The 46 Mac Apps I Actually Use and Why

Originally published at: The 46 Mac Apps I Actually Use and Why - TidBITS

What third-party apps would you install on a clean Mac to restore your preferred working environment? Adam Engst recently had the opportunity to learn just what apps he really uses—here’s the list.


Could you also mention the browser plugins/add-ons you must have? In many cases, they are just as important as standalone apps.

The Firefox add-ons I always use are:

  • Adblock Plus. With several different filter subscriptions.
  • GMail Checker Simple. A toolbar icon to let me know when there is unread mail in my GMail box. Useful since I normally use the web interface and don’t keep a mail app running.
  • Markdown Viewer. Since I often edit Markdown documents, this is a convenient way to render them without using a formal Markdown-HTML converter app or uploading the file to a server (like GitHub).
  • Navigate Up WE. Puts an up-arrow button on the toolbar. Clicking it removes the last term from the current URL, letting you navigate “up” the page hierarchy of many web site.
  • Want My RSS. Puts back the RSS icon in the address bar, after Firefox removed it. Lets you see available feeds for the current page and can add a feed to your preferred RSS reader app/site.

And the Mac OS X Jaguar Pinstripe classic theme. Beause I’ve always loved this look.

And for those who might care, here are the apps that I use all the time. In no particular order:

  • Firefox. It’s been my favorite for decades, going all the way back to the first releases of Netscape.
  • Microsoft Office 365. I use Excel daily and Word at least a few times a month. I could use an open source suite, but then I’d have to learn a whole new paradigm. Since it’s not too expensive, I stick with it. (I do have LibreOffice installed, but I rarely use it. I also have Apple’s iWork suite installed, but I never use it).
  • Adobe Photoshop Elements. My go-to picture editor.
  • FileMaker Pro. My favorite database, which I continue to pay for despite the high price.
  • SilverFast SE. My favorite scanner software
  • MacTracker. The best resource for quickly looking up tech specs on Apple products.
  • Carbon Copy Cloner. The backup program I started using after the people at Retrospect ticked me off with certain brain-dead pricing/licensing policies.
  • VirtualBox. My way of running Linux VMs on my Mac.
  • XQuartz. An X11 GUI package, which I use when I want to run a GUI app from one of my Linux systems (which typically operate as headless systems).
  • Audacity. I don’t use it much, but it’s an awesome sound editor. It’s also how I capture analog audio (via a USB interface) when ripping music from cassettes and vinyl.
  • Thunderbird. Although I usually read mail via the servers’ web interfaces, when I want to use an app, I prefer Thunderbird. Mostly for historic reasons - my first GUI-based e-mail app was Netscape Communicator.
  • VLC. What I use for playing any video file Apple’s QuickTime Player can’t view.
  • XCode. I don’t compile a lot of code on my Mac, but when I do, I use Apple’s free XCode suite. Especially the command-line tools, which work great with open source projects.

I also used Napkin a lot and miss it.

I’ve been making a concerted effort to get rid of apps I don’t use. I’m doing this over the course of a year, as I can be hasty. But these are the ones I use at least weekly, if not daily.

  • I have not included Apple apps like Mail, Music, Notes, Numbers, Pages, Photos, Safari, TextEdit, all of which I use constantly.

AHD5 This is the complete American Heritage Dictionary; I dearly love it. Audio, charts, Proto Indo-European roots (By Cal Watkins), usage notes, etymologies.
BBedit I use it for a lot of writing, most HTML and CSS, local HTML notes for research, teaching, reading notes, some Apple Script drafts, some basic Perl, grep.
Bear Drafting blog posts, and bits of other kinds of writing
Brother Print and Scan Lovely B & W laser printer that hates my Mac, but this lets me print PDFs
Calibre Managing and backup of ebooks, going back tp Palm Pilot books
DEVONThink Scholary/research .pdfs. research data
DropBox File transportation, some apps,
EagleFiler Personal data
Fetch SFTP
Mela Recipes
NetNewswire Reading periodicals, Websites with RSS
PDF Expert Annotation and .pdf wrangling beyond Preview
Scrivener Long form writing
SetApp for Bartender, CleanMyMac, Downie, CleanShotX and when I need an app for a specific but not daily occurrence
TextExpander Lots of HTML, CSS, bibliographic citations, frequent user support help snippets,
VueScan Better than the Canon software

Edited to add: A member asked me to exo\plain how/why I use them.


