A Quick Guide to Using a Mac for Windows Users

Tim Brookes Updated 19-11-2018

Most Windows users will probably come into contact with macOS at some point. But maybe you’ve never used it before. While macOS is designed with user-friendliness in mind, it can still be daunting when first starting out.


So here’s a guide to the basics of using a Mac for first-timers coming from Windows.

Mac vs. Windows: Basic Differences

macOS Dock

macOS 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 appear on the left side, with folders and minimized windows on the right. Applications that are already running have a dot next to them, as you can see in the screenshot above.

At the top of the screen is the menu bar. This is where you’ll always find the familiar File, Edit, View (and so on) menus for any active app. Most functions of the Windows System Tray can be found in the top-right corner of the menu bar, such as the battery level, clock, and network options.

Search for Anything Using Spotlight

macOS has an excellent search engine called Spotlight. If you’re wondering where something is, all you need to do is search for it. Hit Cmd + Space to reveal Spotlight or click the magnifying glass icon in the top-right corner.


macOS Spotlight

Type whatever it is you’re looking for—maybe an app, document name, or system setting—and let macOS find it for you. You can also use this dialog to perform simple math, convert currency and other units of measurement, and use natural language processing in your search.

Spotlight Search on macOS

Once you’ve found what you’re looking for, you can reveal its location in Finder by holding the Cmd key while clicking it, or by hitting Cmd + Enter.


Keyboard and Mouse Nuances

The Command key performs many of the tasks the Windows key does on Microsoft keyboards. Option is equivalent to Alt and there’s no backspace key—just Delete (which behaves like a Windows backspace). Hold the Fn key and press Delete to erase characters in front of the cursor.

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 apps, macOS uses Cmd + Tab.

macOS features right-clicking just like Windows. If you’re using a mouse, it’s in the same spot as usual. When using a MacBook or Magic Trackpad, you can use a two-finger click (ensure two fingers are making contact and click with one) or hold the Control key while clicking.

MacBook and Magic Trackpad users also have a large number of macOS gestures to master Why OS X Works Better with a Trackpad While Microsoft has focused on bringing touchscreen technology to the desktop, Apple has continued to optimize for the more traditional pointer-based approach. Read More . Scroll with a two-finger swipe, and reveal the desktop by swiping outwards with four or more fingers.


If you’re confused, don’t worry. Head to System Preferences > Trackpad (search for it, or use the System Preferences shortcut in the Dock). Here you’ll find a customizable list of gestures, including handy videos to demonstrate what each does.

macOS Trackpad Settings

If you have a Magic Trackpad 2 or recent MacBook with a Force Touch trackpad, you can use Force Touch shortcuts to get even more gesture control over your Mac.

Finder, Files, and USB Drives

macOS Finder


Finder is the Mac equivalent of the Windows File Explorer. Access it by clicking the smiley-face icon at the far left of the Dock. You can conduct searches here and use macOS tags to organize your files. Open new tabs with a Cmd + Double-Click.

Copy and paste works just like it does on Windows, except you’ll use Cmd + C for copy and Cmd + V for paste. On a Mac, there’s no way to “cut” a file. You have to copy it first, then hold the Option key while pasting which will “move” the selected file. If you want to rename a file or folder, select it then hit the Return key.

Finder uses a sidebar (View > Sidebar in the menu bar) to access often-used locations. These include Downloads, Documents, and any folders you manually drag into this area too. You can also use Spotlight to search for and jump straight to a folder if you want.

You’ll find external media like USB drives, SD cards, and external hard drives further down this sidebar as well as on the Desktop. This is where you’ll find network locations and optical drives too. If you have any problems writing to a USB drive How to Fix Your External Hard Drive Being "Read Only" on Mac Is your external hard drive showing up as "read only" on your Mac? Here's how to fix a locked Mac drive and get it working again. Read More , it may be formatted as NTFS, which your Mac is unable to write to by default.

Applications and Settings

Launch apps by clicking on their Dock icons or search for them using Spotlight. Head to the Applications folder to view a full list of apps on your system. Drag an icon to the Dock to pin it there. To get rid of it, drag it out of the Dock till you see the Remove prompt and let go.

