Mac Gems of the Year: 2010

Mac Gems of the Year 2010

With the end of the year just around the corner, and our our 2010 Eddy Awards and 2010 App Gems Awards in the history books, it’s time to take a look at the Mac Gems of the Year—the best of the jewels of the Mac software market. Mac Gems are by definition great, affordable software, but these are the ones that I feel stood out in 2010 for their usefulness, value, innovation, or overall excellence.

We covered around 120 Gems this year, and 15 of those products made my list. From taming Flash to converting video, launching applications to reducing typing, reading Web articles to managing windows, these inexpensive applications and add-ons will help you get the most out of your Mac without blowing your budget.

A couple interesting tidbits about this year’s picks: Back in June, I picked my favorite Gems of the first half of the year; those products have held up exceptionally well, with each making the final list. And 2010 ended with a bang for Mac Gems, as five of this year’s list were reviewed in the past five weeks.

The winners

BashFlash ( ): If, like me, you hate the way Flash can bog down your browser (and even your Mac), but you don’t want to block Flash completely, install BashFlash. This utility’s menu-bar icon alerts you whenever Flash begins to hog your processor; you can then quickly kill the Flash plug-in across all Safari Windows and tabs without otherwise disturbing those Web pages. BashFlash is a great complement to Mac Gems All-Star ClickToFlash.

DragThing ( ): A long-time staff favorite, DragThing lets you create multiple Dock-like, well, docks, each containing applications, folders, files, disks, and more. Within each dock, you can create multiple layers containing different sets of items. You can open any item by clicking it or by assigning it a keyboard shortcut. The latest version adds drawers (docks that hide off the screen, sliding into view only when you need them), clippings (frequently used boilerplate text), spring-loaded folders, and file and folder previews.

Dropbox ( ): In terms of the number of readers, my review of Dropbox was the most popular Mac Gems review of 2010...and it was published less than a week ago. But that response demonstrates the popularity of Dropbox, a combination of Web service and Mac OS X program that work together to make your data—specifically, the contents of a special Dropbox folder on your Mac—accessible from anywhere and to keep that data synchronized between your computers. Drop a document into your Dropbox folder, and it magically appears in the Dropbox folder on your other Macs; it's also instantly accessible from any device with a Web browser, or any iOS app that lets you view or edit Dropbox-hosted files. Dropbox also automatically keeps older versions of each file, just in case you accidentally delete something important. Use it for backups, for making your in-progress files and folders accessible from all your Macs, for keeping settings in sync between computers, or for transferring data between your Mac and your iPhone or iPad. Just use it.

HandBrake ( ): A veteran of many best-of-Gems lists, HandBrake remains the gold standard for converting DVDs to formats playable on iPhones, iPads, iPods, Apple TVs, and other devices. The latest version lets you convert other video sources, improves performance, comes in both 32- and 64-bit versions, provides better video previews, and includes a new Constant Quality setting that uses a variable bit rate to keep the quality of converted video more consistent from beginning to end. The new version also lets you fine-tune the size, cropping, and details of video before converting, and can include subtitles as separate elements.

Hazel ( ): Even though Hazel has been around for quite a while, it wasn't until my colleague Dan Miller reviewed it for Mac Gems that I realized how handy it is. In a nutshell, Hazel gives you the functionality of OS X's Folder Actions feature in a package that's much easier to use—no knowledge of Automator or AppleScript required. In addition to a diverse selection of actions that can be automatically applied to items in a folder, Hazel offers a slew of useful filters for restricting those actions to items that meet your specific criteria. Hazel also includes Trash-management and application-deletion features. Hazel isn't for everyone, but it gets the nod here for upstaging OS X's own Folder Actions feature by offering power and ease of use.

Instapaper ( ; also an Eddy Awards winner): This Web service is an integral part of my Web-browsing experience. Whenever I come across an article that I want to read later, I just click the Instapaper link in my browser’s bookmarks bar and the article is added to my Instapaper account. When I’m ready to read the article, I can go to the Instapaper site or launch the Instapaper app on my iPhone or iPad, where the article has been reformatted for easier reading and stripped of ads and other distractions.

LaunchBar ( ): Speaking of Mac Gems veterans, LaunchBar is one utility many Macworld editors couldn’t get by without. It works much like Spotlight in that you press a keyboard shortcut (Command+Spacebar by default) and then type a few letters of the name of the item you want to open. But LaunchBar is more intelligent than Spotlight—it can make educated guesses about what you want to open, and it learns the choices you make for particular abbreviations. It can also run scripts; let you browse files; let you browse and search within some applications’ data; control iTunes, and much, much more. The latest version of LaunchBar even includes a multiple-clipboard utility.

