Making the Mac: A Software Checklist

A friend of mine called me today and told me he’d bought his first Macintosh, a new MacBook – based partly on my recommendation. He said his girlfriend was delighted with it; she couldn’t believe how easy it was to use. It certainly warms the cockles of my heart (wherever those are located) to think that in some small part, I have helped to spread technological joy to someone new.

In the course of our conversation, my friend asked what software he should get for his new machine, since he was really only familiar with Windows software. Although the Mac comes with more productivity apps than most Windows machines, there are still a lot of applications out there that you’ll need in short order. I started to ramble off my top 5… well, 7… well… and then he said “Could you maybe write those down and email them to me?”

And so, for my friend with the new Macbook – and for all you other friends out there that I don’t know I have yet – here is Jonathan’s Macintosh Application Checklist. Oh sure, there are others out there, and I’m sure Digg, BoingBoing, Gizmodo, and Engadget have links to many of them. But this is mine.

All of these are programs that I currently use on either my Mac Mini, my Mac Book, or both. All are available for download over the internet. Some are free, some cost a nominal fee. Nothing listed here costs more than $39 or so, and many are just plain free. Anything that costs money has a free trial version available. I have no financial stake in any of these products or companies, nor do any of them even know I exist. These are just good applications that I personally like to use.

Web Browser: Camino

Based on the Mozilla/Gecko engine (the same that Firefox is based on), Camino is the most Mac-like and downright elegant browser out there. It’s the only one that has gotten tabbed browsing almost exactly right. Unlike the Mac version of Firefox, Camino looks and acts like it was designed from the ground up to be a Macintosh application. Everything works the way you would expect, and it interacts with the system as well as any Apple product itself would. It’s leaps and bounds better than Safari, and also includes built-in ad blocking. If only Camino could somehow support Firefox extensions, it would be truly perfect. Camino is a universal binary, so you don’t need to worry about choosing between a PowerPC or Intel version. FREE

Web Browsing and Video Plug-In: Flip4Mac

Flip4Mac 2.1 (finally available for Intel macs!) is an absolute must. This handy utility lets Mac user view any video saved, stored, or streamed in any Windows format – like .AVI or .WMV files, or anything based off of Windows Streaming Media. A great example of this are the news videos on CNN. Without Flip4Mac installed, you’ll just get a plug in warning whenever you tried to watch a video off of CNN’s site – even IF you have Windows Media Player for Macintosh installed. Don’t waste time on the Microsoft version, it doesnt’ work with more than half of the web sites I tried – and Microsoft isn’t going to create any new versions anymore, anyway. Flip4Mac, on the other hands, just plain works. Which is what computing should be all about anyway. $29.00; free trial available

Blogging Client: Ecto

Now this is really neat. My blog (this very web site you’re reading right now) runs on a Linux server, and is powered by Movable Type 3.2. However, since finding Ecto, I only use the Movable Type interface when I need to make system changes of some sort. Ecto lets me manage all my blogging needs from a handy client – and, I can work on my blog off-line, saving, editing, previewing, etc. I only upload a post when I’m all done with it and ready for the world (well, the two or three people who read this, anyway) to see. And Wil Wheaton uses it – what more endorsement could you want? $17.95; free trial available

Office Application – Word Processing and Spreadsheets: NeoOffice

If you’ve got the cash, Microsoft Office for Mac OS X is great. However, at $400, we’re talking serious cash – way over the limit I set for this artticle. Even though I own a copy of Microsoft Office for Mac, I don’t use it: I move around between different computers (and re-image my machines) way too much to put up with all that “CD Key” and “activation” nonsense they put you through.

A close second, however, is NeoOffice. In the same way that Camino is a cousin of Firefox, NeoOffice is a cousin of OpenOffice. However, in this case, the match is much, much closer. NeoOffice is based directly on the same codebase as OpenOffice , and the NeoOffice group appears to make great efforts to keep the code in sync. But unlike the Mac build of OpenOffice, NeoOffice does not require any additional emulators or libraries. And, better still, it looks and acts like a true Macintosh application, whereas OpenOffice does not.

I have been using the Alpha 4 build of NeoOffice 2.0 for several weeks, and haven’t had any problems – no crashes, no lost data, nothing. My only complaint with NeoOffice is that it’s pretty slow. It may be that this Alpha build hasn’t been optimized yet. Be sure to choose the Intel version if you have a new Mac. FREE

Instant Messaging (IM): Adium

Not just the best IM client for the Mac, Adium (aka “The Duck”) is the best IM application I’ve every used, period. Adium allows you to use any IM account you’ve got – MSN Messenger, AIM, Yahoo, iChat, plus a number of others. You just enter your account info, and you’re up and running. My favorite feature is the tabbed messaging window. All your chats are shown in a single window, with tabs along the bottom for each person you’re chatting with. You can drag the tabs away to separate them into their own windows…. or drag and drop them back to see them as tabs again. In addition, Adium has lots of different skins to choose from, so you can have your chat sessions look however you like them. My favorite them is “Plastic” with the “Blue vs. Green” color variant, for example.

