Mac menu bar apps

Thu Apr 10, 02:06 PM

I’ve become a fan of Mac menu bar apps — those mini-apps that run as icons near the clock at the top right of the screen. In fact, I thought I’d share my list of favourites. Share your own in the comments below.

First, here’s a snapshot of my current menu bar, chopped in two so it’ll fit on-screen:

From left to right the icons are:

Cloak 2: Ultra-easy VPN software that automagically protects me when I’m on public Wi-Fi because it knows what are safe and unsafe networks. It has companion apps for the iPad and iPhone, and costs just $3 per month. MacWorld did a review recently, which is much more useful than anything I can add.

iBetterCharge: Click on it and it shows the battery charge level of any iPads, iPhones, or iPod Touches that have been used via iTunes (provided they’re on the same Wi-Fi network). It’ll also tell you when they’re running out of charge, and when they’re fully charged. There’s a few minor bugs but it’s otherwise pretty neat. Free of charge.

FormatMatch: Sits there and does nothing more than strip the formatting out of any text copied to the clipboard. I can copy text from a website, for example, and instantly paste it in without worrying the font will be wrong and that I’ll have coloured text (and without having to hit the ridiculously complicated “paste unformatted” keystroke). It’s free but I’d pay for a version that stripped out everything but bold and italics, because often I want to keep them when copying and pasting. Free via the Mac App Store.

unDock: Click it and it ejects any attached removable storage devices like disks or USB sticks. My MacBook Pro spends most of its time on my desk attached to a 1080p monitor plus at least one external drive, but when I need to take it somewhere I click this icon, wait a few seconds, then unplug everything. $1.99 in the Mac App Store although there’s also a lite version for free that unmounts just one drive.

Identical: Drag one file to this icon, then another, and you’ll see instantly if they’re identical. I use it a lot when I need to, which is when working collaboratively. Free of charge in the Mac App Store.

Shades: Click and a slider appears to adjust screen brightness, but with a caveat. That 1080p monitor I mentioned earlier is a crappy Samsung model that broke after two years of use. It has two issues: the buttons to adjust settings no longer work reliably, and if it’s set to anything other than maximum brightness it emits a whistle that drives me crazy. Maximum brightness gives me a headache. So, I hike-up the brightness to 100% and use Shades to “fake” adjust the brightness, which it does by applying a dark screen overlay. It’s a bit temperamental but works very well and doesn’t affect screenshots. Free of charge.

Spideroak: Encrypted cloud backup software with possibly the worst client app I’ve used in 20 years of desktop computing. The background service appears pretty solid but because of the client I can’t really recommend it. It’s around $100 per year for 100GB.

Skitch: Click to create a screenshot, usually by dragging around the area I want to capture. Ideal for my day job of computer journalism. Drag the icon beneath each captured screenshot to a Finder window to copy the PNG screenshot there. It’s supposed to integrate with Evernote but you can ignore that. Free in the Mac App Store.

Dropbox: Installed because some of my colleagues use it. I don’t really need a day-to-day cloud storage service other than for backup (see Spideroak, above).

Little Snitch: Acts as an outgoing firewall, telling you when apps attempt to access the Internet and blocking them if you select to. I owned a previous version that stopped working when I upgraded to Mavericks. I’m loathe to pay for an upgrade to a new version, partly because the developer insists on adding tax on top of the cost (why?), so this is the trial version that works for three hours until nagging you that it’s only a trial.

Bluetooth: The built-in Mac Bluetooth icon.

Time Machine: In addition to Spideroak I backup to an attached G-Drive via Time Machine. I recently restored my entire MacBook Pro from a Time Machine backup after a botched Windows 8 installation, and it worked like a dream (aside from iCloud not quite syncing properly, which was fixed by deselecting and reselecting iCloud in System Preferences.)

Speaker: The Mac speaker icon — click to adjust the volume plus other things.

Battery: The Mac battery icon — click to see remaining battery life, plus other things.

