Programs for Your Mac

Macs come with a handful of programs that are well-designed and fairly intuitive. These programs are all that many people will ever need, but you may not know that they even exist. This post discusses the programs that come with your Mac—and a few other essential programs—and explains some non-obvious things you can do with them. We’ll also talk about how to get rid of some things that look cool the first few times you use them, but will drive you crazy after a month.

The Dock

The first thing you need to do is move the dock to the right-hand side of the screen. Almost all monitors have more horizontal space than vertical space and putting the dock on the right-hand side gives you more room for web pages and documents. Lots of programs put toolbars on the left-hand side of the screen, so you don’t want it there. You can move the Dock by clicking on the Apple in the top left of the screen, then clicking on ‘System Preferences’. Choose ‘Dock’ then ‘Position on screen: Bottom’. Change it to Right.

I like my size to be about the middle of the range and I absolutely hate the animation while opening applications so I turn it off.

Most people prefer to have the dock hidden and have it pop out when you roll over it. I generally keep programs in the dock that I use at least once a week. This includes web browsers, SFTP clients, a couple of text editors, Mail, and iTunes. I also keep a folder for saving comics. The rest of the programs I use are opened by clicking on a file (Preview, Photoshop, FileMaker, and SoundStudio) or I know that I want to use it and open it by hitting Command and Spacebar. This brings up the Spotlight search bar so I can type the name of the program I want to use.

When you are first starting out, you probably want to keep every program you use in the Dock so you can find it easily. Programs will stay in the Dock if you drag them to a new position or if you right-click (Control-click if you don’t have a mouse with a right mouse button) and select the option ‘Keep in Dock’.

Advanced users will want to pin the dock to the bottom of the screen. Open a Terminal window and past the following line into it.

defaults write pinning end

Press Return and then restart the dock by typing

killall Dock

and then press return. You can also use TinkerTool to pin the dock and perform other useful actions.

Web Browsing

Safari is a very nice web browser that will render most sites perfectly. There are a few Preferences that you will need to change. The first thing you need to do is go to the Safari menu item and click on ‘Block Pop-Up Windows’. This will eliminate most of the pop-up windows that show up on some sites. You’ll occasionally get a pop-under—a window that show up under you main window. You won’t know you have these until you close the main window.

Sometimes a website won’t let you in because you aren’t using Internet Explorer. For those sites you can fake some of them out by enabling the ‘Develop’ Menu. Go to the Advanced tab in Safari’s Preferences and click ‘Show Develop menu in menu bar’ box. You can then have Safari tell the offending web site that it is Internet Explorer by selecting IE as the User Agent in the Develop menu item. If the site uses Windows-specific hacks, it still won’t work but it does work a good percentage of the time.

There are lots of alternatives to Safari. If you are coming from a Windows environment you are probably already using Firefox. Firefox allows plugins and Safari does not only recently added that feature. You can go to the Apple website and view extensions by clicking on Safari, then Safari Extensions Gallery. For many people the extensions are the reason they use Firefox. I use it with the Firebug plugin for website development. There are literally hundreds of plugins available so you can customize you web browsing experience. Ad blockers seem to be especially popular.

Opera, Camino. Flock, and OminWeb are reasonable alternatives to Safari and Firefox. Google has released a browser for Intel Macs called Chrome.


Yes. Flash ads can be annoying. However, I find that I tune out most ads and focus on the content of the web page. Flash can be used in a constructive manner. YouTube uses Flash to display its videos. Many of my web sites use flash for instructional programs. Flash is probably the most common way to play sound in web pages but HTML5 (which is supported by all of the new versions of the browsers mentioned above) is making Flash obsolete. Your Mac came with a Flash Player that works for all of web browsers on your computer. From time to time you may need to update your Flash player to the latest version. Software Update will not do this for you. You will need to go to the Adobe web site and update your copy. If you want to turn off Flash, Safari will let you turn off all plug-ins by selecting a check-box in the ‘Security’ preference pane. Firefox has similar functionality.

If you want to block Flash, there is a plug-in for Safari that works really well. Instead of displaying Flash ads you get a gray box with a button for loading the Flash content. ClickToFlash is an open source program that really speeds up browsing. Flash files don’t load until you tell them to. You can whitelist sites that have Flash content that you want to see—like YouTube and LearningFundamentals

Word Processing

Your Mac comes with TextEdit—a simple text editor. It works fine but there is a free alternative that is much better. Bean is a superb word processor that I use for all of my letter writing. I also use it to edit templates that I’ve created for envelopes, faxes, and short letters. The reason I use it instead of TextEdit is that it allows me to set page boundaries, margins, and indents. It supports smart quotes so your quotes look like “this” instead of "this". It has an automatic word count. This comes in handy frequently when I am writing descriptions of my products where I am limited to 50 words. This feature would also be handy if a student was required to write a paper of a specific length. The default format is .rtf and rtfd (rtf with pictures)—a format the just about every word processor can open. It can also open most versions of Word so you can read what others send you. It’s not good for manuals and catalogs where precise formatting is required, but there are other tools for that. It is perfect for what it was designed for—simple document creation.

