1. Run Software Update

Apple is continuously pushing out new updates for their software to fix bugs, improve compatibility, and add features. Going to the Apple menu, then Software Update right off the bat will get your Mac off to a good start. Do it a few times, too, because some updates are only available after you install other ones.

2. Enable right-click

Why Apple doesn’t do this by default is beyond me. But that seemingly single-button MacBook trackpad or Magic Mouse is very capable of right-clicking. Just go to System Preferences, choose Trackpad or Mouse and check the box next to “Secondary click”.

3. Show the full date in the menu bar

The Mac menu bar only shows the day of the week and time in the upper-right corner. Assuming you’re running Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, you can also add the month and date to the menu bar by checking “Show date” in System Preferences under Date & Time > Clock. Users of older Mac OS X versions can follow this tutorial to show the full date in their menu bar.

4. Set up Exposé and Spaces

Spaces is admittedly more of an advanced feature, but window management with Exposé is for everyone – especially combined with Active Screen Corners. Many new users don’t know it exists, though. Check out this in-depth video tutorial to see how Exposé and Spaces can improve your workflow and productivity.

5. Turn on the firewall

While we’re probably all fine without it thanks to Mac OS X’s excellent track record, an extra layer of security never hurts. Every Mac comes with a solid, easy to use firewall that can be enabled in System Preferences under Security. Switch it on and you’re good to go.

6. Set up Time Machine

Time Machine, Apple’s automated backup system is an absolute must for anyone who keeps valuable documents, photos, videos, music, and more on their Mac. Just plug in an external hard drive with enough free space and your Mac will know what to do.

7. Install Firefox

Now that the operating system tweaks are out of the way, it’s time to look at some must-have FREE 3rd party applications. First, of course, is Firefox. I consider Safari to be the best internet browser, but you never know when a certain site may require an alternative like Firefox to function correctly.

8. Install Glims for Safari

If you do choose to primarily use Safari, Glims is a fantastic add-on. It gives Safari a ton of additional features, especially in the area of search. Take a look our review of Glims for more details about what it offers.

9. Install Flip4Mac WMV

No Windows Media Player for Mac means no compatibility with WMV and WMA files, right? Not so fast! Flip4Mac WMV is a simple plugin that makes QuickTime compatible with these media file formats.

10. Install Perian

At some point you’re likely to need compatibility with additional audio & video types. Much like Flip4Mac WMV, Perian is also a plugin that gives QuickTime access to even more file formats.

11. Install VLC Player

No matter how many QuickTime plugins you install, it will never work with everything all the time. That’s where VLC Player comes in. VLC is its own media player and it plays just about everything under the sun – perfect for those times when QuickTime doesn’t cut it.

12. Install Handbrake

Depending on how you use audio & video, Handbrake may or may not be a program you need. Do you want to rip movies from DVDs to play on your computer or iPod/iPhone? Do you need to convert video files from one format to another? Then you need Handbrake!

13. Install Chax or Adium

Everyone who uses iChat should have Chax, an add-on that opens Apple’s instant messaging program up to a slew of new features. But if that still doesn’t get iChat to a place you’d like it to be, give Adium a try. It’s a totally separate application that works with more IM services and is far more customizable than iChat, albeit not quite as polished.

14. Install Growl

Growl is a notification system that a ton of popular Mac applications support. Want to be notified when an IM buddy has signed on? When an FTP upload has finished? When a video conversion has completed? Growl is incredibly useful, but it’s only as useful as the supporting software you install. Adium, Chax, Handbrake, and Firefox all support it, for example.

15. Install StuffIt Expander

Mac OS X comes with support for ZIP files, which is the most common type of compressed folder. Every once in a while, though, you may run into a RAR file that you can’t open. StuffIt Expander takes care of that problem.

16. Delete unused languages and architectures

Did you know you can recover a few gigabytes of space on your hard drive just by removing extra language packs and outdated system architectures that come bundled in Mac OS X and 3rd party applications you’ve installed? I saved 4.5GB with a program called Monolingual, which you can learn more about in this walk-through.

17. Install Internet Explorer for Mac (for Internet Banking)