Wordman’s Recommended OS X Software

May 2nd, 2013 — Wordman

To save time the next time someone asks me, I put together this list of Mac OS X software. It is intended for people who have just started using a Mac. Most of these recommendations are based on my own use of the software. Some entries might be more obscure “best of breed” solutions for problems that you might have (even if I might not). Other recommendations are targeted at “switchers” from Windows who might be looking for replacements for specific software on that platform. I’ve attempted to avoid listing the more standard stuff, like iTunes or commercial software like Photoshop (or many games). If you need such things, you likely already know about them. This list focusses on the Mac, rather than iOS (I have another page of iOS recommendations, if that’s your thing).

Previous incarnations of this list seem to have been useful, but are not aging well. For one thing, the iPhone was just getting started at that point and much of the Mac ecosystem has changed in sympathy to it since then, as have the needs of a typical Mac user. Apple’s app store has also made finding the software you need much easier, at least for apps listed on it.

If you’re looking for a type of software that isn’t listed here, try I Use This, Free Mac Ware, Open Source Mac and VersionTracker.

Often, software listed here can be purchased for far less than the prices listed, through bundles offered periodically by places like MacHeist or MacUpdate. Also, if you have found this page because you are merely thinking about switching to the Mac, make sure you visit the MacRumors buyer’s guide before you buy something.

Freeware

Freeware may be downloaded and used for no cost at all. Some of these titles are “donationware”, software that the author makes available for free, but asks for donations to fund his efforts. Since the coming of Apple’s App Store, freeware is getting a bit harder to find. Prior to the store, a software developer needed some sort of e-commerce setup to charge for software, but the App Store has removed this barrier (at least to those who don’t mind giving 30% to Apple). Also, the iOS ecosystem got both developers and consumers used to the idea of the 99¢ or $5 app, which previously was fairly rare in the shareware app world.
Adium

Adium X

http://www.adiumx.com/

Free. An instant messaging client which can talk to just about every service out there (Jabber, Aim, Google Talk, Facebook Chat, Twitter, etc.). It is also extremely customizable.

Alternatives: Apple’s Messages (previously iChat) has evolved to the point that it can give Adium a run for its money, especially if you need phone-based text messaging thrown into the mix.

Air Video Server

Air Video Server

http://www.inmethod.com/air-video/

Free. This unobtrusive server allows you to stream video from your Mac to an iOS device on the same network. It supports a number of formats, converting them while streaming if necessary. To watch the video, your iOS device needs a specific client application (a free, limited version, or a $3 full version).

Alfred

Alfred

http://www.alfredapp.com/

Free. Once you use an application like Alfred to launch applications, open files and search, you have a hard time using machines that don’t offer something similar. Its description as a “productivity application” doesn’t do much to tell you what it does, which is a bit hard to explain. The basic idea is that you use a hot key combination (option-space, by default) to pop up a window, then type a few characters to do all sorts of stuff. It is best examined by installing it and trying it out. Alfred has a £15 PowerPack that extends its functionality, but it is perfectly usable without it.

Alternatives: When it looked like Quicksilver was dead, I spent some time looking at Quicksilver alternatives.

AppleJack

AppleJack

http://applejack.sourceforge.net/

Free. You may never actually need AppleJack, but when you do, it will save your ass. AppleJack is a boot-time, command-line tool that can do things like disk repair and so on, without needing a second startup disk. It’s also much easier to use than similar tools I’ve seen. It operates in single user mode (which, as I continually forget, is accessed by holding down command and s while booting).

Battery Health

Battery Health

http://www.fiplab.com/

Free. If you have a laptop, keeping this app running in the background gives you a decent picture of what your battery is up to, and how well it is aging.

Bricksmith

Bricksmith

http://bricksmith.sourceforge.net/

Donationware. Bricksmith allows you to create virtual instructions for your Lego® creations. The app is based on the LDraw library, a collection of 3D models of Lego building blocks created by enthusiasts from around the world. My recommendation of this software should be considered biased, since I contribute code to it every once in a while. If you use this software to build models, you might also be interested in LDView, LPub and POV-Ray.

Chmox

Chmox

http://chmox.sf.net/

Free. It is rare that you actually need to be able to read a Microsoft help archive file (a *.chm file) on a Mac, but occasionally you find some good reference material in that format. This reader can open and display such files, all in a Mac-like way. Simple, but effective.

ClamXav

ClamXav

http://clamxav.com/

Free. Viruses have never been that big of a problem on the Mac. Up through Mac OS 9, there were only a handful of known virii, only a couple of which were dangerous. So far, even fewer have targeted Mac OS X. Still, Macs can hold files that contain virii from other platforms (such as the tens of thousands of them that can affect Office documents on Win32 machines) and pass them on. Your Win32 friends will thank you not to send them any, and this program can find and kill them. Watching this scan your junk mail folder is educational.

DiffPDF

DiffPDF

http://www.qtrac.eu/diffpdf.html

Free. Depending on how often you work with .pdf files, you may need a utility to compare the contents of two different versions. While not perfect, this does a fairly decent job of graphically displaying what has changed between two versions. This is really a Linux utility, but if you dig through the page linked to above, you should find a link to a Mac version.

EasyFind

EasyFind

http://www.devontechnologies.com/products/freeware.html

Free. OS X has a built-in feature for searching files called Spotlight. This feature has come a long way since it was first introduced. If you view all results on Mountain Lion, for example, you can click the + button at that top to add all sorts of filtering to the results, a big improvement over its initial incarnation. Still, sometimes you need even more power, which this app can provide.

Alternatives: Both DataLore and HoudahSpot are more powerful than EasyFind, for a price.

Eclipse

Eclipse

http://www.eclipse.org/

Free. Widely regarded as just a Java IDE (a task at which it is unrivaled, in my opinion), Eclipse is really more of a platform into which functionality can be plugged. The Java plugins happen to be bundled with the download, but there are others that extend Eclipse to be much more, such as the ability to write and debug Perl and all sorts of other stuff.

File Merge

File Merge

http://developer.apple.com/tools/macosxtools.html

Free. A gem hidden among the Mac OS X development tools, this is a slick text file comparison application. Almost as good as the one built into CodeWarrior once upon a time, but free. Downloading the dev tools requires a free registration with Apple.

Fink

Fink

http://fink.sourceforge.net/

Free. Provides downloading, installation and management of nearly 5000 open source Unix programs, compiled and tested under Mac OS X. If you are a Linux or Unix user looking to get your favorite tool onto your new Mac, check out Fink first. Most likely, someone has already gone through the pain of porting it for you.

Alternatives: Several other projects aim to do the same thing that Fink does, including Homebrew, Rudix and MacPorts.

Fluid

Fluid

http://fluidapp.com/

Free. Fluid allows you to wrap a particular web page up as a distinct application. For example, if you use GMail (or Facebook, Campfire, Pandora, etc.), you can build a GMail app that is nothing but a dedicated browser containing just the GMail experience, but is treated as a first class application by the OS. Fluid uses WebKit, so provides the same experience that Safari would. There is also a $5 version that gives you a few other bells and whistles (e.g. full screen application).

Solitaire XL

Full Deck Solitaire

http://www.grlgames.net/page9/

Free. The most used Windows application is Solitare, and switchers might go into withdrawal, since no solitaire application ships with OS X. In the broader ecosystem, however, you have quite a few to choose from on the OS X side of things, but this seems to be the best.

GeekTool

GeekTool

http://projects.tynsoe.org/en/geektool/

Free. A strange little application, GeekTool allows you to display various kinds of information (mostly output of unix scripts) on your desktop. This doesn’t sound like much, but you can do some clever things with it.

Go2Shell

Go2Shell

http://alicedev.com/go2shell

Free. This app integrates into the Finder (by dragging the app into the Finder’s toolbar…yes, you can do that). Once so installed, any time you click it in the toolbar, a terminal will be opened, with the working directory set to the directory currently displayed in the Finder window.

