www.16software.com/breevy/

    I’m constantly adding new features… let me know if you think it’s missing something useful and I’ll consider adding it.

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