Mac OS X Software Favorites Part One: Basics
Yesterday was my last day at my job for the past five years, and with it I left my Macbook Pro (it was a nice tool, but they own it). Coincidentally, I’m now setting up my new Macbook. Since I know several other people who are setting up new Macs, I thought I’d give my thoughts on some of the best software available. Since that’s a big topic, I’m going to break it up into several posts, starting with the basics: Application Launcher, Text Editor, Web Browser, Newsreader.
Macbook vs. Macbook Pro
Before diving into the software, just a note on the hardware. I’m going with a black Macbook for several reasons. First, it looks really cool, and I can’t deny that appeals to me. Second, it is somewhat smaller and lighter than the smallest Macbook Pros, and since I carry my laptop to and from work every day by foot or bicycle, that matters (I’m getting two power bricks so I can leave one in each location to save even more weight). Third, the wifi reception is much better. Encasing an antenna in plastic appears to work better than encasing it in aluminum, go figure. Macbook Pros are more powerful, but only a bit, and mainly for heavy-duty 3D, which isn’t really my thing. We’ll see how much this matters in practice. White vs. Black Macbook: the white ones are rumoured to stain really easily, plus did I mention that the black ones look really freaking cool? The Macbook is cheaper than the Macbook Pro, but that’s not a big factor in why I’m choosing it (since once again, work will own it, just a different work–more on that later). The Macbook also gets better battery life, is slightly less crotch-scaldingly hot, and so far I’m liking the keyboard a lot.
Application Launcher: Quicksilver
I used to use TigerLaunch (free, open source), and still do on other Macs in the family, but once you’ve tried Quicksilver (free, beta) there’s no going back. I’m still working on becoming a Quicksilver power user, but just the app-launching and file-searching facility is worth using this tool for. TigerLaunch is great for its simplicity, and Quicksilver is great for making you wonder how you ever got along without it. I’ve heard wonderful things about PathFinder ($34.95USD) and keep meaning to try it, but haven’t gotten to it yet. First I need to learn how to write Quicksilver plugins in Python…
I used to use Pico on Unix and BBEdit Lite on Mac OS 7, back in the day. I couldn’t stand either vi or emacs. I wanted a T-shirt that read, “I’d rather die than use vi.” Then I worked at a company where the only editor you could count on being installed was vi and I began to get its keystrokes etched into the memory of my fingers. I’m not even that good at it, but sometimes vi can be so damn fast. Of course, I don’t use classic vi, but a nice modern Vim (free, open source). I’ve tried to switch back to Mac editors a few times: TextWrangler (free, the OS X incarnation of BBEdit Lite), SubEthaEdit ($35USD, great for collaborative editing), Smultron (free, open source). These are all great editors, but each one lacked something that kept me from switching over completely. I had been hearing about TextMate (€39EUR) for some time, but had trouble getting excited over a commercial editor when there were so many free ones to choose from. I finally gave it a serious try and I’m hooked. It still isn’t as easy to search as vi is, but the way it can be expanded on with plugins and the general fit and feel are great.
Browser: Safari + Saft
Safari is shaping up to be a great browser, fast and powerful. There are a few details that are missing, but nearly all of them are satisfied with the Saft ($12USD) extension, which provides great ad filtering, improves the way windows and tabs are handled, and gives shortcuts for accessing search sites from the address bar, among many other features. Safari itself takes two kinds of plugins, Netscape-style plugins and WebKit plugins. Unfortunately, these are only triggered when their target mime types are loaded, so they can’t readily be used to extend the way the application itself works. So all of the Safari extensions that I’m aware of are implemented as InputManagers (see my post on TabDump for more on InputManagers). My TabDump extension is the other extension that I find indispensable, which is why I wrote it, but more important than TabDump itself is the example it gives for writing your own extensions to Safari or any other (Cocoa) application. That’s what I love about OS X, you can get into it and take control of your own machine, make it your own. You can do that with Linux, of course, but the high-level of Cocoa applications make a huge difference. Back to browsers, I also recommend the Flip4Mac plugin, to allow your browser to play Windows Media files directly. Finally, I also keep Firefox (free, open-source) around for its advanced features. It’s not my main browser, but it has features that show where the browser (and all applications) will be going in the future. I may have to do a separate post just about the cool features coming in Firefox 2 (currently in beta) and Firefox 3. Other good browsers to keep around for testing are Camino (the Firefox engine with a Cocoa UI) and Opera (free). For more Safari plugins and extensions than you could ever use, check the listings at Pimp My Safari.
I realize that Safari now supports RSS feeds in some fashion, but it really isn’t a newsreader. I’m not crazy about trying to put every possible application into the browser. If you have to work betwwen Windows, OS X, and Linux, or some combination thereof, then things like GMail and Bloglines can be a godsend, otherwise you’re probably better off with a dedicated desktop app. NetNewsWire ($29.95USD) is a desktop app that is so good, it was the most popular newsreader (by far) for a long time, even though it only ran on OS X. Since being acquired by NewsGator, it’s still as good, but now synchronizes your feeds with the NewsGator site, so you get the best of both worlds: a top-notch desktop app, and a webapp that stays sychronized with it. I have a feeling that in the near future, nearly all applications will work this way. And if you can’t afford the price, they still offer NetNewsWire Lite for free (and I happily used it for a couple of years before upgrading).
Apple gives you a decent email program with OS X, nothing too fancy. It keeps getting better (mostly) with each new release. There has been some complaints about Mail.app in OS 10.4 changing to a proprietary format (which they did in order to integrate with Spotlight) and I’ll have more to say about that in a future post. I have tried using Gmail (when I was mostly using Windows at work) and Thunderbird (free, open-source), and coming back to Mail.app is like a breath of fresh air. For nearly everything I do, Mail.app is better. It’s far from perfect, and sites like HawkWings specialize in plugins and extensions for Mail.app, but it sure works for me. I do wonder why email programs are still so hard to get right. Since email is basically the oldest use of the internet (and networks generally), and the original “killer app,” if we don’t know how to do email yet, what hope do we have for anything that’s actually complicated? Of course, perhaps because they have been around for so long, choice of email programs tends to be very personal, so all I can say is, Mail.app works for me. I also recommend the AttachmentScannerPlugin by James Eagan, who also provides a tutorial on writing plugins for Mail.app which is generally applicable to extending Cocoa programs and using their undocumented private APIs. Also, he uses Python and PyObjC to write the plugin, which makes me happy.
Regular reader(s) were probably wondering how I was going to get that plug for Python and PyObjC in there, eh?Post by: Dethe Elza 💜