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My Top 10 Mac apps - Summer 2021.

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MindNode

MindNode is my current mind mapping software. Whether for quick outlines or working through complex projects, I often reach for MindNode first and use it to start organising my thoughts. It works well on both iPad or Mac, so I can pick up where I left off on whatever device is best at the time.

Excel

Excel would be enough of a reason for me to have some sort of desktop office licence. With Word there are alternatives - the same with PowerPoint - but with Excel, I don’t believe anything comes close. It is open on whatever machine I am on the majority of the time - it could be for data tracking (logging), the manipulation of data or even text, or just for working out some calculation or other. A massively complex yet simple application that grows in usefulness with use and practice.

DEVONthink

Ever since I installed my first document management system in a law firm 20 odd years ago I have struggled without some sort of document manager, and currently DEVONthink is the one I use for all LimeZebra related files. As DEVONtechnologies say on their front page:

‘Where did I put my evil genius master plan? We’ve got an app for that’

DEVONthink syncs and makes files available on whatever device I am on (Mac or iOS), can OCR PDFs on import, and even file or tag documents automatically based on rules that you can set.

Drafts

Drafts has the tagline ‘Where Text Starts’ and in its simplest form that is what Drafts does - it gives you a quick, easy and simple place to start writing text (this is currently being written in Drafts) - however, it can also be so much more, with automations to send the text to various applications or external files.

It also now has workspaces, enabling you to sort and filter your text notes, and a whole raft of other features that can save time when working with text. It has a subscription service which enables some of the more advanced options; however, the free version gets you started and a long way down the line.

Some people will use it if they want to send an email to someone: they write the email in Drafts, the run an automation that takes the Draft, turns it into an email and sends it, meaning the person has sent an email without ever opening their email client and getting distracted.

Use it for every piece of text you write or just the odd note. If you have a Mac or an iOS device, there is no real reason not to have it installed - at some point you will need to ‘jot’ something down or draft out an email or message, and Drafts will then be there for you.

OmniFocus

I have blogged about task managers and if you have read the blog, you will know that my current personal task manager of choice is OmniFocus: it’s where I track my projects, plan my day and make sure I don’t miss action deadlines.

1Password

Another application I have written about before is 1Password. It is the first application to be configured on any new device I get - be it a Mac, Windows machine, iPhone or iPad. I was talking to the systems manager from a software company we were working with on an upgrade project the other week, and the subject of password managers came up (as it does when a couple of technical people are basically locked in a room together for a day!) He was using something different to 1Password but the outcome of the conversation we agreed on was: it doesn’t matter what password manager you use, but use one you must! The one I choose happens to be 1Password.

BetterTouchTool

This is a relatively new one for me. It has been on one of my Macs for a while now but has not found its place as a must-be-there application until recently. Now BetterTouchTool is on my must-install list. Something that I like to do on all my computers (be them Macs or Windows) is reprogram my Caps Lock key to something other than its designed purpose. On my Macs, I have made it into a Hyper Key: this basically means that when I press the Caps Lock key, it is the equivalent of pressing the Shift, Command, Control and Option keys all at the same time, which makes it a very good modifier key for shortcuts.

I think I read about this first via Brett Terpstra, and I used to use Karabiner Elements which worked most of the time; however, then David Sparks over on Macsparky posted about the fact that BetterTouchTool was now able to create a Hyper Key and that made me take a look at again. Since then I was on a call with a colleague and we got onto the subject of keyboards and the fact that Apple keyboards lack a forward-delete key.1(“see footnote”) Anyway I opened up BetterTouchTool and remapped the Eject key that’s on Apple keyboards to a forward-delete key. On my MacBook Air, it is a little harder as the position of the Eject key has been taken by the TouchID reader, so now if I press my Hyper Key and the backspace key I get a forward-delete.

BetterTouchTool can do so much more than that as well - from gestures on a touch pad to automatic window management - and for a standard licence at $8.50 it’s one of those apps that is worth having even for a single job (Hyper Key), and then adding more and more to it gradually.

