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The A-List of Mac Software
The best Mac apps, tools, and utilities for typical business use based on informed, experienced, hands-on evaluation.

By Scot Finnie

The A-List of Mac Software
Last Updated: April 10, 2011

ProgramMakerCostDescription
Google ChromeGoogleFreeWeb browser
Google Chrome is a fast, stripped down Web browser that uses the Web Kit browser engine (as does Safari). I've been using it since late 2009 within a week of trying I had made it my primary browser. The facts behind that decision are that Chrome loads quickly, is very fast, and is devoid of lots of bloaty features found in most evolved browsers that I rarely if ever use. It also has a key feature that won me over quickly. Chrome does away with separate fields for Web address and Web search. There's a single blank space at the top of the program that can handle both of those functions. So,for example, type "google.com" into this main field and you'll go right to the Google Web site. And when you type "google" into the field, you get Web search results for the term "google." It pulls double duty for both functions. Once you try it, it's a hard feature to give up. I strongly recommend that you give the Chrome Web browser a try.
FirefoxMozillaFreeWeb browser
Best secondary browser for websites that don't load properly in Chrome or Safari.
SafariAppleFreeWeb browser
Apple's Web browser is being deprecated on the A-List. The Safari Web interface is tired and missing basic features. It feels like a 2008 Mac app. Will reconsider if and when Apple does a major upgrade. Not holding my breath. Safari is, of course, installed on my Macs (and iPad 2). But the program doesn't make an appearance on my dock.
Office for Mac Standard 2011MicrosoftList: $279 full/no upgrade pricingoffice software suite
Office for Mac 2011 has been a worthy upgrade to the Office 2008 product. It's less buggy, does away with the kludgey Entourage email client in favor of a new Outlook client that is similar to the popular Windows email client. I made the switch to everything but Outlook immediately. Some of the minor issues I had with Outlook 2011 for Mac are being rectified in Office 2011's first service pack. One downside: Microsoft has done away with upgrade pricing.
Apple MailAppleFree as part of OS Xemail program
Apple Mail is a very good Internet email client that can work after a fashion with Microsoft Exchange. I've been using Apple Mail as my only email program for about a year now, both for work and personal email. I successfully retrained myself to use its UI, but I'm nowhere near as productive with Apple's way of working as I was with the Eudora way. Apple Mail is also a bit quirky. For example, its filters (or rules) are not 100% reliable. (Sometimes they forget to complete. So, for example, a rule will move a message to the mailbox I had in mind but "forget" to mark it as read. For what it's designed to do, Apple Mail is well designed and very easy to use. Like many other Apple Mail users (just check the forums for confirmation), I wish for a major upgrade to the product that would add power and flexibility.
TweetDeckIain DodsworthfreeTwitter UI utility
There's a lot of great Twitter apps out there, but the reason I use TweetDeck is that it lets me create groups of people I follow, which helps me stay current with the most important people I follow even when I can't check into Twitter every 30 minutes or so. TweetDeck also offers several other advantages, including support for multiple Twitter accounts, one-click Retweeting and @replying, and a long list of features. It makes Twitter habitable. When I started using TweetDeck, my enjoyment of the service increased several fold. TweetDeck has its downsides too, and I've begun to look around at alternatives such as Seismic and HootSuite.

