Pow­er­ful free Mac apps

Stuff your Mac with as­ton­ish­ing free al­ter­na­tives to the big-name apps!

Mac Format - - FRONT PAGE - Words: Kenny Hem­phill Im­age: Chris Hed­ley

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!

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