Tips and software for Mac users

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Time is valuable commodity.

I use a Mac primarily because it saves me time.

A Mac also provides access OS X's Unix internals to do high-quality research and software development. This is why I recommend to my graduate students that they switch to Apple.

This page compiles my recommendations for new Mac users, but even Apple veterans may still find some useful tips here.

Update: My dad recently made the switch to Mac, and asked me to compile a list of recommendations for him. These are included below.

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Switching to Apple from Unix/Linux

Making the leap to Apple from Unix/Linux isn't much of a leap at all. OS X is, after all, a BSD Unix. Anything you had under your previous flavor of Unix/Linux is almost certainly available for OS X as well.

  • Head to Applications > Utilities > Terminal to get your shell back.
  • For pre-Lion OS X, Xcode was on the installation disk. Xcode includes all of Apple's development tools, but more importantly, it includes the GNU compiler toolchain (GCC). Since Lion, Xcode has been available in the App store.
  • Pre-Lion, X11 was available on the OS X install CD.
  • There are several Unix package managers for OS X, but I highly recommend MacPorts. All the Unix software you can eat is now just a sudo port install away.
  • To install LaTeX on OS X using MacPorts:
     sudo port install texlive
  • A console version of emacs is already installed, but if you're an emacs user, I recommend the Aquamacs Emacs port of emacs with native Aqua interface support.
  • I recommend MacVim for vim users.
  • Many Mac users swear by the Mac-only text editor TextMate.
  • Use System Preferences > Keyboard > Modifier Keys to remap CAPS LOCK to CTRL. This will save pinky strain if you're an avid gamer or an emacs user. [If RSI is of concern for you, I maintain another page with information on preventing, managing and healing repetitive strain injury (RSI).]

Switching to Apple from Windows

There's a bigger impedance mismatch switching to a Mac from Windows than from Linux, but virtualization and equivalent applications bridge the gap.


If you've been living in the Windows ecosystem for a while, you may find you need to periodically access a Windows program.

Virtualization lets you run a copy of Windows inside Mac OS X.

I recommend VMWare Fusion for this:

VMware Fusion 4

There are a handful of applications that don't run on Mac OS X, and for those few that don't, VMWare Fusion is your ticket to remaining functional without the hassle of rebooting via BootCamp.

While doing web development work, it was critical to be able to view sites in Internet Explorer; VMWare Fusion made this painless.

Office productivity

I don't recommend Microsoft Office for Mac. If you need to inter-operate with other MS Office users, Open Office and Google docs are up to the task of opening Word documents and viewing Excel spreadsheets, and they're both free.

If you need to use MS Office frequently, it's probably best to virtualize it.

For giving presentations, Keynote (part of the iWork suite) blows away PowerPoint. iWork also does a good job of reading and producing files compatible with MS Office.

[Also see my notes on interoperating with MS office users without MS office.]

Useful Mac-only applications

The Mac has a few exclusive applications worth checking out.

  • One of your first priorities should be to get the built-in Time Machine system up and running, because it stays out of your way and does its job--backing up your machine every hour.

    Even without catastrophic data loss, Time Machine can help: you can browse and search any folder on your computer backward in time once Time Machine is enabled, so it can handle even minor issues like accidentally deleting a file.

    At first, I used to use an external hard drive from amazon for Time Machine.

    This worked fine, but it was cumbersome, since I had to remember to plug the hard drive in every time I brought my laptop home. (Time Machine only reminds you to plug it in if you haven't backed up in 10 days.)

    Eventually, I bought a time capsule so that all of the computers in the house would back themselves up over the wireless network every hour.

    As a bonus, Time Capsule is also a highly configurable Internet router, firewall, printer-sharing device and shared hard drive.

    And, for your first backup, I recommend plugging an ethernet cable directly into the Time Capsule to speed things up. Successive backups only send the changes and usually complete on the order of seconds.

  • Apple is a great platform for the security-conscious. I highly recommend enabling Secure Virtual Memory under System Preferences > Security. I noticed no difference in performance.
  • You can enable FileVault (AES 256 bit security) for the whole hard drive. I highly recommend using Disk Utility (under Applications > Utilities) to create a sparse image encrypted with AES 256 in which to store just sensitive financial and personal records. Of course, choose a strong password. I would not opt to have Apple's KeyChain password manager remember the password. Apple's password manager uses Triple DES to guard your passwords, which is reasonably secure, but it's one more link in the chain.
  • As part of my personal security and privacy overhaul, I started using the freely available KeyPass password manager. I dumped my universal password in favor of a strong unique password for every site, and this program makes doing that feasible.
  • To avoid having your display power down while watching a long media file on YouTube or hulu, install the freely available Caffeine.
  • Growl is a highly configurable notification manager supported by many OS X applications. It's great for sorting email, IM and download notifications into a common, attention-preserving system.

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