The Blog

Essentials, 2009

Late last year there was a meme, likely started by Mark Pilgrim’s Essentials, 2008 post, on the indispensable software people use. Through a series of posts, I discovered a handful of terrific desktop & web applications that I’d never heard of before. Since then, I’ve been wanting to write a similar post, taking it a small step further and share some favorite Mac & web apps, a few prized gadgets & accessories, and even a few of my preferences for organizing my desktop.

Desktop organization

Mac OS X Dock

Yesterday, I came across Grace Smith’s post describing Khoi Vinh’s dock and I was rather surprised at just how cluttered and unmanaged it was. Khoi says he’s not so disciplined about keeping his Dock orderly, “because I use Quicksilver so heavily that most times I don’t even need the Dock.” I’m not a Quicksilver user (I’ve tried it; I just find Spotlight and my normal processes to be sufficient), but I still think there’s a lot of value in keeping your Dock tidy, manageable and attractive. That’s my Dock on the left, how it looks 90% of the time.

Dock

Like John Gruber, I’m a Dock-on-the-side man, finding vertical real estate far more valuable than horizontal. I keep my Dock icons rather tiny - just a few clicks above their smallest setting and I have magnification turned on, again just slightly larger than normal, to give a slight advantage when clicking them.

Even with the Dock on the side, you have a choice about where it’s pinned. By default, the Dock is pinned to the middle of the screen; in my case, centered vertically. I find it makes much more sense to keep it pinned to the top of the screen, though. This keeps the permanent Dock icons fixed in position; when the Dock is centered, adding even a single icon will offset all the others by several pixels. Spatial memory is a big factor in desktop efficiency, and keeping the Dock pinned to the top is a big part of that for me.

To pin your Dock to the top position, just open up Terminal and enter these commands:

defaults write com.apple.dock pinning -string start killall Dock

The Dock, to me, is sacred territory and only a handful of apps deserve the right to that valuable real estate. I especially appreciate when an application gives me the choice to remove its Dock icon while it’s running. This is a little problematic in current versions of OS X as an application cannot have a menu bar when it’s not in the Dock. Hopefully this will be fixed in the future, and if so, I think we’ll see a lot more apps adopting preferences to remove their Dock icon.

System Menu Bar

Generally, when you remove the Dock icon from an app, you’ll do so because you have another way to access that application, and that other way is generally from the system menu bar. Here is my system menu bar:

System Menu Bar

Most of these apps don’t deserve Dock icons, either because they are accessed much less frequently (Dropbox, LittleSnapper, Time Machine) or because they’re only used to indicate their current status (Tweetie, Airport, Volume).

Active Screen Corners

Active Screen Corners

Here’s how I have my screen corners configured: either of the top corners triggers Exposé; bottom-left shows my Desktop, and bottom-right starts my screensaver and locks my computer as I get up to leave.

On the Desktop

The following are some of my favorite apps for Mac.

Safari

I was a diehard Firefox user for a couple of years, but Safari’s text rendering, speed, and general elegance have converted me. I use Safari nearly 100% of the time, the rare exception is when I’m testing for cross-browser compatibility. And with Safari 4’s updates to the Web Inspector, I really haven’t been missing the Firefox Web Developer Toolbar at all.

Textmate

Textmate

Without a doubt, the best text editor for Mac. I do all of my web development — HTML, Django templates, Python & CSS — entirely in Textmate, supported by its great “Bundle” system. Bundles are packages of functions, shortcuts, syntax highlighting, and some really clever autocompletion independently developed for loads of languages and methodologies. I use the Cobalt color scheme with Monaco 9pt type.

1Password

1Password

I created my first passwords in 1995, age 14. Most were derived from a combination of my interests at the time, primarily Dave Matthews Band & the movie Hackers. One of those passwords has stuck with me for the past 14 years and I’m still using it for 90% of my web authentication. This is a problem.

