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

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.


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.

6. Notes. I don't like note apps that invite me to create extensive, pretty entries and then hides information in the file system using a format that isn't readable by other apps. All for the sake of a slick GUI.  This is just asking for trouble. For example, OS X Notes stores the user data in


in a format I can't look at. If the data becomes corrupted, even in part, I could lose everything. Once I tried using a 3rd party diary app for my TMO work, and the data file did become corrupted. It took several hours to recover the data.

Since day one, back on my earliest Macs, I've had a text file called "Captain's Log." I've maintained it in BBEdit, dated the entries, and that file has survived over 25 years — the transition from Mac OS to Mac OS X to just OS X, always readable by, worst case, dozens of other text editors, especially those at the UNIX level. I've never lost a byte.

7. Time Machine. This is another one of those apps which, by design, has to be simple-minded or customers won't use it. I admit that I use it, but it's not my only backup solution. I also use Prosoft's Data Backup 3, which is a solid, capable and flexible backup solution. I've come to trust it greatly over the years, but I've never had the same confidence in Time Machine, especially after I've heard a little about how kludgy it is under the hood. Plus, I've only had to go back and recover a deleted file with Time Machine twice in all the years I've used it. 

Time Machine (Image credit: Apple)

Time Machine is sort of a formality with me. I use it because it's there, but for US$49, my money is on the serious and capable Data Backup 3 in a clutch. (However, I must add that when migrating to a new Mac, loading the new one with a Time Machine archive from the old Mac is a phenomenal experience. That's a good reason to keep using it. )

8. Mail. The issue with email is special and difficult. Because Microsoft customers generally use Outlook and Macintosh customers use the free Mail app, there is very little financial incentive for a company to invest in and charge good money for a serious email app. This has driven great paid apps, like Eudora, out of the market.

As a result, the alternatives for the Mac user are not so attractive. Last year, Macworld wrote: "Ditch Mavericks's Mail: Other email apps you can try." This article wouldn't need to exist if Apple's Mail app were superb. Alas, for reason's cited above, Apple has no incentive to turn this app into something we would call best-in-class. In fact, if it were submitted to Apple's own WWDC Design Awards, in some magical alternative timeline, it wouldn't even be in the running.

Apple Mail (Image Credit: Apple)

I've read review after review, and there is always some critical flaw or reviewer objection that keeps me from migrating to an alternative. Such a migration, after all is a serious undertaking. However, for the last six months, I've been using Mozilla's Thunderbird, and the more I use it, the more I like it and respect it. At least it's solid, consistent and reliable. The Macworld article linked above agrees that it's probably the major competitor to Apple's Mail app for Mac customers who want just a pure email app and are not fond of Outlook for Mac 2011.

I've talked to other writers who feel the same way about Apple Mail. When the day comes that a truly exceptional, professional email client for IMAP and POP comes along, we'll jump ship in a nanosecond.

Wrap Up

While I've veered off the beaten track in some areas, there are Apple apps that a pretty good and/or irreplaceable. While iTunes has grown old and bloated with a much needed factoring in the UI, I still like it a lot and use it daily. Preview is an awesome app that can do more than one might think, including page management of PDF files and reading .eps files — something I often need to do. I use the OS X dictionary app daily, (although some readers doubt that), and it's pretty darn good.

In the end, I think it pays to think fairly deeply about not using some of the standard Apple utility apps and have a plan that allows for 1) error recovery and 2) using state-of-the art alternatives even if it means the investment of, in total, a few hundred dollars. Apple does its own thing, but experienced users often find that it's time to move on.