The best free Mac apps available for your Apple computer are not just handy utilities or simple games. There are some surprisingly powerful software suites available at no cost, with a quality that rivals – or even surpasses – their professional equivalents.
These apps are often produced by programmers in their spare time, people who put in many hours of work. They’re a labour of love, intended for everyone to get more out of their Apple kit for zero outlay. Even if you're using one of the best MacBooks or best Macs for video editing – which are some of the most powerful computers you can buy – there is still plenty of use you can get out of a few humble free apps. It's just about finding the right ones!
Whether you’re looking for an office suite, a picture editor, a video converter, a game or just about anything else, there’ll be a free app for you to try out. We've collated a selection of our favourites here, but for more options, check out our guides to the best drawing software and best video editing apps.
The best free Mac apps to download
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If you’re having compatibility problems when passing on files or need a feature that no other free option offers, it’s worth a look at OpenOffice. The app offers a range of apps, namely Writer (word processor), Calc (spreadsheet), Impress (presentation app), Draw (vector graphics), Math (equation editor) and Base (database management). Cross-platform and inter-app operability is strong, making it a good option for sharing files or if you use different computers and software. Admittedly, if you’re looking more for free productivity tools, Apache OpenOffice isn’t the best of the bunch. It’s not as accessible as Bean for word processing, nor as Maclike and friendly as Apple’s own Pages, Numbers and Keynote. But for multi-doc type collaboration it could be for you.
GIMP is an acronym for GNU Image Manipulation Program, and it’s essentially a free answer to Adobe’s Photoshop image editor. It’s not as powerful, and there’s no in-house support despite its steep learning curve, but it is one of the best free apps of its type. In development since 1995, it’s great for cropping, distorting, resizing, captioning and straightening photographs, and it’s also very capable when creating your own artwork. It’s a bit of a difficult program to get to grips with, but the interface has matured nicely in the last few versions. Although the unpaid volunteer developers don’t offer support, there’s a wealth of user-produced information out there.
Read our full GIMP review to find out more.
This FTP and cloud storage browser is paid for on the Mac App Store, but free from the developers. There’s a registration option, but this only disables the donation prompt. It’s the easy way to download and upload files to and from FTP, SFTP, WebDAV, Amazon S3, OpenStack Swift, Backblaze B2, Microsoft Azure, Microsoft OneDrive, Google Drive and Dropbox cloud services. It’s also useful for browsing your local files, and your network-attached storage (NAS) drive.
Bean is the word processor you didn’t know you needed. It’s not feature-packed, but that’s an advantage. Instead it does everything you need, but nothing you don’t. It’s perfect for those who do a lot of writing, but don’t require the advanced functions offered by in-depth word processors, such as Pages or Microsoft Word. Your correspondent is in fact writing this article using Bean. With its minimal distractions, real-time word and character counts and essentials-only features, it’s ideal for any writer.
This open-source video transcoder is the last word in converting video from almost any format into a range of modern, widely supported codes. There’s plenty of settings to play around with if you want to get the most from video encoding, but if you just want to get the job done quickly and easily, check out the presets. You can customise a preset to suit your needs too, and then save it out as a new one. There’s a learning curve involved, but a little practice is time well spent.
If your video file won’t play, then you can launch VLC. It can probably handle it. It’s not the prettiest of video players and is unlikely to become your favourite, but when it comes to sheer versatility and comprehensiveness, it deserves a place on your hard drive as a backup. Available for just about any computer or mobile device from videolan.org and the Mac App Store/App Store, all you need to do is simply drag your media into the VLC window to start it playing. It has handy streaming capabilities too, including from local NAS drives, but there are easier ways of doing this.
If you want to delve deeper, there are plenty of features to play with here, but VLC is ideal as a fall-back player for files that won’t play on other apps – that’s where it really proves its worth.
Are your disks working optimally? Can they cope with high-resolution video? If you’re an editor and you need to check your equipment – or if you want to assess your drive speed’s read and write performance for any reason whatsoever – Blackmagic Disk Speed Test is for you.
