(Ordering the MacBook or MacBook Pro for the back-to-school student was covered in Step One.) Now that you’ve decided to go with the best computer for back-to-school this year, it’s time to think about any added software that might be needed or just for fun, or somewhere in the middle. Here are many of my favorites, the ones I use and recommend.
Mac users are in luck because Apple ships most of their computers, including MacBooks, with most of what anyone needs, with few exceptions. Pre-installed is iLife ’09, a suite of applications that providing exactly what computer users want and need – programs for managing photos and music to editing and creating movies and burning them to DVD, to creating music and on to the ability to create simple Websites (with a subscription to the optional MobileMe service). Click through and watch the videos at the iLife ’09 link above. You can’t help but smile and be amazed at all Apple has done to make using a Mac such a rewarding and FUN experience. This is just touching the surface of what is inside every Mac.
In addition, students will probably want and need Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac Home and Student Edition. Lowest priced for about $100, NOT from Apple, this is the world standard in office suites, with Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Entourage, Microsoft’s business-level email program. Apple’s own built-in Mail application is more than up to the task of managing student email. I do recommend installing Entourage and setting it up to learn whether it can be more useful than Mail. Many student users do not want or need nor will they use either one! Instead, they handle email strictly online. This is not satisfactory to me, so I mostly use Entourage, though Mail would also be a fine choice. In this end of the software business, I say to let the user decide what is best. Here are two interesting comparisons (1, 2) I found online I think you should read. For the approximate $100 investment, this version of the Microsoft software allows for three installations on three computers. So, go ahead and install on the MacBook AND on a Mac at home or in the office and still have one license to spare. If you know of another user, perhaps another student off to college or if you have another student at home, use the other licenses in this way.
Now is also a good time to mention the integration Apple builds into its own applications. For example, from within ANY application, the user can select the Print dialogue box and then on the lower left, select from among several choices. These include the ability to save the document, Web page, spreadsheet or anything else as a PDF. All Macs have this capability natively built in, not added on. Other choices in that drop down include Mail PDF. Selecting this option creates the screen as a PDF, launches Apple’s Mail program, opens a new Mail window and includes that newly created PDF as an attachment. One click and that’s it. This kind of integration is but one reason why users should consider using the built-in Mail program even if Entourage or Web mail is also employed.
This $30 downloadable SRS iWOW Premium for iTunes is a must-have in my view. Everything sounds better when run through this plug-in for Mac iTunes. Highs are crisp and lows are clear, separation sounds enhanced and, well, everything just sounds better regardless of the speakers used. Download and install and then, when iTunes is launched the first time, start playing with the settings to make the music sound better. As a bonus, sound from plugged-in headphones (when listening through iTunes) is as if listening in a theater with 360º sound. It’s the best $30 one can spend to make iTunes sound better through any speakers.
Meteorologist for the Mac – this FREE software puts weather from just about anywhere in the menu at the top of any Mac. I like it because I can load and see weather for any of the numerous places to which I regularly travel or in which I have interest, all in a column and available at a click. Students can set it up to display up to nine days of predicted weather at a glance for wherever it is they are in school, and add weather for home and for all the other locales where friends, family or travel interests could take them. It’s simple, it works, it’s fun, and, of course, it’s free!
Firefox browser – Apple supplies its own Safari browser, which is my default browser. Still, there are some sites that may be routinely visited that just don’t like Safari (their coders did not take into consideration that users of browsers that are NOT Internet Explorer for Windows would visit their site and expect it to work). The “fix” is to download, install and use this outstanding free browser that many users find is their favorite on Windows and on their Macs.
Flip4Mac is another indispensible freebie that allows Windows Media files to seamlessly play in Apple’s own QuickTime. Get it. You’ll need it.
Install the full suite of Adobe players, all FREE! Do this AFTER installing Firefox.
Did you know that Apple provides the New Oxford American Dictionary for FREE as a part of the operating system? Also included are the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, the Apple Dictionary (of contemporary Apple things) and a link to Wikipedia. Dictionary is an application on its own and it can be brought up with Command+Control+D over any word in a Safari browser window and in and other so-called Cocoa applications (Mail, iChat, and possibly dozens more applications. Here is Apple’s tutorial. Now, try it in all the applications YOU use to see if it works, and when it does, you’ll smile. (See this partial list of applications that work with Dictionary.) It does NOT work in Microsoft Office applications, but Microsoft has its own built-in helpers with a Control-Click (or mouse right slick) on any word.
There is another cool way to access Apple’s Dictionary application – it’s also accessible through a Widget in Apple’s Dashboard, another clever little giveaway from Apple. Widgets are mini-applications accessible through the Dock that let you do one big thing with one little click, such as see the time on a world clock, track flights in progress, get stock quotes, see what’s happening inside your Mac (temperatures, fan speed, processor usage and lots more), use the built-in calculator, see movie trailers, read news clips and thousands of other ideas, mostly FREE!
Though there are not the virus threats on Macs that exist in the Windows world, I still recommend protection as cheap insurance against the inevitability that just one jerk with too much time on his hands can ruin your whole day by producing and spreading a computer virus. Again, there are none for the Mac at this time, but do you really want to chance it? I don’t, so I use and recommend Intego Virus Barrier X5, $70 first year, about half price for two-year renewal. The software also scans iPhones and iPod touch models!
