How to Switch Part Six: Learn To Use Mac OS X

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By: switchtoamac at: 3:59 PM on April 1, 2006 | Comments (4)
Visit the Switch To A Mac Guides
This guide provides a brief overview of how to use a Mac.  For a more comprehensive learning experience, visit the Switch To A Mac Guides for a wide range of topics, guides, and tips.

For Windows switchers, Mac OS X will take time to learn however; it’s intuitive and relatively familiar so Windows users will become productive in a short amount of time.  My view is that when compared to Windows, Mac OS X is easier to learn, requires fewer keystrokes to accomplish tasks, and results in greater end user productivity.  When I switched to a Mac, I felt uncomfortable but over time I've found the OS X environment to be more user friendly and easier to use than Windows. This article/post highlights the major components of the OS X environment and is geared towards helping those who are new to Mac OS X.

The inviting, beautiful graphical user interface (GUI) to Mac OS X is called Aqua. One of Apple’s slogans is to "Think Different", a slogan that really applies to Aqua. When one sees the Aqua interface for the first time, they’ll notice the smooth look, vibrant colors, and clean icons. Aqua  is appealing as it implements very cool visual effects such as transparency, reflections, and shadows all designed to help the end user see how things are working in OS X. Aqua’s interface controls are more sophisticated than any other operating system thanks to the Quartz Compositor, the advanced graphics processing technology. Quartz Compositor was extended in OS X 10.2 Jaguar to what was termed Quartz Extreme.  In OS X 10.4 Tiger, Apple released Quartz Extreme 2D, a more advanced graphics engine.  Both Quartz Extreme 2D and Quartz Extreme use OpenGL in conjunction with graphics cards to render windows as textures through the Aqua interface.  This allows graphics to be processed faster and takes processing load off of the CPU.  Your CPU can then concentrate on processing tasks associated with applications and the OS itself.  You can read a more advanced write-up of Quartz Extreme 2D on Apple’s web site

Although Windows switchers will have to devote time to learning Mac OS X, the process will be streamlined because the OS X environment will be relatively familiar. You’ll find a desktop, windows, folders, menus, keyboard shortcuts, and navigating around the system will be straight forward. In fact, most switchers will appreciate the ease of use and simplicity of OS X. Aqua include s the following "major" components that all work together to help the end navigate, stay organized, and work productively:

  • Desktop
  • Finder
  • Dock
  • Menu Bar

The Dock is used to allow you the end user to easily access the most frequently used applications, folders, and minimized windows.  With the default blue OS X theme, Windows have red, yellow, and green droplet-like buttons in the upper-left corner.  Red closes the window, yellow minimizes the window to the dock, green minimizes and maximizes the window size.  Just put the mouse over the buttons and you’ll see symbols.  Hover over red and you’ll see an ‘x’, hover over yellow to see a ‘-‘, hover over green to see a ‘+’ 

You can change the look to what Apple calls Graphite. Use the following steps to make the change to Graphite:
  • System Preferences; Show All; Appearance; Graphite

The Desktop is the screen area where you initiate your work in OS X in fact, most of your work in OS X starts from the Desktop. The first and probably most important icon that you’ll see in the upper right corner of the Desktop is the Macintosh HD. In fact, when you launch OS X for the first time on a new Mac, the Macintosh HD is the only icon you’ll see on the Desktop. When all windows are minimized, the Desktop beomes visible.  When you have numerous windows open or are using an application such as TextEdit, the Desktop remains in the background and lies beneath all the windows.  The example shows a small window of TextEdit with the Desktop visible.  You’ll see four hard drives on the system.
You can view the files and applications on your hard drive by simply double-clicking it. When you access the hard drive, the Finder application launches, the Finder will be described in a different section. You can store documents, folders, files, pictures, and almost anything on the Desktop. When you insert a CD or a DVD into your Super Drive or Combo Drive, OS X intelligently identifies it and creates a visible icon on the Desktop. You can double-click the icon to easily access the files, music, or movie that is on that disk. When you connect an external device to your Mac, OS X immediately knows what kind of device it is and performs a process known as mounting. An icon is shown on the Desktop that corresponds to the type of device that is connected. There is no need to load or install drivers, what a relief for you Windows switchers!

