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A good alternative browser to Safari on Mac OS X Leopard is Camino. Camino is based on Mozilla’s Gecko engine, so it operates much like Firefox on Mac, but a hell of a lot quicker.

Camino just released version 1.6.1 (May 20, 2008), which fixed stability and security issues from their last major release, 1.6, which was made available a month before that, so the latest release should be pretty solid.

Having offered Camino as an alternative to Safari, I actually not only still use Safari, but I also use Firefox, basically the three major browsers on Mac. Why the heck would I do this? Each browser has its benefits.

Camino

Best mix of speed, features, and compatibility. I still find certain javascript/ajax issues such as with Google Documents drop down menus, but not much beyond that. Did I mention blocking of all Flash Ads and Pop-ups, with exceptions or white-lists available for both? Hot.

Firefox

Best overall website compatibility. Lets face it, Apple still has a ways to go before Mac penetration gets beyond even 15% of the user base that Windows has. As such, most websites are optimized or tested for “Internet Explorer” and none other. This can lead to rendering issues on Mac browsers such as Safari and Camino. Firefox is the least susceptible to these compatibility issues, which are generally due to Internet Explorer not being standards compliant. But, that’s another story for another time, by another blogger.

Safari

Fastest browser. Faster than both Camino and Firefox. Safari is what I think of as a “light browser”: a lean, mean, browsing machine. This was the first browser for Mac and it’s the most “integrated” with the operating system. But, it lacks some “power-user” features that I can’t live without on a day to day basis. For example: text or link searching using “forward slash” or “single quote”. In Camino simply hit the “forward slash” key, start typing, and Camino will move to the next word containing the string of characters you are typing. Hitting Ctrl + G will move to the next match. The same works with “single quote” link searching. Once the link you’re searching for is found and highlighted, simply press Enter/Return and the link is opened. This is seriously efficient and fast browsing, much much faster than messing around with a mouse or trackpad and hovering the mouse pointer over the correct few centimeters of display in order to open links. Try this inline search feature on Camino and I bet you will love it.

Safari has its own search/find feature that’s pretty tight as well, highlighting the word you’re searching for and darkening the rest of the page. This is great for serious text reading on big documents, but for navigating and general surfing, I’d much rather have Camino’s inline search with keyboard navigation.

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With large files, sometimes it’s easier handling them split into many smaller files.  In order to rejoin the files one typically uses a file joining program.  I came across two that could possibly perform file joins: MacHacha and Split & Concat.

Turns out that MacHacha has some issues, perhaps related to Leopard, as after reaching the last file of a 75 part file series, it simply hung on searching for the next part (which didn’t exist).

Split & Concat on the other hand, handled the files without issue and has the option of specifying the output directory though the Options button before the start of a join session.

My vote goes to Split & Concat for file joining software on Mac OS X.

The Best Laptop Screen available on the market is on a MacBook Pro “Santa Rosa” (named that for their use of the Intel Core 2 Duo chips using the “Santa Rosa” line, i.e. 2.2Ghz and 2.4Ghz speeds). Alright, that’s a bit of a strong statement. The Best Brightness on a Laptop Screen… is found on a Macbook Pro 15.4″ Santa Rosa model. The 17″ MacBook Pro’s still do not feature the LED backlit screen.

UPDATE 080519: MacBook Pro LED color gamut review.

UPDATE: 1920×1200 LED backlit display MacBook Pro 17″ models are now available.

So…

Why is the MacBook pro backlit LED laptop screen so good?

Instant Screen brightness control

Instant changes to the brightness of the screen, brighter or darker, which is perfect for those who use their laptop on batteries often and thus have a relatively short “sleep display” time. For example if you don’t do anything on your laptop for 1 minute, the screen will go black due to the lamp inside the screen turning off to save battery power. Inside old school LCD screens is a fluorescent tube which performs the lighting of the LCD transistors which are creating colored pixels. The problems or drawbacks with fluorescent backlit LCD screens is that the tubes need time to warm up before reaching their full stable luminosity or brightness. Thus, each time the lamp turns off and cools, and then is relit, there will be a period of time where the brightness of the screen is constantly growing as the tube reaches full temperature. LED’s, Light Emitting Diodes, don’t suffer from this problem and reach maximum stable brightness, instantaneously.

