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Must-have apps for the Apple Mac

In the past two years, Apple has seen its Macintosh line of laptop and desktop computers increase its market share to 11.6 per cent in 2011 and 13.6 per cent in 2012 according to data gathered by analyst firm Gartner. If you count yourself among new Mac users, you're probably wondering which apps are the ones worth buying or downloading. Even long-time Mac users can always use a few helpful suggestions for improving their Mac experience. Regardless of which of these camps you fall into, we have a must-read list for you here.

This article highlights the best pieces of software that you should download onto your OS X desktop or laptop. The apps will help you express your creativity, be more productive, communicate with others, and much more.

Some of the apps are exclusive to the OS X platform; others are cross-platform efforts that you'll find on Linux and Windows. Two of the highlighted apps even let you run those operating systems within OS X, which opens the door to even more apps beyond the boundaries of what the Mac natively supports.

One software category is conspicuously absent: Games. We purposely excluded games here as we're planning a dedicated article on them in the future.

Note that the title of each listed app is a link you can follow, should you wish to buy that particular piece of software (or simply download it for nothing, as some of these applications are free).

Okay, here come the apps, then... just one last thing. If there any any high quality Mac apps which you think we've missed, then please do let us know about them in the comments section below.

Creativity apps

Adobe Dreamweaver CS6 (£360)

Adobe Dreamweaver CS6 is far and away the world's most powerful web editor, though it's a little rougher around the edges than its less capable, Windows-only rival Microsoft Expression Web. Dreamweaver CS6 is unquestionably the first and only web-building tool that works smoothly and capably in the new multi-platform world. It has a few flaws, but Adobe Dreamweaver CS6 also has more power and flexibility than any other app in its category.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 (£106)

Adobe adds maps, basic video editing, better adjustment tools, soft proofing, photo emailing, and book creation to the leading photo workflow app, Lightroom 4 – all at a new lower price point in comparison to the previous version. If you're serious about digital photography, this is the software that you need for your Macintosh.

Apple Aperture 3.4 (£55)

Aperture's smooth user interface, Faces and Places features, plentiful output options, and extensive RAW support make it an app well worth consideration. It might not have as powerful editing tools as those seen in Lightroom 4, which we've just highlighted, but it's half the price of the Adobe program. See our full review of the previous version, Aperture 3.3, for a full discussion on the relative pros and cons of Lightroom and Aperture.

Apple Final Cut Pro X 10.0.7 (£200)

Apple has built a completely new, faster, cleaner, and more intuitive digital video editing package with Final Cut Pro X 10.0.7. While some professionals are still kicking and screaming about the changes it brings, they'll eventually be won over by Final Cut Pro X's significant speed and usability advances. Besides, Apple and third party developers have already addressed a significant portion of their original objections. Meanwhile, prosumer video enthusiasts get a less daunting upgrade path to a pro-level Mac editor.

Apple GarageBand (£10.49)

GarageBand '11 isn't a professional music studio, but it's a great start. The audio app features excellent multimedia music lessons, basic recording, mixing, and editing tools, all of which make it even more suited to home music enthusiasts than a straight music editing program. For music hobbyists, this in-its-own-class app is sure to provide hours of satisfaction. GarageBand is one of three components of the fun iLife '11 suite, and the others are mentioned in the following two entries...

Apple iMovie (£10.49)

iMovie '11 improves on the already impressive ease and power of Apple's iconic video production software. The new audio editing and amazing Hollywood-style trailer features are enough to make the upgrade both worth your time, and the price is more than reasonable.

Apple iPhoto (£10.49)

The latest version of Apple's entry-level photo app adds an improved full-screen view, impressive new photo emailing, and remarkably tight Facebook integration. iPhoto '11 also delivers some of the best output options available in a photo app – slideshows, cards, calendars, and books.

DxO Optics Pro 8 (£119)

It might be overstating the case a bit to say that DxO Optics Pro 8 is the Holy Grail of digital photo correction, but not by much. The app will get the best possible results from camera RAW files, doing the best job of removing image noise and chromatic aberration. It adds some impressive adjustment tools, too, but it does lack basic workflow capabilities.

GraphicConverter (£27.49)

GraphicConverter is the best graphic file management and manipulation software for everyone – except professional graphics designers. GraphicConverter does more things with more formats than any other application I've ever seen on any platform, and if you're a non-professional who needs high quality image manipulation and conversion on a Mac, it's the only choice.

