Mac OS X: Make Snow Leopard (and other cats) roar like Lion

Tips and tools for getting Lion-like features today

With a second preview version now in the hands of app developers, Apple's next generation of Mac OS X, called Lion (Version 10.7), appears to be on track for its planned release to the public this summer. The company has announced several new features for the upcoming Macintosh operating system (some of which are lifted straight from iOS, Apple's mobile platform) including the following:

  • A feature called Launchpad for organizing and launching apps, similar to the iOS home screen.
  • A new Mission Control feature that combines the existing Mac OS X Dashboard, Exposé and Spaces features, as well as full-screen apps.
  • The ability for apps to auto-save and auto-resume as in iOS, and a feature called Versions that saves multiple copies of files over time so you can easily revert to a previous iteration after you've made changes.
  • Easier, more secure file sharing among Macs, with a feature called AirDrop.
  • More advanced use of multitouch gestures (in the OS itself and available to app developers).
  • An updated interface and improved search capabilities in Mail, Mac OS X's built-in email client.
  • The ability for more apps to run in full-screen mode for a distraction-free experience, as Apple's iPhoto and iMovie do now.
  • A curated Mac App Store that offers one-click app installation.

One of these items has already arrived, of course: The Mac App Store launched for users of Mac OS X Snow Leopard (Version 10.6) in January.

Although Lion is still months away, Mac users don't need to wait to get advances similar to the ones planned for the new operating system. In fact, several third-party applications and services already exist to meet the same challenges that Apple is aiming to address with Lion.

These free and low-cost tools can help you get results similar to those provided by Lion's Launchpad, Mission Control, systemwide auto-save, Versions, AirDrop, enhanced multitouch capabilities and new Mail layout. Most of the apps work with Snow Leopard and Leopard (Version 10.5); some are available for Tiger (Version 10.4) as well. I've also included a section on app store alternatives for Leopard and Tiger users, who don't have access to the Mac App Store.

Launchpad

Lion's Launchpad will be modeled after the iOS home screen, which serves as the application launcher for iPhones and iPads. Launchpad will let you use a hot key or gesture (on a multitouch-enabled trackpad or mouse) to display a grid of icons for all of your installed applications overlaid on your desktop and running apps. Like the iOS home screen, Launchpad will feature multiple screens you can swipe through, along with the ability to reorganize applications and group them in folders.

Current versions of OS X, in contrast, use the Dock as the main application launcher. Users can place icons for applications, folders and even documents in the Dock, which is always on-screen by default; just click an item to launch it. If an application hasn't been added to the Dock, users generally find it by browsing through their Applications folder (which itself can be added to the Dock for easy access to all its contents) or by doing a Spotlight search.

While the Dock is good as a basic application launcher, it has limitations. As more and more items are added to the Dock, it automatically shrinks their icons in order to accommodate them all. Even if you don't add every installed application to the Dock, a moderate load of regularly used titles can make it crowded and eventually too small to be really usable.

The Dock's limitations as a launcher are far from new. Over the decade since Apple introduced Mac OS X, a number of alternative application launchers and managers have been released. While none of them offers exactly the same functionality as Apple's Launchpad, some of them come close -- and some take a better approach, in my opinion.

First up is the app that comes closest to Launchpad.

Jump displays an icon in the corner of the screen that, when clicked, pops up an overlay containing applications that you've selected to include for easy access as well as commonly used folders and files. This free tool works with OS X Leopard and later.

Here are some other useful tools for launching apps in Mac OS X:

aLaunch (free/donationware) is a menu-based application launcher that places your chosen apps and folders under a menu bar icon that can be accessed from any application. If you're a longtime Mac user, you'll find the effect very similar to the Apple menu in Mac OS 9 and earlier. You can group related items together and assign global hot keys to open specific items.

While the most recent version of aLaunch requires OS X Leopard or later, earlier versions work with Tiger and Panther.

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