Mac Programs: The Best Built-In or Free Programs on Mac

This is the last part in a series about configuring and using a Mac which will focus on suggestions for built-in or free programs to accomplish common tasks.

The previous posts can be found here:


  • The App Store can be reached via spotlight or from the Apple menu at the top left of the screen.
  • Homebrew is a command-line based package manager for Mac, and is discussed in a previous blog post.



Rip, burn, play, organize, buy, download - it’s the interface to your music, the iTunes library, and Apple Music (a subscription service similar to Spotify). It also works well with AirPlay to cast audio to any number of receivers, smart speakers, set-top boxes, and TVs without sending all your audio.


Spotify is one of the most popular streaming music services available. Spotify provides a dedicated app if you prefer using one to a browser. Like Apple Music, it requires a subscription to use, but can be installed via Homebrew or downloaded here.


QuickTime Player

Quicktime comes bundled with your Mac. It’s a relatively simple app which focuses pretty narrowly on playing videos. It does include some simple editing features. You can rotate, flip, and trim clips. Additionally, you can create screen and/or audio recordings from the File menu.


If you need to play video files which QuickTime Player won’t read, IINA has support for a wide variety of codecs and containers. It’s free, open source, and written in Swift specifically for macOS. It can be installed via Homebrew or by visiting


VLC is an established open-source multi-platform media player that also supports many formats. It can be installed via Homebrew or from the homepage.

Screen Capture

For video screen recording, use QuickTime Player.


Grab is installed by default on a Mac. You can run via Spotlight or in the other group in Launcher. Or you can use the following hotkeys to automatically capture:

  • Full screen screenshot (saved as png on Desktop) - ⌘shift 3
  • Specific region screenshot - ⌘shift 4, then select the section of the screen you want to capture, which is also saved to your Desktop folder.
  • Window screenshot - ⌘shift 4, as above, then press space and select the window.
  • Screenshot of Touch Bar (for macs with a touch bar) - ⌘shift 6



The default program for viewing files like images and PDFs is called Preview. This program can do quite a bit of markup and basic editing you might want to do including:

  • resizing, cropping, flipping/rotating
  • changing file formats
  • drawing with a pen tool, shapes, and text (which can be moved and sized after drawing)
  • cutting, copying, pasting between images with selection modes including lasso and a tool similar to Photoshop’s “magic wand”.
  • editing levels and settings like exposure, contrast, and saturation
  • adding a signature


Photos is the default application for managing your photos taken with a phone or digital camera. Photos are generally viewed in chronological order or by manually created album, but you can also view your photos geographically (if they were taken with a phone or a camera with GPS), which is a great way to find a picture for times you remember where but not when you took a snapshot. It also includes some basic capability to adjust levels, but it has the ability to be extended (via an official API) by third party plugins.


For many cases, you should not need a dedicated PDF application. Preview can read and facilitate some editing of PDFs such as filling out forms or adding signatures. Several built-in programs can save to PDF, and there is a “print to PDF” function built in as well.

Code Editors and IDEs (Integrated Development Environment)


Made by Apple, Xcode is the IDE for native apps targeting MacOS, iOS, tvOS, and watchOS. It’s most common usage is for software written in Swift and/or Objective-C, though it supports a much wider array of languages, including C, C++, Java, AppleScript, Python, and Ruby. It also has an interface builder, a “playgrounds” feature similar to a document-based REPL like Jupyter notebooks, good support for Apple docs, and tools for working with version control.

Xcode comes packaged Clang, LLVM, LLDB, etc, and tools for profiling and testing code running on Apple operating systems. iOS apps in development can be run and debugged via either the included simulator on directly on device.

Xcode is available for free and is normally installed via the App Store. If you have a developer account (including as a member of a team) with Apple ($99/year), you can also download pre-release versions of Xcode.

Visual Studio Code

Visual Studio Code is a relatively recent, multi-platform, open source (Disclaimer: I have contributed to the repo) application created by Microsoft. Despite the name, it is an entirely separate product (and code base) from Visual Studio, and it is much closer to text editors such as Sublime or Atom. It is definitely worth checking out.

Visual Studio Code features an extensive library of plugins and enhancements including support for syntax highlighting, linting, code navigation, code completion, debugging, version control, and much more for virtually any language you might want to use. The project is updated fairly frequently including work from both Microsoft employees and the open source community. It even includes tools to assist in developing and debugging extensions for itself.

