My top 10 free Mac utilities

I personally love free software, especially when it adds real value to my work day. In the year since I made the switch from Windows to Mac I have examined hundreds of applications, many of them free or open source, and would like to give you a list of the applications that have made their way into my every day use.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, simply the top applications that I have found to be used nearly daily. In addition I'm not including utilities that ship with OS X. Without further adieu here is my take on them:

Though I also use Safari, my default browser is Firefox. Why? Extensions and add-ons. Firefox is effectively a mini-platform for web browsing and as a developer that builds web based applications the number of add-ons to help with HTML/CSS/etc. is mind numbing. The only problem I have with Firefox is that it needs to be restarted occasionally because it will suck up and continue to hold memory, especially after visiting Flash intensive sites. Since I rarely shut down my Mac Pro (I'll put it to sleep instead), Firefox needs a restart every 3-4 days. Example: As I write this Firefox has been up and running for 5 days and is currently consuming 508MB of memory. Fortunately there is an extension called QuickRestart that will allow you to restart Firefox and maintain all of your existing tabs and session states. Oh, and that extension is free too!

Though a relatively new addition to my collection of free utilities, Skitch has quickly risen on my list of must have, always handy utilities. As I wrote about it just last month, Skitch makes it so easy to capture, size, crop and annotate images that I don't feel at all compelled to fire up GIMP to edit my images. Add in the free storage and sharing capabilities from the Skitch online service and this is something you should have at the ready if you do ANY image editing or annotating.

Like Skitch, Dropbox is a relatively new addition to my collection of free utilities though I have found it an outstanding application and service. Why? If you have multiple computers you know that moving files between them can sometimes be a bit of a challenge, especially if you are going across platforms (Mac -> Windows -> Linux) like I do. Dropbox uses the web as an intermediary, effectively eliminating that issue. In addition I can detach my MacBook Pro from all networks—jumping on a plane for example—and my key files are there with me. When I return from my trip and reconnect to my network my updated files magically appear on my various desktop machines and even the VM Ware instance running Windows XP.

iStat menu
Rarely does a day go by that I am not consulting iStat menus to see what is up with my Macs, especially when I see inordinate memory usage (see Firefox above) or the CPU is taking a hit. iStat menu lets me quickly see what is going on and presents it in a seamless integration with my OS X shell. I got on the iStat menu bandwagon early in my Mac adoption and have been extremely happy with it ever since.

I'm online for the majority of my day and since I work from home I can't easily chat with some of my friends. Instant Messaging (IM) provides me with a virtual water cooler. As I have contracted out some of my development activities over the last year I've found IM to be a great way to quickly work through revisions and issues rather than pushing e-mails back and forth. I like Adium for this over iChat because it has a very compact interface and allows me to consolidate all of the various IM accounts (Google Talk, AIM, ICQ, etc) into a single place. Just a great all around application and one that I use throughout the day.

As an internet entrepreneur keeping up on the latest technology news is a bit of a challenge because of the sheer quantity. Though I've found sites like TechMeme very helpful for keeping abreast of what's going on I still like to rip through RSS feeds of my favorite sites to see what's up. NetNewsWire is great for this with a snappy interface and a built in browser that makes it easy to queue up stories to read while scanning the headlines.

I am a bit addicted to Twitter and have found the best way to manage my Twitter feeds is through TweetDeck, a wonderful little Adobe Air based application that presents multiple panes for each of my different views. Though I would prefer that TweetDeck was a native OS X application the developer for it has been pushing out updates pretty regularly and seems to be very attentive to requests from his increasing user base. In case you are interested you can follow me on Twitter by visiting

I haven't looked around too much for FTP clients because once I found Cyberduck I didn't see a need. My FTP requirements are generally very simple; push a few files up to one of my servers, grab a log file here or there, etc. For tasks like that it's hard to beat Cyberduck since I just fire it up and away I go, dragging and dropping files between Finder and Cyberduck windows as I need to.

Google Notifier
I love Gmail; it's been very reliable, has plenty of storage, an excellent web interface and an IMAP connection that I can access nicely with The best way I've found to stay on top of incoming e-mails when I don't have loaded is through Google Notifier. Sometimes the IMAP interface to Gmail can be a bit slow so Notifier gives me a quicker update when new mail comes in. An added bonus is that it also monitors your Google Calendars and can push out reminders for that as well.

