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Series: Mac OS X Utilities
Cool tools bring you new features and bring back things you miss from Mac OS 9
Article 1 of 3 in series
Everyone knows that the group that's by far the most important to Apple is composed of small utility developers. Several years back, Apple saw that the Mac market was stagnating because almost every conceivable utility had already been developedShow full article
Everyone knows that the group that's by far the most important to Apple is composed of small utility developers. Several years back, Apple saw that the Mac market was stagnating because almost every conceivable utility had already been developed. Realizing drastic resuscitation measures were necessary, Apple moved quickly to replace the Mac OS with the NeXTstep-based Mac OS X, hoping to give Mac developers the opportunity to restore Mac OS 9 functionality to Mac OS X and further extend Mac OS X's limited interface, to draw Unix hackers into the Mac camp, and to provide a market for all seven NeXT utility developers.
Sarcasm aside, the number of utilities available for Mac OS X has indeed mushroomed of late. In preparing for this article, we turned to TidBITS Talk for recommendations, and the response was overwhelming - so much so that we've decided to publish a group of articles on the topic; this one will focus on utilities that restore Mac OS 9 functionality to Mac OS X. Read through the TidBITS Talk discussion for an unfiltered view of what's coming up.
Without further ado, here are the top utilities for restoring Mac OS 9 functionality to Mac OS X, though please note that these are not intended to be full-fledged reviews - we simply don't have enough experience with each utility. If we've missed your favorite utility, bring it up on TidBITS Talk.
WindowShade X -- The windowshade functionality that's been in the Mac OS since System 7.5 actually dates back to an independent control panel for System 6 from Robert Johnson. Double-click a window's title bar or click the collapse box and the window "rolls up" into the title bar. You can still position the title bar anywhere on screen; it's an efficient way to reduce the space taken up by windows. Mac OS X eliminated this approach in favor of minimizing windows to Dock icons. Unfortunately, Mac OS X's approach fills up the Dock quickly, and it can often be difficult to distinguish between different minimized windows. But with Unsanity's WindowShade X, you get everything Mac OS 9 could do and more. There are four methods of invoking WindowShade X (the minimize button, double-clicking the title bar, Control-double-clicking the title bar, and pressing Command-M), and each method can cause a window to minimize to the Dock, roll up into the title bar, make the window transparent, or hide the application. Although you can control the opacity of windows made transparent, I find that option, like almost all other transparent interface features in Mac OS X, utterly annoying. WindowShade X is $7 shareware, and it's a 374K download.
ASM & X-Assist -- In Mac OS X, Apple tried to do too much with the Dock, making it serve as an application launcher, list of running applications, and more. Mac OS 9 broke those features out, and in particular, the list of running applications was always tucked away in the menu bar's application menu. In Mac OS X, the clock and other menu bar icons take over that space until you install ASM or X-Assist, both of which return the application menu to the upper right corner. In ASM's preferences panel, you choose whether it should show as an icon or a menu title, or both, and how much space the menu should take up. Other settings control how the contents of the ASM menu appear, what special commands (such as for hiding and showing applications) appear, and so on. Most important, it offers a return to Mac OS 9's window layering, which ties all of an application's windows together, so clicking one brings them all to the front (that happens in Mac OS X only if you click the application's Dock icon or switch applications using Command-Tab). ASM also offers a Single Application Mode that hides all applications other than the current one. X-Assist replicates most of ASM's feature set and offers two additional features: the capability to display a user-defined hierarchical menu of files, folders, and disks (much as you can do in Mac OS 9's Apple menu), and support for special plug-ins (the included samples can set the Mac's volume and play MP3 files). Though both appear to work, several people have said that they found ASM more stable. ASM author Frank Vercruesse asks for donations if you like ASM, which is a 354K download for version 2.0.2; X-Assist is free and is a 291K download.
