Ok, true story. A few weekends ago, my computer stopped working. It just wouldn’t load the OS, instead greeting me with a black screen. Long story short, I had to reinstall the system and everything on my main drive. I usually do this once a year or so, on purpose, such as when the new operating system is released, but considering I’d only just moved and set up my desk, this wasn’t planned for at all. In fact it was most inconvenient.
As a computer geek first and a designer second, I run a very customised and configured system. I install a ton of tweaks and hacks, and run a bunch of applications on a daily basis that aren’t part of the stock installation. I remarked that it would be two weeks of customising and installing before I truly felt comfortable and productive. Friends encouraged me to blog about it, listing the apps I use and ways that I customise my system. So in the spirit of starting over, here’s a look at what’s going on.
The first thing I install on a new system is my Wacom Tablet. I really can’t use a mouse anymore, and not having the Tablet installed is a handicap that must be remedied before anything else. Soon after, I need to install Drobo Dashboard so I can access my network-attached storage like any other drive. I also need to install the drivers for my printers, an Epson R1900 and an HP LaserJet 5000N (remember those!), as well as my Epson Perfection 3170 scanner. Luckily, these drivers are built into the system so it’s not as dramatic as it once was.
These days, more and more of our data lives in the cloud. I don’t yet have a fully online existence, but I do use a few services which have already proven invaluable. One of the first things I install on a new system is Dropbox. Here is where I store my current design projects, important documents, a few key photos, and a number of files I need to reference on the go. Lately, Dropbox is keeping track of more and more settings for other applications, allowing me to keep multiple computers to stay in sync. It’s become part of my computing life in such a dramatic way that I can only compare it to the first time I used a Wacom Tablet, or the first time I saw a colour screen. It’s that big a deal. If you’re not using Dropbox, sign up right now, and you will thank me later. For continual online backup, I use Carbonite on my data drive, which contains my photos, music, design files, and other very important stuff (note, this was not lost as it was stored on a separate drive). Two little apps which live in my system menu bar are Dropmark and Cloud. Dropmark is like a personal Pinterest, where I can quickly store images into separate collections. Cloud is great for screenshot-sharing or shortening URLs with one simple keystroke. Authorising these apps on my new install instantly recalls my past activity and settings, which is most convenient. To keep track of all my passwords and accounts, I use a database app called Wallet. The database is backed up on Dropbox, allowing me to get back up to speed with a few clicks and an authorisation. If I wasn’t using Wallet, all my logins and passwords would have died with the hard drive. To automate backups on my local network, essentially to batch copy them, I use an app called FolderWatch which continually watches certain folders and copies any changes instantly to an external drive. Very handy for maintaining a copy of something which you need to be always-current. Apple’s own iCloud service is part of the OS, and I actually authorise my account during the installation process. For me, this doesn’t bring a ton of data, but it does sync my calendar, address book, and Safari bookmarks, which are three useful things that would otherwise need to me manually restored from backups. (and yes, I do manually back these up at least once a year).
While the impression that Mac is less hackable and customisable than Windows is still generally true, there are plenty of system-wide hacks and mods which I’ve come to rely on. These are not for the weak, as some can be tricky to install, require some mucking around in the otherwise-prohibited system folder. Lion Tweaks and Mountain Tweaks are applications which allow you to take control of some of the new “features” in Apple’s recent OS versions. Many expert users, like me, have had a hard time accepting these new tricks and gimmicks, and prefer them be silenced. You’ll definitely want to check them out, even if you only opt for one or two edits to the default. I install Little Snitch to keep track of my network connections. I have a list that is once again backed up to Dropbox, allowing my computers to keep the rules in sync. I try to keep my computer from “phoning home” as much as I can; I don’t mind manually updating my software if it means a faster user experience in general. Default Folder X is a system add-on that brings a number of features, mostly to the Open and Save dialog boxes. If you’ve never given them much thought, you’re not alone, but once you start using DFX, you’ll realise how much better it is. You can now click-to-target open folders, which is a feature from the OS 9 days, where instead of the default location to open or save, you can target an open folder by clicking it’s silhouette in Finder, even though you’re operating in, say, Photoshop. It’s hard to explain, but trust me, it’s awesome. Similarly awesome is XtraFinder — a Finder add-on which gives you tabs in Finder, and a few other things besides. In systems past, I would use an application called DockSwitcher to skin my Dock, and to remove the shiny chrome tray effect, swapping it for a more subtle (and faster-to-render) black bezel. These days, this has to be done manually, replacing contents from the Dock.app within Core Services. Perhaps this is a tutorial to be left on its own for now. If you know what I’m talking about, perhaps I can lead you.
By now you’ve likely heard of Alfred, the app launcher and shortcut application. It’s amazing, and with version 2.0 just around the corner, you really need to try it. I always install ClipMenu, which allows the system to store a number of recently copied items to the clipboard. For example, if you copy a phone number, but then copy a URL, you may need the phone number again in ten minutes, but oops, when you paste it, it’s already gone. ClipMenu should be built into the operating system, as should TextExpander. TextExpander allows you to create short codes which will replace with longer bits of text. For example, if I want my name, I can either type the whole thing, Prescott Perez-Fox, or just type the short code I created, “PPFF”. I’ve got three paragraphs of dummy text at my fingertips, plus a whole bunch of HTML snippets. It’s life-changing.
