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Mac switchers: 7 Windows concepts & habits you need to let go

Mac switchers: 7 Windows concepts & habits you need to let go

Switching from a Windows PC to a Mac is a big step. At first, Mac OS X can seem like a foreign land to folks who have only used Windows in the past. But with an open mind and a little re-training, it’s not so daunting after all. It’s actually pretty exciting!

Apple’s Mac computers are well known for their ease of use, but that doesn’t mean everyone is able to jump in as effortlessly as others. The biggest problem former Windows users face is understanding that the way they’ve been trained to use a computer by Microsoft doesn’t mean that’s the way all computers should work. It’s merely the way Microsoft chose to make Windows work, which is different than the way Apple chose to make Mac OS X work.

Loyalists can get into debates all day long over which company’s methods are better, but the unbiased fact is they are simply different. As a result, anyone who makes the switch from Windows to Mac needs to let a number of basic concepts and habits go. Once a switcher does this, they’ll be more open to learning how Mac OS X works and the unique benefits it offers, rather than complaining it’s not what they’re used to.

1. Menu bars for every window

Windows users are used to seeing a menu bar (File, Edit, Help, etc.) reside inside every application window they have open. For example, Internet Explorer has its own menu bar, as does Outlook, Notepad, and so on. Mac OS X takes a different approach as it only has one menu bar at the very top of the screen that stays there at all times and changes menu options based on the currently active application.

2. Red X closes the program

In Windows, clicking the red X in the top-right corner of a window totally stops or “quits” the program. Mac OS X has a red X too, but it has a different function. It merely closes that window – leaving the program itself still running in the background. For example, if you have 5 Microsoft Word documents open, they all have separate windows. Clicking the red X on one of them closes that document’s window only, and the other 4 are unaffected. You can tell an application is still running by the glowing blue dot under its icon in the Dock. To totally stop a Mac application, go to the program’s name in the menu bar and select Quit. Right-clicking on the program’s icon in the Dock and selecting Quit works too. Or, better yet, just press Command+Q on the keyboard.

3. Double-click title bar to maximize

The very top of a window in both Windows and Mac OS X is commonly referred to as the title bar. Double-clicking this area in Windows maximizes the window to the full size of the screen. Doing the same thing on a Mac minimizes the window by sending it to the Dock and hiding it from view. You can disable this behavior on a Mac by going to System Preferences > Appearances and unchecking the “Double-click a window’s title bar to minimize” option. You can’t configure it to work like Windows, though.

4. Maximize button

In Mac OS X there is no maximize button like in Windows. Instead, there is a green “Zoom” button next to the red close & yellow minimize buttons in the corner of every window. The Zoom button resizes the window to fit whatever content it’s displaying, not to fill the screen. Not maximizing every window to full screen is probably the biggest change in thinking a switcher faces at first.

5. Enter key to open files

When a file is selected in Windows, pressing the Enter key opens it in the default application. If you want to open a file when it’s selected in Apple’s Finder, you need to double-click it or press Command+O. That’s because the Enter key renames the selected file on a Mac.

6. Cut and paste files

Windows users are probably familiar with the concept of “cutting” files from one location and then “pasting” them somewhere else. This essentially moves a file from its original location to a new one, as opposed to making a new copy of a file while the original stays put. Mac OS X does have the copy command, but it does not let users cut files in Finder. The best way to move a file in Mac OS X is to drag and drop it. This can be accomplished with two Finder windows (the original location and the desired location) open side-by-side or by using Finder’s spring-loaded folders.

7. Fill up the desktop with icons

It’s common for Windows users to fill up their desktop with application shortcuts, files, folders, etc. After all, the desktop is the first thing people see when the computer boots up and it provides easy access to frequently used items. It’s not a good idea for switchers to carry that habit over to their new Macs, though. Application icons and files are available from the Dock, so the Mac desktop is meant to be mostly – if not completely – empty. In fact, too many icons on the desktop can slow down the entire system considerably.