FruitMenu & Classic Menu -- The Apple menu has been a fixture of the Mac OS for years, and although Apple wisely kept it in Mac OS X, it's a shadow of its former customizable self. Two utilities, Sig Software's Classic Menu and Unsanity's FruitMenu, recall the old days. Classic Menu is the simpler of the two; it merely displays the contents of the Classic Menu Items folder located in your Library folder's Preferences folder. Populate it with aliases to files, folders, and disks, and you'll have something that works much like the old Apple menu when you click on the Apple menu icon itself. Other helpful menu items add aliases of selected items to the Classic Menu Items folder, open that folder in the Finder, and let you select a different folder to use. Access the default Mac OS X Apple menu (which has useful commands like Log Out and Restart) by clicking right next to the Apple menu icon. Although FruitMenu provides the same functionality as Classic Menu, it more closely resembles Power On Software's Action Menus in providing a preference panel for arranging your Apple menu and offering custom items not normally available, such as one that displays your current IP address. Overall, FruitMenu feels a bit more powerful, and it's only $7 shareware, compared to Classic Menu's $10, but both will do the job. FruitMenu 1.5.2 is a 481K download; Classic Menu is a mere 43K download.
SharePoints -- In Mac OS 9, you could share any particular folder you wanted, and you could create users and groups that would have access to different folders. That functionality, though present under the hood in Mac OS X, wasn't easily accessible until the release of SharePoints. Operating either as a stand-alone application or as a preferences panel, SharePoints lets you share any given folder and create users who can access specific shared folders but who cannot login via Telnet or SSH and who lack home directories. As a small bonus, SharePoints lets you specify a custom message to be displayed to users on connection. The author asks that for donations if you like SharePoints; SharePoints 2.0.4 is an 824K download.
Xounds -- Although Apple has only dabbled in interface sounds, the sound effects for interface actions available from the Appearance control panel were effective at providing an additional dimension to using the Mac OS. Those disappeared in Mac OS X, but Unsanity's Xounds can bring many of them back again. Xounds offers to import existing sound sets (though importing a third-party set and switching between it and the sounds from Mac OS 9 caused Xounds to stop working until I reinstalled Xounds), and provides roughly the same level of control as you had in Mac OS 9. You can choose to play sound effects associated with menus, windows, controls, and the Finder, although dragging sounds aren't yet supported. Xounds 1.1.2 is a 384K download; it's $7 shareware and works for only an hour per login if left unregistered.
Next Up -- Keep in mind that I chose these utilities based purely on the fact that they returned features to Mac OS X that existed in a stock installation of Mac OS 9. In future installments in this series, I'll look at utilities that extend Mac OS X's new features in useful and interesting ways, utilities that bring to Mac OS X features that independent developers had added to Mac OS 9, and utilities that bring Mac OS X's Unix underpinnings into the light of Aqua.
Article 2 of 3 in series
In the first installment of this series on Mac OS X utilities, I looked at utilities that restored capabilities inherent to Mac OS 9 that we had all been accustomed to over the yearsShow full article
In the first installment of this series on Mac OS X utilities, I looked at utilities that restored capabilities inherent to Mac OS 9 that we had all been accustomed to over the years. For many people though, the full Mac OS 9 experience came not just from Apple, but from a bevy of utility developers who extended Mac OS 9 well beyond the stock configuration. This week I'll look at a few of the most important utilities that have evolved to bring those capabilities into the world of Mac OS X. We've examined many of these utilities in the past; in those cases, consider this compilation a refresher on our previous scattershot coverage.
In an attempt to keep this article relatively short, I've held a significant set of utilities for a later article. Utilities like DragThing, LaunchBar, QuicKeys X, Keyboard Maestro, MenuStrip, PiDock, and others certainly count as restoring capabilities offered by third party utilities in Mac OS 9, but when you look deeply at them, you realize that they all basically do the same thing. You can think of them as alternate control mechanisms for operating system functions like displaying and opening files, typing text, restarting the Mac, and more, so I'll cover them as a group later on.
Finally, a few new utilities have appeared that should have been mentioned last week. I'll catch up with them at some future point, but in the meantime, check out the TidBITS Talk threads for the latest additions and for utilities that have slipped through my admittedly arbitrary categorizations.
