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Getting used to a Mac – Applications and Behaviors for Every Day Use & Work

Am I Running Enough Software?

Several times a year, a long-time Windows user I know switches over to a Mac. What with the new MBP’s (“MacBookPro”) out, there’re several people “making the leap,” as they always put it. These people are usually “business users,” people using their machine for work: information users, programmers, managers, etc.

My usage tends to follow along these lines. Thus, the things I care about on Macs tend to be slightly less consumer focused and more focused on things like email, calendaring, and massaging all the information that flows through the your daily work-life.

I’ve been on a Mac for several years, though not as long as most people assume when they see I’m the only stuffed shirt in the room with a Mac. In my world, Dells and ThinkPads rule.

These two things together means I end up recommending an initial manifest of install and usage for Macs. Here’s a short summary of what I usually tell people, broken up into applications, usage, & understanding.

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As a disclaimer note, I don’t actually think Macs are better than Windows and this list isn’t intended to prove that. I yell at my Mac at least once a day (and my iPhone even more as the crud up of applications has made it crash about every 10 minutes) and I can assure you that it’s a PoS in it’s own way.

Hey, it’s a computer, what do you expect?

If you prefer and/or want try using Macs, these lists will hopefully make you yell less at the damn machine, and I hear Vists and Ubuntu are pretty slick now-a-days if you still find yourself hating OS X and longing for a track-stick ;>


Much more so than when I used Windows, I use tons of third party applications on the Mac. On the one hand this is a (positive) testament to the integrated nature of Windows, on the other, it’s a testament to the vibrant third party ecosystem in Mac land.

There is no great, over-riding care for open source on the Mac as there is on Linux desktops. That said, there are many applications that are open source and still more that seem to follow the pre-OSS philosophies of freeware and shareware. What this means is that you often have to pay for software, but it’s also often free. The payments are trivial (usually US$5-30) and, at the same time, the open source software is often high quality.

Here are applications I often recommend for “business users” switching to Macs:

