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Monday, 18 June 2018

Able2Extract (PDF editor/converter) Review

Able2Extract Professional 12 $149.95
https://www.investintech.com/

PDF documents are everywhere these days. PDF documents provide a useful way of distributing files that retain all the formatting information from Microsoft Word, Excel or whatever other application you used to create the file. The problem with a PDF document is that once you’ve created it, it remains pretty much non-editable. Often that is what you want. But sometimes it can be a nuisance. For example, you may want to fix mistakes in a PDF document sent to your by a colleague. Or you may want to split a large PDF file into smaller individual documents. That’s where Able2Extract can help out.

Able2Extract can edit and convert large, complex documents including graphics and non-English (here Japanese) text
Able2Extract is a PDF editing and conversion tool. It lets you translate between PDF and multiple other common file formats. Conversion can be done in both directions – for example, you could convert from an Excel spreadsheet to PDF, edit it in Able2Extract, then save the resulting document to a Word file. Conversion can be done one document at a time or in batch mode on an entire directory of documents.

You can edit documents by adding and deleting text, adding graphics, redacting (blacking out passages) or adding annotation such as notes and strikethroughs. If you need create editable forms with interactive ‘fill-in’ fields you can do that too. There are limitations to the editing capabilities, however. If you expect to be able to edit text as you would in a word processor you will be disappointed. Editable text takes the form of pages, paragraphs, lines or parts of lines which can be edited within an area defined by a bounding box. Not only can the text inside the bounding box be edited but the entire box and its contents can be dragged and dropped to reposition it.

If you want to hide sensitive information from prying eyes you can ‘redact’ a document by replacing selected passages with black markers.
The actual areas defined by the bounding box are often unpredictable. In some documents, large blocks are editable, which is what you would expect. In other documents, seemingly arbitrary blocks are marked off as editable, and sometimes a single line of text is divided into several independently editable areas. Text edits ‘flow’ only within the confines of the bounding box, so you won’t get automatic word-wrap throughout an entire document as you would in a word processor.

This is the company’s official promo video

I’ve tested PDF import with a variety of different source documents and found that Able2Extract copes well even with documents containing Japanese text and mathematical formulae. Some characters, however, seem to vanish when a selection box is activated for editing. For example, in a mathematical expressions such as x(100) = 1 seem to vanish when the paragraph in which it appears is selected. I eventually discovered that this is because each part of the expression has its own selection box. So in the example above x has one box, (100) = 1 has another and the text of the paragraph in which it appears has yet another selection box. Obviously that makes the editing process rather tricky!

Here (above) I show the same part of a mathematical document with two different paragraphs selected. Note that some mathematical expressions (on the right) seem to ‘disappear’. This is due to the fact that they have their own selection boxes and so they do not appear within a selected paragraph.The conversion option is also a bit odd. You can’t just convert an entire document unless you first select all the text in that document. Selection before conversion makes sense if you want to convert only a selected block of text (and this is indeed an option) but it seems strange to insist that all the text be selected in advance of converting a whole document.
The Save As option is similarly restrictive. Sometimes I want to save a copy of a document before editing it, but the Save As option is only activated once editing changes have been made (otherwise it is greyed out).

There are, of course, numerous products available for viewing or editing PDF files (see Wikipedia for a list of some of them). If you just want to save from Word or Excel to PDF then the tools built into Microsoft Office are likely to be all you need. Some design and DTP applications also support PDF import (for example, the free LibreOffice suite imports editable PDF into its drawing application).

