As part of my job, I download and test boatloads of Mac applications. Most of them go into the Trash after five minutes.
A few of them stick around on my hard disk for a week or two before I realize I can live without them. But some have turned out to be indispensable.
In this article, I’ll share with you the 50 applications I’d choose if I couldn’t download any other software for a year.
Needless to say, my favorite applications reflect the types of tasks I do, as well as my personal preferences and work style.
(Games, for example, are just not my thing, so you won’t see any on this list.) Your mileage may vary.
But most of the applications on this list deserve, at the very least, a good solid evaluation from every single Mac user.
They can make your work easier, save time and effort, and enhance those warm fuzzy feelings that made you choose a Mac in the first place.
Price: $20 (personal); $39 (business)
My favorite and most highly recommended Mac application by far, LaunchBar makes almost everything I do quicker and easier.
With just a couple of keystrokes I can launch any application, even if I don’t know where it is; look up someone’s phone number; play a song in iTunes; perform a calculation…the list goes on.
Similar apps with legions of loyal fans are Quicksilver (free) and Butler (free, donations accepted;).
Price: Included with Mac OS X
Even as a power user with half a dozen active email accounts and hundreds of messages received every day, I haven’t found an email client I like better than Mail—and I’ve tried them all.
I probably spend more time in this one app than any other program on my Mac, Web browsers included. With a few judiciously chosen add-ons and customizations, it can be an incredibly powerful tool.
If you can’t seem to get ahead of your spam, you’re not using SpamSieve. It’s the smartest and most accurate junk mail prevention tool I’ve ever used, and an essential companion to Mail (or any other Mac OS X email client).
It doesn’t have all the bells, whistles, and user-configurable goodness of Firefox, but it’s still my favorite Web browser—solid, pretty, and easy-to-use.
Now available for Windows too, and I hope it catches on fantastically there. And to think Internet Explorer was once the standard on Macs!
My second-favorite Web browser has all the bells, whistles, and user-configurable goodness that Safari lacks.
It’s not as pretty or Mac-like, but it’s a rare site indeed that doesn’t load properly, and it can do all sorts of spiffy tricks without requiring dubious, unsupported hacks.
One thing I can’t bear to use Safari for is reading RSS feeds. For this, my tool of choice is NetNewsWire.
Of all the Mac news readers, this one most closely matches my tastes and work habits, and helps me to keep all those zillions of feeds organized and under control.
Any Web browser can remember passwords for you, but 1Passwd gives you a centralized password list, stored in your Keychain, that all your browsers can use (and that includes NetNewsWire).
Plus, it has a handy password generator, and ably stores all sorts of other form data. My favorite part: you can store multiple sets of credentials for a single site.
My fingers have gotten as used to my 1Passwd keyboard shortcuts as my LaunchBar shortcuts, and I can’t bear to be without it.
It’s really iMedia, a tool to organize and play not just music but movies, TV shows, audio books, and more, and even buy them direct from Apple.
It’s one of those things that I use so often—typically in the background—that I can easily forget it’s there. But I’d hate to go back to managing my media without it.
BBEdit works splendidly as a tool for many kinds of writing, but it’s especially good at working with code.
If you’re programming or developing Web sites, its endless array of text-manipulation and collaboration tools is unequalled.
If you don’t need every last power-user tool, you might be satisfied with its free younger sibling, TextWrangler (barebones.com)—a formidable text processor in its own right.
#10: Mail Act-On
One of Mail’s few deficiencies is its all-or-nothing rules. If you want to apply just one rule (or a set of rules) to particular messages, after they’ve been received, this is the tool for you.
It makes filing, sending replies, and otherwise processing mail a matter of a few keystrokes, rather than lots of tedious clicking and dragging.
Life is too short to waste time typing the same strings over and over again. TypeIt4Me is my favorite text-expansion program, automatically turning brief snippets like “mx” into “Mac OS X” and “ar” into “” (even moving the insertion point right where I want it).
It can do even spiffier tricks, too, like storing styled text and inserting variables (time, date, and so on) into your text as you type.
#12: PTHPasteboard Pro
This nifty little app is ostensibly a multiple-clipboard tool, but that’s the least of its talents.
