I just got my first laptop. It's also my first Mac. I have questions.
August 8, 2017 3:18 PM   Subscribe

I've recently become the proud owner of a new 12" macbook. It's the first laptop I've ever owned, and my first mac. I'd like to hear input on your favorite software, hardware, and services to support my new device.

I'll be using it to create computer graphics geared toward interface design. Before unboxing it, I have poked around online for general information about the universe that is Mac.

One thing I found is Apple's New to Mac page. Apple seems to have many services it wants you to sign up for, including FileVault, iCloud Keychain, Find My Mac, Time Machine, etc.

As the owner of an iPad and an iPhone, I'm familiar with Find My Mac, but not the others. Is iCloud Keychain a password manager? I already use a password manager. Would using it be redundant services?

And what, exactly, is FileVault? Reading Apple's page about FileVault https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT204837, it says that I can "use FileVault to encrypt the startup disk on your mac". What’s a startup disk, and why is it important to encrypt it?

I'm not a luddite; I've used computers in a highly technical capacity for years. I have a PC desktop at home. Professionally, I've worked in PC, Mac, and Linux environments. I'm just not up to speed on the latest and greatest in the world of Macs.

So help me, Mac devotees! What software do you love/hate? What setup do you recommend? What extra services or hardware have you found to be indispensable?
posted by cleverevans to Computers & Internet (23 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Filevault is full disk encryption on the drive in your computer. You would need to use a password every time you start the computer. If your computer fell into a thief's hands, they wouldn't be able to pull data from the drive unless they found it logged in (or they're the NSA.) I think everyone should enable it. The only downside is if you forget the password you won't be able to recover the data either.
posted by bluecore at 3:31 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]

"Startup disk" just means boot partition, essentially. FileVault encrypts it so your data can't be accessed without your account password.
posted by Automocar at 3:34 PM on August 8

Oh, and the startup disk is your default OS boot drive. Same thing. Mac OS lets you install the OS to an external drive and set it as default for booting if you want, but this is the drive in your Macbook with your user account.
posted by bluecore at 3:34 PM on August 8

- iCloud Keychain is indeed a password manager; it's got better system-level integration than 1Password/etc. but is not as flexible or powerful.
- FileVault is full disk encryption; it prevents the disk from being accessed even if someone nefarious gets their mitts on your computer. Usually required if you have, e.g. HIPAA-sensitive files. Does incur a performance overhead.

Essential software for me is Launchbar (like GnomeDo or a better version of the Windows Start Menu), Fantastical (very good calendar), Reeder for RSS. I still use Textmate 1.5 for text editing but many people use Sublime.
posted by Maecenas at 3:35 PM on August 8

Time Machine and the My Passport for Mac devices! You don't have to "sign up" for Time Machine, it's on your box. If you lose your data, you'll be glad you have it. Also if you ever get a new Mac it's a snap to migrate with Time Machine.
posted by jgirl at 3:35 PM on August 8

If you have a password manager, you're good. iCloud could be used i guess, but it's definitely not worth switching to.

General purpose software I install on every new Mac: Chrome, iTerm2 (terminal replacement), Soulver 2 (calculator app), and iStat menus. The last 3 though, YMMV. The rest of my software is even more dev-centric. Homebrew for package manager (it's your apt/yum replacement for linux people). But to be honest, most of the software i use has OSX and Windows versions. I use Macs because its unix roots mean the terminal is functional and runs all the things i'm used to on linux, without having to deal with the peculiarities of linux (not that macOS doesn't have its own issues..)

Backups are done via Time Machine. I've also been meaning to get a BackBlaze subscription.
posted by cgg at 4:23 PM on August 8

As the owner of an iPad and an iPhone...

One feature I think is fantastic is Airdrop. It's a way to send stuff between Apple devices. I've used it a bunch to take a quick picture of something with my phone and then pull that picture into my design software on my Mac to trace a logo or measure proportions or whatever. It doesn't sound like a big deal, but I like it a lot better than sending myself email, which used to be my go-to solution to this problem.
posted by aubilenon at 4:23 PM on August 8 [2 favorites]

Other useful items to consider:

nvAlt for access to Simplenote
Tofu to allow for civilzed reading of text files
Leap for file management
posted by yclipse at 4:47 PM on August 8

Utilities that I find handy:

Better Touch Tool: lets you customize trackpad gestures.
Alfred: Similar to Launchbar, it's a do-it-all launcher dingus.
Blotter: puts a customizable calendar on your desktop
NValt: Almost all of my non-work writing goes here.
AppCleaner is a little dingus that helps you trash all the support files associated with an app when you're trashing an app.
I use Time Machine for local backups and Arq for a remote backup to AWS, though it can back up to lots of different targets.
Fantastical: op cit
posted by adamrice at 4:52 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]

I like being able to assign or change app-specific keyboard shortcuts for any menu command. For example, having consistent keys for zoom in/out across different design applications. Or, say, assigning keyboard shortcuts for aligning objects in Powerpoint (which by default doesn't have a keyboard shortcut for that).