Every user in OS X has his/her own Desktop.  In fact, the desktop can be accessed as a folder in each user’s Home Folder.  The Home Folder is a folder on the file system.  You can see the desktop folder by accessing the Home Folder through the Finder or more quickly by using the following procedure:
  • Click on the desktop background and then press Command + up arrow
You will now see your Home folder and an icon for your Desktop folder.  You can customize the appearance of the Desktop using the System Preferences tool:
  • System Preferences; Desktop & Screen Saver
You will see two buttons, one for the Desktop settings and the other for the Screen Saver settings.  The options are self-explanatory.
The Finder is the GUI based application that Macintosh users use to navigate and work with the file system. Finder allows the user to access almost anything on the system such as hard drives, folders, files, CD/DVD drives, and applications. You’re able to view, access, and locate just about anything on your Mac. You can move things around, copy files and folders, perform searches, and delete things you no longer need. Windows users often perform these tasks with Windows Explorer.

The left pane of a Finder window is called the Sidebar.  It is divided into two panes.  The upper pane lists hard drives, your .Mac iDisk, media such as CD’s and DVD’s, and removable volumes such iPods and USB drives.  The lower pane can be customized to suit a user’s needs and preferences.  As you can see, the example shows that Disk Utility application and the utilities folder have been added to the lower pane

You place icons of folders, files, programs, and anything else you want by simply dragging the icon to the lower pane.  You can then position it by moving it up or down.  One in the lower pane, the icon acts as shortcuts to allow you to quickly access the item.  You can remove an item from the sidebar by dragging it out and you’ll see it vanish with a puff of smoke.  Note that this only removes the item from the Sidebar, it doesn’t remove it from your Mac's hard drive.

There are three ways to view things in Finder, by icon, by list, and by path. The Finder has been supplemented by Spotlight in OS X 10.4 Tiger with features such as Smart Folders.  Smart Folders can be used to save Spotlight searches allowing you to group related items together instead of having to know where they are physically located on disk.  They can contain documents from your Home Folder and external drives.  Smart Folders update automatically in real time based on the criteria for the folder.  Smart Folders can be placed in the lower pane of Finder for easy access.  Follow these steps to create a Smart Folder:
  • Open a Finder Window, enter a Search, click Save.
An alternative program to navigate and get your way around Mac OS X would be the Terminal.  It's a very powerful command line utility that can be used to access the UNIX foundation of the operating system.  It is often used to get greater control over the inner workings of OS X and is most often used by techies.
Apple designed the Dock to provide an easy way for the user to view, launch, and manage applications.  It can also be used display folders, files, minimized windows, and the Trash.

By default, the Dock is the transparent strip of icons located at the bottom of the screen. The dock gives you quick/easy access to your most commonly used applications, files, destinations, and whatever you want to access with a simple click. If you’re not comfortable with the Dock on the bottom, you can move it to the left or right side of the screen. You can even configure it to be hidden.

You activate an item from the Dock by simply clicking on its icon; the icon pops up out of the Dock and the program/application launches.  Apple provides you with a pre-configured Dock that has icons for the most commonly used applications that come preinstalled with the system such as Finder, Safari, Mail, Address Book, Calendar, and iTunes.  You can customize the Dock to meet your unique application and computing needs. You can add or remove any icon by simply dragging the icon into or out of the Dock. Note that adding or removing an icon into or out of the Dock does not physically move it, the item remains in its original location.  The Dock icons are shortcuts for easy access.
A small black triangle below an application’s icon indicates that it is currently running. Multiple applications can run at the same time on a Mac, thus you’ll see several black triangles. You can hide, quit, and show the location of a running application.  Place your mouse over the icon in the Dock, then click and hold the mouse button (An alternate method would be to press Control and click the icon in the Dock). You’ll soon see a subdivided menu.
On the top, you’ll see the names of the various windows of the application.  For example, if you had multiple windows of Safari running, you’d get a name for each one of those windows.  If you were to click on one of the names, you would jump to that open window.  On the bottom you’ll see three choices, Show in Finder, Hide, and Quit.  Show in Finder will highlight the application, folder, or document in the folder it resides on Disk.  This is a quick way to navigate to a folder if you can’t quite remember where it resides or if you need to find relevant information about the application.  Hide and Quit are self explanatory.
Hide Others would hide other applications, not the one you have clicked on.  Force Quit is used when a program becomes unresponsive, hangs, or freezes. A responsive program can be exited with Force Quit but be aware that any unsaved changes in that application will be lost.

