30 best free Mac programs to download
6th Mar 2011 | 08:00
Top free software for OS X, iPad and iPhone
30 best free Mac programs
There's something exciting about buying a new piece of software, unwrapping the packaging and slipping the disc into your Mac ready to install your new goodies. And, of course, the new Mac App Store has made the process of obtaining new software by a digital download just a few simple mouse clicks.
Whichever method you prefer, the biggest drawback is the money you have to hand over. Forking out for your goods is a necessary evil, and the price of things is usually a good indicator of its quality. But the good news is it's not always that way, especially when it comes to Mac software.
As we will show you, there are many apps available for free that have all the polish and advanced features you would expect from a premium paid-for version, but without the nasty price tag. There are apps that will clean up your hard drive or organise your day-to-day activities. Some even work on your iPhone and iPad, too.
We've presented the best ones below – they're all really fantastic and, best of all, they're all free.
A number of these applications, while still great as a free version, also have more fully featured pro versions. So if you really enjoy one, you can consider spending the extra money.
Best free Mac media tools
1. Boxee Online
TV channels put a lot of their content online for free, but you usually have to go to their websites to find out what's available. Not with Boxee.
This app lets you browse through episodes of shows from sources such as YouTube, among many others. It also pulls in media from your Mac. The interface can be controlled via the keyboard, an Apple remote or the free Boxee app available for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch.
It's a doddle to navigate, enabling you to quickly find sports, movies, music or photos to enjoy on your computer. For entertainment on your Mac, Boxee is hard to beat.
BitTorrent clients have received a bad rap over the years for enabling users to download copyrighted material for free. Vuze is no different in this respect. That said, downloading via BitTorrent is not illegal and, should you be accessing legal material, you're fine.
Even better than that, Vuze will act as a media player for most formats and even convert files for playback on your devices, including iPads and games consoles. You can even stream video from Vuze via Wi-Fi to compatible devices such as the Xbox 360, making it more of an ideal media viewing solution than a nuisance to society.
There's been little love lost between Apple and Microsoft over the years, and the same extends to their media formats. The dreaded .WMV (Windows Media Video) file is the scourge of the Mac OS X operating system and will not run natively in QuickTime.
Fortunately, the free Flip4Mac software will eradicate this headache and, once installed, lets you forget about formats and enjoy the video you are after. The WMV player also allows for Windows Media files to play back in Safari as well to help you enjoy a more complete browsing experience. A must-have install to alleviate format folly.
Those looking to bring their movie collection into the modern world should certainly consider HandBrake for all their ripping needs. This simple app can grab a movie from DVD and encode it into a variety of formats for playback on your Mac, iPhone or iPad.
Those with the new Apple TV will also be able to create compatible files from their movie discs and add them to iTunes without having to fiddle around with DVD players and tons of cases. The app can even retain the chapter selection features and subtitles of your original disc.
While ripping a DVD to your Mac can take some time (and please respect copyright) if handled right, the outcome makes accessing your entertainment a great deal easier. The latest version of HandBrake introduces a live preview feature that allows you to check the quality of your rip before committing to hours of encoding too. You can also use HandBrake to convert video files into different formats.
Spotify came from out of nowhere and took the music lovers of Europe by storm. This is streaming music done right. This service is free to those who can handle an advert every three songs or so. It offers a catalogue of more than 10 million songs of all genres, which stream instantly through the Spotify app.
It can also link to your iTunes library so all of your favourite tracks are in one place. You can log in from multiple Macs using your Spotify account, create playlists, share music with friends and more.
One of our favourite features is the innovative collaborative playlist, where your friends can add tracks over the internet for you to listen to. If you wish, you can pay to upgrade Spotify to a premium account, at which point you become ad-free.
And for £9.99 per month you can even have the same service on your iPhone with music stored for offline playback.
VLC is one of those apps you can turn to if QuickTime and other media-playing apps won't work with a media format you want to use. Initially, you might wonder why you'll ever need this app, but if you ever stray beyond the bounds of the iTunes Store and download video from another online source, you're more than likely to encounter a problem – that is, it's not playing properly in iTunes or QuickTime.