Fast User Switcher: The Mac icon that lets you switch between user accounts without having to log out. I sometimes create dummy accounts as part of my computer journalism, and have a DTP account with lots of fonts installed within it for when I have to layout books as part of my other job.

Day-O: Replacement for the built-in menu bar clock and date display. Click it and a simple calendar appears showing the current month, which is a feature I really miss from my days using Windows. Although I installed Day-O for the calendar feature, I found it can be configured to show just about any type of date and time info in the menu bar. In addition to the usual numbers, I have it show the week and day number as a kind of carpe diem. The year’s wasting away and there’s lots to be done! The time/date formatting code I use, which you can also use:

d MMMM yyyy '(day 'D', week' w')' • E, h:mms

Spotlight: The Mac search icon that forms the heart of my Mac experience. It’s how I start apps (hit Cmd+Space, type the first few letters of the name, and hit Enter when it appears beneath) and how I open files (type the first part of the filename or what I know to be in the file, and hit Enter when it appears beneath). In Mavericks it’s starting to go a little senile, however. I have iTunes installed, and iTunes Producer. If I search for “iTunes”, the Producer app is always the first choice in the list. Why? Surely it should be iTunes? It’s the same when I search for Disk Utility — Disk Tools Pro appears above it. I get around this by typing only DU — did you know that Spotlight lets you search by initial letters only?

Notifications: The Mac notification system. I find the pop-up notifications from apps useful (provided I see them before they slide away) but not the notification area that appears when you click this icon. Whenever I look at it, I find a tonne of old notifications. Like quite a bit of Mavericks, the notification system is only half-finished and needs more work. My experience is that quite a few Mac features start out as semi-useful, and mature into actually quite useful things later on (although I’m still waiting for Dashboard.)

Keir Thomas


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iPad and iPhone Kung Fu — Now available!

Sat Mar 1, 09:55 AM

I’m really pleased to say that my new book, iPad and iPhone Kung Fu, is now available! And it’s the first book I’ve had published that’s in colour!

It’s full of over 300 poweruser tips for iPad and iPhone users, which is something that’s rare. Most of the tips you simply won’t find elsewhere. I’ve explored every nook and cranny of iOS to provide tips for apps like Mail, Maps and Safari, and the iWork/iLife apps like Garageband and Pages. Even though I say so myself it’s a great book that I’m very proud of.

You can buy from the publisher as an eBook, paper book, or combo deal, or you’ll also find it at all good bookstores such as Amazon.

Keir Thomas


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Running "full" Android on a Mac

Wed Feb 19, 12:27 PM

Sometimes I want to check-out Android apps. Although I have an Android tablet, for initial investigation it’s easier for me to use a virtualised Android setup on my Mac.

The problem is that although there’s one or two projects to bring Android to x86 architecture, such as modern Macs use, they don’t bring with them the useful Google apps, such as the Google Play store. Esssentially they’re bare-bones Android, probably because of licensing issues, and complexities involving accessing an app store full of ARM-based apps.

It turns out it is actually possible to run a pretty convincing ARM-tablet or ARM-phone Android experience on a Mac, including things like the Google Play Store. And it runs pretty quickly too. Here’s the basic steps.

  1. Download and install VirtualBox.
  2. Visit the Genymotion site, register with them, and download their Android virtualizer for Mac OS X.
  3. Start Genymotion and then install either the basic custom 10in tablet or 7in phone packages as directed.
  4. Start the virtual machine so the Android desktop appears, then using your Mac’s browser download the ARM emulation package. Drag and drop the zip file on top of the Android window (DON’T unzip it first!) You’ll be asked if you want to add-in the modification. Choose to do so then quit and restart the Android virtualisation.
  5. Download the Google apps package again using your Mac, and repeat the step above — drag and drop the zip file on top of the Android window. Again, install it when prompted. Quit and restart the Android virtualisation.
  6. Once the Android virtualisation restarts you’ll have a clone of a bog-standard Android tablet and/or phone, and will be invited to setup from scratch, as if powering-on a new Android device.

