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Apple Mods: How To Make Mac OS X Rock

Mac expert John Welch offer tips for customizing and tuning your setup, with system-software mods and looks at iTinkerTool, TypeIt4Me, Snapz Pro, and NetworkLocation.

9 Min Read

I'm not normally a big fan of modifications. I find many mods to cause far more problems than they're worth, and rarely do they make you more efficient. But then I started paying attention to how I work, and the tools I used, and I realized that while I don't have tons of system hacks, there are quite a few things I do to make the Mac OS X work the way I want it to.

In writing this article, I had to create some ground rules for what constitutes a Mac mod, otherwise I'd end up writing about "any old app I use a lot." So for software, I decided a mod is something that either alters OS behavior, or overrides common OS functions.

Hardware was easier, because really, any time you crack the case open on a laptop, you're doing a mod. However, again, I didn't want to talk about stuff you're supposed to do. That's not a mod, that's tinkering with user-upgradeable parts, and where's the fun in that? Also, I don't use a desktop much, other than some test Minis, so, the hardware stuff is all about the laptop.

What's not in here? To be blunt, stuff that relies on Input Managers and the like. I have yet to see anything relying on Input Managers that did not cause problems. The logic of the developers of Input Manager hacks, goes like this: 'If our code makes an application go wrong, yay us, we found a bug in [insert application name here.]' This always struck me as a bit specious. It is the mod developers' job to ensure their mods never do any harm, especially when code is being injected into another application.

It is not the job of every application developer to ensure his or her code works with any random injected code from every random mod. Plus, after the nth time that some application sneaks yet another copy of Smart Crash Reports on to my system, let's just say that I have issues with Input Managers, and leave it at that.

At heart, I am a sysadmin. I skew towards safety and system reliability first, because if my base system is not reliable, then I'm not gaining much by the modding. Also, this is limited to things I use, because well, I use them. I know what they do, and that makes it easier for me to talk about their use.

TinkerTool And TinkerTool System

TinkerTool, from Marcel Bresink, was one of the first system mod tools for Mac OS X, and has always stood out because it doesn't do anything the OS can't do by itself. Instead of modifying how the OS and applications work, or injecting code into other applications, it provides a good UI for the various system options.

For example, on my MacBook Pro, TinkerTool makes it easier to avoid sending .DS_Store files to servers, sets my Mac OS X 10.5 Dock to the 2-D version, lets me have both scroll arrows together at both ends of the scrollbar area, enables the diagnostic menu in Address Book, and enables the Debug Menu in Safari. It can do quite a bit more, but that's all I need it to do. I've been using TinkerTool since it first appeared, and it's never caused me a lick of trouble. Marcel is fast to update it when a new OS release comes out, and he's done a great job of making sure it's safe to use. Best of all? It's free!

TinkerTool System is TinkerTool's big brother. It's not free, but it is a lot more powerful. It can clean up all your cache files, remove resource fork emulation files, (aka ._files), set files and folders invisible, set MTUs, screen scaling factors, manage ACLs, modify the login window, manage various plugins, etc.

Neither of these tools is unique in its feature set, but they each have a rock-solid reputation, and Marcel's concern for safety makes using his applications much easier. TypeIt4Me

Another "must have" utility for me, TypeIt4Me predates even TinkerTool, as it started life in 1989. For my work, with all the repetitive phrases I have to type, TypeIt4Me is indispensable. Instead of typing out say, "TypeIt4Me," I just type "t4M" and TypeIt4Me fills in the missing characters. I use this tool for Mac OS X, Mac OS X Server, Mac OS X 10.4, Mac OS X 10.5, Mac OS X 10.5 Server, Microsoft Entourage, Entourage 2008, and on, and on. Recent versions have added the ability to run AppleScripts, connections to the Mac OS X spellchecker, and too many others to list. More importantly, it lets me define where I do not want it to function, so that it leaves things like Terminal alone. The single-user license fee is $27.

Could I live without TypeIt4Me? Sure, but why? It saves me a ton of time, and has never caused me any problems.

NetworkLocation

NetworkLocation takes the location functionality available in Mac OS X, and adds so much more to it that I'm almost surprised Apple hasn't bought them out. (For anyone who remembers the far superior Location Manager features in Mac OS 9, NetworkLocation goes even beyond those.) While Mac OS X 10.5 added things like location-aware printer selection, NetworkLocation goes far beyond that, to add things like enabling Bluetooth, setting screensaver settings, launching applications/scripts, changing Mail's SMTP servers, enabling/disabling Airport, etc.

So with NetworkLocation, you could create a location called "Airplane Mode" that would shut off Airport and Bluetooth in one step. There's an SDK available to create your own plugins, and there are a couple available for download, including one that lets you tie Microsoft Entourage into NetworkLocation. It's not a cure for cancer, but it gives you a problem-free, (at least in my experience), to get more done with less work. NetworkLocation can be downloaded for $25.

Snapz Pro X 2

RCDefaultApp, from Rubicode, I was a little hesitant, but since it's kind of a TinkerTool for Launch Services and the like, it fit the criteria to be included here. RCDefaultApp makes up for the shortcomings in the OS for managing Launch Services, which is how the OS knows which application handles what file type. RCDefaultApp also deals with what application handles email, DVDs, URLs, etc.

It's a preference pane that lets you set almost any kind of "default app" that you would ever need to, and it really alleviates the utter stupidity of making me open Mail.app, something I only use for testing, just so I can tell the operating system that I really want to use Microsoft Entourage for my email. Same thing for Web browsing, etc. It has a simple interface that handles pretty much any kind of default app/file association you'll ever need, in the place where you'd expect to handle it. It's not only free, but it works really well.

A Bigger Hard Drive

Honestly, this is my sole hardware mod, but it's one I do almost immediately for every laptop I've ever had. With my MacBook Pro, between virtualization and Boot Camp, it was almost a requirement. So instead of the 160GB drive that I bought to replace the 120GB drive that my MacBook Pro shipped with, I now have a lovely 300GB drive, with a 100GB Windows partition, and a 200GB Mac OS X partition. It's so nice, doing all the stuff I do, and having more than 80GB of free space available to me. I can't tell you how nice that is. Yes, I know. External drives. Bah. If I can fit almost 2X the space I was using into my laptop, then I'm going to.

One bit of advice here: Unlike the MacBook, the MacBook Pro drive is not user replaceable. If you are not both comfortable and experienced with laptop takedowns, I most emphatically recommend you find a good Apple-Authorized shop to do this for you. For a MacBook Pro, it's around 15 differently sized small screws, along with some fragile connectors that, if broken, mean you don't have a laptop, you have a brick.

Conclusion

I admit that as modders go, I'm weak. I don't do all kinds of weird things to my rigs, I don't hack my kernel, I don't heavily mod my hardware. Really. I'm that guy who has an insanely full Dock, and am quite happy in spite of the obvious superiority of LaunchBar et al over the bog of eternal suck that is the Dock.

But, the mods I do make use of, I rely upon heavily, so they tend to be at least fairly reliable, a quality that can get lost in the new toy fever that a lot of people get when they first start modding. I'm not saying don't experiment. Indeed, I highly encourage it. But, if you're going to mod your system or your hardware, do make sure you have a good backup or three. You'll be much less likely to panic when things go south.

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