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Hello Switchers

It's time to unwrap your presents.

Did you find something special under your tree this holiday season? Was it a computer from the iPod maker? Here's the news - as if you didn't already know: you're in for a treat. But there are a number of caveats you should be aware of.

This article will hopefully help you over the hedge - if you're completely new to Apple's OS X and have never before ventured outside your Windows environs, there are things you will need to know. So read on.

Peace of Mind

Welcome to the world of Apple's OS X. Welcome to freedom. And congratulations on making one of the most intelligent decisions ever in your computing history. You won't regret it.

And there are so many advantages to switching away from Windows and to Apple's OS X it's not funny.

Perhaps the greatest thing about switching away from Windows is the safety advantage: you're not going to get hit by malware anymore: no more trojans, worms, viruses; no more spyware, no more adware - it's gone. Period.

So you don't need lots of additional programs to protect you. All you really need is your firewall (which comes built in - just turn it on). The firewall won't give you much more protection than you already have, but it will increase your processing power, as it will simply ignore all the malware probes from hundreds of millions of infected Windows computers (at the rate of several per minute at last count) instead of rejecting them. Telling those probes to 'stuff it' takes time, but with your firewall activated, you don't even waste time doing that. Meaning your computer will be even faster.

A:\ B:\ C:\

Windows uses drive letters. Surely you've seen this? Your main file system begins with 'C:\', other file systems have different letters, giving you 'D:\' or 'A:\' and so forth. Apple's OS X doesn't have that. It's based on Unix and Unix has a different (and better) way of looking at things.

All your disk accesses are handled in the same 'file system'. There is one hierarchy. Whether you have removable media in your computer or not, they're all accessible within the same file system - at so called 'mount points'.

Unix was never limited to a single hard drive. In fact the earliest Unix systems almost assumed the existence of at least two. But you couldn't see this when you'd booted up - it was all seamless.

And so it is today. If you have a CD inserted into your computer, it will be accessible within your existing file system.

Bottom line? You don't have to muck about with drive letters. They don't exist - and you'll be grateful for that.

More Windows Than Windows

A common misconception for switchers is not understanding why there are menus separate from application windows. With Apple's OS X these menus appear in a bar along the top of your screen. (In the predecessor NeXTSTEP they cascaded out of the upper left of the screen and were moveable.)

The reason for this is admirably simple but not always obvious: Apple applications handle more than one window but Windows applications do not.

You're going to find some fantastic things about user friendliness as you explore this new paradigm. When you load one application to open any number of documents, you won't be loading the application each time - the application will take care of all the open documents all by itself.

Of course this increases your usability. There are possibilities for interaction between these application windows that can't be realised on Windows. If you close an application window on Apple's OS X, odds are you won't be exiting the application - you're only closing the document you've been editing. Things don't work that way on Windows. If you have two windows open running the same application but with different documents, odds are you'll have loaded the same application twice - which not only is clumsy but bogs down your system with the extra demands on processing power. Apple's OS X isn't like that.

One Right Button

A lot of switchers complain there's no right mouse button, and some even go so far as to buy a mouse peripheral. But invariably they do this before they're fully acclimated to the platform, and end up being out significant cash for nothing.

The great secret about Apple's OS X is you don't need a right mouse button. And further: those 'context menus' you became so accustomed to on Windows are irrelevant here.

On Apple's OS X every menu item is in a context. At all times. And Apple users avail themselves of keyboard shortcuts a lot more than Windows users. Their way of thinking is 'I have a job to do and I want to get it done - fast'. And in this context keyboard shortcuts are the ultimate way to do that.

Those Apple menus are applicable everywhere. That's just how the system was designed. If you (invariably) have menu commands for cut, copy, and paste, they're going to be activated wherever you go. They're not specific to one window or an isolated function.

In a nutshell: every menu anywhere in an Apple OS X application is already in a context - you don't need to have a right mouse button to do more things for you.

The keyboard alternative to clicking a right mouse button is to hold down the 'ctrl' key while clicking. For there are context menus used in the system from time to time. But you're going to find that using 'ctrl' with a mouse click is so much easier than having to worry about clicking the right button - the few times you actually want to, that is.

Dumpster Diving

A kudo to Microsoft - and there aren't that many: Microsoft's Recycle Bin is much more sophisticated than Apple's Trash. When things are moved into the Recycle Bin they get their names changed and put in a database which records where they came from so they can be restored at a later point in time to their original locations.

Apple's Trash won't do this for you. When files are moved into Apple's Trash they're just moved in - name conflicts are resolved by adding 'copy' to a file name. There's no way of knowing where a file came from and therefore no way to restore it to that location if you need to do so. The Apple shell will remember the last file operation you performed and be able to 'undo' but beyond that you're left on your own.

Apple's Trash is thus a simpler and more temporary helper for your management needs. It helps get files out of the way - much like a mail client's trash - but it's not meant as something viable over time. Depending on your habits and needs this might be fully adequate or it might throw you for a loop. Many users don't bother using the Trash at all: if something's to be removed, they simply remove it.


