Episode #99: These are a few of my favorite FREE things...
The free apps I keep on my Macs that I love and recommend
Editorial Disclaimer: this entire episode was conceived of, researched, written, edited, and polished by a human (that’d be me) without the assistance of AI.
When 2023 started, I challenged myself to find software to make work more productive and fun. I succeeded wildly and quickly at my challenge. I’ve been testing the applications I’m recommending below for well over 9 months now.
All of the apps are free. Some are open-source as well, so their code is “open” or available for anyone to examine or fix. Fun Fact: the acronym “FOSS” stands for Free and Open-Source Software. So whenever you see technologists using this term, pay attention!
OK, I’m excited to see how these apps impact your world and workflow, so let’s dig in.
Utilities are small applications that make your workflow easier to see, edit, and share. I’ve gotten so used to these helpful additions that I simply won’t work without them again.
For Window Organization: Spectacle & Rectangle - FOSS
These ingenious applications allow users to instantly move or resize the windows on their Macs using their keyboard. Want to move your active window to the left half of your screen? Press option + ⌘ + ← and it’s done. Click another application, then press option + ⌘ + → and that window auto-fills the other side of the screen. There are options to fill corners, thirds, halves, and more. It makes it effortless to show how three different browsers display the same website!
For those on newer Macs with Apple silicon (the M1 or M2 chips, for example), this app won’t work, so grab Rectangle which will work on both newer AND older Macs. Both apps work in similar ways and you’ll love them both.
For App Switching: AltTab - FOSS
AltTab is like having an app switcher for your Mac, but on steroids. Most of us, myself included have been used to using Apple’s built-in version of this feature. That’s activated by pressing ⌘+tab on your Mac. But that only allows you to rotate through the various open apps that you have on your Mac.
AltTab allows you to rotate through every open App and window on your Mac. If you have multiple browser or word-processing documents open, AltTab will allow you to choose the specific window that you’d like to move to. Even better, if you’ve minimized it into your dock, once you’ve selected it, AltTab will move it from your dock and bring it to the front of your screen. Here’s what it looks like on my Mac and my GOODNESS, I love this little app. Note that it shows BOTH of the browser windows that I have open, so I can bring either of those to the front.
For Learning Shortcuts: CheatSheet - Free
If you prefer to use the keyboard more than your mouse then you’ll love CheatSheet. Once installed, it works by pressing and holding the command key (or ⌘ key) for two seconds. When you do, EVERY keyboard shortcut for your active application is presented on-screen even if you’re in the Finder.
CheatSheet isn’t available anymore… but you can still download the app here from the popular Mac software library site: Softonic. If you seek a newer replacement, some folks like the app KeyCue, but - as it isn’t free or open-source - this dweeb here can’t recommend it as strongly as the other apps in this episode.
For Browser Choices: Browserosaurus - FOSS
Funny name, serious app. For years now, my default browser of choice has been Brave, something I explained at length back in Episode #12 and Episode #31. The problem? As I have Brave set to maximize my privacy and security, some websites don’t display correctly. Or at ALL. That means I sometimes need to open those sites up in a different browser.
Browserosaurus makes this easy. Now, any time that I click on a link/URL, I am presented with options for opening that link in the browser of my choice.
Browserosaurus helps make the day move a little faster and a lot more conveniently.
For Taking Screenshots: Shottr - Free
I always need screenshots as a technologist. They help me to highlight various buttons and links that I show to my readers in a document. But I need an easy-to-use tool to take AND edit those screenshots. Apple’s Screenshot app is free and lives in your Utilities folder, but… it’s not very powerful.
I used an app called Skitch for a few years which was better but… still not powerful enough. Then, last year, I discovered Shottr. And OH. MY. GAWD. It’s not open-source but I’m willing to overlook that in this case because the app is so amazing.
What an app! It’s so powerful, so easy to use, and has so many features that I honestly can’t believe that it’s free. Every single screenshot you see in this Episode — and almost EVERY episode I’ve written in the past 9 months — was created and then edited with Shottr.
It can crop, add rectangles, blur text you need to hide, add pointers and arrows, measure the distance in pixels between art elements, perform OCR (optical character recognition), and add counters. Did I mention you can also draw freehand on it?!
Shottr even captures scrolling screenshots. That means the application will scroll down the active window to capture everything in the window beyond what’s currently on your screen. Incredible tool. Here’s an example of what it looks like (enjoy the comedy, in this image, by the way…)
Shottr is free but it’s SO dang good that I paid for a licence. It was 100% worth the massive $8 fee the developer charges. Shit: I know some people that pay more than that for an expresso drink in Los Angeles.
