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I install most software from my Mac’s Terminal. I think you should do the same on yours. Yeah, I know, I know—that sounds hard. But, in many ways, it’s actually easier than the traditional way of installing software on your Mac. A lot of great free programs—open-source ones in particular—aren’t available in the Mac App Store. The usual installation process involves:

  • Finding the app’s website
  • Finding the download for Mac
  • Downloading the app, typically in a DMG archive
  • Opening the DMG archive after the download finishes
  • Dragging the app icon from the mounted archive to the applications folder

Nothing about this is difficult, but it is time-consuming. Imagine if instead you could type three words, hit enter, and let your computer do everything for you. This is possible, thanks to Homebrew, a program that will let you install almost any application you can think of by typing “brew install” followed by the name of the app. 

Why you should use Homebrew

If you never open the Terminal, that makes sense—it’s a little hidden. You can find it in Launchpad under Utilities, in Finder in Applications > Utilities, or by using Spotlight to search for it (just click the magnifying glass in the menu bar and type “terminal”, then hit enter or click the top result). 

There’s a real joy in simply telling your computer to do something and watching it happen, but the Terminal doesn’t explain itself the way other software does. I think Homebrew is the best tool for Mac users to get started with, because it’s so much better than installing software the old-fashioned way. 

  • It’s faster: As outlined above, for most applications you can type three words and watch an app install itself. 
  • It’s safer: Googling the name of an application and installing it isn’t necessarily secure. Downloading a free application from the wrong website is risky, and could result in you installing malware directly onto your computer. Installing from Homebrew removes some of this risk because a team of volunteers are finding the exact package you need. 
  • Easier updates: Updating software is important, but sometimes it’s harder than it needs to be. Take Calibre, a free e-book manager which can do all sorts of e-reader tricks. This tool has frequent updates but no quick way to install them, meaning you have to download and install the update yourself every time. If you installed Calibre via Homebrew, though, you only need to type “brew update” to update every app you’ve installed using Homebrew

How to set up Homebrew

The Homebrew interface on a Mac computer, with the computer's Terminal open.
Get ready to brew. Justin Pot

The simplest way to get started is to head to brew.sh, the Homebrew homepage, and follow the instructions. There’s a single line of code you will need to copy and then paste into the Terminal on your Mac. 

Hit enter and follow the instructions. 

The Terminal interface on a Mac computer as you start to install Homebrew.
Homebrew will walk you pretty clearly through the process. Justin Pot

You will be told about every change Homebrew will make to your system and asked to hit enter again. You might need to install Apple’s Command Line Tools, if you haven’t already. If so, this process will also be automated for you—just follow the instructions. 

How to install software using Homebrew

Now that Homebrew is on your Mac, you can use it to install software. Advanced users should check out the documentation—essentially a user manual—but if you’re not quite comfortable with the Terminal keep reading for a brief overview. Homebrew, like most Terminal applications, works by typing commands. The first word of the command is the name of the application, in this case “brew”. The second word is what you want the application to do, and the rest of the command will vary. So, for example, if you wanted to install Firefox, you would type “brew install firefox”. Like this: 

Installing Firefox on a Mac computer using Homebrew.
Type a few words and you’re good to go. Justin Pot

Then hit enter and watch as Firefox installs.

You’ll find the application just where you expect it: in the Applications folder.

Neat, right? And this works for thousands of applications. There are a few more tricks you can learn, too: 

  • brew remove, followed by an app name, can be used to uninstall anything you installed using Homebrew
  • brew search, followed by an app name, can be used to search the list of available applications, which is handy for finding the exact name you need
  • brew update will check for new versions of all the software you’ve installed using Homewbrew 
  • brew upgrade will install the latest version of every application you’ve installed using Homebrew 

There is a lot of nuance and detail I could get into, but I’d like this to remain an accessible beginner’s guide. I hope, though, that I’ve outlined enough for you to see how cool this little application is. Give it a shot, then dig into the documentation if you want to learn more. 

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