Think different: some hints to Mac switchers

Even though all modern Desktop operating systems use the same 30 year old metaphor of an office desk with folders and files on it the resulting experience of using them differs greatly. And while Windows Desktops hold about 90 per cent of the market Mac OS X might be the most interesting and worthy alternative to it unless you’re a poor student or OSS zealot.

No matter if you’re coming from Linux or Windows you must be ready to face some challenges. No, Mac OS is not harder to use, its just different. So, say good-bye to your old habits and welcome to the real world.

Here’re some basics to ease your migration process:

Mac is not Windows (neither it is Linux)

Your Windows and/or Linux habits usually won’t work with Mac GUI. Think different!

  • The three magic buttons in OS X are located on the left side of each windows, contrary to Linux (KDE/GNOME) and Windows. IMHO this way they take less attention. At the same time the rightmost oval button usually works for displaying/hiding the application’s toolbar.
  • The “Red cross” button doesn’t necessarily close the application. In most cases it offers “get out of my signt” functionality i.e. closes current document and hides the program into Dock. In order to quit you’ll either have to press CMD+Q hotkey or quit the program from the Dock menu.
  • The “Green plus” button is not minimize! Instead it switches between the application-defined and user-defined window sizes. It might be confusing to Windows users at first, but thankfully there’s a working workaround to make “zoom” behave like “maximize” for some applications.
  • Dock is not Taskbar. Instead, it combines functionality of an application launcher with simple Window management features. Discussions about which approach is “more correct” may last for years, but I’m sure the Dock is step forward and this is good. You may need some time to get used to this functionality though…
  • Menubar’s right part works somewhat like Windows System Tray area: some applications place their windows there instead of Dock. And even though this area cannot be minimized, you may drag some icons off it to reduce clutter (which is rarely needful).
  • Not all versions of cross-platform software look (and feel) good on Mac. For example, you may prefer to replace Firefox with Camino, GIMP with Seashore and with NeoOffice.
  • Even though Mac OS X might be comfortably operated with a one-button mouse, it does know of existance of three-button mices with two-direction wheels as well. You won’t even have to install additional drivers in many cases. Though, left mouse button might become your #1 instrument abd you may often replace the riht button’s functionality with it.

Mac OS X heavily relies on direct object manipulation

I.e. you may perform lots of operations by using drag’n’drop. Surely, this is true to Windows and (to some extent) to Linux but in OS X this model has been moved a bit further. Here’re just few samples:

  • Select text (or image) from an application and drag it to the Desktop to save it to a file.
  • Select video fragment in QuickTime and drag the movie screen to create a clip.
  • Drag an URL text to browser’s icon to open that URL.
  • Drag and drop an Address book contact to save it as a file.
  • Drag and drop an Audio CD icon to rip the CD as aiff files.

Believe me, you can do much more than just that!

Apps are different

First of all, OS X applications are often seen to end user as bundles. Bundle is a special folder with all application’s data (except for configuration files) that looks and behaves to user like a single file. In other words, even such applications as Firefox or iTunes looks like a single file for those using it. And that’s just great: no need for users to mess with lots of garbage he shouldn’t even know about. Other interesting info:

  • Most OS X applications are distributed as disk images: double click to mount the image and then drag the application to desired location (usually Applications folder). Then unmound the disk image and you’re done.
  • Many applications may be easily moved to a different location without losing their functionality.
  • Even though installers for OS X exist, they’re usually used for complex applications and frameworks.
  • Most applications may be removed by dropping them to the Trash bin. Complete uninstallation (erasing all related data like configuration files left) is possible with programs like AppZapper or uApp.
  • Unlike Windows, OS X bundled applications are really useful.
  • Contrary to a popular belief there’re lots of alternatives for your Windows or Linux programs for OS X (more on this later).

Zero configuration and interportability

It’s a fact: OS X and many of its applications ahve very good default settings and rarely require any configuration at all. Non-critical data is usually hidden from user thus making it harder to make mess something (although there’s doubtly any protection from an idiot with root password). Interesting facts:

  • Most applications (and system itself!) “just work” without a need to spend lots of time on preconfiguration. OS X apps are written by sane people and most have excellent default you don’t need to touch.
  • There’s no registry to configure hidden settings although you may find some tweakers or Terminal commands to get more control on your system.
  • Applications usually rely on system data, so you won’t need to enter your name each time (it’s taken from the Address book) or configure proxy settings for each application.
  • Many devices work by just pluggin them in, without drivers or additional efforts from your side.
  • Using wireless protocols like Bluetooth or Wi-Fi is often painless.
  • Unless you’re an expert (I doubt so) you don’t need to mess with “hidden configuration” or something.
  • Most files of standard types (i.e. MP3, MPEG-4, PDF, PNG, etc…) may be accessed with build-in functionality. For example, you don’t even need an Adobe Reader in order to view PDF files.


