Productivity and design Mac apps I use every week (or thereabouts) ... and apps I don't

BlogHer Original Post

It's pretty safe to say I spend 12 hours or so a day on my Mac — or a Mac. So I thought I'd document, if not the what of the check I'm doing, then the how. Here they are. I tried to break them down by category, because nobody can really use a laundry list of 20 or 50 or 100 things presented in a blog post, just laid out there as if it were helpful.

Excuse me for a side rant:

Less is more. Please accept this! I'm not channeling Samuel Beckett here, to say the least. Less! Seems like everyone makes Top X lists these days. 35 this. 50 that. 100 the other thing. Maybe they're link-bait posts. It must be effective, because they're everywhere. But why is it that nobody seems willing or able to parse through the datamass and recommend a useful number? For example, how is the "Top 100 Tutorials" post supposed to be more useful than the "Top 5 Tutorials"?

Anyway, here are apps I find useful. Mayb you will, too.

Communications, Connectivity, Community

Dropbox — Technically not so much a Mac app as a software-as-a-service app, Dropbox is my new favorite way to share and back up certain files on my Mac. This is what MobileMe was supposed to be. Dropbox is cross-platform, too. — I've tried many email apps of the years, and I keep coming back to The others range from teh suck to leaky resource hogs to head-scratch-inducing huh? Hawkwings has nice info that makes really not absolutely terrible.

Tweetdeck — I was using Tweetdeck for my desktop Twittering, but when I realized it was consistently missing tweets by my favorite group-focused friends, I went looking for something else. So I tried Seesmic, but it has the same problem. Tweetie doesn't seem to have decent workflows for someone following a lot of people. So Tweetdeck it is ... until I find something better, which I hope is soon.

Skype — I rarely use Skype for calls, but we use it at work for IM. It's handy because it takes no centralized setup, effectively drills through most firewalls when traveling, and encrypts the messages, making it reasonably safe for things like passwords. I just wish it didn't draw so much in resources.

Colloquy — I've had some strange buggy experiences in the past with Colloquy, but for now it's working adequately for me. #drupal et al. are my daily background channels.

Snackr — This has become my favorite RSS reader, especially since NetNewsWire jumped the shark.


Safari — Lately Firefox has gotten to be just too slow and cumbersome for me, so I've relegated it to second browser status and shifted to Safari for my primary browsing. This would not have been the case if it weren't for Glims, which does some nice usability-improving enhancement to the Safari UI.

Firefox — There still is no better browser for web development itself. While Safari's Developer Tools are handy, the plugins available to Firefox (including Firebug, Web Dev Tools, and a few others) make it the go-to browser when analyzing and developing a website ... or any browser-based system.

Fluid — This is a nifty app that makes dedicated web browsers for specific sites you designate. I use it for Google Calendar, the mediocre CRM service we use, the mediocre ticket- and time-tracking system we use, and our own Client Support Center. Based on Safari, it keeps a light footprint on the computer resources and makes webapps somewhat easier to stomach.

Graphics Etc.

OmniGraffle — This has become almost too good to use for wireframing. Too often I find myself doing detail work rather than focusing on the information architecture and overall page layout. So lately I've started using....

Balsamiq Mockup — This is a cross-platform (via Adobe Air) desktop app for creating low-fidelity wireframes. Once you get used to the UI, which takes only an hour or so to get to where you don't have to think and ponder on how to do your next step, it actually becomes a very useful tool for fast wireframing without getting sidetracked by visual design temptations. A couple of nifty features I like are the ability to easily link a button or link to another Mockup wireframe (making clickable wireframes) and the ability to place "sketchified" images. Balsamiq also has versions for plugging into centralized systems, for collaboration.

Adobe Illustrator — Let's face it, for all of Adobe's problems, Illustrator is still a pretty nifty app. The gold standard of illustrator tools ... as long as you have the budget, and the illustrations don't have to move.

Adobe Photoshop — Another gold standard, though the specialized apps like Lightroom can compete nicely in more narrow use cases (like photo manipulation).

Preview — Again, the lightweight footprint makes this my favorite for viewing images and PDFs.


Adobe InDesign — In the end, this app does what you need it to do. Years back I preferred Quark. Since then, I've stuck with InDesign updates while Quark fell off of my usage patterns, so I have not tried the most recent Quark releases. My usage here is qualified by that context.

TextEdit — If I'm just reading a doc for content, I will open it in the lightweight TextEdit. It reads Word docs just fine (if you don't care about 100% accurate pagination, etc.).

