A Better List of 35 Essential Mac Apps

A little while ago Freelance Switch posted an article with what they consider to be the 35 absolutely essential Mac apps list. There’s some good apps in the list, but I’ve got a lot of problems with it. For one thing, some of the software they list hasn’t even been released (in fact, Things doesn’t even have a beta version available yet), so how can they rank it as essential? For another, some of it actually isn’t very good (Sticky Windows, I’m looking at you). Then there’s the fact that they completely missed some of the standbys that freelancers might find useful, failed to note which apps have the same functionality, and the list completely lacks any sort of useful organization. Party foul, Freelance Switch.

Personally, I think the list could be a lot better. For instance, it could look more like this:

Ian Beck’s More Better List of 35 Essential Mac Apps

Categories: Blogosphere, General Computing, Images, Internet, Web Design, Workflow, Writing, Extraneous, and Runners Up


ecto –or– MarsEdit
If you’re going to edit a blog using desktop software, there’s only really two games in town. Ecto is better for WYSIWYG; MarsEdit is more streamlined. I used to use ecto a lot, but lately I switched to MarsEdit (this post was written in MarsEdit).

A lot of people swear by NetNewsWire, but I’ve long been a fan of NewsFire. An RSS reader doesn’t need to give me everything and the kitchen sink; I’d prefer it to give me the my RSS feeds, preferably with style and flair. NewsFire does so.

General Computing

If you want something with more power and usefulness than the Dock, but aren’t into keyboard launchers, then DragThing is the thing for you. It’s a beautiful app with a long and glorious history. Go download and enjoy.

MenuCalendarClock for iCal
An amazingly useful little replacement for the system clock. Even if you don’t register it, the free features will make your life quite a lot happier when it comes to dates and times.

A far better file browser than the Finder could ever dream of being. This would be the second item on the list if it were organized from most to least essential. Although not everyone will use the extra features PathFinder offers, you owe it to yourself to try it.

Sticky Notes
Sticky Notes is a lot like Apple’s Stickies program, except that it doesn’t suck. It’s just as useful for jotting down quick notes, but what I mainly use the program for is its ability to attach sticky notes to any application so that you only see the sticky when that application is running and active.


Acorn –or– Pixelmator
Both Acorn and Pixelmator are cheap and efficient image editors. Personally, I prefer Acorn because its interface is by far the best I’ve found in image editing software, but if you need more power but without the cost of Photoshop, then Pixelmator may serve you better.

Lineform is vector illustration for people who don’t have boatloads of cash lying around to blow on Adobe Illustrator. I highly recommend it.

When you need to find the perfect photo from a huge selection, ViewIt is an excellent solution. Efficient and streamlined, ViewIt is exactly the software to turn to when you need to dig through any number of photos or images.

xScope shows you exactly what is going on on-screen. Measure, align, zoom in; xScope gives you instant access to the pixels that make it all happen. Indispensable if you are doing any sort of design work for the screen.


1Passwd manages passwords and auto-fills forms across all the major browsers. If you work in multiple browsers (for example, doing web design), 1Passwd can save you crazy amounts of time and brainspace.

When you get over the bubbles in iChat and want to sit down and do some actual chatting, Adium is ready for you. One of the best pieces of open source software for Mac. (Although if you do have a long-term relationship with the bubbles, you may enjoy Chax instead.)

If you need or want to use IRC, then you need Linkinus. There’s simply no better IRC client for the Mac. If you don’t use IRC, then it’s a lot less essential.

Safari is alright, but if you want the speed and sleekness of Safari with some of the advanced features you can get from the larger and more unwieldy Firefox, then OmniWeb is the answer. And once you’ve tasted snapshot tabs, there’s no turning back.

Web Design

Color Schemer Studio
Color Schemer Studio is a must-have if you ever have to deal with color schemes. Whether you need to sample on-screen color, take a quick spin on the color wheel, or just export a color scheme as HTML for a client to approve, you’ll find that Color Schemer Studio makes it all incredibly simple.

