Back to Basics: Top Nine tips for new Mac users

This is my first post in a new category I’m calling ‘back to basics.’ With all the new Mac users out there, I’ve decided to periodically post some tips aimed at this crowd — a group that includes many of my friends who’ve crossed over from the PC. To get the ball rolling, I’ve compiled a list of nine tips for new Mac users. If you have a tip to share, leave a comment to round off this list at an even ten.

9. Buy a book.

Macs are supposed to be easy to use, right? So why should you need a manual? The truth is that the Mac operating system may not be overly intuitive for longtime Windows users.

It’s about more than learning the differences between a ‘Dock’ and a ‘Start’ menu, or ‘System Preferences’ and the ‘Control Panel’ — understanding Mac OS X is about changing the way you think about using your computer. While built-in Mac OS X ‘help files’ are available to answer basic questions, it’s hard for new users to get the big picture through help files alone. This documentation tends to be short and is often devoid of context.

For those new to the Mac, I think it’s worth the money and effort to buy a third-party manual to keep at hand for quick and easy reference. A book offers depth, context, and examples in a package that won’t get in your way while you’re working on your Mac. Sure, you can find just about anything you want to know through an online search or user forums, but a well-written book will help you break your PC habits and more quickly adapt to the Mac environment. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I think it’s generally easier to learn from a book. You can prop it open to a dog-eared page, highlight it, tab it with stickies, and generally abuse it. Most importantly, you don’t need to navigate away from what your doing to get some help.

I recommend David Pogue’s Mac OS X Leopard: The Missing Manual. I also like TidBIT’s TakeControl Ebooks, a series of downloadable PDF booklets that are cheap and full of great info (you can print them out or view them online). If you are a more visual type of person and want to learn how to use your Mac (and many great applications) by watching videos, be sure to check out ScreenCastsOnline.

Apple also offers some good online resources. Be sure to check out Apple’s online help files: Switch 101, Mac 101, and ‘Find Out How.’

8. Explore Mac third-party software.

When one of my friends gets a new Mac, I’m quick to point out a few ‘must have’ free apps that they should consider loading up right away as they get started on the new OS. Here are a few: QuickSilver or Butler * to launch applications and handily complete routine tasks , Perian to view just about anything with the QuickTime player, VLC to view anything else, Onyx to maintain the Mac, Handbrake to convert your DVDs to different formats.

However, I’ve discovered that many ex-PC users fret about downloading software from third-party sites because they fear viruses, trojans, spyware, and other nasty stuff. All I can say is that Mac apps are generally very safe (by ‘generally’ I mean that there have been no viruses, trojans, spyware, etc. thus far embedded in third-party Mac software that I am aware of, but it won’t necessarily stay that way)… and users who ignore third-party Mac apps are arguably missing out on the best part of the Mac experience. The key is to only use trusted sources as you seek out new apps. A few trusted sources I use are: MacUpdate, versiontracker, and iusethis. Need a way to keep your applications up to date? Try MetaQuark’s AppFresh.

*(I personally use Launchbar but it isn’t free)

7. Learn how to install/uninstall applications and delete stuff

So, you just downloaded a Mac application. Now what? While some Mac apps include installers that function similar to Windows installation packages, most do not. When you download Mac software, what you’re likely to get is ‘Disk Image.’ Think of a disk image as a ‘virtual disk.’ What you need to do is click on the disk image to open it up (it will likely open up automatically after you download it — don’t panic). The disk image is now ‘mounted’ and will appear on your desktop. If you don’t see a disk image, chances are the application is zipped up in another compression format and the disk image is contained within that zipped up file. Why? Developers like to distribute their software with small file sizes. The way to do that is to tightly compress them. Here are some basic instructions regarding the vaunted .dmg file. To many Mac users, this tip may seem too obvious. But I maintain that it’s not obvious at all if you’ve never done it before.

