24 February 2008

#59. I Can See Clearly Now

Good evening, gentlemen and ladies, and welcome to Jonathan’s Bistro. I hope you can read the Specials Du Jour board clearly enough to enjoy your meal. First an hors d’oeuvre to tune up our LCD screens, and then on to sample Mark Lautman’s selection of OpenOffice extensions.

No Fork Needed for This Tuner

Note: I just noticed a minor omission and error in this post, and have added a couple of clarifying sentences below. If you read this post yesterday or the day before, please read it again! –JP 26 Feb.

ClearType is a Microsoft technology for smoothing the jagged fonts on LCD screens. It is supplied as an option with Windows XP, and is automatically on in Windows Vista. Most commentators rave about it, but I still have not decided whether I like ClearType. I am still experimenting with different settings, trying to find pleasingly plump characters without edge artifacts like color tinges or ghost shadows.

Windows lets you turn ClearType on or off, and that’s it. So how am I experimenting, you ask? Aha, dear reader, that’s why I am the utilities maven. Microsoft offers a free ClearType Tuner Power Toy for adjusting ClearType’s strength. The only trouble is, choosing the best setting is like a vision test at the optometrist. Which is clearer, (snap) this or (snap) this?

Oops, this power toy works only on Windows XP, and my new laptop has Vista.

Microsoft offers an even handier on-line tuner on its typography site, ClearType Tuner. It works just like the Power Toy. Oops, it refuses to work with Firefox; use Internet Explorer or the IE Tab add-on for Firefox.

Then I turned to ClearTweak freeware from ioIsland. This simple utility provides a slider to control contrast, and shows you the result in a little preview pane. This approach is arguably superior to Microsoft’s because you can fiddle with the settings to your heart’s content, though you can't compare the results side-by-side.

Microsoft claims that several new fonts shipped with Vista (all starting with “C”) are optimized for ClearType, but I’ve gone cross-eyed trying to see the advantage. And I want to see traditional fonts clearly, too. Here is what ClearType can do on my new ThinkPad laptop’s screen at various ClearTweak settings:

You tell me: what looks best? I just can’t make up my mind!

Extensors and Flexors

by Mark Lautman

I recall how my grandmother of blessed memory was getting on in years, and it was difficult for her to bend down to pick something up off the floor. We visited her one day when I was about 13 years old, and she showed me a mechanical hand that extended her reach far enough to touch the floor or grasp items on overhead shelves. It made her life much easier.

That was in 1970. Now I'm 38 years older, and though I can still reach the floor, reaching for the 10-key pad on the keyboard isn't as easy as it used to be. Neither is re-inventing office documents for fax cover sheets and product presentations, and I'm fatigued from writing macros. I need relief: I need extensions.

Extensions are popular in open-source software. Jonathan did a column on Firefox extensions (post #33). This week's column is a review of some handy OpenOffice extensions.

[Editor’s note: As you may know, OpenOffice (OO) is a sophisticated office suite that many reviewers say is nearly on a par with Microsoft Office, and in some respects surpasses it. Like MS Office, OpenOffice includes word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, and database components (but nothing like Outlook). It works on multiple platforms and claims compatibility with MS Office document formats in addition to its native Open Document format. Because it is an open-source project, it is free. Sun Microsystems partially sponsors OO, which is based on Sun's StarOffice suite. I plan to review OO for this blog in the near future. --JP]

According to the OpenOffice extension repository, the top three extensions are Sun's template pack, Sun's report builder, and eFax's faxing facility.

Sun's template pack is fabulous. OO is a complete office suite with all the features anyone needs, but it is spartan when it comes to ready-to-go templates or drawing objects. The template pack includes a ton of ready-made templates for spreadsheets, letters, and presentations.

Beyond templates, there are some wonderful enhancements to the standard OO functionality. For example, Alternative Find & Replace for Writer has a find and replace dialog box that takes OO's find/replace to the next level. It includes prebuilt expressions for common search patterns, and you can save your own find/replace patterns for later use. Here is an example of using this extension to add a directory name to a list of files:

Another extremely useful extension is the Annotation Tool. Where standard OO inserts only a small yellow rectangle, this extension inserts a note and highlights the affected text, as shown here:

With the SVG Import Filter, which I described recently (post #54), you can import an enormous number of SVG images available from online galleries. In that post I also mentioned OxygenOffice Professional, a set of extensions that includes a large collection of graphics and drawing objects.

When you open OO documents, each appears in a separate window. The Tabbed Windows extension opens each document in a tabbed page inside a single OO window. This saves on screen real estate.

There are plenty of other OO extensions which you can browse at the OO extensions repository. If you feel a case of rheumatism coming on and it's difficult to reach the floor, one of them just might give you comfort! —Mark Lautman

I hope today’s post has helped you see things more clearly. Please keep coming back each week for more recommendations of great utilities and Web sites. And please help keep this blog going by visiting our advertisers.

Did I overlook your favorite utility or Web site? Tell us all about it by clicking on “comments” below or, if you prefer privacy, by writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.

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