When Windows users switch to Macs: Essential software and handy tools

Jason Perlow is becoming a corporate Mac user. What does he need to get started?
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Our very own Jason Perlow just changed jobs. His new company is a Mac shop, which means that Jason's primary work daily driver is now a Mac. Jason has worked on so many operating systems over the years that switching to a different primary desktop platform isn't going to be much of a problem.

But being able to jump from OS to OS doesn't necessarily mean that you're familiar with the latest miscellaneous third party tools that make daily work output go more smoothly. To that end, I put together a list for Jason of some of the go-to tools I use every day to get the most out of my main Mac. He suggested I share it with you here.

The five essentials for new Mac users

  1. Office 365
  2. Adobe's Creative Cloud
  3. Final Cut Pro X and Motion  
  4. Parallels  
  5. Luma Display

First, let's talk about the productivity essentials for getting work done on the Mac.

At the top of the list is Office 365. While you can certainly use Google's apps (and I often do), for any corporate user, Office 365 is pretty much an essential get. While the subscription comes with access to Web-based apps, the native Mac apps have come a long way since I started actively using them back in the day. Today, nearly all you need to do with Office can be done with the Mac versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. There are some obscure features that still only live in the Windows versions.

Also: 7 ways you can (maybe) get Microsoft Office 365 for free

A close second is Adobe's Creative Cloud. Unlike Microsoft, which for some reason still maintains different versions of Office apps for Mac and Windows, Adobe's apps are identical across platforms.

Since I'm not a fan of how Adobe implements its subscription program (limiting it to two machines per account), I tried to find a way around it. But even though products like Affinity Photo and Pixelmator are excellent, I just couldn't get into them. I have too many years of muscle memory in Adobe apps to lose productivity to what are, essentially substitute-solution apps.

I did, however, stop using Adobe Premiere and instead went all in with Apple's Final Cut Pro X and Motion. As I discussed last week, Final Cut provided a huge increase in productivity over Premiere, so that's my go-to non-linear video editor now. I found Final Cut to be so productivity enhancing that it, alone, justifies moving to a Mac.

The next item on my essentials list is Parallels, a virtualization engine. There are a number of VMs that run on macOS, including VMware's Fusion (not to be confused with 3D modeling program Fusion 360) and the free VirtualBox. While Fusion and VirtualBox are good, Parallels has tight integration with macOS, allowing you to run windows from VMs side-by-side with windows from the native macOS - and even cut and paste between them.

Parallels allows you to run full Windows installs, full Linux installs, and even additional macOS instances in virtual machines. My experience has been that if you host the VM file on fast storage and you have a Mac with an i7 processor and at least 16GB of RAM, the performance of Windows 10 VMs in Parallels is as good as nearly all Windows laptops. You don't get the touch screen, of course, but Parallels is definitely a lean, bare-to-the-metal VM engine and is well worth the fifty bucks a year it costs.

In case I buried my lede, Parallels lets you run all of Windows 10 on your Mac. That means if you're used to a Windows 10 app, or are reliant on an application that's Windows-only, Parallels can save the day. I often run with active Windows 10 apps and active Mac apps running side-by-side and that helps me get my job done.

The final item on my essentials list is Luma Display. This is actually a hardware plug that inserts into a Thunderbolt 3 slot on your Mac. Since I'm pretty certain Jason's going to be issued a MacBook Pro, this is an essential upgrade. Luma Display allows you to turn an iPad into a second display - with no lag. There are other tools that do this over software or via a dedicated cable, but Luma is just a set-and-forget solution. If you have  - as Jason does - a 12-inch iPad Pro, then Luma Display instantly lets you convert your MacBook Pro into a dual-display system.

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Another 24 tools I recommend for Mac users

There are a lot of other tools I use to extend capabilities of my Mac. Here are some of the ones I use most frequently.

A Better Finder Attributes 6: Terrible name, useful tool. The other day I brought in some images taken from an action camera with an incorrectly set date. This tool allows you to change the created and modified dates, as well as many other Finder file attributes. You won't need it often, but when you do, it's a big help.

BBEdit: BBEdit is the patriarch of all other Mac editors. It's been around and regularly updated since 1992. Yes, 1992. The irony is that BB stands for Bare Bones. This product is anything but bare bones. It is deeply feature rich and has a killer regular expression engine. If there's text that needs massaging, BBEdit is your tool.

BetterSnapTool: I'm using BetterSnapTool on my main machine because it allows me to pre-define window locations and assign those to keystrokes. I have that tied into my Stream Deck for super-fast window rearrangement when powering through stuff.

ChronoSync: ChronoSync is one of my old standby tools. I've been using this for probably ten years, at least, to cleanly sync across the network. What sets ChronoSync apart is the company's deep understanding of Mac file systems and networking. It's got good automation, a ton of options, and you can pretty well count on the fact that if ChronoSync says your files have been synced, they have, indeed, been transferred correctly.

CleanMyMac X: While it claims to clean random OS cruft, I find its biggest help is doing full uninstalls of somewhat uncooperative apps. Most Mac apps don't have an uninstaller, so when you delete them, they leave detritus around. CleanMyMac X is one of a class of tools that cleans that stuff up. At $35 per Mac, this is getting to be a somewhat pricy tool. Many Mac apps are sold to a given user, but this requires per-machine licensing.

DaisyDisk: This program produces a nice, graphical representation of what folders take the most space. You can dive into folders, do scans of external devices, and easily manage your storage. I've used this a lot when I need to clear space on a small SSD or to find out where I'm using a lot of unexpected storage. It's fast, reliable, and pretty.

