Saturday, October 13, 2012

Finding Good, Free Mac Software (Setting Up a Retina MacBook Pro for Multi-Platform Development, Part 2)

As I mentioned in the introduction, lately at work I've been on a low-budget Mac software shopping spree for a Retina MacBook Pro.  I'll talk about specific apps in future posts, but first I'll discuss finding good Mac software.

(If you're impatient, go to thriftmac, by far the best curated list of Mac freeware I've found.  For my rants and raves, read on.)

There's (Probably) a (Beautiful, Free) App for That

I've used Macs personally since 1995 and Windows professionally since 2001.  There is undeniably more freeware and low-cost software for available for Windows machines than for Macs.  But I'm not convinced there's actually more *good* software.  This is a bit subjective, but I find that when I search for a free Windows utility to accomplish this or that task, most of my time is spent filtering the list to the one or two apps that don't completely embarrass themselves.  On the Mac there may only be three apps that even try, but chances are that two of them will be serious solutions and they will all look and feel better than their Windows counterparts.  Consider, for example, the case of WinDirStat and GrandPerspective:


Enough said.

I attribute these differences to the fact that Mac developers are snobs.  They choose to work on and develop for a minority platform because they believe it's better.  They're keenly aware of what makes a Mac app a Mac app, and they make sure their own creations live up to their expectations.  Windows, on the other hand, is what people use and develop for by default.  So you get way more apps that are written simply to accomplish a certain task without consideration of how best to accomplish that task or present that functionality to the user.  That's how you end up with this UI:

Bulk Rename Utility
Bulk Rename Utility

(Incidentally, Bulk Rename Utility is actually pretty handy if you can figure out how to use it.)

So all that was just to say that there *is* good Mac software out there, and you generally have to do less sifting to find it... unless you're searching on the Mac App Store.

The Mac App Store is Horrible

The Mac App Store is horrible as a discovery tool.  Suppose I launch it with a general question like, "what are the most popular free Mac apps for developers?"  Here's the first screen I see:

Mac App Store Main Screen
App Store Main Screen
This screen is full of items Apple chooses to feature.  Obviously it's not going to be developer-focused, but it amazes me what mediocre software makes it into this list considering what serious apps are on the store.  Whatever.  Apple can feature what it wants so long as I can find what I'm looking for.  So I click "Categories" and choose "Developer Tools."  Here's that page:

Mac App Store Developer Tools
App Store Developer Tools
There are some featured apps at the top, followed by a list of the most recently released/updated apps.  Apple seems to try to feature a variety of application types, so don't expect to find "the standard tools" in the featured apps list; think of it more like, "oh, here's a neat little app that does X and has a pretty UI."  Except for XCode, which will probably always be there.  The release-date sorting gives new app some exposure but also gives Mac users the impression that Mac applications are primarily trivial, version-0.1, one-trick-ponies thrown together by first-time developers in desperate need of a graphic designer.  Honestly, if I didn't know better, this list would turn me off to Mac software.

But I know there's some amazing software out there, and some (though by no means all) of it is on the App Store, so I keep looking.  Clicking the "See All" link takes me to a page that looks promising because I can page through all apps in the category and I can sort!  But look:

Mac App Store Developer Tools "Sort By" Options
Developer Tools "Sort By" Options
That's right.  I can sort by Name or Release Date.  Uh, rating maybe?  Number of downloads?

So I look around some more.  Back on the Developer Tools page, I click the "Developer Tools Apps" header on the "featured" section.  That gets me a different list, sorted by who-knows-what (there's no "Sort By" option), but apparently featuring highly-rated apps.  Lovely.  I wish I knew the algorithm, but this gets me somewhere at least.  But I start clicking through apps and realize that many of these are very special-purpose.  Maybe they're "good" apps, but the fact that a fully-featured text editor like BBEdit shows up halfway down the list after ~30 clipboard managers strikes me as unintuitive.  For all I know, my Top 10 developer apps are scattered across the first five pages because there are fifty really popular color pickers apps.  And I have to process that many pages of color picker apps to find them.  Gah.  But okay, I'll give it a try.  I click the "Next" link at the bottom of the page and... it does nothing.  The App Store says I'm seeing page 1 of 5 (items 1-180 of 798), but I can't navigate to Page 2.  Awesome.

