Mac OS X: Make Snow Leopard (and other cats) roar like Lion

With a second preview version now in the hands of app developers, Apple's next generation of Mac OS X, called Lion (Version 10.7), appears to be on track for its planned release to the public this summer. The company has announced several new features for the upcoming Macintosh operating system (some of which are lifted straight from iOS, Apple's mobile platform) including the following:

* A feature called Launchpad for organizing and launching apps, similar to the iOS home screen.

* A new Mission Control feature that combines the existing Mac OS X Dashboard, Exposé and Spaces features, as well as full-screen apps.

* The ability for apps to auto-save and auto-resume as in iOS, and a feature called Versions that saves multiple copies of files over time so you can easily revert to a previous iteration after you've made changes.

* Easier, more secure file sharing among Macs, with a feature called AirDrop.

* More advanced use of multitouch gestures (in the OS itself and available to app developers).

* An updated interface and improved search capabilities in Mail, Mac OS X's built-in email client.

* The ability for more apps to run in full-screen mode for a distraction-free experience, as Apple's iPhoto and iMovie do now.

* A curated Mac App Store that offers one-click app installation.

One of these items has already arrived, of course: The Mac App Store launched for users of Mac OS X Snow Leopard (Version 10.6) in January.

Although Lion is still months away, Mac users don't need to wait to get advances similar to the ones planned for the new operating system. In fact, several third-party applications and services already exist to meet the same challenges that Apple is aiming to address with Lion.

These free and low-cost tools can help you get results similar to those provided by Lion's Launchpad, Mission Control, systemwide auto-save, Versions, AirDrop, enhanced multitouch capabilities and new Mail layout. Most of the apps work with Snow Leopard and Leopard (Version 10.5); some are available for Tiger (Version 10.4) as well. I've also included a section on app store alternatives for Leopard and Tiger users, who don't have access to the Mac App Store.

Launchpad

Lion's Launchpad will be modeled after the iOS home screen, which serves as the application launcher for iPhones and iPads. Launchpad will let you use a hot key or gesture (on a multitouch-enabled trackpad or mouse) to display a grid of icons for all of your installed applications overlaid on your desktop and running apps. Like the iOS home screen, Launchpad will feature multiple screens you can swipe through, along with the ability to reorganize applications and group them in folders.

Current versions of OS X, in contrast, use the Dock as the main application launcher. Users can place icons for applications, folders and even documents in the Dock, which is always on-screen by default; just click an item to launch it. If an application hasn't been added to the Dock, users generally find it by browsing through their Applications folder (which itself can be added to the Dock for easy access to all its contents) or by doing a Spotlight search.

While the Dock is good as a basic application launcher, it has limitations. As more and more items are added to the Dock, it automatically shrinks their icons in order to accommodate them all. Even if you don't add every installed application to the Dock, a moderate load of regularly used titles can make it crowded and eventually too small to be really usable.

The Dock's limitations as a launcher are far from new. Over the decade since Apple introduced Mac OS X, a number of alternative application launchers and managers have been released. While none of them offers exactly the same functionality as Apple's Launchpad, some of them come close -- and some take a better approach, in my opinion.

First up is the app that comes closest to Launchpad.

Jump displays an icon in the corner of the screen that, when clicked, pops up an overlay containing applications that you've selected to include for easy access as well as commonly used folders and files. This free tool works with OS X Leopard and later.

Here are some other useful tools for launching apps in Mac OS X:

aLaunch (free/donationware) is a menu-based application launcher that places your chosen apps and folders under a menu bar icon that can be accessed from any application. If you're a longtime Mac user, you'll find the effect very similar to the Apple menu in Mac OS 9 and earlier. You can group related items together and assign global hot keys to open specific items.

While the most recent version of aLaunch requires OS X Leopard or later, earlier versions work with Tiger and Panther.

Alfred, currently in beta, is a combination application launcher and search tool. You launch Alfred via a keyboard shortcut, then type a few letters into the text field to see immediate results, including applications, files on your Mac, and Web bookmarks. If it can't find these, Alfred suggests appropriate Web searches, or you can instruct it to perform a search by typing the site name and your keywords, as in "google ipad 2." You can use keyboard shortcuts to quickly launch the resulting apps, files, bookmarks or searches; Alfred learns your most commonly used items and orders the results appropriately for even faster access.