Apple's OS X has two 'control areas' at the top and the bottom of the screen. The top area is your menu bar - that can't be moved about. The bottom area can be moved about. That's your 'dock'.

The dock is a program called simply 'Dock'. It has cute bouncy icons in it. These icons do not necessarily represent applications that are running - the icons merely give you a way to start applications easily.

The icons also accept drag-drop: you can drop file names on them to open document windows. And so forth.

Rearranging the look of your dock is very easy: if you want to move an icon to a new location, just pick it up and drag it.

Dock icons have context menus as well. Using these context menus you can easily exit applications and bring existing application windows to the foreground.

A Real Desktop

Here we start to see the difference between a wannabe environment like Windows and the real thing like Apple's OS X. Both desktops appear to be similar but under the bonnet they're vastly different.

Apple's desktop is simply a folder in your user area called 'Desktop'. When you're running Finder, you're entire screen turns into a view of the contents of this folder (and occasionally with display of additional media you've connected to your computer).

The point is that it's a real folder. It really exists. You can drill down to this folder at any time by going to your own 'home folder' and finding 'Documents' within and then going there. Your desktop really exists.

Nothing could ever be that simple (and elegant) in the wild and wacky world of Windows. The Windows desktop folder doesn't really exist. And the reason for this - venturing a moment into the esoteric - is that Windows doesn't recognise or rely on file systems alone.

Windows, bless its soul, has something arcane (and clumsy) called the 'shell namespace'. The shell namespace contains your file systems but it contains so much more as well. The Windows Control Panel? It looks like a folder but it's not. The Windows printer settings? Looks like a folder but it's not.

Things get quickly out of hand on Windows. There's a secret hidden shell namespace folder called 'desktop' in Windows that is the 'parent' of all folders in that shell namespace - but you never see it. And below it, in the expanse of your shell namespace hierarchy, you will eventually find yet another 'desktop folder' that more or less is what you see on your computer screen.

And technically the two are the same. Only in the world of Windows could the parent folder of a parent folder be that first folder itself. Who else but Microsoft would dream something like that up?

In a word, the Windows desktop is a mess. And you won't have to deal with such things on Apple's OS X. If you're looking at your desktop, you're looking at the physical contents of a real folder called 'Desktop'. And that's going to make things so much easier for the times you really need to drill down into 'Desktop' and see what's going on.

It's U-N-I-X

All personal computer systems today - even Windows - are to some extent based on Unix, yet this might be your first real contact with the system itself. And while Windows borrows a lot from Unix, it also changes a lot of things, and invariably not for your benefit.

As has been mentioned, the drive letters are gone - and this benefits you in innumerable ways. But there's a lot more.

Unix is an industrial strength operating system that's been vetted for stability and security more than any other. It's used by more than 70% of the web servers on the Internet because of its high degree of reliability and the number of Unix installations worldwide is going up all the time.

And now you too are running Unix under the bonnet on your new Apple computer.

Unix makes a difference because it was built according to standards Microsoft never believed would matter. It was built to accommodate different users with different levels of access to the system itself. In a word, it was ready for the Internet before the Internet became what it is today.

And it's no exaggeration to say the Internet was built by and for and with Unix. The protocols used to communicate between computers - whether it's accessing a web page or sending or receiving mail - were all written on Unix computers and for Unix computers. And had the code for this not been free to use by anybody, Windows users would not have been able to 'go online'. For all that code Microsoft use to connect with the Internet comes straight from the world of Unix.

It's obvious with a heritage like this there must be more goodies where those first ones came from. And there are. Digging into the beauty of Unix is a lifelong pleasure - and you don't need to know a lot to benefit: you just take things at your own pace.

And you probably won't have to be aware you're using Unix at all until you try to get 'fancy' about things. The Unix in your Apple computer is there all the time, working wonders for you, and you don't have to worry about it or even know it.

Command Lines

But Unix has a series of 'command interpreters' or 'shells' as they're called that leave the Windows command interpreters in shame. At the very best the Windows command interpreter CMD.EXE is still a pale copy of a Unix shell.

Unix shells are 'command interpreters'. They're just more programs just like any other programs. And that's one of the beauties of Unix: they're just ordinary programs.

But what they can do! A lot of your computer startup routines are managed by what are known as 'shell scripts' - comparable in a way to Windows 'batch files'. But the level of control and the power of these scripts really puts Microsoft to shame.

Doing simple elementary things from a command line even in today's world of the graphical user interface may seem a bit contradictory, as for example trying to take a shower in a raincoat. But not using the Unix command line when it's needed is the full equivalent of trying to take a shower without standing in the shower.

It's a fact that command line 'scripts' are the best way to perform 'rote' operations such as system cleanups and configuration restores. And the command line scripts are going to run a lot faster than the equivalent GUI based applications. GUIs can really slow things down; when you have a recurring automated task it will be a lot faster and work a lot more painlessly as a script.

Traffic Lights

Your window control buttons are on the left now - and they're prettier than Microsoft's will ever be. Microsoft's window control buttons are still font based for speed and honestly they don't look so good. Apple's window control buttons are gorgeous.

