AirServer, Clarify, Fantastical, Pathfinder 6


I noticed a Macheist bundle in my inbox three hours before the deal expired, and that Path Finder was in the list of apps. Since I’ve often toyed with switching to Path Finder I gave it a quick look (since the bundle cost was far cheaper than Path Finder alone). The first thing that attracted my attention was AirServer. This is an app that bridges a gaping hole in Apple’s hub — using your Mac as an AirPlay target. E.g. it makes using a $600 Mac Mini as a “media hub” significantly more painful than a $99 AppleTV puck. While this is obviously functionality Mac OS X should have out of the box, for $15 it fills a real need — and it works beautifully.

Clarify in action
Clarify in action

Clarify is another interesting program. The basic idea is to replace screensharing with illustrated tutorials by providing an integrated tool for writing, capturing screenshots, and annotating images (including blurring out stuff you don’t want to share). It’s a well-intentioned product, and it definitely has the right collection of features, but the UI is a little clumsy (e.g. despite providing a global menu, it offers no keyboard shortcut for snapping screenshots, doesn’t provide a “capture window” mode as far as I can tell; it’s easy to accidentally add text balloons to images by accident) and annoyingly inflexible (e.g. there’s no way I can find of adding two images side-by-side — before and after, say — to a single instruction, or of having multiple steps under one heading).

If I were creating such a program I’d try to combine screen-sharing with the functionality they’re providing — in other words, allow the user to video capture the whole process, then facilitate the snapping and markup of still images. As it is, I think (despite the best intentions) creating a tutorial with Clarify is more work than using — say — Screenflow. (And if video compression time is an issue, IShowU has that issue solved.)

I used to use Comic Life for creating short tutorials, but this involved using some other tool (I use command-shift-4 usually) for screen capture; on the whole I’d say Comic Life is still superior to Clarify despite not being intended for this task. Unfortunately, this applies to the old Comic Life — the current version is, I think, too narrowly focused on its intended purpose.

Fantastical lives in the menubar, has an elegant UI, and integrates appointments and reminders.
Fantastical lives in the menubar, has an elegant UI, and integrates appointments and reminders.

Fantastical is a well-regard (I believe) replacement for the app formerly known as iCal, and now widely (and correctly) ridiculed for its stupidly skeumorphic UI. Call me cynical, but I can only assume that it was bundled because there’s a new version on the way. The method for quickly generating appointments is beautiful (almost as good as the Newton). My main issue with it so far is that it doesn’t seem to replace Calendar completely.

Which brings us back to Path Finder.

A partially customized Path Finder window. You can hide the "info" panels (and Path Finder also has its own version of Finder's info palette).
A partially customized Path Finder window. You can hide the “info” panels (and Path Finder also has its own version of Finder’s info palette). I’ve got side-by-side file browsers, each of which can be tabbed. It’s actually pretty awesome.

For the uninitiated, Path Finder is an attempt to create a better Finder with tabbed browser windows, better command-line integration, and then add some kind of insane kitchen-sink list of features.

My original complaints about Path Finder have, in part, been addressed. I loved its column views (but I don’t use column views much) and I loved its tabbed windows (for which we continue to wait in vain for Apple to provide). Unfortunately, I listed some major annoyances issues with Path Finder 4 (it’s up to 6).

  • It also provides a whole bunch of hopelessly disorganized and marginally useful clutter.
  • It provides multiple redundant views of everything.
  • It can replace Finder (kind of) but the developers don’t really believe it so it does dumb things like reveal selected items in Finder windows rather than its own Windows.

The first problem has gotten, if anything worse, at least by default. To give but one egregious example — by default you can deploy up to three different “drawers” (you may not know or remember what a “drawer” in Mac OS X is, since it’s a UI dead-end Apple itself has pretty much abandoned). But you can turn off a whole bunch of its clutter.

In terms of functional clutter, by default, Path Finder uses its own replacements for TextEdit, Preview, and Terminal. I’m sure there are various ways in which the developers think they can improve on Apple’s apps, but it simply makes me shudder. Their Terminal and Preview replacements just annoy me. That said, there’s a damn good reason why they exist — which I’ll get to.

My final gripe (I’ll get back to the middle point) has been dealt with. Pathfinder now offers fine-grained options for inter-operating with Finder. By default, it simply supplements Finder, and lets Finder continue to do its thing. You can also configure it to kill Finder when it launches and relaunch it on exit. It can hide Finder’s desktop, and it can take Finder’s place for “reveal in Finder” functionality.

But the second issue — multiple redundant views of everything — is either something I now get or it’s been validated by Path Finder simply having added so much damn functionality. The fact that Path Finder has its own (crummy) Preview and Terminal replacements is offset by the fact that these — and many other — useful tools can simply be folded into panes in its windows.

Among the tools you can insert into the “info” panes are a terminal, process view, git and svn utilities, a permissions editor, hex editor, and an image rating/tagging tool. And of course you can simply hide these panes when not using them. Unfortunately, all of these various tools are kind of half-assed — useful in a pinch, but unpolished and unworthy of the overall application.

Pathfinder mostly decluttered
Pathfinder mostly decluttered — you can’t re-arrange the sidebar (I’d like to move DEVICES to the bottom somewhere) although you can show/hide items and create, name, save, and quickly switch between multiple sidebar configurations.

So, I’m pretty happy with the latest Path Finder, but unfortunately there’s still a big — huge! — problem. It doesn’t play well with Default Folder, which is simply the most useful utility application on the Mac, and has been since the mid-90s (when its competitors, such as Boomerang, fell by the wayside). Leaving this issue aside — and I wouldn’t be surprised if it leads to my giving up on Path Finder in the long run — Path Finder 6 is a very powerful and attractive application.

And, as for the latest MacHeist bundle — I got AirServer for $10, donated some money to the Nature Conservancy, and gave some worthy developers a bit of extra publicity. So I’d call it a win all-round.