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Freeware Gems for Mac OS X

by Giles Turnbull
04/25/2003

Owning a computer isn't cheap. There's so much to pay for, on top of the box that does all the work: printer consumables, connectivity, hardware upgrades, maintenance.

Oh, and software. People can often end up spending more on software than they spent on the computer itself.

Here at the Mac DevCenter, we like to think we can offer a helping hand every now and then, so it occurred to us that it would be nice to tell you about some of the lesser-known freeware gems available for Mac OS X. We're talking about neat little apps that you might not have heard of, but that can do the job of something much better-known (and much more expensive) without you having to pay a penny for them.

We've only got the space to show you a handful of these gems. No doubt, you'll be able to point us to many more (please do, in the Talkbacks area at the end of this article). First, let's establish some rules.

The Rules

When we say freeware, we mean freeware. We won't be including any apps that require any payment, or pretend to be freeware while nagging you with lingering splash screens and limited features.

We're also not going to be including really obvious freeware. After all, iTunes is a superb, free MP3 player and manager, but there's not much point our raving on about it here. We're going to assume that you already know about it.

Finally, be warned that all we can do in the 2500 or so words we have at our disposal is to scratch the surface of each application mentioned. There may well be features and bugs that we don't mention--but hopefully, that will give you even more encouragement to download them and try them out for yourselves.

Rules laid down, let's get on with the show. First stop? Text editing!

mi, Myself, and I

mi is a rather neat little text-editing program by Daisuke Kamiyama. It offers a very comprehensive set of features, and while the interface is not quite what you might be used to in a Mac app, it does an excellent job.

Like a lot of old-school Mac apps, mi starts up unobtrusively and waits for you to create a new file or open an existing one. The mi window includes a slightly BBEdit-like toolbar, which we shall return to in more detail shortly.

The main thing to remember when using mi is that it is very configurable. The program can operate in a variety of modes, depending what sort of text you want to edit (normal text, HTML, AppleScript, C, CSS, Java, Perl or TeX). From the application menu, you can select Mode Preferences to alter the settings for any individual mode--so each mode can have a different font, window layout, colors and a dozen or more other options. (See Figure 1, showing the HTML preferences--and note the 15 different options categories listed down the left side of the prefs window. Now that's configurability.)

Figure 1, HTML Mode preferences in mi
Figure 1. Browsing mi's extensive preferences options (this is just the dialog for HTML files).

The toolbar is somewhat configurable, too. Click on the small plus sign shown on it, and you are able to add and remove toolbar buttons. These can be pre-defined functions (with user-defined names), a mode-switching widget, or direct access to a specific folder. When you choose the folder to include, mi will search through it for text files that it can open, and make them available as a drop-down menu item (see Figure 2).

mi toolbar extras.
Figure 2. An HTML file open in mi, with the mode switcher and a folder of text files added to the toolbar.

mi has its oddities. There's a character count, but no word count, and no built-in spellcheck. It says it can do remote editing of files over FTP connections, although my attempt to use this feature failed. Don't let these little niggles put you off, though; it remains a very capable text editor.

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FTP with Fugu

FTP clients are not hard to find for Mac OS X, but most of the best ones ask for a small shareware fee. Should you wish to find a decent FTP client without having to pay for it, you should consider Fugu.

Created by a team at the University of Michigan, Fugu is a graphical front-end for one of Mac OS X's built-in Unix programs, SFTP, and has only recently reached version 1.0. It's like normal FTP, except everything is encrypted between your computer and the target computer, making it much more secure.

What's great is that it is very intuitive and simple to use. If you've used any kind of FTP program before (such as Fetch, RBrowser, or Transmit), you'll instantly know what to do (see Figure 3).

Fugu in action.
Figure 3. A Fugu FTP session, connected to a remote server.

There are plenty of useful features too. Creating SHH tunnels, making Secure Copies, and navigating through the session history are all just a click or a keyboard command away. Fugu's fast, too, considerably faster at fetching file lists than the shareware FTP client I had been using previously.

XAbiWord: The Other Word Processor

OK, we all know that Word is the world's best-known word processor, and many people consider Word for Mac OS X to be one of Microsoft's better products for the platform.

But it's also no secret that buying Word will set you back a pile of cash, and some people argue that there's little need to splash out that money when there are much cheaper--even free--alternatives around.

One of these alternatives is OpenOffice.org, which we have already covered in some detail on the Mac DevCenter. So we won't repeat anything about it here, except to say that it requires Apple's X11 window manager to run, and is an alternative to the whole Microsoft Office suite, not just Word.

What we will talk about here is XAbiWord, another X11 application for word processing.

Don't be put off by the requirement that you should have X11 to make it work. Installing X11 is a breeze (we've covered that here before as well), and installing XAbiWord is as simple as unpacking a disk image and dragging a folder to your hard disk. To start XAbiWord, just start X11 first, then click the XAbiWord application icon.

If you don't see anything at first, don't fret--you need to start a new document, or open an existing one. XAbiWord reads and writes the standard Word document format (.doc), so it should be able to cope with most basic examples. The more complicated Word files that include multiple tables or embedded spreadsheets may present more of a problem. Once you've got XAbiWord running and you have a document open, you should see something like Figure 4.

The basic XAbiWord window.
Figure 4. XAbiWord might hog screen space, but it boasts a lot of useful features.

Like OpenOffice.org (refer to our how-to guide for more details), a long-term Mac user will feel slightly disconcerted to see XAbiWord running, mainly because it looks for all the world like a Windows application. Menu items are contained within the XAbiWord window, and the GUI is nothing like the Aqua goodness you're used to.

Look deeper than the wrapping, though, and you'll find a heap of useful features. XAbiWord can save documents in a bewildering variety of formats, including special documents for Palm or Psion handhelds. It saves Microsoft .doc format (although the help files say that it can't), and makes a very good job of converting what's on the screen into valid, streamlined HTML, should you decide to save as a Web document.

XAbiWord's native file format is based on XML, so XAbiWord documents (with the .abw suffix) can be opened in pretty much any text editor, should you ever have the need. The program wears its open source origins with pride, and dares not consider itself so important that it might not be replaced with some other piece of software.

We don't have the space here to delve far into XAbiWord's innards, but there's a lot worth delving into. Neat features, such as a widget to look up selected text on the Wikipedia or an online dictionary, are there to delight newcomers.

From a personal perspective, I enjoy using XAbiWord because it appears to have been created with a good understanding of what a writer needs--speed, reliability, and functionality. It processes words, very effectively, and for anyone who needs to deal with a lot of words on a regular basis, it can be a big help.

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