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Chris’s Top Ten Must-Have Shareware/Freeware Utilities.

by M. Chris Stevens

You’ve had it happen to you. You sit down at a friend’s or relative’s computer (usually to fix whatever has been “broken”) and you start to work. Invariably, you hit a keystroke or go to the menu bar to pull up your favorite utility and... nothing. They don’t have the utility you’re looking for, which means you need to accomplish your task another way.

I’ve had two instances like this within the last few months - only they both happened on computers I use every day. First, it was the computer I use at work. I recently got one of those spiffy new aluminum iMacs. The only problem is that, with the new setup, some of the applications and utilities I use daily weren’t immediately transferred over. To say it was a somewhat disorienting would be like saying the Titanic stopped to pick up some ice along the way. Fortunately, I was eventally able to get things back to my liking and my output is back to normal.

The next incident involved the laptop I’ve been using. In preparation for Migration to a MacBook Pro that I’d been looking to purchase, I was clearing out some older files and unused apps. Unfortunately, when deleting one app that was in the Applications folder that resides in Home, I accidentally deleted the whole folder, rather than just the app. Long story short (I know... too late...), I managed to get rid of a bunch of utilities I often use, rather than just the one I was trying to delete. D’oh!

Fortunately, both of these incidents were easily remedied, but it reminded me of something - I’d been kicking this QuickTip around that scary room I call my mind for some time now, and I just needed a premise. So call it providence, luck, or the second phase of the Underpants Gnomes’ business plan, but it was that little spark I needed.

So, without further ado, here’s my Top Ten List.



I have many members of my extended family who have computers, but don’t really know how to use them. More annoyingly, they try to email movies (or links to movies) to me, which often turn out to be in some obscure or annoying format that QuickTime refuses to play. Usually, I’ll use VLC for one-time video playback, as it generally handles things nicely. However, if I want to keep a non-QT-friendly video and have it available in iTunes, then I turn to iSquint. This program takes whatever movie file you throw at it and converts it to iPod (or AppleTV) optimized .m4v movies that you can drop right into iMovie for convenient organization.



Instant Messaging is a great thing. It lets me keep in touch with a lot of people who I normally wouldn’t get to talk with, due to time and distance. And iChat is a great client for chatting. The only problem is that many of my friends refuse to use AOL Instant Messenger. So if I want to chat with them, I have to use a different app for each service. Adium is a multi-service client, capable of connecting to over a dozen different IM networks. That alone makes it a really useful tool. Add in the fact that its incredibly customizable and iChat seems positively spartan in comparison.



This little utility has pulled me out of the fire a number of times. AppleJack is a utility that you can access by booting into Single User mode at startup. It will allow you to run disk repair, repair permissions, clear various caches, and perform a number of other maintenence and troubleshooting tasks. We’ve had many a malfunctioning machine around the OWC offices brought back to life after running this tool. As of this writing, it has yet to be updated for Leopard-compatibility, but that should be coming soon.



I wrote a QuickTip about this little utility in November of 2005, and its still one of the most important pieces of software I have on my computer at work. If you have a desktop and a laptop (or two Macs of any type), this utility can really speed up your work flow by allowing you to control both of them at once.



This is one of only two Shareware items on this list. At about $50, this fast, stable word processor is packed with features. It has quickly become my word processor of choice. About the only bad thing I can say about it is that it wasn’t around when I was in college, but then again neither was OS X. If you’re looking for a Word replacement, I highly recommend this one.




At first, I resisted installing this notification system. I mean, who wants windows popping up all the time? Then, I actually started using it. Now, I get notifications as soon as files are done downloading, when I get emails or instant messages, and various other bits of information that are happening that I should know about, but am not actively monitoring. It may be a bit of “information overkill,” but I’d sooner have it than not.



MarcoPolo is one of those “why didn’t I think of that?” apps that rarely fails to get a “wow” from someone seeing it for the first time. Effectively, it uses external stimuli (active bluetooth devices, visible WiFi networks, attached USB devices, etc.) to determine what “actions” to take on your system, such as launching applications, setting your default printer, or setting your screen saver settings. The practical upshot of all this is that you can create a certain work setup for any place you use your Mac laptop regularly and have them switch automatically. If you have a Mac laptop, you definitely want MarcoPolo.


LiteSwitch X

The other Shareware item on this list is also one of those utilities that I use seamlessly all day long, and when I use a machine without it installed, its like driving down the interstate at 55mph and then accidentally downshifting into first. LiteSwitch is an add-on that allows you greater control of the Command-Tab Application Switcher. I’d go more into it, but our in-depth QuickTip about this, though somewhat dated, gives a darn good explanation already.



At any given point in the day, I’ll usually have a number of things going at once. Software downloads, graphic processing, file transfers, et cetera. Sure, I can keep an eye on all that via Activity Monitor, but it involves opening yet another application and having to keep the appropriate windows visible. As you can guess by the name, this utility puts this vital information into customizable menus which fit seamlessly into your menu bar. I installed it after reading this QuickTip and I haven’t looked back.



When I first wrote about Butler in March of 2005, I was most enamored of its ability as a keystroke emulator that allowed me to automate repetitive tasks. I still use it as such today, but I also use it as an application launcher, a controller for iTunes, and a number of other tasks, yet I still have barely begun to scratch the surface of its usefulness. There is no other application, other than the Finder, on my Mac that I use more than Butler.

This is, of course a list of personal preferences. As you can tell, my preferences tend to free software, as my budget is small, so I may have very well left one of your favorite utilities out. Hopefully, though, after reading this, you may find (or be reintorduced to) a software product that fits your needs.

After all, that's what lists like this are supposed to do.