Beginner's guide to OS X

13th Feb 2011 | 12:00

Beginner's guide to OS X

Best Mac apps and tips to get you started

The first 10 things to do with a Mac

Well done. You've just made one of the best decisions of your life – buying yourself a new Mac. If you've come across from Windows, so much the better. 

The first thing you'll notice is that the latest Macs are impressively fast. They also come bundled with software you would normally pay a lot of money for, allowing you to create some out-of-this-world projects.

You're also less at risk from viruses. And, of course, you are now a user of the best operating system in the world.

But before you get to the good stuff, you need to make sure things are set up just the way you like them. Whether you need to move your files over from your old computer, hook up your web connection or get your accessories attached and up and running, the next few pages will help you get going.

Transferring your data from your old computer – be that a Mac or PC – may seem like a daunting prospect, but it's actually very straightforward. However, we will still guide you through the process to make sure your important files make it across. We'll then help you connect to the internet, set up your email and customise Mac OS X so that it looks just the way you want it to.

We give you tips on what you need to do once you've completed the simple setup process that greets you when you first switch on your Mac. From here we'll explore the best apps (most of which are inexpensive or free) you should invest in and then impart a little Mac knowledge for those new to the platform to help you get up to speed fast.

Finally, we'll give you a glimpse of just what's available in terms of creative projects, so you can make a start right away.

The first 10 things to do with a Mac

1. Transfer data from your old computer

With your new Mac up and running there are bound to be items on your old computer you would like access to. If you know what they are then you can transfer them via an external hard drive. But you can also transfer a lot more; even your entire system.

If you're moving data from a PC to your Mac you should certainly consider Parallels Desktop 6 Switch to Mac Edition (

Master your mac

Not only does Parallels allow you to run a copy of Windows on your Mac, but it can also transfer the data from your existing PC to your new computer via its high-speed USB transfer cable in as little as three clicks. That's all of your software, your browser bookmarks, photos, documents and music.

If you're moving data between a new Mac and your old one, make use of Apple's Migration Assistant via a FireWire connection or over Ethernet. Make sure your old Mac has all of the latest software using Software Update, then run Migration Assistant on your new Mac, which you can find in the Utilities folder in the Applications folder.

Migration Assistant will now guide you through the steps to transfer your files and settings from your old Mac to your new one.

2. Connect to the internet

During the setup of your new Mac, you will be asked if you want to connect up 
your internet. If you have opted not to or have changed your setup since you got your new Mac, you can quickly and easily connect to the web using your Mac's System Preferences.

Master your mac

Start by making sure your router is turned on and connected and then hook up the Ethernet cable to your Mac if you don't use Wi-Fi. Now launch System Preferences from the  menu at the top left of your Mac's screen and select Network.

If all is working as it should be, you will see a green light next to Ethernet in the pane on the left of the Network preferences.

If you are using Wi-Fi, select AirPort from the left-hand pane and make sure it's switched on. Now select your wireless network from the drop-down menu and enter your password if required.

When you're done, click Apply and open up Safari from your Dock to make sure everything is working correctly and you can access the internet.

3. Organise your Finder windows

Click on your Mac's Desktop and press Cmd+N to open up a new Finder window. This is the standard view for your files in Mac OS X. You can drag any file or folder into the Places area – your Music, Movies and Pictures folders for example – so you can access them from any Finder window.

Master your mac

By pressing Cmd with 1 – 4 you can bring up Finder in different views, such as Columns and Cover Flow view, to make them easier to navigate.

If you want a specific view each time you open a Finder window, open one and, without navigating to any files or folders, select the view you wish to use. Now close the window. From now on, every time you open a Finder window it will display in the viewing method you selected.

4. Adjust your Dock

As beautiful as the Mac OS X Dock is by default, you can make changes to it to adjust the way it works and looks. Start 
by clicking and dragging on the dashes between your app icons and stacks at the right of the Dock to change its size.

If you right click or Ctrl-click on the Dock, you can change other settings too, such as turning off Magnification, setting the Dock to hide when not in use and moving it to the side of your screen.

