Apple may be bundling more software with the Mac every year, but that hasn't prevented independent developers from rolling out excellent independent applications, a number of which were recommended by readers this year. Many recommendations from previous years are undoubtedly still useful as well, so be sure to check them if you're hunting for the perfect piece of software for that special Mac someone.
A Remote View of the Outside World -- You may not have a window in your office to see what sort of weather is blowing in, and even if you did, you wouldn't be able to see into the future. Don O'Shea suggested a pair of programs that tell you everything you need to know. "We have been surprised and pleased by a wonderful weather reporting program, Seasonality, by Gaucho Software. It's $25 for a single license and $30 dollars for the family. We keep the locations of others in our family in the list. Also, EarthBrowser from Lunar Software provides a global view with hurricanes, volcanos, earthquakes, webcams, and (ta da!) iceberg tracking. It's a misnomer to a call it a browser. It's more like EarthScrutinizer. All this for the paltry sum of $20!"
Channeling Ken Burns -- Apple has taken the pan-and-zoom effect popularized by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and added it to the Mac OS X screensaver, iPhoto slideshows, and iMovie. But some people consider Apple's implementations a pale imitation of Ken Burns, which is why T. P. Hazard recommends the $50 Photo to Movie from LQ Graphics. He noted, "I was impressed by how easy and powerful it was (one can even add voice using its built-in record feature). Plus, you can use an online code, PTM122505, to save $20." Though he knew little about it and no one chimed in on TidBITS Talk, he's also considering buying a copy of Freeverse's $30 Comic Life, which turns digital pictures into comic books, for his 8-year-old nephew.
Lick Your Library! Dave Charlesworth wrote, "Got a ton of books or DVDs or CDs? Want to have fun cataloging them? Think about getting Delicious Library ($40), and use your iSight or webcam to scan the UPC barcodes! (You can key the UPC or ISBN or title by hand until you unwrap the webcam too.)"
Food and Movies -- No, we're not talking about nasty popcorn with fake butter, but about a pair of programs from the Little App Factory, recommended by Andrew Cohen. He said, "I've become a fan of two fun and affordable programs by Little App Factory. Netflix Freak ($15) lets you manage your Netflix queue in ways that are not available on the Netflix site. For example, you can re-order your queue by selecting and dragging multiple movies. Or you can add notes or custom categories to any movie. Connoisseur ($20) is sort of iTunes for your recipes. You can type in your own recipes, sort them, categorize them, and scale the servings. You can also download free recipes from an online catalog."
And They Never Die -- Adam here. If you've always liked the idea of keeping tropical fish but could never get over the hump of taking care of them on a regular basis, you can now have a no-maintenance "tank": Allume Systems is selling the $25 Aquazone Seven Seas Deluxe for the Mac now. It's both a stand-alone application (where you set preferences) and a screensaver. It comes with 40 different species of fish, 20 different tanks, and lighting conditions that change throughout the day. I love the idea of Aquazone, but speaking as someone who does keep fish, it's not as realistic as promised with more than a couple of fish, at least not on my dual 1 GHz Power Mac G4. This program really wants CPU power to model the fish and light and everything, so although it needs only Mac OS X 10.3 or newer running on a Power PC G4, I'd recommend a G5-based Mac for best performance.