I also like mice with a few extra buttons and have been using Steermouse for over a decade. Similar to keyboard shortcuts, I use it for assigning similar actions across applications, like having the same buttons for switching tabs/windows/documents.
posted by homesickness at 5:46 PM on August 8

Crashplan for offsite backup. I also use Time Machine to backup to an external hard drive for local backup.

Sketch is a commonly used tool for UX.
posted by jamaro at 7:01 PM on August 8

Seconding Alfred, Better Touch Tool, and Fantastical.

Useful apps on my Mac:
  • Magnet: keyboard-based window management
  • Dr. Cleaner: keep an eye on memory usage in the menu bar
  • Bartender: the menu bar tends to get cluttered; this helps declutter it
  • Bowtie: keyboard shortcuts to control music player (I think Alfred can also do this, I just haven't dug into it)
  • VLC: play any/all types of video
  • CopyClip: easy access to the last several things in your clipboard
  • Clocker: menu bar app that lets you see what time it is in a number of cities you can choose. Kinda silly, but helpful if you need to contact people around the globe
  • Color Oracle: menu bar app that can show what your current display would look like to people with various forms of color blindness
  • Tunnelblick: VPN client, works with everything
  • Transmission: bittorrent client, for when you download torrents
  • Sequential: image viewer; excellent for comics
  • Permute 2: media conversion. From anything, to anything.
  • The Unarchiver: uncompress anything
  • Screens VNC: remotely connect to your computer
  • Yoink: drag-and-drop, improved
  • Pauses: a periodic reminder to take pomodoro breaks
  • Gestimer: a menu bar timer system with a fun UI
  • f.lux: decrease blue light exposure
  • Little Snitch: reports on and controls network traffic. Makes sure nothing's calling home from my computer when it shouldn't be.
  • 1Password: I have the actual application version. I do not recommend subscription password managers. You can still get the app, they've just deliberately made it much harder to do so.
  • Soundsource: get extensive control over your computer's sound output
  • Boom: ramp up system volume beyond default limits. It makes using your computer as a speaker or multi-person video watching device slightly more bearable.
  • Crashplan: cross-platform remote backup tool. I subscribe to their family plan and use it to back up my work laptop, my personal laptop, my gaming rig, my fianceé's work laptop, her personal laptop, her sister's laptop, and my little brother's laptop. $150/year well spent.
Plus a bunch of dev related stuff that I'm not sure you care about (but that I would be happy to share if I am wrong and you do, in fact, care about it).
posted by protocoach at 7:12 PM on August 8 [2 favorites]

I would *not* recommend FileVault, as the performance degradation is noticeable and I've heard too many stories about corrupt FileVault drives.

I would recommend a password manager that is not iCloud Keychain, especially if you use Chrome. I use 1Password on my Mac and Android phone (and there is an iOS version). It's always worked well for me. I do not use its own new cloud storage of passwords. Instead, I sync to my Dropbox, which allows me to access the same passwords on my phone.

If you use Google services already, I would install Google Drive Backup and Sync which allows you to use your Google-assigned space to automatically backup files from your desktop, which will then appear in Google Drive in your browser. It's basically like Dropbox (which I would also install) but with Google Drive, accessing files in the browser may allow them to be viewed, modified, or converted, such as viewing Word files or converting them to Google docs. Google Drive Backup and Sync isn't a full backup. It's more of a stop-gap, though if you sign up for more drive space (I pay $10 a month for a terabyte), and then choose "Don't remove items everywhere," it certainly feels a lot like a backup and can easily allow you to retrieve files you accidentally deleted.

The best cloud backup that I know is Crashplan, which I believe is better than Mozy, Backblaze, and Carbonite. I tried the other three for quite a while before finally getting Crashplan. Perhaps the others have caught up, but when I last checked, Crashplan was the only one that didn't slow down my system as it scanned every file on the drive looking for changes, and which also didn't consume giant amounts of RAM that it would not or could not release. I did have to try different settings until I got it where I want it.

