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In a Docktopus’s Garden

Startly Technologies, the folks behind the venerable QuicKeys automation utility and the utterly inexplicable TransLucy (it lets you play movies in a translucent layer over your work, so you can click and type as though the movie wasn’t really there), have a new utility out, called Docktopus and alliteratively subtitled "Delightful Dock Denizen." I saw a quick demo of Docktopus at Macworld Expo, which intrigued me enough to look at it more closely at home.

In short, Docktopus enables you to add up to four badges to each icon on your Dock; each badge provides some sort of information display or control. At the moment, Docktopus comes with nine badges, most of which can be customized in some fashion:


  • CPU Meter: Shows the CPU usage of the application on which the badge is placed.
  • Drive Space: Shows a pie chart of the disk usage for the disk on which it’s placed.
  • Folder Count: Shows the number of items inside the folder or disk on which it’s placed.
  • iCal Event Peek: Displays the iCal events for the current day.
  • Item Size: Shows the amount of disk space used by the item on which it’s placed.
  • iTunes Control: Lets you play/pause iTunes; Option- and Control-clicking moves between tracks.
  • Launch Menu: Displays a customizable menu of documents (and recent items) you can open in the application on which it’s placed.
  • Mail Peek: Shows the number of unread messages in specified Mail accounts and information about the five most recent messages.
  • Memory: Shows the RAM usage of the application on which the badge is placed.

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Nothing Docktopus is doing is unique, but its badges provide contextual access to an area of the screen that’s both always in use and normally off-limits to developers: the Dock. This attachment to the Dock turns out to be both Docktopus’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. It’s very cool, for instance, to have Launch Menu badges attached to commonly used applications as a way of providing quick access to those applications’ frequently and recently used documents. And there’s no denying the utility of being able to monitor the CPU or RAM usage of a particular application with a mere glance at its Dock icon. And as you launch and quit applications, Docktopus makes sure its badges remain attached to the appropriate icons.

Where Docktopus falls down for me is that I keep a lot of applications running all the time. At the moment, I have 28 icons in my right-mounted Dock, of which only System Preferences and the Trash are not active applications. Even on my 17-inch Apple Cinema Display running at 1280 by 1024, the result is that the Dock icons are pretty small, making Docktopus’s badges a quarter the size of "pretty small." I can barely see the various graphical meters, and I can’t read the textual ones without leaning up close to the screen and squinting. Plus, the small size means that precision mousing is necessary for interactive badges like Launch Menu. Enabling the Dock’s magnification feature makes the badges more visible, of course, but I don’t like Dock magnification, and Docktopus’s badges don’t animate smoothly with magnified Dock icons. Startly acknowledges this: "Docktopus’s badge display speed may be slowed if Dock magnification is enabled. Try reducing or turning off magnification if you experience problems with badge display."

Although Docktopus’s nine badges are useful, one could imagine additional badges. Startly provides a badge development kit for free, and anyone who creates a badge can submit it for the Docktopus user community to find and download. At the moment, however, there are no new badges listed on the More Badges page, and no one has left any comments or questions in the Docktopus SDK and Badge Creation forum. But Docktopus is yet young, having been released only late in 2005, so perhaps more time is needed before third-party badges will start to appear.


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Overall, I appreciate the approach that Startly has taken to providing contextual information and utilities via items that are already guaranteed to be in the Dock, but being joined at the hip to the Dock also means that Docktopus will be useful primarily to people who are geeky enough to want instant access to the kind of information and capabilities that Docktopus provides without being the kind of people who run many applications simultaneously or who store many items in their Docks. I fear that group may be quite small, but if you’re in it, be sure to check out Docktopus’s 30-day demo. Docktopus 1.0.2 costs $20, requires Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, and is a 2.9 MB download.


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