Alfred works with OS X Leopard and later. The basic version is free; also available is the Powerpack, which adds features such as iTunes remote control, file system navigation and management, a clipboard history that allows you to review and reuse previous copied and pasted items, and a recent documents viewer. It costs £12 (about $18.50).

Berokyo, which works with OS X Tiger and later versions, is a combination application/file launcher and desktop organizer.

The $18.95 program creates bookshelf-like organizers called cabinets for frequently accessed apps, folders and collections of files (documents, photos, videos, Web pages, etc.), presenting instant access and previews to all manner of content. Berokyo also offers a tagging feature that makes it easy to locate specific pieces of information or references across file types.

Dock Menus lets you create multiple free-floating docks separate from the built-in Mac OS X Dock; the floating docks can be moved around your desktop as needed. By creating multiple docks, you can group related apps, files and folders. Dock Menus works with OS X Leopard or later and costs $5 after a free 10-day trial.

From the same developer as Dock Menus, iDock works with the built-in Mac OS X Dock, letting you create multiple Docks, each with its own content, and switch among them as needed. This creates an effect somewhat similar to the multiple home screens in iOS and the Launchpad preview. IDock works with OS X Leopard or later and costs $5 after a free 10-day trial.

Like iDock, Dock Spaces lets you create and switch among varying Docks using the traditional Mac OS X Dock interface. Dock Spaces goes a step further than iDock in that it offers integration with the OS X Spaces feature, allowing you to tailor virtual desktops that automatically open specific applications, specific windows and a specific Dock for a variety of tasks such as graphic design, document editing, social media, Web browsing or chat. Dock Spaces is free and works with OS X Leopard or later.

DragThing is a venerable Mac tool that predates Mac OS X. It allows you to create Dock-like work areas that can contain shortcuts to applications, folders, files and URLs. There's also a space to store copied items for later pasting, offering a way to copy many items and have them readily available.

DragThing is shareware: You can download and try it for free, and if you decide to keep it pay $29. The current version of DragThing supports Mac OS X Tiger or later, but earlier versions are also available for earlier versions of Mac OS.

Quicksilver is a free Finder alternative for OS X Tiger and newer Mac OS versions; it lets you launch applications and locate specific files quickly just by typing the first few letters of an application or file name. It's a simple, keyboard-centric way to launch apps and open files. Like Alfred, it learns your preferences and orders results accordingly, and it lets you assign keyboard shortcuts to a wide variety of actions.

Mission Control

Mission Control looks like it will be an interesting combination of existing Mac OS X features -- full-screen apps, Spaces (Apple's virtual desktop feature), Exposé (which allows you to see thumbnails of all Spaces, open windows and items hidden by windows, and to switch apps) and Dashboard (a feature that allows easy viewing of a range of widgets, or tiny applets) -- in a single interface.

In bringing these elements together, Apple is attempting to offer a one-click view of all running apps, windows, full-screen app views and Spaces. The ability to swipe through all these items will borrow from the iOS ability to swipe across multiple home screens.

In the new iteration, Dashboard appears to have its own Space or full-screen view instead of appearing as an overlay to the desktop as it does currently. While I'm not enamored of that particular change, overall I think the Mission Control concept is solid as a way to quickly see everything that's running on a Mac and to easily switch to the tasks you need.

I'm not aware of any existing tools that match the complete integration of these features that Apple is promising in Lion, but here are three that offer useful enhancements to Spaces and Exposé along the lines Apple seems to be planning -- and which may even be better than Apple's ultimate Mission Control solution for some users.

Hyperspaces extends and customizes Apple's implementation of Spaces. It lets you assign custom desktop pictures to each Space for easy recognition (or just tint the desktop picture of each space a different color) and name/label each Space -- useful if you routinely dedicate different Spaces to different tasks.

It also improves navigation among Spaces by letting you configure a virtual map of where spaces are in relation to each other, and it offers hot keys for common Spaces tasks, such as adding or removing Spaces and showing or hiding desktop icons in a Space.

Hyperspaces works with OS X Leopard or later and costs $13; there's also a free demo version that lets you customize up to three Spaces.

