iOS & Mac reviews

Bartender: tidy up your Mac menu bar

Bartender, by Surtees Studios, is a natty wee Mac menu bar app that whisks up some or all of the clutter over on the right hand side of your menu bar and keeps it hidden away behind an icon of your choice. It’s perfect for keeping in check all those handy third party apps that put an icon up there, and can even manage the system items like the Airport, Date & Time, Bluetooth and Notification Centre menus.

For example, without Bartender my menu bar looks like this:


With Bartender running I can reduce all of that to just one icon:


Or I can tweak the settings to keep the most essential icons visible, like this:


The app comes with a selection of icons to choose from, or you can create and use your own. Clicking the icon brings up another row containing all your other menu items, and clicking on one of those brings up it’s menu, like so:


The settings screen contains all the menu item appearance controls:


Select each menu item, select where you want it to live, and that’s all there is to it; it’s that simple.

Bartender is in beta right now and available for free from their website. Once it’s out of beta you’ll have to buy a license to update to the final version but if you buy one while it’s still in beta it’s half price, less than £5.

Being in beta also means you shouldn’t be surprised to maybe find a bug here or there, but the big ones have all been ironed out and the most recent builds are perfectly stable. I highly recommend you pick it up and get some calm back in your menu bar.

And now, an insight into how my brain works

I tried turning off both Notification Centre and Spotlight, so the Date & Time is right up against the right edge of the screen and I didn’t like it, it felt unbalanced and ugly. I’m used to the clock being snuggled up next to the pleasingly angled Spotlight magnifying glass but since I got Alfred I rarely use Spotlight, and certainly never invoke it by clicking the icon, appealing as it is.

I had originally taken Notification Centre out too because the gesture is more intuitive and faster for me and I didn’t want unused icons up there. But, aesthetics are winning the battle and as I can’t (yet?) shift one of the other icons over there manually, I’ve reinstated Notification Centre for the balance.

I’ll probably change back to the Spotlight icon in the end, it just feels better…

Thanks for reading!

Featured iOS & Mac reviews

Launch Center Pro: my review after a week

Last week I installed AppCubby’s Launch Center Pro for iPhone (App Store link) after it got some good write-ups in the tech press. It’s described as ‘speed dial’ for your apps, giving you an alternative way of organising and launching your most-used apps more conveniently.

It’s not just a launcher, though. The headline attractions are ‘action hooks’ in certain apps that give you a shortcut to a function of the app. For example, you can set one-tap shortcuts for launching directly into a new Omnifocus note, a new Instagram snap or a new Tweetbot tweet.

Some apps offer more hooks than others. Evernote, for example, offers none other than launching the app itself, whereas Tweetbot offers a shortcut to pretty much every screen in the app. This is done by use of valid URLs within the app code so support has to be built in by app developers, not AppCubby. More on that later.

First impressions

It’s such a tantalising notion, to completely change how you use your iPhone. At first I found that although it’s easy to design your own LCP setup for quick launching, unless you have use for the actions available you may not see much point in it.

To make an example of Evernote, if the app is already on your homescreen (or your dock) and you put it on the top level of LCP, you’ll actually tap more times to get the same result.

(With the app on your Homescreen you tap Evernote to launch, then tap ‘New Note’; in Launch Center Pro you tap to launch LCP, tap Evernote to launch, tap ‘New Note’.)

On the other hand, if you regularly use a core collection of productivity apps like Things, Omnifocus, Tweetbot, Drafts, Simplenote, that sort of thing, and throughout the day you’re constantly jumping in and out of them, making notes or sharing links or whatever, clever setup of LCP could streamline a significant amount of that use and save you enough time and taps to really feel the benefit.

I’m not quite a power user but I am a sucker for experimenting with new and more efficient ways to play with my phone so I’ve spent the last week using LCP and tweaking my setup. Here’s a look at how I’ve been using it and what I’ve noticed.


