Tips on how to make the most of your new Mac

The Mac platform is seeing a number of new users, with many of them being switchers from the Windows platform. For these people, once the system has been set up the question of what to do next may come to mind.

The Mac platform is seeing a number of new users, with many of them being switchers from Windows. For these people, once the system has been set up the question of what to do next may come to mind. Apple provides quick access to the Web, e-mail, and other services with built-in applications, but a few people have wondered how to go about getting the most of their Mac and learning the system.

There are a few things you can do to help enhance your Mac experience if you are new to the Mac and are wondering how to make the most of your new machine. Apple has a number of resources for introducing new computer users and Windows switchers to the Mac, but these are very simple approaches and just cover enough to get you going. You will be able to see some features of the Mac OS with these tutorials, but they will not get you comfortably familiar with your new Mac. The only thing that will do this is experience.

Explore!

If you do not need to use your Mac immediately for work or other important uses, spend some time trying it out and putting it through its paces. Go through the menus to see what each option does. Next to many items in the menus are hot-key combinations, so try them. Keep in mind that there are a number of hidden options in the menus as well, which can be revealed by holding combinations of various modifier keys (Command, Options, Control, and Shift) while the menu is open. This can be done for each application to see what is available.

  1. Interface

    Play with the interface! In OS X you have several aspects to the system interface. These include the system menu and "menu extras" that can be added to and removed from the menu bar. There are also the items in the Dock, items in the Finder side bar, and items in the Finder toolbar. Try pressing modifier keys while clicking these items, and also try right-clicking them to see if any contextual menu options are available for them. Drag files and folders to various locations to see where they can be stored for easy access. If you can click it, go ahead and do so.

Right-click (or Control-click) various items and areas to see applicable options in contextual menus. Customization options are usually available here. You can also try pressing various modifier keys to click and drag seemingly fixed items around.
  1. System Preferences

    Go through the System Preferences one by one and try various settings. This is perhaps the key to getting to know your Mac. Most system configuration is done in the System Preferences, so spend some time trying each one out. If you do not know what something is, use Apple's "Help" menu or simply do a Google search for it to see what it is. Additionally, do not forget the Finder preferences, which are available in the "Finder" menu when that application is active, and which contain a number of settings relevant to the Finder interface.

  2. Applications and utilities

    Apple includes a number of programs and utilities for you to get started, which are stored in the /Applications/ and /Applications/Utilities/ folders. Try each one out, and see what they do. Use Disk Utility to check the file system for errors, and launch the "Console" to check out some system logs. Though many of these will not make much sense to you at first, knowing where they are may be helpful later on.

  3. Do not worry about messing things up

    The real message right now is to not be concerned about the system, and to just see what the system is capable of. Do not be worried about altering some setting such as deleting or modifying some advanced feature. At the end of exploring, you can always boot off the included system restore discs, format the hard drive, and reinstall a fresh copy of Snow Leopard to get you back to square one. Though it takes time, the more you explore the better.

Setup

Once you are done exploring and have a fresh copy of Snow Leopard installed again (suggested, if not required), I suggest doing three things. The first is to run Software Update (available in the Apple menu, though it should run automatically) and apply the latest system updates from Apple. There will undoubtedly be some updates available for you, and it is best to start out with the latest software on your system. After installing updates, calibrate the monitor's colors to ensure you are getting colors as expected. You can do this in the "Displays" in System Preferences, or by using a variety of alternative options. See this article for more information and recommendations on calibrating your monitor.

Running Software Update immediately will ensure your Mac has the latest security fixes and other updates.

Lastly, I would recommend setting up network locations, especially for laptops. By default all network interfaces are active and set to be automatically configured, but creating profiles or at least being aware of them may help you troubleshoot various odd network frustrations as the network configuration changes.

Beyond these three items, you may need to connect and configure any third-party accessories or devices that you use (printers, scanners, hard drives, etc.), and though most should be automatically configured, others may require the installation of software drivers.

Customization

When the system has been set up, go ahead and apply some customizations to the system. Using the System Preferences, enable or disable various settings to change the interface, the desktop background, enable or disable Expose and Spaces, and customize hot-corners or other quick ways to access them. You can also enable the menu extra for a number of preferences, which will give you easy access to the settings from the menu bar.

The System Preferences are the first place to go for customizing your Mac. Note that third-party additions will be put in the "Other" category down at the bottom.

Beyond the preferences, customize your dock by adding or removing items to it (Folders, applications, and even documents and URLs), and changing its location and behavior (size, automatic hiding, and the effects used when opening programs). You can also do similar customizations to the Finder sidebar and toolbar. I recommend spending time learning and customizing the Finder, since this will probably be your most used application in OS X.

Useful programs and services

Though OS X comes with a nice set of applications, you will undoubtedly need some other applications. There are a variety of shareware and freeware applications that you can install, but overloading your system with utilities and applications may lead to problems (especially if they have not been programmed well), so at first start out slow and only add the essential programs you need. The first two I would recommend are the following:

  1. A complete maintenance option: OnyX, Cocktail, or MainMenu

    There may be times when the system is running slow, and an easy remedy is to clear various system caches and run other maintenance routines. These utilities offer the ability to do this, and can be exceptionally useful.

  2. An alternate Web browser: Firefox, Chrome, Opera, or Camino

    Though Safari is a great browser, if you experience some major corruption where it cannot be opened, you may be in for a hard time with trying to get help or access some other online resource. Having another browser is an easy way to get connected to the web again. Additionally, there may be Web sites that do not work well with one browser, but will appear fine in another.

  3. The CNET Mac starter kit:

    CNET has a small set of useful utilities, and we periodically expand and modify our recommendations on it. It is by no means a complete list, but feel free to browse through and see if any items are useful to you.

  4. VersionTracker and Download.com

    There are several resources for finding various applications to do practically anything. The VersionTracker and Download.com sites are a couple of these, and are good not only for finding new applications, but keeping up-to-date with the latest versions of the programs you use.



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About the author

    Topher, an avid Mac user for the past 15 years, has been a contributing author to MacFixIt since the spring of 2008. One of his passions is troubleshooting Mac problems and making the best use of Macs and Apple hardware at home and in the workplace.

     

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