Top 10 Apps for Laptop-Toting Mac Users

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Top 10 lists have been blogged practically to death. But they’re not dead yet. No sir! Perhaps, however, in an effort to push their foot an inch or two closer to the proverbial grave, I’d like to offer a top 10 list of my own. This one is for the laptop-toting Mac user who, because of their choice to wield a portable Mac, is forced to make certain sacrifices in usability, power, and efficiency.

First up, I’d like to talk about Sidetrack. Sidetrack is a trackpad replacement driver for your Mac laptop. It adds scrolling functionality to the borders of the trackpad. I have mine set to scroll vertically on the right edge and horizontally on the top. Additionally, you can set a tap in each corner to trigger a specific function, like simulating a mouse button click or a key combination. Mine is set so that a tap in the upper right corner is considered a right-click. Sidetrack costs $15 (or free, if you can put up with the constant nag screen) and is well worth the price.

I rock a 12″ PowerBook, and she’s the best Mac that I’ve ever owned (yes, “she”). But, she’s only a 12″ PowerBook. Which means that her display has a maximum of 1024 by 768 pixels to work with. So, in an effort to utilize every last viewable pixel, I use Menufela. Menufela only does one thing, but it does it really well. It autohides the menu bar (just like the Dock). When you position your mouse at the top of your display, the menu bar pops into view. Menufela costs $5.

As Mac users enthusiasts we’ve all taken part in the Mac vs. Windows war in one way or another (trust me friends, it’s not worth the fight. And besides, in war, no one wins). I know that I’ve had to answer/defend the “Why doesn’t the Mac window go full screen when I click the green zoom button?” question/complaint many times before. The answer is a bit cryptic, and one that I won’t attempt to explain here. However, continuing with the theme of efficient-use-of-pixel-space-on-a-small-display, I have come to realize that sometimes, I just want certain apps and windows to grow to full screen when I on click of the zoom button. Thankfully, there is Stoplight. Stoplight is a free system preference pane that allows you to tweak the behavior of those little candy-like buttons in the upper-left corner of every window. Give it a shot… and it just might help to quell the fears of a brand new switcher too.

Yes yes yes… efficient use of screen real estate. We get it. This is the last one, I promise. Letterbox is user interface tweak for Mail. It switches the default view to a 3-column view. Letterbox was built for widescreen displays, but it works really well on my 12″ PowerBook too. It might be a matter of preference on a standard ratio display (non-widescreen), but it really helped me out with my 12 incher. Oh… and Letterbox is free.

Here’s a quickie: Virtue Desktops. Multiple desktops are a godsend for users of tiny displays… like us laptop users. Until Spaces comes out (with the Leopard release), Virtue is a great alternative multiple desktop manager. It’s rock solid, it does tons, and it’s free!

Quickie numero dos: Quicksilver (free). Yep, Quicksilver is one of those apps that you install and then have no idea what to do with. Well, in short, Quicksilver is an app launcher… but it is so much more (more than I have time to go over here). Anyway, Quicksilver is not exclusively an enhancement for a laptop user, but it really helped to speed up my workflow… especially considering the fact that I can do so much with it, that often, I can a go a really long time without touching that (arguably) difficult track pad.

Yeah, that track pad sure is troublesome. Good thing we’ve learned that we can tweak it with Sidetrack. But still, my track pad accuracy is pretty messy. There are, however, four places that I can hit using my track pad with my eyes closed. Of course, they are the four corners of my display. CornerClick is another system preference pane that adds functionality to clicks at all four corners. You can set CornerClick to switch apps, launch files, run applescripts, and more! Mighty useful for those of us bound to our track pads. And yep, its free too!