By way of example, a friend of mine downloaded Handbrake one night based on my recommendation to format/convert some of his DVDs to use on his new iPhone. The next day, he complained that the app was extremely slow and created a ‘blank’ file that didn’t open up in any application. The problem? He was running Handbrake from within the disk image. He didn’t realize he needed to drag it to his applications folder prior to using it. It’s easy for long-time Mac users to laugh at this mistake, but consider it from my friend’s perspective. How would he know?

But what about deleting? If you don’t want an application anymore, drag it the trash. That’s it. You’re done. Use the same method to delete files. Want to delete things even faster? Try this key combo: ?-delete. If you want to keep you Mac as tidy as possible, consider the free AppDelete or the shareware AppZapper. These apps clean out additional items that are left behind when you drag apps to the trash. Not that these additional items will hurt anything if you leave them — it generally doesn’t really matter much. Still, it’s a good practice to delete all the associated bits and scraps of a program when you’re done with it. Down the road, you’ll be glad you did.

6. Take the time to understand Permissions

‘Get Info’ is like Windows ‘Properties.’ You access it by rig
ht-clicking on any file, folder, or application. You’ll find a lot of useful information here, including metadata like size, creation date, when the file/folder/app was last modified or last opened, where it’s located, and a preview of the icon associated with the folder/file (tip: you can change the icon for any item via the ‘Get Info’ pane, which is fun).

Most importantly, ‘Get Info’ is where you’ll find permissions that govern who can do what with your files (you decide who can Read, Write, and Execute). Need a tutorial? Check out this Macworld article and this Apple documentation.

5. Learn some shortcut keys

Sure, there are shortcut keys for Windows (generally, you substitute the CTRL key for Apple’s ?). But in my experience most Windows users turn to the mouse (right-click menu) or the Menu Bar to access basic commands like copy, paste, save, etc. Sure, you can do this on a Mac, too.

But there’s a better way. Longtime Mac users tend to be oddly fanatical about shortcut keys, and Mac applications reflect this: each Mac application you install will have a seemingly endless list of shortcuts. Why bother learning key-combo shortcuts? Speed and efficiency are clear benefits, but shortcuts also help you avoid repetitive stress from using the Mouse.

Here are a just a few you shortcuts you should consider learning right away:

? -tab (tab through open applications)
? -A/C/V (select all, copy, paste)
? -W (close the current window in an application)
? -Q (quit application)
? -S (save)

Here’s a cheat sheet for standard Apple shortcuts. It’s important to point out that shortcuts are also built-in to all of the applications on your Mac. Some apps may have literally dozens of key-combinations to help you work faster. If the thought of learning so many shortcuts makes your head hurt, consider Ergonis KeyCue. This handy little app is a bit expensive, but it’s a clever way to learn new key combinations. Once KeyCue is installed, every time you hit the ? key, a menu pops up that displays all available shortcuts for your current application. Soon, you’ll wonder how you ever got along without complex combos like Adobe PhotoShop’s shift-option-?-S (which opens up the ‘Save for Web & Devices‘ dialogue box, if you’re curious).

4. Learn new ways to navigate

Mac navigation is different from PC navigation. One thing PC users will notice right away is that Mac application windows float on the desktop in self-contained little boxes that can be moved around at will. While I know that this may be unnerving for some Windows users, trust me: in time it becomes liberating.
What I hate to see is ex-Windows users dragging windows out of the way to ‘peek’ behind to other windows in the background.

With Mac OS X, there are easier ways to navigate. Try the Expose keys. Try ?-tab (tab through open applications). Try Spaces. Try some of the great Mac application launchers (see #8 above). Use Spotlight. The last one I’ll point out here is a little freeware preference pane to toggle between open windows within one application with ease — it’s called Witch and it’s made by the same guy who created Butler.

3. Understand how to take care of your Mac

Many new Mac users express shock and dismay the first time something goes wrong. The truth is that the Mac OS requires a little TLC. While I have never experienced the level of frustration, rage, and resignation I felt as a Windows user (I used to consider it normal to wipe out my hard drive and reinstall everything from scratch once or twice a year), that is not to say that the Mac OS is perfect. Far from it. That’s why it’s a good idea to learn some basic steps to keep your machine humming.

