10:15 AM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner

Apple Buyers' Guide: 14 Free And Cheap Mac Applications

You don't have to shell out big bucks to get things done on your Mac. These tools will help you with instant messaging, writing, password management, and more.

The Mac comes with an array of basic software already built in. The Mail and iCal software provide satisfactory e-mail and scheduling, Safari is a good Web browser, and TextEdit performs basic text-editing and word-processing tasks. But you're probably going to want more.

What follows is a list of more than a dozen free or cheap applications to help beef up your Mac. It starts with a few essentials: Applications that virtually every Mac user will find valuable. Then I move on to describe applications that are great for users with specific needs.

Ten of these applications are free, one is donationware, and the other three are priced under $30.

Quicksilver: User Interface

Quicksilver is a powerful toolkit that completely changes the way you find and use information on your Mac and on the Internet. It's a keyboard-based, completely mouseless utility that you use to open applications on your computer, open and work with documents, open URLs in your browser, perform Internet searches, look up words in the Mac's built-in dictionary, and more.

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It's really hard to describe, because there's nothing else quite like it. Application launchers like Launchy on Windows are similar. But Quicksilver is more than just an application launcher.

Here's how it works: You call up Quicksilver by typing Ctrl-Spacebar. A small window pops up in the center of your screen, with two smaller windows inside it. Start typing in the first window. Quicksilver begins to suggest filenames and actions, based on a running index of applications and documents on your system and (with the aid of plug-ins) on your browser bookmarks and history.

Quicksilver also remembers what you type, and anticipates what you want based on what you asked for in the past. An example from my own usage: If I type B, then L, Quicksilver fills in the rest with the URL for the InformationWeek Blog (to which I've assigned the keyword "blog" in my browser bookmarks). Likewise, if I type just the letter N, Quicksilver suggests a file called !next actions which is my running to-do list.

I use Quicksilver every few minutes as I work and play at my computer. The most common things I use it for: Opening applications, opening documents, opening URLs, appending text to text files, and running searches with Google and other search engines. It's completely replaced the Mac desktop and Dock as the place where I launch frequently used applications and documents, and it's replaced the Finder for many functions as well. I often use Quicksilver instead of the mouse to access application menus.

It's an extraordinary program -- and it's free.

Quicksilver is a little tricky to use at first, but Lifehacker has great directions for getting started with Quicksilver.

Adium: Instant Messaging

Apple's built-in iChat software is great, but it's limited to users on AIM and the .Mac service. If you want to talk to people on MSN Messenger, Yahoo Instant Messenger, or other networks using iChat, you need to have access to a Jabber server.

Adium is free, open-source instant-messaging software that can connect to AIM, MSN, Jabber, Yahoo, Google Talk, Lotus Sametime, and more. Alas, it does not support voice or video chat. Adium provides a tabbed interface to group multiple chat sessions together to save desktop real estate. It also lets you set nicknames for your friends' user IDs, to help you remember that LuvStud457 is actually your creepy Uncle Norman.

TextExpander: Automated Typing

TextExpander automates the typing of text snippets that you use and re-use often: Your name, your e-mail signature, phone number, address, legal boilerplate, your company name, etc.

After you customize TextExpander, you only have to type a few characters, and TextExpander automatically types the rest. When I type "mmw," followed by a tap of the spacebar, TextExpander types my full name. When I type "iwksig" and space, TextExpander types out my e-mail signature. And so forth. TextExpander types plain or formatted text, and also pastes in images. It's priced at $29.95.

SplashID: Password/Account Management

We all have dozens and dozens of e-mail accounts, Web logins, application passwords, bank account numbers, credit card numbers, and other snippets of confidential information we need to keep track of. We don't want to keep those in plain sight on our computers. We could write them down, but what if the paper gets lost, or burned up in a fire, or stolen?

SplashID is a cross-platform tool for storing accounts and passwords which runs on the Mac, Windows, and more.
(click image for larger view)

SplashID is a cross-platform tool for storing accounts and passwords which runs on the Mac, Windows, and more.

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The best thing to do with that confidential information is to keep it in an application that encrypts it. There are plenty of options on the Mac; the one I use is SplashID.

I started using the Windows version of SplashID years ago because it synchronized with my Treo (which runs the Palm OS), enabling me to use it as backup for those essential information snippets and allowing me to consult the list when I was away from my computer. When I switched to the Mac early this year, I started using the Mac version of SplashID, and I still continue to use it, even though I dumped the Treo in favor of the iPhone.

