by Adam C. Engst <firstname.lastname@example.org>
No program is ever finished - there's always room for improvements and added functionality. However, some programs are more evolved than others, sometimes to the point where it's difficult to think of new features or interfaces. For me, Casady & Greene's $65 startup file manager Conflict Catcher falls squarely into that latter category. I've known the programmer, Jeff Robbin, for some time, and in the past I used to send him email suggesting a feature or change in Conflict Catcher. Over the years, though, it's become harder to think of something that Conflict Catcher should do but doesn't. Frankly, it's a solid, mature program. And yet, each new release, with 4.0 being the latest, adds a few useful features and refines existing ones.
Some Background -- Historically, startup managers have been control panels that help you turn startup files on and off without manually moving them out of the special folders in the System Folder (Extensions, Control Panels, Startup Items, etc.). When Conflict Catcher first appeared it quickly gathered a strong following due to its smooth technique for assisting in the tedious process of testing for a problematic startup file - booting with a set of startup files, checking if the problem is still present, and then booting again with a different set, all in an attempt to isolate the startup file that triggered the problem. Conflict Catcher did all the thinking about which sets of startup files to test, so all you had to do was report if a problem still existed.
Since those early days, the competition has attempted to catch up. Now Software added conflict testing capabilities to Now Startup Manager, and in Mac OS 7.6, Apple turned the previously awful Extensions Manager into a far more polished and useful utility. Extensions Manager is perhaps the most serious competitor for Conflict Catcher because it comes with Mac OS 7.6 and later. It's hard for a commercial package to compete against software included with every new Macintosh.
So what sets this latest version of Conflict Catcher apart from the previous versions, which we've written about in TidBITS-194 and TidBITS-276? For the most part, the changes lie in the interface, but there are also some notable functional changes.
Conflict Testing -- Conflict Catcher's most important feature remains its conflict testing capability, and it has been updated in 4.0. Now, every conflict test starts with a checklist of actions to perform, much like the unified installer introduced in Mac OS 7.6 that walks you through steps that you should perform before installing. Conflict Catcher's checklist asks you to describe the problem (which is surprisingly helpful - I've found that focusing on the problem sometimes helps me identify the culprit quickly), inspect your startup files and system software for corruption, use intuition to specify which startup files you think might be at fault, and lock on any startup files that must be on for your Mac to operate.
Also new in Conflict Catcher 4.0 is limited automatic conflict testing, which works with crashes that occur on startup. I haven't had the opportunity to test the automatic conflict testing because my Mac hasn't crashed during startup in a long time.
Additional Information -- My favorite new feature in Conflict Catcher 4.0 is its extensive reference library about startup files, where they came from, and what they do. This information supplements the self-referential information each startup file should contain internally (unfortunately, many don't identify themselves at all). As the number of startup files has multiplied over the years, it's become more difficult to track what each one does and whether or not it's necessary. There were always a few confusing startup files in the past, like A/ROSE and DAL, but now we're seeing more cryptic names like JgPly.PPC.shlb and npacrx_ppc.Lib, probably brought over from cross-platform applications. There's no way to keep track without something like Conflict Catcher, which even allows you to add your own descriptions. And, although Apple's Extensions Manager reads the brief descriptive information contained in more recent startup files as well, it's unlikely that Apple will try to collect and maintain additional information about startup files from other companies. A recent minor update to Conflict Catcher, 4.0.3, added a new Conflict Catcher Reference file to bring the reference library into the present.
Along with providing information about each startup file and what it does, Conflict Catcher also tries to provide a link to each startup file's Web site. Clicking a link loads that Web site in the Web browser specified in Internet Config settings, if you use Internet Config. Unfortunately, these links tend to point to company home pages instead of to pages specific to the product in question. Pointing directly to a product page might be a futile effort, since such URLs tend to change frequently, but Casady & Greene could instead point all links to its Web server and redirect the hits out to final destination pages from a database that they maintain (this technique might also garner interesting data about what extensions Conflict Catcher users are interested in). Technically, it's not rocket science, although keeping the URLs up-to-date would require some effort.
