There’s no shortage of useful, interesting apps for the Mac, but some of them you just can’t live without. In this year’s annual Lifehacker Pack for Mac, we’re highlighting the best downloads for better productivity, communication, media management and more.
The Lifehacker Pack is a yearly snapshot of our favourite, essential applications for each of our favourite platforms. For our always-updating directory of all the best apps, be sure to bookmark our Mac App Directory.
Last year, Quicksilver was our pick here, but since Alfred recently picked up a feature-rich update and some great new automation features, we’ve crowned it as our favourite application launcher for Mac. It’s free and worth downloading on its own, but if you have the itch to do some automation and serious tweaking, the $US27 Powerpack is worth every cent. If you’re new to Alfred, this beginner’s guide to using it — and all of its hidden features — is worth a look, and will probably be enough reason for you to download it on its own. Once you’re familiar with it, check out this massive list of workflows you can automate with Alfred. If you’re familiar with an prefer completely free, Quicksilver is still available, and still great.
Notational Velocity and/or Simplenote
Notational Velocity has earned its massive fan-following. It has just the right number of features required to help you take quick notes and get back to them later, without a whole bunch of fluff or other bloat that you don’t need. It syncs with other services (namely Simplenote or Dropbox) and is still one of our favourite syncing note-takers. If Notational Velocity is too much for you, consider the lighter alternative, NVAlt, which includes lots of additional features. However, if you want to go right to the source, Simplenote’s Mac app has come a long long way since we last looked it over, and is worth your attention if you’re just syncing there anyway (or use Simplenote’s mobile apps.)
If you’ve been reading Lifehacker for any amount of time, you know we love Evernote and once you get the hang of it, it can be extremely powerful. You can use it to keep notes, make to-do lists, create reminders, make a recipe book, save travel plans and itineraries, and pretty much anything else you can think of. It’s powerful and feature rich for some, daunting and overwhelming for others. Some might prefer the simple comforts of previously-mentioned Notational Velocity, but it all depends on your needs and how you like to work.
Text expansion, also known as typing shortcuts, can save you hours of typing each day. You type a small word or combination of characters and it will expand into full, complex sentences that you often use. We love aText because it offers so many great features and only costs $US5. If you haven’t yet jumped on the text expansion train, it’s time.
There’s no shortage of great to-do apps for every platform, including the Mac, but Wunderlist is one of our favourites because it’s free, syncs to the cloud, and it’s cross-platform across just about every modern device. Wunderlist is easy to use and anyone can start making to-do lists right away. Wunderlist isn’t packed with as many features as something like OmniFocus, and doesn’t have the premium features of an app like Todoist, but it’s considerably easier than either to use.
Internet and Communications
Which web browser is the best is a matter of opinion, but it’s our opinion that Chrome is your best, fastest option. It’s fast, functional, and syncs everything across your computers (including iOS or Android devices with Chrome mobile). Safari certainly has iCloud in its pocket, and Firefox is a great option if you use Firefox on other computers (or on Android), but Chrome is available everywhere. Both Safari and Firefox are good browsing tools, but if you want to sync up across devices Chrome is your best option.
Airmail has come a long way in a very short period of time. It features great support for Gmail and iCloud addresses, full IMAP/POP support and support for Exchange accounts, uses Gmail’s own keyboard and global shortcuts, lets you set custom shortcuts, comes with its own filters and themes, integrates well with other popular productivity apps and calendaring tools, and more. For $US2, you get an amazing desktop email client, and we’ve discussed why you might consider a desktop client over just using webmail in the past. Our previous pick, Sparrow, is still good, despite Google’s acquisition of it marking the end of its development. Sparrow Lite offers a free option with ads and a single account limit, but you can pay $US10 to go pro with one of our all-time favourite email apps. Still,with Sparrow in stasis and Airmail constantly improving, we think it deserves the nod.
Adium is a fast, lightweight chat client. It doesn’t have a lot of complicated features and that’s part of the reason we like it. That said, you can customise it with all sorts of plugins and add pretty much whatever you want. Apple’s iMessage offers a simple alternative with video chat and a variety of other nice features, but if you just want to IM, you use Hangouts on all of your devices to talk to friends, or you like the ability to have multiple chat protocols all in the same app, Adium’s the way to go.
