As Apple has tweaked and improved its Mac operating system, the need for third-party utilities just shifted—it never went away. A lot of the fiddly missing stuff we used to need an app for is built in, but Apple aims for the simplest experience for the most people, which leaves more advanced users or those that want a choice of how they carry out a task looking for alternatives.
I’ve used many hundreds of Mac utilities over decades, and still rely on them to make my computing life better. Here’s the top 10 I recommend, a mix of free software, donationware, and inexpensive paid products. (I’ve cheated a little; I list more than 10 as I offer a couple of alternatives.)
Some of the paid products might seem pricey on their own, and the price tag altogether may be too much for many people’s budget to buy all at once: it’s over $300 if you purchase all my main recommendations. Opt for alternative recommendations of utilities below and omit a couple you don’t need, like file-transfer software, and the price tag comes down closer to $100. (Always look for discounts on the more expensive products: some appear regularly in charity and seasonal bundles, and some Apple-oriented sites offer significant membership discounts on popular software.)
However, I like to think of these utilities as having a return on investment, as I believe my time (as well as yours) has value. Some apps estimate how much time you saved, and others reduce clutter and frustration, which can make you work more efficiently. In some cases, you have to purchase a tool, because there’s no alternative. I’m confident I’ve saved hundreds of hours over a decade across in sub-second and multi-second increments.
I can’t remember how long I’ve been using Default Folder ($35), because it’s been a constant companion since I first discovered it years ago. Default Folder enhances every open and save dialog in macOS, as well as offering a system menubar item and options to add navigation in Finder windows.
You use Default Folder to navigate to standard macOS locations, frequently used directories, and recent folders without having to use an endless sequence of Command plus Up and Down arrows, Spotlight, or folder menu navigation. The app lets you more effectively organize items in folders, because you can so efficiently access those folders later.
The utility wraps itself around open and save dialogs, and offers buttons with drop-down menus. You can click and access the top level of any mounted drive and common Home folder areas, favorites that you’ve set, any window open in the Finder, and folders that you’ve recently opened items from or saved items to. Want to open the current view in a dialog as a Finder window? Press one keystroke. Another keystroke lets you rotate among recently used folders.
Default Folder seemed like it might be a casualty of System Integrity Protection (SIP) introduced in El Capitan, but the developer wrote a complete overhaul of the app to work within Apple’s limits, and the new version now exceeds the previous one. (Read our review.)
Whenever I have to use a Mac that doesn’t have Default Folder installed, I’m reminded of how frequently I use it and how much I rely on it. It has a very shallow learning curve.
Computers are meant to reduce tedious repetition, and yet we often find ourselves acting like a computer in our work. TextExpander is a text-expansion utility, letting you type a few keystrokes and have them “expanded” to be something else. It turns the computer back into a repetition-avoiding machine. I can type two or three characters, and TextExpander drops in my email address, phone number, or mailing address.
With wildcards and placeholders, you can also have TextExpander type out the current date and time, or use the clipboard’s contents alongside other manipulations, including a few keystrokes (like Tab and Escape) and cursor movements. It also allows you to create forms with pop-up options for standard replies.
TextExpander supports AppleScript and other system scripting integration, and includes a few scripts for things like turning the current contents of the clipboard into a bit.ly shortened URL. One of the app’s gimmicks is tracking estimated time saved. It’s apparently bought me 10 hours of my life back between July and December of this year.
While I’m a long-time TextExpander user, some people prefer Keyboard Maestro ($36), which has text-expansion features like TextExpander, but also can directly manipulate the mouse and menus in macro sequences and has clipboard-history management.
In these days of constant password breaches at major and minor websites, having unique strong passwords is a must. 1Password not only stores passwords, but creates them, and through browser plug-ins can create and drop them into a form and store them in just a few fluent clicks.
Because 1Password has extensions or plug-ins for all the major browsers, you never have to switch to it to drop passwords into a form to login. And it can also store in a structured form all sorts of other things, like credit cards, bank accounts, and licenses. 1Password can fill in credit-card information into forms. You can also save all the entries in a form from a webpage, which is invaluable in inventing fake answers to security questions and storing them so you can remember them later. (We reviewed version 6.0; it’s now up to 6.5.)
(Tip: You can use 1Password to create unique random gibberish for questions like “What is your first pet’s name?”, and as long as you store it, a hijack of that site’s list of such questions doesn’t compromise your accounts elsewhere that would otherwise share security answers.)
I like that its creator, AgileBits, added a few months ago the ability to generate multi-word passwords. These are easier to remember and to type, and as long as they are sufficiently random and long enough, just as resistent to brute force as the most ridiculous looking password with an unnecessary mix of letters, numbers, punctuation, and Egyptian hieroglyphics.
1Password added subscription-based options this year that include continuous updates and a family version that allows secure sharing of passwords. It’s $36 a year for a single user or $60 a year for up to five users in a family. This price includes free use of clients in macOS, Windows, Android, and iOS.
The standalone 1Password for macOS is $65; the complementary iOS version is free for everyone, but some not-critical Pro features cost $10 to unlock unless you’re subscriber, in which case they’re part of the subscription.
