close this bookTidBITS#457   19981130
View the documentMailBITS/30-Nov-98
View the documentTools We Use: GURU
View the documentTalkin' About MP3
View the documentCorelDRAW 8: A Hedy Experience
View the documentFoot Notes

Looking for a powerful graphics program? Contributing Editor Matt Neuburg reviews the gargantuan CorelDRAW 8. Also this week, Adam introduces a new column called "Tools We Use" with a look at the freeware GURU, and we pass on additional information regarding working with MP3 audio files on the Mac. In the news, AOL buys Netscape for $4.2 billion, Alsoft releases the new disk repair program DiskWarrior, and we make a call for holiday gift suggestions.

Topics:

  • MailBITS/30-Nov-98
  • Tools We Use: GURU
  • Talkin' About MP3
  • CorelDRAW 8: A Hedy Experience

Copyright 1998 TidBITS Electronic Publishing. All rights reserved.
Information: <info@tidbits.com> Comments: <editors@tidbits.com>


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MailBITS/30-Nov-98

MacAcademy Sponsoring TidBITS -- We're pleased to welcome our latest sponsor, MacAcademy. As the software we rely on for word processing, graphic design, number crunching, and database work becomes more complex, training becomes increasingly important. To meet this need, MacAcademy provides four types of computer training, including videos, CD-ROMs, and seminars, plus personalized on-site training. Their programs are available in English, Japanese, Spanish, and German. Over the years, MacAcademy has trained more than one million people via video and CD-ROM programs and 500,000 via seminars. MacAcademy's expertise includes most major Macintosh programs, and if you're a Mac user forced to use Windows at work, they also offer training for Windows software. Check out their online catalog for a full list of programs, plus schedules of the live seminars. [ACE]

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Calling All Gift Suggestions! TidBITS has a holiday tradition of assembling reasonable Mac-oriented gift suggestions from readers. Usually, we collate these ideas, track down some details, add thoughts of our own, and publish the results in an article or even a special issue. This year, we thought we would open up the process to the TidBITS Talk mailing list, so you can see what others consider good gift material.

To participate, send a your gift idea to <tidbits-talk@tidbits.com>, whether it's something you want yourself or something you plan to give to someone else. Include a URL or other contact information for each suggestion, and limit yourself to one suggestion per message. Unique ideas are welcome, but please recommend only other people's products - self-promotion tends to detract from these efforts. You can keep up with the discussion via the URL below (the TidBITS Talk archive adds new messages once a day), or subscribe directly to the TidBITS Talk mailing list. Let the recommendations begin! [ACE]

<http://db.tidbits.com/getbits.acgi?tlkthrd=487>
<http://www.tidbits.com/about/tidbits-talk.html>

AOL Buys Netscape for $4.2 Billion -- America Online has announced it will buy Netscape Communications in a $4.21 billion stock deal. Under the agreement, AOL will operate Netscape as a separate division, while leveraging Netscape's Web browser software and widely used NetCenter Web site. With the acquisition, AOL will control two of the Web's four most trafficked "portal" sites, which has some analysts saying AOL may attract as much as a third of online advertising revenue. In addition, AOL and Sun Microsystems have agreed to a three year partnership whereby Sun will distribute Netscape's server software and pay AOL $350 million dollars in licensing and marketing fees. In exchange, AOL will adopt Sun's Java technology for use in "AOL devices" and purchase $500 million of Sun's high-end computers. Microsoft is already claiming the AOL-Netscape merger undermines the ongoing antitrust case against Microsoft, although others argue the merger serves as evidence of the difficulty of competing against Microsoft. For the time being, AOL says it plans to continue distributing Microsoft's Internet Explorer so AOL's client software remains bundled with Windows. [GD]

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Alsoft's DiskWarrior Combats Directory Damage -- The folks at Alsoft, makers of DiskExpress Pro and PlusOptimizer, have released DiskWarrior, a new disk repair utility with a unique approach to recovering data. DiskWarrior focuses exclusively on directory data, pulling out as much information as possible and then creating a new, optimized directory, which the user can preview before saving changes. DiskWarrior won't be able to repair corrupted or damaged files (and doesn't seem to offer other traditional file-based features, like an "undelete" option), nor would it be able to help if a disk's directory is very badly damaged. Nonetheless, it might be useful for recovering missing folders or files or nipping subtle directory problems before they blossom into catastrophes. DiskWarrior costs $70, and supports HFS and HFS Plus volumes on IDE, SCSI, and USB devices. DiskWarrior requires a 68020 processor or better (including PowerPC), at least 16 MB of RAM, and System 7.1 or higher. [GD]

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Tools We Use: GURU

by Adam C. Engst <ace@tidbits.com>

In the fuss over major productivity applications and well-known utilities, it's easy to lose sight of clever programs that make using our Macs easier or better. These tools form a big percentage of the 80 MB (90 files) of submissions the Info-Mac Archive receives each week. They're all freeware or shareware, and most are written by individual programmers seeking to solve nagging problems. We're talking about classic one-trick ponies here, and although these programs may lack universal appeal, if you need their single trick, you'll be a happy user.