If Apple could fine tune their ambient light sensor control software to be more “fuzzy” and less “on/off”, the automatic screen brightness control would be useful. At the moment, the light meter is simply too jittery. Pass your hand over the sensor for an instant, and the screen’s brightness dims because it thinks the ambient lighting has changed. Quite simply, this is retarded. The lighting control software should be taking ambient light measurements and use a moving average as the target luminosity rather than try to adjust the screen brightness instantly with every flicker of light reaching the sensor. The human eye doesn’t adjust that quickly (think about waking up to someone slamming open the shutters or turning on the lights… ouch), so why try to make the MacBook Pro screen brightness change so quick?

LED backlighting uses less energy

The second reason LED backlit MacBook Pro screens are great: they use less energy. This is a simple fact of life (or physics I suppose) that LED’s use less energy than fluorescent tubes, to produce the same quantity of lumens or light power. Lower power consumption on a laptop is always a good thing since that is one a laptop’s main goals: to work on a limited power supply, for as long as possible.

Drawbacks of MacBook Pro 15.4″ LED backlit screens?

Weak Color Richness

The light produced from LEDs is “whiter” than that of fluorescent tubes. By “whiter”, I don’t mean it has less soul, but rather its higher in the color temperature scale, often measured in Kelvin. The effect is similar to that of Xenon lamps in car headlights. The inert gases used in Xenon lamps produce a light that is higher on the color temperature scale and have a bluish white cast. That bluish color is actually white, but we’re so used to old school incandescent lighting that we’re accustomed to a yellowy orange color in our light bulbs. Thus, on a MacBook Pro LED backlit LCD screen, the color appears more washed out and less rich than that of fluorescent backlit screens. For some, this will be a difficult thing to get over, especially art and design professionals for whom color is critical. For the average user, unless they are using a secondary display side by side with their MacBook Pro’s screen, they will not notice the difference. Until you have a point of reference, it is very difficult to tell that the color on a MacBook Pro is different at all. I happen to use a Samsung Syncmaster 206bw with my Santa Rosa MacBook Pro, thus, I can tell the difference in color richness, and it’s significant. Adjustments to the color on my LED backlit screen cannot bring more richness to the colors either. It’s simply a basic difference in lighting and no amount of adjustment to color balance can make LED light appear like fluorescent light.

Conclusion on LED vs. Fluorescent backlit LCD screens?

The constant instant brightness is noticeable every time I bring my screen out of sleep. The difference in color is only noticeable if I have the exact same window displayed on both of my screens simultaneously and I look back and forth between them. Thus, the good outweighs the bad, and you have to search for the bad in order to find it, whereas the benefits are always immediately visible.

I would choose the LED backlit screen again if I had to redo my order.

 My solution to keep Mac OS X protected from trojans and other nasty Internet virus related problems is an easy to use, easy to understand firewall software: Little Snitch.

Little Snitch FirewallHaving a virus attack your computer and render it useless is annoying. Having a trojan install itself on your computer and send out your sensitive personal information is catastrophic. What sensitive information could be that important you ask? How about Internet banking and online stock trading accounts, usernames and passwords? You don’t even need to have that information written down somewhere on your computer for it to be stolen. Keylogger programs can capture your login and passwords as you use them on your favorite sites and send them off to eagerly awaiting crackers in some far off foreign land. This actually happened to me back in 2004. Without the help of a firewall, I would never have known. More on this later.

How do we prevent our sensitive information from being beamed out to cyberspace? Setup a gate around our computer and hire a guard to watch all the traffic coming and going. Well, in a digital sense. The digital version is known as Little Snitch from Objective Development, Germany.

Little Snitch works by checking with you, a human, whenever a new program on your Mac tries to connect to the Internet. Each time a new program that tries to send information out to the Internet, Little Snitch asks you whether you want to allow this to happen and if it should remember your decision for the next time. This is really not as intrusive or bothersome as it may sound. After a day of using your computer as per normal, you’ll have just about all the programs you use normally setup with Little Snitch and the questions will stop. After this point, any time Little Snitch asks you about new outbound Internet traffic, you should pay attention: this is possibly information being sent out without your knowledge nor consent.

With Version 2 of Little Snitch, ObjDev came out with a great feature: Network Monitor. This feature unobtrusively pops up a window in the top right hand corner (by default, but moveable) with the name of the program and the Internet address it is trying to reach, every time data is sent out over the Internet. This is the ultimate in keeping a watchful eye on your system. You’ll quickly get to know which Internet addresses your Mac normally talks to on a regular basis and which addresses should set off alarm bells.

Little Snitch Network Monitor

So how is all this useful? Let me provide an example.