Adobe Acrobat, would once have been my first choice PDF editor. However, since Acrobat migrated to a subscription model costing around £13 a month for the basic version or £15 per month for the fully featured one, I am less enthusiastic. Personally, I hate subscription software. Even so, Acrobat is the ‘industry standard’ and if you don’t mind hiring it instead of buying it you can scan through the feature list here to see if it does everything you want: https://acrobat.adobe.com/uk/en/acrobat/pricing.html

If you prefer to buy a PDF editor outright, Able2Extract may appeal to you. Bear in mind though that you would need to verify that it provides the capabilities that you really need. To do that, I recommend downloading the trial edition before making a decision.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

C Programming for Beginners: Increment, Decrement, Prefix and Postfix Operators

This is part 5 of my series on C programming for beginners. (See also part 4)

When you want to increment or decrement by 1 (add 1 to, or subtract 1 from) the value of a variable, you may use the ++ and -- operators. Here is an example of the increment (++) operator:

int a;
a = 10;
a++; // a is now 11

This is an example of the decrement (--) operator:

int a;
a = 10;
a--; // a is now 9

PREFIX AND POSTFIX OPERATORS

You may place these operators either before or after a variable like this: a++ or ++a. When placed before a variable, the value is incremented before any assignment is made:

num1 = 10;
num2 = ++num1; // num2 = 11, num1 = 11

When placed after a variable, the assignment of the existing value is done before the variable’s value is incremented:

num1 = 10;
num2 = num1++; // num2 = 10, num1 = 11

As a general rule, I would recommend that you stick to using ++ and -- as postfix operators. In fact, there is often nothing wrong with using the longer form a = a + 1 or a = a – 1. Mixing prefix and postfix operators in your code can be confusing and may lead to hard-to-find bugs. So, whenever possible, keep it simple and keep it clear.

NOTE: If you are new to C, you may want to start with lesson 1 in this series: http://www.bitwisemag.com/2017/02/introduction-to-c-programming.html
And if you want to learn C in more depth, why not sign up to my online video course – C Programming for beginners. See here: http://www.bitwisemag.com/2017/01/learn-to-program-c-special-deal.html

Sunday, 27 May 2018

ACID Pro 8 Review

https://www.magix.com/us/music/acid-pro/

ACID was the first loop-based audio arranging program I ever used. That was around twenty years ago. Oh, how time flies! Anyway, a lot has happened since then. For one thing, ACID which was developed by Sony has now been acquired by MAGIX software. For another thing, ACID now faces competition from a larger number of audio arranging programs ranging from the free such as LMMS   to the popular but fairly expensive Ableton Live  –  not forgetting another MAGIX program that offers a range of  similar features: MAGIX Music Maker (see my review).

So is the venerable ACID now starting to look a bit long in the tooth? Or has this latest update given it a new lease of life?

ACID Pro 8 – the interface has been given a spruce up. But is that enough?
Let me explain what ACID does. It falls into a category of software known as a Digital Audio Workstation or ‘DAW’. Essentially, it lets you compose and arrange music on multitrack timelines by adding clips one beneath the other. These clips may take the form of pre-recorded ‘loops’ – fragments of music that can be seamlessly joined together to create a score. Even non-musicians can do that. You just pick instruments such as guitars, organs or drums and…

…um, well, actually that was the first problem I encountered. According to the ACID web site, the software comes with 9GB of new ACIDized loops. The only problem was that I couldn’t find them. The help system told me to click a ‘Get Media from the Web’ button. But when I did that I just got advertising for other MAGIX products. It was forced to Google for assistance. Finally I discovered that I had to download loops via the Help menu. Having downloaded these (it takes hours on a slow connection like mine) you then have to run no less than seven installation programs, each of which prompts you to click through several dialogs to accept installation settings and licence terms. The loop collection installers even demand that you select between a Standard and Custom installation in spite of the fact that no custom installation is actually available (I tried it – it wasn’t there). I mean, what! Frankly, people, this is all a bit of a palaver and the loops should have been installed simply and automatically.

The Installer seems to go on forever…
Once they’d been installed I naively expected them to be available from a docked window in the ACID environment. No such luck. I eventually discovered that they had been conveniently installed into the directory C:\Users\Public\Documents\MAGIX\Common\Loop Collections and I had to use the built-in disk browser to navigate to them. By now I was starting to wonder if anyone had bothered to test the installer. Surely someone would have noticed that it is not likely to inspire a feeling of joy, contentment and goodwill in the end user!

