How to Switch to the Mac

…and enjoy doing it.

Update: revisions for 2012 and Mountain Lion. You may also want to visit my Switch page, which tries to list suitable Mac OS X replacements for common Windows applications.

Introduction

Welcome! A lot of people have been moving to the Mac over the past few years, so a while back I thought I’d jot down a few notes about my experience over the last ten years or so. This page is updated on a yearly basis (usually around the holiday season, which is when I get the most visits from new Mac owners or people pondering the switch).

The motives for anyone switching will not be discussed here – discussing relative merits of computer platforms is very much like discussing cars, and therefore largely unimportant if you are getting what you want.

My main point to begin with is that quasi-religious beliefs that any platform is better than another are not just irrelevant, but plain childish and stupid. Before maligning the Mac, Windows or Linux, make sure you know what you are talking about – most people in the IT business have “pet hatreds” towards one platform or another out of sheer ignorance, and more than a decade in the business has shown me that anyone who only has bad things to say about any given platform probably doesn’t know what (s)he’s talking about.

So if you know you want a Mac, you’ve come to the right place for a few basic hints that might just save you a lot of time.

The major “under-the-hood” issue for non-Mac users is the underlying UNIX foundation1 of Mac OS X – it not being Windows makes some people nervous, but, in the end, what matters is the user interface and the way it makes most simple tasks a lot easier to accomplish.

The second (and quite frequent) issue is compatibility. Which, by the way, has long ceased to be an issue at all.

Now that Macs are also Intel based, that usually comes in two flavors – document compatibility (not really an issue these days – see my software replacements page for more info on specific apps), and the ability to run other operating systems, like Windows.

The bottom line on that is: You can do anything on a Mac, period. Most relevant applications are all available for both Windows and the Mac, and there are several working Virtualization solutions to run another operating system in a sandbox.

There are currently three main options for doing that: The first to appear was Parallels, which has been around since roughly mid-2006, and VMware’s Fusion, which reached public beta on December 2006 and was soon after released commercially. The third alternative – VirtualBox has also been around for a while and it’s become my default after it became free for personal use.

And, of course, you can always dual boot Windows or Linux using Boot Camp.

These will not be discussed here at length, since the main point of this document is to ensure you feel at home in Mac OS X as quickly as possible. But they are recommended if you need to ensure a smooth transition where it regards specific applications that may not be available on the Mac – you’ll be able to keep all your old applications running alongside the new ones.

As to the bulk of this guide, the target is non-technical folk. However, I do throw in a few hints for people who are coming to Mac OS X with some computing experience and expect some “best practices”, so don’t worry if some points are a bit too technical.

Buying

Buying a Mac is not a normal experience anywhere. It’s a local thing, best done with local people (pun intended). In Portugal, where I live, that was problematic for a long time due lack of “real” Apple stores, the recurring problems of the local retail chain (we got a “proper” online store in 2007 and a few premium retailers the last few years, but supply still cannot meet demand) and the quasi-underground nature of most user groups.

However, picking which Mac to buy (and when) is pretty straightforward. It’s mostly a matter of visiting the Apple site, reading the Macrumors Buyers’ Guide to figure out how recent each model is relative to the full lineup (but taking the predictions there with a fairly large dollop of salt), and then finding a store that stocks it (some people order theirs online – others, like me, want to go out, get it, and come back again without all that waiting around nonsense).

If you happen to buy a second-hand machine (which is common given the flurry of upgrades brought upon by frequent updates to the portfolio), you should check the CPU type. Any Core 2 Duo machine (or above) will be able to run Lion or Mountain Lion, but “plain” Core Duo machines or PowerPC machines are pretty much dead in the water these days given that Apple has phased out support for both – OS version 10.6 only supported Intel processors, and the bar is ever higher.

In any case, when buying second-hand make sure you plan for an upgrade to at least 4GB of RAM (or more), since Mac OS X has become somewhat more demanding in terms of resources and RAM is the easiest, cheapest way to breathe new life into an old machine.

