20 free OS X apps every Mac user should have

From useful utilities to handy archivers and transcoders, here are 20 free yet powerful OS X apps you can download today.

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Powerful Mac apps that won't break the bank

There’s something of a misconception when it comes to the Mac. While it's true that most Mac developers might not be engaging in the same race to the bottom that's playing out in the iOS App Store, the notion that you need to spend a bundle just to boost your machine's usefulness isn't quite the case. Powerful tools like Photoshop or Final Cut Pro certainly have price tags commensurate with their robust feature sets, many of the greatest OS X apps won't cost you any more than the time they take to download them. It’s not just plain text editors; everything from useful utilities to handy archivers and transcoders can be had for nary a cent, both in and out of the Mac App Store. So put away your wallet and check out these 20 apps.

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VLC media player

Video formats are constantly changing, and you no doubt have all sorts of movie files littering your Mac’s drive. But if they haven’t been encoded in 64-bit or MPEG, the newest version of QuickTime might not be able to play them. That’s where VLC comes in. Open-source and omnipotent, the media player will play, stream or convert just about any video format you can throw at it, while sporting a clean, minimal interface that strips away unnecessary controls and puts the focus on the content. It’s so good, you might forget it didn't cost you anything.

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Unarchiver

Zips and Rars might not be as prevalent as they were when OS X was named after big cats, but if you still have expanding and extracting needs, The Unarchiver’s immediate and inconspicuous processing will help you quickly get at the files hidden inside. With dozens of supported formats and drop-dead simple one-click operation, the app will dutifully extract and expand all sorts of extensions, in numerous languages and virtually any compression method.

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iBooks Author

Independent publishing has never been so accessible. What used to require months of training and an expensive suite of software can now be accomplished with a single free app. With an array of templates and tools and a breathtakingly easy interface, iBooks Author can get you from outline to upload in no time. Its iWork-style workflow will help you build rich, interactive ebooks that bring your ideas to life with diagrams, video and 3D objects, letting your words literally leap off the page.

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Alfred

Mac veterans have been singing Alfred’s praises for years, but some of Apple's newer users might not have heard about the mighty app launcher. Free to all but the most serious professionals, Alfred will supercharge your productivity with its unique system of shortcuts and keystrokes, launching apps, finding files, solving calculations, and controlling your Mac with swift precision. As customizable as it is powerful, you might say it puts a spotlight on OS X's shortcomings. Read our full review of Alfred here.

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Pocket

Read-it-later pioneer Instapaper may have transformed the way we absorb information, but Pocket’s Mac app is like your own personal DVR for the web. It’s not just for things you read; its advanced, versatile web clipper will save any photos, videos and articles that you find and store them inside its infinite queue until you have time for them. And of course, everything will be presented in a beautiful stripped-down view, all without the ethical quandary of an ad blocker.

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Dropbox

One day iCloud Drive will be able to handle all over our file storage needs, but until it arrives, Dropbox is an essential tool. But while its website is fine for quickly uploading small files, the Mac app turns the service from a simple digital locker into a seamless storage syncing solution. Launch it once and your Dropbox folder will integrate with the Finder, so adding a file is as easy as saving it to your Documents folder. And the handy menubar component keeps tabs on everything that’s been uploaded and altered.

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Simplenote

Don’t let Simplenote's name fool you—-the only thing simple about it is the decision to download it. No matter how or what you write, Simplenote promises to fit neatly into your workflow, with a syncing and organizational system that rivals the most powerful note-takers around. The deceptively powerful app puts a premium on speed and efficiency, offering a clean, lightweight interface that lets you breeze in and out of your notes, organize your thoughts and quickly find things buried under a mountain of text snippets.

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Chrome

The debate over which is the better browser is one that won't be settled anytime soon, but in the meantime every Mac user should have a copy of Chrome alongside Safari in their Dock. Fast, smart and endlessly customizable, Google's browser is an excellent alternative to Apple's, with instant searching, smart syncing and OK Google support (which will have to do until Apple finally decides to unleash Siri on the Mac). And with a dedicated store filled with extensions and themes, finding ways to enhance it is way easier than it is on Safari.

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uTorrent

Torrent files get a bad rap (or not, depending on your views about stealing music and movies), but they're not all about illegal content. There is an array of perfectly legal albums, books and games ready to be downloaded, but to get at them you'll need a way to unbundle the files. You can't go wrong with uTorrent, one of the most popular free clients on the Mac. Torrents will instantly start downloading without hogging any of your system's precious resources, and an array of features give you full automation and remote control over your files.

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Itsycal

Ever since the Day-O developer swore off any and all Yosemite updates, Itsycal has been the clock replacement of choice for menu bar tweakers. As its name suggests, Itsycal adds a tiny but enormously useful calendar to your menu bar, complete with appointment dots and a list of any upcoming meetings. You can also add an event without needing to launch Calendar, but the best reason to download Itsycal is how good it looks, whether you like things light or dark.

