’Tis the season for nerds to create lists of the software they found most useful in the past year, so before the year closes, I wanted to get in on the fun. Keep in mind that this post focuses entirely on software for Mac OS X. I don’t go into iOS apps at all, not because I don’t use & enjoy iOS daily (some days, hourly!), but because I wanted to keep the focus on desktop apps that I actually use & enjoy (some more than others), & that make me more productive.
Before I start, I have to call out one program that is difficult to classify, as it falls into so many categories for me: Homebrew. I tried Fink, & I tried MacPorts, but neither works as well as Homebrew. I use the UNIX tools Homebrew provides me to download & manage with almost every category of software on my Mac: with automation tools like Keyboard Maestro, & for capturing & manipulating images (thanks, ImageMagick!), & to automate essential tasks in DEVONthink Pro, & to make Path Finder even better. It’s one of the first things I install on a new Mac, & if you have UNIX in your blood, it deserves a home on your Mac as well.
Table of Contents
I’ve been using these tools for a few years, & my reliance on them just kept on increasing this year. All of them are brilliant time-savers, & I can’t imagine using my Mac without them:
- Keyboard Maestro. The king of automation apps. If I can’t do it in Keyboard Maestro, something is wrong somewhere. I love this program.
- Text Expander. I’ve been using it for years (see “A list of contractions with curly apostrophes for TextExpander”). According to the program, in the year & a half since I re-installed my OS, I’ve expanded 11,821 snippets, saving myself 1,225,956 keystrokes & 68 hours of time. Yeah, I’ll take that.
- Alfred 2. Newly updated this year, with powerful new workflows. A launcher, yes, but so much more than that.
Sublime Text is my main text editor that I actually use for far more than just coding. I write pretty much everything in Sublime Text (like this post, for instance!), & while I still think BBEdit is better in a few areas, Sublime Text works beautifully, has features that BBEdit still lacks (multiple cursors, anyone?), & is cross-platform, which helps me when I’m trying to teach courses at Washington University in St. Louis & Webster University. All that said, I’m giving the new lightweight editor Brackets serious consideration for my Spring courses. So far, I think it’s brilliant, & the students to whom I’ve shown it have responded enthusiastically. We may have a winner on our hands—I’ll let you know next year.
Dash has turned into a must-have. I was looking for a nice code snippet manager, which Dash is, & I also found something I didn’t know I was looking for: an offline documentation & API browser. Good grief, do I use this all the time. And more & more tools are hooking into Dash as well. Hop on board the Dash train!
I don’t do a lot with graphics (that ain’t my area), but when I do, I use Acorn. It has the right amount of features & power for me, but I still know that there’s a million & one things I could do with it if I needed to.
Need a good color picker? Check out Hues. Cheap & full-featured.
Writing & thinking
I already mentioned Sublime Text, my main writing app. For keeping short notes about everything, though, I use nvALT.
This year I got into DEVONthink Pro in a big way (for more, see “How to save a perfectly-scraped webpage into DEVONthink using IFTTT, Diffbot, Hazel, & several command line tools”). Now it’s where I store websites, PDFs, text files, & other files that I plan to use for teaching, web development, writing, or just long term storage. It’s a powerful & deep program, & it’s never let me down. I’m glad it’s in my arsenal.
Of course, sometimes I just want the text in an image & not the image itself. When that’s the case, I bust out Prizmo. The UI is a bit confuzzling, but it does an amazing job with OCR.
I own Scrivener, & I think it’s the best program of its kind (deep-featured writing apps for large, complex projects), but it’s not something I’ve had a need to use. The developer released a new program this year that I have found myself using whenever I have to plan a class or try to understand a knotty issue: Scapple. It’s super-simple mind-mapping that works for me.
David Ulevitch, the founder of OpenDNS, hails from my alma mater & employer, Washington University in St. Louis, & I’m just more impressed every year with his technical & business acumen. This year I started using DNSCrypt, a service from OpenDNS that helps ensure that (a) I’m always using OpenDNS, & (b) my DNS queries are encrypted. It’s free, & there’s absolutely no reason not to use it. So get it!
When it comes to my data, better safe than sorry. For pictures & lots of documents, I use Dropbox. For syncing data to & from my iPhone & iPad, I use Dropbox. For syncing app preferences & data, I use Dropbox. For sharing business documents, I use Dropbox. It’s awesome, & I can’t imagine not using it.
