Stuff I Use on the Mac

As I wrote previously, I’m using a MacBook now for almost all my daily work. On that post I got some comments about the quality and general availability of software on the platform, so I thought I’d take stock after using it for a while and see what applications I use and where I haven’t found good solutions yet.

Writing, authoring, note taking and similar

Microsoft Office for the Mac is the same enormous package on the Mac that it is on Windows. Well, perhaps not quite as large overall. Some minor issues I’ve found include that Word templates don’t look 100% the same on both platforms - generally quite good software, and essential to me for full compatibility. Includes the slightly weird Entourage, which is not quite Outlook, but comes with a lot of Mac goodness, like Automator integration. (isn’t that one of the stupidest product names ever?) isn’t quite as great on the Mac as it is on other platforms… only the newest pre-release versions have a native Mac UI available, while older builds use the X11 compatibility layer. While I appreciate the availability of X11 on the Mac to be able to run the occasional Unix tool more easily, it’s not a very nice environment in many ways… or at least it would require much more work to configure right. Anyway, I’m just installing OpenOffice to have an alternative to MS Office when I need one, so it doesn’t really have to look great. Otherwise, there’s NeoOffice – might be worth a look if OpenOffice just looks too ugly. Allegedly also faster with certain things. I haven’t really tried it myself.

iWork is Apple’s own take on a productivity suite – in addition to the considerable capabilities the OS X platform offers out of the box of course. I got it for free with my Mac, and while I won’t pretend I’ve spent ages with it, I must say it’s a very useful package.

Keynote alone is worth more than the entire package, compatible with PowerPoint and the presentations can easily look nicer…

OmniGraffle is the answer to one problem I could never solve satisfactorily on Windows. Its functionality is somewhere between Corel Draw, Adobe Illustrator, PowerPoint, and a whole bunch of other applications whose functionality evolves around the creation of drawings, diagrams and so on. I’m not an artist, and OmniGraffle hits just the right spot between providing things out of the box and in-depth functionality that I can use when things need a bit of tweaking. I’ll review OmniGraffle in some more detail in the future.

Curio was the result of a long search for a note taking application that would replace OneNote for me. So does it do everything like OneNote does? No, it doesn’t… there’s pros and cons to Curio. The overall functionality is easily much more sophisticated than OneNote’s, but some usability details could be improved. Another subject for review later on. It’s my preference over several other loosely related apps I tried to various extents, including VoodooPad Pro, OmniOutliner Pro, NoteTaker, Notebook, Evernote and DEVONthink.

MindManager has always been one of my favorite pieces of software (a mind mapping tool, of course), and while the Mac version lacks many features compared with the Windows one, it still blows any competition clean out of the water. Also tried Consideo, though not in very much depth.

Capturing the screen on the Mac is surprisingly complicated. Yes, there’s a tool for screenshots included and it works just fine. But I’m used to what SnagIt and Camtasia were offering on Windows and there aren’t many tools around that even come close. I tried FlySketch for screen shooting, and Snapz Pro X and iShowU for recording – iShowU was actually not bad, but the rest… well. An oddity from my point of view is that apps on the Mac tend to use weird .mov files for videos - yeah, that’s .mov, the file type I’m used to ignoring because it brings up the Apple video player that blocks every Windows machine for minutes, comes with restricted functionality and wants updating every few days. Of course I know things are different on the Mac and .mov files actually play nicely, but still – what’s wrong with a nice compatible .mpg file?

Most interestingly, a solution to the screen shooting/recording problem might come from TechSmith - Camtasia and/or SnagIt for the Mac. Hopefully soon.

TextMate is of course the well-known text editor for Mac OS X. Really extremely nice. Bundles for many different file types/development environments, supporting a number of languages for automation, including Ruby and shell scripts. Nice templating as well. I haven’t put it through the paces of my personal editor acceptance tests yet, but I know I do like it so far.

Aquamacs is a port of Emacs for the Mac. A very good port indeed, better than the ones I used to use on Windows. I’m torn between this one and TextMate - they are too different in too many ways to really make a decision. Good thing I can just install both.

MacTeX. Who can be without TeX? Ah… sadly, many people these days manage, or think they do. Anyway. MacTeX is a very nice and complete package.

I’m currently missing an application that is an image editor. I’m not talking about stuff that Lightroom can do (or Photoshop of course) to my photos – I’m talking about editing images, like I sometimes do for icons, web graphics, … it’s weird to feel the need to explain this – ten years or so ago, everybody knew exactly what “picture editing” meant. I used to use PaintShop Pro on Windows, which did the job nicely, although the functionality added in the past few years goes more in the direction of photo management as well. Anyway, funnily enough I haven’t found any nice application for this purpose on the Mac yet.


iCal and Address Book are of course standard utilities on the Mac, but they are good. I’m not missing anything from Outlook.