In principle, the ACID Media Manager should provide a simple way of finding loops from within the environment. The Media Manager has its own docked window. When I opened this window, a message appeared stating: “The Media Manager is not installed”. I contacted MAGIX to ask where it was. I was told:
Media Manager is deprecated and not fully supported.  Media Manager installs separately from Acid.  If customers want to use it they can install it here.  https://support2.magix.com/customer/en/vegas_legacy_get?file=extras%252Fmediamanager24b.exe
Deprecated, not fully supported? And yet has its own docked window? In installed it anyway but it still didn’t show up in the workspace. Well, it was worth a try…

OK, so once the loops has been downloaded I was ready to go. The good news is that ACID makes it really easy to create music just by dragging and dropping loops, extending or cutting them, changing their pitch and adding effects such as amp distortions, echoes and delays.

The simplest way to create a composition is to ‘pick and paint’ – that is, you pick a few loops, drop them onto tracks and then extend the sounds by dragging them with the mouse to ‘paint’ them onto specific portions of the track. You can divide your music into named sections – intro, verse, chorus and so on. And if you need to change the key or the tempo, you can do that for the entire project or for individual clips. You can also change rhythms by applying ‘grooves’ (pre-defined sets of rhythmic properties) to a track. And you can add your own recorded audio from a connected instrument or microphone if you plan to add vocals.

This is the first major update to ACID in about ten years. There are some obvious changes, such as the redesigned user interface and some less obvious changes such as the change to a 64-bit architecture. There are also two ways to acquire the software. You can either buy it outright for £119 or you can rent it (or ‘subscribe’ if you prefer) for £5.99 per month.  Personally I hate subscriptions to software. However, MAGIX says that subscribers have the added advantage of getting “all the updates, new features, new instruments and effects as soon as they are released” and also benefits from “exclusive instruments like Vita Pop Brass and Orchestral Ensemble and effects like Analogue Modelling Suite to help you stay ahead of the game.” Frankly, it seems a bit unfair to penalise those people who’ve stumped up the full £119 purchase price by omitting these features.

Read more: https://www.magix.com/gb/music/acid-pro/new-features/

So, twenty years after using the first version of ACID, how do I think it’s stood the test of time? In brief, I like the way it works. It makes it easy to create good-sounding multi-instrument music tracks just by drawing on a timeline using a mouse and a set of pre-recorded loops. Twenty years ago that seemed cutting edge. Now, not so much. But even so, ACID does a pretty good job, at a pretty good price and, once you find and download them, the loops are also pretty good.

But there’s nothing remarkable. No killer features. And while the software itself is quite nice, the installer is as friendly as a cornered rat. Moreover, the fact that the Media Manager has its own window in the user interface even though it is not supported by the software does not inspire confidence.

So, I have to conclude that ACID is a nice program that’s been given a much needed update after being neglected for a very long time. But it is still not all it should be. The software needs more love, care and attention to detail if it is to compete against more modern rivals.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

MAGIX ACID 8 Pro Released

The loop-based Digital Audio Workstation ACID Pro is back with its first major update in ten years. MAGIX Software says that it has completely overhauled the software and given it a new, modern interface. ACID lets users create music easily by arranging and editing pre-recorded 'loops' onto tracks. The new version is available either as a one-off purchase or by subscription (ACID Pro 365) which includes regular updates.

Prices and Availability:
ACID Pro 8 –£119.99
ACID Pro 365 – from £5.99 per month

More information at: https://www.magix.com/gb/music/acid-pro/

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Movavi Video Suite 17 review

£59.95 - https://www.movavi.com/suite/

I have to admit that until the company contacted me recently, I have never even heard of Movavi Video Suite. This is perhaps not too surprising since there are so many video editing packages now available for Windows that it is becoming increasingly difficult you keep track of them all.
Given the intense competition in this field, the first thing I wanted to know is whether there is anything that differentiates Movavi Video Suit from its rivals?

