Isolator 4.4

Dan Frakes
29 April, 2011
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Earlier this week, Macworld Forums member RamónEstebanZayasValdez suggested I take a look at Isolator – a similar utility to HazeOver – that’s been around for a while. I’d tried Isolator in the past, but the current version is much better. In fact, it does nearly everything HazeOver does, plus it already has many of the features I suggested for HazeOver.

When Isolator is running, everything but the frontmost application, the Dock, and the menu bar is dimmed—”tinted” in Isolator’s nomenclature—to help you focus on the active program. Switch to another application, and that application is immediately displayed at full brightness, with other programs faded to the back. You can adjust Isolator’s tint level, from very faint to completely opaque, and you can choose the duration of the fade action, although Isolator’s range of durations is small—even the “slow” setting is faster than I’d prefer.

Like HazeOver, Isolator gives you the benefits of many “focus” utilities without completely blocking other programs and windows. But unlike HazeOver, which works on a per-window basis—so only the frontmost window is “in focus,” even if other windows are open in the same application—Isolator works on a per-application basis. This means that if you have three word-processor windows open, none of them will be dimmed. As I mentioned in my HazeOver review, both approaches have merit, and I wish Isolator offered the option to choose which behaviour you prefer.

Many of Isolator’s additional options are things I mentioned I’d like to see in HazeOver. Although the default tint colour is black, you can choose any colour. And if you find partially-tinted background items to still be too distracting—but you don’t want to completely obscure them—Isolator offers some nifty filters you can apply to its “tint” later: Blur, Bloom, Crystals, and Desaturate. For the first three, you can also choose the degree of the effect; the Desaturate filter simply changes everything in the background to greyscale. You could use these options to configure Isolator such that background windows are still identifiable as a Web browser, a word-processing document, and so on, but dimmed and blurred enough that you can’t actually read text in them.

Although you can’t exclude particular applications—a feature I mentioned I’d like to see in HazeOver—Isolator can temporarily disable its fading when the Finder is the active application. The main benefit of this option is that it lets you view the Desktop when the Finder is frontmost. (Without this option, you may still be able to view—and even work with—items on the Desktop, assuming you haven’t set the tint level too dark, but you’ll never be able to view the Desktop in all its full-colour and -brightness glory.) You also get an option to actually hide—using OS X’s Hide feature—all but the active application. This option is similar to using OS X’s Hide Others command each time you switch to an application.

Activating Isolator is also much easier than activating HazeOver—you can set a systemwide keyboard shortcut to toggle Isolator’s tinting on and off, and you can configure Isolator so that a simple click on its systemwide menu-bar menu similarly toggles background tinting.

Finally, Isolator includes an option to hide the Dock when Isolator is activated. However, there appears to be a bug with this feature: When you uncheck this option, the Dock doesn’t unhide—you must go to the Dock pane of System Preferences and uncheck the Automatically Hide and Show the Dock option (or right/Control-click the Dock’s divider line and choose Turn Hiding Off).

The developer of Isolator notes that it has “some glitches with when Exposé and Spaces are used,” but it worked fine with Exposé for me. (I didn’t test it with Spaces.)

If you like the idea of HazeOver, give Isolator a try—it does nearly everything HazeOver does plus a lot more. I’ve found it to be an outstanding focus aid.

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