Although the MacBook Air has profoundly changed the game was far as form factors are concerned, this MacWorld piece (dated 2008, but still applicable in 2012) provides good food for thought – and a quick look at Apple’s site will give you all the details you could possibly want.

I will not go into warranties, support or suchlike – this is, again, a local affair, invariably dealt with by local people and legislation, and stuff like AppleCare isn’t available everywhere. So far, I’ve been lucky – a problem one of my Macs had (an original 15” flat panel iMac, which I started out in and since gave to my parents) was fixed within three weeks2. It had a power supply failure, and fixing it required shipping a replacement part to Portugal. A similar thing happened to my iBook a good while ago, and the experience was mostly the same.

Unpacking & Testing

  • While unpacking, look at the packaging. It is an art form in itself, and there are often neat graphical hints of how to unpack every Mac printed on the box. Do leaf through the booklets and such, but (here’s the important bit) don’t rush it. There are a few important things to know about each new model or accessory, even if you’ve had a Mac before.
  • If you’re getting a laptop or iMac, I recommend you have a good look at the screen during the first few days to look for “dead” (i.e., stuck) pixels that won’t change color – manufacturing processes still aren’t perfect, and this is the most annoying kind of hardware problem possible – a minuscule thing that will stay with the machine for ever.

There is some controversy as to what amount of dead pixels warrants a replacement – search the Net for more info – but this is the kind of thing you want to check for right away to take advantage of any “immediate return” policies.

If you bought a second-hand machine, and depending on the model, you can often boot the Hardware Test off the first install CD (insert the CD and hold down Alt – or Option, as it is called in older keyboards – while the machine boots).

Amongst other things, it performs a display test – which is fundamental for picking up “dead” pixels before you start installing stuff (I used to use ScreenQuery, a simple app that filled the screen with solid colors, but it seems to have vanished). As usual, the smaller the screen, the less likely you are to have dead pixels.

Setting up Mac OS X

  • The default behavior these days is for the Mac to prompt you for an installation language the first time it boots from the hard disk and, after installing a few files (a few minutes’ worth) configure your locale settings. If your Mac boots straight to the Finder or to the login panel, then someone else has used it before (sadly, this is a common thing with Portuguese retailers, who like to play around with their customers’ gear). If so, I recommend using the restore DVDs included with every Mac to restore it to a factory-fresh configuration.
  • After setting up your keyboard, language and whatnot, the installer creates the first user account. This is the important bit: it is an administration account – call it “Administrator” or something like that and create another for yourself afterwards (if you’re a UNIX head, this is not root, which is disabled). Mind that this sets the computer name to ‘Administrator’s computer’, something you should change in the Sharing preference pane…

Many people think this is unnecessary until they discover (the hard way) that they threw some important system file into the Trash. Yes, there are warnings, but using the machine as an administrator tends to make people oblivious to them, and years of using all my machines as a “regular” user bestowed upon me painless system updates, zero trouble with the core system and no software instability whatsoever. In the end, it’s your call – I’m just providing time-proven advice…

You can create a “regular” user account in System Preferences after setup ends. This will not prevent you from making all the silly mistakes people do when using a Mac for the first few months, but it will significantly decrease the odds of you breaking something (you will be asked to authenticate as an administrator before any significant changes are made). Not to mention that it prevents unwanted changes to your system…

(Yes, you can break a Mac OS X install – or files that make subsequent upgrades fail – by mistake when you use the machine every day as an admin user. And yes, I will be repeating this advice several times).

  • Network configuration is usually trivial. Macs use DHCP by default, and visible Wi-Fi access points will show up on the Wi-Fi menu (to connect to a hidden Wi-Fi network, choose the “Other…” option). For those having to deal with older broadband connections, PPPoE support is built-in, and your card’s physical Ethernet address can be looked up in the Ethernet section of the Network preference pane in System Preferences.
  • The firewall is configured in the Security tab in System Preferences . The defaults are usually sensible for most cases (and Mac OS X is very secure3), but it’s best to ensure it’s on if you’re directly connected to the Net.

The firewall is deceptively simple, but quite sophisticated – for instance, you can set access permissions on a per-application base (very useful if you have to run things that keep checking for updates without a way to disable them).