Movavi Video Suite lets you edit videos, complete with special effects and animated intros
This is what the company says: “Movavi Video Suite is comprehensive video making software that helps you create professional-looking movies and slideshows on your home computer – even if you have no experience. Incorporate music, create text captions, apply visual effects and transitions – you can do whatever you want with your video. In addition to the video making app, Movavi Video Suite contains a number of useful apps to help every video maker: powerful video converter that supports 180+ media formats, convenient utility for burning DVDs, a special tool for digitizing analog video, and more.”

What this actually means is that you get a fairly simple video-editing package and screencast-recorder plus a few associated tools to save in various image, video and sound formats. But is that really enough to make this program stand out from the crowd?

Let’s see how it works.

The principal application is the video editor. This gives you a few tracks arranged on the timeline – two tracks for video, two for sound. You can drag clips onto the tracks and use the second video track for ‘picture in picture’ effects (one clip running in a small rectangle overlaying the main clip). You can move, cut and copy clips and you can add transitions to fade one clip into another or apply effects such as ripples, slides, zooms and so on. You can also add text and animations to another track. These may include ‘speech bubbles’ and ‘thought bubbles’, animated intro sequences. The text and font-styles can be edited in the preview window.

Here I am overlaying the main video with a ‘talking head’ clip that I filmed in front of a green screen

Here is the same clip with ‘Chroma key’ applied to remove the green background
Movavi Video editor has most of the other features you’d expect in an entry-level video editing package, such as filters to change colours, add blurs, apply a ‘sketch’  effect or lens flares; pan-and-zoom to magnify or move across a video; the ability to add images – either loaded from disk or in the form of drag-and-drop ‘clip-art’; it has a number of animated annotation such as arrows, circles and boxes (very useful if you are making tutorials in which you need to highlight certain things shown on screen); and it even has a key frame animation capability which lets you select elements and smoothly animate them across the screen between two locations at two time-points marked onto one of the clips in the timeline. It has a video stabilizer to remove camera shake plus a reasonably effective Chroma key (green screen) tool that lets you make coloured backgrounds transparent. This is useful if you want to add a ‘talking head’, for example, over some other background video.

There are only two video tracks in the editor but, as you can see here, you can arrange multiple clips in the top video track
Note that only two tracks are available for video clips. However, the ‘picture in picture’ track rather oddly allows multiple clips to overlay each other – which is a bit like having extra video tracks even though they are not shown as such. Some video suites offer dozens of video tracks; that might be useful for complex projects. But to be honest, for home and online videos, most of the time one or two video tracks will be sufficient. For very ambitious video projects, however, the two-track limitation may be a barrier. Another limitation is the lack of support 360-degree videos (recorded by cameras with 360-degree functionality),  though the company does have a different product that has this capability.

You can apply transitions to merge one clip into another. Here the ‘disintegrate’ effect breaks one video into animated squares to reveal the next clip 
The software supports a good range of import/export formats including all the most popular video types such as MP4 (in several ‘flavours’), AVI, MOV, MPEG-1, MPEG2, WMV and many others. Audio conversion is also provided to save sound files in MP3, WAV, AC3 and so on.

The suite include screencasting utilities. There is a decent screen capture tool that lets you select areas of the screen, optionally including webcam video  capture, and it can include mouse-click highlights in the screen capture. This is a simple, straightforward and effective tool.

In addition, there is also a dedicated webcam recorder which, however, has the annoying side effect of producing audio feedback (a loud hooting noise) if you forget to disable the PC speakers when recording. This is bizarre since the webcam recorder that’s integrated with the screencast recorder doesn’t suffer from audio-feedback.

