Macintosh Tips and Techniques

3-Click Grab a PDF
Screen Capture and PDF
Information Management

The following is just a collection of observations and opinions that could be interesting to users of Apple Macintosh computers.

Three-click grab a PDF copy

Have you ever wanted to grab a permanent copy of a web page or something else you're viewing on your screen? Here's an easy way, using the Print to PDF feature. Three clicks gets it done.

Of course you already know about the "Save as PDF…" command in the Print dialog box. But when you use that you must supply a file name and location. With a little advance preparation you can default to a folder you choose as a repository for all the grabbed PDFs.

Here's how.

Use the Finder to create a folder you will use as the default repository. Give the folder a name that you will recognize whenever you see it - I named mine "Grab PDF"

Open the Print dialog box (by entering "File > Print…" or "Command P" when viewing a document), and click the PDF pop-up button near the lower left corner. At the bottom of the drop down list, click "Edit Menu…". The Edit PDF Menu box will open. At the bottom, click "+". A Finder-like box will open. Use it to select the default repository folder you created above, and click "Open".

That's it - you're ready to grab PDF copies of anything you can print. To use the feature, when you are looking at what you want to grab, call for a print ("File > Print…" or "Command P"), click the PDF pop-up button and, in the drop down list, click the folder name you created. A PDF file will be created in your folder. The file title will describe the file. And, since Mac PDF files are Spotlight-searchable, it will be easy to find the file later if you remember something about its content.

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Screen capture and PDF file creation

If you're not using Screen Capture and Print>Save as PDF, you may be missing a bet. They are both incredibly easy to use on your Mac, and handy for lots of situations.


It's amazing how useful this capability can be. Whenever you have something on your screen that you want to remember or share, this can do it. Here are some ways I have used it recently.

Some friends were trying to identify people in a group photo from our recent class reunion. I had a bunch of photos of the attendees. I displayed them in iPhoto, did a screen capture of the face(s) I wanted to discuss, and e-mailed those to the others.

I received a Word file that seemed to be giving me trouble. I displayed it, did a screen capture, and e-mailed it to the person who sent it to me to look at.

I saw something of interest on a web site. I did a screen capture of the portion of interest, wrote a note about it with the screen capture included, and saved it for future reference.

I was developing a talk about setting up web sites and listservs (aka mail groups). I walked through the steps, took screen shots of each page, added text and produced a PDF file as a handout and slides for projection.

On the Mac, two simple tools are included for screen shots. The one I use most is to just press COMMAND+SHIFT+4. The cursor changes to a cross-hair. I drag a box around the area of interest. When I release the mouse button, a png image file is saved to my desktop. If I prefer jpeg image files, I double click the png file, bringing it up in Preview. Then I do a File>SaveAs and choose JPEG Format.

The other tool is the GRAB utility. For info on how to use it, go to Mac Help and search for Grab. It has a little more functionality for when you need it.


PDF files are a near universal format for sharing information. If you create one on your Mac, it will look exactly the same to anyone using a Mac or PC - even if they don't have the same fonts as you do. Since we Mac users are in the 5% minority of PC users, this can be really important. The beauty of it is how easy it is to create a PDF file on your Mac.

To create a PDF file, just get what you want to share in a file looking like you want it - fonts, formatting, images, whatever. Then do a File>Print (or COMMAND+P). Up pops the Print screen. At the lower left is a 'button' labeled PDF. Click on it and the top menu item is Save as PDF .. Click that, and you get a Save screen from which you specify a destination. That's all there is to it. When you open the resulting PDF file, it will look just like what a printer would have produced, but ready to e-mail or archive on your hard drive.

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Backup Tools

I have used several backup tools on my Mac - each has a unique capability not encompassed by another. I prefer a single tool, and have switched to Leopard's Time Machine as the sole answer. Here are the other tools I previously found useful.

Retrospect Express Backup
This came with my Iomega disk drive. It can create a disk image from which my entire environment can be restored should I lose my internal hard drive. It can also add incremental backups at times I can schedule. I consider this as a tool for dealing with catastrophic loss - not one I would use to simply recover a lost or older version file. I may be wrong about its capabilities, but that seems to be its target use.

.Mac iDisk
iDisk maintains sync between a virtual disk on my hard drive and another in my .Mac account at Apple. This would meet all my needs except there is a space limitation for the basic .Mac account. Therefore I use it just for some of my Library folders, like Keychain and Mail preferences, which I would restore if my internal hard drive were lost.