In 2004, I was trying to figure out some network issue with a game or what not so I popped up my firewall’s network monitor. I noticed something funny: an outgoing email connection was being attempted every minute from my computer to an email server that was completely foreign to me. I thought this somewhat odd, so I tried to load up the server address in a web browser. It was a Lycos free email account. I had no Lycos email accounts. At this point I could see the alarm bell in my head, but the ringing wasn’t too loud yet. Next I inspected what program was trying to make this Internet connection. It was a program that I had never heard of, installed in my windows directory. Looking at the compiled source code of this program it was referencing a file named “password” something or other. Returning to the directory I found this file and opened it up in a text editor. To my horror this file contained my usernames and passwords for web sites I used normally. This is when the five alarm signal started screaming in my head. In a panic I tried to delete the program, but it was constantly “in use”, making connections out to this Lycos email server, and monitoring Internet Explorer for logins that I was performing. Somehow this trojan program made it into my system, had collected all my usernames and passwords for web sites that I normally use and was trying to email them to an anonymous email account that the cracker/trojan author obviously had access to. This trojan was so successful that the email box at Lycos had hit its size limit and was rejecting incoming emails. Luckily for me, the emails with my credentials were being bounced, not delivered. The only thing that saved me was the firewall network monitor showing me the outbound connections. Had I not seen this unusual Internet traffic coming from my computer and stopped it, the cracker would have cleared out his email box, allowing new stolen passwords to arrive and I would have been compromised. I was extremely lucky.

Little Snitch 2 with Network Monitor can help you prevent this type of nightmare. If you’re interested in keeping your banking and other sensitive personal information safe, I’d certainly recommend it.

You can try Little Snitch before buying. The default install allows you to run the firewall for three hours at a time before it will switch off automatically. This will give you a flavour of how it works and what to expect. At that point you can decide whether its worth the $24.95 or not. For the piece of mind I get from knowing what information is being sent out of my computer, Little Snitch is well worth it.

What features could be improved?

  • A list of addresses or programs to not show in Network Monitor. There are a bunch of Internet addresses that my programs talk to on a regular basis. I don’t need to see these constantly in the Monitor. Example: GMail connects to its servers every few seconds to check for new mail. Obviously an allowed action, but, very repetitive and not interesting from a security standpoint. Being able to setup a “whitelist” of addresses with programs for Network Monitor to ignore would be nice. UPDATE 080207: After writing this review, Karl from Objective Development was kind enough to let me know that this feature is already available and I had simply missed it.  To not show a program within Network Monitor simply select the program  within Network Monitor you wish to exclude then click on the “gear” symbol within the pop-up monitor window.  One of the choices from the pop-up menu is “Don’t show [program] within Network Monitor”.
  • Opacity of the Network Monitor window. I’d like to adjust the transparency so it doesn’t affect the visibility of the programs I’m using below the Network Monitor when it pops up.
  • The purchase clearing house Objective Development has chosen for North America: Plimus. These guys are slow, unresponsive, and annoying. Why?
  1. It takes them 12+ hours to complete an order.
  2. No one answers their phones PLUS its very difficult to find the number for customer service reps (they ask you to repeat the order and choose “Pay by Phone” in order to get the customer service number. I’m not kidding). I phoned in multiple times at the 12 hour mark trying to get the order completed, to be greeted only with recorded messages asking me to leave a message (as no one was answering) and someone would call me back. I finally stumbled upon the correct phone menu choices which allowed me to confirm and complete my order without having to talk to anyone. In my opinion, what’s the point of having an automated system that forces order confirmation by a service representative, when the original person ordering can enter the system and confirm the order themselves? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of having a third party verify and check for fraud?!?
  3. They lie about having tried to contact you to confirm the order. After about 8 hours I received an email from them saying “your order couldn’t be confirmed because your phone number was incorrect or you could not be reached”. Since I have a Skype number which records all incoming call attempts, I know when someone has dialed my number. No one had dialed my number. To make sure I didn’t enter my phone number incorrectly on the order form I found my order on their website. Sure enough, I had listed the correct phone number. Thus, they were lying when they sent the email saying they had tried to contact me. Why would they do this? It allows them to be slow in confirming orders and it maintains their “claimed” service response times by asking the purchaser to “correct” their phone number. In most cases it takes a few hours for users to read and respond to such emails, giving Plimus extra time to get around to processing the order. This is weak. And it pisses people off, laying the blame on the customer in order to justify their slow turnaround time. Whether this practice is employed by the line employees without management knowledge, or whether it is an accepted practice at Plimus, it’s poor customer service. I would encourage Objective Development to find a better service provider for North America. If I had had the choice to cancel and refund my order, I likely would have, all due to Plimus’ poor service. This is unfortunate, considering that Little Snitch is a great a program.

