There are free apps and there are free apps. The App Store has given free apps as a whole a bit of a bad name. Take look at the top 10 free apps on the store and it's not very enlightening. Of course, OS X Yosemite is the most downloaded free app there. Look for others and once again the results aren't much help. It's almost as if Apple doesn't want you to find the really good stuff.
That's where we come in. Every app on these pages has been given the T3.com seal of approval. And in every case, the app is a solid alternative to a well-known paid‑for app, in some cases saving you hundreds of pounds.
Sure, the free apps aren't as fully-featured as their commercial counterparts, but how many of those missing features do you need? In every instance featured here, the free app does the basics, and sometimes much more, very well.
You won't find any demos or trial versions in our collection, though some of our choices offer in-app purchases. Make no mistake that the in-app purchases provide additional features and functions, but they're not necessary to do the basics.
Wunderlist is a prime example of how good free apps can be. Its free version is so good that we wonder how its paid-for rivals manage to survive. There are other benefits to using free software. Much of it is open source and uses open document formats, rather than the proprietary formats favoured by applications like Adobe Photoshop. That makes it much easier to swap documents between applications, and offers a degree of future-proofing too.
Even Microsoft Office demonstrates this; for the best part of a decade, it has used a documented XML format, enabling your documents to be opened in free alternatives such as LibreOffice, although some content may look different in them.
Can you use these tools in a professional workflow? Absolutely. Many of them are used in just that way. There are magazines laid out in Scribus, for example, and Google Docs is widely used for collaborative working in large organisations.
The best thing about free apps, of course, is that trying them costs nothing other than your time. Download them, have a go. If it turns out they suit your needs, you've saved yourself some money.
Autodesk has a fine history of producing free apps. SketchBook Express and Motion FX are two of the better ones, and Pixlr is another. It enables you to easily edit images, add effects and filters, and blend one image with another. You can crop, straighten and re-size images.
The app's auto fix feature adjusts colour and lighting at the click of a button. Some of Pixlr's effects aren't to our taste, but with hundreds to choose from you should have no difficulty finding some you like.
In addition to myriad visual effects, there are 340 overlays and 200 borders, so you can create over two million combinations.
Pixlr's tools are laid out down the left-hand side of the image you're working on. Clicking a tool opens a panel to display its options, with a thumbnail preview of its effect to show how it will affect your image. You can also adjust the intensity of effects before applying them.
Setting up a free pixlr.com account unlocks a few advanced features). There are no selection tools in the free versions of Pixlr, though if you pay £1.49 per month or £10.99 per year for a Pro membership, you gain access to selection and masking tools, among other things.
If you use photo-editing apps mainly for tuning up images and adding effects before sharing them, Pxlr is ideal, packed with features and it won't cost you a penny.
Inkscape is a vector drawing app with all the key tools you'd expect in an application of its type. So there's a pen tool that enables you to draw Beziér curves, you can add text, and you can manipulate objects using the selection tools. It's also easy to clone, copy and paste objects, and place them on separate layers.
If you've used Adobe Illustrator, you might find Inkscape takes a bit of getting used to because many tools they have in common have different names and aren't where you might expect. Most are present, though. Take Illustrator's Pathfinder palette, for example. In Inkscape, the same options for combining objects are called Boolean operations.
There's a tool similar to Illustrator's Live Trace, which assists in turning a sketch or a bitmap image into vector art. And the use of nodes on paths makes them easy to edit; their apperance changes to indicate different features, and they can be selected, moved, rotated, and scaled using keyboard shortcuts – a godsend if constantly clicking and selecting with a pointer drives you up the wall.
New features in the latest release (0.91) include enhancements to the Find/Replace tool, a new Measurement tool, and a feature that allows you to swap the positions of selected objects or their stacking order.
There are tools missing when compared with Illustrator; there's still no gradient mesh tool or proper colour management, but new features are being added all the time.
Describing Wunderlist as a list making app is a bit like describing Photoshop as a tool for editing photographs. It is a list-making app, but oh, what lists! You can use it to make anything from shopping lists to work schedules, and you can set alerts to remind you to perform tasks. Lists can be shared with colleagues and tasks delegated, and you can even publish them on the web for anyone to see when you send them the address.