I found a super-duper useful and free application recently. It’s called Sidenote. Sidenote is essentially a mini notepad and a general data dump that hides quietly on either side of your display. Moving your mouse all the way to that side activates Sidenote, which pops out (like the Dock) allowing you to store an array of textual information, images, links… it’s a perfect receptacle for ideas or notes. Especially when you’re using a full screen app (with the help of Stoplight) and you can’t easily get to your desktop.

fKeys is a free, one function, one time tweak, built exclusively for Mac laptop users. All it does is remap the enter key (not the return key. The enter key. It’s the one that’s in between the command key and the arrow keys on the right-hand side of your laptop keyboard) to an option key, just like on a full-size keyboard. Yep. That’s all it does. But it becomes obviously advantageous when attempting to use a keyboard shortcut with your right hand. And really, when was the last time that you used the enter key anyway? If you do need to get at the enter key, you can always press fn+return to get the same thing accomplished.

Laptop users tend to work everywhere. I know that I work best in coffee shops (quick access to caffeine and all that). Every once in a while, however, I’ll find myself sitting next to other coffee shop-goers whose conversation is either too interesting or too annoying to ignore. Enter Noise: a free, tiny app that makes… well, noise. White noise or pink noise, your choice. The idea is that when you need to drown out background noise, just pop on some headphones, launch this app and let ‘er rip! Out comes soothing white noise. It takes some getting used to, but it should help to make work possible in all kinds of distracting environments.

And there you have it. A top ten list for us laptop-toting Mac users. Personally, I’m always looking for new ways to streamline my laptop lifestyle. So, if you’ve got any other tips, I’d love to hear them! In the mean time, however, enjoy these.

44 Comments

Berbie

For people doing long distance sports like running, biking or hiking there’s also a MacOS X freeware to plan routes and journalize workouts. TrailRunner integrates well with the Nike + iPod Sports Kit and with GPS devices like the Garmin ForeRunner or Garmin Edge. http://www.trailrunnerx.com

Dan

#20 Frode Hegland
“And then there is LiSA, who speaks with a real human voice when you get mail….” This is awesome! I found a few choice words in there I’d like Lisa to use when announcing my ex-wife. Thanks for the great laugh.

joel

For owners of slightly older powerbooks (and iBooks too i imagine) that don’t natively support two-finger scrolling there’s a brilliant little haxie calle iScroll2 that does the trick perfectly. It installs as a preference pane and besides adding towo-finger scrolling to your trackpad (which i can no longer live without) it also adds a slew of other custimizable prefs. Enjoy.

Alan

I would like to add SizzlingKeys, BlueHarvest, and Little Snitch. Both BlueHarvest and Little Snitch aren’t free, but all are wonderful for the mobile user.

Alan

Actually, if you have 10.4.x (I believe it’s 10.4.5 on up), you can enable two finger scrolling to your mac. I have the first edition 17″ PowerBook and it works pretty good on it. Just check your Keyboard & Mouse Preferences.

Ted

Hey, thanks so much for fKeys!!! I’ve been trying to find something to replace uControl ever since I upgraded to Tiger. I’ve been using DoubleCommand, but when I’m using an external keyboard, the enter key there also becomes an Option key.

Thanks!

Frank De Graeve

in my opinion I’d add Overflow t this list (even instead of Quicksilver). I haven’t reviewed it (planning to) but I really think it does the trick. Besides. Quicksilver has so many ways of using it that you just forget most of them.

Frode Hegland

And then there is LiSA, who speaks with a real human voice when you get mail, and even says who from: “You have a message from your sister” or “You have a reply from your boss”. Takes up no screen real-estate (works really well with Menufela) and sounds nice! :-) http://www.speakingassistant.com

Paul Stamatiou

Great post Sam, you reminded me of a few apps I’ve run across before but have since forgotten that would come in handy on my MacBook when traveling.

go5oh

I can’t believe I was able to operate a computer before VirtueDesktops! How did I not know about this sooner?

QuickSilver rocks too!! Just wish I had more time to spend messin’ with it…

Chris

I tried out Sidenote awhile back but have since abandoned it. It was fine and all, but it did get annoying especially when watching DVD’s.

Ben

#12 Ryan
I don’t see how you can have both Stoplight and Quicksilver on the same list, as the last time I used I tried using Stoplight it broke Quicksilver completely, every time you tried to launch QS it would immediatly close. Has this been fixed?

