My Essential Mac Apps

While many would claim the imminent end of desktop software (at the benefit of mobile and web apps), my daily use of technology is still largely defined by the “classic” software I use, from old staples to new arrivals. In 2010, many great Mac apps continued to improve, and there were even some notable newcomers. Here’s a roundup of the Mac apps I regularly use, with a focus on what I used a lot over the past 12 months (in no particular order).

Plex, free
Plex has long been the best media manager on the Mac, and with the long-awaited release of Plex 9, the developers have outdone themselves, while further distinguishing Plex from its source, XBMC. Plex 9 is absolutely the best media manager on the Mac (or on any system, I would say), giving media collections the beautiful presentation and organization they deserve.

Notational Velocity, free
Notational Velocity is a staple among Mac aficionados, but I only recently became acquainted with it. It’s now become essential, and contains content as diverse as lecture notes, book summaries, quotes, ideas, lists, writing projects (this was written in Notational Velocity, mostly while on a plane), random thoughts, references and more. Simplenote sync keeps my notes with me at all times (thanks to the iPhone app), and anything I think of on-the-go is synced to my computer. Simply put, Notational Velocity has allowed me to organize my mind.

Quick Search Box, free
Developed in party by Nicholas Jitkoff, the same guy responsible for Quicksilver, Quick Search Box provides easy access to everything on my computer. Mostly I just use it to search my computer (it uses Spotlight’s excellent index, and includes Google Chrome bookmarks), and as an application launcher. It also keeps a clipboard history (but I use Jumpcut), and can manipulate files, so I’ll sometimes use it to move a file. There’s some very cool system integration: aside from clipboard history and the ability to manipulate files (get info, show in finder, move, rename, etc.), it provides access to menu items of all open programs, as well as things like “Empty Trash.” There’s some integration with Google’s cloud services, like the option to upload files to Google Docs, and the inclusion of Google Docs files in search.

Picasa, free
Picasa’s not the best photo manager, and I’ve had plenty of issues with it. But it is one of the best free photo managers. And I like that, unlike some programs, almost all the metadata is written to the photo itself, so each file is self-contained, instead of relying on specific software (and folders are created in Finder for groups of photos). Geotagged location, tags, and description are all managed through the EXIF data. Unfortunately, Picasa is still missing features and there are some persistent issues, and new features are not very actively developed. I worry that Google’s focus on the cloud will cause Picasa to be ignored, at least as a self-contained photo manager (two of the most significant updates in the last year were integration with Picnik, the online photo editing site Google recently acquired, and better integration with Picasa Web). I’d love if Google were to open source Picasa and let the community develop it.

Hugin, free
Hugin is incredible software. It allows the creation of seamless panoramas from adjacent photos, and it’s very advanced. All that’s needed from the user is a set of decent photos and a few nudges in the right direction, and Hugin does most of the work. Hugin is actively developed as well, and while the interface may not win any prizes, the technology is impressive. With the latest release (at the end of 2010), the developers write that “For the first time Hugin can be considered feature-complete.”

Bean, free
Simple and effective word processing. While a lack of footnotes and similar advanced features prevents Bean from being the only word processor I use, it remains my go-to text editor (aside from Notational Velocity), and for almost everything, it’s exactly what I need, without being too much.

Preview, pre-installed
Preview is my default image and PDF viewer. It’s lightweight and fast, and perfect for everyday use.

Skim, free
When I want a bit more options when working with PDFs, I open Skim. It’s an excellent PDF viewer, with a focus on notating files — adding text notes, highlighting, etc. It provides a searchable index of all notes and highlighted sections in a pane on the right. Everything is exportable in a number of formats as well.

Sparrow, free while in beta, freemium after
I’ve always avoided mail software, as Gmail’s web interface is sufficient for my needs, but I was won over by Sparrow (released in beta in October), which sports a beautiful and minimalist interface, while including most of Gmail’s features (notably missing is Priority Inbox, but the developers are considering adding it). Sparrow is one of the first apps to bring elements of an iOS interface to Mac OS X. Even in beta, it’s already very promising.

Transmission, free
A well-designed, feature-rich, minimalist BitTorrent client. The popular uTorrent was recently released for Mac OS X, but Transmission remains my default (and favorite).

HandBrake, free
The classic DVD-ripping and video-encoding app, useful as ever.

Google Chrome, free
Google Chrome, my browser. Chrome is basically just a window to the web (and various “web apps”), but it’s an impressive and elegant window at that, and deserves a mention, as the single program I undoubtedly spend the most time using.

LibreOffice, free
I’ve resisted installing an office suite for some time, but with college’s demand for footnotes and presentations, along with the excitement of a re-invigorated and truly-open Office, I finally installed OpenOffice LibreOffice. It may be slow, cluttered and huge, but it gets the job done.

Flickr Uploadr, free
This program is far from perfect (and well past due for an update), but coupled with picasa2flickr, it has proved consistently useful for getting my photos from Picasa to Flickr, metadata and all.

