1. Computer Skills

Discover the Best, and Free, Alternatives to Well-Known Mac Apps

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Read Time: 14 min

It’s great to get a new computer. Everything is new and shinny, but a new system has few programs pre-loaded. You look in the App Store and on the web, but many of the popular programs are so expensive.

Fortunately, there are alternitives. I’ll show you some free programs that are great, some cheaper for pay programs, and ways to get the more expensive programs for pennies.

Alway remember: free software—also known as freeware—is often buggy and can crash while you’re working. Always save work to disk, often, to ensure that the work doesn’t get lost. With paid software, you rarely have to worry about crashes, though you’re not necessarily immune. There is nothing totally bug free in this digital world.

Vector Graphics

In the world of vector illustrations, the most popular application is Adobe Illustrator. The down side is that it is very expensive.

You can no longer buy it, but you have to subscribe to it for $19.99/month. In one year, it costs $228 for that one program.

A free alternative is Inkscape. Inkscape does not have all the features of Adobe Illustrator, but it is free.

I have been amazed of the great illustrations people have been able to create with Inkscape. The downside is that it is fairly easy to crash. I have done that several times. Therefore, save your work often.

A great alternative to Adobe Illustrator is Affinity Designer. Affinity Designer costs just $50. The developer has been adding more and more features to this program since it was released.

If you already have many Adobe Illustrator files, you can still use them with Affinity Designer. It does not have every feature that of Adobe Illustrator, but it gets closer with every update.

Rastor Graphics

Similar to Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop is the defacto standard for raster based graphics. Though, like Adobe Illustrator, it comes at a cost. If you need both, it would be best to get all of the Adobe programs for $49.99/month. That equates to around $600/year.

The free alternative is Gimp. It does not have all the features of Adobe Photoshop, but it does do a great job. If you are able to program in Lisp, then you can try your hand at expanding Gimp with a plugin.

Affinity Photo has just recently been released and is a great alternative to Adobe Photoshop. It even runs most of Adobe Photoshop’s plugins and will open every Adobe Photoshop generated file. At just $50, it’s great value.

Corel Painter X3 is a rastor graphics program that is designed to meet the needs of a digital painters. It is not as popular as Adobe Photoshop. At the price of $429, it is an expensive piece of software.

A similar free program to Corel Painter X3 is Sketchbook Express. Sketchbook Express is the free version of Sketchbook Pro. Sketchbook Express is not nearly feature rich as Corel Painter X3, but for the hobbiest digital painter it is satifactory. Since this is a free version of their for pay product, it is not buggy nor prone to crashes as many other freeware programs.


At first glance, you might think that publishing just needs a good word processor. While many word processors do have nearly the feature set of a publishing program, they still aren’t made for serious publishing work. The industry standard is Adobe Indesign. But, you have the same pricing as Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop.

The best free software is Scribus. Scribus has many great features similar to the expensive publishing software. It works well on small projects, but I have found it to crash quite a bit on large project.

The best cheaper alternative is Swift Publisher 3. At $29.95, it packs a lot of punch in a cheaper program. It is much easier to use than InDesign, but does not have all of the bells and whistles either. All in all, it’s great value.

Affinity Publisher is suppose to come out as a free beta in 2016. If Affinity Publisher is as good as their other products, it will give the others a run for their money. Affinity has promised that all their software will be $50 each with a typical launch price of $39.99. I look forward to seeing it.

Video Editing

Video editing on the Mac has been dominated by Final Cut Pro X. Final Cut Pro X is a great program and is quite versital. But, at a price tag of $299.99, it’s not immediately affordable.

If you’re just doing basic video edits, then iMovie that comes with the Mac OS X 10.10 and newer is actually pretty good.

If you need more muscle work on your videos, then the best video editor freeware is Lightworks. Lightworks is not like other freeware programs. This is a full featured video editor with features that rival Final Cut Pro. It was created by movie studios and is as good as any paid program. I have never been able to crash it. The downside is that it has a steep learning curve.

3D Video

For working with 3D images in a video, the industry standards are Final Cut Motion and Premiere Pro. Final Cut Motion is an addon to Final Cut Pro that allows you to work with 3D elements in your videos. Premiere Pro does it all: complex video editing, 3D elements, masking of objects with tracking, etc. While Final Cut Motion is only $50 dollars, you have to have Final Cut Pro at $299.99 first. Premiere Pro is priced the same for all Adobe products: $19.99/month for just Premiere Pro or $49.99/month for all of the Adobe programs.

