Top 10 Mac Productivity Enhancements

Friday Apr 13th 2007 by Joe Kissell
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Apps to help you with just about everything: file maintenance, email, word processing, browsing and much more.

Perhaps, like many people, you were enticed to buy a Mac by the legendary friendliness and ease of use that Apple prides itself on. And then, having loaded it up with Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop and all the other stuff you need to actually get your work done, you started noticing that there’s often a trade-off between friendliness and efficiency.

Sure, Mac OS X is pretty to look at and easy to understand, but lots of common tasks—launching applications, renaming files, typing code, browsing the Web—end up taking lots more clicks and keystrokes than they should.

Enterprising developers have created a boatload of plug-ins, add-ons, and other software enhancements that remove annoyances like these. If you’re looking for ways to work faster, smarter, and with fewer hassles, look no further than this list. These are my top 10 picks for Mac tools that will help you get more done, with less effort, in your existing activities.

You’ll notice a few common themes here. For example, several of these utilities enable you to do something with a few keystrokes that would otherwise require considerable mousing, typing, or both. Several add new capabilities to frequently used programs such as Mail and Safari. And many of them are, I freely admit, controversial choices. Although I have my own preferences and tastes, where applicable, I’ve noted competing programs that have their own loyal followings. If in doubt, try out the demo versions and make up your own mind.

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1) LaunchBar

Price: $20 (personal); $39 (business)

If I had to choose just one utility to install on my Mac, out of the hundreds of available options in every category, it would be LaunchBar.

I have become so dependent on it that it’s quite painful for me to use any Mac on which it’s not installed. I can barely conceive of how I functioned before I discovered it. In simple terms, LaunchBar is a launcher—it enables you to open things (applications, files, contacts, iTunes tracks, and just about anything else) with just a few keystrokes.

But the beauty of it is that you don’t need to have any idea where on your disk any item is, and you don’t have to tell it in advance what keystrokes to assign to which item. Press the keyboard shortcut (such as Control-Spacebar) to bring it up, type a few letters, and LaunchBar intelligently figures out what you were probably looking for. If I type W, it knows I want Microsoft Word. If I type NET, the Network pane of System Preferences is at the top of the list. And if I type MJ (my wife’s initials) her Address Book card comes up; with another keystroke or two I can see any of her contact info.

LaunchBar lists items matching the words or initials you enter, and as you make selections, it learns what you most likely mean for any set of keystrokes. So it becomes smarter and quicker to use with time. In short: you can open almost anything, anywhere on your disk, by typing just a few letters.

In fairness, two other utilities, Quicksilver and Butler, do essentially the same thing (and are even free); the three differ in the details of their interfaces and the number of bells and whistles they have. In a pinch, I’m sure I could make do with one of the alternatives, but every time I try them I find myself coming back to the simple, familiar elegance of LaunchBar.

Runners-up: Quicksilver (free) or Butler (free, donations accepted).

2) Path Finder

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As most Mac pundits agree, the Finder—the most visible part of Mac OS X—is getting pretty long in the tooth. Most users aren’t even conscious of using a separate application when they copy files, make new folders, empty the Trash, or burn CDs, but the Finder handles these and many other tasks.

The problem is, it hasn’t kept up with the times. Some things are still too awkward to do in the Finder and require a trip to Terminal instead. For example, think of copying the full pathname of the current file; changing the “x” (execute) flags on an application; viewing invisible files; compressing or archiving files in formats other than .zip; changing the extensions on a batch of files…the list goes on and on.

Enter Path Finder, a Finder replacement. (Sure, you can keep the Finder running too, but only if you want to.) Path Finder does virtually everything the Finder does, and a huge number of things that it doesn’t. Want to swap a file’s data and resource forks or change its Type and Creator codes? Path Finder can do it. Launch any application on your computer with one click? Check. Sort files by owner or extension? Yep—even in column view. Plus, all the usual things you need to do to files: move, copy, rename, label, delete, create new folders, and of course search (with or without Spotlight).

