Essential software for academic work on Mac: 2021 update

It’s been seven years since I listed 25 apps essential for academic work on Mac. This list has proven to be very popular and relatively stable, but over the years I dropped or significantly reduced using 13 of these applications and I added 2 new ones to the list. Here are the 14 apps I use everyday in 2021:

Screenshot 2021-06-12 at 11.00.21

Software I use almost daily

A. Productivity, general-purpose and academic collaboration

  1. LaunchBar – a launcher and an automator;
  2. TextExpander – Mac typing shortcut utility;
  3. 1Password* – password, identities and other sensitive information management
    • free alternatives such as Safari’s own password and credit card management are becoming increasingly competitive;
  4. BusyCal – professional calendar management
    • once again there are free increasingly powerful alternatives such as Apple Calendar appI still like BusyCal’s abilities to color-tag events;
  5. Dropbox* – file sharing – still more robust than many new alternatives and competitors;
  6. Notion* (new) – an incredibly versatile and powerful knowledge management system that revolutionised how our team works; for me, it replaced OmniFocus, TaskPaper, some Scrivener functions, and Evernote as well as Slack and Asana;
  7. Microsoft OneDrive (new) – the feature of synchronised editing makes this tool a natural choice for any team that does complex real-time collaborative editing; all our publication files are now in OneDrive.

B. Note-taking, research and writing

  1. Papers* – managing scientific articles, annotation, citation and bibliographies. Over years, I became frustrated with slow pace of development and tried different alternatives such as Mendeley and Zotero, but in my view Papers (now managed by ReadCube) remains superior. Check Macademic reviews of various versions.
  2. OmniOutliner – writing outlines, is irreplaceable for thinking through projects, talks and papers
    • Over years, my respect for outlines has only increased. Here is advice from one of the greatest academic writers:
    • Make an outline. If you think you can skip this step you aren’t thinking clearly.
  3. Microsoft Word for Mac – very powerful word processor, a standard for many publishers and in the Windows world, sometimes irreplaceable but should not be over- or misused
    • Microsoft Word has become even better in recent years. Its integration with OneDrive is a game-changer for collaborative writing. It also integrates with Papers through SmartCite.
  4. Byword – simple and efficient text and markdown editor for Mac
    • There are many alternatives to Byword although I have not yet found anything as clean and enabling for first drafts. I am also increasingly using Notion for collaborative writing and discussion of shorter texts (e.g. Abstracts).

C. Data processing, presentation and graphic design

  1. Microsoft Excel – an extremely powerful electronic spreadsheet /alt: Numbers
    • Both apps are developing very fast and while Excel is more powerful I often do simple data analysis and charting in Numbers because of its easy-flow interface;
  2. OmniGraffle – vector graphic software for diagrams and other illustrations;
  3. Keynote* – the most powerful presentation software with amazing possibilities.

means that I also use iOS or iPad OS app; other apps may also have iOS versions – but I don’t use these.

Less essential software I still occasionally use

  1. Fantastical* – natural language calendaring, part of the Macademic Ninja Kit;
    • Fantastical is still in my menu bar, but I increasingly turn to BusyCal;
  2. BusyContacts – contact management software, very useful if you want for example to find experts in a particular country or to circulate the results of your research
    • Unfortunately, the app has not really been updated in recent years and still cannot perform very basic functions such as exporting contact lists;
  3. OmniFocus* – unparalleled task management app extensively reviewed on Macademic; however tempting it is, don’t try to put all your life in there!
    • I have discovered that my own much simpler system in Notion works more efficiently and I am planning to phase-out OmniFocus gradually;
  4. Pages* – Apple native word processor producing beautifully formatted documents, features sharing through iCloud (free with OS X) /alt: Mellel, Nisus
    • A great new feature in Pages is the capacity for collaborative editing if you don’t have Microsoft OneDrive but have iCloud account; it is still much less suitable for academic documents than MS Word
  5. TaskPaper – a great tool for managing many tasks related to a single project.
    • It’s a great app, but Notion is superior, especially if you collaborate and need to share tasks lists
  6. Evernote* – capturing text notes, documents, contacts, images, photos and screenshots and sharing them including on iOS devices (free with some paid features)
    • I have switched to Notion leaving Evernote for purely personal notes
  7. Google Drive
    • OneDrive and its collaborative editing as well as Notion for shorter texts make Google Drive unnecessary in my workflow
  8. PDFPen – editing pdf files
    • I still use it occasionally when I need to edit text in pdf or add my scanned signature; however, these features are now present in native Apple Preview app, where you can even sign or draw using SideCar, iPad and Apple pen;
  9. Hazel – file management automator, indispensable for managing reference files
    • It still hums in the background archiving my Desktop but I don’t use it for much else

