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As the end of the calendar year nears, Macworld editors have been busy picking our favorite products of 2013. A couple weeks ago, we presented our Macworld Editors’ Choice awards to the best overall Mac- and Apple-focused products. But here in the Mac Gems department, we also like to separately recognize the best inexpensive Mac apps we’ve reviewed over the past year.
As the editor who coordinates the Mac Gems section, and who spends lots of time searching for great, inexpensive Mac software, I see a lot of Mac apps each year. While our Eddy-award winners are anointed after a weeks-long process of deliberation involved the entire Macworld editorial staff, the Gems of the year are my personal picks. These aren’t necessarily the highest-rated Gems of the past year—they’re the apps we’ve covered in Mac Gems that either did something especially innovative; offered exceptional value; or simply earned a place in my (or another editor’s) daily workflows. Here are 13 apps you should take a look at to see if they’ll fit in—and improve—your routines.
Every year, one or more Gems is so good that my fellow editors and I choose these apps for our highest honor: an Editors’ Choice award. This year, an unprecedented five Mac Gems also earned Eddy awards.
TextWrangler 4.5 (; free; website): If you want a full-fledged word processor, complete with styles, text formatting, and page-layout features, look elsewhere. But if you want a fantastic app for writing, editing, and processing plain text—and you don’t need the the advanced features of the $50 BBEdit, TextWrangler’s big sibling—this app gives you most of the tools most people will ever need, for free. The latest version adds switchable syntax-coloring schemes, code folding, quick navigation within documents, versioning with comparisons, and more.
nvAlt 2 (; free; website): It’s not tough to find an inexpensive text-editing or note-taking app for OS X. What makes nvAlt stand out is that the app makes it dead simple to create and search plain-text notes. Launch the app, and you see two fields: a unified text field on top for naming new notes or searching old ones, and a text-entry field below for entering and editing your notes—you just start typing. Searching is fast, the app lets you quickly send notes to other text editors, and your data syncs via Simplenote or Dropbox.
Keyboard Maestro 6 (; $36; website): These days, Keyboard Maestro is the premier macro utility for OS X, letting you create simple actions or complex tasks and execute them based on a variety of possible triggers. Version 6 includes a bunch of useful new trigger options that make Keyboard Maestro even more powerful, and new features and interface improvements make macros more accessible to people who wouldn’t otherwise utter the word “macro.”
Highland (; $30; website): Many script-writing apps are essentially glorified word processors with unnecessary features removed or hidden. Highland takes the opposite approach: It’s a minimalist text editor with just the features a screenwriter needs. Highland uses the Fountain syntax to store formatted scripts in plain-text files, and it can even import text-based PDF and FDX (Final Draft) files and translate them into Fountain text with the original formatting intact. The interface is clean and uncluttered, and when you need to collaborate, you can export to those same formats.
Bartender (; $15; website): Bartender won a 2013 Eddy award, but it actually appeared in my list of best Gems for 2012. That’s because we pick Eddy awards based on a November-to-November time frame, while my Gems lists use the calendar year—we reviewed Bartender in November 2012. But it’s worth recognizing Bartender again, because it’s become one of the favorite utilities of many a Macworld editor. This clever utility helps solve the problem of ever-multiplying menu-bar icons by hiding infrequently used ones in a secondary, normally invisible Bartender bar just below the real menu bar. It’s easy enough to access the hidden icons when you need to, but they’re otherwise out of sight. Bartender also lets you rearrange all items in the menu bar.
These Gems were also favorites in previous years, but they saw updates in 2013 that were significant enough that we reviewed them again—and remembered how great they are.
TextExpander 4 (; $35; website): Text Expander has long been our favorite text-expansion utility—a tool that lets you create snippets, short or long, of frequently typed text, and then quickly paste any snippet by typing the corresponding abbreviation that you specify. For example, whenever I type addy, that abbreviation is replaced with my home address. Among myriad new features and improvements, version 4 adds a feature called fill-ins, which are complex snippets that present fields you can fill in, or options you can choose, on the fly. It’s a feature that’s tough to explain quickly, but it can dramatically improve your productivity if you frequently type text that’s largely the same, but includes small sections, or names, or numbers, or prices, that change each time.