Backup comes free with the .Mac account. It is a pretty good backup tool, allowing scheduled backups of selected files and folders. I use it to back up my active files to a backup area on my internal hard drive. This is just to cover loss or deletion of a file I later want to recover. Backup can also store files and folders off to a CD or DVD, which I do periodically for archives.

This is my newest backup tool, and the one that looks like the most useful, based on limited use so far. It maintains sync between folders. Either folder can be on the internal hard drive, an external hard drive or another networked computer. Sync can be run on a specifiable schedule, and the scheduling flexibility is excellent. A unique ability is running a sync whenever an external drive is mounted - I like this, because I mount my backup external disk only when I want to access it.

 When a file is modified in the source folder, the modified file replaces the earlier version in the backup folder. It can also sync bidirectionally if you are independently updating two folders - the most recently modified version can be copied to replace the older version in either. 

When a source file or folder is deleted, the sync can either leave it on the backup, delete it from the backup, or delete AND archive it on the backup, thus creating a history. 

The advantage ChronoSync has over Retrospect is that it maintains a mirror image of my working folders, and I can retrieve the image file or folder directly. Incremental backups like Retrospect, I believe, would have to reconstruct an image by combining all the increments with the original backup. Conversely, ChronoSync cannot produce a disk image, so Retrospect  is still useful to me for that insurance against catastrophe.

For pure backup, Backup may produce the same result, but I have used the sync paradigm before and like it better than simple backups. I also like ChronoSync's archive feature for deleted files.


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Kill Browser Animations

I was getting so tired of ads that show up when I am browsing with Safari. Those animations were getting hard to ignore. I finally decided to browse MacWorld to see if they had any recommendations. They rate PithHelmet pretty highly, and it has a free trial, so I gave it a try. The ads are gone! I just registered it ($10), even though I could probably have kept using it for free. It works on the honor system - if you say you paid it believes you.

If you want to give it a try, go to

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Mail Forwarding

Did you know --

One of the Preferences choices in Apple Mail (under Composing> Responding) allows you to quote just Selected Text in a Reply or Forwarded message.

This means that if someone sends you a long message, maybe the result of multiple previous forwards, you can highlight just the kernel you want to share and then choose Forward, and only what you have highlighted will be in your new message. This is a really simple way to practice good e-mail etiquette.

Or, if you have a long e-mail dialogue, replies to replies to replies, this is a quick way to truncate all that and just include the most recent message in your reply.

Good stuff.

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Unstructured Information Management

For many years using Windows PCs I used MicroLogic's InfoSelect as my information manager. When I moved to a Mac, I immediately looked for an alternative. I found StickyBrain from Chronos, and bought it. (See MacWorld review below). Chronos recently replaced it with the roughly equivalent Soho Notes. I am completely satisfied with these as replacements for InfoSelect.

What does an information manager do? For me, it is a way to capture unstructured data with confidence that I can easily find it later. These products allow me to do that without having to invest time and effort into organizing the data for later access. They do so through rapid textual search. But isn't that what Mac's Spotlight does? Yes it is. But SoHo Notes adds significant value beyond the search. My favorite feature is the Grab. I can set up one or more SoHo Notes Folders, and/or Notes in advance. To each of these I can assign a keyboard shortcut, e.g. Control+Option+Command+G for my Grab Folder. Whenever I come across something - text, web page, images, etc. - that I want to keep, I simply highlight it and execute the shortcut. Bingo - SoHo Notes creates a new Note in the referenced folder and inserts a copy of what I highlighted into it. If I use a Note shortcut instead of a Folder, the highlighted material is appended to the end of the referenced Note. Along with the captured information is a reference to it, e.g. a link to the web page I found it in. What is copied is not a screen shot - text is editable, images can be moved or enhanced. The upshot is, as I am reading 'stuff' on my Mac, whenever I find something I want to keep, a second or two to Grab it and I can keep reading. No paper to file (or misplace).