Like I just said, though, better safe than sorry. For an online backup solution, I rely on CrashPlan. Lately it’s been giving me errors that are seriously starting to anger me, but I’m going to be nice & assume that the friendly support I’ve received in the past will help fix things. The really great thing about CrashPlan is that it doesn’t force me to rely on its encryption keys, which is next to useless. Instead, it lets me use my own keys, which is exactly what you should do.
RipIt. Rips DVDs quickly & accurately, so Handbrake can take over after that.
Handbrake. Still the best DVD encoding tool out there.
ImageOptim. The quickest & easiest way to reduce image file sizes.
iDentify 2. Not the prettiest UI, but the best way to add metadata to video files.
Filebot. Horrible UI, but the best thing I’ve found for renaming torrents that you download.
Path Finder. Apple improved the Finder in Mavericks, but it’s still not as good as Path Finder. If my Mac is on, Path Finder is open. And by now, I have so many Keyboard Maestro macros for it that it works like magic.
Bartender. Earlier versions of this app completely borked my MacBook Pro, but I kept waiting & hoping that they’d get it right, & I’m happy to report that they have. It works, it’s essential, & it’s brought sanity to my Mac’s menu bar.
Display Menu. If you use your Mac to give presentations, you need this app. It’s cheap, & it will make your life much easier. Trust me on this, & go get it.
MacUpdate Desktop. How else am I going to keep my non-Mac App Store software (that is to say, the vast majority of my software) up to date? $20 for 5 Macs is a steal.
Palua. In some programs, I want my F keys to act like F keys (as in Path Finder, where I use F5 to copy between panes constantly); in others, I want to use them to increase brightness or lower the volume or enable Mission Control. Palua lets me specify how my function keys work on a program-by-program basis. Set it & forget it.
For years I’ve been using Chrome as my main web browser. As a result of Edward Snowden’s revelations, I resolved to reduce the amount of information that Google has about me. First, I moved from Chrome to Safari, & I’ve been very happy with my decision, especially once I used Keyboard Maestro to get Safari set up the way I like. I still keep Chrome around, of course, as well as Firefox & a few other web browsers for play & for testing, but Safari is what I use 99% of the time.
Next, I moved my personal email account from Gmail to Fastmail, & I couldn’t be happier. Again, Google has too much info on me, & I also grew disenchanted with Google’s attempts to “fix” the UI of Gmail in ways that made it far worse. Fastmail is fast (it better be with that name!), reasonably priced, has great service & support, & nicely supports both normal & power users. On top of that, it uses real IMAP, not some pseudo-IMAP-like protocol like Gmail does, & it’s webmail interface is fast, intuitive, & sports features that Gmail doesn’t have but should (pinning important emails at the top of the list, for instance)!
For Git, I started the year using Tower, which is a nice program, but it has one big annoyance: it doesn’t automatically check to see if the repos you follow have updates unless you jump through hoops for each repo. As a result, I switched to SourceTree, which has a more complex GUI but checks the status of my repos when I open the program (I like to keep an eye on a lot of repositories!). Bonus: it’s free & cross-platform.
Occasionally I have to edit an EPUB, & for the last few years I’ve had to fire up Sigil to do that job. I’ve never been happy about Sigil—it’s a ugly program that’s never a pleasure to use, but there really wasn’t anything else that was reasonably-priced (Sigil was free, but I would have gladly paid for something decent). In a surprise move late this year, the amazingly-prolific developer of the (non-native but still very usable) ebook manager Calibre added the ability to edit EPUBs to the already full-featured program, & wonder of wonders, even in beta, it’s a lot better than Sigil! I donated money to Kovid Goyal, the developer of Calibre, before, & now I think I’m going to have to do so again.
For years I’ve thought that Google Calendar is the best calendaring program I’ve ever used, & I still think it’s pretty good. But over the last few months I’ve started using Fantastical on my Mac & iPhone (& even iPad), & it’s won me over. It looks great, & the natural language feature for adding new events just works. I like it a lot.