The UI is attractive and well thought out with plenty of room for customisation, which is where Launch Center Pro comes into it’s own. The tap-swipe-release method for accessing the second layer (where you keep groups of Actions) is particularly nice, making it feel like you’re only tapping once. Get fast at that and it begins to feel more like you’re performing gestures to launch apps rather than searching them out and stabbing at them.

I’ve tweaked my layout so many times, moving apps around until they find their intuitive home under my thumb. This could very well have changed by tomorrow (and in fact it changed between writing this and capturing the screenshots) but today my layout looks like this:

As you can see, in the folders I’ve tried to place actions so that they won’t be obscured by my thumb – I tend to hold the phone in my right hand most often as I keep it in my right jeans pocket.

Switching into edit mode brings up a neat blueprint background while you rearrange the furniture, and you can go into the icons for every action or folder and create new ones to suit your taste or the way your brain works.

For my ‘Wife HQ’ screen I gave phone buttons a metallic look and messaging icons a pinstripe, and stuck to the colours that iOS uses for those functions; when placing apps I try to keep it intuitive, for example by putting Hipstamatic in the same space in a folder as Instagram occupies on the home screen.

So now my Home screen now looks like this:

It’s so calm there now. I had the phone in the dock too but eventually realised I only really call my wife and that’s covered, so I moved it out. It’s just that gorgeous metallic LCP icon now, twinkling at me wherever I am.

Of course, all the apps have to go somewhere…

I changed all my folder names from things like ‘Productivity’ to these verb-focussed titles as I read it was more intuitive, and so far it’s working out well. I put my games on a third screen because I wanted to keep that aspect a little apart from the rest of the phone. And I really wish I could hide Newsstand without a hack.

Launch speed

Launch Center Pro almost always launches incredibly fast. Like, tap it and you’re in, that fast. Maybe loads faster if you’re using it often enough that it’s never pushed completely from memory, but a few times on launch the screen would remain blank for a couple of seconds – the most infuriatingly long couple of seconds, at that. Or, my layout would appear but was unresponsive momentarily.

It didn’t happen every day, but a couple of days it happened a couple of times. It’s not enough to let the side down, though. 95% of the time the only thing slowing me down was my own brain and my poised thumb as I adjusted to using LCP regularly.

App compatibility

LCP works with any apps that employ valid URL systems in their code; it detects compatible installed apps and adds them to it’s list of Actions. As noted above, some developers employ more URLs than others, but many don’t appear to at all. One major omission for me is Money, by Jumsoft, which I launch many times a day. For this reason Money is now the only third party app left on my Home screen.

Since I installed it I’ve noticed at least a dozen apps appearing in the list that weren’t there at first. Not sure if this is because I downloaded updates to them or that LCP just didn’t get through with scanning my iPhone at first. At this point 51 apps out of 95 installed are compatible in some way, including Apple apps.

Well, some of them.

Apple doesn’t always play ball

After the release of the original Launch Center, which hooked directly into system settings like the 3G toggle and Brightness control, Apple withdrew access to a lot of their own app URLs. For example, there’s nothing at all for their Clock, Notes or Camera apps, but you can launch Music, Calendar and Reminders, amongst others.

You also can’t launch the Phone, Mail or Message apps but you can set an action that allows you type in a name or number and immediately email, call or message that person, bypassing the front end of the respective app. I’ve used this to turn it a one-tap hub for contacting my wife, which is really cool, but otherwise it’s quicker for me to use these apps ‘the old fashioned way’.

Drafts is a perfect partner

Drafts (App Store link) is a great app by Agile Tortoise that I’d not heard of before installing LCP, but they complement each other perfectly. It’s a simple notes app with the killer feature of being able to send the text to a wide range of apps and sharing services – I suppose you could call it Launch Center Pro for text – and it turns out it’s better for getting notes into Evernote through LCP than Evernote is.

