Essential free Mac software


in Geek stuff, Internet matters

After a year of using a Mac primarily, I have come to appreciate this excellent operating system. I have also come to understand some of the gaps in it, particularly insofar as the software and tools that it includes are concerned. The following, then, is my short list of essential (free) Mac programs. Naturally, they are geared towards the kinds of things I personally do all the time.

1) Adium – instant messaging program

The MSN Messenger client for Mac is quite terrible. It is unstable and badly out of date. The freeware program Adium talks not only to MSN, but to AIM, ICQ, Google Talk, and many other instant messenger services. You see one contact list for people on all the services you’ve listed and the software works well and in a stable fashion.

Make sure to get the Hobbes icons. The one of him dancing, to indicate the presence of a new message, is especially endearing.

One word of warning, all the different preferences can be a bit daunting when you start out. Leave them on the defaults and don’t worry about them.

2) Fetch – FTP client

An FTP program essential to anyone who runs websites. This one is much less temperamental than Cyberduck, which I used for many months before being introduced to this superior alternative. You can apply for a free educational license on the Fetch homepage.

3) Firefox – web browser

Hands down the best web browser for any platform, the Mac version of Firefox is an essential item. I hang on to Safari because it sometimes runs complex Java more reliably than Firefox does (I am thinking specifically of the photo upload script for Facebook). I hang onto Opera because the built in bittorrent support is very useful. With those caveats, Firefox is what I use 99% of the time. At a later point, I should write a list like this of the essential Firefox extensions (SessionSaver, AdBlock with Filerterset.G, and Flashblock come to mind instantly).

4) Google Earth – interactive atlas

Not essential, perhaps, but free and definitely great fun. The built in demonstration tour is worth a look. It shows off the terrain mapping nicely with Mount Saint Helens.

5) jEdit – text editor

Even with MS Office installed, there is no program in Mac OS that can cleanly edit files that must be text only, without formatting. I am talking about things like manually editing HTML files, PHP scripts, htaccess files, and the like.

6) KisMAC – wireless network detector

Particularly if you are running Tiger (OS 10.4), this free utility is helpful for dealing with wireless networks in more sophisticated ways than are possible using the WiFi implementation built into the OS.

7) MacJanitor – maintenance program

If you have a laptop that you leave closed or in sleep mode when you are not using it, chances are some of the timed maintenance scripts that are meant to run under Mac OS are never doing so. By default, they run in the early morning, but that will only happen if your computer is on. This program lets you run them manually, a good idea for maintaining system performance.

8) Password Safe – password utility

The Java version runs under Mac OS and is very helpful for keeping track of the passwords of things you use quite rarely. It is better than Keychain because you can install the Java version on a USB key and then use it on Macs, PCs, and Linux machines.

9) Remote Desktop Connection – system tool

I have no idea why this is not included by default in the operating system. Either this or one of the open source equivalents is necessary to connect to Windows based terminal servers.

10) Skype – VOIP program

Particularly if you have a Mac laptop with a built-in mic, Skype is an exceptionally convenient way to keep in touch with people inexpensively. I really wish more of my friends used it.

11) VideoLAN – media player

This open source video player can deal with the widest range of file types of anything I have used on the Mac. DivX files that simply will not play in Quicktime or Windows Media Player open without trouble, and it has fullscreen mode – a feature that is bizarrely lacking in other Mac video software.

One item that I won’t put on the official list is a third party MD5 hash checker. Only people who need to check the integrity of downloaded files will need one and it doesn’t really matter which one you choose. Just don’t trust the one built into Disk Utility (at least not for .iso files).

PS. The essential non-free software is basically MS Office (OpenOffice does not cut it when you need to collaborate with people using Office) and Photoshop 7, CS, or CS2.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. July 24, 2006 at 8:07 pm

That’s a pretty good list. A bit too focused on web publishers, maybe.

I will definitely give some of the ones I haven’t used a try.

Mike Kushnir July 25, 2006 at 3:03 am

seeing as i have a brand-new macbook lost in the mail somewhere, i’ll keep a note of these things.

also, i’d like to second your comment about firefox. it’s so good that i nearly retch every time i’m forced to use IE on someone else’s machine.


Milan July 25, 2006 at 12:14 pm


I have no idea what portion of the software listed above has been compiled so that it will run on your Intel-based MacBook (a very cool thing to be getting, by the way).

Indeed, switching processor architectures is going to make compatibility tricky for quite a while.

Mike Kushnir August 1, 2006 at 12:38 am

oh, you’re right. i hadn’t thought of that.

but i’m sure that it won’t be too hard.


Milan March 29, 2007 at 9:16 pm

Google Earth is now even better, with updated imagery for downtown Vancouver.

anon March 30, 2007 at 12:40 pm

Here’s my little list of Mac applications I can’t live without, and have to re-install the first day.

Camino: currently my favourite browser

Quicksilver. What does it do? Well, it finds and launches stuff. And lots more besides, much of which I haven’t even discovered yet.

TextMate. A text editor: the heart of my pretensions to geekdom.

Transmit: FTP program thingy. for when you need a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation maker, and still want to be a Microsoft refusenik.

Bookdog. Not really indispensable but it was the latest thing I paid for so I’m blowed if I’m going to do without it.

Mellel. Ditto, but I paid for this too and discovered I was still eligible for two years’ worth of free upgrades, so I wasn’t going to say No.


Anon April 8, 2007 at 1:10 pm

Live Satellite Images in Google Earth!

It is only Edinburgh right now, but I think it will expand.

Milan April 29, 2007 at 10:05 pm

This is Giles Turnbull’s account of apps he can’t live without, over at O’Reilly Mac DevCenter Blog.

Milan January 30, 2009 at 3:18 pm

I am using TextMate for HTML, CSS, etc now. It isn’t free, but it is much better than jEdit.

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