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Editorial iOS & Mac reviews

My essential Mac, iPhone and iPad apps

Over the years I’ve picked up dozens of Mac apps and hundreds of iOS apps. New software comes and goes but over time the real keepers make themselves indispensable. I’ve now got a core of essential Mac and iOS apps that I turn to regularly, often as part of a workflow, so I thought I’d let you pick over them to see if there’s something cool that’s new to you. There’s also a bit about the hardware I use at the end.

Over the years I’ve picked up dozens of Mac apps and hundreds of iOS apps. New software comes and goes but over time the real keepers make themselves indispensable. I’ve now got a core of essential Mac and iOS apps that I turn to regularly, often as part of a workflow, so I thought I’d let you pick over them to see if there’s something cool that’s new to you. There’s also a bit about the hardware I use at the end.

Mac-only software

Mountain Lion – obviously. I like it.

SuperDuper! – for automated overnight local backups.

Backblaze – runs continuously to maintain an offsite backup for just $50 a year per computer. Read more about my backup tips and suggestions here.

Lightroom 4 – for importing, tagging and archiving my photography, and processing RAWs. It’s really simplified my workflow, doing the job of two other apps I used to rely on, Photo Mechanic and Nikon Capture NX 2; I keep PM around as it can be very useful, but NX is toast.

Hazel – a background utility that empties the trash when it gets too full, moves downloaded documents into folders in my Dropbox, and cleans out support files whenever I delete applications, and it can do so much more with custom rules.

Little Snitch – call me paranoid but I like to know what outgoing connections are being made by my software. I also enjoy the incoming/outgoing monitor that sits in my menubar, handy for at-a-glance indications of background network activity (Dropbox, Photoshelter, Backblaze etc).

Transmit – for uploading files direct to my website servers. Recently I’ve been enjoying the Transmit Drive feature which displays the contents of the server as a Finder window instead of inside Transmit.

DragonDrop – a fab background utility for easily moving several files at a time around in the Finder; just wiggle the cursor while dragging the files and the snazzy DragonDrop dropbox pops up to temporarily hold them, freeing you to navigate to their destination in the Finder; then pick them back up and drop them in place.

SMARTReporter – keeps an eye on my Macs’ S.M.A.R.T. status and runs I/O checks on connected drives throughout the day, emailing me if any checks fail.

Alfred – my default tool for launching apps, finding files, and logging into websites, all with just a few keystrokes. It also does clipboard magic, controls iTunes, and much more that I’ve barely scratched the surface of myself. Version 2 launched early 2013; read my initial impressions of version 1 here.

SimpleNote and Justnotes – my favourite note-taking-and-syncing service, and my client of choice for the Mac; I was using an excellent free dashboard widget, Dashnote, for years but Justnotes is a complete app with the sort of polish and feature support that comes with a paid product.

Bartender – tidies up the menubar to your personal preference. I wrote more about it here.

Radium 3 – hands down the best Mac app for streaming internet radio. Version 3 polished up the interface but introduced a bizarre new icon. If you still have Radium 2 and want to change the new menubar icon back to the superior radio icon, read my guide.

Billings – I use this to create nice freelance invoices and track my earnings, plus it’s fun to use and invoicing can be so boring. I use my own variation on a free Billings invoice template by Bart Kowalski.

There’s an iOS version but it’s not seen an update in a long time, only offers a handful of invoice templates, and doesn’t work with any custom templates created in the Mac app. So I don’t use it.

Undercover – lo-jacker software for my Macs; if they’re ever stolen, touch wood, this software kicks in to track their location and upload screenshots, webcam shots, and keystroke logs of everything they’ve typed (except passwords, just in case the backend is itself compromised). I use it in conjunction with a hardware password to prevent unauthorised re-installation of the operating system, meaning as soon as they go online they start blabbing. It’s cool.

Mac & iOS software

Dropbox – utterly essential for so many things these days; if for some reason you don’t already have a Dropbox account, a 500MB account is free and you’ll get yourself a bit extra on top if you go via via my link.

1Password – stores and generates passwords then locks them away so you only ever have to remember the one password that reveals them; it also installs a handy extension in most modern web browsers that will fill online password fields for you; on iOS you can use the excellent in-app browser. Everyone should use 1Password, even my mum.

Day One – a beautiful, flexible journalling app with Mac and iOS versions. My wife uses hers to keep a photolog of how the trees in our garden bloom and wilt across the seasons, while I use mine as a more conventional journal.

YNAB 4 – I use this mainly for our household budgeting, but I do my freelance budget with it too. I’ve always been aware of our money but YNAB really helps manage it better; I highly recommend trying it out. They’ve got a 35-day demo and if you decide to buy it and click this link first, you’ll get $6 off and I’ll get $6 commission – but I’d recommend it even if I didn’t.

There’s also a companion iPhone app for entering transactions as they occur, syncing with Dropbox. It doesn’t offer any budget management features and there’s no iPad version yet, but if you give the Mac app a go it’s very useful to have.

