Got a new Mac? Here are a few essential FREE downloads?

A friend of mine has just bought his first Mac. He was an iPhone user so I guess we can put this down to the Halo effect. Anyway, we had a brief exchange on facebook about the essential software he should download, and it got me thinking that this might make a decent post for Rational Geekery. Not to mention saving me writing the whole thing again next time a friend buys their first Mac!


First things first… Growl. It’s amazing that Apple hasn’t just built Growl into the Mac. I couldn’t imagine a Macintosh without it – it just wouldn’t feel like a Mac. It’s an app that displays messages to alert you of changes to programmes you’re running. New emails, IM updates, or that a download is complete. It might sound a bit intrusive (not-to-mention anti-GTD), but the levels of customisation are insane, and you can create a version that suits your needs perfectly.

I shouldn’t have to tell anyone how cool Dropbox is, but if you don’t have at least the free 2GB account, you’re seriously missing out. Superusers even keep their Safari bookmark file in their Dropbox folder, automatically syncing them across multiple machines. Another solution for Safari bookmark management is Xmarks.

As you get used to your Mac you’ll start to understand the power of the Finder and Spotlight. Everything on the Mac is so easy to find quickly. Alfred is a new and very cool programme that supercharges the Spotlight and adds in web functionality. It also negates the need for the mouse in many instances, which is always a good thing. Very interesting and useful.

Caffeine is another essential. You need this programme. It does one thing, it overrides your Mac’s power-management and stops it going to sleep. Use carefully for obvious screen-wrecking reasons.


Development on Perian seems to have gone quiet, but it’s still a useful component to make QuickTime far more compatible with other video formats.

The Mac is blessed with two excellent free video-players. Miro has a beautiful GUI and also makes a good torrent client. I tend to use it instead of iTunes as it’s less stodgy. It really is the dog’s dangly bits and will play almost anything you throw at it. The second open-source player you need is VLC – which you probably already know about as it’s also on Linux and Windows. VLC is several different kinds of awesome and is brilliant for file conversion (see also Handbreak). Some people recommend movist, but it’s not something I use. It might be worth a gander.


If you’re a fan of instant messaging (to be honest, I’m not), you’ll need Adium. Endlessly customisable and, with a variety of plugins, can work with pretty much any IM service β€” including facebook chat.

For most people, the bundled Apple Mail app will serve all your email needs. But for me it’s not enough. Maybe it’s me, but I had all sorts of bother when I swapped my Gmail accounts over to IMAP from POP3. Hundreds of deleted messages would routinely be dumped to my BlackBerry. I was close to giving up on IMAP when I tried Thunderbird 3. Now IMAP works brilliantly. I have email synced across multiple Macs and Linux machines. It’s a revelation. Use the Lightning and Provider extensions for two-way Google calendar syncing.


There are two twitter clients I recommend. Tweetie for Mac (a free ad-supported version is available) is simple and incredibly intuitive. Secondly, if you want more functionality, try YoruFukurou, which is really good.


I’m not sure if, eventually, Skitch will start charging for its image hosting/basic editing service, but until they do, it remains a brilliant free resource with a great native Mac app. You’ll have loads of fun clipping screenshots and making funny doodles on them. πŸ™‚

Another good project that has gone quiet is Seashore. Seashore is a very simple image editing programme, think Photoshop for people who just need the basics. I use Pixlemator and Photoshop CS4 mostly (I haven’t upgraded to Acorn v2.3 yet), but I’m afraid they’re paid apps. If you want the full image-editing experience, there is always Gimp, which is open source and completely free – although you’ll need to tinker a little to get it installed on a Snow Leopard machine.

Come back soon…

I’m going to add to this post over time, and link to it from the front-page. Hopefully it might become a useful reference for new Mac users. If you’re looking for more great Mac apps, check out my recommended software page and my 5 Most Used Apps post. If you have anything you think I should add, drop me an email and I’ll take a look. Laters.