Adding to the list…

(Still running Mojave so some might not run under Ventura)

I also use MS365, Filemaker & Firefox regularly.

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I couldn’t live without :

Default Folder

And yes, Office 365 & the Affinity Suite, especially Publisher.

Like Adam, I’ve just rebuilt an M1 Air from scratch — and I’m finding people’s preferences here fascinating! Thank you Adam!

I use my iPad more than my MacBook Pro (2011 or 2012?), running High Sierra… But when i do, I use these Apps:
Clean My Mac
MS Word (2011)

Adam mentioned Napkin. I have never heard of this App, but it sounds like something I would use. I take screen shots all the time and would love to “join” them into 1 picture/PDF. Is napkin still available in the App Store/

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First things I install are

Default Folder
1Password v7
Adobe Creative Cloud
iStat Menus
Topaz image stuff

Frankly…although I have lots of other apps installed…outside of apps installed with macOS that’s really about all I use consistently…everything else is ‘eh, I need that this month’.

OK, I may be dense here. I keep scrolling and I cannot discover what the teased browser replacement is. What am I missing?


my MustHave list is shorter:

Aquamacs, Firefox, Graphic Converter, Vuescan, Default Folder, Carbon Copy Cloner, A Better Finder Rename, Big Mean Folder Machine (the last two I use to handle photos when I go on vacation), OpenVPN, Handbrake OnePassword used to be on that list (for the last couple of years, it’s not as old as the others), but I’m stuck on 7 since I won’t go to their cloud service.

And those are mostly things I’ve used since the early OS X days (and before, for some of them!)

There are other things that I install, but I can’t say I use regularly (OmniGraffle, for one, because I never really learned how to use it well. Also the Affinity suite, same story there.)

Given my chronic problems with, I’m tempted to do the clean install. There’s a lot of cruft on this machine from several machines worth of “migration”.

Possibly Arc

It’s very different, has some intriguing features, but is not great if you’re visually disabled. I checked it out earlier in the beta, at which point it seemed almost hostile, speaking as a user who has trouble seeing.

I decided to try again in a year or so.

It’s interesting to me how many of your app choices are my second-choice apps! There’s much overlap (1Password, BBEdit, PDF Expert, TextExpander, VueScan), but I use Notebooks for everything that you use Bear, DEVONThink, Scrivener, and EagleFiler (all of which are great!) for, ReadKit instead of NetNewsWire, ForkLift instead of Fetch (which I used in the ’90s).

But I’m really replying to ask about AHDEL 5. I purchased it some years back for my iPad, but it now refuses to acknowledge that I’ve paid for it — and I can’t get any useful reply from the developer. I had no idea there was a Mac version — could you provide a link?

The dictionary itself is of course the best since Webster’s New International (now 110 years old). And Calvert Watkins’ PIE appendices are pure gold. I took several seminars with him at Harvard in the ’80s, and even had dinner with him once — he was a brilliant man, and every bit as friendly and approachable as brilliant.

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Some apps, like Fetch and NetNewsWire, I’ve used for so long that I have workflows associated with them. I haven’t spent much time checking checking out alternatives for things I’ve used for years. I use Bear, because it works (and the HTML export is fairly clean), and haven’t really looked at alternatives. DevonThink and EagleFiler are “new” to me as of January of this year. My research collection of .pdf files was becoming too cumbersome for relying on the Finder, and there was a really good Take Control book about DevonThink. I also wanted to keep personal and work data separated, more completely than using a separate database.

I started using the AHD digitally under OS 9. They’ve not been good about upgrade policies, at all. I bought a new license for the 5th edition, via the App store.