Best of all, Wunderlist on the Mac syncs with Wunderlist on iOS, so you can create lists on one device and have them immediately – and we mean immediately – available on another. The iPhone version also includes an app for Apple Watch, which alerts you to tasks you need to complete. It's also possible to break down large tasks into subtasks. The Activity Center alerts you as things happen on lists that you share with others – say, when a task is delegated to you.
Wunderlist couldn't be easier to use and sports the kind of collaborative features and syncing tools you'd normally have to pay a great deal for – Things, for example, charges you separately for its Mac and iOS versions, in order that you can sync them.
Wunderlist looks great too, with a choice of photographic backgrounds which work particularly well full-screen on the Mac. The app is quite simply brilliant. Get it.
If you need a free tool for a printed project, this one's well-worth a try. Scribus is an open-source page layout app which claims to offer press-ready output. Several small magazines use it in their production workflow and it's not difficult to see why when you look at the available features. Colour separations? Check. Support for CMYK and spot colours? Check? ICC colour profiles? Plenty of control over PDF output? You get the idea.
Scribus uses an open-source file format, which has been updated in the latest release, 1.5, and doesn't support older versions of the app. That's not a problem if you haven't used Scribus before. More of an issue might be the lack of support for InDesign and QuarkXPress files. But don't let that put you off.
Scribus can open just about any image file you're likely to need, and the latest version is able to store bitmap images, rather than just link to them.
There's also a new feature called Symbols, which modifies instances of an object when the master item is modified. Version 1.5 also includes new type features. Associated licensing costs means there are no Pantone colour palettes in Scribus, but there are over 100 other colour palettes including several with colour schemes of large organisations.
The interface, like many open-source tools, takes a bit of getting used to, but you'll find plenty of help and tutorials in the Scribus wiki.
Dashlane is a password manager which uses 256-bit AES encryption to securely store passwords and other private data. Browser plug-ins for Safari, Firefox and Chrome enable you to generate secure passwords and save them, autofill those you've already saved, and automatically fill out forms. Unlike 1Password, Dashlane lacks a menu bar icon, so you'll either have to open the app or a browser to access Dashlane's features and data.
In addition to logins, Dashlane can store payment data (credit card numbers and bank account details), secure notes, and receipts.
In addition, its bold, bright dashboard leaves you in no doubt as to the integrity of your data.
You'll have to pay £20.99 per year if you want to sync passwords between your Mac and iOS devices. If not, Dashlane is free and a match for 1Password.
Sunrise was recently acquired by Microsoft. But don't let that put you off, because it's still free. It's often billed as an alternative to OS X's Calendar app, but it's much more than that.
Sunrise can connect to Google Calendar, iCloud and Microsoft Exchange, as you'd expect. Of course, it's also able to import your existing calendars. Beyond that, you can also link Sunrise to social media accounts such as FourSquare. By doing so, when you use FourSquare to check in every time you go to work or the gym, Sunrise will display a record of how many times you've gone to that place during the month.
The app also supports Facebook event invitations, enabling you to respond to them within the app rather than going to the website. And, like all the best calendar apps, Sunrise supports natural language input for creating events.
Cross DJ Free
Well-practised and aspiring DJs will love Cross DJ Free because it can import tracks from your iTunes Library, and from elsewhere as long as they are MP3, AAC, AIFF, FLAC or Apple Lossless files. It sports a mixer with three-band equaliser, volume faders, cross-fader, and level meters. Naturally, it includes beat matching too.
The app works with all the major brands of decks and controllers, with the exception of those designed specifically for Traktor Pro. You can only use two decks, rather than the four available in Traktor Pro. There's no automatic cueing or cross-fading of tracks, and no automatic key detection either.
However, Cross DJ Free has plenty to offer the bedroom DJ, and if you want to go further and mix video too, the full version of Cross DJ is only £22.99.
Darktable takes photos in the Raw format captured by your camera's sensor and makes non-destructive edits to them. It works as a database, with a series of modules that perform operations on records (photos). For example, the Collect module enables you to search for images by tag, rating, and other metadata.
Other modules enable you to crop and rotate images, perform curve adjustments to change a picture's tonality, and recover blown out highlights. Several modules add artistic effects: watermarks, frames, and vignettes, and you can soften images, add grain and simulate human low light vision.