  • Adium – an open source, free mutli-network IM client. This is one of the most astonishingly awesome pieces of software available. It works with every network you’d care about (and many you wouldn’t) except Skype (sure, there’s a Skype plugin, but you have to run Skype while you use it). Adium both looks nice and “works nice.” The ability to group contacts together across networks, group multipule identities into one, keep chat archives, and on and one makes Adium the IM client of choise. While they’ve added video and voice (I think, in betas at least), it’s still purely textual. But that’s just fine for me as I don’t really like chatting in video and voice.
  • iCal – while Outlook/Exchange calendaring still wins hands down for “works like you’d expect” (mostly because that’s where you learned what to expect), once you get out your duct-tape, iCal is a great calendaring tool. First, it looks nice, second it integrates well enough with and iPhones. If you’re going to use iCal and you use Google Apps, you’ll need to get Spanning Sync and if you’re going to layer on an iPhone, you’ll need MobileMe to get your calendars syncing correctly across all your devices. The need for these tools, while a boon for Spanning Sync, is really a dumb omission when it comes to Mac land. For example, the fact that you can’t subscribe to calendars in MobileMe is like selling a car with three wheels: it’s just silly. Syncing to your iPhone is the big win for all this trouble: being able to check your calendar when you’ve only got your phone, not online, etc. is great if you’re out-and-about as much as I am.
  • Things – to do list management vexes me. I go between post-it notes, email, Highrise, iCal to do items, Moleskins, and my own brain. Out of all the GTD-nutjob tools I’ve tried, Things is the best to do list manager I’ve found. It also has an iPhone application that’ll synch with the desktop applications. Having an iPhone app means that if you’re out and about you can take down to do items when you’re not at your computer. Things isn’t free, but it’s pretty cheap.
  • MindManager – mind mapping isn’t for everyone at all, in fact, most people have the same reaction to mind mapping as they do modern art: “yeah, I’m sure that’s all ‘artistic’ and stuff, but I prefer bowls of fruit.” But, if you like mind mapping, MindManager is great. It’s price isn’t so great (I’ve gotten copies for free over the years), but it’s an application I use almost every day. I have a fuller review of it from awhile ago.
  • Activity Monitor – this is a little application, that ships with the Mac, gives you stats about CPU, memory, disk, etc. usage. Eventually, you’ll get so much crap loaded on your Mac, running at once, that your Mac will start to slow down and act as crappy as any computer. Just like when a car looses that new car smell. Activity Monitor is good to figure out what the hell is going on when your machine screeches to a halt. Once you find the offending application, you can kill it (it’s usually Firefox,, or Time Machine being a resource hog).
  • Firefox – while the native Safari has a feel for being sleeker and “better” to use, I can never pull myself away from Firefox really, for one reason: I trust and like the Ad Blocker (yeah, I’m one of those guys). That said, I’ve recently found an ad blocker for Safari, and the bookmark synching via MobileMe to the iPhone is kinda neat.
  • Twitterrific, TweetDeck, & twhirl – I’m a Twitterific user, but most people I know seem to like TweetDeck or twhirl. Twitterific is the less featureful of all three, but I like the streamlining and “doing less, but doing it artfully” philosophy it has.
  • Address Book – until I had a Mac, I didn’t really maintain a contact book except for email here and there. But, since Address Book would synch over Bluetooth with my phones (a Razr at first, and now the iPhone), I pack the Address Book full of contacts and info. Spanning Sync now sync’s contacts up to Google Apps as well. Also, there are little things here and there like Adium using the information in Adium for real names and extra contact information in contact fly-overs, not to mention the close integration with
  • Skitch – when I first switched to a Mac, I sorely missed MS Paint. I’d use MS Paint to take screenshots of things, circle some area, and write in things like “click here to do the thing you’re asking me how to do” or file bug reports. Until Skitch came along, I couldn’t really find something as quick and easy as MS Paint. And, even better, Skitch has screen grabbing and pretty good integration with Flickr.
  • QuickSilver – I’m not as much of a QuickSilver nut as most QS users are. I really just use it launch applications, look up contact information, occasionally search my desktop, and notes. Really, the built-in Spotlight does a better job of searching through things like desktop email and documents, but I keep QS around anyhow.
  • Growl – this is another one of those glue-layer “applications” that end up benefiting from all the time. If you install Adium, I hear you get Growl now-a-days as well. Growl is a system other applications use for putting up little pop-up windows. “Pop-up” Windows sounds annoying, but the important thing is you configure Growl to only show the pop-up windows you like (and you can configure the way the pop-ups look). For example, I have Growl configured to pop-up a little window when someone IMs me, or when Firefox finished a download. You can also set it up to pop-up a window when you get email (in GMail, on the desktop, or where ever) and al sorts of other “events.” I turn most of those off as they happen way too frequently during the day. Many applications in Windows-land ship with their own pop-up windows (IM clients, Outlook, etc.). For me, the benefit of Growl is that all of these pop-up windows look and act the same and are controlled in one place.
  • Syngergy & SynergyKM – hooking up an external monitor to a Mac is dead-simple and beneficial (and not really unique to Macs anymore). Synergy allows you to control other computers with your Macs keyboard and mouse, even lining up your machines so that when you move the mouse cursor to the edge of your screen, it jumps to the other computer. For example, I have my old PowerBook setup next to the left of my MacBookPro: I push the cursor over to the left and suddenly I’m in control of the PowerBook. Cut-n-paste works between the two as well. Better: you’re not bound to Macs only, you can hook up Windows and Linux boxes. Back when I was at BMC, I had about 3-4 computers hooked up this way, using Synergy to cross between my PowerBook and several different Windows installs.
  • – oddly enough, I used to be a big fan of GMail before joining RedMonk. It took RedMonk awhile to switch over to GMail (moving from a classic, hosted Exchange setup, then to Zimbra, then finally to Google Apps) and in the interum, I had to use a desktop email client. I’d been using when I was at BMC (it was easy enough to hook it up to our Exchange servers there, though unsupported), so I started using that for RedMonk email. isn’t half bad, really: the search is crap slow compared to GMail, but I’ve gotten to like desktop email. With the addition of MsgFiler you can file email into archive folders more by keyboard, and finally getting IMAP with GMail makes email synch perfectly between and GMail. Also, if you’re going to use, you’ll want to keep up with Hawk Wings, the blog dedicated to and email on the Mac.
  • TextMate – the default Text Editor in OS X is OK (it’s great for opening all those Office files that end “x”), but TextMate is very much so the power user’s editor. To be truthful, I don’t really need it now that I don’t code so much anymore. Still, it’s the text editor that I use.
  • Colloquy – there’s a bevy of free and open source IRC clients on the Mac. Picking an IRC client is like picking out drapes: it mostly comes down to aesthetics and how you like to use the software. I’ve settled on Colloquy because of it’s Mac-like interface and logging. I’d check out Matt Ray’s OS X IRC shoot-out too.
  • AppDelete – uninstalling applications on OS X is dubiously easy. Supposedly you just drag the .app file to the trash can and you’re done. Not really. There are several support directories, temporary files, and other crap applications slap around your hard-drive. AppDelete aims to take care of this kipple, and it gives you a satisfying clicking sound as it deletes those unwanted applications and it’s hidden crap.
  • Pukka – as you, dear readers, know, I do a lot of bookmarking in While the Firefox and bookmarklet plugins are nice, I prefer to use the desktop application Pukka. To be frank, I’ve had to put up with Pukka sucking for a long time – until recently, it’s startup time was terrible and it still lacks some features (like queuing up bookmarks instead of pestering me when the network connection or itself is bad) that’d make it “awesome.” Still, I use Pukka all the time, and like it.
  • A/V Stuff – finally, as I do a lot of podcasts and video, there are several applications I use for audio/visual, summarized here since they don’t apply to most people: Audio Hijack Pro, Visual Hub (RIP), Audial Hub (RIP), Final Cut Pro (though, once I get my copy of CS4, I think I’ll go Adobe), Audacity (a fantastic, open source application), and The Levelator (which, weirdly, has to be run from the Applications directly).