SaneDesk is another Spaces enhancer that allows on-the-fly creation and deletion of Spaces. It supports an unlimited number of Spaces, each of which can be customized with its own desktop picture, set of desktop icons and Dock (complete with unique Dock items and on-screen positioning). SaneDesk works with OS X Leopard or later and costs $16; a limited free trial version is also available.

Switché is a Snow Leopard-only utility that builds on the Exposé feature. It uses Apple's Cover Flow feature to show large, smooth 3D previews of running apps, windows or Spaces, allowing you to switch among them in an intuitive manner (similar to the swiping feature of Mission Control). Switché costs $8 and offers an unlimited free trial version.

Auto-save and Versions

Auto-save isn't a new concept, nor is it specific to iOS. Many applications offer an option to either automatically save files at a set interval or to auto-save a backup (without changing the original file) that can be accessed if the application crashes.

Lion taps into that auto-save functionality in a new feature called Versions, which lets you view all past iterations of a document or other file that you've made changes to. In a way, it's an extension of Apple's Time Machine, which allows you to locate and restore files from a backup. Time Machine comes in very handy when you want to get back a file you've deleted or find an earlier version of a file before you made modifications to it.

However, while Time Machine makes hourly backups of each document, it only keeps them for 24 hours; it permanently saves only one backup of each document per day. Versions, on the other hand, saves and keeps a version each time you open or save a file. If a document is open for an extended period of time, a new version is stored every hour that it's open.

There are a couple of ways to get similar features right now.

For applications that don't offer an auto-save feature, there's ForeverSave, a utility that can provide auto-save features systemwide to any Mac running OS X Leopard or later. You can select which applications can auto-save and when they auto-save (the default being anytime you switch applications).

Beyond simply auto-saving your work, ForeverSave can maintain multiple versions of your documents as you make changes to them, much as Lion's Versions does. You can even choose how many versions of auto-saved documents are maintained and when they are erased. ForeverSave also allows you to set multiple auto-save operations to serve as an extra backup.

While an iOS-like auto-resume function -- the ability to close an app and later pick up exactly where you left off when you closed it -- isn't built into ForeverSave, its one-click restore option comes close.

ForeverSave may be worth using even in Lion. Apple is making auto-save a priority and giving developers tools to implement the feature. But the company may not make it a requirement for all Mac software (particularly titles sold outside the Mac App Store), and it probably will not be added to previous applications that haven't been upgraded specifically for Lion. Likewise, it remains to be seen if Versions will automatically support all applications and document formats or if developers will need to explicitly choose to support it.

ForeverSave costs $15; a 30-day free trial version is also available.

Another option that offers some Versions-like features is the Dropbox online storage service. Although most commonly used to share and sync files across multiple computers and mobile devices, Dropbox does offer version tracking. That feature isn't included in the Mac Dropbox app but can be easily accessed by logging into your account at the Dropbox website.

There is very limited restore capability connected to a free Dropbox account, but a Pro account offers a feature called Pak-Rat that provides extensive restore or rewind capabilities. Pricing varies depending on the type of account you have and on the amount of space you use.

AirDrop

Apple has always aimed to make file sharing as simple as possible. Bonjour, Apple's no-configuration network protocol, makes it easy to locate Macs on a local network that have file sharing active -- they simply show up (along with any non-Mac computers or file servers) in the sidebar of Finder windows.

That's great, but to share a file with someone, you must know the name of their Mac, that Mac must have file sharing turned on, and you must have access to an account on that Mac (unless the other person has left guest access enabled, which is never a good idea for security reasons). Lion will include a feature called AirDrop that simplifies the process and offers a bit more security.

According to Apple, AirDrop will be listed in a Finder window sidebar. Click AirDrop and you'll see a list of Mac users with AirDrop enabled who are connected to your network. To send a file, simply drag it to a user's name. That user will see an alert that you are sending a file, with the option to accept or reject the transfer. If he accepts, the file will be added to his Downloads folder.

There aren't many third-party options that mimic AirDrop, but DropCopy is a free app available for Macs running Snow Leopard, Leopard or Tiger. (It's $4.99 if you need to install it on more than three Macs.) Its goal is essentially the same as AirDrop's.

When installed on two or more Macs on a local network, an icon called the Drop Zone appears on the desktop of each. Dragging files to the Drop Zone will display a list of available Macs with DropCopy running. Drag the file(s) onto a specific Mac and it will copy to that Mac. (Users specify where they want copied files to be placed when they install DropCopy.) DropCopy also allows you to transfer contents between the clipboards of two Macs.

