mnmlist: minimalist mac setup

A minimalist Mac setup is lightweight, lean, uncluttered, with simple apps.

As a result, things run at a blazing speed, without bloated applications to slow things down. Work is frictionless, and doesn’t take long.

I highly recommend this setup for anyone looking to keep things simple and fast. It’s not recommended for those who are into the latest, coolest applications or who aren’t into simplicity, or who have heavier needs than mine.

Philosophy
1. No clutter. A cluttered desktop is a distraction. So is a Dock that has 21 icons. So is having a ton of windows open. Keeping your Mac clutter-free minimizes distractions and confusion and allows you to focus.
2. Keep the system lean. Modern systems tend to be bloated, because they offer so many cool features. I don’t use most of these features. On the Mac, they include: the Dock, Spotlight, the Dashboard, Spaces, Expose, Automator, the menu bar, Bluetooth, MobileMe, Print & Fax, Time Machine, the Screen Saver, and much more. I recommend against using these features, as they just slow things down most of the time. Unfortunately, you can’t turn most of them off without some serious hacking. Turning some of them off helps keep the system lean.
3. Simple, single-purpose apps. Modern applications try to do too much. They want to be everything, but that leads to feature bloat and memory hogs. It takes a long time to load big apps, and they often crash or slow things down. Instead, keep apps as simple as possible. They should be lightweight, and if possible, have only one purpose and few features.
4. Simple formats. I prefer text files for storing things. Most other formats, such as databases, are bloated, corruptible, often proprietary, and not compatible with other programs.
5. Don’t fiddle. Choose a path, and then just stick with it. Geeks like me tend to always try the latest and greatest apps. Forget about it. Choose some simple apps and just get your work done.

The System
Most of what’s included in the Mac (and Windows, for that matter) is unnecessary for getting simple tasks done. Remove what’s possible, hide the rest.

The following setup will allow you to open your apps and complete your tasks as quickly as possible, without the need for complicated features.

1. Hide Dock. If someone knows how to kill the Dock, please let me know. Or any of the other features mentioned in the previous section. I’ll add it below. As for now, I’ve just put the Dock on auto-hide (“Turn hiding on” in Dock preferences) so it’s not usually cluttering the desktop. I’ve also removed everything from the Dock other than the Trash.

2. Kill Spotlight. I’ve rarely needed Spotlight, and it takes up a lot of system resources to index your computer. It’s a powerful tool, but too powerful for my needs. Here’s how to kill it.

3. Kill Spaces, Expose, Dashboard. Again, two things I never use. If you need these tools, you might have too many windows open. If you don’t need them, kill them. Here’s how.

4. LaunchBar or Namely. Instead of the Dock, use a launcher. Quicksilver was long my favorite tool on all of Macdom, but I’ve recently realized I don’t need all that power. Spotlight can be used as a launcher if you keep it open, but again, it’s a bit too much power just for launching apps. I recommend LaunchBar to launch apps, folders and files — but you’ll need to go into the preferences and uncheck a lot of things it indexes by default (I only have it index my apps and most commonly used folders). A great alternative is Namely, which only launches apps and is very lightweight. LaunchBar is just as fast, though, in my testing. TextExpander is a good addition for quickly inserting commonly used text.

5. Keep inactive apps hidden. If you’re using one app, hide the rest. This keeps the distractions to a minimum. It’s simple on the Mac: press Cmd-H when you’re done using an app for now (or Quit if you’re done for awhile). Or Cmd-Option-H to hide all apps other than the one you’re using right now. When you need to switch to an open app, Cmd-Tab will cycle through all the open apps. Btw, if your apps are lightweight and lean, switching between them is a snap. It truly makes a difference.

6. Clear the Menu Bar. Many people have cluttered Menu Bars, but I find it distracting. Control-click (or right-click) any icon in the menu, go to its preferences and remove it from the Menu Bar. Or remove the Menu Bar completely if you never use it (as I don’t, because I access everything from the keyboard).

7. Clear icons. Remove all desktop icons. Having icons on your desktop is a distraction, and an inefficient way to launch apps, folders or documents. Use a launcher or hotkeys program instead, such as LaunchBar. To clear your icons: put them all in a folder in your documents folder. Then go to the Finder’s Preferences, and uncheck all items under “Show these items on the desktop”.

