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.
This cutely named app is one of the best note-taking apps you can get, with one small caveat—to synchronize notes between your devices or use custom themes, you’ll need to pony up $15/year for the app’s subscription. Otherwise, Bear is completely free to use (and looks great).
Within the app, you organize your notes by hashtags rather than unwieldy folders. You can also link notes to one another, which makes it a lot easier to chain together related thoughts instead of having to dump everything into one giant Super Note or remember that you had a few things to say, split into different notes, about a particular topic. Install Bear’s browser extension for Safari, Chrome, or Firefox, and you’ll be able to create new notes from whatever portion of a webpage you select. Also, Bear makes it easy to import notes from other services, including Apple Notes, so you really have no reason to not give it a spin.
If you need to sync notes and don’t feel like paying for it, consider apps like OneNote, Google Keep, or Simplenote — all good choices, but none that can beat our Bear for usability and looks.
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.
For simple note-taking and note-organising, you can’t go wrong with Todoist. The app is completely free — unless you want to pay $39/yearly for more advanced features like automatic reminders, backups, themes, and an activity overview, to name a few features. Otherwise, the basics are great. It’s easy to create and synchronize tasks (and subtasks) across all of your Todoist-using devices, and browser extensions (including a Gmail addon) will help you make Todoist, and your growing task list, an ever-present part of your daily life. You won’t have that same kind of experience with plain ol’ Notes, especially if you’re trying to access your items on multiple platforms.
If you’re a big Google fan, we also love Google Tasks, which you’ll find directly integrated into the latest version of Gmail (and as a direct app for iOS and Android). You can also add to-do items into our note-taking app, Bear. The app Things 3 is a super-comprehensive task manager, but it costs quite a bit: $50 for Mac, $10 for iPhone, and $20 for your iPad. If the first item on your to-do list is “rob a bank,” however, it’s a gorgeous, fully featured app. And if you want to harass yourself about things you have to get done on your Mac, consider giving the quicky Effortless a try—which drops a countdown timer for your tasks directly into your Mac’s menu bar.
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
The browser you use is likely going to be dictated by the browser you’ve been using. In other words, if you’re a Google Chrome loyalist, it’ll probably take a lot to get you to switch over to Firefox Quantum (if you’re at all intrigued). And if you’ve been with Firefox from day one, you’re probably a lot less likely to want to move all of your bookmarks, extensions, and other settings over to Chrome.
So, which browser is best? It’s not so much that one excels over the other; it’s more important to say that both, finally, are pretty competitive. Depending on the benchmarks you look at — here are a bunch from ZDNet, for example — the browsers appear evenly matched for speed. I haven’t gone through and assessed the most-recent version of each, but I have used both Firefox Quantum and Google Chrome, and they both feel, well, fast. That said, Chrome still feels a bit like a hog when you’re trying to load a ton of tabs at once, but it’s pretty good about using less of your CPU and memory than other browsers.
If you don’t like either, Opera is a viable alternative that’s actually pretty speedy in its own right—and we can’t complain about its built-in VPN, either, nor its awesome integration of WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Telegram directly into an easy-to-launch sidebar.
Years ago, it felt like everyone used one chat client to cover a bunch of services (ICQ, AIM, IRC, Jabber, et cetera). Most people nowadays probably have their favorites locked in: Messages for texting, Facebook Messenger for everything else, WhatsApp for sending government secrets or expiring pictures of your booty, Discord for any and all things gaming, Slack for all things not-gaming, et cetera. So, rather than go into detail with all the more obvious apps, we’ll highlight two unique ones.
Facebook Messenger, as you know, requires you to be on Facebook to use it. If I’m correct, you used to be able to essentially connect Facebook’s service to Messages itself, so you could send and receive your Facebook chats without having to have your browser open all the time. And if I’m right (again), you can no longer do that. Instead, you’ll want an app like Goofy, which basically drops the Facebook Messenger interface into a simple application that you can access from your desktop.
We’re also fans of Franz, which offers the same treatment for a variety of other services (as well as Facebook Messenger). If you don’t want to keep 20 programs open to chat with people, Franz lets you access apps like Slack, WeChat, WhatsApp, Skype, Google Hangouts, and Facebook Messenger all from one, single interface.
Everyone also probably has a video chat app they love to use. And there are plenty to pick from: FaceTime, which comes baked into macOS by default; the aforementioned WhatsApp; Google Hangouts; Houseparty; and even good ol’ Facebook Messenger itself.