I am a Cal Watkins fan. He arrived at UCLA just as I was leaving,


I’m a fan of Napkin too. I was shocked to read it being written about in the near past-tense. The copyright statement on the version (1.5.3) I’m running says “2023” and it continues to work well for me. Now I have nothing but anxiety about it. Lol.

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The top of my list of apps are:
Nisus Writer Pro: by far my favorite word processor
Firefox: almost all of my browsing
Graphic Converter: indispensable in handling art and photos
Zoom: much better than Google or MS Teams
Quicken: Business and personal finance : A speech-to-text web app that turns Zooms or recorded interviews into text.
VueScan: not a favorite, but the only one I can use with my Epson Perfection V330 Photo scanner. (EpsonScan 2 no longer works with Monterey)
Nikon’s photo apps
Microsoft Office (a must for a professional writer because most publishers demand it)
Adobe Acrobat Reader (because Preview can’t do everything I need)

OK, I’ve been meaning to record all this for a while now, so this thread is a welcome excuse. This list represents about 33% of the apps on my 2021 MacBook Pro (M1 Max) — honestly!; I often use another 33%; the remaining third consists mostly of legacy apps I keep around for opening old files, and new apps I’m trying out. Here goes…

  • 1Password (but I may not renew, due to their persistent refusal to support the Orion web browser): storing my passwords since at least 2013.
  • Affinity Photo, Publisher, and especially Designer: for working with and, ultimately, publishing a book about Tolkien’s draft maps for The Lord of the Rings.
  • AirFoil by Rogue Amoeba: AirPlaying to and from various devices over the last 10 or 15 years (but I may be phasing this out, to be replaced by Roon, which I’ve been experimenting with for the past month or so and like very much!).
  • Amadeus Pro: for editing audio files, I find this much more intuitive than any other app I’ve tried; I’ve happily used it since the ’00s, but it’s beginning to need a refresh of its UI.
  • AnyList: We’ve used this, mostly on our iDevices but also our Macs, for grocery-list management.
  • Arq: Not Arc the new web browser — which I find absolutely confounding! — but Arq the backup software; I’ve used this for a good decade now to backup my Mac, originally to Amazon AWS but now to Wasabi.
  • Bartender: Even with Bartender I have too many things in my Menu bar; without it, I’d be complete toast!
  • BBEdit: I’ve been using this literally since 1994 for all text editing, whether for local text files or for PHP, HTML, CSS, or even COBOL (OK, so, no COBOL since about 2004!); BBEdit has played a big part in the Tolkien Art Index, Tolkienists, and Anduin™.
  • BusyCal: Our macOS calendar app of choice since Now Up-to-Date gave up the ghost.
  • BusyContacts: Our macOS contacts app of choice since Now Contacts gave up the ghost.
  • Carbon Copy Cloner: Four or five years ago there was some issue that made me switch from the equally excellent SuperDuper!; I’ve long since forgotten what it was, but I’m equally happy with CCC…
  • Choosy: I’ve used this for decades now, I think, to override my default browser (currently Orion) for the few sites where I’d prefer to use a different browser; I can go a year or two without changing any settings — it just works!
  • ChronoSync: Though it’s capable of so much more, I use it exclusively for cloning subdirectories of ~/Library/CloudStorage/ into other folders so that they can be backed up properly by CCC and Arq; Econ Technologies should be commended for their very generous upgrade policy: buy the app, and all upgrades are free, forever.
  • Cloudflare WARP ( We live in the thules, so our only reasonable option for high-speed internet is StarLink, whose implementation of IPv6 (or maybe whose IPv4 hacks) causes problems with quite a few web services; WARP works around most of these very effectively.
  • Default Folder X: When St. Clair made this available for OS X in 2001 or so, I knew I could finally make the jump from Mac OS 9; to this day, I find Macs without Default Folder almost unusable.
  • Dictionary: I actually really like Apple’s stock Dictionary app; I’ve adjusted the list of dictionaries it uses and have added Webster’s “New” International dictionary (1913); now, if only I could find a way to add the American Heritage dictionary and Cal Watkins’ dictionary of Proto-Indo-European Roots!