HandBrake

HandBrake

http://handbrake.fr/

Free. The only DVD ripper you’ll ever need. Though it has every tweakable setting you’d ever want, it hides this power under a simple interface, with presets for iPods, AppleTVs and so on. It can also handle multiple audio tracks, subtitles and so on. If you happen to have a Blu-Rray drive, however, HandBrake cannot read it directly.

IPSecuritas

IPSecuritas

http://www.lobotomo.com/products/IPSecuritas/

Donationware. This IPSec client allows your Mac to connect to virtual private networks (VPNs). Though not the most intuitive interface on Earth, it gets the job done. If you have a home router capable of creating a VPN, you can use this client to access your home network while you are at work or on the road.

iTerm

iTerm

http://www.iterm2.com/

Donationware. While the Mac comes with a serviceable command line application called Terminal, this replacement for it goes a bit farther, adding support for split panes, better searching, full screen support, and so on. I wish it supported integration with a password manager, but no such luck (yet).

Light Table

Light Table

http://www.lighttable.com/

Free. Development of this experimental integrated development environment (IDE) is funded by a Kickstarter project and seeks to provide a “work surface” for real-time programming, rather than windows and nested frames of most IDEs. The tool is still in the alpha stages, but supports Python, Javascript, CSS, HTML and Clojure at present. Play around with it.

MetaX

MetaX

http://www.kerstetter.net/index.php/projects/software/metax

Free. Allows you to edit the metadata (title, episode id, cover art, etc.) of video files. It offers much more advanced controls and option than similar tools in iTunes, and writes them permanently into the video file (which iTunes does not do), so if you move the file to another computer, the metadata goes with it. Under the hood, it uses the Atomic Parsley command-line tool, and it can make use of services like tagChimp to download metadata for millions of titles.

NeoOfficeJ

NeoOfficeJ

http://www.neooffice.org/

Free. While the OS X version of Microsoft’s Office for Mac finally contains first class Mac applications again (for a while, the Mac versions were terrible), the suite remains pricy. NeoOfficeJ offers a version of OpenOffice, but built with a native Mac look and feel. While not quite as polished as Office for Mac, this app is file compatible with it, and infinitely cheaper. Note that, like OpenOffice, NeoOfficeJ is a Java application.

Alternatives: Apple’s iWork suite is reasonably priced, offers iPad versions of the apps, and has the advantage of offering its applications separately, but the experience is a bit different than Office for Mac. Keynote is flat-out better than PowerPoint. Pages is a bit more of a page layout program and a bit less of a word processor than Word. Numbers is a curious beast that is sort of spreadsheet like, but not really the same thing as Excel.

Onyx

Onyx

http://www.titanium.free.fr/downloadonyx.php

Free. A general purpose utility for setting various (otherwise hidden) options in Max OS X, such as dock “pinning” and drop shadows, permission repairing, logs, etc.

Prey

Prey

http://preyproject.com/

Free. Both software and a service, installing Prey allows you to track your Mac if it gets stolen. When you install it, you register on Prey’s web site, which is used to mark a machine as “missing” and do other setup. When so marked, your machine will send reports to Prey about the machine’s location, even pictures from its webcam, to the web site. The software is free and the service allows tracking of three devices for free. You can also install prey on smartphones, so, if you have a lot of devices, you might need to pay for more advanced service.

Alternatives: Apple’s Find My Device is bundled into most of their devices now.

QuickLook CSV

QuickLook CSV plugin

https://code.google.com/p/quicklook-csv/

Free. This quick look plugin not only displays a popup preview of data in comma-separated value (csv) and tab delimited files, but also changes their icon into a rough rendering of what the document looks like.

SimpleMovieX

SimpleMovieX

http://simplemoviex.com/SimpleMovieX/

Free. If you rip your DVDs or record from television, you may find you have a need for some lightweight editing of the results, such as trimming out commercials, eliminating the same annoying opening credits from every episode of a TV series, concatenation of several videos in a row, adding/removing/renaming chapters, and so on. SimpleMovieX is built for this kind of quick video work.

SiteSucker

SiteSucker

http://sitesucker.us/mac/mac.html

Free. Sometimes you just need to download an entire web site at once. This software provides a fairly intuitive way of doing so, with a handful of options to tune for a particular site..

Alternatives: The previously recommended WebDevil provides a bit more power, but is expensive. The command line app wget can also do some types of whole site downloading.

Skim

Skim

http://skim-app.sourceforge.net/

Free. A slim-but-powerful PDF reader. Unlike Acrobat Reader, it supports the new Retina displays. Unlike Preview (which comes free with OS X), it allows you to control if the first page is single or double when in two-page display mode, and its full page mode is less flickery. It also has note-taking capabilities, so you can add annotations to PDFs.

SourceTree

SourceTree

http://sourcetreeapp.com/

Free. If you need a dedicated graphical client for distributed revision control systems (DVCS) like Git or Mercurial, SourceTree is the weapon of choice. While Git plugins are available for Eclipse (see above), the dedicated nature of this app makes using these services a bit easier.

Suspicious Package

Suspicious Package

http://www.mothersruin.com/software/SuspiciousPackage/

Free. While most software downloads no longer require installers (just dragging an app to a folder), sometimes files need to go in particular places, so you get an installer package. You can never really tell what is in such packages, unless you have this quick look extension installed. Click once on the package, hit space, and get a popup window listing everything inside the package.

Transmission

Transmission

http://www.transmissionbt.com/

Free. With the large number of BitTorrent clients available on the Mac, with different release schedules, something as subjective as which is one is “best” tends to ebb and flow. Last I looked, this was the client that worked for me, with a clear interface that did what I asked it to. Since I keep an old machine under my desk that is more or less dedicated to things like BitTorrent, I also appreciate that this app publishes a browser-based interface so other machines on my LAN can control it.

Alternatives: The µTorrent client now runs on the Mac and has a number of users who converted from Transmission. Xtorrent seems more feature rich, but isn’t free.

Video Monkey

Video Monkey

http://videomonkey.org/

Free. Once there was an application called VisualHub, which rose above the sea of batch video conversion applications on the Mac to become both powerful and (very) easy to use. (Plus, it’s icon, an amalgam of a film strip and the Rosetta Stone was totally brilliant.) Then, its creator gave up. What followed was a long chain of forks, clones, bizarre patches and dead ends, with names like iSquint, Transcoder Redux (at several different places) and FilmRedux. Video Monkey is the only free app to emerge from the ashes that captures the essence of VisualHub. It also adds the ability to add metadata as part of the conversion.

Alternatives: A more direct ancestor to VisualHub is ReduxEncoder, which looks to be similar to Video Monkey, but costs £2. Even more expensive, but perhaps a bit more polished is Permute. Some of the other applications in this list (e.g. HandBrake, VLC) can also convert video, but don’t handle batches well. RoadMovie is also worth a look (even though it is $30), as it combines metadata editing with batch video conversion.

Vienna

Vienna

http://www.vienna-rss.org/

Free. Prior to the rise of social networks, Really Simple Syndication (RSS) was all the rage. Now it seems like many have never even heard of it, and Google is killing the service that many RSS readers use for syncing. It still works the way I do, though, (and social networking mostly doesn’t) so I’m still an RSS junky. This open source reader is simple, and does just enough for me. Recently, they added Google Reader syncing (oops), so if anyone builds a decent replacement for the API, chances are it will get updated to use it.

Alternatives: I’ll like continue to use Google Reader until it dies on July 1, 2013. It looks like Feedly might be able to replace it. These are both browser-based. For Mac app solutions, Reeder has a lot of fans, but is also leveraged heavily into the Google Reader API.

VLC

VLC

http://www.videolan.org/vlc/

Free. A video player that can play more formats than the default QuickTime installation provides (including AVI, MKV and divx). There are some iOS apps which can act as a remote control for playback in VLC as well.

Vue Pioneer

Vue Pioneer

http://www.e-onsoftware.com/products/vue/vue_pioneer/

Free. Vue creates 3D scenery using fractal terrain and can add trees as well, with photorealistic rendering of the whole scene. It is part of a cross-platform suite of products that get more powerful as they get more expensive.