Keep up-to-date with all Mac software in addition to the automatic update reminder from Apple’s built-in Software Update with VersionTracker Pro/MacFixIt Pro bundle. Apple’s Software Update is for all the native Apple software, the stuff supplied by Apple. VersionTracker alerts to all the rest, or at least most of it. Start here to see what VersionTracker for Mac looks like. Ah, now you get it! Manually check, in general, to see what is new. This is FREE. My advice is to sign up and install a little application that lets VersionTracker alert you to software updates automatically. In addition, signing up for the bundle with MacFixIt helps keep Mac users aware of both hardware and software issues. If there’s a Mac geek you know, get him or her this $60 annual gift. This has been absolutely indispensable to me for more than 10 years. Highly recommended! Note that VersionTracker can also help Windows users to locate updates.
Handbrake is a great little FREE application used to “rip” videos from DVDs to the Mac’s hard drive for viewing as a DVD movie but without the DVD or to encode and transfer to iTunes for viewing within iTunes or transferring to an iPod, or watching through Apple TV.
For the Mac user who wants to do more with photos than the tweaks allowed in Apple’s iPhoto application, there is a program that is lots less money than shelling out for the full Photoshop from Adobe. The gap is bridged with a an $59 program called Photoshop Elements for Mac, currently at version 6.0, with version 7.0 set to launch soon. It works with iPhoto. No, it is not for users who want to learn the full Photoshop on the cheap, because the two programs operate so differently from each other. However, Photoshop Elements 6 for Mac allows a full palette of creative options while at the same time providing helpful assistance all along the way. Whereas iPhoto allow simple fixing of color and contrast levels in a photos as well as cropping, Photoshop Elements allows users to create and merge multiple layers. Create the perfect black & white photo. Fine tune and adjust exposure in just that part of the photo that needs it. Get creative! For anyone who wants to have more fun with digital photography or with photos that are scanned in, I highly recommend Photoshop Elements 6 for Mac as an essential software choice for digital photography enthusiasts on the Mac. See the possibilities! Download the FREE trial and see what I love about it. Shop online for the best price. This is an inexpensive indispensable program. Also an excellent choice for Windows users!
Get organized on your Mac with Bento, the personal database exclusively for Mac users. For $49, Bento brings together people, places, events and more. Read my review here. There is even a new version for iPhone, only $5, that works seamlessly with Bento 2!
Roxio Toast 10 Titanium is an $80 program I use to burn CDs and DVDs, whether it’s making copies or creating data backup discs. I use Toast to edit audio clips with its included CD Spin Doctor software and then send it to iTunes in the format of my choice. I use Toast to get my recorded shows from TiVo and EyeTV into a format for transfer to my iPod through iTunes. It’s easy. This powerful software works great on my Mac and I cannot imagine not having it. If your Mac user wants to do more with video and audio, check out Toast, the standard I have trusted for many, many years. Watch the little videos!
For Mac users who cannot completely get away from Microsoft Windows, Apple facilitates this insanity! ALL new Macs can run Windows and can, in fact, become in every sense a Windows computer. Boot Camp is part of Apple’s Leopard Operating System, Mac OS X (10) and it is with Boot Camp that Apple makes it all possible. The Mac user who has either an install disc for Windows XP SP2 or Windows Vista or the upcoming Windows 7 can install either or both operating systems and then boot the Mac NATIVELY in the other operating system(s). The Mac becomes a Windows PC in every way, the good with the bad.
The Windows-on-Mac user had better also install an antivirus program instantly. The only Windows antivirus program I recommend is ESET NOD32. It’s lean and mean and unlike anything else I have heard of or tested. Simply the best and you have probably not heard of it. Don’t stress. Get NOD32 and ONLY NOD32 and relax. Two years of protection is only $59. Trust me on this. You will never need nor use another Windows antivirus program. Tell your friends!
Windows and Mac OS side-by-side on one screen in Parallels Desktop
With Boot Camp, users boot, that is, start up in either Windows or the Mac OS on their Mac. Another way to go is with virtualization software that runs the other operating system from within the host, meaning the Mac OS. With today’s fast Macs and 4GB RAM, this is a viable alternative to Boot Camp for those users who would want or need to run both the Mac OS and Windows at the same time, toggling between both and without restarting the Mac. Windows does not run quite as fast in Parallels as it does using Boot Camp, but performance is absolutely acceptable. On most new Macs, Including those recommended for students here, users would hardly notice any performance hit at all. I use Parallels Desktop, $80, the most popular of the Windows virtualization software packages for the Mac. Learn more here. There is also a Parallels Student Pack for just $40! Remember, users must supply their own copy of Windows XP SP2 or Vista, which can be purchased just about anywhere, and, of course, the new Windows 7 coming in October.
Now, we have explored Step One, how to buy a MacBook or MacBook Pro, and Step Two, software options for the new back-to-school MacBook. In Step Three, we’ll explore add-on hardware and other ways to accessorize the MacBook and the general computer environment for students.