Master your mac

Clicking Dock Preferences from this menu takes you to the preferences pane where you can make adjustments to your Dock's size and magnification. You can also set windows to minimise into icons rather than to the end of the Dock where they take up space.

5. Control your clicks

Whether you're using a mouse or a trackpad, you'll want to make sure your Mac responds the way you want it to when you click.

Head to System Preferences from your Dock or click on the  menu and select Mouse to configure what buttons you want do what. You can also adjust tracking speed and, if you're using a Mighty or Magic Mouse, make changes to scrolling options.

Master your mac

For laptop and Magic Trackpad users, head over to the Trackpad preferences pane to set your Multi-Touch options including pinching, scrolling, rotation and swiping.

Apple's trackpads support gestures that use up to four fingers, so there are plenty of options and neat tricks available, such as swiping left and right to switch between open applications. Small video clips show you how to make the most of these features too.

If you're moving from Windows, make sure you set up your secondary click options to avoid any confusion when controlling your Mac with a mouse or trackpad.

6. Get protected

It might not be something you're thinking about right away, but backing up your data is something you should always have in mind.

Getting your backup tools in place early will save you time and headaches in the long run and it's pretty simple to do.

With a decent-size external hard drive at your disposal, you can make use of Mac OS X's Time Machine right away. Simply plugging in your external drive will usually bring up a window asking if you want to dedicate it as a backup location. But, if not, plug it in and click on the Time Machine icon on the Dock to set the drive you want to use, among other options.

Master your mac

While Time Machine backups are enough for most users, in the case of major disasters such as house fires, on-site backups are still at risk. For complete peace of mind, invest in an off-site backup solution such as Carbonite (

The service requires a subscription and stores all your data online rather than in your home, so it's safe from even the worst scenarios.

7. Make some space

In effect, Mac OS X's Spaces feature gives you more than one screen to work with. By creating virtual spaces on your Mac you can swiftly jump between applications and windows without having to dig through all of the open screens to find which one you want.

Master your mac

By default, Spaces is set up to provide four areas to use but you can set more if you need them. By using shortcut keys you can quickly jump between and from space to space and, in turn, find the window of the app you need. You can even drag windows from space to space to organise things the way you want.

In System Preferences under the Exposé and Spaces section, you can switch Spaces on and select how many 
of them you want to use. You can even assign specific applications to a space so you always know where they 
are at any given time.

8. Set up your email

If you haven't used migration software such as Parallels or Apple's own Migration Assistant before, you'll want to set up your email to work with your Mac.

You may even want to add more than one mail account to the Mail application. This is incredibly simple to do yourself with many of the most popular email services such as Gmail, Yahoo! and Apple's MobileMe.

Master your mac

Start by launching Mail and following the instructions to add your email address to the app so that it can search and display your messages. To add a new Mail account to your existing setup, simply open Mail, select Preferences from the Mail menu and under the Accounts tab, click the plus button at the bottom left of the interface.

From here you can access the same setup steps that you performed when you started Mail for the first time and add as many mail accounts as you wish.

9. Stay up to date

Between the time your Mac was built in the factory and arrived at your home, it's highly likely that some of its default software would have been updated by Apple.

This update could be something as basic as a simple tweak to an iLife app or drivers to a major security patch for the whole OS itself. So it's worth checking that you have all the latest updates.

Master your mac

In order to do this, shut down all of your open apps and select Software Update from the menu. Assuming you have a web connection, your Mac will now check your system and Apple's servers to see if any new software is available.

If so, you can select which to install or install everything. The latter option is often the best choice as you can never be sure when an out-of-date piece of software could cause you all sorts of problems and, in the worst case, open you up to viruses and fraud through security loopholes.

Once the updates have been installed, it's usually best to restart your Mac to ensure the updates are applied correctly.

10. Sync your kit

If you have an iPhone, iPad or iPod synced with your old computer, it's best to start afresh with your new system.

If you migrated your iTunes account from your old machine you should be fine to sync as normal. But, if not, you will need to manually copy over your movies, music and apps to your new Mac first and then sync your device with the new iTunes library, which could mean losing files if they don't copy properly. It's best to use Apple's Migration Assistant to copy your iTunes library.