Converting the video with HandBrake is always an option, but, to be honest, using VLC is simply quicker. The app can handle DVD playback as well as more obscure formats that crop up from time to time.
Files that are missing pieces or broken can still be played in VLC to the best of its ability and it provides a wealth of codecs to help your Mac handle all kinds of media file formats.
VLC is an application that every Mac user should have installed for when their media won't behave.
Social apps for Mac
The Address Book app on your Mac is great for organising contacts and syncing them to your iPhone. However, the problem is with so many contacts held, continually adding information and profile pictures can become a time-consuming task.
AddressBookSync is an ingenious tool that connects to your Facebook account to pull in your friends' birthday info as well as images from their accounts into your Mac's Address Book. This is particularly handy for iPhone users with images appearing on screen when a contact is calling.
The chances are you have an account for more than one instant messaging client. With so many available from iChat to Windows Messenger through Google Chat and Yahoo! it's not surprising.
So, do you leave all of these clients open and consuming memory or do you find an all-in-one solution? If you want the latter, Adium is your app.
Compatible with more IM clients than you probably knew existed, Adium combines all your accounts into one easy-to-use solution so you can keep in touch with all your contacts regardless of the service they are using.
This is the official Twitter app for Mac. It was launched at the same time as the new Mac App Store, and quickly became the most popular download there. To get it you'll need to have the Mac App Store installed (which means you'll need to be running OS X 10.6 and have installed the latest system updates).
Unlike other Twitter clients, Twitter offers a very OS X-friendly environment without skimping on the features you need to enjoy your 140-character fix.
A particularly great feature is that you can view all tweets in a conversation simply by double-clicking on the main tweet. You can also search for trending topics and use multiple accounts within the same app.
Composing a new tweet is now made far easier with the Compose window that floats outside the interface, ready for you to type your thoughts. If you want to add an image to your tweet simply drag and drop it into the new tweet window.
You can select which image hosting service you use from the Preferences pane, and also which URL-shortening service the Twitter app will use. You can also get the official Twitter app for iPad and iPhone to complete your Twitter experience wherever you are in the world.
Skype isn't a new service but the way it has developed over the years keeps it incredibly useful. The premise is simple, with an internet connection and a copy of the free software installed, you can talk to anyone on Skype via audio or video chat. And you can even swap files, create conference calls or simply chat via instant messaging.
For an additional fee, you can add voicemail to your account and even call mobiles and landlines if you wish.
Whatever you're doing in life there are things you need to remember, be they pictures, notes, websites or sounds. Evernote provides a place to store your ideas, plans and reminders.
Using cloud-based storage, the Mac app syncs with your iPhone and iPad, as well as any other computer to keep your notes close to hand whenever you need them. Unique search features allow you to dig out anything you've stored and it can even recognise handwritten docs.
This app not only organises your notes, photos, screenshots and more, but you can add custom tags to make things easier to search.
Have you ever had a bunch of files in a folder and then discovered you need to rename each one? For a renaming task that comprises more than ten files or more it can become a very dull and repetitive task.
And that's where r-name comes in. It's a simple, free app that allows files and folders to be dropped in and renamed in any way you require. Ideal for photos or television series, this app will save a great deal of time.
While it's easy to burn a CD or DVD from within Mac OS X, Burn brings simplicity, as well as advanced options to the task. For example, it allows you to set which file system your disc will use so Windows owners can access files.
It can create audio CDs and MP3 discs, and caters for DVD, VideoCD and DivX discs. An Inspector tool allows you to change settings on your disc such as file permissions, dates and the icon.
14. Carbon Copy Cloner
Everyone talks about backing up their computer files, but how many of us are committed to doing it properly?
Carbon Copy Cloner makes it easy to back up your system but to move it to another Mac or larger hard drive without having to reinstall the OS. It even offers incremental backups, which only updates files that have changed since you last ran the software.
Considering this is a free application, it's an absolute powerhouse for any Mac user who wants security for their system and flexibility for their hardware.
Creative apps, system tools and more
If you've never used a design app or 3D-modelling tool before, fear not. SketchUp makes the entire process simple.
Using a range of tools, draw the shapes you want and then drag them out to create 3D objects. Ideal for decoration planning, basic design work or providing mockups of home improvements, SketchUp is the ultimate design tool for beginners.
