Back to Basics: Top Nine tips for new Mac users

This is my first post in a new category I’m calling ‘back to basics.’ With all the new Mac users out there, I’ve decided to periodically post some tips aimed at this crowd — a group that includes many of my friends who’ve crossed over from the PC. To get the ball rolling, I’ve compiled a list of nine tips for new Mac users. If you have a tip to share, leave a comment to round off this list at an even ten.

9. Buy a book.

Macs are supposed to be easy to use, right? So why should you need a manual? The truth is that the Mac operating system may not be overly intuitive for longtime Windows users.

It’s about more than learning the differences between a ‘Dock’ and a ‘Start’ menu, or ‘System Preferences’ and the ‘Control Panel’ — understanding Mac OS X is about changing the way you think about using your computer. While built-in Mac OS X ‘help files’ are available to answer basic questions, it’s hard for new users to get the big picture through help files alone. This documentation tends to be short and is often devoid of context.

For those new to the Mac, I think it’s worth the money and effort to buy a third-party manual to keep at hand for quick and easy reference. A book offers depth, context, and examples in a package that won’t get in your way while you’re working on your Mac. Sure, you can find just about anything you want to know through an online search or user forums, but a well-written book will help you break your PC habits and more quickly adapt to the Mac environment. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I think it’s generally easier to learn from a book. You can prop it open to a dog-eared page, highlight it, tab it with stickies, and generally abuse it. Most importantly, you don’t need to navigate away from what your doing to get some help.

I recommend David Pogue’s Mac OS X Leopard: The Missing Manual. I also like TidBIT’s TakeControl Ebooks, a series of downloadable PDF booklets that are cheap and full of great info (you can print them out or view them online). If you are a more visual type of person and want to learn how to use your Mac (and many great applications) by watching videos, be sure to check out ScreenCastsOnline.

Apple also offers some good online resources. Be sure to check out Apple’s online help files: Switch 101, Mac 101, and ‘Find Out How.’

8. Explore Mac third-party software.

When one of my friends gets a new Mac, I'm quick to point out a few 'must have' free apps that they should consider loading up right away as they get started on the new OS. Here are a few: QuickSilver or Butler * to launch applications and handily complete routine tasks , Perian to view just about anything with the QuickTime player, VLC to view anything else, Onyx to maintain the Mac, Handbrake to convert your DVDs to different formats.

However, I’ve discovered that many ex-PC users fret about downloading software from third-party sites because they fear viruses, trojans, spyware, and other nasty stuff. All I can say is that Mac apps are generally very safe (by ‘generally’ I mean that there have been no viruses, trojans, spyware, etc. thus far embedded in third-party Mac software that I am aware of, but it won’t necessarily stay that way)… and users who ignore third-party Mac apps are arguably missing out on the best part of the Mac experience. The key is to only use trusted sources as you seek out new apps. A few trusted sources I use are: MacUpdate, versiontracker, and iusethis. Need a way to keep your applications up to date? Try MetaQuark’s AppFresh.

*(I personally use Launchbar but it isn’t free)

7. Learn how to install/uninstall applications and delete stuff

So, you just downloaded a Mac application. Now what? While some Mac apps include installers that function similar to Windows installation packages, most do not. When you download Mac software, what you're likely to get is 'Disk Image.' Think of a disk image as a 'virtual disk.' What you need to do is click on the disk image to open it up (it will likely open up automatically after you download it — don't panic). The disk image is now 'mounted' and will appear on your desktop. If you don't see a disk image, chances are the application is zipped up in another compression format and the disk image is contained within that zipped up file. Why? Developers like to distribute their software with small file sizes. The way to do that is to tightly compress them. Here are some basic instructions regarding the vaunted .dmg file. To many Mac users, this tip may seem too obvious. But I maintain that it's not obvious at all if you've never done it before.

By way of example, a friend of mine downloaded Handbrake one night based on my recommendation to format/convert some of his DVDs to use on his new iPhone. The next day, he complained that the app was extremely slow and created a ‘blank’ file that didn’t open up in any application. The problem? He was running Handbrake from within the disk image. He didn’t realize he needed to drag it to his applications folder prior to using it. It’s easy for long-time Mac users to laugh at this mistake, but consider it from my friend’s perspective. How would he know?