On the freeware side, there is Jahshaka and Blender. Jahshaka is a video editor with 3D added, while Blender is a 3D modeling program with video creation abilities. Full length movies have been produced on Blender. Just like Lightworks, Blender is made and maintained by movie studios. Blender also allows for extensions with Python scripts and plugins.


The standard for office suites is Microsoft Office, essentially because most businesses use it and, consequently, most home users think they should use it, too. The latest version was released in late-2015. You can get it as a stand alone (price not specified) or as a part of Office 365 at $6.99/month subscription.

The best office suite for free is Apache OpenOffice and Libre OpenOffice. They both came from the same original code base produce by Sun Mircrosystems. At first, Apache OpenOffice was the best stable platform with frequent updates, but the latest Libre OpenOffice 5.0 out shines them all. It opens and processes file much faster. I have never had OpenOffice of either flavor crash on me, but they have had moments of slow updating. Of course, you can also consider Google Docs.

Script Writing

If you are a playwrite, video choreographer, or do any such work, then you have heard of Final Draft 9. It is the best of the breed with a hefty price of $249.99.

Celtx is a free web based script editor. You have to make an account with them and access everything through your browser. There isn’t a free local application. If you need more features than just script writing, they also have for pay services that will handle any other need in the business. Celtx does have a Mac client, but it isn’t free. At $19.99, it is far cheaper than Final Draft 9, but doesn’t have all the features.

A full Final Draft 9 competitor is Scrivener. At $49.99, it is much cheaper than Final Draft 9 and has all the features you would need. It is designed for novel writing, scripts, plays, comics, etc. Best of all, it imports/exports in Markdown or Fountain formats as well. Once finished, you can export to any ebook format you want.

If you are a Markdown enthusiast, then you might like Writer. This is a freeware Fountain editor for the Mac. Fountain is a super set of Markdown for script writing. Unlike Celtx, it is a normal program without any ties to a web site. It is minimalistic in design and works well.


For the Mac, Parallels is the standard for virtualization. Virtualization is the simulation of a complete computer system for the purpose of running an operating system different than the one you are using. Parallels is fast and is easy to use. But, it has a $79.99 price tag.

VirtualBox is the freeware virtualization standard. It is not like many freeware programs that are buggy. This is professional software used by thousands of developers everyday.

ToDo Lists

Everyone has a list of items they need to do each day. There are many applications for the Mac to manage a todo list, but Things and OmniFocus are the two best of the breed. OmniFocus is the cheaper of the two at $39.99. Things is $49.99. Both have similar features, but only OmniFocus has a pro version that unlocks more power at another $39.99 price tag.

Wunderlist free version is a web application that has local applications for every operating system. It is focused on the task of doing todo list. The free version is limited to 25 subtasks for each task and 25 assignments. The pro version allows for collaboration with others and no limitations to assignments or subtasks at a $4.99/month subscription.

Audio Processing

In the audio industry, Logic Pro X is the gold-standard of synthesized music and music editing software. But at a $199.99 price tag, it is not affordable for many. This program, however, gives many great instruments to use right away with the ability to add more in the future.

The second favorite is Reaper. Reaper is mostly a audio workstation without any built in instruments. You can get some instruments for free, but most of the good ones are expensive. A personl license of Reaper is only $60. A commercial license is $225. There is no difference in the personal or commercial software. Reaper just likes to give non-corporations a discount for their software.

Studio One 3 Prime is the freeware version of their professional level Studio One 3 software. Likewise, it is scalled down with fewer features, but is impressive. It comes with instruments and pre-built music loops.


For the work of a DJ, Traktor Pro 2 is the gold standard for the Mac. At a $99.00 price tag, it is also not obtainable for most hobbyists.

Cross DJ Free is the freeware version of their professional program, Cross DJ and Cross. It has most of the same features, but with limitations (Two vs four decks, MIDI input, etc). But, for a hobbyist, it has all you need for your parties.

