in commentary, Mac apps

A telework tale

So, I now have the opportunity to telework once per week. I must say that I like it. Imagine that. But what makes it so great is not so much working in very casual clothing (that’s a nice way of saying ‘pajamas’), but that I can work on my Mac using tools that I know and rely on.

The thing is, I spend much of my workday at home or the office using the same basic tools: DreamWeaver, PhotoShop, and a text editor. So if I use the same basic software in both environments, why am I so much more efficient at home? Here are some of the reasons I came up with:

1. Launchbar

Launchbar is an application launcher, calculator, easy file opener, etc. It does many, many things. I’m still learning hidden tricks and tips to get more out of this excellent, lightweight application. I expect it to be on any machine I use. When it’s not, I get cranky.

2. TextExpander

If you type the same thing over and over again, TextExpander is a godsend. Use it to assign shortcuts to any text you want. I use it for everything from inserting a redirect link to adding a signature block to inserting an image. You wouldn’t believe how much time this tool saves.

3. PathFinder

Finder is anemic. Windows Explorer makes me want to cry. PathFinder rules. One feature I particularly like is the ability to save tab sets. I have about five tabs that I like to have open when working on this site. I have three folders I like to have open when working on office projects. I can save each workflow in distinct tab sets, open each up with a click, and I’m ready to go. Having just upgraded to the new PathFinder 5, I’m also digging the split-pane view. At any rate, the main thing I appreciate about PathFinder is how utterly, completely customizable it is. I have honed it over time. It’s uniquely adapted to me. It’s a weapon. I love that.

4. Spaces

I’m a recent Apple Spaces convert. I didn’t think much of it for the longest time, but I’m glad I gave it another look. There are two camps when it comes to using Spaces. Some like dividing up apps into different spaces and some like dividing up tasks within different spaces. It’s a subtle difference that you won’t really get until you try out both ways. Some may wish to stop reading this paragraph now to prevent a headache. If you want to learn more about the options in Spaces, read on.

To be fair, even if I was using a Mac at the office, I probably wouldn’t be able to install many (or any) of the third-party applications listed here due to IT policies. Still, it’s worth pointing out how much utility and efficiency result from third party apps. And to be fair regarding my PC use, there are a couple of tiny free PC apps that I use in the office which do contribute quite a lot to my productivity. One is called EditPad. It’s a lightweight text editor that sits in the system tray. It offers tabbed pages and does a nice job of stripping out formating on text so I can pop it into a web page. The other is called HotKeyz. This lets me remap my keyboard (I use the Dvorak layout, and this lets me reassign keys so I can still use Qwerty key combos). Unlike the Mac, Windows does not have a built-in Dvorak-Qwerty alternate keyboard layout. What a shame.

So, the difference in how Spaces works is defined by checking or un-checking a preference labeled ‘When switching to an application, switch to a space with open windows for the application.’ If checked, you will automatically be transported to a space with existing open window for the given app when you select that app (with command-tab). Unchecked, you are not transported to another space when tabbing to an app. Instead, the app is simply selected within that space. You then have the option to open a new window of that app within your space. Alternatively, you can click on the dock icon of that app to cycle through the open windows of that app within different spaces. Note that if you’ve set up some of your apps to appear only in certain spaces, this won’t work as expected. In this instance, selecting an app will not change spaces; but creating a new instance (or page) of that app will transport you back to the space you defined for that app. The solution, then, is to not pre-define your apps to only work within a particular app. Confusing, yes.

I’ve settled on the later workflow, opting to make each space task-specific, instead of app-specific. I don’t have any apps assigned to particular spaces. That way I can have, say, two different TextMate windows open in two different spaces, which is nice when multi-tasking.

Either way (app- or task-based Spaces) works, though. Try both out. What I would really like is to have control on a per-app basis so I could assign a few apps to work only in one space, and other apps to work on a task-management basis within any space.

At any rate, I’ve finally got Spaces set up in a useful way. I think it can get better, but it’s a lot better than what I have on my Office PC…which is basic tabbing through apps. It annoys me to no end that I can only cycle forward through apps on Windows using command-tab. Stupid.

5. TextSoap

I’m also fairly new to TextSoap, but it’s growing more useful by the day as I learn how to harness its power. If you deal with a lot of text coming at you from various sources and in various forms (and you need to reformat it for the web or to meet some other style guideline), then TextSoap might be a tool for you. You can use it for simple tasks like cleaning those annoying > marks in emails, or you can learn some regex and really work magic on your text. Warning: not for faint of heart. I’m at the stage where I can’t do much (ok, anything) with regex, but I’m giving it a go. TextSoap is still very powerful, though, when you use the more than 100 text cleaners pre-loaded on the app.

