Here is a list of tools that I can't do without. They are not specific to the job, but software/apps that I install whenever I get a new system built or use a new laptop. They help me in being fast and more productive working on a computer, which indirectly helps with all my work. Other than a Windows system that I built specifically for color jobs, I use Mac most of the time. Now that eGPU is getting more popular with Thunderbolt 3, I will most probably migrate my Windows setup to a Mac down the road
I have prioritised these tools based on the order in which they were installed when I got my newest MacBook Pro. The first few are not even tools, they are just changes to the settings in MacOS. I like to start with a fresh OS installation, a habit that I've picked up from my old Windows days, where it's just less of a headache starting from scratch and reinstalling all the software that you need. You can potentially lose a lot of your settings which can be annoying, but I would much rather live with that than have phantom problems. iCloud has definitely helped to ease that pain a little.
Most of these tools, I have used for many years now.
If you have any questions about the tips or tools that I talk about, feel free to drop me an email.
Macos system settings
My philosophy about laptop setup is: minimum distraction. Every time I hear about seamless transitions with phone calls and messages between macOS and iOS, I recoil with horror and frantically seek out how to turn them off. I also like to keep my desktop uncluttered. As of this writing, my desktop background is a solid dark grey with 5 documents on it — no wait, I just trimmed that down to 1 after reviewing what's needed. With that in mind, here are my settings.
set your date now
The Mac does not show you the date by default which drives me nuts. To change that, go to System Preferences > Date & Time > Clock and check ‘Show Date’.
Do this NOW and thank me later. I don't know how many times I have glanced at the top right corner of my Mac when I've needed today's date.
turn off storage optimization
If you are on macOS Sierra or higher, turn off ‘Optimize Mac Storage’. Go to Apple Menu > System Preferences > iCloud. Click on the ‘Options…’ button beside ‘iCloud Drive’.
Make sure ‘Optimize Mac Storage’ is unchecked. This ensures that the MacOS does not make decisions for you on whether to keep stuff in iCloud or not. I have also decided not to sync my Desktop and Documents folder with iCloud Drive for now, as I don't see the need for it with only one laptop. Dropbox works just fine for me as common storage for all my devices.
customize finder settings
I use the Finder frequently and like to set the following in Finder Menu > View
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speed is key
Keeping my hands on the keyboard is my key to staying speedy on the computer. Every time I reach out to use the mouse or the touchpad, it slows me down just a bit and that adds up. If you don't tend to use Spotlight, I would suggest you practice doing that, to get familiar with launching everything via a keyboard instead of using the trackpad or mouse. You will notice how much faster it makes you on the Mac.
Even though Apple has buffed up Spotlight quite a bit since its first release in 2005, I still use the following tools to automate tasks. These tools are very powerful and I am yet to harness all their magic, as it takes time and discipline to master them. Like most things, you will be handsomely rewarded if you persist.
can't do without alfred
Alfred is the first software that I install in a new installation. It is similar to Spotlight on the Mac but much more powerful and customisable. You can do Finder commands directly from Alfred and create your own workflows. I will highlight how I use Alfred in the future.
The app is free for most stuff, it costs £19 to upgrade to a powerpack single license.
alfred's twin sister
LaunchBar is another, similar tool, which is very popular as well. I chose Alfred at the time because Launchbar didn't feel right then. Frankly, Alfred's user interface feels a little dated now and I may explore LaunchBar again in the future.
LaunchBar can be used for free but will just “occasionally invite you to take a short break, allowing you to breathe and relax” as per their website. Great marketing speak! Otherwise, it's 29€ for a single license.
secure your passwords
Password managers are a must-have these days. It is impossible to create and remember hundreds of unique passwords for all the websites that are
at asking you to create an account with them. It's also a great way to keep sensitive information with you on the go.
FORGET YOUR PASSWORDS
With 1Password, I no longer have to think of ridiculous password phrases to keep my passwords unique across the board. It's not the most seamless way to do things but I would rather be safe and save my brain power for something else.
They changed to a subscription base which I'm happy to pay for to keep them focused on the big task of security. 1Password comes with a 30-day free trial, thereafter, it's $35.88 per year or $59.88 per year for 5 family members. It's available on all your devices.