Enter 1Password. This app lets me store all sorts of sensitive information — passwords, obviously, but also my family’s Social Security numbers, credit card & contact information, even my frequent flyer information; pretty much anything I want encrypted & protected, but still easily accessible. 1Password integrates with all the major browsers, automatically logging me into websites & applications, filling out forms with the credit card/identity of my choice, and saving me lots of redundant typing. And since 1Password does all the remembering for me, I can let it generate very strong, hyper-secure passwords for all my services. All I have to remember is my one password (get it?), a many-charactered doozie that I have no worry is secure. There’s also an iPhone app that lets you take all your encrypted data with you.

If you’re a Mac user and are at all worried about the strength of your passwords, you may want to give 1Password a shot at generating and remembering your passwords for you.

LittleSnapper

LittleSnapper

I love LittleSnapper! It takes something as simple as screen capturing (hell, that’s built right into OS X), and adds a handful of simple, unobtrusive features that make it one of my most prized applications. Naturally, it handles screen capturing perfectly well. You can snap entire screens, windows, or selected areas, but you can also grab entire websites from Safari. It remembers URLs and automatically names the files based on the title of the webpage you captured. It features a built-in browser with DOM-snapping, tagging, titling, ratings, and lots of non-destructive annotation tools (you can add arrows, callouts, blurs, highlights, etc). You can organize all your snaps in folders and create rule-based “smart collections” (like only my “5★ Portfolio” snaps, or only “Inspiration” snaps tagged “web design”). Lastly, with a single click you can share your snaps on Flickr or on LittleSnapper’s own web service, QuickSnapper.

The Hit List

The Hit List

This simple app aims to manage the chaos of your modern life with to-do lists. I haven’t read David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” (I’ll get around to it one of these days), but once I do, The Hit List is going to be the perfect application to help me get it done. I’m currently using THL to manage a handful of project “wishlists”, random feature ideas that I’d likely forget if I didn’t have a place to put them. I have dreams of using this app to its fullest some day, entering every single to-do for every project I have, both digital and tangible, and letting it direct my life for a while, but I’m not sure when I’ll find the time for that.

Dropbox

Again, here’s an application that does one simple thing, but does it so well it’s become completely indispensable to me. Dropbox is basically a folder on your Mac that behaves exactly like any other folder, but with one distinction: anything you put in it gets uploaded to the Dropbox web service and subsequently downloaded to any other machines you’ve installed Dropbox on. It’s unbelievably fast and accurate, and it’s smart enough to only update those things that’ve changed (this is especially important when you’re syncing large application libraries). I use Dropbox in three main ways:

  1. For personal documents that I want available on both my desktop and laptop without worrying about versioning or emailing files back & forth to myself. I do the same for a few web development files, but those usually graduate to version control pretty straightaway.
  2. As a temporary file-sharing tool. Not long ago, I used services like senduit to upload files and then mail links around to those that needed access. Now I have a publicly available Dropbox folder that accomplishes the same things by just saving/dragging files to that folder.
  3. The most valuable way I use Dropbox is to sync application data. I use many of the same applications on each of my computers, and it would be miserable to sync those applications manually. Thanks to Dropbox, I don’t have to. For example, I keep my 1Password keychain in my Dropbox; anytime I add a password on one computer, within seconds, it’s available on the second. The same is true for other applications: my LittleSnapper gallery is automatically sync’d between computers, as are my The Hit List todos. (I should note that it’s a little trickier for THL, which seems to retain some edits in memory; the only reliable way I’ve found is to make sure that I explicitly save after each edit.)

Dropbox is an application I wouldn’t want to live without; best of all, it’s free with 2GB of space.

iTunes

I switched from Winamp to iTunes in 2003. Today I have 24,981 items (68.7 days) in iTunes, almost entirely composed of complete albums, with fairly complete metadata (one of these days!). Even with such a large library, iTunes is responsive, manages my music flawlessly, and I have zero complaints (a few feature requests, but no complaints). I don’t really do playlists, but I keep a handful of smart playlists to organize by ratings (one for each star rating, and then 3-5★ and 4-5★) and by dates added (“Added today”, “Past 2 weeks”, “Past 6 months”). Here is a graph of the distribution of my song ratings:

Terminal

For all your command line needs, Terminal is wonderful, especially now that it supports tabbed windows. I use a customized color scheme that matches Textmate’s Cobalt theme and Monaco in 10pt.