Are you a Mac user who previously came from the Windows world? What other concepts and habits have you had to throw out the window (no pun intended) to fully enjoy Mac OS X?

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22 Comments Have Been Posted (Leave Your Response)

Red X? What red X in OS X? AFAIK there’s the red component of the horizontal traffic light but a red X?

The Eck,
OS X’s red traffic light also displays an X when the mouse cursor hovers over it.

Other things to get used to? No more: virus scanning,
defragmentation runs

Alternate to #5: you can use COMMAND-DownArrow to open a file or folder.

This nice thing about using this is, if navigating down through a folder hierarchy, you can also use COMMAND-UpArrow to go backwars (up) through the folders. (Or course if you switch Finder to Column view you can navigate even more easily with the arrow keys, but I digress).

The whole “red X” thing is incredibly inconsistent – especially with Apple software. Click the red dot in iPhoto or the App Store? The program quits completely.

You’re right, it is inconsistent – but I believe there is some method to the madness. For example, iPhoto, System Preferences, and the new Mac App Store all quit completely when the red X is clicked. I think this is because only one window can ever be open in each of these programs. There’s no possibility of another window opening in that software, aside from the main one. And so there would be no point to keep it running if the only instance of that program has been closed.

Wow. This article seemed like it was persuading you not to use apple. And it made some very good arguments. They take away functionality and add an extra step to most every task.

The first computers I used were apples at my school and even though I got used to them first, I found Windows much MUCH easier to use, and I still do. I don’t think I will ever understand Apple.

The point of the article was to avoid showing a bias of any kind, even though this is a Mac site. As I wrote, just because Microsoft did something in Windows doesn’t make it the “right” way. The same goes for some of Apple’s choices. They each have their own approach, so the only way to fully enjoy the Mac experience is to get out of the Windows frame of mind and start fresh.

Of course, I believe Apple made the right choices for most of the concepts in this article. Future articles on MacYourself might go into more detail about why many of Apple’s decisions make more sense than Microsoft’s. Stay tuned!

Love my mac but different for the sake of it isn’t always better.

Finder is an abomination. It makes explorer look good, though I have been spoiled by konqeror and the fact that it does everything you can think of and does it well.

The items on the desktop slowing the system down is an absolute load of bollox.

I find the red x so inconsistent that i don’t bother using it at all.

I understand the idea behind maximise but on a macbook it is irrelevant. And don’t get me started on the lack of ‘focus follows mouse’.

The single menu makes perfect sense to me.

I will say that I absolutely love, gestures, exposé and spaces with all my heart and miss them dearly when they’re not available :)

Julio C Andrade
April 7th, 2011, 7:24 PM

At first I didn’t get the maximize button but after reading the article it makes more sense now. However I would still prefer that it would expand to the full screen. I don’t get the red X button. If I click on it is because I wanted close and don’t want it running. Cut and Paste..yes!, I want to Cut and Paste damn it!!

Just bought myself an iMac for the first time.. big change here so I’m reading a few articles here and there to learn how to use it more efficiently. Although I’m up for changes once in a while, I agree that some of the things make more sense in Windows than Mac OS.

Like the other users mentioned, the red and maximize buttons, the cut and paste and even the enter to rename.. I navigate more than rename, so why would I want to use one of the main buttons to rename a folder rather than opening it? It’s like the the British.. they make no sense why so many of their things are the other way around… but they ARE different and after a while you get used to them, and although you still are confused as to why it’s like that, you wont necessarily find it as the “wrong way”.

What? No maximize button? I just paid a lot of money for this shiny new MacBook, and I invested in one with a larger screen. I’ve been looking through “Help” to find the button that will maximize the window. Now I find out I can’t maximize the window. I feel cheated! It just doesn’t make sense. To blow off the issue by saying that users need a “change in thinking” is an attempt to shift the blame for this shortcoming from the manufacturer to the users. (Those of us who want to maximize the window are “wrong thinkers.”)