Darktable's modular, open‑source nature means it's constantly evolving. Check it out if you miss Aperture's processing tools and don't want to spend on Lightroom.
If Office 2016 seems too expensive, you'll find plenty of alternatives both as web and Mac apps. The best of the latter category is LibreOffice, a full-featured office suite which surpasses Microsoft Office for Mac when it comes to the sheer number of apps bundled within it.
It lacks an equivalent of Outlook, but in other respects LibreOffice matches Office 2011. As well as modules for word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations, there's a database, a drawing program, a database tool, a formulae and equations tool, and an app for creating and editing charts. There are also add-ons created by a huge community of developers, demonstrating one of the suite's strengths as open-source software.
What's more, LibreOffice supports a large number of file formats, including Microsoft's proprietary .doc and .xls and XML-based .docx and .xlsx extensions.
If you think LibreOffice may be a lightweight alternative to Microsoft's behemoth, think again. Writer, for example, includes features for adding comments, tracking revisions, and accepting or rejecting changes. It's spelling and grammar checker are excellent, and it has a large gallery of symbols, shapes and other graphics. Long document support is also great thanks to support for creating indexes, bibliographies, and tables of contents.
However, Writer does lack the page layout mode available in both Microsoft's Word 2011 and Apple's Pages, meaning that everything must be done inline. You can't, for example, create text boxes and place holders for images and drag them around the page. For a free way to do that, try Scribus.
The inestimable value of free
Calc, the spreadsheet tool, doesn't support Visual Basic macros, but it does have plenty of other commendable features.
The conditional formatting tool is excellent, for example. There's a Scenario Manager to allow you to perform complex 'What If…' analyses, and a solver component which allows you to solve optimisation problems where the optimum value of a particular cell is dependent on constraints provided in other cells.
LibreOffice's presentation component, Impress, lacks some of the user interface refinement of Keynote and PowerPoint, and it lacks keyboard shortcuts, but it's powerful enough for most of us. It has drawing and diagramming tools, animation and effects, and the Fontwork tool enables you to create 2D and 3D images from text. When it's time to deliver your presentation, the slideshow mode allows you to choose between automatic and manual modes, set the duration for which slides are shown, and decide whether the pointer is visible. Impress supports multiple displays, enabling you to see the upcoming slide and your notes while the audience sees the current slide in the presentation.
Base, the database tool, acts as a front-end to several engines, including MySQL and Microsoft's Access. However, it can also be used as a simple, standalone database. There are wizards to help you set up a database, and it can integrate with other LibreOffice apps. So, for example, Base can be used to hold records for a mail merge in Writer.
Draw can be used to create anything from quick sketches to technical drawings up to 300x300cm in size. It's strength, though, is as a diagramming and charting tool. Whether you need to draw an organisation chart, flowchart, or network chart, you'll find the tools you need here. Smart connectors and glue points make it relatively simple to put charts together, and dimension lines automatically calculate and display linear dimensions as you draw.
Math, the equations and formula editor can be run as a standalone tool or provide its services from within any of the suite's other components. Formulas can contain a range of elements including fractions, integrals, mathematical functions, and matrices. Like Math, Charts can be called from within any LibreOffice component. It allows you to create different types and styles of charts by simply providing it with the data to be presented.
Bursting with content
The latest version of LibreOffice, 4.4.3 or later, includes several new features, including the ability to digitally sign PDFs, and to share them on SharePoint, Microsoft's OneDrive, and CMIS-based content management systems.
This version also sees an overhaul of the user interface, with new menus and toolbars, a re-designed sidebar and a new colour manager. Version tracking capabilities have been beefed up too.
Key to LibreOffice's appeal are the vast array of extensions and templates that are available for it. These are developed by a community of developers and LibreOffice enthusiasts, and they cover a wide range of features. Among many others, there are extensions to add a clip art gallery, support for importing and exporting to Google Docs and Zoho Office, several language tools that add support for dictionaries in languages other than English.
While the templates available may lack the polish of those included with Apple's Pages, Numbers and Keynote apps, that's made up for in sheer quantity. There are hundreds of templates covering just about every kind of use you can image for a word-processing tool or spreadsheet.
