Mac power tools: charge up your workflow

Victor Agreda Jr
V. Jr|10.08.09

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Mac power tools: charge up your workflow

I recently bought a new Mac, and I decided not to migrate years of cruft over to a pristine Snow Leopard install. I also decided to shed years of stale workflow and adopt a new way of doing things. Enter the power tools: software that augments the power and performance of OS X to do things faster and smarter. I'll examine some general system enhancements and look at a couple of powerful Mac/iPhone app combos that really work well together.

Step one was finding a replacement for my beloved QuickSilver. I had abandoned QS well over a year ago due to performance issues on most of my Macs, but after a nagging pain in my wrist surfaced, I realized I had to find more keyboard shortcuts. Enter LaunchBar, which fills in for 90% of what QuickSilver used to do for me. LaunchBar is one Ctrl-Space (configurable, of course) away from Spotlight searching, Google searching, application launching, math calculations and much, much more. LaunchBar is $25 around $35 per seat, and worth taking 15 minutes to learn the basics. Go ahead, hate me for giving up QS, but try LaunchBar before you hurl the insults.

Next I needed a better way to juggle 3 Gmail accounts. But I also needed a way to track the metric ton of inbox items that flow through those email conduits. The solution was the combination of MailPlane and Things. I had really dedicated my heart to Toodledo, but there's one trick I couldn't replicate on any setup (The Hit List included): when I get an email in MailPlane, I can select some text and press Shift-Ctrl-Opt-Cmd-0 and the Things HUD pops up and autofills the notes section with a link to the email itself. It is awesome. Not perfect, mind you, but a huge thing for me.

Read on for more power tools and tips.

Both MailPlane and Things are great in their own right, honestly. MailPlane is awesome but does cost $24.95 -- there are generous deals for families and students. It is basically a custom browser for Gmail, so if you only have one account it may not be worth it to you, although it does add features like drag-and-drop attachments. Things costs $49.95, and the iPhone app costs $9.99, but if you use DropBox to sync your database (as I do) and frequently need to sync a Mac behind a firewall and a second Mac at home, this works very well. We have discussed Things in the past.

With some productivity items taken care of, I really needed to centralize the secure data I have collected over the years. Passwords, logins, serial codes and more were sort of hanging out in encrypted items in Yojimbo. Unfortunately, Yojimbo had become sort of an abandoned quarry. Once a rich mine, the place was fetid with old data and rarely used but critical secure items.

Enter 1Password. I get eyebrows when I tell people I only recently bought this one, but I am abnormally skittish of tools that mess about in something so critical as the Keychain. Yet, for reasons unknown, I've thrown myself into the 3.0 beta in Snow Leopard and I sync the 1Password keychain via DropBox. Living dangerously, maybe, but the application thus far has been a dream. We've reviewed 1Password before, and I'll point out it's yet another great application with an iPhone app. If you are new to the Mac I would recommend 1Password be one of your first purchases. Learn it, love it, enjoy the enhanced productivity and security it provides.

A few other applications we've discussed before that I bought: Choosy, a wonderful little browser picker. I use three chat clients at once, and up to four browsers at a time. Each has a set of plugins or tweaks I use for various tasks. Instead of copy/pasting a link sent via IM to the appropriate browser, Choosy pops up a simple chooser and I select the browser I want. There are tons of ways to tweak the interaction to your liking, and for $12 it has become a daily companion.

VoodooPad Lite, and yeah, I'm only using the free version for now. The pro version offers an enormous set of features which I don't need just yet, but I will soon. In fact, as an aside, the Lite/Full version model FlyingMeat uses with Voodoo Pad is generous and brilliant. I wish more apps could do this (like iWork, which would be super).

Anyway, I use this for a lot of my research. VoodooPad is basically a wiki tool in an application. Files are saved in a funky format, but they are searchable and more flexible in some ways that a flat file of .txt documents, which I've tried and still use for more "deep storage" stuff. By putting these files on DropBox, I can open up VoodooPad and just open up a document to start working from any machine. Plus, I can organize my data just a bit without too much fuss -- something I didn't like in Bento. The wiki methodology, without getting too deep into it, is great for research because I can use links within a document to point to further research. You know, like a web.

Pathfinder isn't so much a replacement for Finder, but the proverbial "Finder on steroids." Like Onyx, Pathfinder provides a GUI for stuff you could do in Terminal, but also provides handy features like tabbed windows and split-views for when you have to move things around two folders or more rapidly. If you ever wished Apple's Get Info dialog box had a lot more info, Pathfinder amps up that as well. There's too much to say about Pathfinder in this post, so check out the trippy demo video and you'll see what I mean. This thing is more like strapping a chainsaw on the bloody stump of Finder. It is so choice for heavy file work. Oh, and did I mention the Subversion support?

I know Snow Leopard includes text expansion as a basic feature, and I know a lot of hep cats dig Typinator, but I wound up using TextExpander on a daily basis. If you find yourself writing the same things over and over, like "Best regards," with your name and address, TextExpander (or Typinator) will save you lots of time. By typing, say, 'bstrg' these tools automatically expand to write the full text. Hence, text+expander. Something I've found neat, but not entirely reliable, is TextExpander's iPhone app [iTunes Link], which we reviewed before. TextExpander offers MobileMe sync as well, although the iPhone app does not sync using MobileMe, so you can run into sync duplicates if you're not careful. I wound up losing some snippets at one point as well. Typinator doesn't use MobileMe sync, but rather has a file you can keep on something like DropBox (or your MobileMe iDisk). TextExpander for the Mac is $25, and $4.99 for the iPhone app. Typinator is 19 euros (about US$28).

DefaultFolder X was mentioned by Mel Martin a while ago, and I was smitten. I particularly loathe the system Save As dialogs, and really needed a way to locate frequently-used folders without cluttering my sidebars or Finder windows. DefaultFolder X not only gives me some great favoriting and history features with folders, but allows some previewing when ordinarily you wouldn't be able to preview a file. Throw in a very useful menu bar tool and the $35 price tag doesn't really sting at all.

I've waxed poetic about BusyCal before, but I use it to sync a couple of Macs on my LAN and a couple of my Google Calendars. It rocks, and as an iCal replacement BusyCal brings a raft of improvements to the venerable Apple standard. It also costs $40 per computer, and even though you can save buying several licenses at once, that may be too much for some folks.

TextMate is what I use for writing blog posts. Due to the extensible nature of TextMate (which costs about $60), I use a custom suite of tools (a 'bundle' by our own Brett Terpstra) to speed up things like linking and tagging of posts. Not only is TextMate a responsive, customizable text editor, there's a bundle for just about anything related to writing code, words or other stuff and a shortcut for many of these features. As one simple example, if I type 'lorem' and hit Tab, I get a chunk of the Lorem Ipsum dummy text I might use when building a website. If you write a lot of code, TextMate rocks. If you want an extensible, powerful writing tool, it's good for that as well. If I wrote more fiction I'd probably choose one of the many awesome writing applications for the Mac.

There's but a sampling of Mac power tools I use. I'm sure everyone does things differently (and I respect that), so let me know in the comments what particular setups you have found to make your Mac experience better, faster or more complete.

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