Mac OS X must-haves

Jon recently got a Mac laptop at work, and asked me for recommendations, apps that are “must haves.” I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while anyway, because I’m asked this question a few times a year.

My top picks


LaunchBar is the ultimate Batman utility belt for your Mac. It’s difficult to concisely describe what it does, but I’ll try: you hit a key combo to bring up a small bar at the top of your screen, and with a few keystrokes you can find and run applications, locate and open files, contacts, or bookmarks, execute dozens (hundreds?) of commands doing all sorts of things, search Google and other services, control iTunes, and even do math. You can even add your own commands.

The only way to really understand why LaunchBar is great is to try it. There’s a free 30-day trial download; after that you have to buy a license. I’ve seen people balk at the price for what they consider a “basic” utility. I use LaunchBar easily fifty times a day, so I consider the price a bargain.

LaunchBar is powerful and full of surprises and functionality. I may write more about it another time.

If you’ve heard of Quicksilver, let me put it this way: LaunchBar is like Quicksilver, but without all the slowness, bugs, and developer abandonment.


1Password is a versatile vault for all kinds of information. Passwords, credit card info, random notes, software licenses, anything you want. It ties into most browsers and lets you auto-fill logins on sites. It also has an easy-to-use random password creator built in.

Here’s how I use 1Password when I set up a new account on a site.

  1. I use 1Password’s random password generator to create a randomized, long password. I usually use about 20-24 characters, but you can go up to 50.

  2. I log into the site with my newly minted password. 1Password will automatically detect the login and ask if I want to save it. I say yes.

  3. The next time I need to log into the site, I just hit a key combo, and I’m automatically logged in.

Do you see the real advantage? It’s not just that I have the convenience of having something type my password for me. It’s that I can use a different and completely random password for every site I use, and I never have to remember any of them. All I need to know is the one password (get it?) to unlock my 1Password database.

If someone managed to crack my Facebook password, the damage would be limited to Facebook. They wouldn’t automatically have access to my Twitter account, my email, or (God forbid) be able to log into my bank account. I use Dropbox (see below) to sync my 1Password database between my desktop and my laptop, so I always have up-to-date data, whichever machine I am using.

1Password optionally syncs data to an iPhone app (via wifi), so you can have your data on-the-go.


Evernote is a place to put anything you might want to remember and find later on. I use Evernote for all kinds of things. It has completely replaced all of the sticky notes, scraps of paper, random emails to myself, etc., which I used to use to stash bits of data that I didn’t want to lose. Now I just stuff it into Evernote, forget about it, and if I ever need it again, it’s right there.

Evernote can read images and extract words. You can take a picture of a sheet of paper, upload it to Evernote, and search for words in the picture to find it later. They even do handwriting recognition.

Another big plus to Evernote is that you can tag something with a URL. This is great for bookmarking articles. I used to use Delicious for these bookmarks, but I found that I would often go back to the site and the URL no longer worked. In the case of certain publications, the content would expire from the site (I’m looking at you, newspaper industry). The advantage with Evernote is that I can create a note containing the page’s contents, tag it with the URL, and if the link is broken when I go back, so what? I still have the contents of the page.

There are a number of Evernote clients available (Windows, Mac, iPhone, Blackberry, etc.), as well as access via their web site, so there are many ways to access your Evernote data.

Evernote is free, and you can upgrade to a Premium account if you want a larger monthly upload allowance.


In a word, Dropbox is magic. You have a folder, you drop in files, and they magically appear on any machine where you use Dropbox. I’ve seen other services try to do this (Apple’s iDisk, WebDAV in general…) but Dropbox is the first one I’ve used where it “just works” every time, and it’s fast.

I use Dropbox when I want to edit a file on multiple computers. I also use it to sync my 1Password database between machines. Because the 1Password data is encrypted with AES-128, it’s no problem to leave it out in the cloud.

Bonus: Dropbox is free if you don’t need more than 2GB.


TextMate: easily the best text editor I have ever used. As I’ve said before, TextMate has all the extensibility of Emacs, but with none of the Lisp or Richard Stallman.

TextMate is one of those applications that is deceptively simple. At launch, you see nothing but a blank text window. Hidden beneath that simple face is a powerhouse.

I use TextMate for writing, coding, designing, and prototyping. The ability to invent new commands by writing small scripts is very powerful. Unlike some editors, you aren’t limited to a language that was chosen for you. You can use any common interpreted language. I’ve written TextMate commands in Bash, Perl, Ruby, and even PHP. (Though I regret the latter.)

TextMate isn’t cheap for “just a text editor,” but if you spend a significant amount of your time editing text, and especially if you write code more than occasionally, it’s well worth the price. I wrote this post in TextMate using Markdown.


Adium is a powerful instant messaging client with support for nearly every protocol that exists. I use it for AIM and Jabber, but it also supports ICQ, Yahoo, MSN, Google Talk, Novell Groupwise, Facebook, and a bunch more. In other words, if you’re on a bunch of networks and you don’t want to run a bunch of apps to use them all, Adium is for you.


I use ClickToFlash to block Flash content in Safari. Because I hate Flash.

ClickToFlash couldn’t be easier. Wherever Flash would be, you see a gray box that says “Flash” in the middle. If you want to load that object, click. You can also load everything on a page at once, or you can whitelist a domain (e.g. so it always loads Flash without a click. It only works with Safari.


Skitch has a simple purpose: let you take a snapshot of something on your screen, and upload it to the web, quickly and easily. I use this at least a few times per week.

By default, Skitch uploads your snapshots to If you prefer, you can configure Skitch to upload elsewhere, like Flickr, or a WebDAV, FTP, or SFTP server. I have Skitch save files to my web site using SFTP.


If you use SSH, SSHKeychain is invaluable. As a systems engineer, I use SSH dozens of times every day.

SSHKeychain is an SSH agent, which means it can memorize keys and passphrases for you (to avoid constantly typing them in), and it can forward that authentication data through to other servers (in case you have to jump through one server to get to another, but need to use the same key on both). It can also handle some common tasks like creating SSH tunnels.

Yes, I know, Terminal has an ssh-agent built in, but each window gets its own. So you are constantly typing in your passphrase. It’s annoying, especially if you open several windows in a series.

Second stringers (good to have around)


I hardly ever use Firefox, but I keep it around because occasionally I run across a site that is broken in Safari. Usually these sites work in Firefox (but not always—yes, there are still IE-only sites out there).

Flip4Mac WMV Player

Flip4Mac plays Windows Media formats in Quicktime (including in webpage-embedded views).


Perian is another Quicktime add-on. It understands a bunch of video formats, including DiVX.


ExpanDrive allows you to mount remote servers as local volumes. If you have a server that you can access via SSH, you can mount filesystems on that server on your Mac, using SSH (SFTP). It also supports FTP and Amazon S3. This is a great way to edit remote files with your favorite Mac text editor (like TextMate).

ExpanDrive is currently US$39.95.