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Top Mac OS X Utilities: Alternative Controls

In the previous installment of this series on Mac OS X utilities, I looked at Mac OS X programs that restored common capabilities provided by third party utilities in Mac OS 9. I said then that I was ignoring a large subset of that category, utilities that offer alternative control mechanisms.


Even though utilities like DragThing, QuicKeys X, and TypeIt4Me X may not seem similar, a close look reveals that all offer alternative approaches to completing common tasks, ranging from opening files to entering text automatically. Each utility's raison d'etre is that its alternative method is either faster than the standard approach or fits better with the way your brain is wired. Because of the significant overlap among these utilities, I'll start with launchers and work through to those that just insert text.

DragThing -- One of the best known of the alternative launchers is James Thomson's DragThing, which has provided Dock-like functions for years. You can create multiple docks, add files or folders to those docks, assign hot keys to any item, and far more (including, oddly enough, the option to put the Trash back on the Desktop). DragThing offers significant customizability - colors, textures, hot spots, sounds to play, delays before various actions happen, alias handling, and numerous other settings. The multitude of options and settings probably defines DragThing's audience - if you love tweaking your virtual environment, DragThing probably fits your tastes. DragThing costs $25 shareware (floating dock windows and hot key support aren't enabled until you register); competitive upgrades from Semicolon Software's The Tilery launcher - which won't be moving to Mac OS X - Aladdin's DragStrip, and Power On Software's Action GoMac cost $19. DragThing 4.3 is a 1.3 MB download.


MaxMenus -- Although DragThing uses screen real estate efficiently, for a less cluttered look, check out Proteron's MaxMenus. Taking its cue from Power On Software's Action Menus, the MaxMenus preference pane lets you create numerous custom menus activated by clicking in the corners of the screen (MaxMenus supports two monitors), by clicking in unused space in the menu bar, or by pressing a hot key. These menus can contain any file or folder, plus special items like text labels, separators, mounted volumes, open programs, recent applications, recent documents, and System Preferences. The corner-based and hot-key-activated hierarchical menus can be spring-loaded, so dragging items into those menus copies or moves them; you can also grab items out of a menu. If that's not enough, you can assign a hot key to any individual item while you're viewing it in a menu. After thinking about how I wanted to set up MaxMenus, I found it extremely useful - definitely a winner. My only negative so far is that it won't open files or folders on shared volumes that aren't mounted. MaxMenus 1.1 costs $30; a 30-day trial version is a 1.1 MB download. Through 05-May-02, owners of Power On Software's Action Utilities can save $10 on MaxMenus with the coupon code ACTN2MAX and their Action Utilities serial number.


piPop -- Where MaxMenus can overwhelm you with possibilities, piDog Software's piPop (previously called piDock) offers a more focused approach. Move your cursor to the edge of the screen, and piPop's hierarchical menu appears. Navigate through the menu, and click to open a selected item. You can also drag an item from piPop's menu to move it, copy it, or open it in another application, and you can even tear off menus and leave them floating on screen for repeated access. Although piPop doesn't attempt to be as customizable as MaxMenus, Control-clicking the piPop menu lets you set various options, such as which edge of the screen activates piPop, whether a modifier key should be required, and which folders are at piPop's top level. piPop is at version 2.0b2 as I write this, and although updates have been arriving regularly, it still has stability problems: it doesn't avoid the Dock if both occupy the same edge of the screen, and I was unable to make a feature that mimics Mac OS 9's spring-loaded folders in Mac OS X work reliably. Nonetheless, piPop is worth watching, even if you haven't moved to Mac OS X, since it works under Mac OS 9 as well. The suggested registration fee for piPop is $20 to eliminate startup nags; it's a 1 MB download.


Snard -- Gideon Softworks' Snard creates a custom system-wide menu (a separate Dock version provides almost the same capabilities and is available even when you're in Classic applications) into which you can put files and folders; applications can display recently accessed documents in a hierarchical menu as well. The menu can also serve up special items including a Find command, a Recent Servers menu, a System Preference menu, and an Open as Administrator command. You can create and name text separators, and you can create your own hierarchical menus with groups. A different sort of group - worksets - lets you open a number of applications and documents with a single click. Selecting an item is the only way to open it - Snard has no hot key support. I found Snard's configuration window flaky, and the only features that distinguish it are its worksets and server list. Snard 1.0 costs $10 and is a 1.6 MB download (1.1 MB for the Dock version).


