Mac OS X for beginners

This page was updated to make reference to back up using TIme Machine on 7th August 2010

Differences from Windows

A new Macbook should be pre-installed with the latest version of Mac OS X “Snow Leopard” (10.6).  (Although I have the Snow Leopard upgrade disc, I haven’t yet upgraded any of my machines.)  I think that everything I’ve written below is still correct in Snow Leopard.

As a general rule on a Mac, if you are finding something difficult to do, you’re probably trying too hard.  Drag and drop usually does the right thing in all sorts of contexts.  Printing and print preview will really show you the proper output.  Things like spelling corrections work in almost all applications the same way.   You sometimes have to unlearn the convoluted ways of Windows though.

The menu bar

My menu bar has rather a lot of things in it
The menu bar on my computer. There are rather a lot of menu items on the right hand side. A new machine will have far fewer.

Instead of each application having its menu bar in its own window, on Mac OS X the menu bar is always at the top of the screen. It always includes an apple menu at the far left, the name of the current application (in the example above it is Grab, with a menu that includes About…, Preferences… and Quit), and then the other top level menus, usually starting with “File” and ending with “Help”. The menu bar changes as you change from one application to another. At the right had end of the menu bar are small items that include the wireless (Airport) state (and which can be used to connect to a wireless access point), the battery state (for a laptop) which can be clicked to select various modes (“Better battery life”, “better performance”,…), the audio volume control (which I think Snow Leopard may also include the ability to select an audio source), the time, bluetooth status and, usually at the extreme right end, spotlight (the inbuilt search capability).  Some applications you install may add additional items to the menu bar.

Window buttons

The button lights at the top left of a Mac OS X window.
The button lights at the top left of a Mac OS X window.

Mac OS X has three window buttons with lights at the top left of most windows. These operate slightly differently to the three buttons at the top right of a Windows window. The buttons (lights) only show colour when the window is the selected window.

The red button closes the window (but does not close the application; to close the application use the menu bar, click on the application name and select Quit or use the shortcut “command  Q” (see below for what “command” is).

The yellow button minimises the window into the Dock.

The Green button does not work quite like the maximise button in windows. It only maximises to what the application things is the “right” size for the content. This may often be a bit smaller than you might think, but is such that you don’t end up with a window taking up the whole screen with empty space in it. iTunes used to go to the “mini player” when using this button, although I think that in iTunes9 it now works like elsewhere and resizes the window to the “right size”, you now get the mini-player by holding option while clicking the green button.

Resizing windows is always done from the bottom right rather than dragging any side.  You move a window by grabbing the title bar.

Some windows have a “lozenge” at the top right corner.  Clicking this hides or restores the toolbar.

The lozenge at the right top can be used to toggle toolbars.
The lozenge at the right top can be used to toggle toolbars.


In the following text there are some special characters.  I hope these display correctly for you — I’m not sure Windows is up to handling the full character sets that Mac’s have.

British Keyboard Layout.
British Keyboard Layout.

On the Mac keyboard at the bottom left on a laptop there are four keys before one gets to the space bar. These are in order: fn, ctrl, alt (or option, marked ⌥), command (marked with an  and/or with the ⌘ symbol). Often the windows shortcuts that use ctrl will use command on a Mac. Thus copy is command-C (not ctrl C), cut is command-X and paste is command-V. The option key, as it implies, gives alternative behaviour. It is often used to get different symbols from the keyboard keys, for example shift-3 gives £, but option-3 gives #.  It is also used to get a “right click” when using an apple laptop where the trackpad has only one button — you do an option click. Incidentally the trackpad allows a number of gestures although on a MacBook the main ones are two fingers to scroll (horizontally or vertically) and two fingers and a click to give a “right click”.

The delete key always “deletes backwards”.  For delete forwards use fn-delete.

The Finder

The finder is the equivalent of “My Computer” or the explorer on Windows. It shows the files on ones computer but also has short cut links in the side bar to various external drives, special directories, or even smart searches.  It can display files as icons, lists, columns or even in a Cover Flow style like iTunes.  Many icons don’t just display an icon, but actually display the real content for files and in the cover flow view or if you have big enough icons you can see what is in a file without ever actually opening it.

