MacEdition Logo

Dancing in the den of the merry pranksters

By Nobody Special, June 7, 2001

Okay, so the latest Mac OS X update didn’t give us any of the interface tweaks or new functionality that some of us so dearly wanted. Not to despair, Gen Xers – there’s an army of programmers out there who are more than eager to give us all the goodies we really wanted in our Easter baskets.

That’s right: We’ve been playing around and have composed this short list of diabolical downloads that will enable you to submit a screen shot that will make Steve Jobs revulse in horror (insert FrankenMac X) at what users can do to his minimalist Mac mode.

For old friends and new neighbors

First, for the old NeXTies – who really wanted a dock on the right-hand side of the screen – there are oodles of options that can do just that.

Our favorite has been TinkerTool from Marcel Bresink; this utility seems to bridge the gulf between old NeXTies and diehard Mac users in the nicest of ways.

TinkerTool is a multipurpose program that allows the user to reorient the Dock to any edge of the screen and change the window minimizing effect to either suck or scale to the Dock in place of the “genie” effect. In all fairness, the window minimizing tricks and dock shifting abilities were included in early builds of OS X but Apple chose not to make these features available to users in the commercial release of the OS.

The features giving TinkerTool a leg up on its rivals are the ability to place a Trash icon on the desktop, and setting transparency options in the Terminal window in a more straightforward fashion than its nearest rival. This setting, which is controlled through a slider bar, is strictly something that Unix-using users would appreciate as it allows them to see what their line-command input is doing to the program they are attempting to manipulate. Diehard Mac users will simply appreciate that the Trash can is where it’s supposed to be.

TinkerTool also allows the user to see hidden files within Mac OS X – and there are a boatload of them. Enough that a casual user would find this to be an irritating option. This is one best left to the pros, who would probably know the difference between a mach_kernel and a mach.sys file as well as what to do with them.

A close rival to TinkerTool is Plus for X from Simon Wigzell. Like TinkerTool, Plus for X allows the user to reorient the Dock with a simple command-click on the separator bar and provides options to pin (or lock) the Dock to the top-middle or bottom of the screen. Plus for X has an additional option which allows the user to force quit a program from the Dock, a rather handy option in that force quitting from the Apple Menu in OS X always seems to be clumsy and rather slow.

Our only quibbles with Plus for X is it has no Trash placement option and the transparency adjustment in Plus for X is set by a numerical value rather than using a slider bar. These are, at best, minor points. Both programs, once launched, remain in place, unlike most other Dock-shifting applications. Both authors chose to rewrite the OS’s XML-based preference files to have their programs automatically boot up rather than have the user manipulate the login process to boot their programs up.

There are benefits and drawbacks to this. The benefit is that the program is always there in the purest of brain-off modes. The drawback is that to get rid of the program one has to either reinstall the OS or replace the System Library with one from a unaltered user file.

One other nagging point, which will drive NeXTies wild, is that the Dock always loads at the bottom of the screen for both programs. To get NeXTshelf behavior from any Dock-switching app you have to manually reorient the Dock every time you boot OS X.

For those who can’t decide, there’s a hidden beauty in Mac OS X which allows the user to get the best of both worlds: Simply install one app on top of the other. There are no extension conflict issues in OS X as in older variants of the Mac OS.

Our suggestion would be to install Plus for X first and then fire up TinkerTool. It’s an enjoyable combination which gives you Plus for X’s option of force-quitting from the Dock along with all the goodies of TinkerTool. Both programs are freeware.

The other Dock-switching apps out there run a distant third or worse. Usually they don’t offer the number of options of either Plus for X or TinkerTool, or must be fired up from the login preference panel.

These include Docking Maneuvers by Austin Shoemaker, NeXbar by Shehryar Khan and various do-it-yourself Dock-switching hacks which require users to fire up the terminal window and input code in order to make the magic happen.

Docking Maneuvers does serve a useful purpose in that the user can play around with repositioning the Dock without requiring a reinstall or copy-over if you don’t like it.

NeXbar suggests it offers NeXTshelf behavior, but we couldn’t get it to load a single app and the help feature is unavailable. As for the do-it-yourself hacks: While we admire your abilities, please remember that most of us bought a Mac to get away from command-line baloney. And really, who wants to fire up Terminal and manually reorient the Dock every time they start their computer?

Your old Mac menu revisited

Mac OS 8.x and 9.x gave us a bevy of user options, most of which didn’t make the cut in OS X. Though many of those feature had a historically short life, losing them has been something like losing a few digits to some Mac users. Thankfully, there are shareware and freeware choices out there to return that missing functionality. The first applications to arrive on the scene were intended to restore the Apple Menu. NeXTies can regard this as adding a process menu to the desktop.

Our favorite in this category is X-Assist by Peter Li. X-Assist starts out as an application-switching menu and incorporates hierarchical menus and unlimited numbers of recent applications, documents and servers. There is also something of a Control Strip replacement built into this program as well. However, the control strip items have to be written before they can be added to the program. The author supplies two – a volume control and a MP3 player control from two other programmers – and gives the user a software development kit. The plug-ins use the NSBundle framework, which is also used by some other utilities we’ll be looking at.

For those who don’t like the rich feature set of X-Assist, there’s ASM (Application Switcher Menu) by Frank Vercruesse. ASM returns the Application Menu to the top right corner of the screen, slightly bumping the clock to the left. ASM needs to be activated through the login preference panel.

