Taking Notes With nvAlt And Epistle

I’ve blogged before about productivity tools. GQueues worked for me for a bit but my interest in it eventually faded. I tried running my own wiki with a What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) editor bolted on but that solution wound up being too clunky. But now I’m using a simple text editor for the Mac called nvAlt .

nvALT is a dead-simple application. Just pick a folder to save your notes to and start typing the title of your first note in the Search or Create field at the top. There is no toolbar or buttons or any of the other distractions typically found in a basic word processor. It supports markdown for basic formatting such as creating headlines or lists. The neat thing about markdown is it is easy to read in any editor but when viewing it in editors that understand markdown it can be rendered as valid HTML. nvALT has a rendered preview window if you ever need your notes in HTML or to print them out or just to copy and paste them into an email.

Markdown is just as easy to write as it is to read. To make an unordered list just but an * and a space before the sentence. New lines are translated into new list items. Different level headings are expressed by the number of # symbols in front of the word; one # symbol = heading level 1, 6 # symbols = heading level 6. A lot of the markdown syntax was inspired by simple formatting in plain-text emails. You can read through the complete reference of markdown’s syntax for even more examples.

So nvALT is a great little tool for organizing text notes but what else makes it so special? Well, when you save your notes to your Dropbox folder, your notes can go with you wherever you go. Epistle is an awesome free Android app that complements nvALT. It syncs with Dropbox, lets you search through all of your notes the same way nvALT does and it too supports markdown. Now I can make a shopping list on my computer and reference it when I’m at the store. And then I can delete items from the list after I buy them and have the changes sync to my computer automagically.

Previously I would have to email copies of my notes to myself without an easy way to update or make changes to them.

I keep different files for all kinds of different thing: random ideas, WordPress snippets, links and brain dumps for different projects I’m working on, to-do lists, and even rough drafts of blog entries. One time I was at a meet-up and someone was talking to me about a WordPress problem they were having. I thought a plugin I had just read about would come in handy for them and thanks to my notes synced to my phone I pulled up the link and sent it to him.

Since nvALT and Epistle are tied to my Dropbox account one could do really geeky things. It would be so neat if I had an analytics note and every night a script would update it with stats from Google analytics showing me how many unique visitors read my blog yesterday. Or if it aggregated a bunch of simple information that I check often into one place that I could glance at on my way to work.  Using a service like if this then that (ifttt) would be neat for making some simple actions to automatically update notes with new information. Then that information could be in one place no matter where I am.

I’m so happy I found an open-ended system that gives me the flexibility for all kinds of different things while being simple to use without getting in my way.  What do you use for keeping track of to-dos and ideas?

DriverMax Updates All Of Your Drivers In One Place

A couple of weeks ago I needed to fix a friends computer that suffered from an incurable case of BSoD syndrome. He had all of his data backed up to an external hard drive so the coast was clear to reformat and reinstall Windows. Piece of cake. The problem was how was I going to find all the right drivers to make his laptop useable again? He lost the drivers & utilities CD that came with his laptop. Enter DriverMax.

The main menu of the DriverMax software program.

DriverMax is a free program that scans your system and provides links to the latest version of drivers for the particular hardware you have. The process is straightforward as DriverMax handles downloading and installing the files for you. It can even generate reports of all the hardware devices in your computer as well as what driver version is being used. This handy tool saved me loads of time by not having to scour the Internet for the right driver or figuring out which one is compatible with my system. You can leave it running in the system tray and it will notify you when a driver update is available but for my purposes, once the computer is up and humming along normally, I simply uninstall DriverMax.

Interface for checking which drivers have updates in DriverMax.

The only downside I could think of is you have to sign-up for a free account to their forums in order to download drivers. It worked well for my friends laptop so if you need to do a clean sweep of a PC and you lost the driver disc that came with it, give DriverMax a whirl.

Picasa For The Mac Finally Available

I just read over on Techcrunch that Picasa for the Mac is finally ready. You can get it at http://picasa.google.com/mac/. I wrote about the rumors of Picasa on the Mac 10 days short of a year ago. The Mac version is nearly identical to it’s PC counterpart, interface and all. Check out the overview video embedded below.

One of the main reasons I like Picasa over iPhoto, the free photo program that comes with every new Mac, is Picasa keeps your folders in tact not forcing you to keep your library in a specific hierarchy. Plus, I find Picasa more intuitive and easy to use.

Picasa 3 for Mac Screenshot

Now I just need to figure out how to sync my photo library and information between my Mac and PC instances of Picasa.

If you haven’t tried Picasa yet, give it a whirl .It really is a great way to organize and edit photos.

Meet Snardr, My Spore Creature

Everyone on the net is buzzing about Spore, the latest simulation game from The Sims creator Will Wright. The idea behind Spore is you create your own free-form creature and guide it from a simple-cell organism to an interstellar exploratory civilization.