As well as creating designs for your home or office, you can create 3D models and add them to Google Maps. Once you've installed SketchUp you're guaranteed to spend hours playing with the infinite possibilities it affords.
So you need an office suite that can handle spreadsheets, word processing, design and presentations. Do you go for Apple's iWork or Microsoft's Office? Both cost at least £50 and offer many pros and cons.
Or you could opt for OpenOffice that costs… well, nothing. Unbelievably, OpenOffice is a complete set of office tools compatible with most formats of office file and available for Mac that won't cost you a penny.
Ideal for students, home users or businesses not ready to take the plunge on a full site licence for commercial software, Open-Office is a great alternative to iWork and Office.
GNU Image Manipulation Program. That's the official title of this app, which makes you realise why the creators opted for GIMP as the name for this powerful graphics suite.
It's like Photoshop for free, and is a true labour of love for its developers who have carefully crafted it over time to produce one of the most fully featured pieces of free software available for Mac OS X.
Whether you want to retouch photos, create graphic designs or experiment with 3D, GIMP offers it all and more. Before you fork out for an expensive graphics app, spare the time for this 78MB powerhouse to download.
While GarageBand handles the creative aspects of Mac audio-editing, Audacity is a free option for recording, editing and adjusting audio files.
If you want to quickly split an MP3, convert the format of an audio file or digitise tape or records, Audacity is really easy to use and it's also capable of a number of additional tricks too. If you are after more advanced techniques, Audacity can even offer tools to speed up and slow down audio, work with multiple tracks at once and clean up audio files with a variety of effects.
Those who are serious about their audio editing can even add VST plug-ins to Audacity, in order to further enhance its already brilliant feature set.
Considering the fact it's a free application, Audacity offers some very professional tools and is an ideal choice for those who need a fast and effective editing option when GarageBand isn't the best solution.
There are built-in Sticky Notes in Mac OS X but they don't offer nearly as many features as those found in SketchBox. This app's simple interface allows you to create multiple notes, sketch on them with a pen, add text and even set alarms for individual sticky notes.
The main screen shows all of your available notes and, if you wish, you can even build storyboards from sketches you have drawn. The app is free but is no longer updated by the developer. It is also known to have incompatibilities with Snow Leopard, however we're yet to find any.
We've found SketchBox to be a great way of jotting down our creative ideas – it's small and lightweight, so you don't have to wait ages for it to load and risk losing that precious moment of inspiration.
Being able to do a quick sketch and add text at the same time is the digital equivalent of jotting things down on a table napkin – the traditional first step of every great idea in the world!
Anxiety's intent is to produce the opposite emotion to its name, when used correctly. Working with Mail to-do lists and your iCal schedule, Anxiety provides a small floating window for you to quickly add reminders to and check off when you're done.
These are then added to your Mail and iCal lists so you can access them on all of your synced devices and cross them off as you go.
One of the main advantages of Anxiety is that unlike many list managers, it's very lightweight. Easier than a sticky note and far more accessible, Anxiety shrinks into the background when not in use.
So why is this app in the Creativity section, you ask? Well, how can you be creative if your mind is full of all the things you have to do? By removing the little niggles of life you'll find you have more time to dream up more imaginative solutions. So, take the first steps to a more organised you and install Anxiety today.
Best free Mac system tools
AppFresh scans your system for installed applications and then lets you know which of them have a pending update. You can then choose those you would like to install and those to leave be.
It sounds simple but this extremely easy process can be a real time saver that allows you to take control of the update process when you have the time rather than be dictated to by your software.
You can also switch off common and infuriating update checkers like Microsoft's AutoUpdate software. More time, less annoying messages and pop ups. Now that's fresh!
A lot of apps throw a ton of files across your system, taking up space. Even when you remove an app, these files remain.
AppCleaner hunts down these lurking files and removes them along with the app. You can even set AppCleaner to watch out for when you next drag an app to the Trash and hunt down all of its associated files for removal as well.
To avoid accidents, you can tell AppCleaner to protect certain apps from deletion, plus every deleted file is kept in a log so you can see exactly what you got rid of.
