This collection of tips/tricks are aimed at people who are familiar with Windows, but are looking to learn to MacOS. It’s written assuming you know your way around Windows. Without wasting too much time, let’s just get right into it.
Here, I’ll focus on navigating the general UI, and cover some basic commands.
The MacOS desktop works similarly to Windows, but instead of a Start Menu & Taskbar, we have a Menu Bar & Dock.
The Menu bar is a dynamic menu that changes depending on what app you’re using. It serves the same purpose as the top menu of most apps in Windows (the part where it shows File, Edit, Window, Etc). In MacOS, that menu isn’t attached to the actual app window, it lives in the menu bar at the top of the screen. That menu bar will change depending on what app you have in focus. For example, if you have a chrome window and a Firefox window open, the menu bar will show options for whichever app you have selected. If you’re not sure what app is selected, the name of the app should be displayed in the top left of the menu bar, right beside the apple logo. To get to the preferences for each individual app, they should be accessible by clicking on the app name in the Menu Bar. Clicking on the desktop will show menu items for “Finder,” which is the MacOS equivalent of “Explorer.”
Speaking of the Apple logo, it serves a special purpose; it’s called the “Apple Menu.” It’s a special menu that never changes and is always available. It’s where you get to the system settings, power options, system information, etc.
If you look at the right side of the Menu Bar, you’ll see the MacOS equivalent of the System Tray. It houses all of those apps that run in the background and offer a Tray icon; as well as the clock and battery indicators. It works in generally the same way as the Windows Tray. If you want to move the icons around, hold down command and drag them around. You can’t tuck any of them away into a hidden portion of the Tray unless you get a 3rd part application. If you want that, take a look at the app “Bartender.”
The Dock is the Windows equivalent of the part of the Taskbar where you pin apps to. It’s where you put all your frequently used apps. To do so, you can do one of two things:
- Open the app launcher screen (where the F3 key is), then drag an app to the dock
- Open finder, click on “Applications,” then drag an app to the dock
In Windows, you can press the start menu and scroll through a list of your apps (or at least most of them). You can also search your PC from the start menu too.
In MacOS, there’s a dedicated place for all of your installed apps: the F4 key
That opens a very iOS-looking app launcher where you can see all of your installed apps. You can sort these apps however you like including putting them into folders. When you open this screen you can just start typing if you want to search for an app. Pressing enter will launch the closest match to whatever you typed. For example, I know if I open the app launcher and type “ill + enter” Adobe Illustrator will launch.
Pro tip: If you have a trackpad, you can view this screen by pinching inward with 4 fingers on your trackpad. It’s super convenient. MacOS is extremely trackpad friendly.
Now, there’s a feature of MacOS called “Spotlight Search” which can do anything from a google search to launching an app. It’s seriously one of the best features of the OS. It just works so well. To access spotlight, press CMD + Space and start typing whatever you want. I find myself using spotlight to launch most of my apps because it’s just quicker than opening an app launcher or sometimes it’s even quicker than moving the cursor to the dock. Just try it, it’s pretty awesome.
- You can turn on a dark mode for the Dock & Menu bar:
System Preferences/General/Use dark Menu bar and Dock
- You can auto-hide the menu bar
System Preferences/General/Automatically hide and show the Menu bar
- You can adjust lots of Dock preferences
- You can customize some desktop stuff by accessing the finder preferences
click on the desktop and press CMD + ,
Explorer/The Filesystem/How Apps Work
In Windows, Explorer is the file manager and main system UI.
In MacOS, Finder serves that purpose.
If you want to access any file, you generally do it by opening Finder and… well, finding it.
SIDE NOTE: I seriously recommend opening Finder and taking a look at the “View” portion of the Menu Bar. Here you can customize how you want things to be displayed. You can make things display in a more Windows-esque way if you’d like. Also, if you look in the finder preferences, you can customize what shows up in the sidebar (the part where all of your system storage destinations show up).
Like Windows, files are sorted into Downloads, Documents, Photos, etc, but things get a lot different when you start looking deeper.
In Windows, applications are installed to a Program Files or Appdata folder. MacOS manages applications in a much more elegant way. For one, there’s the app store. That’s the way Apple would like for you to get all of your apps, but that’s obviously not going to be realistic for most people. Luckily, manually installing stuff is painfully simple. There’s a destination in finder called “Applications.” Simply drag any app file (.app) into the Applications folder and boom, it’s installed. If you want to uninstall it, just delete it. There are a few exceptions. Some apps like the Adobe Suite or Office come bundled with an installer. If that’s the case, just run the installer like you would on Windows.
Just like in Windows, you have a user profile folder. It’s located under
and it contains nearly all of your important information. So if you want to back up your stuff, that’s where it is.
Just as Windows uses NTFS as the main filesystem, MacOS uses APFS and HFS+, which is the legacy filesystem. Macs support some cool filesystem organization features that Windows doesn’t:
- Finder Tags: you can create “tags” in finder and assign them to files and folders. For example, you could assign all of your work files with a “Work” tag. Then when you go to search for files, you could just search for the “Work” tag instead of individual files. You can have lots of tags per file too.
