People like free stuff, no doubt about it. A lot of the software we use is free, some of the best things in life are free, and if free wasn’t popular, media piracy wouldn’t be an issue (I do not support media piracy in any way, please buy or rent your media from a reputable source). So after buying an expensive computer, who wouldn’t want to save some money on software? In this series, I’m listing some of the best free (and legal) software students can get on the Mac. Almost all of these have counterparts or alternatives, but these are ones that are or seem the best for students on the Mac to use because of their versatility, power, and more. Note: many of these are cross-platform, so Windows and Linux users can use take advantage of some of these programs.
BROWSERS: The browser is probably the most personal of apps because of how important it is to our lives. Browsers are very complex and powerful tools, so students need something that’s powerful enough to handle what ever they can throw at it, fast enough to find information for that last-minute paper, but stable enough that YouTube won’t crash on them. Safari is good, and most websites support it, but people can do better.
Firefox: No doubt about it, all students (and even non-students) should have Firefox on their Mac, especially with the latest upgrades from versions 4 & 5. It’s faster than ever, stable, still has the largest add-on repository for customization, security, social, etc., and is very secure. Other browsers, like Chrome, may be faster, but Firefox has stood the test of time. Plus, when I use a Chrome based browser (like the one below), there are somewebsites that I run into (for work or for drivers) that Chrome still can’t render properly. 9 times out of 10, Firefox works where Chrome won’t. Plus, every college campus support Firefox on their networks. You can find it at www.firefox.com
- Rockmelt: Rockmelt is the Chrome based social browser. I reviewed it previously at here, but since then it has gotten even more integrated with Facebook, such as the ability to check and compose Facebook messages and friend requests without going to the site. The browser also has better support for Twitter, as well as Tumblr and YouTube. You can also use almost any Chrome extension from Google’s web-app store. Plus, Rockmelt is only just a little bit slower than regular Chrome, and is constantly getting better. It also does one of the best jobs of a Chromium browser of staying up to date with the latest versions of Chrome. If you’re not a Facebook user (or Twitter for that matter), then this browser probably isn’t for you, but for a lot of people, this will give you great social connections, with the power of Chrome. And if you don’t need the Facebook connections, you can always turn them off in “Quiet mode”. You can find it at www.rockmelt.com.
- Opera: Opera is the smallest browser of the big 5 browsers, in more ways than one. While it has the smallest user base (though very enthusiastic), it also takes up a small amount of hard-drive space, and uses the least amount of resources (think Macbook Air). While Opera occasionally has some website compatibility issues, and its extension repository is not as large as Chrome or Firefox, it has other features that make up for it. Opera is fast, as in Google’s Chrome constantly competes with it for speed. One of the unique features it has is “Turbo”, which can compress information coming from the web, and then send it to you a smaller package. This is great for weak or slow Internet connections, or your roommate is hogging all the bandwidth. You can download it from the Mac App Store, or at http://www.opera.com.
- Mail.app: Believe it or not, Apple’s own email client is actually pretty good for most people.
It has support for POP, IMAP, Exchange (for business and working people), and, of course, MobileMe. Setting up most email accounts are automatic, especially if you use a popular client, like GMail. Those that aren’t automatic can still be setup pretty easily if your provider gives you the information. It also supports RSS feeds, and some plugins, but whenever Apple updates Mail, most of the plugins fail. In that case, you can reinstall the plugins or wait for an update. It comes pre-installed on every Mac.