Alternatives: Terrain rendering apps seem to leapfrog each other regularly and target different markets. You might find that Bryce (which would get my recommendation instead of Vue Pioneer if it were able to run on Lion or beyond), TerraRay, Terragen, one of Vue’s more expensive brethren or Daz Studio work better for you.

Wireshark

Wireshark

http://www.wireshark.org/

Free. Wireshark is a cross-platform network packet analyzer, with pretty good visualization, decent documentation and a legion of users.

Commercial

Commercial software must be paid for before being downloaded (though, in many cases, trial versions may be available). This model was quite rare in the Mac world prior to the advent of the App Store, limited to major applications like Office or Photoshop, or high profile games. This type of software also used to be much more geared to physical delivery in shrink-wrapped boxes, but that is now the exception, to the point that the line between “shareware” and “commercial” software no longer exists.
1Password

1Password

http://1passwd.com/

$30. Since the authors of 1Password removed WiFi syncing with iOS, I have a hard time recommending this as unequivocally as I did before (even if they do eventually offer some USB based sync). [Update: they listened to customers like me and put Wi-Fi syncing back in iPassword 4. So, back to an unequivocal thumbs up.] Still, this application will change the way you use the web. Since it seamlessly integrates into major browsers, any time you create an account on a web site, you use 1Password to generate and store a completely random and unique password for that site. When you go back to the site, 1Password remembers that password for you. So, you get to be secure, without the hassle of remembering huge numbers of passwords yourself. The application also can track serial numbers for software, credit card numbers and so on, all stored strongly encrypted. It does support Dropbox syncing; however, even with encryption it strikes me that transmitting all of your passwords in the cloud is a really bad idea, so I don’t use that feature.

Alternatives: A number of other password managers exist, many which do have wifi syncing. Few offer browser integration (yet), which is the feature that makes 1Password useful. The most promising of these is STRIP, which was found to be more secure than 1Password. The cross-platform mSecure is also a contender.

Bartender

Bartender

http://www.macbartender.com/

$15. More and more apps these days clutter up your menu bar with status icons. Most of these icons can be turned off, but some can’t, and some are still useful. Bartender allows you to collect all these menu bar items into a submenu of sorts, with full control over which items go where. It offers a four week free trial.

BetterZip

BetterZip

http://macitbetter.com/

$20. While OS X comes with a number of ways to work with zip files, BetterZip is, well, better at more complex work, particularly for exploring contents of an archive without decompressing it. BetterZip can also decompress other compression formats, such as .tar and .rar, including most traditionally Mac types like .sit. As a separate download, it also supplies a quick look extension that shows the contents of a zip archive.

Cheetah 3d

Cheetah 3d

http://www.cheetah3d.com/

$99. While quite a few 3d editors exist on the Mac, Cheetah is one of the few designed specifically for it. It’s UI is powerful, but more intuitive that other 3d packages I’ve tried (user interface in 3d packages tends toward the bizarre). The latest version (6.x) also seems to be collecting a bunch of 5-out-of-5 ratings from all over the place.

Alternatives: Some free 3d suites are popular but not as easy to use, particularly Blender and DAZ Studio. Prices get nuts on the higher end with Maya.

Coda

Coda

http://www.panic.com/coda/

$79. Until Coda, there were two basic methods of creating web sites. One way was to use a WYSIWYG tool like Sandvox or RapidWeaver. The other was to do hand coding using a mix of various tools, like text editors, file transfer programs, CSS editors and various browsers. Coda attempts to change this (and succeeds pretty well), providing a tool for the “hand markup” set that vastly streamlines workflow, and essentially obsoletes about a half-dozen other tools. Panic Software allows a 30-day trial before requiring payment, with a small discount if you own other Panic titles.

Alternatives: Coda has spawned some imitators, mostly developers of the aforementioned “various tools”, who are trying to turn their tool into a more widely encompassing platform, such as the way CSSEdit 3 has mutated into Espresso. The cross-platform Aptana isn’t as slick looking, but seems plenty powerful and is free.

Daisy Disk

Daisy Disk

http://www.daisydiskapp.com/

$10. The evolution of graphically investigating what is taking up your hard drive space, using a “sunburst” style of display which seems more natural than the “heat map” style of some of the alternatives. This software also handles the little details very well, making it very intuitive.

Alternatives: Applications like Disk Inventory X do a similar job for free, but with less polish. DiskWave provides even less polish, but is also free.

Delicious Library

Delicious Library

http://www.delicious-monster.com/

$40. For the anal-retentive in you, this tracks collections of books, DVDs, CDs and games. Integrates with a bar-code scanner, if you happen to have one (such as a hacked CueCat). Also allows you to use a video camera to scan barcodes. Can enter ISBN or USP numbers and will lookup information on item on the net. Library allows only 25 items to be entered unless you pay for it.

Alternatives: Inventory managers can be found all over the place. Most of them are terrible. One free offering that seems to, at least, have rough feature parity with Delicious Library is Data Crow.

DupeZap

DupeZap

http://www.hyperbolicsoftware.com/DupeZap.html

$5. It turns out to be fairly easy to wind up with duplicate copies of files, particularly if you collect certain types of data (say, comic book files or role-playing pdfs). This application will hunt for duplicate files and let you delete extras; however, pay careful attention to what it finds. If you are not sure what it is doing, you can get burned.

Alternatives: Gemini, DupeZap Plus (basically DupeZap 2, but more expensive); TidyUp (even more features and cost).

EV:Nova

Escape Velocity: Nova

http://www.ambrosiasw.com/games/evn/

$30. A role-playing/space combat game that is sort of hard to explain until you play it. The makers of this game, Ambrosia, completely rule. If this genre is not your cup of tea, I guarantee that they have another game (some of which, alas, only run in Classic mode) that will have you addicted within minutes. If you like this game, you might also try Vendetta, which is very similar in concept, but uses 3D first-person combat and requires on-line play with thousands of other players.

GraphicConverter X

GraphicConverter X

http://www.lemkesoft.de/en/graphcon.htm

$30. Capable of reading and writing nearly any graphic format, this program also has slide show capability and a great directory-based image browser. A suite of batch processing tools also make altering multiple files the same way mostly painless. (For example, take a huge directory of images, scale them all to be the same height, then crop them to be the same width, then save them as a different format.)

Growl

Growl

http://growl.info/ (app store)

$4. Growl is a notification system used by a lot of the other apps on this list to breifly popup a message in the corner of your screen to alert you to an event (such as e-mail arriving, a job completing, and so on). Though previously free, the developer has now fully embraced the App Store model.

Alternatives: Mountain Lion’s new Notification Center is aimed squarely at out-growling Growl. For the moment, more apps support Growl.

Icon Creator

Icon Creator

http://mediaware.sk/iconcreator

$4. Once upon a time, the Mac developer tools came with Icon Composer, a simple application for editing application icons. In the early days of OS X development, Apple had to build quick and dirty tools like this, since they were the only show in town. Now that third parties build much better icon editors than Apple could, they have discontinued Icon Composer. This is probably the best of its replacements, mainly for its exporting capabilities. (Also, when I asked the author to add change the open dialog to allow browsing inside application packages, he released a new version that did so within days. This made creating this post much easier.)

Alternatives: Iconographer (free, but abandoned); IconBuilder (Photoshop integrated filter).

iBank

iBank

http://www.iggsoftware.com/ibank/

$60. Even back before the OS X era, Mac’s had a surprisingly large number of finance managing applications, with Quicken eventually emerging as the dominating force. Quicken screwed up, though keeping its code mired in technology known to be dying. When this technology was jettisoned on the release of Lion, Quicken stopped working on modern Macs. Fortunately, Quicken had enough haters prior to this that mature alternatives exist. For my needs, iBank was the best replacement.