So far, almost everything I’ve done on the Mac has required at least one more button push or keystroke than on the PC. I’m terribly disappointed. After all the hype about how easy it is to use a Mac and how intuitive they are, I’m finding it’s not the case. I’m stuck with the Mac, at least for the immediate future. Guess I’ll just have to hope for updates that will make this machine live up to its billing.

whats the difference btween the yellow minimize and the red X button if the red X buton does not close it? all it’s doing is minimizing it to it’s application location…. and the point is????

Well, I have ONE system behavior that I’d like to be changed in OSX (Snow Leopard or Lion.)

I’m losing my mind trying to find a script, a terminal command, something that make me able to change only one thing in OS X (Lion, now): that the mouse/trackpad click doesn’t act directly on what I click.
Explanation: in Windows you click on something outside your active window and the system behaves like this is active. In OS X we’re considered stupid, so we need before to select the object, than act with a second click. Very, very, very frustrating (and tiring).
Is there someone who can help me? (It’s days I’m searching without finding anything clear to try…)

Thank you very much in advance,

I’m not sure why everyone is so upset about the zoom button. It actually makes more sense now that everybody has high resolution displays. It just doesn’t make sense to maximize a page when most of it will consist of white space.

@Andrea Not entirely sure what the issue is but on my Mac running OS X Lion anything selected outside of an active window will consider the inactive window active for that momentary click. It doesn’t just select the window but does select the object even if it is inactive.

The only gripe I have with Mac OS is Window management. Sometimes I have A LOT of windows open for XCode and having to manually find them on my desktop or activating Mission Control doesn’t seem as efficient as just selecting it from a taskbar like in Windows.

In response to Marvin B, and anyone else that ‘agrees’ with the green zoom button. It might make ‘some’ sense for web pages that have white content that wont expand full screen. But the zoom button did not zoom correctly in some applications where expanding the entire screen would allow for more horizontal content such as word documents, pictures, or some web pages.
Apple clearly recognized users hated the zoom function – they’ve FIXED the issue in OS X Lion. Lion it now maximizes full screen at it should.

Hold command and then click the green zoom in apps that won’t go full screen. I have to do this using wrangler to edit HTML files or there is too much wrap around. Hope this helps.

I have a mac since 2 weeks and I am disappointed as hell.

I used to have win for ages (work&private) . 2,5 Years ago I had to switch to Ubuntu/Linux as I changed my employer and kept using windows just for private stuff. Adding Ubuntu to my “toolchain” was quite easy and joyful as it adopts windows user-concepts to nearly 99% – in concern of window-based-user-interfaces AND ADDS 80% more flexibility on command-line tools (I am a software developer/designer) . It’s just enhanced my workflow.

Than I start DJing in my free time with my windows laptop.As you know nearly EVERY so called DJ+GraphicDesigner has a MAC. Without you are not concerned as a professional. Everybody told me how save it is and that it never freezes and how easy it is to use. The typical “Apple-Flower-Zombie-Syndrom”. Than I thought well it is unix-based, virus free, stable, quality approved, genially designed, easy to use…. Well in two weeks I had 5 freezes, the quality&design is just unacceptable = ONLY TWO USB-Ports! And one has not even standart energy for enabling multiple dj-hardwares via hub + remote control works ONLY 9 feet, arkward Thunderbold-port is almost useless as there are just a couple EXPENSIVE products (only monitors or datastorage) . Hallo?!?! Didn’t you know that usb 3.0 and WUSB is coming?!?!? And for me is just not accaptable the way you have to trick your system to work the way you want it to work…

The biggest struggle for me was the different keyboard shortcuts. For years I’ve been using alt+tab to flick through applications… Not any more.

