About | Buy | Industry Watch | Learning Curve | Products | Search | Test Drive
Home » Learning Curve

New Tricks, Old Dogs

OS X is intuitive, but unlearning Windows can be a frustrating task.

The Mouse

Macs have only one mouse button. Early Mac design engineers didn't like the PARC three-button mouse, and were convinced operations were simpler and faster with a single button mouse, and that attitude has prevailed to this day.

You can get an external multi-button mouse for your Mac laptop; you can also get a multi-button replacement mouse for your Mac desktop; but odds are you won't want to go that far. What do you lose with a single button Mac mouse? What do you win?

Windows users are used to being able to invoke context menus on almost anything by clicking their right (secondary) mouse button. Mac users can do it too: just hold down Ctrl and click as usual. (If you do have a multi-button mouse, then you do the same as always.)

Not all areas of the desktop provide the context menus you want. In particular, you'll find it difficult to manage Internet Explorer. But IE is a Microsoft product. On Windows it goes through hoops to preserve this modularity, obstinate as it is to not use the built-in controls like all the other programs. So this is Microsoft's bit. If they want to integrate their browser better with the operating system, fine; if they don't, write and complain.

Almost anywhere else you'll find your context menus pop up just like you're used to.

The Trash

Windows runs its Recycle Bin with a database. All the files in the bin get indexed names, and a special file keeps track of their new names and their old locations. Thus it is easy to restore everything to its original folder.

It doesn't work like that on the Mac. You can undo a 'move to Trash' operation if it's the last file operation you've done, but after that you're a goner. You have to remember on your own where the files go if you want to restore them.

Also, because the Mac trash doesn't have an indexing system, the Finder has to rename files on occasion to avoid name conflicts. Thus you can get yourself into the curious situation where you have files named MyFile, MyFile Copy 1, MyFile Copy 2, and so on, and it can be extremely confusing and almost impossible to remember which is which.

Window Sizing

Here again the Mac is at a disadvantage. It's obvious Microsoft has copied the ergonomics from Apple, yet despite their windows having a resizing area only in the lower right corner as on OS X, you can in fact drag from any side or any corner - unlike the Mac, where you have to drag from the lower right hand corner all the time. This is admittedly a pain. There is no workaround. Get used to it.

Caption Bar Buttons

The Mac's caption bar buttons do not correspond to those found in Windows. In Windows they're on the right of the caption bar, on OS X they're on the left.

And they don't work the same way either.

The rightmost button in Windows closes the program; on OS X it maximises the window. On Windows the leftmost button minimises the window; on OS X it closes it. The middle button on Windows maximises (or restores) the window; on OS X it minimises it.

And on Windows a double-click on the caption bar will maximise or restore the window, while on OS X it will minimise it.

Windows also has a context 'window' menu (which you can also get at by single clicking on the icon on the left in the caption bar); OS X has no corresponding facility.

There is a great distinction on the Mac between closing a window and quitting an application. Most experienced Mac users don't worry much about quitting their apps once they've started: they can get at them easily in the dock when they need them again. Just don't be surprised when you see a menu at the top that you don't think should be there.

The easiest way to learn this may be to remember the keyboard shortcuts for closing windows and quitting applications. It's the same for almost all programs too. Use Cmd-W to close a window; use Cmd-Q to quit an application.

The Dock

Apple integrates all parts of the Windows taskbar into one program. On Windows things are divided up into the quick launch section to the immediate right of the Start button, the task section, and the shell tray. The icons in the quick launch section represent programs that can be started but are not running; the 'tabs' (with icons and titles) in the task section represent applications on the desktop; and the icons in the system tray represent resident programs that are running and can often be put on and taken off the desktop with a double-click. That's three different parts of a single control.

All of this is integrated into a single entity on OS X: the dock. The dock predates the Windows task bar by about ten years, and is its inspiration, but it does things differently.

Icons on the dock can be both for launching programs that are not yet running and for returning to programs that are already running. The little triangle under an icon will tell you if the program is already running or not. For example, the Finder is always running (and trying to quit this program will be futile). As other programs are started, they are added to the dock.

