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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.
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.
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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.