- Thunderbird: Mozilla’s own email client, based off of the same code as Firefox, is a very popular client. It also can set up most email account automatically, is very powerful, has a vast plugin repository, and runs on Windows & Linux too. You can even make it look like Mail.app, or anything else, as well as add many other functions. It has a large user base, hence a large community that is willing to help you. But it is a bit bulky, so I wouldn’t recommend it for Macs with low resources (which is quickly changing), and it doesn’t have the same Mac-like feel compared to other apps, like Mail.app. Also, some of the settings can be overwhelming for newer users. It still is a great email client nonetheless, and you are always able to find help from the Mozilla community. You can download at http://www.mozillamessaging.com/en-US/thunderbird/
- Sparrow (Lite): If you only use Gmail, or like to route all your different email accounts into Gmail, then you might not want a more fully fledged email client. If this sounds like you, but you don’t like having to always be online to see Gmail, check out Sparrow Lite. Being directed primarily for Gmail, it’s very minimalist and looks a lot like a Twitter client. Obviously it’s a free version of Sparrow, which is $9.99. The main differences between the Lite version and the paid version is that the free version has ads, and only gives you access to Gmail. The paid version allows you more popular email accounts, like Hotmail, Yahoo, etc., has no ads, allows for more gesture control, and multiple accounts. That being said, Sparrow Lite is still very good for most people. It can sit in your menubar and let you know about incoming mail, but it also now has Facebook integration, allowing you to post to your wall, friend people, add their Facebook pictures to your contact list, and more. You can download it in the Mac App Store, or check out more at http://sparrowapp.com/
- Skype: There really is no better app for Skype than Skype itself. Very few other apps support Skype (compared to other chat services like AIM, GTalk, etc.) and those that do have to have the Skype app installed & running anyway to work. Since a lot of people have Skype, and it is very good to have installed on your Mac. It does text, audio, and video chatting, most of which are pretty good quality, but many people don’t know about Skype’s ability to send files and share your screen with other Skype users. While it also doesn’t support other chat clients (though Facebook integration might be coming to the Mac side), it still makes a great collaboration. You can download it at www.skype.com
- ooVoo:While I can’t give ooVoo many point for style, it has several great advantages over Skype. After you make an account with them, you can do all the same things you can do with Skype, and then some. For example, you can post to YouTube and Facebook from within the app (podcasters might like that).
If you have a website, you can put your ooVoo call info, or add a “Call Me” button that will allow people to call or chat with you. But the best part about it all, is that people don’t have to have and ooVoo account to chat with you through ooVoo. People can call you through their own ooVoo accounts, or you can give them a link (say by email) and then they can always reach you through there. That makes it very handy when you either don’t know a person’s screen-name, or you both don’t use compatible chat clients. It can talk to up to 6 people at the same time (can you say group project). You can download it from http://www.oovoo.com/home.aspx.
- Adium: Probably the most feature filled of a chat client, Adium is well known for its customization and versatility. Adium is an open-source chat client that integrates well with your Mac and chat services. It supports Facebook and Twitter, several big name chat services, and some services I’ve never even heard of. It also supports IRC. Adium also lets you take one contact with multiple accounts, and blend them together as one person. But it’s customization reminds me of Firefox. Within Adium’s preferences you can change the chat layout, the security, and even the color of the dock icon. Adium also has lots of plugins that provide support for other clients that aren’t officially part of Adium, different color schemes, and more. If you use a variety of chat services, then Adium is for you. However, it only allows for text chatting, no audio or video chatting. If you want to audio or video chat, you’ll have to use a different app. You can find it at http://adium.im/.
- LibreOffice: A fork off of OpenOffice, I’ve come to prefer LibreOffice over OpenOffice for my needs. LibreOffice is a free office suite that it is compatible with Microsoft Office, with both the old .doc format and the newer .docx format of later versions of Office. It has its own writing, presentation, and spreadsheet programs (Word, PowerPoint, and Excel respectively), as well as several other programs. While some specialized formatting may be flawed when going between LibreOffice and Microsoft Office, the documents are plenty readable, viewable, and for the most part can go through without any problems. If you’re in the market for an office program, and you haven’t already bought Microsoft’s suite, then LibreOffice is a great alternative. It also works on Linux and Windows, and is available for download at http://www.libreoffice.org/
- Growly Notes: Even if you’ve already bought Microsoft Office for Mac (or at least have ever used it), you’ll notice that there are several programs missing from it compared to its Windows’ counterpart. One particular example of this is OneNote, Microsoft’s note-taking application for Office. Growly Notes is a note taking program that comes into fill that void.