Acrobat (PDF) files

Mac OS X comes with built-in support for PDF files. You don’t need to download Acrobat Reader to read PDF files. The Preview application allows one to view PDF files as well as a host of other file types. It also allows one to re-order pages in a PDF and do some other simple manipulations. Also all applications that can print are able to “print to PDF” which generates PDF documents.

Quick View

Quick view allows one to quickly preview the contents of many different types of files. There are also plug-ins that can be downloaded to add additional capability. The space bar is the short-cut key for Quick View. If you select a file in the finder or on the desktop and press the space bar it will open in Quick View. Quick View can show pictures, PDF files, and most file types that have applications on the computer. You can select multiple files, so that if you select a collection of pictures and press the space bar, Quick View will pop up and you can immediately watch a slide show of the pictures.

Command+space takes you to spotlight (which is at the top right of the screen represented by an idealized magnifying glass). This is a facility to quickly search your computer.  It can be used to find and launch applications from the keyboard, as a calculator — if you start typing a sum like 12*1.175 it will show you the result as you are typing, to look up words in the built-in dictionary, as well as just finding stuff.

Picture 6
Using Spotlight to do a calculation.
Spotlight looks up applications, entries in the dictionary and searches the machin
Spotlight looks up applications, entries in the dictionary and searches the machine


As part of Mac OS X

Here are just a few of the applications that come as part of OS X

Finder — This is what you use to find files and applications
Mail — The e-mail client.
Safari — Web browser
Grapher — for graphing mathematical functions
iTunes — you know this
TextEdit — a simple but quite powerful text editor
iChat — for text, audio and video chat
iCal — Calendar
AddressBook — what it says!

and much more.

There are some switching tutorials and a heap of more general tutorials at:

iLife Suite

Everything on the Mac is very well integrated.  So from iPhoto which is used to catalogue and store photos, you can generate a slide show that can be written to a DVD by iDVD or incorporated into a movie in iMovie.  Likewise GarageBand enables you to create a musical recording (or create your own speech podcast) and dump it straight into iTunes.  You can even browse your photo collection from inside the Mail program.

iPhoto  – catalogues photos, including face recognition so that once you’ve identified a few examples of someone’s face it will be able to automatically (and often correctly) identify the same person in other photos.  It also has “places” built-in so that photographs that have GPS data are automatically linked to locations, but any photographs can be manually associated with a location on a map.  Has integration with Facebook and Flickr to easily upload photos to those services.

iMovie — for building movies from photographs, slide shows or from movie clips taken with a video camera
GarageBand — for creating music with software synthesisers or real instruments.
iWeb — to help build web pages
iDVD — to author DVDs with menus and chapters etc.

For tutorials go to

iWork Suite

Pages  –  a word processor and page layout programme
Numbers — a spreadsheet with many advanced features
Keynote — an advanced presentation (powerpoint) application with many amazing effects.

All of these will import from the corresponding Microsoft Office formats and can export to Microsoft Office formats.

For tutorials go to


The keychain is used to help manage passwords and the like.

Installing and deleting applications
Typically two ways depending on the application.

  1. The disc image contains the application which is dragged to the Applications folder (and that’s it — nothing more to do — its installed)
  2. The disc image contains an installer that is run.

Deletion of applications is generally just a question of dragging the application to the trash can, unless the app comes with a specific de-installer. The use of a program such as AppCleaner (or AppZapper, or AppDelete) can help ensure that odd files are not left lying around in the Library directories, although sometimes it can be useful to leave these other files, because if you re-install the application you’ll have the same preferences as before.

Useful applications / plug-ins for Video:
Some video that you find on the internet (particularly if using a Microsoft format or codec will not run directly in QuickTime — the main Mac media player). The following (free) components can help with this. Perian handles all sorts of formats, the wmv components are some free components that play wmv files, and VLC is an application (for Mac, Windows and Linux) that will play just about anything — and do a lot more.


wmv components


Back ups
It really is important to maintain backups of important data. Probably the simplest way to do this is to buy an external hard drive, plug it in, and let Time Machine use it to maintain a backup. You will need to ensure that the Drive is partitioned as GUID (using Disk Utility). For other options on back up see this blog post.

Take Care
Don’t pull out the magsafe connector by the cord. Hold the end piece and tilt it to the side to pull the magnet away from the socket on the MacBook.

9 replies on “Mac OS X for beginners”

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Excellent synthesis of things to talk about to newcomers to Mac OS X.

This was an invaluable starting point for a presentation I did on the subject.


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