Microsoft Word — It's amazing how such a crap word processor dominates the market today. Still behind where WordPerfect was 20 years ago, Word is the app of choice for most people dealing in documents. We end up using it because Open Office is even worse — and not quite compatible.

Microsoft Excel — Does for spreadsheets what Word does for wordprocessing. We use it for the same reasons, too.

Adobe Acrobat Pro — The UI is pretty awful. But when I need to combine PDFs, this is the only tool I know that gets the job done.


Keynote — There is only one. A while back, I used OmniGraffle to create slide shows. No longer. Keynote has its usability problems, but in general it's pretty powerful and easy to use.

Snapz Pro X — This is an excellent screencapture tool for presentations and screencasts. I use it all the time.

Screenflow — This is another popular screencasting tool, but I've found it to be rather counterintuitive. Maybe it's because I expect it to be more like a standard video system. Speaking of which....

Video Etc.

Final Cut — Being accustomed to more professional non-linear editors, FCP has taken some getting used to. While there are programmable hot keys, it feels too much like a mouse-driven interface to make it my first choice over Avid (or the dead-and-buried-by-Autodesk Edit) to make it anywhere near ideal. That said, the quality and flexibility required in today's media production and delivery needs has generally made the trade-off pretty much necessary. I need high-definition output.

Keeping it all straight

OmniFocus — Even though I am anything but a "Getting Things Done" acolyte — I'm more of a Franklin-Covey practitioner — this app, designed primarily for GTD approaches, is how I manage my to-do lists. The iPhone app is very handy, too.

Yojimbo — I love this tool. It's my kind of everything box, for notes, receipts, all kinds of things. Very handy, and syncs across the crappy (as previously mentioned) MobileMe. The freetagging is neat, but what makes it truly powerful is the search. It's instantaneous, and a great way to drill down to the thing you're looking for.

Apps I don't use (but have for some reason)

Pages — Every time I've tried using this app, I expect it to empower me to do more than it actually does. In the end, I think Pages has the limitations of InDesign combined with the limitations of Word, without holding a candle to either at what they do.

Numbers — This app just gets a shrug from me. I ask: Why? I have it because it came with iWork, which I get for Keynote alone.

Apps I wish I had, but haven't found

The perfect music finder, buyer, player, recommender — I hate that I have found no good way to discover new music. Pandora is okay, but it won't let me listen to what I want to listen to when I want to listen to it. I guess that's the licensing deal they have with the music studios. Radio sucks. Even Sirius XM is sucking more and more, now that they're hiring DJs to talk talk talk instead of play music. (Do I really need to hear some dimwit tell me that George Harrison's songs are "interesting"? If Sirius XM continues to make itself more like ClearChannel, I'm going to skip the subscription renewal coming up.) I'm stuck finding new music only through happenstance, hearing something and, if I'm fast enough, capturing it with Shazam on my iPhone. I want something on my desktop ... and not a website I have to go to, just a lightweight app that runs on my desktop.

Orli Yakuel posts on Music sites and apps that can be helpful, noting:

So readers’ main concern was the companies’ business model. You are right. A few of the services might make an exit, and most of them are probably not going to have one, and some are just for fun. I think music services can make money by being innovative enough to get it. Anyway, I don’t want to get into the business model stuff too much, but I will tell you this: The Internet is too competitive, you may be succeed by just being simple, but you may also need to be sophisticated. The era where creating an application first, then two years later thinking how to make money from it, is bygone now, and companies will need to think how to make money sooner than later if they aim for it – This is where innovation comes in and usually wins.

Apps I haven't tried yet, but sound cool

Jing — Free screen capture. Three women blogged about this in the past few months.

Kathleen Mcready:

Jing is a piece of free software for screencasting and screen capture. It can be downloaded for both Mac and PC from

Jing allows you to take a picture of anything on your screen. You can then annotate your still image and add objects like arrows.

Cathy Oxley:

Once you have downloaded Jing, a 3-armed ’sun’ – which you use to activate the program – will appear at the top of your screen. If you”d prefer, you can drag it to the side of your screen, and you can also set it in Preferences so that it doesn’t automatically load when you open your computer.

Karla Pierce:

Say you teach online, and you want to show your students how to navigate Blackboard for their first time, for example:

1. Download Jing
2. Register for (gives you free access to server space)
3. Open it up
4. Record yourself navigating Blackboard (for example)
5. Upload your creation to the Jing server with one click
6. A web address (url) is instantly created and sent to you
7. Send the url to your students and/or embed it in your course

Sounds like something to check out.

BlogHer Tech & Web Contributing Editor Laura Scott blogs at rare pattern and pingVision. Follow her on Twitter at @lauras.


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