Starting off this list is the first of two extremely eye-pleasing P2P apps. (Coincidentally, the other one links to this from within its Help menu as the recommended BitTorrent client.) Transmission is an exercise in simplicity and Aqualicious UI design, with notable exception to its icon. (Look for a replacement icon coming soon on this blog by Tom.) For all of you Azureus and BitTorrent users out there, feast your eyes on this baby. And for an even appearance, download an alternate set of toolbar icons by artist Matt Ball.
The Potion Factory’s second release may not be quite as useful as Podcast Maker is for many podcasters (it’s also on this list), but the UI is just as lickable. Starting with the mouth-watering application icon (ok, I’ll stop with the food analogies there), the eye candy gets only better. (Doh.) You definitely have to try this one to experience it. For what is ultimately an extremely fun voice recording and filtering toy, there’s been a lot of love put into this app. You’ll notice some really cute icons for each filter effect by the excellent Mischa McLachlan of Zyotism, and the secondary windows for setting reminders and viewing alerts are just as gorgeous. If you have any kids, or never fully grew up, check this one out. Useful as a voice recorder, fun as a prank tool, and costs less than a Yakbak or Whoopee cushion.
I’m no podcaster, but Andy and Jin at the Potion Factory must be doing something right with their flagship app, Podcast Maker, because after one look at the demo, I actually fired up Garageband and tried to record a few shows, just to fiddle around with PCM. An hour or two later I realized I wasn’t cut out to be a celebrity podcaster, but regardless, the app’s UI was something I was glad to have experienced. For all experienced or novice podcasters out there, there is no better tool on the Mac to put your shows together. Just ask “The Office” creator Ricky Gervais, the band “They Might Be Giants”, Senator Debbie Stabenow, or any of the other celebrity podcasters and happy customers listed in the Podcast Maker gallery.
Ahh, finally, the much loved FTP application from Panic. Transmit, around since OS 9, made the UI jump to OS X with much grace (unlike some other competitors still figuring it out), and has since matured at a very consistent, comfortable pace. The single most impressive UI feature of Transmit is the remarkable amount of features and functionality it squeezes into its pretty, pitch-perfect Aqua window. Basically, you’re left with the feeling that if Apple had their own “iFTP”, it’d look something like this.
Just about every corner of thish app oozes with polish and works as you’d expect it to. Tabs and column view are reimplemented from scratch better than just about any other shareware app out there, and Transmit even comes with a pretty nice widget for customers to use in the Dashboard. (And hey, that’s coming from the guy selling a competing widget.) It’s an app I use nearly everyday, and use with utter pleasure.
The small shareware/freeware Mac game market doesn’t exactly offer a wealth of UI gems, so this is pretty much the exception. While the icon needs some work, Quinn’s interface looks more like a sleek skin for an expensive utility than, well, a tetris client. Pop open the drawer, and you get a slick animated radar type dealy while searching for servers, and just about every action in the game is smoothly animated, whether it’s the pane shifting around after joining a server, or typed chat messages quickly wiping in with a neat, subtle sci-fi sound. The score display looks extremely cool, and the blocks themselves look suitably clean, though I’d like to see some slicker skins. (Future “Pimp your App” feature on this blog perhaps?)
The coolest part perhaps is how far this freeware game has come along in the UI department. When I tried it a few weeks ago for the first time in over a year, my jaw dropped. I’ve never before seen an app’s looks improve this much. Oh, and the game itself is fun too.
By far the simplest in function and UI among the rest of these apps, AppZapper packs an incredible amount of tasteful visual punch per pixel into its tiny, efficient UI. Factor in the animated dropzone, the truly iconic application icon, the smooth sliding and fading between window views, the construction warning strip for “safe apps”, and the utter elegance of the package as a whole, and maybe this #1 spot will start to sound reasonable. And let’s not forget that beauty is not limited to what our eyes take in. I wouldn’t call it ‘beautiful’ necessarily, but there is something to be said about this magical combination of screen flashing and the “zap” noise that makes appzapping waaaay more fun than it should be. If this doesn’t snag this year’s Apple Design Award for Best OS X User Experience, I will honestly be very, very shocked.
David Watanabe’s extremely slick and polished P2P application Acquisition won’t win any Apple Design Awards for a pretty glaring reason (think Apple’s tenuous deals with the record companies), but if the “Best OS X User Experience” category was judged without politics, this would surely take it, or at least make runner-up. That not being the case, Dave can hopefully take some comfort with this spot on the list for a very well-deserving app. Sporting one of the most polished unified window apps out there, Acquisition manages to pack in a lot of features while maintaining what is ultimately a surprisingly spare and aesthetically pleasing UI. There is no single outstanding visual element here, unlike Delicious Library’s shelves, or CoverFlow’s 3D effects. It’s all about the presentation as a whole.