Here's a specific example of how I used this. I am trying to learn AppleScript. Unfortunately, the Help files in OS X don't cover it in any depth. Browsing the web, I found a series of articles that Bill Briggs wrote for MacCentral in MacWorld in 1999 - one article per week for 50 articles. Skimming through them on-line, I decided that this 300 pages would be a good reference work from which I could come up to speed. But I didn't like the idea of having to read it on-line. I wanted it on my Mac. Further, as I read it, I wanted to save the nuggets of really useful information into an abstract which I could print out. Without SoHo Notes, I would have forgotten about the whole idea. With it, it was a piece of cake. First, I downloaded a web page with links to all 50 articles. I saved that as a Note in SoHo, where internet links are clickable. Next I set up a SoHo Notes Folder into which I could download all the articles, and gave it a keyboard shortcut. Downloading the 50 articles went like this: click the link to it; highlight the whole page in Safari (Command A); execute the keyboard shortcut, which created a Note in the Folder containing all the highlighted stuff - text, graphics, links, whatever; then on to the next article. 50 articles were in my Mac in just a few minutes. Next, I set up a Note in SoHo for my abstract, and assigned it a keyboard shortcut. From then on, as I was reading sequentially through the 50 articles, whenever I found something I wanted to extract and save, I simply highlighted it and executed the Note shortcut. The highlighted material was appended to the end of whatever was already there. There might be an easier way to have done this, but I don't know about it, and this was certainly painless for me.

SoHo Notes has a lot of other features that I like. It is a word processor (I'm writing this in SoHo Notes). You can set alarms on ToDo Notes. And a lot more. But for me, the information management features are enough to justify the $40 cost. I wouldn't want to give it up. Just as I wouldn't have wanted to make the switch from Windows to Mac without a replacement for InfoSelect.

The Chronos website page for SoHo Notes is:

The MacWorld of StickyBrain (very similar functionality) follows, less the figures.

StickyBrain 3.4  MacWorld Rating: 4.5/5
Fast and easy-to-use information manager puts data at your fingertips
By Robert Ellis

Pros: Easy grabbing and pasting; excellent implementation of hot keys; Address Book integration; Palm, iPod, and .Mac synchronization; lets you add or browse notes without launching the program.
Cons: Minor interface annoyances.
Price as rated: $40
Company: Chronos,
StickyBrain is a freeform information manager modeled loosely on a filing cabinet. In this filing cabinet, nothing is ever lost or forgotten. With its recently added features and enhancements, StickyBrain 3.4 could be the perfect place to store your notes, stickies, clippings, passwords, receipts, and reminders.

The StickyBrain Viewer window is a cross between Mail and Safari. Like Mail, StickyBrain organizes information into folders and subfolders that are displayed in a drawer. Like Safari, StickyBrain lets you view information in individual floating windows or in tabs. You control the appearance: you can select different icons for folders; set a background color, texture, or image for a note; add a calendar; add a checkbox in any of eight styles; or select from three window styles, including a Sticky-like window style with adjustable transparency.
When you search, StickyBrain displays a list of matching entries and highlights matching search terms, so you’ll always find what you’re looking for. Attach an alarm to a note and you’ll never forget anything important (you can even add a note with an alarm to a contact from your Address Book).
Getting information in and out of StickyBrain is a snap. Import text or RTF (Rich Text Format) files, other StickyBrain files, or Stickies. A new Image Browser lets you drag and drop clip art from Chronos’ SOHO series programs (Business Cards, Labels & Envelopes, and Art Pack) and images from your iPhoto library. You can export one or more notes as individual files or a combined plain text or RTF file, and StickyBrain can synchronize with your .Mac account, Palm OS device, or iPod.

The best thing about StickyBrain is everything you can do with it even when it isn’t running. For example, you can create a new note on the fly by invoking the new QuickNote window with a hot key, or browse or search within notes by selecting the FlashNote window from the menu bar. You can grab text from other applications by highlighting it and pressing a hot key, or by selecting StickyBrain from a contextual menu or the Services menu. You can also grab and file Web receipts into a Receipts folder, or store password information in a Passwords folder (and also mark your notes as private to shield them from snoops). You can paste a note into another application by selecting it from a contextual menu or using a special hot key for that note.
As much as I love StickyBrain, a few things about the interface bother me. There’s no Trash folder, as there is in Mail, so you can’t retrieve a deleted note if you have second thoughts. Creating a note always opens a new window, even though you can edit a note inside the Viewer, and StickyBrain automatically saves new notes if you close the window; it doesn’t ask if you want to save. The FlashNote window isn’t resizable, and the QuickNote window doesn’t let you select the destination folder for each note (it sends notes to the Unfiled folder by default).
Macworld’s Buying Advice
StickyBrain 3.4 may be the ideal freeform information manager, especially if you need something that excels at capturing information from other applications and putting it at your fingertips.