Best Practices

What not to do:

  • Don’t use the administration account for anything other than setting up the machine and applications or changing “permanent” settings (if you want to, say, change network settings as a normal user you’ll be prompted for the admin password, and since you’ll do configuration changes less and less often as time progresses, this isn’t a problem).
  • Don’t install “toy” applications as the admin user until you’re sure you’re going to use them. Most applications will run just fine from an Applications folder under your user directory.
  • Don’t open files or mail attachments that come from unknown sources. This is a basic security measure that is valid for any kind of machine, even for a Mac – no operating system can protect your machine from your mistakes… One way to improve your odds is to open Safari preferences and uncheck the Open “safe” files after downloading option. There is no such thing as a “safe” file – you have to be sure of what you download.
  • Never, ever move Apple applications (such as Mail.app) to other folders. Mac OS X updates aren’t very clever at updating built-in apps, so you’ll end up with either two copies of your apps or a single broken one (this also valid for App Store downloads).
  • If you’re a Windows user: Don’t get into the habit of moving a folder on top of another with the same name – older versions of the Finder would replace the entire folder, i.e., it did not merge both folder’s contents and caused you to lose your data. This was a very significant difference between the Finder and Windows Explorer that catched most people at least once until the behavior was tweaked to display a sane warning dialog with (limited) merging options. To avoid confusion, drag the folder contents, not the folder itself.
  • If you’re a UNIX user: Don’t fiddle with the system startup scripts unless you’re sure you know what you’re doing (which includes reading this and a bit more about launchd and the startup files themselves). Mac OS X doesn’t use runlevels in the same way as “classic” UNIX systems, and things like network configuration, system services, and whatnot are not (necessarily) stored under /etc. You’ll figure it out after a while, but don’t go in thinking this is “just like any other UNIX system”. It both is and isn’t like other UNIXes, and like other UNIXes, fiddling under the hood is not to be done lightly until you’ve read the documentation.
  • Do not install stuff that messes with Apple’s defaults, including UI “skins”, funky plugins, low-level UNIX tools that overwrite (as opposed to coexist with) the supplied ones and other nonsense – that is a sure way to break the OS upon the next system update.

Things You should do:

  • Did you read the bit above about setting up your own user account? Go back and read it then.
  • Disable Safari’s Open Safe Files After Downloading preference. I have no idea why it still exists since there is no such thing as a safe file anymore, and like e-mail attachments, you should only download and open files from trusted sources. Yes, I am repeating this again, just to make sure you get it.
  • Tweak Safari preferences. Me, I disable Top Sites, make sure links from applications open in a new tab and choose a blank page as the default – once you do this, you’ll never go back…
  • If you’re installing software that’s not from the App Store, you can create your own Applications folder inside your home directory (Mac OS X will change the icon accordingly) and try out new stuff in there. If it breaks, you won’t break the machine for other people (and if a Mac OS X app breaks while running under an unprivileged account, it’s badly written for sure).
  • Put things you want to share among users in the /Users/Shared folder. You may have to tweak file and folder permissions a bit, but it’s the easiest way (see my Address Book, iPhoto and iTunes pages for ways to share these applications’ data).
  • Consider using a separate user account for playing around (yes, another one, besides your own and the administration one). Fast User Switching makes it very easy to try out new software like this.
  • Set up separate accounts for kids. Use the Parental Controls preference pane to define things such as restricting which applications specific users can access to, and more.
  • Use Mission Control. Learn how to use the function keys to invoke it and how to switch spaces using swipe gestures and hotkeys. That goes double if you’re using a trackpad, where gestures like triple-finger drag can make a significant difference.
  • If you mess around under the hood, be mentally prepared to reinstall your Mac from scratch after a month or so of heavy fiddling. This is mostly applicable to the UNIX heads who will ignore every other warning so far – “normal” users can disregard this hint, especially if you follow my main recommendation and don’t use the administration account for everyday work.
  • Get as much RAM as you can possibly afford – these days 4GB is pretty much the baseline, but 8GB is far more comfortable.
  • If your Mac didn’t come with a Magic Mouse (as late 2009 models do), then get a proper mouse – or, even better, a Magic Trackpad. I’ve said before that Mac OS X with a single button mouse is like rowing with a single oar, and I mean it: Mac OS X supports multiple-button mice, scroll wheels, etc. – you can use pretty much anything you want.
  • If you got a modern laptop, check the Trackpad preferences pane for the visual tutorials explaining how to use gestures to do all sorts of things with the trackpad – once you’re used to that, a mouse is often unnecessary, but you can use both at once.
  • Drag Terminal.app to your dock as soon as possible (it’s in Applications/Utilities). UNIX won’t bite you, and some things are best done at a terminal, given appropriate care.
  • During the transition period, you may want to use Microsoft’s great Remote Desktop Client (or, even better, CoRD) to access your Windows XP and Vista boxes. VNC is good, but the RDP protocol is much faster and also allows you to transfer files across.
  • Know your way around the Apple Knowledge Base. For instance, the Startup key combinations for Intel-based Macs is very useful when you need to troubleshoot the boot process, remove a stuck CD or DVD, etc., and things like Resetting the System Management Controller can come in very, very handy indeed.

