Mac Apps

As it has been quite a while since I've written about my must-have Macintosh apps (or anything at all, really) I am using the occasion of having purchased a new MacBook Pro (which I shall write about in depth very soon) to update my list of essential apps for the Macintosh personal computer.

I’ve divided them up into categories. Other than that they’re listed in no particular order. I’ll also include a link to where you can get each app.

Utilities

Backblaze - Backblaze is easy online backup for your computer. It works on Mac or PC and for a few reasons it is my preferred offsite backup. Why do I need offsite/online backup? Well, if the house burns down with my computer and backup drives inside then I know everything is saved on a server somewhere. Backblaze is $5/month – less if you pay by the year or more – but you can try it for free and even get a free month (and give me a free month, too!) if you use my referral link when you sign up… https://secure.backblaze.com/r/01q1u4. Backblaze lives in your System Preferences and just works behind the scenes.

Alfred - Alfred is probably the app I actively use more than any other. It’s an on-demand menu bar that lets you launch any app or do quick internet searches or control iTunes or a thousand other things. The Spotlight bar in Yosemite does a fair amount of that now, too, but I’m used to Alfred and I think it looks much nicer. Plus, Alfred has an available Powerpak that lets you do even more amazing stuff like customizable workflows and syncing between Macs. It’s super useful. Alfred itself is free and the Powerpak is £17 (whatever that currently is in US dollars). There is also an iOS app that lets you remotely run Alfred tasks and workflows.

Dropbox - My wife and I would be totally lost without Dropbox. If you haven’t experienced the miracle that is Dropbox here is a quick summary. You install it on your computer (Mac or PC) and it creates a folder called Dropbox on your machine. Everything you put in that folder is synced automagically to the cloud and, in turn, to any other Dropbox folder on any other machine logged into the same Dropbox account. My wife used to carry (and risk losing) a thumb drive around with her with all of her work files on it (currently more than 5GB of stuff). That’s asking for trouble. Not only can it get lost, but what if you forget to back it up? What if something confidential is on there like your taxes? With Dropbox she can forget about carrying the drive because everything just magically syncs to all of our computers. You can also use Dropbox folder syncing between different accounts if you share a folder. That is how Mr. Fish and I transfer podcast files to each other. Dropbox is free to use and you get 2GB to use but there are lots of ways to increase your storage for free – referring other new users, connecting your iOS devices with Camera Upload, etc – which has gotten us up to 5.8GB total. You can pay $9.99/month to upgrade to Pro which will give you 1TB of storage but don’t do that unless you really need to.

Carbon Copy Cloner - This is another app I use for backing up my system. In this case it is for local backups. I use CCC to clone my entire Mac Mini to a network attached storage unit (using this one if you’re interested). I also clone a USB drive that has my entire photo library and some other big video files to the NAS. They recently updated CCC to make it even easier to use. It is $39.99 but you can try it for 30 days for free. I could probably get by with just using Time Machine for backups but I really like redundancy in backups.

Hazel - Hazel is one of those apps that you don’t realize how much you need it until you get it and use it for a while. They call it “Automated Organization for your Mac” and that’s a good, if not very exicting description. Essentially, in Hazel you can set up rules for files and folders to get things automated. Want to clean up your Downloads folder regularly? Set up a rule in Hazel and she does it for you. One of the biggest uses I have is to monitor the Camera Uploads folder in Dropbox. As I mentioned above, you can link your iOS device to Dropbox to get more storage, that means letting the Dropbox app on your phone import every photo you take into the Camera Uploads folder. Well, that’s going to fill up your dropbox pretty quick. So I have Hazel monitor that folder and when a new image shows up it imports it into iPhoto (for backup sake) and then put it in the trash. And I have Hazel monitor the trash, too. Any file that’s been in there for more than three days get’s deleted. Hazel is like Alfred in that there are a lot of really amazing things it can do but you’re going to have to play around with it and figure out how it works for you.

