I love using my Mac. And yet when I am confronted with a fresh new device running macOS, I am taken aback by the barren expanse that is the default Mac experience. That’s not on the Mac, that’s on me—I have become incredibly reliant on some fantastic utilities that enhance the Mac experience in countless ways.
Every now and then I mention these utilities to friends who are Mac users, or they see me using them, and they are often completely baffled. This reminds me that, quite shockingly, there are lots of Mac users who never take advantage of utilities to make the Mac far more powerful than it comes out of the box.
Here, then, are some of the utilities that make the Mac feel like home for me.
Go beyond launching apps
A few years ago, there was a surge of utilities that provided quick access to your Mac apps by typing a few keystrokes. LaunchBar, Alfred, and Quicksilver were the most prominent examples. Then Apple came and (quite rightly) added quick app launching to Spotlight, eliminating the original reason all those other utilities existed.
No worries. The quick-launcher apps have managed to stay relevant by adding all sorts of other features. I know a lot of people who rely on Alfred, but I’ve been a user of Objective Development’s $29 LaunchBar for years and my Mac feels empty without it.
Among LaunchBar’s many features is a clipboard history.
Yes, I use LaunchBar to launch apps and open files—its algorithm for guessing what you’re looking for as you type is still superior to Spotlight’s—but I’d have probably dumped it if I hadn’t come to rely on so many other features. I use LaunchBar to find the right emoji to insert into an iMessage, make quick math calculations on the fly, launch automation routines, and open specific Google Docs.
Perhaps most commonly, I use LaunchBar as a clipboard manager. There are lots of apps out there that will convert the Mac’s traditional single-use clipboard into a large, accessible stack of clipboard items. Since it’s a feature LaunchBar includes, I haven’t needed anything else.
Regardless of whether you use LaunchBar or something else, I highly recommend using one of the Mac’s many great clipboard managers. Being confident that everything you copy to the clipboard remains accessible can be a huge productivity boost. Tasks that used to require toggling back and forth between different apps can be done in a more linear fashion—you copy all the stuff you need, one by one, and then switch to the other app and paste it all in, one by one.
Automate your tasks
I’m a huge fan of user automation, because if there’s anything that computers are good at, it’s doing repetitive tasks that are utterly boring to human beings. If you’re stuck doing a boring, repetitive task on your computer, you are ripe for the time savings that automation can bring.
The problem is, a lot of user automation solutions are extremely hard for most people to understand. Once you’re asked to write code, the jig is up. Fortunately, there are some easy to use Mac automation tools out there that provide amazing amounts of power without requiring you to write code (although you can if you want).
I’m constantly amazed at what Starways Software’s $36 Keyboard Maestro can do. You can automate opening apps, issuing menu commands or keyboard shortcuts, clicking on buttons, and pretty much anything else you can think of. It’s not reliant on the built-in automation features of individual apps, either—if you need to automate something by clicking on a specific item on the screen somewhere, Keyboard Maestro can be told specifically what to look for and where to click. It’s a bit like magic.
Keyboard Maestro lets you build automations that interact with any Mac app, even if it’s not scriptable.
I’ve used Keyboard Maestro to automate repetitious actions I do on my Mac in order to start or end specific types of work. For instance, when I am about to record a podcast, I need to launch several apps, open specific pages in Safari, and configure several features of an app by clicking on various interface elements and typing related keyboard shortcuts. It’s something like a 30-step process that I have to do more or less the same every week. With Keyboard Maestro, that process can be reduced to a single click or keyboard shortcut.
I consider time spent moving files around in the Finder to be time wasted. But my files still need to be managed! So I rely on Noodlesoft’s $32 Hazel to manage my files for me. Hazel works by watching folders on your Mac and making changes to files based on a series of rules. For instance, I’ve got a rule that looks at the folder where I save all my tech writing, and after a few weeks, moves unmodified stories to an archive folder. Another rule takes old podcast files and compresses them so they take up less space. And yet another looks at a shared Dropbox folder used to pass audio files back and forth and deletes any of them older than a couple of weeks.
Hazel lets you set rules to move files around your Mac.
I used to do all of that file maintenance by hand, but with Hazel I don’t have to anymore. If you find yourself going through the mental gymnastics of deciding which files need to go into which places, you might be able to reduce those thoughts into a basic set of Hazel rules and let the computer do the work automatically.
Power in the Menu Bar
I’ve extolled the virtue of the Mac’s menu bar in this space before, but my menu bar is made a lot better by the addition of a few clever utilities.
SoundSource lets you route audio from different apps to different outputs, all from the menu bar. (Also pictured: Other useful menu bar items.)
The $15 utility Bartender lets me clean up my menu bar, hiding icons I don’t use as often beneath a single item. That leaves room for more items that I actually want to see, like the graphs from Bjango’s $12 iStat Menus. iStat Menus provides you with glanceable information about your Mac’s current status, from processor temperatures to the work being done by individual processor cores.
Rogue Amoeba’s $29 SoundSource gives me complete control over where the audio on my Mac is going. I can quickly reroute iTunes from my external speakers to my headphones, and adjust the output volume, right from its drop-down control panel.
And the free utility BitBar lets me put more or less anything I want into my menu bar, via an extensible plug-in system. I’ve got the current weather status at my home weather station, the speed of my local network, and even the number of live listeners to my podcasts, all displayed in the menu bar via small BitBar extensions.
Sure, the Mac is good without all of these utilities. But with them, it’s great—and it feels like home to me.