Applications are larger programs that are designed to use and handle more serious computing power. Examples of applications that you might know are Microsoft Word or Adobe Photoshop. Which, as it turns out, is exactly where we’ll begin…
To replace Microsoft, Apple, & Google Suites: Libre Office - Free & FOSS
This one is for all of my Apple, Windows, and Linux users.
If you’re paying money to Microsoft to own or rent Microsoft Office, stop: you’re paying too much. If you’re using Google Docs and Sheets, stop: you’re allowing your data to be harvested. Apple’s Pages, Numbers, and Keynote are better, but they aren’t open-source.
The clear FOSS alternative is Libre Office! Libre Office is a suite of applications that replace MS Office but, also, Filemaker Pro (for working on databases) and even an advanced Math notation interface. For free.
Here are screenshots of Libre Office’s “Start Center” and word processor, and math notation interfaces running on my Intel-based Mac. Color me very impressed.
It’s free, easy to use, has a familiar interface, and it will work on any computer that you own.
To Replace Abode Photoshop: Krita - FOSS
Right now, as of January 2024, you can pay to use Adobe’s world-famous Photoshop application for $23/month. That comes to $276/year or $1380 for five years.
Or, you could spend $0 for the rest of your entire life and download and use Krita. For free. Forever. Even better, Krita has macOS, Windows, and Linux builds. As a longtime user of Adobe, I’ve come to loathe the company. They overcharge for their products - grossly, in my opinion - and their software is sloppy AF. It installs all kinds of nonsense that shouldn’t be required, something that’s humorously known as “bloatware”.
So I’ve been experimenting with Krita for about 9 months now and I have to say: it’s an amazing application that manages to do most of what I used to do with Adobe’s app but without the cost or bloat. It’s also relatively easy to learn thanks to the non-profit backing the application which provides a helpful online User Manual. Do you need to open images with layers and effects? Multiple fonts and brushes? Krita can handle it.
Even better, the app opens and works with any Photoshop file you’ve already saved on your computer. Honestly? I don’t understand how Adobe is still in business.
If you’re a graphic artist and you’re looking for a new, cheaper but still-powerful alternative to Adobe: you should 100% give Krita a test run.
One App to Replace them ALL: Raycast - FOSS
Raycast is the application/utility/swiss army knife that you’ve probably never heard of but absoLUTEly need to get. Right. Now. I don’t know why Raycast hasn’t been bought by Apple but I suspect that they will. It is - without question - the best 3rd party application (meaning: it’s not made by Apple) that I’ve ever seen that so seamlessly works with macOS. This won’t be a how-to-use Raycast episode, although I should write one up in the future. Instead, I’ll simply break down what it is, and how you might use it.
What the $#%@ is Raycast
Raycast is, essentially, a replacement for Apple’s “Spotlight” search interface that most people use. It’s a tool that helps you get to what you want on your Mac: files, applications, contacts, notes, and much, much more. I’m a fan of Apple but Spotlight looks like a defeated and dejected Dallas Cowboys football team compared to Raycast.
The interfaces are night and day. One is rich, with tons of capabilities and power. The other is, well, yesterday’s stale socks.
Once you download and set up Raycast (follow this advice), get ready for the ride of your Mac’s life.
How You Can Use Raycast
Want an amazing calculator that understands math & dates? How about currency and time zone conversions? You got it.
How about an easy way to view or edit your calendar? You got it.
Just need to search for a file on your computer? Of course!
Want inSANEly detailed ways to manage your windows? Hells, YES. You might even want to get rid of Spectacle or Rectangle (I didn’t, for what it’s worth…).
Want quick access to a dictionary? Or to every emoji imaginable? Done.
Maybe you’d like to quickly search Google, Wikipedia, or DuckDuckGo? All from within the same interface? Yup, Raycast does that too.
Raycast’s Real Power: Extensions
Here’s the thing: Raycast works like an app store. Because of that many developers have created Raycast extensions to help create shortcuts to do some pretty amazing stuff that you could NEVER do with Spotlight.
Install the Google Translate extension and you’ll be on your way to finding - and copying! - the right way to say a phrase in Hebrew without ever opening a browser:
Install the Apple Notes extension and search all of your notes (I have hundreds) without needing to open the Notes app. For example, I just used Raycast to search all of my notes for those with the word “links” in the body or title so I could find the note I was seeking.
There is an ever-growing set of extensions but here are some that you might find attractive immediately:
Slack- for those who use this popular collaboration platform
YouTube - to search for YouTube videos within Raycast (love this)
Apple Music - to manage your music collection from within Raycast
I could go on, but won’t. The bottom line is this:
Download Raycast now. Install it now. Use it now. And please, please, please: let me know if it isn’t the best damn app for your Mac that you’ve ever used.
And that’s a wrap for today’s episode, everyone. Thanks for being a part of our community and, as always… surf safe! 👍🏼 👌🏾
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