The main thing separating the programs we plan to write about in this sporadic column from all the others is that these are the tools members of the TidBITS staff actually use. If we don't use it, we won't be writing about it in this column - simple as that.

GURU -- We used to pride ourselves on knowing the basic specs of all Macs. The Performas eliminated that ability for most everyone, and only recently has the Macintosh line become more coherent. Many resources have appeared over the years to provide information about Macintosh models, and Apple publishes much of this information on their Web site.

<http://www.info.apple.com/applespec/applespec.taf>

However, the tool I turn to whenever I have a question about a specific Mac is the freeware GURU (GUide to RAM Upgrades), written by Craig Marciniak and Steve Jackman for NewerRAM (previously part of Newer Technologies and now owned by Peripheral Enhancements). GURU is a small database with a custom front end and a few cool features; what sets it apart is its focused content. GURU's great for determining what sort of RAM to buy for a given Mac, what type of clock battery a Mac takes, and what video resolutions are possible.

GURU's primary interface is a floating palette with pop-up menus for each class of Macintosh and Macintosh clones. If you're not a floating palette fan, you can also use the hierarchical menus in the Windows menu. Choose a model from one of the menus and GURU displays a two- or three-tabbed window filled with information about that system.

The General Information tab provides basic specifications, including processor type, number of expansion slots, and so on. As Macs age and clock batteries die, the information on which clock battery to buy may prove useful. A dead clock battery can result in a variety of problems ranging from inaccurate timekeeping to a failure to start up; you might be able to save money by buying a battery and installing it yourself rather than taking the Mac in for service.

The Memory tab concentrates on RAM details, telling you what sort of SIMMs, DIMMs, or other RAM modules a Mac needs, plus the number of sockets in the machine. GURU also includes useful items like the minimum speed, the maximum RAM configuration, and which memory modules sizes will work. You can select configurations from a pop-up menu to learn what combinations of RAM modules are necessary to achieve that configuration. With some Macs, you can also access a graphical map of the RAM sockets and populate them by choosing module sizes from pop-up menus; when possible, GURU also shows you how to install the modules to support memory interleaving (which can increase performance slightly).

Finally, the Video tab tells you how much VRAM is installed by default in any given Mac, and lets you figure out how much more you can add and what bit depth that will provide at different resolutions.

One of the reasons I like GURU is that it's been around for years and has been revised constantly to account for new Macs. Every so often I realize I have an old version and pop out to the Internet to pick up a current copy. There's a Web Site button in the About dialog that takes you to the NewerRAM Web site, but I'd also like to see support for the Simple Internet Version Control (SIVC) protocol that Anarchie Pro and other programs use to inform users of updates.

GURU 2.7.1, which is the current version, is a 475K download. If you're curious about different Macintosh models, grab a copy of GURU today.

<http://www.newerram.com/guru.html>


Talkin' About MP3

by Jeff Carlson <jeffc@tidbits.com>

Kevin Savetz's recent article about the MP3 audio format (see "Move Over MTV, Now There's MP3" in TidBITS-455) sparked a great deal of interest from audiophiles on TidBITS Talk. Although some discussions focused on downloading music from the Web, the threads quickly centered on converting audio CDs to the MP3 format, and the overall quality of MP3 audio.

<http://db.tidbits.com/getbits.acgi?tbart=05174>
<http://db.tidbits.com/getbits.acgi?tlktxt=MP3>

Better Breakfast Tools -- Although readers mentioned several utilities for burning CDs containing MP3 files, Alastair Sweeny <infonauts@sumpatico.ca> suggested Adaptec's programs Toast and Jam and their related mailing list.

"The best way to become a CD audio expert is to subscribe to Adaptec's mailing list. Send a message to <LISTSERV@LISTSERV.ADAPTEC.COM> with the command "SUBSCRIBE ADAPTEC_CDR your full name" in the body of the message. The list is a good clearing house for tips and hassles. If you have a CD-R drive, you can avoid burning coasters by checking out this list."

