5 quick productivity tricks

Does OS X do some things too inefficiently for your taste? Do you wish you could do more with less window and application switching? I’ll show you how to use inexpensive utilities to address these issues and more. You’ll be amazed at how much time you can save with a little help from your third-party friends.

Stop Mousing for Menus

Mousing up to the top of your screen to select a menu option can be a chore. It’s a long trip from the lower right corner to the File menu in the upper left—particularly if you’re lucky enough to have a large monitor or multiple monitors. Karl Hsu’s DejaMenu can help (donations accepted). Use it to press a keyboard combo and bring up the current application’s menus, right under your mouse pointer (See screenshot).

Before you can use DejaMenu, you must activate Enable Access For Assistive Devices in the Universal Access preference pane. After that, launch the program and enter the shortcut (Command-shift-M is the default) whenever you need the menu. If you’d like DejaMenu to start automatically each time you log in, visit the Accounts preference pane, select your user account, and click on the Startup Items button. Click on the plus sign (+) in the lower center area of the window. In the window that opens, navigate to DejaMenu, select it, and then click on Add.

The real power of DejaMenu comes into play when you have a multiple-button mouse. Set a spare button to DejaMenu’s activation keys—now any application’s menus are a click away.

Switch Users without Sacrificing Menu-Bar Space

Those of us with small monitors have problems of our own. Unless you’re blessed with a 30-inch monitor, menu-bar space is a precious resource in OS X. But if you enable Fast User Switching (in the Accounts preference pane), it displays your full user name in the menu bar, eating up a chunk of real estate that you could use for other purposes.

You have two great options for reclaiming your menu bar: Wincent Colaiuta’s WinSwitch (donations accepted) and Peter Maurer’s Butler (donations accepted). I’ll focus on Butler here, because I use it again for other tips in this article.

After downloading, installing, and launching Butler, you’ll see three new icons in your menu bar—don’t worry, you can easily remove the extras. But first visit the Login Options section of the Accounts preference pane and deselect the Enable Fast User Switching option—you won’t need it anymore. Next, click on the new icon in your menu bar—it looks like a flat-panel iMac—to access Butler’s menu. The first option, Switch Users, lets you switch users without displaying your user name in the menu bar. Even better, you can assign a global keyboard shortcut for switching users.

Select Butler: Customize from Butler’s menu to open the Butler configuration window. Click on the triangle next to This Mac, and then select Switch Users. You’ll see a bunch of information appear at the right side of the window. Click on the Hot Key field and type a keyboard shortcut. After moving to another application, you’ll be able to use this shortcut from any application.

To get rid of those extra items in your menu bar, go to Butler: Customize and scroll down in the window until you see Bookmarks and Google. If you don’t want these at all, highlight each one and press the delete key. To keep them usable but move them out of the menu bar, just drag them up the list and drop them in the This Mac section of the Configuration window—they will now appear in the Butler drop-down menu.

Control iTunes from Any Application

iTunes is a staple in most Mac users’ daily regimen, but it’s a pain to switch over to iTunes to change songs. You could use iTunes’ Dock menu, of course, but that still involves futzing with the mouse. Butler includes a set of predefined iTunes shortcuts that work from any application. Press control-option and then either the spacebar (stop or start), left arrow (previous song), or right arrow (next song). Butler even has shortcuts for rating songs on-the-fly—control-option and then keys 1 (worst) through 5 (best). A pop-up window shows song and artist information whenever you use one of these shortcuts. If you don’t like these shortcuts, customize them. Go to Butler’s Configuration window (Butler: Customize) and look under This Mac: Music: Controls. Click on any item, and then enter a new shortcut in the Hot Key field.

Search the Web from Anywhere

Although most Web browsers now have a built-in search engine field, you must launch your browser to use it. Using Butler, you can start your search no matter what application you’re in.

Sure, you could use the Google box that Butler installs in the menu bar, but there’s a better way—keyboard shortcuts. Butler includes two default shortcuts for Web searches. To see the first one, go to Butler’s Configuration window (Butler: Customize) and click on Google. To the right, you’ll see its hot key, control-option-G. Press this in any application, and your cursor jumps to the search box in the menu bar. (If you followed the earlier advice describing how to move the Google search box into your Butler menu, you’ll get a pop-up window instead.) Type your search terms and press enter, and your default browser loads Google’s results page.

The second search option is hidden in the Invisible Items section of Butler’s Configuration window. Select Web Search: Webster to see this option’s default shortcut, control-option-W. Press it, and a window appears with a search field you can use to look up words in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary.

It’s easy to create your own Web searches, too. Say you’re a movie fan and you do a lot of searching on the Internet Movie Database site. In the Configuration window, click on Invisible Items once and then click on the plus sign (+) at the bottom. Choose Smart Item: Web Search. Butler will create a new Web Search entry. Give this a name (Movie Search), click on the Search In pop-up menu, and select Miscellaneous: Internet Movie Database. Assign a hot key while you’re here, too—control-option-M, perhaps—and you’re done. Now you can search for movies with a simple keyboard combination.

If your favorite site isn’t listed among the predefined options, you might be able to create your own search string. Go to Butler: Customize; in the window that appears, click on About/Help, and then on Read The User Guide. Your Web browser will open. To learn more, click on the Search Engines link.

Bring Order to iPhoto Libraries

If you have a digital camera, chances are you have hundreds or thousands of pictures in your iPhoto library. One of the best ways to keep all these pictures sorted and easy to find is to use iPhoto’s keywords feature. Assign one or more keywords to any photo, and then use those keywords to quickly create smart albums or search for particular images. For example, if you use iPhoto to keep stock images of your company’s products, it’s a cinch to find the right widget when you’ve coded each image with a product name.

However, assigning and managing keywords is a lot of work. By default you can drag and drop a photo onto a word in the Keyword pane. (To view this pane in iPhoto 5, click on the key button in the lower right corner of the main window.) Alternatively, click on a photo, select Photos: Get Info, and select the relevant keywords. Neither of these lists is alphabetized, so if you have a lot of keywords, it will be difficult to find the one you seek.

Enter Ken Ferry’s Keyword Assistant (free). This plug-in for iPhoto 4 and 5 lets you alphabetize your keywords. To do so, click on the KA menu that Keyword Assistant adds to iPhoto and select Alphabetize Keywords.

Keyword Assistant also makes entering keywords faster. Highlight the photo or photos you want to tag and press Command-option-K to bring up the Keyword Assistant entry panel. Start typing a keyword, and Keyword Assistant autocompletes it for you, based on your existing keywords. Press return, and you’ve assigned the keyword to the photos. To assign more than one keyword, just type the desired words in the entry panel, separating them with a comma and a space—for example,

Kylie, birthday, family
. If you enter a word that isn’t on the list, Keyword Assistant asks if you’d like to add it.

[Contributing Editor Rob Griffiths is the author of Mac OS X Power Hound, Panther Edition (O’Reilly, 2004), and he runs the Mac OS X Hints Web site. ]

Using DejaMenu, you can activate any application’s menu bar with a keyboard shortcut. If you’re lucky enough to be using Apple’s 30-inch Cinema Display, this could save you miles of daily mouse movements. Even if you’re on a 12-inch laptop, you may still find it a great time-saver.
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