To follow me on Twitter: @scotfinnie.
XmarksLastPassfreebookmark synching and search enhancement
Xmarks (formerly Foxmarks) works on Mac and Windows, and it can be used to synch all or part of your bookmarks across multiple machines and browsers. If you're the kind of person who wants your bookmarks to be the same no matter what machine or browser you happen to be using at any given hour on any given day, Xmarks is definitely for you. MobileMe does, among other things, the same bookmarks trick, but only supports Apple's Web browser and it costs $99. Xmarks supports Safari and Firefox on Windows and Mac. It supports Internet Explorer too, but less well (due to the way Microsoft creates Favorites). Xmarks also lets you create a master list of bookmarks on its servers. I've been using this product for a long time and just forgot to add it to the list. Very powerful and useful. Wishlist: Xmarks should get into calendar synching between Windows Calendar and iCal.
FusionVMware$79.99desktop virtualization utility
Powerful tool for adding 32-bit or 64-bit Windows XP or Vista to your Mac. It's fast, reliable, and offers most of the features of Parallels. After several months of testing, Fusion knocked Parallels off the A-List. Reason: I've just run into too many issues with VM corruption and trouble-prone Parallels upgrades. Fusion just works. No stated Windows 7 support at this writing.
VirtualBoxSun Microsystemsfree for personal usedesktop virtualization utility
Well designed, full-featured virtualization tool. Installation of virtual drivers is a little quirky, but the user interface and feature set are surprisingly rich. Not quite as fast as Parallels Desktop or VMware's Fusion. Ideal for casual use. Includes a Windows 7 configuration, which I tested successfully with pre-release versions of Windows 7. If you're only a casual Windows user on the Mac, VirtualBox is the answer.
VirusBarrier X6Intego$50 ($60 for Mac and Windows protection)Antivirus/antimalware utility
If you think the Mac is impervious to a variety of software-based threats nowadays, you are wrong. It's only a matter of time before "the big one" happens on the Mac. I've been running Intego's latest product for quite a while and I'm happy to report that it's a very solid utility that offers what appears to be excellent protectionn (we're really not going to know for sure until the real world starts happening to the Mac). This is the one I'm betting on.
DiskWarriorAlsoft$99.95disk data and directory recovery tool
Best tool available for repairing disk problems and recovering data. IT pros trust this thing, and so do I. If you support multiple Macs, even as an end-user, get this one. It's worth the $100.
Drive GeniusProsoft Engineering$99non-destructive disk-partitioning and disk-repair utility
Best repartitioning tool for the Mac, and very good disk repair tool. Since Leopard, Apple's Disk Utility can do disk partitioning, but I still find Drive Genius indispensable.
SpamSieveC-Command Software (Michael Tsai)$30, free trialantispam utility
It took me *way* too long to test this powerful, Bayesian spam filter. It's an excellent tool that I've paid for and has become my primary defense against spam. I was sure about it after only three days of use. SpamSieve integrates very well with Apple Mail and several other Mac email programs. New Eudora-clone MailForge 2.0x has recently embraced it too. My only quibble with SpamSieve is that I dislike the default keyboard combination that manually sends false negative spams to the Spam folder: Ctrl-Command-S is awkward. This should be configurable within the program (Michael Tsai points out that it's configurable in the Mac's Keyboard System Preference pane. But SpamSieve offers several thoughtful controls and features. It does its job very well. So well, in fact, that I consider my spam problem to be solved. [Dusting off hands.]
AdiumAdium teamFree (donations accepted)instant-messaging client
Best IM client with extra features like built-in logging and tabs. Supports the AIM, ICQ, MobileMe, MSN, Yahoo, Jabber and several other networks. iChat is nice, but once you try Adium, you won't go back.
iChatAppleFree as part of OS Xvideo instant-messaging client
Best secondary IM client, and excellent video IM client. Comes free with Mac OS X.
TextMateMacromates$51 (30-day trial)text and html editor
Best everyday text editor, which through its Bundles feature can take on several different roles. The Bundles UI is powerful and cumbersome. Don't count on help on the UI from Macromates, either. They're not all that concerned about their non-developer user base -- and they have conviction in their own vision for the product. So it will probably stay geeky and cumbersome. Nevertheless, this is the tool I prefer and use day in, day out.
TextWranglerBare Bones SoftwareFreetext editor
The free and less full-featured version of venerable BBEdit is a great, all-around free text editor. The interface takes some getting used to. BBEdit is very powerful, but costs $125.
CodaPanic$99html editor
Closest Mac HTML editor to HomeSite for Windows, which I still consider to be the best HTML editor ever created (though it's effectively dead now). Coda has several amazing features, and is also flawed by what's missing, such as keyboard or toolbar functions for inserting HTML and many other commands! For example, you cannot highlight a word and press Command-B to add HTML strong on/off tags. Virtually every HTML editor, text editor, and word processor lets you do that. There are literally no keyboard commands for common HTML formatting codes.

