A User’s Guide: 10 Essential Mac OS X Applications

When you take your new Apple computer out of the box and plug it in, it’s pretty much ready to go with every application you need to e-mail, design web pages, sync calendars, edit music, video and photographs and generally get creative the moment you turn it on.

But it’s always handy to know about third party software out there that can help things along for certain tasks.

Some of the titles on this list are free gratis, some of them are reasonably priced shareware. The one thing they all have in common, is that none of them have anything to do with Microsoft and therefore work brilliantly; stable applications you’ll use every day.

Adobe Lightroom

Lightroom is one of those applications you just have to use to see how powerful it really is.

On the surface it’s a glorified thumbnail browser, much like Graphic Converter or Adobe Bridge, which ships with Photoshop CS3. But dig deeper and you’ll find a whole new way to perform a number of tasks which Photoshop and its open source free alternative GIMP simply aren’t designed to do.

Lightroom’s main twist on the thumbnail browser, as we from the computer based photo organising world will know it, is the way in which Lightroom is actually copying the look and feel of doing things the old school way, with a light table and a magnifying loupe, from the days of chemical processing and 35mm film.

The biggest benefit to adopting this approach is being able to perform a wide range of editing tasks, such as colour correction cropping and straightening of images, all in a full screen, top down interface.

Cropping, for example, when used correctly, can turn an ordinary shot into something the viewer is more drawn into. By laying on top of the full screen image proportionally spaced lines in a geometrically balanced grid, Lightroom makes it simple for you to always ensure the subject of your photograph is in a part of the canvas which you want the viewers eye to focus on.

There’s also a full array of keyword and meta tagging, which Lightroom embeds into the image using XML, so that third party applications can read everything from the exposure settings and lens type used, to the location the image was shot, who’s and what is featured in it, who took it and what the copyright status of the image is for redistribution and fair use.

Then there’s Lightroom’s cornucopia of settings for getting the most from RAW files, where information on things like White Balance can be adjusted to effectively shoot the image again with completely different exposure settings, but without the inconvenience of having to travel all the way back to the location where the photo was taken or, in the case of a studio assignment, the added cost of re-hiring crew and talent.

All of this takes place in a full screen interface, with as little interference from the float-over tool bars as possible; something Adobe’s flagship Photoshop application could learn a lot from.

There’s also a full complement of export settings for print and web, which includes a smart and easy to use web gallery template creator, which has a few cool Flash elements included, to easily create a pro looking portfolio.

In short: It’s a virtual dark room for the digital photographer.
Costs: £190 ($373) from bestpricedbrands.co.uk

Audio Hijack Pro

Rogue Amoeba make some great high quality applications with the prosumer Mac user in mind. Audio Hijack Pro is the solution you’ve been looking for if you need to capture and process system audio.

Simply put, it enables you to record the sound of any currently running application and pass it through a virtual mixing desk, complete with auxiliary sends to all of Mac OS X built-in effects and filters, as well as any third party plug-ins you might have installed in the components folder, such as those which bundle with Audio & MIDI music sequencing software.

It’s not just professional studio sound engineers who will find AHP extremely useful, though. Hobbyist podcasters always need to get audio from a variety of sometimes obscure sources into their Mac. Recording their own voice on one Microphone input, another from Skype and perhaps a third from an audio player, for things like sound effects, jingles or other pre-recorded media.

Without something to manage the whole thing, this can often involve having to kludge together multiple sound capture cards on USB hubs & route everything through external hardware mixers, which as well as degrading the audio fidelity, by leaving the digital domain, it’s also far from being an easy set-up to carry around with your laptop for field recording.

By literally hijacking the sound output of any application, like Skype for over-the-net phone-in contributions to a podcast, for example, AHP’s simple user interface clearly lays out the record path from input source to output file type; recording on-the-fly to all the usual audio file formats.

You can also automatically split a recording into multiple chunks based upon total record time or file size in megabytes, which is extremely handy if you’re recording a long piece intended for release in shorter ‘episodes’ or you want to send the recording to an e-mail box which only accepts small file attachments.

