What are the best applications, free or cheap, to install on your iMac for basic tasks and productivity?

This post is to guide you in the careful and considered upgrade to your newly acquired iMac or other Mac OSX machine, especially for non-Mac experts. For each of the categories of work you may want to do with your computer, I suggest a number of applications beginning, where possible, with the applications already on your computer, then moving on to free alternatives, then inexpensive paid alternatives. In many cases there is a high end expensive alternative that is probably very wonderful but with one exception I wont be talking about those.

I’m writing this in part from the point of view of a Linux user, who has not been involved with Microsoft Windows except when threatened with waterboarding (and I took the waterboarding), and who mainly uses my computer for writing, because I’m mostly a writer. (See this post if you are considering installing Ubuntu Linux.) I do, however, mess around a bit with images; I do not claim to be a photographer but my work involves manipulating photographs and images. Also, I’m a cross platform kind of guy, so that factors into some (but not all) of my suggestions. I like Open Source Software but frankly, if there is a much better option that is non free for a certain use, I’m willing to pay a reasonable (meaning low) price for it. So some of my suggestions will cost.

Browsing

Browsing is of course the most important thing you do with your computer, because this is how you get your news, check your Facebook feed, tweet, and all that. Mac comes with one of the best browser out there, Safari, so just use that. This is an especially good choice if you have multiple iOS/OSX machines and use the same Apple ID on all of them. Your stuff will be integrated.

This does not work well for me because I switch back and forth across platforms, so instead I use …

Chrome/chromium/whatever you want to call it.

Install the Google Browser made of Chrome. If you are at all cross platform, you’ll want this because it is very good at sharing bookmarks and such and it runs on all the platforms you’ll ever likely use. Each instance of Chrome on different machines, including your iPad, can be signed into with the same account and there will be a certain amount of syncing, mostly bookmarks and such.

Writing and Words

Text Editor

I do most of my writing with a text editor (emacs in Linux) and most of what I write ends up in blogs. Using a word processor messes up the text. Text is best. (We’ll look at word processors below.) I generally prefer to write outside of the WordPress platform (all my blogs are WordPress these days) using Markdown. I’ve written about Markdown here. It is a simple writing “language” where you insert symbols to cause headings, italics, links, etc to be created later by a magical process.

You have two built in text editors on your Mac. One is called “TextEdit.” There is nothing fancy about it, which is appropriate for a text editor. One key feature of TexEdit is that is uses the cloud, so you can share text files across your OSX devices. However, the files you put on this part of the cloud are not available to you using iOS, because for some reason Apple has not implemented TexEdit on iOS. This is probably one of the best example of why the Apple Cloud as currently implemented is a toy, at best. (The next iteration of the operating system promises to fix this, coming out in the Fall 2014.)

Other than that, TextEdit, for most purposes, this is fine. There are many other free or inexpensive text editing solutions some of which give you that cloud overlap. I’ve tried them all. I am not especially impressed.

A second text editor that comes with the system is called “Notes.” This is mainly for writing simple notes that are very quickly upgraded, using a cloud-like thingie but it is not “the cloud” … just a hidden in the background cloud … across your devices. I put my grocery lists on this, and I use it to jot down notes for stuff I’m writing, etc. But really, you can use it as a regular text editor as well up to a point.

Since I use emacs on my Linux machine, you may wonder why I don’t use emacs on the Mac, because it is available. Well, I’ve done that but I don’t like the implementation of emacs on mac. It is a bit kludgy and ugly. Somehow it feels wrong. But you could do that if you are an emacs maven, which you probably are not.

A very good free text editor that has excellent features is Bare Bones Software’s TextWrangler. It is like TextEdit with more features. It is nice. Free. But I’m not going to recommend it because I personally think that if you are going beyond TextEditor to the next level of functionality, you will benefit by shelling out money and buying Bare Bones Softwares’ super duper editor, BBEdit. The motto Bare Bones uses for this application is “It doesn’t suck” … and it is true.

You can download a trial version of BBEdit, which I recommend, to see if its features are good for you. I like the layout, and I use text searching, grep-style (regular expression) manipulation, sorting, etc. frequently enough to make it worth while. If you like it, then buy it. It is a bit expensive for a text editor but for me it is worth it because I virtually live inside the text editor. It’s about 50 bucks.

Marked for Markdown

This is the magical processs I mention above. I recommend using “Marked” as your markdown processer. You write something in a text editor. Then you save the file and grab the little icon on the Mac title bar for the text editor, and move it to the Marked icon on your Dock. Magically, Marked opens up with the text all converted and formated and stuff. The most likely thing you’ll do then is to copy and paste the HTML code into your browser but maybe you’ll make a PDF or RTF file. It is the best thing since sliced bread.

