The Best Mac OS X Utilities

Submitted on Sep 23, 2011, 10:51 p.m.

Having recently joined the 'cult of Apple' - here's what I consider to be the minimum required set of Mac OS X utilities and helper applications for any Mac OS X installation:

1) Quicksilver: Update: 2014-10-11 - One of the features I've relied on in Quicksilver, was the ability to easily set system-wide keyboard shortcust. Thanks to this very cool app - Apptivate which does nothing 'but' set system-wide accelerators (including my prefered keybinding to launch Pathfinder), I'm less reliant on an app launcher now. Spotlight works fine, and Yosemite will finish this off nicely. Original Post: Thanks to This application launcher is the business. It's been around for ages, and does what it says on the tin. It looks a lot like 'Gnome Do', and I love it. A very fast, and very convenient way to launch apps, scripts, open documents and a lot more. It's also free. An alternative to Quicksilver is Alfred - which also looks nice - although I've yet to take it for a spin. 

2) Pathfinder from Cocoatech: Cocoatech calls this "The Finder, reinvented" - and it's nothing less than that. For me - it takes all the pain out of Finder, and creates a file and folder management shell that reminds me of Total Commander for Windows. Having folders sort before files should be part of Mac OS X out-of-the-box - but for some strange reason it isn't. Pathfinder takes care of that nicely. There's also an excellent split window view, preview view, and options to override all of the default key-binding behaviors - including 'Enter to Launch' as opposed to renaming a file or folder. Most importantly for hi-res displays - all the standard View Options are available, allowing you to change font and icon size to suit. I can barely use a Mac without it and it's well worth the price of admission. UPDATE: Another up-and-coming finder replacement that shows great promise is Commander One from Eltima.

3) Little Snitch: This is a great utility that tells you when any software installed on your Mac is trying to 'call home'. It's the opposite of a Firewall. Instead of preventing stuff from 'coming in' to your computer - Little Snitch will tell you whenever an app is trying to 'get out' - and allow you to decide if you want to allow it to or not. The network monitor that comes with Little Snitch is brilliant. If you've ever wondered what was causing all of your network activity, when you weren't actually using your computer, Little Snitch will tell you.  

4) iStats Menu from bjango: Want to keep an eye on memory usage, disk activity, cpu activity and system or cpu temperature? iStats Menu will do that nicely thanks. I discovered iStats menu after looking for a simple hard disk activity light. I wanted to know when my disk was idle, or reading, or writing (and potentially thrashing). Activity monitor does a good job - but iStats Menu had so many nice features and extras packed into the app that I forked-out for it. As a bonus - I really like their menu bar clock, and additional world clocks that can be added to the drop-down. Another utility app that's well worth the price of admission.  

5) Tunnelblick: For road-warriors that need access to their small office, or corporate virtual private networks (VPNs) Tunnelblick will do nicely. Tunnelblick is an OpenVPN client. It's super stable, easy to set-up and works great. The only catch of course is that your office or corporate VPN must be an OpenVPN SSL based VPN (as opposed to say an IPSec VPN). Most modern day firewalls support OpenVPN and so you may be using an OpenVPN without knowing it. Contact your IT or systems support people to find-out, and recommend Tunnelblick to them if you're using an OpenVPN.  

6) TrueCrypt: Everyone should have some sort of personal information security strategy - although most people don't, or are relying on paid-for utility apps and 3rd party browser plugins. I couldn't do the topic justice in a short post like this suffice to say that it's kind of important to know where you are keeping your sensitive information like bank account details, web site logins and passwords, software registration details and serial numbers etc. Mac OS X ships with FileVault and this is likely to be a practical solution for full disk encryption on a Mac - although I've not yet tried it. I like TrueCrypt a lot because it allows me to create a single 'confidential' volume that I can take with me, and mount on any system that supports TrueCrypt - and that means Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X. The only downside to TrueCrypt, is that it's not quite as user friendly as I'd like it to be on the Mac. Before you can install it you need something called FUSE. To quote WikiPedia -  "Filesystem in Userspace (FUSE) is a loadable kernel module for Unix-like computer operating systems that lets non-privileged users create their own file systems without editing kernel code." OK - so you don't really have to know what that means - suffice to say that you need FUSE installed before you can install TrueCrypt. And MacFUSE will do just the trick.  

7) ClamXav: This might be a somewhat risky recommendation - but I don't want any anti-virus software running on my computer.  By running, I mean any real-time monitoring or background processing that will take up CPU cycles, or interfere with the general performance of my computer. What I want is an on-demand anti-virus scanner that I can use whenever anyone hands me a disk, or when I download a file from the internet. ClamXav lets me do just that. ClamXav is a graphical front-end to the OpenSource ClamAV virus scanning system that is used on many mail gateways and servers on the Internet. I love ClamXav's interface - it's simple to use, and also does what it says on the tin. If you do want real-time file system monitoring, ClamXav has an option to turn on sentry monitor - which will do that for you.  

8) AppCleaner: Mac OS X doesn't have a default 'application uninstall' subsystem, nor do many apps that you install by dragging into the Applications folder have an uninstall option (which is a little weird). There are a couple of application removal tools. AppCleaner which is free, and appears to do the job. There's also AppZapper which looks good as well, but is not free.  

9) SuperDuper: Two popular file based backup utilities for Mac OS X are SuperDuper and Carbon Copy Cloner. I was tempted to use my own rsync script - but SuperDuper was nice and clean, simple to use, allows for pre- and post-processing scripts - and will make the sync'd external backup disk bootable as well.

And that's it. So far I'm loving my new MacBook Pro. Having a certified UNIX OS and all of the native userland FreeBSD and GNU tools under the hood is fantastic (and a topic I'll have more to say about soon).