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Free Mac Essentials

June 1, 2009
By Dave Hecei,
When you buy a new Mac, it comes pre-loaded with plenty of great software. This includes OS X 10.5 Leopard operating system and Apple’s iLife ’09 digital suite. Some of the programs that make up Leopard are: Time Machine, iChat, Photo Booth, Front Row, Mail, Automator, Dashboard, Dictionary, Font Book, Safari, Spaces, and Boot Camp. While a new Mac includes great software allowing you to work right out of the box, there are plenty of other third party applications that add functionality to your Mac. I have compiled a list of important, some essential, software titles that most Mac users should own. The good news is that all the software listed here are free. OpenOffice: This is a Microsoft Office clone that includes a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing, math equations, and database modules. It is fairly compatible with MS Office, but since it’s free, most people live with any minor incompatibilities. There are separate versions for Intel based Macs and PPC based Macs so make sure you get the one for your system – the PPC version is a little hard to find but it’s out there. If your needs are more basic then try out NeoOffice, a smaller version also based on the open source OpenOffice. Flip4Mac Player: This is actually a free plug-in for Quicktime. Since Windows is such a dominant operating system, for the moment, you will often find video content on the Internet that is in the WMV format, Windows Media Player. Since Microsoft abandoned Media Player software for Mac, Telestream took over with their great Flip4Mac software. They also sell, along with the free player, software that can import, export, recompress, and work with HD video content. For basic WMV playback and WMV streaming video, all you need is the free player software. Stuffit Expander: This program used to come with every Mac. Unfortunately Apple doesn’t add this in their bundle anymore (however there is a ZIP utility built into OS X – Zip the most popular format for Windows PCs). If you work with other Mac users or you have had a Mac for many years, then you probably have some SIT files, usually called archives. Stuffit Expander is used to un-Stuff these SIT files. Expander only unstuffs files it will not ‘Stuff’ them. For that function you will need to purchase the full StuffIt Deluxe from Smith Micro (priced around $80). Expander is a great little utility to have handy, just in case. Firefox: While I use the Safari browser most of the time, I do like Firefox. The one thing that Firefox has going for it, other than it’s free, is that there are so many Extensions available to customize your web surfing. You can even change the look of Firefox with other ‘skins’, sometimes called themes. Safari may be the speed champ, but Firefox is the browser for power users. VLC: VLC, also know as Video Lan Client, is a video player/server brought over from the Linux world. This little program will play practically any type of video file you will find on the Internet. VLC can even play commercial DVD movies. For the computer geek, VLC also allows you to serve video files from one computer to another computer whether it’s in the next room or in another state. Adium: OS X comes with an excellent chat program, called iChat, which can do text, voice, and video chats. Adium doesn’t do audio and video, but it does allow you to log into multiple accounts on various systems. With Adium you can chat on AIM, Yahoo, ICQ, MSN, Google Talk, MySpace IM, Facebook, etc. You just enter in all the login information for all your accounts and now you can access them all with just one application. FairMount: This is a free program that works with VLC. If you don’t know already, most all commercial DVD movies are copy protected. This simply means that you cannot just stick a DVD in your Mac and copy it to a blank disk. There are programs out there that allow you to backup DVDs (HandBrake or MactheRipper). Please remember that this should only be done with DVDs you own and for the sole purpose of protecting your expensive DVDs (an important thing to do if you have kids). You need to install VLC first then install FairMount. Now, when you insert a protected DVD, FairMount will ‘unlock’ the protection in the background. When it’s done, which should only take a few minutes, you can now copy the disc to your hard drive or use a backup program to make a copy. Now you can store the original disc in a nice safe place. SuperDuper: Backups are an important part of computer use. We all know we should backup our Macs but most of us don’t do it. Time Machine has done away with much of the hassle of backing up important files, but for those who rely on their Mac for important day-to-day business then having a full bootable backup is very important. SuperDuper is an application that will make a ‘clone’ of any Mac drive. If that drive is bootable, meaning it’s the startup drive, then the copy will also be bootable. If, or should I say when, your hard drive fails, you could be up and going in minutes with a SuperDuper backup. Burn: Most Macs have either a CD or a DVD burner drive. Out of the box, a Mac can burn basic discs in OS X, iTunes, or iLife. If you wanted to do more elaborate discs you had to buy a program like Roxio Toast. Toast is a great program that does so much more than burn discs, but if you don’t need the TiVo functions or the ability to record old vinyl albums to CD they try out Burn. It’s an amazing little program considering the cost – free. Acrobat Reader: Adobe has the world in its hands when it comes to portable documents, hence the name PDF (Portable Document Format). Apple’s Preview program will open most all PDF files and can search them faster than Reader. Reader does have some other nice features making it a must have free application. Unfortunately, Adobe has had some security issues recently, so make sure you keep Reader up to date. To end this list I’d like to add two open source games – Cube and Marathon. Both Cube and Marathon are first person shooter type games that can be played in single or multi-player modes. Marathon (from back in the OS 9 days) was a retail game from Bungie, who now make the Halo games for the Xboxes and PCs. Marathon was originally a Mac only game which Bungie has brought over to the open source community. Not the easiest to install, not the most modern game play, but loads of fun. Cube was an open source project that originally came out in 2005 and was later made available for OS X. (I think there is a newer sequel called Cube 2, which might also be available for Mac.) Similar to games like Doom and Quake, it shows what programmers can do with open source software. Free is always good, especially if it’s great software. While some of these may not be for everyone, they can be essential pieces that add power and versatility to your Mac. For all the links to these and other programs, check out my Mac Blog on our Web site

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