  • EasyFind: Devon’s simple but robust file finder that doesn’t use Spotlight; Spotlight’s improved a lot since Tiger, but sometimes it’s more effective to use brute force! See also Find Any File
  • Emailchemy: OK, I don’t use this often — but it’s really helped me over the years bringing ancient Claris Emailer, Apple PowerMail, and Eudora messages into my megalithic email-since-the-dawn-of-time trove at Fastmail
  • Fastmate: Sometimes I want the speed and ease of Fastmail’s default interface; when I do, Joe Lekstrom’s excellent little app is what I turn to.
  • FileMaker Pro: It’s Claris now; before that, it was Apple; before that, it was Claris; before that, Nashoba Systems of Concord, Mass. I first bought it as a Nashoba product when I lived in Concord in the early ’80s; I no longer do any active development work in FileMaker, but both the Tolkien Art Index and LR Citations are (currently) static pages exported from FMP databases.
  • Find Any File: Thomas Templemann’s app and EasyFind are pretty similar, but often one will find a well-hidden file that eludes the other.
  • Find Empty Folders: Sometimes you just want to find empty folders (or folders that are otherwise empty but do contain a .DS_Store file); Thomas Templemann again to the rescue!
  • Flux: With ambient-light-sensitive displays, True Tone, Night Shift, and “dark mode,” you’d think Flux would be unnecessary — but somehow it still manages to improve life.
  • ForkLift: Like others here, my first FTP app was Fetch (unless it was Anarchie, the FTP app Peter N. Lewis made before Keyboard Maestro!), but for quite a while it hadn’t made the jump to OS X; I used Panic’s Transit Transmit for a while, but Forklift has really “clicked” for me.
  • GraphicConverter: I’ve been using this ever since I first needed to convert a .jpeg file into a .gif (which we pronounced with a hard “g” back then!), probably in 1994; nothing else will do!
  • Hazel: An indispensable glue for so many workflows!
  • HoudahSpot: Sometimes Spotlight is your friend, but Apple’s interfaces into it just don’t cut it; I love Pierre Bernard’s app — and, amazingly, he seems to be able to improve it year by year.
  • ImageOptim: The easiest image compression app I’ve found; I love the “lossless” options, which will frequently save 50% – 60%.
  • iMazing: Dead simple set-it-and-forget-it local backups for your iPhones and iPads! That is, until Apple broke it with iOS 16.1. Grrr!
  • Jump Desktop: This was already very good VNC/RDP screen-sharing software, but then they introduced Fluid connections a few years ago — fast, flexible, easy, and free!
  • Kaleidoscope: The high price kept me from buying this for many years, but I finally caved a few months ago. Boy, what I’d been missing! Excellent for diffs of both text files and images — or folders full of text files or images.
  • Keyboard Maestro: Another indispensable glue for workflows!
  • Keynote: So much better than PowerPoint!
  • Mactracker: Listing every little bit of available information about basically every Apple product from the Apple I right on up to this year’s items.
  • MacUpdater: I used to be pretty old-school with upgrades & updates: shut the Mac down, boot it, clone its hard drive, go to each app and update it if an update was available, make another clone, shut it down, reboot it. Now I use CCC to make incremental backups every hour and let MacUpdater scan and update things automatically. This saves so much time!
  • MailMate: Every so often I survey the other options out there — and I run, screaming, back to MailMate…
  • Marked: Brett Terpstra’s one-trick pony for previewing Markdown documents. I use it alongside BBEdit to see a beautiful rendering of whatever I’m working on.
  • Name Mangler: There are a lot of utilities available for bulk-renaming of files, but this has been my longstanding favorite — very flexible and powerful, and fairly intuitive.
  • Notebooks: I’d used this a bit back around 2017, but it never quite “took.” I gave it another look this last autumn, and it immediately replaced Bear, Craft, KeepIt, and DEVONthink for me, as well as a bunch of other note-taking apps I’d been auditioning (NotePlan was the best of them, but also Agenda, Taio, Obsidian, Notion, Evernote, and others). Alfons Schmid is a very talented and engaged developer, and he fixed several bugs and added a couple of new features I requested within just a couple of weeks. I’ll be sticking with Notebooks for a long time.