The best thing about Skype for the Mac is that just about everyone has a Skype account, so it’s probably the easiest way to get a hold of someone via video or voice chat. It’s easy to use, and it exists on just about every platform, everywhere. It’s far from perfect, but the Mac version has seen stability improvements over the last year. If you’re not a fan of Skype or just don’t want the extra software, Google+ Hangouts is a fantastic, web-based alternative, and Apple’s built-in Facetime is great if all of your friends are also OS X or iOS users.
After the demise of Google Reader, it seemed like it would be forever before Reeder, our favourite desktop feedreader, would come back to life. Then Reeder 2 officially launched in May, bringing support for dozens of popular feedreading services and lots of new features. In additional to local RSS — so you don’t ever need to rely on a third party service again — Reeder 2 supports Feedly, Feedbin, Feed Wrangler, Fever and a few others. You get all the gestures and reading options that made the original Reeder a hit, and it’s fast, clean and customisable. It is, however, also $US10. If you’re not into spending that kind of money, NetNewsWire 4 is currently in beta, and there’s always good old fashioned Feedly via the web.
Music, Photos and Video
VLC is the quintessential media player for the Mac. Sure, you could try to get by with Quicktime, but VLC works right out of the box, with anything you throw at it. If you want to dig into it, VLC also has features like video conversion, playlist support, and great audio playback, but for the average user it’s a good video player to have around. If VLC isn’t your thing, we suggest checking out Movist.
Handbrake is your favourite DVD ripping tool for good reason. It’s good at two things: ripping DVDs and converting media files. It’s not the most intuitive software in the world, but we’ve put together a guide to help you get used to it. Once you do, you can convert videos to any format for streaming or mobile devices. You’ll need a copy of the above mentioned VLC to do conversions. If you run into anything Handbrake can’t handle, MakeMKV and Adaptor is another piece of free software that should be able to take care of converting everything else.
Plex doesn’t just give you a home media centre, it’s also a way to access your videos from virtually anywhere. Set up Plex Server on your main computer and you can stream your content no matter where you go. If Plex can’t stream the content in the original format, either because your device doesn’t support it or the file is just too large to send as-is over your connection, it will encode a more appropriate version on-the-fly. Note: Although Plex costs nothing on your Mac (or any other desktop platform), you will have to pay around $US5 for the luxury of streaming to mobile. It’s worth it, though.
Picasa is hands-down the easiest to use free photo management app for Mac. Picasa works both offline and online, and syncs up to Google+ for unlimited backup (at a lower resolution). As a management app it gets the job done and you can organise your pictures in the same way as Apple’s soon-to-be defunct iPhoto. If you’re looking for something with more features, our pick is Lyn, but you’ll have to cough up $US20.
Love it or hate, every Mac comes bundled with iTunes and you won’t find any powerful alternative for cheap. Instead of managing what you own, we’d recommend a streaming service as a replacement. Spotify is our pick, and it has lots of features you may not be aware of. If you’d like an alternative, Google Play Music is similar and has most of the same music. If you prefer a dedicated MP3 manager, Enqueue is the closest we’ve found to replacing iTunes and costs $US9.99, and Vox is a great lightweight player that cuts the bloat from iTunes and it’s completely free.
If you’re looking for a tool to help you edit images without all of the fluff and bloat that can come with a high-end tool like Photoshop, give Pixelmator a try. We think it’s a more than suitable replacement for most people who don’t need all of the bells and whistles that Photoshop offers (although people who definitely do need them will find it lacking), and it’s our favourite image editor for the Mac. It will set you back $US30, but it’s more than worth it. It’s easy to use, packs all of the features the vast majority of people need, and it’s affordable, especially by comparison to other image editing software.
If you have a work computer, a home computer and a smartphone, then you know keeping files in sync across devices is a pain. Dropbox solves this by syncing any files you want across multiple computers for easy access anywhere you are. You get 2 GB for free, but it’s easy to get more free space.
For BitTorrent clients we’re pretty split between uTorrent and Transmission. However, uTorrent wins out for having a lot of features, including a portable mode, complex bandwidth adjustment, and remote monitoring. If you prefer Usenet to BitTorrent, we’d suggest SABnzbd. If you combine either with Sickbeard or Couch Potato you can easily set up the ultimate automatic streaming machine.
