Five Quietly-Good Apps from the Mac App Store

With thousands of apps on the Mac App Store, there’s bound to be some hidden treasures. Unfortunately, there are also plenty of apps that are just containers for sales pitches or overly designed slideshows of real estate. There are a lot of apps that, quite simply, don’t belong on the Mac, and the quantity of those apps makes it difficult to uncover the true gems.

For this roundup, I searched the Mac App Store for solid-looking apps that hadn’t received enough ratings for Apple to give it an average score. I didn’t limit myself to one category. I just looked for apps that seemed to know what they were doing, despite not having an audience to do it to. I think I found some real treasures.

FocusBar

I emailed a developer friend recently, asking for an app that would cure my multitasking habit, a habit that was actually a symptom of my procrastination (’cause if you’re busy with everything, you’re working on nothing). I wanted an app that would bug me once in a while with a reminder to stay on task. It couldn’t be too annoying, because that would ruin whatever focus I happened to have, but it also couldn’t be too passive, otherwise, I’d ignore it as easily as I ignored everything else. Additionally, I said, the app had to look good and feel right.

Being a sensible individual, my developer friend asked me how much I was willing to pay him to build such an app. What he should have said was, “Go spend 99¢ on FocusBar.”

Developed by Macoscope, FocusBar is exactly what I was looking for. It’s comprised of a single, beautifully drawn, tastefully animated bar that subtly appears on your screen every thirty seconds or so to remind you what to focus on. It also shows up whenever you switch applications, as if to say, “Wait a second? Shouldn’t you be working on this instead?”

FocusBar's nudging little...focus bar.

FocusBar is not a To-Do List manager. It has no list capabilities. At the start of your activity, you type the name of your task into FocusBar, and at the end of your activity, you tell it you’re done. It’s simple, it’s beautiful, and it’s only 99¢.

My only complaint is that there’s no emotional satisfaction that comes from completing a task: no box to check off, no words to strike a line through, no icon to turn into a puff of smoke. It’s not a big deal, but it would provide a nice catharsis.

Price: $0.99
Requires: Mac OS X 10.6
Developer: Macoscope

CleanShot

If you’re a blogger (or an AppStorm writer), then you know it can be a pain in the butt to prepare your desktop for a screenshot that you want to share with the world. You have to worry about the little menu items on the right side of your menubar, the clutter of windows spread across your desktop, and (depending on your needs) the clock in the menubar revealing that you’re taking the screenshot just five minutes prior to your deadline. Of course, there’s also your screen size to worry about (if you’re the kind of person who takes frequent screenshots, there’s a good chance your resolution is set higher than the average user).

Enter CleanShot, by Media Atelier. Like many screenshot apps, CleanShot removes from the desktop everything that isn’t your focused app, and it comes with the option to replace your normal desktop background with any image you choose.

It has a few unique features too. First, it removes all the geeky menubar items from the right side of the screen, giving you the option to leave on the battery and Airport icons (these are actually fake icons that show a 100% full battery and a 100% full wireless signal). It also lets you set the clock for whenever you want, so if you’re taking screenshots at an ungodly hour like 3:17 AM, you can change it to a more sane 10:23 AM (again, this is a fake clock, not a real one).

Lastly, CleanShot overlays a grid of resolution sizes atop your screen, helping you decide just how big you want your screenshot to be.

Note the position of the clock

If you look closely at the screenshot above, you’ll see that CleanShot even moves the fake clock and menubar items to the edge of your chosen size, ensuring that the viewer thinks they’re seeing everything there is to see. It’s a nice touch.

My one complaint is that there didn’t seem to be a keyboard combination to bring it up, which means you have to find the icon every time you want it to launch. You could always use your System Preferences to set your own keyboard combo, but still, it’d be nice if it were part of the app.

Price: $4.99
Requires: Mac OS X 10.6
Developer: Media Atelier

MealPlanner

Every morning, right about the time I’m finishing my first cup of coffee, I get a phone call from my wife, asking me what I want for supper. I absolutely hate these phone calls, as does my wife. It’s too early for me to think about lunch, let alone dinner, but because of how busy her day typically is, it’s the only time she has available to talk about it. If we could excise this daily conversation from our lives, I think my wife and I would argue even less than Mike and Carol Brady.

MealPlanner aims to save our marriage, and all the marriages like it. MealPlanner combines a calendar app with a recipe box to give you a one-stop shop for your family’s meal planning needs.

Don't worry. The fonts are customizable.

I’m not going to lie to you. MealPlanner is rough around the edges: the developer’s default font-choices are poor (but customizable) and the process of adding a meal to your library is too mechanical (each step in the process slides open a new, fixed-width sheet). But most of the issues crop up when you’re just getting started. Once you’ve added the stable of your family’s usual meals to its library, you never have to add them again. All you do is drag and drop them to the various days you want to make them, and you’re good to go.

Along with setting up your weekly menu, MealPlanner collects all the ingredients for the meals into a single, printable grocery list. After sitting down with your spouse to plan out the week, you can generate a grocery list and head to the store.

