Ready for the final installment in our popular “Apps We Use” series? Want to find all of the apps that’ll solve all of the problems of your life?
Wait, what? You say you want a more universal answer to your problems? Here it is: 42.
Anyway, I’ll give you a sneak peek at what my intimate life with my Macs looks like. Don’t be shy, come closer, but shhhh… please keep quiet or you might end up scaring a couple of bits and bytes.
Three Apps That Save My Day… Hundreds of Times a Day
There are lots of tools I use on a daily or weekly basis. They all provide added functionality to OS X but are not strictly essential to my life. That is, except for these three apps that I just can’t live my digital life without. I feel highly frustrated, to say the least, when I must use a Mac without these installed.
In fact, I even think LaunchBar, TextExpander and Hazel should really, really be part of OS X.
I know, I know: when it comes to launchers, most of the Mac.AppStorm writers are on the Alfred side, except for the notable exception of Philip. I’m on his side, with LaunchBar.
I just love LaunchBar and would not change it for anything else. In fact, hitting Cmd-Space has become a second nature when I’m in front of a Mac. So imagine how frustrated I am when this only brings Spotlight. Don’t get me wrong: Spotlight is good, even great since Lion. It is perfect for finding content deeply buried into your file system. However, except from a few specific use cases (e.g. calculate something), you can’t do anything with Spotlight. You can’t act on your machine.
Here are some of the not-so-obvious things I do with LaunchBar:
- Add color label to files and remove them,
- Search my Evernote notes,
- “Grab” files and send them attached in email messages,
- Display a phone number in large characters on the screen,
- Unmount USB keys and external hard drives,
- Access my Downloads folder to mount a disk image, install the app it contains, then unmount and delete the now superfluous disk image, all of this without ever touching the mouse,
- Read the content of a text file and copy some information from it,
- Directly create a new note within nvAlt with some text selected in a web page,
- Append something to my todo list,
- Store the last 40 chunks of text I copied and paste some of it at will — no need for a clipboard manager! (as long as you’re dealing only with text).
As I use my keyboard a lot more than my trackpad, there is no surprise TextExpander comes next on my list. As its name implies, this gem expands text. However, just as I don’t use LaunchBar only to launch apps, I don’t use TextExpander only to expand a few letters into words.
For instance, with just a couple of keystrokes, I can launch long sequences of Terminal commands, rename files to fit a particular and consistent scheme or access system paths and long URLs.
Hazel is the only app I know that makes your Mac looks like it has artificial intelligence. Explain Hazel once and for all what to do when a particular thing happens in a folder and it will do wonders for you, without even asking for a thank you. It’s your personal assistant 3.0.
Here’s just one example among the overflowing number of possibilities offered by this tool. Every month, when my bank statement is available as a PDF on their website, all I have to do is download it. Then Hazel takes care of the rest, i.e.:
- Renames it with something that matches my filenaming scheme, i.e. yy-mmdd-hhmmss-A1FB-bankname-Checking Statement-Year-Month,
- Files the PDF in an appropriate folder elsewhere on my main hard drive,
- Makes a backup copy of this file on my NAS,
- Creates a new Evernote note with the PDF document attached, all with tags and so on,
- And finally notifies me (Growl inside Notification Center) that the document has been processed.
My Flexible Writing System
I must admit it: I’m obsessed when it comes to plain text writing apps. I have to try every new app out on the market. Hence, it is a bit difficult for me to tell you what my favorite writing tool is. I can tell you what my current one is. But ask me again next month! (Spoiler: in fact, I use a lot of apps in my workflow.)
However, due to my specific writing workflow, I am in some sort of love/hate relationship with Ulysses right now. Indeed, all of my writings are plain text files located in a Dropbox folder, and the first version of Ulysses III still struggled with what they call “external sources” such as Dropbox folders (Ulysses is a bit too much focused on iCloud sync, IMHO). The resulting too-frequent crashes quickly kept me away from this text editor. I’ve just seen they released a new version that fixes some of what the devs call ‘mysterious’ crashes, so hopefully this is now fixed.
