Meet the Mac: OS X for First Timers

So you've decided to take the plunge and bought a Mac? Well first of all, congratulations! You'll soon find that owning a Mac really is an enjoyable experience and that the Mac really does adapt itself to you and your working habits. In this tutorial, we're going to look at OS X from an absolute beginner's point of view and cover the important bits that you need to know in a concise format, so you don't have to sift through endless books and web tutorials.

A (Very) Short Introduction to OS X

OS X is the default operating system on all Mac computers, and thanks to Apple's strict licensing agreements, it can only (legally, anyway) be run on Apple computers. Roughly every year an update is released for OS X, and all the releases are currently named after big cats (Tiger, Leopard, Snow Leopard, Lion, Mountain Lion, etc.). The most recent one was Mountain Lion - OS X 10.8
Unlike Windows, where each release tends to be a completely new and redesigned operating system, OS X goes for a more subtle approach - there are plenty of new features but the underlying core of the operating system often remains more or less unchanged.
In Switzerland, for example, Macs enjoy a usage share of 18.5%.
OS X is a UNIX-based operating system and is the second most popular operating system worldwide after Windows, with a global usage share of around 8% in July 2012. There are, however, countries where OS X enjoys a much larger share of the market - in Switzerland, for example, Macs enjoy a usage share of 18.5% and in Luxembourg around 16%.
Enough about OS X as an entity (there's always Wikipedia, right?). Let's start dive into the good stuff: how it actually works.
Tip: In this tutorial I am going to look at the traditional OS X features, not ones that came about in Mountain Lion (such as Notification Center). These are covered in greater detail in separate tutorials on this site!

Step 1: The OS X Interface

Although the interface in OS X is really easy to get to grips with, it can be a bit of a mystery if you are using a Mac for the first time. There are a few major areas to get to grips with.
Think of the Dock as a mixture of the task bar and Start menu on Windows.

The Dock

Think of the Dock as a mixture of the task bar and Start menu on Windows. It is a launcher for your most commonly used applications as well as an easy way to access your documents, downloads and so on.
My dock under OS X Mountain Lion
The little glowing rectangular icons underneath an icon show that the app is currently running either in the foreground or background. One odd little feature about OS X is that if you click on the red "close" icon in application windows, it does not automatically close down the application - it still runs in the foreground (more on this later).
To pin an application's icon to the Dock, open it up then right-click on it in the Dock. From here, select Options then Keep in Dock. This will ensure that even if you close down the application in question, its icon will still remain in the Dock for easy access.
To the right of the icons you've got a little dividing line (which, if you click on it, can be used to adjust the size of the Dock) and then three folders, namely Applications, Documents and Downloads, with the last icon for your Trash. Starting from OS X Leopard, your applications, personal documents and downloads can be displayed either as a folder or stack, and viewed either as a fan, grid or list.
A stack (the Documents folder) in Grid view
You can, of course, remove these folders and add your own - to do so simply drag your folder of choice down to the area. To remove it, either drag it out of the Dock or right-click on it, go to Options then Remove from Dock.
By default, all of your open windows that you have minimized will show up next to the Trash icon. However, you can change this by going to the Apple menu in the top-left hand corner, scrolling down to Dock, then clicking on Dock Preferences and selecting Minimize windows into application icon. The Preferences area is also a great place to customize your Dock. For instance, you can change its size and magnification when you hover over it.

The Menu Bar

The menu bar runs along the top of your screen and contains the Apple menu (system-wide) whereby you can access features such as Software Update (more on this in a bit), the App Store and the System Preferences, as well as the menus for the particular app you are using. You can also restart and shutdown your Mac from the Apple menu as well.
Status Bar
The menu on OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, with Safari running in the foreground
Alongside the menus, the menu bar also holds status icons for compatible applications (mine from left to right, for reference, are Skype, LittleSnapper, Dropbox, Evernote and Alfred) along with your OS X icons (from left to right: Time Machine, displays, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi status, volume, battery level, clock, current user, Spotlight and Notification Center). You can move these around by holding down the Command key and dragging them around. You can also get rid of one by dragging it out of the menu bar.


