This time I couldn’t resist the temptation that every Mac-blogger faces sooner or later. Today I will not give an insight into Apple’s latest wanderings, but an overview of my personal favorite pieces of software. To make things a bit more interesting, I will omit the “obvious” tools from the big companies (assuming that most know that wordprocessor from Microsoft or that excellent piece of music management software from Apple), and I will instead focus on software from the smaller companies. In the Mac-community, many of those developers are well respected for the quality of their work. (If you are interested in the why’s and how’s of the Mac’s indy development community, and the very interesting ways it is socially organized, I highly recommend the thesis Indy Fever by Dutch researcher Michiel van Meeteren).
This listing ranges from handy, but very focussed system add-ons and utilities, to full-blown productivity tools. They are presented in no particular order.
MenuCalendarClock (free / $19.95)
One of the first tools I install on a new Mac that I configure for friends and family. The tool replaces the standard clock in the menu bar, and adds two major features: it shows the full date next to the time, and it shows a month calendar once clicked. You can’t imagine how valuable this tool becomes once you get used to it. Just quickly looking up the date of a particular day becomes a snap. The registered (and paid-for) version adds highlights to the calendar view showing your iCal appointments.
Mail Unread Menu (free)
This one is about as basic as it gets. As a plugin to Apple’s Mail, it shows the number of unread messages against a red blob in the menu bar. The read blob disappears when there are no unread messages. Although you get the same info from looking at the badge of Mail’s dock icon, the menu bar blob is much to spot from a distance. When I am sitting on my couch, I can easily see the read blob appear, while the dock’s icons remain crowdy and indistintable from that distance. A gem!
Smultron is an advanced, yet clean looking editor for plain text files, such a HTML documents or programming code. I use it to edit some web sites. I really like Smultron’s Leopard-like interface, its minimalist buttons, and its powerfull editing and search tools. Furthermore, like any good editor, Smultron recognizes the type of file that is loaded, and applies coloring to the various pieces of the text, to make it easy to quickly identify variables, parameters, etc.
Although I do onw a license of the $29 Transmit, I still prefer CyberDuck as my FTP client. Again, it’s the more minimalist interface that I’m drawn to. Apart from the basic FTP functionality, CyberDuck can instantly edit a file on a server without the manual download/upload process. I must admit however that some cranky web servers that I unfortunately have to work on from time to time are sometimes refused by CyberDuck, but opened fine by Transmit. So I will keep a copy of that around.
Us Mac people keep telling that all we need to do in order to remove an application is drop it in the trash. This might be true to the extend that in Windows, deleting individual files from a program might cause serious trouble, and leaves behind entries in the system’s registry that slows down its operation. Truth is, Mac application also leave some stuff behind when deleted, although these XML-files generally take up very little space and don’t harm the system. One might even argue that leaving them there makes it easier to restore your settings when you re-install the app. Nevertheless, I use AppZapper to quickly erase all the files associated with a program that I want to remove. As I like a clean system.
These days, we have a lot of passwords, codes and numbers to remember. Let alone, managing the problem of securely writing them down. 1Password takes care of a lot of password stress, as it integrates with all your browsers and synchronises between them and as such allows you to use stronger, harder to remember passwords. However, I don’t use 1Password’s browser integration at all. Instead, I solely use it to store my site logins, passwords, user IDs, software license codes, etc., and manage them in a fashioned order. Biggest argument for me however is the 1Password iPhone companion (free), which securely stores all the information from the desktop version, so that I have all my passwords with me whereever I go.
As you can read in my post How I put my Mac mini server to use from last December, I have struggled for a while with the problem to keep my iTunes library from my iMac (which I use to manage and add music) in sync with the Mac mini (which I use to play back music in my living room). I have tried a lot of them, hoping that in an ideal situation, such a tool could take care of things without any user intervention. It were those “automatic” tools however that caused a lot of problems. SuperSync needs to run on both machines and manually activated to start the sync process, however it does this without any issues. I use Leopard’s screen sharing to operate the Mac mini from the iMac, so that I can still use one machine to do the trick. I am still looking for a more elegant solution, however.
Simplify Media (free)
Using Simplify Media, you can share your iTunes music with up to 30 of your friends who also run this program. Once configured and running, Simplify Media completely stays out of your way, and instead shows your friend’s music libraries under the “Shared” heading in iTunes. Brilliant. But what’s more, the Simplify Media iPhone app ($3.99) allows you to listen to not only your own shared music, but to your friend’s as well. This allows you to have access to multiple gigabytes of media, without needing to store them on your iPhone or iPod touch.
More iChat icons / More iChat effects (free)
iChat is already the best-in-class instant messaging application (if only more people in Europe would ditch the god awfull Microsoft Messenger and switch to an AIM-compatible client). It already provides a lot of visual effects, but after installing these, you get several dozen more. Guaranteed to add to the enjoyment of video chats with children (ah, who am I kidding, it adds fun for the rest of us as well). Similarly, the extra icons and smileys add to the number of ways you can express yourself in a text chat. But take caution: your IM partner needs to have those icons installed as well in order to see them (yes, I know, MS Messenger solved this problem more elegantly). Only use them with people whose configuration you know (or have set up).
Do yourself a favor, and install the Perian preference panel. It will install nearly every audio and video codec known to man in QuickTime (except from the proprietary Windows Media codecs, whose WM Quicktime plugin is seperately available). Once you encounter a Divx, Vidx, FLV, AVI or Dolby file, you are sure you can enjoy its contents.
Quinn and Solitare XL (both free)
These are the only two games I ever play on my Mac. Usually to keep myself busy while listening to the ending of a podcast that I started when I was out and about. Both games are very visually appealing, which means half of the relaxation to me already! Quinn, a Tetris-clone, has had some legal issues in the past couple of years with the Tetris Company. Last year, its website featured the brilliant line “A game that, according to the Tetris Company, should not be named”. Solitare XL is like the Solitare game on Windows, but then done right (that is, with customizable card backdrops, and smooth animations).
My favorite Twitter client at the moment for but one reason: The others are worse. Twitterific is very Mac-like, has a nice, minimalist and transparent look to quickly show you your new tweets. However, it lacks simple things like showing the time a tweet was posted, or view the in-reply-to message in a discussion. Most irritating thing to me is that it shows your own tweet as “new”, once it does its 3 minute-interval of checking for new messages. However, it looks the best of the bunch and has the easiest interface. On the iPhone, however, Tweetie ($2.99) is by far my favorite. I consider it vastly superior to Twitterific, so I hope that they consider a Mac desktop version in the future.
Onyx and Secrets (both free)
Two tools for Mac OS X power users, that both allow them to tweak every tweakable setting on the system. Onyx is a long-time respected stand-alone tool, while Secrets installs itself as a preference pane. The latter one can also automatically download new secret settings once they are discovered.