My new laptop computer arrived on Friday, and I decided to set this one up from scratch instead of migrating from the old one. (I’m using it right now.) That gave me a good look at the software and services I’m using most lately.
My daughter, a senior in high school who’s applying for college right now, is getting a similar model computer for Christmas. Coming off my own setup experience, I thought I’d write her up a list of the apps I’ve found useful, and that she might find useful as a university student.
Here’s the list that I’m sharing with her. Note that:
- I use a Mac, so this list is Apple-centric. I’ve been in that ecosystem since 2006, so I don’t really know what many of these apps’ Windows or Linux equivalents are.
- I like apps and sites that let me keep my hands on the keyboard, rather than distracting me with a lot of clicking or fiddling around. So a lot of these apps favor keyboard shortcuts and automating things, but that often means a steeper learning curve.
- I like inexpensive or free apps that do one thing really well. Still, a lot of these apps charge money to use them, at times as a subscription. Since I spend about two-thirds of my waking hours doing something at a computer, I don’t mind spending a few hundred dollars a year to make that experience less unpleasant and more efficient, while supporting developers.
- 1Password: A password manager is the first thing I install on a new computer, so that I can install everything else easily. 1Password holds all of my logins and passwords behind a single password that only I know. I don’t know the passwords to any of the sites or services I use: 1Password generates them and saves them, and I just copy and paste. All I have to know is that one master password to open the vault. ($2.99 / month)
- TextExpander: I haven’t typed my name in years, I just type “aaaa” and TextExpander instantly puts in “Adam Isacson.” Why have to remember today’s date when I can just type “dddd.” I have snippets for Latin American countries and leaders. (“ammlo” is so much easier than “Andrés Manuel López Obrador.”) Also for bits of HTML code, my address and phone number, my email signature, and much else. ($39.96 / year)
- Alfred: It’s like the Mac’s spotlight feature on steroids. (£29 / year)
- Dropbox: Still works better than iCloud as a way to back up and sync your documents everywhere. But I’m starting to worry about its privacy policies. ($9.99 / month for 2TB)
- Magnet: A handy little app that snaps and resizes your windows around the screen. ($7.99 one-time)
- Copy ’em with helper app: If you copy and paste a lot, this holds the last X number of things that you copied, so you can paste them without having to copy again. I use it constantly, especially when doing data entry. (There are other apps that do this, this is the one I’ve used for years.) ($14.99 one-time)
- BusyContacts: Everyone needs a contacts app that’s easier to use than the really poor one that comes with the Mac. This is the best one I’ve found. I don’t love it, but it’s good with tags and group emails. ($49.99 one-time)
- BusyCal: A better/prettier calendar program than the one that comes with Mac. Fantastical is also good, but I’m not crazy about its related contacts app (CardHop), so I use BusyCal because it integrates with the superior BusyContacts. ($49.99 one-time)
- OmniFocus: This is the to-do list app I’ve used for many years, but it’s probably too complicated for most people. ($49.99 one-time standard, $99.99 one-time pro) Things is prettier and simpler. ($49.99 one-time) Even the much-improved Reminders app that comes with Mac may be enough for most folks these days.
- DeepL: This is the best translation app. ($6.99 / month)
- Hazel: A nifty app that’s always watching your computer for things that you’ve told it to watch for. Something sitting in the trash too long? It’ll automatically empty it. A movie in your Downloads folder? It’ll move it to your “Movies” folder. Lots of stuff more complex than that, too. ($42 one-time)
- Bartender: The menu bar at the top of the screen can get pretty cluttered. This little app cleans it up for you, hiding the items you choose. ($15 one-time)
Keeping in touch
- Spark: My preferred alternative to Apple Mail, which is also fine. I prefer it mainly because of the keyboard shortcuts (archive, delete, reply, forward without taking your fingers off the keyboard or even using control keys) and the way it connects to OmniFocus, Evernote, and other apps. (Free, charges for teams)
- Messages (built-in), WhatsApp, Signal, and Slack: So people can interrupt you. (All free)
- Obsidian: This is my current go-to app for note-taking and processing ideas. It works on nothing but plain text files, which can be linked to each other by using [[double brackets]], which Obsidian can display as a big network map of all of your files. Obsidian has a large and growing universe of free plug-ins allowing you to use it for many things. If you’re happy with something less full-featured, stick with the Notes app that comes with the Mac, it’s gotten a lot better lately. (Obsidian is free, though they ask for support)
- DevonThink: A pretty app that gives you a place to store all of your research documents (PDFs, websites) in a very searchable archive. (I used to use Evernote for this—and still use it for bills and taxes and stuff—but it’s had some bad updates and I hope it gets better.) ($99 one-time standard, $199 one-time pro)
- PDF Expert: If you work with PDFs a lot (like academic articles and NGO reports), this has a few slight improvements over the built-in Preview app. A nice environment if you highlight and annotate a lot. ($79.99 / year – it’s gotten pricier recently)
- Instapaper: If you’re on a web page that you want to read later (a newspaper article, a blog post, basically anything that’s not a PDF), click the “Instapaper” button in your browser and it saves a copy of just the text, without all the other web cruft. At the Instapaper website or phone/tablet app, all of your saved articles are there in a nice readable layout. You can highlight important parts, and then export the highlights elsewhere. Pocket is very similar; I use Instapaper because I have for more than 10 years. ($29.99 / year; Pocket is $44.99/year for premium)
- Readwise: A service that takes your highlights from Instapaper, Kindle or iBooks, and PDFs (if you send the PDFs to an email address), then puts them all together for you—including in a special folder in Obsidian, thanks to a plug-in. ($7.99 / month, lite version $4.49)
- Zotero with BetterBibTex: A reference manager that has made footnotes and bibliographies about 1,000 percent easier. It keeps your reference documents and spits out citation data with plugins for Microsoft Word and Google Docs. My last report had 319 footnotes, but it was really painless thanks to Zotero. Through some hacking, Zotero with plugins can even take the highlights you made in PDF Expert and turn them into a notes page in Obsidian. One inelegant wrinkle, though, is ending up putting many of the same documents in both Zotero and DevonThink. (Free; $20+/year to store documents)
- InoReader and Unread (for iOS): In one place, read the RSS feeds for your favorite sites, Twitter lists, YouTube channels, and similar. Read all new content as though it was emails in your inbox or articles in a magazine. Read folders that show just certain categories or items that meet search criteria. Navigate, and save things to Instapaper, without taking your hands off the keyboard. This is how I get about 95 percent of my news. (Inoreader tiers are free, $1.67/month, and $5.83/month; Unread is free, $19.99/year premium)
- Otter.ai: This service makes decent transcriptions of any audio file, like mp3s of recorded lectures, podcasts, YouTube videos, etc. ($100/year for pro)
- Firefox: Safari is a good browser and I use it a lot, but it lacks a lot of extensions. Firefox is fast and privacy-forward (unlike Chrome, which is an invasive spy), and I use it with these extensions:
- Instapaper: Adds the current web page to Instapaper.
