Unsung Software

What are the least glamorous software tools for the Macintosh that you can’t live without? I’m not talking about the likes of Quicksilver, Adium or other high profile applications that, even if they don’t come from major league publishers, manage to get plenty of coverage already.

Rather, I’m talking about little known or little-discussed applications, widgets or utilities without which your productivity just plummets. I know that I’ve got a handful of these that I unequivocally must install on any Mac I use; I’m passionately dedicated to them. So it occurred to me the other day that lots of people probably have unsung favorites too; and by virtue of their modest dignity, I likely haven’t heard of them.


So really, this post is a way of polling readers for hidden gems that I might like myself. To get it started, here are a just few of mine; link to yours in the remarks area below.


First, there’s WordService from DEVONtechnologies. As a Service menu plug-in, it’s as unglamorous as it gets; it’s hidden, hard to reach and virtually devoid of any interface. Still, once you install it, you’ll be amazed at how it gives you the ability to perform a staggering number of incredibly handy text operations: straightening smart quotes (and vice versa), transforming cases, word counts, reforming broken paragraphs and more.


For those who work with several different Web browsers at once, IC-Switch allows you to switch default browsers — and mail programs, FTP clients, newsgroup readers and RSS aggregators, too — from a little menu tucked at the top of the screen. So if you’re testing work in, say, the thoroughly lovable but perpetually lagging OmniWeb for an afternoon, you can use IC-Switch to ensure that any time you click on a link in an email program the system will invoke OmniWeb rather than your normal default.


Again for users of multiple browsers: Everyday Software’s Bookit allows you to reflect your bookmarks identically across your entire complement of browsers. In conjunction with the much-maligned (by me) .Mac service, it makes it completely possible — if not yet sufficiently automatic — to have the same Internet bookmarks on all of your hardware and software.

Caveat Commentator

My capricious comment spam measures often dislike remarks loaded with more than two or so links, so you may find your comment getting routed to an approval queue, where they’ll remain until I can manually okay them. I’ll try and do that as quickly as I can. Also, you know you’ve got a thoroughly dysfunctional blogging environment when you have to write the kind of advanced disclaimer that I just did.

  1. MenuMeters. I absolutely cannot live without it — it’s the perfect way to keep track of CPU usage and network throughput. Change all the colors to black and it matches the rest of the OS X menubar items perfectly.

  2. I love Witch, the Command-Tab replacement by Peter Maurer. It not only lets you switch apps, but individual windows too. Also you can close, minimize and hide multiple windows with extreme ease. Looks great too. I can’t imagine going back to the original Command-Tab.

  3. For my aging PowerBook G4, Sidetrack. It’s so much better than mere two-finger scrolling on an MacBook, with the Expose trackpad hot corners — I actually use Expose all the time now. I hope there’s an Intel version when I finally upgrade my machine.
    For keeping tabs on vital signs, I prefer iStat Menus. Highly customizable, nicely designed. The only thing missing is the ability to set new temperature thresholds for the fans to engage, or the ability to engage them manually.

  4. I can’t live without ASM (application switcher menu), not for it’s main use (although I found it useful when I switched from OS9), but for its Classic Window Mode. I still dislike the default behaviour of OSX when you click on an application’s window and it only brings up the single window, not the whole application. I can see the use of this default behaviour if you want to compare say an email and a Word doc – but in most instances I find it confusing and messy. I use two screens, so maybe it feels worse in that instance.

  5. Default Folder It should be part of the finder. Easiest way to find and navigate to folders when you want to open or save.

    SnapNDrag Screen capture. Drag things out of SnapNDrag and into almost anything else. Not as featured as Skitch, but also a lot better looking.

    Overflow Ditch the dock.

    Tofu for reading long NYT articles (or anything else). Tofu is pure genius, and makes reading on screen bearable with narrow columns that move left to right like a newspaper.

  6. +1 for Witch. I also used Peter Maurer’s Butler for years until recently switching to Quicksilver (mostly to try integration with iGTD, I think I might go back). I’ve been waiting years for a good dual-pane file manager on OSX, and ForkLift is well on it’s way to fit that bill. DropCopy has been very useful in our office for easily sending files across a network when iChat chokes (often with proxies involved). And SynergyKM (synergy gui pref. pane for OSX) is great for sharing my iMac’s keyboard + mouse with my MacBook. (synergy gui pref. pane for OSX) is great for sharing my iMac’s keyboard + mouse with my MacBook. I could keep going, there’s SO much great OSX software out there. But if I had to pick one piece of software I couldn’t live without, it’d definitely be TextMate.

  7. Blue harvest, which stops your Mac creating .DS_Store files and resource forks over network connections – without it, managing files using a Mac for our website screws up our antiquated CMS – the cms picks up the resource fork rather than the actual file and throws a fit.

  8. I love productivity apps, for instance Isolator; a small app that hides all but your current active window.

    other productivity apps:
    VirtueDesktops and DigitalColor Meter (preinstalled on osx, but not very well known)

    Another handy shortcut app is mainmenu, which gives you direct access to a couple of essential system functions.