On the surface, Skitch isn’t much more than a screen capture app, but it’s also a way to quickly annotate an image, point something out, and share it instantly through Evernote. Screen grabbing isn’t necessarily everyone’s cup of tea, but drawing a moustache on a friend’s face or annotating horrible images from the internet certainly are.
OS X Mavericks has plenty of built-in support for notifications via Notifications Center, but it’s not perfect, and a lot of apps don’t dump their notifications there. Growl, however, bridges the gap. Plus, pretty much every app out there supports it to some degree. If you prefer Notification Center, it can funnel all its activity right to it, too, so you don’t have to wait for your favourite apps to add support. While Growl was once free and now costs about $US2, it’s worth the small amount if you really like your notifications.
Crashplan is a versatile and easy to use backup service that’s free as long as you’re using an external hard drive. It’s our preferred bulletproof backup system because even the paid tiers are cheaper than other options. You should backup your system often. Crashplan is the easiest way to do it.
You probably download all sorts of archived files on a daily basis. The built-in OS X utility can handle its fair share of formats, but not everything. Unarchiver makes sure you’re covered no matter what you download. The nice thing is that it works right in Finder, so you never even have to locate a separate app.
The Extended Pack
We love a lot of apps, so not every one can make the cut for our main categories. If you want to browse through a few more downloads, here are some of our more niche favourites.
If you want to learn to code, you need a plain text editor. It helps to have one that keeps an eye on your syntax and helps you stay organised and offers multi-file views so you can see multiple files and documents at one time. We like TextWrangler because it’s free, lightweight, and offers most of the important features most people would need in both a code editor and a text editor without going overboard. Of course, if you have money to spend, some of the best options cost a bit more. BBEdit is TextWrangler’s big brother, and brings heaps of additional features to the table for $US50. Textastic, which will set you back $US6, gives you get syntax highlighting for a variety of languages, automatic saving, iCloud support, and versioning built right in. If you do have money to spend, $US70 (with a free trial) gets you SublimeText, one of our favourite text editing tools.
Do you like how you get a little pop-up bar with options whenever you select text on an iPhone (or other iDevice)? PopClip adds that functionality to your Mac and then some. Instead of just getting copy and paste buttons, PopClip can speak text, search the web for your selection and a lot more. If the built-in functionality doesn’t do it for you, PopClip offers lots of plug-ins so you can add what you need.
Albeit a little expensive ($US10), Dropzone is also a little awesome. It puts a tiny little icon in your menubar, and you drag stuff up to that icon to initiate a variety of tasks. You can upload files via FTP, to Amazon S3, to cloud services, and to social media sites. You can print text and documents. You can speak text. You can set a desktop picture or email a file. Those are just a few examples. It’s a great little shortcut tool, and it was recently updated to be even better.
Found is a universal search app that allows you to quickly search files on your Google Drive, Dropbox, Gmail and your Mac’s hard drive. Found is just as responsive as Spotlight, but you get more options to quickly search through all the different places you store files. It also has a great shortcut where you can tap the Control key twice to pull up the search menu.
The default Mac Address Book isn’t bad, but Cobook blows it out of the water with its social media integration, automatic updates and its fast search. The one downfall is that Cobook works in conjunction with Address Book for syncing, but as a speedy, simple, address book it’s a good addition to any system. Cobook has come a long way in a short period, partially thanks to being acquired by FullContact, but it hasn’t stopped their support or development at all.
If you use a lot of these apps, or have a lot of apps cluttering up your Mac’s menu bar, Bartender is an app that can organise all of them for you easily. You get to choose which apps live in the menubar, when they appear and when they don’t, hide apps that need to run but you don’t want to see, and perhaps most importantly, rearrange them any way you like. It’s a small tool, but it gives you control over something that OS X inexplicably doesn’t. It will set you back $US15, but you can try it for a month free.
Day-0 is an old app, but it still works like a charm and it’s a must-install on my Mac. It’s a tiny menubar calendar that turns the Mac’s default clock in the upper right corner into a calendar when clicked. Click it once and you have a full month view, and you can click left or right to navigate months or years. It’s simple, and it’s free.