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What’s Up, Now?

Now Utilities (hereinafter, NU) is a collection of system extensions, most of which started as shareware or freeware on the nets, where faithful fans could not imagine life without them. By giving these programs a home, Now Software ensured the functionality would remain even when other utilities might fall by the wayside of system software upgrades.

The neat part was that Now didn’t steal the shareware ideas, but co-opted the original authors. It was a win-win situation. Our hacker heroes could make some well-deserved money. Non-netters could obtain these great utilities, and netters who owned one of the utilities in shareware form got a great discount on the commercial package.

Then the story took an odd twist, when Now Software announced NU 4.0.

First, it seemed a bit soon for a major upgrade (and major new fee); we know that buying software is really buying a subscription, but the pricier issues should appear at decently well-spaced intervals. Second, 4.0 was to be System 7-dependent; System 6 users felt abandoned.

Third, 4.0 consisted, in a way, of less than 3.0.2. NU 3.0.2 comprised ten elements; in 4.0, three are missing. MultiMaster is missing too as a separate item, but its functions remain in NowMenus, and Now added a new item, Now Scrapbook. (At one point an employee at Now’s duplicating house wrongly told a netter that the three missing utilities would break once 4.0 was installed; nets being what they are, flames ran rampant.)

Finally, 4.0 was buggy in ways that Now Software had clearly not anticipated, and it implemented some questionable changes. When I started writing this review I was full of criticism for these.

But Now has largely taken the wind out of my sails with NU 4.0.1, which corrects the bugs and the most controversial of the design changes, and adds important clarifications to the manual. However this has happened (smart rethinking? serious attention to feedback from netters?), the result is an admirable product.

Zooming In — Here I’ll consider just Super Boomerang (SB) and NowMenus (NM), because I take these to be the heart of NU; they both do something indispensable, as in their old net-ware manifestations.

Hiroaki Yamamoto’s Boomerang memorized names and locations of files and folders you had recently opened, and modified the Standard File dialog (SFDialog) to list these so you could bypass shuttling around the hierarchy. Also, the dialog came up in the most recently used folder, and in any folder the most recently used file would be pre-selected.

Jorg ("jbx") Brown’s hierMenus let the menubar appear under the mouse; it also let you choose a Control Panel as a submenu to the Apple menu, bypassing the tedious CP scrolling in System 6.

For these achievements, Yamamoto and jbx achieved canonization, and perhaps hacker nirvana.

Boomerang: the Commercial Version — In NU 3.0.2, SB works its magic in three different places.

  • It installs a SB item in the Apple menu (the "Apple SB" menu), with the list of recent folders and files as a submenu.
  • It attaches a submenu to the Open menu item of every program (the "DirectOpen" menu), listing the recently opened files available to that program.
  • It modifies the SFDialog with a menubar of its own. The first three menus are Folder, File, and Drive, so you can go right to any recent file or folder.

(For brevity I’ll skip the fourth menu in the SFDialog, which does neat stuff, but doesn’t bear heavily on the comparison between 3.0.2 and 4.0.1.)

The fifth menu added to the SB menubar is Groups. Here, you make each program a member of one of five groups (there is also an automatic catch-all group, Universal), so that the groups consist of programs that do roughly the same thing. The SFDialog then always appears preset to the present program’s group, and when you choose its Files or Folders menu, only those belonging to a program in that group are shown. But you can change groups via the Group menu, so you can quickly reach any recent file or folder. The Apple SB menu matches the program group you’re in, defaulting to Universal if the Finder is to the front; but the first item of the Apple SB menu is Open, giving the SFDialog, where again you can change groups and go right to your goal. The Groups feature thus lowers the number, and increases the relevance, of entries in the Files and (especially) Folders menus, and lets you use any program’s SFDialog to quickly launch another program’s recent document.

