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There are a ton of third-party apps with better features than the basics that come with your Mac. That is not to say that you should go out and replace an app if it is working for you.
If you find yourself frustrated with missing features, we’ve got a few alternatives you might want to try. A little bit of novelty never hurts either.
We also have a comprehensive list of all the best Mac apps as well.
Spotlight: Alfred (Free)
Spotlight is great. It allows you to use a keyboard shortcut (Command + Space) to search your Mac, the web, or do simple calculations. Once you play around with it, you can save time on many essential tasks.
However, it is still fairly limited. To truly expand your horizons you need to replace it outright.
That is where Alfred comes in. Alfred’s most basic form has more search options than Spotlight. It also gives you keywords to perform system actions like Shutdown and Reset. The app shines once you install the Powerpack add on. To get the Powerpack, you need to pay €19 (~$23) for an additional download.
Once installed, it enables you to integrate 1Password, call up an iTunes mini player, manage files, and run Terminal commands. The Powerpack also makes Alfred extensible. Workflows allow you to create or install custom workflows. You set the keyword and the triggered actions.
Terminal: iTerm (Donationware)
Terminal.app is probably the most powerful app on your Mac. There are many system tools that you can dig around and use, most of them have an analog in the Terminal. Mastering this tool can make you more efficient. Not to mention you get to know the lower levels of your system.
While Terminal is a powerful app, some helpful features are missing.
That is where iTerm comes in. iTerm gives you a more powerful Terminal. Its simplest advantage is that you can tile your sessions in a single window. Though you can still work in tabs like the default Terminal app. iTerm has more than just visual tweaks.
There’s an instant replay option that lets you roll back your terminal window. You can then see the output from that command that flew by. In Top, you can go back in time to see what programs are taking your resources. The app features auto-complete and clipboard history that makes working in Terminal easier.
Terminal is a great way to dig into the more advanced parts of your Mac. iTerm is the app that makes working in the Terminal easier, even if you are already an expert.
Activity Monitor: iStat Menus ($18)
Activity Monitor is a handy app to see what is consuming resources on your Mac. It’s useful, but it’s not an easy app to just keep an eye on while you are working. If you are looking to have your resource usage surfaced constantly, try iStat Menus.
You can pick and choose what performance metrics you want to see in your menubar. Small graphs showing CPU, RAM, network traffic, temperature, and battery stats are available. Each has links to the built-in Apple system tools for more info.
Best of all you can get back your battery’s time remaining display that Apple removed from macOS.
iStat Menus can take up a good chunk of your real estate on a small screen. There is an option to create a combined menu. You get a drop-down with all the details but without the menubar crowding. It ruins the ability to casually watch your system, but it is still a single click away. It is not an essential replacement, but it is a nice convenience.
TextEdit as Plain Text Editor: BBEdit ($50)
TextEdit is powerful and serves two purposes on the Mac. The first is as plain text editor. The app for creating basic text documents for quick and dirty scripts or HTML code. However, it does not have syntax highlighting, nor any advanced file handling.
If you want a full featured text-editor, you can get BBEdit. Its roots date back to the Classic Mac days, though it is a thoroughly modern app.
The example above is an HTML document, but you can use BBEdit for any plain text document. It has a left-hand column that allows you to open documents or entire directories. This feature makes it easy to keep organized when working on projects.
These options make for a powerful text editor for coding and scripting. BBEdit is a paid app; it is free equivalent used to be Text Wrangler, but the apps have combined. BBEdit now loses some features after thirty days without a license but even the free version is a great lightweight text editor.
For another powerful free option, why not check out Microsoft’s Visual Studio Code.
TextEdit as Document Creator: Ulysses ($40/Year)
TextEdit is good for more than just a plain text document editor. It is a bare bones word processor. This mode allows you to create basic rich text files with simple formatting and layouts. That use is perfect for keeping your workspace minimal, but it only handles single files.
That is where Ulysses comes in. Ulysses is more complex than TextEdit. However, its interface is still rooted in simplicity. Rather than organizing your project in Finder, Ulysses organizes your files internally. You can combine its internal iCloud library with external folders on your Mac. Then you have all your text files in one place.
Ulysses’ minimalism comes from using Markdown for editing. This keeps the interface simple. However, if the syntax is a little intimidating you can use a menu to insert any Markdown you need. There are also basic keyboard shortcuts like Command + B to make text bold.
You can export your documents in a variety of formats, including PDF and DOCX. There’s a ton of features to explore, but none of them are complex enough to get in the way of your writing. Check out our comprehensive guide to Ulysses.
Safari: Opera (Free)
There are plenty of great options to replace Safari. Almost every web browser has something to offer. Safari has plenty of great features but is pretty limited in some areas. Opera excels with a mix of extensibility, performance, and built-in features.
If you are using a MacBook, Opera has a battery saving mode to help you get more time from your laptop. If you worry about security, Opera even has a free VPN service you can use. If you are worried about losing some extensions, you have the ability to install Chrome Extensions.
Mail: Spark (Free)
Mail.app, like Safari, has some advantages. Its accessibility for casual users can leave power users wanting. Readdle’s Spark balances the needs of power users with designing an app that is still easy to use.
Like Mail.app, you get an iOS companion app that lets you manage your email the same way across both platforms. Spark has a great smart sorting feature that breaks up your emails into types as they come in. You get a smart inbox that has categories like Notifications, Newsletters, and Personal. You can snooze or pin emails to follow up on them later.
Spark also has smart notifications that try and only alert you to email you want to see. You can control this on a per account basis, just like the Smart Inbox filtering. You can send your email to a variety of apps, creating to do lists in Reminders.app or Todoist. You can also save your email to note taking apps like Bear or Evernote.
This is a powerful email client with an accessible approach to features.
iTunes as Media Player: VLC (Donationware)
If you hate iTunes, you are not alone. If you are relying on it to sync your iOS devices, there isn’t much you can do. If you want a better app to work with your music library, then VLC can help you out. The best thing about VLC is its simplicity.
VLC can play almost anything. That compatibility comes with a much steeper learning curve than iTunes. However, you should be able to open your iTunes media folder and add the folders right to your VLC library. It is spartan, and importing large libraries needs to be done in several steps. You can also use it to share media to your iOS devices.
VLC’s simple design hides a variety of useful ways to both play and share your media. The app can stream media on the local network with just a couple of clicks. Even with all the available options, it has less cruft than iTunes. However, that does mean it is a bit harder to use.
VLC might not replace iTunes for everything, for but it is a handy media player.
Preview: PDFPen [No Longer Available] ($75)
Preview is a powerful app. You can read and combine PDFs, even highlighting and adding notes. You cannot do much to edit PDFs with it though. Smile’s PDFPen allows to make full edits to PDFs, not just attaching your signature.
PDFPen is pretty steep at $75, but you’ll know if you need it. If your workflow involves collating and correcting PDFs, PDFPen saves you the trouble of converting to and from PDF. You can also do easy document redaction.
If you are looking to create forms and tables of contents, you need the pro version [No Longer Available]. Compare the features of each here.
Are These Your Only Choices?
If you are looking at this list and don’t agree with the options, that is okay. The thing that makes the Mac community great is that there are a lot of independent developers. Each of these categories has other apps that might work better for your needs. These are just the standout apps.
If you have a better replacement app, please let us know in the comments. What is your favorite Mac app, what App from another platform do you still think the Mac needs help with? Let us know in the comments.