Keyboard Tips

These started piling up a bit, so I decided to group them together in a single section.

  • See this gist for helpful tips on typing diacritics (accented chars) on US/UK keyboards.
  • If Alt-Tab is essential to your sanity, go into System Preferences, Keyboard Shortcuts and change “Move focus to next window in application” (in the “Keyboard and text input” section) to use Alt-Tab. That way you can use Command-Tab to change between apps and Alt-Tab to switch between windows in the same app, which is a decent enough compromise (some people like to do this with “Move focus to active/next window”, but it doesn’t work well in some instances).
  • Spend some time getting used to the accelerator and “special” keys. They make sense after a while, but having the extra Command modifier key and a different meaning for Home and End plays havoc with some people’s reflexes. (See below for a way to change this if you really want to, but I recommend opening a text editor and playing around for a while to get used to the way things work on a Mac).
  • Windows users will like to know that Alt-Command-Esc will display the “Force Quit Applications” dialog. You can also force quit an application by clicking on its dock icon while holding down Ctrl+Alt.
  • The Command-Tab bezel doesn’t just let you switch between applications – you can also select an application and quit it immediately by keeping the Command key down and doing Command-Q.
  • Remember that Command-H will “hide” applications (i.e., there’s more to life than minimizing windows), and that clicking and holding on an docked application icon will zoom out to an Expos�� view of all that app’s windows.
  • The screenshot key combos are mostly well-known, but here’s a brief summary:
    • Command-Shift-3 to snapshot the whole screen – the snapshot will be saved to the desktop (you can change the file format by manipulating a preferences file, but PNG is good enough for most purposes).
    • Command-Shift-4 to get a selection cursor. In this mode:
      • Hit Space to snapshot a specific window. This will include the drop shadow – you can use the “Grab” utility to take screenshots without it.
      • Hold down Control when clicking to save the snapshot to the clipboard (instead of the desktop), ready to paste into any application.
  • There is a set of startup key combinations here that you might find useful. Some are obsolete by now, but most are still valid and may be very useful to folk getting second-hand Macs.
  • People using a Mac mini with standard PC keyboards are likely to have trouble with the way keys are mapped (especially non-US layouts, which swap accent and symbol keys), so I strongly recommend getting an Apple keyboard.
  • If you’re using a Mac with an external non-US keyboard, the screen brightness control is often unmarked – try the function keys above the help key.
  • MacBook users will also want to know about Command-F1 to toggle between mirrored and extended desktop modes (a lifesaver when you have a bum LCD screen) and Ctrl-Alt-Command-8 to toggle ‘white on black’ display in low-light situations. (Command-Alt-8 will also toggle zooming). But those who really want to get to know their laptop keyboards will want to look at this 15-inch PowerBook G4 Developer Note, which is still mostly applicable to modern MacBooks.
  • If you use Remote Desktop with a Portuguese keyboard layout at both ends, the Alt Gr key can be emulated by using Ctrl+Alt (so the ”” symbol is on @Ctrl+Alt+2, etc.)
  • If you use VNC and non-US keyboards, I’ve found JollysFastVNC to have excellent international keyboard support when connecting to other machines.
  • If you’re keyboard-oriented, go into System Preferences | Keyboard and Mouse | Keyboard Preferences and Turn on full keyboard access. Now you can deal with dialog boxes the way you’re used to, as well as accessing menus and toolbars with the keyboard.
  • If you hate digging through Applications to find what you want, hit Command-Space to invoke Spotlight and start typing the name of the app. If that isn’t flexible enough for you, consider getting something like Quicksilver or QSB. Think of any of these as a keyboard-based application launcher. The last two are much, much more, but it takes a while for their power to sink in.
  • Can’t stand the apparently useless extra enter key that Apple put where Alt Gr ought to be on older laptops? Try using fKeys to remap it to something more sensible.

