Best Mac Tools: Five Indispensable Apps

By Michael Hall | Posted November 20, 2007

I remember the first time someone demoed OS X for me. It was running on a late-2001 iBook — one of the first to come with OS X out of the box. My jaw hit the floor. It took me a few months to get a Mac of my own to experiment with, and just a few months more to ditch my Dell laptop in favor of an iBook. And then I hit a wall.

Apple provides a lot of nice apps with OS X: Safari is a good browser, Mail (or "Mail.app") is a fine mail program with decent junk filtering, iChat is a pleasant enough chat client. But none of them have ever been the exact right fit. Apple prefers to take a minimal approach to the amount of knob-twiddling and settings-fiddling you can do with its most basic applications.

That said, here are five Internet applications I will not ever take off any Mac I own. Some of them have their flaws, but they make my daily 'net experience better than anything I could get out of the box my Mac came in:


SpamSieve
C-Command Software
Price: $30
http://c-command.com/spamsieve/

What it does: SpamSieve works with most major Apple mail clients as a spam filter. It can be trained to learn which spam it has missed and which good mail ("ham") it has wrongly identified.

Why I use it: Coming from the Linux world, I was used to SpamAssassin. At the time, client-side spam filtering was somewhat rare in the Linux world, so I was initially put off at the idea of paying for a client-side program.

I probably would have continued to think that way if Apple hadn't included a spam filter in Mail. I tried Apple's filter, but it developed a curious tic a lot of other users noted in earlier versions: After a while it became convinced lots of mail was spam that simply wasn't. Spam filters that generate a lot of false positives are, in many ways, much worse than spam filters that miss a lot of spam.

Even though Mail's filter was letting me down, I had gotten used to the convenience of client-side whitelisting and training without writing elaborate Applescript to pipe messages into a SpamAssassin installation up on my mail server. So I gave SpamSieve a try:

  • It was pretty good right out of the box. Nowhere near perfect, but it got a lot of spam without being trained.
  • Training it is easy: Two hotkeys allow the user to identify missed spam or teach SpamSieve to recognize mail that isn't spam after all.
  • It has a simple and convenient slider interface. If you think it's being too aggressive, you can tell it to back off a little and let more suspected spam through. If it's not catching enough, you can turn it up.
  • It color-codes mail it thinks is spam. If you sort your spam box by label color and remember to train SpamSieve, you can eventually stop worrying about picking through most of the spam it identifies because the false positives almost always end up very near the top of the list, with the obvious spam sitting at the bottom.

I still use SpamAssassin, by the way. If SpamSieve has one drawback, it's one common to every client-side filter: The machine you're running it on has to give up memory and processor time to examine each message. By running SpamAssassin on my server and letting it handle the worst spam, SpamSieve works really well as mop-up for borderline cases. It's much easier to tune in that role, too.

Pith Helmet
Mike Solomon
Price: $10
http://www.culater.net/software/PithHelmet/PithHelmet.php

What it does: Pith Helmet is "an extended site preferences and ad blocking plug-in." It also offers capabilities similar to those provided by the Firefox add-on Greasemonkey.

I don't know what you think of ad blocking. In general, I'm against it. I don't think it's fair to blow off sites dependent on ad revenue with comments like "get a new business model." But because I've been using operating systems besides Windows for years, I'm acutely aware of how hard some sites can be on browsers that aren't Internet Explorer, and how poorly optimized content plugins like Flash can be. I also draw the line at popups and popunders.

So for someone like me, who will generally tolerate ads but sometimes wants to control them, Pith Helmet is perfect.

Pith Helmet is a Safari add-on, though it can also work with other browsers that use Safari's Web-rendering engine. Its basic functions are ad-blocking and cookie control, but it is remarkably fine-grained.

For instance, perhaps you visit a site regularly where the ads are tolerable and you want to support the site by letting it claim your ad impressions, but its Javascript makes Safari crash, or just doesn't work. With Pith Helmet, you can create a site-specific rule that turns off ad blocking and also turns off Javascript. Or maybe you visit a site that uses an ad server that's frequently down and stuffs up page downloads. With Pith Helmet, you can write a rule that targets only ad content from that server.

Pith Helmet can also rewrite URLs on the fly. If you're a Salon subscriber, for instance, and prefer to go straight to the printer-friendly versions of all the stories, if you know how to write a regular expression, you can write a Pith Helmet rule to do just that. Better yet, you can share rules you create with other Pith Helmet users at the Pith Helmet rule exchange. I've contributed three, including the one for Salon.

