One Page Crash Course in Switching to the Mac

one-page-crash-courseA friend of mine recently started a new job at a company that used Macs. Normally that’s not a big deal because there should be people at the office to train you. Yet, for this situation, she was firing up a far-off office with no help and just long stretches of Windows experience as her aide. So where do you go when you get tossed into the profound finish of the Mac pool?

Of course, there are web tutorials and screen-casts, not to mention the excellent free instruction at Apple stores. But what if you have to get productive NOW? No days or weeks of training, just start using your Mac, doing all the things you are used to doing on your old PC.

Fortunately, she received her Mac pre-configured, so she had an account set up in Entourage, and Skype was preloaded with all the business contacts. All the apps were installed, but where do you start when there is no Start menu?


Below you’ll find the My First Mac guide on how to use your new Mac when all you know is Windows. Of course, this topic can go deep and take months or even years of training, so we will stick to the top dozen or so issues that new Mac users run into that make them want to throw their Mac through the window.

(Note: Windows and Macs both have strengths and shortcomings. The point of this article is not to weigh in on which item is better, but rather which Windows item is similar to a Mac item so you can get working.)

The Guide

In general, keep in mind there are usually 3-4 ways to do something using the programs on your Mac. For instance, to copy some text, there are at least 4 choices I can think of.

  1. You can select “Copy” from the Edit menu
  2. “Right-click” and select “Copy” from the contextual menu that pops up next to your cursor
  3. Use the key combination Command-C
  4. Or just drag the item while holding the Option key and it will make a copy in the new spot.

This is to point out that if I don’t cover your favorite way to do something, that doesn’t mean the Mac doesn’t do it, it just means there is at least one other way of doing it too.

Before you can start, you need to get familiar with your new workspace. Some things will be familiar, like seeing a desktop with icons on it and having menus that you can use to do things. Just like Windows, the Mac has programs we call Applications to view, create and edit things, and files that store your work. And all your internet activities will be pretty much the same, like browsing websites and sending an email. So below are some Mac interaction translations that should get you on your way.

Instead of the Task Bar, The Mac has a Dock (seen below) that is similar to the Windows Task Bar. The Dock has shortcuts to both open programs and ones that aren’t open, but if you want the shortcut there is any way for easy access. The little system icons in the “tray” on the right of the Windows Task Bar can be found on the right side of the Mac menu bar.

Here’s the thing about the Dock: you can customize it to fit your needs. Don’t use all those programs that Apple puts there for you? Get rid of them. They won’t be deleted from your Mac. Only the Dock shortcut will be gone.

Instead of the Start menu on the Mac, you are expected to use the Finder (which is the Mac equivalent of Windows Explorer or clicking on the My Computer icon on a Windows Desktop) to open the programs and files you need. However, your Mac allows you to put Aliases (Windows’ shortcuts) of the files, folders, and apps you use a lot in many places that make finding them really quick and accessible. More on this below.

Instead of menus at the top of each window, your Mac has one menu bar across the top of the screen that changes to match the program you are using. You can tell what program you are in at the moment by looking at its title as the second item from the left next to the Apple symbol menu.

Instead of the Close, Minimize, and Maximize buttons at the top right of a window, your Mac has Close, Minimize and Expand (or Zoom) in the upper left of the window. There are two key differences: The Mac Close button (red gumdrop) closes the window, not the program, and the Expand button (green gumdrop) tries to expand the window to fit the content of the window, not take up the whole screen. Clicking it again switches back to the smaller size it was before.

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Instead of resizing your windows by clicking and dragging any edge, you need to click and drag the lower right corner. I know… lame.

Instead of using the Control Panel to change the settings on your PC, you use System Preferences to do the same thing on your new Mac. It’s the icon with gray gears on it.

Instead of Right-clicking to get a pop-up contextual menu, you right-click with your mouse or two-finger click with the trackpad. The hurdle here is that you need to enable it by checking a box in your Keyboard and Mouse Preference pane. It doesn’t come that way by default. The two-finger click thing also activates two-finger scrolling, which rocks. Alternately, you could use the combination of holding down the Control key and left-clicking.

Instead of clicking on My Computer to start navigating your files, you can click the top right icon on your desktop, usually named Macintosh HD, or click the Finder icon (that blue rectangular smiley face icon) and a Finder window will open.

Instead of clicking the IE Explorer icon to browse the internet, you can open Safari, which is that blue compass icon.

Instead of using keyboard shortcuts like Control-C, use keyboard shortcuts like Command-C. MFM has a whole article on this called, Ultimate Switcher Guide: Windows PC to Mac Keyboard Shortcuts.

Instead of Control-Alt-Delete to take down a program that’s hanging up your computer, use Option-Command-Escape to bring up the Force Quit box on your new Mac. It’s also available from the Apple menu all the time. If a program seems to have frozen, click to another or to the desktop to switch to Finder and then select that menu item.

There are much more of these types of switching equivalents on Apple’s Switch 101 website. I’ve highlighted the ones here because they seem to be the most troublesome for new switchers.

So how do you actually open and use something like Microsoft Word and get working?