LaunchBar 5.5 (; $35; website): When it comes to app-launching, file-managing, data-accessing, do-everything utilities, LaunchBar is a favorite around the Macworld offices—particularly in my office. You just press your designated keyboard shortcut (I use Command+Space), type a few letters of the thing you want to open or the task you want to perform, and then press return to perform that action (or press one of several other keys to perform advanced actions). Version 5.5 made LaunchBar significantly better thanks to some great new features, including saving and pasting snippets of frequently used text; Automator-workflow integration; iCloud access for opening documents; and integration with OS X’s sharing features.
The other favorites
Actions (; free; required companion iPad app is $4; website): Put simply, Actions—a Mac app that mostly runs in the background—lets you use your iPad to control your Mac and automate Mac tasks. Using a companion iPad app, you create buttons on your iPad’s screen that launch an app, open a document, emulate a keyboard shortcut, paste a text snippet, control media playback, perform a system-related action, control windows, open a URL, create a new email message, and much more. Tap a button on your iPad, and its action is immediately performed on your Mac. Actions has, since my review, gained a useful new feature called Flows that lets you create groups of actions that are executed in sequence (much like a macro). When I first reviewed Actions, I thought it was neat, but I wasn’t sure I’d use it regularly. I’ve had it running every day since, which says everything about how useful it’s ended up being for me. It lets me put my iPad to good use during those hours of the day when it would otherwise be sitting in a drawer.
Alfred 2 (; base app, free; Powerpack, £17; website): A good number of Macworld editors are LaunchBar users, but Alfred is creating some converts, especially with version 2. While this app-launching and file-opening utility doesn’t do as much as LaunchBar, many find it to be easier to use, and with version 2, the developer has added a new feature called workflows that lets you perform series of actions.
GIF Brewery (; $5; website): This is the app I didn’t know I needed, but I loved it once I used it. GIF Brewery lets you choose a clip from any QuickTime-supported video, perform minor edits on the clip (including applying filters and adding captions), and then export your edited clip to an animated GIF or PNG image. It’s simple and fun to use, and it produces good results. I’ve even used it to create animated GIFs for Macworld articles instead of (much larger) movies.
ReadKit 2 (; $5; website): When Google Reader closed up shop, many RSS fans scrambled to find both a new RSS-sync service and a new RSS reader. While a slew of good services have since sprung up, ReadKit 2 has become the RSS reader of choice for many Mac users. It looks a lot like the popular Reeder for Mac, but it has more features, it offers lots of customization options, and it supports the Feedly, Fever, NewsBlur, Feed Wrangler, and Feedbin services. (You can also use ReadKit to subscribe to RSS feeds directly.) What’s more, ReadKit is also a nice Mac client for Instapaper, Pocket, Readability, Pinboard, and Delicious, making it easy to read all those articles you saved for later. For those who don’t need all the advanced features of NetNewsWire—or who are just tired of waiting for NetNewsWire 4—ReadKit is my pick.
Trickster 2 (; $10; website): If you ever use OS X’s Recent Items menu (in the Apple menu) to quickly access recently used apps and files, or the Open Recent submenu you’ll find in the File menu within many apps, you’ll appreciate Trickster. This menu-bar utility tracks recently opened and modified documents and lists them in an easy-access systemwide menu. You can open, preview, move, and perform other actions on any item in the menu; you can switch between various views and sorting options; and you can create filtered views that show only items matching particular criteria (including Mavericks’s Finder tags). If only OS X’s Recent menus were half as capable.
Winclone 4.2 (; $30; website): If you use OS X’s Boot Camp feature for running Windows on your Mac, you need Winclone. This utility can create a disk image of your Mac’s Boot Camp partition, making it easy to back up that partition, restore it from a backup, or transfer it to another Mac. You can even use Winclone 4 to resize an existing Boot Camp partition, clone an actual Windows PC to a disk image for later restoring, or migrate an actual Windows PC directly to a Boot Camp partition on your Mac.