Tools and toys to slaver over

While I was configuring my partner's new iBook G4 the other day, I was musing over the list of software that just had to be installed on her laptop to get it up and running.

While I was configuring my partner's new iBook G4 the other day, I was musing over the list of software that just had to be installed on her laptop to get it up and running.

Sure, there were the recently released Apple software updates (including the foreshadowed 10.3.1 bug fix that improves compatibility with/doesn't destroy FireWire 800 drives), but what made a heftier list in my mind was the absolutely essential tools and toys that are almost guaranteed to improve anyone's productivity.

First off will perhaps be my most contentious pick in the form of the calculator application PCalc. There are plenty of calculator programs on the market, including the dramatically improved one Apple now bundles with Panther, but I keep coming back to PCalc because it can basically do it all. While you only have the choice of two skins (a classic one dating back to the application's release in 1993 and a new aqua one), it wins a place in my applications folder because of its optional RPN mode, virtual tape functionality and the simple scripting language that allows you to invent your own functions using any of the calculator's registers.

Second on my list is a handy little customising tool called Tinker Tool 3.1. Tinker Tool allows you to modify hidden preferences in Mac OS X for programs like the Finder and the Dock. Now while most of these preferences can be found and changed if you are handy with a text editor, there is nothing like a well-written free tool to make the changes for you. My favourite use for the tool is to enable having both an up arrow and a down arrow at both ends of system scroll bars and for pinning my dock to the bottom right of my screen (to ensure the trash always remains in the same place).

In a similar vein of simple but essential utilities are MenuCalendar and USB Monitor. While there is plenty of competition for menu bar-based calendars, MenuCalendar doesn't even try to be a complete diary. It simply presents you with a static floating calendar when you click on its menu bar-based icon. A simple click gets rid of it again until you need it next time.

USB Monitor, on the other hand, is a simple background application that provides visual feedback when USB devices are plugged in and removed using similar display graphics to Apple's own volume and brightness controls. This tool will save you hours when you are trying to figure out why a USB device seems to be misbehaving.

Returning to more traditional utilities, BBEdit is the probably the undisputed champion of Mac text editors and an essential component of any Mac professional's toolkit. However, the advent of the Rendezvous technology in Mac OS X 10.2 brought on a novel competitor in the form of SubEthaEdit (formally known as Hydra). The big advantage of SubEthaEdit is that it allows multiple users to work on the same document at the same time. While nowhere near as powerful as BBEdit, this capability alone makes it indispensable.

Finally, if you find yourself in charge of maintaining a lab of Macs or in the need to upgrade to a new machine, Mike Bombich's Carbon Copy Cloner is the tool for you. CCC is one again a great GUI tool that exposes the power of the Unix command line to the average user. In this case it is for the purpose of backing up your hard disk to either another drive (like an iPod) or to a disk image. It can either do full backups or by using the open source psync application, CCC will minimise the time it takes to copy your hard disk by only copying changed files. For a lab administrator, though, the killer feature has to be the ability to easily create fully customised NetBoot and Apple Software Restore disk images.

All the programs in this column, and plenty more that I didn't get a chance to mention, can be found on If you're interested in improving your Mac experience, start downloading now!

White is MIS manager at Cookie Time in Christchurch. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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