  • Orion: My favorite web browser; I have it syncing bookmarks and lists of open tabs between my Mac, iPad, and iPhone. Seems to take the best of Safari and the best of Chrome and then adds Firefox extension capability on top of it all.
  • PCalc: I’ve been using James Thomson’s app since he first published it in 1992. Can’t be beat!
  • PDF Expert: I don’t love any PDF app that I’ve found, but this one most closely matches my needs for features, aesthetics, and price.
  • QLMarkdown: Easy QuickLook for Markdown; fully compatible with Apple’s stringent requirements; amazing array of choices and preferences; free! By the author of Syntax Highlight.
  • RayCast: I’ve been a loyal LaunchBar user since the original OS X Public Beta, but they don’t even yet have a setting for it to auto-switch from a light theme to a dark theme when your system changes — and, tbh, there haven’t been any substantive updates in a number of years. RayCast is taking a little getting used to, but it’s really full-featured and I think LaunchBar will be leaving my system soon. Update re LaunchBar: I’ve been waiting for this feature for years; this just appeared on TidBITS literally 3 hours after I posted about this here!
  • ReadKit: This is a not-very-well-known RSS reader; it’s as simple and straightforward as NetNewsWire, but I find it slightly better behaved and prettier, besides. I use it constantly on my iPad, but it’s on my Mac, too, for reference.
  • Rewind: I’ve been using this screen-recording and indexing app for a few months now, and it’s saved me a lot of work twice — both times, I’d been filling in web forms with a lot of text without remembering to write the text first in BBEdit, and the web form timed out on me and lost all my text. Rewind had recorded it, and I was able to copy and paste it into a newly loaded form.
  • SilentKnight: Howard Oakley’s app which does for system and security updates what Macupdater does for apps. Simple, clean, easy.
  • SoundSource: If you’re trying to get audio from one place to another and their AirFoil app isn’t quite right, Rogue Amoeba’s SoundSource almost certainly is.
  • StopTheMadness: Fantastic Safari/Chrome/Firefox extension to restore proper behavior to web sites that are intentionally broken.
  • Syntax Highlight: Easy syntax highlighting for QuickLook; fully compatible with Apple’s stringent requirements; amazing array of choices and preferences; free! By the author of QLMarkdown.
  • Tailscale: I’m using this tool more and more for accessing my various devices “locally” from anywhere in the world. It also lets Roon (see above) work properly on remote devices even when the server is connected to the internet via a hacky StarLink connection.
  • TinkerTool & TinkerTool System: Though often all you need to do to get your system to do what you want can be done via the command-line, in my case that often means needing to trust things that people have posted in obscure corners of the internet. Most of these things can be done by one TinkerTool or the other — probably more easily, and certainly in a more tested and controlled manner.
  • VueScan: Horrendously ugly, but hands-down the best scanning software on the planet. I first used it in 1997 to eek another couple of years of use out of an old Epson scanner (their own software wouldn’t work on the brand-new Mac OS 8), and I still use it for all scanning. Its interface hasn’t improved even by a pixel in all that time, but it’s flexible and powerful and Hamrick is resolute in his aim to support all scanners forever.
  • Warp: Not to be confused with Cloudflare WARP, this is a new terminal emulator. I think it may replace iTerm for me, but I’ve only been using it for a couple of weeks.
  • WiFi Explorer Pro and WiFi Signal: Indispensable for working out optimal placement and channel selection for WiFi access points / base stations.
  • xScope: Like Kaleidoscope, its high price had kept me away for a while, but I’ve been using it for a couple of weeks now and have found it to be really useful for design and layout work — especially when I want to know how that screen I’m developing on a 5K LG monitor with Retina on macOS is going to look on a non-Retina Windows system on a Dell HD monitor…
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The suspense! When will he reveal it?