Let Your Fingers Do the Walking -- We're great fans of the keyboard here at TidBITS, and apparently we're not alone. Alexander Hoffman recommended Proteron's $15 LiteSwitch X 2.5, which replaces Mac OS X's built-in keyboard application switcher (invoked with Command-Tab). Dan Frakes concurred in detail, writing, "LiteSwitch is one of those applications whose advantages are easier to see in use than explain, but I'm with Alex on this one: LiteSwitch is a must-have on all my computers. When I use a Mac without it, the built-in Command-Tab function seems clunky. For one, LiteSwitch is quite customizable, both in appearance and behavior; one of the most popular options is choosing which key combination you use to activate the switcher. You can also exclude individual applications from the switcher so, for example, applications you keep running all the time but never switch to don't clutter it. Conversely, you can view background applications in the switcher. When viewing the switcher, you can perform various actions on the highlighted application: hide/show, quit, force quit, or switch to and hide all others. The switcher also supports drag-and-drop, useful for people who hide the Dock. You can right/Control-click on an application in the switcher to perform various actions on it: Get Info, show in Finder, hide/show, switch and hide others, exclude, relaunch, quit, force quit or relaunch, or quit. Finally, LiteSwitch also lets you choose your window layering approach: standard Mac OS X layering, 'Classic' layering (all an application's windows come to the front when you switch to it), Classic layering for the Finder only, or 'single-application' layering, where only the current application is visible."
Track Your Time, Part 1 -- Geoff Hutchison wrote, "I highly recommend the excellent Minuteur, a small, customizable timer for your Mac; donations suggested. It makes it easy to keep track of time you spend on tasks versus time spent on distractions. Definitely a great way to make sure you keep on target for Getting Things Done." The Web site is in French, but a link at the bottom lets you download a version of the program localized in English.
Learn Music on the Web -- Jochen Wolters noted, "Musictheory.net is a Web site that's worth having a look at if you're an aspiring musician. Utilizing elegant Flash-based animations, musictheory.net teaches music theory in clearly structured and well-thought-out lessons. Although some things could have been explained more elegantly - for example, musictheory.net uses a weird Key Signature Calculation instead of covering the much more intuitive Cycle of Fifths - it covers a lot of ground, and the ear-training features for intervals, scales, and chords should appeal even to seasoned musicians. Ricci Adams, the author, has put the whole Web site under a Creative Commons license and offers a downloadable version. Highly recommended for anyone interested in learning the theories behind the melodies."
Give the Gift of Open Source -- It's the thought that matters, not how much you spend. And if you want to spend more time with that special someone, why not give them some open source software, with your services to help install it and explain how to use it? A TidBITS reader who goes by "wdesolar" wrote, "If software is too expensive at any price and you want to explore open source software, install a copy of Fink, along with Fink Commander. Fink lets you install open source software that has been ported to Mac OS X, and Fink Commander is a graphical front end to Fink. Fink Commander is revised frequently because it is young software. For instance, you might use Fink Commander to install Anacron, which runs the Mac OS X daily, weekly, and monthly scripts that the Unix cron utility is supposed to run, but which may not run if your computer isn't on at three or four in the morning. And if you need software that will do the same job as Microsoft Office, try NeoOffice instead. NeoOffice is a port of OpenOffice to Mac OS X, so wave goodbye to the X Window System's ugly fonts."
Time Shift Internet Radio -- Can't listen to your favorite radio program when it's on? There's often an Internet radio version, and with Rogue Amoeba's Audio Hijack Pro or Ambrosia Software's WireTap Pro, you can record your show automatically and listen to it at your leisure on your Mac or iPod. "wdesolar" commented, "To record a stream, for example from NPR, which is playing through iTunes, use Audio Hijack Pro from Rogue Amoeba. Audio Hijack Pro enables you to schedule when a recording should start and end and starts/restarts iTunes, and when the recording is complete, it can transfer the recording to your iTunes library for easy transfer to an iPod. Audio Hijack Pro can record any audio stream predictably and reliably, and beyond that, it's inexpensive." This suggestion started a bit of a firestorm on TidBITS Talk because Audio Hijack Pro can optionally use Unsanity's Application Enhancer (APE) to record audio from programs that were launched before Audio Hijack Pro (the "Instant Hijack" feature). APE has gained a reputation among developers and support people for causing instability, which caused Andrew Laurence to recommend Ambrosia's WireTap Pro instead. However, Audio Hijack Pro users who don't want to use APE simply don't bother with the Instant Hijack feature, avoiding the issue entirely.