The saving grace may be that Coda is able to import TextMate Bundles with the free Coda Plug-in Creator. (I couldn't get the TextMate Bundle command I imported to work properly, though.) Via an included plug-in, you'll find ways to highlight and change formatting or add Span and Div tags. Unfortunately, those commands are two levels down under the Plug-Ins menu and they don't offer a way to be invoked by keyboard -- so they're not worth the trouble. Some third-party plug-ins for Coda might also be useful. Coda can also handle AppleScripts, so one way or another there's a way to finish Coda's development work on your own.

Search and replace is powerful, but its "banner" UI is quirky. For example, the Edit > Find drop-down of search and replace operations is bewildering. The options are obtuse. Most of all, though, the Find and Replace fields are way too small. Much of the bad UI around the search and replace feature set was done in the name of avoiding a large dialog that would obscure the open file window. But other products have gotten around that problem more adroitly. The best strategy gives lets you follow these steps: 1. select and copy the replace-with text to the clipboard; 2. select the text you want to find; 3. open the search and replace dialog, where you'll find the currently selected text has automatically populated the search-for field; 4. paste the text from the clipboard into the replace-with field; 5. click dialog option for Replace Once or Replace All. 6. Press OK. The dialog should be resizable and non-modal so that you can push it aside and go select, copy, and paste new text into either field. The assumption that the search and replace dialog size is the big problem that needs solving compromises Coda's functionality in this very important area. It's just an advantage that plainly does not outweigh the lack of true utility of Coda's search and replace facility.