If you’re looking for a standalone messaging app that can do it all—for personal and business use, too—we still recommend Skype, which Microsoft recently overhauled. Its interface feels cleaner (and comes with a dark mode), it’s still as easy as ever to send text messages, video messages, and files to contacts, and you can even @ message your friends to get their attention.
That said, we live in an time where most messaging apps have some kind of video or calling component—or so it feels. So if you need that human contact beyond simple texting and emoji, odds are good that you can already do it in the chat app you love.
Music, Photos and Video
VLC is the best media player you can put on your Mac, period. It works perfectly with minimal fuss once you install it, and it can play almost any file you throw at it. If you’re a power user, it has a sea of options that would take the entire rest of this article to describe to you.
We enjoy all the improvements VideoLAN tosses VLC’s way, including its new support for 10-bit color depth and HDR, 360 videos, and improved decoding that allows less-powerful systems to play full 4K videos—even if that’s overkill for your Mac’s display resolution. You can drop a number of plug-ins and extensions into VLC to extend its functionality, and you can even use the app to stream videos to your Chromecast, if you’ve allowed Google to get a foothold into your Apple-only household.
HandBrake is a free video conversion tool that, when coupled with an app like MakeMKV, will turn you into a ripping and converting powerhouse. HandBrake is pretty easy to use, but there are still plenty of settings that might give you a little anxiety when you first load the app. We have a guide to help out with that. Once you’ve mastered the basics, queuing up multiple videos and converting them to all kinds of different formats will feel second-nature. Also, don’t forget to grab VLC, mentioned above, so you can actually watch all of your creations.
Which music streaming service you pick is largely a matter of preference: one might carry your favorite band, one might have an app interface you greatly prefer, one might have all your friends on it. If you aren’t into Apple Music for these, or any other valid reasons, Spotify is the next obvious choice (sorry Tidal). It has a huge library, its social features are great, and we love the thought it puts into its playlists—human-curated and automatically generated.
If you’re already an Amazon Prime subscriber, you should also consider checking out the company’s Amazon Music Unlimited service. You’ll have to pay $8 on top of your Prime subscription, but that still makes it slightly cheaper than an Apple Music ($10) or Spotify Premium ($10).
Pixelmator is one of the best image editors on the Mac, but it’s no longer the only game in town. Though its $30 asking price might seem high, it’s a bargain considering all the incredible editing tools you get to play with—rivaling more comprehensive apps like Adobe’s Photoshop CC for a fraction of the price. (And if you want features like Touch Bar support, automatic color adjustments, and advanced compression—as well as HEIF exporting—you’ll want to pick up the pricier Pixelmator Pro for $60)
Affinity Photo is a compelling, albeit costlier alternative to Pixelmator that’ll set you back $50 for a professional-grade suite of tools, including full RAW editing and a UI that looks a lot like the Photoshop you might prefer (but don’t want to pay a subscription to get). That includes support for “Personas,” which mimics Photoshop’s Workspaces feature by allowing you to set your screen’s many options and buttons based on whatever it is you’re working on—if you prefer one set of tools for a simple editing and another set of tools for something more complex, like pre-processing images for print.
If you’re looking for basic image editing and your Mac’s built-in Photos app isn’t enough, you can always give the open-source app GIMP a try. What it lacks in polish, it makes up for in price.
Dropbox, Google Drive, and Mega
These cloud storage services should all be household names at this point. We’ve covered their costs, and their peers’ pricing models, pretty extensively. Which one you go with depends on your budget, preferences, and needs. Dropbox is a great, all-encompassing solution for cloud storage, but you’ll need to get creative to get more than 2GB of free space with the service. Google Drive is a no-brainer, since you get 15GB of space and can easily synchronize files to your laptop or desktop to work on them offline.
With Mega, you get 50GB of free cloud storage to play with and a handy app (MEGAsync) that you can use across your Windows and Mac computers. Mega does have an annoying transfer quota of around 1GB or so in a 24-hour time span, but that’s a small price to pay for a free 50 gigs. Take that, thumbdrives
Ever since Transmission had all those malware issues some time ago, and uTorrent filled its installer full of crap and cryptocurrency miners, we’ve been on the hunt for a simple BitTorrent app, and we’ve settled on qBittorrent. It’s an open-source downloading tool that should look pretty familiar for anyone who has used an app like uTorrent or Transmission previously. No big surprises with qBittorrent’s UI or features. We like that the app is ad- and crap-free, is completely open source, and can automatically quit or shut down your PC when your download is done. Deluge is a good BitTorrent app alternative, but the app hasn’t been updated since May of 2017 (when we wrote this), and we prefer something with more active development.
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.