Some tips for general use are not to resize the window, because this can cause flickering.

Many thanks to Stack Overflow user anp8850 for figuring out this solution.

Keir Thomas


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Looking for "assistive devices" in Mavericks?

Wed Oct 23, 05:00 PM

Some apps like TextExpander require you to activate assistive device support, which until Mavericks was located in the Accessibility section of System Preferences.

In Mavericks the whole caboodle has moved to the Privacy pane of the Security & Privacy section of System Preferences. Scroll down to the Accessibility icon on the left-hand side, then tick to allow TextExpander to work.

Keir Thomas


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Alter Word's cursor blink rate

Tue Apr 30, 10:58 AM

Have you ever noticed that Microsoft Word on the Mac has a slower text cursor blink rate compared to the rest of the system? I’m not sure why this is but it means that it’s not hard to ‘lose’ the text cursor when editing a document — often I have to stare at the page until the cursor starts blinking again so that I know where it is.

Luckily, this can be fixed easily. Quit all Microsoft Office apps, then open a Terminal window (it’s in the Utilities list of the Applications list in Finder) and paste-in the following, which will match the cursor blink rate with that of the rest of the system (triple-click the line to select all of it before copying):

defaults write ~/Library/Preferences/ NSTextInsertionPointBlinkPeriod -int 500

If you want a really fast blinking cursor, like computers of old, try this instead:

defaults write ~/Library/Preferences/ NSTextInsertionPointBlinkPeriod -int 100

To restore the default setting, again quit all Microsoft Office apps and type the following into a Terminal window:

defaults delete ~/Library/Preferences/ NSTextInsertionPointBlinkPeriod
Keir Thomas


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Rip CDs using iTunes for non-iPod players

Tue Mar 19, 05:00 PM

Want to rip tunes from a CD but NOT import them into iTunes? It turns out iTunes can do the job…

Insert a CD and when the dialog box appears asking if you want to import the music, hold down the Option key (Alt on some keyboards) before clicking the Yes button.

You’ll then be able to choose the destination for the files. If the MP3 player is attached you can select it to save the files right onto the device. After the tunes have been ripped, switch to the music list in iTunes and delete the tracks (use the search function to find them), but select not to delete the original files if asked.

Don’t forget that if you’re ripping songs for non-Apple players you’ll need to set iTunes to rip in MP3 format. This can be done by clicking Preferences on the iTunes menu, ensuring the General tab is selected, and clicking the Import Settings button.

Keir Thomas


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Adding words to the iPad/iPhone dictionary

Mon Mar 18, 02:08 PM

I use Pages quite a lot on my iPad as part of my job. One irritating issue is that I can’t add words to its dictionary. In fact, this dictionary is shared amongst all apps and nowhere can you add words. (Note that I’m talking here about the red underlining of words as misspelled; I’m not talking about autocorrect, which can be easily trained by typing the ‘incorrect’ word several times in succession.)

For me the problem isn’t so much not being able to add words to the dictionary as it is removing all the red underlining, which is truly distracting when working. However, I want to retain the live spell checking because it’s useful.

I found a solution. Open the Contacts app and create a new contact. Then type the words you want the device to learn into the first name and surname fields. Close and reopen your doc in Pages and suddenly the words won’t be underlined as misspelled any longer.

Alas, this tip isn’t perfect. Plurals of the words won’t be recognised, for example, so must be added individually.

But this works well enough for me, usually to enter proper nouns that my iPad and iPhone simply don’t know. Note that if you’ve a Mac you can create the contact there and it’ll sync automatically with your iDevices via iCloud.

I hesitate to post tips like this because it feels like a problem that Apple will surely fix sooner rather than later. Alas, people have been waiting for several years now. The whole text entry system on iOS needs attention but Apple seemingly refuses to do so.

