Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge
Getting the most out of your Apple computer often means exploring well beyond the stock apps pre-installed on macOS and the top charts of the Mac App Store. Many of the best productivity, workflow, and OS customization software have been around for years, but they can be hard to find if you’re a first-time Mac user and don’t know what you’re looking for or what the crucial differences are between macOS and Windows.
Below, we’ve compiled a list of some of the best software available for Mac, from email and shortcut apps to window organizers and multimedia players. This isn’t meant to be a definitive list; check out last year’s guide for GIF making, recipe organization, and photo editing apps, for example. But it is a good place to start when it comes to building a better machine for work, recreation, and everything in between.
We’ve rounded up our favorite and most-used games, apps, and entertainment. Check out our app picks for iPhones, Android phones, PCs and Macs; our favorite mobile games from Apple Arcade and Google Play Pass; and our top choices for gaming PCs, the PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and VR. We’ve also listed our favorite streaming shows on Disney+, Hulu, ESPN and Netflix, some great sci-fi books, and exciting new podcasts. (Note: pricing was accurate at the time of publishing, but may change.)
For those who really don’t like the design of the native macOS Mail app, Airmail 3 is about as close as you can get to a clean, Gmail-style interface on an Apple desktop. Yes, it’s pricey at $26.99, but many email apps these days have moved to monthly subscription models, making Airmail a nice alternative to that pricing approach.
It has a great companion app, some unique features like Touch Bar support, and a nice customizable interface that feels like the Mail app but with a much-needed visual overhaul. There are plenty of other options, from Spark to Edison Mail to Newton, but Airmail is perhaps the most reliable of the bunch, and the only one geared toward consumers that lets you pay once and own it forever.
Image: Running with Crayons
The latest version of the popular Alfred search and application launcher tool, Alfred 4, was released back in May, and it brought a dizzying number of major upgrades to the service. To name just a few, Alfred 4 has a new theme editor for creating custom looks for the Alfred menu, a powerful workflow debugger, and Catalina dark mode compatibility.
But for those unfamiliar with Alfred, it’s like a superpowered Spotlight that lets you customize endless keyboard shortcuts and other shorthand commands for launching apps, searching the web, and pretty much anything else you can imagine automating in your desktop workflow. It’s as powerful as a productivity app can be. Plus, it’s available for free, with the option for a $25 license for the premium PowerPack upgrade.
Cleaning up your Mac is an integral part of desktop maintenance, and removing unwanted apps can go a long way in keeping your machine feeling snappy as it ages. Unlike some paid alternatives like Trash Me, AppCleaner is a free donation-based app that helps you uninstall software you no longer use or want and gets rid of all the related files that may be buried elsewhere in your directory.
Image: Surtees Studio
The Mac menu bar can be a powerful productivity tool, but only if it’s managed correctly. There’s where an app like Bartender comes in. It lets you organize your menu bar, configure keyboard shortcuts for accessing individual apps via menu bar icons, and was recently updated with macOS Catalina support. It’s a simple app, costing $15 once to own it forever, that offers a surprisingly powerful amount of customization to an oft-overlooked part of macOS, especially if you’re getting concerned your menu bar is stuffed full of unnecessary junk.
Image: Bear Notes
Note-taking apps are often a matter of aesthetic preference. The Apple Notes app works just fine, as does Evernote and any number of other third-party alternatives. But if you’re looking for something clean, well-designed, and just downright pleasant to use, give Bear a try. It’s Mac-only note-taking software that has a fantastic iOS companion app and a great look and feel. It’s not overstuffed with features you’ll never use or bogged down by its creator’s desire to break into the enterprise.
It has simple features, like note pinning and markdown support, and an elegant three-column layout that lets you move between your organized hashtags, note list, and the actual editor itself. It costs $20 a year for the premium version to get access to cross-device syncing, but it’s worth it in my opinion. The one big drawback: no web version, in the event you move between macOS and Windows.
Most password managers these days live in the background, most prominently as browser extensions and more recently as mobile apps that finally support autofill on iOS and Android. But there is something to say for the dedicated Last Pass app. Beyond being my password manager of choice, the LastPass Mac app is a much easier and faster way to access passwords in the unfortunate but rather common event you need to manually input credentials, like if you’re using a macOS app that naturally doesn’t sync to the Chrome extension. It also has a nifty keyboard shortcut for quickly searching your password vault.
For Windows 10 users, managing the desktop space is a built-in feature of the operating system. But for Mac users, window management is kind of a nightmare and always has been. That’s why there’s a robust third-party ecosystem for helping you get the window snapping and organizational features you find natively on Microsoft’s OS. One of the best apps for doing this is Magnet, which lets you snap windows flush to the edges of your screen and into preconfigured layouts that you can save across apps. There’s support for keyboard shortcuts as well, making Magnet, at just $2, a must-have tool for the more organizationally-minded Mac users out there.
Like email, calendar, and note-taking apps, personal task-tracking software is something a Mac comes with out of the box. But it’s not great and, like most native Mac apps, lacks that clean look and feel of third-party paid apps. Thankfully, there is software out there like Todoist, which spins out the to-do features often built into calendar and note apps, and gives them the dedicated app treatment.
Todoist has a lot of neat features, like being able to add items to your lists directly from Alexa or Slack. Its simple design breaks up your tasks into an inbox-style series of queues you can easily categorize by due date. There’s a great iOS companion app, and Todoist offers a robust free version if you don’t feel like paying for the more team-oriented premium and business subscriptions at $3 and $5 a month, respectively.
Since Twitter started revoking access to key developer tools last year, Mac users haven’t been given a lot of great options for accessing Twitter outside the web. To make matters worse, the company killed its admittedly terrible dedicated Mac app last year, only to resurrect it as an experimental, buggy Catalyst version back in October. Thankfully, there’s always the free Tweetdeck.
Once a third-party app that Twitter eventually acquired way back in 2011, Tweetdeck offers a unique vertical column layout that is arguably the most information-rich and digestible version of Twitter available. The trick is to curate lists, so you can kick your unfiltered timeline to the curb and rely on dedicated columns full of handpicked accounts you like to follow. But once you’ve got it going, Tweetdeck becomes indispensable when you’re at your desktop.
Every Mac user needs a solid video playback app, and there exists nothing better than the open source and free app VLC, now maintained by VideoLAN. Started way back in 2001, VLC supports multiple file formats and codecs, as well as audio and video compression methods. If you’re trying to play an obscure video file or convert one file from .avi or .mkv to .mp4, VLC has you covered.
My personal Mac email app of choice, and a solid alternative to more single-serving options like Airmail and Spark, Wavebox is a multi-purpose, Electron-powered web wrapper that lets you build dedicated tabs for more than 1,200 apps, from Gmail to Slack to Office 365. It’s best at being a dedicated Gmail wrapper.
This is for those Mac users who, like me, enjoy keeping an uncluttered browser window and prefer to segment different parts of their workflow into dedicated apps. Although Wavebox costs $20 a year to unlock some of its better features, it works well enough in its free, base version, and it has powerful notification and menu bar controls. You can also customize the way apps within Wavebox run in the background, to keep a handle on memory usage and battery drain.
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