Think of Finder as the Windows Explorer of OS X (the name is a bit of a giveaway, I admit). It is responsible for managing all your files, disks, network drives and volumes and can also launch other applications (except the Dock). It's a pretty simple piece of UI to use once you get to know it and (in my opinion, anyway) is far simpler to use than Explorer.
Finder OS X
Finder in OS X, with my home folder on show
To access the Finder quickly, simply click on its icon on the far left of the Dock (the icon always remains visible). When you launch it, you've got your Favorites down the left-hand side (which often includes folders that you access regularly), any shared devices or drives on your local network (if you've own any Windows PCs, these often pop up here, ironically with a "Blue Screen of Death" icon!) and any external drives connected to your Mac.
Finder Icons
The toolbar in Finder (icons explained below)
Running along the top of your Finder, you've got a load of different icons. From left to right, here's what they do:
  • Go back to last screen
  • Go forward to next screen
  • Show items in folder as a grid of icons
  • Show items in folder as a list
  • Split folders into individual columns
  • Show items in a Cover Flow style (similar to iTunes
  • Change the icon arrangement (e.g. by name, date modified, size, etc)
  • Share the selected file (OS X Mountain Lion only)
  • Quick Look (more on this below)
  • Open Dropbox folder (if installed
  • Perform tasks (this is the same as the right-click menu, i.e. if you right-click on an item
There is no address bar in Finder where you can quickly type in locations (unlike in Explorer). However, you can jump to a particular folder by clicking on Go then Go to Folder or by pressing Shift + Command + G. You can also perform some basic commands from Finder, such as compressing folders (File then Compress "folder") and burning folders to discs (File then Burn "folder" to Disc).

Quick Look

Quick Look is a really useful little feature that allows you to preview the contents of a file without having to open it first, which comes in really handy for reading the contents of PDFs or Word documents, for example, without having to load up Microsoft Word or Preview first.
Quick Look
Quick Look enabled for an Adobe PDF file.
There are three ways to bring up Quick Look:
  1. Select the file or folder then hit Space
  2. Click on the eye icon in the Finder toolbar
  3. If your Mac has a trackpad, tap the file/folder with three fingers on the trackpad (thanks to Jacob for this!)
There are, however, a couple of limitations to Quick Look. First, you can't view files inside folders (not on Lion or Mountain Lion anyway). Further, there are a number of file formats that don't work with it, however, these are mostly specialist file extensions and will hopefully not cause too much trouble for the beginner Mac user.
You can also give Quick Look a boost with some handy plugins - see Robert's awesome article for more complete instructions.

Mission Control

If there's one feature about OS X that I absolutely adore (and miss so much when I'm using Windows), it's Mission Control. It gives you an overview of every single application running on your Mac just by pressing a single button (this is usually F3 on newer Macs, or F9 on older ones) or, if you've got a Magic Mouse, by double-tapping with two fingers (this can be changed in System Preferences).
App Store
Mission Control
Mission Control also gives you an easy way to access your Dashboard (if you prefer to use this) and you can add additional desktops if your current one is getting too cluttered (previously this was done via Spaces in the menu bar). Simply hover over the top-right hand corner of Mission Control, where a translucent picture of your current desktop background along with a little + symbol should pop up then click on it, which should add a new blank desktop.
Multiple Desktops
Five active desktops open in Mission Control
Bear in mind though that having lots of extra desktops open at once may impact on system performance, especially if you're using a slightly older Mac. Check out our article on Mastering Mission Control for more on this awesome utility.

Step 2: Working with Applications

So, now that you've gotten to grips with OS X as a whole, let's start looking at those little things that'll make your Mac experience even bettr: apps!

Where to Find Apps

There are two main places to find OS X applications: on the web and through the Mac App Store. Given the rise in popularity of Macs over recent years, there has been a bigger trend towards developing Mac applications and you'll find that most major programs come in both Windows and Mac versions.
There are even a ton of apps that are specifically designed for the Mac and therefore often offer a far richer user experience. Why? They are designed with OS X in mind and really utilize its features rather than simply being a port of the Windows version.
App Store
The home page of the Mac App Store, available on all Macs running OS X 10.6.6 and above
The best place to start looking for apps is the Mac App Store, as you'll find a good range of applications there to get you started, sorted according to category and rating. You'll need an Apple ID and will have to to register your payment information with the App Store (even if you only plan to download free apps) before you can start downloading.
Not all apps available for the Mac can be bought from the App Store due to Apple's strict guidelines. However, you can find a pretty wide selection on there (there's around 11,000 to choose from). Otherwise, apps can be purchased from individual developer websites without any problems.

Installing Applications

One interesting peculiarity about OS X is the way you install apps. If you've used a UNIX/Linux system before then the process will be pretty straight forward. Most apps come in the form of a DMG (disk image) file, which has to be mounted onto a virtual drive before it can be installed. You can mount as many images as you want without any problems, however bear in mind that the images have to be unmounted before deletion.
DMG icon
The standard icon for a disk image (DMG) file in OS X
To mount a disk image, simply double-click on it in Finder. It should pop up on the desktop as a white mounted drive and also in the Favorites bar of the Finder we saw earlier. To unmount it, simply drag its icon to the Trash (which should turn temporarily into an Eject symbol) or click on the little Eject symbol next to it in the Favourites bar of the Finder.

