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

Another option that offers some Versions-like features is the Dropbox online storage service. Although most commonly used to share and sync files across multiple computers and mobile devices, Dropbox does offer version tracking. That feature isn't included in the Mac Dropbox app but can be easily accessed by logging into your account at the Dropbox website. There is very limited restore capability connected to a free Dropbox account, but a Pro account offers a feature called Pak-Rat that provides extensive restore or rewind capabilities. Pricing varies depending on the type of account you have and on the amount of space you use.

AirDrop

Apple has always aimed to make file sharing as simple as possible. Bonjour, Apple's no-configuration network protocol, makes it easy to locate Macs on a local network that have file sharing active -- they simply show up (along with any non-Mac computers or file servers) in the sidebar of Finder windows.

That's great, but to share a file with someone, you must know the name of their Mac, that Mac must have file sharing turned on, and you must have access to an account on that Mac (unless the other person has left guest access enabled, which is never a good idea for security reasons). Lion will include a feature called AirDrop that simplifies the process and offers a bit more security.

According to Apple, AirDrop will be listed in a Finder window sidebar. Click AirDrop and you'll see a list of Mac users with AirDrop enabled who are connected to your network. To send a file, simply drag it to a user's name. That user will see an alert that you are sending a file, with the option to accept or reject the transfer. If he or she accepts, the file will be added to that user's Downloads folder.

There aren't many third-party options that mimic AirDrop, but DropCopy is a free app available for Macs running Snow Leopard, Leopard, or Tiger. (It costs $5 if you need to install it on more than three Macs.) Its goal is essentially the same as AirDrop's.

When installed on two or more Macs on a local network, an icon called the Drop Zone appears on the desktop of each. Dragging files to the Drop Zone will display a list of available Macs with DropCopy running. Drag the files onto a specific Mac to copy them to that Mac. (Users specify where they want copied files to be placed when they install DropCopy.) DropCopy also allows you to transfer contents between the Clipboards of two Macs.

One major difference between AirDrop and DropCopy is that AirDrop requires user confirmation before a transfer takes place (a big plus when connected to public or office networks), whereas DropCopy does not.

Note: A version of DropCopy for iOS is also available; it lets you send files on a Mac to an iPhone or iPad (or vice versa), or share files between two iOS devices.

More multitouch gestures

Apple has been bringing multitouch features into Macs for a long time now. The original MacBook Air pioneered the use of the trackpad for multitouch gestures -- pinching, swiping, and the like -- in 2008. Apple has expanded these gestures in more recent MacBook models, as well as in its Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad peripherals.

In Lion, Apple has promised to bring even more iOS-style multitouch gestures and visual responses to Mac OS X. Among the new gestures demoed on Apple's Lion page are rubber-band-style scrolling, enhanced pinch and zoom functionality, and full-screen swiping. Whether Apple will offer even more advanced gesture support is an open question, but I wouldn't be surprised to see some more in the final release.

If you don't want to wait to get more gestures and capabilities, however, you don't have to: There are several utilities available for getting your multitouch groove on in Leopard and Snow Leopard (but not earlier Mac OS X releases).

First up are two tools that simply expand on Apple's existing multitouch features. MagicPrefs (free) and MouseWizard ($5) add support for multiple-clicking and augment the existing swipe/pinch/drag gestures; they also let you automate a wide variety of tasks, such as copying/pasting, switching spaces, and launching applications using the Magic Mouse. As of this writing, both of these products work only with Apple's Magic Mouse. Support for Apple's Magic Trackpad is planned for MagicPrefs, but no timetable for that addition is available.

Next up are more ambitious multitouch extenders. BetterTouchTool (donationware, currently in alpha) offers the ability to assign custom gestures to perform a wide range of system tasks, including opening and closing windows, invoking Mac OS X features like Dashboard and Exposé, launching applications and websites, adjusting preferences such as sound and brightness, controlling iTunes, and mimicking specific key combinations or mouse functions such as right-clicking. It works with Apple trackpads, the Magic Mouse, and traditional multibutton mice; it can also be used to assign custom keyboard shortcuts.

Jitouch ($7) functions with Apple trackpads and the Magic Mouse, and it includes a library of built-in multitouch gestures for each type of device. Both global and application-specific gestures are available to activate a variety of features and commands, such as switching applications, working with tabs in Safari, activating window controls (minimizing and moving window position, for example), switching spaces, and activating Exposé. Like BetterTouchTool, Jitouch also lets you assign custom gestures.

Another neat option is its support for character gestures; you can assign actions that are invoked by drawing a specific shape on the mouse or trackpad with your finger (similar to the stylus-based Grafitti input on old Palm OS devices). This allows for a lot of customization but is also something that can take a bit of getting used to (and thus isn't for everyone).

Keep in mind that while all of these tools are similar, each one has its own unique variations on what it does and how it functions. Choosing between them is generally a matter of individual taste and needs, including what devices you use. Therefore, you'll want to check out all these tools to find the one that works best for you.

Mail improvements

In Lion, Apple is making some improvements to Mail. Mac OS X's native email client is pretty decent overall, hitting all the basics such as support for multiple accounts, easy setup, the ability to organize and search messages, and support for a range of mail rules or filters. But Mail is missing a few modern touches.