But what about deleting? If you don’t want an application anymore, drag it the trash. That’s it. You’re done. Use the same method to delete files. Want to delete things even faster? Try this key combo: ?-delete. If you want to keep you Mac as tidy as possible, consider the free AppDelete or the shareware AppZapper. These apps clean out additional items that are left behind when you drag apps to the trash. Not that these additional items will hurt anything if you leave them — it generally doesn’t really matter much. Still, it’s a good practice to delete all the associated bits and scraps of a program when you’re done with it. Down the road, you’ll be glad you did.

6. Take the time to understand Permissions

'Get Info' is like Windows 'Properties.' You access it by rig ht-clicking on any file, folder, or application. You'll find a lot of useful information here, including metadata like size, creation date, when the file/folder/app was last modified or last opened, where it's located, and a preview of the icon associated with the folder/file (tip: you can change the icon for any item via the 'Get Info' pane, which is fun).

Most importantly, ‘Get Info’ is where you’ll find permissions that govern who can do what with your files (you decide who can Read, Write, and Execute). Need a tutorial? Check out this Macworld article and this Apple documentation.

5. Learn some shortcut keys

Sure, there are shortcut keys for Windows (generally, you substitute the CTRL key for Apple's ?). But in my experience most Windows users turn to the mouse (right-click menu) or the Menu Bar to access basic commands like copy, paste, save, etc. Sure, you can do this on a Mac, too.

But there’s a better way. Longtime Mac users tend to be oddly fanatical about shortcut keys, and Mac applications reflect this: each Mac application you install will have a seemingly endless list of shortcuts. Why bother learning key-combo shortcuts? Speed and efficiency are clear benefits, but shortcuts also help you avoid repetitive stress from using the Mouse.

Here are a just a few you shortcuts you should consider learning right away:

? -tab (tab through open applications) ? -A/C/V (select all, copy, paste) ? -W (close the current window in an application) ? -Q (quit application) ? -S (save)
Here's a cheat sheet for standard Apple shortcuts. It's important to point out that shortcuts are also built-in to all of the applications on your Mac. Some apps may have literally dozens of key-combinations to help you work faster. If the thought of learning so many shortcuts makes your head hurt, consider Ergonis KeyCue. This handy little app is a bit expensive, but it's a clever way to learn new key combinations. Once KeyCue is installed, every time you hit the ? key, a menu pops up that displays all available shortcuts for your current application. Soon, you'll wonder how you ever got along without complex combos like Adobe PhotoShop's shift-option-?-S (which opens up the 'Save for Web & Devices' dialogue box, if you're curious).

4. Learn new ways to navigate

Mac navigation is different from PC navigation. One thing PC users will notice right away is that Mac application windows float on the desktop in self-contained little boxes that can be moved around at will. While I know that this may be unnerving for some Windows users, trust me: in time it becomes liberating. What I hate to see is ex-Windows users dragging windows out of the way to 'peek' behind to other windows in the background.

With Mac OS X, there are easier ways to navigate. Try the Expose keys. Try ?-tab (tab through open applications). Try Spaces. Try some of the great Mac application launchers (see #8 above). Use Spotlight. The last one I’ll point out here is a little freeware preference pane to toggle between open windows within one application with ease — it’s called Witch and it’s made by the same guy who created Butler.

3. Understand how to take care of your Mac

Many new Mac users express shock and dismay the first time something goes wrong. The truth is that the Mac OS requires a little TLC. While I have never experienced the level of frustration, rage, and resignation I felt as a Windows user (I used to consider it normal to wipe out my hard drive and reinstall everything from scratch once or twice a year), that is not to say that the Mac OS is perfect. Far from it. That's why it's a good idea to learn some basic steps to keep your machine humming.