If you’re a hard-core Windows user and the Mac’s way of dealing with Home and End really bugs you, here’s a tip from Aaron Adams (the original link vanished, so this seems to be the only remaining copy of this tip on the Net):

To change the Mac’s home and end keys to behave like Windows in all applications, create a text file named /Library/KeyBindings/DefaultKeyBinding.dict (if the folder doesn’t exist, go ahead and create it) and add these lines:
/* Home/End keys like Windows */
{
"\UF729" = "moveToBeginningOfLine:"; /*home*/
"\UF72B" = "moveToEndOfLine:"; /*end*/
"$\UF729" = "moveToBeginningOfLineAndModifySelection:"; /*shift + home*/
"$\UF72B" = "moveToEndOfLineAndModifySelection:"; /*shift + end*/
}
Logout and login, and the home and end keys will work like Windows.

Alternatively, you can use something like DoubleCommand to change global key bindings – but if the Terminal is the only place where the default behavior annoys you, the preferences allow you to customize key bindings and the relevant escape codes.

Finally, there are plenty of resources out there regarding using external PC keyboards on the Mac and re-mapping keys in a straightforward fashion. The Windows-to-Mac Key Switching at Ars Technica is one such example.

Windows-centric tips:

As mentioned above, these won’t cover Boot Camp, Parallels or Fusion. Think of this as a list of things that are different in Mac OS X and that you will need to get accustomed to.

One of the first things I recommend you do is to go into Keyboard Preferences and:

/media/HOWTO/Switch/kbdsettings.png
  1. Set up Alt-Tab to switch between an application’s windows (that way you can both get used to Command+Tab and gestures to switch between apps and make good use of your muscle memory for switching between an apps’ own windows)
  2. Switch on full keyboard navigation for dialog boxes.

Besides that, you should:

  • Remember that moving files risks replacing the whole folder, not just its contents (the Finder now prompts you regarding what to do, but older versions didn’t).
  • No, there isn’t a Start button. You can drag applications to the Dock for quick access, or even drag the entire Applications folder to the right-hand side of the Dock, forming what Apple calls a “stack”. Click on it, and you’ll get a graphical menu of the contents that you can customize on a per-stack basis.
  • If you really miss Alt-Tab like application switching (on a window basis, like Windows), look at Witch. You can bind that to Alt-Tab and leave the standard Mac Command-Tab switching in place.
  • Check the Keyboard Tips section above for ways to force-quit applications. You won’t use them much, but you’ll feel better knowing they’re there.
  • Applications can be started upon login by going to Accounts in System Preferences, clicking Startup Items and adding them to the list.
  • File shares can be browsed via the Network icon in the Finder. Mac OS X works a little differently than the standard Windows network browser, but it’s all there.
  • File shares are mounted directly by pressing Cmd-K in the Finder and entering a Samba URL like so: smb://server/share (do not even think about using the Windows backslash (”\”) for anything other than authenticating as domain\user, that is not the UNIX way to do things).
  • Mac OS X will mount network file shares automatically on most circumstances, although there might be some issues in corporate environments (i.e., some file servers will always ask your Mac for your password, even if you check the “save this password” option).
  • Windows DFS shares (the \\domain\path type) are not directly accessible to Mac OS X. You need to either figure out the real pathname to the share (smb://server/share) or spend a good while figuring out how to integrate your Mac with Active Directory. I have some notes on the first option here for those of you in corporate environments.
  • Non-App Store installers don’t work the same way – most applications can be installed by just dragging and dropping them into your Applications folder (applications can ultimately reside anywhere on your hard disk, but it pays to be tidy). Installers are mostly used when it’s necessary to set up large volumes of files or application resources (fonts, libraries, etc.).
  • Properly written installers will run from a non-administrative account, ask you for the administrative password, and go about their business. If an installer fails in a non-administrative account, contact the developer and have them fix it – their installer is broken and not performing up to specs (Adobe was a notorious offender in this regard for over a decade).
  • Modern versions of the OS have very good Exchange integration built-in if your organization is running the 2007 edition – check with your IT staff, it’s worked well enough for me for years.