If you're happy your library has successfully moved, syncing should work as usual and will store a backup of your iPhone or iPad in the new library so your data is protected.

For devices such as printers, scanners and other USB gadgets, you can just plug in and start using them. Mac OS X does a great job of finding the drivers but, in case it doesn't, check the manufacturer's website for the latest firmware and drivers and install them if the current files are out of date.

10 must-know Mac secrets

10 must-know Mac secrets

1. Exposé

It happens all the time when you're working hard on your computer – you open too many windows and too many applications on your Mac and, as on a real desktop, you can't find what you're after.

Master your mac

Unlike a real desktop, your Mac can help you find what you're looking for at the push of a button. Exposé is a handy tool built into Mac OS X and it can show you all of your open windows at a glance, as well as clear your cluttered Desktop of windows completely or show open application windows.

By default, these functions are set as the F9, F10 and F11 keys on the keyboard but you can also set Active Screen Corners to trigger Exposé from System Preferences.

2. Force Quit

Alright, twist our arms and we'll admit it; occasionally Mac applications will crash. When this happens you have the option to go to Force Quit, in order to tackle any application that refuses to respond.

Master your mac

By pressing Option+Cmd+Esc you can quickly bring up the Force Quit menu, which lists all of your open apps and those that are not responding, and quit them from there. You can also click and hold on an app's icon in the Dock to bring up a menu with the Force Quit option that will do the same job and kill a troublesome app.

3. App Switcher

Experience has proved this is probably one trick you won't be able to live without after you've tried it for the first time.

Master your mac

To quickly jump between your open applications, hold down Cmd+Tab together to bring up a floating window, which will show all your apps. With the Cmd key still held down, tap Tab to move to the app you want to go to. Add the Shift key into the mix and you can move backward too. It's simple but really effective.

This feature can also be handily accessed using four-finger swipes on Apple's Multi-Touch trackpad.

4. Quick Look

Master your mac

Quick Look lets you view a file without having to launch its native application to do so. Simply select the file in the Finder and hit Spacebar to bring up a preview window. Quick Look works with a number of formats including images, word-processing documents, audio files and a whole bunch more.

5. Spotlight

Master your mac

It's all too easy to forget where you saved a file, but with Spotlight your frantic hunting across folders is over. Simply type in a word or phrase into the Spotlight search field (at the top right of your Mac's screen) and you'll find your file if it's on your hard disk. When the results show up, you can even hold Cmd and click on a file to open its enclosing folder in Finder.

6. Smart Folders

A folder is just a folder, right? Wrong. Folders on your Mac can be turned into Smart Folders, which intelligently select their contents from the search criteria you select. This is a nifty time-saver if you have lots to sift through.

Master your mac

In the Finder, select New Smart Folder from the File menu and then enter a search term into the field at the top right. If you wish, you can also select where the folder looks for any matching files. The folder will now populate with all the results based on your chosen criteria and you can save it to any location and even include it in the Finder sidebar.

7. QuickTime editing

QuickTime saw an update in Snow Leopard to a sleeker version but with fewer features. It still retains some useful tools, however, including the ability to trim audio and video files and share them to MobileMe, iTunes and YouTube.

Master your mac

Click on the Share button and select Trim to bring up the editing interface. From here you can drag the yellow box to cover the area you want to keep and remove the rest.

8. Dashboard

It's been around for a while but the Mac OS X Dashboard is still an indispensable tool and one that also helps free your desktop of mess.

Master your mac

Activated by keyboard commands or the Dashboard icon on the Dock, you can add a number of widgets to the interface. These are overlaid on your Desktop and offer a calculator, clock, currency converter and more by default.

You can even download more widgets to use – there are hundreds available from third-party developers. Go to Apple's website to see the full selection on offer from scientific calculators to weather checkers and fun games.

9. Open with…

Mac OS X likes to think it knows the app you want to launch a a particular file format in and chooses the appropriate app for the job when you double-click a file.

To make your own choice, Ctrl-click or right click on the file, then select Open With to offer a selection of alternative apps alongside the default offering. Selecting a file and pressing Cmd+I will allow you to change the default application for the format under the Open With section.