It was written by many people before: the beauty of using Dropbox and plain text files is that you can use whatever program you like at any time. I constantly switch from app to app, depending on my humeur du jour and my needs for specific features. That’s why you’ll find iA Writer, Byword, nvAlt, Sublime Text, Ommwriter, Scrivener, FoldingText and the afore mentioned Ulysses co-existing on my hard drive, and none of these apps are neglected.
I keep a special place in my heart for some of these apps, listed below.
For those who don’t know it yet, nvAlt is Brett Terpstra’s and Elastic Thread’s fork of the excellent Notational Velocity. It is as much a note-taking as a long-form writing app for me. For long-form, the sort of distraction-free writing mode you can achieve by bringing the window full screen and hiding both the note column and the search/create field is super useful.
Ommwriter is your writing’s equivalent of a zen garden, with its inspiring and enchanting background images and music. The little relaxing ’gong’ and other spatial sounds really helped me evacuate stress and focus while writing my thesis a few years ago.
This is currently the undisputed champion when it comes to extendability and regular expressions support.
What I really love in Sublime Text 2 is the Command-palette. It makes me think of having a dedicated mini-LaunchBar within the app. Indeed you can just press Shift-Cmd-P to bring a field where typing a few letters will find and run the corresponding menu command, wherever it is in the menu hierarchy. An example? If I want to switch from plain text to Markdown syntax, I simply press Shift-Cmd-P, then M, then D and it instantly matches the “Set Syntax: Markdown” command. Hit Return, and voilà: the new syntax is set.
Also, the Cmd-P shortcut feels like having a variation of the search field of Notational Velocity at hand. Provided you already have a complete folder opened in Sublime Text (and I always leave my entire Dropbox notes folder opened), press Cmd-P then a few letters to match the title of one of your files: the corresponding file is instantly shown upfront in your current tab so you can edit it.
If you’d like to use Sublime Text 2 for writing in Markdown, I can’t recommend enough the MarkdownEditing package offered by the never-ending-tweaking-guy Brett Terpstra.
This app keeps a special place in my heart because it was the subject of the first article I wrote for Mac.AppStorm. Its folding/unfolding/focusing features make it a stand out winner for dealing with long, structured documents. Moreover, some special modes (timer, todo) makes it unique in the text editors landscape.
I love both. iA Writer’s font and the blinking blue cursor are an unreached joy for my eyes, but I don’t like how Markdown is displayed that much. I love Byword’s “night-mode”. I also love the way you can export Markdown-formatted text to HTML directly copied to the clipboard in a snap (with just Opt-Cmd-E), which is really helpful to paste my drafts into WordPress. Though I sometimes prefer using Marked for previewing and copying HTML to clipboard.
By dint of hearing about it, I recently decided to try Scrivener out — again. I’m still in my 30-day trial for now but I must admit that it really helps when you want to build a long, structured writing from scratch.
There’s a steep learning curve and I feel I could achieve a similar but more natural writing workflow with FoldingText, but it’s good to rethink my workflow from times to times.
Being able to directly edit the current content of the main editor in any other text editor would be a plus, though, to satisfy my needs to switch between editors on the fly (Oh dear QuickCursor, I miss you! Damn Apple Sandbox rules…).
How Do I Deal With All of These Writing Apps?
You might wonder how and why I use so many text editors. Right now, my typical workflow is:
- Jotting down an idea for a new article in nvAlt,
- Creating a basic outline within nvAlt or FoldingText,
- Drafting the article piece by piece and putting things together in Scrivener: its Corkboard and the ability to reorganize things at will is really helpful when trying to transform your tiny pieces into a long and coherent writing,
- “Compile” with Scrivener by exporting as a plain text file,
- Revise this draft in one or more text editors, depending on my tastes and/or specific features (SublimeText comes handy for extensive search/replace support),
- Finalizing the draft in Byword so I can export it easily in WordPress.
