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April 2007 - Vol. 7, Issue No. 90
By Scot Finnie
In This Issue
Back in September of last year, I kicked off comparison research and the first of a series of articles focusing on inexpensive, lightweight software firewalls for use with Windows XP. Please check out that first piece, and check out what I'm looking for in a software firewall: An emphasis on outbound protection, nearly silent operation (after you've run most of your apps once), and a rational means of protecting, without breaking, your network. Anything with an endless number of pop-ups isn't going to cut it with me. I'm not going to become a slave to a software firewall.
I've been working on this research off and on ever since. The products I mentioned then Comodo, Jetico, Look 'n' Stop, Outpost Pro, Tiny Personal Firewall, and Kerio are the products I've been keeping tabs on during this period. I've also looked at some others that have come along. But I'm only looking at lightweight standalone firewalls; that leaves out several notable names, including Kaspersky, Norton, McAfee, Trend Micro, CA, Check Point, F-Secure, and others. They're out of my research on purpose: I don't recommend any of them. Steer clear of security suites.
In November, I tried Outpost Pro 4, which comes riddled with other security features and an overly complex set of configuration options. I didn't like it. Here's what I wrote about Outpost 4 last fall.
Scratch one off my list.
After its acquisition of Tiny Personal Firewall, Computer Associates appears to have no intention of continuing the firewall in its current form, but instead will roll it into its CA line of integrated security products. Scratch another one off my list.
So, for the moment, I'm down to these four products:
For this issue, I closely examined the latest versions of the first three products. I'll be looking at Look 'n' Stop in the near future.
Comodo Firewall Pro 2.4
Comodo Firewall Pro should get an award for being the most improved. When I first looked at it a year ago, I was not impressed. As I wrote last September:
Comodo reminds me of Norton Personal Firewall. It's very noisy, always popping up boxes, repeatedly even when I tell it to remember settings. In one browsing session with Firefox, I had to say "Yes, let it work and remember this" eight or nine times. And I had trouble networking with Comodo; its settings for allowing networking were tough to configure.
Well, the Comodo Group must have been listening. The maddening pop-up boxes are a thing of the past in its 2.4 version. You'll still encounter a few pop-ups on the first or second usage of many apps, but the program has a system of aggregating pop-up boxes and accepting answers a lot more adroitly. While I could quibble with the UI of the pop-up boxes, overall, the user experience is greatly improved. Bottom line: I can live with Comodo (and that's exactly what I'm doing).
Comodo still doesn't use the "trusted zone" metaphor for configuring networks. I miss that way of working, but the truth is, I had no trouble configuring it to work with my network.
Even so, the process of configuring a firewall to work with a local-area network should be handled by a purpose-built piece of UI designed to make the chore easier. Comodo lacks that functionality. In fact, there is still no software firewall product I'm aware of that equals Check Point's ZoneAlarm for network-configuration user interface. Too bad the free ZoneAlarm firewall-only product is nowhere near as protective as the others on my list. (The firewall in ZoneAlarm Pro is vastly superior, but it comes with security-suite baggage.)
Jetico Personal Firewall 184.108.40.206 Beta
I was sorely disappointed in Jetico Personal Firewall. This firewall's 1.0 release scored very well at FirewallLeakTester.com on outbound leak tests, but the Jetico user experience is very poor. You'll be faced with a blizzard of apparently repeat pop-ups. In fact, you can basically take my September 2006 comments on Comodo and transfer them to Jetico. On my third and fourth runs of Internet Explorer, I was still getting pop-ups from Jetico related to IE. It appears there are no preconfigured application-control rules, and no way to simplify the OK, OK, OK tap dance. Who needs it?
I also had trouble with intermittent balkiness with networking when using Jetico, another no-no from my perspective. It's bad enough when network configuration is difficult to find, but when there are intermittent blockages, I'm done. That's the same kind of problem that drove me away from ZoneAlarm even before it turned into Check Point's more expensive suite product line.
As if that weren't enough, see the next article in this issue of the newsletter for details about my problems attempting to use Jetico with Vista (which it is supposed to work with). Not a pretty picture.
Because Jetico is currently a beta product, I will look at it again when it's further along. But it's going to have to deliver considerable improvements to keep from getting crossed off the list.
Sunbelt Kerio Personal Firewall 4 (Free)
Kerio Personal Firewall was my leading contender back in September. I still prefer its user interface slightly over Comodo's. But Comodo offers much better configuration controls. When you step back, it's apparent that Kerio's real problem is that it's in need of a major update. I think Sunbelt should do away with the Simple operational mode, which is probably way too permissive, and focus on making the Advanced mode a little easier to use and configure.
I also had some networking trouble with Kerio. I've had lots of reports from people who use dynamic IP assignment with their printers that Kerio can't print to them. I don't use dynamic IP assignment with printers. I statically assign the IPs of all my printers, and I recommend working that way on your network. Some things are just better off being static.
