New Mac Setup Recommendations: 2007

Just got a new Mac? Congratulations. Here are suggestions on loading it up with stuff that’s useful and works. I’ve spent hundreds of hours in tweaking, evaluating and configuring, so these suggestions have been through real trials!

Software

Free
  1. Skype
  2. Firefox
  3. Google Browser Sync for Firefox. Who needs .Mac when you can sync your bookmarks for Firefox across multiple machines?
  4. Del.icio.us Bookmarks for Firefox
  5. FireFTP – FTP client for Firefox. Yes, it’s good and its free.
  6. Adobe Reader – I know, you already have Preview.app, so why Adobe? For long online reading sessions, this app just has some nicer features and a better search / TOC interface.
  7. Adium – A multi-chat protocol IM client, with growl support.
  8. Handbrake – lets you rip your own DVDs. Handy for serving them up to yourself of your RAID array in the basement, exporting them to your own iPod for mobile viewing, etc.
  9. VLC Media Player – Plays a lot of video that Quicktime won’t.
  10. Real Player – Yet another media format you need, for stuff like TheServerSide.com or npr.org.
Donationware
  1. Journaler – A powerful journaling tool with smart folders, tagging and just phenomenal idea capture. It’s only weak spot is robust export to external blogs (for that, MacJournal is best).
  2. SharePoints – lets you set up file sharing (shared folders) like on Windows, as otherwise, it is actually very complex/locked down on the Mac beyond the “Drop Box”.
Nagware
  1. Acquisition – $20 for a great P2P client that’s been a stalwart in the Mac community.
Commercial
  1. Knox – $29 for locking whole folders with AES128 bit encryption and seamlessly unlocking them to mount as temporary volumes. Why do you need this? You can’t have all your sensitive data in your own login or accessible to Spotlight. We never logout when someone needs to quickly use our computers. That however, doesn’t mean our most sensitive files should be accessible. There should be another encrypted, password protected tier. That’s what Knox gives you.
  2. MacJournal – $35 for a great way to publish to external blogs. Even lets you embed sound and images, and it handles the upload of these too.
  3. BBEdit – $125 for a professional HTML and text editor. Actually, I now like TextMate better. It’s only $49 and it’s the defacto light weight editor for people doing development with Ruby on Rails on a Mac.
  4. OmniOutliner Pro – $70 for a great hierarchical (outlining) tool. Embed URLs, media and other such. Use custom styles.
  5. VMWare Fusion – $79. This is far more polished than Parallels. Increasingly, Parallels users are blogging frustration and lack of good customer service/support. I’ve also found VMWare Fusion is more reliable and also quite slick. See this video for a taste of what it can do. Note that with only 2GB of RAM in your system, set your Windows XP virtual machine to have 512MB of memory. I’ve found that if you give your Mac any less than 1.5GB, you’ll run into a major slowdown on the Mac side too. Half a gig seems to be plenty to fire up Microsoft Word to do some strike precision word processing while not crimping your Mac style. If you have 4GB of RAM, I’d then recommend setting your virtual machine to 1GB, leaving 3GB for your Mac. Remember, set this size right the first time and as few times as possible, lest Windows refuse to re-activate because your “configuration has changed”.
  6. IntelliJ IDEA – $249 for hands down, the most sophisticated Java IDE, for you fellow developers out there.
  7. Splash ID – $29 This is a must have for storing sensitive data like credit card numbers, family SSNs, bank accounts, serial numbers, web site passwords etc. The beauty is, that it lets you sync with a device like your Treo or BlackBerry. The desktop version and handheld version are password protected with your master password. Oh, and it’s Blowfish-256 bit encrypted. ‘Nuff said.
  8. Missing Sync – $40 For syncing your device (especially Palm based) with your Mac. Why pay for syncing to your Mac? Unfortunately, the device makers generally have shoddy and incomplete conduits in this regard. The Missing Sync is built by Mac users for Mac users and it doesn’t just do the basic address book and calendars, it’ll sync playlists from iTunes, captured photos into and out of iPhoto and so on. It brings under one umbrella, all the conduits you use in syncing and you set up profiles of subsets of conduits you want to sync (which you can fire off with little ceremony).
  9. Spanning Sync – $65 lifetime one-time fee. Lets you sync iCal with Google Calendar. Why? Because .Mac, even if you have it, has no web based view of your calendar! It only syncs iCal between actual Macs. On the go, without a Mac, you’re screwed! Plus, Google Calendar rocks and complimented by iCal and Spanning Sync to go between them, it’s a rock solid calendar syncing solution.
  10. Flickr Export iPhoto Plug-in. – $25. A slick iPhoto plug in that’s much more intuitive than the free alternative, which is Flickr Uploader for the Mac.
  11. Flip4Mac -$29. A collection of QuickTime components that allow you to play, import, and export Windows Media video and audio files on your Mac using your favorite QuickTime-based applications
  12. iWork 08 – $79. The Word compatibility isn’t perfect, but it’s decent for basic documents. I’m just waiting for Office 2008 for the Mac next year. Switching to a virtual machine for word processing ties up system resources, so this is the best Mac option at present, unless you already have Office 2004 (but that runs slowly with Rosetta). If you don’t need to do precision fine tuning, this will work well for Word documents. For the real surgical word processing, you’ll have to wait for Office 2008 or use VMWare’s Fusion. I believe Office 2004 is so slow, it’s best to use a virtualization option! I like Numbers too, from what little I’ve used of it, and Keynote has already proven itself.
  13. ChronoSync – $30. Very cheap for what you get. A powerful backup program that can store multiple old versions as archives, schedule backups, auto-login to mounted volumes etc.
Suggestions