On the flip side, Coda offers excellent in-place preview, split-panes, and integrated FTP-connection to your website. I have not paid the $99 for Panic's product, and I use TextMate for much of my HTML editing. But Coda is the best HTML editor in training for the Mac. Panic has incorporated a couple of the features I've suggested in past, including a file-needs-to-be-saved indicator on each tab and multiple-file search and replace. But I'm not ready to fully embrace Coda until it has obvious HTML editor usability features like "Make Selected Text a Hyperlink" and a full set of keyboard commands. And, clearly, I yearn for a complete search-and-replace makeover. It's getting better, but it's still not ready. Once it's most of the way there, I'll pay the money and strongly recommend it to all. So, it's on the A-List with a caveat. And there's hope, Panic is actively developing Coda and has been releasing updates regularly.
FileZillacopyright by Tim KosseFree (donations accepted)FTP and SFTP client
Extremely fast FTP client with excellent configuration for working with various SSH and Secure FTP protocols and specs. Program is under active development. Multi-platform (Windows and Linux too), so it doesn't have the best native-style support for the Mac environment. But it has replaced all other FTP clients in my consideration. FileZilla is a solid app well deserving your consideration. Note to all those who adore Panic's Transmit: Yes I have tried Transmit; it was the first Mac FTP client I ever used. No, I don't agree that it's better than FileZilla -- which also has the advantage of being $34 less expensive.
Carbon Copy ClonerBombich SoftwareFree (donations accepted)whole-disk backup utility
Best disk-cloning utility for the Mac. UI not quite as good as SuperDuper! but functionality and support is much better. The Bombich Software Forums has answers should you ever run into trouble. This is the one I use and the one I trust. I wish Bombich had not adopted the Time Machine format, and the fact that you can no longer boot from a full backup has me looking around at alternatives.
RSSOwlRSSOwl development teamFree (donations accepted)RSS reader
Best RSS reader I've found for the Mac so far. There's a major new release in the offing. One downside, this multi-platform product may not suppor the Mac quite as well as it should. But it works the way I like to work with RSS.
AppZapperAustin Sarner and Brian Ball$12.95application-uninstall utility
Sure, you can just delete the program file on the Mac, but a lot of stuff gets left behind when you do that. If you're uninstalling a beta or you're about to install a newer version of a program, removing it fully (even on the Mac) is a better plan. AppZapper makes this easy. It's also great when you want to remove multiple apps quickly. And it handles Preference Panes, Widgets, and Plugins too. Snow Leopard update: There's a new 2.0.1 version for that removes the popular "Genie" feature, which searched for all installed apps and let you click to remove multiple apps at once. Replacing Genie is a new functionality that opens a folder containing icons for all apps on your system, no matter where they are. It finds apps, widgets, preference panes and plug-ins and lets you filter by these add-on types. It works fine. The only drawback is the UI for selecting multiple items is kludgey.
SnapNDrag and SnapNDrag ProYellow Mug SoftwareFree or $4.95 Pro version with a few extra featuresscreen-capture program
Yellow Mug Software designs applications with a fairly rich feature set and very simple interfaces. You'll be surprised by how much SnapNDrag does (it's deeper than it looks). There are screen-capture programs for the Mac that cost a lot and do a little, but this one does a lot for very little. Yellow Mug does superb UI design. I've paid for both SnapNDrag Pro and Yellow Mug's EasyCrop too, and I use both regularly. EasyCrop is great too.
Keyboard MaestroStairways SoftwareFree to try, $36macro program
Keyboard Maestro recently pushed DoubleCommand from the A-List. It's a powerful keyboard macro program designed to automate a wide variety of functions. It can change what the keys do on your Mac, launch multiple applications, insert any custom text you'd like or paste from its multiple clipboard history. The utility offers the potential of a significant personal productivity boost in the hands of more advanced users who learn how to take advantage of it. And it's pretty easy to use. Definitely worth a look. I use it to transform the backslash key into a Delete-Forward button. (Control + \ inserts a backslash.) Can be configured to load and run automatically and invisibly on system start up. Is *not* a kernel extension.
UnisonPanic15-day trial, $25 thereafterchecks whether bookmarks link to a live site
Although a little quirky here and there, Unison is a very powerful and efficient usenet reader. Since leaving Outlook Express behind under Windows in 2006, I've tried many Mac usenet newsreaders and Unison is the only one I like. A relatively recent major upgrade significantly improved Unison.
iStat menusiSlayerFree (donations accepted)Mac-hardware-monitoring utility
