10 Tips for Mac OS X Beginners

After many years of being a Windows user, I’ve gone back to my roots. My first computer many years ago was an Apple IIe, and now I’m the owner of a Macbook Air (although, to be honest, it is a secondary machine for me). The transition from Windows to Mac is much like learning a new language. Here are a few tips that would have made my transition easier had I know them from the start. Hopefully, they will help some of you who are also making the switch.

Photo by Dan Taylor.

1. Spotlight Search Works Like the Windows 7 Start Box

See that magnifying glass at the top right of your screen? Click that to open up Spotlight Search. If you like keyboard shortcuts, Command+Spacebar will also launch Spotlight Search. Spotlight Search works much like the search box in the Windows 7 start menu. If you start typing in the Spotlight Search box, you’ll be presented with programs and files that match the text that you enter. Like in Windows, the list changes with each letter that you enter.  This is a quick way to launch programs. Of course, once you get your feet on the ground, you may move away from Spotlight Search, and on to apps like Quicksilver and Alfred.


2. How Does This Darn Delete Key Work?

In OS X, the Delete key works completely opposite to the way it works in Windows. Instead of deleting the character to the right of your cursor, it operates just like the Windows Backspace key works, deleting the character to the left of the cursor. To delete the character to the right of the cursor, try holding FN+Delete (i.e., the function key plus the delete key) at the same time. At least on my MacBook Air, that is the only way to get functionality similar to the Windows Delete key.


3. Yes, You Can Right Click

One of my initial frustrations when using my MacBook Air was the oversimplified trackpad. I was convinced that, in typical Apple fashion, the trackpad was designed with form over function in mind. There is no right-click functionality, out of the box. You can use keystrokes to replicate that . . . or you can just go ahead and add right-click functionality to the trackpad. To do so, go to the Apple Menu (the menu below the Apple symbol on the top left of your screen), then select System Preferences > Trackpad. Under “One Finger,” put a checkbox in the box before “Secondary Click,” and then choose “bottom right corner” in the dropdown menu. Voila, you now have right click functionality, when you click on the bottom right of the trackpad.


4. Feel Free to Organize the Dock

Out of the box, the OS X dock is busy. It’s pretty, but has a cluttered feel to it. Feel free to drag icons to the trashcan at the end of the dock, if the icon is for a program that you don’t use much. The program still will be available in the Application folder on the dock (assuming you installed it there).


5. When Maximize Doesn’t Mean Maximize

That green button at the top of your app windows does not work like the Maximize button in Windows. A maximized app in OS X does not necessarily fill your entire screen, but uses whatever real estate the app developer felt was appropriate. So, a maximized Window will differ from app to app. You can change that, though, which brings us to our next tip . . .


6. How to Go Beyond Maximized

If you want a window to fill more of the screen, even after you’ve maximized it, you can do so by click-dragging on the bottom right of the window. This is handy if you want distraction-free browsing, or if you want to increase the input area in a program such as Blogo (a blogging app).


7. Closing Does Not Equal Quitting

Another way the Title Bar works different in OS X, is that the “Close” button (the red one), doesn’t actually quit a program. It just hides it. To completely close a program, either use the Command-Q key combination, or use the dropdown menu in the menu bar at the top of the screen.


8. Installing Programs – Easy, But Different

When you first try to install a program on a Mac, it can be confusing. It really is pretty simple, though. Installing most programs requires you only to acquire the program, sometimes to unpack it (if, for example, it is packaged as a compressed .rar file), and move the program into your Applications folder (which can be found on the dock).


9. How To Select Entire Words Using the Keyboard

One of the most common keyboard tasks that I perform in Windows is selecting blocks of text, by holding CTRL-Shift, and then using the right or left arrow key to select an entire word at a time. You can do this in OS X the same way, except that instead of using CTRL-Shift, you use Option-Shift.


10. Change What Apps Load at Startup

Early in my OS X experience, I found that a program that I had installed always wanted to run at startup. In Windows, I could use the System Configuration tool to put an end to it. In OS X, go to the Apple Menu > System Preferences > Accounts. In the left sidebar, highlight the account that you want to tinker with, and then click on the “Login Items” tab. From there, you can add, hide, and remove items from startup.


Those are ten of the items in OS X that jumped out out me early in my use of it. I’ve only been using OS X for a few days, though, so if you have some more tips for beginners, let us know in the comments.

Evan Kline

Hello, I'm Evan. I write about tech from my perspective – that of the average 40-something tech geek. You can also find me on Twitter and at my real-life job as a lawyer.    MORE ABOUT ME.


  1. A few random tips.

    Use Command-Option-Escape to kill off unruly apps.

    Install X11 to get access to a bunch of apps that run under the (Unix) X11 system. Should be on the developer tools disk, I think.

    Then, install MacGimp. Poor man’s photoshop … but the price is right (free)

    I like Smultron as a text editor.

    Every once in a while, run disk utility (applications / utilities) and “repair permissions”. This will chase away some gremlins.

    Install Darwin for occasional use of Windows apps without needing to install Windows. http://sourceforge.net/projects/darwine/

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention 10 Tips for Mac OS X Beginners | 40Tech -- Topsy.com

  3. I’ll stick with Windows.

    I don’t have to install “SomethingMac” to occasionally use anything. :)


    • “I don’t have to install “SomethingMac” to occasionally use anything. :)”

      Right … if you wanted to run a native app from another OS, you’d just, um, … :)

      I have DarWine installed, but I think I’ve used it twice (in 3+ years). More as a proof-of-concept than anything. With the native OS X apps and the large catalog of compatible unix software packages, I never seem to have a problem finding the tool I need.

    • So far, the one Windows app that I miss is Live Writer. There’s at least one Mac one that I like better than any Windows’ counterpart – iPhoto. I tried Aperture, but don’t really need those advanced features.

      All that said, I’m discovering that all this Windows vs. Mac stuff comes down to some people being really strange. With Windows 7, both operating systems are more alike than they are different, and each does certain things well. I appreciate the hardware more than the OS on the Mac side, actually (although that comes at a price).

      • Oh, it’s definitely an issue of personal preference more than anything. With so much stuff web based now, the OS is of decreasing importance every year.

        I’m not even much of a graphic design person, but I like using GIMP for layered images and such. If I actually had graphic design skills, I’m sure I’d make a lot more use of it.

        I’m afraid I have no suggestions on the blogging side. I either write in some sort of text editor and dump into WordPress, or just use WordPress.

        I actually don’t use iPhoto at all.

  4. Once you go Mac you never go back! Errr…wait a minute. You did go back…and then went back again. Nevermind.

    Here’s a quick tip I’ve found useful: add spaces to your dock.

    Open up Terminal and type this:
    defaults write com.apple.dock persistent-apps -array-add '{"tile-type"="spacer-tile";}'

    Then, enter this or else the space won’t show up.

    killall Dock

    It’s purely for organizational purposes; browsers here, work stuff there, and media stuff there. Makes it a lot easier to spot the sections.

    • Thanks for the tip, Tony (and sorry for the delay in your comment appearing – for some reason Akismet flagged it as spam). I’ve moved my dock to the left of the screen, but I could still see this being useful.

  5. A manuel of basic instructions seems to be needed when selling the equipment? Also helpful to know what and where to find the things you are talking about. Us dinosaurs should be shot I know, but thanks anyway it helps.

Leave a Reply