It’s also a huge help to anyone who needs to send large files to a Microsoft Windows application, because the FAT32 file system has a maximum file size limit of just 2 gigabytes.

Splitting can also be done arbitrarily by hitting the key on the top toolbar, which is also a great short cut for marking song in / out points from a radio broadcast of a live music concert or in a teleconference meeting where various different people begin to speak, so each of their ‘tracks’ can be later placed on a separate output strip in an audio sequencer for individual adjustment of stereo pan, output levels and other effects, such as compression and limiting.

In short: It records any sound your Mac can make.
Costs: £16 ($32) from rogueamoeba.com

Folder Splitter

We’ve all done it and it’s usually the downloads folder which suffers from it the most. The crime? Stuffing a billion files into one folder to such a degree that it takes the computer a month and a day to list everything in it, which makes finding anything completely impossible.

I’ve forced myself to not do it so much with important files, like holiday snaps and music, but I still have a few folders full of old documents and LOLCATS which Folder Splitter is just itching to munch its way through.

Simply put, it organises a folder full of files into separate directories. You can also reverse the process by ‘UnSplitting’.

You can sort the splitting options by maximum size, number of files and choose to move or copy.

I use this most of all to make 4.6GB sized folders for archiving of movies and other downloads I want to back-up to 4.7GB write-able DVD.

In short: No more messy folder excuses.
Cost: £0 ($0) FREE, from qtsync.com


Many people buy a Mac Mini simply to use it as a media centre, by hooking it up to their HD TV and using OS X’s built in ‘Front Row’ application to navigate the hard drive’s contents with the provided Apple remote control.

The only problem with this is that, while the Mac Mini’s form factor makes it easy to hide behind the screen, access to the DVD drive needs to be maintained so that discs can be inserted and ejected.

To get around this many people choose to expand the Mac’s hard drive, or install an external USB or FireWire drive and ‘rip’ their DVD collection to disk, so there’s no danger of damaging the physical hard copy of the original disc.

HandBrake is, quite simply, THE best DVD ripping software out there and it’s completely free!

You can use the pre-set menu to choose what format you want to convert your DVD into, for easy transfer to any portable media player. You can also rip the raw data off the disc and transcode it into DV or another high quality file type, for up-conversion to HD, using smoothing plug-ins for Final Cut Pro or AVID.

HandBrake is also aware of other third party compression and codec software you might have installed, such as DivX pro and XviD or Apple’s own H.264 variants for pro applications.

It is illegal to share files made from ‘ripped’ DVDs with other people, but it is not illegal to make copies if it is for your own personal use only.

HandBrake also reads DVD chapters and can write the markers back to a chapter aware file, like Quicktime – so you don’t have to visually ‘skip’ from the beginning of the program you want to watch, to the section you’re interested in. This is useful for playback on the iPod or any number of in-car media players which HandBrake also supports.

With home theatre users specifically in mind, HandBrake also includes pre-sets for ripping to AppleTV format. The AppleTV is quickly becoming the most popular home media centre set-top-box, thanks to a recent software update which enables it to buy movies directly from iTunes and stream them to an attached HD TV, without the need to browse the web store on a Mac or PC.

In short: Rip your DVD library to file back-ups.
Cost: £0 ($0) Free, from handbrake.fr

Font Explorer X

When Apple began shipping their first computers, back in the late 1970s, the only interaction their small group of IT enthusiast customers had with the operating system itself, was through a green text on black background command prompt terminal.

I took this picture of the Xerox Star at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA.While a small team of the first Apple employees were assembling these machines by hand, in Steve Jobs garage, across the other side of town in Menlo Park, the huge photocopier and image processing company Xerox, was developing a system called Alto, which it was the vision of it’s developers would one day be a common place device in offices around the world.

Alto had an A4 portrait orientated screen, a mouse pointer, a kind of Ethernet network connection to other Alto systems and, most importantly of all, Alto had a Graphic User Interface with the windows and toolbars cliché we take for granted today.

Unfortunately, partly because it cost so much to make and buy and partly because Xerox bosses simply didn’t understand what it was for, Alto didn’t get off the ground.