Check out Apple’s Mac Maintenance Quick Assist, how to manually initiate maintenance tasks, and Macworld’s dated but still very relevant article on preventing Mac disasters. You may also want to consider investing in Cocktail. It’s not free, but it’s cheap, simple to use, helpful, and is an excellent maintenance Mac app. New Mac users should also consider the expensive but essential DiskWarrior. You may not need it often, but when you do need it … you really need it.

My last point: reboot every now and then. My father-in-law recently visited with his Macbook in tow. He complained that some of his OmniWeb * links were no longer working and his machine was generally acting strange. When I opened up his laptop, it whirred to life. When I say ‘whirred,’ I mean it was really noisy. Fans were blowing hard. Hard drive was cranking. My solution? I rebooted. Everything worked fine after that. It was silent once more. It turned out he had the computer in sleep mode for over half a year — since his last visit he had never rebooted. A system reboot at least once a month is a good way to clear out any weird or corrupt processes that may be running.

*(stay tuned for a future post on why I bought OmniWeb for my father-in-law)

2. Don’t be afraid to customize

I’ve found that many Mac users never change anything when it comes to their Mac’s appearance or layout. My opinion? Have fun with it. Make your Mac fit your lifestyle and workflow. Add apps to your Dock, drag Apps you don’t use off your Dock, add Finder shortcuts, change your Desktop picture…trust me, you can tweak just about everything and anything in the Mac OS.

How far you take it depends on how adventurous you are, but even the most conservative of users should try out a bit of customization. It’s your Mac, after all.

Here’s one small example. Here’s another. Here’s yet another. A good starting point to see how fun and
useful this can be is the free Tinkertool from Marcel Bresink. The list is endless – explore forums, Mac sites, etc. and enjoy. Be careful though. It can be addicting.

1. Set up your Mac with security in mind.

So, you pull your new Mac out of the box, plug it in and start using it within a few minutes. You’re excited. You want to start having fun. Before you jump in, consider your account structure. One potential problem of the Mac OS is that the first account you create on your new Mac is always an administrator account. You won’t have a choice here. The problem is that many new users don’t know that it’s not a good practice to use an Admin account for day-to-day use. So here’s what you do: immediately create a new user account in ‘System Preferences‘ with full Admin privileges. Then, log in with this account and go back to ‘System Preferences’ and change the first account you created to a ‘Standard’ account. Finally, log out of the Admin account and log in to the first account.

This first account is the one to use on a daily basis. With your Standard account, you will be prompted to enter your Admin account name and password every time you install new software, change system preferences, etc. It’s a bit of a pain, but it’s a lot more secure. For Leopard users, be sure to check out the ‘Sharing Only‘ account (great choice when you have relatives visiting who want to use your Mac) and ‘Managed with Parental Controls‘ (great choice, of course, for kids). Oh, and make a note to ensure that your Mac Firewall is turned on (System Preferences > Security > Firewall)…inexplicably, the Firewall is turned off by default for users who upgrade from Tiger to Leopard.

And what if you forget your Admin password? Fortunately, there is an easy fix. All you need to do is stick your OS X installation disk in your CD/DVD drive, restart your computer, and hold down ‘C‘ key as it restarts ( remember this with C = CD-ROM). You can let go of the ‘C’ when you hear your CD/DVD drive whir to life. In time, a window will appear that asks you to select a user language. Then, as the next window pops open, you’ll notice that there are now some menu options up in the Apple menu bar (top of the screen). Choose ‘Utilities‘ (if you are running 10.4 Tiger or 10.5 Leopard) or ‘Installer‘ (for earlier versions of the Mac OS). Then choose ‘Reset Password.’ Follow the simple instructions to choose a new password for the account of your choice, then quit the installation process (from the ‘Installer’ menu in the Menu Bar) and restart your computer without holding down ‘C.’ That’s it.