After years of trying like 12 different programs for this, I finally settled on Keyboard Maestro as the interface macro script-running program. It is completely non-trendy and unhip, but it does everything I want it to. It has its own built-in modules, based on Applescript, which means it can run pure Applescript, and it can also invoke or run shell scripts. This means that you can set triggers (time, date, app menus, folders, script menu, appearance of a button, wake, app launch, foreground app, and a bunch more) on the Mac side that invoke actions on the unix side or the Mac side, which is sweet.

After years of using a couple other unix package managers, I finally found Homebrew to be up to snuff (such as having packages when I needed them, working well when new XCode is released without having to wait for updates, and not littering stuff all over Apple's file tree — though part of my resistance was I found early adopters of it to be insufferable and too much on the "RTFM n00b" end of the "help" spectrum) and switched over to it. I haven't had any problems with it in years, though I don't use it as much as I used to.

There are a couple of good programs for doing full bootable images of drives. I give the edge to Carbon Copy Cloner. My backup (learned the hard way as an IT guy) includes a full drive image every Wednesday and Saturday. These are *bootable* images. So if my internal drive dies, I can simply reboot, hold down the option key, then select a backup drive image, which will then boot the computer. I did this just today! So my total downtime is as long as it takes me to figure out that the internal drive is fubarred plus the time it takes me to boot into the new drive. I work off the backup until the new internal drive arrives, then clone the working, booted backup to the new internal drive, reboot to the new internal drive, and I'm good to go.

(So, yeah, you may have picked up on my overlapping backups: Google Drive Backup and Sync, Carbon Copy Cloner, and Crashplan. Plus, I use Time Machine, just because the CPU penalty is so small and I had the extra drive lying around. Google Drive: quickly recover recent individual files from Desktop and Documents as a stop-gap. CCC: boot from a backup of the full system to get up and running ASAP. Crashplan: full cloud backup of more than 1TB of files, including long-term archive stuff (I think of this as the "if the house burns down and I have no computer or drives anymore" program), and Time Machine: daily suspenders on the semi-weekly belt of CCC.)
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:14 PM on August 8 [2 favorites]

Contrary to those upthread, I would very strongly suggest you do enable FileVault. A lot of the negative feelings around it carry forward from its original incarnation, when "FileVault" meant the system kept your User folder in an encrypted disk image, which incurred a significant performance penalty, broke some applications, and allowed for a lot of possible scenarios where your data became irrecoverable. It was widely discouraged and rightly so.

Modern FileVault (originally launched as "FileVault 2") is a full-disk encryption that runs at an extremely low level in how your drive is formatted and accessed -- and has an extremely slim performance hit, not noticeable to most users. It has NO technological overlap with "legacy" FileVault, and Apple did themselves a huge disservice by giving them the same name IMO.

When my computer was stolen earlier this year FileVault is literally what let me sleep at night -- not only can I be confident the thieves can't recover data even if they pulled out the hard drive, I was able to (via iCloud.com) set Find My Mac to instantly nuke the hard drive remotely and irrecoverably as soon as it ever connects to the internet.

My fav software at the moment:
Everything from Panic
iWork suite
If you have an iPhone, all of the above have iOS versions as well, which sync and share documents seamlessly.

posted by churl at 8:31 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]

f.lux: decrease blue light exposure

The latest version of MacOS has "Night Shift" built in to the Display preferences which effectively does the same thing.
posted by aubilenon at 8:50 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]

Two peripheral hardware suggestions:

If you tend to spill drinks, a silicone keyboard cover is a nice bit of insurance. It also reduces clicky sounds when typing if you tend to use your laptop around sleeping people. Make sure you measure and have the model correct as there are slight differences in layout and size on different mac laptops.

Laptops get hot on your lap but I don't like any laptop lap-tables I've tried. My best solution has been to use a nice thin wooden cutting board as a lap table, and flip it over periodically.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:41 PM on August 8

I forgot to mention one thing. It is something that is simple and ingrained into the daily patterns of Mac users, an essential part of the user interface, but something that most of us disregard until we use a Windows computer, and then we ask why Gates couldn't have stole this too.

The space bar.
posted by yclipse at 4:28 AM on August 9

 Is yclipse referring to the Cmd-Space shortcut? (Spotlight search, mostly used as a text-based application launcher.) That is essential, yes. On Windows 7 I use Launchy for the same functionality.