I recently switched to Evernote from Simplenote because I can keep more kinds of stuff in it, but for text alone Simplenote is faster to use and easier to search and I miss that. Drafts, especially kept on the top page of LCP, gets me into a new note immediately and sends it to Evernote with one tap; I could even send it to Simplenote too if I wanted, or Day One, Tweetbot, Echofon, Mail, Messages, Agenda, Dropbox, Facebook, Omnifocus… and of course each note is saved and searchable in Drafts itself.

With Drafts on the left and Reminders on the right my bottom row is dedicated to capturing something quickly, be it an idea, an Instagram, or something I need to do.


Although LCP can’t launch the Brightness setting, AppCubby have made a workaround that lets you set brightness values to buttons; the compromise is that whenever the screen locks it resets to the value set on the official Brightness slider in Settings.

One way to take advantage of this is to set the Brightness slider to something comfortable for normal use, then in LCP set a button for bright daylight, one for night time, one set to the same as the slider value, and maybe a button that toggles between medium-low and medium-high. Then you can switch to your bright setting if you’re in daylight and either switch back when you go inside or if your screen locked in between it resets anyway.

In the end I found that diving into LCP to find the brightness buttons every time I was outside was not worth the hassle versus however much battery is allegedly spent leaving Auto-Brightness turned on, which serves my needs fine.


One of the built-in hooks on offer turns on the flash, effectively giving you a flashlight app for free. In occasional use over the week I found it was way quicker than any flashlight app I’d used so it got pride of place on the top screen.


The built-in Search hook takes any text you enter and sends it to Google in Mobile Safari. It may not be that much less effort than doing the same through Safari but the momentary pauses waiting for Safari to get up to speed can make it feel longer than doing it through LCP. If you’re an Alfred or Launchbar user it feels a lot like using that as your Search box.

The stuff I haven’t mentioned

There’s plenty of other uses I haven’t touched on. For example, if you visit some sites in Safari regularly a Bookmarks group would be perfect for you; I use RSS to keep track of favourite sites so I skipped that.

Alternatively, you might want to delve into the Custom URL tool that lets you build your own hooks if you know the language. There’s so many actions available already, however, that I barely touched it except to try and trick the Clock app into working; I failed.

You could even set up a whole folder of stock-response emails; say you’re the company IT guy and people are always emailing you about their computer not working, you could have a ‘switch it off and on again’ email saved to a button, with just an address required. Or, if you’re a particularly tardy person, you could set up a whole range of ‘excuse’ emails that are always just a tap away.

I’m sure there’s even more stuff you could set it up for that just doesn’t apply to me, so I can’t think of it right now.

A week later

It was a slow start for me but I love it, especially since adding Drafts as well. I’ve got the layout pretty much how I like it and just need to get a bit of muscle memory going on. As I’ve mentioned before, LCP has a very distinct feel; from the visual feel of the buttons to the physical feel of tapping, sliding and releasing (sometimes without looking), it feels good.

It really boils down to how you use your phone and if Launch Center Pro can do some of the lifting for you. It has a definite target market and if none of the above features have sounded appealing then you’re probably not it.

If your interest has been piqued, though, just go ahead and buy it and start putting together your own shortcuts. Play with the setup, move buttons around, tweak it how you like it, and enjoy using your phone a new way.

iOS & Mac reviews Reviews

Review: Alfred for Mac, an excellent app launcher

alfred-mac-reviewToday I want to write about an app I recently got for my Macs that has completely changed how I use them for the better. It’s called Alfred and it’s a ‘launcher’ app that allows you to do almost anything on your Mac via the keyboard.

Such apps are not new but until now I’d had no interest; Alfred caught my eye with a bold, friendly design and a lot of recommendations. It’s available in a basic free version here with an optional ‘Powerpack’ for £15 that massively expands what it can do.

To really get the most from Alfred you need the Powerpack but you should definitely grab the free version and give it a whirl; I upgraded within five minutes of seeing what it could do and haven’t looked back so this review is based on features it provides – but not all of them, there’s just too many.

