Toolbox

One of my favorite pastimes is reading lists of other people’s apps and tools. I’d like to contribute such a list myself, and I hope you will discover a few useful apps you haven’t tried yet.

I’ve not been endorsed or otherwise encouraged to name any of these products. This is a list of almost all the apps that I use, and I recommend them because I like them or because there’s no viable alternative.

Mac Apps

Since I use my Mac much more than my iPhone or iPad, these apps also mean the most to me. They make me love what I do, and they’re the reason it’s even possible. If it wasn’t for them, I’d stick to pen and paper.

Essentials

Apps that enhance the overall experience on the Mac. And because of them, it’s so much fun to be a Mac user.

  • 1Blocker: The best ad blocker (apart from uBlock Origin) I’ve found for Safari so far. Without it, I wouldn’t even launch a browser.
  • Alfred: The first app I install on a new Mac, Alfred is a supercharged launcher. It replaces Apple’s own Spotlight and enhances it with Workflows and other useful functions. I use it to launch apps and settings, calculate equations, and search the web. I haven’t been using Workflows in a while, since I use Keyboard Maestro for automation.
  • Amphetamine: Keeps your Mac awake. Simple and free.
  • Bartender: Gives you control over your menu bar and shows only the items you want to see—with a secondary menu bar for less frequently used items. Comparably expensive, but the developer rarely charges for updates, and it works like a charm.
  • BetterTouchTool: Since switching from a mouse to a trackpad even on my iMac (I’m not looking back), this tool has been invaluable to me. I use custom gestures for everything, from evoking Mission Control to switching between browser tabs.
  • Bumpr: If you use Bumpr as your standard browser, you’ll never open links with the wrong app ever again. If you use multiple browsers like me, you might have a preference for which browser you want to use for what sites. Whenever you click a link outside your browser, Bumpr will take over and ask you which one it should open the link in.
  • Hazel: I don’t use Hazel as much as other people, but it helps with automatically sorting my files based on pre-defined rules.
  • HoudahSpot: The search that should be built into the Mac. Mighty, versatile, and fast. Replaced Finder’s search function for me.
  • iStat Menus: I like knowing what my Mac is up to. That’s why I always have iStat Menus in my menu bar. It shows me CPU, memory, and SSD usage at a glance, along with the Mac’s temperature, the keyboard’s and trackpad’s battery status, and the current Wi-Fi traffic. Whenever something weird is going on, I can usually gauge it from my menu bar.
  • Keyboard Maestro: If Keyboard Maestro stopped working, I’d have to relearn how to use my Mac. So many things that I do throughout the day are encapsulated in its macros. Whether it’s manipulating text, removing Amazon’s tracking parameter from their URLs, or setting a window’s size to perfect width and height, Keyboard Maestro is just one keyboard shortcut away. It’s so extensive that it’ll take you months or years to fully explore its capabilities, but it’s still easy to create simple macros from scratch. This is the Mac’s Swiss Army knife.
  • Magnet: Magnet lets you rearrange your windows so they all fit on your screen at the same time. It helps you use your screen real estate as economically as possible.
  • Pastebot: I don’t know why I was opposed to clipboard managers for such a long time. Today, I wouldn’t know what to do without one. There are countless clipboard managers out there with varying feature sets, so it pays off to explore them all. But even though there’s a clipboard manager inside of Alfred and Keyboard Maestro, I found Pastebot to be the best for my specific needs. It’s got a great user interface and is straightforward to use. I also love the Pasteboards feature, which allows you to have sets of pre-defined items you can access anytime.
  • Shortcuts: I use Shortcuts mostly on iOS, but I’ve been diving into its functionality on the Mac, too. However, most of my automation is done by Keyboard Maestro.
  • Typinator: I’m convinced that everybody needs a text expansion app, but only few people know it. In short, this app lets you define abbreviations and, whenever you type them, replaces them with a text snippet of your choice. I use it for certain types of emails I write regularly, but also for code snippets (from whole CSS blocks to simple HTML elements), often used form elements like my name and address, URLs to my websites or LinkedIn profile, and for saving time typing email addresses (I got lots of them, and I set Typinator up to replace xxx@ with the full address). This app is a lot better and faster than the often recommended Text Expander.

Design

In the past, I’ve mostly been using Adobe’s software. But that has shifted towards Affinity. However, they all come with drawbacks.

