Your Mac is only as good as the apps you use. There’s no point trying to write the next Great American Novel with TextEdit or limiting yourself to Chess for all your entertainment needs. With thousands of apps available, how do you find the good ones? Well, we’ve made an attempt based on our experience using Macs over the last few years. This obviously can’t be an exhaustive list, but it’s a good starting place.
Mac apps are generally available in one of two places: the Mac App Store or the developer’s website. Since Apple takes a 30% cut on any apps sold in the App Store a lot of developers are reluctant to use it, which makes things a little more complicated than on iOS.
For your convenience, I've organized this list of essential Mac apps into six categories:
- Web browsing
Whatever you're looking for, there's a Mac app for that. You'll need to pay for most of these apps, but I've also made a note of some free Mac software options (where available). Now let's take a look at some of the best Mac software out there.
Web Browsing Apps
The odds are the app you'll use more than any other on your Mac is the web browser. That means you want to make sure you've got a good one.
Google Chrome is the most popular web browser in the world and for good reason: it’s fast, supports the latest web technologies, and has a huge extension library. It's also free. If Safari isn’t your jam, Google Chrome should be your next choice.
For a long time the main thing Firefox had going for it was that it wasn’t owned by Google. Now, with the release of Firefox Quantum it’s back in the browser big leagues. If you don’t want to use Chrome or Safari, Firefox is once again a worthy (and free) replacement.
First and foremost, your Mac is a tool. This means you need to use it right to be productive; there’s no point trying to remove a screw with a hammer. All the Mac apps in this section make you more productive.
OneNote is Microsoft’s (surprisingly great) free note-taking app. It’s certainly a lot more user-friendly and modern that the rest of the Office suite. If you’re looking for a great app for writing down random thoughts, lecture notes, or meeting minutes, you can’t go wrong with OneNote.
Evernote is the main contender to OneNote. It’s been around longer, but they’re pretty similar feature-wise. What it really comes down to is which interface you prefer, and whether you’re okay in Microsoft’s ecosystem. Personally, I prefer Evernote; it’s a better app for my needs. You can start with the free version and upgrade as needed.
GoogleDrive (and the accompanying Google Docs suite) have changed how people collaborate on documents and share files. You absolutely need an online file syncing site, and GoogleDrive is one of the best. Plus, you can start using it for free when you set up a Google account.
Since pretty much everyone already has a Google account, GoogleDrive is an easy default file syncing app, but I personally prefer Dropbox, the only caveat is that you need to pay to get a decent amount of storage. Dropbox’s commitment to user privacy, and my large storage needs, swing it for me. And there's a free version available.
Text expansion can save you a lot of time if you regularly have to type the same thing over and over. The basic idea is that you type out an “abbreviation” for the phrase you want to type. For example, the abbreviation “.eml” would then expand into your full email address. With TextExpander you can do much more complicated setups, but the gist is still the same. If you spend a lot of time typing, check it out.
While TextExpander is undoubtedly the biggest name in text expansion, there are other great apps out there. Personally, we love aText. At $4.99 it costs less than a two-month subscription to TextExpander. You lose some pro features, but for the most part, it’s the same app for a fraction of the cost.
Alfred started as an app launcher and search tool, but it’s since grown a lot more powerful. With Alfred you can basically find apps and files, search the web, control your Mac, view your clipboard history, and much more. With the addition of the £19 Power Pack you can even create powerful workflows that chain together multiple actions. This app, more than any other here, can save you time and make you more productive.
Computers are the greatest communication tool that’s ever been created. Let’s look at some of the best Mac apps that make it easy to communicate with other people using your Mac.
While FaceTime is incredibly popular with Mac and iOS users, it’s not much use if you want to call someone on a Windows PC—plus, there’s a reason we use “Skype” as a verb, absolutely everyone has it. All this is more than enough for Skype to make our must-have list of the best Mac software. And there's a free version of this Mac app.
Twitter has finally killed off their Mac app (although it has been a long time coming). This means that if you want to a Mac native experience, you need to go third-party. We’re big fans of Tweetbot for its easiness to use and perfect balance between offering the Twitter experience, but still doing it in a Mac way.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of Slack. It’s the hot new work chat app that’s been killing off email in most small to mid-sized web-based companies. There are also social groups that are starting to use Slack instead of forums. Whichever way you look at it, there’s a good chance you’re going to need the Slack app on your Mac. And there's a free version available.
