My Turn

Lean on the Low End

James Brock Clark - 2002.04.11

My Turn is Low End Mac's column for reader-submitted articles. It's your turn to share your thoughts on all things Mac (or iPhone, iPod, etc.) and write for the Mac web. Email your submission to Dan Knight .

Much like myself, most of the low-end Mac users I know aren't all that tech savvy. They are business people, students, and writers trying to get the job done as efficiently as possible. Often they've bought into Mac because of its reputation for longevity. If it's working well, they won't replace it any time soon.

My Power Mac 7600/132 is primarily used for word processing, research and communication. I want to accomplish these tasks with a maximum of engagement and a minimum of fuss. There's plenty to do just keeping my thoughts straight and my punctuation in place.

Overly complex software is a distraction. If I have to keep a crib sheet alongside my keyboard or make frequent references to the help file, I get cranky. I don't want to be wasting time running mazes created by some show off with convoluted notions of elegance.

Bells and whistles? I prefer silence - or as close to it as I can get on my low-end budget.

Alas, the hard drive on my Mac isn't particularly quiet, nor is it particularly large. While the whine tends to disappear after a few moments of concentration (a psychological fact for which I am grateful), there is little that can be done about the hard drive's small size. Yes, I could add a second drive, but that means finding a suitable unit and then transporting my machine to a shop for the installation. My low-end solution is to live within the confines of the existing 1.2 GB drive - another reason for selecting my software carefully. A Zip drive is fine for archiving.

Compatibility is important, too. OS 8.6 is well suited to my 7600, but there are new editions of standby applications that no longer work well with it. For example, Acrobat Reader 5.0, universally agreed to be a handy Web tool, requires OS 9. Sure, you can make it work, but once you open it, you're stuck with it until shut down, and a number of features are compromised.

Fortunately not all software companies are so ready to dump on their clientele. Nisus is a company dedicated to Mac users, providing a useful array of applications for low-end machines. Since I have no need of a complete "office suite," I chose Nisus Compact as my word processor. It's truly "lean," it works well, and it's free. Compact was designed for use on laptops and incorporates battery saving features. For those of us who tend to forget command-S when we're in the thick of it, Compact also has a neat autosave feature that can be set to save every so many key strokes. Another ingenious feature is the "fuzzy search," which enables me to search even when I can't remember the exact wording. Graphics can be readily imported. It displays invisibles and numbers lines in addition to standard features such as spell check and thesaurus. The complete folder occupies a mere 1.5 MB. Files are saved as text, which makes them readable by most word processors.

My experience with Compact, and Charles Moore's review, led me to Nisus Email. Nisus Email, however, is not free, and I'm dedicated to the low end. Tucows listed several freeware email clients that had to be wrung out first. I started with the slimmest and stayed with Green the longest. Green has an intuitive layout and is simple to use. It works okay as long as you didn't try to access the help file. That invariably dropped the bomb. None of the freebies had everything I was looking for. Often there was some obnoxious glitch, or it was senselessly complex.

Having resigned my self to spending money, I wasn't about to settle on Nisus Email without trying the competition. SweetMail lived up to its good reviews in terms of stability and pleasant interface, although for some strange reason I had a problem remembering how to get from one place to another. Granted, every application has its learning curve. "Use it often, and you'll eventually get it down" generally works. Yet we're not all made the same. What's intuitive for me may not flow for you at all. If you have invested a reasonable amount of time and the head scratching continues it's probably time to try something else.

At 5.3 MB, Nisus Email isn't the smallest email client, but it's far from the largest, and it possesses a wealth of unique features. Charles Moore's excellent review on Applelinks will give you a much more complete picture than I am able to here. I'll just mention a few of the features I find particularly useful. First is the "Floating Post Office." This feature allows me to access my address book and create a message while working in other applications. A small movable "flaming letter" icon is in the forefront whenever the application is open. A single click on the icon opens the address book. The second click opens a quick message frame. Copy text from the desktop or add an attachment and send the message with a third click.

All Nisus Email features can be accessed from the Post Office or pull down menus, so there is no need to obstruct the desktop with a user interface window. Messages can also be written and read using your favorite word processor. This option puts the accustomed writing tools at your disposal, an increasingly useful feature as email gains ground in personal and business communications.

Another time saving feature lets you peruse the list of incoming messages while they remain on the server. Only the messages you choose will be downloaded to your computer. The remainder can be left on the server for future reference or deleted as you wish.

If you can live with Microsoft, Internet Explorer is about as good as it gets for browsing the Web. On the negative side, it's bloated - and it's Microsoft. I've gone with iCab. It's tiny and fast. I've noticed a couple of plug-ins don't work with iCab (the latest version of Flash was one), though I'll gladly trade those slick ads for quickness and stability.

iCab "preferences" give you amazing control over your interactions with the Web. With a bit of work you can tailor it to suit your needs, keep your hard drive uncluttered, and increase browsing speed.

Taking up residence on the Internet means living with the huge array of software others use in their contacts with us. Trying to open those cherished pictures from Aunt Mable or a balance sheet prepared on some unfamiliar application can be head banging. Stuffit Expander is frequently of help. iCab will open an amazing number of formats, as well as dispense with that irritating HTML code.

For image handling, I use Photo Deluxe. This is not Photoshop, but then it only uses a small portion of the space required by its big brother. PD is rudimentary in its image modifying powers. Mostly it functions as a translator converting the various picture formats to the compact JPEG.

So there really isn't any reason to dump that old Mac. Just keep it lean and clean. You'll have a useful machine for a long while yet.

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