Bartender - Bartender saves me from having a menu bar with apps extending all the way to the left side of the screen. For $15 (you can try it for free for a month) my menu bar goes from this:

To this:

CleanMyMac - I use CleanMyMac to clean my Mac. It works well and looks nice and I haven’t seen anything better so I use it. It scans your system for stuff it doesn’t need like extra language files or old caches or even big files that haven’t been used in a while and then lets you decide if you want to go ahead and delete them. It also monitors the trash and if you move an app you don’t need anymore to the trash CleanMyMac will ask if you want to delete any associated files also (Yes, yes you do.). It is free to try and $39.95 to purchase. They have a CleanMyPC for the same price.

Audio and Video

Lightroom - Lightroom is my photo editor of choice. It’s not cheap, especially when you have a free option like iPhoto or the upcoming Photos app from Apple, but it is made for professional photographers. Lightroom lets you do just about anything you can possibly do to photo files. Don’t buy it directly from Adobe, though. They’re going to try to rope you into a Creative Cloud subscription that will run you $10/month… forever. If you buy it from Amazon it will run you less than $150 and you’ll be able to download the standalone version right away.

Exposure - Exposure from Alien Skin runs either as a companion to Lightroom or as a standalone app. Basically it lets you emulate films and other photographic processes in your digital photographs. It’s not an essential app for most people but it does work really well and I love the results I get with it. It normally runs $149 but if you follow the more popular Lightroom and photography sites you can sometimes find really good deals on Exposure. I paid less than $100 for my copy.

Pixelmator - I would call Pixelmatr the poor man’s Photoshop but it’s way more capable than that implies. At only $30 it’s super convenient if you’re like me and only need a Photoshop-type app every once in a while for small jobs. For example, I made every one of our Podcast logos in Pixelmator.

Audio Hijack - Audio Hijack is one of those great utilities that does one thing so well that you end up finding a million ways to use it. Brandon and I use it to record ourselves for the podcast but you can also use it to record any audio that comes into your Mac. I’ve pulled songs off YouTube (shh, don’t tell anyone) and grabbed audio clips from movies to use in the podcast. I’ve even used it to set recording levels on the mixer I got for the podcast. If you do anything with audio you should probably have Audio Hijack on your Mac.

Logic Pro X - Ok, you almost definitely do not need Logic Pro X for making a podcast. You can do most of what you need to do in Garageband. But, having used Garageband, and now Logic, I can say that it is definitely worth the $199 to upgrade to Logic. It gives so much more control over every aspect of recording, editing, and encoding a podcast audio file. Sure, it’s expensive and there is a fairly steep learning curve but Logic is a great program and it makes my life easier.

Fission - Fission is by the same folks who make Audio Hijack and it is also a very useful app. I use it to trim and fade in/out audio clips I record in Audio Hijack. It also has a batch converter function that I use to convert audio files between formats.

Handbrake - Handbrake is billed as a converter for video but if we’re being completely honest most people only use it for one thing: ripping movies from DVD to a computer. It works great for that. There are a ton of different finicky settings and parameters in Handbrake but the built-in presets usually work well. And the best part of Handbrake is that it’s free.

MetaMovie - Once I have a movie ripped from a DVD and on my computer I use MetaMovie to add cover artwork and all of the metadata to the file. With MetaMovie you can search internet databases quickly for artwork, metadata, and chapter info then have all of that encoded in the file. After that you can import into iTunes and the data and artwork will show up anywhere you view the file: iOS devices, Apple TV, etc.

Communication

Skype - I’ll be honest, I don’t like Skype. But it’s free and it works. Brandon and I use it to talk to each other during our podcast recording sessions. I also sometimes use it to talk to family when we or they are away on vacation, especially when wifi is cheaper than roaming.

Twitterrific - Twitterrific on the Mac isn’t great. It’s in need of some serious updating but Twitterrific on iOS is my preferred client and Icon Factory are working on a new Mac version.

Reeder - My favorite RSS reader on the Mac (I use Unread on iOS). It works great.

Chrome - For those times when Safari isn’t supported. Or if you just need to open a page in a second browser.