Available for free from the Mac App Store, you just click the Start button and Disk Speed Test runs read and write tests on your disk using large blocks of data, then displays the results. You can test your local drive or connected disks, and screenshot the data for future reference. It cleans up after itself too, so there’s no junk left behind after the tests.
It’s amazing to think this all-purpose maintenance utility is free. There’s a tailor-made option for every version of macOS/OS X since Jaguar. You can use the utility to verify the structure of the system files; run miscellaneous maintenance and cleaning tasks; configure parameters in the Finder, Dock, Safari and some Apple applications; delete caches; remove problematic folders and files; rebuild databases and indexes, and more. It has an intuitive, Mac-like interface, but some features should only be used if you really know what you’re doing.
Your Mac produces a lot of files you never see, such as resource forks and .DS_Store files. These carry out mundane system tasks. For example, .DS_Store appears in every folder, and stores info such as the folder view last used, the positions of its icons and more. These aren’t a problem on Mac – any file that starts with a full stop is invisible to the user. But if you archive a folder and send it to a non-Mac user, they can get in the way. CleanArchiver gets rid of them, so your archive contains only files you want to send.
Calibre isn’t pretty – its interface isn’t at all Mac-like, and it keeps nagging you about updates. But it does an excellent job of managing your ebooks and side-loading them onto devices such as Amazon’s Kindle or Barnes & Noble’s Nook. You can convert a book between formats so it reads well on your reader of choice, add a cover should your digital file lack one and read a book on your Mac without leaving the app. You can edit the metadata too, making sure information such as release date, author and publisher are correct.
Apple used to offer print services integrated with the iPhoto app, allowing you to get prints, printed books, cards, calendars and more based on your snaps. Since then, Photos has replaced iPhoto, and Apple no longer offers these services, but you can use Motif instead. Download it as an extension from the Mac App Store and it gives you the chance to design and order printed projects, directly from the Photos app. It’s easy to use, perhaps a little too easy; its desktop-publishing facilities aren’t exactly comprehensive. Even so, it’s fun and a decent enough successor to Apple’s own print facilities.
BitTorrent downloading is usually associated with copyright theft, but it has legal uses too; publicdomaintorrents.info, for example, is packed with torrents for classic films now in the public domain and can therefore be legally downloaded and enjoyed. Transmission is a free BitTorrent client, and it’s easy to use. Simply drag the torrent file into the app, and watch as your media or software downloads. Progress of all your torrents is shown, and if you click on one and click its ‘i’ icon, you can see more info. Downloads can be paused and slowed if it’s slowing your Mac too.
Have you ever had your Mac go to sleep while it was in the middle of a job? If so, you need Amphetamine. It’s by far the best stayawake app on Apple’s desktops and notebooks, and it’s easily accessible in the menu bar at all times. You can set your Mac to stay awake indefinitely, only going to sleep when you turn Amphetamine off again. You can also keep it awake for a set time, while a certain app is running or while a file is downloading, with Amphetamine turning off automatically when these conditions are met. It’s a must-have freebie for your Mac.
Paparazzi! does one job and it does it well. It takes screenshots of websites. Not just the portion of the website you can see on your screen, but the whole of the page you’re viewing, from top to bottom. This is great if it’s a very long page and you need a screenshot of all of it. All you do is copy the URL from your browser of choice into the Paparazzi! app, press return and the page is loaded. Click the Download button and it’s saved in a file format of your choice. You can navigate from page to page using Paparazzi! too, so if you need to save more than one page on a site, no problem.
Emulation can be a tricky business, but with OpenEmu it gets a lot simpler. It offers emulation for a huge range of gaming consoles. It looks great too, organising game ROMs into a thumbnail grid, to which you can add a graphic of the box art or a screenshot. It recognises a lot of controllers out of the box, and if your own joypad isn’t covered, you can map out a game’s controls to its buttons and sticks. Naturally it won’t play every game, and its performance is dependent on the power offered by your Mac, but if you’re into retro gaming OpenEmu’s a must.
This content originally appeared in MacFormat magazine. Subscribe to MacFormat at Magazines Direct.