Configuration in VS Code is edited and saved in JSON files with good support in-editor for discovering settings, so sharing custom workflows between team members should be easier than in heavier GUI editors.

VS Code can be installed from a Homebrew cask or downloaded here. Updates are automatic, but can be checked manually from inside the application as well.

Visual Studio for Mac

Different from both Visual Studio and Visual Studio Code, there is also, confusingly, a product called Visual Studio for Mac which is a rebranded version of what used to be Xamarin Studio. If your primary development focus is on C# or another .NET language running on .NET Core or Mono, it may be worth looking into here.


For languages such as Python, Ruby, or JavaScript, staying in the terminal is often a better solution than an IDE. Both Vim and Emacs come bundled with MacOS, but the latest versions can easily be installed via Homebrew.


Most IDEs involving Java, such as Eclipse, are already multi-platform. Some of them can be installed via homebrew as well.

Merge/Diff Tool

If you’ve installed XCode and the command-line tools, you’ll have FileMerge which, confusingly enough, can be launched with the opendiff command. You can configure git to use it by editing your ~/.gitconfig:

tool = opendiff
tool = opendiff

Inside the program, you can move between differences in the file with ⌘↑ and ⌘↓ and select which version you want with ⌘← and ⌘→.

Password Managers

Keychain Access

Keychain Access is a built-in program that, unsurprisingly, provides access to the system keychain, which is where the Mac stores sensitive information in a secure manner. All access is locked behind your login password, though you can use it to create new keychain with a different password. Keychain automatically works with password auto-fill in Safari, so if you’ve saved a password there, you can look it up in Keychain Access. You can also find some passwords for programs which save sensitive data in keychain, such as Microsoft Remote Desktop, as well as wifi passwords. If you have other Macs or iOS devices, you can enable iCloud Keychain (free), which will securely sync items between your devices. Secure Notes can also be created, which can be useful for storing freeform text data you want to keep secure, such as reset keys.

“Office” Applications

Pages / Numbers / Keynote

There are a number of programs which used to be sold separately but are now provided by Apple free of charge for all Mac (and iOS) users. If they are not on your Mac, you can download them from the App Store. Despite being free, they are full-featured programs. They can read and write the common file formats used by Microsoft Office applications. They also have web and mobile versions with data being automatically synced between them via iCloud. They support multiple people working on the same document at the same time with feedback to show who is currently editing what.

  • Pages (Word Processor)
  • Numbers (Spreadsheet)
  • Keynote (Slideshow)

Google Docs

Google Docs are also a good consideration for another free (but still very good) set of office tools. You will need a Google/Gmail account and, like many of Google’s products, they are browser based, which can be a mixed blessing. You can find out more here.

Calendar and Mail

There are built-in programs called Calendar and Mail. They both support multiple accounts, including offerings from Microsoft and Google, and standard features like rule-based actions for emails and notifications for upcoming events. If you don’t have a specific feature that you need in an alternate mail client, they are worth looking into before deciding on a third party option.

Honorable Mentions

  • Dictionary - includes thesaurus and can be configured for multiple languages. Force touch (deep press the trackpad) on words in most programs to get an instant definition.
  • Maps - figure out where things are and how long it can take to get there. Can be invoked from addresses in some programs.
  • Messages - send messages via iMessages or, with an iPhone, via SMS.
  • FaceTime - audio and/or video chat. If you have an iPhone, you can also make a cell phone call. Some programs can initiate a phone call directly from the text by clicking on it, then the arrow that appears next to the number.
  • Contacts - manage the people you know and initiate contact via FaceTime, Messages, email, or a phone call.
  • iBooks - a minimalist reader for ebooks and PDFs. Great source for official Apple user guides. Can add your own books as well.
  • Activity Monitor - much like Task Manager on Windows, view all kinds of information about running processes including CPU and memory usage.
  • Automator - create workflows you can launch with an icon, a shortcut, or a schedule. Many actions can be used without writing any code, although more complicated behaviors can be performed via AppleScript.


When you don’t know the tool for the job, try poking around your computer first. Open up apps you see in the Launchpad. Try searching homebrew and, of course, the Web.

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