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Tips for the Mac ingenue

Tuesday, 17 November, 2009

The Universe is conspiring to prevent me from sleeping, and I’m getting on with it.


The Tip. The tip no one will share with you. The dark, dirty secret of the Mac underground: Lose the sloppy, crappy, awkward mouse. They’re terrible. The $3 mouse you can get at Fry’s, or your regional equivalent, is dramatically more usable. I have a $8 five-button mouse from the blatantly named Discount Electronics with a prominent Dell logo. All five buttons work seamlessly with OS X. The center button brings up the dashboard. The leftmost button is F9. The rightmost button is some kind of auto-scroll mode the name of which I can’t be bothered to look up right now. As you may know the right click is the command+click.

You do not need special, magical Mac accessories anymore. Firewire is not overrated, but most people won’t be able to tell the difference. This may not apply to you. If you need a USB hub, get a USB hub. You don’t need the mystical iHub for $50.

If you don’t have one now, get one. Get a big, fat external drive and store upon it everything intend to keep. Everything. This means you. Should anything happen to your Mac and you take it in for service, to the unfortunately named Genius Bar or to anyone else, your machine shall be returned to you completely wiped with only the OS installed. Not just disk problems, literally anything.

In about two weeks the keyboard will stop working. Although technically covered by warranty, being removed from its packaging counts as abuse. Yes, the replacement from Apple Store runs a mere $60, but is no more durable. Get a real keyboard. Ideally, dig up the keyboard to the PC you just retired and use that. There are good Mac keyboards, but they start in the triple digits.

If you have access to old, old Mac parts, say at a computer crap store, get the old white-keys keyboard that shipped with the lamp-like iMac. That was the last quality keyboard Apple ever shipped. It’s top-rack dishwasher safe. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have certain keys you will never use, but you’ll deal.

I don’t think any Macs ship today with under 4GB. That’s a minimum. Kudos to Apple for nsfwing finally shipping machines with proper minimum RAM without punitive upgrade charges. The objective of packing your Mac with memory right off the bat is that you’ll never have to bother with it again.

The speakers on the iMac are fine. If you’re doing any serious listening and you don’t want to hear it in Kahn-Hazeltine AM stereo, external speakers should be somberly considered. Get this from someone who deals with audiophiles or musicians as opposed to computer guys. Since my iMac has replaced my television, stereo, world-band radio … and probably some other stuff … a low-grade, “studio-quality” M-Audio system replaced the internal speakers. Read reviews and listen to as many systems as can be managed. This is very subjective.


Pocket-camcorder and most phone video is not read in its native form by OS X, and especially not by iMovie which may no longer ship with your machine. To rectify this, you need some additional software. This is what I do, and I do not propose this as the perfect absolute solution.

Flip4Mac WMV player is a collection of codecs which do not ship with OS X natively. This is an install-it-and-forget-it solution.

You also want Perian, which has all many of the codecs neither OS X or WMV Player provides.

Squared 5, MPEG Streamclip. It ain’t pretty, but it sure works. It can take any video your Mac can read and turn it into anything else your Mac can read. For example, the MPEG files generated by your digital device to the DV files accepted by most editing programs. You can do crude edits and some image manipulation in MPEG Streamclip as well.

I leave it to you to find where the videos are in your device. No handy-dandy OEM downloaders and encrapeners are available. Pro tip: Convert video to a larger size then convert within iMovie to the original size. I don’t understand why that keeps the image sharp, but it does.

Need a UTC clock on your desktop? This is a simple solution and the only game in town:

Preview does not suck as much as you think it does, you just have to get used to it.

Safari does suck as much as you think it does. Go back to Firefox. The OS insists upon Safari being there, even if it doesn’t do anything. Don’t delete it, just let it stew in its own juices.

iChat does AIM, ICQ and Jabber. Fire up those old accounts or gmail, or whatever Jabbers you may have. This is also a set-it-and-forget-it solution. You can only audio or video conference over AIM.

Front Row is all but useless unless you organize your media Apple’s way with religious devotion.

uTorrent, just in case you have to do that. Encrypt, encrypt!

VLC and Mplayer OS X will humbly play videos without the overhead of QuickTime Player. has a native OS-X version.

Making tea at your desk? Mac in the kitchen? Get cuppa

Unix/Linux disks to read? ExtFSManager

Want to know what’s going on under the hood? Bjango’s iStat Menus. Sits right on the menu.

audio manipulation? Audacity

independent feed reader? Vienna

Install X11, and most of the Open Source world becomes available to you. Not Photoshop, Gimp.

Odds and ends:

At first, that closing a window does not kill the application feels like an annoyance. When you get accustomed to the idea, it can be very handy. You can close your IM, Mail, music player and so forth while they keep running and you work in other windows.

When iMovie generates output it uses every CPU cycle it can find. Deal.

Remember, you may move the dock (taskbar) to any edge of the screen you wish. My dock is to the left. It may also be set to autohide. Handy and adds screen real estate.

You have to be in an Admin able or master account to update the OS. If you are not, the machine will download the same files over and over and never update until the master tells it to do so. This is a very common complaint among Mac users, but they shall not act to address the problem. Never run the Admin account (I don’t think you can anymore, at least not in the GUI), but make certain you have a master account for daily use.

Set the desktop image to change hourly or every 30 minutes. Get a bundle of interesting images from one of those desktop-image sites, like the set of 110 images called “oil and water” which I use, and all but eliminate burn in. Yes, it still happens. I could show you a white upright LCD iMac with burn in, if I could get you a security pass for the plant. Of course, if you have plenty of photos in iPhoto you can just use that.

Accounts: Admin comes with the OS. You have a daily use account, and if someone in your house dislikes your screen resolution, or should have limited access to the Mac for some reason, make for them an account of their own. Remember to log out from the system as you depart, or set the screen saver to log you out, if you have multiple user accounts. Again, your daily-use account can, should, and is expected to be a master account.

Take the time to work through every single System Preferences setting and make certain the settings are either what you expect or what you want. Yes, all of them.

System Preferences > Hardware > Displays > Color: When the Mac is at its home location, with the most typical lighting, do the “Calibrate …” exercise. The difference can be dramatic. While you’re in the neighborhood, turn down the screen brightness to below 50%.

Explore the Radio category on iTunes. I leave it to you whether you wish to compromise your music collection there.

To those who find this missive, I am entertaining additional points and criticism.

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