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Back in February 2005, I covered a nifty utility, Brightness Control, that provides a simple slider for dimming your Mac’s screen. Such a program was needed by some, I explained, because many third-party displays have only basic brightness controls, and some of those displays are still far too bright even at their lowest settings. (I personally found my then-new 20-inch Dell display to be so bright, even at the dimmest setting, that it was basically unusable once the sun went down.) In addition, some people find Apple’s displays—laptop and Cinema—to be too bright, even at their lowest settings, when working in the dark.

(Some of you might be saying, “But how many people actually work in the dark?” Turns out, more than you might think. In addition to folks trying to do some Web browsing without disturbing a sleeping spouse, there are, for example, astronomers who need dim displays that don’t affect their dark adaptation, and students who need to take notes in dark classrooms. Even a dimly-lit work environment can present challenges if your display is too bright.)

Shades controls

I’ve since discovered a couple Gems that provide better functionality than Brightness Control. The first is Charcoal Design’s Shades 1.1.5r1 (   ; free). Like Brightness Control, Shades gives you a simple slider for dimming your screen, but Shades’ control is more accessible: it can appear as a menu-bar menu; a floating, translucent slider; or both; the floating slider can be oriented vertically or horizontally. Even better, you can hide both the menu-bar item and the floating control and adjust the display via keyboard shortcuts; for example, I chose Shift+Control+Down to decrease brightness. A nice touch: if you accidentally set the brightness to its lowest level—making your screen pitch-black—Shades keeps its menu-bar item and the cursor bright so you can recover. I also like the option to keep Shades from appearing in the Dock.

My main complaints about Shades are similar to those I had about Brightness Control: it simply dims the screen, which also reduces contrast at lower brightness levels, and it doesn’t let you dim multiple displays independently. (My two too-bright displays have different brightnesses, even at their lowest built-in settings; when the main one is set just right using Shades, the other is too dark.) Still, for simple brightness control, it’s a good option.

DarkAdapted basic controls

If you need more options, a better solution is AquilaDigital Partnership’s DarkAdapted Pro 2.2 (   ; $10). The program’s basic brightness- and color-switching features are available via a floating window with a pop-up menu listing all presets: brightness levels at 5-percent increments, several red levels, and several green levels. (The red presets, which give your entire display a red hue, are useful for preserving night vision—DarkAdapted Pro was originally designed as a tool for astronomers.) You can choose presets using the mouse cursor, a mouse scroll wheel or trackpad scroll, or by typing the first few characters of the preset’s name; for example, typing 80 automatically switches to the 80% Brightness preset. You get one of these control windows for each display connected to your Mac, and each works independently of the others—in other words, each display can have different settings.

DarkAdapted extended controls

But DarkAdapted Pro also lets you customize each display’s gamma values via the Show Details option, which expands the window to show red, green, and blue sliders. You can adjust the sliders independently or lock them to adjust them together. You can also lock the sliders relative to one another, so you can change one or two values and then lock; this preserves the relative differences between the sliders when you move them together. Another useful detail is the set of text boxes at the bottom of the window, which show how black, white, and highlighted text will look on white, red, green, or blue backgrounds using your current settings. As you’re making changes, the display changes smoothly in real time. (If your display ever becomes difficult to view, press Shift+Command+Return to restore it to standard brightness.)

If you tend to frequently switch between settings, or combinations of settings, you can save your own presets and preset sets; the latter apply a different preset to each connected display. DarkAdapted can export and import these presets and sets, as well.

DarkAdapted menu

DarkAdapted Pro also makes its presets, as well as a few additional options, available via a systemwide menu-bar menu. For example, you can bring up floating brightness and color sliders in any application; these sliders let you quickly adjust your settings and then disappear once you move the cursor away from them. (Unfortunately, it’s more difficult to control multiple displays independently using these sliders, as you have to first choose the display to control and then show the controller.)

DarkAdapted Pro includes AppleScript support so you can access its features from within AppleScripts and Automator workflows. You can choose keyboard shortcuts for sets, presets, AppleScripts, commands in the DarkAdapted Pro menu, as well as to toggle between the current settings and full brightness.

There are also numerous other minor-but-useful features available via DarkAdapted Pro’s Preferences window and menu-bar menu. For example, you can choose to have your settings apply to just your own account or to all accounts; to hide the Dock icon so that all settings are made via the menu-bar menu; or to hide the Dock icon and the menu, controlling DarkAdapted Pro only using the keyboard.

One of my favorite options is the automatic-refresh setting. If you’ve used a screen-dimming utility before, you know that many apps that take over the entire screen—games, video players, screen savers—reset the screen to full brightness; when you quit the program, that setting remains, forcing you to go back to your dimming utility and reset your preferred level. DarkAdapted Pro can automatically refresh your screen’s gamma and brightness settings at an interval you choose, which avoids this problem.

Finally, DarkAdapted Pro can be scheduled to apply specific presets at specific times. This is useful, for example, if your desk sits near a window so your ambient light level changes throughout the day. You can tell DarkAdapted Pro to apply one preset at 10AM, another at 3PM, and another at 7PM. Even more impressive, if you enter your longitude and latitude, DarkAdapted Pro can grab sunrise and sunset times for your location. You can then set the utility to apply particular presets at those times—or relative to those times; for example, an hour after sunrise and two hours before sunset.

(AquilaDigital Partnership also offers a free, standard version of DarkAdapted. The free version lacks a number of Pro’s unique features, but still offers more options than Brightness Control and Shades. In fact, the Pro version’s features are still available to you in the free version; however, after using them a few times, you’ll occasionally see a reminder window asking you to buy Pro.)

DarkAdapted Pro is an impressive utility; its basic features are easy to use, and although its full functionality is likely overkill for many people, it offers enough unique features that even owners of Apple’s own displays, which can be controlled using features of Mac OS X, may find something appealing here.

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