Essential Utilities: Clipboard Managers

Most of us take Mac OS X's clipboard for granted. We assume that when we select something, press Command-C or Command-X, and then go somewhere else and press Command-V, whatever we've copied or cut will be pasted.

But the clipboard has one big shortcoming: it's a one-trick pony. It stores only a single bit of data at a time--the most recent thing you've copied or cut. This not only limits productivity, but also makes it easy to lose data: How many times have you cut some text, intending to paste it elsewhere, and then absentmindedly copied another bit of text, thus losing the first bit?

For these reasons, a third-party clipboard manager--which can store multiple recent clips--is one of the most useful utilities you can install on your Mac. Once you do, you won't need to worry about overwriting whatever else is on the clipboard: If you've copied or cut something recently, it's available for pasting. And if you need to cut and paste multiple sections of text, you can cut each one in turn, and then paste them wherever and in whatever order you want.

There are many clipboard utilities available for Mac OS X. I recently tested five of the best: Naotaka Morimoto's free ClipMenu, Plum Amazing's $30 CopyPaste Pro, Briksoftware's $15 CuteClips ( Macworld rated 3.5 out of 5 mice ), Steve Cook's free Jumpcut ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ), and PTH Consulting's $25 PTHPasteboard Pro ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ). They range from simple and straightforward to flexible and powerful. Here's how they compare.

Essential features

To be truly useful, a multiple-clipboard program should maintain a lengthy history of cuts and copies. Jumpcut and CopyPaste Pro store the most-recent 99 and 200 clips, respectively; PTHPasteboard Pro and ClipMenu provide unlimited histories. CuteClips stores as many clips as will fit in its display, so the number depends on the size of your screen.

To access clips, all five utilities offer a systemwide menu: You click the menu icon to view recent clipboard contents, then choose a clip to paste it into the active application. But they also offer other ways to see your clips. CopyPaste, CuteClips, and Jumpcut provide an on-screen, semitransparent overlay that appears on command and lets you cycle through saved clips. PTHPasteboard can also display them in a standard, always visible window. CopyPaste Pro gives you additional access through an optional floating palette that appears when you move the cursor to a particular part of your screen, as well as through the program's Dock menu. With every utility, you can also access clips using keyboard and mouse shortcuts.

OS X's built-in clipboard works with a variety of clip formats; some of these third-party utilities are more limited. Like the main clipboard, CopyPaste Pro, CuteClips, and PTHPasteBoard Pro can work with text, images, media, and Finder files. ClipMenu, on the other hand, supports only text and images, while Jumpcut stores only text. All five can preserve or strip text formatting when pasting--the latter is useful when you're pasting a clip into a document with different formatting.

The utilities also differ in the previews they provide. Each displays, in its systemwide menu, a limited snippet of each clip's text, or a small preview of other types of data. However, PTHPasteboard Pro provides the option of slightly larger and more detailed previews; ClipMenu and CuteClips each shows as much of a preview as will fit on your screen.

Advanced functionality

Each of these utilities can do more than just preserve your clips. ClipMenu, CopyPaste Pro, and PTHPasteboard Pro let you format and process text content before pasting--for example, enabling you to remove quote (>) marks from text you copied from an e-mail message, or allowing you to change capitalization. CopyPaste Pro has the most built-in options, plus tools for extracting e-mail addresses and URLs from clips, and it lets you manually edit clips before pasting. PTHPasteBoard Pro, however, lets you create custom text filters that can perform sophisticated combinations of transformations; actions include "smartening" quotation marks and running text through shell scripts.

All but Jumpcut enable you to save snippets of frequently used text, making it easy to paste boilerplate text into documents. CopyPaste Pro and PTHPasteboard Pro let you create multiple sets of clips. CopyPaste Pro and CuteClips allow you to assign keyboard shortcuts to particular clips, and can paste multiple clips simultaneously; CuteClips even lets you choose the sequence of clips to paste.

PTHPasteboard Pro has a convenient search field for finding text in your clips; detailed information about when, and from where, you copied or cut each clip; and word and character counts. But for many people, its most appealing feature is that it can sync clips between Macs--if you copy something on your MacBook, that text appears in PTHPasteboard on your iMac, as well.

One often-overlooked drawback to clipboard utilities is that they can pose a security risk. For example, if you copy the password for your online-banking account, it will be accessible to anyone who obtains access to your clipboard utility. To enable you to work around this security concern, Jumpcut lets you clear your entire clipboard history. That's a secure approach, but it's also potentially inconvenient. The other four utilities let you delete individual clips, and ClipMenu and PTHPasteboard Pro go one step further, letting you exclude particular programs--for example, 1Password--so that content copied from those programs is never saved.

Macworld's buying advice

Frankly, all five of these programs are worth recommending--each has something unique going for it. If you're new to clipboard managers, and if most of your copying and pasting operations involves text, go with Jumpcut. It has fewer features than the others, but it gets the basics right and is the simplest to use. (It's also free, making it an excellent starter clipboard utility.)

CuteClips is a small step up from Jumpcut in functionality, supporting more types of content and providing better previews. ClipMenu adds text-processing features and more flexibility. But CopyPaste Pro and PTHPasteboard Pro are the clear winners in the features department; CopyPaste Pro offers more options for viewing and editing clips, while PTHPasteboard Pro--my personal choice--provides features such as clip syncing, searching, and stats that will appeal to wordsmiths.

(Note that if you're already using a launcher such as LaunchBar or Butler, you may already have all the Clipboard manager you need. For example, LaunchBar includes a Clipboard History feature that can save the previous 40 Clipboard contents for convenient pasting; and a nifty ClipMerge option--press Command-C twice--lets you append selected text to the current Clipboard content.)

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