OmniFocus is a great todo list application (well, that doesn’t really do it justice…) based on GTD philosophy, but flexible enough to allow any style of todo handling (important, since I don’t really do GTD). Another app to say more about in the future. I tried this against several others, including Anxiety, iGTD and Things.


ecto is the blogging tool I’m currently using. I have an ugly problem with it related to white space handling – basically ecto drops whitespace in certain circumstances. Hm. Had a quick look at MarsEdit as an alternative, but since I’ve finally received a reply from ecto support, I’ll wait a bit and see. MarsEdit doesn’t have a rich text editor, which sort of turns me off… I could just as well use TextMate then, couldn’t I?

Skype, of course, works just as well on the Mac as it does on Windows. I believe the versions aren’t up to the same standard regarding newest features, but then I stopped using newest features in Skype for Windows years ago, so I’m not bothered.

Adium is a multi-protocol IM client and it’s simply fantastic. I’ve tried enough different clients on Windows in the past and I’ve used Trillian and Miranda for years - Adium is way better than either of these. Luckily it was the first one I tried on the Mac and it’s going to be the last.

I use the boring standard Apple Mail application that comes with OS X for my email needs. It works very nicely with my IMAP server and (of course) it doesn’t have any usability oddities, which are the rule rather than the exception in Thunderbird on the Mac. I gave two add-ins for Mail a try, Mail Act-On and MailTags, but I decided I could live without them. One of them, don’t know which, also gave me some stability problems with Mail.

Twhirl is the Twitter client I use – I like it, but I believe there are many out there that have the same functionality.

CocoaWget is a graphical frontend for the GNU tool wget. Like a download manager. I rarely need that functionality - I’m sure there are more full-featured (at least in the graphical UI department) download managers out there.

Cyberduck is a tool for FTP and a few similar file transfer protocols. Nice, with bookmarks, resume support, SCP and SFTP support and AppleScript integration.

I’m using Thunderbird as an NNTP news reader. I tried Unison, but stayed with Thunderbird. Sadly, NNTP is another thing I’m doing less and less these days. Stupid web forums.

NetNewsWire is my RSS client, through NewsGator. Great. Wouldn’t use anything else.

Firefox, still the browser of choice. I tried Safari with a few plugins (Inquisitor, Saft, SafariStand), but it didn’t really come close in terms of comfort. They should add a proper plugin architecture into Safari, perhaps some of the issues would then solve themselves. In Firefox, I’m not a heavy plugin user - these are the ones I use: Adblock Plus, Colorful Tabs, Delicious Bookmarks and Firebug.


1Password is a password manager, the best one I’ve ever seen. Having used Password Safe on Windows for years, I tried Password Safe SWT on the Mac, which is compatible with the Windows app, but sadly a pain in the neck to use. Password Gorilla was another app I tried before I decided to drop the compatibility thing. 1Password imported my 600+ password file and it can create encrypted HTML files for easy use of (searchable!) password lists on any platform. Lots of other nice features.

The search for a file manager was difficult and it’s not over yet. On Windows I used Altap Salamander, which was great – with the exception of its lack of Unicode support. Currently I use muCommander on the Mac, as the best dual-pane solution I could find. It crashes on me regularly when working with network shares, and it lacks some important features like connecting to shares easily or configuring the editor to use for the F4 command. Weird. Before I got there, I tried lots of others, including ones that weren’t dual pane, but most were either extremely simplistic in their feature set or buggy or incomplete with no support. These are the ones I tried: ForkLift (hard to use with the keyboard, simple features like filtering for the lists missing), XFile (weird package of tools, no context menu support, just one pane, weird keyboard configuration), RAGE Macintosh Explorer (tabbed, not dual-pane, really mouse-only), Path Finder (quite nice though not dual-pane - ran out of trial time before I could get a second look), Xfolders (not bad, but extremely simple), FlyPath (basic NeXT file manager, similar to what Finder can do these days), FileBrowse (useless), 3DOSX (weird 3d crap), Liquifile (very weird) and Disk Order (quite nice, though only slightly more capable than Xfolder, sent support emails about certain important issues, never got replies).

QuickSilver is of course the mother of all launchers, the one that everybody else tries to clone. It’s really very impressive, loads of special packages, very intelligent handling of all kinds of data. Hard to describe 😉 Anyway, I’ve found a few really simple things so hard to do that I still haven’t figured them out – like how to add a shortcut myself that gets me to a particular URL, for instance. Well. I’m sure I’m missing something, and I haven’t spent too much time looking so far. Launchbar, btw, is one other that I had a quick look at.

