Making the switch from Windows to Mac can be quite challenging. There are lots of small differences, enough to make it almost annoying to use a Mac. However, once you get used to using your Mac you'll probably find it odd when you go back using a Windows machine. So here are some hints and tips that will hopefully make your experience with Macs less frustrating!

Some common (but confusing) shortcut symbols

Using keyboard shortcuts efficiently is probably one of the most annoying differences you'll experience when you first start using your Mac. The drop down menus generally all have the shortcut combinations displayed, but the symbols can often be quite confusing.

Command/Apple (Command/Apple) - Think of this as the "Control" key for Windows.

Alt/Option key (Alt/Option) - Think of this as the "Alt" key for Windows. The icon does sort of make sense... It's a path that is split... giving you an alternate option...

Control Key (Control) - Doesn't really map to a Windows key, just there so Mac can have lots of finger tangling shortcut combinations

Escape (esc) Key (Escape) - Ok, this isn't a common shortcut key, but it does make an appearance every now and then.

Some useful, generic Mac shortcuts

For many shortcuts you can try replacing "Ctrl" (Windows) for "Command" (Mac) and it should still work. eg. ctrl/cmd+n (new), ctrl/cmd+c (copy), ctrl/cmd+x (cut), ctrl/cmd+v (paste). There are some shortcuts that are more Mac specific, here's a few that I find quite useful and you should be able to use them regardless of what program you're running.

  • cmd+space - Spotlight! (Super useful, I'll explain later)
  • cmd+tab - Switch between applications
  • cmd+tilda - Switch windows within applications
    • Note: the above two are equivalent to Window's "ctrl+tab", except Mac has the concept of an "active application" which is why you have "cmd+tab" to change your "active application" and then "cmd+tilda" to switch within the application itself.
  • cmd+q - Quits the current application
  • cmd+h - Hides the current application. Re-open the application by "cmd+tab-ing" to it, or select it from the dock. (I generally don't use this, but good to know if you accidentally hit this combo)
  • cmd+w - Closes the current tab (or window if no tabs) of the application, does not quit the application. (Should work for most applications)
  • cmd+shift+w - Closes the current window (ie. closes all tabs) of the application, does not quit the application. (Should work for most applications)
    • Note: Unlike windows, closing a window in Mac doesn't necessarily close (quit) the application. So hitting the red circle/cross on the top left of the window or using the shortcut combo will generally only close the window, not the application.
  • cmd+comma - Opens the properties/settings window for that application
  • ctrl+click - Simulates a right click (or if you're using a trackpad you can set two fingers to be 'secondary tap' under System Preferences > Trackpad)
  • cmd+alt+esc - Opens the 'Force Quit' dialog - similar to ctrl+alt+del in Windows.

Spotlight (cmd+space)

Spotlight basically allows you to quickly open any application, file, folder etc that is on your Mac.

  1. Hit "cmd+space" and Spotlight will appear on the top right of your screen.
  2. Start typing in the name of a application, file, folder etc you want to open.
  3. See the results get displayed dynamically and use the up/down arrow keys to select what you want.
  4. Hit "enter" and there you go!
    • Note: hitting 'esc' once will clear the text in Spotlight, hitting it again will close Spotlight

I've found Spotlight "learns" what applications/files you use most often, so you'll end up needing to type less :)

Another cool feature of Spotlight is you can use it as a calculator (eg. start typing in 2*21, you should see "2*21 = 42" appear as your first result). If you hit enter now, the calculator will open (unfortunately without the calculation you just entered) or hit escape twice to get back to whatever you were doing.

Mac specific applications

Many people will say that lots of software will only work on Windows, and they are probably right. However, you'll find that more and more programs are now compatible with both Windows and Mac.

Now, if Windows only software exists, there has to be Mac only software too right? Correct! So here are three Mac only applications that I find quite useful (all free of course)

  • Adium - A nice, simple instant messaging application that supports most of the common chat services (Google Talk, MSN etc)
  • Skitch - A cool screen capture tool that lets you take a shot of your screen (or part of it), draw/add text to it, and then share it online or save it to desktop (There is also a paid version available, but I think the free one is already super useful).
  • The Unarchiver - Somewhat like winzip/winrar combined - lets you expand compressed files (.zip, .rar, .gzip, .tar etc). ps. if you still have a Windows machine, I recommend 7-Zip for expanding compressed files.

There is one other Mac specific application that definitely deserves a mention - Quicksilver. There are many people that will swear by Quicksilver, saying that it's super powerful and helps them use their Macs super efficiently - I've seen it in action and indeed you can do lots of crazy and cool stuff with Quicksilver. However, I found when I installed it, I never quite got past the "cmd+space, open file/application" use case, so I decided to just stick with Spotlight. Give it a go if you want, it's free too.

So that's Part 1 of my attempt to help those who are new to the Mac world. Part 2 will follow shortly (hopefully) and will contain similar random-ish pointers that appear in no particular order. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask and I'll attempt to help you!