MPlayer OSX
Though I generally can watch video through QuickTime there are file formats that it can struggle with, even with some of the add-ons for it. If QuickTime can't play it I grab MPlayer OSX and it hasn't failed me yet. It's displaced VLC for me because the video quality seems to be a bit smoother.

So there you have it, my top 10 free Mac utilities. There are others that I use, just not as regularly as those listed above, including Handbrake, MySQL Tools, TrueCrypt, Audacity and GIMP. I would also mention QuickSilver, though that has been replaced by LaunchBar (a paid application) for me.

One of the reasons I love writing these types of lists up is that I always get some fantastic recommendations for an application I wasn't aware of. Got a free application or utility that you really love and use all the time? Drop a note in the comments and share!

Update (3 Dec, 2016): I had listed TrueCrypt as a good free utility for encrypting data on your Mac. In the 7 years since this was posted TrueCrypt ceased to be in active development and has been found to have security issues. Several alternatives have surfaced that are worthy of considering, including VeraCrypt, which is based on the TrueCrypt code base but remains in active development. I have not used it yet so I cannot vouch for its capability.

I recommend checking out Paul Bischoff's post about free TrueCrypt alternatives. I rarely update older posts like this however anything where I was recommending products for personal security that have since been compromised will be updated.


Anonymous said…
Off the main topic of this post, but I'm curious: What do you use TrueCrypt for? (I love the use of "adversary" on their site. How many adversaries do you have?)
Chris Bulow said…
iStat is good but I much prefer the look of iPulse - it's just such a lovely interface:
Chris Bulow said…
And for IRC chats, I'd recommend Colloquy from to assist you in your quest.
Chris Bulow said…
Oh, and TorrentDam to search multiple .torrent sites for that hard to find episode:
Keleko said…
Wow, MPlayer hasn't changed in a long time. I don't really like using software that's not actively supported.
Sam said…
it is interesting to notice that of your top 10 apps, most of them are relatively "non-mac". By which I mean, they do not follow the usual UI/layout and usability features found in many only mac apps.

As a long time mac user and a recent acquirer of a windows machine, I am super sensitive to difference in the way I am interacting with the apps I use. Having tried many on your list at one time or another. I have not stopped using most apps because of some lacking in functionality, but more so, I rejected most for doing little things that bugged me in usability.

I think mostly I am just curious as to overall what you think about the differences in the interface on apps on the mac versus windows.
Anonymous said…
How bout Evernote? Synchs notes between computers and web and does OCR on images for searches.
Anonymous said…
Instead of MPlayer get VLC player or QT plugin Perian. Most of your applications are Free Software, have a look at FreeSMUG list
Anonymous said…
Why do you need QuickRestart for Firefox when Firefox (at least the version 3 I use) can already restore your tabs?

Since you are a Google Mail user who obviously bounces around different machines and locations, have you considered using Google Reader over NetNewsWire? Sure, the interface isn't as slick, but everything is kept "in the cloud" which is great for access from multiple machines.
Anonymous said…
There's also an iPhone version of NetNewsWire that you can sync with your OS X version.

If you're already using other Google Apps you might want to try out Google Reader instead. I've happy with it, especially since they added a folders feature.

I don't know if you use Bit Torrent or not, but uTorrent now has a Mac version that is great.

As DieMonkey mentioned, Evernote is worth looking at. It's a good note taking app, and is available for the iPhone for free and syncs with other platforms. Text notes, voice recordings, and pictures + OCR all in one.
David Alison said…
@Nicholas: TrueCrypt is nice because there is a Mac, Windows and Linux client and it allows me to create a heavily encrypted virtual drive for really sensitive documents. I have a 20MB virtual drive that is stored on my Dropbox account.

@Chris Bulow: Out of curiosity what do you use IRC for? I grabbed Colloquy but really haven't found a real use for IRC. The last time I played around with IRC it was quickly being taken over by uuencoded download bots.

@Keleko: Yeah, it's a bit out of date but the performance is a little better than VLC and it does seem to work.