While it’s great that it’s so easy to reset an admin password, it’s also kind of scary. What it means is that anyone with an installation disc and access to your machine can quite easily reset your admin password and access your files. The moral: if you have data that you don’t want anyone to see under any circumstances, you will want to explore ways to encrypt this data and protect your mac. The other important point to make here: ensure you have a backup before doing this, just in case.

That’s it for now. Have a tip to share?

DevonThink’s Free WordService & line endings

Here’s a tip for working with text on your Mac. Have you ever needed to copy over the text of an email from, say, Apple Mail to another application (like your blog?). I need to do this all the time.

Here’s the problem. Sometimes I use my lunch break at work to begin typing out a post for this blog (using Microsoft Outlook — I use Windows at work). I then send this Outlook email home. Later that night, I fire up Apple Mail, copy the text of the email, and then paste the text into MarsEdit to form a starting point for a new post.

The problem is that the email text is riddled with annoying line endings. It doesn’t wrap correctly.
Here’s an example from an earlier post to illustrate the point. I typed up the following text in Outlook and then sent it to Apple Mail several weeks ago. When I cut and paste this text, it looks like this:

A friend wrote me last night to ask if I had tried ‘Things’ from
Cultured Code. I have, and this is one of the GTD-based task management
applications I will review in the coming weeks.

So far, I’ve written
about iGTD and OmniFocus, both excellent applications. The ‘Getting
Things Done’ task manager series is taking more time
than I anticipated,
mainly because it takes a while to really grasp each of these

As you can see, the line endings make this block of text look awful. I want the text to wrap naturally so it fits the width of whatever box I place it in. I want it to look like this:

A friend wrote me last night to ask if I had tried ‘Things’ from Cultured Code. I have, and this is one of the GTD-based task management applications I will review in the coming weeks.

So far, I’ve written about iGTD and OmniFocus, both excellent applications. The ‘Getting Things Done’ task manager series is taking more time than I anticipated, mainly because it takes a while to really grasp each of these applications.

I won’t get into the technical reasons behind this formatting problem. Instead, I’ll just show you how to fix it quickly and easily. I trim my line endings with ease using DevonThink’s free WordService tool. Download this tiny package, copy the folder over to your Services folder (User Account>Library>Services) and you’re in business.

All you need to do is select the text after you paste it into the app of your choice, select ‘Format’ from your Services menu, and then select ‘Reformat.’ There it is.

All line endings are removed — and your paragraph structure stays in tact. This is just one of 34 handy tools included in the WordService package. Give it a try (be sure to peruse the included ‘ReadMe’ text to get a feel for what the different tools do).

Many of the applications you use on your Mac include Services options. Most of them are worth checking out. The nice thing about this Apple tool is that you can invoke an application’s ‘service’ tools even if that application isn’t open. For example, suppose you’re surfing the web and you find some text or a URL you want to add to Yojimbo, an application I like to use for storing and organizing notes. Simply select some text or a URL, then choose Yojimbo’s Import option from the Services menu. Presto, Yojimbo launches and the new text or URL is instantly added.

Services, by the way, is mainly designed as a way to work with selections of text. If you want to see a couple of the more interesting things you can do with it, select a bunch of text and try out the ‘summarize‘ and ‘speech‘ tools. I’m a big Services fan. It’s probably one of the least used tools on Mac OS X — and it can be quite useful.

Get your Mac ready for the Lunar Eclipse

If the skies are clear where you live tomorrow night (or tonight, depending on your time zone), don’t miss your chance to witness the last lunar eclipse until Dec. 2010.


Here in Hawaii, I’ll be heading out to the beach around 11 p.m. While I won’t be bringing my Mac with me, this event marks a great occasion to highlight a few of the astronomy programs available for OS X. These tools are excellent teaching aids and are just plain enjoyable. If you don’t have a Mac, no worries: each of these apps run on Mac, Windows, and Linux.

If you go outside to watch for the eclipse, keep an eye out for Saturn (if you have a telescope the rings will be visible) and Regulus (the 22nd brightest star in the night sky, in the Leo constellation).

