14 Differences Between Windows and OS X For Mac Beginners

If you are new Mac users coming from years with MS Windows, some minor adjustment is necessary due to the differences in respective operating system, but none is too intimidating. The following 14 differences highlights the essential ones to get you up to speed with Mac OS X.

1. [Command ⌘] Key

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There is no [Windows] key in Mac off course. Instead you have the [Command ⌘] key. Usage however is entirely different.

In Windows, the Ctrl key is used for keyboard shortcuts for the graphical user interface elements. For example [Ctrl-c] to copy, [Ctrl-x] to cut and [Ctrl-v] to paste. But Mac has kept the Ctrl key to its default usage as per its Unix heritage, and use the Command ⌘ key instead for graphical user interface. Thus you use [⌘-c] to copy, [⌘-x] to cut and [⌘-v] to paste.

If you’re coming from Unix background, it is more logical and less confusing by not mixing Ctrl key for graphical usage. This is especially true for those who are used to using Ctrl keys, for example [Ctrl-c] to end a process, [Ctrl-a] to move to beginning of line, [Ctrl-e] to go to end of line, [Ctrl-k] to erase line etc.

2. [Enter] key does not open document in Finder

When a file or folder is highlighted in Finder, hitting the [Enter] key lets you edit the name of the file or folder, similar to hitting the [F2] key on Windows Explorer. A single click on the file/folder with the mouse will also lets you edit the name instead of opening the item. Many new Mac users are surprised at this behavior.

Instead you use [⌘-o] to open the file/folder, or double-click the item with mouse.

3. One menu bar

The Mac has one menu bar which is always at the top of the display for all applications. With application content in one or more windows below the menu. You can not ‘minimize’ and get rid of the menu. This is a very different design philosophy between Mac OS X and Windows.

Under Windows, the menu is ‘attached’ to the application window. In some Windows application that support multiple documents such as Photoshop, each document window is tied to the main window with the menu, sort of window-within-window design. If you have multi-monitor setup, this type of application will make viewing two documents side by side on two different monitors difficult.

Each application window on Mac OS X is independent of each others, and is a natural fit for multi-monitor setup.

4. Maximize vs size to content

If you are a Windows user that tends to maximize every window while you work, you might find it frustrating that Mac OS X behave differently for its “maximize button”.

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On the left top corner of each Mac OS X window are three buttons in red, yellow and green. The red button is to close the window and the yellow button is to minimize the window to the Dock. The green button however is “size to content” button instead of maximize. It’s size to content behavior is dependent on the implementation by individual app. Application will determine the best maximum size to present the content.

Not all apps will maximize to fill the entire screen like in Windows. Good examples are the Finder and Safari, which will give you larger view of the window instead of filling out the entire screen.

5. Closing last window does not close the application

In Windows, application will exit once you close the last window of the application.

On the Mac, when you close the last window of application such as TextEdit, the application does not quit. The blue dot underneath the app icon on the dock remains to show you that the app is still running.

Mac OS X is efficient in term of resource scheduling and many Mac users do not have the habit of closing apps. It will take sometimes to adjust to if you like to “clean up” things.

6. Where is right click mouse button?

It is a misconception that it is best to use mouse with single button on Mac OS X. In fact you can use two button mouse perfectly fine, and Apple has implemented the right-click behavior similar to Windows. When you right click on the mouse of item on Mac OS X, depending on context and app, the property menu for the item will pop-up, just like in Windows.

If you are using single button mouse or using the trackpad on your MacBook, pressing [Ctrl] key while clicking the button gives the same behavior.

7. Switching windows vs switching Apps

On the Mac, you use [⌘-tab] to cycle through applications, similar to [Alt-tab] in Windows. There is a difference.

On Windows, this switches you through all top-level windows. If you have 3 Notepad windows and 4 Internet Explorer windows, [Alt-tab] will cycle through the 7 windows.

On the Mac, [⌘-tab] switches you through applications. If you have 3 TextEdit windows and 4 Safari windows, you will only see the TextEdit and Safari icons while switching.

You can close an app while switching, press [⌘-tab] until the app is selected, then while holding down the [⌘] key, press the [w] key to close the app.

You will find it more intuitive and less clustered how app switching is implemented on the Mac after using it for a while.

8. Resize windows only from bottom-right corner

In Windows, most window can be resize from any side or any corner of the window.

On the Mac, you can only resize a window using the bottom-right corner. This is limiting but is a classic Mac way of doing thing.

9. There is no cut-and-paste in Finder

Mac users typically drag-and-drop their files to move them from one place to another. Under Finder, you can use copy-and-paste to copy files and folders, but you can not use cut-and-paste to move files and folder.

10. [Tab] key only moves between text box and list

In Windows, when you are in a dialog box such as File Open, you can use the [Tab] key to navigate the controls on the dialog box such as text filed, file list and ‘Cancel’, ‘Open’ buttons.

By default, you can only [tab] to navigate between text field and listbox under Mac OS X. To have the same behavior as Windows, you need to change it under System Preferences > Keyboard & Mouse > Keyboard Shortcuts. Select “All Control” for the “Full keyboard access” option located at bottom of settings window.

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11. Replace folder does not merge the files

This is one difference all new Mac users should bear in mind.

Consider this scenario: You have a folder on your desktop called “July 2009 Photos” which has some photos from last week. And you have on your memory stick a folder with the same name that has the photos from yesterday.

When you drag the “July 2009 Photos” folder from the memory stick to the desktop, Mac OS X will alert and ask if you want to replace the desktop folder with the one on your memory stick. If you select “Replace”, all last week’s photos on the desktop will be gone, replaced by yesterday’s photos on the memory stick.

In Windows, the contents of the two folders are merged with photos from last week and yesterday.

If you’re used to the Windows behavior, watch out when you replace folder on Mac.

12. There is no application installer or uninstaller

Mac OS X does not come with an installer or uninstaller for applications, there is no equivalent of Add/Remove Programs in Windows.

Some Mac app will come with its own installer and uninstaller. But for majority of Mac apps, installing them on OS X is generally as simple as dragging the app file to the Applications folder. To uninstall an application, you just drag the app file from the Applications folder to the Trash.

Most apps have some preference files that reside in folders other than Applications. Dragging the app file to the Trash often does not clean up these associated files. There is yet any official advice from Apple on how to deal with this, but you can make use of third party utility program such as AppZapper to clean up the files.

13. Update schedule

Instead of gigantic service packs like in Windows, Mac OS X has a more frequent minor point release schedule. You get a point release on average between 2-3 months which gives peace of mind that security bugs are likely to deal with quicker.

Using Mac, you can leave it running without worrying if a system update from Apple will automatically reboot the machine without your knowledge. You don’t see such annoying behavior on the Mac.

14. Build in apps and the Unix in Mac

Mac is more ready to use than Windows right out of the box, even without iLife which Apple bundle with each Mac.

Need a PDF viewer, use the Preview app, there is no need to download Acrobat Reader. Need to create PDF file? Just save it as PDF when you print the document. Mac has postscript engine built-in. Need a dictionary and thesaurus? Checked. Need a screen capture utilities? Checked.

Mac OS X is Unix based, it feels second nature for developer especially those working with open source software. Need to run some Unix shell, perl, pythons or ruby scripts? Need an ssh client? These comes installed. Need to run gcc compiler to compile and use an Linux open source software? Mac OS X is closer to the native Unix/Linux environment to get the job done.

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