It seems that more and more of my friends are moving to Macintosh. This is a Good Thing. Macs are not perfect, but for most users they’re the best choice. They’re safe, reliable, and accessible. Best of all, they’re a pleasure to use.

As these friends change platforms, though, they find themselves asking: “Which software should I use?” I’ve been back on Macintosh for nearly three years, and have explored a lot of the available software, and am now willing to make recommendations.

(Please note that the programs I mention aren’t the only (or even the best) options. They’re merely the options I recommend.)

Web Browser
Safari is the default Macintosh browser, and it’s a good one. It’s my favorite web browser, actually, on any platform. It’s quick and flexible, with tabbed-browsing and a built-in google search bar. Safari’s biggest weakness is printing. On Internet Explorer for the PC, you’re able to print a selection from a web page. You can’t do this from Safari, and, quite frankly, it sucks. (Free.)

Firefox,the best browser option for the PC, is also available on the Mac. Firefox is very similar to Safari, but more extensible. You can download addons to change the browser’s functionality. Firefox is a great option, but I happen to prefer Safari. (Free, open-source.)

E-Mail Client
Apple Mail is the best of a marginal field. It’s included with every Mac and, for the most part, does a fine job. It features lightning fast searches (best e-mail search I’ve ever used), custom filtering, and an elegant interface, but the damn thing is far too buggy. It crashes often (without loss of data, fortunately), and a couple times a year it just stops working altogether. Apple Mail is good except when it isn’t. (Free.)

Eudora is the same e-mail application that many people use on the PC. It does a fine job, but it’s just, well, ugly compared to other Macintosh applications. The interface is less-than-ideal, and the search is just okay. Still, it’s a fine alternative. (Available in three modes: free but feature-limited; free and full-featured but with ads; and $50 paid mode.)

Some people swear by Mailsmith. I swear at it. After using Mailsmith for a year, I’m afraid I have to recommend against using it. Its user-interface is fine, and it offers a lot of options, but everything else is a mess. It’s slow. (I mean really slow. Sorting or searching with just a couple thousand messages in a mailbox is unbearable.) It’s a nightmare to find and change a preference. Support is unhelpful. And it’s expensive. If you’re willing to fuss with the program, it’s probably great. (Why else would people praise it?) But if you want to fuss with things, you ought to be on a PC. Me? I just want my mail program to work. ($100 and an infinite amount of patience. Fully-functional 30-day demo available.)

Office Suite
Most Macs (all Macs?) ship with Appleworks, a basic office application similar to Microsoft Works. For most people, this is all the office application they’ll ever need. It doesn’t have all the features of Microsoft Office (though it will read MS Office files just fine), but I’ve never really noticed. It does what I need. Jeff notes that he uses AppleWorks a lot, and is generally content with it. It’s not ideal. (Free.)

If you need Microsoft Office, it’s available. I never crave Word, though sometimes I crave (and use) Excel. Excel is rather keen. ($400.)

Text Editors
As I’ve mentioned many times in the past, I don’t use a word-processor. I use text-editor. What’s the difference? A text-editor doesn’t have fancy features like multiple fonts and page layout options and rudimentary graphic design tools. A text-editor is just a program for writing. I left the world of word-processing six or seven years ago, and I’ve never looked back. The Mac ships with TextEdit, but there’s a better option.

Most Macintosh power-users sing the praises of BBEdit, which has been a mainstay on the platform for over a decade. I’m not a huge fan of BBEdit. Like Mailsmith (it’s made by the same company), it suffers from an overwhelming options screen. The latest version of the program (version 8) seems to be a step sideways. Some nifty new features were added, but at the expense of speed. ($200. Fully-functional 30-day demo available.)

Instead, I recommend the stripped-down version of BBEdit, which is called TextWrangler. If this had been available when I bought BBEdit, I could have saved myself a chunk of cash. (Free.)

Image Editor
Apple has made a big deal about iPhoto, and I’ve been impressed at some of the things that Jenn uses it for, but I’ve never been anything but frustrated by it. It’s slow. It’s cumbersome. It’s feature-set is anything but robust. (You can’t even re-size a photo!) It’s a good way to organize your photo library, I suppose, but that’s about it. (Free.)

Many Mac users love the venerable GraphicConverter, a $30 shareware program that allows for basic image manipulation. The geekier set advocates the free, open-source GIMP. I’ve used GIMP on both Windows and Linux, though, and have never been impressed.

For image manipulation, I use Photoshop Elements, a stripped-down version of Photoshop that has a wealth of features for the average user. The latest version (3.0) isn’t very good, though. I regret having spent $80 on it. It’s slow, buggy, and features some mind-numbingly stupid programming. It’s a good choice if you can’t find 2.0, but otherwise skip it. I’ve uninstalled Photoshop Elements 3.0 on my computers and am using 2.0 instead. Photoshop Elements 2.0, if you can find it, is a pleasure to work with, with some clever intuitive features that have just disappeared in the latest version.