<http://www.adaptec.com/products/overview/toast.html>
<http://www.adaptec.com/products/overview/jam.html>

For those looking for tools to edit the music before you burn to CD, Travis Butler <tbutler@tfs.net> recommended Peak LE:

"There's also Peak LE, from BIAS - only $99 when I picked up my copy a few months ago. Has some rough edges, and the interface is sluggish at times on my 7500/120, but does the job quite well for the price. You can also get a plug-in for Peak LE that does fairly automatic filtering of some common audio problems - hiss, pop, and the like. A demo of the plug-in ships with the program, and there's a demo of the whole program at Bias's site."

<http://www.bias-inc.com/>

Why MP3? A few readers questioned the utility of the MP3 format when existing CDs work just fine. Dan Frakes <dan@informinit.com> answered:

"As one example, I use a PowerBook 2400 for computing on the go. I prefer to travel as light as possible, so I don't want to carry a portable CD player, MiniDisc player, etc. I convert a CD, multiple CDs, or just a bunch of tracks to MP3 format and save them to the 2400's hard drive. With an application like MacAmp, I can then plug in a set of headphones and listen to as much music as I have saved. The MP3's play in the background, and don't cut down on battery life too much."

<http://www.macamp.com/>

Chris Gibson <chris.gibson@gibsons.org> envisioned the potential of computer-based music systems:

"You don't see it much (yet!) on the Mac, but on Windows many CD extracting/ripping utilities can link to CDDB databases on the Internet that use the ID# of the CD to download artist, title, and track information. You can also add genre or other details to manage the CDs. The promise for the future is what gets me. I have a volume on one of our computers with tons of MP3's (all ripped from my and my wife's CD collections). I share that volume on our home network, and any computer in our house can play music - all at the same time! It's not hard to envision an appliance that could access that same central collection over virtually any of the home network protocols that exist or are coming. So, perhaps, you could have a tiny device in your kitchen that accesses music data over a power line carrier-based home network. And, with just a bit of intelligence, it could store playlists, etc. I could go on, but the point is that MP3 isn't a substitute for CDs, but a whole new way to access music that provides new vistas of flexibility and scalability."

Finally, following up on capabilities to customize the track information, Martin Gleeson <gleeson@unimelb.edu.au> wrote:

"I find that the combo of InCDius, Track Thief and Mpecker is the best. InCDius uses CDDB to get the title and track info, Track Thief creates the filenames as the names of the tracks, and Mpecker just adds an .mp3 suffix to the end of them, saving a lot of typing. A future version of Mpecker will support direct-from-CD encoding. Oh, and all three of them are freeware."

<http://www.xnet.com/~grhowes/html/Software/InCDius.html>
<http://www.student.nada.kth.se/~d88-bli/misc/TrackThief1.11.sit.hqx>
<http://www.anime.net/~go/mpeckers.html>


CorelDRAW 8: A Hedy Experience

by Matt Neuburg <matt@tidbits.com>

Only someone vacationing on Jupiter would be unaware of the fanfare attending the August release of CorelDRAW 8. For months before, the coldly rendered features of actress Hedy Lamarr assaulted us from full-page magazine ads and monstrous Macworld Expo posters; and there followed what must be the longest-running promotional sale in history. The suggested retail price, variously quoted between $400 and $695, is meaningless; Hedy, ubiquitous at retail outlets and throughout the pages of mail-order catalogs, can be had for $150, $100, $50, or even free. Lowest prices go to purchasers of an iMac or other CPU, but you get the "competitive upgrade" price just by claiming to own any drawing software more sophisticated than a crayon, and some outlets have given up the "upgrade" pretense altogether.

<http://www.corel.com/draw8mac/>

The hype notwithstanding, I'm delighted to obtain a full-featured, professional-level graphics program inexpensively. After all, even someone whose brain's linguistic side is dominant occasionally needs to make up a poster, a business card, a logo, a house plan, or a Web photo. Faithful SuperPaint has a place in my heart, but it's old, and its range is limited. Some time ago, I tried Deneba's Canvas 5, but the chief result was that I've been hoping, ever since, for something to displace it from my computer. CorelDRAW seems to be just the ticket. (I make no comparison, though, with Illustrator or Freehand, since I don't own them.)

