Essential Mac OS X Applications: 2011 EditionWritten by John Thompson on June 9, 2011 · Filed under Software
The Mac has continued to grow strongly in the past 12 months thanks to increased sales influenced by the iPad and third party applications are more accessible than ever through the Mac App Store, but out of the abundance of software available for the platform, which are the best applications that no Mac should be without?
Let’s take a look at the essential applications for the Mac in 2011 and find out, as we run down apps in every category from web browsers to audio conversion programs and utilities!
Every Mac ships with Safari out of the box, but if you want to go add-on crazy and tailor your browser to how you want it then the newly released Firefox 4 is definitely worth a good look. The latest version allows you to use ‘App tabs’ similar to how you would in the Chrome OS browser, and you can use the Panorama feature to organise your tabs in to separate categories to keep things tidy. This is also a great way to separate personal browsing and browsing for work, so you aren’t tempted to hop over to a fun looking tab when researching for a project.
If you’d rather browse around the net like Speedy Gonzalez – “they don’t make pussy cats like they used to!” – then you should try out Google’s Chrome web browser. Built for speed, Chrome combines a simple interface with the latest web standards behind the scenes to make sure there are no compatibility issues when browsing. Some say that it has become bloated in recent releases with additions such as a built in PDF reader, but it’s still super fast compared to other browsers.
If you aren’t a fan of OS X’s built in Mail application, then you have a few options when it comes to e-mail clients. If you don’t want to pay an arm and a leg to pick up your mail, then you can try out Mozilla Thunderbird. Thunderbird 3, which allows you to navigate through your e-mails with tabs, so you don’t have to close one inbox to open another. Like Firefox, you can download a plethora of add-ons to customise your experience as well, a feature that many other clients don’t offer. Best of all, it’s completely free to download!
If you want a more fine-tuned (and expensive) route to picking up your mail, then there are two options: the minimalist option and the power-user option. For those people who don’t really like e-mail and would rather have a client that stays out of the way and doesn’t dominate the desktop, you can’t go wrong with Sparrow. Clearly influenced by Twitter for Mac, Sparrow stays out of site until you need it, and allows you to do most of the things you want to do with an e-mail client. You can send and receive email from any POP3 / IMAP / SMTP server, use quick reply and conversation view to keep the thread flowing and connect with multiple accounts.
For the power-users amongst you, Postbox 2 for Mac – otherwise known as Thunderbird on steroids – gives you an application which is full of useful features to justify the £17.99 price tag. You can expect to find all of the features you would see in Thunderbird, such as tabbed browsing, and even a few add-ons. In addition to this, the client offers one click archiving, advanced image and document search and a conversation view for quick replies.
If you’re going to be doing any kind of semi-productive work on your Mac, then you’re going to need an office suite to do it with. For most people, there are two main contenders here: Microsoft Office 2011 for Mac and Apple’s iWork.
Microsoft Office 2011 for Mac consists of Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel and Outlook, and contains the newly designed ribbon interface that you’ll find on Office 2007 and later for Windows, which is a first on the Mac. The applications will look very familiar for users who have experience with their Windows counterparts, although if I had one criticism of them, it’s that they don’t look very ‘Mac-like’ in their interface. With the feature set being ported from Windows, this is to be expected, and the 2011 version is nicer to use than the previous version, so at least we’re heading in the right direction!
iWork ’09 is the current Office suite from Apple, although if you’re looking to buy this then you may want to wait for iWork ’11 to be released, as this is expected any time now. It was originally thought that the new version would be released with the App Store in January but it seems as though Apple is holding back on its release for some reason. When it does come out, you can be sure that you’ll find it in the App Store, maybe as separate application downloads similar to iWork on the iPad.
Those of you looking for a free alternative to the pricey office suites available from Microsoft and Apple should check out LibreOffice. The suite has been developed as a fork of Oracle’s OpenOffice.org after a number of disputes between Oracle and the open source community. It contains programs to create and edit documents, spreadsheets, presentations and even databases all for absolutely no price! Just head over to the LibreOffice website to download your free copy.
If you’re like me, you will often struggle to keep track of all the things that you need to do during the day. Things for Mac OS X is a to-do manager that helps to keep you organised. You can tag items that need completing, split projects up in to small, manageable chunks and view everything that needs completing today at a glance. Things for Mac also syncs with the iOS apps which are available for both the iPhone and iPad.
For students using the Mac, iStudiez Pro is an absolutely essential application that no student should be without. It’s one of the best looking, stable and fully functional applications I’ve ever had the pleasure of using on a Mac, and it is an absolutely invaluable tool. You can track your classes, schedule, assignments and exams that you have coming up all in one, nice looking window.