Saturn and Regulus will be the brightest points in the sky nearest to the eclipsed moon. Exactly where they will appear relative to you, of course, will depend on your location and the time you go outside to have a look — but they will appear to be close to the moon.

Cloudy out? View the solar system on your Mac

1. StellariumFree. This planetarium application specializes on views of the sky from an earthly perspective. Enter your coordinates to see what’s going on in your sky on a given night. This is my app of choice for casual desktop sky-gazing; it’s also a great learning aid. I enjoy setting the program to fast-forward so I can watch the sky come to life in quicktime. There are many user-contributed scripts available to enhance your Stellarium experience which make an already interesting program even more engaging. This is a great program to keep on your Mac for those times when you want to quickly identify a star or constellation.

2. Google EarthFree. It isn’t just for earth-browsing any more. Check out the ‘Sky’ view mode for a full-featured astronomy package chock full of user-contributed goodness. I’ve lost many hours engrossed in the ‘Sky’ view; this Google Earth expansion is still a pretty new feature, but it keeps getting better and better.

3. CelestiaFree. Celestia doesn’t confine you to viewing stars from an earth-bound perspective. You are free to fly around the visible universe in dizzying three dimensions. There are many, many expansions available for Celestia that make it even more fun and valuable as a learning tool. The one thing about Celestia is that it’s not quite as easy to use as the other programs; still, it’s an amazing tool with a dedicated user base and it’s a joy to use.

4. Starry NightExpensive. I own an old Mac OS 9 version of Starry Night Pro and I still use it on my old iBook G4 in Classic mode (note that Classic only runs on Tiger and earlier versions of Mac OS X). It’s come a long way since then and is worth checking out if you really enjoy astronomy and want a feature-rich package with many great animations and photo-realistic imagery. Even the old version of Starry Night that I own is visually very beautiful. It’s a great teaching aid to view the solar system in motion from any perspective, watch eclipses, find satellites, view the earth from distant planets, and more. If you go for the Pro package, you can hook up your Mac to your telescope to track distant objects. My only problem with Starry Night is that it seems to have gone overboard a bit with commercialization — there are now at least six SN packages to choose from, and all of them are pricey.

My favorite experience with Starry Night? Heading out in a canoe late at night with my old iBook back in my home state of Maine on Nicatous Lake (far, far away from any light pollution), turning on Starry Night’s ‘night vision mode’ and spending a few hours looking up at the sky. Note that this is only enjoyable in the summer while doused with about one gallon of bug spray to keep the mosquitos away.

More Mac astronomy links

If Mac astronomy software interests you, check out Pure Mac’s comprehensive list of astronomy apps for more ideas. Hope the skies are clear wherever you may live.

Never share a user account, but if you do…

There’s an ongoing struggle in my household. I don’t want to use any names…but if it weren’t for my tireless, unrelenting efforts to keep my iMac (which is shared by one other person) free of desktop clutter, there would now be a virtual sea of files cluttering our desktop. You might never guess I was an organized person if you happened to open my sock drawer, but I keep the Mac lean and clean. The only icons I prefer to see on my desktop are mounted drives. To be fair, I drive my wife crazy (ok it’s my wife, but I won’t use her name) with some of my user habits because I can’t leave the Mac alone. I’m always installing things, deleting things, moving things, changing things … above all, I like to test out third party mac software.

So, you may ask, why on earth do we share one user account on our primary Mac? It’s not the recommended way to do business. The preferred solution is to create separate user accounts; this is more secure and it gives you the freedom to organize your own workspace just how you want it. But I maintain there is at least one scenario when a shared account makes sense — when you have a Mac that always stays at home and you and one other person you completely trust are using it to share the same pool of data.

We share the same music library, the same iPhoto library … we share pretty much all of our data. For several years, we managed seperate accounts, but I grew weary of constantly dropping and dragging files and folders back and forth. We had iPhoto and iTunes set up for sharing, but this requires one to be logged in to both accounts to access the others shared photo/music content. Much of the mail we receive is for both of us. It just seemed easier to combine the two.

