Ask the Mac.AppStorm Editor #12

It’s time for another “Ask the Editor” post today. A big thank you to everyone who sent in their questions – it’s great to have the chance to help you out with your Mac-related queries and quibbles.

Today I’ll be offering some advice about apps for taking student notes, concentrating, dimming your screen and managing your contacts. Read on for some awesome tips and tools to make your Mac experience even better.

I am currently a college student. What are some of the best apps for note taking on the Mac?

- Devin Clark

I’m glad you asked Devin! We’ve written a lot about apps for college students over the years and continue to search out the best solutions. Given that MacBooks pretty much dominate the college campus scene, this is a very important niche that developers should probably pay more attention to.

There are quite a few really great student-focused Mac apps out there that you’ll want to check out. Unfortunately, most of them, like iStudiez Pro, are more aimed at task and project management than note-taking, which is surprising since this is such a central component of student work.

The app that I recommend is Course Notes ($7.99). We just published a very positive review of this app that outlines the features in depth so I won’t go into it too much but I will say that it’s hard to beat for student notes. The interface for creating, organizing and sifting through past notes is really stellar and there are lots of great features including to-do functionality, attachments and more. There’s also a companion iPad app so you can keep up on your notes even if your laptop isn’t handy.

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Course Notes

If you’re into a more minimal workflow, there are plenty of beautiful full-screen writing apps for Mac. Check out our article titled “6 Minimal, Full-Screen Writing Apps for Mac.” Of those, I personally use Writeroom, despite its simple appearance it has a ton of professional features. I really like that I can customize the color scheme and make it look like some of the more attractive options like IA Writer.

I’m looking for some anti-distraction software like Concentrate. Which is the best?

- Stepan

To be honest, Concentrate ($29) really does stand out as one of the premier applications for helping you concentrate. The feature set, which allows you to setup certain automated actions during customized concentration sessions, is completely unique as far as I know. It’s a brilliant little app and though it’s a little pricey, you simply can’t top it.

Now, if you take a look at the concentration genre in general, there are tons of alternatives, almost all in the basic screen-dimming category. What these apps do is help you focus on a certain application by dimming, blurring, hiding or otherwise obstructing anything else.

Of these, FocusMask seems to be one of the best values. At only $0.99, it has quite a bit of functionality, much of which you won’t easily find elsewhere such as the ability to focus on certain areas of a window or a selection.

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FocusMask

If screen dimming isn’t what you’re looking for, consider the two apps below, both of which help keep you focused by popping up little reminders of the task that you’re currently trying to complete. Any time you get distracted there’s that nagging reminder of what it is that you’re really supposed to be accomplishing.

Keep in mind that Lion will be releasing soon and you’ll start seeing lots of apps go the full-screen route. This should definitely help you keep your focus as you won’t see all those floating windows in the background.

To shut off the screen of the Macbook Pro, you hit Ctrl+Shift+Eject, which is handy but you have to use both hands. Is a way to change that shortcut to something else?

- Agustin Suarez

This is definitely a useful shortcut, but I can see what you mean as far as it being easier if you didn’t have to bring a second hand into the situation. Under “Keyboard” in System Preferences, you can customize many system shortcuts, but unfortunately, this isn’t one of them.

However, all hope is not lost for a quicker alternative. For starters, you can go into the Screen Saver options in System Preferences and set up a Hot Corner that will put your display to sleep. Then when your professor walks by and you have ESPN open in class, you can quickly move your cursor and hide everything. Also, remember that Exposé is a quick, one-handed way to hide all of the windows.

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Setting up Hot Corners

Alternatively, you can use an app like Sleep Display, which immediately sleeps your display upon opening. You can either stick this in your dock or hook it to a keyboard shortcut via Apptivate or something similar.

What apps do you suggest as an alternative to Address Book? There’s gotta be an app out there that could display all my contact cards in a more visually appealing way!

- Stef Gonzaga

Before you go looking for a better-looking Address Book alternative, remember that Lion has an improved Address Book app that not only has more eye candy but also gets a boost in functionality. Many people hate the new faux-realism stance Apple is taking on UI these days but others can’t get enough. It’s definitely worth a look before you go switching.

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Lion Address Book

Now, that being said, there’s surprisingly really not many great alternatives. Some email clients like Thunderbird have address book features but changing email clients is a big deal for a lot of folks, especially if you’re just looking for a better Address Book.

One app that is popular among small business owners and other professionals is Bento, which goes far beyond contact management and helps you manage and track projects, plan events and more.

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Bento for Mac

At $29, Bento is a steal but it might be more than you want to pay for a prettier address book. Commenters, feel free to chime in and tell us about any cheap and attractive Address Book alternatives you’ve tried!

Didn’t See Your Question?

If you asked a question but didn’t have it answered today, don’t worry! I’ll do my best to get to it in a future week. I love a challenge, so feel free to ask some weird and wonderful questions…

If you’d like to submit your query, you can do so here:

Thanks for reading, and let me know if you agree or disagree with anything I mentioned today!


  • Chris

    Vitamin-R is another good anti-distraction app with numerous other benefits.

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