Usage & Understanding

As you’d expect, things in Mac-land are a little different. You can usually achieve the same features in OS X as you can in other desktop UIs, but there are certain patterns of usage that I’ve found are more “Mac-like” to do than others:

  • The Apple/Command key – the central key for doing stuff in OS X is the Apple, or Command key. I always call it the Apple key, but it seems like “Command” is the prefer word now-a-days. As an example, copy-cut-paste is all done with the Apple key. In Windows, the control key and alt key are the primary keys. The control and alt keys aren’t so important in OS X. Sure, they get used frequently, esp. as modifiers. But, the Apple key is the one you’ll use the most often when keyboarding. Yeah, it’s weird at first.
  • Apple-tab – as with all modern operating systems, OS X has “alt tabbing” (though, it’s Apple-tabbing). More than likely, you’re already good at tabbing through applications. The important thing is how you modify your tabbing in combination with other behaviors in OS X, like hiding…
  • Don’t minimize, hide – you can minimize windows in OS X, but that’s not really what you’re supposed to do. It also is weird, because the menu bar (see below) doesn’t get minimized. Instead, what you should do is hide things. To try it out, go to some application and hit Apple-H. The application will vanish and move to the end of the Apple-tab list. Thus, you use hiding in those situations where you want to de-prioritize your interest in an application by getting it out of the way – it no longer shows up and it moves to the end of your Apple-tabbing list. After awhile, minimizing will just seems weird: each time Kim, my wife, gets on my machine she’ll minimize all my applications which always wigs me out when I come back to my computer ;>
  • The Menu Bar – the menu bar is probably the weirdest thing for new OS X users. First off, as mentioned below, it never minimized, it’s always up there. It’s also used for 3 different things: the menus for the actual application you’re using; the little menu bar icons for things like your wifi connection, clock, and other applications; and the mysterious Apple menu. The application menus are obvious enough. The menu bar icons are sort of like quick access and status info from various utilities you have running, like the Windows “tray” – check out MenuCalendarClock for a date/time menu bar “icon” that works like I’d expect (customize the date/time display). The Apple menu is sort of like the Start menu in that it’s where OS X houses all of the “system level/wide” links like preferences. We’ll go into the menu icons and preferences more below.
  • Menu Bar Icons – many application, “services,” and “configurations” allow you to surface a menu bar icon. Take one of the most valuable ones: the wifi connection status. It’s just a simple icon that tells you the singnal strength you’re getting. You can click on it to see a list of other wifi networks and open up the network preference panel. There’s the volume level (click on it to turn down volume) thingy, a Growl menu bar icon (toggle growl on and off), and others. The most important thing here is think about what you want and don’t want up here. I try not to clutter it up too much. Most applications will let you turn on and off these icons.
  • The Apple Menu – ever present on the menu bar is that little Apple logo. Click on it and you can get access to info about your Mac, your preference panels (see below), options to reboot and shut-down, and some basic configuration options for the dock (see below) and networking.
  • Force Quitting – OS X applications get as unruly and rude as applications any other platform. Often, you just have to kill them, or “force quit” them as OS X calls it. Most astonishingly, many applications don’t quit when you tell them to – this pisses me off to no end, it’s like, “who’s in charge here?!” Force Quitting allows you to try to kill and applications – it doesn’t always work. You can Force Quit several ways: select Force Quit from the Apple menu, control click on the application’s dock icon and select Force Quit (shockingly, not always available), use Activity Monitor, or hit Option-Apple-Escape. Like I said, Force Quitting doesn’t always work. Sometime you just have to power down the machine.
  • “Control clicking” – Macs are famous for being one-button bigots. In reality, there’s plenty of option you get from clicking what others call “the right mouse button. On Mac laptops, you simulate a right mouse click by holding down the Control key and clicking. This is just one of those things on OS X that takes getting used to: I control click all the time now-a-days without thinking or noticing I’m doing it. And if you’re using a non-Apple, external mouse, it’s a non-option.
  • The Trackpad – this is another one of those dividing issues. People either hat the track pad or come to like it. As an example, among other luxury features, the ThinkPad’s track-stick solidifies devotion to that platform: I’ve talked with numerous ThinkPad users who’ve had to stay away from OS X because they can’t bare to loose that track-stick. I haven’t used the new gestures on the latest round of MacBooks, but I use the “two finger scrolling” on my (now) older laptop: it’s great!
  • The Dashboard – I don’t use the dashboard as much as I do (F12!). I do keep several clocks on here for when I want to see what time it is in San Francisco, London, etc. Now-a-days I mostly use the Dashboard for iStat Pro.
  • The Dock – at the bottom of the screen (or one of the sides, if you get fancy) is The Dock. Now, The Dock both holds icons for starting applications and also icons for active, running applications. It gets a little confusing at first. If there’s a little blue dot under the icon, the applications is running. It’s also got the trash-can! My two tips for the dock are to auto-hide it and make sure to drag out icons you don’t use often and drag in icons you do. The last part is key: by default there’s a bunch of Apple software in there (of course!) and you’ll do yourself a favor by moving in applications you use often. Just drag ’em around!
  • Sleeping – Mac laptops are pretty good at going to sleep and waking up. It’ll often get confused and fall asleep standing, as it were (while you have the laptop open instead of shut), in which case you just have to close it for a few seconds and open it back up. Yelling at it works too. The point here, however, is that you can let your Mac sleep most of the time instead of turning it off. In fact, I pretty much never turn my laptop off. Yeah, like never. It just sleeps. Try it!