Pixelmator (£10.49)

Pixelmator brings varied and flexible photo editing features to the Mac at a very wallet-friendly price. Pixelmator isn't as deep as Adobe Photoshop CS5 – and it isn't trying to be – but it's still a very capable image editor that's cheaper than Adobe Photoshop Elements, and packs more power than Picasa and Picnik.

Skitch (free)

Anyone in need of a lightweight, easy-to-use screen capturing and editing tool will find a lot to like in Skitch. This app makes it really easy to annotate, resize, crop, and add shapes, lines, arrows, and watermarks to photos on your desktop. It doesn't perform functions you'd find in high-end image editors like Adobe Photoshop CS5, but that's not what it's all about. Skitch is designed to deliver quick and effective edits – and it does its job extremely well, costing you nothing into the bargain.

Productivity apps

Alfred (free)

This productivity app searches your computer and launches programs and files it finds while keeping your fingers on the keyboard rather than the mouse. Productivity proponents and those suffering from mouse-related repetitive stress shouldn't have a Mac without it. Some users will see Alfred as unnecessary because it replicates a lot of Spotlight's capabilities, but the rest of us can enjoy an app that works wonderfully.

Apple iWork '09 (£69)

Apple's visually dazzling productivity suite isn't yet a replacement for Microsoft Office for the Mac, but iWork '09 offers a terrific set of programs for light word processing (Pages) and medium-to-heavy spreadsheet (Numbers) use. And the absolutely stellar Keynote presentation app leaves the competition in the dust.

Bento 4 (£35)

This revision of Bento, the personal database for the Mac, is the most useful and appealing version to date. It adds support for your iPhoto pictures and videos, location-based information, offers useful new templates, and makes inroads towards database sharing over your local network. New security options round off this excellent update.

Dragon Dictate 3 for Mac (£130)

Dragon Dictate 3 for Mac is, as the name might suggest, a choice tool for dictation. While it does offer voice control of your machine as well, that's not its primary selling point, but on the Mac the built-in tools for voice control work just fine. When it comes to composing emails and writing lengthy documents, Dragon Dictate removes the (repetitive) stress of using a keyboard and mouse and transcribes what you say beautifully. For more information on the product, see our Dragon Dictate 3 for Mac review, where it scoops an award.

Evernote for Mac Premium (£32 per year)

Evernote for Mac gives the users of the mobile app an open and comfortable space to finish off and polish all their on-the-go ideas, making the whole Evernote experience supremely worthwhile. Paired with its web clipper, Evernote's Mac app is one fantastic piece of software, with a syncing service you can rely on. The basic version of the app is free, but the Premium edition gives you all manner of bonus features.

LibreOffice (free)

LibreOffice is an offshoot from the old application suite, now renamed Apache OpenOffice. It gives you a word processor (Writer), a spreadsheet app (Calc), presentations and graphics apps (Impress and Draw), and other tools. LibreOffice isn't for every Mac user, but for anyone who has to work with oddball formats and legacy documents, it's an essential tool. And you can't argue with the price.

TeamViewer (free)

If you're looking for feature-packed remote control, desktop sharing, and presentation software, TeamViewer is both the simplest and most powerful option. Businesses will have to shell out a wedge of cash up front to use this, but fortunately individuals can use the app for free. Either way, this versatile application is a very good deal.

Utility apps

Adobe Acrobat XI Pro (£449)

If, like me, you spend a lot of time and effort working with PDFs, then Acrobat remains an essential tool, and Acrobat XI adds plenty of value – more than enough to justify the £195 upgrade from Adobe Acrobat X. It doesn't do everything, but Adobe Acrobat is still the most powerful, stable, and mature PDF application, as you'd expect from the creator of the PDF format.

BetterZip (£14)

BetterZip is the best archive utility for OS X. It's easy to use and packed with advanced features including a built-in file previewer. Yes, BetterZip seems expensive for a utility that should have been built into the OS – though it's hardly developer Macitbetter's fault that Apple ZIP management is weak.

Cloud (free)

If you need to send large files to others on a regular basis, Cloud (for Mac) lets you do just that. Chances are that if you need a service of this type you'll probably want to shell out cash for the premium service – which is cheaper than using Dropbox – in order to avoid the free model's limitations.

DiskWarrior 4 (£100)

If you rely on your Mac for work, and not just for email and chatting with friends on Facebook, you should have a copy of DiskWarrior ready for emergencies. And if you don't keep a copy handy, make sure you know how to get one quickly, because when disk disasters strike, nothing else will restore OS X's directory structure like this must-have app.

