Best tools to get more out of your fingers in your mac

Depending on the task you are carrying out, you want you fingers either in your keyboard or in your mouse; and you want them to stay there. When I am programming I want to forget about my mouse and this implies that I should be able to open new terminals, navigate the code or check Stack Overflow without missing it. On the other hand, when working on my pictures, I want to prescind as much as I can from the keyboard, or at least limit my interaction with it to only one hand. Today I will tell you about the tools I use that allow me to feel comfortable working on my mac; from mapping gestures and shortcuts to choosing the speed of a certain key repetition.

The magic comes mainly from 3 plug-ins: BetterTouchTool, Alfred, and KeyRemap4MacBook. As an extra, I will also comment a simple but extremely useful related app: Caffeine.

# Key Remapping and gestures

The biggest challenge when prescinding from one of your peripherals (keyboard or mouse) is being able to easily re-map one to the other so that it becomes natural to perform an operation that before was unwittingly attached to the other (i.e., switching desktops is normally mapped to opt + ➝  or command + ➝ in the keyboard. Switching desktops with the mouse is a challenge without the proper application). What is necessary then is a tool that is flexible enough as to support almost any mapping  you can think of. That tool is undoubtedly BetterTouchTool.

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 15.03.35

BetterTouchTool is a mapping command center that allows to attach almost any gesture or key mapping you can think of to either an Operating System task or an application specific behaviour. The interface is pretty straight forward and easy to configure.

One of the things I love about BetterTouchTool is that it allows mapping the same functionality to different applications so that once the mapping is done a behaviour is consistent. I will explain. Imaging that you want to map swapping 2 fingers to left and right to previous/next page. This is, going to a previous window in finder, previous webpage in safari, etc. However, you find out that what should be consistent over different built-in apps is not, and going to a previous/next window in Calendar uses a different key combination. Then, you can map the swapping to Calendar as an specific app so that, even when internally the operation is performed by triggering the key combination it is supposed to, to you eyes it is swapping left and right that allows you to go back and forth.

By spending some time in configuring it you will find yourself being extremely efficient even when you lack something as “indispensable” as the mouse.

One drawback though: BetterTouchTool does not support saving a configuration file yet. This means that if you reinstall or use several machines, you will have to manually update you configuration. The developers are very active, so I hope this functionality is added in the near future.

A good add-on to BetterTouchTool is KeyRemap4MacBook. While it replicates some of the functionality, it supports  choosing the values for key repetitions. This is: when you press a key, how fast the operating system interprets that the key is being pressed and not released, and how fast the character being pressed is sent. This allows, for example, to make the arrow keys move faster if you use vim (or any other text editor that do not support the mouse). It took me time to find this tool, but now it is a must in my toolchain.

# A smarter spotlight

When I moved to MacOS (back in the days) I could not believe how I could have survived without spotlight. It was when I first met Alfred that I realized that spotlight could be improved. A lot. Alfred is a simple piece of software that indexes applications, files, folders, etc. and allows to quickly search them. What is more, it learns what you use, so lets say I use Spotify (the app) everyday, but I have a SpotifyRemote app that allows me to play music in my iPad from my macbook. In spotlight, if SpotifyRemote is indexed before Spotify then every time you want to launch  Spotify, you would need to choose the second most probable optionAlfred, however, does remember your choices and delight you by letting you listening music after only typing sp. Simple concept, but very useful.

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 15.25.40

Besides this, Alfred allows to choose for which type of file the search must be done, offering extra flexibility, depending on your necessities. Finally, you can also add workflows. I personally do not use them, but I can see that they might be useful in some contexts.

# Sleeping is good, but not when I’m presenting!

Finally, a tool that is a bit off-topic, but somehow related to general productivity tools: Caffeine. While Caffeine does not map gestures or keys, it unmaps Operating System functionality on demand. For example, have you ever started reading a pdf and suddenly contemplate how your screen goes in energy saving mode? The naive approach is to disable the energy saver (it feels good when you are annoyed with the screen saver), however the bad consequences are obvious: It is extremely easy to forget what you just did and therefore kill your battery life without even noticing.

Caffeine helps here. It shows a cute cup of coffee in the bar menu. When clicked, the screen does not sleep. That easy. This way you can read, give a presentation (most software disable the energy saver in presentation mode, but anyway) or have a playlist alway in screen without modifying system preferences. Not the kind of app you use every day, but a useful one.

In general, there are hundreds of tools that help you being more productive. However, my experience is that if not chosen carefully, it is easy to stick with what you are used to, lacking the functionality you actually hope for. In my eyes these tools are the best in what they do. They are in constant evolution (often updates) and the developers behind them are nice enough as to read the feedback we users give, and act in consequence. If you have never used them, give them a chance. If you know anything better… Please use the comments.

Enjoy! 🙂

–javier

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