One major difference between AirDrop and DropCopy is that AirDrop requires user confirmation before a transfer takes place (a big plus when connected to public or office networks), whereas DropCopy does not.

Note: A version of DropCopy for iOS is also available; it lets you send files on a Mac to an iPhone or iPad (or vice versa), or share files between two iOS devices.

More multitouch gestures

Apple has been bringing multitouch features into Macs for a long time now. The original MacBook Air pioneered the use of the trackpad for multitouch gestures -- pinching, swiping and the like -- in 2008. Apple has expanded these gestures in more recent MacBook models, as well as in its Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad peripherals.

In Lion, Apple has promised to bring even more iOS-style multitouch gestures and visual responses to Mac OS X. Among the new gestures demoed on Apple's Lion page are rubber-band-style scrolling, enhanced pinch and zoom functionality, and full-screen swiping. Whether Apple will offer even more advanced gesture support is an open question, but I wouldn't be surprised to see some more in the final release.

If you don't want to wait to get more gestures and capabilities, however, you don't have to: There are several utilities available for getting your multitouch groove on in Leopard and Snow Leopard (but not earlier Mac OS X releases).

First up are two tools that simply expand on Apple's existing multitouch features. MagicPrefs (free) and MouseWizard ($5) add support for multiple-clicking and augment the existing swipe/pinch/drag gestures; they also let you automate a wide variety of tasks, such as copying/pasting, switching Spaces and launching applications using the Magic Mouse.

As of this writing, both of these products work only with Apple's Magic Mouse. Support for Apple's Magic Trackpad is planned for MagicPrefs, but no timetable for that addition is currently available.

Next up are more ambitious multitouch extenders. BetterTouchTool (free/donationware, currently in alpha) offers the ability to assign a number of custom gestures to perform a wide range of system tasks, including opening and closing windows, invoking Mac OS X features like Dashboard or Exposé, launching applications or websites, adjusting preferences such as sound and brightness, controlling iTunes, and mimicking specific key combinations or mouse functions such as right-clicking.

It works with Apple trackpads, the Magic Mouse and traditional multibutton mice; it can also be used to assign custom keyboard shortcuts.

Jitouch ($6.99) functions with Apple trackpads and the Magic Mouse, and it includes a library of built-in multitouch gestures for each type of device. Both global and application-specific gestures are available to activate a variety of features and commands, such as switching applications, working with tabs in Safari, activating window controls (minimizing and moving window position, for example), switching Spaces and activating Exposé. Like BetterTouchTool, Jitouch also lets you assign custom gestures.

Another neat option is its support for character gestures; you can assign actions that are invoked by drawing a specific shape on the mouse or trackpad with your finger (similar to the stylus-based Grafitti input on older Palm OS devices). This allows for a lot of customization but is also something that can take a bit of getting used to (and thus isn't for everyone).

Keep in mind that while all of these tools are similar, each one has its own unique variations on what it does and how it functions. Choosing between them is generally a matter of individual taste and needs, including what devices you use. Therefore, you'll want to check out all these tools to find the one that works best for you.

Mail improvements

In Lion, Apple is making some improvements to Mail. Mac OS X's native email client is pretty decent overall, hitting all the basics such as support for multiple accounts, easy setup, the ability to organize and search messages, and support for a range of mail rules or filters. Mail is missing a few modern touches, however.

One big issue is that the view format is pretty much limited to a dual-pane display that shows a small list-box of messages above a preview pane, plus a sidebar with accounts and folders -- an interface that email clients have used for nearly two decades. The hierarchical folder view in the sidebar can make locating specific folders difficult and limits the ability to manage messages from multiple accounts. Similarly, the small message list-box makes scrolling to locate messages challenging.

Another issue is that while Mail offers decent search capabilities, specifying multiple criteria (by a word in the subject line, the sender's domain name and to whom it was sent, for example) isn't really possible. Even getting granular with a single phrase or name and a specific folder or account isn't particularly user-friendly.

Apple says it will improve the view options in Mail by allowing a wide-screen approach, where you can have columns for all your accounts/folders as well as messages and a full-size display for a selected message. This option has been around in other email apps (most notably Outlook) for quite some time. Although Apple hasn't been too specific about search capabilities, it has said search in Mail will be refined. The screenshots available imply that the toolbar will be improved to make overall navigation better.