Alternatives: I explored many replacements for Quicken when I moved to Lion. You might find others I examined fit your needs better.

iConquer

iConquer

http://www.kavasoft.com/iConquer/

$13. A very sexy Risk game, somehow more addictive than the hordes of other Risk clones. It allows network play, but only 10 games before you have to pay for it. For the ambitious, developer tools are available to make custom maps and AI players.

iDraw

iDraw

http://www.indeeo.com/idraw/

$25. Shortly after the dawn of the Mac came MacDraw, a program for editing vector graphics (where images are made up of editible primitive lines and shapes). I prefer using vector graphics when possible (as opposed to raster graphic tools like Photoshop, which edit a grid of colored pixels), as they scale better and are easier to change. I don’t know if iDraw was intended to be a ultra-modern evolution of MacDraw, but it feels like it in a lot of ways. It has a companion iPad app which feels even more so, with cloud syncing between them. One strike against it (in addition to the dumb name) is that you can’t try before you buy.

Alternatives: Not long ago, few options existed in this space other than the very expensive Adobe Illustrator, but now quite a few compete. Others include VectorDesigner (previously recommended, but now too expensive compared to iDraw), Artboard (a simpler user interface, not as powerful) and Inkscape (free, but clunky). Note also that some traditionally raster editors are starting to get very simple vector drawing features (such as Pixelmator, mentioned below).

iPhoto Library Manager

iPhoto Library Manager

http://www.fatcatsoftware.com/iplm/

$20. If you ever need to merge two different iPhoto libraries into one or switch back and forth between multiple libraries, don’t even bother trying to do it yourself. It should be easy to do but, inexplicably, isn’t. Just pony up the cash for this program. You might also want to grab iPhoto Diet to remove some of the bloat iPhoto creates.

iTaskX

iTaskX

http://www.itaskx.com/

€80. Some switchers need a replacement for Microsoft Project, and for some time they didn’t have many choices. Now, however, dozens of possibilities exist. Since my previous recommendation in this space, Project X seems to have been abandoned, it appears that iTaskX is the current choice, as it matches Project’s feature set well and can even read Project files.

Alternatives: Some other possibilities in this space are OmniPlan, Merlin or, for something slightly different, Curio. A number of on-line only tools also exist now, such as Teamweek.

Leap

Leap

http://www.ironicsoftware.com/leap/

$26. Leap provides an alternate way of accessing, organizing and finding your files, making use of the OpenMeta standard to add tags to file metadata. Using any tags you care to add to a file, as well as other file metadata such as file type, modification date and so on, you can perform complex searches, either ignoring the rigid hierarchy of folders, or using it to augment the search. The “All My Files” view in the Finder (since Lion) implements a terrible and weak version of this concept, but Leap is a whole different level. Leap really shines if you have a lot of a certain kind of file (such as PDFs or video) and want to search for a specific one.

Balance

Life Balance

http://www.llamagraphics.com/

$40. A unique, cross-platform to-do manager with iOS synchronization (though still no iPad app). Their web site explains it better than I can. Takes a little getting used to, but is the best to-do system I’ve ever used. After a 30-day trial, save stops working unless you pay for it. There is also a Win32 version, if you’re into that sort of thing. Expensive, but unique.

Alternatives: LifeBalance is not constructed or intended as a GTD tool, though could probably be shoehorned for that purpose. Within the GTD space, Firetask seems to be the current darling, but Things and OmniFocus are mainstays. There are also a ton of “in the cloud checklist apps”, like Producteev, Wunderlist or even Evernote.

Little Snitch

Little Snitch

http://www.obdev.at/products/littlesnitch/

$25. Brings up an alert any time your computer attempts to make a network connection to the outside world, allowing you to accept or deny the attempt. It can be trained to ignore things (like your web browser, chat client, etc.). It will only run for three hours at a time unless you pay for it. This is good enough for me, as I tend to run it only when installing new software. (Some software “phones home” to its creating company, transmitting who knows what.)

MacFamilyTree

MacFamilyTree

http://www.syniumsoftware.com/macfamilytree/

$60. A bit pricy, but the best family tree software I’ve seen for the Mac, or any other platform. It’s charting and reporting is excellent, but the 3D “flythrough” options to the UI are more gimmicky than useful. Nothing can be saved until paid for. Data is easily imported (GEDCOM, with all the bells and whistles) and synced to the equally nice iOS version.

MediaLink

MediaLink

http://www.nullriver.com/products/medialink

$20. If you have a burning desire to view the media on your Mac (video, pictures, music) on your Playstation 3, this is the easiest way to do so. Totally seamless and easy to use.

Name Mangler

Name Mangler

http://manytricks.com/namemangler/

$19. Allows you to do search and replace on filenames, including support for regular expressions. Sure, you could do similar things with the command line, but this is easier. Also shows you the results of changes before they are made.

OmniGraffle

OmniGraffle

http://www.omnigroup.com/applications/omnigraffle/

$100-$200. Switchers itching for something like Visio should look no further than the professional version of this app. It does some things a bit differently than Visio would, but generally “differently” here means “better”. Visio, notable as one of the few products whose interface radically improved once bought by Microsoft, could steal quite a few lessons from the guys at Omni. Current versions also sync with an iPad version, and contain a bunch of the layout code from Graphviz. A limit is placed on the number of nodes you can have in a file until this software is paid for.

Alternatives: The Omni Group tends to build really great products and charge way too much for them, but chooses products that no one else is building for the Mac. What usually winds up happening is that someone comes along to undercut them with a slightly-less-good version, for much, much less money. For example: Shapes (though it can’t use Visio files or export to SVG, and OmniGraffle Pro can). The Mac Graphviz port isn’t really the same kind of product (it is more about mathematical graphs), but can be used to create similar output more programatically.

Paperless

Paperless

https://www.marinersoftware.com/products/paperless/

$50. You know that shoebox or file cabinet you have filled with old bank statements, bills, receipts, statements and so on? Would you like to replace that with an encrypted database of PDFs? How about if details were optically scanned from the PDF and populated into searchable database fields? Paperless can do all that. Most banks and credit card companies now offer digital statements these days, so you don’t even need to do any scanning (though the app supports that as well).

Pixelmator

Pixelmator

http://www.pixelmator.com/

$15. If Adobe Photoshop breaks your bank, this image editor is a strong choice, delivering most of what the average user will need out of a raster editor in an elegant interface and much lower price.

Alternatives: There are tons of image editors out there. Some not as powerful, such as Seashore, Paintbrush, Acorn or ImageWell. Others are harder to use, such as GIMP. Still others are more specialized, such as Pixen.

Postbox

Postbox

http://postbox-inc.com/

$10. Postbox is a powerful e-mail client which works a lot better for me than the Mail app that ships with OS X. Searching, for example, is more powerful, as are its filing rules. It also integrates with GMail, if desired, as well as with third party services like Dropbox or Evernote. You can download a 30-day free trial of this application.

Alternatives: E-mail clients tend to be a personal choice. Some other possibilities are Apple’s Mail; Mozilla Thunderbird, Mailplane and MailMate.

Scrivener

Scrivener

http://literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php

$45. I don’t use this writing tool much, but I know people who bought a Mac specifically to use it (it has a Windows version now, though). It is a word-processor type application targeted specifically at writers of novels, screenplays, research papers and the like, with a number of organizational tools.

Snapz Pro X

Snapz Pro X

http://www.ambrosiasw.com/utilities/snapzprox/

$69. The king daddy of Mac screen capture programs, with a long lineage. Capture full screens, windows, selections to multiple formats. Capture video. Basically flawless, with a well-deserved five mice rating. Snapz Pro X can be used for a limited time before requiring payment.

Sound Studio

Sound Studio

http://felttip.com/ss/

$30. While there are number of sound editors available on the Mac, most of them were pretty bad last time I looked at them. Not this one, though. Sound Studio does more of what I need it to, particularly with some features specifically to ease the importing of audio tapes.

Alternatives: Other applications in this space are Audacity, Fission and Wavepad.

