Mac OS X: Make Snow Leopard (and Apple's other cats) roar like Lion

Apple's new OS is due in the summer, but users can claim its advantages now with available third-party apps and services

With a second preview version now in the hands of app developers, Apple's next generation of Mac OS X, called Lion (version 10.7), appears to be on track for its planned release to the public this summer. The company has announced several new features for the upcoming Macintosh OS (some of which are lifted straight from iOS, Apple's mobile platform), including the following:

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  • A feature called Launchpad for organizing and launching apps, similar to the iOS home screen.
  • The new Mission Control feature that combines the existing Mac OS X Dashboard, Exposé, and Spaces features.
  • The ability for apps to auto-save and auto-resume as in iOS, and a feature called Versions that saves multiple versions of documents within the file over time so that you can easily revert to a previous iteration after you've made changes.
  • Easier file sharing among networked Macs, with a feature called AirDrop.
  • More advanced use of multitouch gestures (in the OS itself and available to app developers).
  • An updated interface and improved search capabilities in Mail, Mac OS X's built-in email client.
  • The ability for more apps to run in full-screen mode for a distraction-free experience, as Apple's iPhoto and iMovie do now.
  • A curated Mac App Store that offers one-click app installation.

One of these items has already arrived, of course: The Mac App Store launched for users of Mac OS X Snow Leopard (version 10.6) in January.

Although Lion is still months away, Mac users don't need to wait to get advances similar to the ones planned for the new operating system. In fact, several third-party applications and services already exist to meet the same challenges that Apple is aiming to address with Lion.

These free and low-cost tools can help you get results similar to those provided by Lion's Launchpad, Mission Control, systemwide auto-save, Versions, AirDrop, enhanced multitouch capabilities, and new Mail layout. Most of the apps work with Snow Leopard and Leopard (version 10.5); some are available for Tiger (version 10.4) as well. I've also included a section on app store alternatives for Leopard and Tiger users, who don't have access to the Mac App Store.

Launchpad

Lion's Launchpad will be modeled after the iOS home screen, which serves as the application launcher for iPhones and iPads. Launchpad will let you use a hot key or gesture (on a multitouch-enabled trackpad or mouse) to display a grid of icons for all of your installed applications overlaid on your desktop and running apps. Like the iOS home screen, Launchpad will feature multiple screens you can swipe through, along with the ability to reorganize applications and group them in folders.

Current versions of Mac OS X, by contrast, use the Dock as the main application launcher. Users can place icons for applications, folders, and even documents in the Dock, which is always on-screen by default; just click an item to launch it. If an application hasn't been added to the Dock, users generally find it by browsing through their Applications folder (which itself can be added to the Dock for easy access to all its contents) or by doing a Spotlight search.

While the Dock is good as a basic application launcher, it has limitations. As more and more items are added to the Dock, it automatically shrinks their icons to accommodate them all. Even if you don't add every installed application to the Dock, a moderate load of regularly used titles can make it crowded and eventually too small to be really usable.

The Dock's limitations as a launcher are far from new. Over the decade since Apple introduced Mac OS X, many alternative application launchers and managers have been released. While none of them offers exactly the same functionality as Apple's Launchpad, some of them come close -- and some take a better approach, in my opinion.

First up is the app that comes closest to Launchpad. Jump displays an icon in the corner of the screen that, when clicked, pops up an overlay containing applications that you've selected to include for easy access as well as commonly used folders and files. This free tool works with Mac OS X Leopard and later.

aLaunch (donationware) is a menu-based application launcher that places your chosen apps and folders under a menu bar icon that can be accessed from any application. If you're a longtime Mac user, you'll find the effect very similar to the Apple menu in Mac OS 9 and earlier. You can group related items together and assign global hot keys to open specific items. Although the most recent version of aLaunch requires OS X Leopard or later, earlier versions work with Tiger and Panther.

Alfred, currently in beta, is a combination application launcher and search tool. You launch Alfred via a keyboard shortcut, then type a few letters into the text field to see immediate results, including applications, files on your Mac, and Web bookmarks. If it can't find these, Alfred suggests appropriate Web searches, or you can instruct it to perform a search by typing the site name and your keywords, as in "google ipad 2." You can use keyboard shortcuts to quickly launch the resulting apps, files, bookmarks, or searches; Alfred learns your most commonly used items and orders the results appropriately for even faster access. Alfred works with Mac OS X Leopard and later. The basic version is free. Also available is the Powerpack, which adds features such as iTunes remote control, file system navigation and management, a clipboard history that allows you to review and reuse previous copied and pasted items, and a recent documents viewer. It costs £12 (about $18.50).

Berokyo, which works with Mac OS X Tiger and later versions, is a combination application/file launcher and desktop organizer. The $18.95 program creates bookshelf-like organizers called cabinets for frequently accessed apps, folders and collections of files (documents, photos, videos, Web pages, and so on), presenting instant access and previews to all manner of content. Berokyo also offers a tagging feature that makes it easy to locate specific pieces of information or references across file types.

Dock Menus lets you create multiple free-floating docks separate from the built-in Mac OS X Dock; the floating docks can be moved around your desktop as needed. By creating multiple docks, you can group related apps, files, and folders. Dock Menus works with Mac OS X Leopard or later and costs $5.

