OSX for Windows Refugees

Macbook in Trash

If you’re a Windows refugee and Santa bought you a new MacBook or iMac, then you might be feeling a bit duped by now.

When I first switched to using a Mac I really struggled for the first month or so. Prior to that I’d been a Windows user for getting onto 10 years (gulp!) and during that time had become a power user. Now all of a sudden I felt like I had been dropped blindfolded into an unfamiliar place without a map.

Watching somebody who is not a confident computer user playing with OSX for the first time is amazing. Things work, everything is where they expect and nothing gets in the way.  They land on their feet.

But, for somebody who is an experienced Windows user, it can be a little intimidating and frustrating. There is a dip to go through, and you have a lot of old habits to break, but once you come out the other side it’s a beautiful place. :-)

I thought I’d share some of the things that helped me …

Keyboard Shortcuts

I eventually realised one of the main reasons for my frustration: none of my keyboard shortcuts worked any more … not even Alt-F4 to close applications … so I was forced to use the mouse a lot more than I was used to.

As Phil pointed out, in this situation you really need a fanboy to show you “all the secret five fingered key commands, hidden settings and special software that makes working with a Mac tolerable”

Your chief weapons are fear and surprise … and the “command” key (this is the key with the Apple logo either side of the space bar).

These three shortcuts work in pretty much all applications:
  • Command-Q = Quit the current application
  • Command-W = Close the current window
  • Command-` = Toggle between windows within the current application
    You’ll find the “`” key next to the “1” key in the top-left of the keyboard
This last one is especially useful if you use Mail.app for your email.
Some others that are specific to mail:
  • Command-N = Create a new message
  • Command-Shift-N = Get new mail
  • Command-Shift-D = Send current message
  • Command-Option-F = Search (very handy – see below)

Here are a couple of other keyboard shortcuts that I’ve stumbled upon since then, which (as far as I can tell) are not widely known. The first two apply to text fields within all Cocoa applications:

  1. Escape or Shift-F5 to display an auto-complete spell checker (from Dave5).
  2. Option-F8 to insert a stylised bullet point – discovered completely by accident (try holding down option and typing random characters, you’ll be amazed what you can find)
  3. In Excel: Command-T to toggle a cell reference to be permanent – e.g. C8 to $C$8 – this one dove me crazy for quite a while!
  4. In Firefox: Command-L to jump to the URL and Command-K to jump to the search box – for some reason the search shortcut doesn’t seem to work in Safari?

I’m sure there must be heaps more that I haven’t found yet.

What secret keyboard shortcuts do you use all the time?

Feel free to share your discoveries in the comments below.


One of the things that continues to surprise me about OSX is the number of quality third-party apps that are available. These are usually pretty cheap, and generally really well built.

Typically they just do one simple job, but do it well.

Here is a quick list from my applications folder, roughly in order of usage:

  • Yojimbo – Simple note keeping app.
  • Things – Simple to-do list app.
  • Quicksilver – Hard to explain in one short sentence, but I’m much slower without it.
  • RescueTime – Data entry-less time monitoring.
  • TextMate – Text editor which is as powerful as you want it to be.
  • 1Password – Cross-browser password manager (also syncs to iPhone).
  • VLC – Media player which can handle more-or-less any format, including streaming audio/video.
  • Pixelmator – Photoshop-lite – nice for quickly editing photos etc.
  • VMWare Fusion – Virtual Machine, run Windows and Linux apps in OSX.
  • VectorDesigner – Simple vector design file editor (great for quick mock-ups)
  • StuffIt Expander – Zip utility.
  • Switch – Audio converter.
  • Paparazzi – Web page screen-shot taker.
  • AppFresh – Scans apps and tells you when a newer version is available.
  • Transmission – BitTorrent client.
  • Handbreak – DVD utility.
  • Scribbles – Nice-n-simple drawing app for kids.

Two others from my downloads folder that I haven’t played with myself (yet), but which come recommended by others:

I have both iWork and Microsoft Office.  I find I use Excel more than Numbers, Keynote more than PowerPoint and Pages and Word hardly at all.  I used Entourage when I was working at Xero, but thankfully no longer.

I also know others who are fans of OpenOffice, which also seems to work nicely on OSX.

fluid-apps-in-dockAlso, as I’ve mentioned previously I’m a fan of using Fluid to create site-specific browser based apps.  I currently have five Fluid apps in my dock, each with a sexy icon:

Note: If you look closely you’ll see I’ve moved my dock on the left hand side of the screen.  I figure that screen are wider than they are taller, and web pages and documents run top to bottom, so there is generally more free space on the sides than at the bottom.

Finally, if you’re into Media Center type apps, then have a play with:

What applications do you use the most?

For those who have recently switched, do you find you spend more on apps now than when you were a Windows user?

Unfortunately since my switch to OSX I’ve done very little coding, but I’d also be interested to hear what tools people use and can recommend I check out.

Your suggestions for other things I should try are welcome, as always.

UPDATE 20-Feb:

Jean from SmileOnMyMac has been in touch to let me know about their Mac Switcher Bundle, which includes two of the apps I mentioned above (1Password and TextExpander) as well as another I didn’t know about previously (Witch) which looks like it solves the window/app switching problem.

She has also kindly offered a free copy of this bundle for me to give away to a lucky reader.  I thought that I’d give it to the best comment on this post.  Just add your best tip now to be in to win!

Advanced Search

I don’t bother with an elaborate directory structure.

For my emails, I just have a single local folder, called “Keep” which contains all of the messages I choose to hold on to for whatever reason.

I’ve been using more-or-less the same approach ever since I’ve been using email (and I’m not as young now as I used to be then!) so I have a lot of emails.

I rely on search to make it all work.