Keir Thomas


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Speed up iPhoto with multiple libraries

Sat Mar 16, 05:00 PM

Ever get tired of iPhoto being so s-l-o-w? This is a problem that Apple has never cracked — iPhoto is as slow now as it was back on G4 Macs back in 2004, which is remarkable considering modern computers are unimaginably powerful compared to back then.

A solution’s been built into iPhoto for some time but almost nobody knows about it. Hold down Option (Alt on some keyboards) when starting iPhoto and a dialog box will pop-up letting you switch between iPhoto libraries. You’ll only have one if you’ve never done this before, but the dialog box lets you create as many as you wish.

When you select the new library it’ll be like using a fresh installation of iPhoto — the library will be empty and waiting for you to import pictures. More importantly, it’ll be speedy.

You could have separate libraries for every vacation you go on, for example, or perhaps have just two — one for work, and one for home.

When you select a new library it becomes the default and iPhoto will always open with that library each time it starts unless you again hold down Option when starting the app and select a different library, which will then become the new default.

Keir Thomas


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Make Trash work properly

Fri Mar 15, 05:00 PM

If you’ve ever delved into the Trash to fish-out a deleted file, you’ll know it has an irritating limitation — there’s no way of knowing WHEN a file was deleted.

Files dragged to the Trash aren’t updated when they’re put there, so carry across the date stamps they previously had — a file last modified on 1st June 2010 will still show that date in the Trash, even if it was deleted yesterday. And if you’ve trashed several versions of disneyland.jpg, there’s no reliable way of knowing which of them is the one you most recently deleted.

There is a Date Added column within Finder that you can sort by but in my experience this doesn’t actually show when the files were added to the Trash! In fact, with most files all that appears is two dashes (—).

Below is one solution to this issue. It uses a folder action to automatically update the date stamp on each file that you put in the Trash, so you can then simply sort by the standard Date Modified column in the Finder window to see the most recently deleted files.

1. Start by opening Terminal, which you’ll find in the Utilities folder of the Applications list of Finder. Type the following, then quit the Terminal window:

mkdir -p ~/Library/Scripts/Folder\ Action\ Scripts/

2. Open AppleScript Editor, which you’ll also find in the Utilities folder of the Applications list in Finder. Then start a new document if one isn’t already visible, and paste in the following code:

on adding folder items to this_folder after receiving added_items
repeat with this_item in added_items
do shell script "find " & quoted form of POSIX path of this_item & " -exec touch {} \\;"
end repeat
end adding folder items to

Click the Compile button to ensure the script is OK — if it is the script will be colorised and indented. If not you’ll see an error.

3. Click File → Save and tap Shift+Command+G. In the dialog box that appears, type ~/Library/Scripts/Folder Action Scripts and click Go. Then type the filename Trash date stamper in the Save As dialog box, selecting “Script” in the File Format drop down. Save the file, then quit AppleScript Editor.

4. Right-click any folder anywhere, and select Folder Actions Setup (you may have to click Services → Folder Actions Setup). Click Cancel on the dialog box that appears offering a list of scripts.

5. In the Folder Actions Setup window, put a check alongside Enable Folder Actions if there’s not one already there. Then at the bottom left click the Plus icon and, in the dialog box that appears, tap Shift+Command+G and type ~/.Trash. Then click Go in the dialog box, then the Open button in the parent dialog box.

6. Straight away you’ll see a list of folder actions. At the bottom will be your new script — Trash Date Stamper.scpt. Select this, and click the Attach button. Close the Folder Actions Setup dialog box when done.

That’s all that’s needed. From now one any files you drag to the Trash will have their “Date Modified” reset to the date and time at which you dragged them to the Trash. You can then select to sort by Date Modified by clicking that heading in List or Column view when you open the Trash to view its contents. Note that it takes a few seconds after you add a file to the Trash for the new date stamp to be applied.

Keir Thomas


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Review of Mac Kung Fu

Thu Mar 14, 06:27 PM

Read a review of Mac Kung Fu 2nd Edition by Nancy Gravley over at the Mac Observer.

Keir Thomas


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