The Applications You Really Need

by James R. Stoup Nov 18, 2005

A coworker recently started taking an interest in the PowerBook that I bring to work each day. After asking me several questions about it I pointed him in the direction of Apple’s website with instructions to look around and come back if he had any more questions. And come back he did, several times in fact. And each time he came with more questions, questions that I was happy to answer. Finally he informed me that in a little while he was going to purchase a new Mac. As such he had one final question for me, what software did he absolutely need?

And I must admit I had to pause for a second before answering him. I had a most definite idea of what I would absolutely need, but for a less experienced Mac user? Well, that would be a slightly shorter list. So, here are two list, the first being the applications that a beginning Mac user would need and the second being the ones that a more advanced user would need.

The Novice’s Guide to OS X Applications

Required Software - These are applications that every new Mac user needs

1. Microsoft Office Suite
I hate to say it but this is the first and most important software suite that a beginner needs. It offers plenty of functionality, reads many common file types and most importantly it is a beacon of familiarity in a strange new world. Yes, there are alternatives (OpenOffice or iWork comes to mind) but the bottom line is someone new to OS X doesn’t need the extra hassle, so let them stick with MS Office until they are more comfortable using the operating system. Only then should they consider finding a replacement if they feel they need one (which many won’t).

2. iLife
I almost made this one number one but decided that typing documents was more important that making movies. However, buying a Mac and not getting the iLife suite is rather pointless. The most important application (for me) is iTunes, followed by iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD and finally Garage Band. Hands down iTunes is the best software around for playing, organizing or buying music. I have yet to find anything that comes close to it in usability, function and power. Next up is iPhoto, another superb program. Personally I like it better than Google’s Picasa but that is because I have used it more. IMovie and iDVD take a little bit of practice but once you have mastered it you can produce some very cool DVDs with just an afternoon’s effort. As for Garage Band you will either love it (i.e. you have musical talent) or will never use it (like myself) because you don’t play an instrument. Overall this is suite is completely necessary for getting the most out of your Mac.

3. Photoshop/Photoshop Elements
Only one of these excellent products is needed and it depends solely on the users skill level. If they are already adept at using Photoshop then purchasing the Mac version is a must. Adobe has created an entire software line around this program and with good reason. For the money, it is the most powerful and versatile image editing tool around, period. However, if a new user is unfamiliar with Photoshop then he or she should instead invest in Photoshop Elements, the little brother of Photoshop. It doesn’t have as many features but it isn’t nearly as complex. Instead, it offers a very nice balance for the casual user.

4. Quicken
The all purpose financial management tool. If you have a job then chances are you could use Quicken. Whether it be to balance your checkbook or to navigate through your portfolio Quicken is the way to go. However, Quicken isn’t always the most user friendly of programs so to get the most of it I would highly suggest reading through the manual and taking its automatic tour.

Optional Software - Your average user may or may not need this according to their situation

5. iWork
If a new user decides that he or she will be doing some type of desktop publishing then Pages is definitely a program worth taking a look at. Once you get use to the interface you can rapidly create letterheads, flyers, brochures, resumes and the like all with a definitive sense of style. Not every user will need this package but it is still nice to have around.

6. Adium
If you use instant messaging frequently then Adium might be for you. One of the easiest to use IM clients around, Adium is rich with features that make IMing a breeze. However, it doesn’t support iChatAV, so if you want to use your camera for that face to face chatting then you will just have to use Apple’s product. However, for all of your other needs Adium will do nicely.

The PowerUser’s Guide to OS X Applications

Required Software - These are applications that every advanced Mac user needs

1. Productivity Suite
According to your preference StarOffice, OpenOffice, MS Office or AppleWorks (going old school there) will all suffice. Personally, I use Pages or TextEdit for all of my documents, Keynote for my presentations and Excel for spreadsheets. I find Word too cluttered and slow, PowerPoint inferior to Keynote and Entourage useless for my needs. Only Excel finds a place on my dock. I have used OpenOffice before and found it to be just a copy of MS Office. No real new, groundbreaking features just the open source version of Microsoft’s suite. Use it if you like but I was never impressed enough keep it for long.

