What I use: The essentials

As you grow to be an expert Mac user, you start to rely on a series of handy little utilities, some of them being so useful they really become a fully integrated part of your workflow and user experience. These are usually the first third-party software you install when you’re configuring a new Mac or a second machine. Here is a brief list of utilities I can’t do without, in no particular order of importance. As you will see, most of them are free, but I strongly suggest donating to the developers if you find their app useful.


Price: $34.95

What does it do? — “TextExpander saves you countless keystrokes with customised abbreviations for your frequently-used text strings and images.” (product description)

Why do I use it? — For my translation work it’s not uncommon to have to enter the same words or even phrases more than once. With TextExpander I can associate a word, expression, even whole links to an easy-to-memorise keystroke: this saves a lot of time while typing, not to mention the increased spelling accuracy. I have shortcuts for all Apple products with tricky spelling, such as “iPhone”, “iPad”, “iPod touch”, “iTunes”, “iMovie”, etc. When I’m translating tech manuals or tutorials, these words are repeated a lot in the text, and when you have to write iTunes fifty times, sometimes you slip and write “itunes” or “Itunes” or “ITunes”. I have TextExpander autocomplete to iTunes every time I start typing “itu” and voilà, always the correct spelling. This is just a tiny example of the different ways you can use TextExpander. I can’t recommend it enough. $35 well spent indeed.


Price: Free (Basic account)

What does it do? — Dropbox’s sync service is quite well-known by now, but here goes the product description taken from its website: “Dropbox is a free service that lets you bring all your photos, docs, and videos anywhere. This means that any file you save to your Dropbox will automatically save to all your computers, phones and even the Dropbox website. Dropbox also makes it super easy to share with others, whether you’re a student or professional, parent or grandparent.”

Why do I use it? — I’ve been a Dropbox user since the early days. Now you can find many competing cloud services on the Web (some of them offering more space with a free account), but I still prefer Dropbox’s approach. I only have a free 2 GB Dropbox account, but it’s enough for me because I don’t use it for backing up all my files. Rather, I use my Dropbox folder to store essential documents and the most recent projects, so that I can sync them with all my Macs and always have them ready whatever Mac I have with me when I’m on the move. I’ve never had a problem and in a couple of occasions Dropbox even saved the day: since every time you save changes on a file Dropbox saves a version and stores a history of the actions you carried out with the file, I managed to restore a series of accidentally deleted files more than once.


Price: Free

What does it do? — “f.lux makes the color of your computer’s display adapt to the time of day, warm at night and like sunlight during the day. […] f.lux makes your computer screen look like the room you’re in, all the time. When the sun sets, it makes your computer look like your indoor lights. In the morning, it makes things look like sunlight again. Tell f.lux what kind of lighting you have, and where you live. Then forget about it. F.lux will do the rest, automatically.” (product description)

Why do I use it? — Simply put: I use it regularly because it’s been saving my eyes. I wear glasses. I’m shortsighted and astigmatic. I usually stay up late at night in front of my Mac, and since I mostly read and write, I stare at a lot of white pages with black text. Before discovering f.lux, I usually went to bed with very tired eyes. Sometimes I was forced to take long pauses because I simply couldn’t look at the screen continuously. Sometimes I had to give up work completely and go to bed even if I wasn’t really tired, all because my eyes were teary and burning from all that staring and I was also developing a headache. f.lux has made things dramatically better. If you care about your eyes, do yourself a favour and download it. It runs on Mac OS X (with a version for PPC Macs), Windows and Linux.


Price: $21.95

What does it do? — From the application website: “Hazel watches whatever folders you tell it to, automatically organizing your files according to the rules you create. It features a rule interface similar to that of Apple Mail so you should feel right at home. Have Hazel move files around based on name, date, type, what site/email address it came from (Safari and Mail only) and much more. Automatically put your music in your Music folder, movies in Movies. Keep your downloads off the desktop and put them where they are supposed to be.”

Why do I use it? — Hazel has many other features than what’s explained in the bit I just quoted. I use it because it does what it does efficiently and reliably. I mainly use it to keep my Downloads folder tidy. It’s my stealthy sorting office. I have created rules to send downloaded files in different folders according to their extension: ZIPs go in a folder, DMGs in another, PDFs in another, you get the idea. The beauty of Hazel is that once configured properly, it basically disappears, working behind the scenes. No Dock icon, no menubar icon, just a preference pane. Another piece of software that’s worth every penny. Highly recommended.


