Essential software for academic work on a Mac

A reader has just challenged me to re-think the software I use for academic work on Mac. Well, there are over 250 items in my Applications folder, but how many do I need to remain productive? So imagine that I have a completely new Mac with no software (except OS and its standard apps). Also imagine that I am not bound to any historical file or data formats. What would I choose? To answer this, I have made a mission critical list of 25 apps in five categories. These apps do not duplicate each other, on the contrary some of them are mentioned under more than one heading and some are used together (e.g. NValt and Ulysses or Byword and Scrivener). I am pretty sure that I could do my professor work with these 25 apps but if any one was removed without replacement I would be severely handicapped.  

Reflections and explanations are at the end of the list

A. General tools

  1. LaunchBar – a launcher and an automator (€24) /alt: Alfred, check here for comparison
  2. TextExpander* – Mac typing shortcut utility (€35)
  3. 1Password* – password, identities and other sensitive information management (€40)
  4. Dropbox* – file sharing (free) /alt: Box

B. File and e-mail organizing and management

  1. Hazel – file management automator, indispensable for managing reference files (€20)
  2. Papers – managing scientific articles, also used for annotation, citation and bibliographies in writing (see D); check Macademic reviews (€60) /alt: Sente, Bookends
  3. Foxtrot – a professional search engine; “goodbye haystack, hello needle!” ($40 or $130 for the professional version) /alt: Leap, DevonThink, HoudahSpot
  4. MailTags – tagging mail messages in Apple Mail ($30)
  5. Mail Act-On – processing and organizing email with keyboard shortcuts in Apple Mail ($25)

C. Calendar, task and project management

  1. Fantastical* – natural language calendaring, part of the Macademic Ninja Kit (€16)
  2. BusyCal – professional calendar management (€40) /alt: Mac’s native Calendar
  3. OmniOutliner* – outlining for brainstorming and project planning; also used for writing outlines (see D) ($50 or $100 for professional version) /alt: MindNote
  4. Notebook – project management and planning ($50) /alt: Daylite
  5. OmniFocus* – unparalleled task management app extensively reviewed on Macademic; however tempting it is, don’t try to put all your life in there! ($40 or $80 for the professional version /alt: Things, TheHitList, TaskPaper

D. Note-taking, research and writing

  1. NValt – plain text and markdown no-frills note-taking (free) /many alternatives
  2. Evernote* – capturing text notes, documents, contacts, images, photos and screenshots and sharing them including on iOS devices (free with some paid features)
  3. Ulysses – a rapidly evolving software for taking and organizing notes using searches, tags and folders; I use it extensively for teaching (€37) /many alternatives
  4. OmniOutliner* – writing outlines, also used for project management (see C) ($50 or $99 for the professional version) /many alternatives
  5. Byword* – simple and efficient text and markdown editor for Mac (€8) /many alternatives
  6. Scrivener – writing software, especially suitable for theses and other complex texts ($45)
  7. Pages* – Apple native word processor producing beautifully formatted documents, features sharing through iCloud (free with OS X) /alt: Mellel, Nisus
  8. 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 (various pricing models) /alt: MellelNisus
  9. Papers – citation and bibliography management, article annotation, also used for managing scientific articles (see B) (€59) /alt: Sente, Bookends, EndNote, Mendeley, Zotero

E. Data processing, presentation and graphic design

  1. Microsoft Excel for Mac – an extremely powerful electronic spreadsheet (various pricing models) /alt: Numbers
  2. OmniGraffle – vector graphic software for diagrams and other illustrations ($100 or $200 for the professional version) /alt: Adobe Illustrator, iDraw
  3. Keynote* – the most powerful presentation software with amazing possibilities (free with OS X) /alt: Microsoft Powerpoint, Prezi
  4. PDFPen – editing pdf files ($60, $100 for the professional version) /alt: Adobe Acrobat

Observations and explanations

The cost of this package varies between ca €600 ($800) and ca €850 ($1,150) depending on whether one chooses light or professional versions. This is without discounts but excluding the cost of MS Office.

* indicates that I also use a related and synced app on iOS

Italics indicate software which I am still trying and may decide not to use. This software has not been reviewed on Macademic but it has a critical function in the academic workflow;

  • I did not list the standard components of Apple OS X (most importantly Mail, Contacts, Safari, iPhoto, Spotlight, and Preview);
  • I excluded several web-based services such as Google Drive and SaneBox;
  • I excluded browser extensions (e.g. Pinboard and Getpocket) and a news reader since I use them more for personal rather than professional needs.
  • I excluded communication utilities such as Skype, Google Hangout, Webex, etc.
  • I only listed alternatives which perform more or less similar functions and which I have actually tried;
  • Prices indicate non-discounted prices in Sweden as of July 4, 2014 converted with current exchange rates and rounded to the nearest 10 € or $.

17 Responses to Essential software for academic work on a Mac

  1. Luísa Mano says:

    Something went wrong with this page, I can see all the html code.


  2. I am curious if anyone has tried RedCube


    • Omar says:

      I tried read cube before papers 3. I recently switched to Mac. I really liked the UI but it’s very buggy. A friend convinced me to try papers and it does everything I wished Read cube could do.


  3. TerryDev says:

    I’ve downloaded, installed and explored a bit. It runs on Adobe Air so it’s a non-standard interface, it adds nothing to the party, imho, that’s not already there in apps like Sente (which has the syncing and annotation) or Bookends (which has the annotation and citation). It assumes that you would only ever write in Word… I trashed it.


  4. Dave says:

    Excellent productivity list, most of which I use. Scrivener was a surprise! I already use it (have for over a year) but it seems to be a relatively well kept secret. Wish it had better cloud sync capabilities, but great anyway.


  5. Hammad says:

    Aleh, I recently purchased Devonthink (Office Pro) and it turns out that it does not work well with Papers 3, and more importantly for me, it cannot index the content of Excel files. This is a deal breaker for me as much of my work output is in Excel files. Unfortunately, Devonthink has been quite a waste of money for me. Do you know of a good Devonthink-like software that can look into Paper 3 and works with Excel files?


    • Aleh Cherp says:

      I also found Devonthink an overkill and a waste of money. I found it helpful to think through my needs carefully before starting with indexing. At the moment I use Papers without much indexing involved. However, if you really need industrial grade indexing try FoxTrot.


  6. silop says:

    Highlights for Mac is great for editing annotated text/images in PDFs, and let you have a clean summarized PDFs.


  7. Maria says:

    Do you have experience with using Daylite?


    • Aleh Cherp says:

      I do. I tried to use it in my academic work (Daylite 5) and it was successful, but an overkill. Then I switched to BusyContacts (I must say I am not quite happy with it). But as a small business I use Daylite 6.0 quite extensively.


  8. Pedro Moreno says:

    Would be interesting to see also an overview on software for academic researchers such as electronic lab notebooks. Does such (updated) review exists already?


  9. David Williams says:

    I would love to see an update to this list..


  10. Sasha says:

    Would you consider updating this list? It would be very much appreciated! Reading about your recent foray into Notion, I imagine this list contains some apps that are obsolete, some that aged well, and some that are brand new. Would be of immense help to have an updated list of software. Thank you for all your work and efforts!


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