Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Cool Tools - Time and Sanity Saving Utilities

Despite being part of the Mac world for only a couple of years, I seem to have accumulated an awful lot of software, both on my laptops and desktop machines. Some of this software is standard order - MS-Office, iWork 09 and iLife 09, but it speaks volumes for the Mac community that much of what I have acquired, both freeware, shareware and fully commercial software is used on an almost daily basis.

I guess the same was true during my PC days, but somehow the Mac provides a much more integrated environment in which software packages, tools and utilities work to enhance the overall computing experience, both for business and pleasure.

In this blog entry I want to share a few of my favourite utilities. These are the little things that make such a difference and stop me from pulling out my hair during the course of the working day. They're not in any order as that would be fairly meaningless. However all the tools described here are currently compatible with both Leopard and Snow Leopard.

First up is TigerLaunch, a utility that allows me to launch applications from an icon on the menu bar. TigerLaunch is configurable - so you can select which applications live in the list. That means that you don't need to add applications that are already accessible from the dock, avoiding redundancy and making the TigerLaunch list a bit more manageable.

My favourite two dock utilities are DockSpaces and Docker. Docker lets me change the appearance of the dock without being over complicated, so I'll not dwell on it here other than to say that I prefer a number of tools each performing a dedicated task well rather than a single tool that does a few tasks but without so much aplomb. Docker falls into this category in preference to an all rounder like TinkerTool. DockSpaces finds a home on both my iMac and MBP for slightly different reasons. This real handy little tool allows you to have multiple dock configurations which are switchable without restarting the machine. On a mobile device this allows me to switch between a desktop type configuration and a mobile one, whilst on the iMac I have different docks depending on whether I'm writing, doing project work or working in a web development environment.

Being able to switch environments is very important to me, and I use Spaces a lot, with 4 to 6 virtual screens set up depending on which device I'm using. I do get lost however which is why my next utility, Hyperspaces is so useful. Hyperspaces extends the standard Spaces metaphor, allowing you to name spaces and set different desktop backgrounds for each space thereby giving you a visual clue as to which space you are currently operating in.

As a longtime PC user, one of the visual clues that I miss the most is the disk activity light which is standard hardware on most machines. Of course, Macs don't hang in quite the same way as PC's, but there is something reassuring about a light flashing when there is no other indication of what's going on. DiskSpy provides a software solution for Mac users, by displaying a small animated icon in the menu bar showing hard disk read and write activity. The author provides a number of alternative icons to suit your specific requirements. It's possible to change the sensitivity of the display - more sensitivity will increase the CPU usage though. Clearly, a software solution will never be as good as a wired LED, but it's certainly better than nothing.

Still on the visual theme, ScreenSharingMenulet is my last tool for this blog entry. This is another menu bar utility which provides easy access to screen shares across your local network (or beyond possibly). Although it's easy enough to start screen sharing through Finder this tool overcame some of the problems I've been having with my screen sharing antics between my iMac and MBP.

That rounds up this batch of utilities and tools that I use on a day to day basis. For just a few pounds (most of these are free) my work and play time on the computer is made much easier. Not for the the first time in this blog, I salute the developers for their innovation and enthusiasm in making the Mac experience that little bit richer than it already is.

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