My problem with Kerio had to do with connecting to a virtualized instance of Windows XP. Kerio would not allow the computer running virtualized XP to connect to the host Kerio was running on. Every other firewall I've tested recently has had no trouble allowing a virtualized instance of XP to connect to the firewall's host PC. I haven't tested Kerio in enough settings to learn whether this is a repeatable problem so I can't say for sure that you'll run into it. But any firewall that causes these kinds of troubles on my network is unlikely to be picked as the Best Software Firewall of 2007.
Don't mess with my network.
This Month's Takeaways
In case you're new to Scot's Newsletter, I do ongoing series reviews. You'll know I'm done with a series review when I announce a winner. We're not at that point yet with software firewalls. This is a mid-term report.
Comodo Firewall Pro is currently my leading software firewall contender. Having shed its Jetico-like barrage of pop-ups and offering excellent options and settings, Comodo is a very good product. It's also one heckuva bargain with its 100% free lifetime license. I don't expect all future Comodo versions will be free. Comodo Group will probably start charging at some point. For now, the price is very, very good.
Another thing I admire about Comodo is that its developers have been very active in continuing to improve the product with numerous updates. By contrast, it appears to me that Kerio has had only one minor update since I kicked off my research. That's not going to get the job done.
Look 'n' Stop Firewall by Frederic Gloannec and Jean-Francois Catte is next up for testing, but one thing that's different about this one is that it's not free or available (as Kerio is) in a lesser version free of charge. Its developers want $39 for it, which I think may be a little steep unless it's a stellar product. There is, at least, a 30-day trial version.
I welcome your input on other software firewalls you think might be worth my time to test. Please keep in mind that I'm interested solely in products that are software firewalls only: no products that include antivirus, anti-malware/spyware, content filtering, pop-up blockers in short, no suites. Send a message about the firewall you like, and please tell me why you like it. A link would be helpful. Thanks.
I've previously recommended Eset's Nod32 version 2.7 for all current versions of Windows, including Vista. Nod32 is a done deal, a no-brainer, just get it.
But the firewall picture for Vista is nowhere near as obvious. As I've written many times before, every computer connected to the Internet should be sitting behind some sort of hardware firewall that adds NAT (network access translation) stealthing and SPI (stateful packet inspection), both of which help protect against inbound threats. Good security is about layers, though, and a good software firewall complements the hardware firewall by adding application controls for outbound transmissions and network protections. The combination of hardware and software is very powerful. The problem is, very few popular software firewalls currently support Vista.
Vista's Strengths and Weaknesses
In case you think you don't need a firewall, be advised that while Vista's Windows Firewall is mildly improved, the added outbound protection isn't turned on by default, and you may find it difficult to configure. Windows Firewall still does not offer full firewall support. It's better than nothing if you don't have a third-party software firewall, but that's about it.
I'm a big fan of firewallleaktester.com, a Web site that has tested firewall walls for "leaks," in particular, outbound leaks that can be initiated by application spoofing and other means. There are dozens of leak tests, and no firewall blocks them all. What's more, there are probably scores of undiscovered or unexploited leaks that leak tests don't test for.
Vista blocks some leaks that XP doesn't, but not all of them. Check out this firewallleaktester.com document for an objective assessment of Vista. (Don't be put off by the English errors on this Web page; the security knowledge is top notch. The authors are clearly not native-English speakers. In fact, I keep meaning to offer my English editing skills to Firewallleaktester.com.)
The description of UAC (User Account Control) is both useful and accurate, although some of the security functions it describes are just Vista security elements that Microsoft doesn't classify as being part of UAC. But that matters little.
Another document you should review is Matousec's list of software firewalls. This list is very useful for Vista owners because it shows a Vista logo (third from the right) when the product supports Vista. The first thing you'll notice is that several well thought of firewalls do not currently support Vista.
My focus for security software for Windows is strictly on lightweight software that does one thing well, like Nod32. What that means is: No security software suites. It's not just the big, well known commercial suites either, like those from Norton, McAfee, Panda, CA, Trend Micro, Kaspersky, and F-Secure. I would also add less-well-known products, such as BitDefender, BullGuard, and Outpost. When you sift through Matousec's list of firewalls, focusing on Vista support and you apply my "no suites" rule there aren't many left. As of early this month, these are the ones left:
Microsoft has already admitted that Windows Live OneCare is not a great product in its current version. Give that one a miss. I found sign-up for OneCare to be thoroughly annoying too at least when it first became available. Frankly, Microsoft's security software is not that impressive.
The Jetico product is *not* a good choice for Vista. I ran into severe problems with the Jetico 2.0 beta for XP and Vista. When I installed it on my Vista test machine, I rebooted as directed after installation. Vista booted into the GUI and then gave me a blue screen. I repeated the process and got the exact same result. So I booted into Windows' Safe Mode and uninstalled Jetico. But on restart, the Vista test machine's network stack was totally trashed. It was no longer able to get DHCP assignments from my firewall router. It wasn't able to connect to anything on the network. Eventually, I had to revert to a previous System Restore point, which solved the problem right away.