The search within the default Mail app which is part of OSX is pretty good (even though my email accounts these days are all Gmail of one form or another, I still prefer to use Mail as my email client – how about you?)

As mentioned above, the Command-Option-F keyboard shortcut jumps you straight into the search field.

From there I tend to use the name of the other person and a single keyword. Generally this will quickly uncover the message I’m after.

But, where a more detailed search is required there are a couple of tricks that you might find useful …

Firstly, you can narrow search results using prefixes:

  • “email:” will search for a specific email address
  • “from:” and “to:” will search for a specific sender or recipient
  • “subject:” will search for a word in the subject field only

These work in the search built into Mail and also in Spotlight.

Similarly, within Spotlight you can use “kind:” to limit the results to a specific type of file (e.g. “mail” or “word” or “pdf”).

See: http://www.macosxhints.com/article.php?story=20071121105941992

Secondly, you can use the “Smart Mailboxes” feature in Mail to give you a more detailed advanced search.

Just create a new smart mailbox and call it “Advanced Search”. Then whenever you want to run a search with multiple criteria you can just double click on it and it will open up the standard filter options screen.

See: http://www.macosxhints.com/article.php?story=20071115193741157

Finally, unrelated to email, but nonetheless a nifty little time saving feature built into Spotlight: type an equation as a search and the top item displayed will be the result:

All good.

What other advanced search tricks do you use?


I hope that helps?  But, what else am I forgetting?

I’m interested to hear any other suggestions that long-time OSX users might have for the newly converted!

Photo Credits: Schlock, by -nathan

13 thoughts on “OSX for Windows Refugees”

  1. To jump to the search box in Safari use Cmd+Option+F (same as the standard OSX search shortcut). IMHO Firefox’s Cmd+K is better, but…

  2. F7 should select the address bar in both Safari and Firefox I believe. I use this frequently for copying and pasting URLs.

    The biggest “secret” key combination in my opinion is Cmd + Shift + 4 for “print screen”. I just can’t believe that they remove the print screen button from their proprietary keyboards, and then make the combination to do it so mysterious.

  3. This is a bit niche, but OS X is surprisingly flexible for taking screenshots:

    Captures the entire screen and saves it as a file

    Captures the entire screen and copies it to the clipboard

    Brings up a rectangular marquee tool and then saves it as a file

    Brings up a rectangular marquee tool and then copies it to the clipboard

    Command+Shift+4 then Space bar
    Captures a window, menu, desktop icon, or the menu bar and saves it as a file

    Command+Control+Shift+4 then Space bar
    Captures a window, menu, desktop icon, or the menu bar and copies it to the clipboard

  4. OK, ummmmm:

    Cmd+Space – jumps to spotlight (type calculations as ‘cmd+space 3*5’, start apps with ‘cmd+space first_few_letters’).

    Bind the middle mouse button (button 3) to exposé then use that to switch applications. Note that Cmd+Tab still works, but switches apps not windows. Also, press Cmd+Tab but hold command and you can press tab to select different apps – note that the “list” that appears can be navigated with a mouse also.

    Remember to right click (or control click) apps in the dock to get a context menu. Occasionally very handy, especially with the Activity Monitor.

    It’s easy to get extended character ‘accents’ from other languages. Hold down option, then the character it’s usually over … example Option+e then e gives é … Option+u then u gives ü … Option+u then o gives ö.

    You can drag/drop files onto the “choose file” button of a standard HTML upload form. BTW, as a “mac” thing just try drag dropping pretty much everywhere – it’s implemented in a lot more places than Windows and they’re very handy once you spot them.

    Finally use iShowU HD (http://www.shinywhitebox.com/ishowuhd/main.html) to do screencasts of various descriptions – everything from little 30 second “this is how you do this” emails to your mum to full screen captures that get resized on the fly and compressed to 720p … and a cool capture mode that’s great for webapps.

    (disclaimer: I don’t work for swb but I used to, and love ’em)


  5. Cmd+Space – jumps to spotlight – use this all the time, for running applications, performing calculations, finding files, etc.

    (Need to try Quicksilver…)

    I’ve been on a Mac for 6+ months now, and one thing that abosolutely kills me: changing between tabs in Firefox or Safari. Ctrl-PgUp/PgDn is so easy on the PC (with a standard keyboard), yet tabbing between tabs in Firefox on the Mac feels so much more painful, and I can NEVER remember the correct shortcut key for switching tabs in Safari.

  6. @Jason: “changing between tabs in Firefox or Safari”

    Cmd-{ and Cmd-} will work in both.

    Again, a keyboard combination that you’re just not going to discover until somebody shows you.

    Maybe they do this on purpose to try and flush out blog posts like this?

  7. Jean from SmileOnMyMac has been in touch to let me know about their Mac Switcher Bundle.

    She has also kindly offered a free copy of this bundle for me to give away. I thought that I’d give it to the best comment on this post.

    Just add your best tip now to be in to win!

  8. One word of advice that I give switchers is to just let OS X do things for you. Plug in your camera and let iPhoto deal with where it stores the photos, rip a CD and let iTunes store it. You don’t have to know about folder structures unless you really, really need to get to something. And although I find it hard to get people to use Quicksilver I can’t live without it for looking up peoples phone numbers and launching applications.

  9. Great timing… my dad’s switching at present and has found it challenging, so I shared this post with him to help him on his way.

    As for me… perhaps a bit later this year :-)


  10. Oh god, that’s awesome. You don’t even need to select the word, actually – anywhere the cursor changes to a caret will do it.

    WHY don’t Apple go to some lengths to advertise these things?

  11. @david

    I can’t explain it.

    I just discovered that one purely by accident … I was aiming for Cmd-Shift-D and missed!

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