Certain components of Now Software’s collection of utilities in Now Utilities are absolutely integral to my Mac experience. I am quite incapable of productive work without Super Boomerang, which compensates for the clumsiness of the Standard File dialog by causing it to come up at the most recently used item and by giving it menus that let you navigate to other recently used items. I depend, too, on Now Menus, which modifies the structure of my Apple menu and makes it hierarchical, and adds to my menubar hierarchical menus (onto which Finder items can be dropped) showing recently used folders (with their contents) and applications (with their recently used files).
There’s much more to even these two components than I can enumerate here. If you’ve never used Now Utilities (NU), by all means, if you’re running System 7.0 or later, download the free demo; for far fuller descriptions of NU, refer to my earlier discussions of NU 4.0.1 (TidBITS-152), NU 5.0 (TidBITS-248), and the NU 5.0.1 maintenance release (TidBITS-272).
I should add that I also use Startup Manager to manage the choice and ordering of extensions and control panels to load at startup. I run but rarely use FolderMenus; on my PowerBook I use QuickFiler for transparent file compression. (I no longer use WYSIWYG Menus to organize Font menus, currently preferring Impossible Software’s commercial TypeTamer.)
Upgrading to Apple’s System 7.5.x has not diluted my NU addiction and advocacy. The Apple Menu Options control panel imitates Now Menus’ hierarchical Apple menu and Super Boomerang’s tracking of recently used files and applications in such a sluggish, unstable, kludgy way as to pose no threat to NU’s indispensability; and, without NU, the Standard File dialog remains a roadblock rather than a tool. Startup Manager, too, is clearly far better than Apple’s Extensions Manager. (Apple’s improved Find File did permit me to dispense with QuickFiler’s Now Find, though.)
Ring Out the Old, Ring In the NU — Last March, NU 6.0 became available, having been first released on Now Software’s Web site as a series of public betas. I was still knee-deep in submitting bug reports and suggestions when they went final, and when I purchased the upgrade my sense was that the release was premature and ill-advised.
The installer did not come on floppies, as previously, but on a CD-ROM – even though it was only 1.4 MB (the CD contained only 63 MB, of which 50 MB was a demo of Now Contact and Now Update). It forcibly installed all components of Now Utilities (earlier versions let you pick which components to install), and, on restarting, disabled any rival software and subjected you to various pre-selected preferences – for instance, QuickFiler’s compression feature was on, and so was its replacement of Apple’s Find File with its own Now Find. A less experienced user would scarcely have known which features were governed by which component, much less how to disable them if desired.
There were curious omissions; most glaringly, one of the more important features of Super Boomerang, its hierarchical list of recently used files and folders in the Apple menu, had disappeared! Various features of Startup Manager were strangely inoperable; this turned out to be due to a new Expert Mode toggle in its preferences panel – undocumented. Oh, yes, the documentation: no longer a booklet, but a 226-page Acrobat file.
The components that I use did have some improvements. The hierarchical menus of Super Boomerang and Now Menus now opened to a depth of ten levels, enabling more extensive folder navigation via menus (the limit had previously been five levels). And Super Boomerang’s menus in the Standard File dialog were now themselves hierarchical; as these menus include both drives and recently used folders, I could now navigate to nearly any file or folder through a single menu selection within the dialog.
Another nice new feature is that in Now Menus’ menus, a list of currently running applications can append hierarchically the titles of the windows of each application, allowing you to navigate easily to any open window of any application. Unfortunately, it doesn’t modify the existing Applications menu, as does Hiro Yamamoto’s wonderful ApplWindows; you must use a second Applications menu elsewhere. So I also use Jouko Pakkanen’s TitlePop, which drops a similar menu from the title bar of any window.
There were three new components, AutoType, Now Tabs, and Now Shortcuts, though I wasn’t inclined to use them. AutoType types preset phrases, like Riccardo Ettore’s shareware Type-It-For-Me on steroids; it watches you type, so it can expand a typed abbreviation, and even builds a list of frequently used longer strings you might want to abbreviate. But the word processors I use have glossary features, QuicKeys types boilerplate for me elsewhere, and I’m not sure I want the overhead of having my typing intercepted by yet another extension.
Now Tabs covers the bottom of the screen with a strip, used for two unrelated purposes. First, it provides another point from which a menu can pop up, containing various Finder and NU functions. Second, it lets Finder windows be iconized by title in the strip (anticipating a Mac OS 8 Finder feature). But all the menu functions can be triggered in some other way; the iconization doesn’t work outside the Finder, on my machine it breaks in the Finder, and I don’t want a Word 6-like strip hogging screen real estate. I can fight window clutter with WindowShade, which works for all applications and comes with System 7.5.
Now Shortcuts is another Finder hack: modifier-clicking on a Finder item pops up a menu of actions you can take on it. But most are Finder functions for which there is a menu item and/or keystroke already; I see this as an unnecessary complication of the Finder interface.
The NU Deal — Now Software tacitly acknowledged some of 6.0’s mistakes by correcting them. They promulgated a series of "monthly updates" – though registered users were neither sent them nor alerted to their existence, which makes one question the value of registration. Rather, Now Software placed the updates on their Web site and left it to individual users to discover them.