Cyder, another Application Menu replacement, resides in the Dock and needs to be activated by using the Alt-Tab key combination to bring an application forward. Then you can use the mouse to click on the app to see what’s running. One has to wonder at the usefulness of this; if the user gets familiar with alt-tabbing to switch over to Cyder, why won’t they learn to continue tabbing to the program they want? Classic Menu is another which is supposed to return the classic Apple Menu to the OS X environment. I say “supposed to” because it didn’t work during our little test.

Taking strip control

One of the more widely used features of Mac OS 8 and 9 was the Control Strip. Apple removed this feature in Mac OS X, believing the Dock made the Control Strip redundant. Were that only true. The System Preferences Dock item is closer in its behavior to the Control Panels item in System 7. You launch System Preferences, a window opens, you pick the item you wish to manipulate, another window opens, then you get to make your changes. This approach doesn’t have any of the click-bang-done simplicity of the Control Strip.

There are two items one may wish to consider downloading to return some of this missing functionality to OS X:

OpenStrip by Joe Strout and friends is an old-style replacement that comes with modules for volume control, a clock and a pair of cursor eyes. It also includes an extensive array of programming materials to help CodeWarrior developers create other modules. The whole deal is an open source effort, so perhaps many hands will make light work of this project.

One that we were most excited to look at was Menu Strip by Adrian Diaconu. Menu Strip runs off the Mac OS X menu bar and contains modules for controlling the volume and screen resolution. However, try as we might, we could not get this $12 shareware program to run.

A number of developers are producing docklings, mini-programs which reside in the Dock, to act as control items for OS X. Apple provided three handy docklings with OS X to allow users to switch resolutions, watch their laptop’s battery level and monitor the signal strength of their Airport Base Station.

Two of the more commonly downloaded docklings are from On-Core Inc., which produces an Audio CD Player dockling and a Volume Control dockling. Another one which we found handy is the Everyday dockling by Wade Cosgrove. Everyday provides quick access to Control Panel items and we found it to be more responsive than Apple’s System Preferences menu item. Everyday also has a plug-in architecture to support third-party add-ons. Cosgrove supplies a software development kit to help people develop those plug-ins.

Tabbing your windows

Tabbed popup windows are another feature of Mac OS 8 and 9 that isn’t in the new OS. Apple believes that that feature has been replaced by the new window minimization feature of OS X. Others, it would seem, would beg to differ.

Drop Drawers X from Sig Software is an updated flavor of an old favorite from the Classic Mac OS. Drop Drawers allows users to organize items in a tab-based window that attaches to any edge of the screen. And you can toss just about anything you want into a drawer, including URLs. It also has a movable process menu, or old-style Apple Menu, and a drawer from which one can quickly launch favorite programs. This handy utility is a US$15 shareware application.

PopUpX by Robert Woodhead is another solution to the loss of the tabbed windows, though it’s not as seamless as Drop Drawers X. PopUpX requires the user to create aliases of the folders they wish to have as popup windows in the same folder as the application. Upon launching the app the tabbed folders appear at the bottom of the screen. These folders are married to the bottom of the screen, just as the tabbed windows are in Mac OS 8 and 9.

PopUpX is an open source product. Those still grumbling over OS X’s interface may get something of a kick from reading Woodhead’s release notes. At the very least you’ll get some confirmation that you are not alone.

Ready, set, launch

Once considered the purview of new users, the Launcher had a legion of loyal users who found it to be the handiest way to launch programs and documents. However, Apple decided the Favorites toolbar in Mac OS X’s Finder windows provided that same functionality. If anyone thinks otherwise, download DragThing 4.0 by James Thomson.

DragThing has long been a favorite of Mac users and the new OS X variant of the $25 shareware program appears to be on its way to being just as big a hit.

You can store aliases of applications, documents, URLs or folders in a window for launching or accessing. It’s great for your most commonly used items. Loading an alias is as simple as dragging the icon to the DragThing screen. There’s no going into the guts of the OS to bury an alias as was done in OS 9 to place items in either the old Apple Menu or the Launcher. It can also be minimized to a tiny little widget that can be tucked under a hard drive icon on your desktop.

Another application worth looking at is Mac Toolkit by Graeme Warren. Mac Toolkit incorporates a five-item Launcher among a bevy of other handy tools, including a notes app, a calculator, an eject button for removable media, volume control and a shutdown/restart tab in a floating palette display. The US$7 shareware tool also includes a System Properties button.

Aqua begone

From the moment Mac users got their first glimpse of the new Aqua user interface, a nagging question rolled through many a user’s mind: "How much of a performance hit am I going to take for all that drop-down goodness?"

Well, a partial answer can be found in a program called Charcoal.

Charcoal drops some of Aqua’s shadowing and makes the interface a little plainer. Desktop icons remain as 3D images and much of the look and feel of Aqua remains the same. Charcoal’s most noticeable feature is that windows have the brushed aluminum look of the QuickTime Player and the “traffic light” window controls are gone. The is also a special edition of Charcoal which keeps the three buttons in place. The author also has created a program called Reaquifier, which returns OS X back to its original look and feel.

Custom icons

In days of yore many Mac users chose to drop custom icons onto their desktops to replace the rather plain, default ones. The resulting cottage industry of artists who created these fine works is still alive and well in the world of Mac OS X.

Those who want to download custom icons for Mac OS X might wish to browse the collections at The Iconfactory and Xicons. The Xicons site also contains a number of custom docklings.

E-mail this story to a friend