Email sucks, but it sucks less if you’re using a good app. Airmail is a great Mac app that takes your iCloud, Exchange, Gmail, and lots of other email accounts out of the browser, and on to your Mac. With support for pretty much every feature you could want, it’s a much better email experience than a web app.
The Mac is very much a professional platform. There are millions of people who rely on Mac apps every day to do their work—I’m one of them! Let’s look at some of the best Mac apps for work that you might want to use.
14. Microsoft Office
Big businesses run on Microsoft Office. While Google Docs is a decent alternative for students and the like, if you’re doing anything with large companies you’ll almost certainly need Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. You'll have to pay for this productivity suite, though.
Ulysses is the best writing app on the Mac (and iOS), bar none. It’s the app I’m writing this article in. It’s great for longform writing, but also works for notes, blog posts, articles, or whatever. As long as you don’t have someone forcing you to use another app, it’s the one we recommend without hesitation.
Photos comes already installed on your Mac, but there’s a good chance you aren’t using the free Mac app to its full effect. As well as being a decent app for sorting and keeping track of all your photos, it’s also a surprisingly good image editor.
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is the gold standard when it comes to keeping your photos organised and simple image edits. If you've got to do any work that involves a large number of images, or even just take a lot of photos, this Mac software is an absolute must-have.
While Photoshop is still incredibly popular, it’s a lot more app than most people need and has a recurring subscription fee. This is where Pixelmator comes in. While not as powerful as Photoshop, it’s a hell of a lot more powerful than the filter-based editing apps. And at less than $30, very affordable too. It nicely sits in the gap between consumer and pro apps.
Some of the best software for a Mac is entertainment software. If you work and play on your Mac, here are some great entertainment options.
VLC is a free video player than can play, well, any video. Unlike QuickTime, which only supports a limited number of file types, VLC will take pretty much anything you can throw at it.
I listen to hundreds of hours of music every year using Spotify; it’s the absolute best way to have some background noise while I write. The premium plan is awesome, but the free plan still works great. It’s the best way to listen to music on a Mac.
While there are some games in the Mac App Store, the main for both AAA and indie games is the Steam Store. You need the free Steam app to manage your purchases, so if you’ve any interest in playing games on your Mac, it’s a must.
Not every Mac app needs to be as feature-filled as Photoshop. Some of the best Mac apps are just simple utilities that do one thing well in the background. Others let you create rules and triggers for automating your Mac. In this section, we’ll look at this kind of utility apps.
A good offsite backup is vital. TimeMachine is great, but if your house burns down your Mac and backup drive are probably going with it. This is where BackBlaze comes in. By regularly backing your Mac up over the internet, you can restore any files you accidentally delete. You can even restore your whole Mac if something happens to it.
Amphetamine is a free app with a simple idea: when you need your Mac to stay on, you click its menu bar icon. That way your Mac won’t go to sleep in the middle of important downloads.
24. Bartender 3
If you use a lot of apps, your Mac’s menu bar is probably pretty crowded. Bartender sorts that out. You can choose to have apps display in the menu bar, in a special Bartender menu bar, or to be totally hidden. It’s the only thing that keeps my desktop looking clean!
Hazel is an awesome Mac automation app. You create rules and it performs actions on your files. For example, I use Hazel to sort all the files I download into different inboxes. You can also use it to delete old files, sort things into folders by date, and much much more. If you do a lot of work with files, it’s a must.
26. Keyboard Maestro
The app I’ve written about more than any other at Tuts+, Keyboard Maestro is the best Mac automation app available. There’s almost nothing you can’t do with it. To give you some examples, I’ve used it to create custom keyboard shortcuts, track how I spend my time on my computer, publicly shame myself, and much more. While it’s probably overkill for a lot of users, if you want to get the most out of your Mac you need to check it out.
The trackpad is one of the best things about MacBooks; it’s so smooth and easy to use. It’s just a shame that macOS’s built-in gestures are so limited. With BetterTouchTool, though, you can create your own. I use custom swipe gestures to do things like open and close tabs, select my favourite tools in Photoshop, and lots more. This is another must have for power users.
Spaces are another macOS feature that’s a little basic straight out of the box. TotalSpaces2 makes them a whole lot better. You can create grid areas of virtual desktops that you can then quickly switch between them. I've got things set up so my writing space is always to the left of my web browsing space and directly below my communications space.
There are hundreds of awesome Mac apps out there. This is just a small selection of some of the best Mac apps we could find. If you’ve got any favourites, let us know in the comments.