LastPass is a widely used alternative to 1Password, although LastPass stores passwords centrally. It’s been hacked once, but the care with which they secured their database rendered that theft essentially useless to the attackers. That resiliency is a plus. I prefer, however, using 1Password either on storage I control or with AgileBits’ partitioned cryptographic approach, which stores your data centrally in a way that the company never directly handles your password.
LastPass’ key advantage? The standard version is free across platforms; it’s $1 a month for a premium flavor that includes family sharing and priority tech support.
My system menubar is a mess! I’ve tried scrubbing, I’ve tried washing, and nothing works! Bartender ($15), take me away!
If you’re anything like me, you have a slightly ridiculous number of drop-down and status menus in your system menubar from Apple and third-party apps and system components. Some of Apple’s items you can’t hide, even if you want to. Even on my wider of two displays, an app’s menu items often crowd out the leftmost menubar icons. (Read our review.)
Bartender 2 brings a delightful and simple management approach. With this app, you can choose to leave a menubar item alone, hide it entirely, or drop it into a secondary dropdown Bartender menu. Even if you’re hiding the item, you can set Bartender to show it whenever the icon displays activity.
The app was another one that people worried El Capitan’s SIP would render impossible to update, but the developer thoroughly revised it to work in the new model, and released a Sierra update in a timely fashion, too.
I have many, many apps installed on my Mac, and my preferred way to launch them isn’t by invoking Spotlight and typing part of the name and selecting a result, or using Mission Control or the Applications folder. LaunchBar ($29) makes quick work: tap a keyboard command to bring it up and then type a few characters or use arrow keys to select from a set of options.
LaunchBar can be set to index all sorts of locations and all sorts of things, so it goes far beyond running apps. It can find system preference panes, contacts, AppleScripts, emoji, URL bookmarks, music tracks, and other items. You can use it as a calculator, to expose file metadata, keep a scrapbook of items pasted to the clipboard, and interact with reminders and events. It run queries on search engines, too. (Read our full review of version 6.0; it’s up to 6.7 now.)
Add your document folders and enable some indexing rules that are turned off at installation, and you can pull up files in those locations by name, too, or see a list that matches however much of a name you want to type.
For all that it’s a Swiss Army knife, you can turn off or leave disabled many features. Some people dive deeply into LaunchBar and use it constantly; others, like me, rely on it for a handful of very common uses.
It has a statistics window like TextExpander, and reports I’ve saved just over two hours in the last two and a half years. That’s too modest of the developers, though, because I can launch an app in LaunchBar in well under a second; it takes seconds to find and launch an app through any other built-in means.
Several launcher alternatives have their adherents; we published a roundup of several in early 2015, including one that’s free. The long-running DragThing app also has its staunch users and defenders, but it hasn’t had an overhaul in some time, and its developer hasn’t announced plans beyond the current compatibility updates and bug fixes that keep it working.
Pastebot ($10) is the newest entrant on my must-have list, and its core features are certainly not unique. In fact, you can find some of them in LaunchBar. But I’ve never adopted a clipboard manager before, as I didn’t find existing implementations fit the way I want to retain, tag, search, and use them. Pastebot just shipped in December 2016 (as version 2, because of a long beta), and its the best all-around utility for clipboard management and text transformation.
With Pastebot, every time you copy or cut an item using the system editing tools, Pastebot retains a copy. By default, it holds the last 100 items, but you can decrease it to 50 or increase to 500. Everything held in Pastebot retains its native format—whether rich text, image, plain text, a URL, and so forth—and you can perform a full-text search against the stored items. (Read our review.)
Pastebot also offers text filters, which can process and transform text, like formatting it as HTML, cleaning up a URL, and changing rich text to plain text. You can build filters, which can have multiple steps in sequence. Filters can apply to a stored item in Pastebot or, via a keystroke you can assign, to the current clipboard’s contents.
There’s one oddball feature in Pastebot I quite like and am still getting used to: sequential paste. With this option, you can copy things in order from one place that you want to paste in the same order elsewhere. It’s terrific for forms and contacts, where you’re trying to copy a number of disparate items and put them in the same or different fields.
There are many alternatives for managing clipboard history; we published a roundup in early 2015 that includes one that’s free.
Apple’s Contacts app isn’t as bad as it used to be, but it’s highly limited in a digital world in which we might have accounts (and thus contacts) all over. I switched a few years ago to BusyContacts ($30), which works with the Contacts database to sync with iCloud, but can also incorporate conduits to Fastmail, Fruux, Google, Office 360, and Yahoo, and pull in contact information from Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. It works with generic CardDAV servers and Exchange servers, too.
When you create a contact, you can assign it to one of the various sources with which you’re syncing, but you can also move a contact later from one place to another. More powerfully, BusyContacts lets you link cards, so that data from multiple sources appears in one consolidated entry, or link and merge cards, copying information to each of the sources and providing a single listing. For creating contacts, you can add a card and fill it out or use a quick-creation tool that lets you type nearly freeform and have values dropped into the right places.
I particularly like the inclusion of Twitter, as it makes it easy to find Twitter contacts you’re connected with in a way that native and third-party Twitter apps don’t. (We last reviewed BusyContacts for version 1.0.)