TextExpander – expands custom abbreviations into pre-saved snippets of often-used text. I use it for my contact details and certain HTML tags but it goes way beyond that. The iOS version is slightly limited in how it works due to Apple restrictions, but over a hundred and fifty third party apps support it including two of my favourites, Drafts and Poster (see below).

Fantastical – puts a handy calendar shortcut in the menubar and makes adding new events famously simple using natural language. I still use the Apple Calendar app to quickly copy-and-paste aspects of my weekly schedule that don’t change much but Fantastical is better for everything else and it syncs events with iCloud. There’s also a lovely iPhone app but as yet no iPad version – hopefully not for much longer.

Things – my to-do list app of choice. It’s not Universal and it’s not cheap to buy the whole suite, a hard sell when cheaper (but simpler) apps like Clear and Wunderlist exist, but each app is beautifully designed and now they’ve finally got their own Cloud sync running the whole suite is even more of a pleasure to use. My things-to-do go into the Inbox as soon as they occur via Drafts on my iOS devices, and the keyboard shortcut on my Mac, and get sorted into particular ‘projects’ later.

Photosync – for when I need to get photos and videos between any iOS device and Mac quickly and wirelessly (or even iOS to iOS); it requires a free ‘receiver’ app to be installed on any Mac you want to use it with, but it’s a much better solution than attaching cables or waiting for Photostream (which doesn’t do video).

Rdio – I didn’t used to see the point of subscription music services, preferring to own my music rather than rent it, but I realised I hardly ever buy music these days and have an ever-shrinking awareness of what’s new so for a tenner a month we have access to more than we could possibly ever listen to. Anything we really like we’ll pick up wherever it’s cheapest – often Amazon MP3 but don’t forget to check out smaller labels’ websites in case they sell direct for less.

Just be aware that if you sign up for a subscription within the iOS app you’ll pay a lot more than if you set it up on their website – this is presumably to cover the 30% cut Apple takes for iOS sales but I don’t think it’s at all fair of them to trick users this way, so sign up from their website to pay the proper price.

iOS-only software

Drafts – this ingenious app takes text you enter and then sends it to a whole host of other apps, such as Evernote, Fantastical, Omnifocus, Dropbox, Messages, Mail, and so on. I keep it in a handy Launch Center Pro slot and use it for sending stuff to Things and Simplenote mostly. Like Things, it’s not Universal; I only have it for iPhone as that’s what I usually have to hand when thoughts occur.

Launch Center Pro – speed dial for apps on your iPhone, without jailbreaking. I keep LCP and the Camera app in my Dock, only bare essential apps in my first Home Screen, and everything else in folders; peaceful! Read more about how I use LCP here.

Poster – for WordPress blogging from iOS. Poster is developed by Tom Witkin and boils a lot of functionality down to an attractive, lightweight interface. It’s got plenty of WordPress power-features tucked away if you need them including support for custom fields and custom post types, TextExpander Touch, Markdown and even 1Password. Fun factoid: I wrote and published this entire article in Poster.

UPDATE: sadly, or perhaps excitingly, Poster has been acquired by Automattic (who own WordPress) and removed from the App Store. Hopefully Tom Witkin will bring all the features that made Poster so amazing to the lousy official WordPress app very soon.

Reeder and Zite – for my kind of news, and other stuff I want to read. I know Google Reader is closing imminently but I like Reeder and hope to be able to keep using it via the developer’s own back-end solution. Zite has absorbed my RSS feeds and Twitter follows and uses those plus a Thumbs Up or Down from me to offer articles it thinks I’ll like from a variety of sources, grouped by topic plus a ‘Top Stories’ page.

Pocket – for storing things to read or watch later, almost exclusively from Reeder and Zite but occasionally from Safari using a bookmarklet. I used to use Instapaper for reading later and Pocket for everything else, but decided to consolidate as I much prefer the look and feel of Pocket.

Forecast.io – this free web app installs to your homescreen and offers surprisingly accurate forecasts in a simple, attractive way. It can narrow predictions right down to the minute the rain will stop, which is cool.

Tube Tracker, Tube Deluxe & Tube Exits – the three apps I use most when travelling around London day to day. Tracker and Deluxe do much the same job of providing maps, journey plans and travel news, but each with their own unique features; Tube Exits tells you which carriages to get on so that you arrive right next to the platform exit – you can shave a fair bit of time off, especially during peak times!

Quickshot – this iPhone app snaps a photo, tags it and uploads it to a selected folder in Dropbox immediately. I use it exclusively to snap work expense receipts so I don’t have to worry about losing them.

KitCam and Hipstamatic – the two camera apps I use most after the stock Camera app, for satisfying creative urges. Sometimes I use Camera+ for ‘clean’ shots but when I want to grab something quickly its usually fastest to use the slide-up Camera button on the lock screen. I did used to use Instagram almost exclusively but recently took a leave of absence from all social networks to try and cut down on ‘noise’ in my life from digital stuff.

UPDATE: Sadly, KitCam was bought by Yahoo in 2013 and taken off the App Store permanently.