The game is being praised for its social features built right in to the game like profile pages for your creatures, YouTube integration, and the ability to interact with other players characters in your game. The full game will be released in September but the Spore Creature Creator was released yesterday.

There’s not much to do in the creature creator except for, well, creating creatures. It’s similiar to (and just as addictive as) the Mii Creator found on the Nintendo Wii. After opening it up and getting my orientation with the program I started working on my first creature: Snardr.

Snardr Spore Creature

Aww isn’t it cute. But some people have gotten a bit naughty making phallic creatures, for example. A quick search on YouTube brings up more than 350 Spore Penis Creatures The Spore Penis Monster is my favorite. I guess it is to be expected.

What does one of your Spore creatures look like?

I Participated In Firefox Download Day, Did You?

Firefox Download Day 2008 Certificate

Today is June 17th and that means Firefox 3 becomes official. After several betas and release candidates the successor to the #2 browser in the world has finally been thrusted upon us. You might want to skip Firefox 3 if you don’t use any addons, only use one tab at a time and/or enjoy a slow, bogged down web browser. Besides better memory management, the new “awesome bar”, and refreshed interfaces that better integrate into the look of your operating system, Firefox 3 manages to pack in over 15,000 other improvements.

To draw attention, the folks at Mozilla headquarters decided to break the Guinness record for the most downloaded software in a 24 hour period. Hence Firefox Download Day was created.

I updated Firefox on my MacBook Pro, on my Windows XP virtual machine running in VMware, my ancient PC at work, and even my huge Windows laptop. That last update was particularly tricky as the wireless card for my desktop replacement died and I had to tether it to my Mac via a cross-over cable. Here is a picture of the irony.

Apple makes a great $2700 wifi card.
Apple makes a great $2700 wifi card!

How many computers did you update today?

P.S. Get your own certificate.

UPDATE: Now you can track the number of downloads in real-time as well as see the average number of downloads per minute!

Mozilla Should Fix This Firefox Annoyance

This will be straight to the point. Firefox likes to alert me to new updates to my add-ons and extensions when available. Unfortunately it likes to do this when I start up my browser, stopping everything else it was doing until I click the ‘Continue’ button to proceed.

The Firefox add-on updater stops me dead in my tracks.

I like to launch Firefox and my other needed applications while doing something else that needs my attention. The thinking goes that when I return in front of the keyboard all of my tabs from the previous session will be open and ready to go. It’s frustrating to return to a screen staring blankly back at me waiting for me to click a button so it can continue. Once it is done updating it requires me to click a continue button yet again to continue the browser launching process while I stare dumbly back at it waiting to get to my websites.

The fix to this is simple. Since Firefox gives you an option to skip the updates it could have a count down timer of say 30 seconds before it will automatically skip the updates and continue running the browser. A good example of this is the updating mechanism in the anti-virus program AVG Free 7.5.

AVG’s OK Button with a countdown timer

A minor overlooked detail. Nothing to gripe about, I know. But I just like it when software works with me instead of against me. After all software is capable enough to figure out if it interrupts me and I ignore it’s pleas to work around me and do what i wanted it to do in the first place.

On a related note, the Firefox 3 beta 4 update that was released today is screaming. My 867Mhz PowerBook is a blazingly-fast web surfing machine again!

Spruce Up Your Old PowerBook

Even though their are loads of more powerful laptops out there, the tried and true PowerBook can still be a nerds best friend. I’m running the slowest of the slow 867Mhz 12″ PowerBook. This is the bottom rung of supported hardware for Apple’s latest operating system, Leopard. But I keep chugging away on it. In fact I write most of my blog posts on this machine while out in the living-room after work. Below are a few things you can do to get the most out of your second hand machine.

Computer RAM Stick

Max out the RAM

RAM prices are always in a constant free fall until you reach the point where the particular type your machine takes is officially classified as an antique. But for the most part upgrading your RAM is the best bang for the buck. Check out Crucial.com which can help you figure out what type of RAM you need as well as how much it will take to max out your system.

Screenshot of Firefox 3 Beta 2 with Proto Theme

Upgrade Firefox to 3.0

Most of my computer use happens within a browser. Firefox 2 has been a particularly frustrating release filled with memory leaks and sporadic crashes. I found it particularly unstable on Macs, both Intel and PowerPC systems. Firefox 3 is a completely different story with much quicker startups and a more responsive interface. Surfing sites on my pokey PowerBook is a joy once again and not a chore like it used to be. Note: As of this posting Firefox 3 is in beta (See the changes). You have nothing to lose by trying it out and I have been running it for a couple of weeks without a hitch.

SideTrack Calibration for your trackpad

Install SideTrack

Those newer MacBooks and the Air have such a snazzy trackpad that lets you use all sorts of finger gestures to manipulate your windows. PowerBook users can use SideTrack to get at least some of that functionality. The biggest improvement is the ability to use the edges of the trackpad to scroll horizontally and vertically as well as assigning actions to corner taps. The software is fully functional and free with an occasional nag screen or you can purchase the full version for just $15.