You can further define the behavior of the dock via the Apple Menu, in the System Preferences screen, or by Control-clicking on the Dock and then selecting Dock Preferences. You can control the size of the Dock, its scrolling behavior, its position on the screen, its minimizing behavior, allow it to auto hide, and add or remove icons. The Dock is divided into two unequal halves, partitioned by a vertical bar. The left side is for application icons whereas the right side is for documents, folders, and the Trash icon. You can easily rearrange the position of items in the Dock. All you do is click and drag the icon to the desired location. Note however that applications must stay on the left.  You can remove items from the Dock just as you can from the Sidebar.  Removed items vanish with a puff of smoke. The Trash is used as a temporary folder for deleted items.

The Trash is located on the right hand side of Dock. The Windows counterpart is the Recycle Bin. There are several ways to send items to the Trash. You can drag and drop files or folders into the Trash, you can use keyboard shortcuts, or you can use the Menu Bar. To view the items in the Trash, you click once on the Trash icon. You can permanently delete items from the Trash by selecting Empty Trash or Secure Empty Trash from the Finder Menu Bar. Once you delete items from the Trash, they’re removed and can’t be recovered.
Switcher Tip: Mimic The Windows Start Menu in OS X
You can mimic the behavior of the Windows Start Menu in OS X by simply adding a shortcut to the Applications folder on the Dock.
Menu Bar
You'll find the OS X Menu Bar at the top of the OS X interface. The Menu Bar is where one interacts with an application. It's also the location where preferences and settings can be viewed and adjusted; users can log in and out, and a restart or shutdown sequence can be initiated. The menu bar changes with the current in-use application. When you switch between running applications, you'll notice that the Menu Bar changes to reflect that running application and it's associated menu items. What you'll notice about the Menu Bar is that some applications have different menu items. The Menu Bar changes to reflect the capabilities and options of the application.  Give it a try, open at least two applications and switch between them.  Observe how the Menu Bar changes.
Blue Apple Menu
One of the most important Menu's is known as the Blue Apple Menu, it's located on the far left and has the famous Apple icon. Some of the most important items are:
  • About this Mac - Lists information about the installed OS version, memory and processor
  • Software Update - Brings up the OS X software update application to check if any updates are available for your Mac
  • System Preferences - Takes you to a special system configuration and settings window
  • Dock - allows you to customize the Dock
  • Recent Items - Lists the applications and documents that were recently opened or used.  The number of items listed can be configured in System Preferences.  Launch System Preferences, click Appearance, and then adjust the area called Number of Recent Items as needed.
  • Force Quit - Allows you to quit programs that are unresponsive.
  • Sleep, Restart, Shutdown - Self explanatory
  • Log Out - Shuts down all running programs and documents and returns you to the login screen.

Wrap Up 
When you first start to use OS X you may get confused and perhaps a bit frustrated.  I know that happened to me the first few times I used OS X. With each passing day, you’ll begin to feel more comfortable and you’ll know exactly how to get things done within a few short weeks. Don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that OS X is difficult.  Just ask yourself the following questions:
  • How long have you used Windows?
  • Did it take you weeks or years to learn Windows?
Over time, you’ll learn to understand and appreciate OS X.  Be sure to visit the Switch To A Mac Guides, the ideal place to learn how to use a Mac.
July 22, 2006
  • Content revision and modification
March 22, 2007
  • Added links to Switch To A Mac Guides

4 Reader Comments

Thanks for the explanation, great help

I liked the tip of simulating the start menu for new MS Windows switchers. Thanks.

Thanks for a really well written and thoughtful article. As someone recently getting back into the Mac side of things, I found a number of your tips enormously useful.

great article. It made me to want to buy a mac now!!!

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