Ulysses - Ulysses is my preferred writing environment on the Mac. I’m writing these very words in Ulysses. And it has iCloud integration and a great iPad app as well. It’s very customizable without being too technical (such as BBEdit).

Other Useful Apps

Droplr - Droplr is my url shortener of choice. If you follow me on twitter you have seen me share links and images and gifs with Droplr.

SystemPal - System pal monitors your Mac’s system. I use it for the CPU temp monitor that I keep in the menu bar.

Fantastical - I use Fantastical to manage events on all of my devices, Mac and iOS. My wife and I currently have eight different calendars in iCloud and Fantastical makes it super easy. It was one one of the first calendar apps to have natural language processing for inputing events and that really reduces friction in entry.

1Password - 1Password is the best way to organize any information you want safe and secure. I put passwords, credit cards, identification info, secure notes, etc., in there. You just remember the one master password and everything is accessible. 1P is available for Mac, iOS, Windows, and Android so you have no excuse not to secure your info. Seriously. Do it.

TextExpander - This is a very useful little app that lets you have custom text snippets triggered but custom text strings. For instance, when I type “addy” on my Mac it automagically expands to my email address. I also use it for html markup and fixing my common typos. They have an iOS version, too, but I usually just use the keyboard shortcuts in the settings menu for that.

Deliveries - Deliveries is my package tracker of choice on Mac and iOS. It works great and syncs between devices.

Wunderlist - My wife and I use Wanderlist to organize our projects and to-dos. It works great for us because it syncs and we can share lists (or choose not to share lists). And having Mac and iOS apps makes it easy to enter and keep track of tasks.

PDFpen - I use PDFpen for signing digital documents and for joining scanned bills into a single pdf for archiving each month. It works great for both although it does a lot more that I don’t really use it for.

Soulver - The best way I can describe Soulver is a cross between a spreadsheet and a scratchpad. It’s a great way to quick math and it’s another one of those programs that you find a million uses for after you start using it.

Apple Apps

These are the Apple apps I use on a regular basis. They’re all free and likely already on your machine so I’m not going to link to them.

Mail - I know a lot of people hate Apple’s Mail app but it works fine for me. I don’t get all that much email, though, to be honest.

iPhoto - I use iPhoto purely because it lets me save all of my iPhone photos automagically through iCloud. I very rarely use it for any editing. It’s going to be replaced by the new Photos app this Spring which looks to be much more capable so I may use that more.

Safari - I use Safari as my primary browser. Firefox is kind of garbage now and as fast as Chrome is giving Google any information about my browsing gives me the creeps. Plus, if you use Safari on iOS it syncs bookmarks and tabs really easily.

Image Capture - Most people probably don’t know that Image Capture is even on their Mac. But it’s there, hiding in the Applications folder. If you need to import images or video from any device connected to your Mac but don’t necessarily want those files to go into iPhoto or iTunes use Image Capture to simply import the files and put them where you want them. Very handy when you’re on vacation and just need to batch import images to free up SD card space without having to edit in a full application.

Audio MIDI Setup - If you have any issues setting up audio input or output devices – very common if you’re doing a podcast – this is a great place to start fixing them. You can choose which devices are used for input and output as well as setting levels for those devices. It does what the System Preferences > Sound pane does but so much more.

Finally

There you have it. A ton of apps that I pretty much have to have installed on my Mac to make everything work the way I want.

More on Mac Software Woes

Last week Marco Arment posted his Apple has lost the functional high ground and the entire internet (including me) responded with every perspective possible.

The responses I read can be broken down into three groups.

Group 1. People who haven't used Mac products all that long and went down the Panic! Doom! road. I am in this group. So was Marco himself. A lot of us freaked out because here is this guy (Marco, not me) who develops for iOS, uses a Mac, and has the respect of a lot of the Mac community and he's seemingly losing faith in the Mac platform.

Group 2. Long time Mac users who, while not resorting to panic, still pointed out that, yes, Apple has a lot of issues on the software front. In this group was Craig Hockenberry with his post, Death by a thousand cuts and Glenn Fleishman's list of The Software and Services Apple Needs to Fix. It's a long list of issues that any intermediate to advanced Mac user will find very familiar. Dr. Drang's Apple Leverage is also in this group.