OneNote

Way too many years ago for my liking when OneNote first came out, I used to say that OneNote was the best application Microsoft made - it was definitely the most important to me and the one that no one seemed to know about. At the time, it was Windows only and didn’t really sync with anything2 but it was still a great digital notebook that seemed to just work. After a while, syncing and cross-platform became more important, and I switched to Evernote 3 - however, OneNote is back! It’s cross-platform now and is very close in feature parity across iOS, Windows and MacOS. I can scribble a note with my Apple Pencil on my iPad and it will appear on my Mac, take a screenshot and paste it into a page for future. It is definitely not my full Second Brain but it is a great place to dump some ideas for later processing, and deserves a place on my machines, even if the concept of notebooks and dividers does now seem a bit old fashioned and restrictive. The other thing that is worth mentioning here is that it is also part of Microsoft 365 - it integrates nicely into Microsoft Teams and other areas, so one thing that can be really useful is to have a shared team or project notebook that all relevant people have access to, with meeting notes, research etc all shared, synced and searchable.

Alfred

Probably the second application I get configured on any Mac I use is Alfred and has been for years -  I really miss it if it’s not running for some reason on a Mac I am using. It is my launcher of choice: I press Option and Space together and type what I want to launch. It will search and launch applications, files, Google, Spotify - basically whatever you want. It is arguably the application that made Macs click with me. There are a wealth of Alfred workflows to link other applications into it, so you could, as an example, create a new task in OmniFocus by:

  • Pressing Option and Space together
  • Typing: nt task name
  • Pressing Return
    And that’s it: a new task is created in OmniFocus.

HoudahSpot

This one has been tricky. I have been pulled between different applications as to which should fill this last slot, but in the end I have opted for HoudahSpot as it has probably had the most impact on my life/productivity since I finally started using it.

For years HoudahSpot would crop up as a recommended application in something I was reading. I would have a look, and think: “Why do I need that?” Don’t get me wrong: it’s not an expensive application but it’s not ‘cheap’ either. But I already had lots of tools to search my computer for a file, and didn’t think I needed another one.

I can’t even remember why I downloaded the trial version a few months ago, but I did and it completely changed things for me - to be honest, the main thing about it was the fact it searches email in Apple Mail.app as well as files. For years I have been trying to find the best way to deal with my emails - these are from multiple mailboxes spread over many years. I have tried clearing the older mail out but it always ends up with me deleting things I want a week later.4 I’ve tried putting all my emails into a document manager like DEVONthink, but it never seems to work - I have even exported all my emails to PDF files.

You may wonder why I have done this. Well it is basically as I often don’t know which mailbox the email I want may have been sent to, and so I need to search across as many as seven mailboxes and thousands of messages.

HoudahSpot seems to do this quickly and reliably. It can search for keywords across all my emails and files in one go, and present me with a list which can then easily be refined. Why it seems so much better than anything else at searching across multiple locations and types of file, I have no idea - and to be honest I am not sure I care - it just is. And that is why it deserves to be in this list - I just wish I had worked it out years ago.

Near Misses

Some of the other applications I use that nearly made the list…

TheBrain

I have also been using TheBrain, which takes a totally different approach to filing and finding things (be they documents, notes or webpages) and would arguably put them more in the knowledge management arena.5 I believe this has caused them issues, putting them under pressure to bring in certain features before they were ready; however, that is for a different post. 

Hook

Hook is so simple (and yet also incredibly complex). It enables you with a few key presses to link things together on your Mac - you can create bi-directional links between files, folders, emails and webpages, and even deep links into things like PDF files.

As an example, a couple of key presses gets me the following link to this document (drafts5://open?uuid=1235F5F9–6E1E–463D-A521-F474FB6249A6). I could then paste that into something else to reference it in the future, or I could create a new OmniFocus task with a link back to this draft. I could link this draft to the MindNode document that started this post off or to any other relevant pages or files. If I did the latter, I could then just press Command and Space together, and I would see the MindNode file, enabling me to switch to it or open it without needing to know where I may have saved it (as above).



  1. I know what exciting lives us technical people lead! ↩︎

  2. To be honest I’m not sure there was anything for it to sync to, we didn’t have iPhones or iPads etc. ↩︎

  3. I haven’t got on with Evernote for years now and despite trying to go back to it a few times, my account sits there unused. ↩︎

  4. You know that tidying your desk thing where you throw away the scrap of paper you need a week later. ↩︎

  5. In my mind, knowledge management and document management are very similar and closely linked as a lot of the time most of your knowledge is in documents. ↩︎

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