MagicLaunch ( ): Snow Leopard no longer uses file creator codes to determine which program opens a file when you double-click it. Magic Launch restores this capability: Whenever you double-click a document, Magic Launch routes the document to the program of your choosing. In addition, you can create rules for handling particular types of files. For example, you could force .jpg files sporting the Finder’s red label to open in Photoshop but those with a green label to open in Preview.

MenuPop ( ): Longtime Gem DejaMenu put the current application's menus—in the form of a hierarchical menu—under your mouse cursor with the press of a keyboard shortcut. DejaMenu was especially useful on large displays and multiple-display systems by eliminating the need to mouse all the way across the screen—or across multiple screens—to access menus. MenuPop offers all the features of the now-dead DejaMenu and more. Unlike DejaMenu, MenuPop's menus include the Apple Menu, can display keyboard shortcuts for menu commands, and can display alternate menu commands—those that normally appear only when you press modifier keys—at all times. And you can navigate all of MenuPop's menus using the keyboard.

Neu ( ): Windows has at least one feature I'd love to see OS X appropriate: the capability to quickly create a new document right in the current folder. Thanks to Neu, I've got that feature in Snow Leopard. In fact, whenever you’re working in a Finder window, Neu gives you five ways to create a new document: a systemwide menu, Neu’s Dock menu, the Finder’s Services submenu (in the Finder menu), the Finder’s contextual menus, or either of two configurable keyboard shortcuts. Whichever approach you use, you can choose from a customizable list of possible document types—and even document templates. You can also opt to automatically open the resulting file in the appropriate program, and to rename the new file as it’s created. (Neu is a worthy replacement for NuFile and Document Palette, two older Gems that are no longer available.)

Printopia ( ): This OS X add-on fulfills the promise of Apple's AirPrint feature by letting you print from iOS 4 devices to any printer connected to your Mac. (The initial release of AirPrint lets you print only to a limited number of AirPrint-compatible printers.) But it adds some great additional features, as well, such as two virtual printers—Send To Mac and Send To Dropbox On Mac—that let you quickly save a PDF of a document, or a JPEG or PNG version of an image, from your iOS device to the Documents or Dropbox folder, respectively, on your Mac. The Send To Dropbox feature is the easiest and fastest way I’ve found to get iPhone screenshots onto all my Macs, and I regularly use the Send To Mac option to save receipts from Mobile Safari. Oh, and Printopia also works with any Mac running OS X 10.5 or later, letting Leopard users use AirPrint, too.

TextExpander ( ): Of all the text-expanding utilities—which let you assign abbreviations to frequently used text (snippets), automatically substituting the appropriate snippet when you type an abbreviation—TextExpander is my favorite. You can place snippets into groups that are available on a per-application basis; include keystrokes within snippets; and include variables, such as the current date and time or the contents of the clipboard, within snippets. I also love that you can sync your snippets between Macs using Dropbox or MobileMe, and there’s even an iOS version that also syncs with your Mac.

Witch ( ): This 2006 Gem was updated significantly in 2010—enough so to repeat as a Gems standout. Witch provides an alternative to Mac OS X’s built-in Command+Tab application switcher, but instead of restricting you to just switching between open programs, Witch displays a sorted list of all windows in all applications, letting you quickly switch to—and perform actions on—any of them. The biggest new features include Quick Look previews of windows from within the Witch switcher and support for Snow Leopard’s Spaces multiple-workspace system; you can even enable “Spaces badges” that help you distinguish which windows reside in which workspace. You can perform actions—such as close, quit, hide, minimize, unminimize, and reveal in Finder—on windows and programs from within Witch, and much, much more. Witch is easily one of the most useful utilities on my Macs.

YoruFukurou ( ): If you’re active on Twitter and haven’t yet found the perfect Mac Twitter client, check out this little-known Gem, which includes all the features you’d expect along with a slew of clever additions. For example, click on a message from a particular person, and all messages from that person are instantly highlighted. If the selected message is part of a conversation, all the messages in that conversation are similarly highlighted, though in different colors. You can quickly filter the message list to view only a conversation, only tweets from a particular user, or only tweets containing a particular keyword or username. You also get tabs for different types of content, custom searches and rules, built-in image previews, auto-completion of usernames and hashtags, a slew of keyboard shortcuts, and myriad alert and notification options.

