My Definitive List of Must-have Free Mac Applications and Best Paid-for Counterparts
These are the apps that I will install first on pretty much any new Mac that I get. I’m a huge fan of free and open source software, and no other platform has free software of the same quality and caliber as Mac OS X. Most of these are Mac-only apps (a couple are cross-platform). I’m listing free applications wherever possible, but if there is a paid-for app that I consider best-of-breed, I mention those too. Hopefully this list will help all of the techie switchers get the apps they need quickly. This list is a work-in-progress, so I’ll be adding to this it over time.
If you’re only interested in my recommended security apps, they’re at the bottom! Feel free to post in the comments if you have any you think are worth mentioning.
Last updated: 27/10/2012
Adium This is by far the best instant messaging app out there, on any platform. It supports all of the different IM networks (as well as other stuff like IRC), and is extremely customisable with a variety of plugins and themes.
Colloquy Out of the IRC apps I’ve tested, Colloquy is definitely the better one. It’s not as versatile as some others out there, but it’s stable and works well.
VLC Again, this is the best media player on any platform. Plays a wide variety of audio and video formats, and has a large number of great features. Must have.
Perian (and Flip4Mac) Perian is a great plugin that gives QuickTime the ability to natively read a whole bunch of additional audio and video formats. If you really need to read Windows Media format (who does these days?), then Flip4Mac brings that functionality. You probably don’t need this if you use VLC.
HandBrake Need to rip a DVD (legally of course ;)? Then this is your tool. Simple interface, with options to export for iPhone, iPad etc.
ScreenFlow ($99): Although Lion’s built-in QuickTime Player can do audio and screen recording, if you want to make proper little screencast videos with transitions and zooming, nothing beats ScreenFlow. So easy to use too.
TextWrangler While OS X’s built-in TextEdit is decent, it’s not great when you’re editing code. The best free solution that I’ve found is TextWrangler (essentially the free version of BBEdit). It’ll do syntax colouring for a variety of languages, and has quite a few powerful features. That said, I’ve personally found one of the two paid-for apps below to be slightly better.
TextMate ($53): Just a powerful lightweight code editor. Usually my favourite. Pretty expensive though.
SubEthaEdit ($38): Powerful code editor with collaborative capabilities and live rendering of HTML. Better priced than TextMate.
Network File Transfer
Cyberduck This free app will meet most of your file transfer needs with its support for FTP/SFTP, WebDAV, Amazon S3, Google Cloud Storage, Google Docs, Windows Azure, and Rackspace Cloud Files. You can directly edit remote files, and have them automatically re-uploaded when the file is saved.
Transmit ($34): Although Transmit doesn’t offer that much more functionality over Cyberduck, the guys over at Panic have spent a lot of time thinking about a few key features and UI design that make Transmit a more comfortable client to use. The interface is cleaner and more intuitive, and one nice feature is the ability to mount any of your remote file stores as an actual local disk.
Transmission A clean and easy-to-use BitTorrent client. It’s got a remote web interface that you can connect to in order to manage your torrents.
NetNewsWire Clean user interface, and the ability to manage your subscriptions into folders. You can also sync all of your RSS feeds with Google Reader for easy reading on the go. There’s also an iPhone and iPad client.
Twitter Nowhere near as polished as TweetBot (below), but Twitter’s own OS X client is a good all-rounder.
TweetBot ($ 20): Although ridiculously overpriced due to recent limitations set by Twitter, TweetBot is still the best desktop Twitter client on any platform. Its features and user interface are by far the most usable I’ve come across. I also recommend their iOS app.
Although the Mac’s built-in firewall does a pretty good job for the majority of users, it doesn’t allow granular control of inbound traffic, and doesn’t do any outbound connection filtering. This is one area where a free app isn’t quite as good as the paid-for alternatives.
Little Snitch ($29.95): Since Little Snitch came out several years ago, it’s been a must-have for anyone who wants to be able to control outbound connections from their Mac. Whenever an app tried to make a connection to a non-whitelisted destination, you’ll get a warning where you can allow/deny.
Hands Off! ($24.95): This is a fairly recent competitor to Little Snitch, but it seems like they’ve done a pretty good job. It offers the same outbound connection filtering capabilities as Little Snitch, but it also does disk access filtering, which allows you to control which apps can write to disk. Hands Off is also cheaper!
NetBarrier (VirusBarrier) ($49.95): Intego are a great supplier of Mac security software. Out of all their apps, their NetBarrier firewall is by far my favourite. Although its UI is a bit over-done, it offers a great granular firewall and has a very basic built-in Intrusion Detection System that can detect some network-based attacks. Note that NetBarrier has been integrated into VirusBarrier, so you now get a dual package of anti-virus and firewall!
TCPBlock The only free app in this category, TCPBlock offers basic outbound filtering capabilities. Although not as advanced as Little Snitch or Hands Off, it allows you to whitelist/blacklist which apps are allowed to access the internet.
GPGTools If you are interested in sending or receiving encrypted or digitally-signed email, then the great GPGTools suite is for you. It can also do file encryption using public/private keys.
TrueCrypt Although OS X’s built-in AES-encrypted disk images are good, they only work on OS X. The cross-platform TrueCrypt allows you to create encrypted disk images that will work on any computer.
KeePassX If you have a lot of passwords and really want a place to store them securely, then a password manager like KeePassX is the way to go.
1Password ($49.99): Out of all the password managers, 1Password is definitely the best, although I do find it a bit pricey. Its sleek UI and unique touches make it a great app to have. It has clients for Mac, Windows, iPhone, iPad and Android, so you can take your password with you everywhere!
Carbon Copy Cloner This is a great tool for creating copies of your disks for backup purposes. You can either mirror one disk onto another, or just clone a disk into a disk image. I’ve relied on CCC many times throughout the years.
MenuMeters A neat little utility that allows you to add some useful graphs to your OS X menu bar, to display bandwidth, disk usage, CPU usage, etc.
iStat Menus ($16): Similar to MenuMeters, but with a nicer interface, and more options. If you want a nice system monitor tool, and are willing to pay
Vine VNC Server This VNC server is in some ways better than OSX’s built in one, as it allows VNC clients to select lower image quality, making VNC connections over the internet a lot snappier. This now works with Mountain Lion.
Lion DiskMaker This free tool is great if you need to create a bootable USB or DVD of your Mac OS X install.