(The short answer is when I finish writing, hopefully next week.)


Difficult to tackle this…but some are easy to identify. Some hook into each other, some do not.

DEVONthink - truly my off board brain. Research, company stuff, legal, family docs, teaching, a database for each aspect of my life.

Agenda - the best notes app, if DT is an archive, Agenda is my workspace. Indispensable at this point, the hooks to my calendar are great, it is so smartly made, it’s both useful and a pleasure.

BusyCal - the engine of my week, I love how configurable it is.

Hazel, Keyboard Maestro, Automator, Script Editor, Raycast - the glue that holds my mac together.

Reminders and Due - I need help here, Reminders for the one-offs, Due for the repeats.

Mailmate - I loved Mailsmith and Mailmate feels like its heir. The most productive email client.

iWork - I use all three, they’re all great. I prefer Numbers to Excel, yep. Keynote is extraordinary of course, I use Pages for everyday short word-processing.

Nisus Writer Pro - used only for long documents or misbehaving Word docs, but I do enjoy greatly.

Bike and Folding Text - two outliners from one developer, the ever inventive Jesse Grosjean. I only occasionally need a full outliner application but I enjoy using these.

Capture One Pro - I own every image editing tool known to humanity, this is the best overall, sadly let down by a new licensing model which has sharply divided users.

Final Cut Pro and ScreenFlow - I own nearly all the video editors too, these two are my favourites.

Handbrake and IINA - more useful than Compressor and QuickTime Player.

Notion - a great flexible tool which has a bazillion features I only use a fraction of. I use this to build webpages with tutorials and recorded lectures for my students, very flexible and simple, I can manage the flow, restrict access and monitor engagement, free for education.

Sketch - a UI/UX design tool which I find useful for mocking up various designs.

Photoshop, Pixelmator Pro, Affinity Photo - I used the first since v1, in my bones at this point, but I make a point of using the others, to point my students there as well as wean myself off.

Zoom - too useful to not have now it seems.

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I made an inventory list of apps I need to install so that it is easy for me to upgrade to new machines (not that I do it often):

Utilities and etc.

  • Alfred - use it 20+ times a day
  • Bartender - makes the menu bar tidy
  • DropZone 4 - a nifty menu bar app that helps with app installation, holding files temporarily, zip files, convert images etc.
  • Amphetamine - prevents the Mac from going to sleep during long meetings, when the lid is closed, etc.
  • Magnet - easy to organise windows with keyboard shortcuts
  • BetterTouchTool - no more Touch Bar, but still useful for trackpad and mouse gestures
  • KeyboardCleanTool - temporarily locks the keyboard while I wipe it down with alcohol swab
  • iStat Menus - ah, the good old Intel days - but it is still useful on Apple Silicon Macs as I use it to monitor CPU/GPU and RAM utilisation during extended calculations
  • Homebrew + the formulae I need
  • OhMyZSH - many useful plugins and themes - some restraints are necessary though
  • TripMode - great when using mobile hotspots (e.g. when traveling)
  • ProtonMail/ProtonVPN
  • Carbon Copy Cloner - so much faster and more usable than Time Machine
  • Pixelmator Pro
  • Photos Workbench



  • DEVONThink - I was initially skeptical of it, but it has since become indispensable to organising information and my documents - and being a bit of secret weapon during open-book exams!
  • Fantastical
  • Todoist - tried to go back to Reminders, but I missed the natural language quick add and shortcuts
  • Day One
  • PCalc
  • Microsoft Office apps + OneDrive + Remote Desktop
  • iA Writer - for distraction-free writing
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Thanks for an excellent list and explanations. We have some similar tastes!

I’m intrigued by this. Like you, I use both CCC and Arq for backups, but I’ve naïvely assumed that they backup ~/Library/CloudStorage/ just like any other folder. Are there issues that mean these backups won’t restore properly if needed?

Can I suggest you try Script Debugger? Even the free version is significantly better than Script Editor, so worth a look.