WordProcessor

You can get Pages as your Mac word processor if you want. Let me know how it goes. I found it hard to use because I’m too accustomed to other word processors. Frankly I think it is an immature program that I’ll probably try five years from now if it still exist.

For a long time the only word processor I used on a Mac was Apache OpenOffice or LibraOffice. People fight over which one is better. They are identical except that the most recent version of one might be a little newer than the most recent version of the others. LibraOffice emerged as an alternative to OpenOffice when a big giant company nobody trusted bought out OpenOffice. So the Libra in LibraOffice is meant to be revolutionary, freedom fighting, all that. I use LibraOffice on my Linux machine because that is what is installed automatically with the version of Linux I use, and I use OpenOffice on my Mac for no particular reason.

These two Office programs come with a Word Processor, a Spreadsheet program that is quite nice, and a Presenter (like “PowerPoint”) program that is also very good.

That is the free alternative, and it is a good alternative, and you should just do it.

However, you can also install Microsoft Office for Mac, which includes Microsoft Word on your computer. It will cost you. How much? Nobody can say, because Microsoft has a pricing scheme that is not understandable by humans. In my case, since my wife and I share our desktop computer at home, it was free because she was eligible for a free copy of it. If it is free for you, you might want to try it.

I like Word’s handling of Tracking Changes. That is really the only thing I need to do because the publishing industry is totally locked into Word. So, when I’m working with an editor on a project, we have to go back and forth with Track Changes and Comments. OpenOffice’s Writer does not handle those things as nicely as MS Word does, so I’m glad to have MS Word on my computer, though it does make me throw up a little in my mouth when I say that. But yes, Microsoft makes a good word processor.

I’ve almost never had OpenOffice or LibraOffice crash on my Linux machine or the Mac. Since installing Microsoft Office a few weeks ago, Excel, the spreadsheet, has crashed, would not recover my document, and I lost data, once. Just sayin.

Graphics

Built In Preview

The first thing you need to know about graphics is that the “preview” application that comes with the Mac does more than you think it does. Open a graphic in preview (quite likely, by just clicking on it) and poke around. Especially, pick “Tools.”

You can annotate the image. You can adjust color. You can crop. You can scale it, flip it, and rotate it.

Frankly, the vast majority of time you need to manipulate an image, this is the stuff you need to do. Preview is lighting fast, reliable, built in, default, and you should just learn to use it automatically as the first thing you do when you need to mess with an image. You’ll find yourself hardly ever using other software.

iPHoto and Aperture

I hate these programs, though I do use Aperture on a limited basis. I don’t get the way they work. They take forever to load. They are slow and clunky. I believe iPhoto is free on the Mac (and available for the iPad), and Aperture costs money. Between the two, Aperture is so much better than iPhoto that if you have to use one or the other a lot, spring for Aperture. But really, they are a pain.

One of the best things you get with either of these is access to your cloud-based photos. This means your iPad and iPhone photos can be synced to your desktop and accessed. Again, the fact that it has to be done this way is a function of Apple’s Cloud being a toy, and not really that useful. Again, this may all get fixed this Fall when the new system comes out. If you don’t need these things, wait.

Gimp

The Gimp, free, is an image manipulation program originally built for Linux. I use it on the Mac. It is very good for me because I’ve been using it so long I know how it works. But, the Mac version is a bit clunky and buggy, so I don’t recommend it, but I just wanted to tell you that it exists.

Pixelmator is the closest thing I’ve use on a Mac to Adobe Photoshop or The Gimp that is also cheap (but not free) and works very well, once you learn to use it. It also uses the cloud, but again, you can only get to images it had created. This is where the cloud really breaks down because one might want to do multiple things using multiple different software applications, to one image, which means you simply can’t use the cloud because the cloud stores files on a program by program basis. Anyway, Pixelmator requires a bit of a learning curve but once you’ve got it it’s good.

iDraw

I use iDraw for anything that needs vector manipulation, but it also does some pixel manipulation. Increasingly, I find myself using iDraw and Preview together. iDraw is also available on the iPad, so if you have it installed on both you can manipulate images from more than one location. I don’t ever do that so I can’t vouch for it.

Presentation

PowerPoint Like Applications

If you installed MS Office you’ve got PowerPoint. Good luck with that. I don’t like it, don’t use it. If you installed LibraOffice or OpenOffice, you’ve got Presenter. I like it better than power point, and until recently I used it often.