Well, that’s a pretty big list there. There’s plenty more applications and tips (Exposé is nifty; try Keynote!), but that should hold you all you switching people for now 😉

Disclosure: Adobe is a client, as is Microsoft. As mentioned, I’ve gotten free copies of MindManager for sometime now.

Categories: The Analyst Life.

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Comment Feed

24 Responses

  1. Never noticed the blue light under the dock apps. Thanks!

  2. David: yup, you're right. The OmniGroup puts out good stuff, not least of which is OmniGraffle. It's a great tool. Their OmniDiskSweep is great for finding out all the stuff taking up your hard drive space (it's usually big temp files for media stuff).

  3. One more ‘must checkout’ business app for those Visio addicts is Omnigraffle Pro:

    It makes even the most boring of network/application flow diagrams look interesting and can double as an entry-level outliner.

    The Omni guys also do a very pretty (but not so feature packed) MS Project-esque app which ain’t half bad either:

    Both of these are “Microsoft compatible”, but just like most non-MS tools, don’t expect 100% (or even 90%) success rates…

  4. Michael, thanks for the shout out about Pukka. I'm glad you mentioned it even if there are some things that you'd like to see added. I do still have your suggestions filed and I hope to be able to get to them to truly make Pukka 'awesome' for you as well as all of my users. Thanks again.

  5. Wow, nice list! Very useful even for someone who has been using a Mac for years! Tx, Marc

  6. That key with the little drawing on it is called the "Apple Key"? I always called it the "key formally known as 'Prince'."

    MichaelOctober 27, 2008 @ 3:03 am
  7. Just a note on 'Control-Clicking', any Mac running OSX can be configured to 'Right-Click' just like a PC, even the laptops (either by having the trackpad button act as two, or by tapping the pad with two fingers at once)

    If your interested in doing this, use the Mouse/Trackpad preference pane…

  8. For the enterprise worked VMWare Fusion is a must. When all else fails sometimes I have to fire up IE6 on a windows VM to get an internal website to work. Sucks but it's the truth.

  9. Great info, Michael. Thank you for sharing. I'm not a Mac user yet, but the thought has crossed my mind and I'm glad to see such a comprehensive collection of information.

  10. Apple H, huh. Learn something new every day! Thanks, Coté

    David ColdrickOctober 27, 2008 @ 7:51 pm
  11. Whenever I use my wife's Mac I immediately panic on my first ctrl+ whiff. What's this apple / command key you speak of? Sounds difficult.

  12. I like running MenuMeters in my menu bar all the time — gives me constant, low-overhead data on how my Mac is running. I still use Activity Monitor if things get too crazy, but, really, it's Firefox 90% of the time, so it's just a question of closing the right tab.

    Good list.

  13. Also life-saving:

    Caffeine: keep it from going to sleep in the middle of your presentation

    smcFanController: keep your laptop from roasting your lap top

  14. I wont debate with your decisions simply because I think you are right on money! You have place together a consistent situation for your sentiments and now I know much more this unusual topic. Provides Thanks for incredible publish and that i will probably be restored for much more.

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