In danger of falling off the list if I can find something simpler to replace it. I began running iStat menus when my MacBook Air starting running hot. (It eventually had to be sent to Apple to have the cooling fan replaced.) This utility gives you a read out of current temperature of several internal areas of your Mac, including CPU, hard drive, enclosure bottom, heat sink, and power supply. It also tells you how fast your fan or fans are turning. IStat also watches other health aspects of your CPU, memory, drive, and network. And it lets you customize the date display, showing today's date, not just day of the week. The read-outs appear on the right side of the Mac menu bar, and they can be turned on and off selectively using the iStat menus Preference Pane. It's a nifty little program that I recommend highly. Program maker iSlayer also offers several other programs, including iStat Pro, a similar program with more advanced read-outs in widget form. Update: New versions of iStat menus are no longer free. I haven't paid.
OnyXTitanium SoftwareFree (donations accepted)OS X system-tweaking utility
OnyX is a useful system maintenance and user-interface tweaking utility. The product gives you a useful control center for a variety of standard disk maintenance tasks, log and cache dumping, and myriad UI adjustments. A good utility to have. Not the last word in user-interface tweaking, but probably the best first word.
Mac PilotKoingo Software$19.95, 15-day trialOS X system-tweaking utility
Warning: This is the most powerful OS X system-tweaking utility, but if you're using the trial version, changes you make are not reversible (unless you know how to use Terminal) after 15 days. I used to recommend against Mac Pilot because it seemed to me Koingo tried to ensnare you. The trial period wasn't stated obviously. So after 15 days, the unsuspecting might have to pay up or become a lot more educated on *nix commands, the Mac Terminal utility, and how to directly tweak the OS X interface in order to reverse tweaks you were just trying out. Now the 15-day trial period is clearly labeled on the product page. So, I'm placing the product on the A-List. It really does do more than any other OS X UI-adjustment utility I've tried, including OnyX. I think a better approach for Koingo might have been to offer a freeware version and charge the $19.95 to unlock the extra features. Caveats aside, exploring this one is fun because it really does offer more arcane tweaks and settings. Check it out, but I recommend going slowly with any changes you make -- and keep a record of them.
Flip4MacTelestreamFree with limitations (see product page)Enables WMV playback in QuickTime
Does the job of letting WMV movie files playback in QuickTime (which must be installed on your Mac). To export WMV movies, you must upgrade to the $29 WMV Player Pro version.
PerianPerian ProjectFree (donations accepted)QuickTime component that adds native support for many popular video formats
Adds support for AVI, DIVX, FLV, MKV, GVI, VP6, and VFW and many other video and audio formats.
SafariBookmarkCheckerCoriolis TechnologiesFreechecks whether bookmarks link to a live site
According to Coriolis, SafariBookmarkChecker lets you check the validity of your Safari Bookmarks fast. It can check 1,000 bookmarks in less than 2 minutes.
iCalAppleFree as part of OS Xcalendaring tool
This simple but effective calendar can be shared via MobileMe and other means among family members or small workgroups. I'm using it at work right now, and its scheduling features work pretty well when paired with Exchange. It's a highly useful calendaring tool that is integrated with many aspects of the Mac environment.
iPhotoAppleFree as part of OS Xphoto-library and management tool
Easy to use photo library that works with most digital cameras and has sound basic features.
iTunesAppleFree as part of OS Xmusic-library tool
Apple's iTunes is a full-featured music library and iPod-management application that has evolved significantly over the last few years. The iTunes online store is less useful to me, since I would prefer to buy CDs and rip them into my library than to purchase them purely electronically. Still, I've been an iTunes user since before I was a Mac user. It's an excellent program with a rich feature set.
PreviewAppleFree as part of OS XPDF and image viewer
Apple's built-in PDF and image viewer isn't quite as powerful for PDFs as Adobe's Reader or Acrobat, but it's light-weight and handles 90% of what most people need from a PDF viewer. I don't even have an Adobe PDF-reader installed.
Time MachineAppleFree as part of OS Xautomatic whole drive back-up utility
Time Machine is Apple's built-in software for making whole-drive backups of your Mac to an external drive or Apple's Time Capsule hardware. The backups run in background and automatically take backups on a preset schedule, running every hour. While it is possible to change this schedule using Terminal, it would be better if Apple expose some UI for changing the schedule. Hourly incremental backups are overkill in my opinion. One great advantage of Time Machine is that you can navigate into any specific backup and grab files from it by navigating Finder for that backup. Very powerful and easy to use. Time Machine is a little less intuitive when you have to recover your entire drive from it, but it's serviceable. All in all, it's the best automatic backup product I've ever used. There is room for improvement, but if you own a Mac, you should use it. Now.

