Writing my contribution to the Apps We Use Feature after several others makes it interesting see how many applications we have in common. Like several of the other writers I’m a recent convert to the Mac, having started using a MacBook less than two years ago.
I now use my MacBook as my main computer; however, I’ve not made the complete switch and still spend as much time within Windows during my normal day as I do my MacBook. In addition to writing here, I have a day job as an IT manager and also do consulting, mostly in networks and web development. I tend to use apps I can use in both environments, or at ones that are compatible with similar Windows programs. Here are a few apps that I turn to every day to work and organize my work.
The keyboard is the fastest was to get anything done. While graphics and touch interfaces are easy and natural, you can’t beat using the keyboard for speed. When you’re on a computer for a lot of the day, a few minutes here and there really add up quickly. Alfred is a program that speeds things up, one I finally started using a few months ago. The recently released Alfred 2 made things even better. I’m still learning the program, but it already makes it so much faster to accomplish tasks on my computer.
On the surface Alfred works as a quick launcher for applications, but it’s so much more. I use Alfred to quickly find files, do quick calculations, find contacts, and quickly lock or put my Mac to sleep when I need to step away. No need to dig through menus as most items are just a few keystrokes away.
I love this application. At the simplest level it lets me enter often repeated phrases with only a few keystrokes. I type in an abbreviation, hit a key, and that abbreviation is replaced with the full text I want. I type ;addr and it’s replaced with my full address. I type ;eml and my full email address appears. More complex items let me copy a link to a clipboard and generate a fully formatted HTML link to include in an article. It even tells me how many keystrokes it’s saved me over time and it’s amazing how large that number keeps growing.
My favorite calendar program ever and has a permanent place in my menu bar. It lets me start typing in a new item for my calendar in a natural way and parses out the event from that. If I type in “Meet Melissa for lunch Thursday” it’s smart enough to figure out that I’m probably having lunch at noon and what date the next Thursday is.
I can bring it up either with a key press or by clicking in the menu bar item. While typing in my event the program animates the parsing showing you what each part of the entry gets turned into and making it easy to understand any mistakes. Pretty quickly you learn how to talk to the program to get the results you meant. I can edit the new appointment before saving the event and it works with many calendar programs including Outlook 2011 for the Mac. As a bonus it also displays my upcoming schedule in a brief format I can quickly reference.
For longer writing I’ve found nothing better than Scrivener. It was one of the first programs I bought after getting a Mac and used it almost constantly while completing my Master’s. I’ve found nothing that works better for writing any longer writing assignment. Completing my thesis would have been a much longer and more frustrating process without the ease of organizing and moving things around that Scrivener provides. It’s a complex application, but rewards taking the time to learn it with much more time saved. I wouldn’t start any writing task longer than a few pages in another program.
My program for shorter writing, including this article. I’ve found Markdown syntax to be a quick and easy way to write short text. Since Markdown is just text it works across platforms beautifully so I can work on the same document on an iPad, my Mac, or on a Windows PC.It lets me focus on the text while not omitting formatting that I’ll want to include later. This app supports both Markdown and the extended Multi Markdown formats. The listing of headings and references speeds up editing longer documents.
Sometimes you need a little less than a full blown spreadsheet, but more than the quick calculations Alfred does well. PCalc replicates a scientific calculator including the ability to do RPN mode and provides a tape of calculations.
When I start a new project or presentation I prefer to begin by creating a mind map. This lets me visually organize my thoughts and then refine them into a written work. I’ve used a number of tools, but right now XMind is my favorite. It’s flexible and allows creation of some less common formats of diagrams. As a bonus there are free and paid levels depending on the features you desire and XMind is available for Windows, Linux, and Mac OS.
My password manager of choice. This program makes it easy to use unique and random passwords on the web and store them for future use. The program synchronizes through their cloud service across platforms and integrates with Firefox, Chrome, and Safari. Remember a single password and I can easily use unique passwords on every site I need to log into.
Without some task program I’d rapidly lose track of what I need to do and when. I’m still searching for the perfect task manager, but 2Do is my choice at the moment. It integrates with Toodledo which lets me sync to the iOS versions of the program and allow access from Windows. I like the ability to create sub tasks under a task and tag tasks for reference.
I still use my physical Windows computer often, but thanks to Fusion I can spend more time using the best PC hardware I’ve ever owned: my MacBook. All my web and Windows development occurs on a Windows virtual machine running on my MacBook. I also keep machines for testing and to run those programs which do not have a Mac replacement. It even lets me load up the occasional Windows game.
My Program of choice for taking screenshots when I need something more complex than the built in tools provide. This saves the desktop, dock, menu bar, cursor, and every window on your screen into a multi layer PSD file that you can then edit in any compatible program such as Photoshop. Also has an option for a delay between trigger and the screenshot being taken which can be useful to catch drop down menus and other dynamic actions.
My note taking app of choice for the combination of capability and cross platform ability. I can take a photo on my iPhone and have it appear when I get back to my MacBook. It’s where my notes go during meeting before being converted into projects, tasks, and calendar items. It’s where I put reference material for later reference. Just about everything I think I might have any need to ever reference in the future goes into Evernote.
iCloud works well for syncing files between Apple devices, but is useless when you also need to share with Windows machines. Dropbox allows me to have my files follow me to any device that I work on almost transparently. The best thing I can say about Dropbox is that I never have to think about it. I put files into it and they are there when I need them.
A Last Thought
My workflow is always changing and adapting as I try new programs and the demands on my time shift. Programs that would have been here a year ago, I seldom start today. Some of the apps I mentioned here were added to my workflow only within the last few months and have quickly become part of my daily routine. Ultimately I think these apps are here because they work the way that fits my needs and my processes.
If there’s any readers who are also Windows and Mac users that have to often switch between the two platforms, we’d love to hear your thoughts about your favorite apps in the comments below!