Mac Gems

Panther's Exposé is one of the best operating-system features I've seen in years. But you need to press function keys to invoke Exposé functions, and on most Apple laptops, OS X claims keys F1 through F7 for controlling system settings such as brightness and volume. With certain newer PowerBooks, the added controls for keyboard backlighting mean that every function key except F11 and F12 is already in use. To use these keys as function keys, you must hold down the fn modifier key, and unless you have the hands of Julius Erving, this can be pretty tough to do with one hand.

Enter the open-source fnSwitch 1.1.1 (   ; http://sourceforge.net/projects/fnswitch/ ), which does just what its name implies. After you install fnSwitch and enable the Activate F1-F12 Keys option in its preference pane, your function keys will work as function keys when you press them; if you want to use them to change system settings, you hold down the fn key.

fnSwitch isn't useful just for Exposé; it also frees up function keys when you use a keyboard utility to assign items and actions to those keys. My only complaint is that fnSwitch doesn't provide its own keyboard command for toggling its functionality on and off, but that's a minor beef.

More Keyboard Controls

Speaking of keyboard switches, if fnSwitch doesn't do enough for you, check out gnufoo's open-source uControl (   ; http://gnufoo.org/ucontrol/ ). In addition to letting you toggle function-key behavior, it provides a number of other keyboard modifications, some of which Mac users have been requesting for years.

For example, you can swap one modifier key for another -- switching the enter and option keys is popular with PowerBook users. If you're left-handed and want to reverse the buttons on your two-button mouse, you can do that, too. You can also enable mouse or trackpad scrolling -- press a desired modifier key (such as the fn key on PowerBooks), and you can scroll the current document window by moving the cursor. uControl is also handy for Mac users who want to use a Windows-centric keyboard -- you can set up the Alt and Windows keys to correspond to the option and 1 keys.

Since uControl is a kernel extension, make sure to install the version that's correct for your version of OS X, and check for upgrades before you update your operating system. But if you get hooked on uControl's functionality, these will be minor inconveniences.

Movie Management

Netflix (www.netflix.com) lets you rent a number of DVDs at once -- and keep them as long as you like -- via the U.S. Postal Service. If you're a Netflix subscriber, you've got to check out The Little App Factory's $10 Netflix Freak 1.0.3 (   ; www.thelittleappfactory.com ). Using Netflix Freak, you can manage your queue (the list of movies you've ordered for rental) and access the online Netflix database far better than you can through the Netflix Web site.

The main Netflix Freak window shows your queue; you can rearrange movies -- which changes the order in which you'll receive them -- by dragging them up or down in the list. You can add some mystery to your movie-watching by clicking on the Shuffle button to reorder your queue; you won't know which movie you'll get next. You can also search your queue to see if you've already added a title. (I know someone who has 500 movies-- the maximum -- in a queue, so this feature can really be helpful!) Clicking on a title provides information about that movie, including an image of its DVD cover, a synopsis, and its genre (which you can change if you have your own classifications). You can include your own notes about each movie and search the Notes field later.

Another helpful feature in a family environment is the ability to assign a name to each movie, in order to keep track of who rented each one.

Netflix Freak's Find screen offers improved movie-search features, dividing search results into Movies, Actors, and Directors. Click on a movie to get more information (including Netflix user ratings), or click on an actor or director to get a list of movies related to that person. Select a movie and click on Add to add it to your queue -- you can choose to add it to the beginning, add it to the end, or put it in and then shuffle the entire queue. If only the Web site offered such flexibility!

Netflix Freak lets you quickly see currently checked-out movies, along with your entire rental history. This little utility is a welcome alternative to the Netflix Web site, which I haven't visited in months.

Installer Info

Have you ever wondered exactly what an installer package (a .pkg or .mpkg file) was going to install? Or have you wished you could install just a single file or subset of files from such a package? If so, CharlesSoft's $20 Pacifist 1.6 (   ; www.charlessoft.com ) is just what you've been looking for. Drag an installer package onto the Pacifist icon, and Pacifist presents you with a list of all the files in the package, organized by the target installation directory. You can also see detailed information about each file, including its permissions, size, and file type. This functionality alone can be very helpful for previewing installations.

But Pacifist's real power is that it lets you verify installations and extract or install any file from within a package. For example, if you recently updated OS X via an installer package, and now you're having problems, open that package in Pacifist and click on the Verify button. Pacifist will check to see whether all files are installed correctly and have the right permissions, and it will provide a full report of the results. Discrepancies may indicate an installation problem, and reinstalling might fix it.

If you discover that an application or a file is damaged, you can also use Pacifist to get a clean copy of that file. Open the appropriate installer package in Pacifist, and then select the desired file(s). Click on Extract to save the file(s) to your hard drive (in a location you choose), or click on Install to install those files exactly as if you were using the Installer utility.

Note that because it's so powerful, Pacifist can be dangerous; installing a wrong or incomplete version of a vital system file can render your system unbootable. And if you need to reinstall an application, you should install the full application first, and then install any updates. But Pacifist is one of the most useful tools available for OS X, especially for troubleshooting.

Enhanced Energy Saver

In Panther, Apple finally brought back OS 9's scheduled-startup, sleep, and shutdown features. But Panther still limits you to only two schedules: one for startup, and another for either sleep or shutdown. If you'd like more control over these functions, you'll love iBeeZz 2.2.1 (   ; www.ibeezz.com; see the company's Web site for pricing information).

With iBeeZz, you can create as many scheduled events as you like, and you can schedule each event for a specific time on one or more days each week. However, iBeeZz doesn't confine you to startup and shutdown; each event can execute one of five basic actions -- startup, wake from sleep, restart, shutdown, and sleep -- or one of two special options that let you open files or start playing music via iTunes.

The Open Files option lets you select one or more applications and files-- including AppleScripts -- to open at the scheduled time. The iTunes option lets you play songs from your main Library or choose a particular playlist; you can also choose the target volume and fade-in speed, making iBeeZz a great alarm clock. iBeeZz gives you precise control over exactly when your computer is running and what it's doing.

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