by John D. Muccigrosso
I was intending to write a reply to this Profhacker post by Ryan Cordell, Organize Your Mac’s Windows on the Fly with Magnet, before break, but then my laptop starting acting wonky and I got a loaner while it was being checked out. Turns out I needed a new laptop completely (after 6 great years with the last one), and of course the shipment arrived the first day of winter break, so I had to wait a while. As a result though, I got to live with a new (to me) machine for a few weeks and was forced to do some installations in order to have it work the way I like.
In other words, it was great prep for answering the post.
The must urgent things I couldn’t do without were productivity utilities, though there were a few “work” apps in there as well. In the spirit of Ryan’s piece, I’m going to stick to the former group here.
Spark - This is my keyboard-shortcut app. It’s made by ShadowLab and available as donation-ware. I use it to assign keyboard shortcuts for app and script launches. For example, since I’ve set my function keys to work as “standard function keys,” as Apple calls it in the Pref Pane, meaning that in order to use their special functions, like changing the screen brightness or the volume, you have to hold the function key down at the same time, I use Spark to assign applications to them. F6 launches Safari (or, if it’s already running, switches to it). F1 is Mail. And so on.
Spark can also run AppleScripts, control some system features, insert text, do some basic stuff with documents and folders (I have a shortcut to open my Favorites folder), and control iTunes, so it’s fairly handy and I don’t use a lot of its functionality, to be honest.
Along with basic system functionality, like command-tabbing to switch apps (first seen on some ancient version of Windows, I think), it lets me stay on the keyboard. Not that I don’t like the trackpad or mouse! There are a number of alternative products that do the same thing, more or less, but this works well for me.
Changes Meter - This app lives in the menu bar and periodically checks websites for changes. You can set the frequency for checks and the degree of change that sets off a notification. I use this for websites where I don’t have other means of finding out about updates (like RSS or an email subscription). For example, the sites in my list include a few journal websites, so I know when new issues come out; xkcd; and a few applications that aren’t in the App Store, so I know when I can update. The app puts a vertical bar in the menu bar. It turns green when there’s a site update and red when there’s been an error.
ControlPlane - This utility looks at a bunch of “evidence sources” to try to figure out where you are, and then makes changes to your computer’s configuration based on that location. You tell it what sources to look at, what the probability is that you’re at a particular location given what that source says, and then what rules to apply based on which location you appear to be at.
For example, you might tell it that when your wifi network is “Home wifi”, you are definitely at home, and that it should launch your favorite news website on your browser. Or that when you’ve got an ethernet cable and external monitor plugged in, you’re at the office and it should open your mail and calendar apps. The last post on the site suggests that ControlPlane may be heading towards oblivion, but it still works well for me and is very handy as I move around from home to my office to campus classrooms.
QuickSilver - This is a find utility like SpotLight, but it does much more. Instead of just letting you find files and open them, QS can do other things with the objects it finds (e.g., Get info…), and has a large number of plugins that expand its capabilities. The big one for me is the clipboard shelf, which remembers and allows you to access the last X things you copied to the clipboard. Why this isn’t standard in the OS is a mystery to me. Another plugin lets you permanently store items to insert into your current environment. These work well as an alternative or addition to TextExpander items, though they’re not keyboard activated in the same way. It also has app shortcuts (called Triggers), but these didn’t work so well for me last time I tried them. Maybe it’s time to give them another shot.
I do use other utilities (like TextExpander), but these four are the major ones that make me feel at home on my Mac.
Edit on 15 January 2018: added Changes Metertags: Mac