Props to the slick in-list progress bars, the visually contextual search button that animates while searching, the Mail rules style filtering UI, and even the use of the main pane for one of the most visually pleasing nags ever, and some discreet branding for registered users. Acquisition does a lot with its single window interface, and is so intensely polished and perfect, that you just know the app is in really, really talented hands. Which is true, because with three apps in this post (one as an honorable mention), Watanabe is a powerhouse dev with a perfect eye for masterful UI design.
This little app came out of nowhere last year, and has since managed to pretty much universally wow everyone who tries it with its unique 3D visual effects. CoverFlow attempts to fix one of the more glaring shortcomings of the modern music jukebox application’s user interface: its lack of visual navigation, and general lack of attention to album art. The solution the app’s UI offers is by far the most fun way to browse music since flipping through LP’s at the local record store. (The icon pictured is coming soon. For now you can download it and install it through artist Jasper Hauser’s blog by dropping in the icns file into CoverFlow’s resources folder.
Newsfire 0.1 debuted two summers ago to a very crowded RSS feed reader market which included the venerable NetNewsWire and of course the not yet out Safari RSS, announced at WWDC just months before. That hasn’t stopped this app from fast becoming one of the most popular RSS feed readers out there though, in large part due to its obsessively polished UI. Watanabe looked towards iChat’s buddy list for inspiration, and the result is a UI that contains a feed list in Newsfire that smoothly shifts around items when feeds are updated, displays unread items in familiar green badges, and perhaps most importantly, presents news and podcasts in an extremely slick fashion. Sure, even at version 1.3 Newsfire lacks some of its competitors’ features and customizability, but this is a case where you won’t have a problem with giving up UI control to developer Watanabe’s hands. He knows what he’s doing, and frankly, sometimes, it’s best not to mess with works of art.
With a reported $250,000 in sales in its first month of release, Delicious Library will go down in history as one of the most successful shareware application launches ever. With a price tag of $40, it’s also the most expensive shareware app on this list. So, why did masses of people pay a solid chunk of change for what is in its essence an app that helps you organize your media collection and borrow items out to your friends? Witness the power of UI design.
Clearly, Delicious Library’s most viscerally appealing feature is its ability to let users relive the joy of building their collection, this time for free and with little hassle on their Mac. What Delicious Library did to differentiate itself from the competition in this regard, in addition to its slick improvement of the “adding” process with iSight barcode scanning support, was represent your media collection about as realistically as it was technically possible to do. The super slick representation of CD album art and book covers downloaded from Amazon as jewel cases and real paperback and hardcover books in a virtual wooden bookshelf truly resonated with its users, and I feel, ultimately contributed hugely to its success. There’s more of course, but I’ll let you try this app out for yourself, in the unlikely event that you haven’t yet of course.
Finally, there was of course a list just as long of apps that didn’t quite make the cut. If you found some gems in the top ten and want to explore further, I highly recommend trying these additional ten apps out: Inquisitor by David Watanabe, TextMate by Macromates, Pixadex by The IconFactory & Panic, Omniweb and OmniDazzle by The OmniGroup, RapidWeaver 3 by Realmac Software, CSSEdit by MacRabbit, Comic Life by Plasq, Adium 1.0 SVN, Quicksilver by BlackTree, Inc., and StickyBrain by Chronos.
These apps are all pleasures to behold, and definitely worth a spin.
My thoughts after compiling this list? I have to say that there are definitely a lot of clean, HIG complying freeware and shareware apps out there, but when you try to really narrow it down to the truly slick, beautiful, and eye-catching, there ultimately aren’t that many contenders. And, let me add, the shareware contenders listed in this post generally tend to do pretty well. Developers, listen up. UI matters, a lot more now than it did in OS 9, or does in Windows, and I’m not talking about just slapping in some nice toolbar icons and calling it a day, customers can respond amazingly well to what many programmers will write off as extraneous eye candy. (Delicious Library’s shelving? AppZapper’s screen flash?) Some of the most successful Macintosh shareware companies are represented on this list (Delicious Monster, Panic, and The OmniGroup among others) and I think you can get an early glimpse at the next generation of powerhouse companies as well, and it’s not a coincidence. Good UI sells, so give it the time it deserves. And for the rest of you, enjoy these apps! Hopefully you’ll find a few gems in here that you’ll be trying out for the first time.