20+ essential apps for new Mac users
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
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.
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.
Watching Videos, Converting Videos, and Ripping DVDs
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
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 Last.fm, 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.
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 adiumxtras.com 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.
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.
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
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.