My curated list of obscure macOS apps

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Published on 8 June 2023 by Andrew Owen (6 minutes)

This fall, I will have been using Macs for 30 years. I bought my first in my freshman year at university and nicknamed it Fleetwood. Since then, I’ve almost exclusively used Macs. There was a time when Apple didn’t make any hardware I wanted, so I built a Hackintosh. But I could never get it working reliably with the hacked firmware, and I ended up installing Windows 10 on it. That was my first and last PC. It was ok at the start, but over time Windows became more of a pain to use. I’m now on my sixth Mac, although I mainly use a 12.9" iPad Pro (2018) outside work.

  • Fleetwood I: PowerBook 165 (33 MHz 68030)
  • Fleetwood II: Quadra630 (33 MHz 68040 / 100 Mhz PowerPC601)
  • Fleetwood III: Mac mini (1.42 GHz G4)
  • Fleetwood IV: MacBook (2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo Merom)
  • Fleetwood V: MacBook Air (2.13 GHz Core 2 Duo)
  • Fleetwood VI: Mac mini (3.2 GHz M1)

I’ve been through every OS revision since System 7.1. I’ve been through all the architecture transitions, from 68000 to PowerPC to Intel to ARM. I totally customized my second Mac with a tower case, an upgraded CPU and got it to run macOS 8.6 which it wasn’t supposed to be able to do. I prefer RISC architecture, so I’m happy to go back to it after a long time on CISC. In fact, I kept Fleetwood III for audio work until I got the iPad. Fleetwood IV, also known as the BlackBook, got a larger 7200 rpm hard disk and eventually went to my mom. The MacBook Air went to a retro museum in Germany together with an iBook that I bought to run all the old classic era frame buffer games from MacSoft.

I prefer not to have a built-in monitor, so the iMac never appealed to me. I’ve now had three laptops and three desktops, but as I use the iPad when I need a portable device, I’m likely to stick with remotely accessed desktops from now on. I’m a big fan of the space gray Magic Trackpad (now discontinued), but I think it’s been a long time since Apple made decent mice or keyboards. For keyboards, I’ve tried Matias (with Alps switches), Unicomp (IBM style buckling spring) and various types of Cherry MX and clone switches. But I’ve settled on a Qisan MagicForce 68 (with Gateron brown switches, o-ring sound dampers and double-shot PBT keycaps) for daily use. I’ve got a Vortex Pok3r with custom keycaps based on the PowerBook 165 for the iPad. I generally go with Logitech for mice, but I’m currently using a left-handed ergo mouse from Perixx. I find Bluetooth unreliable at the best of times so all my devices are wired. For monitors, I always go with a 16:10 aspect ratio. I had a Dell 27" for years but no-one seems to do a 1920×1200 display in that size anymore, so now I’ve got a 24" HP.

I use a lot of software that everyone has heard of, so for this list, I’m only including the obscure stuff.

  • Aria Maestosa (MIDI editor)
    There used to be a hack to get MIDI out of GarageBand. I started using this when I was composing chip tunes in GarageBand. Now I use it for reducing complex tunes to six channels before importing into Arkos Tracker.
  • Arkos Tracker II (chip tune editor)
    The Chloe 280SE retro project has a six channel square wave sound generator clocked at 1.75 MHz with a 60 Hz interrupt and this is the only tracker that supports it.
  • Basilisk II (classic Mac emulator)
    These days I use this exclusively for playing the original Mac port of Master of Orion, which makes full use of the GUI and is much easier to use than the DOS version.
  • Bits’n’Picas (bitmap font editor)
    This fantastic little app supports my own FZX font format that I devised for memory and screen constrained devices. But I’m using it to store the full UTF-8 character set for the Chloe 280SE and output the various required code pages.
  • Blue Harvest (external media cleaner)
    I used this for removing .DS_Store and other Mac system files from FAT32 formatted SD cards. Very useful when I’m continually updating the firmware in the Chloe 280SE.
  • Causality (storyboard editor)
    I’ve been using screenwriting tools for game development for yeas. I used to use CeltX, but the last free version is ancient. Causality has a free version for short scripts, which is good enough for my needs.
  • Epson Scan 2 (scanner software)
    Even though my scanner is over a decade old, the current Epson app still supports it. Long term support is the reason I always recommend Epson scanners and HP printers.
  • Font Forge (font editor) Because I couldn’t get anyone else interested in working on it, I had to create my own corporate typeface (Chloe Sans).
  • Hex Fiend (hex editor)
    Every real hacker needs a hex editor. I usually use in the browser, but sometimes I need to work locally.
  • Karabiner Elements (keyboard customization)
    Because I used to use the Chloe keyboard as my daily keyboard, I needed a tool to change the key mapping to match its UNIX layout.
  • Onyx (system health)
    This is essentially a GUI interface for all the system tasks that you would normally have to perform on the command line.
  • Poedit (translation editor)
    I’m still evaluating this as a potential offline translation tool to complement Weblate’s online translation.
  • QB64 (classic BASIC)
    When you’re writing a classic BASIC interpreter, it’s good to have something to benchmark against. This is a 64-bit reimplementation of Microsoft’s QuickBASIC dialect.
  • RVM2 (Chloe 280SE emulator)
    While I use a different emulator for development, this is the user-friendly one that I use for testing. It doesn’t run at the correct interrupt frequency, but the debugger is much easier to use.
  • Silverfast (film scanner)
    I have a film scanner for negatives and slides that’s as ancient as my flatbed scanner. This software also supports that scanner and recently got a native ARM build.
  • Synology Assistant (NAS tool)
    If you don’t want to leave your Synology NAS drive on all the time, this is the simple way to do a network boot.
  • Unlox (unlock a Mac from an iPad)
    When it works, it’s a great way to unlock a Mac laptop with the clamshell closed without having to enter the password.
  • UTM (virtual machines and emulation)
    I mostly use this to run the ARM version of Ubuntu for development purposes.
  • XXE (XML editor)
    My favorite XML editor of all time.