Productivity tools for Mac

(Updated 7 April)

This post isn’t about music, but might be of interest to anyone who wants to improve their workflows on the Mac’s operating system, OS X. Musician or not, almost everyone these days has to deal with files and text, and these are the apps that make life my easier and improve productivity when developing web applications, doing my taxes, administering my musical presence on the web, sending out promo codes to blogs and journalists etc.

A quick note: none of the developers paid me to recommend their apps (I’ve yet to build a big readership here, so they’d have little incentive). I bought them all with my own, hard-earned money, thank you very much.

BetterTouchTool

BetterTouchTool lets you add more gestures to your mouse or trackpad, and you can trigger multiple actions with a single gesture. For example, when editing a text file in Sublime Text, I double-tap with four fingers and the current file is saved, all the text in the file is selected and then copied to the clipboard. I then single-tap with four fingers to paste the text into another application and also trigger a keyboard shortcut to save.

The app actually does a lot more than that, but even using it for the sore purpose of moving text around has saved me time over the course of the twelve-months-or-so I’ve been using it, not to mention reduced frustration at doing the same series of keyboard shortcuts over and over again.

Free from the developer’s website →

CopyClip

CopyClip gives you quick access to your clipboard history (you can store up to 230 items). I use this tool all day long, and it’s saved me tons of time. I’ve assigned a keyboard shortcut to it: ^⌥⌘C. Cool features include the ability to pin clips, and to search for specific strings — handy when looking for an older clip buried somewhere in the history.

Free in the Mac App Store →

Dropzone

This app, which takes the form of a popover in the menu bar, provides quick access to commonly performed tasks, folders, apps etc. It can be used to open frequently used folders, store files temporarily, upload files to a server, shorten URLs with Bitly, share stuff over AirDrop, and much more. Just drag stuff over the menu bar and it’ll open the popover. For certain tasks, e.g. opening a commonly used folder in Finder, I use a keyboard shortcut to invoke Dropzone: ^⌥⌘D.

$4.99 in the Mac App Store →

ImageOptim

This app decreases the file size of images without reducing quality; useful when uploading images to your website, or sharing them with others via DropBox etc. I have the ImageOptim icon in my Dropzone popover so that I can drag images over it to open the app and start the optimisation process. If you don’t have Dropzone, you can do the same thing by putting ImageOptim in your Dock and dragging files over it there. ImageOptim optimises in place, that it to say it doesn’t create any additional files — an approach I like. If you do want to keep your pre-optimised originals, you’ll have to makes copies manually.

Free from developer’s website →

Preview

When I moved from using a Windows PC to a Mac, I missed having the Microsoft Paint application to annotate screenshots. I eventually realised that I could do it in the Preview app. You can access it by clicking the Show Markup Toolbar button or by looking under Tools > Annotate.

Built into OS X →

Soulver

Soulver lets you do all sorts of calculations intuitively and with natural language. As the website copy says: “It’s quicker to use than a spreadsheet, and smarter and clearer than a traditional calculator.” I use it for doing multiple-step, annotated calculations that I need to refer back to a later date. You can add different currencies together (£50 + $25 + €12), work out quick discounts (£899 for the mattress – 12% discount) and do unit conversions (6 foot 1 inch in cm). Soulver syncs documents over iCloud or Dropbox, and is also available as a universal iOS app.

$11.99 in the Mac App Store →

SnappyApp

In terms of productivity, SnappyApp lets you take a screengrab and have it remain on top of everything else on your desktop. Useful for keeping visible something you need to refer to, and quicker than arranging two windows side by side etc. You can also take a snap and share it on Twitter, Facebook et al. It automatically stores a history of your snaps for future reference, and you can pay to enable annotations.

Free in the Mac App Store; in-app purchases available →

Sticky Notifications

This is really handy for making a note of where you are in a piece of work when you need to switch focus to another task, get up from your desk to answer a call of nature, are interrupted by a phone call etc. I use it regularly at the end of the day to remind myself of where I need to start the next morning. If I’m trying to fix a bug and have reached a mental impasse by the time 5pm rolls around, I may record some thoughts on what I’ve tried to do to solve the issue, and ideas on alternative approaches to look into the next day when I’m fresh. My chosen keyboard shortcut: ^⌥⌘R.

The website says it works on version of OS X from 10.7 to 10.9 (Mavericks) but it works a treat on Yosemite, too.

$3 from the developer’s website →

Bonus

Condense

I’ve only recently installed Condense (hat tip to MacSparky) — and haven’t used it extensively — but it’s cool, and I can see it being useful to me down the road.

It allows you to grab any area of the screen and perform OCR on it. So if you have an image or video with text in it and want to covert it to actual text that you can paste elsewhere, try Condense. It’s accessible across the operating system, via the menu bar, or a keyboard shortcut (I’ve chosen ⇧⌘2).

All OCR apps I’ve ever tried give mixed results, and Condense does too. The bigger and clearer the text in the source, the better. And it does have a clever QuickFix feature that allows to you go through and fix words the app had trouble with, all from the keyboard. Pretty neat.

$4.99 in the Mac App Store →

Update 7 April 2015

A couple of additions to the original list:

aText

I’ve been trialling Smile’s TextExpander for a while, but was reluctant to hand over $35 for a license. I’ll happily pay that amount for, say, Transmit, but for a text expansion app… I’d rather not. So I decided to see whether there was an alternative. I found aText, which is much better value than and does the same job as TextExpander. It even automatically imported my existing TextExpander snippets!

(Sidenote: Smile’s iOS software is more reasonably priced. I use the excellent PDFpen Scan+ all the time for scanning and OCRing documents.)

And for a free, but less powerful, alternative to aText, try the Text tab within the Keyboard section of System Preferences.

$4.99 in the Mac App Store →

Special character and emoji popover

Use ^⌘Space to invoke the system-wide emoji and special character popover. This is great if you’re looking to access, say, em/en dashes or the copyright symbol. It includes a handy type-to-search feature: just start typing a word (e.g. “copyright”, “heart”) and relevant symbols and emojis will appear in real time – much quicker than digging though the categories manually. The special character popover is available out-of-the-box on every Mac running Mavericks onwards.