Steermouse

Steermouse

http://plentycom.jp/en/steermouse/

$20. The Mac is known for true plug and play support of all sorts of mice and other input devices, but sometimes the default support isn’t enough, particularly with unusual peripherals. This driver supports a wide variety of devices, and allows much more customization than mortal man was meant to use. It can be used for 30 days before requiring payment.

SousChef

SousChef

http://acaciatreesoftware.com/

$30. If you happen to have an iMac in your kitchen, you might as well keep a recipe database on it, particularly one that can search multiple internet recipe sources by ingredient or other characteristics. Includes a “ten foot” mode, so you can read the recipe from across the room if you need to, and control the display with speech. Other apps could also learn a bit from how it handles importing via copy/paste of arbitrary blobs of recipe text into the various fields of the database. This app sometimes makes its way into various sale bundles.

TextMate

TextMate

http://macromates.com/

€39. In a world with dozens of text editors for the Mac, this app left them all in the dust a long time ago. Highly customizable, this app supports a huge number of computer languaes, supports macros, can be used as an external editor for FTP programs (like Transmit, below) and even makes building custom syntax hilighters fairly painless.

Alternatives: Text editors tend to be more of a personal choice than other software, so BBEdit (or its more limited lightweight version), Smultron, SubEthaEdit, skEdit, jEdit, xPad or even Emacs compiled as a native app or a Mac-style Emacs may be more your speed.

Transmit

Transmit

http://www.panic.com/transmit/

$15. The file-transfer protocol (FTP) client for the Mac (also supporting other protocols, like SFTP, Amazon S3, WebDAV, etc.). Let’s you right click on files in a remote server, and edit them with external editors, such as TextMate (see above). Pretty much perfect. Until paid for, sessions can only last for 10 minutes and “favorites” cannot be saved.

Unison

Unison

http://www.panic.com/unison/

$29. Before the world wide web, there was Usenet, a vast collection of newsgroups. Though web forums have stolen most of their thunder, newsgroups are still useful. Unison is one of the best newsreaders I’ve ever seen. To access Usenet, you need a provider. In many cases, the company providing you with internet access quietly offers a Usenet feed (usually a web search for your provider’s name and “Usenet” will lead you to instructions). Fully featured for 15 days, after which favorites are disabled and it can only be used for 10 minutes at a time.

Witch

Witch

http://www.petermaurer.de/nasi.php?section=witch

$14. OS X has a built-in feature (cmd-tab) to cycle between application, similar to alt-tabbing on Win32. This preference panel adds a more sophisticated version (wired to opt-tab by default) that lists active windows as well as applications.

Replacing Quicken

July 21st, 2011 — Wordman

Since OS X Lion does not include the old Rosetta technology, it will not run Quicken 2007. So, I have been trying out replacements before I upgrade. Here is what I need:

  • I have Quicken data going back to 1993. A replacement needs to be able to import it all, the more intact the better.
  • I download transactions electronically from a number of financial institutions. I need to be able to continue doing this at least as well as Quicken does it.
  • I need fairly advanced investment management. Though I no longer invest in stocks, I have in the past, and want those trades preserved. I also need the ability to manage investments of instruments that are not traded on exchanges (so, for example, don’t have official symbols or price feeds and so on).
  • Obviously, it needs to be Lion combatible
  • Good-looking reporting is useful, but not required. Again, at least as good as Quicken is needed (though that is not saying much).
  • I want a decent, Mac-like user experience.
  • I do not care about syncing to mobile devices or the like.

One warning: the reviews below will be a bit stream-of-consciousness, as I write down observations as they occur to me.

Preparation

If you are planning on doing a similar migration, make sure you export your Quicken data before you upgrade to Lion. You won’t be able to launch Quicken once you upgrade. Every app I tested can import a .qif file, so export on using File→Export→To QIF….

And, of course, back up everything, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Non-contenders

There turn out to be a surprisingly large number of financial apps that run on the Mac, but I will only be testing some of them. Most I am rejecting because they seem small time, unsupported, weakly-ported and/or missing features. There are, however, some popular, realistic choices that I am passing on:

  • Quicken Essentials for Mac ($50) is the most recent version of Quicken for Mac; however, it is ridiculously underpowered compared to its predecessor, Quicken 2007. If it would do the job, I would have converted to it months ago.
  • Some suggest just running Quicken for Windows under an emulator, such as Parallels. Since financial applications are not particularly CPU intensive, this should work fine. While I do own a version of Parallels, I pretty much never run it. I’m not really interested in starting. (BTW, if you are a Parallels user, you need version 6 to run under Lion.)
  • A number of online options, such as mint.com, are available; however, I have no interest in uploading my financial life into the cloud, encrypted or otherwise. (Note: this also why I’m not including screen shots of my testing in this post.)
  • MoneyWell ($50) is an interesting application that I actually own (part of one bundle or another). It is a great (and great looking) little money management application, and does support electronic downloads, but doesn’t have investment features. If you don’t care about that, it may work for you.

This brings us to the serious contenders, in the order I happened to investigate them…

iBank

iBank iconMaker: IGG Software
Version Tested: 4.2.4
Price: $60 (30-day free trial)
Technology: Mac-only (Cocoa)
iUseThis users: 650

The import process was fairly painless and seemed to work well. I had to change a few account categories in a dialog provided for the purpose (e.g. changing loan accounts from “Liability” to “Loan”).

All accounts are listed in panel on the side. Account groups are allowed, which I really needed as I’ve collected a lot of accounts over the years (probably 100+). The grouping worked fine, but the UI only allows you to select (and, therefore, move) one account at a time, so making the groups was tedious, though only necessary once. It doesn’t seem to have a concept of “inactive” accounts either, so I had to build an “Inactive” account group and throw them all in there. Not the end of the world.

While direct connection to financial institutions is supported, it failed with odd errors for many of my accounts. The forum for the software showed many with the same errors, but no solution that worked for me. Some of this, I suspect, is because most of my accounts use more than just username/password for security (e.g. extra “site image” pages, sites that send a confirmation code as a text page that you have to enter, even cryptographic keyfobs). User error may also play a part, as it looks like some sites require you to change settings on the destination web site (and, in some cases, pay a fee) to support direct connection.

So, I fell back to what I had to do with Quicken: login to the sites manually and download my transactions. I’m used to this, so don’t consider it a deal breaker (though direct download would be nice). Importing these transactions is actually a bit smoother than in Quicken.

As mentioned, some of my investments don’t have official price feeds, so the balance in those accounts initially showed up as zero. After some tinkering, I found it is possible to manually enter a price for these instruments, which is about as much as I can expect. Armed with a price, the balance became correct.

One drawback I notice is that investment accounts don’t seem to have a column containing a running total of shares, just value. That is an annoying omission, so much so that I wonder if I’m just missing some mechanism to display it.

Loan information was not transferred over, so I had to set that up by hand. The accounts were all there, just not linked together with proper payment information. Setting this up is straightforward and provides a good “pending transaction” ability to see when payments are due. I needed to make some of these transactions show up in the past, which took a couple of tries to get right, but nothing too severe.

No import is perfect, but it did seem that any non-ideal situation I ran into was easily corrected, usually by the action I naturally tried first, which is a good UI in action.

Conclusion: As the first of these applications I tried, iBank set a pretty high bar. I could easily see myself using it, and it will be the one to beat.

Liquid Ledger

Liquid Ledger iconMaker: Modeless Software
Version Tested: 2.3.3
Price: $40 (60-day free trial)
Technology: Mac-only (Cocoa)
iUseThis users: 11

The import of my 3MB .qif file took over three hours to complete (contrasted to less than a minute from all the other apps). It does seem to have imported correctly. Also, it automatically groups accounts into folders in its sidebar, very similarly to the way I had to do it manually in the others. You can still can only select one account at a time, though (this is particularly irritating here, because if you select a folder, it displays the combined transactions from all accounts in the folder, so you know the UI has the ability to display multiple accounts at once, but just doesn’t for no reason). No way to hide inactive accounts, either.