Photoshop

I use CS3 and still don’t like how long it takes to load. But once it’s running, no other photo editor comes close.

Growl

Growl

Even if you don’t explicitly download Growl, it’s going to show up on your computer eventually. Growl is a notification tool that lets you know when something happens on behalf of other applications: new tweets, new emails, new RSS items, updated files, etc. It’s as close to a required application as you’ll find. I use the Music Video style on Huge at 50% opacity.

Adium

Adium

Another must-have app, Adium is instant messaging for your Mac, handling protocols from Jabber to AIM to ICQ and with an abundance of customization options so it can be exactly how you like it. I use the Decay 2.0 Contact List style with dark grays. For message windows, I use minimal_mod, Black vs. Green, with Lucida Grande set at 10pt.

Colloquy

I don’t do much IRC, except for the occasional pop-in to the #django channel. When I do, Colloquy is my preferred client.

Tweetie

My current favorite Twitter client for Mac is Tweetie (Previously, Bluebird, Eventbox, Twitterific). Tweetie sports a beautiful, highly-usable interface that none of the others approach. Free, if you don’t mind the occasional Fusion Ad; otherwise, $20.

ExpanDrive

ExpanDrive’s an app so unobtrusive I nearly forgot to include it. ExpandDrive lets you mount FTP, SFTP, and Amazon S3 servers as regular drives on your Mac, letting you read/write, drag files in & out, just like you’d do with a USB drive, and everything just works. I have several server paths set to mount on login, making my website files just as accessible as any other file on my computer. Brilliant.

Reader Notifier

I installed this tiny app so I could set Google Reader as my preferred default RSS reader in Safari, which works perfectly. The Preferences panel is a little wonky, particularly that all the checkboxes start with “Don’t” and the notification icons are lame. Still, this is required if you use Safari and Google Reader.

Character Palette

Built into OS X, you can access the Character Palette by checking the “Show input menu in menu bar” option under System Preferences → International → Input Menu. I like having it in my menu bar so I can quickly insert the correct characters (like the é in Exposé above, or the arrows in the previous sentence). It’s Björk, not Bjork.

On the Server

Webfaction

Hands down the best host I’ve used to date (and I’ve used a lot). Their control panel’s great (could use a facelift, which I hear is coming). All the functionality in the Control Panel is available through a Python API, which could be helpful for a variety of things, like creating a mailbox for a new webapp user. They have all the necessary one-click installers, including Django trunk & the latest releases, usually hours, if not minutes, after they’re released. Webfaction’s support is always responsive, knowledgeable and helpful. They’ve had a few hiccups with unexpected downtime lately, but I still look upon them favorably and hope the best for their future.

Django

If you know anything about my work life, this shouldn’t be much of a surprise: I’m a die-hard Django fan. I’m convinced there’s no web app Django can’t build, and do it quicker & cleaner, too. I would have a very hard time considering any job that wouldn’t let me use Django for development. It’s definitely the one skill I’m currently trying hardest to master, which is made easier by the core committers’ insistence on high standards, and an open-source community not only willing, but eager, to share their code.

Apache/mod_wsgi

This is how I run Django apps on Webfaction; again, they make it dead-simple to set up.

Git

I’ve only recently made a concerted effort to learn Git, the distributed version control system, but GitHub had me at hello. I love their concept of “social coding” and have had more fun than I would have expected, just looking through other users’ code, watching as their projects evolve, and forking their projects to toy with things. Git itself is fine, but it’s something like GitHub that really shows you the benefits of the Git implementation. And version controlling your own version (fork) is something so absurdly obvious, I can’t believe I’ve been missing it for so long.

I still use SVN, of course, but mostly for grabbing projects from Google Code, and certainly not as my preferred version control system.

In the cloud

Twitter

Many mini updates. I held off joining for too long, but I’m an advocate, for sure. I could live without it, but I wouldn’t want to.

Flickr

Flickr rules. Right now, my photostream is largely dominated by pictures of Jack, but I’m in the process of naming, tagging, and geolocating several thousand, mostly travel, photos from the early 2000s, and I’ll be releasing those as I work through them.