Connecting With the Outside World
I’ve tried Thunderbird (back in the days right after switching from Windows 6 years ago) — and its non open-source Postbox spinoff, Sparrow, the Gmail and MobileMe (then iCloud) web interfaces. Nothing was really satisfactory, even the built-in OS X app, until the unveiling of OS X Lion and its overhauled Mail.app.
From there, I started setting up and refining a workflow that really makes Mail.app my email program of choice on OS X. On a side-note, I hope iOS 7 will brings numerous enhancements to Mail, especially multiple flag colors and smart inboxes. In the meantime, I’m using MailPilot for iPad that has a refreshing, innovative interface (though the integration with my Mail.app workflow is far from perfect).
Which browser to use is often a matter of debate on the Mac. I’ve never been a big fan of Safari mainly because, when I bought my first Mac, Apple’s home-made browser was not extendable enough (I’m talking about early Leopard times, folks). I’ve been true to the red panda for several years but Mozilla’s choice to apply a rapid-release schedule and the simultaneous apparition of both bugs and memory greediness slowly turned me off.
As they set up rapid iteration à la Google Chrome, I was tempted to check directly to the source. I never looked back. Even if I really support the idea of a browser developed by a non-profit organization, which is some sort of the antithesis of Google, I miss a few essential things when I try to convince me to use another browser. Among them:
- Flash integration: you don’t have to download that damn-freaking, always-updating, enormous and anachronous thing that is Flash. Chrome supports Flash out of the box.
- True sync of everything: I always feel truly amazed, as if it were the first time, every time I install or uninstall a new browser extension at work and see it already installed when back at home. Same thing when I add a new search engine or modify the keyword for an existing one. It’s as if I were using one and only machine.
- Nice PDF integration with previewing, saving and printing right within the browser. Firefox has it now, but Chrome had it way before.
By now, you surely have understood that I’m a big fan of the plain text format. That’s why TaskPaper is my tool of choice for dealing with tasks. I’ve already described in great detail what my workflow looks like with this wonderful program by Hog Bay Software. Of note is that I’ve found a solution of dealing with deadlines simply by sparingly using the @due tag, so I don’t really need any sort of reminder app to get things done.
In a (not so) near future, I might use FoldingText instead of TaskPaper for the same purpose. For now, I still prefer using TaskPaper with a theme I created on my own.
For appointments, I simply use the OS X built-in Calendar (iCal if you’re using an OS X version older than Lion) that syncs with my Google calendar. When I’m not at home, Google Calendar is accessed either through its web interface or through my phone stock calendar app (big confession: I don’t own an iPhone anymore). I don’t have a lot of things to jot down on my calendar so great apps in the likes of Fantastical are overkill for me.
To Fight My Fear of Losing Files
Not content of having all my most often used files on Dropbox and backing up all my files on a RAID1-configured NAS, I use two more apps to try to rest assured:
- CrashPlan makes an offsite backup copy of all the files stored on my NAS, my iMac and my MacBook, for a modest yearly fee (unlimited storage included). I backup to their Crashplan Central server, not to a another computer.
- CarbonCopyCloner helps me keep a bootable backup of my Macs, just in case.
Small Handy Utilities
This one is so deeply yet subtly ingrained into my machines that I only notice its absence when I’m using someone else’s Mac.
The main reason I use it is that you can ask it to delete the original archive file after uncompressing it. I find so silly to have both a .zip file and its corresponding expanded folder on my hard drive. On top of this, it also offers wide support for all kinds of archive files thus greatly extends the built-in Mac OS X “Archive Utility” features.
Renaming one file by hand is OK. Renaming 5 files starts to be boring. 15 files, fastidious. 1000+ files, a unnecessary, error-prone time waste. Enter Name Mangler. Its complex renaming possibilities presented in a straight forward UI really helped me shape and reshape and reshape again my file naming system.
