Mac Gems Greatest Hits

As Philip Michaels noted Monday morning, this is Software Bargains Week here at Macworld.com. Which makes it an especially exciting week for me, since Mac Gems is home base for such bargains. Every month in the pages of Macworld , and several times a week here on Macworld.com, I get to talk about products that work the best, are the easiest to use, and/or offer the best value for the money. It's fun for me to hunt down these bargains, and if the feedback we've received is any indication, readers love reading about the products we've picked out.

Over the past couple years, a number of readers have asked me what makes a Gem a Gem. It's a fair question -- after all, there are many great products out there, so it's not trivial to choose which ones make it into the pages of Macworld or onto the pages of Macworld.com. It's especially difficult when dealing with a product with lots of competition; for example, when there are ten products that take screenshots, how do you pick just one to cover? To give you some insight into the process, here are the general guidelines that I try to follow:

  • The product must garner a 3.5-mice rating or higher to be considered.
  • The product should do something useful and do it especially well. Before you scream, "Well, duh," part of what makes a Gem a Gem is that it really shines at a particular task, whether that task involves helping you do something you normally couldn't do or helping you do things faster or with less effort. (On occasion I've also covered a product that doesn't do anything intrinsically useful, but is so neat/clever/unique that it's worth talking about.) What I'm getting at is that the product should engender a response -- from at least some people -- of "Wow, I've always wanted to be able to do that!" or "Now that's a cool piece of software!"
  • The product has to do what it does better -- whether that means faster, more easily, or more effectively -- than competing products.

(As an obvious-sounding side note, for a product to be considered I have to actually know about it and it has to be widely available. I mention this because every once in a while I'll get an email from someone that says something to the effect of "Why did you talk about ProductA when ProductB is so much better?" when it turns out that ProductB was written by his cousin Joe and is only used by the four people in Joe's weekly poker group.)

If a product fulfills those criteria, it's a candidate for Mac Gems. How "Gemmy" it is is another story.

 

Classy Critters:  

The other common question I get -- also a good one -- goes something like, "What makes a product a 'five mice' product?" After all, few products are awarded such a distinction. Consider: Mac Gems began in the print version of Macworld way back in April of 2003. Since then we've had 21 normal columns (each covering 5 to 7 products) and three "Software Bargains" features, each of which has covered 60 to 75 more products. That's a lot of Gems -- almost 300! Yet the number of products receiving a shiny   can likely be counted on your fingers and toes. There's a reason for that: We don't take the five-mice rating lightly. To earn this honor, a product must meet a number of stiff criteria:

  • The product does everything it's supposed to do, flawlessly or nearly so.
  • The product has no obvious drawbacks -- I'll never give a product five mice if there's obvious functionality missing.
  • The product is easy to use and has an excellent interface.
  • The product truly sets the standard for its genre, or, among a field of excellent candidates, is clearly better than the competition.

Note that nowhere in those criteria does it say the product must be perfect . I point this out because when I do give a product a five-mice rating, I inevitably receive letters and emails to the effect of "How could you give such-and-such five mice when it doesn't do XYZ?" My answer to this is to point readers to the ratings legend in each issue of Macworld :

    OUTSTANDING       VERY GOOD       GOOD  

Five mice simply means that the product is outstanding . It can achieve that status despite a minor flaw here or a missing (minor) feature there; it just needs to be a product that clearly stands out for its quality and usability and doesn't have any obvious failings.

So what products have received the coveted   ? Over the past year, I've only given out a handful. I've listed these below, along with a brief description of each and a link to the original review.

    iSeek ($15; www.ambrosiasw.com/utilities/iseek/; January 2004 ) iSeek provides a search field in the menu bar -- activated via the mouse or the keyboard -- that allows you to quickly search one of over 40 popular Web sites. Even better, iSeek allows you to add new search sites via a library of over 300 sites; just click the link in the library to add it to iSeek's list. (You can also add sites manually if you know the site's search syntax.) I have yet to find a faster or more convenient way to search all of my favorite sites -- I use iSeek dozens of times every day.

    Peripheral Vision ($7; www.grantedsw.com/p-vision/; March 2004 ) Peripheral Vision monitors peripherals (Bluetooth, FireWire, and USB), network connections, and mounted volumes and notifies you -- via a translucent overlay on the screen -- when any of them is connected or disconnected, purposely or otherwise. In addition, you can have an alert sound play or a particular application launch automatically whenever a particular device or network is connected or disconnected. Peripheral vision is an excellent troubleshooting tool and, as I mentioned in my original review, has become one of the first things I install when I get a new Mac.

    Pacifist ($20; www.charlessoft.com; April 2004 ) Pacifist provides a number of very useful features relating to OS X Installer packages. At the most basic level, it shows you the complete contents of a package, including the size, file type, eventual permissions, and installation destination of every file contained in the package. But it also lets you verify your existing installations and extract or install (or reinstall) any file in a package. Pacifist can be dangerous if used improperly, but in the hands of a knowledgeable user, it's one of the most useful utilities available for OS X.

    Snapz Pro X 2 (screenshot-only version $29, movie version $69; www.ambrosiasw.com/utilities/snapzprox/; May 2004 ) There's simply no better utility on any platform for taking screenshots -- and screen movies -- than Snapz Pro X. Whether you need to capture an activated menu, several windows without the background clutter, a section of the screen, or a clip from a DVD, Snapz Pro X does it quickly and easily. But despite its ease of use, it's also extremely powerful: When taking screenshots, you can choose one of eight destination image file formats; include borders, watermarks, and thumbnails; choose color depth and compression levels; and even get a live preview of the final shot before you take it. Movie capture mode -- which captures both video and audio -- gives you even more options: frame rate; color depth; compression codec and data rate; and audio settings. No matter what you're trying to capture, Snapz Pro X 2 will do the job and do it right.

    RCDefaultApp (free; www.rubicode.com/Software/RCDefaultApp/; November 2004 ) Since I wrote about RCDefaultApp for the current Software Bargains feature, I'm going to let that blurb do the talking: RCDefaultApp is a preference pane that combines the best features of More Internet (   ; November 2003), MisFox (   ; March 2004), and OS X 10.2's Internet preference pane, and then adds even more functionality. Using RCDefaultApp, you can choose your preferred helper application for each of the main Internet protocols (Web, e-mail, newsgroups, and FTP), as well as the helper for each URL protocol -- from AFP (Apple Filing Protocol) to whois and everything in between (such as HTTP, HTTPS, ITMS, and SSH). MIME Types settings let you decide the default application for each kind of MIME content -- such as the Windows Media videos and PNG images you encounter on the Web. RCDefaultApp also lets you choose the application that should be used to open files with particular file-name extensions (such as .rtf, .doc, and .mpg) and file types (the OS 9- style Type Codes, such as TTXT and ttro). And unlike other utilities, RCDefaultApp also lets you disable types of files or protocols, such as URL schemes that pose security risks, providing you with a one-stop solution for customizing default application preferences.

 

More to come...

I mentioned that we've covered a lot of great products in Mac Gems. But what's even more exciting for Mac users is that the number of Gem-worthy products just keeps on growing: Every day we see a number of brand new products for Mac OS X that pique our interest, along with updates to older products that make us take another look at them. We'll continue to search through those products to find the best ones for you, our readers. If you have any suggestions for areas we should explore -- or if you know of an amazing product we haven't yet discovered -- let us know via the "Leave a Comment" link below.

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