SB 4.0.1 is both better and worse. It is smarter than 3.0.2 about knowing that a file has been opened, and adding it (whether document, program, or DA) to the full list of recent files, even when it wasn’t opened through the SFDialog; 3.0.2 tries to do this, but isn’t always successful. Both 3.0.2 and 4.0.1 are also smart about knowing which recent files can be opened by the present program, but in 4.0.1 you now have three choices:

  • to limit recent files to those actually opened by the present program, and folders to those containing them;
  • to include some other recent files that the present program can open, and the folders containing them;
  • or to use Groups, so that all openable recent documents belonging to programs in the present Group are shown, and folders containing them, plus any folders designated "permanent" for that Group – and a mere single keystroke at any time will so designate a folder.

In 3.0.2, with only five Groups, the Universal group menus easily become overloaded, dropping important but less recent items. In 4.0.1, you get seven Groups; a single keystroke at any time clears a SB menu item on the fly; SB remembers up to 500 total items; and menus can be limited to any number of items up to 99. So menus will stay more current. On the other hand you can’t switch Groups within the SFDialog – the Groups menu is gone. So if I have a Text program group and a Graphics program group, I can’t just launch a MacDraw document from TeachText’s SFDialog via SB, as I used to in 3.0.2; I have to hope it’s in the Apple SB menu, or launch MacDraw first. I see this as a bad design decision.

Other 4.0.1 improvements: Recent folders in the Apple SB and DirectOpen menus are accessed hierarchically (in 3.0.2, you scroll down a huge single menu of all files and folders in the Apple SB menu, and the DirectOpen menu has no folders). Hierarchical folder menus run in both directions, up and down, for more mobility (but limited to a depth of two sublevels, though that’s one more than 3.0.2). All SB menus can show the pathname of an item with a keystroke at any time! And Now shrunk 3.0.2’s confusing panorama of 18 "hot key" shortcuts to a basic set of four.

Alas, the greatest drawback of SB 3.0.2, that it increases the delay before the Standard File dialog appears, has not been cured in 4.0.1; perhaps it can’t be.

NowMenus: the Commercial Version — In System 6, NM 3.0.2 does what the shareware version did, plus you can have menus pop down and stay down, so you can choose an item without mouse-dragging (reducing repetitive stress injuries!). In System 7, it turns the Apple menu hierarchical. This means, among other things, that you can alias your whole hard drive in the Apple menu and go down the hierarchy of submenus (to a depth of four sublevels) to reach a file or folder, without opening windows in the Finder.

NM 4.0.1 improves this. Submenus representing contents of folders come up more quickly; the hierarchical Chooser submenu now operates correctly, so you can bring the Chooser up with a driver pre-selected; and the Monitors CP is hierarchical, so you can change color depth quickly.

This version is a major rewrite, with menus acting in entirely new ways. Menus can be any font and size. Folder and file items can have icons (color if desired). You can rearrange the Apple menu without renaming its items. You can press keys while the mouse is on a menu item to (among other things) change the keyboard shortcut for any menu item in a program, including the Finder!

Sadly, though, NM disables a tiny free extension on which I depend heavily: Dropple Menu. This allows you to drag an icon onto the Apple menu, down the hierarchy of submenus, and onto an item representing a folder; your original file is then moved/copied into that folder. I use this for all moving and copying of files; it’s much neater than first finding the folder I want to move into. Dropple Menu works under NM 3.0.2 but breaks under 4.0.1.

A major worry with NM 4.0.1 is compatibility. Such strong changes to the menu definition may conflict with some applications. Fortunately, NM has some intelligence about what programs it should avoid, and can be set for additional exclusions; the pop-up menubar and the hierarchical Apple menu still work everywhere, which is the important thing.

NowMenus: the MultiMaster (MM) Component — MM 3.0.2 is a launcher. From an icon in the menubar or by a keyboard command, you get a list of programs, which you have created; attached to each program can be a list of documents. Now you can launch what you can see.