Enough complaining. Little Snitch rocks. Danke ObjDev!

As if you’re brushed aluminum case of your G5 or MacBook Pro didn’t stand out enough already, you can get custom laser etching of designs and pictures on your case now.Etching Apple MacBook Pro

Check out some of these MacBook Pro laser etched case designs.

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Hate animated Flash ads while browsing? Get Camino. Go to Preferences, Web Features, Block Flash Animations and voilà, no more Flash based animated ads.

Stop Video Ads from playing while Browsing

Without Flash Ads

No Annoying Flash Ads

With Flash Ads

With Annoying Flash Ads

I’m not sure about you, but I like my Jolie with as little extraneous distractions as possible.

I’ve mentioned the block flash ads feature with Camino in another post, but I think this feature is important enough that it warrants its own post. There’s nothing more annoying than loud, animated, dancing ads that loop continuously as you try to read (or stare at) content. I realize that a good portion of the web operates on advertising revenues and I’m not opposed to online advertisements, but Macromedia is overbearing. Their Flash software for browsers prevents you from stopping animated ads and you can’t even prevent an ad from looping forever, with poorly designed ads cranking the CPU up to 70C to blare the same annoying message over and over.

The ability to block ads is not unique to Camino. With Firefox Add-Ons such as Adblock Plus you can get roughly the same results as Camino’s Block Flash Ads feature, but when I say “rough”, I really mean “rough”. I discovered that the way Adblock Plus works with respect to Flash ads is that it changes the permissions that Flash has for writing cache files before displaying an animation. Basically Flash no longer has the ability to write cache files, thus it cannot display the animation properly. I found this out when moving from Mac OS X Tiger to Leopard.

Before the install I was attempting to repartition my hard disk, starting off with a “Verify Permissions” check before diving in. Strangely there were errors in permissions related to Flash/ShockWave. The permissions verification was telling me that these directories should have had Read Write access, but they had only Read access. This turned on a light bulb in my head as I had recently tried out Adblock Plus in Firefox. That’s a pretty dirty hack to use in order to block Flash animated ads.

In my experience the ads were still visible for a split second, then removed and replaced with a blank spot where the ad previously was located. Hovering over the area or moving the page through scrolling at times would reveal the ad again, which was probably due to the CSS hijinks going on as well. Overall, Camino’s way to block ads is very slick and doesn’t have the feel of something hacked together to work most of the time, like other ad blocking solutions.

With Camino, the power to stop intrusive, obnoxious web ads is returned to the user. This is a killer feature that was created due to popular demand and will make Camino a true contender in the browser lineup.

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Camino Fastest Browser on MacOk, it’s a bit early for me to be describing Camino as the Fastest and Best Browser on Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, but at the same time I can’t help but be overjoyed at the prospect of having full keyboard navigation functionality (i.e. searching, finding, clicking/navigating/opening a link purely through the keyboard) with the blazing speed of a true Mac based browser.

It’s been only three days since I started using Safari 3.04 on my Macbook Pro, due to Firefox’s painfully slow performance (about 3-5 times as slow as Safari or Camino). That switch from Mozilla Firefox to Webkit Safari was not all cookies and cake though. Along with that change I lost the ability to navigate links with search / Enter key combinations, i.e. find links through the search function, which automatically highlights the link and then open them by hitting Escape then Enter. When you’re constantly using web pages with hundreds of links like many programming language documentation sites have, full keyboard navigation of pages and links is pretty powerful.

Here are some more reasons why Camino is the fastest and best browser for Mac OS X Leopard:

  1. Fastest Browser web page rendering

    Rendering is the fancy term of reading HTML page code (<tags>, javascript, stylesheets, etc.) and producing the beautiful, formatted text, layout and pictures in the browser window. One would think that the time it takes to read and display the same web page code on different browsers would be identical between all browsers. Interestingly… it is not. Safari 3.04 and Camino 1.53, the fast web browsers, are up to 6x faster in rendering the same web page when compard to Firefox or Internet Explorer. The best example that I have is within http://www.salesforce.com. I have no idea why these pages load so slow in Firefox, but they do. Sign up for a 30 day trial account (or a limitless developer account) and click through the various tabs on the account home (after logging in). Do this both in Firefox and within Camino, performing the exact same actions. In Firefox, at least for me, it renders the exact same pages but 3-4x slower. When you’re repeating the same actions over and over again (as is common in SalesForce.com) waiting 6-8 seconds for the same page to render is painful.