I used to use Dashlane as it was free. I moved to 1Password when I needed to attach secure files. I find that Dashlane's user interface is easier to use if you are new to password managers. But now 1Password fits me better as a power user.
Dashlane is free for the basic functions or, $39.96 per year upgrades you to a premium version.
I have never used LastPass before but in the tech world, LastPass is often mentioned. The free version is an add-on to your browser as an extension. Going premium at $24 per year lets you share passwords and wifi logins, 1GB of encrypted storage, and more.
It is the cheapest out of the three. With free options available, there's no reason not to use a password manager in this day and age.
you never knew you needed this…
The indispensable clipboard manager that keeps a history of all the text, links, images, etc. that you have copied. Clipboard managers are something that you miss when you need them. In addition to the two I've used below, there are other clipboard managers around. A number of them are free, do a search for them.
from osx 10.11 El capitan onwards
Paste is overkill for me as a clipboard manager but it's the only one that I find palatable for MacOS 10.11 and above. If you like organizing your clipboard history with a fancy interface, this app is great.
It comes with a free trial and is available on the Mac App Store for $9.99.
storage & backup
Cloud storage is one of the most amazing things that has happened to personal computing in recent years. We can not only share download links, but it has made geographical location much less of a hurdle than ever before. Even offsite disaster recovery plans became a reality with cloud backup. You are still limited by your Internet connection of course, but it has certainly made syncing and sharing a viable, piece of cake.
Even though there are other cloud storage services available that give you more free storage, like Microsoft's OneDrive and Google Drive, Dropbox has become ubiquitous. I have not worked on a job, where I have not used Dropbox in some way, to share something.
Starts at 2GB for the free basic version or 1TB for $99.00/year or $9.99/month. There are business plans available as well.
backup to the cloud
Backblaze is a no brainer now that CrashPlan has shifted its focus to businesses. It is the cheapest cloud backup that I know of. It gives you unlimited online backup and restore, for fifty bucks a year, which is a really sweet deal. You can even backup your attached drives as long as they stay attached, every 6 months.
They also provide hard drive stats every quarter if you are a geek like me who likes to always know what are the most reliable hard drives around.
Personal unlimited backup is $5/month, $50/year or $95/2-year. They have business backup plans as well. Try it free for 15 days.
If you support multiple Macs or need to backup your Mac prior to an upgrade, SuperDuper! is the software that you need. It allows you to create a bootable copy of your Mac which can be really useful as a backup prior to upgrading your operating system, as a clone to another similar machine, or when you need to send your Mac in for repair.
SuperDuper! is free for the cloning feature itself. Paying $27.95 will give you advanced features like scheduling and smart update. It also supports the developer directly.
Automate as much as possible
If there is something that I do over and over again, I will try and automate it. This is also one of the reasons why I love the MacOS. It is based on Unix, which makes scripting very accessible, something that I've been doing since my college years. What is even more impressive is the tools that people have created for the Mac to make automation easy without having to know any programming language.
Have a look at the following tools and ask yourself, what have I been doing over and over again that I can most probably automate to save me time?
This is another one of my favorite topics, email me and I will try to help you stop doing mundane repetitive tasks.
start with automator
If you have never done any automation before, I would suggest taking a look at the free MacOS tool called Automator which is already available on your system. Do a Spotlight search for ‘Automator’. It has an intuitive way of ‘writing’ a script. I use it for very simple quick tasks: E.g. scale an image down by a certain percentage to reduce the file size and/or change a file format from PNG to JPG.
GEEK OUT: Sal Soghoian is the father of automation and scripting on the Mac and has been a strong proponent on keeping automation alive on the Mac. Apple eliminated his role (Product Manager of Automated Technologies) back in November 2016 and he has since joined OmniGroup, a company that does great Mac software. There was a delightful interview with him on Mac Power Users, episode 370. You can absolutely hear his passion when it comes to automation and at about 47 minutes in, he talks about how he worked with Showtime to automate their 20 second on-air menus back in the day.
TextExpander lets you create snippets of text by typing a shorthand of it. For example, to create a snippet of text that will give me today's date in the format that I need, I have given it an abbreviation of ‘ztd’. When I type the three letter shortcut ‘ztd’, it will replace that text with today's date.