If you need to record software, the screencast tool does a great job. You can even record video from your webcam at the same time that you record action from your computer screen
Movavi Video Suite can also record sound, burn audio or video to CD, DVD or Blu-ray and create slideshows from a series of still photographs. The software provides alternative ‘easy’ or ‘full’ user interfaces. If you choose the full interface you are presented with the complete video editor. If you choose the simple interface, you are shown some task-specific dialogs. For example, when creating slideshows, the easy interface lets you select images, optionally add some music and then it generates the slideshow complete with animated transitions.

In summary, Movavi Video Suite is a good tool for making home or YouTube videos or screencasts. It is fairly limited in functionality so don’t expect to have all the editing tools you would get with more complete video editing suites such as Adobe Premiere or Magix VEGAS. On the plus side, however, it is really, really easy to use. Even fairly user-friendly video editing packages such as Cyberlink PowerDirector or Corel Video Studio can be intimidatingly complex for the newcomer to video production (see more video editor review HERE). The learning curve of Movavi Video Suite is much less steep than for those programs. So, while this is definitely not a program for professional-grade production, it would be a very good choice for the non-specialist user who wants to get editing projects done quickly and easily.

If you are interested in video making software, there’s a free trial available, so if you aren’t sure if this is right for you, test it out first.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Windows Task Host preventing shutdown


Here we go again.

Recently I wrote about problems with Windows 7 failing to install updates.

Now I’ve had a similar (though not identical) problem on a PC I upgraded from Windows 7 to Windows 10. All went well for a few weeks. And then one day I noticed, as I was trying to shut it down, a message saying that something called the Windows Task Host was closing background tasks and preventing shutdown. I thought at first this meant the Task Manager. I checked but that wasn’t running. So I had no option but to kill off the Task Host and shut down.

The same thing happened the next day. And the day after that. When unexpected things keep happening in Windows you can bet it’s a symptom of some bigger problem. So I started hunting around in Control Panel to see if I could find any details about this damn’ Task Host thing. That’s when I noticed that a number of Windows updates had failed to install. They said they couldn’t install because something else was waiting to install. So what should I do about that? It didn’t tell me!

I hunted around the Internet and found numerous articles telling me how to fix this. They ranged from the extreme (re-install Windows) to the merely fiddly (load up one thing, disable another thing, install this, remove that, edit the registry etc. etc.). Since the last time I’d encountered this (the Windows 7 problem, I mentioned earlier), the simple fix was the one that worked, I decided to try the simplest possible fix I could find for the Task Host problem. And it worked!

So here it is:

  • Press [Windows key] + X
  • Click Power options
  • Find Related Settings
  • Click Additional power settings
  • Click Choose what the power button does
  • Click Change settings that are currently unavailable
  • Uncheck 'Turn on fast startup (recommended)
  • Click Save changes.
  • Turn off PC.
  • Turn on again.

I went back into Updates (Control Panel, Updates & Security, Windows Updates) and the updates were installing. I shut down the PC. No damned Windows Task Host! Hurrah!

Don’t ask me why this works. It just does.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

SOUND FORGE Pro 12 Released

Need better audio for your podcasts? Special audio effects for your videos? Then the new release of SOUND FORGE Pro from MAGIX software may be worth taking a look at. (By the way, forgive all the capital letters - MAGIX seems inordinately fond of uppercase characters...)

SOUND FORGE Pro 12 is the latest in this famous line of audio-editing tools which began life back in 1993. The software was acquired from Sony in 2016, and this new release is said to enhance the traditional strengths of SOUND FORGE Pro by adding "new cutting-edge mastering and restoration features, along with modern hardware and platform compatibility. The software has a new 64-bit architecture and a large suite of additional plug-in effects, which now benefit from VST3 compatibility. DSD formats are supported in the new version and allow for import and export of audio files in optimal quality. SOUND FORGE Pro 12 also makes use of innovative psychoacoustic mastering, which can prevent conversion artifacts through high-quality Pow-r Dithering algorithms."

Cost starts at £299 though there is also an edition available on a 'rental' basis at £11.99 per month.

More info online: https://www.magix.com/gb/music/sound-forge-pro/