Three App Categories That Truly Improve Mac OS X

This post is part of a series that revisits some of our readers’ favorite articles from the past that still contain awesome and relevant information that you might find useful. This post was originally published on September 9th, 2011

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.

screenshot

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.

screenshot

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!

screenshot

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?


  • http://www.perezfox.com Prescott Perez-Fox

    This post should be titled “Things that should be built into the bloody OS already!” or perhaps “if they stole desktop widgets in 2003, what are they waiting for?”

    • abramelin

      Ha Ha! Yes, very true. :-) Spot on post Perez.

      • abramelin

        Sorry – I meant Prescott!

    • Ansatz

      Why? Why would it matter if it were native or third party? For something like notifications it is logical for Apple to bake it right into the OS since it means Apple can provide hooks for most standard software to take advantage of. Same thing for iCloud. What advantage does something like a text expander or clipboard manager stand to benefit from being integrated into the OS? It’s not as if a text expander needs hooks for other apps to reference since, by design, it runs in the background and works in all environments all the time. Considering this, and the fact that Apple likely won’t dedicate the kind of time and attention to these minor features like a smaller 1 app software company, wouldn’t we all stand to benefit from better, more well thought out and feature rich programs if we continue to let third party developers build these relatively niche apps?

      Prescott, I’ve seen you post often enough to realize you are the type of person that just says the first thing that comes to mind, without thinking about it before hand. Why are you the way you are and what will it take to get you to join the rest of our reasonable and considerate society?

  • http://www.ziel-orientiert.de Nils

    Nice article!

    In the list of Clipboard Managers I’m missing PTHPasteboard PRO. I use it since 2008 and I’m very satisfied with the great funcionality.

  • http://khanhlnq.com Khanh Le

    Alfread already have build-in Clipboard Manager

    • Grazon

      Was going to say that myself. I use the exact same things in this post, all except the clipboard app which I just use the built in one that’s in Alfred.

    • http://classyllama.com Kevin

      I used ClipMenu for clipboard management and Snippet for snippet keeping until Alfred came out — now I use Alfred for both!

  • Kali

    By the way, Quicksilver lives!

    web: qsapp.com
    blog: lovequicksilver.com

  • http://brajeshwar.com Brajeshwar

    ClipMenu is awesome and so is TextExpander. However, I switched to Spotlight for my launcher. With huge improvements in Spotlight since Snow Leopard, it served the purpose very well.

  • Yang Quiong

    What about ClipMorpher? It’s free and freely configurable with regular expressions!

  • Leonard

    You are missing the popular Clipboard History. I found it in LifeHacker. It is all I use.

  • Sigilist

    Much as I can appreciate being able to search for something I’ve forgotten where it is (rarely), Quicksilver lacks one major thing… and so do most replacements. Getting organization. Nothing beats an access to what you want WHERE you want it. A surgeon, mechanic, artist… or child at play… only wants to search for what it can’t find if and when it has failed to put it some place that is right where it should be when the moment comes to need it right now. This is what the Mac has lacked more and more it is “have it the Apple way.” I’m not a fan of flip screen menu system as found in Android and now Lion, but at least one can get organized… that’s the only way to speed and efficiency… a menu approach where one chooses how to organize what one needs vs letting a developer decide what I do and do not need in any dimension of an OS or Environment. And it seems like even in recommendations here, its more of the same, even in the alternatives to Quicksilver.

  • Frederiko

    Stuf is really interesting for its ability to share clipboards with windows users. Very useful in a collaborative environment. I am definitely going to have to try it out. Great website, I check it out often … how about an abuse button so we can get rid of the riff raff.

  • http://www.etc.io E.T.Cook

    It’s worth mentioning that Launchbar has a built in clipboard manager as well.

    • Joe

      Yes. I use it all the time.

  • Melwan

    Alfred is very nice, but why not just use Spotlight?

    • http://www.stygyan.es rau

      Not the same at all, believe me. With Spotlight you can 1) find things, 2) open things.

      With Alfred you can open close apps, shutdown and restart the computer, eject drives, access a clipboard manager, search over the internet using several engines, empty the trash or even – and i love this – play random albums on iTunes. It’s far more powerful and useful than Spotlight. So much I bought the Pro version in days.

  • http://www.thriftmac.com Scrimpy

    I’ve been using text substitution in the Language and Text system preference as a text expander of sorts. The email# example works just as well.

