Book: Mac OS X Power Hound: Panther Edition
Author: Rob Griffiths
Publication Date: September 2004
Info: xxxv + 537
Book: Modding Mac OS X
Author: Erica Sadun
Publication Date: September 2004
Info: xxi + 227
One of the Mac’s strongest selling points is a consistent look and feel. In contrast while Microsoft keeps a pretty tight rein on their own applications, many of the other developers give their Windows applications idiosyncratic (and frequently just plain terrible) user interfaces. Linux is of course even more unpredictable in this regard, with different installations have any one of several ‘desktop environments’, each with its own keyboard commands, icon styles, and so on.
But the other way of looking at this is that Mac users are forced to use their computers and programs in a way that might not be ideal for them. Mac OS X was designed not to be particularly configurable: unlike previous versions of the operating system you cannot change what items are in the Apple Menu or what font is used in the menu bars, for example. Users are not encouraged to alter the System files, and applications generally get installed in a ‘one size fits all’ way, meaning that templates, foreign language fonts, and other optional extras get dumped on your hard drive whether you want them or not.
But is this really a big deal? A couple of new books from O’Reilly presuppose that it is, and that one way to increase your productivity is to take control of OS X at a deeper level than Apple would otherwise have you believe is safe. In doing so, you can clean up disk space, create shortcuts, and get better use out of otherwise familiar applications like iTunes and Safari.
Mac OS X Power Hound
Rob Griffiths has steadily made a name for himself as one of the leading purveyors of Macintosh secrets and tricks. His web site is certainly one of the best places for Mac users to read up on this sort of thing. Mac OS X Power Hound is a reworking of his previous book, Mac OS X Hints, brought up to date for Mac OS X 10.3 and edited by David Pogue and Adam Goldstein.
Basically the book is an archive of freestanding tips and tricks arranged into broad subjects. There isn’t any overarching theme, and reading through the section on, say, iPhoto, from start to finish isn’t going to make you an instant expert on the particular program. Rather, this is a potpourri of items into which you can dip and hope to bring out something fun or useful.
Taking the ever-popular iTunes application as an example, Griffiths reveals tips on how to rip multiple CDs quickly, crop music files, and make CD jewel case inserts, all from within iTunes! Not bad for a freebie application that most Mac users play with every day. The rest of the book carries on in much the same vein, with a succession of secrets and tricks for applications as diverse as Quicken, BBEdit, and iPhoto.
Browsers get a very thorough review, and not just Safari and Explorer, but also less widely ones like OmniWeb and Camino. Since web browsers tend not to be covered in any great depth by other books, their inclusion here is welcome, and most users will find at least a few neat tricks in this part of the book. Among my favourites are the keyboard shortcuts file hidden inside the Safari application package and secret powers of its Downloads window.
The last quarter of the book is probably the least accessible because it is concerned primarily with the UNIX side of Mac OS X, either through the Terminal window or the X11 add-on application. Much as I enjoy messing about with Terminal from time to time, I’m still not convinced that many Mac users really care very much about it. Still, there are a few gems in here that even the most jaded reader might find fun, such as the adventure game hidden in the Emacs program and the list of major world event anniversaries (both accessed through the Terminal). Installing programs through Fink and setting up an Apache web server are both touched upon, but not in any great depth, and for these any one of several books on ‘UNIX for Mac users’ will fit the bill rather better.
Mac OS X Power Hound has a bit of everything, but whether or not it has enough to justify the $25 cover price is difficult to say. Certainly, it doesn’t replace an OS X or iPhoto ‘Missing Manual’, and newcomers to the Macintosh would probably find a lot of the content either puzzling or more probably pointless. Although it contains many tips that would definitely improve the user’s experience, it isn’t structured as a troubleshooting manual and so cannot be recommended as the second book to keep on the shelf alongside your day-to-day Mac bible. In short, it’s a fun read but probably one that would appeal most strongly to the geekier Mac user, rather than the one who depends on the Mac for work or study.
Modding Mac OS X
Years ago, I used to play with a utility called ResEdit that allowed me to make all sorts of changes to the Mac operating systems and applications. With ResEdit I could create my own keyboard shortcuts, change the way the Trash Can looked, and take sound effects from one program and dump them into another. ResEdit was basically one of the coolest toys around. Erica Sadun has written a book that essentially brings all that fun – and more – to OS X through the use of things like the Terminal, the X Tools utilities, and AppleScript. Whether or not this is actually helpful is another question entirely.
The format is noteworthy. Running alongside the main body of the text are blue margins containing screenshots, the names of the programs being used, URLs for accessing the supplementary utilities, and various other bits of information. These ‘two toned’ approach to the text certainly makes reading the otherwise fairly involved and complex material much more pleasant. Another innovation are graphical previews at the top of each chapter informing the reader of how long working through this chapter will take and how difficult it is to complete, for example. There’s also a “Chinese Take Out Equivalent”, a reflection of not just how advanced a particular project is, but also what precautions the reader should take before embarking on them.
The simplest and often the most useful tips are in the “Tech Help” sections of the book. One of my favourites is on page 92, where Sadun describes in a few steps how to create a folder that automatically creates preview icons for graphics files using the OS X Folder Actions. These latter are very powerful but hardly-ever used tools that many Mac users probably aren’t even aware of. Page 85 is another of these great Tech Help pages, laying out fair and square the philosophy behind the Mac icons. For example, did you know that productivity application icons are meant to be bright, while utility application icons are supposed to be more sombre and serious looking?
However, most of the book is concerned with describing rather involved, and often complicated, software hacks that tend to rely on advanced tools like the Terminal and are focused on modifying applications rather than the Mac OS. The first chapter is the exception, describing some fairly well known Desktop and user interface tricks like modifying the Dock. Among the topics covered in later chapters are opening up Application bundles to find icons, sounds, and other goodies; altering or adding tool-tips and keyboard shortcuts, and scripting applications using AppleScript.
The thing with this book is that very little of any of this has much value except that the fun of performing the software hacks themselves. Possibly adding a keyboard shortcut to a certain application could speed things up a bit, and a well-crafted AppleScript is always handy, but this book is essentially one for geeks rather than ordinary users.
Ultimately, neither of these books comes across as a must-have title. Of the two, Modding Mac OS X is the more difficult to recommend simply because it will only appeal to a very specific type of Mac user. It isn’t a bad book by any means; in fact it is well written and tackles its subject clearly and methodically. The introduction to AppleScript and the icon-crafting tutorials are particularly nice, for example, but the problem is that even the best of the chapters cater only to Mac users with very specific interests. As its name suggests, this is a book that is more about tweaking Mac OS X for its own sake than actually using your Mac to be more productive. Some other tips and tweaks can found here www.uniqpartner.com
In contrast Mac OS X Power Hound has many tips and tricks that even non-expert Mac users will find of some value, but it is still a difficult sell in terms of a cost/benefit ratio. While many important applications do get the Griffith work over, in and of itself the book doesn’t really remove the need many people will have for a ‘Missing Manual’ for each of these programs. It’s a bit like eating a bag of Chex Mix instead of a proper meal: sure, there are plenty of different tastes and textures to be had, but you’ll still be hungry for more afterwards.
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