First, you open the program, but where is it? Your applications (programs) are stored in your Applications folder, which resides top level of your hard drive, usually called Macintosh HD or Joe’s Computer. Open that and look through to find the one you want and launch it.

Sounds pretty tedious compared to the Windows Start menu, right? Well, you have a bunch of great options which will get you right to your favorite applications, files, and folders.

The first set is creating shortcuts to all your favorite apps, files, and folders in any of several key places. This is covered in our article, 10 Killer Tips for Using Aliases on Your Mac. The four handiest places for the shortcuts are the Dock, the Desktop, the Finder window sidebar (left side), and the Finder window toolbar (top). Choose one or more of these options to suit your needs. The article above gives you strategies for which option is best for different circumstances.

So that’s not exactly what you are used to? Try this then: put a shortcut to your Applications folder in the Dock by dragging the folder in between icons on the Trash side (that’s the side for folders and files) of your dock from a Finder window. Next, right-click on it and select “View Content as List.” Now you have a pop-up menu in your Dock that gives you one-click access to all your applications. This concept will work for any folder, not just the Applications folder.

Last and perhaps best, get to know the Spotlight search function. That’s the magnifying glass icon on the right end of the menu bar. You can use it by clicking on it or pressing the Command-space bar. Start typing what you are looking for. For example, to open Safari, start typings-a-f. You’ll notice a list appears below it that gets more refined as you type. For things you use a lot, it should take a split second for Spotlight to identify it at the top of the list as the “Top Hit”. All you have to do is hit Enter or Return to open the Top Hit. Of course, you can use your mouse or arrow keys to highlight something else on the list, then hit Enter.

(Quick note: Macs do not come with Microsoft Office programs. There may be a free 30 day trial on your Mac, though. You have to buy it if you want it, or use any of the other competing programs out there. See Don’t I Need Microsoft Office to Open That? and Can I Do Everything on a Mac that I Do on My PC?)

This brings us to the few things the Mac offers that Windows doesn’t that you should get to know right away. Spotlight is the first. As you’ve seen above, Spotlight is a great way to open programs with a few keystrokes. But what it is doing is searching your whole Mac for your search terms. So in addition to launching that app you want, it will also find the emails or Word doc you used the phrase, “soccer practice” in or anything else along those lines. The beauty of it is that it takes away the pressure of keeping a super organized Documents folder. Looking for that old resume? Type a few words you know are in it.

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Spotlight also has other tricks up its sleeve. Want to get back to that website that had the words “Italian Architecture” in it? Just type the phrase. How about the definition of “Architecture”? Just type it in and select Definition from the list. How about the sum of 2347 + 74839? Type it in! It figures it out for you.

Next up, Quick Look. Quick Look gives you an almost instant preview of a file without opening it in an application. You use it in the Finder by selecting one or more files and then hitting the space bar or the little eye icon in the window’s toolbar above. It doesn’t preview every file type out there, but it does the important ones. The best thing is, that you can preview Word and Excel files even if you don’t have Word or Excel.

Quick Look does a lot more than this though. Check out Apple’s page on it.

Lastly, get to know Exposé. Its best function is to view the clutter of all your open windows by sizing them down to where you can see all of them at once. Then you can just click the window you want to get to and “Boom”, there it is. It’s really one of the best things about using a Mac. See our article, Let Exposé Rock Your World for more.

Now for some last tips that really seem to bug switchers. I’m sure this list can go on and on, but here are the top few.

Your Mac doesn’t like it when you just yank external drives out. It wants you to eject them or you get scolded. To eject a flash drive or hard drive, right-click on it and select Eject. I’ve never had problems when I’ve accidentally pulled one out, so don’t lose sleep over it.

Many PC users switch programs from the keyboard using Alt-Tab. Instead, use Command-Tab.

The Save dialog boxes that come up when you want to save something from a program seem a little stripped-down at first. Not many options there. To see more options, hit the little blue triangle button on the right to get a mini Finder-like view of your hard drive. No, you can’t rename existing files in it like on the PC.

Speaking of dialog boxes, when you see one and you want to select the blue button in it, hit Return.

My Final Note: If your new Mac doesn’t work or looks like you want it to, it can be customized. All it takes is a little effort to track down the solution. Don’t take Apple’s default setup as the only way Macs operate. Make your Mac work for you the way you want it to.

OK, you made it to the end. I hope that this guide can take some of the frustration out of a quick jump into using a Mac. By necessity, this already long guide can only touch on the most complained about issues.

There are many other articles on the web that can help you get to know your new Mac. Many of them are right here at My First Mac. See the Related Articles in the upper right of this page as a great place to start.

Apple also has a couple of good series called Mac 101 and Switch 101. Also, they have added many nice tutorials lately, both in text and video. See here for more.

Do you have some lessons learned to share, or some of your own roadblocks you can’t get around? Let us know in the Comments section below!

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Chris Kerins

A professional app developer, tech author, and writer who talks about technology and innovation in the world of hardware and software. His expertise is in software, mobile apps, and games running and operating on operating systems like Windows and Mac. You can reach me on social media.

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