I’ve never liked Apple’s Mail program. It just felt bloated & clunky to me (kind of like Word feels when I have to use it). I tried lots of others—Thunderbird (OK), Postbox (which is an improved Thunderbird & isn’t bad, & was what I turned too for offline work, but which really isn’t supported any longer), Eudora (sad), Sparrow (nice while it lasted), AirMail (which never worked very well), & others that I can’t remember. Finally, since I used Gmail, I stuck with Mailplane, which is excellent if you use Gmail. When I switched from Gmail, I had to leave Mailplane behind. I’d tried all the others, but then I started hearing more about MailMate, & I’ll be damned if it didn’t win me over. This is an email program that’s proudly & unabashedly focused on nerds, & it delivers. It’s expensive, but it’s powerful & it is worth it.
“Why buy Adobe Acrobat?” I always tell people. “Preview does 99% of what you want!” This is true, but sometimes you need something with a bit more oomph, and when PDFpenPro was released this year in a new version with a temporary lower price, I jumped on it & so far have found it useful. Occasionally it hiccups when it runs across a weirdly-formatted PDF, but most of the time it allows me to read, annotate, fill in, & create PDFs to my heart’s content.
When I’m working, I like to have music playing. When I’m driving my son around in the car, I like to play music for him. After struggling for years trying to keep good tunes on my iPhone via syncing, I finally said goodbye to that mess & just started using Rdio. Now I’m sold. I use it everywhere, on all my devices, & I love it. And the fact that Rdio has a family plan that let’s my wife listen to her own stuff for a modest extra fee sits right with us too. I tried Spotify, but I didn’t like the obsessive focus on playlists or the UI, two things that Rdio does right.
As a teacher & speaker, I give a lot of presentations every year, & I’ve been an enthusiastic user of Apple’s Keynote for a long time. When the new version of Keynote came out this fall, I had two quick reactions:
- Where the hell are my Smart Builds?
- This is really pretty nice!
I’m still sorry that Smart Builds were taken out, but I’ve learned to deal with their absence while I still hope for their eventual return. I ended up using the new Keynote for at least 25 different talks this fall, & my enjoyment of it has only grown. It’s better than the old Keynote ’09 in almost every conceivable way. And I’ll go so far as to say the same about Pages & Numbers—both, in my experience, are vastly improved over the old models.
Finally, I switched this blog’s backend from WordPress over to Octopress earlier this year. It’s been interesting, as it forced me to learn a lot about ruby, something I’d never really used before. So far, I’m glad I made the move, but I will say this, it’s not for the light-hearted.
For years I’ve been a happy customer of Valve’s Steam service. I buy a lot of games for myself & for friends as gifts, & so far I’ve been completely satisfied with the software & the service. But on Christmas Day, Steam was down for most of the day, which was just amazingly incompetent. One of the, if not the, biggest gaming days of the year, & no one at Valve thought they should requisition more servers? And especially when they knew they were going to be giving away free copies of Left4Dead 2, one of the biggest games of recent years? And what made the whole thing worse was that there was absolutely no word on Steam’s official Twitter accounts, which was insult added to injury. Major fail by Valve.
After the Snowden revelations began, I determined to switch over to a more secure IM service than Microsoft’s Skype or Apple’s Messages (although, to be fair, it appears that Apple has been better about user privacy & security than Microsoft, who just rolled over & gave the NSA whatever they wanted & then some). I decided to try Adium. again, but this time with OTR (Off-the-Record) enabled, which provides robust encryption for messaging. Ignoring the still-clunky UI, I discovered the OTR worked well (not great, but well) if everyone was using Adium.
Then I tried adding in some Windows users who have the Adium equivalent, called Pidgin—& keep in mind that Adium is essentially the Mac version of Pidgin. At their heart, they’re the same codebase. But alas, for reasons known only to the developers, the way OTR is implemented in Adium & the way that it’s implemented in Pidgin work in incompatible ways. After a few days trying to get it to work, I gave up, which means that we’re back to Skype & Messages until something better comes along (I’m keeping my eye on TextSecure). What a missed opportunity.
Overall, it was another great year for software. I enjoyed using some old favorites, & lots of new tools entered my collection. The three best parts of using Mac OS X are the high quality native software, the powerful automation tools that are available, & the UNIX underpinnings that let me do pretty much anything I want. As long as that’s the case, I’ll remain sold on OS X as a platform for years to come.