I use this all the time. I have shortcuts for my phone number, my email signature, my home address and email address. On a job where I need to send an email at the end of every day with a similar format, but changes to certain parameters, I will use TextExpander to save me time. It can also go way more advanced if you add scripting and stuff.
TextExpander has moved to a subscription model for the later versions for $39.96/year or $4.16/month. It's available on all your devices and has a free 30 day trial.
more powerful automation
Hazel is the one app that really helped me to move to a paperless workflow. It helps to organize files automatically on your Mac by setting smart rules. For example, I use it to watch for PDF files of my bills, name them in a way that makes sense to me, and move to my bills folder sorted by the companies owed. This whole workflow is done automatically.
It's not just file organization, I use it to delete files of a certain type in my Downloads folder and also move screenshots away from my desktop after a period of time. That's how I keep my desktop so tidy!
Hazel is a really powerful automation tool you can use without diving into programming code.
There's a 14-day trial which I think is way too short for a good test. Thereafter, it's $32.00 for a single license or $49 for a family pack for 5 members of the household. I think Hazel got much friendlier after version 4, but that requires OSX 10.10 and above.
Starting to dive into deep waters
Keyboard Maestro is like Automator on steroids. It is a bit of a learning curve but really powerful partly because you can put in conditional statements. For example, you can wait for a particular window to pop-up with a certain title, before moving to the next action and I find that to be quite helpful in creating an automated workflow. There are many more powerful functions, which means there are so many amazing ‘scripts’ you can write, without going into the nitty gritty details of coding.
There's a macro that I have been using constantly. It's a really simple one, all it does is open the Downloads folder with a keyboard shortcut wherever I am. I can potentially do the same with Alfred, but Keyboard Maestro is much faster for this particular task.
On one shoot, I used Keyboard Maestro pretty extensively. That's something I will blog about in the future.
There's a trial period but I can't find how long it is, sorry. The website looks like it's stuck in the 90s. A license will cost you $36.
how about ios?
Some really smart engineers came up with Workflow a while ago. It is Automator for iOS, which is extremely difficult to create because of Apple's closed system. I'm so glad these geniuses got it working as it brought iOS to a whole new level for me.
Workflow has since been bought by Apple. Everybody's worried that Apple is going to do away with automation, especially with the elimination of the Product Manager of Automated Technologies role in Apple (check out the ‘Geek Out’ section on Automator). For now, this app is still alive.
The good thing that came from it being absorbed by Apple, the app is free!
Rejoice, Workflow is still alive! It is now called Shortcuts with iOS 12. There is now Siri integration. Automation on iOS continues to look promising.
being on the same page
For troubleshooting, looking at another person's screen in real time beats any amount of explanation you or the other party can do. Also, having control of somebody else's screen to help with certain tasks, makes working remotely much easier for me.
If a remote session cannot be done, the
Quicktime Player application that comes with the Mac operating system can do screen recording. Just open it and choose File > New Screen Recording to begin. The file size may be on the big side but it's a really quick way to capture a problem quickly, and for free.
the best-kept secret app
Somebody that I was consulting for shared this neat trick with me. There is a Screen Sharing app that comes with the Mac operating system. It's hidden in some place ridiculous like in the CoreServices of the system's library folder. The easiest way to launch it is to do a spotlight search for ‘Screen Sharing’ and enter the Apple ID of the other party.
In the event that they do not know what their Apple ID is, ask them to go to Apple Menu > System Preferences… > iCloud and give you the email address that is underneath the iCloud profile photo.
The beauty of this app is that there's no need to ask the other person to install software in order for you to remote in. It's no frills but has worked wonderfully for me so far.
You can exchange files by dragging the file straight from the Screen Sharing app to your desktop and vice versa. Don't do this with big files though, unless both of you have a speedy connection.
have this on standby
TeamViewer was the first third-party remote desktop app. It is incredibly easy to use and best of all, it's free for personal use.
The great thing about it, is that you can set it up to remote in without another person being physically there. This came in really useful when I used to work in the machine room — I was able to remote in from home and check on the status of a job instead of watching the clock ticking by when it's already 3am. If you do a lot of support work, this is definitely a great tool to have in your arsenal.
TeamViewer is also great for independent colorists who have an office and would like to check on the status of a render, for example, when they get home.