Price: Free

What does it do? — From the application website: “MenuMeters is a set of CPU, memory, disk, and network monitoring tools for Mac OS X. […] The CPU Meter can display system load both as a total percentage, or broken out as user and system time. It can also graph user and system load and display the load as a “thermometer”. […] The Disk Activity Meter displays disk activity to local disks on the system. […] It is hotplug aware, and will show activity on FireWire and USB disks as they are mounted. The Disk Meter menu shows volume space details for local drives […]. The Memory Meter can display current memory usage as either a pie chart, thermometer, history graph, or as used/free totals. The Memory Meter menu shows a breakdown of current memory usage and VM statistics. The Memory Meter can optionally display a paging indicator light. The Net Meter can display network throughput as arrows, bytes per second, and/or as a graph. […] The Net Meter menu shows current interfaces and their status. Interface information is gathered from the SystemConfiguration framework and thus is Mac OS X network location aware.”

Why do I use it? — I discovered MenuMeters when Mac OS X 10.4 was the latest version of OS X and I’ve been using it ever since. There are probably more sophisticated monitoring tools out there, but I’ve never had the urge to look for something else when MenuMeters does its job pretty well. I’m not one of those control freaks who need to monitor all the information a tool such MenuMeters can provide, all the time. I use MenuMeters mostly for monitoring the network status. It’s the best, most immediate indicator of problems with my network connection and it gives me reliable information on upload/download speeds. It’s probably the first piece of third party software I install after a clean installation on a newly acquired Mac that’s capable of running Mac OS X.


Price: $12

What does it do? — The developer explains it better than I could: “Say you get emailed a link to a great website, you want to open the link but you may not always want to use the same browser. That’s where Choosy comes in: It can prompt you to select a browser or choose a browser for you, all based on your settings. It’s highly customisable and easy to use. You can tell which browser you want to use and which ones to ignore, you can customise what it does in different situations, you can customise the appearance and you can even set up advanced behaviour rules to do very specific things in very specific circumstances.”

Why do I use it? — Those who know me well, know that I like to try many different browsers, and I reached a point where I was using a dozen of them. Sometimes I wanted a link not to open in Safari (which has always been the default browser on my Macs), and I was getting tired of opening the link in Safari, copying it and pasting it in another browser I was testing (or right-clicking the link, copying/pasting it, etc.). Choosy has addressed my needs in this matter with surgical precision. Even now that I use fewer browsers (Safari, Chrome, Stainless and Camino — sometimes Opera, but nothing more), Choosy is still quite useful. For instance, when I suspect that a link will bring me to a website with Flash content, I tell Choosy to open the link in Chrome (I’ve removed the Flash plugin from my Macs, leaving only the built-in plugin in Chrome). I make a very basic use of Choosy, but I’m really satisfied with it. If you use more than one browser on a regular basis, I suggest you give it a try. 

Notational Velocity

Price: Free

What does it do? — “Notational Velocity is an application that stores and retrieves notes.” This is how its website introduces it, but there’s so much more behind its apparent simplicity: real simplicity. Among its unique characteristics: instant incremental search, all content encrypted automatically, auto saving (way before it was such a hyped feature in Lion), native synchronisation with Simplenote, or via files in Dropbox with PlainText, Elements, iA Writer, and other iOS apps.

Why do I use it? — Short answer: it’s my digital synchronised scrapbook and keeps all my notes everywhere I go, no matter what device I’m using at the moment. Long answer: Synchronised writing.

The Unarchiver

Price: Free

What does it do? — From the application website: “The Unarchiver is a much more capable replacement for ‘Archive Utility.app’, the built-in archive unpacker program on Mac OS X. The Unarchiver is designed to handle many more formats than Archive Utility, and to better fit in with the design of the Finder. It can also handle filenames in foreign character sets, created with non-English versions of other operating systems.”

Why do I use it? — Simply because it’s an excellent tool. Let me go out on a limb here and say it’s the best tool of its kind. Another utility I’ve been using for a long time, it has opened any compressed archive I’ve thrown at it, even in outdated formats such as Compact Pro, DiskDoubler and ARJ. It has opened SIT archives when even StuffIt Expander (or Deluxe) failed. It has opened ZIP archives even when Mac OS X’s Archive Utility told me they were ‘probably corrupted’. Same with RAR files. Just download and install it, use it as your default unarchiving application, you won’t regret it. And donate to the developer.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!