10. Desktop Clean Up

If you keep a selection of files, folders or drives on your desktop, the chances are that, over time, they'll become cluttered up. Not only does this get really confusing but it also makes your Desktop look untidy.

By Ctrl-clicking on the Desktop you can choose Clean Up, which will neatly arrange all the icons on your desktop into order. It's not a good idea to have a lot of icons on your Desktop because it can slow down your system, but if you have to have some, it's nice to keep them tidy.

Apps to get you started

Apps to get you started

1. iWork


Master your mac

Not one app but a suite of three, a free trial of the iWork productivity suite comes with your Mac and it's worth trying out to see if it's for you. You can buy each of the apps for £11.99 individually from the Mac App Store.

Comprising Pages, Keynote and Numbers, the apps are a cost-effective alternative to Microsoft Office and work with docs created in Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Create it all from flyers to presentations using beautifully designed templates.

2. Growl


Master your mac

When you use a bunch of apps a lot goes on with your Mac – more than you can probably keep track of.

Growl alerts you when various actions occur on your Mac, for things such as new emails to completed downloads. It works with Mac OS X and any compatible app to keep you informed with a subtle message each time an action occurs. The way alerts look can be customised and can be set to appear in different places on your screen.

3. Spotify


Master your mac

Why you'll love it… With so much music available, Spotify seems too good to be true for a free service. Share your favourite songs with friends, build playlists and discover new songs from a selection of more than 10 million tracks.

The app now works alongside iTunes, so you can listen to your library within Spotify and build playlists using your own songs and those on service. A premium version is also available.

4. Dropbox


Master your mac

Why you'll love it… Share files between your Macs as well as your iPhone and iPad with Dropbox, a free filesharing service. It provides a shared folder on each of your connected Macs so you can access and work on docs wherever you are. You can even connect to it via the web and get hold of your files that way.

5. OpenOffice


Master your mac

Why you'll love it… OpenOffice is an open-source office suite that runs on the Mac and is compatible with all major office formats.

The software includes a word processor, spreadsheet tools, presentation app and drawing software, this is a fully fledged suite that's easy to use and won't cost you a penny. You can download the full suite from the website or choose to have it delivered on a CD.

6. Adium


Master your mac

Why you'll love it… If you've moved from a PC you might want to continue using Windows messenger or another IM service that you're used to. However, it's worth checking out iChat on the Mac, as frankly it's better. There's also AOL Instant Messenger and Google Chat.

So what do you do? You download Adium and group all of your chat services into one great application. You can even add Facebook chat to the service. And now you have a one-stop shop for all your instant messaging needs. There is also a vast array of skins and themes to make your chats really pop and alert you to incoming messages.

7. Twitter for Mac


Why you'll love it… If you're a Twitter obsessive and want to keep track of tweets, Twitter for Mac (formerly known as Tweetie) is a top solution.

The app offers a simple, Mac-centric interface that will sit on your Desktop and alert you of mentions and messages. You can add multiple accounts and search the latest trending topics from within Twitter for Mac; plus there's an iPhone app available that offers the same.

The desktop version is available for free on the Mac App Store.

8. VMware Fusion

$50 (£32)

Master your mac

Why you'll love it… Sometimes it's inevitable that we have to use Windows, but that's no reason to ditch your Mac. As with Parallels, Fusion also enables you to run Windows on your Mac without having to reboot into a new operating system.

Using a variety of viewing options, you can access Windows as full-screen or in a window. You can even use Mac OS X and Windows together, running Windows apps on your Mac as if they were native to the platform.

You do need to apportion a decent chunk of your hard disk to Windows, so bear this in mind when you come to install the software.

10 must-do projects

10 must-do projects

1. Make a photo book

iPhoto isn't just great for gathering and editing photos, it also offers photo printing including photo books. The new iPhoto in iLife '11 makes it easier to create a book, which is ordered from the Apple site.

Master your mac

Create an album in iPhoto, click the Create button and choose Book from the menu. You will then be given binding and design options and have a chance to re-adjust layout.

