[Guide] From Windows to Mac OS X: A Beginner’s FAQ

I made the switch from Windows 7 to Mac OS X on my personal machine about a month ago. I’ve spent some time becoming more familiar with the changes. If you’ve used Windows for your entire computing life, it can be fairly disorienting until you know the equivalents for everything – but once that initial learning curve is overcome, it’s smooth sailing from there.

The Macbook is my only computer, I use it for everything – writing, media, reading, work, you name it, and it has exceeded my expectations many times over. Having said that, there were some vital workflows that I used on Windows which required some adjusting to get working in OS X.

Give it a chance and relax, because you will find that old habits die hard.

With luck, this article might help to address some of the more obvious questions you will have (like I did) in the transition, on the way to many years of joyous computing. Keep in mind that as far as experience goes, I’m fairly new to OS X, so any corrections or additions are welcomed.


* Why is there both a menu bar at the top AND a dock bar at the bottom?

In Windows, each program has it’s own menu bar at the top of it’s window. On OS X, the top baron the screen is shared amongst all apps, depending which one is active. This can be disorienting at first, but is more space efficient. Also, common keys are usually standardised, such as Preferences (⌘,). The menu bar also houses the clock, spotlight, and other background tasks (similar to the System Tray area in Windows).


* Where’s my right mouse button gone? 

Either ⌘-Click, or tap with two fingers to create a right click action (you can configure this in Settings=>Trackpad). Generally, I’ve found OS X programs are much less reliant on right click actions than Windows programs. While you’re there, you should also turn on ‘tap to click’ and ‘three fingers to drag’, thus removing the need for you to ever press down on the trackpad at all. It works surprisingly well. Clicking wastes time.

No, you don’t ‘need’ a second mouse button. More proficient users rarely need to touch the mouse at all, relying nearly entirely on keyboard shortcuts.


* What else can I do with my trackpad?

A huge amount. Learn the gestures at the start and save yourself years on your life. Scrolling pages is intuitive with two fingers. Back/forward on browser the same way. Four fingers up for Mission Control, Four fingers down for Expose. Four finger pinch for iOS style Launcher, or spread to view the Desktop. Two fingers from the right for Notifications (if you’re using 10.8). You can tweak all of these and witness them in videos in the ‘Trackpad’ section of Settings. The size and sensitivity of Macbook trackpads make external mice a rare requirement, if ever. Yes, there were drag coefficients involved in the design.


* Why is my keyboard layout different?

It’s mostly the same, but with some important differences. The Command () key is by far the most commonly used function key, think of it like Ctrl. Option and Control take a back seat, and FN is very rarely used. You’ll probably find the thumb-centric position and large size of the ⌘ key makes for more comfortable keyboard usage.

If you’re using a Macbook, you’ll also find that the top row of Function keys trigger various actions, such as brightness, mission control, backlight, iTunes playback and volume. It’s also important to note it does this without requiring any ‘FN’ modifier, which is handy in the dark. You will soon be adjusting these settings without having to look down at the keyboard.

If you want to fast track learning of shortcut keys, install Cheatsheet. Holding down (⌘) in any program brings up a quick reference list of shortcut keys.


* Where’s my Home / End buttons gone?

They were a waste of space anyway. Use ⌘-Left/Right to go Home/End. Or to go to the start of the document and end of the document, use FN-⌘ Left/Right.


* Where’s my Windows Explorer?

It’s called Finder, and it’s your file management system. It works the same way, your volumes on the left, add or remove shortcuts. You can make custom searches to put in there as well. Files on the right can be display in a variety of views (⌘-1,2,3,4 to toggle between them quickly). Colored labels are also handy to categorise files without messing with the name or labels.

Finder also has some other tricks, like ‘Calculate All Sizes’ (⌘J menu), which shows entire Folder Sizes, not just files – good for identifying space hogs. It even works on network drives. If you want to connect to Windows shares, use ‘Connect to Server’ (⌘K) and use smb://(server).


* How does this dock bar work? Why do some items go to the right and some to the left?

The dock bar can be though of as the Taskbar in Windows. You have the pinned programs on the left side. These light up when the program itself is open. In each of them, you can have multiple windows (ie. multiple Word documents open in Word). By default, when you’re working on a document and minimise it, it will go to the right of the divider for quick access. However, this can be confusing, and you can toggle this behaviour off in Dock preferences – ‘Minimize windows into application icon’, which keeps everything neat.

If you don’t want to use the dock, turn on ‘Auto-hiding’ to save some screen space. From there, you can either ⌘-Tab (equivalent to Alt-Tab) to switch between tasks, or bring up the Mission Control overview, which shows all open applications spread out. Do this with F3, four-fingers up on the trackpad, or Control-Up Arrow. Great when you have a ton of applications open.


* Why do the fonts look so good?

They just do. They are deliciously smooth and meaty.


* How do I search for applications or documents?

Spotlight, the magnifying glass on the top right, is roughly equivalent to the search function in the Windows Start menu. Trigger it with the ⌘-Space key. Spotlight can search applications, preferences, emails, contacts, events, pictures, documents (including contents of PDFs and text files), media collections and dictionary and calculator functions. Spotlight is your friends. If you outgrow spotlight, consider Alfred or Quicksilver for more advanced functions.


* When I close a program, and re-open it later, my document re-opens!

This is the default behaviour, it assumes you want to continue working where you left off. You can turn this off by enabling ‘Close Windows when quitting applications’ in General Preferences.


