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Giving or getting a Mac for the holidays? 10 apps every new Mac user needs

All new Macs come with great bundled software. Between the iLife suite, Safari, iTunes, and TextEdit, plus the ability to access and use cloud applications for free, almost all of the most basic modern computing needs get met for most users.

That said, having used four different Macs over the past seven years, there are several applications that don't come with OS X that I find myself immediately loading onto a new Mac. Most of these are big-name apps that you've probably already heard of, but it's still pretty amazing how much extra functionality you can eke out of a Mac with only ten additional programs, and all of them (save the last one) are free.

Whether you're buying a new Mac for a relative this holiday season or getting a new one for yourself, these are ten applications you should download as soon as that shiny new machine loads the desktop for the first time.
1. VLC

QuickTime is an okay media player, but particularly with the rebuilt and feature-lean incarnation in Snow Leopard, there are certainly better alternatives out there. VLC is probably the best of them all -- if VLC can't play your media file, it probably can't be played, periodl. Its feature set might be daunting to new users, but part of the appeal of VLC is its flexibility. You can ignore all the extra stuff in its vast hierarchy of preferences and just push "play," or you can tweak the program to do things even the Pro version of QuickTime 7 couldn't.

VLC also has one big advantage over OS X's built-in DVD Player app: no matter what company wrote the DVD you put in your drive, VLC can always skip past the warnings and ads at the beginning of the disc. That's worth it all by itself.


2. Handbrake

"How do I watch my DVDs on my iPod?" This is a question you've either asked yourself or heard asked of you by a relative at one point or another. Handbrake is the go-to app for all DVD transcoding in OS X. Like VLC, it has an extensive set of features that looks a bit bewildering at first, but also like VLC it has simple presets that let you get started making iPod-compatible versions of your DVDs within just a few clicks, and plenty of power to handle lots of other video compression chores if you dig in.

These two programs take the one-two slots for another reason: the current version of Handbrake actually requires VLC to handle the DVD decoding chores, so you'll want to have both in your Applications folder.

3. Firefox

I use Safari as my main browser, but every once in a while I come across a site that simply refuses to load correctly in Safari. This is thankfully a much less frequent occurrence than it was when Safari first came out, but having a backup browser still comes in handy. For other people, particularly people switching from Windows, Firefox may already be their preferred browser.

4. Adium

iChat is a decent IM client if you use AIM, Google Talk, or Jabber. But Adium goes far beyond iChat in the number of IM services you can run through it: MSN, Yahoo! Messenger, Facebook, and almost a dozen more. It also has support for Adium Xtras, which let you customize the sounds and looks of the app to your heart's content.

5. Growl

Growl allows you to set up onscreen system notifications for everything from new messages from a program like Adium to a status update from Handbrake letting you know your DVD has finished being encoded into iPod format. Growl gives you a much better idea what's going on with the various programs on your Mac without having to constantly switch between applications.

6. Dropbox

Apple likes to sell MobileMe on features and ease of use, but it's hard to beat the simplicity of Dropbox. Step 1: Put anything you want backed up to Dropbox's servers in the Dropbox folder located in your home folder. There is no Step 2. And it's hard to argue with getting 2 GB of online storage for $0 a year with a free Dropbox account.

7. Flip4Mac WMV

As much as we tend to complain about Flash video, it could be a lot worse -- people could still be uploading Windows Media files all over their sites like they were before Flash took off. Windows Media files are far less common on the internet than they used to be, but for the occasional site that hasn't received its phone call from 2006 yet, Flip4MacWMV (which is a preference pane rather than a full-fledged application) will let QuickTime take over and play those videos in your browser without an issue.

[Users with obscure video formats to play, other than the WMV files that Flip4Mac handles, may want to check out the Perian open-source codec pack. –Ed.]

8. Skype

Staying in touch with family on the other side of the country (or planet in my case) used to involve scratchy, warbly audio and stratospheric phone charges. But if you and your far-flung family member both have Skype on your computers, you may never need to use a phone again. With built-in support for IM, text messaging, phone calls, and video chat, Skype can easily make it seem like people in your family who are 12,000 miles away are really just in the next room.

9. Transmission

Trying to explain BitTorrent to someone who's never used a torrent client before can be an hours-long endeavour. Transmission is probably the easiest to use BitTorrent client for the Mac: double-click a torrent file, click "Add," and you're pretty much done. You'll still have to explain what torrents are in the first place and might get involved in some lengthy discussions about the legality of it all, but at least no one will be scratching their head over how to use the program.

[If your Mac recipient is looking for an all-in-one video podcast and TV player that also includes BitTorrent download tools, it's worth giving the open-source and free Miro a close look. –Ed.]

10. iWork

Whether you think iWork is a fully-featured replacement for Microsoft Office will depend on what you're using it for. In a business setting Office still has the upper hand, but for nearly everyone else, especially students, iWork is certainly a contender. And at $79, iWork costs only half as much as even the Student Edition of Microsoft Office. If you buy it pre-installed on a new Mac, it costs even less.

Any vital programs we forgot? Let us know what your favorites are in the comments.

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