If you do web design, then you need CSSEdit. There is no excuse for not leveraging the fantastic power of this program. Its live previews and ability to override remote style sheets with local ones (allowing live editing/previewing) alone make it worth the cost of admission; add groups and the quality of its interface design and you’ll soon realize why this is one of the best applications available on the Mac today.

TextMate –or– skEdit
If you do any coding, you need a good text editor. TextMate is by far the most powerful text editor on the market, but skEdit shines when it comes to web work. Personally, I switched from skEdit to TextMate some time ago, but am eagerly awaiting skEdit 4.0, which is shaping up to be a very competitive editor. Although there are certainly many other fine text editors, these two are the creme of the crop in my experience.

Yummy FTP
Although Cyberduck is free and Transmit is more popular, Yummy FTP is easily the best FTP program on OS X. Yummy’s interface is not quite as friendly as Transmit, but if you need an FTP program that is stable, powerful, and speedy then Yummy is the way to go.


LaunchBar –or– Quicksilver
LaunchBar was the first launcher to hit the scene, and it’s still amazingly well designed. I’ve only been using it for a few months, but I’ve loved every minute. Quicksilver is really the only other decent option. It’s an amazing app, as well (I used it for quite some time before jumping ship to LaunchBar), and well worth looking into. If I had organized this list based on which app was most essential rather than thematically, these two would be the top of the list.

MailTags adds several much-needed features to Apple’s Mail.app email client, including keyword tagging (and searching), notes, to dos, iCal integration, and much, much more. If Mail.app is part of your work, then MailTags is a necessary investment. As an added bonus, MailTags integrates with many other Mail.app compatible programs (such as iGTD and MailSteward).

I’ve tried most of the time tracking and invoicing software for Mac OS X at one time or another, but have never found anything to rival OfficeTime. OfficeTime provides simple yet powerful time tracking and invoicing features without the horrific interfaces or feature bloat that mar so many similar applications.

The Mac OS X clipboard is clearly not sufficient if you work with text at all regularly. Of all the clipboard managers that I’ve tried, shadowClipboard is the one that was the easiest to use while remaining completely invisible. It also offers a very large selection of features that puts most of its competitors to shame.


Avenir –or– Scrivener
There’s a fair amount of software out there intended to help your writing, but Avenir and Scrivener are the only two in my experience that are worth using. I strongly recommend Avenir, whose annotations alone make it a fantastically helpful writing tool, but some people prefer Scrivener’s more open-ended corkboard metaphor.

Journler is, predictably enough, journaling software, but it’s also a whole lot more. Journler allows you to attach just about anything to an entry, including songs, pictures, movies, and more. I use Journler’s smart folder-based organization for storing random ideas and writing fragments.

Nisus Writer Pro
Nisus Writer Pro (and its less feature-rich cousin Nisus Writer Express) is the best word processor that I’ve ever had the pleasure to use. Fast, powerful, and with the best interface of any word processor on the market, Nisus is definitely a great way to go if you don’t need the monstrosity that is Word.

No matter what kind of work you do, you probably could benefit from the occasional list or outline, and OmniOutliner is a great tool to turn to. Omni always turns out high quality software, and OmniOutliner is probably the most universally useful of all of Omni’s software.

TextSoap is a unique little utility that allows you to process and modify text. Although it was originally intended mainly for cleaning up quote marks and so forth from emails, its true power lies in the ability to create regular expression-driven custom cleaners. I mainly use TextSoap to convert text into internet-friendly text (whether this means converting simple rich text styling to HTML or cleaning ugly HTML into XHTML compliant code), but thanks to its flexibility it is useful for far more than internet cleaning.

VoodooPad is one of those programs that is difficult to describe but whose usefulness is evident within a few minutes of use. It stores all manner of items (text, images, PDFs, and more) in a wiki-like document, allowing you to quickly and effortlessly cross-index your thoughts and ideas.


From the makers of the fabulous CSSEdit comes DeskShade. DeskShade mainly covers your cluttered desktop, but also provides the ability to quickly lock your computer, play movies as desktops, and otherwise make your computer beautiful. I use DeskShade along with the fabulous Blurburger desktops to transform my desktop from hideous clutter to colorful artwork. (There is also free software that masks your desktop; I’ve never tried it because I love DeskShade too much.)