Ryan,
I had the exact same problem with Stoplight and Quicksilver, even when I added Quicksilver to Stoplight’s exception list. I don’t think this has been fixed yet.

Funny, they’re on the same list and one breaks the other one! Whoops!

Steven

Some original entries there, very nice. Normally these “top xx” are just the same old top picks rehashed with a pretty description.

vs

One of these days I really ought to try out Quicksilver since everyone keeps talking about it….

Gavin

Awesome list! As a new mac user, I’m totally going to download all of these and give them a try.

I made a version of this list on Tenspotting.com (a web app I created) as well in case you’re interested in see what the rest of your readers might thing are cool apps as well.

It’s here: http://www.tenspotting.com/ts/lists/395/system

Anyways, thanks so much!

-Gavin

Ryan

I don’t see how you can have both Stoplight and Quicksilver on the same list, as the last time I used I tried using Stoplight it broke Quicksilver completely, every time you tried to launch QS it would immediatly close. Has this been fixed?

Pottsc

I don’t think this list “sucks” at all. It’s refreshing to see someone take the time and list apps that normally don’t show up on “Mac must have app lists” that have flooded sites like Digg for so long. Plus, I like that the author made it specific to laptop owners. I’ve found four of interest that I’ll try. Thanks !

Scott Pargett

iScroll works great for any Apple laptops without scrolling. Once your touch gets “light”, its a dreamsend.

Russell

Shane: Two finger scrolling would be nice, but if the 12″ Powerbook is as old as my 17″ Powerbook, we don’t have two finger scrolling. Our trackpads do nothing but move the mouse. I’ve had Sidetrack for awhile and it’s been great!

Tom

One other… Stickykeys is an excellent way to quickly control itunes. I couldn’t live without it

Shane

I prefer two-finger scrolling. I always get annoyed by laptops that would scroll horizontally and vertically when I hit the sides of the trackpad. With two-finger scrolling I don’t need to worry about getting to close to the sides.

Tom

Overall this list really sucks if you ask me, I tried sidenote, and I never once used it, it just sucked up processing power and annoyed me when I went to that side of the screen.

If you have a macbook you don’t need sidetrack because you have 2 finger scroll and 2 finger right click.

white noise to drown out people?!? thats the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, just play some music!

fkeys… I guess if you really need an option key on the right side… thats fine.

Autohiding anything has always made me want to kill people, the menu bar especially.

Quicksilver is honestly the only thing on this list that deserved to be on a top 10 list.

Desktop manager is better than virtue desktops in my opinion.

and you missed iAlert you!

Some other things that might be worth mentioning would be a VPN client of some sort, because as a laptop toting person, you’ll be lucky to find an encrypted access point, and even if you do, WEP and WPA can be cracked easily enough. Take the time to figure out a VPN client either at home or at work, and connect to it ANYTIME you are connected to wifi.

For college students: iProcrastinate is an amazing program to keep track of your homework.

Parallels is worth mention, for me only because I use Microsoft Onenote and it alone is worth running windows for. (MS PLEASE MAKE IT FOR MAC!!!)

-Tom

Jay

I wonder if there is an application which drowns out the noise by noise cancellation…. that would be cool…

Hunter

The latency involved with processing the input and then outputting the appropriate inverse on a consumer computer makes that idea impossible without either dedicated DSPs or other custom hardware. Bummer though, cause that would be fun. =)

Tudor Hulubei

Wouldn’t be better to use the internal microphone to capture that background noise and use it in a noise-cancelling application? This way you turn your non-noise-cancelling headphones into a computer-controlled noise-cancelling one.

Tudor

patrick

“The idea is that when you need to drown out background noise, just pop on some headphones, launch this app and let ‘er rip!”

This is actually a really terrible idea. Listening to ANYTHING in headphones to “drown out background noise” is seriously really, really bad for your ears.

Cool list, other than that :)

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