One of My Favourite Things for OS X
by Alan Zisman (c)
published in Low
July 15 2009 ZisMac
I'm pretty happy with the way Mac OS X has evolved. But whenever I get
a new Mac - or reinstall OS X on an old one - there are a few pieces of
software that I add ASAP.
I'm not talking about major
applications - not Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop or anything. I
mean the little stuff that makes the day-to-day operations smoother.
You probably have your own favourites. Here is one of mine. Nicely,
Windows vs. Mac
or so years ago, polling data suggested that a big difference between
Mac users and DOS/Windows users was that the PC folks tended to use a
relative handful of applications; Mac users on average had - and used -
more different pieces of software. I haven't seen any data on this
But in the interim, starting with Windows 95,
Microsoft added something to its operating systems to make it easier
for users to work with lots of applications - the Windows Start Menu.
For the Windows 95 launch, the company licensed the Rolling Stones'
Start Me Up, suggesting this was that version's key usability feature.
Start Menu isn't perfect by any means - installing a bunch of software
on a Windows computer results in both a desktop and Start Menu
cluttered with disorganized icons pointing to ReadMe files,
uninstallers, help files, and more things that no one ever clicks on.
Most users don't have any idea how to clean up and organize the mess,
but it does give users a relatively straightforward way to start
When Windows-switchers move to the Mac, it's one
of the first things they look for - some programs are on the Dock . . .
but for others? How do you access them? How do you even know what
you've got installed?
No Room on the Dock
the Classic Mac OS, many users (and I was one of them) got in the habit
of putting aliases to frequently used applications in the Apple menu.
But starting with OS X, Apple made that undoable. (Yes, I know about
Unsanity's Fruit Menu
and used it for a long time. But it broke when Leopard was released,
and although a new version was eventually released, I got out of the
So what's a new Mac user to do to find applications not
in the Dock? Well, you can click on the Finder icon. Then click on the
Applications folder (or its icon on the left of the Finder window).
Then scroll until you find the program you want. That may be second
nature to you, gentle reader, but many new Mac users never get in the
Or you can put the Applications folder in the Dock.
Personally, though, I find folders in the Dock an awkward way to work,
at least if there's more than a handful of things in the folder. Fan
View (right) is cute, but displays a tiny portion of the applications -
a very awkward way to access 116 more!
etting the docked folder
options to display in Grid View (below) is better - now, instead of a
single curved row, folder contents are displayed in a rectangle - now
there are only 62 more items to view in my Applications folder. But
even without displaying all the contents, the grid is too dense - I
find it hard to scan to find something here.
||New in Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard" is List View
(right). Actually, this is
more like how docked folders worked prior to OS X 10.4 with a
scrollable list in alphabetical order. This is actually, in my opinion,
relatively usable. But I don't find the location on the right side of
the Dock a particularly user-friendly place to put this sort of feature.
XMenu to the Rescue
first thing I add to my Macs is XMenu from DEVONtechnologies. Noted PC
Magazine columnist and gadfly John Dvorak recently called their
DEVONthink program "about as close to a killer Apple app as anything
I've seen since VisiCalc in the late '70s." (In the same column, the
longtime PC user said, "if I was going to buy a new laptop this minute,
a MacBook Pro is probably what I'd get, too." )
costs $149, the good people at DEVONtechnologies have made a number of
small utilities available for free download, including XMenu.
default, XMenu pops a little icon up near the right-hand side of the
menu bar, near Spotlight's magnifying glass. It's easy to overlook -
the new version's icon is a tiny version of the stylized A on Apple's
Applications folder. Clicking on the icon drops down a scrollable,
alphabetized list of the contents of the Applications folder, complete
with small images of each application's icon. (There may be a slight
delay the first time, as the icons are cached. Subsequently, the menu
will pop up much more quickly).
||Make it a Self
it takes to install XMenu is to copy it to your Applications folder,
but you probably want it to load automatically whenever you log on to
your Mac. Making that happen is not one of Mac OS X's most intuitive
Open System Preferences and click the Accounts item.
Go to the Login Items tab. To make changes, you may need to click on
the picture of a padlock and enter your password to "unlock" these
preferences. Then you can either drag the XMenu icon from the
Application menu into the list of login items or click the [+] to
locate it in a dialogue box. Don't click the Hide checkbox.
a big fan of always checking an application's preferences - you may not
want the defaults set by the programmers. To get to XMenu's
preferences, right-click or command+click on the icon.
use it to add multiple menus - each gets its own little icon on the
menu bar. Perhaps you want to add one for your Documents folder or Home
folder, for example. You can change the size of icons in the menu or
remove them entirely for perkier performance.
Back to Basics
ultimate control, you can choose the User-Defined menu, either in place
of the standard Applications and other menus or all by itself. When
that's selected, folders and aliases in your ~/Library/Application
Support/XMenu/ folder appear in the menu. I created a set of folders,
categorizing my applications - Accessories, Applications, Games,
Graphics, Internet, Multimedia, etc. - and placed aliases to the
appropriate applications in each. The result is a quick and organized
way to get to all my applications, filed in a way that makes sense to
me. I even includes some often-accessed documents.
point, though, I gave up on this sort of organization; I download and
try out too many applications. Some are keepers, others not. It just
got too much for me to keep the aliases up to date; if I failed to put
an aliases in the XMenu folder, I would tend to forget that I had the
though I think we all should get in the habit of checking program
preferences, in the end, I've gone back to XMenu's default settings.
a tradeoff: XMenu's default Applications menu is long and
uncategorized, but it always accurately reflects the contents of the
Applications folder. (I could create subfolders in the actual
Applications folder with those same category names, dragging the
various programs into the appropriate location, but that would again be
more work - and need continual fussing to keep it accurate as I tried
out new software.)
It's not perfect, but it's pretty good -
making it unnecessary to keep a bunch of icons in the Dock for
less-often-used programs but still making it easy to find them when I
need them. XMenu is one of my must-have utilities to fill OS X's holes.
(What are your must-have utilities - especially free ones? Let me