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Advice For New Mac Users

Advice for new Mac Users (Part 1)

Using a new operating system can be a frustrating experience. Workflows and shortcuts you’re accustomed to may not translate directly, and it can be difficult to know where to start.

This first blog post will cover some basic (if not always well-known) concepts and shortcuts for being productive with the system in general.

Basics and Shortcuts

The main modifier keys on a Mac are Control (⌃), Option(⌥), and Command (⌘). Take a moment to learn the symbols, as they help you learn new shortcuts quickly from menus.

A list of common shortcuts can be found here, but I’ll point out some of the most important ones below.

Many shortcuts you may be familiar with in Windows or Linux will be performed by substituting command (⌘) for Ctrl. For example:

  • Cut ⌘x
  • Copy ⌘c
  • Paste ⌘p
  • Find ⌘f

The function keys are rarely used on a Mac so, for example, most browsers’ refresh is ⌘r instead of f5, whereas the inspection/devtools pane is ⌘⌥iinstead of f11.

Window management

Unlike most programs on Windows, Mac differentiates between applications and windows. Closing all windows in an application will generally (System Preferences is a notable exception) not quit the application.

Additionally, many programs will re-open any existing windows the next time it is started (though this is often configurable). This can be used to save a working copies or scratch pad-type documents in certain applications.

  • Close window ⌘w
  • Close application ⌘q
  • Switch between open applications ⌘tab
  • Switch between open windows in the current application ⌘shift `
  • Move left/right between tabs in current window ⌘shift { and ⌘shift }
  • Open a new tab ⌘t
  • Move left/right between Workspaces ⌃← and ⌃→

Symmetric shortcuts

Adding shift to some shortcuts will perform the opposite of the non-shift variant. For example, ⌘z is undo, while ⌘shift z is redo. When switching between applications or windows, you can go back in the list with ⌘shift tab and ⌘shift `, respectively.

Home and End keys usually move to the beginning or end of a document rather than a line on a Mac. To move to the beginning or end of a line, use ⌘← and ⌘→, respectively.

Settings

This one is so important it deserves its own section. ⌘, will open the settings/preferences of virtually any Mac application.

Searching

Spotlight

There is a broad search tool in Mac OS called Spotlight. It can be triggered by pressing ⌘space (can also be triggered by clicking the magnifying glass icon on the menu bar). It is one of the best ways to launch applications, but can also be used for quick math, dictionary lookups, contact information, emails, to view map locations, and more.

The Help menu bar item in every application includes a search field. If you don’t know where a menu option is, use this search. It will give you a list of all partially matching menu items. When you select or hover over one of these results, the containing menus will be displayed with an indicator showing where you can find it next time without searching.

Finder

Open folders and files in Finder by pressing ⌘↓. Go up a directory with ⌘↑. Press return/enter to rename the selected file.

Pressing space will open a Quick View window which will stay open until you press space (or esc) again.

Quick View will display a preview of many different file formats, including images, music, videos, a range of textual files, pem certificates, and many others. It is a quick way to find, move, and delete multiple files without having to open them all in an external program. Keyboard focus stays in the Finder window, so shortcuts continue to work unmodified.

To move a file to the trash, press ⌘delete. Adding shift to this shortcut skips the trash to permanently erase the selected files.

Use the shift key with the arrow keys or the mouse to select multiple files. With multiple files selected you can perform powerful actions via the right-click menu like bulk renaming or creating a new folder with these items.

Peripherals

You don’t need special hardware to work on a mac. In general, you won’t even have to install drivers or special software to full use it. Try plugging in your new hardware before trying to install any software - you’ll likely find out you don’t need it. (As a side note, I generally advise trying this on Windows, too.)

Mice

Use any mouse you’re comfortable with. Left, middle, and right click as well as mousewheel should work as expected without any configuration. Extra, non-standard buttons may need to be mapped, but generally don’t require special drivers. If you want to change how scrolling or speed works, you can edit this in the Mouse. You can also set up a bluetooth mouse from this screen.

Scroll focus

When using the scroll wheel on a mouse or the two-finger scroll gesture on a trackpad, the scrolling action will be applied to the window under the cursor. Use this to your advantage to, for example, type in one window while scrolling a pdf or webpage in another without actually changing focus.

Keyboard

Just plug in (or set up via bluetooth) your keyboard, and you should be good to go. Media keys should work automatically, though some wheel-based volume controls don’t seem to be registered out of the box. Keys like Home, End, Insert, and Pg Up/Pg Down work normally, but Pause/Break and Scroll Lock are usually mapped to brightness up/down.

Built-in Keyboard

The built-in keyboard has some less well-known shortcuts of its own, most involving the Fn key. By default (this can be configured in System Preferences), the top row of keys perform system functions like changing brightness or volume, but they can serve as F1-F12+ keys by adding the Fn key.

If you’d like to adjust the brightness, keyboard brightness, or volume in smaller increments, hold ⌥ shift while pressing any of those keys, and it will adjust in quarter increments (this also works on external keyboards).

Additionally,

  • Home Fn ←
  • End Fn → (See note above for Home and End behavior)
  • PgUp Fn ↑
  • PgDown Fn ↓

The delete key on a Mac keyboard functions like a backspace key, while Fn delete functions like a forward delete (non-mac external keyboards function the same as in Windows or Linux).

Modifier Keys

By default, windows keys are mapped to command and alt keys are mapped to option. If you have a standard US keyboard, I suggest swapping command and option to maintain the same key layout as the built-in keyboard. This can be done easily in the Keyboard section of System Preferences. Note that this setting is configured per keyboard (in a dropdown menu at the top) rather than for the system as a whole, so you don’t have to choose just one layout if you have a range of keyboards you use.

Printers and Scanners

These shouldn’t need software to work. Go to Printers & Scanners in System Preferences and click the + icon to add a device that’s connected on the same network or via USB.

Next Steps

The next blog post in this series will go into more detail on suggested applications and configuration aimed at developers who are new to (or never fully got up to speed with) a Mac.

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