I generally hate toolbars in any application, but this one is particularly bad. Five buttons, one of which is a color picker. Really? The only thing remotely useful is the search field, but fortunately, it isn’t useful enough to force me to keep the toolbar visible. It does include an option to hide it, which I used almost immediately.

The Income & Expenses section is quite nice, sort of like smart folders showing transactions based on what Quicken calls Categories, rather than Accounts.

The software recommended that I save a SQL version of my data, as it would better handle my large number of transactions. Not only faster saving, but a much smaller file (~6MB vs. 36MB). Interesting.

Importing transactions from institutions is…not great. Unlike Quicken and iBank, there is no interface for matching what is being imported with the existing ledger. It is easy to re-import transactions, duplicating them, but not so easy to undo the duplication.

After a few minutes of looking, I don’t see any way to update security prices. I also don’t see any features for calculating/scheduling loan payments. That’s a big problem for me, as I don’t want to calculate principal vs. interest each time.

Investment features exist, but seem fairly sparse. It doesn’t have the concept of “Move Shares In” that Quicken does, for example, though it allows entry of transactions in a sort of “warning” mode, allowing the destination to remain empty (as it would in an MS transaction).

It can handle split transactions (where one transaction might be distributed among a number of accounts), but does so using a semi-modal popup dialog. Functional, but…meh. Modal dialogs are generally bad these days.

Pretty much nothing in the application is right-clickable, in spite of a number of menus being sensitive to what is selected. That’s sort of old-school Mac, from the dumb one-button mouse days. Apparently, I don’t work that way anymore.

Conclusion: If this were the only choice, it would be tolerable, but some of the others are more feature-rich. The lack of loan support and more advanced investment features is a problem for me.

Money

Money iconMaker: Jumsoft
Version Tested: 4.0.1
Price: $19, until end of July (free 15-day trial)
Technology: Mac-only (Cocoa)
iUseThis users: 236

I got this one as part of the most recent Mac SuperBundle (and you can, too, if you hurry). It is possible that this application is the best day-to-day money management software in existence. I wouldn’t know, though, because it screwed up my import pretty badly.

After taking about 10 minutes to import, the end result was a totally blank window. After quitting and relaunching, my information showed up. Sort of. The main overview has a section called “Top Categories”. For some reason, every entry in this section was the abbreviation of a state, most of which I’ve never lived in. Looks to me like the import might have put the wrong column in the Category field.

A bigger problem is that some of my investment account transactions are missing share quantities. That is really bad.

Performance was really, really bad. I got the distinct impression that Money was not prepared for the number of transactions I have. When resizing, for example, the window would not redraw for several seconds.

Conclusion: The problems seen right away with this application meant I rejected it before really getting to the heart of it. It simply failed at preserving my old data, so no point in continuing.

iFinance

iFinance iconMaker: Synium Software
Version Tested: 3.2.8
Price: $30 (30-day free trial)
Technology: Mac-only (Cocoa)
iUseThis users: 99

I’ve liked other applications from Synium (particularly MacFamilyTree), so was anxious to look at this one.

Getting started was not quite as clean as some of the other applications. Most put an option to import from Quicken right in your face the first time you launch them. While iFinance also puts an “options for starting” window up, and some of of these options do involve importing, an option to import from a .qif file isn’t on the window. I assumed that I needed to create a blank database, then choose some sort of Import menu option, which turned out to be the case. Oddly, the only progress during the import was the spinning beach ball. No progress bar or anything like that.

Unfortunately, after the import, I’m also missing information from some of my investment accounts. All of Quicken’s “Move Share” transactions seem to have just been dropped on the floor and are missing. The vast majority of transactions are missing descriptions.

The interface is also garish and annoying. As an example, each transaction has a brightly colored amount (white text in a red or green aqua-like button) and has a colored circle for “Category”. This circle is a representation of the account(s) on the other end of the transaction, but there is no text in the list. Just the colored circle. The system has taken my hundred or so accounts and assigned them unique shades, but the color alone doesn’t help me. The detail view shows the actual name of the account (and their colors), but, uh…no.

A quick tour of some of the reports shows them to be more graphic intensive than some of the other applications, but clearly not built for the large number of accounts I have, which make the legend dominate the screen.

Conclusion: Like Money, this one fails at my first basic requirement for data integrity, so doesn’t merit further looking.

Money Dance

Money Dance iconMaker: The Infinite Kind
Version Tested: 2011
Price: $50 (free trial allowing unlimited import, but only 100 hand-entered transactions)
Technology: Java-based
iUseThis users: 215

This is a Java application and, though it does a much better job of being Mac-like than many Java apps, it still shows. The buttons are in non-standard places, the widgets are not standard, background colors are a bit off. Redraws of windows are a bit clunky. Some dialog fields don’t respond to cut and paste commands. And so on. While much of that is cosmetic, it causes me to cringe enough that it is a distraction, so counts as a strike against Money Dance.

The import was quick, but my net worth is off. Looking through the accounts, I see some have additional transactions and some have transactions that are missing. Some moves between a credit line and various investment accounts might be getting double counted for some reason. I should say that these import mistakes are less severe than those made by Money and iFinance. I get the impression that I could correct them with an hour or so of tinkering. Looks like the mistakes are more in the area of account linkages, rather than data actually missing. I’d bet that people without transactions as esoteric as mine would have a better outcome.

The import grouped my accounts in a mostly reasonable way (and, you can remove unused accounts from the sidebar without deleting them, unlike in these other applications), but you cannot group accounts in arbitrary folders.

Split transactions use a modal popup technique even uglier than Liquid Ledger’s. Investment accounts do provide a running share balance, though.

Setting up direct connect to financial institutions was pretty much the same story as iBank, suggesting that the problems may be on the bank end. Importing files manually works, but doesn’t have any “matching” process before confirming transactions, so creating duplicates seems pretty easy.

Conclusion: Money Dance seems powerful, moreso than most of the other candidates, if a little clunky. The import mistakes are troublesome, but not necessarily fatal. For every feature it has that I actually use, though, iBank seems to do the same thing in a cleaner fashion.

SEE Finance

EDIT: I didn’t hear about SEE Finance until someone mentioned it in the comments. See what I have to say about it there.

Conclusion

My top two choices are iBank and Money Dance, in that order, with Liquid Ledger running a distant third. A longer test period and more experience may force me to change my mind, but I am going to use iBank for now. Some things about it still bug me, but it has more to like than the others. Reading comments about the various apps on forums and such suggest that iBank has, historically, had stability/corruption problems, causing many to bail on it in favor of Money Dance. The dates on these comments, though, suggest that this hasn’t happened lately. I’m about to find out.

Let me know how your own switchover goes.

Months with a Mini 9

June 3rd, 2009 — Wordman

Since Dell has discontinued the Mini 9, now seems like a good to to share some observations on two months of living with Mac OS X running on Mini 9 hardware. My friend’s living with it, I mean. In no particular order:

