There are a bunch of great apps you can install on your Mac — no question there. Separating amazing apps from must-have apps is the hard part, and we don’t want you to spend hours analyzing the Mac App Store (or scouring the web) to find the very best and most useful apps. We’ve made a list of champions across four categories: productivity; Internet and communications; music, photos, and video; and utilities.
Illustration by Nick Crusciolo.
The Lifehacker Pack is an annual snapshot of our favorite, essential applications for each of our favorite platforms. For our always-updating directory of all the best apps, be sure to bookmark our App Directory, where we profile amazing apps for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS each week—browser extensions, too.
You can do a lot with Spotlight in macOS, but Alfred is still our favourite application launcher for yourMac. This easy-to-use tool can do so much more than pull up apps, files, and and keyword-driven automation. Plunk down $34 for the Powerpack, and you’ll get a clipboard history, access to workflows (that you can use to combine different actions, hotkeys, and keywords to do even more), hotkeys, 1Password integration, and even text expansion. In other words, paying for Alfred covers a number of activities that you’d have to download separate apps for—some featured in this very Lifehacker Pack. If you’re a new Alfred buyer and feeling little overwhelmed, be sure to check out our beginner’s guide to the app to get a handle on all the amazing things you can do with it.
If you don’t want to pay anything for an app launcher that has similar (but fewer) features under the hood, check out LaunchBar 6: free, if you don’t mind a little bother here and there. That, or consider tricking out Spotlight.
Notational Velocity, Simplenote and/or Evernote
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.)
Of course, then there’s Evernote. Once you get the hang of it, it can be extremely powerful. It’s powerful and feature rich for some, daunting and overwhelming for others, but then there’s that whole issue of its recent semi-kneecapping of its free and paid users. If you’ve been burned, Microsoft OneNote is a feature-rich and on-par competitor (among others) for most people worth looking into. For now though, Evernote is still our "try this first" recommendation. For now.
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 (my personal favourite) Todoist, but it’s free. Wunderlist may have recently been purchased by Microsoft, but it still works well and it’s completely free.
It’s been a long time since anyone’s been able to say this, but with the Microsoft Office for Mac 2016, it’s looking like the Office experience on OS X doesn’t have to be a miserable one anymore. It's faster, more streamlined, and easier to use than ever, and doesn’t run horribly — even Outlook works well. If you're a student, you can pick it up even cheaper or sign up for Office 365 to take office with you anywhere. Of course, if you don’t want to pay for Office, Google Docs is still a great, free, web-based alternative that you can make work as natively as possible on your desktop, but if you really want an office suite and don’t want Microsoft on your machine, try LibreOffice.
A desktop email client is no longer the requirement it used to be, but for those of us who love having one, there’s nothing better on the Mac than Airmail. It’s our favorite for a reason, and it just picked up an update to make it even more powerful. It’s not alone though—plenty of Mac mail betas are underway, including the highly anticipated Polymail (which I’m testing), and purists will just use the built-in mail app and call it a day. Airmail will set you back $14.99 in the Mac App Store, but we think it’s worth it. If you’d prefer free, Thunderbird is always a great choice.
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) if you’d like a non-Google-y alternative.
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, including encryption and support for third-party chat services like Google Hangouts. If Hangouts is all you use, you could use the Chrome app for it, or YakYak, a desktop app for Mac that’s pretty robust. Apple's iMessage offers a simple alternative with video chat and a variety of other nice features, but if 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 while it’s definitely a heavy install, 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.
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.
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.
Apple Photos should already be on your Mac, but it’s your best option for managing your photos locally if you want a way to organise everything in one place, edit your photos on your computer, and share them out to Facebook, Twitter, and other services. Of course, if you use something like Dropbox to sync all of your photos to your computer anyway, this makes it even easier to keep everything in one place. We’re actually bigger fans of Google Photos for all of this, but Photos is local, and can leverage local photo libraries. Professionals, however will be bummed that this is what they get for giving up Aperture, and if that’s you, you’re better off looking atAdobe Lightroom to get what you’re looking for. Alternatively, another great prosumer pick is Lyn, but you’ll have to cough up $20.
Spotify is the streaming juggernaut, and for good reason. It has tons of features you may not be aware of, manages your local music and files easily, and combines seamlessly with its own streaming component for a neverending flow of great music. If you’d like an alternative, Google Play Music is similar and has most of the same music, and if you want a player for it, check out Radiant Player, which we’ve highlighted before. If you prefer a dedicated music manager, Vox is a great lightweight player that cuts the bloat from iTunes and it's completely free.
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.
Come on, it’s Dropbox. 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. It’s the service that killed the thumb drive. If you don’t use Dropbox, you probably already know what you’d prefer to use.
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. Plus, controversies aside, it’s still your favourite by a mile. Transmission wins if you’re concerned about the bloat that uTorrent has picked up over the years (and updates), among other controversies. 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.
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 and your backups are encrypted when they’re stored online. Even if you don’t want to pay, you and a friend can use Crashplan to back up to each other’s computers, giving you instant offsite backup for free. You should backup your system often: Crashplan is the easiest way to do it. If you'd like an alternative, BackBlaze is extremely easy to use, and a good option if you want something a little simpler.
Eyestrain sucks, and long hours at your Mac will all but guarantee you’ll feel it eventually. f.lux sits in the menubar quietly and changes the colour temperature of your monitor based on the time of day, so your eyes get a much-needed break even if you have to work long hours without peeling them away from the screen. You should still take breaks, but it’s worth a download, and it’s free. As the sun sets, it gives your screen a slightly orange tint so you aren’t taking in all that blue light that can disrupt your sleep and cause eyestrain. It’s a little off-putting at first, but trust us: give it a week and you’ll never be able to go back.
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, and how it’s compressed or archived. The nice thing is that it works right in Finder, so you never even have to locate a separate app—it just works.
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 $US8, 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.
Freespace is a bit of an old app, but it’s a must-install on my systems. It adds a drop-down menu to your Mac’s menubar that shows you the available free space on your primary drive, and when you click on it, the drop-down menu shows you how much space is available on all of your connected and mounted drives as well, including any USB drives, Firewire disks, network drives, and more. Clicking on any of them opens that drive directly so you can get to it, which is handy if you don’t have a shortcut on your desktop, or the shortcut is covered by windows or buried somewhere. There’s also a handy eject button next to each one so you don’t have to drag it to the trash to dismount a drive before disconnecting it. It’s $US1 in the Mac App Store, and well worth the spend.
Do you like how you get a little pop-up bar with options whenever you select text on an iPhone (or other iDevice)? PopClip adds that functionality to your Mac and then some. Instead of just getting copy and paste buttons, PopClip can speak text, search the web for your selection and a lot more. If the built-in functionality doesn't do it for you, PopClip offers lots of plug-ins so you can add what you need.
Albeit a little expensive ($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.
If you use a lot of these apps, or have a ton of apps cluttering up your Mac’s menu bar, Bartender is an app that can organize 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’ll 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. If you want something more recently made, try itsycal, it’s also free.