Before it was eventually canned, however, Steve Jobs’ Apple had began to enjoy some considerable degree of success in home electronics, a market which had never previously existed for computers of any kind beyond the simple desk calculator.

This follow up to Apple Computer’s early wooden machines for hobbyists, the Apple II, afforded Jobs a tour of the Xerox research facility, where the GUI, mouse pointer and proportionally spaced fonts of the ‘What You See Is What You Get” (WYSIWYG, pronounced Wizzy Wig) interface to the Alto, gave him a ‘Eureka’ moment and sowed the seeds of what would later become the Apple Macintosh.

What, you might ask, has any of this got to do with a great little Freeware application called Font Explorer X? Well, simply put, the Mac has always had Fonts at its heart. The killer application of the original Mac, which saved Apple as a company (when the Mac’s bigger, more expensive sister, Lisa had almost bankrupted them in Jobs’ pursuit of what he’d seen at Xerox) was word processing and WYSIWYG desktop publishing; the ability to see on paper exactly what you can see on the screen.

Linotype, much like Adobe and other print and design companies at the time, who had made their name on type libraries and printer modules which reproduced graphics for large commercial print shops, which cost thousands of pounds to licence and years of work to develop, began to see desktop publishing as a unique advantage to bring beautiful print and proportionally spaced fonts to the masses, and the Mac was just the platform on which to do it.

The explosion between then and now, in the sheer volume of fonts and type libraries which grace our screens with their detailed serifs and elegant design communication, do have one annoying side effect, however; the time which it takes for even the snappiest of computers to load them all up.

Font Explorer X does away with a lot of the load time a bulkier font folder normally incurs by only loading the fonts you’re going to use. It can also process requests from certain applications, like Photoshop, to install particular fonts on demand.

So if you’ve disabled a particular family of fonts, but you then try to open a project which requires them, Font Explorer X will move the font family you need back into the system fonts folder, without having to re-launch the application which requires them.

It can also sift through your entire fonts library and filter out damaged files which can severely cripple a machine with even large amounts of RAM.

It displays the selected font in a bar in which you can test out different characters, or search for certain kinds of special keys.

It really does bring home the power of an operating system Apple have always designed around the needs of printers, graphic designers and artists who need to know that what they see on the screen is capable of being reproduced in print.

Anyone who knows the importance of occasionally booting from the System Installer DVD and performing a Repair Disk Permissions (analogous to Window’s defrag, but not the same thing) should also know the importance of maintaining a well organised and regularly maintained fonts folder. Once you’ve used Font Explorer X to do this, you’ll wonder how you ever managed without it.

In short: The perfect compliment to OS X’s built-in ‘Font Book’ and world famous, low Level typeface management.
Cost: £0 ($0) Free, from linotype.com


Functional though it may be; the generic, by-word for all kinds of image manipulation though it’s name has become accepted in the common language, there’s no denying that Photoshop is one hell of an expensive application to buy out-right, if all you’re looking to do is apply the odd filter here and there or crop a couple of pixels out of a frame and re-touch a bit of red eye camera flash, from your kid’s birthday party snaps.

Pixelmator is a quick loading, nice looking, full screen application which uses the GPU to apply Mac OS X’s built-in Core Graphics to your image without taking up CPU cycles. Consequently many of the jobs which have traditionally been thought of as rather slow and difficult to figure out ‘Photoshop only’ tasks, like Gaussian Blurring and other complex filters to improve light balance and colour noise, can be applied lightning fast in an interface almost too cool looking for it’s own good.

Pixelmator’s website gives a great quick-glance at all of the amazing applications features, so I won’t spend any extra time echoing all of them here, except to add that the simple fact that this application takes but milliseconds to launch, even when dragging and dropping really large uncompressed files into it, as well as sporting a stunning feature set for an application in this price range, has me using it every single day.

There’s a myriad of filters and effects which it’s hard to believe aren’t already included in image editors costing three and four times as much, such as page curling and random pattern generators, all of which are controlled by an impossibly cool input method of dragging input lines into and out of the filter box, rather like patching some kind of physical hardware controller, the likes of which you might find in a mad scientists laboratory.