It can preserve clipboard contents through a restart or even a crash, and (unlike the free, non-Pro version) can filter text as you paste it, performing any number of find-and-replace operations, additions, subtractions, or other transmutations in the process.
My current pet example: copy a URL (as HTML) from Flickr and paste it (as XHTML/CSS) into my blog.
#13: Word 2004
Price: $239 individually, or $399 as part of Microsoft Office 2004
I hate to say it—really I do—but Word 2004 is currently the most capable word processor for the Mac by a considerable margin.
As a writer, I couldn’t avoid using it if I wanted to, and despite its numerous flaws, it really does have a lot of excellent capabilities.
Maybe one of these days Pages or Nisus Writer Pro will catch up, but even with their most recent releases, they’re still, sadly, far behind.
#14: Excel 2004
Price: $239 individually, or $399 as part of Microsoft Office 2004
Apple’s new Numbers app may be pretty, but it can’t hold a candle to Excel in terms of power.
However you may feel about Microsoft as a company, you have to give them credit for a genuinely amazing spreadsheet program.
(On the other hand…if you’re looking for the other two components of Office 2004, Entourage and PowerPoint, you won’t find them on this list.
They may have their uses, but they’re not even remotely close to my favorites in their respective categories.)
#15: CrashPlan Pro
Price: $60; storage space starts at $5 per month for up to 50 GB
CrashPlan Pro is a totally new way of looking at backups. It lets you back up to another computer you own—or to a friend’s computer, anywhere on the Internet.
Instead, or in addition, you can back up to CrashPlan Central for a modest fee. Unlike some online backups, CrashPlan Pro is optimized for speed and efficiency, and all your files are, of course, encrypted as well.
If you want to make a bootable duplicate of your hard disk—and you should want to do this!—no application makes it easier, quicker, or more reliable than SuperDuper. It’s a one-trick pony, but that’s a pretty great trick.
#17: Data Backup 3
Rounding out my list of favorite backup programs is Prosoft’s Data Backup 3. Unlike CrashPlan Pro, it can back up to a local hard drive—or to optical media, if that’s your thing.
It can do duplicates too, if not as brilliantly as SuperDuper. For breadth of features at a reasonable price, it can’t be beat.
#18: Parallels Desktop and #19: VMware Fusion (tie)
Price: $80 each
These two virtualization programs let you run Windows on your Intel-based Mac. They’re so similar in features and performance that I can’t pick a clear favorite.
With each new release they try to outdo each other, but either one will handily get the job done.
#20: Photoshop Elements 4.0
That’s no typo. Photoshop Elements 4 is on my list, and Photoshop CS3 isn’t. Seriously.
I know that Photoshop Elements 4 is a full release behind its Windows counterpart, and that it isn’t even a Universal Binary.
But unless you’re a professional photographer or graphic artist, it’s unlikely that either of these things makes a big difference in real life.
For a cost savings of $569, you can get almost all the most important photo-retouching and drawing tools of the full Photoshop, with reasonable (if not spectacular) performance.
Sure, I’d love to see a light, sub-$100 version of Photoshop CS3, but failing that, Photoshop Elements 4 is a perfectly good image processing application for ordinary mortals.
#21: PGP Desktop Home
I wish we lived in a world where encryption wasn’t necessary. But times being what they are, you can never be too careful. For encrypting email, instant messaging, and disks, PGP Desktop is quick, easy, and very secure.
#22: Logic Express
My audio recording needs fall between the capabilities of GarageBand (easy-to-use and pretty but somewhat limited) and Logic Pro (awfully pricey at $999 and overkill for my modest projects).
I like the fact that I can use audio plug-ins designed for Logic Pro and tweak every aspect of a recording to my heart’s content. I can feel, and work, like a pro without breaking the bank.
A free app that lets you talk to anyone else in the world for free. What’s not to like? Even Skype’s video capabilities outshine iChat’s in some respects.
But the killer feature for me is the extra-cost (but cheap) SkypeIn (to get a real number people can call you at from regular phones) and SkypeOut (so you can call conventional phones from Skype).
Everyone, but everyone, should have a good disk-repair tool. And, sorry, but far too often Disk Utility just doesn’t cut it.