The big changes in 4.0.1 are increased flexibility and ease of configuration, and communication with SB via a new extension, Now Toolbox. You can configure many "launch menus," and into each put any folder, program, document, or control panel, rearranging the order in each launch menu. And, among the "items" you can add to a launch menu are lists of recent programs, documents, or folders. You can even modify these lists, to make an item permanent or to remove it, by pressing a key while viewing the menu.

Further, you can create "worksets," combinations of programs and documents, all of which will be launched together by selecting that workset from a launch menu, or by double-clicking an icon in the Finder. Also, NM replaces Understudy, letting you configure what programs will open documents whose creator you don’t own, and it replaces AppSizer, automatically resizing an program’s memory allotment temporarily if there isn’t enough memory otherwise, or letting you resize on the fly.

Unfortunately, you can’t separate all these features from the rest of NM. I’d rather they still resided in separate components so I could use them with NM 3.0.2 and Dropple Menus. Also, a thing I disliked about MM 3.0.2 has not changed: the lists are not hierarchical. Documents can be attached as submenus to programs; but programs themselves cannot be made submenus to anything. So if you want a really extensive list of your programs, you get a huge scrolling menu. I prefer Jeremy Roussak’s Apollo (currently freeware, soon to be shareware), which, though providing only one launch menu, lets it consist of meaningful categories that you create, into which the programs are grouped as submenus. It seems to me that NM provides power without a convenient interface to access it.

NM 4.0.1 supposedly gives you many launch menus, so in theory you could have one launch menu for graphics programs, another for text programs, etc. Not so, in reality. Here’s why. There are three ways to make a launch menu appear: as a pull-down from an icon in either corner of the menubar (that’s two menus); as a pop-up when you press the mouse on the desktop (that’s one more); and as a pop-up when you press the mouse with any combination of four modifier keys, except Shift, Command, or Option alone (that’s 12 more).

But in fact many combinations are out, because other programs use them. I can’t use the simple desktop pop-up, because it pops up when I’m dragging an icon on the desktop. I can’t use the option-click or command-option-click pop-ups because they pop up when I use those combinations in HyperCard. In fact, any combination of modifiers and mouse used in any of your programs means that that combination can’t be used for a launch menu, or it will interfere with other operations. If you have a lot of programs and extensions that rely on mouse-plus-modifiers you may be left with very few possible combinations.

Besides, who can remember a bunch of modifier-key combinations? A combination of modifiers with a letter-key to bring up a windoid, as in MM 3.0.2, would have been easier.

Dubious Conclusion — Now Software is trying to improve your control and convenience in innovative ways, and I am grateful. But it is perhaps because my expectations and hopes for this upgrade were so high that I remain dubious about NU 4.0.1.

No one should live without SB, that much is clear. In 3.0.2, the presence of SB alone justified the price of the whole package. Some of the new features of SB 4.0.1 are aesthetic, and I’m not convinced that the new Groups system is as good as the old; but on balance SB 4.0.1 remains a major must-have.

On the other hand, I regret NM 4.0.1 because it disables Dropple Menu, and I’m not happy with the interface to the launcher. NM 3.0.2. is stable and friendly, so I may stick with it and Apollo as a launcher and continue to fill in NM’s other new functions with extensions I already own, many of them freeware.

I realise this doesn’t tell you what to do (not that TidBITS readers would stand for such a thing anyway). If you own NU 3.0.2, perhaps you’ll consider the upgrade price worth the gamble regardless, especially since you can mix-and-match like me. Now has said that they will upgrade NU 3.0.2 to be compatible with future versions of the System, but don’t look for that to last indefinitely. And who knows what will be in NU 5.0?

While still scratching my head over some of Now Software’s decisions, I heartily acknowledge their dedication, ingenuity, and sheer programming skill. Now Utilities 4.0.1 is a productivity powerhouse, and has eradicated much of the bad taste that 4.0 left in my mouth. The bugs aren’t all gone: I still get crashes from SB and NM, sometimes with loss of various settings, particularly at crucial times like when the SFDialog is trying to appear. But this package still deserves full Penguins and a gasp of admiration.

Now Software — [email protected]

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