  9. I use RSSMenu for managing my RSS Feeds, it’s a simple menubar utility and it’s great.

    I’m curious how many people like to have menu bar apps running on their machine? Personally I love them and have a lot of them running, Twitterific, RSSMenu, Last.fm, Salling Clicker, Nokia Media Transfer, Growl, SoundSource, MenuMeters and more.

  10. I can’t do without Jumpcut – it’s a “clipboard buffer” that gives you quick access to recently copied items via a command key combination. (Quicksilver includes similar functionality, but I find Jumpcut cleaner and quicker.)

    Camouflage is handy too, if you’re too lazy to keep your Desktop neat and tidy, and want to hide all the icons until you need them.

  11. MagiCal is a replacement for the clock in the menu bar. It adds the date, a drop-down calendar, and support for fuzzy time (which, unexpectedly, I love). Lots of different options for displaying the time and date too.

  12. SoundConverter is the swiss army knife of audio encoding on OS X. Consisting of nothing more than a dropzone with two dropdown menus, this application can convert any audio format to any other format. It’s an indispensable tool for my audio work and really unfussy in design. I even paid for it 😉

    Let’s also not forget Handbrake, which made DVD ripping into a simple 3-click operation. Superb design.

  13. I’ve just had a quick look through my applications folder, and realised that as well as having a number of apps I can’t live without, there are a lot of tools [made up of mainly automator actions and applescripts] that make my Mac experience that much more pleasurable.

    Anyway, enough preamble. Here’s the list:

    CocoaZip: Drag a file [or many] to one side of the app, press the button in the middle, and drag your .zip off the other side to wherever you need it. Wonderful App.

    FuzzyClock: It’s made reading the time a lot easier, and made me a lot lazier. It displays time in regular language: for example, 9:05PM is displayed as “five past nine”.

    ScrobbledPod/iScrobbler: Updates my Last.FM profile from the menubar without having to run the Last.FM program in the dock.

    Combine PDFs: As expected, it lets you combine a number of PDF files into one PDF document. Very handy.

    Proximity: Allows you to assign applescripts that are triggered when a bluetooth device comes in/goes out of range of the computer.

    Geek Tool: Let’s you output various information such as logs, unix commands [I use it with osascript to output applescripts] or files to text areas that you can place anywhere.

    That’s the apps taken care of. I’ve also written a few Applescripts for various things.

    I’ve written a couple for Proximity that change Adium status, toggle the screensaver, and pause/unpause itunes.

    I also have two scripts that run under GeekTool on either side of the dock, one displaying what iTunes is playing at the moment and one that parses an XML file to tell me how much of my internet download allowance is left for the month.

  14. I am a fan of Skitch for quick screen grabs and annotations that I can easily upload to Flickr (or other resources) or drag into any other application (or folder). I also am hooked on MailTags for tagging all mail with context, integration with iGTD, and adding projects to mail (to weaken my reliance on Entourage that is now a slow beast).

  15. I use Hex Picker so often I forget it’s not part of the default OS X. I am a UI designer, and use it a lot to use hex colors from style sheets in Omni Graffle mock-ups.

    I also second the mention of JumpCut which I use constantly.

  16. I have to place my vote for QuickImage CM, a contextual menu similar to WordService, but for images. Convert formats on-the-fly, add thumbnail icons to an entire folder and even batch rename, all from the right+click.

  17. Great post idea! I’ve been looking for something like Bookit!

    My contribution is OMiC by Restoroot. The basic description is it takes those pesky Microsoft Outlook winmail.dat files in Apple Mail and converts them to something iCal and Address Book can use.

  18. Whilst on the subject of great pieces of Mac software, does anyone have any recommendations for personal finance/budgeting software? Been using Excel for 6 months but it feels like a manual process and was hoping there would be a cool utility to help me along!

  19. Hazel is a great way to automate what happens to files in specified folders. I use it to label and sort my files based on when I put them somewhere, and whether or not I’ve opened it, like Ethan. Be careful, it’s a powerful one, you’ve been warned.

  20. I thought Quicksilver was a great app, but I can’t leave Overflow. The ability to create different sets of commonly used apps and switch between them is really nice, as well as linking to frequently accessed folders. Quicksilver is probably, well, quicker at these things, but…

    Oh, and CODA rocks, obviously.

  21. I wrote Jumpcut, so I’ll skip that (but thank you, Jack and Brad) — I get a ton of use out of The Unarchiver, a drop-in replacement for OS X’s “BOMAHelper” that lets you double-click on a wide variety of compressed files to open them. The open-source Footagehead is an image browser that also works on CBR and CBZ files for reading comic books and the like obtained online.

  22. sm9: You might want to start with this post that I wrote about replacing Quicken. There are some good suggestions there for personal finance software, but to be honest even my favorite, iBank, doesn’t really knock it out of the park when it comes to budgets.