It might not be essential to everybody, but for those who aren’t such fans of Aqua for fostering their creativity (or just like to make their computer look a little more unique), ShapeShifter and its Mac theming abilities are absolutely necessary.

Runners Up

Some apps just weren’t going to fit on the list, but are still worth looking into. Here are the runners up:

AppZapper (and its brethren, free or otherwise)
Software that uses Spotlight to help uninstall all files related to a given application; your mileage may vary.

Indispensable Spotlight interface; makes complex Spotlight searches a breeze.

Handy program that shows you all menu shortcuts in whatever program you’re running.

Collaborative text editing. Nowhere near as good a text editor as TextMate or skEdit, but the collaborative thing is very cool when you need it.

SuperDuper –or– CarbonCopyCloner
Excellent backup utilities that created bootable copies of your hard drive.

Cleans the bloat caused by Universal programs and extra language files.

9 responses to “A Better List of 35 Essential Mac Apps”

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  1. Louis says:

    Great list (couldn’t agree more with you about NewsFire) – Just curious, what is it about Sticky Windows that you don’t care for?

  2. Ian Beck says:

    Ah, Sticky Windows. Sticky Windows sounded like a really cool application when I first heard about it (shortly after version 2 came out, if I remember correctly). However, it’s one of those apps where the developer appears to have gone amazingly far overboard when it comes to delivering form over function.

    The preferences screen is a great example of why I uninstalled the program within ten minutes of installing it. It’s a giant pink bug. When Sticky Windows is activated it has a pulsating heart in the middle. WTF? In my opinion, great interface design includes two things: it looks great, and it makes using the program really, really easy. Sticky Windows looks great, but in a way that is completely baffling and that has no obvious purpose other than being different. I’d rather have really ugly access to the few settings you can customize than a giant, hideous bug.

    I downloaded the most recent version, and it looks like they’ve actually fixed some of the other stuff that I found so distressing. When I tried it you couldn’t set your own color other than their hideous pink; that is thankfully fixed. I still despise their preferences pane, though.

    I also wasn’t impressed with their customer service. When I tried the program out, I dropped them an email with a description of some bugs I’d come across and some feature requests, and they never even responded to say “thanks for the bug report.”

    Lastly, the program has absolutely no support for keyboard use. It is strictly a mouse-only program, which pretty much shoots down its main potential usefulness for me (using a hotkey to send a window to a tab, and being able to quickly cycle though tabs with the keyboard).

    All of which combined to make me conclude that Sticky Windows isn’t essential; it is rather a neat idea that is unfortunately little more than glitz.

    On the other hand, I suspect that for people who never touch the keyboard if they can help it the program could be a moderately useful way to keep track of their various windows without wasting Dock space on minimized windows. But it certainly isn’t an essential program for people whose computer/Mac use is part of their professional life.

  3. Glad to hear you are enjoying MarsEdit … maybe you’ll consider putting MarsEdit’s badge in your sidebar, too :)


  4. Louis says:

    Glad to see I’m not the only one who didn’t get the big bug thing. Keyboard support would be great and I hope it does get added. Thanks for sharing your opinion on Sticky windows.

  5. Ian Beck says:

    @Daniel: It’s on the to-do list; I’ve got a minor redesign that I’d like to perpetrate in the next week or two, and getting a MarsEdit badge in place of the ecto badge will definitely be happening then. :-)

  6. Allan Moult says:

    Got here via the Things movie [great acting] and suggest you go and look at Hazel â?? an essential app. Set and forget.


  7. Ian Beck says:

    Hazel is one of those apps that I keep meaning to try because it looks like it could easily become an integral part of my workflow, but I just haven’t gotten around to it. The problem is that it’s also one of those apps that requires a lot of setup, and some creativity to get things rolling.

    I’m glad you liked the Things screencast!

  8. Allan Moult says:

    Ian, you can’t go past Ethan’s 5-part lesson in Hazel tactics starting here â?¦

    Hazel tutorial

  9. Ian Beck says:

    Thanks for the link! I hadn’t come across that series of articles before.

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