BusyContacts’ Activity pane is an additional bonus, and one of its selling points: it can show previews of activity related to all accounts in a contact card. That includes events, matching emails, and tweets.
AirPlay was a terrific idea, but Apple never took it far enough, such as licensing it broadly (after an early wave of such efforts) to make it become a necessary included option on stereo receivers and other gear. I’m lucky enough to own a Yamaha receiver made at just the right time that it includes AirPlay support, and some receivers still feature it, but not many.
Airfoil ecosystem lets you extend the utility of AirPlay by creating both AirPlay sources and destinations. With a retired iPhone or iPod touch plus Airfoil apps, you can add on AirPlay without any fuss.
The main Airfoil app ($29) (also available for Windows) lets you pick a source app or device on your computer and then direct it to one or more destinations. This includes native AirPlay devices, like an Apple TV, AirPort Express, receivers, and other audio gear. But Airfoil also streams over the Google Cast protocol to Chromecast and TVs and speakers with Google support. And you can stream to Bluetooth connected devices.
Beyond that whole panoply, the developer, Rogue Amoeba, also makes a series of free “receiver” apps available for Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS, and Android. The Mac and Windows versions turn computers into generic AirPlay destinations, while the Linux and mobile versions act as Airfoil-only speakers. The iOS
This can let you set up a really inexpensive multi-room system, streaming from a Mac or Windows system everywhere, by pairing powered speakers with standard audio jack inputs with some of the old iOS gear you know you have lying around. Even if the battery is shot on an iOS device, you can keep it plugged in as a permanent part of your audio setup.
As old-school as it may seem, a calculator is a necessity. And you can calculate all over the danged place: Spotlight lets you type in simple calculations and conversions, although it can’t handle much deviation. Visit Google, and type a calculation in its search bar and get an answer and often an explication of the math and units involved. Even LaunchBar does math in its input field!
But I want something more for the routine number crunching I have to do that doesn’t rise to the needs of a spreadsheet. For that, I turn to Soulver ($12), a freeform calculating tool that allows you to specify and convert units as well as create basic formulas and perform currency conversion with updated values. Soulver creates calculation documents that can be saved, and can sync with an iOS version or send to other Soulver users.
You can tap out calculation just fine, like (15 + 12 + 18) / 3, or access trigonometry and other functions. But I find Soulver best for unit math and conversion. It handles time, mass, volume, data storage terms, power, and others, and lets you specify both the input out and output units. So you can type in 1.5 cups + 3 tablespoons in deciliters to get a metric answer from different Imperial ones.
As a science and technology writer, it’s particularly convenient, because I can type in 1.9megabyte / 2.5 in kilobytes and get 760 kilobytes as the answer, or 125AU as km (AU are astronomical units, or the distance from the Earth to the Sun) and know it’s 1.8699733838×10^10 km.
My favorite, though, is calculating throughput, which is an annoying thing to sort out in most cases. Want to know how much a terabyte would take at 12 Mbps? Enter 1 TB / 12 Mbps in days and 7.7 days pops out as the result.
The interface for Soulver isn’t a traditional calculator approach, and if that’s what you prefer, or you need to perform calculations regularly that require entering a lot of numbers, PCalc ($10) remains the gold standard in that format. It also handles unit conversions, scientific functions, and RPN entry style, and can hand off in-progress calculations among iOS, macOS, and, yes, watchOS!
I know I’m old school when I have to pull up an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) server, but they’re still abundant. And am I new-school when I need to access Amazon’s Simple Storage Service (S3) cloud-storage service? Fortunately, both very old, somewhat old, and spanking new remote file access can be handled via Panic’s Transmit ($34).
Transmit works with a variety of file server protocols, including FTP (which is insecure and you should really avoid!), SFTP (Secure FTP), WebDAV (a way of file sharing via a Web server in both secure and non-secure flavors), and Amazon S3. A straightforward interface makes it easy to set up connections, store favorites, and drop right to where you need to be. With a side-by-side file view approach, you can drag items from one side to the other for easy copying.
What pushes Transmit to the top, however, is that any remote service you can view in a window you can also turn into a Finder-mountable drive that Transmit manages behind the scenes like any other networked volume.
Using more advanced settings, you can create rules about how uploaded files are tagged when transferred to servers, something that’s often required when using Amazon S3 for hosted media.
Transmit is my favorite file-transfer app, but it’s a little behind in supporting cloud services and advanced options, and doesn’t support cloud services’ encryption features. I turn to Cyberduck (free to use, donation requested; $24 via Mac App Store) for Google Cloud Storage access. Cyberduck also supports Amazon S3, Backblaze B2 (its cloud storage offering), Microsoft Azure, and others. It’s a harder program to master and has more rough edges.
One tier up, with concomitant difficult in using, is ChronoSync ($50), which is a sophisticated file-synchronization app that lets you set data-at-rest encryption options for Amazon S3 and Google Cloud Storage, and also works with SFTP. It’s harder to use for simple file transfers, but if you’re looking for manual and automated sync with remote servers with robust encryption control, it’s the only good choice at present for macOS.
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