We reviewed an app called Characters back in August. It gives you quick access to a large number of special characters, making it an indispensable tool for web developers, technical writers, and anyone else who needs to go beyond the standard ASCII fare on a regular basis.
But I think the best tool for the job is PopChar X, not Characters, nor OS X’s built-in character viewer (and not any of the many web-based alternatives, either). It nestles itself in the top-left (or right) corner of your menubar, and it has everything you could need. Allow me to explain.
ALL The Characters and Symbols
PopChar X includes every character that Mac OS X supports. Need to write in traditional Chinese? No problem. How about Sinhala, Cherokee, Hebrew, Armenian, Ancient Greek, or even Braille? They’re all in there, along with more arrows and glyphs than you can poke a stick at. The organization is a little different to the built-in character viewer, but you’ll get hundreds of thousands of characters and symbols at your fingertips.
You have characters grouped into five types: Unicode Blocks, Scripts and Symbols, ASCII, MacRoman, or Recent. Each of these divides into appropriate subcategories. You can limit the selection to only characters supported by the current font — every font installed on your computer is available for use — or go with the union of all fonts. This latter option is important for when you’re writing in a standard ASCII-derived (i.e., Latin) font such as Times New Roman, Helvetica, or Lucida Grande, and need something in a more exotic script.
Now let’s take this back to the Characters comparison for a moment. Characters has two modes: Designer and Developer. The former copies the character to the clipboard, while the latter copies the HTML entity. Why? If I’m pulling this tool up with a keyboard shortcut, chances are I want to use the character now.
Insert or Copy, in Any Format
PopChar X inserts the desired version of the symbol when you click on it, while a simple right-click allows copying as HTML, Unicode Decimal/Hex, or Name, and also lets you add it to your favorites or mark all the fonts that contain it. Plus there’s an option to have it always insert or copy in the same font as the foreground text document (provided the character is supported by that font). And designers can play around with font sheets and previews for that little bit of extra convenience. Simple, powerful, straightforward — I love it.
Searching is straightforward, too. Pop the standard character that most resembles your desired symbol into the search box, then choose it from the list. If you hover the mouse over a symbol, you can see its internal name, unicode or HTML entity number, and (where applicable) keyboard shortcut for future reference. If you happen to already know the keyboard macro for the character, like, say Option-Shift-O for the symbol Ø, but need this other data for coding purposes, just type that in and it’ll come up.
Accept No Substitute
So why would I — or anyone else — choose Characters? It’s convenient, sure, but with a limited character set, no insert feature, and no Unicode references, it seems crippled compared to PopChar X. And I hope you’re not so shallow as to dismiss PopChar for its inferior looks — it has everything else, after all, and beauty’s only skin deep, remember.
You pay a lot more for PopChar X than its alternatives — it’s priced at 30 Euros (~$40 USD), compared to just $2.99 for Characters and nothing for most web-based options — but I say it’s worth every penny. There’s no substitute for quality, and, while PopChar X isn’t the prettiest app around, it’s brimming with “how did I ever get things done before?” excellence.