Powerful free Mac apps
Stuff your Mac with astonishing free alternatives to the big-name apps!
Everyone likes getting something for nothing, especially when it comes to software. And it’s even sweeter when the free app is almost as good as paid-for tools which cost hundreds of pounds. Not all the apps featured here will save you that much, but some will, and if you were to use them all instead of their commercial alternatives you’d save nearly £2000!
The App Store is chock full of free apps, but while there are many good free tools to be had there, the sheer number of them has given free software an unfairly bad rap. Despite Apple’s best attempts at quality control, many of the free apps on the App Store aren’t very useful, and yet there are lots of good free software tools both on and off the App Store.
We’ve carefully road-tested each app featured here (with one special exception) to ensure that they’re stable, reasonably easy to use, and have all the basic features you’d expect. We’ve pointed out where there are limitations and explained how you might get around them. Limitations, however, were surprisingly few.
We’ve also avoided shareware, demo versions, and trials, though some of the open-source apps do ask you to make a donation to the developer community. Of course, that’s at your discretion.
Easy as one, two, free
Some of the names here may be familiar; they’ve been around a while and featured in Mac-Format before. But even if you’ve tried previous versions and found them not to your liking, it’s well-worth giving them another go. GIMP and Libre-Office, to name but two, have improved in leaps and bounds in the last couple of years, and both are now very capable tools in their own right. And both are self-contained apps – GIMP no longer needs X11 in order to run.
One other often-overlooked benefit of free software, particularly open-source programs or those which draw heavily on OS X frameworks, is that they don’t suffer from the kind of bloat that seems to have infested applications from Microsoft and Adobe in particular in recent years. Libre-Office, for example, needs less than a tenth of the disk space of Office 2011, and that’s with a database program (something that’s missing from Office 2011) included.
File formats are another area where free apps score highly. The big commercial programs use proprietary formats for documents, while most free software – and certainly open-source tools – use open formats, meaning your documents are more compatible with other apps and are future-proofed (see page 20). Nevertheless, developers recognise that people have documents in proprietary formats, so free software tends to do a very good job of supporting them, meaning you have the best of both worlds.
So much for using free software at home and for casual work tasks. But what about using it in workflows on mission-critical jobs? That depends on the software. We wouldn’t suggest that, say, a fine art painter use Sketchbook Express for anything other than sketching out ideas. There are limitations in tools like Inkscape and Scribus (such as the cost of licensing prohibiting Pantone colour palettes). But, that aside, Scribus can be (and is) used for producing magazines.
Better than the paid alternative?
In other cases, such as with Text-Wrangler and Libre-Office, the missing features are likely to be missed by only a few, even for professional work, so most people can use them on paid-for jobs.
In one or two cases, the free software featured here is so good that we genuinely wonder why anyone would use the commercial alternative. Wunderlist is one example. Things – it’s closest competitor – is very good, but it’s also expensive. If you want to sync a Mac, iPhone, and iPad, you have to pay for three different versions, costing £56 in total. Wunderlist does the job so well, and (in some cases) in ways that we think are preferable. There really shouldn’t be any doubt about which one to choose. Likewise, Avast: given the lack of a credible virus threat to OS X and the availability of free anti-virus tools, we wonder how commercial vendors sell anti-virus software to Mac users at all.
Not all the apps here perfect, but they all offer a solid alternative to users who don’t need every single ‘Pro’ feature, and every single one of them is unbeatable when it comes to their price tag!