Common Confusions for Windows Users on OS X

Mac OS X is a different paradigm than Windows. Yes, many things act very similar, but there is a lot that is different as well. As a Windows user trying to learn OS X, some of it will be confusing. As I write this, I have not been using OS X very long. I am a long-time Windows user, so I understand the viewpoint of somebody who is confused by OS X. Below, I will lay out several random findings and tips that should clear up some things for Windows users experimenting with OS X.

Quirks of the Switch

Working With Windows
I am used to the Maximize, Minimize and Close buttons being at the top right of the window. With OS X, they are in the left top. This takes some getting used to. At first you will find yourself hunting for them.

Closing Doesn’t Exit The Program
When you close a window, it does not close the program like it does in Windows. You actually have to go to the top menu and select “Quit” from the menu. I find that annoying. It seems more intuitive for me to quit the program if you close the window. For a Windows user, not knowing this can mean that you accidentally leave a LOT of programs running at once. You may think it isn’t running anymore, but it is.

Menu At The Tippy Top
The program menus always sit at the top of the screen, separate from the main program interface. Again, I find that counter-intuitive. I actually prefer to have the menus inside the windows along with the program it belongs to. You’ll get used to it, but Windows users will find that to be odd. For long-time OS X users who think I’m nuts for wanting this the Windows way, you should try multiple monitors under OS X. The moment you drag an app to another screen, you will see how annoying it is to have scroll all the way to your primary monitor just to use a program’s menu options. If some OS X user has a way around this, I am all ears.

No Drive Letters
There are no drive letters in OS X (or any Unix-based operating system for that matter). Since I am so used to Windows, it is weird not having any drive letters. This is certainly not a fault of the operating system. If anything, Windows is the odd one here because Windows is the only OS that I am aware of that uses drive letters. But, it still takes some getting used to.

Understand the Dock
The Dock is the row of icons at the bottom of the screen. The Dock is essentially an equivalent to the Windows taskbar mixed with the Quick Launch bar. So, the Dock will hold shortcuts to applications which you put there, as well as icons for any applications that are currently running. Removing an icon from the Dock is as simple as dragging it off the Dock and letting go. Creating a new alias (shortcut, in Windows terms) in the Dock is done by dragging items to the Dock. In Preferences, you can control the size of the Dock as well as whether it hides automatically or not.

Resizing Windows
Under Windows, you can resize a Window from any point on the edge of the Window. Under OS X, you can only do so via the lower right corner. Again, such a simple little thing that I don’t know why Apple can’t just do.

No OK Buttons
There are many areas of OS X where there is no such thing as an OK button. For example, in preferences, when you change a setting, it changes as soon as you select it. It isn’t consistent and seems to be different depending on the application.

No Cut-And-Paste of Files
This one is surprising, but under Windows you can cut and paste a file to move it. Under OS X, there is no way to do that. This is one of those things that could easily be added to OS X and not upset any of the long-time users.

Installing Applications
I will do up a whole post on this subject, but installing applications is just different. The main reason for this is that there is no registry in OS X. This is actually a plus point, but Windows users will find it odd. Especially when you consider that applications do not put themselves into any specific section of the OS by default. Under Windows, everything you install goes to the Start menu. From the Start menu, you can create shortcuts anywhere you want. In OS X, it is best to keep all applications in the “Applications” folder, but many programs will not put themselves there. This means programs can sit all over your drive with little order to them. Un-installing an application is as easy as dragging it to Trash, but the problem is that that does not take care of any data files associated with the program. There are third-party workarounds, but I think this is an area where OS X could stand a little improvement. While OS X is certainly easy, a little more work to keep things in sync among data files and programs as well as a central repository for all installed applications would be a welcome addition. Even Linux programs put everything in the applications menu. Why can’t OS X do it?


I am now on my third full day of using OS X. Things are coming along well and I’m really digging OS X at this point. But, there really are things about Windows that it just does better. If Apple could take some of these minor Windows-esque points and incorporate them into OS X, it would only serve to improve an already solid operating system. But, I think this point could only be understood by somebody who routinely uses both operating systems.


  1. I feel what you mean when it comes to blending the nice things about multiple OSes. Many things that Linux is based on could be awesome tools in Windows, and the other way around. Of course, there will be the purist that says “It’s perfect!”.

  2. I use both, but prefer Mac. I consider most of the things you mention to be “just different”. Some, I think the Mac does way better. Installing apps by just dragging into the “apps” folder– very nice.

    When you get comfortable with the basics, you might poke around and see how the system is organized. System files are in the Computer’s “/library” folder or YOUR “/library” folder. Very logical. I always have trouble finding system or application related files in Windows (maybe you don’t).