File Transfer

In this age of personal web sites, everyone needs a way to transfer files to their server. The most common format is FTP, but there is also S3, SFTP, and WebDAV protocals as well. Transmit is the most popular file transfer client for the Mac. At $39, it is not a bad deal.

But, for penny pinchers, CyberDuck is a great free alternative. It is fast and easy to use. I have never had it crash or lose a file. CyberDuck also has a for pay version on the Apple App Store.

When it comes to large S3 uploading, I have had a lot of troubles with both of these programs. They both choke on uploads to S3 greater than one gigabyte! To get around that, I have had to use a command line program, s3cmd. This little python script has never failed me to get my large files on to S3.

Programmer Editors

The world of programmers editors is filled with emotion more than what is actually the best. Some are advocates of an editor and refuse to even consider something different. Others, like myself, love trying out new editors all the time.

Currently on the Mac, the top two editors are BBEdit and Sublime Text 3. BBEdit has everything you need in a programmers editor for $49.99, but is limited to extensions in AppleScript. Likewise, Sublime Text 3 is just as feature rich for $70, but has a thriving community of addons written in python. To me, Sublime Text 3 handles the best and is available on every platform. That gives it an edge for most developers.

On the free side, TextWrangler is the free version of BBEdit. It not as feature rich as BBEdit, but that doesn’t make it bad. For the hardcore developer, there is also the standard Emacs and MacVim. Emacs and MacVim are both highly extensable, free programming editor. I like them both, but have settled upon Emacs with the Spacemacs extension. Spacemacs give the full power of Vim with many more extensions that make it a great editor. The only thing lacking is the great multiple cursors that Sublime Text 3 has, and the features of the Text Pastry addon.


LaunchBar and Alfred are the leaders on utility software for the Mac. Both are hotkey application launchers that are extensable with software scripts. LaunchBar costs $27.31 (converted from €24) while Alfred is free if you do not want the extensions and themes. For $26.64 (converted from £17), you get Alfred workflows and themes. With the Packal site, you have access to 599 workflows and 101 themes! For all the utility features these programs have, this is not a bad price at all.

Spotlight is a file launcher that is built in to Mac OS X Yosemite and latter. It has a nice addon called Flashlight, which is free as well. Flashlight allows you to write extensions for Spotlight using Python or use one of the many pre-written plugins. This gives Spotlight nearly the same ability as Launchbar and Alfred. If you use Flashlight, you will need to fix the installation process as outlined in this Github gist if you are running Mac OS X 10.10.4-5. There is not currently a fix for El Capitan.

QuickSilver is the only freeware, non-Apple compeditor to LaunchBar and Alfred. It has a 100 plugins and a decent support community.


Anti-Virus programs help protect your system from malicious programs designed to hack and destroy what you have. Norton Aniti-Virus has long been the standard for PCs and now for Macs. But, it is a subscription based program at $44.99/year.

Thankfully, there are free options as well. Avast and Sophos Anti-Virus for Mac are two great freeware anti-virus programs. They both seem to be reputable companies, but I find Sophos to take less resources on my system, though your mileage may vary.


With the explosion of different programs and people wanting to sell outside of the Mac App Store, software bundles have become popular. Software bundles are groups of programs sold together at a fraction of their total price. Generally, bundles run around $20 to $50 which gives an average discount of around 90%.

The most well know one is MacHeist. Two to three times a year, MacHeist creates and sells a group of programs for one low price. Most of my prime software on my system comes for these bundles. They also use portion of the proceeds for charity.

There is also Macbundler Deals by Stack Social. They have had many great bundles or single program sells at a great price. They also have great deals on gadgets and other items.

Recently, Envato Bundles came out with a great sell on software with a promise of more to come. Their first bundle focused on web design with Macaw and Rapidweaver along with five other programs and many discount coupons. It was a great deal. Looking forward to the next one.

You can even find great sales on the Apple App Store. $2 Tuesdays has three applications for sale on the Apple App Store for under $2 every Tuesday. It is more than worth the time to keep up with them.


Getting software for you Mac doesn’t have to cost you a fortune. There are many free or cheaper programs than the prestige programs with their hefty price tags.

Depending on your particular needs, you can get what you need cheaper than you think. Also, always keep your eyes out for the bundles and deals that are always available. You can get some great stuff cheap that way.

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