  • Dell’s suggested replacement for the Mini 9, the Mini 10v, has a screen that, in spite of being physically larger, contains fewer pixels. The Mini 9’s screen is 1024×600, while the Mini 10v’s is 1024×576.
  • I’d guess that those who were thinking about getting a Mini 9 will now buy the just announced EeePC 1008HA (Seashell), which looks a lot like a smaller version of the MacBook Air, done in plastic. It haven’t seen a post of anyone installing OS X on it, but it’s just a matter of time.
  • The battery on the Mini 9 can handle playing about three hours of DVD quality video ripped into MP4 or AVI or what have you. Supposedly the latest OS release (10.5.7) improves this by an hour or so.
  • Being only 600 pixels high, the screen of the Mini 9 isn’t large enough to handle HD video. If you rip video at it’s native resolution, though, it looks pretty dang good.
  • The OS X 10.5.7 update is tricky to install. Likely all such OS updates are. My friend has yet to do this successfully. When he, not thinking about it that clearly, ran the standard updater, all seemed to go well, but once completed, when the boot process should have drawn the menubar and the desktop, the video went wiggy.
  • It is possible to do a full Time Machine restore on an Mini 9. This starts off like installing OS X the first time, where you boot from a bootloader CD, then throw in a Leopard install disk. Instead of doing the install, though, one of the menu choices allows you to restore from Time Machine. This largely works, with two caveats. First, even if you are connected with Ethernet, you need to connect to a wireless network before starting the restore. Seems like this is the only way to get the networking to set up properly. Secondly, once the restore is done, the machine may not boot until you reinstall the DellEFI, similar to as described here.
  • Consequently, the mydellmini project is your friend.
  • The keyboard layout on the Mini 9 is insane. So much so, that some kibosh the whole idea just because of the keyboard. Swapping the Alt and Cmnd keys (taking off the chicklets and moving them) is a necessity, and most will probably want to swap the semicolon and quotation keys as well.
  • The lack of scrolling on the trackpad remains a problem. All posts on the topic seem to be obsessed with two-finger scrolling, but even something like what SideTrack does would be useful. Update: done!.
  • You can apparently buy clunky multi-cell batteries that would probably allow watching video the whole way across the Atlantic. These don’t fit inside the case entirely, so act a bit like a riser.
  • The Mini 9 apparently fits in the back pocket of 511 Tactical Pants.
  • The built-in Secure Digital card reader is more useful than expected, particularly on trips, where it allows you to access your pictures without a bunch of extra crap.
  • As mentioned in the previous post, Spaces adds more to a machine like this that it does to others. The free iTerm makes this even better, because it offers a full screen mode for terminals.
  • The AC adaptor that comes with the Mini 9 can handle European current, so all you need is a little adapter, rather than a voltage converter.
  • The machine works really well for tabletop RPGs, particularly if you get used to using PDFs in full page mode (which requires remembering some keyboard shortcuts, particularly for searching and switching display modes). Software like Yep can also help in finding what you need quickly.
  • Still haven’t tried Warcraft on the thing.

My friend’s Dell Mini 9 running Mac OS X Leopard

March 31st, 2009 — Wordman

I have this… uh… friend whose wife gave him a belated Christmas present in mid March: a tricked out Dell Mini 9. He wanted this machine because a) it’s one of the only netbooks that can use all of its built-in “peripheral” hardware while running Mac OS X, b) the 12″ PowerBook G4 he used for role-playing is falling apart, with a dead DVD drive and failing wi-fi card and c) the Mini 9 was cheap enough to buy as an experiment. OK, maybe c) isn’t really true, but he wanted it anyway. Features and cost were like this:

Dell Inspiron Mini 9
  IntelĀ® Atom ProcessorĀ® N270 (1.6GHz/533Mhz FSB/512K cache)
  Obsidian black
  2GB DDR2 RAM at 533MHz
  Glossy 8.9 inch LED display (1024×600)
  Intel Graphics Media Accelerator (GMA) 950
  64GB solid state hard drive
  Ubuntu Linux version 8.04.1
  Wireless 802.11g mini card
  Integrated 1.3M pixel webcam
  Built-in Bluetooth 2.1 capability
$519.00
Portable CD/DVD-RW Drive with DVD Playback Software $80.00
Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) $129.00
Total $728.00

This is about as tricked out as you can make the Mini 9. Other configurations will be cheaper. It actually looks like Dell doesn’t even sell the 64MB drive as an option any more (at at least, as I write this). Another thing to note here is that the pixel dimensions of the screen are pretty close to that of the 12″ PowerBook G4 (which were 1024×768).

To set up the machine (probably violating one or more license agreements in the process) my friend followed the instructions provided by Gizmodo. He reports some deviations from the instructions there:

  1. The post says “some drives are mysteriously not compatible with installing OS X on the Mini 9”. This might not be entirely true. The first attempt, using a brand new OS X DVD failed, as described. The second used an OS X DVD from the initial release of 10.5. This succeeded. So, it may have something to do with what version of the install disk you have. I believe the current version of the installer disk is called version 10.5.2. Among other things, it has new video drivers at the very least. To repeat, this version did not work, but the original 10.5 disk did. Might have just been coincidence, as there was a hiccup with installing from DVD…
  2. At step 4, the install process seemed to hang, and the DVD drive seemed to stall and spin down. Unplugging the drive (which immediately displayed a bunch of errors on screen) and plugging it in again caused it to spin up, and suddenly the install sprung to life and continued fine (with the 10.5 disk; the same technique didn’t work with the 10.5.2 disk).
  3. As a result of coercing the DVD to spin up, the painful USB drive-based install (Gizmodo steps 5 through 11) was not needed in this case.
  4. It took my friend a while to come up with a name for the hard drive volume during step 12, during which the DVD drive spun down. Again, the solution was to unplug it and replug it in. The UI froze until doing this, but resurrected once the drive was spinning again.
  5. There should be a step 19 added to Gizmodo’s instructions: boot into the BIOS and DISABLE the “Legacy USB Support” setting. Waking from sleep will not work until you do this. Note that, to be able to boot from USB devices, this setting needs to be re-enabled.
  6. There should be a step 20 added as well: Most windows size themselves correctly on the netbook, but some contain dialogs that don’t fit the small vertical resolution of the screen (which is only 600 pixels). Unfortunately, on the “doesn’t fit” list are some of the System Settings panels. This can be fixed by setting the scaling of the System Settings application, using the following command line:
    defaults write com.apple.systempreferences AppleDisplayScaleFactor .85

So far, everything has worked one the machine except trackpad scrolling. There appear to be some hacks to enable this, but these have not yet been applied, but may need to be soon. My friend claims that the trackpad is a bit uncomfortable, with the buttons needing way too much downward travel to activate. Using a miniature external mouse helps quite a bit.

Some other general observations from my friend:

  • The machine as a whole is slightly less stable than OS X usually is, though not significantly. When waking from sleep, sometimes the UI gets these sort of stalls, but usually another sleep/wake cycle brings things back to normal. One beta application that has always crashed every so often on standard Macs seems to crash a bit more often on the Mini 9.
  • It takes a while to get used to the shift keys, particularly the one on the right.
  • Spaces seems more useful on this machine, particularly when used for gaming, combined with the “full screen” features of Acrobat and Safari.
  • Some of the Fn keys work, and some dont:
    • Fn-1 (sleep): works
    • Fn-2 (toggle wi-fi/bluetooth): does not work
    • Fn-3 (battery status): does not work
    • Fn-4 (mute): works
    • Fn-5 (volume down): works
    • Fn-6 (volume up): works
    • Fn-7 (print scn): untested, since I haven’t set up a printer yet
    • Fn-8 (screen/vga/mirror): when no monitor is connected, doesn’t work
    • Fn-9 (contrast down): works
    • Fn-10 (contrast up): works
    • Fn-[key in home row] (F1 through F10): works; however, no keys exist for F11 through F13. This is not a huge deal, but some of the default Exposé key bindings need to be changed if you want to use them.
  • By default, the “alt” key is mapped to the Mac’s “command” key, while the “Windows logo key” is mapped to the Mac’s “option” key. This matches the positions of a Mac keyboard correctly, but it is totally wrong as far as nomenclature. Typically a Windows “alt” maps to a Mac’s “option”, leaving the “Windows logo key” to map to the Mac’s “logo key” (i.e. “command”). This can be changed around in the System Preferences if you want. Apparently the keys come off reasonably easily if you want to move them around a bit.
  • The machine is noticeably lighter than a MacBook Air. If you’ve ever lifted an Air, think about that a bit.
  • It seems to run movies of varying resolutions very cleanly, and FrontRow looks great. No battery tests have been done while doing this, so how long you could watch movies on a plane is undiscovered.
  • It runs games like Fate in 800×600 resolution, at reasonable frame rates. I’m guessing it would run WoW OK, with some of the settings turned down.

The ten-minute 1TB backup RAID installation

October 6th, 2008 — Wordman

The Mac Pro contains four accessible hard-drive bays. Mac OS X comes with easy to use RAID software. Put these together, and you can quickly build a backup system using redundant disks, so that if one drive fails, another takes its place.