UNIX-centric Tips:

  • Alt-clicking on a command line prompt will move the cursor to that position.
  • Go into Terminal preferences and check “Use option as meta key” to be able to use Alt-B and Alt-F in the shell (note that this may interfere with being able to type diacritics)
  • Set the Terminal to open /bin/bash instead of login, otherwise it may slow down opening new windows/tabs over time due to log files in /private/var/log/asl/*.asl
  • All disks (file shares, external hard disks, etc.) are mounted under the /Volumes directory (which is hidden, but accessible via the Terminal).
  • Disks with identical names (such as file shares) will be mounted as /Volumes/name, /Volumes/name_1, etc.
  • SSH integrates with the login keychain and works beautifully. Check the output of ssh-add—help for more info, notably the -k option.
  • Mail.app had, over the years, a tendency to not use the SOCKS proxy settings in System Preferences properly – it did name resolution wrong, and SMTP over SOCKS didn’t work. It’s actually improved a bit, earlier versions would not work at all. If you need to access remote mailboxes via a SOCKS or SSH tunnel and it still doesn’t work for you, try Thunderbird.
  • Safari, however, does honor SOCKS settings, and seems to be fully SOCKS 5 compliant – which means it will perform hostname lookups remotely through the SOCKS proxy.
  • X11 on the Mac is currently deprecated, but you can use XQuartz, which provides all you need.
  • X11 might have some issues with your keyboard layout (check my HOWTO section for more hints on that) and X display permissions, but will work perfectly via ssh -X or -Y.
  • Although I personally recommend Homebrew these days instead of MacPorts, you may want to check out Fink if you’re a Debian convert. It’s not really Debian, but your apt-get addiction will get a quick fix. Fink is especially nice since it does not, ever, mess around with your Mac OS X system directories (it hangs off /sw, /sw/bin, etc.), and has the most packages available in binary format. Be prepared, however, for some packages not being the same versions you’re used to in Linux – some Fink packages lag behind quite a bit, even easily ported stuff like ImageMagick.
  • If you’re a BSD guy, MacPorts is your thing. It hangs off /opt by default, and seems to work a bit better on Intel-based Macs, and the available packages also seem to be better maintained.
  • Need PHP and mySQL? Here’s a HOWTO/Enable PHP on Mac OS X, which needs updating but should be enough to get you started. mySQL now publishes an excellent set of native installers and management tools, so head on over to their site.

NTFS Disks

One of the things people ask about the most is how to access external hard disks formatted in NTFS (the filesystem Microsoft introduced in Windows NT, and which has become the default in XP). Mac OS X has built-in read-only support for NTFS, so you can access your data just fine in most cases (the only exception is if you use NTFS encryption, which is not completely supported by anything other than Windows right now).

If you really need to write to NTFS volumes, there are currently two main options:

  • A commercial driver from Paragon, which has full support for compressed files and folders and excellent performance. That’s what I use.
  • The Open Source NTFS-3G driver, which is slower and has a few more limitations, but which is free and relatively easy to install (if you’re into compiling stuff). It’s now launching its own commercial version, but the free one will still be around.