@Sam: Good question, though other than TweetDeck (Adobe Air based) and Skitch, which application from my list do you feel is not a good representation of the Mac UI standard?

This is one of the things that drove me crazy about Windows—the lack of a clear UI standard within Windows applications, especially from Microsoft itself. In general I've found the majority of Mac applications are much more standardized than Windows applications, though I'm a little concerned that Apple is violating their own standards (like MS did) with products like Aperture, which contains slightly different UI elements than other OS X applications.

I personally would prefer that applications do everything they can to stay within the bounds of user interface standards. I think there is room for innovation but just doing something different for the sake of change is a pointless exercise to me.

@DieMonkey: I haven't tried Evernote; thanks for the tip, I'll check it out.
Chris Bulow said…
The only channels on IRC that I use now are on private servers - as you say, there's a lot of rather messy other stuff "out there" :)
David Alison said…
@Chris Bulow: You know, of the "abandoned" internet technologies (think Finger), IRC is the one that would be interesting to see a resurgence in. Simple, lightweight, dynamic "chat rooms" with tons of client software available.
Chris Bulow said…
@David. Yes, I agree. I keep IRC just because a few of the "oldies" I keep in touch with still use it now. Mind you, finger was a security hole, so I can understand that being deprecated. And with everyman and his dog a-Twittering, you KNOW where people are every damn minute of the day :)
Unknown said…
i use gmail notifr. replace gmail notifier with this. works very well for me
Anonymous said…

instead of Gmail Notifier I use GmailNotifr, I think it's smaller and sits on the menu bar, just point your mouse and see the headlines.
Another smaller also RSS thing is Shrook. Uses much less resources than NNW.
ClipMenu is very useful.
Noted and xPad - for all kinds of notes, clips..etc
and Skype of course
David Alison said…
@Anon: thanks for those app names, I'll check them out.
Anonymous said…
For me: SoundSource (Rogue Amoeba), GeekTool, Semulov, BwanaDik, MediaLink (PS3 media streaming), Google Quick Search Box, Office Dock, iLife Dock, iWork Dock, FinderSize (Applescript to set finder window to set size), Cocktail, VirtualBox (Virtualization from Sun), TimeMachineEditor.
David Alison said…
@VesperDEM: Thanks for the util names.

@Daniel: I've got Neo Office but primarily use iWork; very happy with that.

And that link for Open Source Mac? Really cool - thanks!
Anonymous said…
Skitch has been in public beta for a such a long time that I wonder whether it will ultimately become a service you have to pay for — which would be a drag if you've already uploaded a lot of pictures.
Unknown said…
David, what do you use Audacity for?
David Alison said…
@Mark: Good point - though technically Gmail has been in beta for at least 4 years now. Still, the little client app is my favorite part of the whole thing.

@Kermit: I use Audacity primarily to run compression and clean up on the audio portion of videos. The video I did on is an example.
brian said…
Love the blog, David. Just wondering why you use NetNewsWire when that function is built into Mail. I figure if it's in Mail, I can save resources by reading RSS that way.
David Alison said…
@Brian: I've found the RSS reader in a bit wanting; NNW has some great features, the best for me that I can queue up stories to read. That, plus with 12G of RAM I haven't worried too much about resources ;-)
Chris Bulow said…
@David: please put it away, you'll scare the children!
Anonymous said…
I'm really curious about webEdition CMS web site development tool. It's not a utility, but it is free, built for Mac , and has an open-source development philosophy. Has anyone used it? Heard of it? Heard anything about it?
Anonymous said…
Speaking of notifiers, you should check out They make notifiers for quite a few applications, including a lot you make use of. Anyway, I am fond of the growl mail plugin for apple mail. Take a peek at their website, cool stuff.
David Alison said…
@Anon: I probably should have made it my top 11 because I use Growl and am quite happy with it. It's one of those seamless applications that it's easy to overlook because they meld in so well. Thanks!
Anonymous said…
really, check out, works transparently with quicktime player

Popular posts from this blog

Keyboard vs. Mouse

Some cool Firefox add-ons

Finding Davey: A Father's Search for His Son in the Afterlife