My Five “Desert Island” Mac Apps

Dr. Mac’s Rants & Raves
Episode #345

We used to love making “desert island” lists. The rules were simple: If you were stranded on a desert island, which 5 (or 10) record albums would you bring? Never mind electricity, audio equipment, and things you’d probably need a lot more than records and audio gear; the object was to name your top five favorite albums of all time.

I thought it would be interesting to play using Mac apps instead of record albums.  Here’s how it works: You’re stranded on a desert island. You’ve got a brand-new Mac and can add just 5 third-party apps. Which apps would they be and why? Never mind the electricity, Internet, or other logical thoughts—what five apps would you not want to be without?

Which five Mac apps would you choose if you were stranded on a desert island?
Which five Mac apps would you choose if you were stranded on a desert island? Photo by Sergio Jara on Unsplash.

I’ll go first.

  1. Keyboard Maestro

Exactly a year ago in this very column I said:

In closing, I’d like to highlight just three Keyboard Maestro features (out of more than 100) that save me tons of time and effort:

  • Clipboard History: Remembers the last 100 items I’ve cut or copied to the clipboard.
  • App launching/switching: Lets me open or switch to my most-used apps instantly with a keystroke.
  • Remap keys: Example—I never use the Forward Delete or Help/Insert keys, which are adjacent to the backspace key on my keyboard, so I used to press them accidentally until I remapped both to perform a backspace. Problem eliminated.

Those features (plus dozens more) are why Keyboard Maestro sits at the top of my list.

  1. 1Password

I have literally thousands of passwords. Literally.

macOS Keychain Access and iCloud syncing aren’t bad, but for managing a large number of logins, credit cards, and secure notes, 1Password is a must. Plus, it syncs with 1Password for iDevices, which is (in my humble opinion), the only way to manage passwords on an iOS device.

  1. Ulysses

Just last week I told you I prefer to compose words in a text-only program such as Ulysses or BBEdit. It was hard to pick, but Ulysses built-in organizational tools, auto-saving every keystroke, and myriad export options are why it edged out BBEdit, but just by a hair.

  1. Default Folder X

I spend too much time navigating Open and Save dialogs and sheets, so Default Folder X is one of those little gems I’ve grown to depend upon.

macOS rarely points those dialogs or sheets where I want them; Default Folder X gets it right every time. And, it also includes myriad convenient options like drop-down Favorites and Recents menus, keyboard shortcuts for favorite folders, and more.

  1. Affinity Photo

Again, a tough choice between Affinity Photo and Pixelmator Pro. As a former Photoshop user, they both have the features I require. But Affinity Photo is more Photoshop-like (yes, that is a thing) than Pixelmator Pro, so muscle memory tipped the scales.

There is one more thing: I considered naming SetApp as one of my five apps… but decided that would be cheating.

So… those are my 5 desert island apps… but what about you? It’s easy to play—just send your list to [email protected], and I’ll compile ‘em and let you know the results in an upcoming column.

11 thoughts on “My Five “Desert Island” Mac Apps

  • Bob:

    I originally started to respond to your 16 August piece on using a text editor rather than a word processor for distraction-free writing. Now that you’ve expanded your theme to 5 apps on the desert island, I’ll expand my response as well.

    Regarding 1 Password, I originally purchased this app based on TMO’s recommendation. For me, this has been one of the rare misses in terms of TMO recommendations. I have never found 1 Password to work as advertised. I find that it creates more work and therefore consumes more of my time rather than saving me work and time by compelling me to wake it up, often manually input my password, and then I have to go and unlock it before I can use my passwords, etc resulting in an incomplete kludgy list of the same. Moreover, it has never worked seamlessly across macOS and iOS devices, in my case. Perhaps I’m simply holding it wrong. Keychain, on the other hand, has truly stepped up its game in the past two to three years, and proactively offers hard passwords on new accounts, stores them and works across all devices – and I can access and see these passwords across devices. My list is complete wherever I go and on any device. And I can store other info on secure notes. Better still, it’s free – with Apple device purchase of course. I’ll take Keychain over 1 Password any day of the week.

