Parallel Desktops

My critical applications 5 months after switching

It’s now been 5 months since I switched to Mac, time to update the list of Mac applications I use regularly and have found invaluable for me. My list has changed over time as applications have fallen in and out of favor and the tasks I have done with my Macs have changed. I’ve done this a couple times before so you can see how the list has changed.

When I sat down to write this article I outlined the applications I use frequently and Quicksilver was not even on the list, yet here it is at the very top. Why is that? One of the phrases that is referenced by Quicksilver is "Wei Wu Wei—Act Without Doing". Quicksilver has become an intrinsic part of my workflow, so much so that I don’t even notice it is there.

Though I use it primarily as an application launcher much like I used to use Spotlight I have become quite addicted to Quicksilver’s snappy user interface. The potential for automating tasks and accessing files with Quicksilver is quite extensive and I feel like I’m just scratching the surface with it. The plug-ins are also interesting—especially the Clipboard plug-in—which allows you to see that last 10 (user definable) items copied to the clipboard.

One bit of caution with Quicksilver: it can be overwhelming if you are new to Macs. If you’ve just switched you are better off working with Spotlight for at least a month or two before branching out with Quicksilver. I tried using it when I first got my Mac and was unimpressed—it seemed so complicated. I didn’t appreciate the value of it until my second attempt at using it, once I had become comfortable with my Mac.

I’m still playing with Firefox and given that I spend so much time in a web browser it’s not surprising that this ranks so highly. I still like Safari as a web browser, though Firefox 3 has proven to be a worthy competitor. I haven’t played with the Firefox Add-ins since Firefox was my default browser on the Windows platform so I’m looking forward to rediscovering the Firefox add-in market in the near future.

As I mentioned before, Firefox 3.0 is a really nice release and if you tried it in the past but bailed out on it like I have you may want to try it out again.

I would be lost without 1Password. It makes it so much easier to keep track of the web sites I have accounts on, remembering my passwords for me. I also use the wallet feature to keep important information locked up on my machine like credit card information (so that I don’t have to run off and grab my wallet) and standard contact information, making completing address forms very easy.

Though not really application in the traditional sense I have really begun to appreciate the power of the command line interface with the OS X terminal. The seamless copying and pasting between OS X applications and the command line interface make it easy to work with. The multi-tab support means I can have several BASH shells running at the same time in one compact window so that I can move between them very easily.

Having recently moved to Ruby on Rails as my web development platform I’ve found myself spending a lot of time in a terminal window. It is so much more powerful than the DOS command line I used to use it’s not even in the same league.

When I left Windows for Mac I knew one of my highest priorities was going to be finding a replacement for my beloved UltraEdit text editor. Textmate was highly recommended by a number of people and since I planned on writing code with it there was no question that this was the editor to choose. What makes Textmate special is it’s ability to add functionality with "bundles", a series of commands and macros that can be tied to a file type, effectively turning Textmate into a specialized editor. The Rails bundle that I am using has been a huge help in writing code and the Git bundle makes version control painfully simple.

I’ve gone back and forth on using Mail to connect to my Gmail accounts and lately I’m back to using it again. Gmail’s IMAP interface seems to have improved, though every once in a while it acts up and loses it’s connection, requiring that I restart Other than that little challenge I’ve found Mail to be a nice, light application for sending and receiving e-mail.

iStat menu
If I’m using a Mac without iStat menu I feel that I’m driving a car without a dashboard cluster. On my MacBook iStat helped me understand which applications were pegging the CPU. On my Mac Pro I used iStat to see what kind of network activity was going on in the background. On my MacBook Pro I used iStat to help me keep an eye on the temperature of my CPU and the speed of my CPU fan. There are other applications that can handle this but nothing is as simple, clean and easy as iStat menu.

Though I do still struggle with it at times I’ve come to appreciate iPhoto and have moved all of my digital photos over to it. iPhoto is fine for doing the kind of minor edits I generally need with my photos: cropping, straightening, large scale adjustments and red-eye removal. I’ve used it to create a great slide show for my wife, tracking each of our kids as they grew up over the years.

The Ken Burns effect is excellent, adding a real sense of motion and drama to photos. About the only problem I had with it was that if used automatically it would occasionally use the effect to hone in on an inappropriate portion of the photo. Occasionally the focal point of the photo would be a part of the anatomy you don’t necessarily want zoomed in on, especially when it’s photos of your children as they mature. Needless to say I often had to take over manually and that can be rather time consuming.

Other than this little nit I’ve found iPhoto to be very serviceable for my needs.

When I bought my MacBook Pro I decided to purchase a copy of iWork as well since I was able to leverage the educational discount. I used the trial for Microsoft Office for a pretty long time and had started to get used to it but the application seemed too sluggish to me. Not that MS Office is all that bad but after using each for a period of time iWork seemed much cleaner to me. The UI is uncomplicated and I haven’t had a problem finding anything that I need.

Since I’m no longer using trial versions and have made the plunge on iWork—spending actual $ to get it—I expect that I will find ways to make it work in every situation. In the event that someone sends me a file that I cannot view in iPages I expect that I will simply berate them for using a non-standard file format, much as I had been berated for doing the same thing in the past. I rarely push word processors, spreadsheets or presentation software very hard at all so I don’t anticipate this being a problem.

When I was looking for a Mac replacement for Visio I had a number of people recommend Omnigraffle. Not only did it meet my needs, effectively doing everything I did in Visio, it did several tasks much better. The library of templates available for Omnigraffle are extensive and I am now able to mock up some great UIs very quickly and generate Rails style database schema.

I haven’t found a better RSS reader than NetNewsWire and that’s in part because I haven’t bothered to look. NNW does exactly what I need and does it well. The fact that I can synchronize what I’ve read between my two Macs and my iPod Touch makes me very, very happy. I love it when applications leverage the web in unique ways.

My use of iTunes predates my use of Macs by several years since I’ve been an iPod user for a pretty long time. The integration of the iTunes store into it is nice and seamless, making the purchase experience about as easy as it gets.

I still switch back to iChat occasionally but for the most part I use Adium as my chat client. I love the way Adium allows me to quickly review chat logs from prior conversations. I like the way the it can be customized and create an incredibly compact chat window. The price is also excellent (free). The only downside is that I cannot do video chats, which is why I switch back to iChat every once in a while.

So there you have it, my list of critical applications that I use nearly every day on my Macs. I’m not talking about the built in functionality (other than Terminal) because that’s enough for an entire blog post on it’s own. Spaces, Quicklook, etc. are also critical to my needs. I also have quite a few other applications loaded and available like Cyberduck and VMware Fusion, though lately I haven’t been using them nearly as much. This is more a function of my recent application needs though.

By David Alison

I bought my first Mac almost 24 years ago when DOS ruled the world. I didn't keep it too long though. I was just kicking off my career as a software engineer and needed to go with PCs. I bought my 2nd Mac in February of 2008. I didn't expect that I would find myself using the machine as much as I have. It's not that I hate Windows (well, I pretty much hate Vista but XP is a fine OS), it's just that I find myself constantly playing with this machine.

I'll share with you here my experiences of making the move from Windows to Macintosh. I still have a foot in both worlds, hence the name of my section.

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