Calcbot – I prefer this to the stock Calculator app mainly because of the ‘print ribbon’ of previous calculations that you can pull down from the display, but also because I love the Tapbots app designs.

Meter Readings – for recording our gas and electricity usage weekly. It has comprehensive options for entering current and previous tariffs so you can keep ahead of your bills, and there’s excellent support from the one-man-band developer behind it, Graham Haley. Geeky, perhaps, but very useful.

Quicklytics – the best Google Analytics app I’ve tried, taking the user-unfriendly mash that is the GA web interface and presenting key data points in a clean, friendly way.

TuneIn Radio – there’s a lot of radio-streaming apps for iOS and I’ve tried most of the good ones, but this is the one that stuck.

TV Catchup – bit of a misleading name because this streams live UK Freeview television rather than letting you play it back like a DVR. In a nutshell, it’s live telly on your iPad.

Hardware

Late 2012 27" iMac – my previous iMac was a Mid-2007 model (the first aluminium one) and it was getting a bit long in the tooth for the stuff I was throwing at it, like hundreds of RAW files at a time. There wasn’t anything I needed that it couldn’t run acceptably, but it used to do everything so much faster. Now it has a new home in my mum’s office/recreation room, where it’s a considerable upgrade from her original white iMac.

These new iMacs with Fusion Drives are just great: boots from cold in about 10 seconds, apps launch so fast, it crunches through 1:1 previews in Lightroom 4 at a fantastic rate, and the glossy mirror-like screen of yore is now a near reflection-free surface. It’s just a delight to use.

The only thing is I had to pick up a couple of Thunderbolt-to-FireWire adaptors at £25 a pop for my hard drives, and my main machine now doesn’t have an optical drive. As it happens pretty much all the software I use is distributed digitally and since I started using Photoshelter two years ago I haven’t had to burn a single photo disc for clients, but if that does ever come up I’m going to have to look into the Remote Disk function on my MBP.

Wacom Intuos pad – this is great for Photoshop and handy in Lightroom too. Occasionally I use it in games like Civ and XCOM too.

LaCie Quadra hard drives – solid, stable external hard drives for storage and backups; check out my post on backup strategies for more info.

They’re bolted into the LaCie desktop rack, which keeps them safe under my desk. It’s £50 for a bit of metal and some rubber feet that fall off if you look at them funny, which is pretty steep, but the drives are much more secure in it than not so I sucked it up.

2010 15" MacBook Pro – I got this anticipating needing it on location shoots so I went for a Pro. In the end it rarely went on location so these days I use it for tweaking my websites, writing and invoicing away from my main desk. It handles iMovie 11 very well, but Final Cut X is too much for it.

For a while I tried to use it for photo editing too but syncing photoshoots between the two Macs was a total pain in the neck; I considered a Dropbox sync but it isn’t a practical solution for syncing sets that are frequently more than 6GB in size. Clinching it, Lightroom really requires the LR library to be connected to the computer you’re running it on. So, I keep my photo work on my iMac and life is simpler for it.

I also play a couple of games on it, mainly the Prison Architect alpha and the new XCOM (see my post here for how to sync Mac XCOM save games using Dropbox), and my wife uses it regularly to type up her Montessori college work.

If money was no object I’d like to sell it and get one of the new Airs as they’re much lighter and more powerful these days, but I’ll probably end up hanging onto it for many more years until it literally dies in my hands, by which time iPads may have evolved far enough to completely replace it.

iPads – I have a 3, my wife has a Mini; both were upgrades from an iPad 1. I appreciate the screen size and sharpness of the 3 but I *love* the weight and general handiness of the Mini.

Apple TV 2 – excellent for Netflix and for iTunes movie rentals (which are often preferable to going to the cinema in our house); I’ve jailbroken mine and installed Firecore’s ATV Flash Black software so I can stream media we already own direct from the iMac in pretty much any format instead of having to import it to my iTunes library. Unfortunately the ATV3 is still impossible to jailbreak so I hope my ATV2 stays healthy.

Airport Express – for streaming music to our lounge speakers from any Mac or iOS device. We have the old-school plug-like A1088 version which can be problematic under Mountain Lion – see my article here for tips on how to fix that.

Other stuff

Herman Miller ‘Mirra’ chair – not cheap, but worth every penny. An incredibly comfortable chair with so many points of adjustment it’s always exactly how I need it, be that sitting upright to work or leaning back a little to enjoy a movie or game. The only problem I have with it is that the area under the seat is a massive dust-trap that needs some serious cleaning out every couple of months.

Harman Kardon Soundsticks – I have version 2, but version 3 is available now. The subwoofer goes under my desk and the two sticks sit behind my iMac, bouncing the sound off the wall. Much better than the comparatively weak sound the new iMac produces, although if I didn’t already have these I’d probably have been fine with it.

What makes your Macs tick?

So that’s what I run on my own Apple devices – what about you? Get in touch by email or in the comments and thanks for visiting.

By Owen

I'm a Glasgow-born stills photographer and camera operator living and working in London, UK. As well as cameras I'm into writing, gaming, general geekery and beers by Brew Dog.

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