Path Finder even comes with its own Desktop and Trash can. If you’re tired of fighting with the Finder and just want to get things done with your files, Path Finder is what you need.

3) Mail Act-On

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Apple’s Mail, once derided as woefully inferior to “real” email clients, has matured into a respectable and well-rounded program, even for heavy-duty business users. Sure, it still has its faults, but most of those have been overcome by clever third-party software.

Take Mail Act-On, for example. My favorite Mail add-on by far, it has made mail filing as simple and efficient as it should be. I have lots of rules to sort messages into various folders, but a lot of it still ends up (intentionally) in my Inbox. I want it to stay there—so that I remember how important it is—until I’ve dealt with it. At that point, though, dragging the message to the right spot in my complex hierarchy of hundreds of folders is just that—a drag.

Enter Mail Act-On. After installing it and setting up some special new rules, I can apply any particular single rule (such as “move this to my Family folder”) with a couple of keystrokes. And, since rules can have numerous actions, I can move a message, mark it as read, change its color, and send a canned reply all with the same set of keystrokes. Better yet, you can set up Mail Act-On so that a single keyboard shortcut triggers a series of rules that simply “does the right thing.” For example, “look at all the messages I’ve selected, and move those from Bob into the work folder; delete the ones from a Hotmail address; and send all the rest an out-of-the-office reply.” If you use Mail and want better control over filing tons of email, you need Mail Act-On.

4) TypeIt4Me

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Anyone who has used Microsoft Word is familiar with its AutoCorrect feature—you know, the one that turns “teh” into “the” and fixes other common typos to keep you from looking foolish. TypeIt4Me does essentially the same thing, but it works in almost any application (including Word).

I use it all the time for frequently typed phrases and code snippets—for example, I type mx and it automagically becomes Mac OS X; I type ar and it becomes (with the insertion point positioned right between the quotation marks, where I want it). Like AutoCorrect, TypeIt4Me offers you the choice of plain or formatted text. But you can also “type” graphics, enter variables (such as the current date and time), and run AppleScripts, all without having to touch the Command, Option, or Control keys.

Whether to save yourself the effort of typing or to save you from your own misspellings, TypeIt4Me is well worth the small investment. Although other utilities exist that perform similar functions, TypeIt4Me has been around the longest and has been my favorite for years.

Runners-up: TextExpander ($30) Typinator ($20).

5) NoteBook

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Before PDAs and electronic organizers hit their stride, I carried around a paper notebook in which I stored every scrap of information I cared about. That included not just contacts, schedules, and to-dos, but notes to myself, URLs, ideas for new projects, receipts, drawings, and pretty much anything else that could be placed on paper.

It wasn’t searchable, but at least I knew that everything I needed was in there somewhere, and I never had to think twice about where to put something. Circus Ponies’ NoteBook is an electronic version of that old paper notebook: a place to store, organize, and (better yet) find all those miscellaneous snippets of information most of us accumulate all day long.

There are lots of snippet keepers out there, each with its loyal fans. What impresses me about NoteBook is its mixture of simplicity and power. I love the fact that NoteBook looks and acts like a paper notebook, complete with lined pages and a faux spiral binding! But behind that simple, intuitive interface is a full-featured outliner, a table editor, a sophisticated search engine, and encryption options to keep your data safe. And it can easily handle not only text but Web pages, PDFs, digital photos, audio recordings…you name it. Put everything in this one place and you’ll never again waste time looking for it.

Yojimbo Runners-up: DEVONThink Professional ($80) Yojimbo ($40).

6) OnyX

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Mac OS X includes lots of hidden features that can make common tasks much more convenient, but turning these features on (or off) normally requires doing some research and then typing just the right command into Terminal.

Better yet: just check a box or click a button. Onyx is one of several applications whose main purpose is to provide a simple interface for tweaking these secret settings, as well as giving you GUI control over several common Unix maintenance tasks.

Some of my favorite hidden features include putting both up and down scroll arrows at each end of a scroll bar; pinning the Dock to the bottom of the screen’s right edge (so that the Trash is always in the same place, regardless of how many items are in the Dock); selecting alternative file formats for screen shots (I prefer TIFF); and forcing incoming messages in Mail to default to Plain Text display.