The dock can be moved around just like the Windows taskbar. The only place it cannot go is at the top of the desktop: that's reserved for the menu bar. Otherwise go to the Apple menu, Preferences, and choose where you want your dock.

You can also size the dock, something you cannot do as neatly on Windows. OS X icons size seamlessly and look good in all sizes; Windows icons are severely limited.

If you want a program to stay on the dock after you've exited it, click on its icon it while it's still running and hold the mouse button down, and after a second a context menu should pop up with this option.

The Menu

Probably one of the most confusing things for Windows users is figuring out exactly how all this document-oriented stuff hangs together on the Mac, the platform where the revolution once began.

Mac programs do not have menus in their windows; a program menu is always at the same location: at the top of the desktop. As you click in different windows, this menu will change to represent the program that's currently active.

Closing a window does not normally close an application. Apple distinguishes between closing a window and QUITTING an application. There are keyboard shortcuts for both which when learned make it easy to keep up. Hit Cmd-W to close a window; but hit Cmd-Q to quit an application entirely.

Most OS X apps put the program in the centre and admit of what on Windows is called the 'multiple document interface'. Some programs show nary a sign of life when they start up: you won't notice anything if you don't keep your eye on the menu at the top. These programs require you to either open a file for editing or to start a new file. Both commands will be found on the file menu.

Windows programs have the File menu farthest to the left; not so on OS X, where the Apple menu is always leftmost. This menu contains generic commands for managing the system as a whole. The next menu over is the Application menu, and first after that the File menu, which generally corresponds to the same menu on Windows.

Other submenus are fairly standard across the platforms: the Edit menu contains commands such as Undo, Redo, Cut, Copy, Paste, Select All, as well as Find, Replace, and the like (which can often be found on a separate Search submenu on Windows); and at the far right there's the Help menu, which works much as it does on Windows.

One minor and subtle difference is where you get at the About box. On Windows the command is always under the Help submenu; on OS X it's the first command on the Application submenu.


OS X associates file types with programs just like Windows, but the system is both more flexible and more confusing.

Windows uses its feared Registry, where the key HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT contains all. Windows bases its associations solely on the file extension, something Mac users may not find it easy to understand. If a file has no extension, Windows can't do anything with it, cannot distinguish between it and all the other files on disk with no extension.

OS X is starting to use this system too, as NextStep used it, but there are other methods, embedded in core Mac technology.

A Mac file has both a file type and a creator code associated with it. This information is kept on a per-file basis. The creator code is a four-character sequence which uniquely identifies the program that created the file; the file type gives the operating system further clues what other programs may be able to read and edit the file.

Unlike on Windows, a Mac user can at any time change the association with a single file. This is not always easy, but it can be done. And the file does not have to have an extension either. Like on Windows, a context window will give you the opportunity to choose a program to open the file with, and you will be given a further opportunity to set the program you choose as the default program for opening files of that 'type'.

You can get into the curious situation where files with the same extension have different icons and are opened with different programs. This can admittedly be confusing. The easiest way out of this is to decide what program you want to use for all files of the same type, then Ctrl-click on one and reset the default editor.

Another way is to invoke the Get Info command from within the Finder. Here you will also be able to reset the icon and the default editor.

If files with the same extension open with different programs, it's because they were created with different programs. If you don't want your files to have extensions, yet you want them all to open with the same program, you might have to do a bit more trickery.

If the Finder can go by the extension, it will - this is the NextStep idea, and the plan is that this will gradually replace the old Mac idea. If the file has no extension, then the Finder must go by the creator code and file type - and this is a legacy Mac feature.

My App Got Screwed Up!

Sometimes things can get wild on any platform. You drop your mouse to the floor, and on its way there it bangs into the wall, drags your favourite window all out of whack, and closes it. The next time you open that program, you have to spend priceless minutes getting everything realigned again. Bummer.

Or even worse: something happens with one of your apps and next time you try to start it up, it won't open - or as soon as it opens it crashes. You know there's something wrong in its configuration that you might have screwed up, but how can you fix it? Where are the bad settings? Can you change them even if you find them?

On Windows they will be in the Registry, and that can be a threatening environment. And in that jungle, how are you supposed to see where your naughty program saved its stuff? Yep - it's a headache.