My favourite Mac utilities:
  • xScope, mainly for Dimensions and Ruler, but it has plenty of other cool features too. I find it indispensable for web design.
  • Yoink, because it can be really frustrating trying to drag something from one window into another that isn't visible. You can't make an invisible window come to the foreground by dragging over the Taskbar like in Windows.
  • SizeUp, to give me Windows-like keyboard shortcuts to resize windows, e.g. to make them fill the screen (not Full-screen mode), restore them to their previous size, or to make them occupy exactly half or quarter of the screen.
  • OmniGraffle is a very versatile and easy to use diagramming application. I've used it for UI design / wireframing for years, although it's becoming supplanted by Sketch nowadays, which you definitely should be learning too if you don't use it already.
  • Noun Project (subscription required), a simple little desktop application that puts 1,000s of royalty-free icons at your disposal.

posted by snarfois at 8:46 AM on August 9

The downside to FileVault is that, if you use it, you can't also use one of those "recover my stolen computer" tools that have had some degree of success. I'm not sure this is a big deal to you or not, but it's either one way or other.

Bits I use and cannot imagine skipping:
  • Fantastical
  • Alfred
  • A good text editor. I'm typing this in TextMate, but Sublime and Atom are also worth looking into. Or, if you're super nerdy, there are builds of vim and emacs that run natively (ie, you don't have to go to the Terminal to use them).
I don't use an RSS client -- or, rather, my client is my browser, because I use FeedBin.

Absolutely do not skip Time Machine. It can save your ass. However, Time Machine alone isn't enough. You should also use a cloud service like CrashPlan for the really critical stuff, plus occasional full drive image backups with something like SuperDuper (CarbonCopyCloner is a workalike). Trust me. I know things.

I'm glad I haven't seen it suggested yet, but let me go ahead and put the kibosh on it anyway: you do NOT need some kind of "system cleaner" utility to remove software or clean up junk files or whatever. I know it may be hard to believe, but the need for such a thing is really an artifact of how Windows manages applications their installation files.

99% of the time, a Mac program is installed by dragging its application bundle into the Applications folder; you remove it by dragging that same bundle to the trash. That's it.

The program may create reference files in /Library, or settings files in your home directory, but the disk space cost for those is negligible, and they're completely inert. There is no giant Registry to be loaded and traversed like on Windows, so a config file from a program you installed 3 years ago and never used again has no overhead associated with it except for the 10k of disk space or whatever. You probably waste more space in cat pictures (I know I do).

What I WILL suggest, though, is some drive space analysis software. I like SpaceGremlin (in the app store, or on its own web site). These tools -- and I can't believe they're not built into Windows and OSX yet -- show you in graphical terms where you're using your space. On the enormous drives we all have now, it's easy to end up with 5 extra copies of that 750MB file or whatever, and that kind of thing can pile up quickly. SpaceGremlin and similar tools make it super simple to find out where your space is going.
posted by uberchet at 11:09 AM on August 9 [1 favorite]

is some drive space analysis software [...] I can't believe they're not built into Windows and OSX yet

If you select 'About this Mac' from the Apple menu, click the Storage tab, and then the Manage button, MacOS Sierra does provide some tools for understanding how your drive space is being used, identifying documents stored both locally and in the cloud, particularly large files, etc. It could be friendlier (and easier to find!) but it's a start.
posted by mumkin at 12:01 PM on August 9 [1 favorite]

mumkin, that's so far away from what tools like WinDirStat (on Windows) or SpaceGremlin (on the Mac) do that it's kind of unfair to put them in the same class.

Good tools provide an interactive, graphical representation of your drive's space. You can drill down by type of file or folder hierarchy, etc.
posted by uberchet at 1:10 PM on August 9

Wow. Thank you, Metafilter community. You've certainly come through for me on this one! I'm marking this question "resolved", but feel free to continue to add to this thread.

... And now I have some unboxing to do.
posted by cleverevans at 2:11 PM on August 9

The downside to FileVault is that, if you use it, you can't also use one of those "recover my stolen computer" tools that have had some degree of success. I'm not sure this is a big deal to you or not, but it's either one way or other.
I 100% agree with the rest of your excellent answer, but this is not so. As I stated above FileVault is both supported and recommended for Find My Mac, and in fact Find My Mac's instant remote wipe feature literally depends on it, as it revokes the encryption key (instantaneous) instead of having to scrub the entire drive as it would for a non-encrypted volume. Should you choose not to remotely nuke the drive, you can still find & recover it using the tool, as the thief will be able to log into the Guest account -- hosted on the Recovery partition and thus outside your encrypted data -- and connect to the internet. Further reading. One of the reasons I know this is my FileVaulted computer was stolen a few months ago and I used Find My Mac myself :)
posted by churl at 3:35 PM on August 11

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