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Saturday, February 2, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Practical Mac

Products to make your life more fun

Special to The Times

The bounty of Macworld Expo still overflows, as I catch up with more news and products from the show that I think have the opportunity to make your life better — or at least, more productive and more entertaining.

Airfoil 3: Rogue Amoeba is more than just a pretty name — and a 7-foot-tall inflatable mascot attending this year's show, held last month in San Francisco. The company focuses on controlling audio in Mac OS X in ways that Apple never intended. Airfoil is a prime example.

In 2003, when Apple shipped its AirPort Express Base Station, a compact wireless router, they included an audio jack for analog and digital optical sound output so you could stream music from iTunes — including encrypted, purchased content from the iTunes Store — to a stereo or powered speakers elsewhere in your home. (The AirPort Express price dropped last year to $99.)

Rogue Amoeba thought that the constraint of using iTunes as the only audio feed was too limiting, and released Airfoil to allow the audio output of any program, or of the overall system, to stream to an AirPort Express.

With Airfoil 3, the company raises the bar again with the addition of Airfoil Speakers, which turns any computer on the network into an output device.

One computer could send audio to one or more AirPort Express routers and to one or more other computers as well. (The software is Mac only for now, but a Windows version is expected, too.)

With many different sound systems, computer speakers, and computers on a network, you might enjoy letting each member of your family (or office) be able to choose where sound emerges.

The developers also added a nifty new feature that allows you to play video on one computer and stream synchronized audio to one or more AirPort Express routers or computers.

Airfoil Video supports all QuickTime video and audio formats, as well as those supported by the Perian plug-in (perian.org/).

It also supports any QuickTime plug-ins you might be using, such as the free or paid Flip4Mac addition (www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia/player/flip4mac.mspx), which lets Mac users watch unprotected Windows Media videos.

Airfoil Video can also play DVDs, but the support for that is labeled "preliminary."

Specs: Airfoil 3, rogueamoeba.com/airfoil/mac/, $25, fully functional demo (10-minute sessions); Airfoil Speakers, free (part of Airfoil or separate download).

MacSpeech Dictate: The folks at MacSpeech have suffered under a bit of a cloud with their flagship product iListen, a speech-recognition program.

While the portion of the software that interpreted speech into written words worked fine, it didn't work superbly.

There's widespread recognition that Nuance's Dragon NaturallySpeaking — software developed across four companies and nearly three decades — is the ne plus ultra.

Which is why Mac fans cheered when the word came at Macworld Expo that MacSpeech had licensed the core of the Dragon software for use on Intel Macs.

MacSpeech had a primitive but impressive demonstration of the $199 software at the show; it's expected to ship in mid-February, with crossgrade discounts for iListen owners. (iListen will apparently continue to be sold as a lower-cost alternative.)

Speech recognition is widely used by those with some form of physical impairment that makes use of a keyboard impractical.

It's also used by those with repetitive strain injuries, those who put words together better orally than by typing, or those in professions where dictation makes more sense than keyboard entry.

MacSpeech Dictate will initially ship with a limited set of features: Its ability to learn and improve won't be as powerful as Dragon's software at first, nor will it offer add-on legal and medical dictionaries at its release.

Those features will likely be available by summer.

Still, I know of many Mac users who either run Windows in Boot Camp or have a Windows system solely to handle Dragon NaturallySpeaking; they're looking forward to migrating back to a Mac.

Specs: MacSpeech Dictate, www.macspeech.com/, $199, shipping mid-February.

ReQall: Along the lines of speech recognition, ReQall is a new service and site designed to make dealing with action items and to-do lists as simple as placing a phone call.

The demonstration is impressive: call a phone number, speak your to-do item, and it's added to your list.

Via a Web site, you can set up actions that happen to items as added or changed: when you make the call, for instance, the item could be sent via text message to others or via e-mail, and updates are fed out through a custom RSS news feed.

The service is powerful in itself, but it's also a great harbinger of things to come, where the barrier that separates your phone from the rest of your digital life is lowered.

A voice call becomes as useful as sending e-mail; an action triggers many automated responses; and you wind up even less attached to a desk.

Specs: ReQall, www.reqall.com/, free.

Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to gfleishman@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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