  • http://www.thriftmac.com Scrimpy

    I’ve been using text substitution in the Language & Text system preference as a text expander of sorts. I was, for example, able to set up the email# example cited in the article. I’m sure it’s not as sophisticated as TextExpander, but it’s still a good built-in alternative.

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  • Mackley

    ClipMenu and Afred are very useful !

  • Tim

    DragThing is the best launcher on any platform. Mac OS 8, 9 and X. I have owned a copy since 1997 and using a computer without it is annoying. Does a lot more than just launch stuff, too.

    • Tim

      I concur! :)

  • http://isgreat.co.tv farhanito

    iUse Keyboard Maestro for all those 3 categories..
    plus a lot more..

  • Paul C. Jones

    Buyers, be aware: The more you pimp up the system with system “enhancement” add-ons, the more trouble you will likely run into. That’s the fact regardless of whether you like it or not.

    I used to run several of the utilities listed here. I removed all of them since then. The result: Far less apps to learn, get used to and tinker with, far less apps to troubleshoot and setup workarounds, and far more productive and focused on what really matters. All the potential loss of efficiency is more than made up by having a simple system that actually spend all CPU time doing something useful and get out of my face. The way it should be.

  • Havarti

    Application Wizard ($19) is a very nice little launcher that I’ve been using for years.

  • Kim

    I think that Copypaste is an excellent clipboard manager

  • Nathan

    Alfred should actually be in all three categories. It’s a great launcher, but with the powerpack, it’s a great clipboard manager too, and you can set up snippets to make it a pretty good text expander.

  • Kristan

    I’d just like to throw in a recommendation for Automaton.. an app that I don’t see getting so many props.

    It has four “modules” in it that basically cover all of the functionality of..

    ClipMenu
    Hazel
    Text Expander
    Notational Velocity

    … for the cost of one app. No real eye-candy, but just works and lots of options for customization. Well worth a check.

  • http://www.ecrvvgnux.info ecrvanux

    Alfred should actually be in all three categories. It’s a great launcher, but with the powerpack, it’s a great clipboard manager too, and you can set up snippets to make it a pretty good text expander.

  • http://www.aeronaves.org Aeronaves

    The result: Far less apps to learn, get used to and tinker with, far less apps to troubleshoot and setup workarounds, and far more productive and focused on what really matters.

  • Sebastian

    I like your article. Any opinion on password management apps for osx?

    • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

      Personally, I don’t think you can do better than 1Password. It may be expensive, but I don’t know how I’d live without it. It integrates perfectly with all major browsers, syncs via Dropbox so you can get your passwords from the web on any computer, and there’s even a PC version to use your passwords on Windows. I’m a very satisfied customer, having purchased its iOS, Windows, and Mac version (twice: once in a bundle, then in the App Store).

      • Joe

        I second that. 1PW is the best password manager on the market today. Bar none.

      • iyyy69

        I also second LastPassword. I’ve been using 1Password for a few months, and have recommended it to friends and family. However, I think it’s unfortunate it’s so expensive (especially when you add in the iOS app as well)… If they significantly reduced the price, I think they could easily make up for it over time in increased sales.

        I also tried LastPassword which is very popular (and way cheaper) – personally I found it less intuitive to set up my logins, but it certainly has a lot of fans and is definitely worth checking out as well.

      • iyyy69

        Whoops, I meant “I also second 1Password.”

  • Peter Knights

    I’ve been using KeePassX on my MacBookPro and iMac
    KeePass on WindowsPC
    Kypass on iPad

    All read the same encrypted file ( .kdb ) containing my passwords in DropBox
    KeePass and DropBox being free of charge.

  • http://www.skaremedia.com Chris

    One app to rule them all: iClip. Easily the best clipboard app out there, and my most used app of all time.

  • Bram Heerink

    I wonder if all people who have a response like ‘the best {insert subject} app out there’ really did test everything there is on the market.

  • http://www.stygyan.es Rau

    Just so you know, Alfred has an inbuilt clipboard manager. To access it, call Alfred and type “clip”. A list of the latest 15 or 20 things you copied will appear there.

  • Luis Martins

    Quicksilver still lives, is actively developed by many devs, and it still, in my view, the best launcher out there. And I own several of them, including launchbar and Alfred with power pack.

    • Tim Brown

      What makes it so much better than Alfred and Launchbar? I also own them all, but am currently using Alfred.

  • sea

    thankyou for such a helpful post. I have dl all 3 of your suggestions.
    really appreciated.

  • Theron

    They sound like they members of a failing rival blogsite.

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