  • Adobe Lightroom Classic: The best photo editing software out there. It doesn’t offer a lot in terms of photo manipulation, that’s still Photoshop’s realm. But I wouldn’t even send a picture to my family without editing it in Lightroom first.
  • Adobe Photoshop: Still the standard in photo manipulation. I’ve been using it for decades, but other software manufacturers are catching up. It just suffers from the typical Adobe illnesses: it requires a subscription and the use of a cumbersome cloud app. I prefer something less intrusive and annoying.
  • Affinity Designer: For a long time, the Affinity apps have been a pleasure to work with, as they were much faster than Adobe’s counterparts. But nowadays, they’re just as sluggish. However, I’ve become attuned to them, so unless there isn’t anything faster on the market, I’ll stick with their suite. Affinity Designer is my favorite.
  • Affinity Photo: I use Affinity Photo, too, but I do most of my photo editing in Lightroom. And whatever I can do in Affinity Designer, I do there.
  • Affinity Publisher: A surprisingly good desktop publishing app. I use it to design PDFs and greeting cards.
  • ImageOptim: Very versatile (and free) app to reduce the size of your images. Supports a ton of algorithms.
  • JPEGmini: Shrinks image files, but only JPEGs. Does its job well and is pretty fast.

Research & Writing

Any writing app should suffice, considering that before we’ve just had typewriters. But some are better than others, and one app is rarely enough for anybody’s research and writing process. Here’s what I use.

  • Bear: Note-taking apps are my weakness. I change them as often as my socks. But Bear has been sticking around for quite a long time. It’s based on Markdown, has a nice user interface, and it’s fast. Unfortunately, it suffers from a few poor design decisions, such as incorporated hashtags. But it’s evolving and very affordable.
  • Bookends: I use this app for two things: keeping track of books and citing them in footnotes. Out of all the reference management apps, this is the most beautiful and the easiest to use.
  • DEVONthink Pro: I entertain a love-hate relationship with DEVONthink. I cherish its vast number of features, and I don’t think there’s any comparable knowledge management app out there. But it’s got a few bugs the developers can’t seem to fix, and they also don’t seem to pay a lot of attention to user feedback, judging from the somewhat toxic forums. It’s sad to see such a potent app being so limited by stubbornness and sanctimoniousness.
  • Keynote: Great app to create presentations and even small ebooks. Much better than PowerPoint.
  • MindNode: I have to admit that I’m a mind mapper. I’d like to be cool and only use lists, but it’s just not the way I think most of the time. That’s why almost every project or article or book starts in MindNode. I’ve been using this app since 2012, and it’s been of great use ever since. The app is just intuitive and well-designed. New features make sense, and—most importantly—it’s fast.
  • Notes: Reliable note-taking app that became a worthy competitor with the introduction of tags. Unfortunately, it doesn’t support Markdown.
  • Numbers: I wouldn’t say Numbers is better than Excel, but it’s not from Microsoft, so it is.
  • OmniOutliner: Sometimes a MindMap is too much—especially when I want to follow along a certain structure and don’t want to assign a lot of screen real estate to it. That’s when OmniOutliner comes in handy. It feels antiquated when you compare it to apps like Workflowy, but I like that it doesn’t use insecure cloud servers and is based on files. It’s also fast.
  • Pages: I wouldn’t say Pages is better than Word, but it’s not from Microsoft, so it is.
  • ProWritingAid: Even if you’re a native, chances are you make numerous mistakes when writing texts. And while an app like ProWritingAid can’t find them all and will eventually suggest something that is plain wrong, I wouldn’t publish a text without consulting it. It checks your grammar and style, and it gives you plenty of tips to strengthen your writing. They need a better UX designer, as the UI seems all over the place, but the suggestions are quite good. I like it better than Grammarly, not only but also because it’s got a lifetime license, so you don’t have to pay monthly or yearly (wait for Black Friday offers, if you can).
  • Ulysses: My writing app of choice—and I’ve probably tried them all. I was skeptical when they moved to a subscription model (after I had already paid for the full version) because the app seemed quite complete at that time. But the team keeps adding helpful and innovative features, making the writing experience an absolute pleasure. My Ulysses workflow has become so elaborate that it’s hard to leave. Ulysses cured me of my habit of switching writing apps. If they would just build a note-taking app…

Development

You don’t need a lot to start coding. When I began learning HTML and CSS, I used a simple text editor with no syntax highlighting. And I used it for years. Today’s code editors are, of course, much more comfortable. But I feel like my choice still resembles the minimalism I was used to in the past—despite trying most of the fancy alternatives.