While on Windows you must install a third-party firewall and antivirus software in order to get more-less safe. For Mac users life is easier:

  • Firewall is bundled and on by default, you don’t even need to know of its existence.
  • Despite of some antivirus software “experts'” thoughts there’re no viruses for OS X. Windows viruses won’t harm your Mac either.
  • Most sensitive operations explicitly require administrator’s password, so unless you’re a complete idiot with root rights you’ll unlikely blow up your system.
  • System passwords and site passwords are kept encrypted so thiefs would unlikely to get them.
  • OS X has a decent access control system build-in in order to keep an eye on your children.

So, don’t be afraid of new functionality and giving up your old habits. In a short time you’ll understand that Mac approach is usually more user friendly 🙂


5 Responses to Think different: some hints to Mac switchers

  1. viciouslime says:

    * Select text (or image) from an application and drag it to the Desktop to save it to a file.
    * Select video fragment in QuickTime and drag the movie screen to create a clip.
    * Drag an URL text to browser’s icon to open that URL.
    * Drag and drop an Address book contact to save it as a file.
    * Drag and drop an Audio CD icon to rip the CD as aiff files.

    Errrm all of those, except the quicktime thing are the same for KDE and all but one the same for gnome. I know two of theme even work in windows! Don’t get me wrong I like Mac OS X, but I think you’ve over-glorified it just a little 😛

  2. sacrat says:

    Greets, viciouslime.
    First of all, most described things don’t work in Windows as it relies on drag and drop for a much less range of operations.

    As for KDE/GNOME…
    Even though I do really like GNOME environment IMHO it relies more on copy-paste and point’n’click logic much more. At least from my experience. I doubt things have changed since SuSe 10 I have.
    KDE… huh. From my expereince it’s still on Windows level or alike. This doesn’t mean that KDE is better than Windows or that it’s worse than OS X, it just implies a different input model.

    A couple of years ago there was a note in KDE HIG that it relies less on direct manipulation than OS X because developers think this is not effective. Unfortunately I can’t find a link now: guides seem to have been rewritten since then and there’s a mess in drag’n’drop sections of ones I see :\

    At the same time I would be very thankful if you could provide some samples of similar behavior in KDE, especially with screenshots and brief descriptions.

    I might really missed something as KDE is not my primary Linux environment and from my point it looks much more biased towards technology than end user (especially non-expert one).

  3. xvoid says:

    Thank you very much for such an excellent article!
    Soon I probably will become a Mac switcher, and this is the most comprehensive article for switchers that I’ve read so far!

  4. Johan says:

    So I’m on Linux right now, and when reading your post I… well I just can’t see any feature that would make the switch worth it.
    I can get what you bring up and more for Linux. And then I don’t have to bind myself to using my computer for what apple thinks it should do. That’s a major difference. Apple is a really controlling company. And I don’t like that. Thanks for a well written post though.

  5. sacrat says:

    Johan, I’m glad you’ve found yourself in Linux. As I’ve already pointed out in my posts, the whole “Linux vs Windows (Mac)” thing is about “developer vs user”. Being a UI designer I prefer the point of user. You may not get it now, but the majority of users just don’t care about freedom, but they do care about quality. The sad thing is that many Linux applications’ UI quality is not competing and it’s hard to deny that. Yes, you can do much more (even re-assemble the whole system to your needs), but that’s not what an average user needs. Most don’t care about freedom, but they do care about comfort, ease of use, etc…
    There’re lots of good things in Linux nowadays but without strong organization (which implies more-less standard high-level API, overall direction for applications with GUI, etc) it fails to meet most users’ needs. That’s the price of freedom.

    P.S.: surprisingly, I’m not an Apple zealot. OS X, just like XP/Vista or KDE/GNOME/whatever has its strong and weak points. Just it has a bit more strong points for me, that’s all 🙂

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