2. Creativity Suites
I find everyone of the following packages to be extremely useful: Adobe’s CS2, Macromedia’s Studio 8 and Apple’s Final Cut Studio. At the very least Photoshop, Dreamweaver and FinalCut should be considered for purchase. All are extremely strong products geared towards professional development. Since these packages can get quite expensive only buy what you need.

3. OS X Optimizers
Every poweruser likes to tweak his or her system and with Onyx, Cocktail or TinkerTool that process becomes much easier. Each one of these utilities offers ways to modify one’s system to better suit its user. For example I used Cocktail to add up/down arrows both the top and bottom of the scroll bar. OS X will only let you put on set on there instead of two. That is just one of the little modifications you can accomplish with these very easy to use tools. Additionally they can perform system maintenance at the touch of a button helping you to clear out old caches, repair disk permissions, run cleaning scripts and delete log files.

4. FTP Client
I absolutely love Transmit by Panic software. It is simple, easy to use and a nice free version exists (with limited features, the full product is $29). I keep it tucked away in my applications folder knowing that whenever I need to FTP a file it will be there ready to handle any job I throw it. There are many excellent FTP clients out there I just happen to like this one.

Optional Software - Your average power user may or may not need this according to their tastes

1. Multiple Desktops
Desktop Manager can be confusing if you aren’t use to having multiple desktops, however once you become accustomed to using them they can substantially increase your productivity. Anyone who has ever used Unix or Linux before can attest to the usefulness of having an extra desktop or two so don’t let this gem pass you by.

2. Safari Enhancements
Three excellent utilities that help you get the most out of Safari are Saft, Safari Stand, PithHelmet all of which can be found at Pimp My Safari. You might not need everything that each one of these plug-ins offers but that shouldn’t deter you from checking them out. PithHelmet is my favorite as it helps to considerably cut down on the clutter I see from annoying ads.

So, there are my two lists of useful pieces of software that both novice and experienced Mac users can instal to make their lives a little easier and more productive. If you can think of anything I have left out let me know and I will amend my lists.


  • Quicken?  Bah what an over priced piece of junk.  It’s sad how badly the Mac community relies on that.  I run MS Money on my work laptop because of the limited functionality of that fancy paper tape called quicken.

    Trekkie had this to say on Nov 18, 2005 Posts: 6
  • Trekkie,

    Ok, you don’t like Quicken. Do you have an alternative program to suggest for Mac users?

    James R. Stoup had this to say on Nov 18, 2005 Posts: 122
  • Alternative to Quicken for Mac users?

    Quicken fow Windows on Virtual PC.  Yes it’s expensive but what else can you do?  Quicken for Mac is worse than horrible.

    tundraboy had this to say on Nov 18, 2005 Posts: 132
  • I think iWork 06 will expand to totally replace AppleWorks and that you will see enhancements to Pages.  This is needed for the Mactels.  In terms of Word, it is cluttered, but I built my own tool bars so it only has what I want on them - gets rid of a lot of clutter.

    PS Elements 3 is great for people (like me) scanning in old family pics that need a lot of repair work - the Healing Tool has saved me hours.

    iPasteboard is another very cheap app that lets me keep a lot of the stuff I want to keep on a clipboard.

    Some type of data vault to hold information securely is nice.  I use SplashID as it syncs with my PDA (also use Splash Photo).  If you have a PDA then Missing Sync is a good app to have.

    The FUN part of a Mac is finding little apps that you can play with, especially the free apps and shareware.  Apple has a lot on their site and there is an ad free site ( that has 13,800+ OS X apps - everything from free apps to full commercial apps. (Yes, I did paste the link from iPasteboard).

    If you have a huge number of pics and it is overloading iPhoto then a second app for pic management is helpful.  I use Lightbox for taking care of this problem as there is aroiund 6,000 pics in my Mac.  Typeit4Me is a good app for typing faster.  I use 3 key strokes to type something, like 3 “q"s for Australia.  Check Off is another nice one for a To Do list.  Got all these apps from Jeff’s site.

    Personally I thing shareware is the greatest thing going .  You can try something out, pay for it if you want to keep it or Trash it if you don’t.  Playing around with shareware, I’ve found, is one of the greatest ways of seeing what a Mac is about.

    MacKen had this to say on Nov 18, 2005 Posts: 88
  • tundraboy,

    Sorry, but your solution won’t work. I am looking for native apps, no emulation please.