  • BBEdit: I know, there are so many powerful code editors out there—why BBEdit? Because it’s got all I desire, and it’s great at manipulating text (I used it to sort the lists on this page alphabetically in seconds). BBEdit is lightning fast and stable. It crashes maybe once in a decade, and it can handle incredibly large files. I know there are "better" code editors out there, but this one is just right up my alley.
  • Chrome: I need Chrome for web development, and that’s what it excels at. It’s a terrible, slow, and energy hungry browser, though. Don’t use it to surf the web.
  • Firefox: Firefox does some things better than Chrome, and I need it for web development. But it’s far too slow to be used as a browser daily.
  • Safari: My browser of choice. I wish it offered more detailed privacy features, but it’s so fast1, I couldn’t imagine using any other browser anymore.
  • Screaming Frog SEO Spider: This tool is priceless for thoroughly screening websites. It’s not only crucial to optimize your websites for search engines, it helps you fix many of the mistakes you inevitably make when developing and setting up a website. Many, if not most, of the hoops you jump through to satisfy search engines effectively improve your websites for your users, too.
  • Transmit: I remember the time when a bug made Transmit unusable, and I downloaded and bought lots of other FTP clients to get through this drought. It was a terrifying experience. There’s no FTP client quite like Transmit. And I’d miss it dearly if it was gone.

Misc

Some apps just don’t fit into a box. But they’re just as valuable to me.

  • Fantastical: There are only a few features that set Fantastical apart from the Mac’s built-in calendar, but they can be crucial. For me, it’s not even the native language input, which I find a bit awkward; it’s the great time zone support. Being able to see what time an appointment is in another time zone by just clicking on it makes this app essential to me. I guess the weather integration isn’t too bad, either.
  • GoodLinks: This is a great little app that does just one thing: remember bookmarks. I like it better than its competitors because it syncs solely through iCloud. So you don’t have to worry about other company’s privacy and security issues. It’s also nicely designed.
  • Kindle: It’s not a native app, it’s got a terrible user interface (it’s Amazon, after all), but there’s just no way around it if you’ve got a lot of Kindle books. The weirdest thing about it is that collections don’t even sync between devices.
  • Logic Pro: I’ve been using this app mostly when editing podcasts, but it’s great for any kind of audio manipulation. Just know that for simple editing, Apple’s free GarageBand does the job perfectly well.
  • Mail: It’s simple, and it works (most of the time). I’ve tried many email apps in the past, but Apple’s Mail app is all I need, and it integrates well with the whole Apple ecosystem. Sometimes convenience beats features.
  • Messages: I’m not saying that Messages couldn’t be better, but that it’s not made by Facebook sets it apart. I don’t use WhatsApp on my Mac because I don’t feel comfortable granting a Facebook app so much control over the data on my Mac. On iOS, it’s different because the entire system is so closed-off that WhatsApp has to stay in its lane. But, admittedly, I’m not great at responding to messages on WhatsApp because I use iMessage 99.9% of the time.
  • PDF Squeezer: Great tool to shrink your PDFs. When scanning documents, the PDFs rapidly take up a lot of space. That might become a problem when sending them via email if the server you’re sending it to imposes an arbitrary file size limit. PDF Squeezer can reduce the size of PDF files, with or without affecting their quality.
  • Reeder: By far the best RSS reader out there. I don’t use it as much on my Mac as on my phone, but it’s always there for me.
  • Things: While most other task management apps add clutter to already cluttered lists of tasks, Things provides a calm environment. It’s got all the features a to-do app needs, and it’s beautifully designed. It’s also a native Mac app and fast. I have my qualms with the mandatory use of the app’s cloud service, though. At the time they introduced sync, iCloud was not exactly fast and reliable. But things have changed (no pun intended), and I’d like to see the developers at Cultured Code add iCloud support in the future. I mistrust clouds in general (especially the dark ones), and the contents don’t even seem to be end-to-end decrypted. That should be a no-go for task management apps.

iOS Apps

To me, iOS devices have always been secondary to my Mac. And I have a hard time imagining how people can be productive on an iPad. But some things like reading are more comfortable on an iOS device. And it helps to have access to some of your desktop tools on the go.