6. Hazel

I like Hazel more and more. It’s a nice way to automate filing of documents, music files, app downloads, etc. Whenever I download anything to the desktop (or drop a file to the desktop), Hazel takes care of filing it away in the right place for me (it automates color labeling of folders, too). It also has a feature to remove the plist files and other miscellaneous crap associated with a file when you move it to the trash (meaning you no longer need an additional tool like AppZapper). It also takes care of emptying my trash at predefined intervals. Like TextSoap, it’s one of those apps that takes a some commitment to learn and set up to your individual preferences, but it pays big dividends.

7. Color-Labeled folders

Such a simple thing. How I wish I could colorize some of my Windows folders. When you are looking at a list of dozens upon dozens of folders, it sure is nice to have a few of your favorites color-coded. I know there’s that ‘favorites’ thing in Explorer, but I hate it. Can’t say why. Just hate it.

8. OmniWeb

OmniWeb is not a free browser, which might turn some people off. It shouldn’t. It’s an amazing browser. Worth every penny. And it’s only $15. I bought it a couple of years ago, and haven’t had to pay an upgrade fee yet. I most rely on OmniWeb’s ability to save groups of pages for easy retrieval in what OmniWeb calls a ‘Workspace.’ For example, I have four sites that I generally need to have open when working from home. All I need on OmniWeb is open up the ‘work’ workspace, and all my chosen pages open up. I have about a dozen such saved workspaces for different workflows. I can also take snapshots of pages at particular places. This is handy when I want a site to open and display at a point other than the top of the page. The ad-blocking is also top-notch. As are the per-page setting definitions … for instance, I set up my father-in-law with the top five financial sites he likes on OmniWeb. Since his eyesight is poor, I adjusted the text size for each site so it was as big as possible without breaking the site. Every one of his favorite sites could handle more or less text size increases. With OmniWeb, I set the optimal large text size so the page still looked good, and it remembers each setting. Brilliant. OmniWeb also has a shared bookmark folder to access bookmarks easily across user accounts. There’s much more. It’s an incredible browser. It’s fast, too.

9. QuickLook

I expect QuickLook to be on all the machines I use. When it’s not, I find myself hitting the space bar repeatedly in frustration.

10. Things

I rely on Things to manage my to do list. Everything I enter in Things is automatically synced to my iPhone Things app. And all my ‘next up’ to do items automatically sync with iCal and Apple Mail. This app is great, and I look forward to purchasing it when 1.0 is released at Mac World next month.

11. Yojimbo

I haven’t seen a good note/snippet manager for Windows. I’m sure there is one, but I haven’t seen it. There are tons of choices for the Mac. Yojimbo is my current favorite app to collect little items that don’t fit elsewhere. I wish they’d update this app, though. It’s been a long time … also wish they’d come out with the ability to sync and store notes ‘in the cloud’ for remote access, and offer an iPhone version. It’s not perfect, but it blows away what I have on my PC. Which is a vanilla linear text editor.

12. VooDooPad

Like Yojimbo, it’s a place to dump notes, but it’s a different paradigm. It’s an elegant little personal wiki. I use it daily. Check out the free Lite version.

13. Bean

I probably have ten or so text editors of various shapes and sizes. After paying more money than I care to admit (I’m a bit of a text editor junkie) I find myself using the free Bean more often than not. It just works well, and it’s blazing fast.

  1. Wow, you’re using a lot of apps. To add to this list, I use TextEdit as a place to dump random bits of text I might need. And I use Stickies as a to do list. Not as sophisticated as Things, obviously, but I seem to be headed in the direction of simpler tools. That’s what works for me.

  2. Thanks for sharing your telework tale. I use about half the items on your list – including LaunchBar, Path Finder, TextSoap and Things – and find them indespensible tools.

    One of the my favourite applications/services that you may consider adding to the list is Evernote (www.evernote.com). As you may already know, they have applications for both Mac, Windows and iPhone as well as a great web-based application. I love being able to access my data from anywhere and overall Evernote is a very well though-out solution with truly innovative features – including an OCR component that indexes text found in images.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Tim – I do use Evernote on the iPhone and the mac. I like it quite a lot – especially the OCR capability. I’d like to see that feature built into more apps! Let me know which default web chooser you like best.

  4. I use about 3/4 of the tools you mention. The only one I tried and dumped pretty much immediately is Spaces. I really tried using it, but it seems to always get in the way. Your approach of dividing tasks into spaces, instead of apps, sounds much more reasonable though. I might try that.

    And you’re so right about OmniWeb. It’s really the most undervalued browser on the Mac, probably because it isn’t free.

    Some of my really indispensable apps include OmniOutliner, TextMate and, now that you can finally open more than one document at a time, DEVONthink Pro. I’m still testing it, but I’ll probably upgrade to Pro Office to make use of the scanning and archiving features.

    OmniFocus is also open all day, although I still haven’t really gotten all that warm with it, even after using it for a year. I might give Taskpaper a try soon.

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