One big issue is that the view format is pretty much limited to a dual-pane display that shows a small list-box of messages above a preview pane, plus a sidebar with accounts and folders -- an interface that email clients have used for nearly two decades. The hierarchical folder view in the sidebar can make locating specific folders difficult and limits the ability to manage messages from multiple accounts. Similarly, the small message list-box makes scrolling to locate messages challenging.

Another issue is that although Mail offers decent search capabilities, specifying multiple criteria (by a word in the subject line, the sender's domain name, and to whom it was sent, for example) isn't really possible. Even getting granular with a single phrase or name and a specific folder or account isn't particularly user-friendly.

Apple says it will improve the view options in Mail by allowing a wide-screen approach, where you can have columns for all your accounts/folders as well as messages and a full-size display for a selected message. This option has been around in other email apps (most notably Outlook) for quite some time. Although Apple hasn't been too specific about search capabilities, it has said search in Mail will be refined. The screenshots available imply that the toolbar will be improved to make overall navigation better.

While there isn't much you can do to improve the toolbar and search capabilities of the current version of Mail, you can use one of two plug-ins to make the interface more user-friendly. WideMail and Letterbox do essentially the same thing: Replace the message list with a column that displays a greater number of messages and offers a larger message view next to it.

Both are good options; the differences between the two are minimal. WideMail is donationware, whereas Letterbox is free. WideMail offers some formatting options for how the message column is displayed, such as types of dividers, date style, and alternating background colors in the list. Both support Snow Leopard and Leopard; Letterbox also offers a version for Tiger.

A couple of other notable Mail plug-ins offer features that aren't quite Lion-like (at least from what we know about Lion at this point) but deserve some mention as well.

RelatedMail (free) offers a menu option that displays any messages related to the one you're currently viewing. The relationship is determined based on features such as message thread or subject, date or sender. It is free -- and technically still in beta, though it works pretty solidly -- and available for both Snow Leopard and Leopard. It doesn't provide the advanced search features Apple is promising, but it is pretty helpful.

GrowlMail (free) works with the Growl add-on for Mac OS X and displays new message details, complete with a small pop-up identifying the sender and subject and providing a short message preview. The effect is similar to the new message preview option in Outlook. GrowlMail works with Snow Leopard and Leopard.

Mac App Store

The Mac App Store, available to Snow Leopard users since early this year, places a wide, easy-to-browse selection of Mac apps at a user's fingertips without requiring a Web search. Purchasing, installing, and updating apps have been simplified to the one-click approach of the iOS App Store.

Like the iOS App Store, the Mac App Store is curated by Apple to ensure that apps run properly and that they don't violate any App Store rules or guidelines. However, apps can still be purchased and installed from locations besides the Mac App Store -- an important difference from the iOS App Store, which maintains a closed environment for iOS app installation.

These third-party stores mean good news for Leopard and Tiger users, who can't access the Mac App Store. Even better, there are several easy-to-browse marketplaces that are free of Apple's App Store terms and conditions, and some easy-to-manage update tools are available.

Bodega is essentially a Mac App Store app. It has a storefront feel and allows you to browse, purchase, and download new apps and update already-installed apps (whether installed via Bodega or not) from a simple and intuitive interface. The selection of apps available in Bodega is pretty good, and like the Mac App Store, it's organized by categories and lets you see new releases, staff picks, and the top free and paid downloads.

There are many Mac catalogs worth visiting on the Web. Almost all are broken down by category and offer user ratings and reviews, and some also offer staff recommendations. Some of the top Mac software catalogs include MacUpdate, Pure Mac, Cnet's Mac Software list (formerly Versiontracker.com), FreeMacWare, MacShareware.com, App Donkey, and Mac Softpedia. Mac.AppStorm isn't an app catalog, but it is a great resource for Mac software information and reviews.

I mentioned that Bodega offers some automatic update capabilities, but there are several tools that can constantly track your installed Mac software (commercial, shareware, and free/open source) and alert you to updates. Some of the better options include MacUpdate Desktop, AppFresh, and MacKeeper. MacUpdate Desktop and AppFresh are free and focus just on update management, while MacKeeper is a $38 tool that offers a range of other Mac utility features, including antivirus protection, backup, file encryption, and disk space management tools.

Finally, another potential alternative to Apple's Mac App Store is brewing. Cydia, the unofficial app store for jailbroken iOS devices and apps not approved by Apple, has announced plans to create Cydia for Mac. The exact purpose of creating the store is a little unclear, since Mac OS X will remain an open platform where users can install any apps they want (no jailbreaking required), but once up and running, it will offer users an additional storefront-style option.

Conclusions

The tools in this list may fall short of what's coming in Mac OS X Lion, but they do approximate some of the Lion features we've glimpsed. Some offer advantages that we may not see in Lion, such as character-based gestures and the ability to fully customize individual spaces. Regardless of how they compare to the upcoming Lion, they offer great benefits to Mac users in the here and now.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to Peachpit.com. Faas is also the author of iPhone for Work (Apress 2009). You can find out more about him at www.ryanfaas.com and follow him on Twitter (@ryanfaas).

This story, "Mac OS X: Make Snow Leopard (and Apple's other cats) roar like Lion" was originally published by Computerworld.

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