There is a lot of really good free software available for the Mac and the iOS. In Part One of this series, I profiled my dozen favorite free iOS apps. In this second instalment, I’ll do the same with my six favorite free OS X production tools.
My choices naturally reflect the sort of things I do with computers, so these are not “best” lists, except in the context of “best for my purposes and tastes.” They’re applications I personally find useful and actually use.
My Six Favorite Free OS X Apps
iOS or OS X, Dropbox is the client software for the best Cloud file-synching service. DropBox beats the pants off Apple’s iCloud for ease of use, transparency, and backwards compatibility—it still supports OS X 10.4, so I can use it to keep the two going on 13 year old Pismo PowerBooks that I still have in service running Tiger in sync with my MacBook and iPad. Dropbox also supports most other popular OS platforms for PCs, tablets, and smartphones. You get up to 2GB Cloud storage free up front, but can earn more free capacity through referrals from your Website. Great stuff.
I can’t say enough good about this superb lightweight image editor/resizer that I use more than any other graphics app. ToyViewer isn’t a full-featured image editing application like Photoshop Elements or Pixelmator. It does have limited image correction capabilities for adjusting brightness, contrast, and gamma, and such, but its real strength is in resizing images and changing image formats—tasks for which I’ve never found a tool quicker or slicker.
Resizing is done using an intuitive slider with a real time text readout. You can also rotate images by degrees. ToyViewer can read and display image files in the following popular formats: tiff, jpg, pdf, png, gif, bmp, pict, JPEG2000(jp2, jpc, j2k), and eps. It can also handle svg, jbig(bie), pcx, pcd, pnm(ppm, pbm, pgm), xbm, mag, andSUN Rasterfile. If you have Adobe Photoshop, ToyViewer can display psd image files. Displayed images can be saved as follows: tiff, pdf, gif, bmp, png, jpg, JPEG2000(jp2, jpc, j2k), jbig(bie), pnm, or xbm. Vector images such as PDF can be converted into bitmap images such as jpg or tiff. There’s even a handy PDF manager that can be used to navigate through multipage PDF documents. ToyViewer can also display each image file in a folder one by one in full-screen.
ToyViewer’s user interface is more attractive and professionally turned out than the UIs of many commercial software apps.
Toy Viewer is one of the core tools in my production applications suite, and far and away my most-used graphics program. On a typical workday, I probably use ToyViewer a couple of dozen times—mostly for relatively small and short-duration chores like resizing pictures and changing file types, but I don’t know what I would do without it.
Unfortunately, Toyviewer has not been upgraded since the Snow Leopard version was released in 2009. It still works fine with Mountain Lion, and I hope the developer, Mr. Takeshi Ogihara, will keep it compatible if that changes as new OS X versions come along.
Tincta works quite similarly to Smultron, which was presumably its Open Source inspiration, only Tincta’s base version is freeware. There’s also a deeper-featured Tincta Pro version that sells for $15.99, but the free version works just fine for my purposes. Tincta features that appeal to me particularly are its ability to work efficiently in a small interface window that one can park off to the side, and quick access to multiple open Tincta documents from a column list. It also has an array of text editing functions and a search and replace engine.
Bean is a small, easy-to-use and free rich text editor and lightweight word processor. Lean, fast and uncluttered, Bean starts up quickly, has a live word count, page layout mode, full-screen mode, regular expression search/replace, multi-column text, inline graphics, detailed statistics, and much more, and its user interface is easy on the eyes. While MS Word, Apache OpenOffice, LibreOffice NeoOffice, etc. try to be all things to all people, sometimes you just want a relatively simple and unponderous tool for the job. That’s Bean’s niche. For example, Bean doesn’t do footnotes or use stylesheets and is only partially compatible with Word’s file formats. It does allow in-line graphics, but not floating graphics.
New in Version 3 are an optional single-window tabbed interface layout, template documents with boilerplate text, a split view, a two-up layout view, freeform headers and footers, plain text editing, and other improvements.
What is Bean like to use? Well for one thing, it’s pretty. I love the clean, attractive interface appearance. I also especially like the fonts pane in Bean’s preferences, which provides a preview of the selected default font for both rich and plain text. The toolbar is customizable with a wide selection of tools that can be added from a palette if you like toolbar controls.
Bean also supports spell-checking (including as-you-type flagging) by piggy-backing OS X’s built in spell check function, and you get a live, running readout of word, character, and page counts at the bottom margin of the window, which is shared by a handy text zoom slider. However, there are precious few text editing features. That may not bother some users, but I absolutely need text editing functions like capitalize and lower case conversion commands, which Bean doesn’t have, at least not yet. There is also no AppleScript support, the text color command is cumbersome, and the special Characters palette is slow to open. There is a serviceable Find & Replace dialog, albeit not nearly as powerful and configurable as the ones in Tex Edit Plus or the pure Text Editor, TextWrangler.