<http://db.tidbits.com/getbits.acgi?tbart=03174>
<http://db.tidbits.com/getbits.acgi?tbart=00734>

Large and Demanding -- The CorelDRAW package comes on two CDs. Besides the vector-based CorelDRAW itself, you get to manipulate bitmaps with Corel PHOTO-PAINT 8, and convert them to vectors with CorelTRACE 8. There are also several Photoshop plug-ins (which PHOTO-PAINT accepts), lots of sample files, oodles of clip art, Web art, photos, and fonts, plus OEM versions of the simple image-file organizer Canto Cumulus and the font management utility FontReserve. (Many users found you also get a free copy of the AutoStart worm, necessitating a recall of an early production run. Corel lists serial numbers of affected batches on their Web site.) One thing you don't get, alas, is respite from Hedy's face, which is still in yours - on three manual covers, two CDs, one CD jacket, and the splash screen each time you start up.

<http://db.tidbits.com/getbits.acgi?tbart=04180>
<http://db.tidbits.com/getbits.acgi?tbart=04864>
<http://www.corel.com/draw8mac/virusinfo.htm>

You also need to bring a lot to the party. You'll need a lot of RAM - I mean a lot of RAM: CorelDRAW likes at least 35 MB of its own, and adds as much as 30 MB to the system heap. You'll need a PowerPC-based Mac with a lot of speed: CorelDRAW runs acceptably on my 604e/180, but Corel wisely recommends a G3. There are lots of floating windoids, so you'll need plenty of screen real estate. And you'll need a lot of disk space: a typical installation is 130 MB. The installation is painless, almost all files going into one folder, with a log telling you what went where; but the program still depends upon dozens of undocumented libraries and preference files.

Still, if CorelDRAW is immense, it has good reason. For one thing, it's fully stocked with professional capabilities. It includes several standard spot and composite color collections (Pantone, Focoltone, etc.). It's ColorSync-compliant. It prints at three levels of optimizable Postscript (as well as looking darned good on my StyleWriter). It can output negatives, bleeds, separations, halftones, and traps. It lays out text with styles, precise kerning, columns, and linked frames. It can open and save many formats such as PICT, Illustrator, Photoshop, AutoCAD, GIF, JPEG, TIFF, and plenty of others I've never heard of. It even generates HTML, using your choice of tables, layers, or styles to position objects.

CorelDRAW is also heavily customizable, along the lines of Microsoft Word: you can modify menus, palettes, toolbars, keyboard shortcuts, and individual workspaces. Plus it's thoroughly scriptable, which is a convenience and a delight.

Finally, CorelDRAW is full-featured. Besides the expected geometric shapes, bezier curves, and text, CorelDRAW lets you work with calligraphic curves; dimension lines; gradient, pattern, bitmap, and texture fills; text inside shapes, wrapping round shapes, or following a path; and special effects such as object blending, distortion, extrusion, envelopes, transparency, drop shadows, and lenses. (Some bitmap filters and effects are also included, but to edit a bitmap seriously you'll need to switch to PHOTO-PAINT.)

Easy and Strong -- You can't judge a program by its feature list; a checkmark in a comparison chart doesn't mean that a feature is useful, reliable, well-designed, or well-integrated. But I find that CorelDRAW's features are mostly just that. For all its bulk, CorelDRAW feels remarkably lean and straightforward.

Corel's success in this area seems to be due largely to some serious thought about interface. Essential tools are nicely placed within the user's immediate sight and reach, reducing the need to hunt through menus or bring up palettes or dialogs. Of course, you can bring up palettes and dialogs; indeed, CorelDRAW often provides multiple ways to accomplish a given task. But there is never any feeling of redundancy - each method has its place. Typically, you work in five neatly defined areas:

  • The toolbox, where you choose a tool
  • The color palette, where you choose a color
  • The menus
  • The property bar
  • The document itself

Of these, the toolbox is the worst. It's a palette of mysterious icons, many of which are hidden until you click some other icon. I know that this has become common in graphics applications; but I still hate it. Fortunately, since CorelDRAW is customizable, you can construct a more convenient alternative toolbox, where nothing is hidden; and pop-up tooltips tell you what each icon means.

The property bar is like having many palettes in one; it's a windoid whose contents constantly change appropriately to give you options, settings, and information for the current object or tool. Once you've selected an object and are wondering what you can do to it, you just look in the property bar to find out.

