8 Good Reasons to Leave Apple’s OS X Utility Apps Behind

| John Martellaro's Blog

Apple provides a complete suite of core OS X apps for the newbie and the casual Mac user. Apps like Mail, iCal, Contacts, TextEdit, Time Machine and Safari have a specific, simplistic design philosophy. However, if you're a more experienced Mac user, it may be time to ask yourself why you're still using these beginner apps.

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Experienced Mac users have long realized that Apple designs its core OS X utilities to be simple, intuitive and approachable. That's because, out of the box, the Mac must always present itself as fun and easy to use. That almost ensures that, except for bug fixes, essential technical advances and minor refinements, the OS X utility apps remain almost frozen in time.

This is in contrast to paid apps which must continue to evolve and remain competitive or else the developer's cash flow dries up. It's a tradition in the software industry that solid, advancing apps continue to evolve and add value so that major, paid updates make sense to the customer.

For example, I long ago gave up on the idea that Apple wanted to develop its Mail app into a serious, capable and highly customizable professional application. With each new release of OS X, from Leopard to Snow Leopard to Lion, Mountain Lion and now Mavericks, it's clear that Mail will never really grow up. It must, by necessity, remain the lowest common denominator, the easy-to-use email app for the Macintosh newbie and casual user.

And so, if you are still using these apps, and vaguely feel that they are wanting, it may be time to move on. Years ago, I went through the same process. Here are my own thoughts -- which are fundamentally opinions, but the opinion of a user who has been using Macs since day one in 1984. As such, this article isn't about a detailed critique of each Apple app; rather, it's more of a personal travelogue.

1. Cal. Years ago, I gave up on iCal. And so I was happy to become a beta tester for BusyMac's BusyCal, and grew to appreciate its power and flexibility. I won't go into detail because I said it all in my review a few years ago. "BusyCal 1.0: It’s About Time." Since then, BusyCal has kept up with the times and technology and gotten better and better.

BusyCal (Image credit: BusyMac)

BusyCal reads and writes to the same database as iCal, so you can seamlessly switch back and forth -- if you need to. This is not just an OS utility given away. BusyCal is a great app.

2. Contacts. I've signed up to be a beta tester for a new product from BusyMac, called BusyContacts. I expect that this new app will provide the same power, sharing and flexibility as its BusyCal brother. I am looking forward to dropping Apple's Contacts dead in its tracks.

BusyContacts, beta. (Image credit: BusyMac)

Again, Apple's Contacts app is great if one has modest number of entries, and they aren't very complex. In my case, with 1,025 cards in the database, the lack of flexibility and minor irritants, such as the restricted size of the photo, limited fields in the address template, and the removal of local sync (since returned) have annoyed me. Time to move on.

3. TextEdit. This app has been virtually frozen in time for many years. The only time I use it is when I need to inspect a Microsoft Word document on a Mac that doesn't have the Office suite. The awkwardness of how it handles the option for either .rtf or .txt has never been addressed. This app is just there as a place holder, sort of like the "vi" editor in UNIX.

While there are many fine text editor replacements for OS X, detailing them all is beyond the scope of this article. My long time favorite is BBEdit by Bare Bones Software, the finest text editor on the planet, and that includes Windows. If you don't have BBEdit on your Mac as your standard text editor, you should consider investing in it. I have never looked back.

4. Safari. Apple's default browser is a fine app, but it does tend to simplify things in a world that's a dangerous place to roam. I've said it before: Apple's philosophy appears (to me) to be that confronting the user with the possible perils of the Internet and providing options, complicated and scary as they may be, has never been in line with Apple's desire to 1) Create a happy experience and 2) Attend to security in the background for the user's own good. Corporate agenda is always lurking.

I, on the other hand, have always appreciated the explicit commitment Mozilla has made to the user's privacy and security. Mozilla doesn't sell computers like Apple and the organization has no agenda other than to make the best possible, most secure browser with rapid, automatic updates. As such, years ago, I made Firefox my primary browser, and I've never regretted it. I especially appreciate keeping the URL and search bar separate. 

I avoid Chrome for similar philosophical reasons.