Use the Apple provided applications. By using Mail, Address Book and iCal, you get the best integration with various other tools and syncing services. For example, I use Mail instead of Thunderbird, because I store all my mail on an IMAP server. Having Apple Mail’s smart folders just rocks. Thunderbird can’t touch it.

Services

Plaxo for Mac – Not Ready for Prime Time

Stay away from this. Plaxo works phenomenally well on Windows with Outlook 2003 on various machines and online. However, if in that same mix, you add a Mac, and say, sync with your Palm based device too, the insertion of Plaxo for Mac in that scenario screws it up. You’ll have major data headaches. And, it’s just contacts. No Calendar, no Notes, no Tasks. Plaxo just doesn’t have the development resources to make this work robustly. I was able to recreate problems on demand consistently, and so decided to give up when their support said, “we don’t see the problem”. I was going to send them a screencast, but they just can’t pay me enough to put all that time into debugging their product. And I was a Plaxo VIP customer that year. Go figure.

That being said, there’s a new Plaxo 3.0 available for private beta that is claiming Address Book, Calendar and Mail syncing. I believe the latter is just mail signatures. A great review of Plaxo Pro 3.0 on a Mac includes a contrast with SpanningSync.

My Take on .Mac

I actually have this, because I wanted sync from one vendor. The Internet and my Mac(s), I thought. Perfect. I’ll forego syncing with Outlook at a client’s office. No problem. However, the Address Book (web version) on .Mac doesn’t even show me contact notes! It misses, routinely, fields like email addresses. Apple…this is not voodooo science! Apple needs to improve .Mac. Right now, there’s no online calendar, so SpanningSync to sync to Google Calendar is the only reliable option.

Yes, .Mac is getting better. IMAP support on the Mail client for the web is slick. If they just let me do a “send as” to make my mail appear from my own domain instead of my @mac.com address, I’d be set. I’d gladly pay for more storage about put all 12GB of IMAP mail up on their servers. I’ve already sent them feedback to apply this feature. Let’s see what happens. So many lifehackers out there are looking for the holy grail of slick online web interface to email representing IMAP folders they also sync with on desktop clients. Yahoo! Email online is beautiful, but the folders are not IMAP analogs – email is just organized on Yahoo! itself. Same with GMail. Those folders and labels mean nothing re: IMAP. So, Apple is close.

What Apple needs to do, is stop cranking out more premium iCard templates and photo galleries for stupid stuff, and roll up their sleeves to:

  1. Give me personalized outbound email on the web client.
  2. More storage for less money.
  3. Full Address Book syncing that is robust, custom fields and all.
  4. A web calendar so I didn’t have to pay for spanning sync (or partner with them and pull in Google Calendar in some way to the experience).
  5. A notes syncing facility.

Will I get .Mac next year? Not sure. Syncing stuff between Macs is so useful and seamless. The webmail that’s all IMAP is near nirvana. iDisk for backups of key files is slick. Let’s see what revs .Mac gets this year.

Hardware

MacBook Pro

If you just got a new MacBook Pro (the ones released in Summer 2007 or later), you can pop in a total of 4GB of RAM. As a $750 upgrade from Apple, I don’t recommend you do this. As a $269 upgrade (third-party), I do recommend you do that. If you are going to run any kind of virtualization software, you will chew through RAM. So stock up.