(All the Alan Partridge fans reading: insert your own “I wonder who got the powerpack?” gag here –>   )

Typing alt-Space brings up the Alfred box into which you type your command or keywords. Typing an application name launches it, like Spotlight; typing a URL or part of a bookmark opens your browser and takes you there; if you want to search the web Alfred offers a selection of search engines then performs the search; it can control iTunes, send emails, perform calculations, manage your clipboard history, search for and perform actions upon most any file on your computer – and that’s just ‘out of the box’.

alfred mac preferencesBy installing 3rd-party extensions in the form of Shell Scripts, AppleScripts or Automator Workflows, Alfred can integrate with many popular applications including Wunderlist, Fantastical, Things, Evernote, Spotify, and Omnifocus. You can even tweet from it. The Alfred user community has come up with all sorts of other cool computer stuff you can do with extensions, many of which are collected on the Alfred site here; have a browse and see if anything that you do often has an Alfred shortcut. If it doesn’t, just create your own.

If all of this still sounds a bit “so what?” then you’re thinking what I was thinking when I first read about launchers. I mean, what’s wrong with the Dock, right?

Alfred is quicker, less distracting & more comfortable

For a long time my Dock had been loaded with around twenty apps and four folders. I would have liked a less full Dock but I found that it was more annoying to have to go looking for them when I wanted them than it was to have the Dock looking a little busy.

Then I got a Magic Trackpad for my iMac. I like it in principle but it’s definitely suited more to gestures than it is precision; It’s probably no coincidence that around this time I started investigating apps like Launchbar and QuickSilver that I’d heard a lot about; I wanted a better way to get to apps than through precise mouse movements.

In the end I didn’t see the point installing and learning to use something new that I could approximate for free by using Spotlight to launch apps that weren’t in the Dock. Spotlight’s cmd-Space shortcut is easy to remember and type, and entering a few characters of an app’s name is far quicker and easier than invoking a new Finder window and navigating to the app and double clicking.

Having got used to launching apps via Spotlight like this, trying Alfred was like opening the floodgates as it grants the same easy access to almost everything you do regularly on your computer, and considerably more elegantly.

How could Alfred help you?

Here’s a few examples of how I use it day to day:

I rarely type URLs into browsers now, or search via the Google box in my browser (although I still don’t remember every time). I can connect to my other Mac via Screen Sharing with just two keystrokes (‘ss’) instead taking a good ten seconds of focus to do it manually. When working on my site I often use the same selection of apps so I’ve set an Alfred keyword that opens them all at once.

alfred mac growlA very useful shortcut that I’m using daily is for Wunderlist. Things I need to remember occur to me all the time; sometimes I try and record them with Siri and then get frustrated with Siri when I have to correct everything it got wrong; sometimes I remember to launch Wunderlist and create a new reminder; and most of the time I do neither because they’re both too much effort and then I forget.

With Alfred I type ‘wl remember to do that thing’ and go back to whatever I was doing while Alfred sends that off to Wunderlist in the background, displaying a Growl to confirm receipt. My fingers don’t leave the keyboard, I remain in the same app environment and I stay focussed on whatever I was doing. All I have to do is remember to check Wunderlist…

alfred mac search

Another example: I’ve been playing a lot of Skyrim recently (like, hundreds of hours of it) and occasionally need to look something up online. I’ve saved the two best Skyrim wiki sites as custom searches in Alfred and given them both the keyword ‘sky’. Now when I need the low-down on that Chillrend blade I looted I type ‘sky Chillrend’ and Alfred offers both wiki sites as possible actions. Rather than search one at a time I’ve set a keyboard shortcut to ‘action all results’ with ctrl-Return and both open in the background.

alfred mac utilityAnd then there’s the customisation and options; most of the keyboard shortcuts can be altered (although you should try the defaults first because they’ve been chosen deliberately); you can change the fallback search sites Alfred will offer to search with if it doesn’t recognise any keywords in your query; Dropbox syncing to sync extensions and settings across multiple Macs running Alfred; you can even style the Alfred box how you like it or download themes other users have created (my own attempt is available here – what I said earlier about Alfred being elegant obviously goes out the window if you go with a Sex Pistols colour scheme).