Would I recommend this arrangement? Again, and this is critical: only if you completely trust that one other person and you can live with different user habits on one account. For me and my wife, life is just easier using one account, despite our different organizational styles. I’d venture to guess that no one would really recommend this set up, but it’s good for us. Here are a few of the ways we make it work. Even if you don’t share an account, this list may provide you with some fresh ideas.


1. Admin or Standard account?

We set up our shared account up with ‘Standard’ user privileges and then created a separate Admin account. This is a good practice, even if you don’t share an account. If you want to learn more about user accounts, check out this affordable E-book from TidBITS.

2. IC-Switch and DeliBar

We prefer to use different browsers and news readers, so we use IC-Switch. This free little Menu Bar application allows us to quickly toggle between default internet applications. I also use a Menu Bar application called DeliBar that allows me to view my stored online bookmarks (via my account) right in my Menu Bar. I like managing and storing my bookmarks online because it enables me to access my favorites in any browser, and in any location. If you like Menu Bar items, by the way, check out this list.

3. Documents folder

We created three main subfolders within our Documents folder: one for me, one for my wife, and one for shared items such as our finances. We did the same for our Pictures folder (for those images that we do not want to manage from within iPhoto). We use color labels to easily identify our folders at a glance e— my folders are labeled with red, my wife’s are purple, and folders with shared documents are gray.

4. Alternate keyboard languages

Things are a bit more complicated for us because I use the Dvorak keyboard layout and my wife uses Qwerty. Solution? We set up our Mac with both languages via the ‘International’ system preference (System Preferences > International > Input Menu). We then checked the option to ‘Show the Input Menu in menu bar’ so we have a nice visual way to see what language is currently active. Finally, we established a key combination to quickly toggle between the two input languages (this option is also available in the Input Menu).

5. The Dock

I don’t really use the Dock, but my wife does. She also uses Spotlight, and I never do. I use Launchbar to launch applications and navigate around the Mac (a free alternative is QuickSilver); DragThing is my preferred ‘Dock replacement.’

6. Finder

My wife uses Finder and I use PathFinder. This works out well — she can set up Finder just how she likes it and I can set up PathFinder with my personal preferences. If you’ve never tried PathFinder, by the way, give it a spin. I couldn’t live without it. Some people say, though, that it has too many features and options.

7. Web browsing

I use Firefox when I’m doing webwork and OmniWeb when I’m just having fun. My wife prefers Safari.

That’s about it. One final note: I recently downloaded the trial for a program called Hazel from NoodleSoft. This little program automates file organization, manages trash, monitors and organizes folders, and more. It’s very clever and quite easy to use. I think this may be a great new tool to help me and my wife manage our shared account.

Feeling artistic? three freebies

Want something fun and free to play around with this weekend? Here are three applications to try out:

1. Beautiful Dorena. It’s weird, it’s hard to describe, and it’s interesting in an experimental kind of way. Great for kids.
2. MozoDojo. I used this program to create a large mosaic print project. It’s amazing. Turn a photo into a beautiful mosaic with surprising ease.
3. ArtRage (starter edition). A nice and simple painting tool that delivers surprisingly realistic results. Paint with simulated oil, charcoal, pencils, chalk, crayons, etc.

1Password Customer Service

This is a quick note about an experience I recently had with customer support from Agile Web Solutions, the creators of 1Password.

I’m not going to review this application — there are already hundreds of available online comments and reviews. Suffice it to say that I’ve come to depend on 1Password so much that I recently decided to upgrade my family license (good for three Macs) to the Small Business package (good for five Macs).

I emailed the company with my request and received a response within the hour. I was naturally pleased to get such a rapid reply. I was doubly surprised because I sent the request late in the evening from my home in Hawaii; I’m accustomed to waiting until the next business day (when North America is awake) for customer service. But that’s not the amazing part.

Here’s a clip from the message I received from a man named James in Australia, identified as a ‘passionate 1Password user:’

“Since the upgrade is not automatic, I have gone ahead and updated your license to a Small Business license and sent it in a separate email. I trust you will make the payment, so I don’t want to make you wait.”