    As for my 5 apps, I’m not sure what your ground rules are. I’ll assume that, so long as I’m using an Apple device, all of the Apple-related software is pre-bundled and does not count against my 5 apps. I’ll take a functional categorical approach. For me, these are inter-party communications, writing (arguably another form of communication but not inter-party), analysis, and entertainment.

    For inter-party communications, I require two distinct apps; text messaging, for which I use Messages, and a video conferencing app. Amongst all of the third party apps available to myself and colleagues around the globe, GoToMeeting and Skype are the most widely available, with the latter being the most temperamental and the most likely to fail (thank you MS). However, Skype is by far the most widely used and has the advantage of serving as a backup instant messaging app which shows up on my iOS devices. A reluctant nod then to Skype. That’s one.

    Second, for writing, I nearly always start in Pages. I like its clean, uncluttered interface. For me, it serves the non-distracting function you cited in an editing tool. I almost never use its various formats when starting a new project. That comes later, and generally will be done in Word using a dedicated academic format, which leads to choice of additional writing app. Given that I can always export/import to and from Word, the only use case for Word comes from the third app choice, and that is my need for a reference manager for academic writing. If I’m still submitting grant proposals and manuscripts for peer-review publications via the internet on my desert island (perhaps it’s more of a private island with limited app download permissions, Gatekeeper island?) my reference manager of choice would be Endnote, which has become increasingly capable over the years, permitting the porting and sharing of libraries that I can create from my master library for specific projects with colleagues wherever they are, and even manage online. This is related to word processor choice in that, for many versions of Word, when I attach my bibliography, it ports as an active updatable file to anyone else using most, but inexplicably not all, versions of Word. A bibliography attached in Pages never does, and can be a pain to edit and update.

    Fourth is data analysis. For that, the most capable tool on a personal machine is Stata, far and away. It comes as a complete package (no need to purchase additional modules) pre-configured for multi-core processing, and works in RAM – the more the merrier. Yes, there are plenty of others, including R, and SPSS which was bought by IBM, but SPSS took too long to be non-modular and even OS X compatible back in the day. In my world, Stata is used far more widely and can port data files to/from practically any data analysis system.

    Fifth, for entertainment, since I listen to classical music while I work (it assists me to focus by quieting competing thoughts allowing me to compose texts or analyse data), Apple Music app is a must but is already included, as are Apple’s other entertainment apps like AppleTV and Books. The only other app I’d want is a music streaming app that specialises in quality classical music. I can access some of my favourite stations via iTunes on macOS or Safari in iOS, but a better experience is with a dedicated streaming app, like WETA’s own classical station app, or Sirius, which gives me a range of stations, including Met Opera. I would probably opt for Sirius.

    That would make my five deserted island picks: Skype, Word (two for MS), Endnote, Stata, and Sirius. I realise that’s mostly work and little play, but you could say that I’m a Sirius kind of guy.

    1. Are you Sirius?

      (I’d say “JK” but TextExpander keeps changing it to “REAL MEN DON’T SAY ‘JK.'”)


      In all Sirius-ness… thanks for the thoughtful feedback. I appreciate it and so (I’m sure) does everyone else who reads this far down the page.

  • Huh? Somebody doesn’t get the whole point of “desert island”. A Mac comes with a boatload of applications – not “apps” as the iToy writer above would like one to believe a program is.
    Further then he picks some weird utlities for why? Dumb. The only real question is What Five Applications would you install on a stripped bare Mac if banished to an island – not counting the OS. 🏝🏝🏝🏝🏝🏝🏝🏝

    1. Pardon me, CudaBoy, but wtf is your problem? People have been calling Mac “programs” or applications “apps” since before there was a Mac App Store built in to Mac OS X over eight years ago. And Bob Levitus should know, since he’s been writing books about MacOS since before it was even called Mac OS (the first time). So let’s not be snide and call him an “iToy writer” just because you didn’t like his choices.

    2. I should know better than to respond to you, CudaTroll, but I’m gonna…

      Opinions are like anuses… everyone has one. This was my game, in my opinion column. If you don’t like it, make up your own game.

      I’ve been trolled by the best, and I have to say calling me “iToy writer” is pretty weak.

      Don’t bother to reply—I’ve got nothing more to say.

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