Simple Apps
These are the apps I recommend for a minimalist setup – lightweight, fast, without bloat or too many features:

1. Writing: TextEdit or WriteRoom. Full-featured word processors such as Word and OpenOffice are overkill if you just want to write. Many writers and bloggers get caught up in the perfect writing software, but really all we need is text. Don’t let the software distract. Just write. When you need to format it, use blogging software such as WordPress (for posts) or layout software for ebooks. But at the writing stage, just write.

2. Notes and to-dos: Notational Velocity and text files. I mentioned before that I just use text files. Well, now that I know that Notational Velocity can store info as text files, I recommend it for keeping text notes — it’s lightweight and blazing fast, and it keeps all your notes organized and quickly searchable. For to-dos, I just use a text file.

3. Web: Opera. My absolute favorite browser right now, for its speed and power. Firefox is the most powerful, but also bloated, crashes, slow, and hogs memory. I also like Chrome and Safari but they’re either too unstable (in Chrome’s case, as it’s only a developer’s build right now) or too big (in Safari’s case). Opera is light and really fast, plus it has some great features such as speed dial, keyword shortcuts for bookmarks, notes and much more, that really make the web experience a fast one for people like me who work on the web.

4. Blogging: WordPress and Transmit. I use WordPress because it’s free and does everything you need it to. I’d use a lighter weight blogging software if I could find one that did everything I need and just worked. Panic’s Transmit is for FTP, and works brilliantly. I used to use Cyberduck, because it’s free, but it’s slow and doesn’t work as well as Transmit.

5. Photos: Preview and Picasa. I use Preview not only for viewing photos and PDFs, but for cropping and resizing photos for my blog. Picasa is fast and does everything a photo app should do – much faster than iPhoto.

6. Multimedia: PicoPlay and VLC. iTunes is way too bloated for playing music or videos. These days I just use it to play stuff on my AppleTV. PicoPlay is small and light, for playing your iTunes library and playlists. VLC is light and plays pretty much any video format.

7. Comm: Skype, Twitter. I don’t use IM programs. Skype I use for audio calls. For Twitter, I don’t use a dedicated app anymore — I just use the web interface, as it doesn’t require a separate app that will hog resources.

8. Syncing: Dropbox or Google Docs. As most of my stuff is now stored in text files, I can easily sync with other computers via Dropbox, a great app. Google Docs is still great, but not as fast as text files. I use Google Docs for sharing stuff with other people.

9. Mail & calendar: Gmail & Gcal. Apples Mail and Calendar apps are too bloated for my needs. Gmail is much faster and just works so much better than any other mail program. Same for Gcal.

Alternatives
The apps I use are just my current preferences. I’ve used others and can recommend them — and there are many more out there I haven’t tried. This post isn’t meant to be exhaustive, but instead illustrative of the type of apps I mean.

Some good alternatives:

1. Launcher: Quicksilver. Probably the favorite launcher out there, and one of my favorites until recently. It’s a really powerful tool — just a little too powerful for my needs. It doesn’t just launch apps, it can do so much more: set up hotkeys for your favorite documents or folders, insert text quickly, append text to a file without having to open it, resize a photo, add an item to your to-do program, and on and on. All of this without opening other programs. Takes some fiddling to really explore its full potential, but it works as a launcher right out of the box.

2. To-do: Anxiety or Taskpaper. There are many great to-do programs for the Mac (Things, iGTD, OmniFocus, Kinkless and more) but they’re all overkill for my needs. I love both Anxiety and Taskpaper for their simplicity. At the moment, I just use text files, but I’ve used both these programs and highly recommend them.

3. Word processing: Bean. If you need a full word processor, this is one of the best lightweight ones.

4. Web: Google Chrome, Safari, Camino or Sunrise. Chrome isn’t available for the Mac except in developer builds (as well as the Chromium developer builds), but it’s lightweight and fast. Unfortunately, a little unstable for my needs, and doesn’t render everything I need, so I’ll wait for the official release. Safari 4 is much faster than previous versions, and worth a look. Still too heavyweight for my needs. Camino is a great lightweight alternative to Safari, based on the same webkit renderer, without all the features. Sunrise is the lightest of them all — unfortunately, not stable enough for regular use.

5. Notes: Evernote or Yojimbo. Two great programs, if you have need for more than text notes. I don’t, but if I did I’d use one of these. Yojimbo is better, but Evernote wins for those who want access to their notes from anywhere — multi-platform and on the web.

Further reading