Must-have Mac apps pt. 1

I made the switch from PC to Mac a year and a half ago. While I don’t consider myself a total Mac fanboy, I definitely like the Mac experience better than my former life with PCs. One of the cool parts of Mac life is finding great little applications that make the experience better.

1. Quicksilver (free)

At first I didn’t understand how to use Quicksilver. I had never used anything like it on a PC, so it wasn’t a part of my workflow. But too many people told me I should use it so I forced myself to start using it here and there. Today, I rely on it.

Basically, it is an application launcher. That means that with a couple of keystrokes I can launch any application installed on my Mac. But it doesn’t stop there. It’s open architecture allows developers to write plugins for many other tasks. For example, I can set it up to control iTunes — it will even show me track information whenever a song is played. I can post items to web applications like Stikkit or Google Calendar. I can search through my browser’s bookmarks or history, people in Address Book, or files on my hard drive. I can even setup universal hot keys to do just about anything.

But the best thing about Quicksilver is that it makes all of this functionality look so good. There are multiple interface skins I can install and customize from the standard “bezel” to a cool “cube” effect and even an iTunes “cover-flow”-style interface.

After you download Quicksilver you should check out some good blog posts about how to use it.

2. Perian (free)

If you do anything with video (including just downloading and watching occasional videos from the interwebs) then you need to download Perian. It calls itself the “swiss army knife for Quicktime” and indeed it is. It allows QT to play various video formats that aren’t normally supported — a simple but essential task. It installs as a preference pane and works completely in the background. So, you just install it and forget it.

3. Flip4Mac WMV (free)

Much like Perian, Flip4Mac WMV extends your Mac’s ability to show videos. This time it adds support for Microsoft’s WMV format. As much as I would love to just forget this little app and WMV altogether, sometimes you just have to watch a WMV and this app helps.

4. AppTrap (free)

One of the first challenges I faced after making the switch was installing and uninstalling applications. First of all, on a PC applications are called “programs.” Second, on a PC programs are all “installed” with some kind of graphical “wizard” and then uninstalled through the Windows Control Panel.

In the Mac universe, programs are called “applications.” Most applications don’t have to be “installed” at all — they can be run from anywhere as soon as they are downloaded (although it is a good idea to move them all to the “Applications” folder for various reasons). Some apps do have installers (adding a little confusion for Mac newbies) and they are automatically “installed” in the Applications folder. When it comes to uninstalling apps… there is no uninstalling apps. Most apps can just be moved to the trash. However, sometimes this leaves small preference files and other misc. files that the app created scattered throughout your hard drive. This isn’t a big problem, but it is definitely less than ideal.

That’s where AppTrap comes in. It installs as a preference pane and simply monitors your trash can for applications. Whenever you drag an app to the trash it asks if you want to delete the associated system files with the application. Simple, efficient, Mac-like, and free!

If you don’t like that method there is always the “traditional” Mac app-uninstaller AppZapper. It is a standalone application, so it does require a little more work to use. Basically you drag your app into AppZapper’s window (or icon) and it does the rest. AppZapper gives you the first 5 uninstalls for free, then it’s $12.95 for a single license.

5. Growl (free)

This is another one of those “you-don’t-know-you-want-it-but-you-really-do” apps. Growl is a system notification application — sounds lovely, right? Seriously, it allows various applications to pop up information when different things happen. Still vague? Let me give you a few examples.

Say I’m chatting with a friend using Skype or Adium but I am also doing something really important like surfing the interwebs. Whenever my chat client is the the background I can’t see what my friend is saying. Sure, I know when he says something because the app makes a noise and bounces the dock icon, but I have to switch over to my chat client to see what he said. Not so with Growl installed. My chat client sends the text over to Growl who then pops up a lovely little window on top of my browser showing me whatever my friend said. Now I can choose to switch over to my chat client to respond or just leave it until he says something else more important.

Still not convinced? OK, I previously mentioned using Quicksilver to control iTunes. One feature of this setup is using Growl to display the current artist, song, and album art whenever a new track starts. So, Quicksilver lets you search, play, pause, skip, etc. while Growl shows you whatever is currently playing.

Growl works with a lot of popular applications and it allows users to customize when and how it displays messages (as well as when it keeps quiet). It comes with a lot of different notification styles, too. Again, it is a preference pane so once it is setup you don’t have to touch it again unless you want to. Plus, most applications that utilize Growl will automatically register themselves with it so they just automatically start working.

That’s a good start. I have so many other great apps to list, but they will have to wait for another day. If you have a favorite “must-have” app please post a comment.