It's free for personal use with different pricing for business use. It's always free for the person/machine you are connecting to.
track your time and get paid
Time tracking really helps me to put things in perspective. You would be surprised by how much time is actually spent on some tasks. When I am in the flow of things, I feel like I have accomplished a lot and only an hour has gone by. Yet, when it comes to checking emails, before you know it, a couple of hours have passed and you have yet to get any actual work done!
The faster you send your invoices, the sooner you get paid.
Back in 2015, online invoicing services varied quite a bit. But since then, the market has greatly improved. Nowadays, almost all will let you create and send invoices easily with recurring options, track expenses and give your clients the option to pay with a credit card directly or integrate with Stripe or PayPal effortlessly. It all boils down to what works for you, if you need to connect to a software that your accountant uses, or how much you would like to pay for the tool, if anything.
Take note that most of these cloud invoicing tools work very well in the US but when it comes to other countries, your mileage may vary.
time flies, where did it go?
Toggl is the one app that I found to be really clean and easy to use when it comes to tracking time. There are more elaborate setups like RescueTime which I have yet to try but what I really wanted was something simple, and it does the job well.
Being a web app means it works everywhere. They have dedicated apps for all the platforms too, which is great.
Toggl's basic plan is free, which is what I am using. They have 3 other paid plans which have lots more to offer, like reporting, project and team management and priority support.
send invoices fast
When I started freelancing, I started with Billings Pro from Marketcircle because of its time tracking capability and I wanted to keep everything local. I have since moved to the cloud and settled on FreshBooks for my US clients, as I like the option of allowing them to pay by credit card. FreshBooks makes that really easy with direct integration. Also, the FreshBooks app has most of the features that you need to send invoices directly from your mobile devices.
I'm still not a big fan of their user interface as it's just a tad too loud and in your face for me after their recent makeover. Also you don't get a lot of flexibility when it comes to customizing your invoices and the PDF version of your invoice has too much spacing, in my opinion.
I have used FreshBook's support before and they are amazing, you get a person on the line after a couple of rings which is really refreshing. The support person understood the ins and outs of FreshBooks well enough that I could ask a simple transactional question, and a more difficult technical question, and have them answered by the same person.
The other tidbit that I find makes FreshBooks different is when the FreshBooks crew are in New York, they will invite me as a customer to come join them for dinner. I never did go along but I find that to be kind of unique and sweet.
FreshBooks comes with a 30-day trial. They used to have a free plan but looks like that has changed. A 5- client plan starts at $15/month with 10% discount for an annual plan.
not as flashy, just as good
Before I discovered Toggl, Harvest was the timer that I used. It's an easy to use timer and they have an iOS version as well. This works great if you want to use one tool for all.
I eventually moved to FreshBooks as Harvest does not have direct credit card integration. You can only get paid via Stripe or PayPal. Also, Harvest does not allow you to create an invoice directly from your iOS device.
I personally prefer the look of Harvest invoices as they translate to PDF much better than FreshBooks, which are designed to be viewed on the web.
Harvest comes with a free plan for up to 2 projects while unlimited projects will cost you $12/month with 10% saved on annual plans. They have a team plan as well.
other little gems
Here are the rest of the apps that I find myself going back to, time and again.
put your to-dos in one place
To-do apps are aplenty but the one I finally settled on is Todoist.
It is one of the first to-do apps to use natural language for setting dates. You can type in ‘Reconcile my accounts on the first of every month.’ and it will add a repeated task automatically on the first of every month for you. Apple and most app creators have since caught up, but I still like their simple and clean interface with the ability to use keyboard shortcuts on their desktop version. It's multi-platform which means their collaboration features are even more powerful.
Todoist is free for up to 80 active projects with 5 people per project. The premium version is $28.99/year with more features like adding tasks via email. They have a business plan as well for teams.
scanning on the go
It still blows my mind that we can just scan with our phones! And I'm not just talking about taking a photo. Scanner apps can detect edges, straighten and fix warps, fix light conditions and make the scan look like it just came out of a Xerox machine. Mind blowing.
In the Internet universe, the two scanner apps that are recommended over and over again are Scanbot and Scanner Pro. I chose Scanner Pro from Readdle mainly because it's cheaper, it works well for me and I use another product from Readdle and love it. Scanbot does have an additional fax function that Scanner Pro does not have, and there is an Android version.