Keynote

Get one or two of these to attach your iPad or iPhone to a "PowerPoint" projector.

Get one or two of these to attach your iPad or iPhone to a “PowerPoint” projector.

I am amazed at how bad Apple software can be, thinking mainly of iPhoto and Aperture. But Keynote is not like that. It is brilliant. Unlike OpenOffice or LibraOffice Presenter, it is not free, but it is worth it (around $20.00). If you have an iPad, or for that matter, one of the better iPhones, and give presentations a lot, just get Keynote and an adapter to plug it into the projectors. Get two adapters in case you lose one. Keynote has a very different look and feel than Powerpoint, and if you are used to Powerpoint you’ll find Keynote limited and frustrating. But if you take the time, using the numerous tutorials on YouTube and such, to learn how to use it you’ll find that it is actually not very limited and quite powerful.

Save your presentations in the cloud. Make sure your iPad or iPhone has downloaded the presentation before you take off to give your talk, because you might be heading for no-internet land. Plug the device into the projector and most likely it will just work. As opposed to Powerpoint or Presenter on your laptop which may require you to reboot and restart everything a few times.

Regarding inter-changeability between Presenter, PowerPoint, and Keynote: Forgetaboutit. Sure, you can do it, but whether or not that works changes with each release of each of these programs. This just isn’t something you can rely on.

Annoyingly, some of the features you use on desktop Keynote will not work on iPad Keynote, including some fonts. This is very bad because most likely you’ll design your presentation on the desktop and show it with the iPad. But the degree to which this is the case is reducing with every version, and it hasn’t actually caused me trouble yet. But check your prsentation on the iPad before you leave your desk, just to be sure.

Spreadsheets

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here. I have typically used OpenOffice Calc and, on my Linux machines, Gnumeric. I recently installed Excel (see above) on the Mac, and I use that now all the time. MS Excel on the Mac is strange, with some functionality removed or hard to get to and it can be a bit frustrating, but if you are a spreadsheet guru you will get past all of that. OpenOffice or LibraOffice Calc is great, works fine, and interacts with Excel fairly well. But frankly, if you are in a business environment where every one sues Excel, you’ll need to get Excel and there is nothing I can help you with here, dear power user.

Apple’s Numbers spreadsheet…

… is a toy. Don’t bother.

Other Things

I’m not going to talk about video because I’m not advanced in that area. I use iMovie, it seems fine. I use the note archiving software Evernote and the iMac version of Evernote is great. I don’t use a Twitter client because they all suck or go out of date as Twitter changes its API. I just use Twitter on the web.

Some other time we can talk about utilities and such, but for now I’ll mention only one program that you may find useful when your hard disk starts getting full: Duplicate Detective. If you have duplicate files filling your hard drive, this application, which takes forever to run because it simply takes time to be sure two files are exact duplicates, may save the day.

I would also like to talk about email software but I can’t because it all sucks. Apple Mail does not work well with Google, and all the alternatives I’ve tried have problems. If you have any suggestions, let me know. If you are a developer, I hope you see this as an open niche and fill it!

XNconvert
Scrivener
Lin
Finder replacement
iDraw
Gimp

Comments

  1. #1 Bill Morris
    June 8, 2014

    I’m surprised you don’t like emacs on the Mac. Why is that? I use it for programming and it works fine. Note that you can build it yourself from the GNU source (instead of the pre-built binary you linked to). Configure the build using:

    ./configure –with-ns –without-x

    the do make and make install to create the Emacs.app

    For a mail client, if you like Linux old-school you can build mutt on the Mac. I configured it with:

    ./configure –enable-pop –enable-imap –enable-smtp –with-sasl –with-ssl –enable-hcache –with-gdbm=/Users/me/dev/local –prefix=/Users/me/Dev/local/

  2. #2 dean
    June 8, 2014

    R (and R Studio, for a little more ease of use) is powerful and free, which is a good combination.

    I would suggest a good Latex installation as well.

    And a comment on photo software: I’ve been experimenting with the 30-day trial of Lightroom 5. Works well on my Mac and I will probably purchase a license when the time comes. I’ve never used Aperture so I can’t compare the two.

  3. #3 Alphagamma
    June 9, 2014

    I have heard good things about Prey if your Mac happens to be portable and thus stealable.

    I use VLC for playing back videos, and Mendeley for managing papers and referencing.

  4. #4 Eric Lund
    June 9, 2014

    As Bill @1 says, your Mac comes with emacs. It also has vi. Both of these editors are accessed from the command line in Terminal, or XQuartz if you prefer an X windows emulator. If I am making small changes to an HTML file, I find vi (with refreshing the browser window after saving changes) to be faster and easier than firing up a dedicated tool.