Software I have stopped using

  1. Notebook – project management and planning.
  2. Foxtrot – a professional search engine; “goodbye haystack, hello needle!” ($40 or $130 for the professional version) /alt: Leap, DevonThink, HoudahSpot
  3. MailTags – tagging mail messages in Apple Mail (2018: I decided that using colog flags for quick immediate organisation + organising email in hierarchical folders makes MailTags unnecessary)
  4. Scrivener – writing software, especially suitable for theses and other complex texts.
    • Scrivener has a great ability of organising shorter pieces of texts into larger writing projects; I have dropped it because I do not write very long texts any longer and Notion provides an adequate tool for organising notes and research material; a great advantage of Notion over Scrivener is its unparalleled capacity for sharing and real-time collaboration;
    • Even though I don’t use Scrivener myself, it may still be useful for those working with texts that are just too long and complex for Microsoft Word.
  5. Mail Act-On – processing and organizing email with keyboard shortcuts in Apple Mail (2018: nowadays I primarily use it to delay sending emails)
  6. Ulysses – a rapidly evolving software for taking and organizing notes using searches, tags and folders; I use it extensively for teaching (€37) /many alternatives
  7. NValt – plain text and markdown no-frills note-taking (free) /many alternatives
  8. Slack – we used it for a short period for exchanging messages, thoughts, pieces of text and graphics. We then realised a huge difference between a messaging tool and a knowledge management system required for academic collaboration. In simple words, we just could not easily find and organise past messages in Slack to advance our work. Eventually, we replaced Slack with Notion.
  9. Asana – a great task and project management software for teams. Although we produced several publications using Asana, at the end it could not serve as a reliable knowledge management system and it was too steeply priced to be just a task management tool. Eventually we replaced Asana with Notion.

Observations and explanations

  • I did not list the standard components of Apple OS X (most importantly Mail, Contacts, Safari, iPhoto, Spotlight, and Preview);
  • I also excluded communication utilities such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, Google Hangout, Webex, etc.

About Aleh Cherp

Aleh Cherp is a professor at Central European University and Lund University. He researchers energy and environment and coordinates MESPOM, a Masters course operated by six Universities.
This entry was posted in Automation, Bibliographies, Collaboration, Files, Graphics, Notes, Presentations, Projects, Tasks, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Essential software for academic work on Mac: 2021 update

  1. A. Reader says:

    Thank you for the overview! Some app names are marked with a * — what does this mean?


  2. Arnaud says:

    Hi, thanks for the update. I’m curious, why did you stop using Scrivener? Would you still recommend it for someone who is writing his own thesis?


    • Aleh Cherp says:

      Thanks for asking. I actually remark on this in the post. The answers are yes and yes. I stopped using Scrivener because it’s note-taking and organising function was taken over by Notion. (frankly I did not use it much anyway). For writing I use OmniOutliner (for outlines) – Byword (for initial bursts of texts) – Notion (for discussing and collaborative editing) – and Word (for putting everything together). The reasons I am using Scrivener less are first that my texts are not that long (typically 1,000-10,000 words) and second, and more important, that I need to collaborate with many co-authors. While Scrivener does not allow easy collaboration, Notion and MS Word do – and that’s a game changer for me.
      Still if you’re working on your thesis, which is a long text with minimal collaborative writing, Scrivener may be the ideal tool!


  3. Cathal Coleman says:

    Excellent report there Aleh.
    Have you used/do you use MS OneNote?
    I’ve put a lot of stuff on it, but transferring it to a new iMac has been Hell on earth, and am now contemplating an Apple alternative.
    Any thoughts?


    • Aleh Cherp says:

      Thanks, Cathal! I’ve tried OneNote on many occasions because it has such good reviews, but it never worked for me. It’s hard to put a finger on as to why. Perhaps the interface was too clunky or collaboration too cumbersome across organisations or people not using MS Office. Now that I use Notion I can’t even think of coming back to it.


      • Cathal Coleman says:

        Thanks, Aleh.
        I’ve dabbled in Notion, and will give it further time as a result of your review.
        What I like about One Note is that I can and do make great use of the pencil, particularly for talks, meetings, and research. It is clunky on the research side, a bit unstable and so on, but I still found it effective.
        In any case these reports area of gt value.


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