    Joey: Ack, you got me. BlockWriter is the victim of there being too few hours in the day. A few developers have tried to get me jump started with it, offering to collaborate. But I’ve been too preoccupied (or too lame) to really move on it. Besides, WriteRoom does a great job with the same basic concept.

  23. I’m surprised that there’s no mention yet of Xscope.

    For magnifying and picking the color of any pixel on the screen, the loupe tool alone is worth the very modest price. You also get rulers, frames, guides and cursor coordinate crosshairs tools that can be used anywhere on the screen. Very handy.

  24. My must-haves are lifesaving performance-related utilities. I work on a Quicksilver G4 at work, which can become arduously slow after a while. Macjanitor is a killer app for me, and incredibly fast compared to other apps that do the same thing. Onyx is wonderful for system settings that aren’t accessible otherwise, and doing a full scrubbing of every single temporary file when things start to get really hairy.

    At home, where I work on a 20″ iMac (which is considerably faster than the G4) I absolutely can’t live without MenuMeters. I am obsessed with monitoring resources, especially on a multi-core machine. Unfortunately, the G4 is so slow that MenuMeters takes up resources I can’t afford to give up.

    Another unsung hero that I use on a semi-regular basis is the Flight Tracker widget. It is better and more accurate than even the airlines themselves.

  25. Wow, some great stuff!

    I’ve become a fan of SimplifyMedia of late. It allows you to publish (stream) an iTunes Library to a select group of people over the Internet. (I’m user “zuhl” if you want to add me :-])

    I use it on my home machine, so I can listen to my work machine’s much larger iTunes Library. Very slick stuff.

    And Mojo is also very clever, though a bit more “insidious” since it allows you to actually copy/download the files from the other machine.

  26. I don’t use it constantly, but when I need a bunch of screen shots fast (and for me that means automatic naming of the resulting files and simple key combos) I use SnapClip (http://www.pixture.com). There are other apps out there that do this, but this is my favorite.

    Another useful app I use is Paparazzi! This is also for screen grabs, but actually grabs entire pages, even when they’re long.

    Then there’s BBEdit. I’ve tried to find a replacement a few times, but nothing beats this one for me.

  27. I am a fan of Skitch for quick screen grabs and annotations that I can easily upload to Flickr (or other resources) or drag into any other application (or folder). I also am hooked on MailTags for tagging all mail with context, integration with iGTD, and adding projects to mail (to weaken my reliance on Entourage that is now a slow beast).

  28. ecto is a great tool for anyone who contributes to multiple blogs. Everything you need to author the blogs in one place.

    Another thumbs up for Writeroom even though I’m partial to earlier versions of the software where they provided even fewer features (less is more Writeroom! That’s why you’re here!) It lets me concentrate on what I’m writing with nothing else to distract.

  29. Khoi, thanks for pointing me towards that previous finance post, some interesting suggestions there. I’ve looked at a few of them and am currently checking out iBank in detail – my first impressions are that I quite like it! Thanks.

  30. I used Bookit for a long time as well and loved it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t create the same folder structure in all browsers…so if you have a bookmark in a folder that’s present in your default browser but it’s not present in your other browsers, you have to manually create that folder and then drag it into place. So I switched to Bookdog. It automates the entire process. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the simplicity and polish of Bookit which I miss.

  31. Why use an app like Bookit over something like del.icio.us? That way you have access to your bookmarks on any computer in any browser.

  32. Automator workflow in my context menu for multiple file renaming.
    Absolutely amazing stuff like search and replace in file names.
    Excellent work apple, I miss it so much in windows

  33. Sleep Display. For those times when I’m sitting at my desk working with a pen or reading something out of a book and I’d rather not have a giant monitor glowing in my face, this great little application instantly puts the display to sleep while leaving the rest of the computer running, playing iTunes, or whatever. It’ll decrease your stress level by 100%.

  34. I can’t live without 1Passwd. I finally have all my passwords under control. They’re all unique and strong. No longer do I use one for multiple sites. They sync via .Mac as well. Great app!

  35. The one thing I can’t live without is Refresh Finder. It drives me nuts when I make changes to a document, and the Finder’s last modified date remains unchanged until I click on the file. Now at least I can click the “refresh” button and all the windows are updated. I don’t understand why something so basic that worked perfectly in OS 9 is so completely broken in OS X.

  36. Windows user here: I’ve just discovered PureText, a tray and hotkey application that STRIPS RICH TEXT FORMATTING OUT OF THE CLIPBOARD!

    Apologies for the caps, but anyone who’s ever had to copy and paste text from a Microsoft document into a content management system will know exactly why I’m excited.

  37. I cannot function without Stickies (the app, not the widget). Sure it hasnt changed substantially since System 7.5, but im okay with that. Its either Stickies, or litter my workspace with throwaway scraps of paper, which is my normal mode of operation. At least this way i can automatically sort them by date and color.

  38. Just found SizzlingKeys the other day for controlling iTunes via keystokes. Love it! I can now skip, pause, see what’s playing without leaving my current app to fiddle with iTunes. It even opens iTunes and starts playing music with one keystroke combo. My productivity just went up a few notches.

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