Displays: This is my most recent discovery and it's got a killer feature: picture-in-picture. PiP shows the contents of one monitor, live on another. Why would you want this? For me, I have a monitor for broadcast that doesn't face my main machine and I can move between the two windows. When I was wired in for mic and headphones at the studio monitor and Skype opened facing the other way, Displays let me move it to the screen I could see. It also has a bunch of other display resolution management features.

Forklift and Transmit: These are two pretty FTP programs, both helpful and annoying in their own way. I alternate between them depending on what development task I'm dealing with, mostly moving files between the web servers I manage.

HiddenMe: This little extension simply hides the icons on the desktop. It's free for one monitor and a token fee if you want it to work across multiple monitors. Not quite as necessary since Mojave introduced Stacks, but still helpful if you want to clear the decks and work without clutter.

HyperDock: One of my most-relied on Windows features since Windows 7 is the taskbar hover peek feature. I find it invaluable to be able to take a quick look at apps before choosing them. While native macOS does not have a peek feature, HyperDock adds it back in. It's always one of my very first installs after setting up macOS.

Keyboard Maestro: Absolutely bonkers-powerful macro and sequence programming tool. One of the apps that justifies buying a Mac to use. If you need to create workflows, this is an essential tool.

LanScan: This is an indispensable network management tool. It does a fast scan of your local area network and presents a grid of names and IP addresses. Yes, I can accomplish this in my router UI, but since I'm often putting a new device on the network and needing to connect to it, LanScan helps me find and connect easily and quickly.

Magnet: Like BetterSnapTool, this app helps you rearrange your windows. A lot of folks like Magnet because it's simple and works well. I use it on my side machines and use BetterSnapTool with my Stream Deck on my main machine.

Monosnap: Although Mojave comes with a much-improved screen capture tool, I still find Monosnap to be more effective. My favorite feature is the ability to quickly add an arrow to an image to point out a feature or capability. It's quick. It's easy. It's free.

Mountain: SMB/AFP volume mounter that puts all your volumes in a menu on the menubar. Adrian Kingsley-Hughes turned me onto this little gem. With 15 volumes I'm always switching between, it's a lot faster than going to a Finder window to choose volumes.

NeoFinder: Not Finder-related at all. Stupid naming. Incredibly robust image library management. It's the only image library that didn't crash under my load of half a million images. Handles PNG well, and even most .ai Illustrator files. Most image management tools are JPEG and RAW only, leaving folks with illustrations and web graphics without a solution. Another app I'd buy a Mac to use. I called it the Holy Grail of asset management in my review.

NetSpot Pro: I talked about this briefly in my Wi-Fi mesh article recently. NetSpot allows you to build a graphical map of your Wi-Fi coverage. It works well. If you find you have a dead spot, NetSpot can help you decide where to add mesh repeaters to fill in the hole.

ScreenFlow: Very nice screen recording program with pro-level composing and editing features. There are Windows apps that also do screen recording, but I've never found one as integrated, functional, and well thought out as ScreenFlow. Of course, with Parallels, you can use ScreenFlow to record both Mac and Windows screens. The Windows-based screen recorders don't have that option because VMs on Windows won't run Mac software.

Screens: One of the better in a class of many adequate, but uninspiring VNC clients. This has an iOS version that works well on the iPad. For the Mac, the macOS-native Screen Sharing app works well. Here's a hard truth: nothing on the Mac comes close to Windows Remote Desktop. I miss it, a lot.

SecuritySpy: Really good security camera aggregator, works with a wide range of cameras. Came in super-handy when Logitech dropped support for their expensive Alert camera line and left me (and the rest of their users) hanging. If you have a Synology NAS, you might want to use their Surveillance Station app rather than taking cycles on your Mac. Both Security Spy and Surveillance station charge per camera, which is unfortunate but understandable.

TextExpander: I wasn't thrilled when TextExpander went to a subscription model, but it does keep my snippets in sync across computers. My only other complaint is the need to login after TextExpander updates, which it does quite often. That said, this is the go-to tool for smart expansion of snippets on macOS (your subscription also covers iOS, which makes Instagram tags much easier to generate).

Webcam Settings: This is a recent discovery but since its last update was in 2014, I don't think it's still supported. Still, it helps overcome some of the problems I've had with setting field of view and color balance with Logitech webcams. It works solidly under Mojave, so I'm glad to have it for as long as it still works.

XnConvert: Free batch image converter that handles a ridiculous number of formats. It not only converts formats, but does a ton of image transformations at the same time. Definitely a force-multiplier if you have graphics to manage.

Two more tips

SetApp subscription service: If you're just coming to the Mac, you may be daunted by all the apps you need to buy to come up to speed with a good level of productivity. There's a service out there that might make it easier. Setapp costs ten bucks a month and gives you access to a relatively wide range of apps, including a number on the list above.

I've never used the service because I bought many of the apps separately. But if you're buying three or four apps that add up to more than the $120/year price of the subscription, give it a thought. Remember that Mac developers tend to drop relatively measurable feature updates each September, when Apple releases new versions of macOS, so you'll probably be paying a pile of yearly update fees anyway.

Mac automation tools: Do not underestimate the power of AppleScript and Automator. I don't use these a lot, but once in a while they can create workflows that save hours or even days. They can reach inside many Mac apps and programmatically twiddle features in the apps as part of a workflow. Mixed with Keyboard Maestro, you can automate almost anything without too much pain.

The AppleScript/Automator/Keyboard Maestro combination was definitely a why-to-buy-a-Mac combo in my studio. One click automates a hundred steps I would have to do individually otherwise.

Final thoughts

Out of the box, the Mac is a powerful system, but it has a lot of little frustrations. Fortunately, it's incredibly easy to customize and the apps I've highlighted are some of the best for doing so. Good luck, and if there's a Mac app you particularly rely on to boost your productivity, let us know in the comments below.

Top 10 must-have Mac apps and utilities

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