Although the Jetico 2.0 beta installed fine on my XP test machine, I faced literally about 50 pop-ups over the next few hours. Even though each one said it was making a "permanent" change, that didn't appear to be the case at all. It was a very frustrating user experience (which reminded me a lot of my first trial of Comodo, before that product was refined). I also had trouble with intermittently balky network connections with Jetico installed. I had no problems uninstalling Jetico from the XP test box. That process went fine.
I spent about 30 minutes with PC Tools Firewall Plus prior to writing this article. My sense about PC Tools is that it's a very simple, lightweight firewall. I can't speak for its protective qualities yet, but it works well without being annoying. The UI for controlling networking isn't great. In order to make peer-based networking work, I had to set a rule that basically allowed all TCP/IP transmissions. I'm sure there's a more restrictive way, but the UI didn't make it obvious. I really liked PC Tools' simple application-control settings.
Anyone who has used PC Tools Firewall Plus more than I have, please drop me a note about your experiences, positive or negative.
Of the three third-party firewalls, I'd have to recommend PC Tools Firewall Plus at least, on a temporary basis until other products, such as Comodo, Sunbelt's Kerio, or Look 'n' Stop Firewall begin supporting Vista. It doesn't seem to me to be a great product. But it's free and serviceable.
Speaking of Look 'n' Stop Firewall by Frederic Gloannec and Jean-Francois Catte, just as this issue of the newsletter was getting ready to mail I learned that the current Look 'n' Stop 2.06 Beta 2 will supports Vista and will also likely be the version of the code that goes gold in the near future.
Another temporary strategy for Vista users is to make sure your hardware firewall is up to snuff, turn on Windows Firewall (and make sure the outbound protection is operational), and sit back and wait for the better firewalls to emerge. They're coming.
The single best feature in Parallels 2.5 (Build 3188) is something the company calls Coherence. I'm not sure I like the name, but I love what it does. Coherence makes Windows apps look for all the world like they're running on your Mac. They're not, of course; they're running on your Parallels virtualized Windows installation.
Now I know some people reading this are already skeptical. But let me tell you, the Parallels folks delivered on this one. You can switch into Coherence mode whenever you want. I have it set up to do this when I press Ctrl-Spacebar. Once in Coherence, the Windows desktop disappears entirely. Your Windows apps have program stubs in the Dock whenever they're running. By default, the Windows taskbar and Start button appear along the bottom of your Mac desktop, which lets you launch other Windows programs and switch among running apps. Your Mac programs resize their windows automatically to accommodate the taskbar. (Or you can use Windows' settings to make the taskbar disappear unless you point at it, whereupon it rolls over your existing app windows.)
I frequently have Internet Explorer 6, for example, running on Windows XP in Coherence mode when I'm working on my Mac. Windows apps running in this way look and act much like any of your Mac program windows. You stop even thinking of them so much as Windows apps or Mac apps. They're just your apps.
Parallels has thought of all the little things. If you're an Expose fan, for example (as I am), you'll find that your Windows apps running in Coherence mode act exactly as your Mac apps when you press F11 or trigger Expose in your preferred way.
Someday I hope the Mac will be able accept Windows app installations and run them on its own. Until then, Coherence is as close as it gets, and that's OK because the user experience is excellent.
For more on Coherence, including screenshots, see this feature page on the Parallels site.
For those of you who just want to work in Windows, Parallels does that well too. By pressing a key combination (I use Command-Spacebar), you can toggle back and forth between your Mac desktop and your Windows desktop. Parallels offers a rotating 3D cube effect to animate the change between desktops (there are other transition effects too). It's quite easy to work in both desktops at once, moving back and forth. You can also minimize the Windows desktop to the Dock if you prefer.
Hardware support is excellent in Parallels. Like most virtualization utilities, you install a tools pack, which is largely a driver set that allows your guest OS to make use of your host OS's access to the hardware. Wireless networking, Ethernet connections, USB 2.0, audio, and video are all extremely well supported by the Parallels Tools, requiring no configuration on your part.
Parallels also supports Vista. It's not able to display the full Aero interface, but it does support 3D video, and it runs Vista well in other regards. As a working Windows installation right now, my interest is in XP, though. It has fewer software compatibility issues right now.
Another cool new feature recently added by Parallels is the ability to run Apple Boot Camp-supported Windows installations in a Parallels virtual machine. In other words, it lets you access your Boot Camp Windows installation without having to restart your Mac.
Like any piece of software, Parallels Desktop for Mac has a couple of shortcomings. I find that I'm unable to use keyboard commands to copy and paste strings of text from a Mac program window to a Windows program window or vice versa. So, Command-C to copy text from a Mac browser and then Ctrl-V to paste the text into a Windows text editor doesn't work. I have to go the context menu route and choose Cut on one end and Paste on the other.