It allows for links, media, PDF files, pictures, and text notes all within the same note. It also allows you to copy said materials directly to Growly notes with a simple control-click feature it installs. Specific notes can be separated into pages, sections, and all stored within given “notebooks” that can allow you to separate different classes, or even things like school and work. While it doesn’t actually have the capability to import or export OneNote files, thus limiting its useability, it is still a great free Mac app for taking notes. Former OneNote users will feel right at home after some minor adjustments. You can find it at http://growlybird.com/GrowlyBird/Notes.html
- Evernote: Evernote is a note taking application that has become very popular with both students and non-students alike. After making an account with Evernote, the application allows you to take notes either on the web, on your Mac or Windows desktop, iOS, Android, Blackberry, Palm, and/or Windows Phone 7 devices (you might say it’s almost everywhere). The desktop version for Mac’s interface is pretty sleek, easy to understand, and allows for text, audio, picture, and other media notes. Notes can be stored either in the cloud or on your hard drive. Free accounts allow for 60 Mb of note uploading per month, though unlimited storage. But you can pay for a premium account ($5 a month or $45 a year) which let’s upload 1 Gb a month as well as scrolling through PDF’s, looking at your note history, and more. You can download Evernote in the Mac App Store, or from http://www.evernote.com. In case your concerned about reaching the upload limit each month in a free account, Evernote will let you know how much of your monthly allowance you’ve used in the desktop application. If you’re still concerned, Evernote gives an example of how many notes you’d need each to upload to reach the limit (note: this was with their old limit, which was only 40 Mb):
- Typed notes: 20,000
- Ink notes: 10,000
- Mobile snapshots: 400
- Web clips: 270
- Audio notes: 40
- VLC Media Player: The self-proclaimed “Swiss army knife” of media, VLC is a powerful media player that takes almost every format of audio and/or video you can throw at it. It’s not very pretty; it’s pretty utilitarian in style, but it packs a punch in great quality playback, the ability to pump up the audio louder than most other media players (ranging from 200-400%) and a variety of tools to work with. Some less video inclined people may not need, or may be confused by, the almost dizzying array of features. But if you’re into video creation, VLC is a must. It also is a necessary component for the DVD ripping utility Handbrake. You can download it at http://www.videolan.org/vlc/
- MPlayerX: MPlayerX takes the power of VLC and fuses it with a QuickTime feel. While it’s preferences and other features may not be as tailorable as VLC, most users will feel comfortable and right at home in this application. I wrote a review of it in an “App of the Week” post here: https://easyosx.wordpress.com/2011/06/19/app-of-the-week-mplayerx/. You can download it in the Mac App Store.
- Handbrake: Chances are, you probably have a few DVD’s lying around your place that you’d like to take with you. But how often do people carry DVD’s around? Wouldn’t it be nice just to have a copy on your hard-drive, or even your portable media player (e.g. iPod)? Handbrake allows you a powerful way to rip DVD’s onto your hard drive, as well as preconfigured settings for popular devices like iPhone, iPad, and more. The app is a favorite of many Mac users, and is very powerful. It interface doesn’t look the most slick to use at first, but once you get past it you’ll find it pretty useful if you rip DVD’s a lot. NOTE: You should only rip DVD’s that you personally own and should not distribute or sell ripped files illegally in any way.
- Audacity: Audacity is a cross-platform, open source audio editor. Mac’s come with Garageband, and for some people it really lacks some power features, especially for speech recording (like podcasters). Audacity is a constantly growing audio recorder that many people use for podcasts, music recordings, and more, like TeamFourStar, the creators of Dragon Ball Z Abridged. Audacity, like VLC, can be a bit confusing for new users, and the interface doesn’t blend well with the rest of the Mac. The only real hangup, though, is in exporting audio; Audacity can’t export audio directly to MP3 (importing is not a problem). Besides these drawbacks, Audacity is widely used, supported, and you can always find great tips and help from its community of users. Download it at http://audacity.sourceforge.net/.
- Seashore: I mentioned that GIMP’s big problems were Mac integration and style. Seashore takes care of these things. Based on Mac’s Cocoa interface, it looks and feels like a native Mac application, and is lighter than GIMP. It is powerful, and much more streamlined,
allowing people who don’t need all of the power’s of GIMP or Photoshop, but need more than what iPhoto can give them. The downside is some of these features are lacking (I had trouble getting other pictures made outside of Seashore into Seashore), so it isn’t perfect. But for lighter photo editing, Seashore may be right for you. Download it at: http://seashore.sourceforge.net/
- GIMP: Photoshop has become synonymous with photo-editing, and it is a great piece of software. But it is expensive (though you can get student discounts), so why not get GIMP instead. GIMP is a cross-platform, open source Photoshop alternative, and probably the most powerful one at that. It has almost all of the features that Photoshop does, but it also supports 3rd-party plugins for extra usability and customization. The software isn’t perfect though. For example, it does use multiple Windows that you constantly need to cycle through (and you have to highlight the window first before clicking the buttons you need). Also, the application runs in X11, which is like a Linux emulator for Mac. This isn’t that big a deal, but it means GIMP needs a little more juice to run and keyboard shortcuts are not Mac native, but Linux/Windows native instead (e.g. undoing is Control-Z instead of Mac’s usual Command-Z). however, for people who don’t need Photoshop, or can’t afford it, GIMP is a powerful alternative and one that has plenty of tutorials for it. Download it at www.gimp.org
UTILITIES/OTHER: This last section pretty much sums up everything else. These are apps that don’t fit anywhere else, but are great to have anyway.
