Gems Grab Bag

Here at Mac Gems headquarters, we regularly receive reader mail asking for suggestions and solutions. Occasionally that feedback leads me to find a great new application with lots of functionality, but it just as often results in the discovery of a useful utility that does one very specific thing. Since it’s difficult to justify spending an entire column on one of these “minor” pieces of software, I occasionally cover several at once. Today is one of these “Gems Grab Bag” days.

Clicking Convenience Back in Mac OS 9 and earlier, several utilities—such as Snap-To and Kensington’s MouseWorks—provided a feature that made dismissing dialog boxes a bit easier: Whenever a dialog appeared, the mouse cursor would automatically move to the default button (e.g., Save or OK). If you wanted to accept the default, you could simply click the mouse; if you wanted one of the other choices, well, your mouse cursor was that much closer to those buttons. These utilities became quite popular.

Unfortunately, Snap-To was never rewritten for Mac OS X, and the OS X version of Kensington’s MouseWorks software no longer includes this feature. But you can get it via Old Jewel Software’s $7 LazyMouse 1.0.8 (   ). LazyMouse requires that you enable “access for assistive devices” in the Universal Access pane of System Preferences, but after that it just works.

Menu Bar Masking Although this request seems a bit odd to me, I recently searched for a solution for someone who wanted to get rid of the menu bar when working in certain applications. It wasn’t that the person disliked having easy access to application options; he just found the menu bar distracting when working and wanted to be able to stretch his windows to fill the screen without having a menu bar around. Different strokes for different folks, they say.

Although I couldn’t figure out a way to completely get rid of the menu bar—and I doubt he’d really prefer that approach once he realized that the menu bar was the only way to access many options—I was able to find a decent substitute: nullriver’s free MenuShade 0.4 (   ). With MenuShade running, the menu bar fades out whenever the mouse cursor is elsewhere on the screen; when you move your mouse into the menu bar area, it fades back in. You decide how much it fades out and in—for example, completely black when faded out and fully unshaded when in use, or any level of shading in between for either.

Although MenuShade does what it does exceptionally well, it’s not very intuitive to change your preferences. Since the application doesn’t show up in the Dock and has no interface, to access its preferences dialog you have to double-click the MenuShade application icon—even if it’s already running—and then immediately press Command+comma (OS X’s standard keyboard shortcut for Preferences dialogs). A better approach might be for the preferences dialog to appear whenever you double-click the MenuShade application icon and then fade away automatically when you switch to another application.

Disc Display OK, so I didn’t get any requests for this one, but if you’ve got a Mac with a slot-loading optical drive that can burn discs—you’ll find these on recent PowerBook, iBook, Mac mini, and iMac G5 models—mekentosj’s free DiscTop Lite and DiscTop Pro (   ) will provide you with some fun eye candy (and even a little bit of useful functionality).

Both versions of DiscTop provide a visual display of any optical disc that’s inserted—you tell the DiscTop preference pane what model computer you have, and when you put a CD or DVD in your drive, it “slides” into the screen based on the location of your optical drive. For example, if you have a 12” PowerBook, a large image of a disc slides onto the upper-right corner of your Desktop; on a Mac mini, it appear in the lower center. The effect is visually quite cool, and it also can be helpful in letting you quickly see whether or not a disc is in your drive. (Note that DiscTop works best with slot-loading drives; if you use it with non-slot-loading drives, like those on a Power Mac G5, DiscTop will show a CD “being inserted” whenever you close the drive tray.)

DiscTop Lite image

The “Pro” version of DiscTop, still free, adds a few handy features. Most obvious is that for commercial discs, it connects to Amazon.com and grabs the CD or DVD art—instead of a boring blank disc, you see exactly what disc is in your drive. DiscTop Pro also adds playback control buttons to the image of audio CDs and adds a control menu to its disc display that can be used to access additional options.

DiscTop Pro image

The DiscTop preference pane lets you choose how opaque disc images should be—useful if you’ve got a messy Desktop and want to see what’s behind the disc—and provides options for display persistence and eject delay so you can fine-tune DiscTop to more accurately reflect the behavior of the optical drive in your computer. You can even modify DiscTop so that instead of showing an optical disc, it shows a floppy (3.5” or 5.25"), LP, or any other object you prefer.

  
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