From the same developer as Dock Menus, iDock works with the built-in Mac OS X Dock, letting you create multiple Docks, each with its own content, and switch among them as needed. This creates an effect somewhat similar to the multiple home screens in iOS and the Launchpad preview; iDock works with Mac OS X Leopard or later and costs $5.

Like iDock, Dock Spaces lets you create and switch among varying Docks using the traditional Mac OS X Dock interface. Dock Spaces goes a step further than iDock in that it offers integration with the Mac OS X Spaces feature, allowing you to tailor virtual desktops that automatically open specific applications, specific windows, and a specific Dock for a variety of tasks such as graphic design, document editing, social media, Web browsing, or chat. Dock Spaces is free and works with Mac OS X Leopard or later.

DragThing is a venerable Mac tool that predates Mac OS X. It allows you to create Dock-like work areas that can contain shortcuts to applications, folders, files, and URLs. There's also a space to store copied items for later pasting, offering a way to copy many items and have them readily available. DragThing costs $29. The current version of DragThing supports Mac OS X Tiger or later, but earlier versions are also available for earlier versions of Mac OS X.

Quicksilver is a free Finder alternative for Mac OS X Tiger and later; it lets you launch applications and locate specific files quickly just by typing the first few letters of an application or file name. It's a simple, keyboard-centric way to launch apps and open files. Like Alfred, it learns your preferences and orders results accordingly, and it lets you assign keyboard shortcuts to a wide variety of actions.

Mission Control

Mission Control looks like it will be an interesting combination of existing Mac OS X features -- Spaces (Apple's virtual desktop feature), Exposé (which allows you to see thumbnails of all Spaces, open windows, and items hidden by windows, and to switch apps), and Dashboard (a feature that allows easy viewing of a range of widgets, or tiny applets) -- in a single interface.

In bringing these elements together, Apple is trying to offer a one-click view of all running apps, windows, full-screen app views, and spaces. The ability to swipe through all these items will borrow from the iOS ability to swipe across multiple home screens.

In the new iteration, Dashboard appears to have its own Space or full-screen view instead of appearing as an overlay to the desktop as it does currently. While I'm not enamored of that particular change, overall I think the Mission Control concept is solid as a way to quickly see everything that's running on a Mac and to easily switch to the tasks you need.

I'm not aware of any existing tools that match the complete integration of these features that Apple is promising in Lion, but here are three that offer useful enhancements to Spaces and Exposé along the lines Apple seems to be planning -- and which may even be better than Apple's ultimate Mission Control solution for some users.

Hyperspaces extends and customizes Apple's implementation of Spaces. It lets you assign custom desktop pictures to each space for easy recognition (or just tint the desktop picture of each space a different color) and label each space -- useful if you routinely dedicate different spaces to different tasks. It also improves navigation among spaces by letting you configure a virtual map of where spaces are in relation to each other, and it offers hot keys for common Spaces tasks, such as adding or removing spaces and showing or hiding desktop icons in a space. Hyperspaces works with Mac OS X Leopard or later and costs $13.

SaneDesk is another Spaces enhancer that allows on-the-fly creation and deletion of spaces. It supports an unlimited number of spaces, each of which can be customized with its own desktop picture, set of desktop icons, and Dock (complete with unique Dock items and on-screen positioning). SaneDesk works with Mac OS X Leopard or later and costs $16.

Switché is a Snow Leopard-only utility that builds on the Exposé feature. It uses Apple's Cover Flow feature to show large, smooth 3D previews of running apps, windows, or spaces, allowing you to switch among them in an intuitive manner (similar to the swiping feature of Mission Control). Switché costs $8.

Auto-save and Versions

Auto-save isn't a new concept, nor is it specific to iOS. Many applications offer an option to either automatically save files at a set interval or to auto-save a backup (without changing the original file) that can be accessed if the application crashes.

Lion taps into that auto-save functionality in a new feature called Versions, which lets you view all past iterations of a document or other file that you've made changes to. In a way, it's an extension of Apple's Time Machine, which allows you to locate and restore files from a backup. Time Machine comes in very handy when you want to get back a file you've deleted or find an earlier version of a file before you made modifications to it.

However, while Time Machine makes hourly backups of each document, it keeps them only for 24 hours; it permanently saves only one backup of each document per day. Versions, on the other hand, saves and keeps a version each time you open or save a file. If a document is open for an extended period of time, a new version is stored every hour that it's open.

There are a couple of ways to get similar features right now.

For applications that don't offer an auto-save feature, there's ForeverSave, a utility that can provide auto-save features systemwide to any Mac running Mac OS X Leopard or later. You can select which applications can auto-save and when they auto-save (the default being anytime you switch applications).

Beyond simply auto-saving your work, ForeverSave can maintain multiple versions of your documents as you make changes to them, much as Lion's Versions does. You can even choose how many versions of auto-saved documents are maintained and when they are erased. ForeverSave also allows you to set multiple auto-save operations to serve as an extra backup.

Although an iOS-like auto-resume function -- the ability to close an app and later pick up exactly where you left off when you closed it -- isn't built into ForeverSave, its one-click restore option comes close.

ForeverSave may be worth using even in Lion. Apple is making auto-save a priority and giving developers tools to implement the feature. But the company may not make it a requirement for all Mac software (particularly titles sold outside the Mac App Store), and it probably will not be added to previous applications that haven't been upgraded specifically for Lion. Likewise, it remains to be seen if Versions will automatically support all applications and document formats or if developers will need to explicitly choose to support it.

ForeverSave costs $15.

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