The best part of the interface is the variety of operations you can perform on an object directly and interactively, using the mouse, right in the document. Contextual menus give you access to relevant commands without moving to the menubar. Handles and cursors provide a physical milieu that's clear, consistent, and intuitive. Click once, and handles let you move an object, or stretch it, or reverse it; for text, you can also alter leading and kerning. Click again, and more handles let you rotate and skew, and set the center of rotation. Double-click, and you're editing the path's Bezier points. Colors can be dragged onto an object to assign them, or to mix them into the existing color. If an object has a gradient fill, you can tweak its end colors, intermediate colors, direction, position, and midpoint; the interface here is absolutely ingenious. The same goes for special effects such as blends, distortions, envelopes, extrusions, and transparency.

Another of CorelDRAW's strongest suits is its approach to color and object management. A wide choice of color models and palettes makes it easy to navigate the color space. A clever find-and-replace feature lets you say such things as "find all red rectangles" or "change all hot pink fills to coral green." You can peruse objects through dialogs that list and describe them verbally. Most notably, the program actively helps you maintain uniformity and similarity among objects. You can copy and paste outline, text, and color properties separately; you can incorporate attributes into named styles for convenient, consistent application to objects - including, remarkably, color styles that describe color relationships (change the "parent" color and all objects with "child" colors change appropriately). You can even "clone" an object, creating a duplicate which adopts given properties of the original, automatically or on demand.

Finally, let's not forget multiple undos. There's nothing like knowing that you can experiment without penalty to get those creative juices flowing.

Moody and Recalcitrant -- The bad news is that although CorelDRAW 8 doesn't look or feel like a port, it doesn't seem entirely comfortable with the Macintosh environment. The size and position of document windows are not remembered between launches. Resizing a document window also zooms its contents. Fonts that lack a separate bold or italic family member (such as Geneva) cannot be made bold or italic. The program doesn't grasp that I have two monitors with different bit-depths.

In fact, CorelDRAW feels like a beta. Constant small glitches undermine one's confidence and interfere with one's intentions. In dialog boxes, sometimes nonsense appears, or information is outside the legible area, or scrollbars don't scroll properly. Mysterious error messages occur from time to time. It's easy to get into a situation where the document window refuses to let itself be activated, and all work comes to a halt. The status bar allowed itself to be dragged clean off the screen, and to recover it I was forced to throw away lots of preference files. One feels compelled to save early and often, but even this may not be enough; I've seen text mysteriously lose its envelope settings overnight, and there are reports of textures becoming corrupted.

The manual is typical of reference manuals for large programs: turgid, compendious, dull, repetitious, formulaic, sometimes opaque. That's perhaps inevitable, but a printed hands-on tutorial, a quickstart guide, and a shortcut reminder card would have been welcome compensation. The program has some learning curve, after all; there are important hints that the user needs to begin working, such as Option-clicking a color to change an outline rather than a fill. A number of features described in the manual are completely missing: most notable is the lack of any textual find-and-replace, a silly omission in a program that includes a spell-checker.

Online help is a curious hybrid. Part of it is Altura QuickHelp (like FileMaker Pro), and is quite good; but other parts, including the tutorial, are Apple Guide, which is a pain to use, and crashes my machine.

Also distressing is the lack of support from Corel. Neither by email nor on Corel's own newsgroup was I able to obtain responses to questions in preparation for this review. This makes CorelDRAW seem like not just a beta, but an orphan; I hope Corel has created this version without allocating resources for listening to users and fixing bugs.

On Balance -- For many years I rode a 1986 BMW K100RT motorcycle. Folks often asked me how I liked it, and I'd say: "It's wonderful. After I replaced the springs, the seat, the alternator, the water pump, the brake fluid reservoir, the throttle cable, and the windscreen, it turned out to be one of the greatest bikes ever made."

CorelDRAW 8 is rather like that. It has true premium quality, but for that reason one marvels at the presence of so many little defective details. Still, like dust bunnies, these lurk mostly under the bed and in dark corners; they may make you sneeze now and again, but on the whole the room is pretty clean and perfectly usable.

CorelDRAW's most noticeable shortcoming is its text-handling capability. There's nothing actually wrong with it, but here the program has an air of pretending to be something it's not. After all, without find-and-replace, automatic page numbering, multiple master pages, and so forth, you won't be laying out any catalogs. So the columns, frame linking, and automatic hyphenation features seem more cute than useful.

If Corel were actually charging the suggested retail price for CorelDRAW, I might be inclined to criticize more heavily. At present prices, though, the verdict is positive: it's a generous package of splendid features with a brilliant interface and professional output. If, like me, you want to own just one high-powered graphics program, CorelDRAW could be a great choice. In a word, it's powerful and fun. Even if it is a beta. And even with that darned face everywhere.

As Harvey Korman says in the movie Blazing Saddles: "That's Hedley."


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