  2. Block Ads

    You heard me right: the ability to prevent/block/stop hyper annoying flash video ads from auto-playing and looping forever, which takes up tons of CPU processing power and can make your computer run like a slug… just to show a bloody ad. Stop Video Ads from playing while BrowsingThe worst part about flash advertisements is that you have zero control over it. At least on a television you can mute the volume (or speed/skip through it if you’re on Tivo or ReplayTV), but on a web page you’re forced to let it loop through it’s content for as long as you’re on the page. To set this up goto the top menu bar, select Camino, Preferences, Web Features, then check Block Flash Animations. After this, load up a page you know has flash ads such as CityVox.fr and reload it a few times until you see a blank white box with a stylized “F” representing the now muted Flash ad. Camino… je t’aime. This doesn’t mean that sites that normally have videos are now useless as you can still watch the videos by simply clicking on the box containing the Flash symbols to start playing the video. But, it’s an incredible relief to have the power and ability to control my own browsing experience.

  3. Keyboard navigation

    Find links on web pages using inline search (find as you type) and open/navigate them by hitting the Enter button. This is more of a power-user feature, but it’s quite a big feature for those who know about it. Within Camino, when viewing a web page, if you see a link you want to click on (or you happen know the name of the link, often the case when reading documentation), hit the “single quote” key (‘) or “forward slash” (/), which turns on “find as you type” search and start typing the word that you are looking for. Using “single quote” will find links only, whereas “forward slash” will search all text. Camino will move the cursor to the word that matches the letters that you are typing and at any time you can hit Enter to navigate/open that link. Need to move to the next matching link? Hit Command + g (the normal “Find Next” hotkey for Mac). Previous match? Hit Shift + Command + g. This is much much faster than scrolling down a web page and moving your mouse pointer to hover over the link then clicking it. Try it and you’ll understand why I think this is such a big feature. Although, if you’re not exactly Speedy Gonzales on the keyboard, this may not be a big draw. For those who are wise in the ways of Keyboard-Fu… rejoice.

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Fastest Browser - SafariSo something that came as a bit of a surprise to me was that on certain sites, Safari is 4-5x faster than Firefox on page rendering.  Recently I’ve been doing lots of work on SalesForce.com and I was thinking: “Man, their site is hella slow”.

 After talking with a friend in Paris accessing the same site, but without all the slow loading issues I decided to give Safari on Leopard a try. The exact same pages, the exact same actions produced very different results.  Safari is by far the “fast browser” and Firefox, the slow browser, at least on OS X.  Pages that I would have to wait between 6-7 seconds to finish loading in Firefox would come up around the 1 second mark (or less) in Safari.  This is an enormous difference when you’re talking about browsing as 5-10 seconds is an eternity to wait for something to load, but too short of a time to do anything meaningful besides becoming frustrated.

Now if only Safari could navigate links using the keyboard only like it’s possible in Firefox.  In Firefox you can simply Ctrl + F to do a word search on the page (which is part of a link), when the partial word/link is highlighted, hit Esc to clear the search highlighting and you’re left with a cursor focused link that will respond to an Enter button press with opening the link.  Brilliantly fast, much faster than finding links through the mouse. Somehow we need to generate enough noise so that the Webkit (which is the basis of Safari) developers to take note and build this into the next release of their software. 

Update March 1, 2008: More on LED backlighting on the MacBook Pro 15.4″

Probably the nicest feature introduced on the Santa Rosa MacBook Pro’s is the LED backlit screens. The reason? Instant brightness adjustment (which Leopard now fades in for that ultra smooth user experience…).santa_rosas.png

When waking up a dozing Santa Rosa the screen (in Tiger) gets to full brightness immediately. In Leopard it fades into the preset brightness in a couple seconds. This is really noticeable when using the lappy attached to a second external LCD which uses conventional fluroscent tube backlighting, which takes about 5 or so minutes to get to normal operating brightness.

Over the longterm screen brightness should stay quite a bit more constant as well. If you’ve ever compared laptop screens from the same model but from different ages, side by side you’ll notice the older laptop screen is not as bright as the fluro tube gets dimmer as it ages. Not too much of an issue as you can continue to increase brightness (unless you’re a max brightness kinda guy/gal already).

And finally, LEDs use less energy to produce the same lumens as a tube so you get a bit longer battery life as well.