I recently discovered a useful feature of Bean. If you copy text from a web page and paste it into Bean, the text retains all of the formatting of the web page. Colors, bold, italic, spacing etc. are all copied into the new document. This comes in handy if you want to save just a part of a web page, say a recipe or fix-it instructions. You can then use Print-PDF-Save as PDF and have a PDF of the document or save it in rtfd format.

Sophisticated Word Processing and Spreadsheets

If you need to write manuals or advertising copy where precise placement of images and text is important then you will need to use more powerful document preparation software. There are three free alternatives that use the Open Document format by default. has recently been ported to work natively on the Mac. NeoOffice is a Mac port of that has been around for a while. Recently IBM released a free version of Lotus Symphony. All three of these packages allow fairly sophisticated document preparation. They also come with a spreadsheet program.

I’ve used OpenOffice/NeoOffice to edit long manuals and documents and they perform well. I’ve played with the spreadsheet capabilities of each package and they seem fine. I was a big user of Lotus years ago but I rarely use spreadsheets now so I can’t really critique the spreadsheets. They all seem fine to me.

Heavy Duty Document Preparation

If you are involved in preparing catalogs or print advertising then you already know that the only program that will meet your needs is Adobe InDesign. It has its quirks, but the latest version has fixed most of the things that really annoyed me. Preview and third party pdf manipulators have solved my biggest complaint with InDesign—its inability to print booklets.


For years coders have used BBEdit for their heavy lifting. There is a free version called TextWrangler that has most of the features of BBEdit—including SFTP editing—that works almost as well. A new editor—TextMate—is a clean-sheet design that appeals to a lot of coders. I’ve used it when editing LaTex files because it integrates well with the PDF creation process. BBEdit supports SVN and CVS for version management and TextMate supports Darcs, Perforce, SVK, and Subversion. Both have built-in syntax highlighting and code completion.

For the hardcore among us, there is VIM. And of course there’s probably a command in Emacs that runs an instance of OSX.


Most Mac applications automatically check spelling while you type. Most also support OSXs built-in dictionary. Just right click on a word and you can find the definition. If you are unsure of the spelling of a word that has been flagged, click on it and the dictionary will suggest spellings that might be what you really mean. Make sure the ‘Check Spelling While You Type’ option is checked in the ‘Edit:Spelling and Grammar’ preference in Safari and you won’t have to worry about spelling errors on web posts. You are still responsible for making sensible comments. And unfortunately, it can’t find errors that crop up when you edit in a hurry.

Photo Importing

iPhoto is perfectly fine for most people. If you take lots of photos and want to edit them in PhotoShop like I do then you may want to grab them off of you camera with Image Capture. Image capture comes with your Mac and it works with most digital cameras to let you copy pictures from your camera to your hard drive. It also gives you control over which images you want to leave on the camera and which you want to delete. Be aware that it sometimes can’t tell the difference between a USB flash drive and a camera so it may pop up and ask you to download images from a flash drive. We use Image Capture instead of iPhoto because we take thousands of pictures and want to control which ones we download and where we save them.

Screen Capture

Often you will want to capture your entire screen or just a portion of it. There are keyboard commands that will do this for you and save the image as a .png file. To capture everything on the monitor press ‘Command-Shift-3’ and everything on the screen will be captured to a .png file. The files start with the name ‘Picture 1’ and each subsequent capture increases the number. If you want to capture just a portion of the screen, then press ‘Command-Shift-4’ and a cursor changes to a large ‘+’ with the coordinates of the screen next to it—called a crosshair cursor. Click to start selecting just the portion of the screen that you want to capture. When you let go of the mouse the image will be saved on your desktop. You can edit these pictures in Preview, mail them to Windows users, and embed them in Bean documents.

If you can’t remember the keyboard commands then you can use Grab. Grab also has several advantages over the screen capture key commands. The first is that it captures the image to a window—not the desktop. If you didn’t get the right thing then you don’t save it. A downside of Grab is that the default format for saving images is .tiff. Most Windows users won’t be able to view .tiff images in their e-mail. However, Grab takes advantage of a hidden in plain sight OSX feature—the services menu item. Instead of using ‘File:Save’ to save the capture, use the services menu to open the capture in Preview. Once it is in Preview you can crop it, adjust the size, or most importantly save it in a number of file formats, including JPEG and PNG. Which format to use is a complicated subject so for now you probably want to use JPEG. If you are emailing the image compress it to about 30-50% by using the slider that appears when you save it.

Screen capture is appropriate for capturing the daily comics that are in Flash format, genealogy records, and Google Books text. It is not the best way to save web sites, order information, or images in web sites. We’ll learn the best way to do that later.

You can also use the Grab program through Preview.


Preview has evolved to be more than just a quick photo and pdf viewer. When used as an image editor it allows you to make simple edits to photos, change the format, and resize images. You can also use it to view folders of images and delete those you don’t want to keep.

When viewing PDFs you can fill in forms, search for text, and make simple annotations. You can also create a new document from the images or pdf stored in the clipboard. (Basically any image you have copied using Command-C or Edit:Copy).