Most people use apps like these to scan receipts. This works well and you can add additional workflow to rename them and put in a dropbox or folder. My main use for Scanner Pro is capturing text from books I'm reading, that I would like to refer to in the future. It also has OCR text recognition capability, which can be useful.
Scanner Pro by Readdle costs $3.99.
more than a spreadsheet
If you love creating spreadsheets but find it a pain to go beyond sorting and summing your columns, give Airtable a try. It lets you upload images easily, share a particular table in a specific view and you can go beyond just one spreadsheet by creating relational databases.
I was searching for some kind of database solution with the ability to attach images when I stumbled upon Airtable. I really like the interface and was very impressed with the ‘Gallery’ view that displays each row of your spreadsheet as a visual card. I used it to post and manage the sale of my stuff when moving overseas, and also to keep records of my subscriptions and assets, among other things.
There is an iOS app for it too, with some limitations, like not being able to display gallery views. Another downside is that you need to be Internet connected in order to use Airtable.
Airtable is free for use with unlimited bases (like your spreadsheet workbook) of up to 1,200 records per base (similar to the rows in your spreadsheet) and a 2GB attachment limit per base. Very generous! There are monthly and annual plans thereafter for more records, attachment space, revision history and more.
I want all the good apps
You can have all the great Mac apps with a subscription to Setapp, the same founders of CleanMyMac and other MacPaw products. I like the list of apps that Setapp has. I actually own quite a few of them, and a few of the apps that I had recommended, like Paste and Downie, are available on Setapp.
What is Setapp? It is a curated list of Mac apps that are available to you, including updates, with a monthly or annual subscription. After registration and installation of the apps, the apps continue to work even when you are offline. They have been adding new apps consistently as well which means newly added apps will be available to you too.
I have to admit that even though I love the idea of Setapp, having tried their trial, I did not subscribe, partly because I already own a lot of the apps that I want to use in Setapp. Maybe when they grew bigger with more apps that I need, I will pull the trigger.
But if you try Setapp for free for 7 days and find that you like most of the apps, the subscription is $9.99/month or a 10% discount if you subscribe annually. There's an educational discount too.
make apple work for you
When I first moved from a Windows system to a Mac, eons ago, the Internet was certainly helpful. But it was mainly through the Podcast universe that I truly learned how to use the Mac to my advantage.
The following two resources are still around after all these years, which makes me very happy. I think they are still the best resources out there to truly get to know the possibilities of your Apple devices.
what would you like to LEARN?
I started ‘listening’ to Don McAllister when the podcast scene was just starting. ScreenCasts was a free video podcast then. It has helped me tremendously to understand how the Mac and third-party programs work with his in depth tutorials.
I have watched ScreenCasts grown from a no-frills membership site to a full-fledged one with all the bells and whistles. Don McAllister may not know me but I've always rooted for his success when he decided to quit his job and work on ScreenCasts Online full time. On his website, his first tutorial dates back to 4th April, 2006, with iPhoto 6!
Despite its age, ScreenCasts Online has not slowed down and is still a valuable resource for me. There's a free 10 day trial and $6/month or $72/year thereafter.
anybody can be a geek
Mac Power Users, MPU for short, taught me a lot about automation and also left a hole in my pocket, introducing me to a lot of the really awesome tools that are on this page. It's nice to know that lawyers can be big tech nerds too.
MPU is a great podcast to start with when you are ready to harness the power of your Apple devices and aren't sure where to begin.
You can listen to MPU wherever you listen to podcasts.
diving deeper into ios
I can't even remember how I got to know MacStories, founded by Federico Viticci, but I was really impressed by the in-depth analysis of his articles and the very clean web layout. He's well-known for being one of the first people to go all-in on using the iPad to do most of his work. He shared a lot of the workflow behind how he accomplished that feat, as iOS was pretty limited in its capabilities back then. In some ways, it still is.
MacStories has since brought other writers on board and the articles may not be as in-depth as back in the day. But the other contributors make MacStories well-rounded, and it is still a good resource for your Apple fix. Federico's legendary iOS review that comes out every year, which reads like a book, still lives on and he can be heard on more podcasts now.