Find Any File (£5.49)

Find Any File is fast, because it uses a catalogue file that's constantly updated by OS X. If you remember the "Find file..." feature in the "Classic" pre-OS X, days of the Mac, then you'll have a pretty good idea of how Find Any File works. If you make heavy use of your Mac for fun or for work – or both – then Find Any File is an essential tool.

Handbrake (free)

Handbrake is a free, open source video transcoding utility. It's licensed by the GPL, available for multiple platforms (Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux), and takes full advantage of multi-threading when available. It supports most common multimedia file formats, as well as DVD and Blu-ray video sources that are not copy protected.

Parallels Desktop 8 (£65)

Parallels has been many Mac users go-to app for running Microsoft Windows (or other operating system) on Apple computers. The latest version is slightly more Windows-like than Windows under VMWare Fusion, Parallels' biggest competitor (which we'll come on to shortly). If you care mostly about appearance, then go for Parallels, which looks a bit slicker than Fusion (though it produces more desktop clutter). However, the bottom line is that if you need to run Windows on a Mac, you can't go wrong with Parallels Desktop 8.

Pocket (free)

Between laptops, smartphones, tablets, and other web-enabled devices, people often read and view a lot of online material. Pocket gives users a way to not only save their favourite clips for reading at a later time, but also to manage them as well. If you're a Mac user who loves clipping and sharing the web, consider Pocket an essential app.

TotalFinder (£11.50)

The small and highly specialised TotalFinder for Mac increases the usability of the Finder space by making it neater and tighter. Average consumers may think that shelling out just over a tenner is a bit much for such an app, but command line users who will tap into its advanced features will get more bang for their buck.

VMware Fusion 5 (£40)

VMware Fusion 5 represents one of two outstanding Mac apps (the other is Parallels Desktop which we just covered) that let you run Windows or Linux in tight integration with OS X itself. VMware Fusion has the edge over its rival Parallels in terms of being more streamlined with a clutter-free design, and it boasts compatibility with legacy apps running under Windows XP.

Syncing apps

Apple iCloud (free)

While iCloud has some integration with Windows machines, it's really best suited to the Apple-exclusive crowd. Use iCloud for keeping your Apple devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod touch) backed up and your apps synced to each other. The file syncing service is also quite useful for storing current documents and collaborating with others.

CX (free)

CX is a worthy cloud-based syncing tool that offers a good dollop of free storage – 10GB, in fact. An elegant online dashboard may be even more useful than the seamless desktop software for both Mac and Windows. It's a shame CX doesn't support Android or Linux yet, as it's among the best syncing services otherwise.

Dropbox (free)

Dropbox is an example of a software-and-service duo that gets virtually everything right. Dropbox is both a downloadable product, with a version for every major operating system – Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, BlackBerry – and every user also gets a web account with file access, too, just in case you're on a computer that doesn't have Dropbox installed. It's an excellent way to back up your files if you only need something lightweight.

SugarSync (free)

File synchronisation service SugarSync offers 5GB of storage space with a free account, and it's even more intuitive than its biggest competitor, Dropbox. SugarSync is marred by a few quirks here and there (such as the lack of drag-and-drop from desktop to file manager), but it is still an excellent syncing effort.

Entertainment apps

Spotify (free)

Streaming music service Spotify has been going for some time now, and it's a very impressive app. Spotify benefits from excellent audio, and makes it easy to concoct playlists, with over 15 million tracks for your listening pleasure. That should keep you going for a while...

VLC Media Player (free)

If you have trouble with a media file such as a video or tune you've downloaded from the Internet, and you can't play it using your standard media player, chances are that VLC Media Player will cope with the file. The free apps supports more video file formats than you can shake a stick at (should stick shaking be your thing), and it can record and stream audio and video. It's pretty darn useful, in other words.

Communication apps

Adobe Connect (£35 per month)

Adobe Connect is the most capable, customisable web conferencing option available today. While slightly more expensive than some rivals such as WebEx, Connect compensates for the extra cost many times over with its scalability, and a best-in-class 100-user license that comes with unlimited video feeds.

Adium (free)

Adium can handle virtually every IM system protocol out there – AIM, Google Talk, Yahoo, you name it. Adium does a great job of keeping you in touch with friends and colleagues thanks to an attractive, tabbed interface, and Address Book integration.

FaceTime (£0.69)

The biggest argument in favour of FaceTime is that, in the parlance of Apple, "it just works." If your video chat buddies are tethered to Macs, iPhones, or iPads, FaceTime makes the process as aesthetically pleasing as it is effortless: No matter what the connection or camera, video quality is consistently good.