Growl is a notification tool that can alert you to all sorts of happenings on your Mac, from new emails to software downloads. Notifications can be customised and appear discreetly at chosen positions on your Desktop with a small amount of information included.
A wide range of apps support Growl notifications including Twitter clients, Dropbox and many more. Custom plugins are also available for Mail and Safari to notify you of new messages and completed downloads.
When you don't have time to launch an app to check things, Growl is a great solution for quick updates.
Sometimes it just feels like there's something wrong with your Mac. Maybe websites are loading slower, apps are being sluggish or the fans keep turning on. It's at this point where you will need to follow that nagging feeling and check that everything is in order. And iStatPro is the perfect way to do this.
This handy Dashboard widget monitors all sorts of information on your Mac, from CPU usage to temperature, and should help you pinpoint where things are amiss. The interface is customisable via simple drag and drop, and you can set exactly which reports are shown on the screen and which are not.
Easy to understand graphs and charts explain network use and memory assignments, and there's even an iPhone app that displays live stats for your Mac on your phone's screen. For peace of mind or some serious system analysis, your Dashboard and iStatPro should be your first port of call.
As Mac users, we don't really need to worry about viruses on our platform. Sure, there have been a few pieces of malware that have presented a risk, but they're the exception, rather than the norm.
However, it pays to make sure you're protected. Sophos knows this and, alongside its commercial offerings, provides Sophos Anti- Virus for Mac Home Edition as a free download.
The unobtrusive software works quietly in the background using very little memory protecting you from viruses, Trojans and worms. There are none of the annoying popups we've come to accept from security software and you can customise how and when the app scans your system for maximum subtlety.
26. Stuffit Expander
Stuffit has been around on the Mac as long as we can remember and has always been on hand to perform one of the simplest but often awkward of tasks – unzipping a compressed file. While Apple's Archive Utility does much the same job, Stuffit has a wealth of available preferences including automation, virus scanning and expanding to specific folders.
Perhaps most importantly, it will unzip certain compression formats that Apple's built-in decompression can't handle. You'll find it's an invaluable tool to have when somebody sends you something compressed on a Windows computer using an obscure compression tool.
Don't forget, a premium version (called StuffIt Deluxe) is also available that enables you to compress files in a number of ways. It can make some documents up to 98% smaller than their original size! It's also particularly good at compressing JPEG files, which are often used for photos.
Love or hate Google you can't fault its browser, Chrome, which is all about speed and efficiency. With a unified URL bar that works for search as well as web addresses, it's a clean and snappy browser that takes advantage of your Mac's power to bring you the sites you need quickly.
Offering tabs, extensions and themes, Chrome provides all the features you need combined with its trademark pace. Security features see you protected from malware and phishing, and the software is automatically updated with security patches. A great alternative to Safari if you fancy a bit of a browser change.
You may not have to use an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) client very often but on those occasions when you do you surely don't want to have to pay for it.
Fortunately there's Cyberduck, which won't cost you a penny but provides all of the features you would expect in a paid-for client including Keychain access, SSH security features and Quick Look previews.
The app even allows you to edit files on the server if you need to make last minute changes to your upload. Built for the Mac, Cyberduck is Bonjour compatible so should find FTP and WebDAV servers on your local network.
How many times have you got to the office and realised you left an important document you were working on at home. It happens the other way around too. What if you're on the road and forget to load the right files onto your laptop?
Dropbox rids you of these worries by providing you with online storage that's accessible from any of your computers and even on your iPhone or iPad. Simply install the app on your Mac, drop your files into the shared folder and work on them wherever you have an internet connection. Forget USB drives and email attachments, this is the easiest A completely free FTP client for speedy transfers. way to work.
One of the easiest ways to get the latest updates from your favourite sites is to make use of RSS. You can do this in Safari and Mail, but for a truly brilliant experience, check out NetNewsWire.
The app syncs with Google Reader or can run on its own, and gathers the RSS feeds from all of your selected sites into an easy-to-read list with notifications when new posts are available.
With a wide range of views and export options to Instapaper and del.icio.us, NetNewsWire provides everything you need to keep on top of breaking news from your chosen sources.
First published in MacFormat Issue 231
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