If you do any IM’ ing at all, you have to use this app. Unlike the others out there, Adium isn’t a service in and of itself; instead, it’s a great application for using those services. Seriously, if you’re not using this, you’ve got to try it out. I feel sorry for users of other systems that Adium isn’t available for them. FREE

Remote Desktop Access to Windows: Microsoft Remote Desktop Connection for Mac

At my job, I use the Windows RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol) client all the time. Happily, Microsoft was clever enough to make a Macintosh client for RDP users. Now, using my MacBook, I can RDP to any of my Windows machines without having to run Parallels or reboot into Windows using Boot Camp. This is a perfect port of the RDP client to the Mac OS, and works like a charm. To me, this is a greatly overlooked third way to get “Windows on a Mac”. It is my method of choice, since I have currently 6 other computers running either Windows XP or Windows Server 2003 at home, and about a jillion or so at work. If you work in a mixed computer environment and need remote access to desktops, you need this. FREE

Remote Desktop Access to Macintoshes or Linux: Chicken of the VNC

Oddly, while Microsoft gives you remote desktop access for free, Apple makes you pay $499 for it. However, you don’t need that. Just use Chicken of the VNC instead. You can also use this to access Linux desktops running the VNC service from your Mac. Remember that this is just a client – you’ll still have to set up remote desktop access yourself on whatever Mac you’re trying to get to. This is another open source project, that appears to be linked to TightVNC, which is itself a great VNC client for Windows. Incidentally, you can use TightVNC on Windows to remotely access your Macintosh desktops as well! Although there are some other VNC clients out there, Chicken of the VNC is the most elegant and most Mac-like of all that I tried. FREE

FTP Utility: Transmit 3

I’m really surprised that Apple didn’t build in an FTP client directly, and I still think I must be missing something. After all, FTP is free and built in to every Windows machine – it must be on the Mac and I just haven’t figured it out yet. But since I haven’t found anything built-in, and since I often need to FTP files to my Linux web server to and from my Mac, I use Transmit 3. I’ve also tried Fetch, and while it’s a close second, I prefer Transmit as being a bit more Mac-like and for a slightly better implementation of Favorites. $29.95; free trial available

HTML Editing: Taco HTML Edit

I’m going to be in the minority on this one. Unlike most of the world out there, I prefer to edit HTML “by hand” – that is, as source code. I guess after years of working in software development, and years more as the director of a large web group, I just don’t trust anything I put out on the web unless I see exactly how it’s built. In addition, I know HTML by heart, so I find it easier to just type it in rather than hunt around some UI trying to find the button for “table”. My favorite HTML editor on Windows was (and is, to this day) HomeSite, which currently seems to only be available bundled with Dreamweaver. After checking out over half a dozen Mac-based HTML editing products, I settled on the poorly-named Taco HTML Edit as my program of choice. It’s not perfect, but if you’re like me and you have to see your HTML to believe it, this is the best I’ve found. Fair Warning: This is NOT a “design” type package; for that use iWeb or one of the Adobe or Macromedia applications. This is for serious HTML junkies only. FREE

CD and DVD Disc Label Printing: discLabel

How can you print out snazzy CD or DVD labels for all of your fair use, non-DRM’d home projects? Your HP, Epson, or Canon printer probably came bundled with some crappy thing that would get the job done, but if you want to do it right, use discLabel. It’s overpriced, seeing as how it’s basically just a fancy layout utility, but it does do a nice job. In addition, the templates are quite well designed and there are a ton of choices. Oh, and their tech support is excellent, too. Hmmm… I guess that price is pretty reasonable after all! $29.95; free trial available

Checkbook and Personal Finance: iBank

I found this program after I wasted $69.96 on Quicken for Macintosh – which, being an obvious Windows “port over”, sucks big time. iBank is much simpler, and to the point. No, it will not do your taxes, set up your own personal corporation, track your stock options or prepare multi-part asset and liability documents. What is does do – and does it very well – is keep track of your personal savings, checking, and credit card accounts. I love this program, because it’s clean and straightforward on the surface – just like a checkbook register – but there is a lot under the surface. It’s Mac-like in all the ways that Quicken is not. $39.99; free trail available

Library Inventory: Delicious Library

This last one is a little odd, and probably only of interest to a few people. However, it sure is cool, and if you have need for what it does, it is well worth the price. Now, I have about 800 DVD’s, about 1000 CDs, and over 4,000 books. So, I’ve always been looking for something that can help me manage my media and book libraries. Over the years, however, I honestly never found anything that was much of an improvement over just a simple spreadsheet. Until I saw Delicious Library…

Delicious Library creates a visual database of your books, DVDs, CDs and video games. You can either type them in directly, or you can scan the UPC codes on the products – and Delicious Library will look them up for you, and insert the cover image, description, etc. And – now this is really cool – it can use the iSight camera on your MacBook as a crude bar code scanner! This led to a very humorous walk-by at work, when I was adding my various computer books to my inventory. A colleague walked by and said “Uh… Jonathan? Why are you holding a book up to your laptop?” I guess he thought I though the laptop would read the book or something.

If you’re going to scan a bunch of stuff – like me! – I’d recommend getting an honest-to-god real bar code scanner. But for a few things, the iSight scanner does a great job. Anyway, check out Delicious Library. Even if you don’t have a lot of media, you’ll get a kick out of showing a CD to your MacBook and then having it pop in the cover and description. $40; free trial available

Whew! That’s Enough!

Well, I could go on, but I’d be getting more and more esoteric. The list above is, in my opinion, what you need to become a fully functional cross-platform geek on any of the new Intel-based Macintoshes. And please, search the web yourself before you take my suggestions, and read what others have to say. Just because I happen to love an application doesn’t necessarily mean you will. And, of course, I reserve the right to change my mind about any and all of these applications the second something new comes along.

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