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20+ essential apps for new Mac users

It's a great time to be a Mac user. With the advent of the Mac App Store, downloading and updating apps is easier than it's ever been. And it doesn't stop with the store, either: there are plenty of essential apps you can just grab on your own, many of them free and open source.

It might take a minute to get used to a new library of apps, but your new Mac has apps that can equal or better a Windows machine when it comes to most common tasks. And that's if the Windows app you love isn't already cross-platform, or if you don't feel like using one of the many slick dual-boot or virtualization solutions out there to run Windows on your Mac.

Great apps are out there, but folks who are new to OS X might not know where to look for the cream of the crop, so here's a selection of 20+ fantastic Mac apps that should equip you for any occasion. This list is geared toward folks who are switching from Windows or using a Mac for the first time, but veteran Mac users might find some useful gems, too!

Writing and Editing

Your new Mac comes with TextEdit, a bare-bones sort of text editor that has more in common with the Windows Notepad than it does with Microsoft Word. If you're writing anything longer than a page, you'll probably want to upgrade to something more powerful.

There are a lot of great Mac text editors out there, but there's no one-size fits all app for every user. Many coders swear by the customizable, color-coded TextMate ($54), while serious writers lean toward distraction-free fullscreen writing tools like WriteRoom ($24.99) and Ommwriter (free).

For a student, or anyone who just needs to open the occasional Word doc, Apple's iWork ($79.00) and Microsoft's Office 2011 ($149 for Home and Student edition) both fit the bill. These apps aren't cheap, though, so you may want to save some money by giving OpenOffice a spin. (Yep, Macs have open source software, too!)

iPhone and iPad owners who want to sync text files between a computer and an iDevice will definitely want to check out the free PlainText iOS app, which keeps your files in sync using Dropbox.

Web Browsing

You might be happy with Apple's Safari browser right out of the box. After all, Safari is a WebKit browser with respectable standards support, and it has a growing library of extensions that you can install to customize it to your liking. It also fares pretty well in Mac speed tests (the Windows version is unfortunately another story). On the downside, Safari's address bar behavior is downright annoying, although it has been improved slightly in the most recent update.

Safari is pretty middle-of-the-road, though, so you might want to replace it with something more suitable to your particular needs. If you want to go all out with themes and extensions, Firefox is the browser for you. Its add-on system has been around longer than its competitors', so the selection of extensions is huge, and the browser performs capably even when several add-ons are installed.

Google's Chrome is the new browser on the Mac block, and it's both speedy and well-designed. The "Omnibar" lets you type URLs and run searches at the same time -- a feature I miss whenever I'm using another browser -- and its extensions library is growing quickly. Chrome also has the advantage of letting you install, uninstall, enable or disable any extension without restarting the browser.

Also, don't count Opera out. Even though it gets less hype than the other three browsers I've mentioned, it's consistently at or near the top of Mac browser speed tests, especially when it comes to JavaScript. If speed is your main concern, give Opera a test drive.

Watching Videos, Converting Videos, and Ripping DVDs

QuickTime Player and iTunes come pre-installed on your Mac, but they don't play every video format, or allow you to rip and convert video. For that, you should start with VLC. This free app plays just about every type of video under the sun, including DVDs, and it even works around damaged parts of video files. Setting up subtitles in VLC is a breeze, too. It also works beautifully with an Apple Remote, if you've got a big enough display to watch from a distance.

If you'd rather just roll with the standard QuickTime Player, you can set it up to play additional video formats with Perian. Perian bills itself as the Swiss Army knife of QuickTime components, and it's true! Installing it will let you play AVI, DIVX, FLV, MKV, GVI, VP6, and VFW files within QuickTime Player and the QuickTime browser plug-in.

When it comes to converting video to share online or put on your mobile device of choice, you've got a couple of solid options. VideoMonkey (free) has plenty of tweakable settings, but you might prefer the pretty, drag-and-drop simplicity of Permute ($15).

For ripping DVDs in just a couple of clicks, HandBrake is the Mac app of choice. Its straightforward interface makes copy any DVD to your hard drive a snap.

Playing and Managing Music

iTunes is obviously an option, particularly if you're an iPhone or iPad owner who wants to use Apple's App Store. It's not as clunky as the Windows version you might be used to, but it's still a bit of a hog on your Mac's system resources.

Songbird is an alternative music player that syncs with many mobile devices, and offers plug-ins and plenty of customization, too. It's been around for years, but it's now viable on OS X for the first time with the introduction of syncing in the Mac version last September. Songbird also lets you rock across multiple platforms -- there's a reason we listed it as an essential Windows app, and the new Android beta looks impressive, too.