LaunchBar -- For ad hoc keyboard control of your Mac, look to Objective Development's LaunchBar. At its heart, LaunchBar is deceptively simple - press Command-Spacebar to display LaunchBar's small pop-up window, type a few letters of the filename you want to open, and press Return. The real power of LaunchBar lies in its sophisticated matching algorithms. When I entered EA, for example, LaunchBar matched it with EIMS Admin. Typing LP didn't initially select LetterRip Pro Administrator, but I was able to find it in the list of possible matches. Since LaunchBar's algorithm is adaptive, every time I entered LP from then on, LetterRip Pro Administrator was the default match. For abbreviations unrelated to the file's name (matching MAIL to Eudora, for instance), you can create manual aliases. Along with files, folders, and disks, LaunchBar can also open URLs (from your bookmarks), create mail with email addresses (from your address book), and jump directly to preference panes inside System Preferences. Plus, you can drag files onto LaunchBar's pop-up window for launching with specific applications or performing various file operations like moving, copying, or making a link (including aliases, absolute and relative symbolic links, and hard links). LaunchBar is simply brilliant, although there's still room for improvement. I'd like it to send text selections to specific applications (such as a word to Omni Dictionary, or a URL to a Web browser); mount shared volumes automatically when needed; and learn to parse Eudora's nickname files properly for better display of email addresses. LaunchBar costs $20 for non-commercial use or $40 for businesses; a trial version that works for seven launches is available as a 208K download.


Script Menu -- Apple's Script Menu provides an alternative method of launching AppleScript, Perl, and shell scripts from a system-wide menu. Interestingly, to install Script Menu, all you do is drag the ScriptMenu.menu file to the menu bar; to remove it, Command-drag it off the menu bar. Script Menu automatically provides access to a number of scripts pre-installed with Mac OS X (some are useful, others are merely examples), and you can add your own in the Scripts folder inside your user's Library folder. Like Snard, Script Menu is unavailable when you're in a Classic application, and it has no provision for hot keys. Nevertheless, Script Menu is free, and if you know AppleScript, you can probably make it mimic many of the capabilities of the other utilities discussed here. Script Menu is a 284K download.

<http://www.apple.com/applescript/macosx/script_ menu/>

Drop Drawers X -- Fans of tabbed pop-up windows in Mac OS 9 should check out Sig Software's Drop Drawers X, which lets you create custom "drawers" around the edges of your screen (all sides, and yes, Drop Drawers supports multiple monitors). Drop Drawers X features two types of drawers: process drawers, which show active applications, and the more-common clip drawers, which can store file and folder aliases, URLs, text snippets (with styles), pictures, movies, sounds, and more. Options for the location and appearance of drawers are myriad, and you can open drawers by mousing over them, clicking them, or pressing a user-defined hot key. Once a drawer is open, you can drag items in (even onto application or folder icons), double-click items (for opening files), or drag items out to another application (as you might a piece of boilerplate text). Any item can have a hot key attached to it, making it simple to open a file or insert text (which happens via pasting). Drop Drawers X is more manual than launchers like MaxMenus and piPop in that you must set up every drawer in advance rather than have it built automatically. Simultaneously, the ease of adding content to a drawer means that Drop Drawers X is notably more fluid than programs like QuicKeys X that require a fair amount of effort to create a piece of boilerplate text. In short, if you find yourself reusing bits of content frequently or like the process of arranging your virtual environment, you'll like Drop Drawers X. Like piPop, it works equally well on Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X. Drop Drawers X 1.5.9 is a 393K download and costs $20 shareware.