The three buttons in the top-left of every window are close (red), minimize (yellow) and full-screen (green). You can use Split View to work on two full-screen windows by clicking and holding the green button, then clicking a side of the screen.

macOS Window Controls

When you close a window (Cmd + W) on a Mac using the red button, the app usually stays open. You can see this by locating the dot under the app’s icon in the Dock. To fully quit an application, use the keyboard shortcut (Cmd + Q) or right-click its icon in the Dock and choose Quit.

macOS Dock Application

Holding the Option key will allow you to Force Quit an unresponsive app. You can also launch Activity Monitor (search for it), the macOS equivalent of the Task Manager. Learn more about killing and controlling problematic processes with Activity Monitor What Is Activity Monitor? The Mac Equivalent of Task Manager Learn all about Activity Monitor on your Mac and how to use it to check detailed information about your system. Read More .

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).

A Few Advanced Mac Tips

macOS includes many apps A Complete Guide to Default Mac Apps and What They Do Here's a complete guide to Mac default apps so you know what's on your system and which apps are worth using. Read More as part of the core operating system. You can launch any of them by searching Spotlight. TextEdit is the Mac’s equivalent of Wordpad or Notepad, since it’s a rich text (RTF) editor. You can convert TextEdit documents to plaintext under Format > Make Plain Text.

Terminal is the closest equivalent of the Command Prompt. It allows you to execute Bash commands like you would on Linux. Siri is Apple’s digital assistant, like Cortana. Hold Cmd + Space and then tell Siri what you want. You can use Siri on macOS to find files, ask about the weather, and more.

macOS Terminal

You can delete files by dragging them to the Trash can in the Dock, or hitting Cmd + Delete on a selected file. To skip the Trash entirely, hit Cmd + Option + Delete to permanently delete a file.

While macOS comes with virtually everything you need to get started, check out our collection of the best Mac software The Best Mac Apps to Install on Your MacBook or iMac Looking for the best apps for your MacBook or iMac? Here's our comprehensive list of the best apps for macOS. Read More too.

And How Do I Turn Off My Mac?

You’ll find options for shutting down, restarting, and logging out under the Apple menu in the top-left corner.

Hopefully these tips provide you with enough familiarity to get around in macOS. For a much more comprehensive overview, check out our complete beginner’s guide to macOS. You should also download and print our macOS cheat sheet for a handy keyboard shortcut reference.

Need help with the Calendar app on your Mac 5 Beginner Tips to Get Started With Apple Calendar on Mac If you've never used the default Calendar app on your Mac, you're missing out. Here are essential beginner tips to get started. Read More ? Check out these tips for beginners.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

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  1. Gurjit Singh
    November 19, 2019 at 2:37 am

    Thanks for sharing this useful and inspiring article. I will share this useful post on my website

  2. A Srihari
    August 15, 2019 at 6:52 am

    very useful article. well composed

    • Gurjit Singh
      November 19, 2019 at 2:36 am

      Thanks for the sharing this useful and inspiring article. I will share this on my blog

  3. A Srihari
    August 15, 2019 at 6:52 am

    Very useful article

  4. Susan
    February 9, 2017 at 10:34 pm

    I would just like to say thanks for this helpful guide, I have recently purchased an iMac and was finding it frustrating not knowing how to navigate etc. I have read comments from a number of people reviewing this and like most of them I have been using Windows since year dot. In fact my first computer was a Sinclair ZX21 with a 1k memory. So as you can imagine I have formed many habits that will be hard to break. But break they must! I can no longer put up with Windows, the latest version makes me want to throw the darn thing out of my 3rd floor window. So once again thanks for holding my hand as I learn to walk with my new best friend.

    • Tim Brookes
      February 17, 2017 at 2:51 am

      Hi Susan,

      Really glad the guide helped. If you can think of any areas we missed, anything you've been wondering about, or ways we can make it better then please do let us know :)


  5. Sabrina Key
    January 3, 2017 at 6:03 pm

    I'm trying to learn to use a Mac from a much longer PC use record. In fact, when I went college, they still taught how to enter data on a card punch. LoL! The first PC I recall using extensively was an Osborne. (most of you will have to google it. BTW, it still works LoL!) So yes, though I have a current iPhone and iPad, Mac is not quite the same logic of operation. You're article was EXTREMELY useful! Thank you so much!

  6. B
    December 21, 2016 at 5:10 am

    I switched to a Mac based on my families want. I have yet to like it. 6 years in it lacks the power that windows has, I find myself having to use extra keystrokes and mouse movements for what was much easier in Windows. I should qualify that I am a pre-windows computer user and was tech savy. If the family runs away to Tahiti without me these machines are going to learn to fly from my 2nd floor window. Then I will be happy

  7. Anonymous
    September 16, 2015 at 3:50 am

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

  8. 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.


  9. 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.

    • Anonymous
      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.

  10. 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 :)

  11. 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

  12. 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.

  13. 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!

  14. 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 :)