Group 3. Long time Mac users who see this as yet another moment in a very long history of complaining about all the things Apple does wrong while still being the best computer company out there and continuing to get bigger and better. Gruber argues that Apple hasn't lost the Functional High Ground because no one else is picking it up and running with it. Daniel Jalkut, who's been following Apple since 1996 and actually worked for the company, weighed in with this post in which he lists a major issue for every year since he started blogging in 2005 and sums up the, "Hey. Everybody calm down," sentiment nicely:

Apple is clearly doomed. I think Apple is going to be okay.

So, maybe let's don't panic. I now think that the best course of action is the one Ashley Nelson-Hornstein advocates:

I’ll be justifiably concerned and worried if the same software quality issues are being discussed in 10.11 and iOS 9. Until then, I’m willing to give Apple the time necessary to let their plans propagate.

I’ll be checking back in another six months, during WWDC.

Also...

Marco since posted this about what the aftermath of his post was like, including being brought up in a piece on CNBC. In summary, it really sucked for him.

Apple's Software Woes

I have been thinking about getting a new Mac. My Mac mini, though it's been an absolute workhorse, is starting to get to that age where Mac products start to act weird. It's from late 2012 and when I got the Mac mini we were on 10.8 Mountain Lion. That, and the idea of being able to write posts and edit podcasts on a Macbook Air in the living room – where my family, and more importantly, my television, is – got me thinking about an upgrade.

A few factors have kept me from pulling the trigger: I don't have the money for a new computer right now, I want to wait for the next generation of processors from Intel, I don't really need a new computer, etc. But one that has crept into my head more and more is the fact that as good as Apple's hardware usually is, their software just seems to get worse and worse.

This post from Marco Arment really resonated with me tonight:

Apple’s hardware today is amazing — it has never been better. But the software quality has taken such a nosedive in the last few years that I’m deeply concerned for its future. I’m typing this on a computer whose existence I didn’t even think would be possible yet, but it runs an OS riddled with embarrassing bugs and fundamental regressions. Just a few years ago, we would have relentlessly made fun of Windows users for these same bugs on their inferior OS, but we can’t talk anymore.

It's very true. I haven't tried to sell anyone on Mac by saying, "It just works," in a long time now because, unfortunately it doesn't just work. That is part of my trepidation in getting a new Mac. I would have to do to a new system all of the hacks and add all of the third-party software that I have done and added to the Mac mini just to get the new one functional to the point where I can use it.

Stuff I've done to my Mac includes:

Adding third-party utilities: TextExpander, Dropbox, Alfred, BBEdit, Hazel, Backblaze, 1Password, Carbon Copy Cloner, iPhoto Library Manager, VTAudioSwitch

Terminal Hacks: Moving the dock, allowing OS X to connect to my mixer via Firewire, getting rid of the god-awful window opening animation, deleting more .plist files than I care to list, deleting language files, un-hiding hidden system files

And none of that includes all of the programs like Lightroom and Handbrake and such that I use. Those above are just the ones I absolutely need to have to get my system to the point where I can really use it. Don't even get me started on the times I need to open a website in Chrome because Safari just can't be bothered.

I'm not trying to suggest that Apple should have every possible utility built into the OS. That's not possible and it would piss off a lot of developers.

What I am suggesting is that Apple re-focus and do the parts we need them to do right. We should never have to go through wonky OS bugs just because someone in Cupertino thinks the yearly update schedule is more important than the quality of the end product. We should never, ever, have our phones bricked by a small OS update.

I have a very good friend – most of you have heard his gorgeous voice – who sends me a Twitter message every time there's a new OS X or iOS update just to see if it's safe. We've been burned so often now that this is perfectly reasonable for a customer of the largest company in the WORLD to have to do. That's ridiculous.

