How to find the best apps on the Mac App Store
Apple's introduction of App Stores for iOS, the Mac and now the Apple TV, has been a boon for both developers and users. Developers get access to millions of potential customers, while we get to see thousands of great apps for our Macs, iPhones and iPads.
But unfortunately the App Stores have come in for criticism over time. Many developers claim that less well-known apps just get lost within the stores, while a handful of big-name apps hog all the limelight. Former Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassée even published an open letter to CEO Tim Cook, suggesting ways of improving the App Store.
Over time there have been some improvements to the App Store algorithms, with the effect being slightly more relevant results, at least on the iOS App Store. Because it now ranks apps for keywords that are not in the title or the ‘keyword’ slot. You should also see alternative apps that are similar to the one you searched for directly. However, we aren't sure that a lot of this functionality has made it's way to the Mac App Store, which still seems to return random results.
Apple has also made some acquisitions that should have the effect of improving search and Mac App Store recommendations.
However, you are likely to find searching on the Mac App Store a frustrating experience. We searched for Email and got quite a mishmash of results. Luckily we have some tips below that should help you find things a little more easily and effectively.
So here's our guide to finding the best apps on the store - and even some stuff that the Mac App Store search results may not tell you about.
If you want to know how to update your apps on your Mac, read this: How to update all your Mac apps.
Pick the right viewing mode
There's a terrific range of software available on the Mac App Store, covering dozens of different categories, and including many older and less well-known titles as well as the latest big-name releases. However, the sheer variety of software on the App Store means that it can sometimes be difficult to find what you're looking for.
There are three main viewing modes in the App Store: Featured, Top Charts and Categories, but by default you normally go into the Featured page first. This tends to just list recent releases and a few themed collections, such as 'Invaluable Utilities' or 'Great Games', so it's not much help if you’re looking for something that hasn't made the headlines lately.
Focus on the Categories menu
If you keep scrolling down the page you'll see a few more categories and collections, but these change quite often and they really only include a small selection of titles that sell well or have recently caught the eye of the App Store staff, there's even an Editor's Choice section.
More useful is the Categories pull-down menu over on the right, which lists 21 different types of software, such as Business software, games, fitness apps or developer tools.
This is the same list of topics that you'll see if you click on the Categories button at the top of the App Store window, so you can save time by just choosing a specific category right from this list.
Drill down into specific genres
The problem with these category lists is that they're pretty vague. Categories like 'business' and 'productivity' cover such a wide range of apps that it’s difficult to find specific types of apps.
The one exception is the Games category. Click on Games, and then, if you scroll right down to the bottom of the Games page you'll see a list of additional games genres under More Games. These include Action, Arcade, Educational, Puzzle, Role-Playing and Word games.
That makes it a lot easier to find games that you'll like, but other categories of apps aren't so helpful, so let's keep looking at other options.
Read more: Best Mac games
Browse the top charts
The other browsing option is the Top Charts page, which can be quite interesting if only to see what everyone else is buying and downloading. By default, it shows three main charts for paid and free apps, and the top-grossing apps that are raking in the most cash.
These charts don't show a very wide range of software titles, though, as they inevitably tend to be dominated by new releases and big-name companies like Microsoft and Apple itself.
You can click on 'See All' beside Top Paid, Top Free, and so on, to see a few more apps, and also sort them by Bestsellers or Name. If you want to see the Bestsellers in each category you have to go to the Categories section and you will find Paid and Free on the right hand side there.
Check popular apps by category
If you go to Categories and click on Photography you'll see the three charts listing the top paid and free photography apps, and the top grossing apps in that category in the right hand column.
To dig a little deeper to see what people think of the apps themselves, click on one and you will see the latest reviews and ratings for the most recent version. These charts are a fairly good guide to the most popular apps in each category.
Even so, they still only show the tip of the iceberg, and there are many useful apps that may never appear at the top of these charts. If we want to dig a little deeper we can take a look at the Search tool up in the top-right corner of this window.
Use multiple-word search
The Search tool comes in for a lot of criticism, because it simply isn't very precise. Type in a single word like 'photography' and you'll just end up with a long, long list of every photography-related app in the store.
However, you can search more efficiently by using multiple words to narrow down your search. If you want to experiment with black and white effects you can use the term black and white photos to locate apps that concentrate on that particular aspect of photography. That produces a much shorter list, with just ten apps that we can look at (a year ago there were four apps here).
Check details and reviews
Tonality is the only one of these apps that has a rating displayed, and we've heard good things about Tonality so let's click on that to check it out.
The screen shots look good, but there are only 52 user reviews or ratings for this app, so I'm not sure that I'm ready to fork out £7.99 for it just yet (it did used to be £13.99 though, so maybe £7.99 isn't so bad). You could always do a quick search on the web to see if there are any recent reviews, but there's another option that's always worth checking first.
On the right-hand side of the product page there's a column containing more info about the app - including a link to the developer's website.
Check the developer's website before buying
You should always check out the developer's web site before buying any app - and especially paid apps.
The developer here is a company called MacPhun, and a quick browse around their site shows that they have a track record of developing photography apps. We can also see that there are two versions of Tonality available, with a 'Pro' version that costs £41.99. But one thing that the App Store will rarely tell you is that there's a free trial version available, so you can download the program and try it out before spending any money.
Use a proper search engine
Here's another tip that you can use with Safari. The App Store's own Search tool isn't very good, so let's use a proper search engine to try and find what we're looking for. Just type mac app store black and white photography into the Search bar in Safari and you'll see all the latest news about relevant apps.
There's an app called Dramatic Black And White that is getting a lot of attention. Top of the list of search results here is a link to the developer’s web site, but below that is a link to the App Store itself.
Use the app's dedicated (searchable) web page
Every app listing on the App Store has a corresponding web page that you can view in Safari; that's why we were able to perform a search using a normal search engine in Safari. The information on this page is the same as that presented in the App Store, but because it’s all in your web browser you can perform other searches and view other web pages at the same time without having to switch between the App Store and Safari.
When you're ready to purchase the app you can just hit the 'View In Mac App Store' button to launch the App Store.