Sometimes, Pith Helmet's Javascript and ad blocking cause problems. Fortunately, there's a menu item that allows you to reload a page with no filtering.

NetNewsWire
NewsGator Technologies, Inc.
Price: $29.95 for the full version, NetNewsWire Lite is free of charge
http://www.newsgator.com/Individuals/NetNewsWire/Default.aspx

What it does: NetNewsWire is an RSS reader that's able to sync your subscriptions between multiple computers.

There are several RSS readers for OS X. Safari comes with one built in, for instance, and there are other commercial and free offerings. NetNewsWire consistently sets the standard, though. Here are some reasons I love it:

  • As I mentioned, it can sync all your subscriptions between computers using one of three methods: A free NewsGator subscription, a .Mac account, or an FTP/SFTP server. The NewsGator method is the fastest and most transparent. In each case, though, if you're reading your daily list of feeds and shut down to go to work, or home, when you start NetNewsWire up at another location, everything is marked read or unread just as you left it at the previous machine. Its syncing isn't perfect, but it's usually pretty good.

  • It has a built-in tabbed browser. That's not such a big deal on a more powerful machine, where opening links in a regular browser like Safari or Firefox is no big deal. On an older or less powerful machine, it's tty handy to open Web pages in the same app where you're reading feeds just because it's one less piece of software to such up precious memory and processor time.

  • It has built-in social bookmarking and blogging tools. If you see something you want to share, click a button and NetNewsWire will open up a social bookmarking or blogging utility and create a new entry for you to edit and save.

  • It has Smart Lists and tag subscriptions. If you keep track of a hundred or more feeds, it's pretty useful to create Smart Lists that weed them down to something manageable. Want a list of every RSS item with the word "klingon" in it? That's what a Smart List is for. Tag subscriptions let you get a customized feed from sites like Technorati or del.icio.us that only shows entries from blogs or bookmarks with a given tag.

Adium
The Adium Project
Price: Free Software (available under the GPL license)
http://adiumx.com/

What it does: Adium is a chat client for multiple IM networks.

iChat is nice, but it has some limitations. You can use it for AIM and Jabber/Gtalk, but you only get one account for each protocol. Adium provides access to a number of IM networks:

  • AOL Instant Messenger (Including ICQ and .Mac)
  • Jabber (Including Google Talk and LiveJournal)
  • MSN Messenger
  • Yahoo! Messenger (Including Yahoo! Japan)
  • Bonjour (Compatible with iChat)
  • MySpace IM
  • Gadu-Gadu
  • Novell Groupwise
  • QQ
  • Lotus Sametime

You can have multiple accounts on each, too. So if you've got two AIM accounts — one for work and one for personal use — Adium can connect you to both at the same time.

Adium is very customizable and offers tabbed chat, so you can have multiple IM conversations in a single window.

If you like iChat, by the way, and don't need everything Adium offers but would like tabbed chat, consider Chax. It does a lot to make iChat more livable, and it's free. If I used iChat, Chax would be on this list.

Cocoalicious
Sci-Fi Hi-Fi/Buzz Andersen
Price: Free (and open source under the BSD license)
http://www.scifihifi.com/cocoalicious/

What it does: Cocoalicious is a social bookmarking tool that's primarily compatible with del.icio.us, but can also talk to services that offer APIs similar to del.icio.us, such as ma.gnolia

Social bookmarking sites are where I remember everything I want to get back to. I store column ideas, recipes, howtos, items I want to put in my blog's periodic link list and more on ma.gnolia where I can get at them from any computer.

Cocoalicious provides a way to post bookmarks and retrieve them later using any site compatible with the del.icio.us API. Since it's a local program, it just pops up and gets out of the way, letting me get on with my browsing, without waiting for a bookmark page to load. It also lets me search all my bookmarks and preview the pages I marked without loading them into my browser. Finally, because it offers Applescript support, I can use it to gather all the day's links into a tidy list for posting on my blog.

And that's my list. I use plenty of other software, but these five apps are key to how I use the Internet daily. I'm always on the lookout for something better, though, and love to hear about things I've missed. Feel free to write and maybe we can get enough suggestions to put together another list of reader favorites.

Adapted from PracticallyNetworked.com, part of the EarthWeb.com Network.

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