DiskWarrior is indisputably the best at what it does, and it’s my top recommendation among disk utilities.
This little gem of an application, formerly known as Democracy Player, can download video from lots of free, legitimate sources (YouTube, even) using a built-in BitTorrent engine.
The range of choices you can access is phenomenal, and Miro can also play virtually any video format you throw at it.
Transferring files with FTP, SFTP, WebDAV, and similar protocols can be a rather dull, unexciting task, but Transmit makes it wonderfully smooth.
If you’re managing a remote Web site, especially, you’ll appreciate Transmit’s clear, clever interface and its wealth of convenience features.
#27: SnapzPro X
Price: $29; with movie capture, $69
Not everyone needs to take screen captures beyond what a simple Command-Shift-3 will give you. But for those who do, SnapzPro X is unrivaled in its flexibility.
The higher-cost version can even do live captures of your screen with voiceovers, for easy, professional-looking screencasts.
#28: Timbuktu Pro
Price: $95; Twin-pack, $180
I do wish Timbuktu Pro were a bit less expensive, yes. But despite all the open-source, VNC-based alternatives, Timbuktu still stands out as the most powerful and flexible way to see or control another computer over the Internet.
Price: $79 for iLife ’08, which also includes iMovie, GarageBand, iWeb, and iDVD
With the photographs we all generate by the thousands using our digital cameras and camera phones, iPhoto is an essential part of any Mac user’s toolkit.
Sure, it’s not the most powerful app for image editing, but for basic cataloging, sorting, sharing, and printing, it’s a marvel.
#30: Hotspot Shield
Two words: free VPN. If you ever connect to a public Wi-Fi network, you need this.
Sure, you could pay lots of money to subscribe to a fancy commercial service, but Hotspot Shield gets the job done effectively—at a price you can’t beat.
There are lots of utilities that provide graphical front-ends to long lists of Unix commands, so that you can clear caches and fiddle with hidden Dock settings without using Terminal.
OnyX is one of them. It doesn’t have the most complete feature set, but it’s close—and free.
#32: Delicious Library
Cataloging your whole collection of books, CDs, and DVDs could be a nightmare, or it could be fun.
With Delicious Library, just wave a barcode for each item in front of your iSight camera and off you go—complete with a synthesized voice reading you each item’s name for confirmation.
I particularly enjoyed the audio Easter eggs when scanning movies and books from the Harry Potter and Star Wars series.
Mac OS X should have a built-in way to set programs to run automatically on a schedule.
Well, it does—in fact, it has several—but they all require trips to Terminal and some geek mojo.
If you want to use cron, the old Unix standby for scheduling, Cronnix gives you a friendly GUI interface.
If you want to use the more-capable and more-modern (but, alas, more-confusing) launch services instead, the nearest equivalent is Lingon (lingon.sourceforge.net/, also free).
#34: Google Earth
See a frighteningly detailed view of almost any spot on the planet, from any angle, from the comfort of your computer screen.
That alone would be ultra cool, but you can also find stores, restaurants, and tourist attractions; get driving directions; see 3D buildings; and share comments on your favorite places. It’s the best way to develop an addiction to cartography.
So your Mac is feeling a bit sluggish. Is the CPU busy? RAM getting full? Lots of disk access or network activity? Find out exactly what you computer is busy doing behind the scenes with a glance at your menu bar.
#36: Salling Clicker
Turn your Bluetooth-compatible cell phone into a remote control for your Mac. Salling Clicker gives you way more capabilities than an Apple Remote—Bluetooth doesn’t need line-of-sight, and your phone has a lot more buttons! Plus, your computer can send feedback to your phone’s display.
Price: Included with Mac OS X
I know I’ve mentioned a few apps I love because they eliminate the need to visit the command line. But Terminal is still my friend.
It lets me do all sorts of fancy things with my Mac that are either impossible or simply very, very awkward with GUI tools. Sure, it requires you to know a bit about Unix, but all that power is worth it.
#38: Nisus Writer Pro
Six months ago, Nisus Writer Express would never have even come close to making my Top 50 list.
With the release of its successor, Nisus Writer Pro, we’re finally—finally!—getting back to some meaningful percentage of the features that made the original Nisus Writer so great.