When I don’t have my iPad at hand (setting up a timer is one of the most frequent things I use Siri for), I launch Minutes. This cheap utility that looks and behaves like a Dashboard widget sitting on your desktop, is a light-weight, super handy, colored timer you can start with a couple of keystrokes (Cmd-1 for 1 minute, Cmd-3 for 3 minutes, Cmd-5 for 5 minutes, and so on). My only complaint is that the alarm volume was a bit too loud for my tastes, so I lowered it using Audacity (see below).
I love having an inspiring desktop picture. And I also love to have it change regularly. I used to have a large Dropbox folder containing a lot of images, and spent a considerable amount of time each week to find new ones. Then I found Kuvva, reviewed it and looked no further. It meets my needs, does not get in my way, has a large collection of curated images. Plus, your favorite images sync between computers without wasting precious Dropbox storage space.
Manipulating Audio Files
DJing is one of my hobbies — a third part-time job, in fact. So I can’t write this roundup without mentioning Native Instrument’s Traktor, though this might be both a niche and less useful software for non-DJ people and an undisputed must-have for digital DJs.
Traktor integrates with your iTunes library and lets you mix, beat-match and act live (add sound effects, for instance) on music files (MP3, WAV, FLAC, AIFF…). It’s like having a full fledge digital replicate of two turntables/CD players and a mixer, for only $79.
While I’m still using an old, unsupported version of Traktor, latest versions offer incredible possibilities, such as controlling files with real-world, physical hardware (think traditional turntables where specially ‘time-encoded’ 12 inches spin) or live remixing a track.
Also, when I’ve finished recording a DJ set I played, I often feel the need to enhance the recording, for instance by adding dynamic compression and fade-ins / fade-outs. For this, Audacity is my free tool of choice, maybe because it is a cross-platform software I used to deal with in my old Windows days. I really love its minimalist, non-eye-candy yet informative UI, where the most important thing is the waveform.
When It’s About Money
To track down my expenses and deal with my budget, I used to open and edit a specially hand-crafted Numbers document that I slowly enhanced over the years. However, I was more and more in need to write down and process my expenses as soon as I’ve made them. Doing it on the go with Numbers is a bit complicated.
So I searched for an iPad app and found MoneyWiz. When I discovered there also was a Mac app that is essentially a port of the iPad UI, I instantly adopted this tool. It’s only later on I discovered James wrote a great review of it that you should go read right now.
When It’s Time for Fun
QuickTime is OK, VLC much better. Two features make it a clear winner for me:
- Extensive codec support
- Dynamic compression that helps you to fix the sound of movies that are really quiet then really loud.
I don’t play video games as much as I did 5–6 years ago (and I’d rather use my Xbox 360 for this purpose). But there is a huge exception. Minecraft is the one and only game installed on my all my machines. I just love it. This is a real time sink though, and I’ve already spent countless hours building, crafting, destroying and re-imagining things in the so-called “survival mode”.
I don’t know if this is because I was a big fan of Lego when I was a child, but in my eyes this is the best game released on any platform. Ever. Period. Why? It is lightweight, has oldschool yet charming graphics that are simple enough to be supported by almost any machine, is a pleasure for your creativity, is endless (even ‘The End’ is not a real one), has a beautiful soundtrack, is in constant development, has a huge community, and is really cheap for all you get.
Some Crumbs for Those of You Still Hungry
Finally, I also run some other (sometimes widely used) apps like:
- 1Password (see for instance Joel’s article)
- Evernote (read Jorge’s review of version 5.0)
- Pixelmator (the new 2.2 Blueberry features are amazing!)
- iTerm 2
- and F.lux is my favorite among apps that help you tame your monitor at night.
What About You?
You’ve just had a sneak-peek at my world of OS X apps — and at the rest of our team’s apps through the other entries in our Apps we Use series. Please, let us enter your world in the comments!