- Dropbox: One of my top 10 favorite apps of all time, Dropbox is a file synchronization and backup tool. You create an account with them (for free) and then install the application. The app installs a folder on your Mac, and anything you drop into that folder gets copied and put into Dropbox’s cloud servers, so you can access them anywhere and they’re backed up in the cloud. Also, Dropbox saves up to 30 days worth of previous versions of whatever files you drop, great from when you need to go back and grab a previous version of that essay you messed up. Only 2 gigs of space are given in the free account, but there are many ways to get more. But it’s also compatible with Linux, Windows, Android, and iOS. You can check out my full review of it at: https://easyosx.wordpress.com/2011/05/15/app-of-the-week-dropbox-plus-a-bonus/, and can download it from www.dropbox.com.
- Growl: Some people may have Growl already installed on their Mac, but some may not. Growl is a notification system that almost every major Mac app uses. Depending on what apps support Growl, it will update you from your desktop about who just got online to chat, your new email, your Internet downloads just got done, and more. Most web browsers, email clients, chat apps, and more support Growl to let you know what’s going on without having to keep those windows open. It comes as one plugin, but you can download extra ones from Apple Mail, iTunes, and Safari. Check it out at http://growl.info/
- Carbon Copy Cloner: Sometimes called CCC for short, Carbon Copy Cloner is a backup utility for a Mac. It allows for mass backups, but also supports incremental backups as well. Why not just use Time Machine, which is already installed on the Mac? First, CCC backs up everything on your hard drive. Not only that, your backup drive is made bootable. This means that if your
hard drive crashes, or you get a new one, it will install everything back where it was before on the drive, including apps. But it mainly means that if you need to, you can actually boot off the hard drive just like you would the hard drive in your Mac. It’s my personal choice, and you’ll want to have that backup before something happens to your Mac. Check out my full review at https://easyosx.wordpress.com/2011/04/08/app-of-the-week-carbon-copy-cloner/, and download it at http://www.bombich.com/index.html.
- Caffeine: Caffeine is a menubar utility that does for your Mac what caffeine does to people. The utility sits in your menubar, and you click the icon to turn it on or off. When you turn it on, it prevents your Mac from going to sleep, having its screen dimmed or starting your screen saver. It doesn’t save your Mac any battery power, but it does help when you need to focus on that term paper, or just don’t want any disturbances while watching that video. You can set it to last indefinitely, or just for a certain amount of time. Check it out at http://www.lightheadsw.com/caffeine/
- iProcrastinate: This app basically acts like an agenda or planner on your Mac. Add homework, projects, and things outside of school as well. You can set up when the event starts, ends, and when it is due if necessary and can constantly send you reminders if needed. Not only that, you can attach files to the event, so you can access them and save time from iProcrastinate. Furthermore, it syncs with your iOS device and through Dropbox. Check it out in the Mac App Store.
- Sophos Antivirus for Mac Home Edition: Wait, why is there an antivirus solution on Mac. Well one, is because Mac’s aren’t immune, as seen with the MacDefender problems that have been going around. But two, it’s especially helpful if you work on an open network, especially with a lot of Windows machines going around. Sophos will help block against Mac and Windows malware, but it won’t eat up your system resources and is very easy to set up and use. While there is no antivirus that is good at protecting against bad user behavior, it never hurts to have one anyway. Plus, it helps prevent your Macs from spreading malware via the trickle down effect, such as through a bad email or PDF file. Check it out at: http://www.sophos.com/en-us/products/free-tools/sophos-antivirus-for-mac-home-edition.aspx
SUMMARY: This by no means the only free software for students, and you may find that some other software suits your needs better, or you’re just happy with what you’re using now. I plan to have this list updated every year or so for if there is a better tool to use, an app is discontinued, or just something else that can be added to the list of great free student software. But as of 2011, these are my picks. You can always throw in your opinions (just keep it clean) in the comments below via WordPress, Twitter, or Facebook accounts (or you can remain anonymous with a Guest comment). And don’t forget to tweet me @EasyOSX (see that big Twitter button at the top of the page, that works too) and email me tips, questions, suggestions, etc. at firstname.lastname@example.org