Default Folder X -- Apple has never done a good job of making it easy to open and save files, and as Matt Neuburg pointed out in "Apple's Dirty Little Secret" in TidBITS-601, Mac OS X is in many ways a step back even from Mac OS 9. In earlier versions of the Mac OS, savvy users fixed Apple's Open and Save dialogs with utilities like Power On Software's Action Files (the successor to Now Software's Super Boomerang) and St. Clair Software's Default Folder. Only Default Folder has made the jump to Mac OS X so far, and in doing so, it has fixed a number of Mac OS X's Open and Save dialog navigation problems in Carbon (though not yet Cocoa) applications. We wrote about Default Folder X 1.0 when it shipped; it's well worth it for anyone frustrated by Apple's clumsy and inconsistent Open and Save dialogs. The just-released Default Folder X 1.1 offers a variety of small feature improvements and bug fixes, including the option of showing free disk space and icons in Default Folder's menus. Compatibility has been improved with a number of programs, including the heavily used Microsoft Office X. Default Folder X 1.1 is $35 shareware and is a 1.5 MB download.
CopyPaste-X & PTHPasteboard -- For most people, Apple's implementation of the clipboard is sufficient. Select something, choose Copy or Cut, and the selected item replaces whatever was on the clipboard and is ready for pasting. Applications like Nisus Writer and utilities like CopyPaste (reviewed way back in TidBITS-364) cleverly extended the clipboard by making it possible to access multiple clipboards. That functionality has arrived in Mac OS X thanks to CopyPaste-X and PTHPasteboard. Both utilities track recently copied or cut items (20 for PTHPasteboard and between 10 and 200 for CopyPaste-X) and let you paste any one of them into other applications with a keystroke or a click in a palette. Both also save the recently remembered items through restarts, but CopyPaste-X goes beyond this in making these clipboards editable, storing user-defined clipboards permanently for repeated use, and providing full drag & drop to and from the CopyPaste-X palette. If your needs are minimal, PTHPasteboard is probably sufficient, but for a full-fledged multiple clipboard utility, CopyPaste-X is the only way to go. CopyPaste-X is a 1.3 MB download and costs $20 shareware. PTHPasteboard is a 123K download; it's free, although donations are accepted.
USB Overdrive -- Apple ships only single-button mice with Macs, but many people prefer mice or trackballs with buttons, scroll wheels, missile launchers, and so on. Some vendors of these alternate pointing devices have provided Mac OS X drivers (Kensington is a notable example), but for many devices, the only way to bring them into the world of Mac OS X is through Alessandro Levi Montalcini's USB Overdrive. Currently still in beta for Mac OS X, USB Overdrive lets you program multiple buttons and access scroll wheels, although I suspect he won't support missile launching. Alessandro is extremely up front about the fact that USB Overdrive is currently a beta, so be sure to read all the release notes and known problems, and send in detailed reports of anything you experience. USB Overdrive beta 4 is a 617K download; it will be shareware when released.
Snapz Pro X -- Though the Mac OS has, since time immemorial, offered the capability of capturing an image of the screen, and even though Apple enhanced this screen capture capability to capture just windows a few years back, everyone who's serious about taking screenshots uses a third party utility. The same truism applies in Mac OS X. There have been numerous such programs over the years, but Ambrosia Software's Snapz Pro is the screen capture utility of choice for many people, TidBITS staff members included. Snapz Pro X makes it possible to take professional screenshots in Mac OS X; although it isn't quite as snappy as it was as an extension in Mac OS 9, it's still the only game in town for screenshots. Snapz Pro X 1.0.2 costs $30 ($50 for Movie Capture); a licensed version also ships for free with most new Macs. The utility is a 13.1 MB download.
Font Reserve & Suitcase -- Another area in which the Mac OS has never met the needs of serious users is in font management. With 15 or 20 fonts, it's not a big deal, but with the hundreds of fonts and font-intensive projects many users have, a font management utility like Suitcase or Font Reserve has always been essential. Matt Neuburg reviewed Font Reserve 3.0 in TidBITS-620; he has a review of Suitcase 10 coming soon. Both utilities help you gather all your fonts from the various different locations Mac OS X stashes them. Then you can group the fonts into sets and activate and deactivate them at will to keep the current set at a manageable size. Font Reserve 3.0 costs $90 with $30 upgrades; Suitcase 10 is $100 with $50 upgrades.
Article 3 of 3 in series
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 9Show full article
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.
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.
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.