While there isn't much you can do to improve the toolbar and search capabilities of the current version of Mail, you can use one of two plug-ins to make the interface more user-friendly. WideMail and Letterbox do essentially the same thing: Replace the message list-box with a column that displays a greater number of messages and offers a larger message view next to it.

Both are good options; the differences between the two are minimal. WideMail is donationware, while Letterbox is free. WideMail offers some formatting options for how the message column is displayed, such as types of dividers, date style, and alternating background colors in the list. Both support Snow Leopard and Leopard; Letterbox also offers a version for Tiger.

A couple of other notable Mail plug-ins offer features that aren't quite Lion-like (at least from what we know about Lion at this point) but deserve some mention as well.

RelatedMail (free) offers a menu option that displays any messages related to the one you're currently viewing. The relationship is determined based on features such message thread or subject, date or sender. It is free -- and technically still in beta, though it works pretty solidly -- and available for both Snow Leopard and Leopard. It doesn't provide the advanced search features Apple is promising, but it is pretty helpful.

GrowlMail (free) works with the Growl add-on for Mac OS X and displays new message details, complete with a small pop-up identifying the sender and subject and providing a short message preview. The effect is similar to the new message preview option in Outlook. GrowlMail works with Snow Leopard and Leopard.

The Mac App Store

The Mac App Store, available to Snow Leopard users since early this year, places a wide, easy-to-browse selection of Mac apps at a user's fingertips without requiring a Web search. Purchasing, installing and updating apps have been simplified to the one-click approach of the iOS App Store.

Like the iOS App Store, the Mac App Store is curated by Apple to ensure that apps run properly and that they don't violate any App Store rules or guidelines. However, apps can still be purchased and installed from locations besides the Mac App Store -- an important difference from the iOS App Store, which maintains a closed environment for iOS app installation.

These third-party stores mean good news for Leopard and Tiger users, who can't access the Mac App Store. Even better, there are several easy-to-browse marketplaces that are free of Apple's App Store terms and conditions, and some easy-to-manage update tools are available.

Bodega is essentially a Mac App Store app. It has a storefront feel and allows you to browse, purchase and download new apps and update already-installed apps (whether installed via Bodega or not) from a simple and intuitive interface. The selection of apps available in Bodega is pretty good and, like the Mac App Store, it's organized by categories and lets you see new releases, staff picks, and the top free and paid downloads.

Web-based catalogs: There are many Mac catalogs worth visiting on the Web. Almost all are broken down by category and offer user ratings and reviews, and some also offer staff recommendations. Some of the top Mac software catalogs include MacUpdate, Pure Mac, CNet's Mac Software list (formerly Versiontracker.com), FreeMacWare, MacShareware.com, App Donkey and Mac Softpedia.

Mac.AppStorm isn't an app catalog, but it is a great resource for Mac software information and reviews.

Update tools: I mentioned that Bodega offers some automatic update capabilities, but there are a number of tools that can constantly track your installed Mac software (commercial, shareware and free/open source) and alert you to updates. Some of the better options include MacUpdate Desktop, AppFresh and MacKeeper. MacUpdate Desktop and AppFresh are free and focus just on update management, while MacKeeper is a $38 tool that offers a range of other Mac utility features including antivirus protection, backup, file encryption and disk space management tools.

Finally, another potential alternative to Apple's Mac App Store is brewing. Cydia, the unofficial app store for jailbroken iOS devices and apps not approved by Apple, has announced plans to create Cydia for Mac. The exact purpose of creating the store is a little unclear, since Mac OS X will remain an open platform where users can install any apps they want (no jailbreaking required), but once up and running, it will offer users an additional storefront-style option.

Conclusions

The tools in this list may fall short of what's coming in Mac OS X Lion, but they do approximate some of the Lion features we've glimpsed. Some offer advantages that we may not see in Lion, such as character-based gestures and the ability to fully customize individual Spaces. Regardless of how they compare to the upcoming Lion, they offer great benefits to Mac users in the here and now.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to Peachpit.com. Faas is also the author of iPhone for Work (Apress 2009). You can find out more about him at www.ryanfaas.com and follow him on Twitter (@ryanfaas).

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