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I long ago learned that an outliner accelerates my thinking process. It is the best place for me to start when I want to develop a document, a plan or anything where I am pulling together a lot of disparate facts and ideas into what will become an organized whole. At times, when I didn't have a good outliner, I have used a spreadsheet for these sorts of tasks. But I quickly run into the limitations of a spreadsheet for handling random text, while struggling with the highly structured nature of any spreadsheet program. When I moved from Windows to the Mac, one of the first tools I looked for was an outliner. My internet research led me to OmniOutliner, a $40 program, and I bought it. I have used it for a number of tasks, and just keep liking it more and more. Below are some paragraphs I lifted from the OmniOutliner website and Help system. In the linked PDF file is an outline I used to organize a DVD I was designing to present a 500 photograph slideshow of my high school reunion. It may serve to illustrate some of the ideas in the OmniOutliner descriptions.

You can get more information at the OmniOutliner website.

OmniOutliner Marketing Points

We all have ideas knocking around in our heads. OmniOutliner is for getting those ideas out into the open where you can see them, shuffle them around, neatly present them, and share them with other people. With it, you can quickly jot down notes into a list, or you can forge monumental masses of information into shape with pixel-by-pixel precision.

Hierarchical lists and tables can be used to express nearly any idea you have. You probably already write them all the time on paper or with word processors and spreadsheet programs. But OmniOutliner is specifically built for list and table creation, so it's more powerful than a word processor, while being lighter and cleaner than a spreadsheet.

OmniOutliner is designed to be fast and simple, so you can jump in, start getting things done right away, and worry about the intricacies later. But it's also powerful, so that once you are ready, you can exert a nearly supernatural level of control over your data. We're not kidding; it's spooky.

OmniOutliner 3 is an amazingly flexible program for creating, collecting, and organizing information. Give your creativity a kick start by using an application that's actually designed to help you think. It's like having an extra brain - one that doesn't keep losing the car keys.

You can use OmniOutliner's document structure to create hierarchies of main headings and subpoints that can be expanded and collapsed, which are immensely useful when it comes to brainstorming new ideas, drilling out specifics, and lining up steps needed to get everything done. But you aren't limited to outlines - you've got multiple columns, smart checkboxes, customizable popup lists, and an über-innovative styles system at your disposal.

Use OmniOutliner to draft to-do lists, create agendas, manage tasks, track expenses, take notes, plan events, write screenplays...and just about anything else you can think of. It's a smarter way to write, a more productive way to stay organized. Whatever your project, OmniOutliner has the tools you need to get the job done.

Your OmniOutliner documents can be exported as plain text, rich text, OPML, HTML, or you can write your own custom export plugins. OmniOutliner Professional's HTML-exported web pages allow you to expand and collapse items in a browser, and include all of your document's styles. Snazzy! Your outlines can also be turned into presentations by exporting to Apple's Keynote format.

Whether you're creating a grocery list, marketing budget, or an exhaustive analysis of the mating habits of kangaroo mice, sometimes text just isn't enough. Your OmniOutliner documents can include images, sound files (you can even record audio directly into your document with OmniOutliner Professional), movies, web links, and links to files or applications on your computer.

Multiple column types - here's where OmniOutliner really stands apart from other outliners, word processors, or even spreadsheet applications. You can create documents with multiple columns that contain different types of information - like pop-up lists, checkboxes, numerical values, dates, durations, or just plain text. Columns can even dynamically calculate sums for you, or produce averages.

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Mac Book Track Pad Tricks

Did you know about these Track Pad features (copied from the Track Pad System Preferences Help page)?

You can also choose options that let you use the trackpad to select and drag items without pressing the trackpad button, scroll vertically or horizontally through document windows and lists, and zoom to make items on your screen appear larger.

My favorite of these is the Two Finger Scroll. It's so neat that I wouldn't add a mouse to my laptop because I'd lose it. If you put 2 fingers on the track pad and move them around, the screen will scroll to follow them.

Another one I just learned about is the last, the Two Finger tap. Having come from a two button mouse on my Windows PCs, I miss the right button. Now I learn that tapping with 2 fingers is like a right button click - cool.



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