So I try another of Apple's curated lists.  The Developer Tools page has a link in its sidebar to "Top Free" developer apps.  I click that.   I get a page with 68 apps that I can supposedly sort by "Name" or "Bestsellers":

Mac App Store Top Free Developer Apps
Top Free Developer Apps

Changing the sort option appears to do nothing.  But this is at least a small enough list to scan through.  Note that all I have to go on here are the app name, developer name, rating, and icon.  No description of what the app does, so if that's not obvious from the name, I have to click each icon individually to get the app's description.  Many I don't click simply because the icon is ugly (I'm a Mac snob, after all) and the name doesn't immediately interest me.  I may be missing good apps I'd download if there were any descriptive text whatsoever in this display.

There is no Page 2.  I don't know Apple's selection algorithm for this page, but it seems better than the sort options available on the "All Developer Apps" page.  I wish I could go to that page and sort by this algorithm.

If you know the exact functionality you're looking for, you might think to search for it via the Search box in the upper right.  Let's try that.  I'll enter "Text Editor."  Here's what I get:

Mac App Store Text Editors
Text Editors
This is actually almost decent.  If I knew or could control what metadata were being searched, I could eliminate a lot of false hits, in which case I might prefer to search by "Most Popular" or "Customer Rating" rather than "Relevance."  But what's the first hit for "text editor" when I sort by "Customer Rating"?  Pablo Draw.  Of course.

And since I'm shopping on a budget, what I really want is the top free text editors, not the top text editors.  How do I get that list?  It looks like I can't.

What's really frustrating is that there are a lot of great Mac apps on the store.  Unfortunately, the best way to find them is to hear about them elsewhere and then follow a direct link to the store from the developer's website or search for the app by name in the App Store.  That's kind of sad.

Google Beats the App Store for Functionality-Specific Searches

 If you know what functionality you want in an app, the best way to find the "best" app is to Google "best Mac app for X."  This will usually take you to a blog post or article comparing several competitors, with links to the developers' sites.  Full-blown comparison reviews with screenshots are what usually get me to my desired app the fastest.  As noted above, the best app is not always on the App Store (for several reasons, many of which are Apple's fault), and even if it is, you'll find it quicker this way.

Use Curated Lists From Sources You Trust

Comparison reviews are great if you're looking for a specific type of app (say, "FTP Client.")  But if you just want to load up a new Mac with some good software, maybe discovering app categories that you didn't even know about, ask a Mac person.  This is how I discovered several of my go-to apps.  But these days I don't know many avid (no pun intended) Mac users, and my own knowledge of what's out there is a bit out of date.  So I Googled for things like "Top 10 must-have Mac apps" or "Best Mac apps for developers" and found some good lists.  These will usually point you to polished, mature, feature-rich apps, many offering functionality you wouldn't have thought to look for.

Go to thriftmac, Now!

By far the best up-to-date, curated list of Mac freeware I found was thriftmac.  The site is clean and user-friendly, not overrun with ads, jam-packed with good software, and focused on giving *good* software the exposure it deserves.  As the site's author says, "No crapware."  I clicked through every category, read descriptions, and clicked through to the developer sites for probably half of the linked apps.  This site is wonderful.  Thank you, Mark Rogers.

That's All for Now

As promised, future posts will discuss what Mac apps I've settled on and why, plus what else I've done to set up my RMBP for multi-platform development on Mac OS X Mountain Lion, Windows 8, and Linux.  Stay tuned!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for free mac software or apps. Download mac software and enjoy these apps.