    If you have need for LaTeX, I can recommend TeXShop. A related program called LaTeXiT is useful (and far superior to Microsoft Equation Editor) if you need to include mathematics in a presentation. Export the resulting image in PNG format and import it to your presentation software.

    If your workplace will pay for Adobe Creative Suite (which includes Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, and Acrobat), then you can legally install a second copy on a different computer, as long as you don’t use both at the same time. However, it costs $$$ if you have to pay for it yourself. If you need the graphics or PDF creation capabilities for work, it’s well worth the money, but if you would be a casual user, you might want to look for cheaper options. For example, I find Illustrator handy for cleaning up the allegedly publication quality output I get either from my plotting software or from artistically clueless collaborators. Even if you do install Acrobat, I recommend keeping Preview as your PDF viewer; the latter is superior to Acrobat in all aspects except forms.

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    June 9, 2014

    Yes, indeed, emacs is installed (and that other editor, v-something). But they are the terminal versions which are great but few people will use them.

    LaTex and related software and r-cran and related software are also good suggestions. I did not include these more specialized areas because this post is more for the average user. Also I’ve not included a number of other useful command line software such as ImageMagick, which is a must have.

    PDF related software is a whole other area of interest worth a post on its own.

  6. #6 Alan Shearer
    Undisclosed; somewhere near D.C.
    June 9, 2014

    And, here I thought I was the only one who’s mind was boggled by iPhoto and Aperture. Aperture is “better”, I agree, but managing a photo library, even on OS X apps is a challenge. I’m thinking now that Photo streaming or “my stream” or whatever it’s called is one of those functions that your friends claim to have down cold, but you know they really don’t have a clue. It frustrates me how many steps you have to go through and then not get what you expected. I’m used to Apple software being fairly intuitive. It seems like as applications take on more “duties” they become dysfunctional?

  7. #7 Fill
    June 9, 2014

    I didn’t see iWork mentioned any where. It has its draw backs, but then again it is pretty affordable. These days if you have access to an old version of iWork, you can install it and the App Store will upgrade it for free automatically.

    Speaking of the App Store, I’d recommend installing and managing as much software as possible through it, especially the free stuff. It can manage your updates for you and ensure you aren’t getting malware versions. Your purchases are also recorded for as long as you keep your account alive.

    Adobe CS2 is free these days, so if you don’t have a flavor of CS and it can run on your computer, why not fetch it? I think technically they only want people to download and use it if they are an existing CS2+ customer, but it’s still open to all takers.

    Oh, if you are a gamer, install Steam! The frequent sales are good deals and you usually get WIn/Mac and even Linux versions of the same game for the same cost. And like the App Store, your purchases are recorded and available forever.

  8. #8 Alan Shearer
    Undisclosed
    June 9, 2014

    Pages, Numbers and keynote are: iWorks in toto. All three mentioned and commented upon.

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    June 9, 2014

    iWorks per se is only a thing because it used to be a thing. It was a cloudyish itunes linked thingie assocaited with specific software you could buy as a bundle. The on line work sharing environment has been eliminated, as of some time ago. Instead, “iWorks” is now a list of Apple software that is also free. If you go to the apple site and look for iWorks you get a page with iPhoto, iMovie, Garage Band (which I didn’t mention), Pages, Numbers, and Keynote for OSX and the same plus iCloud for iOS.

    So what was iWorks is actually all free now, so quite affordable!

    Good point about using the app store. Much of what I suggest above is not available there, and that makes it a bit of a pain. There are one or two utilities that will try to keep track of this sort of thing for you. And, there are some apps (not any mentioned here that I know of) that are available either through the app store or downloading separately. Sometimes the non-ap store version has functionality not found in the ap store version because of sandbox rules (or some other difference) but those differences usually go away, so if you can, do the ap store version!

    I don’t know much about Adboe CS2. I avoid Adobe simply because you never know when something you doing cheap or free suddenly costs you a gazillion dollars to keep doing because they move some functionality. But, if certain kinds of graphics activities were critical to me I’d of course have to consider it; lacking experience with recent Adobe products I figured I’d butt out,.

    Steam… will that be the future of gaming? It is certainly picking up … steam!

  10. #10 Bill Morris
    June 9, 2014

    Note that compiling emacs as I described above builds a standalone version, not tied to the terminal command line. I have used emacs for years on non-Mac systems and don’t notice any particular difference (except for some oddness with pasting) with this Mac version.