Use Command tab for that. There are a lot of good keyboard shortcuts available, but some missing. I have been a touch typist for years and it is very frustrating to have to click when you can type.
Here are some of the things I miss:
No forward delete key on portables – bad
No page up-page down keys – bad
No way to open a program using a keyboard shortcut.
Office for Mac – customized keyboard shortcuts don’t always “stick.”
Can’t open drop down menus with a shortcut
Any suggestions?

Judy asks, “Any suggestions?”

Here’s a workaround I made “to open a program [application] using a keyboard shortcut. The explanation is long (tailored for OX 10.5.8), but it’s worked for me.

The secret is to make the application’s name appear as a selection in the “Recent Items” submenu of your Apple Menu, which will allow you to set a keyboard equivalent for that application in the “Keyboard & Mouse” panel of your System Preferences.

Your first task is to decide on an application and a key combination that you want to use to open that application. Don’t choose a combination that already appears in any Finder menus (or submenus) or that appears under “Keyboard Shortcuts” in the “Keyboard & Mouse” panel of System Preferences.


1. Go to System Preferences and select the “Appearance” panel.
2. In the “Number of Recent Items—Applications” popup menu, select a number at least as large as the minimum number of applications you tend to use in a single session. (Best to choose the maximum allowed—’50’. The reason for this will become clear below.)
3. Go to the “Recent Items” submenu of your Apple Menu and note whether or not the name of your application is already displayed in the list of Applications. If it isn’t listed, open the application manually to force its name to appear in the list. Note the exact spelling of the name, including any spaces or capital/lowercase letters.
4. Return to System Preferences, click ‘Show All’, and select the Keyboard & Mouse panel.
5. Select the Keyboard Shortcuts panel if it’s not already selected.
6. Click the “+” button (at bottom left).
7. In the “Application” popup menu that appears, select ‘All Applications’ (so that the keyboard shortcut you’re about to program functions no matter what application you happen to be in).
8. Under ‘Menu Title’, type the name of the application exactly as it appears in the “Recent Items” submenu of the Apple Menu.
9. Under ‘Keyboard Shortcut’, press the combination of keys you want to use to open this application.
10. Click ‘Add’.
11. If you go to ‘Recent Items’ at this point, you’ll notice that this key combination is now displayed next to the application’s name. If the application is still running, switch to it and quit the application. Then press the key combination you just set. The application should open just as if you had selected it in the dock.

As long as that application remains listed in the “Recent Items” submenu, pressing this key combination will open the application. If you use the application every day or so, its name should never disappear from Recent Items. But if an application ever does disappear, out of disuse, you can revive the key combination simply by opening the application manually once.

Two caveats and a hint:

1. Some applications are programmed to open in a modified way when you open them while holding down certain modifying keys. For example, opening iPhoto while pressing the Option key will cause iPhoto to ask you to choose a photo library. In a case like this it’s best not to use the Option key as part of your key combination or you may have to deal with this photo library question every time you open iPhoto.

2. You won’t be able to program any application that already appears as a menu selection if selecting the item opens a submenu. For instance, programming TextEdit will fail because TextEdit, which already appears as a selection in the “Services” submenu of the “Finder” menu, is set to open its own submenu. Any key combination that tried to open TextEdit would only be able to select the TextEdit submenu, not open TextEdit itself. You can, however, set a keyboard shortcut to open System Preferences because, although “System Preferences…” is a already a selection in the Apple menu, it’s not set to open a submenu. (A side note regarding System Preferences in particular—be sure to include the ellipsis […] when you type the name “System Preferences…” in step 8, and type it as ‘Option-semicolon’, not as three periods.)

#7 is a load of horsepuckey. I’ve been helpdesk or sysadmin at several companies and Mac users are just as likely to litter their desktop with shortcuts and docs. I try and educate them about how you can add shortcuts to the top of the finder window. I’ve got activity monitor, network utility and terminal on all of mine. And depending on teh intended use of the box I will also load up some video utilities or somesuch. As far as items on the desktop slowing down the system, that was true in OS9 days when ram was pricey and the maximum config was 1.5GB.