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Killer Software That's Either Free or Inexpensive

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Episode 66
August 25th, 2006

There's nothing I like better than great software that's either free or inexpensive; here are a few of my current faves:

Mouse Locator (Free; www.2point5fish.com)

My office Mac has two huge displays; my desktop measures a whopping 2,880 x 1,024 pixels. Both of my screens are almost always covered with a plethora of windows, docks, menus, documents, icons, and who knows what else. That makes finding the little arrow cursor among all the flotsam and jetsam a challenge, as shown in Figure 1.


Figure 1: It's kind of hard to see the arrow cursor…

Thank heaven for Mouse Locator, a free utility that helps you find the cursor by encircling it with two brightly colored rings (mine are bright fuchsia).


Figure 2: With Mouse Locator it's EASY to see that pesky cursor...

The rings are displayed whenever I wiggle the mouse after my Mac has been idle for a predetermined length of time. So when I wake up my sleeping Mac, the cursor is always highlighted in fuchsia. Or, I can press Mouse Locator's hot key and display the fuchsia rings at any time.

I love this little utility and you can't beat the price -- it's free.

Witch (Donationware; www.petermaurer.de)

I usually have 8 or 10 applications running at any given moment. Using the built-in Mac OS X application switcher -- Command-Tab -- I can switch to any open application without touching the mouse. That's good, but it's not good enough… You see, many of those applications have more than one open window. What I really want is to choose which window becomes active when I switch to an application. And that, my friends, is what Witch does. It works like the built-in application switcher but it lets you choose any open program as well as any of its open windows. It may not sound like much but I find it extremely convenient.


Figure 3: Notice the window names for Mail, Skype, and Safari...
(Click the thumbnail for a larger image.)

Plus, it's much prettier than the built-in application switcher and offers a bunch of additional window management options as shown in Figures 4 and 5.

AppleMark?
Figure 4: Unlike the Command-Tab application switcher, you can specify all kinds of behavior for Witch.
(Click the thumbnail for a larger image.)

AppleMark?
Figure 5: And unlike the Command-Tab application switcher, Witch provides almost total control over its appearance.
(Click the thumbnail for a larger image.)

Try it -- I think you'll like it!

Synergy ($10; http://wincent.com/)

When I'm at my desk working, chances are I'm listening to music with iTunes. The only problem is that if I want to play, pause, skip a song, see what song is playing, or do anything else with iTunes, I have to make it active and bring it to the foreground. Or at least that's what I used to have to do before I discovered Synergy.

AppleMark?
Figure 6: Synergy lives in my menu bar.

With Synergy I can control iTunes from the menu bar or the keyboard without switching applications.

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Figure 7: Synergy's keyboard shortcuts for controlling iTunes.
(Click the thumbnail for a larger image.)

So I can choose the next song, the previous song, play, pause, add a star rating, or see the song title and artist in a transparent overlay (see Figure 8), all without touching iTunes.

AppleMark?
Figure 8: Synergy's floating transparent overlay tells me what song is playing.

Synergy rocks (pun intended).

MenuMeters (Donationware; www.ragingmenace.com)

MenuMeters lets me know what's going on with my CPU, hard disks, RAM, and network connection, all without using up a single millimeter of valuable screen real estate.  I'm a geek and I like to know what my Mac is doing; MenuMeters tell me more about my Mac than Activity Monitor while taking up almost no screen space.


Figure 9: MenuMeters display a lot of information in a little piece of your menu bar.
(Click the thumbnail for a larger image.)

The MenuMeters are all the icons to the right of the Help menu beginning with the number 73%. From right to left:

  • 73% tells me that roughly three quarters of my processor is being used at this very moment.
  • The red and blue thermometer icon on its immediate right indicates graphically that around 73% of my processor is in use right this second, with the red area representing the User Load and the blue area representing System Load.
  • The green and red rectangles to the right of the thermometer are disk activity lights -- the red one lights up when a file is written to a disk, the green one lights when a read activity takes place. These two “lights” flicker pretty much all the time.
  • The red and blue numbers to the right of the disk activity lights -- U: 352MB and F: 160MB -- tell me how much of my PowerBook's 512MB of RAM is currently available (160MB).
  • Finally, the green and red arrows and text to the right of the RAM indicator display network activity -- sends and receives. (The reason nothing is displayed is ‘cause I was at a restaurant with no wireless access when I took the screen shot.)

Last but not least, if the menu bar display isn't enough information for you, click on any of the four icons and a menu appears with additional information, as seen for the RAM indicator icon in Figure 10.


Figure 10 Caption: More information than you probably need about RAM usage is just a click away...

Don't forget to make a donation for any or all of these programs if you like them enough to continue using them beyond a reasonable testing period.

And that's all he wrote...

Bob "Dr. Mac" LeVitus has been a Macintosh user for a long, long time and has written 49 computer books including Mac OS X Tiger For Dummies and GarageBand for Dummies. He also offers expert technical help and training to Mac users, in real time and at reasonable prices, via telephone, e-mail, and/or unique Internet-enabled remote control software. For more information on Bob and his services, visit www.boblevitus.com.

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