QuicKeys X -- It might seem odd to include CE Software's long-standing macro utility QuicKeys X here, but most people probably use QuicKeys primarily to open files and type bits of text via hot keys, though activating macros via toolbar buttons has also been possible for several years. QuicKeys X will remain feature-poor compared to its Mac OS 9 ancestor until Apple exposes more of the innards of Mac OS X, but the utility can type into applications, move and click the mouse, open files and folders, run AppleScript scripts, switch among applications, open URLs, change Finder views, and more. Some of those features are unique among Mac OS X utilities, but QuicKeys X really stands out when you need a macro that combines multiple steps. For example, I have a simple macro that types the beginning of a URL in angle brackets, then moves the insertion point back inside the closing bracket for me to enter the rest of the URL manually - there's no way to do that without multiple steps. Like DragThing and Drop Drawers, QuicKeys X requires manual setup for use as a launcher, but if you need its more powerful features, it's utterly invaluable. QuicKeys X 1.5.1, which fixes a bug in 1.5 with inserting text into some Carbon applications, lists for $80 and is available for $60. There's a 30-day demo that's a 7.6 MB download.


Keyboard Maestro -- For those interested in primarily using the keyboard, Michael Kamprath's Keyboard Maestro offers a number of pre-built Hot Key Actions, displays a pop-up toolbar that lets you launch and switch between applications, and provides multiple clipboards like CopyPaste-X and PTHPasteboard. Keyboard Maestro's Hot Key Actions can switch between applications, quit and hide applications, open files, launch URLs, open System Preferences panes, run AppleScript and Unix scripts, insert text and remap keystrokes. Keyboard Maestro proved flaky in my testing, crashing a number of times and at one point requiring reinstallation. You can use Keyboard Maestro 1.0.4 for free, although paying $20 removes a number of limitations and reminders. It's a 526K download.


Key Xing -- John Scalo's Key Xing offers features roughly similar to Keyboard Maestro's Hot Key Actions - it can open files or folders, switch to applications if they aren't already running, hide open applications, perform a few system actions (Sleep, Restart, Shut Down), run AppleScript scripts, and send URLs to your Web browser, all activated via hot keys. It can also, oddly enough, copy full file paths in the Finder and control iTunes. Unfortunately, it can't insert text into a document, though I suppose that could be done via AppleScript. For $7 shareware though, Key Xing's capabilities might be all you need, and it was stable in my testing. Key Xing 2.1 is implemented as a preference pane and is a 316K download.


TypeIt4Me X -- Since 1989, Riccardo Ettore's TypeIt4Me has made it possible to insert bits of text when you choose a menu item or type an abbreviation. (This latter feature is currently unique among Mac OS X utilities.) In Mac OS X, Riccardo made TypeIt4Me X an input method component, which means it lives in /Library/Components (the other utilities are stand-alone applications or preference panes) and is activated by enabling it in the Keyboard Menu pane of the International preference pane, then choosing TypeIt4Me from the keyboard menu. In my limited testing, TypeIt4Me X 0.99 worked well despite being in beta, though installation and activation hadn't yet been cleaned up for the final release. TypeIt4Me X will cost $27 ($14 for students) with $9 upgrades. It's currently a 1.7 MB download.

<http://www.users.dircon.co.uk/~r-ettore/ TypeIt4MeIndex.html>

Typist -- With this last utility, Selznick Scientific Software's Typist, we've moved all the way from utilities that just launch files to those that just type text. In Typist you set up chunks of text to type and then insert them in other applications by choosing them from Typist's Dock menu (click and hold or Control-click) or by pressing a user-defined hot key and then selecting an item from the list. Although Typist can handle large chunks of text, it simulates the keyboard, so it's slow to enter large amounts of text; there's also no way to link different hot keys to specific pieces of text. Like TypeIt4Me and QuicKeys X, Typist can substitute a number of time-related variables in the typed text, along with the current contents of the clipboard. Typist 1.2 costs $15 shareware, and it's a 411K download.


Choose and Move On -- I hope my descriptions above help you determine which of these utilities will best match the way you work; when it comes to alternative control utilities, personal preference rules. I'm still not sure which of these utilities will earn a permanent place on my hard disk. It is worth noting, however, that performing the kind of testing necessary for these articles in previous versions of the Mac OS would have been a nightmare - Mac OS X has been solid throughout, and I haven't seen any specific conflicts between utilities with overlapping features.

In the next installment of this series, I hope to look at utilities that extend the basic capabilities of Mac OS X to make it faster, more flexible, more powerful, and sometimes just plain more fun.


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