Mint

I still have a hard time believing Mint is completely free. It’s such a beautiful and fully-featured service, it ranks right up there (or beyond) some of the subscription-based finance sites. Mint integrates directly with most banks, downloading your transaction history and automatically categorizing most of those into relevant categories. You can track pretty much everything related to your personal financial health — cash, credit cards, loans, home/property value, etc. You can create budgets for particular categories and be notified as you approach their limits. There’s also a Mint iPhone app.

Harvest

There is a lot of competition among time-tracking/invoicing web apps, but after researching & evaluating the best of the best, I chose to go with Harvest. It’s not the most powerful or even the easiest-to-use, but it’s evident it’s built by some talented folk, I like the overall design, and they’re clearly improving it and adding new features all the time. There’s an iPhone app, a Dashboard widget for tracking time, and a developer’s API, so hopefully new tools will be coming. The invoices are gorgeous and you can even accept payment through Paypal, if that’s your thing.

Facebook

I don’t really use Facebook that much, but I like it. I think Facebook’s done (is doing) some amazing things in shrinking the space between us all, and I think their long-term goals are enviable and exciting. They face such intense scrutiny & criticism with every move they make, I hope they continue pressing forward.

Google Reader

My favorite RSS reader. Always available, from anywhere, with a rich supply of news and information tailored just as I like it. My favorite feeds are Daring Fireball, kottke.org, Davenetics, and 1001 Rules for my Unborn Son. Oh, and of course worksology.com.

Delicious

I save bookmarks here, occasionally, for all to enjoy.

Readernaut

Nathan Borror’s super awesome social reading site. Track your progress in the books you’re reading, saving notes, comments, and passages as you go. Readernaut is an expertly-designed, beautifully-crafted and much-needed web application. If you read books, go get your free account.

ESPN’s Streak for the Cash

I’m absolutely terrible at predicting sports outcomes (barely over 50%), but I love playing Streak. It provides that little extra investment in a game, someone to root for, and you could even make some real cash while playing.

Hardware I Use

iPod Classic

ipod classic

My 160GB pride & joy, it holds all 25,000 of my tracks with room to spare. It hasn’t been terribly long since I would spent buckets of money on Case Logic CD cases, three big ones in my backseat spilling CDs all over the place. Some days I still cannot believe how portable an infinite amount of music can be.

Flip Mino

Flip Mino

Okay, I love the Flip Mino, but I’m convinced it’s the newest product I own that will be obsolete the soonest. I already have a new digital camera (below) that records better (HD) video, and I’m not alone in assuming the next generation iPhone will have video-recording abilities as well. Still, it’s tiny, pocketable, and the opposite of intimidating, and so is perfect for recording our kids on the go. At least for now.

Leica D-Lux 4

Leica D-Lux 4

What a frickin’ beautiful camera this is. After using a Canon Digital Rebel for several years, I was ready to return to a tiny point & shoot that I’d be comfortable carrying anywhere & everywhere. I’m still learning things about this one, but it’s been fun so far and, like I’ve already said, records HD video. Very happy with this. Need a tripod.

Drobo

Drobo

The robot that backs up all my shiz. I dropped in a couple high-capacity hard drives about a month ago and now it’s home to my entire home directory (and a Time Machine backup of that home directory), providing redundancy and, thus, protection from hardware failure. I couldn’t be happier with the Drobo’s performance so far, and I do feel an added sense of ease when considering the vulnerability of my bits.

Accessories I Carry

Makr wallet

makr

I carried a small DNKY “money clip” similar this for 7 years, starting in high school, and it was the best accessory I’d ever owned to that point. It basically fell apart after those 7 years, accelerated by a year abroad, getting stretched out by all sorts of foreign currency. Since then, I’ve used a bigger, thicker J Fold wallet my wife got for me. I just received my wallet from Makr Carry Goods this week, after eagerly anticipating their new collection for several months.

I carry my wallet in my front pocket, mostly because I can’t stand to sit on one, but also because I grew into the habit over those 7 years with the small DKNY one. This new wallet is gorgeous & soft, feels great in my front pocket, and I’m excited to carry it for at least the next decade.