5. iPhoto. This is a very subjective area for me. iPhoto is a fine app, suitable for all things related to a person's or family's photo life. However, I have heard far too many horror stories about disasters with complex iPhoto libraries to commit to it. Very large databases don't seem to be its forte, from what I've heard, and so I've steered away over the years. I'm happy with that decision.

iPhoto (Image credit: Apple)

I trust the Finder, more or less, to keep track of my photos, and so I have a folder/directory for each event and I leave it at that. If I need to create a print album or a slide show, I can extract the photos I need and do something special. iPhoto is supposed to make things easier and cool, but my philosophy has always been that life is too short to attend to thousands of photos with endless housekeeping, annotations and the risk that an app bug could cast me into a nightmare experience.

This app, iPhoto, is designed to sell Macs, but I'm not sold on it.

Comments

iJack

I think you covered that thoroughly and fairly John.
I also find Firefox and Thunderbird comfortable and well supported, in addition to some superb add-ons.

dtm1

So this is for the 1 percent of the people on Mac computers.

As an observer - the headline of the article should be

“8 Good Geek Reasons to Leave Appleā€™s OS X Utility Apps Behind”

The other 99 percent are doing just fine it appears. And whatever correlation for the PC user - I would say the same.

luvmymac

Thus far the long defunct palm desktop had been my favorite contacts/calendar database.  Outlook at work is great but the home version led to hundreds of thousands of the same emails coming from gmail and is such a memory hog.  Apple apps are too basic but is were I am now. 

Any suggestions for an app as good as if not better than palm desktop?

Paul Goodwin

TextEdit I like. It’s handy, quick to open, you paste and keep formatting or paste and match style. I’ve always used it like I now use Notes on my iOS devices. If they’d put the same functionality into Notes that TextEdit has, they’d really have something.

iCal and Contacts drive me crazy. I end up with 6 copies of the same Calendar event or Contact. Sometimes you schedule an event and it syncs OK. Other times I’ve had events disappear altogether.

As for iPhoto, it’s not the greatest app, but at least you don’t have to worry about a 3rd party app company going out of business and leaving you and your 12,000 photos in a state of what do I do next.

Safari I’m OK with. I especially like having the Bookmarks synced among 2 iOS devices and the Mac. Safari running on an iPad 2 though crashes too much. I mean insanely too much. Rebooting, clearing history and data, nothing fixes it. Safari on the Mac is flawless IMO.

Bryan Kennedy

At work and at home, I have never needed more than what Apple includes in their core apps.

Lee Dronick

With iCal I have found it simpler to just use the iCloud calendar. Making entries is a pain in the butt, that interface needs much improvement.

I have some older photos in iPhoto, but most of my new stuff is in Aperture. I am also moving some of the iPhoto photos into Aperture, something to do when I need to fill some time. Aperture has come down in price since I first bought it, $80 now, I wish that they would do that for Final Cut Pro X.

As with Paul I like TextEdit for quick stuff. Notes is nice because it synchs between Macs and iOS devices, Pages too.

Instill have a lot of stuff on Stickies, boilerplate kind of stuff.

Terrin

You don’t need to be a sophisticated user to appreciate Apple’s apps. Safari, Mail, and iPhoto have a healthy amount of features. Safari works extremely well. The only area where Firefox excels is with extensions. In some cases, however, that is Firefox’s downfall. Whenever I visit a Windows computer it seems Firefox has been invaded by various extensions, which are very distracting to me.  I do, however, wish Apple would have keep the option to place tabs on top. Boy I miss that version of Safari.

Mail has never let me down. I always try out other Mail apps like Outlook, but they suffer from feature bloat, and for the most part don’t feel at home on the Mac.

iPhoto as never let me down and I have used it from version one. Nonetheless, that is what backups are for.

Scott B in DC

The only problem I have with some of your recommendations is that they do not allow me to share the information between my iMac and my iOS devices. For example, I have known people who have had problems syncing their calendars between BusyCal and their iOS device. For me, Calendar syncing is critical and if there is even a hint of problems, I do not want any part of it.

Another issue are the sharing of bookmarks between Firefox and iOS. Yes, I know there are programs that could help me bridge between the two, but I am at the point I don’t want to deal with arm-twist solutions. Safari just works in this regard. Besides, Firefox is a resource hog… a bigger resource hog than Safari!

For notes, I have to recommend Evernote. I was afraid to use Evernote in the past until I started to use it when I needed more than the iOS/OS X Notes app provided. Even though I swore that I would never buy into Evernote Premium, I am going to take the plunge. That’s how useful Evernote is across all platforms AND in a web browser!

As for email, I’m Ok with Mail but I yearn for something better. I tried Thunderbird but it just wasn’t right for me. There’s a part of me that would love to see Pine made into a real GUI, but I know that has issues, too. Some day I will find the right email client. Until then, I wish Apple would fixe the problems with the Mail app so I can feel comfortable upgrading to Mavericks.