Alfred also learns quickly; the more you use it, the less characters you need to type before Alfred knows what you want. Using this I’ve trained it so that when I start typing ‘ph’ it offers Photo Mechanic first because that’s what I’ve picked the most when I’ve typed in just those two letters in the past, whereas if I continue to ‘pho’ it offers Photoshop first.

The finishing touches to an already wonderful app are the friendliness of the small team behind it and the support of an enthusiastic community providing extra functionality in spades. Every question I’ve tweeted at @alfredapp has received a prompt and helpful response and there are both official and unofficial Alfred tips sites to pore over.

Grab now, buy later

A full review of Alfred would take ages and I’ve really only touched on a very small set of the functionality; suffice to say it is extensive. The wealth of possibilities may seem overwhelming or you may be reluctant to give up the mouse. Don’t worry – it scales beautifully to users of all proficiencies and your mouse hand will definitely thank you. In fact, at first it took me by surprise how liberating it was to remove so many constant mouse interactions; even small movements down to the Dock are hassle compared to Alfred once you get into the habit.

If you’re even a bit of a geek or use your computer frequently I think you’ll love Alfred for Mac. Grab the free version now and see how long it takes you to resist the Powerpack and open up it’s trove of possibilities. It really does change the way you use your computer.

(Okay that last line sounds so much like a radio sponsorship blurb but I assure you this is from the heart, not the wallet; I love using Alfred so much I want you to as well – no kickbacks here.)

Thanks for reading. If you’d like to comment on anything I’m @myglasseye on Twitter.

iOS & Mac reviews Reviews

Cathode for Mac – an alternative to Terminal

Cathode for Mac OS XI’d like to share and recommend an app I very rarely have need to use; in fact I really only use it when I’m re-jailbreaking my Apple TV, which hopefully I’ll not need to do again for a good long while. However, I wish I had chance to use it much more often. It’s called Cathode (Mac App Store link, $10) and it’s a fun alternative to the Terminal utility that comes with OS X.

For those who don’t know Terminal (and nobody would blame you if you don’t) it’s used for accessing the command line of the computer. The command line is kind of one level of sophistication up from the system’s guts. When you do something in the graphical user interface of your app, the resulting commands come here to do their thing; you can make the computer do anything you want from here, including committing computer suicide, making it an intimidating place for the inexperienced.

(I know pretty much zero about working with the command line except what I copy and paste from reputable sites when I’m jailbreaking. I have gathered that ‘sudo’ is a powerful and oft-used command that makes something ‘do’ something, so I allowed myself the luxury of smiling knowingly at the recent Penny Arcade guest strip about that one, although I probably shouldn’t have.)

So whether you’re an occasional user or you pretty much live in the command line, you may appreciate Cathode for putting a friendlier face on it than the cold, blank stare of Apple’s Terminal.

Cathode, alternative to Terminal
clockwise from top left: three preset display types, plus one with custom tweaks to make it glitchy

You can tweak almost every option on the screen including font family, size and colour ; background and foreground colour; monitor curvature and reflection opacity; rate and opacity of the scan-line; character flicker; a whole bunch of retro sounds you can turn off completely if you like, including a beep every key press just like the movies; you can even put an iSight photo of yourself at the keyboard into the screen reflection.

It’s all completely cosmetic but it certainly makes digging into the command line on a Mac a much more enjoyable experience. At the moment I have a setup inspired by the Swan computer in Lost:

This is just a slightly tweaked 'Viti Green' preset

Thanks for reading. If you’d like to comment on anything I’m @myglasseye on Twitter.