Bang & Olufsen Earphones

Bang & Olufsen

I bought a pair of the original B&O; earphones way back in 2000, just as I was leaving for Ireland, and used those non-stop for 5 years until they finally wore out. With B&O;’s fairness replacement program, I was able to get an updated (8-years-improved) pair for less than their cost, and once again, I’m in love. They’re light-weight, fit snug & comfortable, and the sound is brilliant. Hope to have these for ages.

Freitag Clark bag

[Will add photo soon] Made from used truck tarpaulins & seat belts, each Freitag bag is completely unique. My lovely wife got me mine for our 2nd wedding anniversary. It’s one of my favorite things ever.

Conclusion

And with that, I’m exhausted. What are your favorite apps, both online & offline? What accessories or gadgets must you have with you at all times? Do you have any particular system configurations you couldn’t live without?

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Comments

  1. Aaron Stroot

    14 May 2009

    That was a fun read. I would agree on QuikSilver, I tried it out, but it never “stuck.” I get by with Spotlight, the dock, and cmd+shift+A.

    My contribution…

    My favorite apps:

    1. GimmeSomeTune - automatically adds the lyrics to songs when you play them in iTunes. I like having the lyrics when I’m listening to music on my iPhone.
    2. QuickenOnline - I tried out Mint.com and it was great, but I could only get data from my credit card, not my bank account, so I had to put Mint to rest until they add my bank. QuickenOnline is pretty much the same thing, but it has my bank. Their iPhone app makes checking your balance pretty easy while on the go.
    3. Tweetie is definitely my favorite Mac Twitter client. TwitterFon for the iPhone is my weapon of choice.
    4. I love the Coda web development app.. I really should buy it. Sadly, I’ve been using Espresso full-time now since that was part of the most recent MacHeist bundle. If I had a choice between the two I’d pick Coda 10 times out of 10.

    Gadgets:

    1. iPhone. Period. I can’t live without it. Sad? Maybe. True? Yes.

    I definitely prefer using Safari while on a Mac. On a PC, however, I prefer Firefox. I could probably ditch Firefox completely but I just haven’t gone that far yet. I did hate the new tab bar in Safari 4, so if you wish to restore the tab bar below the address bar/bookmarks bar, you can enter this command in Terminal (might be old news, thought I’d share though..):

    defaults write com.apple.Safari DebugSafari4TabBarIsOnTop -bool FALSE

    But I’m glad you shared, I’m definitely going to look in to the 1Password app. Should come in handy.

  2. Joshua Works

    ⚡ Officious badass ⚡

    15 May 2009

    Hey, thanks for writing Aaron.

    I use ⌘+⇧+D (Desktop), ⌘+⇧+C (Computer), and ⌘+⇧+H (Home) all the time, but I hadn’t ever thought about ⌘+⇧+A (Applications) before, but that’s a common need. I’ll have to start using that.

    I’m excited to try GimmeSomeTune for retrieving lyrics. I imagined that service would come along someday, I just didn’t know it was already available. Very nice. I wonder how much memory will be required for 25,000 tracks, though.

    Thanks for mentioning Mint.com; that’s another one that definitely should have been on the list. In fact, it reminded me that I negligently forgot to mention Harvest App, too, so I’ll post an update sometime tomorrow.

    It’s interesting to hear your impression of Espresso vs Coda. I’ve “tried” them both, but never long enough to be considered a serious effort. I should give them each a better try sometime.

  3. Jon Faustman

    15 May 2009

    I see that you forgot to mention my RSS feed in your favorites, but I’ll cut you some slack since I hardly ever write :)

    I like this post. It’s really weird how talking about certain technology could make me feel like I know you better. Technology is so important to us (especially us “nerds”), that it almost becomes intimate knowledge.

    I’m still pretty new to development on a Mac, so I haven’t tried all the apps, and I definitely don’t know all the shortcuts (I learned three new ones just from these comments alone) but I’ve been using BBEdit almost exclusively. It can be a little clunky at times, but does everything I need. For windows I almost exclusively used Dreamweaver (in code view) but have all but abandoned it since I can’t get a Mac license for CS4 or even CS3 :(

    I’m still rocking Firefox. I think giving it up would cause me nightmares, but I was pretty hesitant to switch from IE (when it was the “right” thing to code for IE and Netscape was the bane of my existence.) I tend to find something I like and hold onto it, which is why posts like this are very valuable to me—expands my horizons.