Check out Apple’s Mac Maintenance Quick Assist, how to manually initiate maintenance tasks, and Macworld’s dated but still very relevant article on preventing Mac disasters. You may also want to consider investing in Cocktail. It’s not free, but it’s cheap, simple to use, helpful, and is an excellent maintenance Mac app. New Mac users should also consider the expensive but essential DiskWarrior. You may not need it often, but when you do need it … you really need it.

My last point: reboot every now and then. My father-in-law recently visited with his Macbook in tow. He complained that some of his OmniWeb * links were no longer working and his machine was generally acting strange. When I opened up his laptop, it whirred to life. When I say ‘whirred,’ I mean it was really noisy. Fans were blowing hard. Hard drive was cranking. My solution? I rebooted. Everything worked fine after that. It was silent once more. It turned out he had the computer in sleep mode for over half a year — since his last visit he had never rebooted. A system reboot at least once a month is a good way to clear out any weird or corrupt processes that may be running.

*(stay tuned for a future post on why I bought OmniWeb for my father-in-law)

2. Don't be afraid to customize

I've found that many Mac users never change anything when it comes to their Mac's appearance or layout. My opinion? Have fun with it. Make your Mac fit your lifestyle and workflow. Add apps to your Dock, drag Apps you don't use off your Dock, add Finder shortcuts, change your Desktop me, you can tweak just about everything and anything in the Mac OS.

How far you take it depends on how adventurous you are, but even the most conservative of users should try out a bit of customization. It’s your Mac, after all.

Here’s one small example. Here’s another. Here’s yet another. A good starting point to see how fun and useful this can be is the free Tinkertool from Marcel Bresink. The list is endless - explore forums, Mac sites, etc. and enjoy. Be careful though. It can be addicting.

1. Set up your Mac with security in mind.

So, you pull your new Mac out of the box, plug it in and start using it within a few minutes. You're excited. You want to start having fun. Before you jump in, consider your account structure. One potential problem of the Mac OS is that the first account you create on your new Mac is always an administrator account. You won't have a choice here. The problem is that many new users don't know that it's not a good practice to use an Admin account for day-to-day use. So here's what you do: immediately create a new user account in 'System Preferences' with full Admin privileges. Then, log in with this account and go back to 'System Preferences' and change the first account you created to a 'Standard' account. Finally, log out of the Admin account and log in to the first account.

This first account is the one to use on a daily basis. With your Standard account, you will be prompted to enter your Admin account name and password every time you install new software, change system preferences, etc. It’s a bit of a pain, but it’s a lot more secure. For Leopard users, be sure to check out the ‘Sharing Only’ account (great choice when you have relatives visiting who want to use your Mac) and ‘Managed with Parental Controls’ (great choice, of course, for kids). Oh, and make a note to ensure that your Mac Firewall is turned on (System Preferences > Security > Firewall)…inexplicably, the Firewall is turned off by default for users who upgrade from Tiger to Leopard.

And what if you forget your Admin password? Fortunately, there is an easy fix. All you need to do is stick your OS X installation disk in your CD/DVD drive, restart your computer, and hold down ‘C’ key as it restarts ( remember this with C = CD-ROM). You can let go of the ‘C’ when you hear your CD/DVD drive whir to life. In time, a window will appear that asks you to select a user language. Then, as the next window pops open, you’ll notice that there are now some menu options up in the Apple menu bar (top of the screen). Choose ‘Utilities’ (if you are running 10.4 Tiger or 10.5 Leopard) or ‘Installer’ (for earlier versions of the Mac OS). Then choose ‘Reset Password.’ Follow the simple instructions to choose a new password for the account of your choice, then quit the installation process (from the ‘Installer’ menu in the Menu Bar) and restart your computer without holding down ‘C.’ That’s it.

While it’s great that it’s so easy to reset an admin password, it’s also kind of scary. What it means is that anyone with an installation disc and access to your machine can quite easily reset your admin password and access your files. The moral: if you have data that you don’t want anyone to see under any circumstances, you will want to explore ways to encrypt this data and protect your mac. The other important point to make here: ensure you have a backup before doing this, just in case.

That’s it for now. Have a tip to share?

Troy Kitch @troykitch