On OS X it's a bit easier. Open your Finder and go to your home directory. Then open the Library folder you find there. Inside your Library folder you'll see a folder called Preferences. Set your Library folder to list mode so you have the file names, dates, sizes, etc. all in neat rows across the window. Now find and select that Preferences folder, and hold down Option and hit the right arrow key. This should expand all the folders in the Preferences folder.

Now click the date column in your Finder so you have the latest modified files at the top of the list. You should see the preferences for your program near the top.

Property Lists

OS X program preferences are thankfully not stored in a Registry or anything like it, but in XML-formatted files called 'property lists' and having the extension 'plist'.

Now you can edit these files with TextEdit, but odds are you'd find this a bit intimidating. What you need is the Property List Editor from the Developer CD you may have got with your copy of OS X. This is a good program to have around, whether you are a developer or not.

XML files have a simple format: they contain pairs of keys and values. A key can have a binary value, or a string value, or it can be a so-called dictionary, i.e. a list of further subordinate values.

For example, your program might have a key called 'Window Position', and after it a series of values that signify the window x.y position and its width and height. Or you might have this:

<key>Window X</key><string>80</string>
<key>Window Y</key><string>100</string>
<key>Window Width</key><string>400</string>
<key>Window Height</key><string>600</string>

If you think you know what is wrong with your program, you might try deleting the keys you suspect are at fault; otherwise, you can try moving the file to the Trash and starting your program again.

Most OS X apps come with adequate 'factory defaults', and if they cannot find anything in your Preferences folder will revert to these. And if things don't work out as you want, you can always delete the new property list file and restore the copy you have in the Trash. But most of the time things will be ok when you remove the file.


The system Apple uses to name these preferences files is based on what they call 'domains'. They look like reverse URLs. Thus the preference file for Apple mail is:


And so forth. Software from other companies should sort under this system too. Sometimes they do not, but their files should be easy to pick out if you have the entire Preferences folder expanded.

To collapse all the files and folders in Preferences again, select the Preferences folder in the Finder, hold down Option, and hit the left arrow key.

But you might want to have all these files and folders expanded in case a tragedy occurs again. One of the wonderful things with OS X is that the Finder will remember exactly how you've displayed each and every folder.

If you want to change the settings for an individual folder, either select it in your Finder from its parent folder, or make sure you have nothing else selected while you are in the folder itself; then hit Cmd-J. This will bring up the view options for the folder.

There are two ways you can display a folder: either as all the other folders, or with settings that are specific to this one alone. You'll see that option right at the top, with two radio buttons. If you've clicked to set the view options for all windows, then anything you change will affect all other windows set the same way. If you only want to change the view options for this folder, click the other radio button.

You can set the size of the icons, how they're displayed - icon view, list view, or column view - and so forth. You can even set a background picture for the folder - and remember, this can be on a per-folder basis: it doesn't have to pertain to all windows.

If you leave a folder in list mode, and set its view options specifically, the Finder will remember your settings when you leave it and the next time you open it you'll find yourself at exactly the same position you were last.


The NextStep platform began back in 1985. By 1993 it had reached a level of perfection which put it years ahead of anything else on the market even today.

Everyone's always copied the NextStep interface. You have been using bits and pieces of it all along without knowing it. Desktop authors of today are more anxious than ever to catch up, for it's finally made the mainstream, finally become a threat.

Some ideas will take a while to mature. What seemed brilliant back then in terms of ease of use may no longer be so easy. And despite all, the NextStep engineers have a lot of catching up to do.

It's far worse for the ingrained Mac user: things are all over the place, and it's a totally new operating system under the desktop. If you have any experience with Unix, you're a big step ahead of the game.

We've only discussed differences in the interfaces here; we haven't touched on all the other obvious and very tangible differences which make OS X superior: the graphics, the stability, and the fact that 'it just works'.

So if you find yourself losing it because nothing is where you expect it to be and you just can't find it, close down operations and take a break. You will make the transition with time. You might make it in a month. And once you've crossed that threshold, you'll never look back.

About | ACP | Buy | Industry Watch | Learning Curve | Search | Test Drive
Copyright © Rixstep. All rights reserved.