- Zotero connector: Adds the current web page to Zotero.
- Clip to DevonThink: Adds the current web page to DevonThink.
- DarkReader: Most of Mac OS can go to dark mode automatically at sunset, but Firefox doesn’t without an extension like this.
- Privacy Possum: This one “monkey wrenches common commercial tracking methods by reducing and falsifying the data gathered by tracking companies.”
- uBlock Origin: A good ad blocker.(Free)
- Ulysses: Most of my writing will never be printed out on paper, so I don’t care what it looks like laid out on a fake page like Microsoft Word does. What I want is text that can be converted to a website easily, with little garbage code, which Microsoft Word is terrible at. Ulysses is bare-bones but has a lot of nice features that make writing pleasant (great autocorrect, easy linking, word count targets). You can break a big writing project into sections and move them around. It’s easy to export to the web. I’m writing this in Ulysses right now. If you regularly write very long papers—more than 10 pages—take a look at Scrivener, which is great for storyboarding and keeping all of your research handy. It’s too complex for shorter-form writing though. ($49.99 / year; Scrivener $41.65 one-time with educational license)
- Microsoft Word: Most of the world uses Word, so you have to have it. I don’t enjoy writing in it, I feel like my train of thought gets interrupted while I’m poking through all of the endless toolbars, and the interface looks like the cockpit of a jet plane. The “track changes” features are great, though, and it usually comes bundled with Excel which is the best spreadsheet. Google Docs is better if you’re collaborating with people. Neither one converts to clean HTML. (MS Office I think is $69.99 / year)
- OmniOutliner: Often your first step when writing is to make an outline, and OmniOutliner is the easiest and prettiest app for doing that. It’s also good for taking notes in classes and meetings. It doesn’t get in the way when you’re thinking. ($49.99 / year)
- MindNode: Sometimes a rigid outline isn’t the best first step for writing something. Sometimes you need something more spread out and visual: a mind map. I enjoy using MindNode for that. ($19.99 / year)
- BBEdit: You don’t need this for plain writing. BBEdit is useful if you’re manipulating text a lot, like lots of complicated search-and-replaces. Usually if I’m about to put something on the web, the text has to spend some time in BBEdit to clean up the HTML (curly quotes, make sure some links open in a new window, deal with letters with accents, strip out goofy formatting). And if you’re ever coding, BBEdit is amazing. ($39.99 / year)
- Keynote: If you’re making a slideshow, the Keynote app that comes with your Mac is far superior to PowerPoint. So much easier to work with. You can convert it to PowerPoint later. I think it makes much prettier charts than Excel does. (Free)
- OmniGraffle: This one’s not necessary, but the company that makes OmniFocus and OmniOutliner makes this app that easily produces diagrams. ($149.99 one-time – it’s gotten pricier)
Sound and images
- Acorn: I’ve used this app to edit graphics for years, and am happy with it. But I have no idea if it’s better or worse than competitors like Pixelmator (cheaper) or Photoshop Elements (pricier). (Acorn $39.99 one-time, Pixelmator $19.99 one-time, Photoshop Elements $99.99 one-time)
- Audacity: This venerable free, open-source audio editor does what I need it to do (mainly, editing podcast audio). It has lots of useful plug-ins to do things like reduce noise and level speech. It can convert from any format to any another. (Free)
- Audio Hijack: This app lets you grab the audio from any app running on your computer. Great for recording Zoom meetings, recording podcasts, recording lectures and events, whatever. (And then you can take the audio you grabbed and run it through otter.ai for a transcript.) ($59 one-time)
- yt-dlp: If you’ve ever seen a video on the web and said, “I’d like to download a copy of that,” this will do it for you. You can also tweak the commands to just download the audio, saving it as an .mp3. Yt-dlp requires you to use the Mac’s built-in Terminal app, so all commands must be typed into a Unix command line. I use TextExpander to do all this, but this is still the hardest app to use on this entire list. (Free)
- VLC: This free, open-source video player has been around forever and can play any format. (Free)
- Calibre: A nice free library for your e-books. A plugin lets you remove the DRM from your books, but you’ll have to look up how to do that yourself. (Free)
- Screenflow: This one is expensive, but if you record presentations on your computer screen, like a video lecture with a slideshow, this app makes it super-easy. ($149 one-time)