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Onyx

Mac maintenance might not be as vital to the day-to-day operation of your Mac as it once was, but slow-downs still happen. And when they do, Onyx will clear them up. A general-purpose utility with more tools than a Swiss Army knife, Onyx packages maintenance scripts, cache cleaning and permissions repairers to keep your Mac in tip-top shape. Its simple interface makes it quick and painless to run all kinds of cleaning solutions, but its best feature might be the individual optimized versions Titanium Software offers, going all the way back to Jaguar.

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f.lux

We don't realize what our screens are doing to our eyes. Even with automatic brightness turned on, the hours we spend staring at our MacBooks can cause serious strain on our retinas, messing with our sleep patterns and zapping our concentration. f.lux is dedicated to protecting your peepers. The always-on utility adjusts not just the brightness, but also the color temperature of your display based on the time of day. It's especially useful at night, when the screen takes on a warm hue to help your eyes relax, letting you work and sleep soundly.

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Pushbullet

If you own an iPhone and a Mac, Handoff has made it easier than ever to share your work between devices, creating a seamless chain that helps extract maximum efficiency from every device. Pushbullet takes that connection a step further, allowing quick AirDrop-style exchanges of notes and files, along with notification mirroring and the most useful feature of all: universal copy and paste. Just select a bit of text on your Mac and it will appear in your iPhone’s clipboard. Quite frankly, even if that's all it did Pushbullet would still make this list.

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Amphetamine

Mac veterans will forever be devoted to Caffeine, but since it hasn’t been updated since Snow Leopard, retina and dark mode lovers will get the same results using Amphetamine to keep their Mac awake. Featuring a similar menu bar-based interface, the app lets you temporarily override your Mac’s sleep schedule (even when the lid is closed) and even adds a few features that Caffeine never had (like activating only when connected to specific WiFi networks and keeping only certain drives awake). Plus, it’s already compatible with X El Capitan.

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HandBrake

The art of ripping DVDs might be lost on today’s optical drive-challenged Macs, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need a good video converter on your Mac. Open-source, multi-platform and free for life, HandBrake excels at turning DVDs into digital files, but it's not just for physical media; the app can convert video from just about any source into something your Mac, iPhone or Apple TV can read, distilling complicated processes into a single button. And you’ll also get the best Dock icon of all time.

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TextWrangler

Professional software developers have been singing BBEdit’s praises for years, but its “little brother” is no slacker. Sporting an identical interface to the far more expensive version, TextWrangler isn't a typical Notes replacement. It's a full-featured editor in its own right, sporting powerful features such as multiple clipboards, automatic backups, live search and syntax-highlighting support for more than 20 programming languages. But you don't have to be a coder to appreciate it--anyone who writes and edits text on their Mac should grab a copy.

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Wunderlist

Whether it's to-dos, reminders, wishes or groceries, we all make lists. And if you make them on your Mac, Wunderlist is just as amazing as it sounds. Simple, fast and elegant, the app will let you write, share and assign as many lists as your life needs, with a friendly interface that keeps everything neat and organized. But it's more than the price that's wonderful; Wunderlist is one of the most powerful task managers around, seamlessly augmenting your workflow with smart lists and Calendar integration, and making sure you never forget anything that needs to get done.

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Dr. Clean

Macs may have a reputation for being free from viruses and spyware, but that doesn’t mean they don’t still get clogged with gunk. So if your Mac is feeling a little run-down, make an appointment with Dr. Cleaner. With a simple interface and a lightweight, menu bar-based app, the good doctor will optimize your memory and clean out the hidden files that bog down your hard drive. With a click, it'll surgically remove caches, logs and temporary files as it frees up disk space and makes sure your Mac gets a clean bill of health.

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Autodesk Pixlr

Even if you’re not an amateur photographer or a serial Instagrammer, a solid image editor is a must-have on your Mac. Autodesk might be best known for its powerful suite of 3D design apps, but you don’t have to commit to a recurring license fee to get your hands on its equally excellent 2D tools. Packed with dozens of cool filters, effects, overlays and borders, Pixlr gives you tremendous control over your photos, with easily adjustable sliders and live previews that show you exactly what's about to happen.

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Clementine Music Player

iTunes has grown quite a bit from its rip-mix-burning roots, but as it’s expanded to include a full-service store, your video library and a giant streaming service, it’s become something of a bloated behemoth. Clementine brings back the iTunes from the good old days, with a clean, lightweight and instantly familiar interface that gives you speedy access to your songs and playlists. Cross-platform and cross-streaming (you can listen to your Spotify and Soundcloud stations), might keep you from ever opening iTunes again.