Dictionary, pre-installed
Apple’s pre-installed Dictionary isn’t anything special, but quick and easy access to definitions and synonyms (just a right-click in many programs), even while offline, is invaluable (along with easy access from Quick Search Box).

iCal, pre-installed
I keep my school schedule in iCal, along with any other important events. It also includes Facebook events and television shows I watch (thanks to

Backblaze, $5/month
I hastily signed up for an online backup service when I feared my drive was done for (and I didn’t have a hard drive to use), and I’ve used Backblaze ever since. The great thing about Backblaze is that I don’t have to think about it — it runs as a Preference pane, so my computer is always backed up remotely, and aside from the occasional peak to make sure everything’s running smoothly, I just let Backblaze do its thing. Not only is everything backed up online, but I’ve got versions going back 30 days, in case I need an earlier version of a file. It also provides online access to my computer’s hard drive from anywhere, since I can login and download any backed up file, any time. It’s $5 a month for unlimited space and bandwidth (you can even include external drives), so it’s well worth the price.

iStat Menus, $16
Bjango released version 3 of iStat Menus this year, and it’s continued to advance since then. The update also brought a price tag (it used to be free), but having constant access to network, memory and CPU usage from the menu bar is well worth $16. It’s great being able to glance up and see my download and upload speeds (or if I even have a network connection), or if a certain program is using too much processing power. I’ve even replaced the default battery and clock with the iStat Menus versions — the battery icon provides various details and a different look depending on the state (charging, charged, plugged in, etc.), and the clock gives me one-click access to a calendar, as well as the time in various (customizable) cities (not to mention sunrise, noon, sunset, moonrise and moonset times in each).

Jumpcut, free
This simple menu bar app provides a clipboard history, and allows copying of more than one thing at a time. It’s quite useful just as a back up, for those times when something important is overwritten by a thoughtless “copy,” or something used previously is needed again. The ability to copy many different pieces of text at once is incredibly valuable, especially when copying things like quotes, links, or tags (it’s also an easy way to paste something in plain text). There are more advanced clipboard managers like Ayluro’s Corkboard, but Jumpcut’s simple effectiveness is perfect for my needs.

CapSee, free
This simple utility adds a visual cue (like the one for volume, brightness, etc.) when the Caps Lock key is pressed. Never again type a sentence in all caps before realizing that Caps Lock is on.

HyperDock, free while in beta
A recent addition to the customization of my Mac, HyperDock is very useful for managing multiple windows in one app. Hovering over a dock icon provides a Windows 7-like popup of all open windows, which is a lot quicker than right-clicking.

MenuBar Countdown, free
Another simple menu bar app. Very useful when I want a basic countdown. Responsible for many well-cooked pastas.

The Unarchiver, free
A simple app for extracting archives with support for lots of formats, which I use as my default.

Honorary Mentions:

Bodega, free
A Mac App Store, which has been around since well before Apple announced an official one.
VLC, free
The classic open source audio and video player, with support for nearly every format you could want to play. Most of my video is viewed through Plex, but everything else is opened with VLC.
Firefox, free
While (like many others) I’ve switched from Firefox to Chrome, Firefox remains a great browser, and 2010 saw the release of Firefox 3.6 and the beta of version 4 (which, unsurprisingly, imitates much of Chrome’s UI).
Flux, free
This menu bar app changes the screen’s tone as the sun sets (restoring it when the sun rises), for softer and more soothing computer use at night. I’m not currently using it, but it’s an interesting app to try out.
Gruml, free
This Google Reader client stands out for me because it has support for “liking,” but the interface is hardly spectacular. However, it is useful for reading feeds offline.
jDownloader, free
For frequent bulk downloading from file hosting sites, this app is indispensable.
iTunes, free (pre-installed)
As the app that I use to organize, import and listen to all my music, iTunes deserves a mention.
You Control Tunes, free
Another menu bar app, which adds iTunes controls to the menu bar, along with scrolling information about what’s playing, and more information and controls with a click.
MediaInfo Mac, free
A simple app that provides detailed information about any media file.
Simple Comic, free
A great comic reading app.
Skype, free
Even the long overdue release of the Skype 5 beta hasn’t improved Skype on the Mac much, but it remains a great way to communicate with friends and family in other parts of the world.
SugarSync (referral), 5 GB free (extra 500 MB using referral link), more space can be purchased
There are plenty of syncing apps, and as far as interface and functionality go I don’t think SugarSync is the best, but the ability to choose which folders to sync and 5 GB of space with a free account led me to choose SugarSync over others like Dropbox (at least until syncing specific folders is added natively).
Express Scribe, free
This little app proved very useful for transcribing interviews in the first half of the year, with customizable keyboard shortcuts for thing like playing, pausing, rewinding, fast forwarding and jumping forward and back, as well as variable speed playback.
Telephone, free
This minimalist SIP client is perfect for just making phone calls and sending messages, and integrates with the Address Book.
Pomodoro, free
I dallied with The Pomodoro Technique for getting work done, and this app (another menu bar app) is a great companion.
BetterTouchTool, free
An app that enables advanced customization of the trackpad’s behavior, as well as keyboard shortcuts for launching other apps.
Automator, pre-installed
Useful for bulk renaming and other repetitive tasks.
Grab, pre-installed
Grab is perfect for simple screen capture.
Fluid, free
I didn’t include this in the main list because it’s really just a way to access web apps. But Google Tasks in my menu bar (built with Fluid) is something I use every day.
Google Notifier, free
For most of the year I used this to be notified of new e-mails in Gmail, but I’ve since replaced it with Sparrow.
Growl, free
This excellent notification utility is supported by tons of other apps, but I’ve actually stopped using it, as it’s essentially just another way to get distracted.

There you have it: the Mac apps I rely on, whether by virtue of the software, or necessity. What are the Mac apps that you couldn’t live without?

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