12 essential tools and utilities for your Mac

A dozen free or budget apps you'll use every day

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There are countless tools and utilities for the Mac which enable you to do everything from compressing files to making podcasts and word processing. Apple's own iLife and iWork suites are excellent, but they are far from the only option. For every costly professional program for a particular task, there's almost certain to be an excellent, well-featured and inexpensive – or even free – alternative.

In many cases, such as word processing or image editing, there are several solutions available, each with different feature sets. Here are the ones that we regard as indispensable for Mac users.

Carbon Copy Cloner
Freeware, Mac OS X 10.4+

Apple's Backup and Time Machine utilities are great, but Carbon Copy Cloner has its own unique selling point: it lets you take a byte-for-byte copy of an entire hard drive and clone it to another drive for backup, archiving or mass deployment of a single disk image. With the ability to omit specific folders if you wish, this utility is an excellent and completely free way to quickly make and restore secure, bootable backups of entire systems.

Snapz Pro X
$69, Mac OS X 10.3.9+
Mac OS X can take great screenshots, but Snapz Pro X is a more professional solution that takes things to the next level. As well as regular stills, this application is adept at taking advanced video grabs of your Mac screen when it's in action, complete with audio, cursor and mic voiceover. These high- quality videos can then be burned to disc, emailed or put on the web. It's the perfect tool for use with demos, tutorials or recording streaming video.

VLC Media Player
Freeware, Mac OS X 10.4+
With a plethora of video codecs and formats around, and especially online, you can often come across movies that just refuse to play in QuickTime. Which is where VLC comes in. This is a free video player that's able to open just about any video file you can throw at it, and also play streaming video and audio. For the technically minded it supports a host of advanced network features, too, should you wish to use them.

$25, Mac OS X 10.3.9+
If Adobe Illustrator is beyond your means, but you're looking for some creative functionality on a budget, Artrage lets you turn your Mac into a full painting studio complete with stencils, rulers, tracing, layers and all sorts of different textures with which to create your masterpieces. What's most handy, is it's also able to import and export Photoshop files so you can collaborate on projects without needing to spend much money in the process.

$30, Mac OS X 10.4.3+
Your Mac's Finder can burn discs for you, but the functionality is quite limiting. Disco is an inexpensive alternative to Toast, supporting a wealth of features such as multi-session discs, dual-layer DVD burning, MP3 discs and burning disc images. There's also Spanning to spread large amounts of data over multiple discs, custom disc interfaces, support for all Apple supported drives, and Discography, which tracks burned files for easy searching.

Freeware, Mac OS X 10.4+
Of all the compression formats available, RAR is becoming the most commonly used cross-platform format for large files. This is partially because it's capable of efficient compression of multiple files, and also supports split archives. SimplyRAR can open RAR files and create archives, and it boasts many features, including splits for large amounts of data and password protection.

$18, Mac OS X 10.4+
Emailing large files can be a headache, as you're at the mercy of the recipient's inbox size limit. FileChute provides a handy interface that lets you upload large files directly to a .Mac, FTP or WebDAV server, generating web links to the uploaded file. If you drop multiple files it will even compress them to an archive for you.

Freeware or $13 to access Administrator functionality, Mac OS X 10.3.9+
Finder is notoriously unpredictable when it comes to remembering view settings for displaying file and folder sizes, so it pays to install WhatSize. This superb utility provides an elegant and powerful way to view and sort the contents of your hard drive by size, and thus identify where clutter is building up. It's a great way to manage and spring clean your file system, and it also supports moving items to the Trash. If your Mac needs a clearout, it's time to stop putting it off: grab this app from the DVD and get tidy!

$23, Mac OS X 10.3.9+
With the booming popularity of online video, video iPods and iPhones, we're compressing videos more now than ever before. But even QuickTime Pro is rather limited and slightly fiddly when it comes to dealing with unusual formats and their settings. VisualHub can basically convert anything to anything else when it comes to digital video. Burying its complex working behind an exceptionally easy-to-use interface, it provides a comprehensive array of features.

Freeware, Mac OS X 10.1+
Audacity is an excellent, open source, multi-track audio recorder and editor for OS X, supporting plug-in effects and unlimited undo steps. It can record and mix up to 16 channels of audio and export in WAV, AIFF or MP3 format – perfect for podcasting. Audacity can read from your Mac's internal mic or any third-party audio interface you may have connected.

£40, Mac OS X 10.3+
Scanner drivers have been a bugbear for many Mac users, taking an age to be updated for new systems, if they even appear at all. VueScan works with 750 different scanners, enabling them to be used on Macs and often adding new functionality. Check the site for supported models and you may be able to resurrect the scanner you'd labelled unusable.

$25, Mac OS X 10.4+
Sometimes, writing is just writing: no bells and whistles, no fancy clip art, just words. Enter WriteRoom, a stripped-down, retro typing program, providing a completely distraction-free writing environment, blacking out the screen and leaving just your text. Word count and autosave are all you get – a perfect antidote to the bloat of most word processors.

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