If you've tried LibreOffice in the past and found it lacking, give it another go now because the latest version really is excellent.
If you've avoided OpenOffice because it used to be a non-native app, it's time to give it another look because the latest version sits better alongside other Mac apps. It's a smart choice if you need to personalise templated correspondence, thanks to its mail merge wizard. The ability to record and play back macros, which enable repetitive tasks to be performed quickly, is another reason to adopt it.
Zoho is a set of online word processing, presentation, and spreadsheet tools. It also available as an app for iOS, and you can synchronise documents between that and the web app. The free version is limited, but there's lots to like about it, including 1GB of storage, version tracking, and user management. Documents can be managed using Zoho Docs for Desktop, which syncs your work with your Mac.
Google Docs is a hugely powerful set of online tools for sharing and collaborating on documents like spreadsheets and text files. The creator of a document always has control over who can read and edit documents, and you can review changes that have been made to documents and by whom. Beyond office suite essentials, the Forms feature makes it easy to build detailed surveys and analyse people's responses.
Gimp, an open-source bitmap image editor, has been around for as long as OS X. If your Mac runs Mountain Lion or later, you can install it as a native application, otherwise you'll have to install X11 first.
While the app's interface is very different to Photoshop, many tools found in Adobe's heavyweight image editor are also provided here. There's the lasso and magic wand for selection, a pen tool for drawing Bézier paths, a paintbrush, and a clone stamp. You can build up your images on multiple layers, too.
Some tools can be hard to find if you're used to something Photoshop – the Levels dialog is in the Color menu, for example. The good news is that the interface is customisable, so you can set it up just how you like, and have different environments for different tasks.
The app includes a full set of painting tools, including Brush, Pencil, Airbrush, and Clone. It features a powerful gradient editor and a blend tool, and you can import custom brushes and patterns. There's full support for multiple layers and channels, including alpha channels, and the number of undo operations you can perform are limited only by the amount of disk space that's available.
For selecting pixels, familiar rectangle, rounded rectangle, and lasso tools have you covered, as well as advanced path tools for creating Bézier curve and polygonal selections. Transformation tools include rotate, scale, shear and flip, and there are tools to fix lens distortion, barrel distortion and vignetting.
Perhaps Gimp's most important feature is that it's extensible. Anyone can create plug-ins for it and share them – over 100 are already available. Plug-ins can be written using the Scheme, Python and Perl languages, and this scripting language support allows Gimp to be automated too.
Gimp isn't perfect, of course. Its Text tool is in need of much improvement, and there are none of the 3D tools available in Photoshop to be found here. Nor does it support anything like Photoshop's non-destructive Adjustment Layers for easy experimentation with colour changes. Other missing features are taken care of by third party plug-ins, such as support for the CMYK colour space, which is available in Separate+.
Gimp is not a complete replacement for Photoshop, but it provides so many features found in Adobe's venerable bitmap editor that, for most purposes, it's a perfectly usable alternative. Thorough documentation and tutorials make it relatively easy to get started, and a large development community and user base mean Gimp's constantly evolving.
PicMonkey is a free online photo editor that is able to import photos from your Mac, or a Dropbox, Facebook or Flickr account. It includes an auto-adjust feature that enables you to make one-click improvements to your images. It also includes tools that enable you to crop, sharpen, resize and adjust the colours in your photo.
The app's portrait tools enable retouching of skin, removing blemishes and even giving someone a spray tan. You can dramatically alter the look of your pictures with a cross-process effect, giving them unusual contrast and colours, and you can embellish them with text, an overlaid texture or a frame.
The basic editing tools are free, though you'll have to put up with banner ads. For $4.99 (about £3) per month or $33 (about £21) per year, the Royale version removes ads and has more filters, fonts, and themes.
Blender is an open-source 3D animation and modelling tool. It incorporates a full game engine, enabling you to create a 3D game inside the app. It has photo-realistic shading with support for Open Shading Language, and it provides shaders for glass and translucency. A comprehensive set of rigging tools makes posing characters easy, and a pose editor and sound synchronisation enable you to bring your characters to life.
