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There are times in life when you find yourself having to use something other than your first choice out of necessity. This is true for computer operating systems too.

Most Windows users will probably come into contact with Mac OS X at some point in their lives, and most of them will never have used it before. Luckily we’ve put together a quick start guide for any Windows users daunted by the sight of an Apple operating system.

Basic Differences

Mac OS X doesn’t have a Start menu (or screen), but instead uses a dock that by default runs along the bottom edge of the screen. Applications are found on the left side, folders and minimised windows appear on the right. Applications that are already running have a dot or line next to them, as you can see in the screenshot below.

At the top of the screen is the menu bar, and this is where you will always find the familiar FileEdit, View options for any currently active application. Most of the functions of the Windows system tray can be found in the top-right corner of the menu bar, such as the battery meter, clock and Wi-Fi toggles.

Search For Everything

Mac OS X has an excellent search engine in the top-right corner of the screen called Spotlight, so if you’re ever wondering where something is then all you need to do is search for it. At any point, hit command+spacebar to reveal Spotlight or click the magnifying glass icon in the corner. Type whatever it is you’re looking for – an application, document name, system setting and so on – and let OS X do the work for you.

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Once you’ve found what you’re looking for, you can reveal its location in Finder by holding the command key while selecting it.

Keyboard & Mouse

The command key now performs much of the tasks the Windows key did on Microsoft keyboards, option is equivalent to Alt and there’s no backspace key – just a delete. If you’re used to a non-US keyboard, you’ll have to adjust to the @ symbol now being above the number 2. Instead of using alt+tab to cycle applications, Mac OS X uses command+tab.

You can still right-click on a Mac, and if you’re using a mouse that’s exactly where you’ll find it. Those of you on a laptop or Magic Trackpad can use a two-finger click (ensure two fingers are making contact and click with one) or hold the control keyboard button while clicking.

If you’re using touch-based input, there are a number of gestures to master – like scrolling using a two-finger swipe, or revealing installed applications by pinching with four fingers. Find the full list under Trackpad settings (search for it).

Finder, Files & USB Drives

Finder is the Mac equivalent of Windows Explorer, and you can access it by clicking the smiley-face icon to the very left of the dock. On a Mac, there’s no way to “cut” a file by default – you have to copy it first (command+c) then hold the option key while pasting (command+option+v) to turn “copy” into “move”. If you want to rename a file or folder, first select it then hit the return key.

There are links along the left-hand Finder sidebar to quickly access common locations like Documents or Downloads, and if you scroll to the bottom you will find any connected USB flash media, external, network and optical drives too. If you have any problems writing to USB drive, it may be formatted to NTFS which your Mac is unable to write to by default Solving the "Read Only" External Hard Drive Problem on Your Mac Solving the "Read Only" External Hard Drive Problem on Your Mac If you've plugged a USB stick or external hard drive only to find out it's "Read Only", don't panic: there's a reason for this, and there's a way to fix it. Different operating systems organize... Read More .

Applications & Settings

The three buttons in the top left are close (red), minimise (yellow) and expand (green). The green one is used to fit the window to the content, rather than maximise the entire window as it does on Windows. Note that when you close a window on Mac OS X using the red button, the application is very likely still open – denoted by a small light dot or line in the dock.

To quit an application, right-click (or control-click) its icon in the dock and select quit. Holding the option key will allow you to Force Quit an unresponsive application, or you can launch Activity Monitor (search for it). This is the Mac OS X equivalent of Task Manager and allows you to isolate and kill nuisance processes.

If you need to configure network access, access system settings or simply change your wallpaper you’ll find everything under System Preferences (via the dock or Spotlight).

How Do I Turn It Off?

You’ll find options for shutting down, restarting and logging out of Mac OS X under the Apple logo in the top-left corner.

If you’d like to know more about transitioning from Windows to OS X, download our convert’s guide to OS X. You can also download our Mac OS X cheat sheet for instant keyboard shortcut wisdom.

What’s it like using a Mac from a Windows user’s perspective? Let us know what your experiences have been, below.