Bean natively reads and writes these file formats:
- .rtf format (rich text)
- .rtfd format (rich text with graphics)
- .bean format (identical to .rtfd)
- .txt format
- .html format (as source code)
- .webarchive format (Apple’s web archive format)
Bean transparently imports and exports these formats:
- .doc format (MS Word ’97, minus images, margins, and page size)
- .xml format (MS Word 2003 XML, minus images)
Bean can export all of the above formats to this format:
- .html (web page format, minus images)
Unfortunately as of November, 2012, Bean is no longer being actively developed, but developer James Hoover says it may be updated as necessary to keep the app running on future versions of OS X. Hoover explains that he is retiring Bean for several reasons. Mainly, he has less and less free time to devote to Bean, plus for technical reasons, Bean’s tabbed document interface is incompatible with Apple’s latest technologies such as native Full Screen, Autosave and Versions). Also, fewer and fewer people will use Bean in the future since he does not publish Bean on the App Store, which he notes sells numerous closed-source rip-offs compiled from the GPL v.1-licensed Bean 2.x source code.
But the world has changed since Hoover first published Bean in 2006. For many, plain text is now king and iPads rule. For others, Google Docs is free and ubiquitous, and he notes that LibreOffice is relatively speedy on today’s machines. There are no plans to release Bean for iOS, because the rich text object upon which Bean is built (NSTextView) is not present in iOS, so building any word processor for iOS would be difficult.
The current version of Bean, v3.2.2 (released 12 November 2012), is OS X 10.5+, Intel only. Version 2.4.5 is still available and compatible with OS X Tiger 10.4+
TextWrangler is a powerful general purpose freeware text editor with a clean streamlined interface and a rich feature set. It’s one of my favorite OS X productivity apps; since I started sharing files with my iPad via Dropbox, TextWrangler is my default document creation app in OS X for compatibility proposed with iOS text editors.
It’s an understatement to say that TextWrangler is one of the outstanding bargains in the Mac software canon for those of us who need and/or like to work with plain text.
The TextWrangler 4 release added new editing and disk browser window layouts, switchable syntax color schemes, and seamless preservation of open documents on relaunch, a new modeless “Open File by Name” feature with efficient search-as-you-type results , and an array of other significant performance and user interface enhancements.
When run on Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion or 10.7 (Lion), TextWrangler 4 also supports “full screen” mode and “any edge” window resizing.
More potentially useful, IMHO, is that upon quitting, TextWrangler 4 will now automatically remember the contents of unsaved documents and restore them the next time the program is launched.
Access to text filters and scripts is now streamlined, plus TextWrangler 4 now has the ability to treat AppleScripts, Automator actions and Unix scripts as co-equal and all may be used as text filters or run directly as scripts. Sweet. I love AppleScript and Automator.
LibreOffice is my favorite of several free, open-source application suites, and the one I have configured on my Mac as my default app for Word documents that one frequently has to deal with. It also, of course, opens and saves documents created in the formats of the other two members of the MS Office triad: Excel and PowerPoint. Highly compatible with Microsoft Office formats, LibreOffice also imports legacy and other formats otherwise unusable under OS X.
Actually, there are six LibreOffice app modules:
Writer is the LibreOffice word processor, supporting while-you-type auto-completion, auto-formatting and automatic spelling checking. It’s powerful enough to tackle desktop publishing tasks such as creating multi-column newsletters and brochures.
Calc is LibreOffice’s spreadsheet app, featuring a fully-integrated help system and graphing functions to display 2D and 3D graphics from 13 categories, including line, area, bar, pie, X-Y, and net.
Impress is LibreOffice’s multimedia presentation module.
Draw lets you build diagrams and sketches from scratch, including dynamic 3D illustrations and special effects.
Base is the the LibreOffice suite’s database front-end that can seamlessly integrate existing database structures into the other components of LibreOffice, or create an interface to use and administer your data as a stand-alone application. You can use imported and linked tables and queries from MySQL, PostgreSQL or Microsoft Access and many other data sources, or design your own. Support is built-in or easily addable for a wide range of database products, notably the standardly-provided HSQL, MySQL, Adobes D, Microsoft Access and PostgreSQL.
Math is a simple equation editor that lets you lay-out and display mathematical, chemical, electrical or scientific equations quickly in standard written notation.
LibreOffice comes configured with a PDF file creator. It also offers cross-platform support for Windows, and Linux as well as OS X, and it’s noteworthy that LibreOffice is the only full-featured office suite that supports Linux.
LibreOffice’s marquee features are that it costs nothing, opens and exports to the latest Microsoft Office formats in addition to its native ODT format, and can import legacy documents created by old Windows and MS-DOS versions and even ancient WordPerfect documents.