Music Jukebox
Macintosh ships with my favorite music jukebox: iTunes. As with most Apple products, iTunes features lightning-quick searches, an excellent user-interface, and great organizational capabilities. I used to use WinAmp on the PC, but iTunes is superior to it in nearly every way. (Free.)

Movie Player
Every Mac ships with two movie-playing applications: DVD Player for watching DVDs and QuickTime for watching other video files. Unfortunately, these aren’t the only video players you’ll need.

You’ll also need Windows Media Player (a free download from Microsoft) and the fantastic free open-source VLC. VLC is a must-download app. It’s my default media-player. If it doesn’t work (which is rare), I fall back on Windows Media Player or QuickTime.

It seems strange to need so many different media players; I console myself with the fact that I needed just as many in Windows. (All of these applications are free.)

Other Applicatons
Here’s a list of other useful applications that the Mac ships with by default: Address Book (which integrates with Apple Mail and other Mac apps), iCal (which is notoriously buggy, but still useful), iDVD (for burning DVDs, which I never do), iMovie (for making your own movies, which I rarely do), iSync (for syncing data on multiple Macs — I use this all the time), and iChat (for internet chat, which I rarely use).

And here’s the meat of this entry, the little Macintosh utilities I can’t live without:

I’ve used a half dozen file-sharing clients from Napster to BearShare to LimeWire to Kazaa to Kazaa Lite. None of them come close to touching Acquisition for quality of user interface. As a bonus, Acquisition is fully integrated with iTunes. This application is beautiful. (Free download. $17 payment requested.)

Don’t let the ugly interface scare you; Audacity is a handy app for working with audio files. It’s a free, open-source with which you can record live audio (like birds in the yard); convert tapes and records into digital recordings or CDs; edit sound files; cut, copy, splice, and mix sounds together; and more. (Free, open-source.)

I’ve already ranted about how I would watch almost no television if it weren’t for Netflix and BitTorrent. Using various directories, I’m able to find “torrents” for download, and thus I watch television programs I otherwise would miss. Network executives aren’t happy about it, but would they rather have me publicize their programs in my weblog after downloading them via BitTorrent, or would they rather have me not watch at all? (Free, open-source.)

Like iPhoto, but better. Lightbox is an image-management program for serious photographers. It works with RAW image files, keeps track of thumbnails, and, best of all, doesn’t make you keep all your images in one directory. ($25, fully-functional demo available.)

I love to cook, but I do a terrible job at keeping my recipes organized. I’m always asking Kris things like, “Where’s that recipe for Thai tuna salad?” MacGourmet solves that problem. Or it would if I ever got all my recipes entered into it. The program even has a keen companion website with recipes and more. ($25, time-limited demo available.)

This app allows you to read syndicated feeds. That may be gibberish to you. An RSS (or similar) feed is basically a plain-text version of, say, this weblog, which can be acquired by various applications, including NetNewsWire. NetNewsWire lets you subscribe to these feeds, essentially tracking to see when your favorite sites and weblogs are updated, then displaying the new stuff for you to read. It’s very handy. ($25, fully-functional 30-day demo available.)

Ah, Quicksilver. I’ve barely begun to use this little app — loudly advocated at 43folders — and already I sense its power. It’s essentially an operating system accelerator: press option-space and type the first few letters of a program, or the first few letters of a URL, or the first few letters of a document name, and Quicksilver opens it for you. Very handy. Here’s an excellent introductcion to Quicksilver. (Free.)

Some of us are still on Usenet. (When I first started using the internet, Usenet was the internet: there was no world-wide web.) ($25, fully-functional 15-day demo.)

If I could have only one third-party Macintosh application, it would be SpamSieve. SpamSieve is the most effective spam filter I’ve ever used. It integrates flawlessly with every e-mail client I’ve used. It just works. (I only have two very, very minor complaints: its icon lives in the dock, and it gives me a modal dialogue box after each (frequent) program update.) ($25, and worth every penny.)

How do I move files back and forth on my web site? With ftp, of course. There are plenty of free ftp clients available, but none of them offer the features and elegance of Transmit. Transmit is the best ftp program I’ve ever used on any platform. Most people don’t need an ftp client; me, I can’t live without one. ($30, fully-functional 15-day demo.)

This handy little menu-bar app displays weather forecasts. It used to be available for $8 from the developers, but their web site is gone. I can’t find it. I think the above link will give you a free fully-functional demo, but I’m not sure.

This little app lets you record sound from any source, even realaudio or DVD audio. WireTap captures the sound as it’s routed to the speakers. Ambrosia used to have a free version available, but they’ve updated the app and are charging for it now. (Wow. I just installed WireTap Pro. It’s got Windows-level of crap in its folder after installation. Not a good sign.) ($19, though the old version is free if you can find it.)

I’m hesitant to recommend anything from Real Networks knowing how insidious their software is on the PC, but from what I can tell their various media players are actually fairly innocuous (even useful!) on a Mac. The latest version is Real Player 10, but I’m still using RealOne Player and am quite happy with it.

