The Mac platform boasts an abundance of free, low-cost, and great-value software. (That’s partly because of the convenience and popularity of the Mac App Store, though the concept of excellent, inexpensive Mac apps has been around for decades.) In fact, one of the biggest challenges these days, at least when it comes to software, is that the Mac has a veritable overabundance of apps. How do you know which are the good ones—and which ones are truly great?
That’s where we come in. Here at Macworld, we call apps that give you great functionality for the price Mac Gems, and we review one or two of these products each week in our Mac Gems column. Veteran readers know that Gems reviews are special to us, because they epitomize why we do what we do: to help you make the most of your Mac without breaking the bank.
But at our usual rate of Gems reviews, we can’t keep up with everything that’s out there. So each summer, our editors, along with a number of regular Macworld contributors, collaborate on an annual Gems-review marathon, which we call GemFest (a.k.a., the Summer of Gems).
Over the past decade or so, TiVo and similar DVRs have changed the way we watch TV—so much so that many of us take for granted that we can pause live TV, rewind to watch something again, and jump forward to skip commercials. These features have become such an ingrained part of my media-consuming experience that I often miss them when listening to music on my Mac.
Sure, iTunes has a pause button, and if I’m listening to tracks in my iTunes library, I can skim forward and back. But I’ve got plenty of other ways to listen to music on my Mac that don’t necessarily provide such features: In addition to iTunes and other apps for playing local music tracks, I’ve got streaming-audio apps such as Pandora and Spotify (and, of course, iTunes Radio), and I’ve got myriad websites and online services providing music, podcasts, and online “radio” shows. Some of these let me skip forward and back, but not all; some have ads, while others don’t. And while most have a pause button, I have to remember which app I’m currently using, switch to that app, and then pause or resume—I don’t have a universal Pause button.
At least I didn’t until I started using Rogue Amoeba’s Intermission, which aims to bring TiVo-like features to your Mac’s audio, regardless of the source of that audio. Like TiVo on your TV, Intermission constantly records your Mac’s audio in order to create a buffer you can browse.
At the risk of giving away the secrets of musicians everywhere, there are bound volumes of (sometimes legal) musical scores called “fake books.” Rather than denoting every note and rest within a composition, they instead offer a "lead sheet" made up of a single melody line and chord headings. It’s then the musician’s job to devise an arrangement (read: fake their way through) based on this bare outline. The most well known of these fake books is the Real Book, which is full of jazz standards.
I mention all this to give you some idea where iReal Pro (Mac App Store link) gets its name. (iReal Pro is available in versions for iOS, Android, and the Mac; I discuss the Mac version, which costs $20, here.)
iReal Pro is more than a collection of musical scores (known as “charts” to us hep-cats). It’s additionally an auto-accompaniment application rudimentarily similar to PG Music’s $129 Band-in-a-Box. The idea is that you select a chart and press Play, and iReal Pro plays a three-instrument backing track—drums, bass, and piano (or guitar), for example. Your job is to play or sing along with this virtual band.
When it comes to Instagram, I usually prefer to post images that I took on my phone. But some people like to use the image-sharing service as a highlight reel for their DSLR images—which is great, but chances are those photos weren’t shot with a square aspect ratio.
You could crop your images, of course, but the $20 iResizer (Mac App Store link; currently on sale for $2) offers a different option: The app’s content-aware resizing tools fit all of your image—no cropping involved—into a square frame, maintaining the original aspect ratio of the important parts.
I didn’t use to be a fan of Markdown, a plain-text syntax that’s designed to be easy to write and read while letting you easily publish to HTML. I write to HTML for several blogs and websites, but I’ve been fluent enough in that language over the years to be comfortable typing the code directly. (I also use a number of TextExpander shortcuts to handle some of that code for me, so I don’t need to remember the details of certain tags.) In addition, Markdown handles only a subset of HTML tags for styling text, and I often need other, more-complex tags. But if you’ve read my reviews of Mac writing apps here at Macworld, you may have noticed that I’ve slowly been coming around to Markdown—for much of what I write, it does what I need with little complication.
These days, many Mac writing apps support Markdown, though they handle Markdown code in different ways, and they offer different approaches to HTML previews—from showing a preview in a separate window, to showing text and previews side by side in the same window.
The Soulmen’s $45 Ulysses III (Mac App Store link) takes a different tack, showing styling right inline with your text: When you apply styling to a bit of text—such as the italics on the word “with” just above—Ulysses shows the text in the style you’ve applied, with the style-syntax characters displayed in a lighter or darker color (depending on which theme you use).
Whenever the fans in my MacBook Pro suddenly rev up, I use the built-in Activity Monitor app (Applications > Utilities) to see what’s going on. But I’ve often wished for a quicker and easier way to check my Mac’s activity than having to open Activity Monitor.
The free System Lens (Mac App Store link) offers a compromise: It resides in the menu bar, and when you click its icon, you see a snapshot of which apps are actively using your computer’s resources.
LaunchBar, the keyboard-based app that offers a faster way to open the applications and files you use most, started 20 years ago as a folder full of shell scripts that could be triggered by a specific abbreviation typed into a Terminal shell. It was clever, but clunky. It didn’t take long, however, for the developers behind LaunchBar, Objective Development, to realize that their folder full of scripts would be much more powerful as an actual launching application—as a bar that helps you launch things—with an index of everything on the computer, thus allowing the app itself to figure out what it is you’re searching for.
That’s how LaunchBar was born, and it was immediately useful. Today, however, LaunchBar, recently updated to version 6, is the single most important utility I have installed on my Mac.