I'm not switching to Linux but I will confess to this: My daughter and I are considering building a gaming PC so we can play Minecraft and X-Plane and a bunch of other games. The system we're thinking about installing? Windows 8.

I am holding out hope that whatever is wrong with software development in Cupertino gets fixed in the next year. Maybe I'm just venting and I'll forget my complaints when the next shiny thing comes out of Apple. But, if they don't get their act together on software I don't know how much of a future demanding users will have with Apple.

Backups

Now that you know all there is to know about my home network here is a look at my backups.

First I'll get the iPhones out of the way. They back up to iCloud. I don't even bother with backing them up locally unless I'm getting ready to upgrade iOS and want to be able to quickly restore them after. Everything on the phones that needs backing up is backed up through Dropbox or iCloud or some other service to the Mac mini and, therefore, is covered by the Mac backups.

Click to enlargenate

There's a screen grab of my Mac mini showing all of the local, redundant backups. As I stated in the network post, I have a Lacie NAS on the home network with 3.6TB (not all of it allocated to the shares shown in that window). I have one share for a straight clone of the Mac mini that runs each night. It's called Clone and the scheduled backup in Carbon Copy Cloner is MacMiniClone. I like obvious names. Clone is just a little bigger than the full size of the Fusion drive in the Mac mini.

A second share on the NAS is called TimeMachine and it's almost twice the size of the Mac mini drive to leave plenty of room for versions. The last share is called Storage and it's for two things. First, I put video and photos that need to get edited (mostly from things like dance recitals and such) but don't need to be taking up a ton of space on the Mac. Second, all of the podcast files for IRR CON POD and for my (I promise, it's coming soon) new podcast. The podcast stuff doesn't take up all that much space – about 3GB – but I want it available on the network for when I can eventually edit and post on a Macbook Air.

I can hear some of you asking, "Hey, dummy. You're using your backup drive for storing things. Are you backing them up somewhere?" Yes. Yes, I am.

If you take a look at the side bar in that screen shot of Carbon Copy Cloner you'll see three more copy jobs and a 4TB volume called 5BIGBACKUP. That's a big USB 3 external drive from Seagate – it's this one. On that drive are three folders holding three backups. One each of the shares on the NAS. I could have plugged that drive directly into the NAS but I had two good reasons to hook it up to the Mac. First, believe it or not, the data transfers over the network, through the Mac, and onto the Seagate faster than letting the NAS do it's own backup. It must be an OS thing, but it's faster this way. And the other advantage to putting it on the Mac is that attached drives can be backed up using my preferred online backup service, Backblaze. For $5/month I have offsite backup of my Mac and everything on that Seagate (so everything on the NAS).

Ok. If you're keeping score at home everything on my Mac is backed up seven times. Seven.

1: Mac backed up to Backblaze

2-4: Time Machine to NAS, NAS Time Machine share cloned to Seagate, Seagate Time Machine clone to Backblaze.

5-7: Clone of Mac to NAS, NAS Clone share cloned to Seagate, Seagate Clone clone to Backblaze.

And everything in the Storage share is also backed up twice. One local on the Seagate and one offsite with Backblaze. I have some spare drives here so I'm thinking about adding at least one more copy of Storage.

In addition, I have alerts for all of these if they fail to complete a backup. Time Machine will display a notification on the Mac. And Carbon Copy Cloner and Backblaze will both email me if there is any error in copying. Also, because I use Carbon Copy Cloner for all copy jobs other than Time Machine and Backblaze (which are basically continuous) I can see which clone is most current just by opening the app and seeing what ran last.

If you're asking yourself if you need to go to this length to backup your stuff... Um, no. Probably not. Keep in mind I have been burned badly by not having backups – I have zero photos from our honeymoon in New York City – so I'm very data paranoid. If you have at least one, or two (drives do fail) local clones of your computer and use an offsite service like Backblaze then you're fine. But I've sworn I will never, ever lose important digital stuff to my own stupidity again.

Note: Yes. I do have the Death Star on my desktop. You can, too. And I have modified icons for a lot of things in the Dock. I got them, and instructions on how to install them, here.