By Jason Snell
December 8, 2014 2:40 PM PT
My Favorite Things: Mac apps
Note: This story has not been updated for several years.
I spend a lot of time at my Mac. I love my iPad and iPhone, but my Mac is still where I spend most of my time. Between writing and making podcasts, this is the place where my tools of choice reside. Since it’s the end of the year, I figured, why not mention a bunch of Mac apps that I use every day? If there were a gift-giving holiday coming up, you could even use that as an excuse to buy them.
I write in BBEdit most of the time. Not always: My novels, which are very long and require outlines and notes and stuff, are done in an app that shall remain shrouded in mystery for a couple more paragraphs.
Yes, BBEdit is a text editor that’s preferred by programmers. I am not a programmer, I do not write anything you’d seriously call a program, and yet I also rely on BBEdit. I do write in HTML and CSS and Markdown, and BBEdit’s not bad for those. I save a lot of time by using scripts and regular expressions, and BBEdit’s scripting and regex support are top notch.
I could probably write in any app at this point. I write in BBEdit because its power is there when I need it, to process text and the like, and it gets out of my way the rest of the time. It feels like home.
[$50, direct from Bare Bones.]
I wrote the first half of my first novel manuscript in BBEdit, with my outline in OmniOutliner. At the time I was test-driving a whole bunch of different apps focused on longform writing, and the one that spoke to me—the one that had features I wanted when I wanted them, and didn’t get in my way when all I wanted to do was write—was Scrivener.
I’m sure I’m still not using more than a fraction of Scrivener’s features, but I love the fact that my novel is a manuscript and an outline simultaneously, that each Scrivener file can contain all my notes, research, cut bits, and the like. Its progress tracker kept me on track when I was grinding through tough days and failing to make my word count. It’s got fancy export features that let me get it out in a decent manuscript format, or even an ebook format, which I’m also grateful for.
I wrote the last half of my first novel, as well as the two that followed, in Scrivener. (Yes, they’re all unpublished. I’m working on the rewrite of one of them now.) That’s hundreds of thousands of words poured into one app. I’d do it all again—and might, one day.
BreakTime is a utility that forces me to stand up and move around rather than sit at my desk all day, which is what I’d otherwise do. It’s a convenient, configurable utility that reminds you when it’s time to take a break. You can set how often it reminds you, you can quickly defer it if you’re right in the middle of something important, and it automatically detects when you’ve taken a break on your own and resets its internal clock. It’s simple, smartly designed, and exactly what my doctor (okay, technically my physical therapist) ordered.
I realize that everyone in our particular set of computer-interested people probably knows the facts about password security. How you shouldn’t use the same password on different sites, how your password should be “strong” (composed of numerous symbols and stuff, not just letters and numbers), all of that. And yet every time I venture out into my community or talk to a member of my family about what they’re using to take care of their passwords, I discovered that close friends and relatives of mine are using a single password on all the sites they use, and generally it’s a close to an all-lowercase password as possible. Many of them also have a file on their computers (or in one case, a paper notebook) containing a master list of all their passwords.
This is bad! Fortunately, there’s 1Password, which provides a secure lockbox for all your passwords, a strong-password generator to make unique passwords for every different service (so if one service’s password file is compromised, your other passwords aren’t), a place to put secure notes and store credit card numbers, and much more. And it comes with browser extensions that make it easy to pop that secure information into web forms right when you need it. I highly recommend 1Password for you, dear reader—but more to the point, are your friends and relatives using a product like 1Password? They should be. (And it’s available on Mac, Windows, iOS and Android.)
[Mac version $49, iOS version free with $5 Pro upgrade.]
You may have read the hype about how Slack is the greatest thing ever. I’m not sure about that, but as someone who used to work in an office with a large contingent of remote employees, and as someone who now works out of his house, I’ve tried a lot of group-communication products over the years. I’ve come to like Slack more than Campfire and HipChat, but in the end it’s more about the connection to people—we’ve got Slack instances for Relay FM and The Incomparable, and those chat rooms keep me sane some days.
The latest version of the Slack app for Mac is more or less a glorified web view, but by allowing me to quickly switch between multiple Slack chat rooms, it gets my endorsement. As does Slack in general. Looking beyond the hype, this is a way for teams to stay in touch, and that’s important—especially if they’re not all in the same room.
[Slack starts out free and then it gets complicated.]
I still use the Calendar app on my Mac, but my quick-reference schedule throughout the day is Fantastical. This app drops down from my menu bar with a keystroke, showing me all my calendar events for today and tomorrow. I can also type to create a new calendar event, right from that window. For example, ‘lunch with Dan and Phil next Thursday in Berkeley’ and it will automatically schedule a “Lunch with Dan and Phil’ event for noon, next Thursday, with Berkeley as the location. (I find Fantastical’s text-parsing engine to be quite good, unlike the one in the stock Calendar app. And it shows you, as you type, how it’s interpreting what you’re typing.)
I use the Fantastical iOS app, too—more on that in (gasp!) a forthcoming story.
If you listen to podcasts that stream live, you may also like to visit their IRC-based chat rooms and chat with other listeners. Most live-streaming networks embed a basic IRC client in the web page you use to listen. If you’d like something a little nicer, consider a dedicated app. Lingo is what I’ve been using lately. It seems more stable than my old standby, Colloquy.
This simple utility lets me control iTunes with several simple keyboard shortcuts. I realize my keyboard has iTunes controls in the top row, but I’ve been using the same music-control keyboard shortcuts on my Mac since I was listening to the Apple CD Audio Player app under Mac OS 9. I’m not going to stop now.
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