MOSiX Man

Mail, Address Book and Calendars have always worked well for me. When I had a MacBook and was working in an Exchange environment, I found them to work MUCH better than Outlook for OS X. They even seemed to have fewer problems than Outlook on Windows does, for me, now.

iPhoto is Ok for me, but my wife keeps a large amount of pictures on her Mac, and the iPhoto database seems to choke on them, every once in a great while. The only reason she keeps it is the iCloud photo syncing.

Safari works great for me, whereas Mozilla has given me problems whenever I tried it. It seems that Mozilla has lost its position as ‘most popular browser not tied into the OS’, to chrome. At least that’s the case in the geeky circles I live in.

Textedit is one app that simply doesn’t cut it for me, because I do software QA work. I need something like TextWrangler (or Notepad++ on the Windows side), that allows me to have multiple files open at one, provides line numbers, has more advanced find options, etc.

John Martellaro

Scott B:  I’ve never had a problem with BusyCal syncing.  I make an entry there on my Mac, and seconds later, the calendar entry shows up on my iPhone.

wab95

John:

I like several of the recommendations you’ve made here. On the other hand, I’d like to make a couple of observations about email apps, perhaps as a model to a wider theme of professional-level solutions, but certainly addressing app-specific limitations.

First is Thunderbird. I’ve tried this app several times now, and following your article, launched it again yesterday to the same effect. It is simply unable to even locate, let alone service, two of my professional email accounts. It can only pick up my Mac IMAP account, this despite my even exercising the manual configuration option. While I’m certain that there is a way to make this app ‘see’ my other accounts, this simply shouldn’t be so. Professionals are busy people and need solutions that are ready and robust enough to work out of the box and get you up, running and competitive. No fuss. Not on a desktop platform and not in 2014. I’ve put the Thunderbird back in its nest.

Outlook. This came with my MS Office 2011 Professional package. I set it up, and for about 2 months, it handled all of my accounts just fine, although I didn’t particularly care for the interface or the MS-way of doing things, which strikes me as both ‘over-engineered’ and ‘why do this in one step when you can do it in three’ configured. Then, it crumped. It lost the ability to host my university account, even though that ran on MS Exchange (the irony is palpable). I took my MBP with the afflicted Outlook to my university IT people. They futzed around with it and finally got it up and hosting the university account again, but this time, only the university account and counselled me not to overwhelm the app with hosting anything else. Fair enough. Then, after a week, it crumped again. Resuscitation efforts failed. It was flatlined. I called MS, and after a long chat with a chap in Mumbai (he tried to deny it, but I know the region and the accent too well, despite his best effort at a faux US Mid-Atlantic twang) helpfully informed me that there must be a corrupted file somewhere on the app or a conflict (no kidding?). He then offered to resuscitate the dead app for a fee (I forget whether he said US $100 OR $200, but it was more than nominal for software that I had already purchased). I declined. The app remains as dead as the sauropods.

Meanwhile and all along, Apple Mail has chugged and muddled along, handling all of my accounts (IMAP, Exchange and even POP before one institution finally ditched that that dinosaur) simultaneously and without a hitch. It has interacted seamlessly not only with my iOS devices, but with BusyCal, third party scanning and other apps, and with email client software on all my Windows-using colleagues worldwide.

My point? Simply that, as robust solutions go, I have Mail meet that standard consistently. It has serviced my needs unfailingly and without literally dying on the job or compromising any of my work. It seems to me that when I read complaints about Mail from Apple tech sites, the major complaint has to do with gmail interaction. I don’t use gmail, so this doesn’t affect me one jot or tittle. I’m not sure what else these bloggers are looking for in an email app; but I find in my profession, I’m using email less and less as a primary means of communication and work sharing. I can foresee a day in which this occupies and even smaller, perhaps eventually negligible, part of my workflow. Perhaps Apple have made a similar calculation and, for the majority of their users, Mail is job done for a software solution that, ‘so too’ shall pass.

As for browsers, I share your aversion, if I may call it that, of Chrome or any other Google ‘all your data are belong to us’ harvesting software. I have used and respect Firefox, but find it slower than either Safari or Chrome, both of which blaze - at least on my machine. Given my security configuration and installed solutions, I have not found a compelling reason to move from Safari to Firefox, so don’t do so. I also like the synching functions between my devices that Safari does without a hitch.