Other Stuff

  • Read John Gruber’s piece on Software Update, and his more recent one on why “Repair Permissions” (one of the most common – and stupid – troubleshooting suggestions in Mac forums) is voodoo. Both are ancient but have a number of good tips, and, more importantly, banish some of the most common misconceptions about either process.
  • Resetting a Mac OS X password can be done by rebooting from the install CD and using the “Reset Password” option in the installer (but do note that this will not change your keychain password and you’ll need to change the password again after you login)
  • Resetting an Open Firmware password requires zapping the PRAM three times (restart holding Cmd-Alt-P-R three times) – some folk say you should change the Mac’s configuration as well (removing or adding RAM), but I fail to see the logic in that.
  • You can secure all your data using FileVault (although at the expense of some battery life in older machines without hardware acceleration).
  • There is now a recovery option that you should read about, especially if you use FileVault. On newer machines, you can even restore the OS to a fully working state over the Internet.

Essential Applications

I now have an entire page devoted to apps that switchers may be interested in, but the following summarizes my own experience and may be of general interest:

I originally went out and bought a copy of Microsoft Office 2004 – I now use the 2011 edition, but most people will probably be OK with iWork for home use.

Since the move to Intel, the only other “essential” was some form of virtualization to let me use some odd Windows application or tool every couple of months or so. I currently use VirtualBox, but you may want to look to alternatives.

Besides those and some of the utilities I mentioned above, my current list of “essentials” is:

  • 1Password for keeping track of all my passwords (on desktop and mobile)
  • Dropbox for sharing files transparently across all of my Macs and PCs.
  • Evernote for syncing my notes not just across all of my Macs, but also to my iPhone and other devices.
  • Flip4Mac to open Windows Media files in QuickTime and Safari (check out VLC as well if you want DivX support).
  • Adium for instant messaging (MSN, Jabber and Yahoo, plus a lot more). It integrates seamlessly with Address Book, so you’ll never lose your buddies’ contacts.
  • MenuMeters to keep track of network traffic and CPU usage – they’re simple, unobtrusive and very, very effective.
  • Pixelmator for image editing. There are plenty of similarly-priced alternatives out there, but I happen to like its feature set.
  • Chrome as an alternate browser. I use Safari for everything (and it is my default browser) and Firefox’s XUL Extensions make it more useful for debugging web applications, but Chrome has an increasing amount of useful tricks, not the least of which is a completely chromeless full screen mode.
  • CoRD for remote desktop to Windows machines and VMs.
  • Colloquy (if you happen to hate IRC as much as I do, this makes it bearable).
  • Skype for the occasional conference call and file transfer (Adium works too, but not across all firewalls).
  • Tofu for reading long documents and web pages. Makes for much easier reading when you’re tired, since the column display lessens eye movement.
  • TextMate as an all-singing, all-dancing text editor with a built-in mini- IDE.
  • ExpanDrive for mounting remote file systems over FTP and SSH.

And that’s it, really. I hope that this guide proves useful to get you started. Feel free to drop me an e-mail if you have any suggestions for improvements, and consider donating to the site.

But, most importantly, enjoy your new Mac.

1 If you are a UNIX geek, bookmark Amit Singh’s What Is Mac OS X? now and go read it after you finish this (it doesn’t cover the latest version of Mac OS X but it provides excellent info on its background and origins). 

2 Three weeks is unacceptable in the rest of the civilized world, but a couple of issues in three years (and, incidentally, seven Macs) is pretty good. Although Apple really should consider improving their presence in Portugal, there are now not just premium retailers but also service centers, so we’re on our way to parity with the rest of Europe. 

3 But, like any computer, it is only as secure as you make it. I have never had any need for anti-virus applications and the usual paraphernalia that security vendors peddle to Windows users, but that is largely due to the fact that I don’t run any weird apps, keep my system updated, and use a non-administrative account daily. The less privileges your apps have when running, the less likely you’ll have problems. 


See Also

iWorkA New BeginningMountain LionDropbox
The X Window SystemThe Switcher's Application GuideFileVaultlaunchd
Using DFS Shares in Mac OS XMacBookVirtual Network Computing (VNC)ImageMagick
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