A slightly more frustrating problem is that Parallels, like many virtualization programs, uses a shared-folder approach to allow folder-based navigation to files and folders from either side. Parallels' system doesn't really allow you access to Windows; the special folder access appears only on the Windows side. More important, though, Windows applications don't all support this folder access fully. If you have a program that sets a default start folder, and you want that folder to be on the Mac, you may find that it won't work properly.
But that's the whole of my criticism about Parallels. This product is absolutely an essential tool for Mac users who have the need to access Windows applications. It provides several ways to do that, and it works exceedingly well. Parallels for Desktop 2.5 is a Scot's Newsletter Top Product. It's also on the A-List of Mac Apps. If you're running an Intel Mac, you have to grab Parallels. Without it, you're just not getting the most mileage out of your Mac. This is a must-have product.
My old company, CMP Media (which owned WinMag), recently also pulled the plug on all the WinMag.com content that had been floating around for years including all the back issues of Windows Insider and Broadband Report. I have copies of them somewhere. But there's a reason why they're called newsletters. Stuff I wrote about Windows in 2000 probably doesn't have any relevance or hold much interest now. The funny part is that I realized the content was gone because a reader asked for it.
I'm also thankful to a few people at CMP Media Mike Azzara, in particular for making it possible for me to start Scot's Newsletter (which I own) while I was working as an editor for CMP. That's not an everyday sort of thing in publishing.
Computerworld has also been extremely accommodating about letting me continue to write this newsletter on my own time.
So, three cheers for smart people who get it, for six full years and 90 issues of Scot's Newsletter, and for a lot more to come.
Scot's Newsletter Forums (SNF) also celebrated its four-year anniversary last month by giving away six copies of Eset's Nod32 in a random drawing of SNF members. The winners' member names are bjf123, daveydoom, greengeek, Gus K, henderrob, and RolanaJ. Big thanks go to Eset for donating the software to the forums for this purpose. Nod32 2.7 was named Scot's Newsletter's Best Antivirus Product of 2007.
SNF has about 4,250 double-opt-in, moderator-approved members. Members have made more than 220,000 posts to date.
If you've never visited SNF, I recommend that you give it a look. You only need to register in order to post; anyone can read the many interesting and useful things posted there. You'll find a friendly, helpful community with separate forums devoted to Windows, Linux, Mac, Browser & Email, Security & Networking, Application Software, Hardware, Web Dev & Programming, and a lively Water Cooler.
Last month I put out a call for Mac email programs that support outbound message filtering. A lot of people are mystified by why I would care about that functionality although, to their credit, the hardcore Mac people who wrote me didn't try to argue the point (well, all but the Google Gmail people who insist that Gmail's excellent search facility solves everything).
Last month I wrote: "For more than a dozen years I have saved both halves of all email conversations in a folder named for the person or company I'm communicating with. If you're the read-and-delete sort of email user, this won't appeal to you. But if you're like me, and you save most of your email (well, not the spam), it's a very powerful way of working."
Eudora was designed from the ground up to support this way of working. Maybe it's because I'm a writer and editor, but what I write to someone else is just as important as what they write to me. I've had email conversations in the past that continue to be useful one, two, three, five, seven, 12 years later albeit, not often. But I frequently go back three or four months to read dialogues with individual SFNL readers. I might refer to a mail thread from two years ago to remind myself of system configuration among all the many family and friends I do tech support for. Being able to scan these conversations with no missing pieces is one of the best ways I know to access important information or just plain details from the past. Searching doesn't always work for this because I may not be able to remember the search terms necessary to resurrect what I'm looking for.
Most Eudora users know what I'm talking about. Several have written to me admitting that they have either moved away and miss Eudora or have stuck with it. Unfortunately, Eudora for the Mac is a less viable program than Eudora for Windows. It just hasn't kept pace, and there's some very stubborn thinking going on in some silly interface decisions. As it transitions from Qualcomm to Mozilla, what Eudora most needs is some fresh thinking. I'm not holding my breath.
Where Eudora Shines
So, there are about 743 Eudora for the Mac users who can't live with it and can't live without it. What's all the fuss about? I can't blame the rest of the world for chortling up their sleeves about this one. Those who've never used Eudora and who decide to install it for a quick peek will be incredulous that anyone could use this application. (Yes, Virginia, it really is that bad.)
So, let me explain. I think we've established that Eudora filters outbound mail. Most mainstream email programs such as Outlook, Outlook Express, Lotus Notes, and Apple Mail don't filter outbound mail automatically when they send and receive mail. Their mail rules only apply to incoming mail. In these programs, outgoing messages are all routed to the Sent folder. Eudora and some others let you create rules that specifically apply to messages being sent. So it's easy to configure Eudora to watch for all messages being sent by someone or to someone (or a combination of both) and then route messages that meet those conditions to a specific folder.