- Finder Comments: Just like tags, you can write comments on files/folders. For example, if you’re working on a photoshop file with a team, one member might review the file, write instructions for the next guy as a finder comment, then pass it on. It’s just another thing that can make work more efficient.
Note: to see these things, right click a file/folder and click the “get info” option. This is like right clicking a file in Windows and pressing “Properties.”
Okay, but what about that precious command that fixes all your screw-ups on Windows? Well, as I’m sure you’ve found out, there isn’t a “Task Manager” on MacOS.
Here’s how you access the equivalent: just spotlight search “activity monitor.” Spotlight basically always works. If spotlight is frozen, your entire system is probably screwed and you have to restart anyways.
For me, the spotlight command plus “act” is enough to launch it. Once you have it open you have the basic CPU based process manager like in Task Manager, but you can also sort things based on how much energy the app is using, which is nice for finding those pesky battery draining apps on laptops.
If you want to kill something, click on it’s process and then press the X button in the top left.
Side Note: If you are looking for the startup items (the apps that run when you log into your account), those options are in
System Preferences/Users & Groups/Login Items
Windows and MacOS have a very different take on how to manage multiple open programs.
If you’re from Windows, you’re probably accustomed to dragging a window to the top of your monitor to maximize and dragging to either side to do a split-screen style thing. You can’t do that in MacOS. At least not in the same way.
In MacOS, if you want something to be fullscreen, you just press the green maximize button near the top left of the window. If you want to see it in a windowed style, just press that button again. Just like Windows. But in MacOS, you can have more than one thing fullscreen at a time.
To explain how it works, maximize two programs. Now press F3, or if you have a trackpad, swipe up with 3 fingers. You’ll see your desktop, program one, and program two. It’s like having a bunch of monitors, except you can only see one at a time. If you have a trackpad, you can 3 finger swipe left and right to switch between your open workspaces.
It’s super useful if you’re doing something like writing a paper. You can have an article up fullscreen on one workspace and then have a fullscreen Word/Pages doc in the workspace beside it. It cuts down on distractions too.
If you want to do the split-screen style multitasking, you first need to have one of your applications fullscreen, then press F3/3 finger swipe up from your desktop. You can drag any open app from your desktop on top of a fullscreen app and it’ll put them both side by side, still fullscreen.
You can long press the maximize button. Yeah, I just figured that out too.
When you minimize things, it works differently than Windows. Instead of the taskbar/dock icon acting as the minimized program, it minimizes to a new area of the dock as a small preview of the open app. If you close the app, a small dot will persist by the dock icon. That just means that the program running or being stored in RAM. It makes things launch near-instantly without really affecting performance. If you want to properly close an app, you can right click on the dock icon and press “quit.” Alternatively, CMD + Q ~should~ properly quit any app.
Other Things That Will Make Your Life Easier
Don’t depend on Time Machine
Time Machine is Apple’s proprietary backup tool. It looks really cool in action, but it’s riddled with problems. There are tons stories of peoples’ backups being corrupted by Time Machine. So you can use it, but you better have a fallback option in case it fails you. Because technology usually only fails when you really need it. Arq backup is really nice. It’s what I use.
All Macs can run Windows
You can actually install Windows and run it natively on any Mac through “Bootcamp.” So if there’s a specific app or suite of apps that only work on Windows, you can still run them at full native speed. You still have to buy Windows though.
Access the Windows filesystem on a Mac
By default, MacOS can read NTFS, but it can’t write to it. That means you can see your NTFS drives but you can’t do anything to them. There are two ways you can remedy this. The first and best way is to buy Paragon NTFS. It’s $20 and it lets you read and write NTFS at full speed just like any other filesystem.
There’s also a few free options, but they aren’t particularly reliable or fast. There’s even a way to enable a hidden native NTFS driver in MacOS… but like I said, it can lead to problems like data corruption. Paragon is the best way to go.
Old Macs can’t read APFS
If you have a post-Sierra update Mac, it will probably format drives with APFS by default. That’s good and fine if you are only using that drive with post-Sierra Macs, but Macs that haven’t yet gotten the Sierra update can’t read APFS. So if you need inter-compatibility, use HFS+ or ExFAT. Windows can read ExFat too.
See more options
MacOS is beautifully simple most of the time, but sometimes we want more options. Thankfully, MacOS has more to offer than you can see by default.
The way you access these hidden options are… well, the option key. To show you what I mean, try clicking on the wifi icon in the menu bar. You should see available networks along with the network you’re connected to. Now try doing the same thing while holding down the option key. You should see a ton of system stats about your network alongside the stuff you saw before.
Holding down the option key while doing stuff is usually the way to get to the more advanced options for something. It’s a systemwide MacOS thing.
This article will probably be updated as time goes on. If you have any suggestions, just let me know and I’d be glad to add them.
3/17/2018 — Added Images