I then received my license moments later.

This struck me as a particularly generous and trusting thing to do in this day and age, and it was much appreciated. So, I want to thank the 1Password team for the stellar service. This transaction served as a fresh reminder of why I feel like I am part of a community as a Mac user.

Year of the Killer Task Management App: Wrap Up

Back in January, I predicted that 2008 will prove to be the year of the killer task management application for the Mac. Right now, there are dozens of ‘To Do’ list programs for the Mac…and OS X Leopard’s Mail and iCal now include basic ‘To Do’ list management. So what’s so special about this year?

It’s all about GTD. The recent release of OmniFocus and the buzz surrounding the pre-release version of Things mark the evolution of some serious competition — and serious refinement — in the field of Mac-based task managers that use ideas and concepts inspired by David Allen’s popular ‘Getting Things Done‘ workflow.

I just completed a series of in-depth reviews of some of the most popular and promising of this breed of Mac ‘To Do’ managers, and it may be no surprise to you that OmniFocus and Things look set to lead the pack.

To get the most out of the View from the Dock reviews, I recommend you start by taking a look at the first post in this series, in which I set out the criteria I would use to evaluate these applications. I originally intended to review five apps, but I ultimately only reviewed four: iGTD, OmniFocus, Midnight Inbox, and Things. I did not review CoalMarch Park (even though I said I would back in Jan.), because it appears that it’s no longer offered. But that’s Ok: I think these four apps are the main contenders in this contest. Which one is the best? Read on.

The Contenders

The four applications below are listed in order of how closely they follow the Getting Things Done process (Inbox is the most ‘GTD-like,’ Things is the least). In my opinion, this ranking also stacks the applications in order of ease of use and learning curve (harder to easier) and by degree of flexibility (from most rigid to most freeform workflow). Note that I’m only presenting a quick snapshot of each app here — be sure to read the full reviews (linked below) for detailed descriptions, opinions, screenshots, etc.

So here’s the countdown:

4. Midnight Beep’s Midnight Inbox | Developer’s site | full review


Midnight Inbox is the only app of this group that reaches out and grabs data on your Mac. It also stands out as the app that most closely follows the GTD workflow. The user interface of Inbox is just beautiful, but the learning curve is a bit steep.

If you are well-versed in the GTD process and like the idea of an app that clearly walks you through a step-by-step task management process, give it a try. Version 2.0 of Inbox is now in the works.


beautiful to look at; nice design; novel auto-collecting of data; system-wide quick entry


complicated; a little buggy; data entry options are limited and unconventional; workflow can feel restrictive; iTunes metaphor is a little weird

3. bartek:bargiel’s iGTD | Developer’s site | full review


iGTD is powerful, full-featured, and free. This program follows the concepts and ideas of GTD quite closely — second only to Midnight Inbox. It’s been around longer than most of the others, so the feature-set is quite mature.

Since the program is well-designed, ties in nicely with other apps (in particular, QuickSilver) and is free, it will likely continue to have a strong following. If you’re one of those power users who like lots of options and choices, you may love this. Others may find the user interface a bit cluttered and overwhelming. One thing you will like: many users note that the developer is very responsive and the app is frequently updated. Version 2.0 (an Alpha release) of iGTD is now available for preview.


free; great Mac OS and third-party application integration; nice design; chock full of features; system-wide quick entry


complicated; some may find the array of options and choices daunting; some terminology is confusing and hard to differentiate (especially if you aren’t very familiar with GTD)

2. OmniGroup’s OmniFocus | Developer’s site | full review


OmniFocus is a powerful task management application with advanced sorting and viewing options that exceed what you’ll find in the others. It is obvious from the start that some serious brain power went into designing this software. You may be overwhelmed by the sheer variety of ways you can organize your data, but many users really like it. Perhaps more than the others, this app maintains a relatively uncluttered feel even if you’re managing tons of tasks.