Toast is my burning application of choice, although I haven’t even looked at it in much detail yet. All others I found were very basic. There’s lots of functionality around even in standard OS X, although it’s spread across lots of different apps. But I wanted everything that Nero could do and Toast gives me that – in a nicer package than Nero, it has to be said. More about Toast when I’ve had time for a closer look. Others I tried (and some of them looked okay for basic stuff like dealing with images) include these: LiquidCD, Disco, Burn

I use iTunes on the Mac to work with my iPod. On Windows I’d totally given up on that (I was using Anapod) because the app was unusable – but the difference is similar to that regarding mov files (see above). iTunes still has quite a hard time with my MP3 collection on a network share, but at least it stays usable.

Araxis Merge deserves a mention because it’s a fantastic file diff/merging tool for both Windows and Mac. But I’m in fact not using it, because their pricing is just ridiculous. Haven’t found a suitable alternative on the Mac yet - of course Unix tools and Emacs diff/merge are much more usable than they are on Windows…

Canoscan Toolbox – weird entry, yes, but this is the driver for my CanoScan 8400F scanner and it’s a really very nice piece of software. I recommend Canon scanners purely for the reason that they come with no-nonsense software that doesn’t look like a candy machine, and it even works on the Mac. Great.

I am not currently using a clipboard monitor tool, which is very unfortunate… I’ve worked with ClipMate on Windows for many years, and while that one was maybe a little antiquated in some ways, it worked well and was continuously maintained. I didn’t actually use that many of its functions – just the clipboard history really, and a few simple things like concatenating clips and pasting without formatting. Well, on the Mac I tried every tool I could find, including iClipboard, CopyPaste Pro, iClip and CuteClips, and they were all crap, pretty much. Some of them at least looked pretty, but none were properly usable with the keyboard or had a history that did the job. I hope somebody is going to create something soon… maybe it’s time I had another look around and chose something to live with, rather than not having one.

For backup purposes I use both Time Machine and SuperDuper!. Time Machine does regular backups and provides a history of file changes – great. I have an external 1TB drive attached for that, which is about half full so far. SuperDuper! is a tool that creates a full clone of a hard drive. I used to use Acronis True Image irregularly on Windows, and it had some features that SuperDuper! doesn’t have. But in turn SuperDuper! is really not intrusive at all. With True Image I always had the problem that when it ran over night and I got back to the machine the next day, all my memory was paged out and it took an hour or two before the machine started behaving normally again. No such thing with SuperDuper!, and so I have my drive cloned onto another, portable external drive every night. Have I mentioned that the clone is directly bootable via USB?

I’ve been trying Versions for SVN, and also ZigVersion, but I’m now using the command line tools mostly. Both of these apps were quite nice – Versions kept running out of time in the current pre-release version – although they had a few nasty habits, like scanning the whole local repository all the time. I might have another look, but I do like command line tools, and on the Mac working on the command line finally feels quite natural and efficient again.

I was looking for a picture viewer with slide show functionality. I’d always used IrfanView on Windows. The first thing that was really odd was that neither of the tools I tried first was able to work with a directory of stuff easily – point it at one picture from the “trip to TechEd” folder and be able to navigate through all the other pictures in that same folder. Weird. Isn’t that a very normal thing to do? Ah well… the one I’m using now is called Xee and can do this easily enough, as well as everything else I need (which isn’t really much). I also tried ViewIt and Shomi.

Adobe Lightroom is at least as nice on the Mac as it is on Windows (it’s an app that works with your camera, archives your images, has post-processing functionality, …). I actually got the impression that it dealt a bit better with my picture archive on a network share than it did on Windows. If you own a license for one of the platforms, the other is also included. Good job, Adobe!

VMWare Fusion is the Mac edition of the virtualization software I’ve been using for around ten years. The current beta 2.0 releases are very stable and offer almost everything the Windows versions have, too. In fact, until the recent 6.5 release on Windows, the Mac version was the only one to have Unity, the feature that allows you to have application windows for apps running in the VM hanging around on the desktop together with those from apps running on the host. I never tried Parallels because VMWare was a natural choice for me, but I hear its performance is nowhere near as good, even more so on Macs with multiple processors.

Microsoft has Remote Desktop Connection for the Mac, which is great because I use it to access and maintain two of my servers. Thumbs up, Microsoft!

Google Earth (as well as some other Google stuff on that same page) is available for the Mac, and it’s just as good as the Windows version.

Handbrake is a nice tool to down-convert DVD movies into MPEG 4. Nice if you want to watch movies on small devices. Works on Windows, too!

Witch is an enhancement to the task switching functionality in OS X. Normally you can switch applications (Cmd-Tab) or windows in the current app (Cmd-`), but with Witch you can switch to a particular application window directly. Nice.

Right, that’s it for now. Hope it’s interesting - otherwise it’ll just serve as a note-to-self 😃

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