Three App Categories That Truly Improve Mac OS X

Posted by | September 09, 2011 | Apps | No Comments

As you would expect from the editor of a Mac blog, I’m a complete app addict. I have random applications for everything from cataloguing recipes to counting characters in a TextEdit document. Some of these I use on a daily basis, but many of them admittedly sit and collect dust in my Applications folder.

This article is an attempt to narrow down my absolute bare essentials. What three things do I think are fundamentally lacking in OS X and would need to be installed on any machine that I use for more than a few hours, regardless of what I’m doing? Which apps genuinely save me a considerable amount of time in my daily routine? Let’s take a look!

Clipboard Managers

Clipboard managers are an absolutely vital tool to have if you spend a considerable amount of time at a computer. Let’s face it, your default OS X clipboard functionality is fairly limited: you copy something, you paste it, you copy something else, the first thing is gone. If you’re a real pro, you can access a secondary clipboard-like feature with Kill (Control-K) and Yank (Control Y), but no one really even knows that feature exists and fewer remember long enough to use it.

Copying and pasting is a pretty fundamental activity that nearly all computer users are familiar with and engage in regularly. It makes sense to beef up this functionality with a tool that provides a full clipboard history, which gives you access to multiple past clippings.

What I Use

There are quite a few really powerful clipboard managers on the market, but the one that seems to fit my workflow best is a completely free utility called ClipMenu.

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ClipMenu

ClipMenu represents the best combination of simplicity and power that I’ve found in a clipboard manager. It has all the features I need: a completely customizable history, support for text and image clips and a keyboard activated pop up window. It even has some really powerful options that I now couldn’t live without such as a snippets manager and a robust actions system that allows you to manipulate strings of text (change the case, wrap with tags, etc.).

The thing that really makes me love ClipMenu is that it doesn’t even really feel like an app. Instead it feels like a natural extension of OS X. I’ve tried some really expensive and fancy options that I didn’t like half as much. If you’re in the market for a clipboard manager, start here.

Alternatives

ClipMenu is definitely not for everyone. If you try it and decide that you want something else, check out the options below.

Launchers

I hesitated to include launchers in this article because the idea that they’re an essential add-on is arguable. For starters, Launchpad on Lion is a new and quick way to launch your apps. However, to me, Launchpad is really no better than hitting “⌘⇧A” to bring up the applications folder. You still have to manually sort through all of your apps to find what you want, which is a real pain!

A more appropriate argument would be that Spotlight functions as a launcher: hit a keyboard shortcut, start typing and applications will appear at the top of the list of results. You can even perform some basic functions like simple math.

For whatever reason though, Spotlight still feels like a search tool that has some launcher functionality rather than a tool created for launching apps. For this reason, I definitely recommend that all OS X users check out third party application launchers. They can save you tons of time and tend to have some really advanced functionality.

What I Use

To be honest, I never thought I would give up Quicksilver. It was the first launcher that I ever used and still has more features, plugins and crazily random functionality than almost anything else you can find (mouse gestures, pie-shaped file menus, custom global triggers, Quicksilver has it all).

However, there’s something to be said for using software that is actively being developed and improved. I honestly can’t imagine why the developers lost interest in Quicksilver but it happened, and that left many of us looking around for alternatives. I tried to no avail to switch and always came back, that was until I tried Alfred.

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Alfred

Alfred is a true gem of an app. The interface is simple and friendly but still quite attractive and the already impressive feature set is constantly growing by leaps and bounds. Much more than an app launcher, Alfred can perform complex math with parentheses (these confuse Spotlight), define words, search for files, act as a file browser, control iTunes, launch websites, search websites, access your clipboard history and a heck of a lot more. And these are just the built-in features, the new third party extension system is really starting to give Alfred the endless possibilities that I enjoyed in Quicksilver.

Alfred is a free utility but many of the advanced features require the £12 PowerPack. Alfred is so great that I tell every Mac user I know to download it right away. As far as I’m concerned, it should be the first thing you install on a new Mac!

Alternatives

Among the high-powered launcher contenders, the most popular competitor that can stand toe to toe with Quicksilver and Alfred is Launchbar, which has a similar goal of providing you with a single interface for performing a stunning number of different tasks. Check out Launchbar and other popular launchers below.

Text Expanders

Because I’m a writer, the final category of apps that I couldn’t go without is text expansion utilities. You don’t need to write full time to appreciate these though, the concept is universal enough that almost every user can find a way to save time with a text expansion app.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, text expanders allow you to type shortcuts which then “expand” into larger snippets. For instance, if I type “email#” on my Mac, it automatically inserts my email address.

If you’re a developer, you can create abbreviations that expand into large snippets of code (perfect for those pesky CSS3 browser prefixes). If you write a lot of email, you can store standard responses that pop into place with only a few keystrokes. The possibilities go on and on: usernames, passwords, addresses, phone numbers, websites, words that you commonly misspell; anything you want! The bottom line is, what used to take 1-2 minutes to type or find elsewhere and copy over now takes two seconds to insert!

What I Use

TextExpander is probably the most popular text expansion solution currently available, and for good reason. It’s an extremely powerful and versatile tool that supports every app that I’ve ever tried to use it with. This app alone saves me hours and hours every single month. I know because it conveniently tracks this information!

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TextExpander

TextExpander ($34.95) makes it easy to create different groups of custom snippets that can be expanded via a user-defined abbreviation. You can even insert smart snippets like today’s date, the contents of the clipboard or even another snippet!

There’s also an iOS app that can sync with the desktop version via Dropbox. This is great for working on my iPad, all the snippets that I’m used to using are right there and even work in several other third party apps.

Alternatives

Want to see a head-to-head comparison of popular text expansion utilities? We just happen to have one here. In the mean time, check out the options below.

Conclusion

I wear many hats as an OS X user: writer, editor, designer, photographer and musician. These three app categories serve as basic extensions of OS X that I personally would never like to be without, regardless of the task that I happen to be doing.

Leave a comment below and let us know what categories you find absolutely essential to your daily activities. Which apps save you the most time?