You can capture a portion of the screen with File:Grab and then manipulate it with the normal cropping and editing tools.

PDF manipulation

Serious PDF manipulation requires Combine PDFs. It used to be free but now costs 20€ or $30 and is well worth it.

There is another combiner, PDFLab from the makers of CocoaBooklet that I found when looking up links for this article. It lets you do the same thing as Combine PDFs with a slightly different interface. It is donationware.

Occasionally you will run across a password protected PDF file. These can be a pain if you want to print, copy, or save a portion of them. I frequently run across parts or service manuals that are incorrectly made. There are a few pages of diagrams that are oversize and the rest is letter size paper. Unfortunately all of the letter size pages print very small and the copy protection makes it hard to strip out the large pages and save the rest of the document as letter size. PDFKey Pro is a one-trick-pony that strips the password protection from PDF files so that you can print or save parts of them. It’s not free (its $24.99) but if you need it, it’s worth it.

I frequently need to make booklets for manuals that I’ve written. CocoaBooklet makes it easy.

File transfer

If you work on web sites then you need to move images and files back and forth between your Mac and the server. There are two products that do this very well.

I usually use Cyberduck, a GPL’d product that works well with files and folders. You can set it up to open files in any of your favorite editors. I like the way it handles bookmarks, since I edit dozens of sites. It is my preferred SFTP client.

Another SFTP file transfer client is Fugu. It has a different interface but the same functionality. I used it for a long time and was quite pleased with it.


I don’t keep track of my ancestors, but my father does and Reunion does a great job of tracking who is related to who, when they were born, how many siblings they have, and all of the other information genealogists collect. It allows export to html files so you can publish your family tree to the web. It is reasonably priced at $99. It is under active development so updates are frequently available.

Movie Playing

Quicktime and DVD Player will satisfy most of your movie playing needs. Sometimes a Windows user will send you a movie that you can’t play with Quicktime. That’s when you need VLC. It plays just about every movie format and it’s free.

Sometimes you need to pull off the movie portion of a DVD so that you can play it later or edit it in iMovie. Or maybe you need to convert a movie into a format that iMovie can recognize. Handbrake is a powerful converter that works on most types of movie formats.


Jumpcut is a clipboard tool that makes a list of the text that you copy so you can access it later. This is incredibly useful if you do any coding or repetitive editing. For example, I frequently ship packages using the UPS web site. I use this program hundreds of times each day. I used it to past the header for each section on this page. I’ll use it for repetitive code like the code surrounding a link. The tool is resides in the menu at the top of the screen where you can access it easily.

Most people will never need to mess around with creator codes and file types or make files invisible but if you do those kinds of things then you’ll need FileBuddy.

As mentioned above, TinkerTool (€ 10.00) has lots of little utilities to change the behavior of your Mac. It’s a tool for advanced users since it does things like pin the dock and remove the startup chime—things most people don’t care about.


You can move your TiVo’s programs to your Mac with a program that is sold with Toast—the CD and DVD burning program. If you can find it, there is a discontinued free program called TiVoDecode Manager that works well for most shows but sometimes has audio synching problems.

TiVo has a program that lets you play your iTunes Music and IPhotos on your TV. TiVo Desktop has an unfriendly list-style interface, but it works well for playing music. (As of 2009-09-09 it doesn’t work on Snow Leopard but they are promising an update.)

Free Dashboard Widgets

There are several widgets that I use almost daily. The first is included with OSX—the weather widget. It gives the weekly highs and lows at a glance.

The built-in calculator function is overkill for most of what I do so I downloaded Pemdas—a simple calculator. I use it several times each day.

I frequently use Easy Envelopes for addressing envelopes. It integrates with AddressBook for people you send things to frequently and also lets you paste addresses for one-offs.

Unit Converter and iCal are widgets included with OSX that I use keep on my desktop and use frequently.

Anti-virus software

You don’t need anti-virus software to protect yourself from Mac viruses—mostly because there aren’t any yet. However, you do need to be careful not to install trojans—programs that trick you into installing them and which have the potential to make bad things happen. Many trojans are work by tricking you into thinking you need a plug-in to view content on a site. Porn sites are especially good locations for this type of trojan. The only plug-in you should normally need is Flash and if you don’t have it installed, get it from the Adobe site.

If you get files from Windows users and send them to other users, you might want to consider an anti-virus program to identify viruses in those programs. We use ClamAV on Windows machines that connect to our office network and there is a Mac version ClamXav that is free and open source.

I’ve got a few more programs that I’ll add later. In the mean time, check out the Quick Tips at Apple. The videos are short and to the point while showing you tricks you never knew you needed.

Once you have been using your Mac for a while, you may want to add some more sophisticated programs. Smashing Apps has a list of free apps that can help you do things that you didn’t even know you wanted to do—like read and annotate PDF (Skim) or mess with some of the system preferences that you can only access from the command line or with Onyx.

Find the Right App

Three good sites for finding just the right app for doing what you want to do are I use this, MacUpdate and Version Tracker.

Updated: 2010-12-29