I’m sure there are scores of other great little Mac apps out there that I haven’t discovered yet. One great thing about Macs is that they’re useful out-of-the-box. Throw in a couple of the above apps and they kick ass.


On 02 June 2005 (04:29 PM),
Kris said:

Boy, is this boring!

On 02 June 2005 (07:43 PM),
dowingba said:

$200 for a text editor? And you actually bought it? Sorry but I just can’t get past that price. I know it has alot of nifty features and what not, but two hundred dollars?! For a text editor?!?

On 02 June 2005 (09:16 PM),
Jeff said:

Here’s my take on the applications (programs) listed above. Keep in mind that my computer needs are very basic and I have zero desire to do any tweaking:

Safari -> My browser of choice, no need to think about switching.
Firefox -> Use it at work on PC, would use if not for Safari.

Apple Mail -> E-mail search is a wonderful feature. Best e-mail client I’ve used, much better than Outlook Express. I have never had if crash.
Eudora -> Seen it, used it a few times on JD’s PC at work, better than Outlook Express, but I’ll keep Apple Mail.

Appleworks -> I like the drawing & painting portions, but if you are used to Word or Excel, the rest of it takes some getting used to.
Microsoft Office -> If you are an Excel addict as I am, Office is worth the price of admission.

TextEdit -> I’m typing this in TextEdit. I find it to be the perfect weblog entry composition too — plain text with spell check — I don’t need anything else from a text editor. One of my most often used programs… er, applications.
BBEdit -> Played with it a little on JD’s PowerBook. Way too complicated for a text editor… I’ll stick with TextEdit.
TextWrangler -> Never tried it… don’t feel the need to.

iPhoto -> Great for retrieving photos from the camera and organizing in albums, but that’s about it. You can do cropping, rotating, red-eye editing etc, but I just find it all much easier in Photoshop.
GraphicConverter, GIMP -> Haven’t tried either one.
Photoshop Elements 2.0 -> My default photo editor — intuitive & powerful. Perfect for editing photos for weblog entries.

iTunes -> Two big thumbs up here. Easy song or artist searching, easy CD burning (either MP3 or standard format), easy to use.

DVD Player -> Works very well, but mainly plays kid’s movies… 😉
QuickTime -> Never been impressed with QuickTime. Microsoft wins in this category.
Windows Media Player -> My default video media player.
VLC -> ???????

Aquisition thru Unison -> Never used any of these. Don’t know why I would need to.

SpamSieve -> Have been training SpamSieve for 5 months now, and it is starting to pay off. Most of the spam from or Custom Box account no longer gets through to my home computer.

Transmit -> Never tried.

WeatherPop -> A very handy feature. Nice to get the weather forecast with one click of the mouse.

WireTap -> Sounds interesting, but I’m not sure when I would use it.

Once you go Mac, you’ll never go back…

On 03 June 2005 (08:26 AM),
Tammy said:

I’m sooo with Kris on this one! (yawn)

On 03 June 2005 (11:03 PM),
Dana Johnson said:

I hate paying for software — except for games.


I’ve had a mac available to me for a week now (in addition to my multiple linux boxes, some of which can dual boot into various MS operating systems)…

For those of us who are inveterate geeks, DarwinPorts and Fink provide a centralized interface to downloading and installing a very large number of ‘standard’ *nix apps.

The Mac mail app is adequate, I suppose. Thunderbird is nearly it’s equal. Of course, neither is really the equal of mutt, but that’s just IMHO. =)

On the browser front, I can only add a pointer to Camino, another Mozilla-based browser project, a la Mozilla and Firefox. This one has a native Cocoa interface (unlike Firefox, which is technically rendered in XUL, same as Mozilla — if this means nothing to you, you can safely ignore it).

I like pretty icons!

While BitTorrent is indeed keen (I like the looks of this client, but haven’t really put it through it’s paces), I’ve had much better luck finding stuff on eDonkey, a client for which lives here: xDonkey.

For those of you just as geeky as myself (which is probably nobody), there’s also QemuX, an OS X port of the QEMU ix86 emulator. Using QemuX, you can boot Windows (or Linux, actually) in a window.

I actually use this functionality all the time for actual work-related type activities. But if you don’t actually need this, then you’ll never use it.

If you are at all an IMer, I would also recommend Adium X, based on a native-port of GAIM. This is a multi-protocol IM client which handles some protocols that iChat doesn’t (ie, Yahoo Messenger).

Finally, there are tons of little tweaks and apps at Apple’s site, here. Many are native ports of common open source apps (such as JD’s aforementioned GIMP), like OSX versions of VIm and Emacs…

One Reply to “Essential Macintosh Software”

  1. Nick Bailey says:

    Thanks for that! I’ve recently purchased a new MacBook Pro and as a non native mac user I’m a little at a loss as to exactly what i want on it. So this has been most useful.

    If only I could afford (or accept the gross overpricing of) Adobes Photoshop and Dreamweaver. I simply can’t understand how in this wide world web they can charge such silly single user prices.

    Ludicrous when compared to the ammount of work that goes into each computer game which are priced at about £30!!

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