Building a RAID (meaning “redundant array of independent disks”) like this may be ideal for backups, but isn’t as useful for other applications of RAID technology (such as striping for great video encoding performance, and so on). This because the RAID is controlled by software, so is on the slower side. It’s possible to put an optional hardware-based RAID controller into the Mac Pro, but it is pricey and complete overkill for backups. The speed doesn’t really matter for backup use, especially when using Time Machine, since it is all done unnoticed in the background anyway.

Preparation

The key thing about making a RAID is that you need to use multiple identical disks. As mentioned, speed doesn’t really matter for backups. In fact, you are usually better off buying the slowest disks you can find because they a) will still be fast enough, b) are cheaper, c) are usually quieter and d) usually draw less power. The Mac Pro uses Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (Serial ATA or SATA) disks. The drives used in this post are a pair of 1.0TB Western Digital Caviar Geen drives, due to their lower power consumption and sound output. These drives use a variable number of rotations per minute, but are rated at between 5400 and 7200 rpm. So, these are not speed demons, but they don’t need to be. At the time of writing, Other World Computing had the best deal on this particular drive.

In addition to the drives, you will need a Mac Pro, one functional hand, and a standard phillips screwdriver. You might also want a grounding strap to prevent electrical damage to the components, particularly in dry climates or if you tend to get shocked by light switches a lot where you live.

To start the installation, shutdown your Mac Pro.

Hardware installation

Pull out the tab on the back of the Mac Pro, pull the top of the side panel out, then remove the side panel (click on any of the images in this post to see a larger version):

Open Remove side

About a third of the way down, find the four numbered drive caddies. If this is a new machine, chances are that drive bay #1 holds the primary disk and the other three caddies are empty. These instructions assume that this is the case, and that you’ll put your RAID drives into bays #2 and #3. Adjust this to match your machine accordingly. It doesn’t matter which of the bays the RAID drives are in. Give a tug to caddy #2 (or whatever) and slide it out. It should come out without much effort; it is not secured with screws or anything:

Remove caddy #2 Caddy

Before unwrapping your drive from its anti-static bag, hold the bag and touch a metal part on the frame of the Pro. This should lessen the chance of a spark that could damage the drive. Unwrap the first drive and find the four silver holes at the edge of the side with the visible circuit board. Note that these are in the same orientation as the screws on the caddy. Line the caddy up with these holes and connect with a phillips screwdriver. Note that the “open” end of the caddy should point towards the back of the drive (where the copper pins are).

Drive and caddy Attached caddy

Put the caddy with the mounted drive back into the machine by locating the tab-like rails into which the caddy slides. These should fit very naturally. Once in place, slowly but firmly push the caddy all the way back in. It should be flush with the rest of the caddies.

View from below Sliding drive back in

Repeat the process with the second drive, using bay #3. Once done, replace the side panel by lining up the bottom of it with the space in the machine, then tilting the top back in place. Once flush, close the tab on the back of the machine to lock the side in place. Boot the Mac Pro.

Software setup

If all goes well, once you boot up, you will see messages asking you if you want to format the new drives. Say no to (or cancel) these messages. You’ll need to reformat these drives as a RAID, so no point in formatting them just now. Instead, launch the “Disk Utility” application (usually found in Applications/Utilities).

When it comes up, you should see the new drives listed on the left, along with your primary drive and your DVD drive. From the tab selections at the top of the right-hand section of the window, click “RAID”. Enter a name for your new RAID, such as “Backup”. Make sure “Raid Type:” is set to “Mirrored RAID set”.

RAID panel Mirrored RAID

Now select one of the new drives from the list at the left. Holding down the shift key, click on the other new drive, to add it to the selection as well. Drag the two selected drives into the large white space on the right-side section of the window. This will add two entries to this list, saying something like “New member: ‘disk 0′”. Below this list, click “Options”. Make sure “Automatically rebuild RAID mirror sets” is checked, and click “OK”. (This setting will correct problems in the RAID if one of the drives has an error.)

Dragging the drives RAID options

Click “Create”. A confirmation screen will come up, warning you that creating this RAID will completely erase the drives. This is a good time to make doubly sure that you have selected your new drives into the RAID, and not any other drives. When satisfied this is so, click “Create”. A progress bar will appear as the RAID is being created. When finished, you should see the new RAID show up in both the left side list, and in the right side section. While the Disk Utility will still show you the individual disks, everything else will see the RAID as if it is a single drive.

Confirmation screen Ready RAID

Note that the capacity of the RAID as a whole matches that of one of the drives, not their sum. This should be as you would expect. The whole point of the RAID is to act as a “virtual disk” and when a byte is written to that disk, the RAID software writes that byte to the same spot on both of the drives, making sure they each have a copy of the same data. Thus, either one can fail, and you still have a working copy of the data.

A short digression

Before setting up this RAID for use with Time Machine, a quick digression. For troubleshooting purposes, it is sometimes useful to get more information about the drives you are using. Six months down the road, for example, you might have forgotten which drive you put into which bay. The System Profiler application can provide a bunch of information about your system, including the drives. You can launch this app either directly from Applications/Utilities or by selecting “About This Mac” from the Apple menu, then clicking “More Info…”.

Once the System Profiler launches, clicking the “Serial-ATA” section will show a list of the drives in the machine. If you click on one of your new drives, the bottom right section will display all sorts of information about the drive. Two more useful bits of information are the “Bay Name” setting, which tells you in which drive bay the drive is physically installed, and the “BSD Name” field, usually set to something like “disk1s3”. This code is needed for a number of command line disk manipulation tools, so is good to know when troubleshooting problems.

About This Mac System Profiler

Time Machine

Setting up Time Machine to use this RAID is the same as using any other drive. Just “Open Time Machine Preferences” from the Time Machine menu icon (by the clock in the menu bar), or by selecting “System Preferences…” from the Apple menu, then going to the Time Machine section. Once there, turn Time Machine on and select the RAID.

Time Machine

GeForce 8800 GT and Leopard

October 5th, 2008 — Wordman

Upgrading the primary hard drive in my Mac Pro exposed an annoying hurdle that might not be very obvious: if you have upgraded your video card to an NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GT, you might not be able to boot from your Leopard Install DVD any more.

I ran across this because, after installing my new drive, I decided to try a “full restore” from Time Machine. In theory, this would result in a clone of my old primary drive, just on a new, larger disk. It appears, however, the only way to use this feature is to boot from the Leopard Install DVD, and then select “Restore System from Backup” from the “Utilities” menu. The problem I had was that when booting from the DVD, I kept getting the dreaded grey screen telling me that “You must reboot your Mac” in several languages.

The DVD booted other machines just fine. The Pro booted from other sources just fine, at which point a dialog telling me that my machine crashed and would I like to submit a report to Apple? It didn’t even occur to me that the video card might be the culprit until I read the crash log attached to this report and noticed the stack contained a bunch of video initialization calls. From there it occurred to me that the GeForce 8800 GT to which I upgraded several months ago didn’t even exist when the install DVD I was using was created, so the DVD probably lacked the correct drivers.

Fortunately, I still had my old video card, so I swapped it in and the rest went as planned.

Looking on the net, I discovered that some others had my problem, but that there is a newer version of the install DVD (10.5.2) which does not have this problem. Most people reported that attempts to get the Apple store to exchange a 15.0 DVD for a 10.5.2 DVD failed, but since this seemed so stupid, I decided to try it anyway. I didn’t have much trouble (though I may have been helped by a) having once been a paying Apple developer and/or b) the long list of hardware I’ve purchased from the Apple store, including the Pro and the video card) and supposedly I will be getting mailed this newer DVD soon.

Sadly, even with all this, this was still probably my easiest primary drive upgrade ever.

Update: My (sparsely labelled) 10.5.2 DVD arrived.

Recommended software

February 27th, 2008 — Wordman

Once again, I have updated my recommended Mac OS X software page. It’s been over two years since my last update, though much remains the same.