Switching to a Mac


There has been a renewed enthusiasm for Apple computers recently. Along with it, the interest in Mac OS X. This is the operating system that comes with every Apple computer sold these days. The currently available edition is Mac OS 10.4 (Tiger). Apple has, in recent months, been preparing the next rendition of its grandiose operating system, Mac OS 10.5 (Leopard). With the pending release of Leopard due spring of 2007, I decided to write a brief article helping those who might decide to switch from the Microsoft Windows platform or any of the Linux distributions, to Apple's Mac OS X.

Edit 07 Jan 2007: I've added the section "Installing/Uninstalling Applications" below. I hope you find it helpful. Thanks!

The Desktop

The Mac OS X Desktop
Figure 1 - The Mac OS X Desktop

Figure [1] shows the Mac OS 10.4 (Tiger) desktop. The Mac OS X desktop is similar to everything you've seen before. If you are coming from an MS Windows background, it may seem strange that that there is a "Taskbar"-like object at the top of the screen. If you come from a Gnome Desktop Enviornment, this will be very familiar to you. This bar at the top of the screen is called the "Menu Bar". The context menus are accessible from this location and will change depending on which active application (if any) is selected.

On the desktop itself, the are icons for hard disk drives and inserted media (if present). For instance, in Figure [1] it shows an icon for each of the two hard drives that are installed in my machine. If I were to insert a DVD into the drive, an icon for that disk would appear below the drive icons.

Figure [1] also shows the "Finder Window". "Finder" is the filesystem manager, much like Microsoft's Windows Explorer, KDE's Konqueror, or Gnome's Nautilus. It is here that you can browse your system for documents, music, applications, etc. On the left side of every Finder window are handy shortcuts to the most commonly browsed locations. There is a link to "Applications" to launch an installed application, "Documents" to jump to your user documents, etc. The window "frame" can be customized to include additional context items through the Menu Bar's View menu if said functionality is desired.

Mac OS 10.4 includes an excelent feature called a "Dock". It is here that you drag your most used/favorite applications, documents, links, etc. for quick launching. This is somewhat (though barely) similar to Microsoft's "Quicklaunch" area on the toolbar and KDE's Kicker menu (please note, I said barely).

It can be shown that the OS X desktop is strikingly cleaner than the average Windows users desktop (and my Linux desktop at the moment). This alone makes it aesthetically pleasing to the senses.

The Menu Bar

The Mac OS X Menu Bar
Figure 2 - The Mac OS X Menu Bar

The Mac OS X menu bar changes with the currently active application. In its initial state, the menu bar shows the "Finder" application is the currently active application. This is evidenced by the application name being displayed between the Apple logo and the "File" context menu as shown in Figure [2]. For instance, if the Apple web browser, Safari is currently active, "Safari" will be displayed between the Apple logo and the "File" context menu. If this is the case, clicking on "Safari" will display application specific context items including the option "Quit Safari" to close the application instance. The "File", "Edit", "View", and other menu labels present similar information as their counterparts in other operating systems such as "New Window", "Copy", "Paste", etc.

The Mac OS X Menu Bar
Figure 3 - The Mac OS X Menu Bar

Figure [3] shows the right side of the Menu Bar where information such as the system clock, volume control, and user name are displayed. The icon on the right is a launcher to the very useful utility, Spotlight, which will be covered later.

The Finder Window

The Finder Window
Figure 4 - The Mac OS X Finder Window

Figure [4] shows the Mac OS X finder window. Notice the three colored buttons in the upper left corner. The right, green button toggles the window sizing between large and small. This is similar to the "maximize" button on Windows, KDE, and Gnome. The middle, yellow button is the "minimize" button. This shrinks the window to the dock beside the trash can as can be seen in figure [5]. The leftmost, red button is used to close the window. Unlike Microsoft Windows, KDE, or Gnome, closing a window does not necessarily close the instance of an application. In order to close or quit an application, you will usually have to select "Quit" from the "File" Menu in the "Menu Bar".

A Minimized Application in Mac OS X
Figure 5 - A Minimized Application in Mac OS X

Finder is the Mac OS X filesystem manager. This is similar to Windows Explorer, KDE Konqueror, and Gnome Nautilus. Finder windows have a quick shortcut menu on the left side that link to the commonly used directories of the filesystem. The content area is where files and folders can be located.