The user interface is genius: it’s clean and sleek — but there is a lot under the hood here once you get comfortable with the workflow. I’ve found OmniGroup customer support to be top-notch: quick, responsive, and helpful.


novel ‘perspectives’ feature is a handy way to ‘memorize’ favorite views; very well-thought out design; may have the best ‘scalability’ of the bunch; easy to zoom in to a project or task, then zoom back out for a global view; developer has great track record for quality, support; system-wide quick entry


The most expensive of the bunch; you may get bogged down by all the sorting, viewing and tagging options; relatively steep learning curve

1. Cultured Code’s Things | Developer’s site | full review


Things is clean, mean, and lean. It’s the least ‘GTD-like’ of the bunch, so if you want a pure GTD-based workflow you may not like this app. The developers came up with some really interesting ideas with this one; most notably they integrated user-defined tags to organize and view data in a variety of ways.

If you like the idea of creating your own workflow and don’t have a problem with putting in some time to set up a tagging structure that works for you, you may love it. It’s still early in the game (as it hasn’t even bee
n released yet) but the Beta is great. I’ve been reading a lot of positive user comments out in the macosphere — and people seem to be genuinely excited about using this app. The trial is available now. Check out the developer’s wiki for tutorials and inspiration.


Beautiful user interface; it has a certain Zen quality of simplicity to it; don’t need to know any GTD to quickly understand and start using it; system-wide quick entry


Many features are still missing; the app interface can start to feel cluttered if you have too many tags/tasks; minimal ways to enter new data


As I noted in my initial post in this series, I think the program that will rise to the top of the pack in popularity will be the one that does not require the user to know anything at all about GTD, is easy (dare I say fun) to use, and best captures that elusive ‘Mac-like’ quality of simplicity and elegance.

With this in mind, I think Cultured Code Things stands out as the best bet.

OmniFocus is a close second and will likely be the app of choice for many business users who have tons of tasks to manage (the higher price of OmniFocus will continue to be a limiting factor). Midnight Inbox and iGTD will surely continue to build upon a stable cadre of dedicated users, but I don’t think they will be the breakaway apps that bring sophisticated GTD-based task management to the masses. They are great, but they may be just a little too geeky for some.

I should note, in closing, that this site and these reviews are not sponsored by anybody. I should also add that I am by no means a GTD expert, and that all the reviews here are just my opinions. I really believe that all four of these applications are excellent, well-designed and full of promise. I urge you to try each one out to decide for yourself, and I hope this series will help you get started. Oh, and by the way, ‘GTD’ and ‘Getting Things Done’ are registered trademarks of David Allen & Co.

Good luck Getting Things Done!

The ‘Pacific Solution’ is over

This post has nothing to do with the Mac, but I wanted to comment on it because I think it’s good news. Today, the final group of asylum seekers stranded on the tiny island nation of Nauru were flown to Australia. This marks the end of Australia’s controversial immigration policy known as the ‘Pacific Solution.’

Never heard of Nauru? It’s the smallest republic in the world. Listen to this Dec. 2003 episode of ‘This American Life‘ (re-broadcast in Dec. 2007). This is certainly one of the most bizarre places on the earth. The story about Nauru is the second Act in this episode.

By the way, the final segment in my six-part series comparing GTD-based task manager apps for the Mac will be out this weekend. I hope it will serve as a helpful guide for those of you trying to decide between iGTD, OmniFocus, Midnight Inbox, and Things. Happy Lunar New Year!

Two important updates: DiskWarrior, SuperDuper!

In case you missed it, Alsoft DiskWarrior is ready to go for Mac OS X Leopard. Soon, existing owners of Disk Warrior 4 will be able to download this update and burn a new disk to run the program. DiskWarrior is an essential tool. It’s a little pricey ($100), but it’s worth it. It just might save the day if your hard drive starts to head south and you need to recover your data.

ShirtPockets SuperDuper! version 2.5 also came out today after a long, long wait. It is now ready for Leopard, and it’s a free update for all licensed users. Nine out of 10 Mac users agree: this is the best disk cloning backup software available. If you don’t think you need to clone your data since you now use Apple’s Time Machine, see my previous post on the topic.