Unclutter review: Utility provides simple solutions to everyday tasks

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At a Glance
  • Software Ambience Corp. Unclutter 1.3.1

Pay a visit to Victorinox’s website, and you’ll find that the manufacturer of the legendary Swiss Army Knife offers models with as few as seven implements, as as many as 80. Neither is right for everyone.

Similarly, Mac utilities can range from do-a-couple-handy-things apps to do-everything-under-the-sun software. Software Ambience Corp’s $5 Unclutter (Mac App Store link) falls into the former group. It provides just three tools: a clipboard history, a place to stash files, and a simple notes area—all accessible from your Mac’s menu bar.

Unlike utilities that add a systemwide menu, Unclutter is normally hidden by default. To reveal it, you place your cursor in the menu bar and then swipe downward with two fingers on your Mac’s trackpad (or, if you’re using a mouse, scroll down using the scroll wheel). Three panels, corresponding to the app’s three tools, appear: Clipboard, Files, and Notes. Any of these panels can be “torn off” by dragging its titlebar out of the Unclutter window; to return it to the main Unclutter window, just click on the X button.

(If you’re not a fan of Unclutter’s gesture-driven reveal, you can choose to display a traditional systemwide menu, or you can access Unclutter using several other actions: by holding down the Command, Option, or Shift key; by hovering the pointer over the menu bar for the duration you choose; or by pressing a keyboard shortcut.)

Here’s how each panel works:

Clipboard: This panel shows you a list (of up to 50 items) of your clipboard history—any text and images you’ve recently copied to the clipboard. Select any text item from your history, and you can then copy it for pasting elsewhere.

While the Clipboard panel may be a handy reminder of what exactly sits in the Clipboard, it could be more useful. For example, when you copy a URL from your browser, it appears in the Clipboard panel and seems to be a live link; but click the link and nothing happens. You must instead right-click the link and choose Open URL from the resulting menu. Likewise, although you can see copied images in the panel, you can’t do anything with them—for example, you can’t drag a copied image out of the panel and into a document. (Oddly, you can do this with text—just select it and drag it out.)

unclutter clipboard
Unclutter’s Clipboard panel

Files: This panel is the most useful of the three. When visible, you can drag files into it to get them off the desktop—useful if, like me, you tend to pile things on the desktop and want to quickly clear some space without actually filing something. (Alternatively, you can drag selected files to the menu bar—the panel opens automatically, ready to receive your files.) Within the panel you can press the Spacebar to initiate OS X’s QuickLook view. You can’t, however, use the Cut, Copy, or Paste commands within the panel. To remove files from the panel, you instead select them and drag them out.

unclutter files
The Files panel

The default location for files that you’ve dragged to the panel is a folder way down within your personal Library folder (~/Library/Application Support/Unclutter/File Storage). As such, once you’ve moved files into the Files panel, they’re no longer searchable via Spotlight. However, Unclutter’s preferences window lets you choose a different location for storing files. I designated my Dropbox folder as the destination for my files, which also means that whenever I want to sync files via Dropbox, I just drag the files to the menu bar—off they go.

The panel shows you files only in icon view, so it’s not the most efficient display if it contains lots of files, though you can scroll through the panel. Fortunately, you can resize each panel horizontally by dragging the dividers between them. If you keep many files in this panel, it’s worth making it larger.

Notes: If you’re the sort of person who grabs the nearest pen and scrap of paper when making a note, the Notes panel may interest you: Just click within the note area and type. You can also add text by selecting it within a document and dragging it into the panel, or by pasting text copied elsewhere. Unlike the Files panel, this one does support Cut, Copy, and Paste as well as Select All, so you can easily pull selected text from this panel and place it elsewhere. The Notes panel also supports dragging selected text to the desktop to turn it into a text clipping.

unclutter notes
The Notes panel

On the other hand, the Notes panel is anything but full-featured. For example, it doesn’t support multiple notes—just a single text box, so when you’d like to start fresh, you have to delete the current contents first. (If you want to keep the text of a note, you'll need to save it elsewhere using another app.)

Like an inexpensive Swiss Army Knife, Unclutter has some blades that are more useful than others. The Files panel, my favorite, is like a pocket knife’s big blade—handy and utilitarian. The Clipboard and Notes panels are more akin to its tweezers—not something you’ll use all the time but helpful for a quick job when a more capable tool isn’t needed.

Want to find out about more cool Mac apps? Check out our Mac Gems session at Macworld/iWorld in San Francisco March 27-29. Want to stay up to date with the latest Gems? You can follow Mac Gems on Twitter or on App.net. You can also subscribe to the Mac Gems RSS feed.

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At a Glance
  • Unclutter is an inexpensive Mac utility that provides you with a simple clipboard viewer, file storage area, and notepad. It's not terribly rich in features, but it works well for easy jobs.

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