Tinker Tool Logo

Further Tweaking

If you really want to squeeze out every little drop of available performance then you will need to tweak some settings. First set your desktop background to a solid color instead of a picture. Head into your dock settings and uncheck the ‘Animate opening applications’ option and turn off magnification. If you don’t use Spotlight then consider unchecking all of the categories in the system preferences pane to stop the search program from scanning your hard drive for changes. If you really want to get into the nitty gritty details check out TinkerTool which uncovers hidden menus and options that let you do all sorts of things.

Now with a little sacrificing and tweaking you can get some good use out of your old, trusty Mac. If you found these suggestions helpful or if you know a tip to further spruce up your PowerBook let me know in the comments.

Picasa Is Coming For The Mac

Picasa Dock Icon

Duncan Riley from Techcrunch talked to a Google employee at the annual Macworld conference who happened to slip up Picasa for Mac is in development. If anyone has used Picasa, which is currently only available for Windows and Linux, you know how easy it is to sort through your mounds of photos and do basic editing. By contrast iPhoto, which comes bundled with every new Mac, is clumsy and hard to use. I certainly welcome a new photo organizing competitor to the Mac. Hopefully it will force Apple to improve the long forgotten app.

Duncan couldn’t get a specific launch date for Picasa Mac, but the Google employee did mention it will be released this year. All I can say is the sooner the better. Then I might consider switching to a Mac for good.

5 MP3 Related Freeware Apps

I recently spent a weekend ripping all of my old CDs to my music hard drive and got me thinking about all of the great MP3 freeware that is out there. Here are my five must have freeware apps for MP3 nirvana.

Audiograbber – This CD ripper is the easiest way to convert your CDs to MP3s. While it may look like any other CD rippers, Audiograbber has lots of tweakable options to make your ripping session more flexible. Features worth noting are per track checksums to ensure each file was duplicated exactly, normalizing to prevent jarring sound levels from track to track, delete silence from the end and/or start of a track, encode to a variety of formats including WAV, MP3, or WMA (other encoders can be set up in the Settings menu), and automatically load track information from the freedb CD database.

Picard (from MusicBrainz) – Gigabytes upon gigabytes of MP3 files collected from various sources can lead to some wacky, hodgepodge ID3 tags. ID3 tags are MP3 metadata that describe things like the album title, artist, track, and genre. The MusicBrainz service aggregates metadata from various community members in an attempt to house the largest music information database in the world. Songs can be uniquely identified by their sonic pattern which is used to match up the MP3 file with the correct metadata. Picard is a piece of software which lets you easily drag a bunch of files to batch process all at once. When the program is done you can overwrite the ID3 tags and live in MP3 organization utopia for the time being.

MediaMonkey – Lots of people rave about the brilliance of iTunes but I just don’t see it. Winamp was my player of choice for years until it became too system resource greedy. Then I found MediaMonkey which is fast, flexible, and incredibly organized. Remember all that talk about properly tagging MP3 files with MusicBrainz? MediaMonkey uses that information for searching. In addition you can edit the ID3 tags right in the interface as well as download album covers from Amazon. A bunch of Internet radio stations can be streamed from the player when your days of MP3s become repetitive. If that is not enough you can also batch rename the filenames of your music files matching their ID3 tags, connect and sync with a variety of MP3 players, and generate reports and statistics based on your listening habits. The MediaMonkey system also supports an open plugin architecture as well as scripting support to extend the functionality. All of this from a lightweight music player that won’t bog your system down without skimping out on features.

Music IP Mixer – Do you find it hard to come up with a good play list to listen to? Does the random shuffle option not do a good enough job satisfying your musical pallets? Music IP has a free download that lets you make play lists based on their acoustic fingerprints. When you first start the program up it scans your music directory and analyzes each and every MP3 file. Then using a specialized algorithm based on a variety of factors, the program can create a sophisticated mix based on a selected “seed” song. The MusicIP Mixer lets you tweak the mix by selecting songs and selecting “More like this”, “Less like this”, or “Replace this song”, “Replace this artist”. After specifying the number of songs you can save the play list for later use of send it directly to your audio player of choice.

– Controlling your media player by clicking on the software interface is for people with too much time on their hands; Real power users set up hot keys to do their important music tasks. I originally stumbled on Sound Control while looking for a program to visually display the volume level when I turn it up or down like an on screen TV display. But it turns out there are a lot of hidden features in this puppy. For one, I set up hot keys to play, pause, play the previous track, or play the next track all without bringing up the program. Another hot key lets me mute, increase, or decrease my sound volume just like those keyboards with dedicated keys.

So as you can see, it is important to have a properly tagged and organized MP3 collection, that you ripped from your old CDs, that can be easily made into play lists based on moods, that you play on your light-weight music software, where the volume is controlled via customizable hotkeys all for the price of zilch.