Move over Final Cut Pro X. Lightworks boasts supports for formats from SD to 4K and it can import, render, and export in the background while you carry on working. It has real-time effects, multi-camera editing and an interface that's customisable. There's a wealth of help in the form of tutorials to get you started. The Pro version (£249.99) adds support for hardware from Blackmagic, AJA and Matrox.
BBEdit has been the de facto text editor on the Mac for over a decade. TextWrangler is its free sibling and yet still packs in syntax colouring, cold folding – where you can show and hide sections of code – and direct access to files stored on FTP servers.
There are some tools missing from BBEdit, such as its Scratchpad ability to read from and write to Zip archives, but TextWrangler is a free app that should be in every Mac user's arsenal.
Studio One is undergoing something of a transition, and the new free version, now called Studio One Prime, wasn't available as this issue went to press. However, it promises unlimited audio tracks, virtual instruments, FX and buses. It also enables real-time audio time stretching, resampling and normalisation. Nine audio native effects wil be accompanied by a single virtual instrument. Going by its predecessor, Studio One 2, Prime will be worth your time.
Cyberduck costs £16.99 from the Mac App Store, yet it's available for free (or with a donation) from its website. It's used to transfer files to and from FTP, SFTP, and WebDAV servers, and to Amazon CloudFront and S3, Google Cloud Storage and Rackspace Cloud Files. Servers can be bookmarked and added to Finder for quick access, and files can be edited directly from a server. There's no two-pane view of local and remote files, but the app is otherwise excellent.
One of the longest-standing free apps for OS X, Audacity is the perfect tool for making quick edits to audio files. The most recent version, 2.1, adds real-time previews of Audio Unit and BST effects. It also features a new noise removal tool, and the Spectral Selection feature allows you to click and drag to select frequency ranges to manipulate, as well as time periods. If you need to edit audio on a Mac, this is the best place to start.
When it's worth paying
Although we've been singing the praises of free software in this feature, that isn't to say you should ignore every app that has a price tag attached. These days you can buy highly capable apps of all kinds at affordable prices; something that might be attributed to Apple's app stores skewing prices downwards. Many of these apps are far more ambitious than their price and your previous experience of low-cost software might suggest. We're talking about the likes of Affinity Designer, Pixelmator and OneNote, which are strong, capable rivals to big names such as Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop and Evernote. Spending a relatively small amount encourages developers of these apps to continue investing effort in new features, which these days often come at a steady pace, and often without having to pay for a whole new version.
Affinity Designer (£39.99, Mac App Store) was a great app even from the start, yet features added since version 1.2 have added significantly to its appeal. That version brought the ability to set text on a path, dashed lines, a corner tool, and vector slice export. It enables your undo history to be saved with documents, and features a new pixel alignment mode to aid user interface and web design. Version 1.2.1 added support for Apple's Force Touch trackpad on the new MacBook and MacBook Pro, enabling you to paint with pressure sensitivity without buying specialist hardware.
Microsoft's free OneNote may not be as popular as Evernote, but it still has a great deal to offer. For a start, it doesn't impose a 60MB monthly limit on uploads, as Evernote's free tier does. Its latest version has the ability to search handwritten notes, and can record and play audio notes.
Djay gained a ton of new features in version 1.1, including the ability to create video mixes, not just audio. It also supports an extended range of hardware controllers, and its media library has been beefed up by integration with iTunes and Spotify and video importing.
Pixelmator (£22.99, Mac App Store) goes from strength to strength, with version 3.3 adding support for Handoff so you can switch between editing an image on your Mac and your iPad. It supports Yosemite's Extensions too, boosting its value by making its Repair tool available within other apps.
When it comes to annotating images, Napkin (£29.99, Mac App Store) is a good alternative to Apple's Preview. Version 1.5 adds two new visual styles when redacting information, with a choice of blurring or pixellating an area for a subtler aesthetic, rather than simply filling it with black. It also enables images to be cropped within the app, so you no longer have to open them in another tool to do that, and it follows the lead of many other good Mac apps by enabling you to match the style of surrounding text wherever you paste.
Finally, version 5.3 of 1Password (£25.99, Mac App Store) is more tempting than ever as a replacement for iCloud Keychain, with improvements to the accuracy of filling out your identity in online forms, and new field types to store more varied data in your keychain.
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