In my mail setup, the destination folders are frequently labeled with company names, organization names, family names, or individual names. For instance, I have folders for Microsoft and Apple, as well as more than 200 other companies. I also have a folder for Computerworld, where I work. I have folders for my wife, older kids, sisters, mother, my wife's family, my extended family, and so on. My mail store has more than 1,200 top-level and nested folders.
It takes about 5 minutes to set up a new folder and add a rule or two for it. Rules don't just identify specific types of mail; they also apply actions to them. Messages from important senders (like my wife, Cyndy) play a sound when they arrive; they may open automatically too. Other messages open the folder they're routed to where I can scan who they're from and the subject line before deciding whether to open them, ignore them, or send them to the spam folder. Many other messages are just routed silently to their folders. Some newsletters and mailing lists I subscribe to, for example, I take for archival purposes only. I may want to check them out sometime, search them, or review something specific someone told me about. But I don't have time to read every message as it comes in.
So far, so good, I hope. There are a couple of little tweaks that Eudora adds to the user experience that I have yet to see from any other email program (except for PocoMail). The ironic part is that these tweaks are pathetically simple. But these two minor tweaks create important visual cues that make it much easier to scan and understand a folder showing a stack of inbound and outbound message listings mixed together:
1. Eudora does something a little tricky with the From and To fields. Most other email programs fall into one of two camps on displaying this information:
Camp 1: Some display the From field on all folders that receive messages, and the To field in the Sent folder. Apple Mail and Outlook Express are examples of two popular apps that follow that strategy. Note that programs that follow this approach have no ready way to display inbound and outbound messages side by side.
Camp 2: Other programs show both the Sender and Recipient fields; Thunderbird takes that approach. In Thunderbird folder listings, you see both fields. That has the disadvantage of requiring more horizontal screen real estate; to combat that issue, Mozilla puts the subject line to the left (where most other mail apps have the From or To field).
Different Drummer: Eudora departs from the norm on displaying sender and recipient information. Eudora's folders have a single field labeled simply Who. The Who field doesn't indicate at all whether the message was sent or received. Its sole purpose is to show you who you're corresponding with. Eudora uses a completely different approach to show you whether a message is one you sent or received.
2. When sent messages are moved out of Eudora's default Out folder and placed in any other Eudora folders, their listing lines (showing Who, Date, Subject, etc.) change from normal to italic text. So when you review messages in a folder containing both received and sent messages, you can see at a glance which ones you sent and which ones you received.
When folders contain multiple messages to and from different people, you can highlight the latest one and click the Who header to sort by the names in the Who field. That makes it easier to review earlier messages in longer threads.
I think you have to see this to get it (588K). So if you're still scratching your head on it, spend a little bandwidth to view this image of one of my mail folders. The yellow highlighting shows one thread in a folder that has many individual threads. In my Cyndy folder, I have, ah, nothing but sweet nothings between my wife and I going back to 1995.
Mac Emailers that Filter Outbound
I'm floored by the volume of mail I've gotten offering alternatives and suggestions for filtering outbound email on the Macintosh. Scores of readers have written with the names of email apps that are capable of the feat. Others have written me about workarounds (such as blind-copying yourself) that might help. Still others want to argue with me about why Apple Mail's Smart Mailboxes will work for me. They don't, won't, get over it.
Apple Mail is no longer under consideration for my personal use. Apple doesn't do everything perfectly though some people feel compelled to argue at every turn that it does. There is no one true way of working that emanates solely from Cupertino's Infinite Loop. There are only the ways that work for real people. Apple should pay more attention to those people. I'm not saying that I lack even a jot of admiration for Apple's strategic direction and implementation tactics for creating user experiences. Quite the contrary. But I have a thing about mindless fanaticism and holier-than-thou attitudes. I mean dang! it's just a computer, people ... not a religion.
[Stepping off my soapbox ...] That said, I think Apple Mail is a very good email program, one that the majority of Mac users should consider. This month, I've added it to the A-List (see section later in this issue).
So, Apple Mail isn't on this list because I don't consider Apple's Smart Mailbox strategy to fully deliver outbound message filtering. But here's the list of Mac applications that readers tell me filter outbound messages:
While we're at it, there are two Windows email programs of note in this discussion: Eudora, of course, and Poco Systems' PocoMail. If the PocoMail folks would ever consider a Mac version, I would arrive at my Macintosh-email final destination.
Back to Mac email packages readers have suggested. I've looked closely at Entourage and Thunderbird over the past month. I've also worked with a long list of SFNL readers who've sent me pictures of their mail folders showing outbound filtering of Thunderbird and PowerMail in action. In all cases, these alternatives have some sort of glaring flaw. Either their presentation of inbound and outbound messages is too hard to grok or they're missing some other important feature. For example, at least three of them don't support, or don't fully support, HTML mail. Others have limited account-management functionality. The package that comes the closest (but still no cigar) is Microsoft Entourage.