In short: Incredibly good fun and fast.
Cost: £29 ($59) from pixelmator.com


Sometimes it’s easier to show than tell. IShowU captures everything on your screen and records commentary audio from both the built in microphone and the system sound of Mac OS X, so any applications which play audio are also recorded.

There’s a number of capture quality settings, including 1080p HD. The real advantage IShowU has over some of the other titles which do a similar task, is that there is no wait time for your clip to output, once you click to finish recording. The quicktime file of your screen-cast is ready immediately.

IShowU makes a number of high quality tutorial and demo podcasts possible, including Bert Monroy’s exceptional Pixel Perfect and Alex Lindsay MacBreak Studio.

In Short: Incredibly stable and useful for all kinds of screen capturing.
Cost: £10 ($20) from shinywhitebox.com


This used to be a free application, but I see from the latest version the author is wanting $40, for a bundle with another application.

I’ll mention it anyway because if you can find a copy of the old (free) version this is one of the most useful tools you can own if, like me, you’re always loosing track of where your photographs are on your hard drive, because you put them all in one folder with their default auto-generated file names, straight off removable memory media.

Renamer4Mac, by dragging and dropping a list of files on it, can remove characters from the beginning and end of a string, insert sequential alpha numeric characters, add the date and include the old file name, without overwriting the file extension (or with if you choose to), so you never need have folders full of esoterically named files, ever again.

Cost: $40 (£20) with a free trial from renamer4mac.com


I mean this in no small way. Quicksilver is the most essential Mac OS X application ever made.

It is way beyond the scope of this article to list every feature of this incredible application, except to say that it is beyond me as to why Apple didn’t introduce their own version of it, into OS X, a long time ago.

If you’re going to be simplistic about it, it’s a program launcher – and you can use it as nothing more than such if that’s all you’re looking for.

Merlin Mann insists, and I’m prone to agree with him, that it is so much more than that – in terms of streamlining your working day for a happier more productive life – it really is that powerful.

Simply Put: You will use it constantly from the moment you install it, while your Windows friends scratch in vain to find anything even half as useful, stable and fast. It is the very definition of easy to use.
Cost: £0 ($0) Free download from MacUpdate.com


I’m old enough to remember, back in the days of dial-up internet, when uploading a few changes to a web page was something you scheduled your tea and coffee making around; it took so long.

These days, with cable broadband, you’re free to make changes to a site on the fly, without worrying about uploading megabytes of files you might never use in the final design, while trying out different ideas.

Transmit makes the process of doing that as easy as dragging and dropping between any two windows on the desktop. The interface is designed to act and feel like any other Finder pane, complete with super-handy “Open With” menus for all the files you keep on your FTP server, for ease of editing in the application associated with it.

For example, I can directly open a JPEG graphic file in Photoshop, edit it and simply by saving the file, Trasmit will upload the changes to the FTP server – immediately making them available on the web page I am editing, so I can try them out in a variety of browsers.

This might not sound like an Earth shattering feat of modern engineering, but the Mac OS X like style with which this rock solid and reasonably priced application carries it out, is so smooth, you’ll soon find yourself recommending it to friends and installing it on all your Macs.

The killer feature of Transmit, to my mind however, is droplets. You can bookmark any location on any server as a droplet icon – which when you drag and drop files onto it, immediately upload to that location via FTP.

For example, I want to upload a gallery of images to a site I already know has the Gallery open source image management software installed on it. I don’t need to open an FTP program, drag and drop the files, edit the HTML, update all the links to that gallery, try it in different browsers and essentially spend an hour doing something which should only take seconds.

With droplets, I drag the files I want to add to a specific location onto the icon, Transmit begins uploading them and when it’s done, all I have to do is update the Gallery cache and it finds the images I’ve uploaded automatically.

Simply Put: It behaves as if your FTP servers are any other location on your Mac.
Cost: £15 ($29.95) from panic.com


11 comments on “A User’s Guide: 10 Essential Mac OS X Applications

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