Best of all: attribute-sensitive grep find-and-replace, even in macros! You have never experienced word processing until you’ve used that feature.
Now, if Nisus would just add change tracking and comments, it could start posing a serious challenge to Word.
#39: iChat AV
Price: Included with Mac OS X
Honestly, I’m not a big fan of instant messaging. But as IM clients go, iChat AV is my favorite.
The support for multi-party video and audio chats, instant file transfer, and Address Book integration are nice. If I could just connect to phone numbers as I can in Skype, well, that would be truly marvelous.
#40: Google Desktop
Apple wants us to believe that Spotlight is a super-fast, super-accurate search tool, but really, it falls short more often than not.
Google Desktop provides faster, more relevant results, and even pulls up the contents of your Web browsing history and Gmail. Sweet.
Price: $40; Professional version, $70
Not everyone needs an outlining tool, but I’ve found that a competent outliner is amazingly useful for helping me organize my thoughts, to-do lists, and writing projects.
When I say “competent,” I’m afraid that excludes Word’s outliner, which is merely—and barely—adequate. Of the numerous stand-alone outliners, OmniOutliner is my current preference.
Price: Included with Mac OS X
It used to be that you had to spend many hundreds of dollars to buy a full-featured development environment for writing Mac applications.
Now Apple gives one away—the very one, in fact, that they use to build Mac OS X and all their other software.
That’s huge. Xcode (and its sidekick, Interface Builder) are big and complex, but with some programming know-how you can use them to create almost anything.
Some people swear by GraphicConverter for all their image editing tasks. Personally, I like the interface of Photoshop Elements better, but GraphicConverter is still great to have around.
It can do a few tasks much more easily than Photoshop (converting graphics from just about any format to just about any other format, as its name suggests, is its forte), and is entirely respectable as an all-around image enhancer.
#44: Audio Hijack Pro
Price: $32; non-Pro version, $16
When you want to record sound from a game, DVD, Flash animation, Skype conversation, or any other audio source on your Mac, this spiffy tool can do the job.
Yes, WireTap Pro (ambrosiasw.com/utilities/wiretap/, $19) is cheaper and has a prettier interface, but Audio Hijack Pro gives you per-application recording and much more flexibility.
Mac OS X relies heavily on Unix ownership and permission settings, but provides only a lame, incomplete, and awkward interface for changing them on selected files.
That’s where BatChmod comes in—it gives you speedy access to all those little file attributes that would otherwise require you to remember your chmod syntax in Terminal.
I’ve asked iChat to save all my transcripts, but sometimes finding something said during a chat is mighty awkward.
Spotlight can help, if I remember specific words, but Logorrhea makes it easier. It supports text-based searches and a hierarchical interface for browsing old chat sessions, without having to open each one individually in iChat.
From the people who brought you Transmit comes Coda, an omnibus FTP client-text editor-CSS Editor-Web browser-documentation-viewer (and a few other things).
This application gives Web designers a way to reduce several different applications to a single window.
It’s not without its rough edges, but if you think the way Coda does, it can streamline a lot of your work.
Price: Included with Mac OS X
I know that the various versions of Adobe Acrobat and Adobe Reader have much broader feature sets, but I still prefer Preview for quick viewing of most PDFs and graphics.
It opens in a flash, displays almost any kind of graphic file, and even supports cool features like PDF forms, cropping, and file conversions.
#49: Path Finder
The Finder isn’t necessarily the best or most efficient way to view, organize, and work with your files and folders.
Path Finder has all the features the Finder should have had—and in fact, you can even use it to replace the Finder if you’re so inclined.
My own work style is still pretty hard-wired to the Finder’s way of doing things, but even so, there are some tasks (like renaming a batch of files) for which Path Finder is a much better tool.
Price: $79 for iWork ’08, which also includes Pages and Numbers
iWork ’08 hasn’t knocked my socks off—Pages and Numbers aren’t yet good enough to replace Word and Excel for me. However, Keynote is another story.
In almost every respect, it’s far superior to PowerPoint, not to mention more beautiful to look at and more pleasant to use. If you ever need to create slide shows or other presentations, you should be using Keynote.