Production Junction, what's your function?

— 10:09 AM on April 8, 2009

Two weeks ago, I rambled semi-coherently about various things—programs, UI quirks, turtleneck lint in my keyboard—that act as productivity roadblocks in my daily Mac experience. While that column was fueled by three days of battling PowerPoint 2008 and its obscene processor hoggishness (new word, not the last for this issue), this week's pontifications will be of a decidedly more positive nature.

How positive? It may seem like someone else is writing this blog. But don't get your hopes up.

Yes, this go around I'll be waxing poetic (because no one ever wanes poetic) about a few of the features of, and add-ons to, Mac OS X that make my days at the computer more productive. Or at least save me some time. Because I usually end up just wasting that time playing ragdoll games or browsing Triumph Bonnevilles on eBay Motors. But enough prologue; let's get to it. The following are listed in the order in which they popped into my addled noggin:

1. Spaces – In this multi-windowed, palette-driven world in which we compute, Spaces is a blessing from a power even higher than Mr. Jobs. Back in youthier days, I was an Amiga user. (Scott "Damage" Wasson was an Atari user—demo wars often ensued. And if you don't know what I mean by "demo," just take your Ritalin and keep reading.) I started with an A500 chockablock with three megs of RAM, and then moved up to a smokin' 16 MHz 68030-equipped A3000 that got me through college.

Pardon me while I dry my moistened right eye. And moisten my dry left eye.

The Amiga was great at multitasking. But the programs were always kept separate, as in, you never saw windows from one program next to those from another program. It kept things tidy, and there wasn't much call for inter-program observation in those days anyway.

Today, of course, not being able to see two or three programs at once would really put a damper on things. I need to have iChat, Twhirl and Safari (4.0 beta, of course) visible at all times. Other programs, not so much. Especially programs like Final Cut Pro, Photoshop, InDesign or Excel. Those can be off in their own little world. Before Spaces, I'd have to hide those programs to clear them away. It worked, but it wasn't exactly elegant. Spaces takes care of that problem. Personally, I use four Spaces. Maybe one day when I'm feeling super-nostalgic for my Amiga days, I'll put every program in its own space. And then see if anyone's ported Speedball.

2. Time Machine – Backups are a necessary evil of computing. In fact, backups are often considered so nefarious that many people choose to add an "un" to that "necessary." I was not one of those people. I dutifully cloned my data to two external drives on a semi-regular basis. And having those backups did save my bacon a couple of times when I decided to get creative with my system setup. Still, the process was a pain. And given the sporadic nature of my backups, it wasn't really great for recovering a file I had just inadvertently saved over (Why are "Save" and "Save As" right next to each other in the menu anyway?).

Time Machine takes all these problems away. It's just so dang slick. My backup drive is big enough that I literally have a year's worth of incremental backups on it. And I've gone back pretty far a couple of times to find some old files. I've even had to do a couple of complete system restores from it. Nothing like only losing an hour of work (at most) to ease the pain. The fact that Time Machine worked so well from the very first release is simply amazing.

3. The Dock – I had a docking program on my Amigas, so I was predisposed to liking it. I know some people use different means of launching programs, but the Dock is my go-to choice. On a side note, I've never quite understood the people with small monitors who don't turn on Hiding. Maybe they're afraid they'll forget it's there.

4. Applejack – Whenever my Mac starts feeling sluggish, spends a little too much time playing Spin the Beach Ball, or starts picking off random programs to crash, I turn to Applejack. In fact, I've been using this utility for so long that I can't recall when I first discovered it. Late 90s? Sure, let's go with that.

Anyway, Applejack is a nifty little program that you run by booting into single-user mode (hold down Option-S when booting). It does five tasks that, frankly, don't really seem like they'd have all that much effect on things, yet strangely do. (I admit I may be showing my ignorance of system-level operations, but such is life.) Applejack repairs disks, repairs permissions, cleans up cache files, validates preference files and removes swap files. You can run one or all, and it'll even reboot your machine when it's done.

And when it's done, things are often a bit zippier and more stable.

Applejack must be doing some complex stuff under the engine—it took the developer over a year to make it Leopard compatible. And I don't think the guy's a slouch.

Did I mention it's free?

5. Default Folder X – Another add-on I've been using for years. Default Folder X gives open and save dialogues the functionality they should have from the factory. It remembers the last eight folders you visited in an open/save dialog (this is the feature I employ the most). It lets you set a default folder (hence the name) for each program you use—which, oddly enough, is the one feature I could live without. And it has built-in file manipulation, too. Things like renaming, deleting, revealing in the Finder, and zip archiving. And did I mention Spotlight integration with file previewing? It does all this and, as the announcer says, more! Just don't try to soak up blood with it. It ain't no ShamWow.

Default Folder X isn't free, but it's fairly cheap. And I've only had to pay for one upgrade over the years (I think when they went from OS 9 to 10), which is nice.

So there you go. I could probably think of some more, I've already missed half of "Judge Judy." If you have any must-have add-ons (and I do have a lot installed that I didn't list here, but I'm always interested in more), please list them in the comments.



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