The Dock

The Mac OS X Dock
Figure 6 - The Mac OS X Dock

The Dock is a handy application launcher and "taskbar"-like widget. It is here that you can drag your favorite (or most used) applications for quick launching. If you minimize an application, it will appear here. The trash can is also located here.

The dock is also dynamic. For instance, if you minimize a DVD playback, the video will continue playing in a minimized form within the dock. Dynamic HTML pages will change within a minimized browser window. The dock is a really nice tool!

When you open an application, its icon (if not already present in the dock as a launcher) will appear in the dock. This is to show you which applications are open. A running application will have a small triangle under its icon in the dock as shown in Figure [7] below.

Running Applications in the Dock
Figure 7 - Running Applications in the Dock


Figure 8 - Spotlight

Mac OS X uses a "Journaled" filesystem. This makes searching for files and applications on the harddrive seemingly instantaneous. Clicking on the spotlight icon (the magnifying glass icon) on the far right of the menu bar, brings up the spotlight input field. Input any string of text here to have spotlight dynamically list the relevant search items for you. This can be used to launch applications that are not in the dock quickly, find that obscure file you lost, or locate that one email that had that particular quote you liked. Spotlight is certainly a noteworthy application.

The Trash Can

The Trash Can
Figure 9 - The Trash Can

Mac OS X has a trash icon on the right side of the dock. This is used to delete files from the harddrive. To delete a file, simply drag the file to the trash, and empty the trash. You can empty the trash in several ways. First you can select "Empty Trash" from the "Finder" context menu in the menu bar. You could alternatively press Shift+Command+Backspace to delete the trash. Third you could hold the "Control (ctrl)" key while you click on the trash can to bring up a context menu that includes an "Empty Trash" command (as shown in Figure [9]). Alternatively, you could plug in any USB two (or more) button mouse and right-click on the trash can to bring up the afore mentioned context menu as I do.

The Apple Menu

The Apple Menu
Figure 10 - The Apple Menu

The left most side of the Menu bar contains the Apple Menu. It is here that you can view hardware information about your system, access system preferences, log out, and shut your computer down. While this is a seemingly simple menu item, it's still worthy of mention due to the amount of information that is linked from the Apple Menu. Take a few minutes to puruse through "About this Mac" and "System Preferences" to further your OS X familiarity.

Installing/Unintalling Applications

Installing Applications in Mac OS X
Figure 11 - Installing Applications in Mac OS X

Unlike Microsoft Windows, there is no need for a "Setup.exe" or "Installer.msi" file to install applications in Mac OS X. Unlike Linux, there is no need to access installation repositories, run "./configure", or "make install" to begin using applications. To install most applications in Mac OS X, one simply needs to drag the application to the "Applications" directory as shown in Figure [11]. There are, however, some programs that have an installation script that is used to do the installation. These applications copy ".plist", ".kext", and other files throughout the root subdirectories.

Applications in Mac OS X are organized much differently from their Windows and Linux counterparts. What the user drags into the "Applications" directory is actually a directory itself. Upon Command+click (or right clicking for you two-button mousers) on the application icon within "Applications", a context menu appears with the option, "Show Package Contents" as can be seen in Figure [12]. This opens the application as a directory within Finder allowing the user to browse the contents of the application. Application resources, icons, and the acutal application binary itself are stored within this directory. Sometimes user preference files are stored within here, but mostly these files are stored within the directory ~/Library/Preferences (This means the "Preferences" directory within the "Library" directory within the user's home directory.) The files within the Package Contents should typically not be manipulated.

Mac OS X Applications are Directories
Figure 12 - Mac OS X Applications are Directories

Unlike Microsoft Windows and Linux, when a user desires to "uninstall" an application, he or she simply drags the application's icon (or directory) into the trash can. While this will typically remove the application binaries, certain preference files and application support files (such as .plist and .kext files) may remain on the system. There are third-party applications for Mac OS X that simulate the Windows Uninstaller or one of the various Linux package managers to remove everything associated with an application, however.


This article doesn't mention the Dashboard and Exposé, due to this being primarily a switcher's guide. For those interested hit F12 and F9 for those features respectively.

Apple's Mac OS X is a very solid operating system. It has THE most intuitive interface of any other operating systems. The BSD underpinnings make Mac OS X a VERY secure operating system. While Apple's hardware may be a bit on the pricey side, you can pick up a cheap PowerPC Mac second-hand to experience OS X in all its glory. The upcoming release of Mac OS 10.5 Leopard should bring interesting new features to the table. Until then, all we can do is use 10.4 Tiger and wait.