The description of each update gave few details of internal changes to NU components, but instead concentrated upon listing new plug-ins extending the functionality of the Now Tabs and Now Shortcuts pop-up menus. Why was this? Hypnotized by the new features appearing as we revisited the Web site month by month, were we not to notice the Super Boomerang Apple menu item and the custom installer quietly restored, the Startup Manager Expert Mode checkbox quietly removed, and who knows what else?
It’s a new twist on a story now becoming old: in the software business, early adopters are practiced upon in every sense, shelling out the money to fund the subsequent development of the software we ought to have received in the first place. Still, we users are a complaisant lot; the NU 6.0 update might not have been worth $30, but the money wasn’t all that much really, and one feels a certain sentimental duty to inject occasional boosts of capital into the software machine to support favorite programs.
A g-Nother g-NU — Then, hard upon the release of 6.0 in March, and the May, June, and July monthly updates to make it work properly, August brought the release of NU 6.5, a $15 upgrade from 6.0. Had I not been an early adopter of 6.0, but remained with 5.0.1, I could have gotten 6.5 for the same $30 that 6.0 already cost me! Now Software and I disagree on the implications of these numbers; I say such pricing discourages early adopters rather than rewarding them as they deserve, but they say the extra $15 covers the value I got from using 6.0 between March and August. I knew there was some reason I got that C in Economics! Now Software has plans to convert to a subscription format wherein you receive all updates for a set period of time; this will surely prevent such misunderstandings.
Now Software is releasing a separate version of Startup Manager 7.0, beefed up explicitly to challenge Conflict Catcher as a resolver of extension conflicts, supported by a database, to be updated online. (It will have to be quite a database if it is to encompass the multitudinous combinations of system, software, hardware, and various extensions old and new, freeware, shareware, and commercial, necessary to explain the weirdness that goes on in my computers. Also, previous commercial attempts to create databases of conflicts have proven too difficult to maintain.) Now Startup Manager 7.0, given away free through 15-Sep-96, is included in Now Utilities 6.5 (the numbering disparity is said to be due to marketing considerations: Conflict Catcher’s supremacy was not to be challenged by something ending in "point five").
NU 6.5 began to ship in August. As of this writing, the first monthly update, for September, is already posted, so we’re at NU 6.5.1 and Startup Manager 7.0.1. This happened so quickly that I haven’t tried the demos yet; at this point my first-hand reportage comes to an end. According to Now Software, the big changes are in Startup Manager and in some components I don’t use; as for those that I do, Now Menus is unaltered, Super Boomerang sports resizable Standard File dialogs (a nice idea, though I pray it won’t bring Dialog View to its knees), and FolderMenus will at last use the settings from Now Menus’ menu preferences. I am told that you can now, for an extra fee, purchase NU on floppies and with a printed manual.
So NU? The period described above – the introduction of NU 6.0 in public beta, its release on CD, the monthly updates, the release of NU 6.5 – has had, for me, a clunky, grinding feel, as if Now Software had been shifting gears and having trouble making them fit. But perhaps at last the various forces that determine a software company’s internal workings and its public policy are regaining harmony. The Web site has been revised for greater clarity and helpfulness, and the company has clearly learned from the 6.0 experience. Also, we are promised a renewed dedication to responsive customer support.
My basic stance on NU itself remains unchanged: merely juggling the various documents needed to write this review has reminded me how integral it is to my work. As to the upgrade, though, users must individually judge its value as against its price – and, thanks to the downloadable demo, they can do so.
In that spirit, here are some small but significant tweaks I’ve been looking for in NU.
- Make settings apply to, or be overridable for, particular applications. Right now, for instance, when you’ve used Now Menus to alter an application’s keyboard shortcuts, you can’t restore its defaults without throwing away your whole Now Menus preferences file. Also, the DirectOpen hierarchical menus don’t work, say, with Netscape, because I have no way to tell Super Boomerang that in Netscape, "Open File…" opens files (short of using ResEdit to change the menu item to "Open…").
- One of the best features of Super Boomerang’s hierarchical folder menus, both in the Apple Menu and in the Standard File dialogs, is that they run both ways – what hangs off a given folder is a menu containing both its contents and its containers. Thus, from any folder you can navigate down or up the file hierarchy via menus. Why don’t Now Menus’ or FolderMenus’ menus have this feature? And why isn’t the same thing done for file menus as well, so that from a file I could navigate up to its folder, and so on from there?
- To make the Standard File Open dialog really useful, find a way to make multiple simultaneous selections possible; it drives me mad, when I’m in the dialog, to realize that I want to open multiple files, and to be forced to back out and use the Finder instead.
- QuickFiler’s inspector windows should permit drag & drop, and, since they already show type and creator info (a splendid thing), they should also allow you to change this info. Presently, I use a combination of Apple’s improved Find File and the shareware Get Info substitute, Snitch.
- The control panel interface was greatly improved in 5.0, but it still needs some dispassionate alterations. Some utilities, such as Now Menus, pack so much functionality into one container that specific options are hard to locate. And I’ll bet more people would use the Groups feature of Super Boomerang if it were easier to use; for instance, one should be able to get a conspectus of all one’s groups simultaneously.
If you have suggestions, email them to Now Software; I’m told that user response is an important factor in determining the nature of future releases. As I’ve said in this space before, users must vote not only with their feet but with their voices.
Now Software — 503-274-2810 — <[email protected]>