2. Create a party DVD

While iDVD hasn't seen many updates recently, it still has its uses in this web-focused world. One method is to build a party DVD to provide a visual focus (as well as music) for your party.

Master your mac

By creating a photo slideshow of you and your friends, then choosing songs to get your party going you'll not only have a great talking point but you won't have to worry about picking new music every five minutes.

3. Edit a family movie

iMovie is now simpler than ever to use, so you have no excuse not to edit those movie clips you've recorded over the years. In most cases you can import your videos, add titles and a soundtrack, and iMovie will do the rest.

Master your mac

If you want to get more involved, you can add new transitions and sound effects. When you're done, send your video to YouTube, save it to DVD or even share it by email.

4. Write an eBook

iWork now lets you export your Pages documents in ePub format, which is used by iBooks and the Kindle. You don't have to do anything different with your document other than save it in this format for it to be viewable on supported devices.

Master your mac

Pages makes it easy to combine text and images in your documents and the templates available make your work look even better.

5. Jam with a band

GarageBand is a great way to express yourself through music. There are even guitar and piano lessons built into the app to help you. If you do have a keyboard or guitar to hand or you just want to sing, try out the Magic GarageBand feature so you can jam along with a virtual band.

Master your mac

You can even invite friends to join in and play their instruments, which you can then record and mix using the simple GarageBand interface.

6. Create a personalised photo greeting card

As well as photo books, iPhoto also allows you to make fantastic greeting cards using a single image or a collection of images proudly displayed on the front.

Master your mac

These cards make the ultimate personalised gifts and you can even add your own text to them. Select one of your images in iPhoto, then click Create to choose a design, then lay out your images.

As with the books you can also order your cards from Apple who will print them and deliver them to you. You can order them in a number of sizes and in different amounts too, so there should be plenty to go round when it comes to Christmas and birthdays.

7. Record a podcast

The rise of the internet and apps such as GarageBand mean that you don't have to be a major network or radio station to get your voice heard anymore.

Master your mac

Using the brilliant podcasting features in GarageBand, you can quickly record yourself and others and include all the elements of a professional podcast including chapters, images and links. Record your voice with your Mac's built-in mic and add effects from the GarageBand loop library.

Publishing is simple too; simply host the podcast on your iWeb website and submit it to iTunes, and you're good to go. Pick your topic and get on with your recording – you never know, you could be the next Ricky Gervais on iTunes!

8. Make budgeting less of a chore with Numbers

Are you saving up for the holidays or planning a big trip away? Now, you can easily keep track of your expenditure and what you're putting away with a budget made in iWork's Numbers.

Master your mac

Not only can you use a template that lets you fill in your income and monthly costs, but you can even set an amount to save, so you hit your target in time for your planned spending.

Numbers budgets can be customised to include any additional sections that you might require, and you can also tweak the design and colours to suit your tastes.

With Smart Formulas included, every time you enter data, corresponding box values will update as well, so you can immediately see your results in front of you.

9. Create a photo slideshow

iPhoto is great for creating a slideshow with music and impressive transitions. iLife '11 introduces even more styles to the already excellent collection that can be accessed with a simple click.

Master your mac

Start by selecting an album and then the Slideshow button to pick your music and transition style. You can even save a version of the slideshow as a movie if you want to use it later, add it to an iMovie project or share it via email. Give it a try with your favourite album and you're bound to get hooked.

10. Design a website

How could we fail to mention iWeb when it comes to building your own homepage? There are a bunch of great templates to choose from within the app, regardless of whether you want to create a blog or a photo gallery. You can even post podcasts and videos to your site to share with your friends.

Master your mac

With a MobileMe subscription, you can host your site quickly and easily, and make changes that are published immediately. Show your friends just what your new Mac can do by building your own little corner on the web today.


First published in MacFormat Issue 230

Liked this? Then check out 40 cool OS X tips to save you time and effort

Sign up for TechRadar's free Weird Week in Tech newsletter
Get the oddest tech stories of the week, plus the most popular news and reviews delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up at

Follow TechRadar on Twitter * Find us on Facebook

Apple Mac OS X apps iWork iLife tutorial
Share this Article

Most Popular

Edition: UK
TopView classic version