Mac Gems of the Year (2009)

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‘Tis the season of awards here at Macworld. Earlier this week, we unveiled our 25th annual Editors’ Choice Awards, given to our favorite Mac hardware and software products of the past year. Next week, you’ll see the App Gems, our favorite iPhone apps. So it’s only fitting that I give props to my favorite Mac Gems of the past 12 months.

These aren’t our all-time favorite Gems (although a few may make our next all-time list), and it’s different from the Gems I’m thankful for (a list of software I personally use every day). Rather, these are the 11 Mac Gems, reviewed between November 1, 2008 and November 1, 2009, that stood out for their usefulness, value, innovation, or overall excellence. A couple were so good that they ended up winning Eddy awards, as well.

Without further ado, the Gems of the Year, in alphabetical order:

Back-In-Time ( ): Time Machine, Mac OS X’s built-in backup feature, provides peace of mind by automatically backing up your data and, just as important, making it dead-simple to recover lost files or older versions. However, Time Machine’s interface and capabilities are quite limited. Back-In-Time offers an advanced interface for Time Machine, providing many more options for, and much more flexibility when, browsing and recovering files. $29; Tri-Edre.

ClickToFlash ( ): This must-have Flash-blocking plug-in for Safari makes browsing the Web a much more pleasant experience by letting you decide which Flash content to view on each Website. It can also automatically load the H.264 version of videos on YouTube. We liked ClickToFlash so much, we gave it an Eddy (click for the full writeup). Free; ClickToFlash Team.

Docks ( ): Utilities for creating and switching between multiple Dock configurations—so you can use different Docks for different groups of tasks, or keep a stock Dock handy for screenshots—have been around for years, but Docks stands out for its ease of use and attractive interface. Alas, the Website of the developer, Thoughtful Tree Software, recently dropped off the ‘net. Hopefully, this is a temporary condition and it will be back online soon. Update: The developer of Docks has told me that the software will be available again by the end of the month. $10; Thoughtful Tree Software.

Growl ( ): This behind-the-scenes utility provides a systemwide notification service used by many Mac programs and system add-ons. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, more and more of my favorite applications and services take adantage of Growl to provide notifications and updates—I can see when downloads and file transfers have finished, when new messages have arrived, when video conversions have completed, when my laptop’s power cable has been disconnected, and much more. An example of a great use of Growl notifications is HardwareGrowler, which informs you of hardware and network connections and disconnections. Free; Growl Developers.

I Love Stars ( ): For those who meticulously rate their iTunes media for sorting and for use as criteria in smart playlists, this menubar and keyboard-shortcut utility makes the process simple and convenient—I Love Stars even reminds you, partway through each unrated song, to rate. It's a niche product, but it's useful, intuitive, and elegantly implemented—right down to the way its stars "roll off" the menu bar when iTunes playback stops, and roll back on when playback resumes. Free; Potion Factory.

Layers ( ): This mind-blowing (at the time of release) screenshot utility creates layered Photoshop images—every onscreen item gets its own layer, letting you tweak, move, or delete any item after the fact. You can also filter particular onscreen elements out of your screenshots at the time of capture. For people who work with screenshots, Layers means no more manually moving and hiding windows and icons in order to get the perfect shot, and no more retaking screen captures because you missed something in your preparations. The Eddy-winning Acorn now includes a similar feature, but Layers continues to offer more features and options. $25; Wuonm.

MondoMouse ( ): MondoMouse is a bit difficult to explain: It lets you move and resize windows, in any program, without having to grab a thin title bar or tiny resize handle. You just move the cursor over the window you want to modify, press your chosen modifier key(s), and then move the mouse; the window moves or resizes with the cursor. (Still not clear? Check out our Macworld Video on MondoMouse.) It may not sound impressive, but once you’ve used it, you’ll never go back to clicking and dragging windows. $15; Atomic Bird.

RipIt ( ): It’s wrong to copy DVDs you don’t own, but there are plenty of legitimate reasons for ripping DVDs you’ve purchased. RipIt lets you rip those DVDs with a single click of the mouse; you can watch the resulting VIDEO_TS folder on your laptop using DVD Player or convert it to a format playable on your iPod, iPhone, or Apple TV. There’s no other Mac software out there that can handle as many different discs as RipIt—including the latest movies that can trip up utilities such as HandBrake and MacTheRipper. Like ClickToFlash, above, RipIt is also an Eddy winner. $20; The Little App Factory.

ScreenSharingMenulet ( ): The Screen Sharing feature in Leopard and Snow Leopard makes it easy to view or control another Mac. However, making screen-sharing connections can be a hassle. ScreenSharingMenulet gives you a systemwide menu that automatically lists any Mac on your local network available for screen sharing, as well as any remote Macs you connect to; just choose a computer from the menu to instantly start a screen-sharing session. Payment requested; Stefan Klieme.

Shimo ( ): While Snow Leopard's built-in VPN (virtual private network) client is much better than the one included with older versions of Mac OS X, Shimo is still a big improvement. It supports Cisco and other networks, provides better reliability and more flexibility than the built-in VPN functionality, and offers many automated actions. If you regularly connect to a VPN, you owe it to yourself to give Shimo a try. $21; nexUmoja.

USB Overdrive ( ): This third-party driver has long provided Mac users with support for otherwise unsupported keyboards, mice, and gaming devices. It also provides additional features for many supported accessories. Version 3 added 64-bit support, a revamped user interface, many new actions and settings, and compatibility with even more devices. $20; Alessandro Levi Montalcini.

Updated 12/11/2009, 9:43am: Updated with information about the availability of Docks.

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