  1. Nathaniel Saunders
    September 16, 2015 at 3:50 am

    I started with Dos/3.1 but now I have a "Mac" I'll never go back

  2. EW
    February 10, 2015 at 2:03 pm

    Like the author, I used Windows from when it was DOS 3.1 to Windows 7. Just last week I was forced to switch to a Mac. I basically could operate in Windows without a mouse...just using keyboard shortcuts. It was faster. I aspire to get there on my mac but know it will take time.

    This article was a good, basic, foundation-laying guide to a few pieces of Macs.

    Ty.

  3. Sue
    January 30, 2015 at 12:12 pm

    I just purchased an iMac after using windows for 40 years. I don't like win 8 and needed to replace my desktop so I made the " big jump" into Mac. So far I'm very happy with my choice. I mainly use it for photography related programs so I'm confident I made the right decision.

    • Vishal
      November 2, 2015 at 6:26 pm

      You used windows for 4o years??? I think you know that the windows of your condo dont count here.

  4. Big Will Steez
    September 15, 2014 at 2:35 pm

    After about ten years of PC / windows problems; viruses, malware,system crashes,hard drive failures,loss of files( created music, I switched to Mac (mini) as entry level.there was a slight sometimes frustrating learning curve, saw potential and invested in Mac book w retina display , I got past learning curve with help from few makeuseof guides and haven't looked back. I am by no means anybody's "fanboy" but intend to purch an iMac sooner than later,cause as the fanboys say it just works ! Nothing is perfect, but as opposed to PC /windows kit hands down its Mac . I'm no programmer. , so I can't speak on Linux ,

    • Tim B
      September 15, 2014 at 11:39 pm

      I have read so many comments like this in the last few years, though I imagine the numbers of Mac OS X users are still low, it happens a lot.

      It happened to me. I primarily used Windows from DOS/3.1 to Windows 7, but now I'm happy with my MacBook. Glad our guides helped you out, I wrote one of them myself a few years ago :)

  5. Mary M
    September 11, 2014 at 7:27 pm

    I downloaded Google Chrome and use it instead of Safari, as that's what I was used to. Now I use the Mac all the time and bought a MacBook Pro to replace my PC laptop

  6. Bob Stromberg
    September 11, 2014 at 1:32 am

    The following sentence is incorrect: 'On a Mac, there’s no way to “cut” a file – you have to copy it first then delete it afterwards.'

    My preferred way to do to a Cut instead of a Copy on a Mac is to use the Option key when pasting. The Option key is a "magic" key on Mac, and pressing Option while pasting changes the "copy" to a "move." To recap:

    First, select the item or items you want to move. Then, press command+c. Then, go to the destination where you want to paste, and press option+command+v.

    • Tim B
      September 11, 2014 at 1:55 am

      Thanks for point that out Bob, corrected.

    • Denise E
      September 12, 2014 at 2:56 pm

      good to know! shall write it down somewhere obvious.

  7. Aibek
    September 10, 2014 at 7:17 pm

    It's been about a year since i switched to Macbook. I feel really great about that decision)and wish i did that earlier. ...

    One of thing that strikes me most about Macbooks is the Trackpad that eliminates the need to have a mouse . I bought the magic mouse together with the Macbook but used it only for a few days. As it turned out you don't really need it)

    • Tim B
      September 10, 2014 at 11:57 pm

      Couldn't agree more. I wish I'd made the switch sooner, but glad I waited for the Retina model. I also agree with you about the trackpad, so much so that if I bought an iMac I'd probably get a magic trackpad just for the gestures and ease of use!

  8. Bob Stromberg
    September 10, 2014 at 5:22 pm

    I think that in the following sentence the word "vertically" can be omitted:

    "Mac OS X doesn’t have a Start menu (or screen), but instead uses a dock that by default runs vertically along the bottom of the screen."

    • Tim B
      September 11, 2014 at 12:01 am

      You're absolutely right... I actually meant horizontally anyway. I personally use a dock that runs vertically along the left side of my screen so I must have confused myself!

      Fixed now :)

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