I don’t think the current version of the app is worth its price, but it’s cheaper than a marriage counselor.

Price: $12.99
Requires: Mac OS X 10.6
Developer: Mohd Aika Abdullah

Quiet

There is no dearth of “focus” apps on the Mac App Store. It seems everybody and their mother has put together some slices of code that will darken your screen, highlight a window, or hide your other apps.

But what makes Quiet different is two fold: first, it gives you the option to not only drop a black curtain over your other windows or to hide them beneath your desktop, but it also gives you the option to blur out everything but your app of focus.

"Focus Out" takes a lot of oomph, but it's a nice effect.

Granted, it takes “a powerful Mac” (as the developers say in the preferences) to have the blurring effect not crush your computer’s response time, but even on my four-year-old Mac mini, I could live with the effect without too much hassle.

The second thing that makes Quiet different is that the app will quiet down all the other distracting apps on your machine. It hides your dock, so you’re not bothered by badges. It quiets Growl notifications from popping up to disturb you. It silences iChat, Adium, Skype, and Mail. It even changes your IM status, so people know not to bug you (the default status is “I’m in The Zone,” but you can change that if you like).

I’ve used several apps in the “focus” category, and Quiet seems to be one of the better ones.

Price: $3.99
Requires: Mac OS X 10.6
Developer: WireLoad

Dynamic Light

You know how everyone loves that Instagram gives you a dead simple way to not only share your photos with the world, but more importantly, and more fun, to tweak your photos so they come out interesting?

Dynamic Light is kind of like that. It is basically a collection of pre-developed filters that you can apply to your photos to give them that “HDR look” (for those who aren’t photographically inclined, HDR provides a greater degree of luminance in your photos, giving the lighting effects a more accurate feel — or so says Wikipedia).

A non-standard, but still easy to use UI

As you can see above, Dynamic Light uses a nonstandard interface for a Mac app. I’m not 100% sure what the metaphor is they’re going for, but it reminds of a HAM radio. How an old-timey radio fits in with a photo-filtering application is beyond me, but the simplicity of the app saves the UI from being too distracting.

Basically, you either drag an image right into the main area of the app or you click the load button to bring up your file browser. Then you start playing.

While you can tweak the two dials below the main image and adjust the angle of the light source, most people will probably just click the “Effects” button and go from there. Dynamic Light includes 23 pre-set filters, from simple ones such as Black & White to more stylized ones such as Old Photo. The filters are different enough to make them fun to go through, yet similar enough that they obviously belong to the same app. Kind of like Instagram.

Price: $5.99
Requires: Mac OS X 10.5
Developer: Mediachance

Final Thoughts

I downloaded and tested several different apps before settling on these five. Despite Apple’s control over who gets into the store, there’s obviously a lot of junk in there, and people have to be careful with what they choose to purchase and install.

But don’t let the fact that you haven’t heard of a certain developer get in the way of your app adventures. While two of these five appps (MealPlanner and Dynamic Light) don’t offer the same polish as Apple-designed apps and one of the apps (MealPlanner) is priced a bit steeper than it might deserve, all five of the apps provide solutions that might speak to your needs. There’s hundreds of more quietly good apps out there. The trick is to be open to them.

Leave a comment below and tell us about the hidden gems that you’ve found in the App Store. Which apps do you use that you’ve never heard discussed anywhere?


  • http://formspring.me/snazyfizzy Jay

    Great article :) Haven’t heard of any of this apps before

    Going to check all these apps out

  • Colin

    Yep, same as Jay – I haven’t heard of any of these apps before and off to check them out.

    Have to add though – the key problem with the app store is there is no shite filter. In the old apple site at least you could download a trial to see if an app was going to meet your needs without coughing out the cash. Therefore there are two consequences – firstly I don;t bother too much with the app store anymore and secondly it makes sites like appstorm invaluable to noobies like me.

  • Micky

    I recommend Translator+. I always want such simple translation tool.
    Select a word, hover your mouse over a icon and you get the translation instantly.
    Highly recommended.
    http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/translator/id445180990?mt=12

  • Luis

    Wow, a wife that actually cooks dinner. I wish there was an app I could install on my wife to make her actually cook.

  • sracer

    MediaChance is the developer of Windows-based apps Multimedia Builder (MMB) and RealDraw. I am excite to see them develop apps for OSX because their products are genuinely innovative. They never got the attention they deserved…

    Thanks for bringing “Dynamic Light” to my attention… I’ll definitely check it out.

    Disclaimer: I don’t have any connection with MediaChance other than as a customer 12+ years ago.

  • http://thomasbaart.nl Thomas Baart

    Focusbar, Cleanshot and Quiet seem really handy and effective, all while being quite cheap. I’ll definitely download them, thanks for the recommendations! :)

  • http://about.me/sgonzaga Stephanie

    I’m keeping an eye out for Quiet. Having an app that could black or blur out all the noise on my desktop would really help me concentrate.

    • Xia

      You should try Isolator, which is free and you got almost everything Quiet has.

  • Kristan

    How much time should people spend choosing an app that helps them focus on getting important work done?

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