SplashID is ugly, and it has a few features I'm not using, such as the ability to add icons to entries for individual accounts and the ability to categorize accounts. I just use it as a virtual cardfile of account information, including login IDs, passwords, credit card numbers, and anything else I need to have at my fingertips and encrypted. I can easily copy information to the Mac clipboard and paste it where I need it (which is almost always a browser window).

SplashID is $29.95, and available for the Palm OS, Pocket PC, Symbian, and BlackBerry mobile devices, and for both Mac and Windows desktops. Hopefully, Apple will allow third-party developers to build applications for the iPhone, and we'll see a version of SplashID for the iPhone.

1Passwd: Password/Account Management

Recently, I started trying out an alternative to SplashID: 1Passwd, a password manager that works as an add-on to your browser. It not only remembers your passwords for you, it also automatically fills them in to the appropriate place in browser forms. It remembers credit-card numbers as well, and automatically fills in forms. 1Passwd integrates with Mac's built-in password-saver, the Keychain, and it works across multiple browsers, which is great for me, because I frequently switch among Safari, Firefox, and Camino. 1Passwd also runs on the Palm platform, and there's a Web version coming, which will allow users to access their passwords from any computer, or from the iPhone. It's priced at $29.95.

Not Essential, But Interesting

Those are the applications that any Mac user would find valuable, if not necessary. Here are some that can help you with specific needs:

In case you haven't tried it yet, Firefox is a highly customizable alternative to the Mac's built-in Safari browser, and it's also cross-platform, which makes it a useful tool for Mac users who also use Windows. Camino is more lightweight and faster than either Firefox or Safari. Both are free.

TextWrangler is a simple, free text editor for people who write for the Internet. It's extremely handy when combined with Markdown, a tool that lets you write in an easy-to-read and easy-to-type format, and then later convert the text to HTML. I'm using TextWrangler and Markdown right now -- I use them for almost all my InformationWeek and other Internet writing.

The free Chicken of the VNC client lets you access PCs, Macs, or Linux computers across the Internet or a local network.
(click image for larger view)

The free Chicken of the VNC client lets you access PCs, Macs, or Linux computers across the Internet or a local network.

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Chicken of the VNC is a client for controlling remote computers using the VNC protocol. You can use it to control Macs, Windows, or Linux computers remotely. It's free.

Flip4Mac plays Windows Media video and audio in QuickTime, which you can't do with the Mac out of the box. It's free.

Skype is a popular free service for text, voice, and video chat.

MT-NewsWatcher is a client for reading Usenet and other newsgroup servers. It's donationware -- if you like it, you send what you think is appropriate.

If you regularly work at two or more computers, Synergy is a wonderful tool. It lets multiple computers share a single keyboard and mouse, and connects up all their clipboards. You might say that it makes multiple computers look, to the end-user, like a single computer with multiple displays. Move your mouse to the left and right across displays to move between computers. Copy images or text to the clipboard on one computer, and paste it into a document open on another. It's amazing and free.

The Mac uses a weird algorithm for mouse acceleration, which governs translating physical movement of the mouse into movement of the pointer on your display. The result: The mouse can seem sluggish, especially when you're using a multimonitor setup. USB Overdrive fixes the problem, making the pointer both peppy and precise. Also, USB Overdrive lets you customize the behavior of up to 16 mouse buttons. It's priced at $20.

Office And Its Alternatives

Most of the world is still using Microsoft Office, and some people -- especially those running small businesses -- may need the original, either because they absolutely, positively need 100% compatibility with Office, or because they are power-users who need specific features that only Office provides.

If you do need Microsoft Office and no other, that'll cost you. The Student and Teacher edition of Office costs $149; for the rest of us, the software is priced starting at $399.

However, there are alternatives.

  • iWork '08 is an office suite comprised of updated versions of Pages '08, which is a word processor and page layout tool, and Keynote '08, which is a presentation creation tool. Apple also added a new application to the suite: Numbers '08, for spreadsheets. The software is priced at $79.

  • NeoOffice is a Mac version of the open-source office suite. It's free, and includes a word processor, presentation authoring tool, spreadsheet, drawing program, and database.

  • Mellel ($49) and Nisus Writer ($45 for the Express version, $79 for the Pro version) are two popular word processors for the Mac. And you'll be following in worthy footsteps: Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon uses Nisus Express.

  • Zoho offers a whole suite of online office tools, including word processor, spreadsheet, presentation tool, project management, and a lot more. And Google Docs and Spreadsheets offers an online word processor and spreadsheet application. Zoho and the Google apps are both free.

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