I probably spend more time on my Mac listening to music and watching movies than I do on most of the other categories we have listed here, and fortunately there is a bucketload of applications to make that experience as nice as possible.
It may have gotten a marmite-like reputation over the past few years, but iTunes is still the most complete and best looking music player on the Mac in my opinion. iTunes on the Mac is a far better experience than it is on Windows; it’s more organised, performs far, far better and generally keeps me happy during the day when I’m listening to my favourite songs. No need to download this one, iTunes comes with every Mac as standard.
I also use CoverSutra as an iTunes controller so I don’t have to have iTunes visible to search for songs, rate the current song playing or view album artwork whilst I’m listening to music.
If you want to rip any CDs that you own, or convert tracks that you already have lying around on your hard drive, then you should look no further than XLD. Not only is it free, but it’s also a really powerful tool that can handle numerous file types and convert them in to any format you would want to use. I often use it to convert my FLAC collection in to Apple Lossless for iTunes.
For video playback, there isn’t an application out there that can rival MPlayerX for looks and functionality. The developers have produced an application that is as versatile as VLC Media Player, capable of handling any video file you would care to throw at it, and as good looking as Apple’s new QuickTime X. MPlayer X uses brand new technologies available in Snow Leopard to produce the best video player available for the platform, and it’s one that no Mac user should be without. It’s also free to download, so why would you say no?!
Instant messaging, along with social networks, has made it infinitely easier to stay in touch with people without having to be on the phone constantly waiting for a text or call to come through. There are a few instant messaging applications available for the Mac, including Apple’s own iChat.
iChat comes bundled with Mac OS X, and looks absolutely great. Conversations can be seen in a single window with a list of open conversations showing on the left hand side of the window, and although few protocols are supported pre-configured, you can use Jabber to connect to an endless list of other services such as Facebook chat, so you don’t have to use that horrible in-browser chat on the Facebook website.
If you want something a little more powerful, then Adium is definitely worth taking a look at. Supporting almost 20 protocols without any manual user configuration, this free piece of software is a power horse. The best thing about Adium, though, is the very active community, which provides add-ons for users, as well as custom skins and themes for the contact and conversation windows. If you’re willing to spend a bit of time on finding the right theme then Adium will be the best looking IM client you’ll ever use.
If instant messaging isn’t your thing, then you will still probably need to make calls. I’ve used Skype for Mac for all of my VoIP calls ever since I can remember. Skype offers great international and domestic call rates to help you save a ton of money on your phone bills, and although the recent update for Mac leaves a lot to be desired it’s still the best service available for VoIP. It’s, of course, a free download, but hunt down Skype 2.8 if you aren’t bothered about video calling; the current interface of Skype 5 is a bit of a nightmare as far as usability is concerned.
Being at the leading edge of technology, we can’t simply recommend a good VoIP service and stop there! A little thing called video calling is pushing its way into our daily lives, and although Skype supports video calling as well, Apple recently released FaceTime for Mac OS X, which you can buy off the Mac App Store for a small, token price of 59p.
When it comes to gaming on the Mac you have two choices: buy off the App Store or buy off Steam. I myself am a huge fan of Steam for Mac, which allows you to purchase a game once and play it on both Windows and Mac OS X if the title is available on both platforms. Steam will also save your game files in the cloud for certain titles so that you can boot up a brand new computer, install a game such as Portal and carry on right where you left off 6 months ago on your old machine.
Your best bet is to use both the App Store and Steam interchangeably. I like to use Steam wherever possible, because I can play the same game on Windows which is obviously not possible through the App Store, but some titles are only available on the App Store and vice-versa. Call of Duty 4, for example, is nowhere to be seen on the Steam store for Mac as its ported by a separate company to the one that created the Windows version.
Utilities and other essentials
To make everything else run like clockwork on your Mac, there are a few utilities that everyone should know about and be using on their system. I use CleanMyMac to remove unnecessary binaries from applications, as many applications support both Intel and PPC architectures. It was one of the first applications that I bought for my Mac when I first got it and I still use it religiously to this day.
If you’re often being sent files from colleagues, or downloading files off the internet, you’ll often encounter compressed archives in formats such as ZIP and RAR. Although the built in archive manager in Mac OS X can handle any ZIP files that you throw at it, it won’t have a clue what’s going on if you try and expand a RAR or 7Zip file. I use Stuffit for all of my compression, expansion and encryption on the Mac, and it works a treat. The deluxe version will set you back $50, but includes the archive manager and ‘Destinations’ app, which floats on your desktop and lets you drag in files which you want to compress.
And there you have it! My list of essential applications that I believe no Mac user should be without. If you have any other applications that you think deserve a place on the list, let us know in the comments, or email me at email@example.com!