The Conflict Catcher control panel also includes a Web menu that has links to Casady & Greene's Web site, updates to Conflict Catcher Reference, a searchable online version of the Conflict Catcher Reference library, and several useful Macintosh information and publication sites (not including TidBITS - humph!).
Plug-in Management & Custom Folders -- Another new feature I appreciate is Conflict Catcher's capability to manage any sort of file in any folder. This is most useful with applications that have plug-ins, such as most Web browsers, Illustrator, Photoshop, and QuarkXPress (Conflict Catcher supports those and other programs directly), but it's completely customizable, so you could, for instance, add the folder that Delayed Startup Items uses. (Delayed Startup Items is an $8 shareware application from Josh Adams and Erik Hanson that lets you get to work right away after starting up your Mac, but - if you pause working for a user-specified amount of time - it automatically launches specified applications.) In each case, Conflict Catcher creates another folder with "(disabled)" appended to its name and disables the plug-ins by moving them into that folder.
Interface Tweaks -- Conflict Catcher 4.0 offers a number of new interface enhancements as well; my favorite change is that it can now display the Conflict Catcher window at startup if the Caps Lock key is down. This is much more convenient than pressing a non-locking key, such as the default Spacebar. I always forgot to press the Spacebar at the right time.
Conflict Catcher 4.0 has more ways of organizing startup files, including by date modified, date installed, memory use, length of load time, manufacturer, and so on. Some views provide collapsible groups so clicking a Finder-like triangle hides the contents of that group. I generally leave startup files organized by folder, but when I have a problem, I sort by date installed and see what I've installed recently (since new files are most likely to be the culprits). In the list views, Conflict Catcher now shows each startup file's icon, which makes the list slower to draw but easier to scan visually.
Another long-standing Conflict Catcher feature is startup file sets that enable you to start your Mac up in a variety of configurations. Conflict Catcher 4.0 adds system-specific sets so you can reboot with only the standard startup files that come from Apple for a specific system version. That's handy for troubleshooting. Sets can also now be application-specific, so, for instance, you could turn off most of your Netscape plug-ins by default, but occasionally switch to a set where they're all activated. If you decide to use application-specific sets, I recommend turning on Conflict Catcher's Finder menu, since it's the easiest way to activate an application-specific set before launching the application in question.
Conflict Catcher has always been able to link startup files in a variety of ways, so you can specify that File A should never be active if File B is active or that File A and File B should always be turned on or off together. New in Conflict Catcher 4.0 is a separate list of group links in the main window that you can use to turn groups on or off easily. All the default groups (your custom ones show up as well) include only Apple software, but it's nice, for instance, to be able to turn off all the CD-ROM extensions on my PowerBook 5300 with a single click and also to see that all the CD-ROM extensions are off by looking at the Group Link list.
In the End -- Is there anything bad about Conflict Catcher? Nope, it's an all-around winner. I haven't run into any problems, although I think the feature list may be starting to sag under everything that Casady & Greene has added over the years. It's a tough spot, since they must add features to keep differentiating Conflict Catcher from Now Startup Manager, which now features conflict testing as well. There's a fine line between fighting off increasingly similar competitors and a terminal case of featuritis.
In these days of minimal documentation, especially for utilities, Conflict Catcher's 272-page manual stands out. The manual is well-written and provides far more information than the standard reference manual that explains little more than you could determine from looking at its program's interface. Conflict Catcher's manual provides lots of background on how the Mac and Conflict Catcher work, as well as helpful advice on what to do in a variety of problem situations. Personally, I know what to do in most situations, but when faced with a perplexing problem, I often flip through the manual to see if I'm forgetting any obvious possibilities. I also often turn to the third edition of Ted Landau's classic Sad Macs, Bombs, and Other Disasters from Peachpit Press (ISBN: 0-201-68810-7, $29.95). It's an astonishing troubleshooting reference for the Macintosh and is especially noteworthy given the problems Macintosh books have in bookstores these days.
DealBITS Discount -- Cyberian Outpost is offering a deal on Conflict Catcher exclusively for TidBITS readers. The price is $57.95, a $2 discount off Cyberian's regular price.
Casady & Greene -- 800/359-4920 -- 408/484-9228
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