Remember: closing a window does not ordinarily exit an application. And if you want to have real fun, hold down a shift key when minimising a window. Great effect!

Maximising a window may often mean the window will take the entire screen but not necessarily so. Many applications customise their behaviour in this regard, Safari being one stellar example and Preview being another. Both Safari's main windows and its activity window automatically adjust to show as much content as possible - and that's it. The same with Preview.

By the way, you can do the 'shift key trick' when restoring minimised windows from your dock as well.


The text system in Apple's OS X is nothing short of astounding. There are so many issues you won't have to deal with or grapple with anymore it's not funny. It's like leaving those cave paintings behind and studying with Rembrandt.

All text in your new computer is Unicode based. You can save files in various character encodings, but internally all your text is treated and managed as Unicode. Meaning you can easily render and deal with any character that's ever been used anywhere.

You can easily search for Chinese characters in your documents, for example. You can initiate file name searches with Chinese characters and wildcards too. And so forth. You're suddenly free.

Unicode in action. Thanks to the space age text system built into OS X the Rixstep ACP utility Xscan can search for literally anything - and find it.

But more than that, the text you do use works so much better. You no longer have to worry about line breaks in files with plain text, and your built in mail program won't worry about it either. Text simply wraps to fill its window.

You'll notice the difference when corresponding with other Apple users: your mail is no longer a mess of broken lines, unwieldy and impossible to read: no, your quotes are suddenly all laid out cleanly and tidily.

Apple namely use a special format for mail, recognised by the standards bodies of the Internet, but it's not used by so many others and certainly not by Microsoft. It's just going to be so much easier to work with your computer with this powerful text system in it.

And you can select text at any time, anywhere, and immediately put it on the 'find clipboard': your computer has namely multiple clipboards for your use. Hit the keyboard shortcut for putting your selected text onto the find clipboard - which you select anywhere you want in any program you want - and you can immediately go to 'finding next' and 'finding previous' in any other application you want.

For example: take the word 'and' in the previous paragraph and double-click it in your Safari browser so it's selected. Now hit ⌘E on your keyboard. Now hit ⌘G to go to the next instance of 'and'. (It should wrap around too.)

No More Registry

One of the big eyesores with Windows is its Registry. It's almost as if Microsoft wanted malware to have good places to hide so your computer could never be fully disinfected and safe to use.

For it's easy for a hacker to write code to hide things in your Registry but it's not as easy for you to go in there and find what you're looking for.

Architecturally the Registry is an incredible blooper: it concentrates all sensitive system information into an extremely finite number of on-disk files; if something goes wrong with one of those files, your system can be toast. And all this information is squeezed together in there willy-nilly. A flaw in an IE setting might be all that's needed to cripple your system beyond repair.

And talk about a jungle: there are few entities in the world of computing science that pose such a challenge to end user and professional both. It's just a mess and there are no two ways about it. And it's where all kinds of bad things hide.

Apple's OS X has no Registry - the Apple OS X configuration system is, in a word, 'brilliant'. And it's all in text files. That you can open and read through at any time. The bad guys have nowhere to hide on OS X.

Old Habits Die Hard

It takes time to get used to a new system. Old habits die hard. You might find yourself feeling frustrated after a day of computing. Things aren't where you're used to finding them and they don't work the same way either. You get frustrated, your nerves get raw. You might even feel the urge to scream! But it's all OK. This is going to happen no matter where you go after Windows - especially if it's to something so superior as Apple's OS X.

And so when this happens to you, the best thing you can do is shut down your system and do something else for a while - take a nap or watch a good movie or whatever. Do something else to get your mind off things for a while. And give yourself time to learn - and learning always takes time (and it takes sleep as well). It takes time to get used to the changes, even when they're improvements.

You'll never switch back, and that's almost certain. A number of years ago Microsoft tried to start an 'anti-switcher campaign'. They hired on a PR firm to run the campaign for them. The lady in charge of the campaign couldn't find a single former Apple OS X user who went back to Windows, so she borrowed photos from Getty Images and made up the story instead. It was quite the scandal, especially when it was discovered she prepared the entire campaign on her own Apple computer!

And it's indicative of how you will feel with Apple's OS X: people are switching all the time - but only in that direction. No one switches from Apple's OS X back to Windows. Some go on to other platforms but they never go back to Windows. Period.

So take your time. It should take about a month. Yes, there may be frustrating moments along the way, but that's just part of the ride. Once you get used to your new Apple OS X platform you simply won't be able to consider ever going back. Seriously. So give it time. Give it a month and see how you feel.

Digging Deeper

There'll be further articles available shortly for those who want to dig even deeper into their new systems. They're not published yet because it's not a good idea to rush things. What's most important at this stage is getting used to the new computer 'as is': don't add a lot of new software onto it; don't assume you need anything else (for mostly likely you do not). Get used to using that computer as it came out of the box for now.

And above all, enjoy what you're doing. Computing's fun again.

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