When you own Time Capsule as I do, Time Machine works extremely well with it. But one thing I haven't had time to figure out is why Time Machine stores its backups in a different, and less navigable, format on Time Capsule than it does on a USB or FireWire drive.
MobileMeAppleIndividual: $99 a year / Family: $149 a yearMac-to-Mac synching service with online storage
The only serious drawback of MobileMe (and predecessor .Mac) is its price. But for anyone who has multiple Macs or a family of Mac users, the ability to share calendars, bookmarks, contacts, email and other data with multiple Macs and iPhones. Also works with some Windows applications. MobileMe offers extremely useful functionality, but it's expensive. I am a subscriber.


Apps Scheduled for Evaluation

TechTool Pro by Micromat (Macintosh diagnosis and repair)

SuperDuper! by Shirt Pocket Software (whole-disk backup)


Apps That Don't Make the List

Entourage 2008 (or 2004) by Microsoft (email package part of Office 2008 for Mac; not recommended.)

Eudora by Qualcomm (email package used by the author but not recommended -- but it works reliably under Snow Leopard!)

Eudora 8.0 by Mozilla (Eudora lookalike email package based on Thunderbird -- looks are deceiving, it works like Thunderbird too)

Thunderbird by Mozilla (email package, every time I try it I find something else wrong with it.)

DoubleCommand by Michael Baltaks. (This free keyboard-customizing kernel extension (kext) recently fell off the A-List because it causes Mac instability and is not actively being tested and refined by its owner. I'm using Keyboard Maestro instead.)

BetterZip by MacItBetter/Robert Rezabek (this zip-compression utility fell off the list because I wasn't using it and it sometimes got in the way).

MailForge by Infinity Data Systems (Eudora-imitating email program -- just nowhere near to Eudora's full feature set. Apple Mail is better, for now.)

Lotus Notes by IBM (corporate data/apps/email package)

Parallels Desktop (virtualization utility that lacks reliability and whose upgrades are fraught with issues)

Quicksilver by Blacktree (program/folder/data lauch tool)

Butler by Many Tricks (program/folder/data launch tool)

Path Finder by Cocoatech (file-management enhancement)

Skitch by Plasq (screen-capture program and Web service)

Vine Server (OSXvnc) by jonathanosx and sensetalkdoug (remote-access server)

Remote Desktop Client by Microsoft (Mac to Windows remote access)

Apple Remote Desktop by Apple (Mac-to-Mac remote desktop solution)

Camino by Mozilla's Camino Project (Gecko-based browser)

Shirra by Shiira Project (WebKit browser overlay)

iPartition by Coriolis Systems (non-destructive disk partitioning utility)

skEdit by Sean Kelly (html and text editor)

Spamnix for Eudora by Spamnix Software (anti-spam utility, no longer being developed)

Windows Media Player 9 for Mac OS X by Microsoft (Windows Media player, will not be updated any further)

Yummy FTP by Yummy Software (FTP client)

CuteFTP Mac Pro by GlobalScape (FTP client)

Yank by Matterform Media (app uninstaller)

Adobe Reader (PDF reader)

Growl by the Growl Development Team (notifications framework/manager)

PageSpinner by Optima System (HTML Editor)

LaunchBar by Objective Development (program/folder/data launch tool)

NetNewsWire by NewsGator (RSS Reader)

NewsFire by David Watanabe (RSS Reader)

OmniWeb by Omni Group (WebKit-based Web browser)

Opera by Opera Software (browser)

Saft by Hao Li (Safari plug-in)

Transmit by Panic (FTP client - this is a solid product that doesn't have the fullness of features or performance of FileZilla, which is distributed freely)

ClamXav by Mark Allan (virus scanner)

Do you have something you want to tell me about a Mac application? Drop me a line.

The A-List Explained
The A-List of Mac Software is a hand-picked list of the best Mac apps chosen by an experienced software reviewer who switched from Windows to the Mac in 2006. The author, a long-time Windows reviewer, used Macs extensively from 1987-91 and from 1994-1996. He began his re-entry into the Mac world by buying a Mac mini in early 2005.

The A-List of Mac Software is a work in progress and is by no means complete. New programs are added as they're identified and others may fall off the list as a result. Applications are evaluated primarily on their efficacy for typical usage on end-user Macs in business settings or for mixed business/personal applications. Consumer-oriented products — while they may appear on the list — are not the current focus of A-List research.

Following the A-List is a list of products currently scheduled for evaluation and possible induction to the A-List. Products may be submitted by anyone for A-List consideration via email. Please describe what you like about software you submit.

The A-List of Mac Software is an original work of Scot's Newsletter. It has also appeared in other forms at Computerworld, and was used by permission there. Copies of this document are not permitted without the written permission of Scot Finnie.