    One question, which is pretty much rhetorical since I will Google it as soon as I am done writing, did you add Growl notification to Tweetie? I had been testing different Twitter apps for a while and totally dig Tweetie, but I really miss the Growl notifications.

    I totally remember having those huge CD cases in the back of my car as well. I always had two of the huge ones, and am surprised my car was never broken into. I did eventually burn all of them so I only carried duplicates, but that was a pain - as I’m sure you could imagine.

    Like Mr. Stroot said, I will definitely have to check out some of the aforementioned items. Must start Django project…

  4. Jon Faustman

    15 May 2009

    Not to hijack here, but I swear I looked in preferences and never found Growl notification. Tweetie > Preference > Accounts > twitter-account-name > Notification Options. Doh!

  5. Tim

    15 May 2009

    Just dropped Twitterific. I’ve been using that from pretty much day one but Tweetie is like Twitterific on steroids. AND they just added Growl integration a week ago. Its got everything I like. Single column layout, each tweet takes up a limited amount of space, and an icon in the menu bar so I don’t have to have the window open all the time, multiple account support, and the whole thing is put together very elegantly. My only peeve is that I can’t find a way to make it only operate from the menu bar. I prefer not having it in the dock or when I tab through apps.

    And I love quicksilver although I hardly use it to its full potential. Nice post Josh.

  6. Joshua Works

    ⚡ Officious badass ⚡

    15 May 2009

    Faustman:

    That’s a really interesting point; I’m sure people in other professions would have the same experience, too. I can imagine a carpenter would learn a lot about another carpenter just by studying their toolbox or workshop, and may even learn some clever ways of doing things. My grandpa, a woodworker, had a lot of little tricks he taught me: putting masking tape at the end of a board, so it doesn’t splinter on the table saw; painting silhouettes of his tools on the pegboard so he knew exactly where everything went; nailing baby food lids to the underside of a shelf, so you can just unscrew the jar to get nails and other hardware. He probably didn’t invent these things himself, but they certainly would tell you a bit about how he likes things.

    I think, once you’ve made it to Firefox and you’re happy, there’s no reason to switch to Safari. My preference is 80% text rendering, 20% cleaner window chrome, but I’d be perfectly happy with Firefox if Safari wasn’t an option.

    Tim:

    I’m happy I could introduce you to Tweetie! I definitely agree, it’d be nice to turn off the Dock icon. I pretty much only use the menu bar notification icon to open the app, so the Dock icon is completely superfluous.

  7. Dave Lowe

    16 May 2009

    Great post, thanks for taking the time to share this, Josh! Like the example about your grandpa (whose tricks I’m totally going to use now), sharing tips and tools of the trade is really useful. And fun too. :)

    Your environment sounds a lot like mine. The Hit List, Safari, Textmate, 1Password, Expandrive… it’s an exciting time to be a Mac user; there are just so many excellent apps. I am going to try Adium again; I gave it up a year ago after experiencing some file transfer issues with it. I’ve resisted Growl thus far on my 6-month-old MBP… it’s so useful but I wish it wasn’t such a resource hog. But I can’t hold out much longer. In fact, Adium’s tempting me with it right now.

    I’m also a huge front-pocket slim wallet fan. My wife gave me one a year or two ago and I’ll never go back to the old way again. No more jeans with the clear imprint of a wallet on the butt.

    Aaron: I’m looking forward to trying GimmeSomeTune. I used the PearLyrics widget for a long time for this, but it was force-discontinued a while ago and hasn’t seemed to work as well since.

    Quicksilver, by the way, is definitely one of those apps that I cannot live without but I certainly don’t use enough. It’s incredibly powerful, but I generally use it for app launching and finding contacts, chats, etc. Other components I’ve started using more are its clipboard history (you can set it to save as many as you want) and Shelf (I store commonly used snippets of code).

    For accessories, I don’t know if these count as such, but here are three I have to mention: Steelcase Leap chair, Breville Ikon espresso machine, and Breville Conical Burr Grinder. These all make my home office a lot better. :)

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