Microsoft Entourage is a far more impressive email package than I'd previously given it credit for. It has very powerful email filtering rules better than Eudora's. But the way it presents mail listings is truly problematic. Someone thought they were leading a revolution or something. Entourage exhibits truly bad UI on the way it displays mail in folders and the options for configuring its folder views. The product shows a lot of promise, but totally messes up in the execution. Maybe there's hope for a cure in Microsoft Office for the Mac 2008?
Of all the email programs on the market, Mozilla's Thunderbird is the only one that appears to be moving toward providing real inbound and outbound support. The unfortunate part is that the underlying thinking about managing rules in Thunderbird is very different. It appears to be aimed at a more casual use of rules than a fundamental way of automatically routing mail to hundreds of folders. I'm keeping an eye on Thunderbird, but note that what I've just described applies equally to Thunderbird 1.5 and 2 in its latest daily build.
Finally, as I've written before, my future email package could well be the future open-source version of Eudora, which Mozilla and a team of Eudora's original developers have codenamed Penelope.
Well over 100 people offered their input on this issue over the past month, but some people really went out of their way to help with my research. In no particular order, I'd like to thank Dave Kripal, Andrew Miller, Scott Rose, Steven Beebe, Karl Gretton, Hank Niewola, and David Groover. While I'm at it, there are a couple people to thank for research contributed on this discussion for the March issue of Scot's Newsletter: Bronson Elliott and Herbert Shear.
Hey, Eudora Users!
I've decided to live with Eudora for the Mac until something better comes along. I'm putting my hopes in Mozilla's Penelope or Thunderbird, Entourage 2008, or perhaps a product like Mulberry to eventually be the last word for me.
While there are lots of nagging issues with Eudora for the Mac, one behavior drives me nuts: The pathetic way Eudora 6.2 renders HTML mail. Yes, yes, I know there's a workaround that lets you display the message externally in a browser. But that's only a temporary workaround. Does anyone know of a script or hack that will kick Eudora in the head and make it properly display HTML? Shouldn't *every* email package have the ability to leverage the Web-rendering engine that comes standard with its operating system? Even IBM's Lotus Notes for the Mac does this now!
I've done some research on this Eudora HTML thing, and I didn't turn up much. So if you've got a lead for me, please send me a message.
The biggest change is that I'll no longer be judging software selected for the A-List based primarily on my specific needs. So, for example, even though I will not be using Apple Mail (unless it gets a serious upgrade) and have no intention of switching to Microsoft Entourage any time soon, I've placed both products on the A-List. Email messages I've received from readers about these products have played a key role in my consideration and will continue to do so in the future. So if you disagree, let me know about it. But be prepared to support your opinions, please.
I've also created a new permanent home for the A-List on the Web. I will be updating this page periodically as my ongoing testing results in product decisions. In between issues of the newsletter, you may find updates to the A-List. You'll find the A-List here.
What's New on the A-List
What's not new? I've made wholesale changes since last month. New additions to the A-List include:
Apps newly scheduled for evaluation include:
Falling off the A-List (in some cases back to the consideration list) are:
Adium Does Powerful IM
I finally got around to testing the Adium instant messaging program. It's far more flexible and configurable than iChat. It supports multiple networks and accounts, has built-in message history (which I love), and presents multiple conversations in a single window with a tab for each person. Try this instant messaging program for 15 minutes and you probably won't go back. I haven't.
That doesn't mean it's perfect. Adium needs presentation refinement. For example, I actually like the iChat bubbles, and the way iChat color codes messages works better than Adium's weaker color coding. With Adium, I can't read the messages of one of my friends because he uses a custom background color in his client. Apple's iChat handles this just fine; Adium offers me black characters on a black background and you guessed it you can't see the words at all. Another visual peccadillo is found in the colors and icons beside buddy names, which indicate things like whether buddies are offline, online, idle, or in the process of writing to you. The icons just aren't intuitive. I've learned them by rote after watching the context. Adium's visual presentation needs work. In that regard, it looks like a prerelease product.
Another frustration with Adium concerns configuring notifications. The big problem is that there's no Off option on the configuration drop-down for each specific notification (such as buddy comes onto the network, buddy leaves the network, etc.). Instead of turning off a notification, you're forced to create and save a custom version of the entire set of notifications and then delete individual notifications. That's kludgey. Adium supports the Growl central notification service, but I didn't have much better luck with that tool and Adium. The developers should just supply the controls that are clearly needed. I also found Adium's default sounds to be anything but understated and understated is what people want in an office environment, especially if you have lots of buddies coming and going. Notifications are annoying enough as it is; configuring them should be easy. In Adium, it's not.
Adium also doesn't handle a changing monitor environment very well. I use the same MacBook Pro 17 at home on my lap and at work with an external monitor. I always power down between work and home. Adium is the only application I use that sometimes gets stuck with its program window off the screen when I go back to the smaller screen. It somehow misses the signal from OS X: "Hey, the window is smaller, move in." I run my IM program window on the right side of the screen, which is probably the most vulnerable location for this problem. But you have to plan for that when you develop software.