Amarok is another cross-platform option that will work with most iDevices -- it's just been updated to support the third-gen iPod Touch -- and offers all kinds of perks that iTunes doesn't. It integrates with Web services, notably, and it can be enhanced with a number of user-created scripts. It also tags and organizes your music using the formidable Musicbrainz track database. It doesn't look as "Mac-like" as iTunes, but what it lacks in looks, it makes up for in functionality.

Instant Messaging/Chat/Communication

Again, Apple has a pre-installed solution here: iChat handles AIM chats, as well as Jabber/Google Talk. It's not always elegant, and it's not at all customizable, but it does audio and video chats and works well enough for most users. It can be made better with an add-on called Chax, which brings some fancy notification support, searchable chat logging, and more to iChat.

The crème de la crème of Mac chat apps is Adium. This free app supports every chat protocol under the sun, from AIM, Gtalk and Facebook Chat, and even does Twitter (sort of) and IRC. Adium's other great strength is customizability. You can tweak every aspect of its appearance with add-ons called Xtras. Start with and then Google for more, and you'll find every buddy list style, message style, icon or sound set you can possibly dream of. And if you don't, you can always create your own with CSS.

If you need more than Adium's very basic IRC features, you can grab Colloquy, the prettiest-looking, most tweakable IRC app on OS X.

Skype, the popular voice and video calling app, also works just as well on the Mac as it does on Windows. The Windows version does tend to get some features first, but Skype certainly doesn't ignore its OS X-using customer base.


Just like in our essential Windows apps post, we can't ignore the 500lb elephant in the gaming room: Valve's Steam service. You can choose from a huge stack of quality games in Steam's online store. It really is, as Lee wrote, an iTunes for games. Particular favorites include the unique action-puzzle hybrid Portal, the gorgeous Assassin's Creed 2, and the casual, addictive Bejeweled 3.

Of course, Apple's Mac App Store packs some good games, too. I recommend the classic, beautiful time-bender Braid, the 8-bit phenomenon The Incident, and Penny Arcade's comic adventure, Precipice of Darkness.

Password Management

OS X's built-in keychain is pretty good for keeping all your passwords in one place, but there are more powerful password management solutions out there. Perhaps the best-known option is 1Password ($40), which creates and remembers unique passwords for you, and lets you enter them on any of your web accounts with one click. Once you get used to the magic one-click login button, it's hard to go back. And now 1Password has a Web interface for viewing your saved passwords when you're away from your main computer. Convenient!

If you're looking for a free, cross-platform option, KeePassX is also worth a look. It's not as slick as 1Password, but the price is right, and the security is solid. We also listed KeePass in our essential Windows apps post.

Unzipping and Extracting File Archives

There are two main apps in this arena: the extremely versatile The Unarchiver (which can handle just about any kind of archive, including 7-Zip and some uncommon Japanese archive types) and UnRarX (which is great for those pesky multi-part RAR files). Both apps let you drag and drop files onto their dock icons, but here's a pro tip to make things even easier: whenever you encounter a new type of file archive, select it and use Get Info (from the File menu, or hit Cmd+I). Go down to "Open With" and choose The Unarchiver, then check "Use this application to open all documents like this one." The next time you run into that archive type, you can just double-click and go.

Tune-ups and Maintenance

Although your Mac runs maintenance scripts regularly in the background, it sometimes helps to do a little manual cleaning with OnyX. OnyX does everything from checking your hard disk to clearing out corrupt preferences to clearing system caches and swapfiles. It also lets you run your Mac's regular maintenance scripts -- the ones that normally run daily, weekly and monthly -- whenever you want. OnyX is a powerful tool, though, so be sure to read the help files and get to know it before you start firing up its more advanced options.

Photo and Image Editing

The powerful (and expensive) Adobe Creative Suite is a popular choice for Mac owners, especially designers. Not everybody needs (or can afford) Adobe CS, but there are plenty of other great OS X apps that get the job done.

For your basic image editing and drawing needs, Acorn ($50) and Pixelmator ($30 for a limited time on the Mac App store) are both fantastic options. They're both straightforward and easy to learn, and offer slick features like layers, gradients and filters. Pixelmator has a bit of an edge when it comes to integration with other apps, connecting to Web services like Flickr and Facebook, and working beautifully with Apple's Aperture on the desktop.

Speaking of Aperture ($80), serious photographers are going to want a great photo-tweaking app, and Aperture is one of two top contenders on OS X. The other is Adobe's Lightroom ($300). Both apps are excellent, and picking between the two seems to be a matter of personal preference. Aperture wins on price and integrates with iPhoto, but I know several professional photographers who swear by Lightroom.

Backup and Sync

The premiere online backup and syncing solution on OS X is Dropbox. This slick Web service integrates with the Finder, so you can manage your files in the cloud as if they were right there on your desktop. It's reliable, cross-platform and makes a great way to share files with friends or back up your own files.

Dropbox comes with 2GB of free storage, but you can purchase more space at a reasonable rate if you want to use it for backup purposes.

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