Top 10 Mac Productivity Enhancements

Apps to help you with just about everything: file maintenance, email, word processing, browsing and much more.


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Perhaps, like many people, you were enticed to buy a Mac by the legendary friendliness and ease of use that Apple prides itself on. And then, having loaded it up with Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop and all the other stuff you need to actually get your work done, you started noticing that there’s often a trade-off between friendliness and efficiency.

Sure, Mac OS X is pretty to look at and easy to understand, but lots of common tasks—launching applications, renaming files, typing code, browsing the Web—end up taking lots more clicks and keystrokes than they should.

Enterprising developers have created a boatload of plug-ins, add-ons, and other software enhancements that remove annoyances like these. If you’re looking for ways to work faster, smarter, and with fewer hassles, look no further than this list. These are my top 10 picks for Mac tools that will help you get more done, with less effort, in your existing activities.

You’ll notice a few common themes here. For example, several of these utilities enable you to do something with a few keystrokes that would otherwise require considerable mousing, typing, or both. Several add new capabilities to frequently used programs such as Mail and Safari. And many of them are, I freely admit, controversial choices. Although I have my own preferences and tastes, where applicable, I’ve noted competing programs that have their own loyal followings. If in doubt, try out the demo versions and make up your own mind.

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1) LaunchBar

Price: $20 (personal); $39 (business)

If I had to choose just one utility to install on my Mac, out of the hundreds of available options in every category, it would be LaunchBar.

I have become so dependent on it that it’s quite painful for me to use any Mac on which it’s not installed. I can barely conceive of how I functioned before I discovered it. In simple terms, LaunchBar is a launcher—it enables you to open things (applications, files, contacts, iTunes tracks, and just about anything else) with just a few keystrokes.

But the beauty of it is that you don’t need to have any idea where on your disk any item is, and you don’t have to tell it in advance what keystrokes to assign to which item. Press the keyboard shortcut (such as Control-Spacebar) to bring it up, type a few letters, and LaunchBar intelligently figures out what you were probably looking for. If I type W, it knows I want Microsoft Word. If I type NET, the Network pane of System Preferences is at the top of the list. And if I type MJ (my wife’s initials) her Address Book card comes up; with another keystroke or two I can see any of her contact info.

LaunchBar lists items matching the words or initials you enter, and as you make selections, it learns what you most likely mean for any set of keystrokes. So it becomes smarter and quicker to use with time. In short: you can open almost anything, anywhere on your disk, by typing just a few letters.

In fairness, two other utilities, Quicksilver and Butler, do essentially the same thing (and are even free); the three differ in the details of their interfaces and the number of bells and whistles they have. In a pinch, I’m sure I could make do with one of the alternatives, but every time I try them I find myself coming back to the simple, familiar elegance of LaunchBar.

Runners-up: Quicksilver (free) or Butler (free, donations accepted).

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