Finally, if you're into iChat's video functionality, Adium doesn't support that. Personally, I don't miss that at all.
So, I know, I've offered one paragraph of praise, and four, mostly long, paragraphs of criticism. But look at the criticisms: They're all about eye candy and minor stuff. Nothing at all that keeps me from using Adium constantly. The benefits far outweigh the fit-and-finish details. Adium is a winner.
skEdit Excels at HTML and Text
A somewhat unknown text and HTML editor called skEdit by Sean Kelly (get it, sk) has won me over both as an HTML editor and text editor. There's a lot of good thinking going on in this program. I'm in the midst of compiling a list of additional features I'd like to see added to skEdit.
One of my favorite features is the user-configurable Site Manager. It lets you select groups of files to work with based on a folder of files on your hard drive. Files open in a file list on the left side of skEdit and open with a single click. You can open multiple files and each will have a tab running across the top of the program. The Save All button lights up when there's something to save and is grayed out otherwise.
SkEdit also possesses an excellent set of remote file editing and publishing features. The utility is graced by simple, intuitive features that deliver useful functionality in a mostly traditional Mac style.
I'm not ready to share the full list of feature suggestions I plan to offer Sean Kelly, but one feature skEdit definitely needs is a toolbar icon and corresponding keyboard command that opens an anchor-tag-creation dialog box. The way this should work is that you highlight words in your document that will become the hyperlinked text. The dialog's URL field should be active by default, and the highlighted words should be prepopulated in the linked-text field of the dialog. And because you were smart enough to start the process by copying or cutting the required URL, all you have to do is press Command-V followed by Return. Poof! Your hyperlink is properly coded. (If you weren't smart enough to start with the URL, then the anchor-tag dialog lets you go back to your document to copy the required URL.) When the tool works this way, it makes converting long lists of URLs into hyperlinks a very rapid process.
In fact, until it works this way, I will be forced to use Parallels' Coherence mode running HomeSite when I produce the HTML edition of Scot's Newsletter. Count up the URLs in the newsletter, and you'll begin to understand why.
Now, to be fair, skEdit has a snippet, or script, facility that comes with a preconfigured "Link to Selection" snippet that isn't everything I've described, but goes about 75% of the way. It has a three-key keyboard combo (I prefer two-key combos), it doesn't use a dialog box, and you can't mount a snippet as an icon on the toolbar. I also miss not having Open file, Undo, and other commonly used functions on the toolbar. Bottom line, something this useful should be more than just a pre-built snippet, and it should have multiple access points with the easiest of keyboard commands.
The skEdit Find/Replace dialog is nearly the equal of corresponding dialogs on the better HTML editors I've used. Going into the dialog, the currently selected text prepopulates the Search For field. The dialog has buttons that let you expand the two field areas in order to see longer strings of text without scrolling horizontally. But you can't compare both the Search For and Replace With fields in this larger box because you can only display one large field at a time. My strong recommendation is to just offer the larger fields as the default field sizes for the dialog. Many other HTML editors have made this design decision in the past.
The program can undo multiple replacements on a single file but can't do so on a search and replace across multiple files. That's when you most need the undo feature. As a result, I think that each time you open the File/Replace dialog, it should reset the scope of searches to just the current document. Or better yet, skEdit should offer undo on replacements across multiple files.
Another aspect that needs some rethinking is how the program works when you skip the Site Manager. That changes several things about skEdit's behavior. I think it changes too many things. And you may be frustrated by how many clicks it takes to open a simple text file.
Despite the fact that I feel there are features missing from skEdit, I really love this program. The more I use it, the more I like it. Several SFNL readers have recommended it, and they are absolutely right.
Back in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, I became pretty adept at rummaging through Mac system folders to eliminate cdevs, inits, and the other detritus of programs I no longer needed. Things have changed a good deal under OS X, but it's largely the same scene. It's true that you can uninstall a Mac program just by trashing it, but a bunch of stuff may get left behind in system folders.
AppZapper makes it a breeze to eliminate program files, plists, app settings, preference panes, input managers, Internet plug-ins, widgets, and other unwanted doodads. It's even fun to use. You can drag a program directly to the AppZapper window and it will get all related support files for that application. You can also search for all installed programs and go through and make checkbox selections.
Anyone who frequently downloads and installs software should pick up AppZapper, which costs $12.95 with free upgrades for life. I paid my $13.
I have now tried just about all the dynamic disk-partitioning software currently on the market that claims Vista compatibility and some that don't. They all have problems. For the record, my Vista installation is Home Premium installed on a new Gateway MX8711 laptop (Intel Dual Core T2250 1.73GHz CPU, 1GB of RAM, and 100GB hard drive). I have a 300GB external drive that I used to back up my entire drive and restore from between tests. What follows are my notes on three of the products I tried:
I was informed that the old reliable Partition Magic 8.0, formerly by PowerQuest but taken over by Symantec, was supposed to work but only if installed from the CD-ROM, not as a download. I still have the 7.0 version disk and had made an 8.0 version disc from a downloaded ISO during PowerQuest's regime. Frankly, the whole thing is very confusing as to the status of PartitionMagic. Window's Vista Upgrade Advisor indicates PM8.0 will have problems with Vista; it does, and does not function with Vista.