These are just a few of the dozens of things Onyx can do, not to mention clearing caches, running periodic maintenance scripts, and resetting various system databases. Of course, all the same—and more—can be said of several competitors. But Onyx handles all the settings I find most important to my productivity, at a price that can’t be beat: free!

Runners-up: Mac Pilot ($20), Cocktail ($15), Tinker Tool System ($7 euros).

7) iKey

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One of the great things about computers is that they’re quite happy to do tedious, repetitive tasks—quickly, accurately, and without complaining.

And yet, if you’re like me, you find yourself performing the same series of steps, manually, over and over again. Logging into a server. Filling the same settings into a dialog. Answering email messages with boilerplate text. Changing your location in the Network pane of System Preferences.

There’s no need to waste any more of your brain’s CPU cycles on tasks like that. iKey can wrap up a long sequence of activities into a single shortcut that you can trigger with a keystroke, a menu command, a schedule, or any of a variety of system events (such as waking from sleep). You can automate menu selections, mouse clicks, typing, opening documents or URLs, resizing windows, and more than 100 other activities; the shortcuts can even include tests such as waiting for a window to open or asking for user input.

Although the venerable QuicKeys has a few features that iKey lacks, the reverse is also true—and at less than half the price, iKey is a much better bargain. Runner-up: QuicKeys ($80).

8) PTHPasteboard Pro

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Price: Standard version, free; Pro version, $20

Have you ever cut a chunk of text, tried to paste it a short while later, and then realized that what you thought you had on your clipboard had already been overwritten? Or wanted to copy three or four separate items and paste them all at once, without going back and forth multiple times?

I encounter these kinds of situations all the time, and the solution is a utility that gives you multiple clipboards. Copy or cut something, it’s on the clipboard. Copy something else, and that’s also on the clipboard—but the first something isn’t gone. Keep copying as much as you want, without losing those clippings. That’s the basic idea of PTHPasteboard.

It works in the background, silently adding everything you cut or copy to its own list of clipboards. You can display a floating palette that displays the contents of each clipboard (whether a few or hundreds) and paste directly from any of them; you can also search your saved clipboards for just the piece of text you need.

The Pro version adds the capability of syncing clipboards between computers; it also lets you filter the contents of a clipboard before pasting it (say, to remove formatting or insert line breaks after a certain number of characters).

Runners-up: iClip ($29); Savvy Clipboard ($12) Butler (mentioned earlier) also offers multiple clipboards.

9) and 10) SafariStand and Saft

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Prices: SafariStand: Free; Saft: $12

Try as I did to choose just one Safari enhancement, I couldn’t do it. Although SafariStand and Saft overlap in several features, each one adds some capabilities to Safari that make Web browsing much more convenient.

SafariStand can display a thumbnail of the page open in each tab in an optional sidebar (somewhat like the one OmniWeb uses), making navigation simpler. It can add multiple search engines to the Search field. And it not only enables you to view a page’s source with syntax coloring, but it even lets you make changes to the HTML and then immediately preview how the altered page will render.

I’ve found this extremely useful when designing Web sites, especially when I’m trying to figure out how another site does something. Saft lets you rearrange tabs using drag-and-drop, export Web pages as single-page PDFs, scroll through a window by holding the Control key and moving the mouse, and adjust dozens of other Safari behaviors. Both products can block certain kinds of ads, animations, plug-ins, and other annoyances, and can save and restore browser windows (and whatever tabs are open within them). With these two tools, you can turn Safari into a wonder browser that can perform almost any trick you need.

Runner-up: Safari Extender ($10)

Final Thoughts

You could spend almost $200 on all the software I’ve described here, or you could select some of the free or low-cost alternatives and spend almost nothing. But in my experience, these tools more than pay for themselves in time saved and aggravation spared.

The only downside: I’m spoiled now. Going back to a plain vanilla Mac without all these goodies is as awkward as computing with one hand tied behind my back.

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