    James R. Stoup had this to say on Nov 18, 2005 Posts: 122
  • MacKen,

    Thanks for the link I am going to check that out shortly.

    James R. Stoup had this to say on Nov 18, 2005 Posts: 122
  • What about Quicksilver for Power Users?

    brainache had this to say on Nov 18, 2005 Posts: 3
  • James,

    Give yourself plenty of time - the site is addictive.

    MacKen had this to say on Nov 18, 2005 Posts: 88
  • Quicken alternative : Have you tried Cashbox?

    shking had this to say on Nov 18, 2005 Posts: 1
  • Must haves for any system:

    1. Quicksilver, from Blacktree.

    2. SubEthaEdit, from Coding Monkeys.

    planetmike had this to say on Nov 18, 2005 Posts: 23
  • Thing is, without talking to people to find out their needs, you just can’t say. It’s unlikely that the bundled software will do everything,  but the needs above it are different for different people.  Some will need office others will not.  Office - at least the alst time I looked - was missing features I needed, had plenty of bloat I didn’t need, and my experience of Word on windows is that it’s a pile of junk.

    My one essential app is Omnigraffle.

    Used this morning, for example, because I wanted to print out two photos and needed the width to be the same for both to fit in a frame.  Couldn’t see how to do this in iPhoto, so I just dragged them to a new OG doc,  put in the exact width and printed one page.  Other people probably would go straight to photoshop, or straight to Pages to do the same thing.  Whatever is right for you.

    I would steer people away from Office.  If it was £50, then sure, get it,  but when it costs more than a Mac Mini,  you want to be sure you need that kind of software.

    Plenty of people get blinkered (“blinkers” = “blinders” to US readers) about what they think other people need.  If people are mainly surfing and mailing and writing letters,  they need Mail, Safari and TextEdit. They don’t need Word.  They don’t need Photoshop.

    Hywel had this to say on Nov 18, 2005 Posts: 51
  • Thank you for this bucket of reason, Hywel.

    Q: “What do I absolutely need?”
    A: “What do you want to do?”

    Once you found out about that you can go on clarifying the status of the given user for said application. A photo pro is not by default a command-line geek or web expert.

    The one thing any person asking you for “new computer advice” should be told is:
    Get an external FireWire-harddrive of at least the size of the built-in HD and clone your system on a regular basis creating a bootable backup. Then show them how to do just that with Disk Tool or Carbon Copy Cloner. I just met a university student the other day who had her laptop stolen from her due to her own fault. She was very sad because of all her private documents & such. It turned out she did not have any backup.

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Nov 18, 2005 Posts: 371
  • Apps:
    Toast Titanium
    BBEdit / TextWranger
    VLC Player

    System enhancements:
    DoubleCommand (remap that useless “enter” key!)

    And yes, even though Quicken on Mac is inferior to the Win version, there’s simply no better alternative on Mac.  Believe me, I’ve looked!

    g5u1 had this to say on Nov 18, 2005 Posts: 9
  • Ah. Yes. Carbon Copy Cloner and a drive for backing up.  Of course. This is a very sensible suggestion.

    I have been pretty lucky in this respect, but I did have one partition containing a lot of work go missing.  I had backed up my boot drive, but not the large drive with FCP files on it.

    I immediately went out and bought a drive big enough to back up the whole lot (twice in fact), I also got DiskWarrior, which thankfully fixed my directory tree.

    Now things are backed up on a fairly regular basis.

    A backup plan should be factored into the cost of the machine.  If you can afford a 20” iMac with no backup drive or a 17” iMac with backup,  get the 17” with backup.

    I wouldn’t have given this advice a year ago, thinking it just happens to other people, but once bitten etc.

    Hywel had this to say on Nov 18, 2005 Posts: 51
  • Quicken absolutely sucks, but there is no serious alternative. Cashbox and the like are good for *very basic* checkbook balancing, but can’t compare when it comes to the advanced stuff like loan amortization, portfolio tracking, and on-line payments.

    MS Money (Windows only) is very nice. It’s better than Quicken for Windows or Mac. If I still had a Windows PC that’s what I would use.

    innate had this to say on Nov 18, 2005 Posts: 12
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