Installing an application is as simple as dragging its icon into the Applications folder - OS X will do the rest for you
As Macs are all about simplicity, most disk images make installing the program a piece of cake. Simply grab the application icon and drag it into your Applications folder, where it will copy across all files needed. To delete an application, simply drag it into the Trash can (if this method doesn't work, then go into the Applications folder in Finder and delete the file by pressing Command + Delete - you will usually be prompted to enter a password).

An application "stack", which usually directs to /Macintosh HD/Applications
Some programs (e.g. larger programs such as Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Office) often have their own installation programs, similar to Windows (and these programs have to be respectively deinstalled using a special program - do not simply drag them into the Trash as it will leave remnants of the application lying around on your hard disk drive.

Step 3: Going Deeper

Now we've looked at some of the basic functions of OS X, let's conclude this tutorial by spending a bit of time getting to know OS X on a deeper level.

System Preferences

The System Preferences pane, accessible from the Apple menu in the top-left hand corner of your desktop, is the control center for your Mac. This is where you can tweak virtually every aspect of your computer. It is fairly self-explanatory and is sorted into a variety of sections to help you find your way around better.

The Systems Preference pane on OS X
Remember, if you're not sure of a particular section, be sure to click on the ? icon in the bottom-right hand corner to be directed to the Help Center. We will also be featuring a series on System Preferences entitled Getting Intimate With Your System Preferences over the next few weeks, so for a more in-depth look at each item head over there!

Software Update

Apple periodically release updates to both their own software and hardware to ensure complete compatibility with your Mac and, more importantly, to patch up any security holes and bugs discovered. Since Mountain Lion, the Software Update function has been bundled in with the App Store (instead of being a standalone application). However, its functionality is still pretty much the same.

You can change the options for Software Update by heading over to its panel in System Preferences
Most Mac apps also have their own built-in update system and some (such as Google Chrome) will automatically download and install updates in the background, so you're always running on the most current version. Be sure to check the Automatically check for updates option, which will look for updates in the background as you use your Mac. If any are due to be installed, a window will pop-up prompting you to install the necessary updates (or a notification will appear in the Notification Center on Mountain Lion).

Keyboard Shortcuts

Keyboard shortcuts are always take some getting used to when you start using a new operating system, so I've listed a couple of useful ones here for reference!

In The Finder

As a general rule, common Windows shortcuts such as copy (CTRL + C), paste (CTRL + V) and so on can be replicated on the Mac by replacing the Control with the Command key. So copy is Cmd + C, cut is Cmd + X, select all is Cmd + A and so on. But there are a couple that are unique to OS X:
  • Enter renames the selected file (as supposed to launching it)
  • Space enables Quick Look (mentioned above)
  • Shift + Cmd + N creates a new folder in the active directory
  • Cmd + Delete sends the selected file(s) to the Trash
  • Shift + Cmd + Delete empties the Trash with confirmation
  • Shift + Option + Cmd + Delete empties the Trash without confirmation

Global Shortcuts

  • Option + Cmd + Esc brings up the Force Close dialogue (similar to Ctrl + Alt + Delete on Windows) where you can shut down unresponsible applications
  • Cmd + Tab quickly switches between applications, just like in Windows
  • Cmd + H hides the current app you're in (similarly, Cmd + M minimises the app you are in)
  • Fn + Up / Fn + Down works the same as the Page Up and Page Down on Windows
  • Likewise, Fn + Left takes you to the top of a document/page (like the Home button) and Fn + Right takes you to the end of a document/page (like the End button)
  • Cmd + Space is the default command to bring up Spotlight, an easy way to find files and folders on your Mac
  • Cmd + Shift + 3 takes a full-screen shot of your screen and saves it onto your Desktop in PNG format
  • Similarly, Cmd + Shift + 4 lets you take a screenshot of a specific area by dragging. To take a shot of a specific window, hit Space afterwards then select the window/item you want to take a shot of
  • Cmd + Eject brings up the Restart/Sleep/Cancel/Shut Down dialog
  • Hit Option plus a sound key (Volume Up/Down or Mute) to quickly open the Sound panel in System Preferences and Option plus a Brightness key to quickly open up the Displays panel.
  • Of course, each application has its own keyboard shortcuts as well and I could spend all day going through them all. However, a really quick and easy way to access a list of all keyboard shortcuts for any particular program is to download CheatSheet, which is free and brings up a window of all common keyboard shortcuts for the particular program you are using simply by holding down the Command key.

    That's A Wrap, Folks!

    Congratulations, you've reached the end! I hope that these tips will help you get up and running with OS X, it really is a simple operating system to use and I'm sure that once you've used it for a couple of weeks, you'll feel right at home.
    We'll be featuring all sorts of tutorials over the coming weeks and months that really delve into each nook and cranny of OS X but for starters, head over to the OS X Tutorials category for some starters.
    And please share any useful tips, keyboard shortcuts and general advice in the Comments section below for the benefit of all readers on this site (and for your dear author as well!)


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