Note: Symantec announced last year that it would not be upgrading PartitionMagic to support Windows Vista. It's not clear whether Symantec ever will, in fact, upgrade PartitionMagic. I have both the Symantec and PowerQuest versions of PartitionMagic 8.0, and outside of branding, there is no difference between the two. I prefer the PowerQuest version, which lacks Symantec's LiveUpdate. PartitionMagic 8.0 very definitely does not properly support Vista.
VCom's Partition Commander Pro 10 does not function with Vista; the company freely admitted that and cheerfully refunded the cost. The customer rep apologized and claimed VCom is updating the program for Vista. Partition Commander's interface is quite similar to that of PartitionMagic; if it worked, it would likely be my preference for Vista partitioning software.
Acronis' Disk Director Suite 10 also does not work properly in Vista. The version I downloaded initially, Build 2117 didn't work. The build that superseded that one, 2160, also had serious problems. After installing my copy, I went through the usual partitioning process. Upon completion, my entire Vista OS had been obliterated from the computer, and it would not boot. After considerable trouble, I was able to restore the Vista OS. Acronis, not so cheerfully, also refunded my money.
Finally, I got around to Paragon's Partition Manager 8.5 Personal (Build 1473) which mostly works. I say mostly because it also has some problems, particularly in cleaning up free space. Perhaps some of this may have to do with my unfamiliarity with the program, but at least it does function to a degree. Its interface also is very similar to PartitionMagic's, though it fails to show the drive labels on its graphics.
One thing that should be noted: If you're running a dual-boot system with Windows XP and Windows Vista, you can run PartitionMagic (or any similar program) from Windows XP even after Vista is installed. There's no issue with the file system. The problem is strictly Vista compatibility.
If you're interested in checking out the best of the bunch for the moment, that would be Paragon Partition Manager ($50). I've used this product in the past (an earlier version, and not with Vista). Its main weakness concerns a somewhat unintuitive user interface, but its technical functionality is quite sound.
I have some follow-up information about last month's tip. As I knew would be the case, there are varying levels of support for deleting backward by word in different applications. I focused on Microsoft Word (for Windows and Mac) while testing this tip last month, since I believe the functionality is best suited to word processing. Text editors and email programs are probably the next most commonly used apps for which this tip would come in handy. But virtually any application that lets users type words could benefit.
Based on additional testing, the key-combination I gave out last month was not the best one. It works in Word but few other applications. This key-combination is far more universal on the Mac and works with Word too: Option-Delete.
A very quick survey (so your mileage might vary with other apps) showed me that Option-Delete works in TextEdit, BBEdit, Apple Mail, Eudora, Thunderbird, skEdit, Firefox 2.0 text fields, Safari text fields, and Microsoft Word. Entourage doesn't support either key combination. And because Lotus Notes is endlessly, pathetically out of whack, Command-Delete works in Notes but Option-Delete does not. I never get tired of all the many things Lotus Notes gets wrong.
Thanks to Kamalesh Thakker for writing to point out that Command-Delete doesn't work everywhere.
The Windows Version
Ctrl-Backspace is still the correct key combo to press in Windows. But one interesting detail is that all precincts reporting say it doesn't work in Notepad. That's definitely the case with Notepad in Windows XP, Windows 2000, and Windows Vista.
I asked Windows 2000 users to contribute their experiences on this subject, and SFNL readers Jonathan March, Al Gingrich, Bullitt Darlington, Jay Rumanek, Fritz Amt, Brian Holmes, and others obliged. The consensus was that Ctrl-Backspace works in these applications under Windows 2000: Microsoft Word 2000 and 2002, Outlook 2002, PowerPoint 2000, Excel 2000 comment fields (but not cells), WordPad, Internet Explorer 6 text fields, and Firefox 2.0 text fields.
Some additional reader notes:
That Pesky CapsLock Key
A number of people wrote in with programs and instructions for remapping or disabling the CapsLock key. Apparently it's not just that the key displaces the Ctrl key (for those of us old enough to remember that), but also that many people press it accidentally while touch-typing. That's not a problem I've ever had, but I'll take their word for it. It's going to be a whole project to test the various solutions proposed. Perhaps I should just offer the various links?
Do you have a computer or broadband tip you think SFNL readers will like? Send it along to me, and if I print it in the newsletter, I'll print your name with it.
There's an as-yet-unscheduled vacation in my future, so it's quite possible the May issue will be delayed or even bumped. If so, I'll make it up to you.
You can always find out when the next issue of Scot's Newsletter is expected to appear by visiting the Scot's Newsletter home page.
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