  • 1Blocker: There aren’t that many ad blockers on iOS, but it’s crucial to have one if you use your iOS device to browse websites. 1Blocker is easy to use and does its job well enough. But if there was an iOS version of uBlock Origin, I’d certainly prefer that one.
  • Audible: I guess this is the only way to listen to audiobooks today. Audible is cheap (you rarely have to pay more than €4.95 for an audiobook), and the app works surprisingly well. Hard to imagine developers at Amazon made this.
  • Bear: The app works as great on iOS as it does on the Mac.
  • Calendar: I prefer Apple’s calendar on my phone, even though I use Fantastical on my Mac. The background sync is much more reliable, which isn’t Fantastical’s fault, though.2
  • Dict.cc: Not a very well-edited dictionary, but every so often you have to translate an outlandish term. Chances are, a community-based dictionary like dict.cc can help you with that.
  • Due: My life would be a mess without Due. The app nags you with timers that go off infinitely until you act on them. You can postpone the items even from the lock screen, which makes it very comfortable to use. I’ve been relying on this app since 2011, and it’s probably the most used one on my iPhone.
  • GoodLinks: Syncs your bookmarks using iCloud on iOS, too. Highly recommended.
  • Instagram: No way around it, I guess.
  • Kindle: Necessary, and better on iOS than on macOS.
  • Lightroom: The—by far—best photo editing app on iOS. I’ve tried so many, and some of them are great. But none comes close to Lightroom’s feature set. And if you already use Lightroom on your Mac and are familiar with its controls, this is a no-brainer.
  • Merriam-Webster Dictionary: I wish it would crash a little less often, but it’s the dictionary. The thesaurus is great, too. Both are well-edited.
  • MindNode: I don’t use it a lot on my phone, but I enjoy having access to my mind maps when I need them. They did an impressive job, though.
  • Podcasts: Nobody seems to use Apple’s Podcasts app, but I like it better than its competitors. That might be because my listening workflow is quite weird. But for that, it works very well.
  • Reeder: After Due, this is perhaps my most launched app on iOS. If you don’t use an RSS reader, please try one. There’s no easier and more efficient way to read newspapers, magazines, and blogs than RSS. For me, Reeder is the best RSS app, and nowadays, it doesn’t even require you to subscribe to an external RSS service.
  • Shortcuts: The Shortcuts app makes using the iPhone much more comfortable. In the past, the system was so closed-off that many tasks were cumbersome to carry out. With Shortcuts, this has changed. It’s straightforward to create your own macros, and the app allows you to access a lot of features on your phone. I just hope they’ll keep adding more of them, and they fix some quirks. For example, some automations can’t run without user confirmation. And if they can, then you can’t disable the notifications that pop up every time they run. Other than that, Shortcuts is the most significant addition to the iPhone lately that most people don’t know about.
  • Things: The task management app is just as easy to use on iOS as on macOS. I haven’t seen a better implementation of adding new tasks in any other to-do app. You can drag the plus button in the lower-right corner to the spot where you want the task to appear. That is so simple and brilliant, I don’t know why it hasn’t become the standard yet.
  • Tweetbot: I like this one much better than the official Twitter client. It lacks some features (which is Twitter’s fault because they don’t allow access via the API), but Tweetbot also doesn’t show you ads. And I’d pay any amount of money just for that.
  • Ulysses: This writing app works flawlessly on iOS and macOS alike. I’ve written whole articles on the go, even though I just wanted to jot down a few ideas.
  • Washington Post: It’s a pretty good app for a newspaper, and I’ve been a fan of the Washington Post since I was a teenager and had a foreign print subscription.3
  • WhatsApp: Necessary, yet abominable.
  • The Wall Street Journal: An okay app for an excellent newspaper.

And a few more apps that I prefer not to name for security reasons.

  1. By now you’ve probably noticed that I like fast apps. And indeed, for me, if an app is fast, it almost always has an edge over any competing product. I’m an impatient person. Jump back.︎
  2. App developers can’t control how often their apps can perform background checks. But Apple, obviously, keeps its own apps’ contents up-to-date more regularly. Doesn’t seem fair, but otherwise everybody would be complaining about having to charge their phones multiple times a day. Jump back.︎
  3. The provider would just print out the current issue of the Washington Post on large A2 paper and send it to you via mail. It was of pretty poor quality, but better than not having access to it in Germany. Jump back.︎