Favourite utilities

technology

Recently, I've been trying out the latest release of WorkStrip 3.0, and thinking about what makes a good utility. I'm pretty profligate when it comes to downloading demos of software — I love trying out new stuff, putting it through its paces and testing it to destruction. However, utility applications have always made up the bulk of my software tryouts. Part of this is to do with wanting to make the working environment as efficient and comfortable as possible — a process akin to a dog or cat paddling around in its bed before settling down to sleep. MacOSX is great, but there are still quirks and glitches with the interface that make you wish something worked better (or differently). So, here are my favourite utilities. These are the few that have passed the 'indispensability test' — if I use another computer, reach instinctively for some shortcut then think, "Damn! No $x installed!", then $x = indispensable. I have yet to find the Holy Grail of utilities: The Thing That Does Everything. I suspect that it doesn't exist.

  • LaunchBar. This was one of the first utilities I installed and the one I miss most when using another Mac. LaunchBar sits unobtrusively at the end of the menu bar until you hit a shortcut (command+space by default). It then drops down a discrete little panel for you to bash out a shortcut to open an application, a file or folder, or even a Safari bookmark. The clever bit is that it has an extremely smart algorithm for assigning shortcuts to items — you don't need to set anything up. For example, if I hit 'OGR' it finds OmniGraffle, while 'WS' finds WorkStrip. The letters just need to be in the name, in the same order, but somehow it seems to make the same guesses as I do about the best shortcut. If you don't like LaunchBar's choice of shortcut, you just find the item manually, use another shortcut, and it remembers your preference. Once you've found what you're looking for (if it isn't the first item, it will appear somewhere in the drop-down list), you just hit Return, and it opens or launches that item. This is really just the start: you can also drag items on to the bar to drop them in a selected folder, or on to a selected application, and you can use the bar as a 'shelf' to park files temporarily before you drag and drop them somewhere else. The only downside of LaunchBar is that it has to scan your drive periodically to find files, so it isn't ideal for locating a file that you've just created a few minutes ago.
  • VirtualDesktop. I've posted about VirtualDesktop before, but it just seems to get better and better. If you wish that you had the money (and the desk space) for 9 monitors, this is the utility for you. I have 9 virtual desktops (files, web, email etc.), and flick between them with the function keys. You can drag the window's icon around in the pager, which is unexpectedly handy when stupid applications draw their windows with the title bar under the main menu bar, and you have no way to reposition them.
  • WorkStrip 3.0. I first encountered WorkStrip in its previous incarnation at one of the London MacExpo shows. I was really impressed with their demonstration, and since they were offering a good deal on a licence, together with a free T-shirt, I bought it (this was also a cheap way to take my mind off not being able to afford an iPod at the time). WorkStrip acts a bit like the Dock, but with bionic limbs. You can set up different workspaces, for different kinds of task, and each can have its own set of associated files, folders, applications and internet bookmarks. It also tracks files you have opened, thus beefing up the built-in 'Recent Documents' and 'Recent Applications' menu considerably. You also get previews of all kinds of files within the menu itself, which can be incredibly handy. In the new version, I noticed with delight that HTML files now render absolutely beautifully — with CSS styling and everything — using Safari's WebCore. Because it builds the menus on the fly, it complements LaunchBar well for opening recent files. The only slight snag is that it doesn't completely replace the Dock, so you have to find screen space for both somehow. The icons on the WorkStrip don't give dynamic informaation (with the exception of the unread email count with Apple Mail), nor does it give you the same access you get with a control-click on an icon in the dock.
  • CopyPaste-X. Once you've used this for a while, you wonder how you ever did without it. It lets you have pretty much unlimited numbers of clipboards to copy and paste to. You can copy a load of stuff to your heart's content, then switch to the destination and paste it all in appropriately. You can also save bits of text to re-use whenever you want with a custom key-stroke. This is useful if you don't already have the excellent TypeIt4Me.

So what utilities do you rely on? MacOSX only please — although Windows users will almost certainly have died of boredom by now.