I do like BusyCal, and look forward to BusyContacts when it is beyond beta. And I’ll probably have a look at BBEdit. I currently keep my science log in Pages, the principal limitation of which is searching by time index. I’d like to find a solution that supports that feature, but is compatible with other standard software for easy porting of information. I’d welcome any recommendations on that score.

Cheers.

Pashtun Wally

Perhaps there’s a trick to configuring Thunderbird to handle my Apple email accounts, but if so, it escapes me…and this is not my first trip to the park.  Fortunately, I don’t hate Mail (I *did* hate Eudora, tho - and Outlook has ALWAYS been a despicable and unfunny joke).  Seriously, Thunderbird pees itself when it sees Apple servers, auto and manual:  configuration assistance NOT available from Mozilla (*useful* assistance…) and would be very helpful if you have it.

As far as text:  Pico is my favorite UNIX ed, but TextEdit is perfectly acceptable, for all its shortcomings, if only because it’s NOT vi (or sed).

I care about iPhoto not at all.  iCal truly sucks, but for me that’s (mostly?) a holdover from MobileMe’s disastrously bad syncing.  As much as I’d love a genuinely smart ‘day-timer’ equivalent for phone AND desktop, I don’t need it badly enough to save up the money to buy several and see what I like & take the loss on the rest.

I confess, given the EXPENSE of a new machine, I’m highly motivated to get every erg of capability out of the bundled software - and contramotivated to spend yet more extra money on ‘better’ versions.  The extra HUNDREDS of dollars required to do so aren’t in the wallet, so not in the decision chain.

JonGl

I’m not one to just start using a default/built-in app, just because it’s there. I try and have tried just about every alternative for browsing, email, calendaring, contacts that is out there, and when some of the apps update, or new ones are announced, I tend to try them out if at all possible. On my Mac right now, I have at least a half a dozen browsers installed, several email programs (and paid for a Postbox license), as well as Contactizer, photo apps, or Finder for photos and I forget what else. I am constantly comparing what I use daily with other apps. But as Apple has slowly iterated their apps (back to 10.2 or 10.3 for me), I stopped using replacement apps. Apple’s integration and interoperation is a huge part of it, but Apple also has done a good job of creating usability enhancements that fit me very well (tap to zoom in Safari, for instance), and that, in the end, is the crux of the matter. None of Apple’s apps are perfect—but I have yet to find a perfect app (though Nisus Writer Pro is probably as close as I’ve found—but without an iOS app, and cloud syncing, it falls short on that front). It’s just that Apple has picked what, for me, is the right blend of usability vs features.

It kind of frustrates me, sometimes, that other apps, which I might like more than the Apple ones overall, can’t compare in these areas that are important to me… But such is life…

wab95

John:

I thought I’d provide an update.

Since I wrote my comments above, my university, in its infinite wisdom, decided to cancel my email account that I’ve had since my arrival there in 1994, and assimilate all departments and schools under one server - about as pleasant an experience as a Borg assimilation, screams included.

Apart from losing months of email not on my hard drive, which I’m told will be repopulated to my new account, eventually, my ability to link to the new server with Apple Mail (OS X) was lost. IT informed me that this was due to a new round of feuding between MS and Apple about Exchange, and that Apple were working on a fix. iOS devices work just fine.

Thus, I had to resuscitate Outlook (after consulting again with MS and paying a $99 service fee), which I managed by removing a defective identity file. A couple of observations about Outlook:

1) I forgot how aesthetically challenged the interface was. It is a cluttered, busy, and distracting interface that throws up all manner of notifications that I don’t need. I’ve disabled as many as I can. Still, I find it difficult to find and follow my workflow, threads, and which items I have and have not read.

2) It almost refuses to download my Apple IMAP account. The MS tech and I spent north of 40 minutes configuring it, including a call to Apple. No problem with any of my business Exchange accounts. Thankfully.

3) My Apple IMAP account seems to drop out and I am prompted to put in my password at odd times. I basically don’t use it to read my Apple account.

4) This requires me to keep two email apps open; Mail (for anything but my university account), and Outlook (mainly for my university account). This fragments my workflow, forcing me to remember on which app I’ve done what work.

I’m hoping that Apple repair their Exchange connectivity as soon as possible. I don’t know what some of these tech bloggers are looking for, but I, for one, genuinely appreciate the clean, non-disctracting interface that is the Apple Mail experience. Nothing else comes close.

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