Zooom ( ): Like MondoMouse, one of my all-time favs, Zooom lets you move, resize, and identify windows without having to first switch to them and without having to position your cursor over a thin title bar or a tiny resize corner: You just move the mouse cursor over any visible part of a window, press the appropriate modifier keys, and then drag. It’s a difficult concept to explain, but a feature that reveals its utility almost instantly once you try it. Zooom adds a feature called Magnetics, which can snap a window’s edges against other objects—windows, the sides of the screen, the edge of the Dock, and the like—making it easier to perfectly position or resize a window.

Honorable mentions

Of course, there were plenty of other great programs and add-ons in 2010—after all, every Mac Gem is, well, a gem. Here are a few other favorites that didn’t quite make the cut.

Flux ( ): Using your location, the time, and the type of lighting in your office, this utility automatically shifts your display’s brightness and color balance as evening approaches in order to mimic the normal transition from bright, higher-temperature daylight-like lighting to softer, lower-temperature indoor lighting. The goal is to reduce eye strain and avoid sleep problems brought on by working (or playing) in front of a bright computer screen late at night. I was initially a bit skeptical, but Flux won me over—it’s been running on my Mac since I reviewed it.

FolderGlance ( ): Due to user error—and by user, I mean your humble Mac Gems editor—the eligibility periods for the 2009 awards and this year’s awards left a small gap in the calendar. FolderGlance was a victim of that interlude, so I’m including it here. Put simply, FolderGlance modifies the Finder’s contextual menus, allowing you to view the contents of folders and files, and perform actions on those items, with a simple right-click. (It’s a lot like previous Gem FinderPop.) You can also assign particular folders to always appear in the Finder’s contextual menus for quick access, and you can move items into folders using FolderGlance’s menus, as well.

Leech ( ): When you download as many files as I do each day, no browser’s built-in download manager shines. I need something more capable, and I’m stuck on Leech. From the same developer as Witch, Leech offers a slew of power-user features for downloading files and managing those downloads, such as the capability to queue, pause, and resume downloads, even across restarts of your Mac; and rules for determining where specific types of files are downloaded and how they’re processed. For example, any files I download from Apple’s various download servers are automatically sent to my Apple Downloads folder instead of ~/Downloads.

MaxMenus (Promising Prospect): This utility—which lets you create multiple custom, hierarchical menus for quickly accessing and working with your favorite files, folders, and programs—was a standby of mine many years ago. (It was actually a Mac Gem waaay back in 2002.) But as of early this year, MaxMenus hadn’t been updated in a couple years, it didn’t work with the current version of OS X, and the developer seemed to have closed up shop. Then, out of nowhere, a Snow Leopard-compatible beta version appeared, and I’ve been (re)hooked ever since. Unfortunately, development hasn’t (publicly) progressed past that beta, but I continue to use it dozens of times each day. Here's hoping we see an official release soon.

Soulver ( ): Saying "Soulver is a calculator" is a bit like saying "the iPhone is a phone." Soulver is indeed a calculator, but it changes the way you think about using a calculator. Instead of coming up with the right equation or formula, you can perform most calculations by typing them the way you'd think of them. For example, you can calculate the sale price of a Blu-ray player by typing 15% off $169.99, or figure out the number of seconds in July by typing 31 days in seconds. You can also easily convert currency ($75 in Yen), see the current price of Apple stock (AAPL), and use common scientific variables (pi). Soulver also includes a number of spreadsheet-like features, and you can save or export your calculation sessions.

A Gem within Gems: Sparkle

Finally, I want to give one more congratulatory shout-out to Sparkle, the software-update code that won an Eddy award this year. In short, Sparkle is responsible for the useful message you get from many third-party programs telling you, “A new version of application name is available” and letting you upgrade to that new version with a click. Sparkle’s developer, Andy Matuschak, provides Sparkle for free to Mac developers, and developers have responded in droves—most of the Gems mentioned above use Sparkle to help you ensure you’re always running the latest and greatest version.

Looking for more of the very best affordable Mac software? Check out last year’s awards, my 10 must-install Gems, my 2009 list of all-time favs, and my lists of Gems I’m thankful for and more Gems I’m thankful for. Want to stay up to date with the latest Gems? Sign up for the Mac Gems newsletter for a weekly e-mail summary of Gems reviews sent directly to your Inbox. You can also follow Mac Gems on Twitter.

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