After I’m done installing the majority new apps and add-ons, I run Monolingual to remove unneeded languages from my system. Why I need Help files in Gaelic or Afrikaans, I’ll never know, but for some reason they’re installed by default. You can usually save gigabytes by removing extraneous languages. I use CleanMyMac to do much of the same work, and can usually save a few hundred MB by removing similarly superfluous crap. I like to do the same with fonts, but much more manually. Like the languages, I don’t need 400 fonts installed and loaded just to check my Twitter feed.
Obviously, one has the need to maintain a good clean system. I like MainMenu to run weekly and monthly cleanup tasks. DiskWarrior is for more serious problems relating to the hard drive, but it’s good for maintenance as well. Onyx is a good utility that does much of what MainMenu does, but with a more OS X-native interface. (check out this screencast to see a few examples in action). I like TinkerTool to make some additional customising and optioning.
I watch a lot of videos on my computer(s) so it’s rather annoying that QuickTime 7 Pro is no longer included in later system of OS X. But It can be restored from older system disks, copied from any other Mac with this version of Quicktime sitting in the Applications folder, or downloaded from the Apple Site. This, in my view, is still the better version compared to QuickTime X because it allows playback speed controls, cutting and trimming, and a number of other features. Some tools like Join Together won’t work without it. However, my media player of choice is Movist. Like Quicktime, it’s the older versions of Movist that feel more comfortable, and I prefer v0.6.8 to the newer (and not-free) versions in the Mac App Store. Unfortunately, Movist can’t handle everything with the Quicktime codec (thanks to a documented flaw in how AC3 decoding works in Mountain Lion) so I use MPlayerX and VLC as complements. With these, I can play damn near anything the world can throw my way. I use two converter applications to transcode any media I need; Smart Converter takes care of most things, but there’s always Handbrake for heavy lifting and specific settings.
While the players mentioned above take care of most video and audio files right out of the box (so to speak), there’s a few plugins that are asked for a eventually. I like to install Perian, even though it’s no longer supported, and Divx plus, although it’s not terribly popular. There’s also Java for the desktop and some other stuff here and there.
Once I’ve got the system configured, it’s time to actually install some proper apps and get to work. Bean is an excellent minimal text editor that is way less complicated than Microsoft Word, but a little richer than the system-standard TextEdit. Texts is another alternate word processor you can try, but it’s not for me, exactly. I usually install the Adobe Creative Suite soon after and import my Adobe Settings, which I’m careful to back up on Dropbox and onto external drives. Keyboard shortcuts, Window locations, plugins and scripts, and other customisations are annoying to recreate but easy to restore. I prefer Numbers to Excel, even though the iWork suite hasn’t been updated since 2009. Seriously. For font management, I prefer Suitcase Fusion 4, with a database restored from backup. Since this database can be well over 2GB, it’s a little too big to stash on Dropbox so instead it goes right to my Drobo.
Say what you will about iTunes, I still use it. However, I hate the icon (and I’m not the only one) so I will replace it with a custom icon I made. I wrote a tutorial a while back about how to change the sidebar icons back to colour, but it seems that this is moot with the recent version 11 of iTunes. Most people don’t use any iTunes scripts, but I have a few, such as the aforementioned Join Together. And to use these scripts, I’ll create some custom Keyboard Shortcuts in the System Preferences panel under Keyboard.
Everyone like his or her system to look nice so I don’t waste a lot of time in bringing back my favourite wallpapers, icons, and screen savers. Sooner or later I bring in my photo collection, although as of this writing I’m seeking to move from iPhoto to Lightroom for the management of my photos.
For a number of reasons, I prefer Safari, but I always install Chrome as a second browser, and Firefox as a third. Safari now has a number of Extensions which make the experience more pleasant and, as you can guess by now, I restore these from their backed-up position on Dropbox. I always go through the Preferences for each browser to ensure that Tabs and other operations feel the way that is comfortable for me.
This could be a whole blog post on its own, but here’s my quick take on desktop email. I use an app called Postbox. It’s based on the now-retired Thunderbird, and feels lightweight and smooth compared to Outlook. It has social integration and ties in to the Address Book nicely. Without talking too specifically about my personal workflow, I have tried a number of titles and Postbox is the only desktop app so far that does certain things which I like, such as allowing me to reorder my multiple inboxes. However, I’m open-minded and I’ll be willing to try new ones to see how they handle. For example, I’d love a different method of storing messages where the app didn’t build up a massive lump of data measuring 3GB or more. I’d also like a more straightforward way to export preferences, filters, account settings, etc., maybe even via Dropbox. I’m afraid that I struggled with these aspects in the recent reinstall because I wanted a clean start, not simply to copy the clunky mess from another Mac.
Wow, this is getting long, but it seems we’re getting there. Surely, you can see the point — little apps and hacks, many of which provide one or two functions, make a huge difference. A computers configuration is so key to one’s productivity, and being a particular and eccentric person, my situation is even more acute. This shit matters to me, and the time and energy required to bring things up to standard aren’t wasted, they’re invested.
The reason I titled this post “Part I” is become I have some other things to mention in the upcoming days. It’s less to do with computers, I swear, but it seems apt to make it a two-parter.
If you have any questions on the above apps, leave a comment below or hit me up on Twitter or email. If you have any other tips or tricks, let them be known — perhaps you’ve been using something awesome that has evaded me for years.