* Does iTunes suck as bad as it does on Windows?

Quite the opposite. It runs very well on OS X. If you have an iOS device or live in the iTunes ecosystem, you’re in luck. Cross-platform messages and FaceTime are also well supported, as well as iCloud integration.


* How does installing applications work?

To run an application, double click the .APP file from anywhere. Nearly all applications can run from anywhere, including network drives, USB drives and the like. These files will normally contain all resource files the program needs, bundled neatly into one file. If you use a program often, it would be a good idea to copy that .APP file to the ‘Applications’ folder (equivalent of the Program Files folder).

When downloading applications, sometimes they will appear as .DMG files. These are disk image files which can be mounted as enclosures by double clicking on them. Once done, you generally drag the .APP file out from there. Alternatively, if it’s an .MPKG file, it’s a self-executing installer. Some more elaborate programs will use these if they have other processes or dependencies.

To unmount .DMG files, select the file in Finder or the desktop, and hit ⌘-E or ‘Eject’. Note that you can also mount .ISO files natively.


* How does uninstalling applications work?

Go to the Applications folder and drag the .APP into the trash. No messy uninstallers required, and no registry clutter left behind. If you want to thoroughly remove all traces (some programs will leave preference files behind), use a free program like AppCleaner.

While you’re at the trash, if you want to securely erase sensitive material, empty the trash with the ⌘ key pressed.


* Why can I uncompress ZIP files, but not compress them?

The built in archive utility can only uncompress files. You’ll probably want to a grab more complete program, like the free Keka here. It does everything, including encrypted files and 7Zips.


* Why can’t I cut and paste files in Finder?

You can, but it’s decided at the destination, not at the source. With Windows, you choose at the time you select the file if you want to Cut (Ctrl-X) or Copy (Ctrl-V). With OS X, you always copy the file first (⌘-C) and at the destination you can choose to Copy+Paste (⌘-V) or Cut+Paste (⌥-⌘-V). This can be jarring at first, but you’ll get over it. Plus it stops you having to revisit the original file if you change your mind.


* How do I get more information about a file in Finder?

Press Space while having the file selected. This works for just about everything, PDFs, AVIs, JPGs, even camera RAW (NEF/CR2/RAW) files. Want to do a batch? Select them and press Space.


* What about File Properties, like Alt-Enter in Windows?

That would be ⌘-I for Get Info. If you have a group of files, use ⌥-⌘-I.


* What’s this Library folder thing?

That’s the folder where Application Support files, preferences and just about all the under-the-hood user-specific stuff lives. If you want to see what’s in yours, go to Finder, then ‘Go’ menu, and hold down Option.


* What’s this Spaces thing?

In Mission Control, you will have noticed there is the option for multiple working desktops at the top. You can have certain applications on certain workspaces, to reduce clutter and segregate tasks. Switch between them with four-finger left/right, or ⌘1 (Workspace 1) / ⌘2 (Workspace 2).


* In Windows I could use Win-Left and Win-Right to half-pane my applications?

Install Spectacle (Free). It recreates these functions, with additional ones (Center, Top-Half, Bottom-Half).


* My menu bar has too much stuff on it, how do I clean it up?

Install Bartender (Free). It can hide icons and optionally redisplay them if there’s activity.


* Is there a quick way to put my computer to sleep when I walk away?

Set up Hot Corners (under Mission Control Preferences) to make one corner of the screen put the Display to Sleep. Then when you want to lock, just flick the cursor to that corner.


* How do I use an external monitor with my Macbook?

Just plug it in, and (optionally) set up the desktop layout, wallpaper, colour profile and resolution. It will remember these settings the next time you plug that particular monitor in.


* How do I find my IP, or do trace routes, or port scan an address?

The built-in Network Utility will do it, or you can run the commands directly in Terminal.


* I’m sick of typing, can’t I just do speech to text?

Yes you can, and with 10.8 it’s built in. Press FN twice wherever text can be input and start talking.


* I can’t do anything on iOS because it’s so locked down, is this the same thing?

Hardly. OS X and iOS are two very different animals. OS X is very powerful, it would be wise not to get them confused.


* How do I remote control/view my computer?

Turn on ‘Screen Sharing’ under Sharing Preferences. Then use any VNC client from any machine to jump in. Or if you want more thorough management options, use Apple Remote Desktop.


* How do I set up ADB for my Android device?

Install the Android SDK. Run and install the Platform Tools package. Turn on USB debugging on the device. Type commands into Terminal. No device drivers are required.


* How do I set up actions to monitor folders for new files and take actions based on that? 

Use the built-in Automator. It’s easy to set up and it’s very powerful.


* Is there a command prompt?

Yes, it’s called Terminal and it lets you run UNIX commands on OS X. It is based on UNIX after all. If you know UNIX or want to learn it, this is a good place to be.


* What other tips can you think of?

Three-finger tap on any word, anywhere at any time to bring up a dictionary definition of the word. Also, select any number of files in Finder and bring up the context menu, there will be a ‘New folder with selection’ to put these files into a folder, saves time.


So there you have it. A quick rundown of the common questions I asked when I started using OS X. Now that I have everything set up just how I like (Office, Photoshop, Lightroom, Chrome, etc), and I’m getting used to the shortcut keys in everything, I dread having to go back to Windows machines. If this has helped you, or if you have any questions, feel free to chime in. I will be putting up Part 2 of more advanced questions later.

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4 thoughts on “[Guide] From Windows to Mac OS X: A Beginner’s FAQ

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