    Tips: 1)run your Macs overnight at least one day a week– there are periodic maintenance routines they don’t tell you about. 2)Run as a user– NOT as an administrator most of the time– for very solid security. Also, turn on your built-in firewall, if it isn’t.

  3. RE: Understand the Dock – Besides applications, you can also drag files, folders, movies, music, (i.e. anything else) to the Dock for quick access.

    RE: No Cut-And-Paste of Files – No need for this function. Just drag the from where it is to where you want it.

    RE: Installing Applications – In virtually every case, Applications are installed in the Application Folder. And in like manner, Pictures are installed in the Pictures Folder, Music in the Music Folder, and Movies in the Movies Folder. By default Documents are saved to the Documents folder.

    For new Mac users, let me suggest that you pick up a copy of David Pogue’s excellent book, ‘The Missing Manual’.

  4. Closing doesn’t exit — There’s no harm in leaving as much stuff as you like open at all times. It’s common for OS X users to have twenty apps running for months at a stretch and it saves you the launch next time. It’s more intuitive too: why should closing a document change the state of the application? If I wanna quit, I’ll quit.

    This is part of the overall document-centric paradigm vs. Win’s app-centric approach. Another example, the lack of container windows–documents always float free over the desktop, not inside another window. Also related to the more granular file associations that let users reliably open the creator app every time regardless of file type or the presence of an extension. An Illustrator EPS will open in Illustrator, a Photoshop EPS will open in Photoshop, even though they’re both EPS files and may or may not have extensions at all (not just hidden extensions). Users organize themselves around their work, not around the needs of the tool. This has been the critical, defining Mac-ism since ’84 IMO.

    Menu bar — you can fling the mouse at the top of the screen and never miss, never hunt for the narrow row of menu items. Another plus IMO. Also related to the doc-centric philosophy–users work with document windows and the appropriate tools are on the menu bar as needed. Multi monitors can become a shortcoming though.

    Drive letters — Volume names are much more human friendly and correlate to the actual disk contents ( assuming the disc was given a sensible name to start with).

    Dock — don’t overlook right clicking icons. There is often useful app-specific info in the menus. Also, you can drag files to Docked apps. Exmple: drop an attachment on Mail and a new message window will be created with the attachment in place. Leopard goes further and lets you hit the spacebar to front all the apps windows so you can drop directly into one. Also useful for overriding file associations to force open. Leopard removed the *very* useful feature where Docked folders could pop up a hierarchal menu of their contents, letting you drill down like ten levels through a menu tree that was always up to date with the folder’s contents. Users are screaming. That feature will be back.

    Installing — any app with an installer that doesn’t put itself into Apps is suspect. I’ve never seen one. Most apps you just drag there yourself with no installer utility. As for leaving files around it’s a non-issue. Except for preferences and other such small, static data apps are self-contained. No registry, no DLLs, no nonsense like that. The lack of an automatic shortcut creation is simply that /Apps is in plain sight and it is exactly what it appears to be: a folder full of apps. The Start Menu and Linux approaches exist in large part because what’s really going on with all the related disk files is so user-hostile. On a Mac the app is self-contained and lives on the disk right where it appears to. No surface veneer needed. Also, the document-centric thing again: most of the time users work with their files and the apps take care of themselves.

    Cut and paste — you can copy and paste files just fine. There’s no cut to prevent lost files. They could add this but it’s minor.

    Also, about the short keyboard cable: Apple (and many other) monitors contain a USB hub. A long cable would get in the way. So they make it short and include and extension.

    We could go on like this all day. Have fun! 🙂

  5. I actually like how the program doesn’t close when I exit it. I like to leave itunes open all the time but i run in to the space and clutter issue on my task bar. In windows you run about of space to minimize stuff very quick unless the make the task bar taller but thats ok.

  6. Another important thing to be aware of is that overwriting a folder is potentially more destructive.

    On the Mac, if you copy or move a folder to a directory that already contains a similarly named folder, you will be warned that you will be replacing the folder AND ALL OF IT’S CONTENTS. In other words, the old folder will be entirely deleted before the new one is written. In Windows, this operation is more complex but less destructive as the folder contents are “merged” so that only items that are different are overwritten.

    Depeding on what you do, this may never be an issue, but it has caused its share of misery for some switchers..

    Nevertheless, once you become acclimated to its quirks, you will come to love OS-X.

  7. I realize that these are just first impressions and I understand how some things may seem odd when you’re in a new environment. It may be difficult at first because you’re already hardwired to the Windows way of doing things and you’ll have to give the Mac OS some time before you get to appreciate why it does and doesn’t do certain things. It would be interesting to see how you feel about each item you wrote about a year or maybe 5 years from now.

    I’ve been a Mac user for 20 years, Windows user for 11 years. I’ve gotten pretty good and comfortable in the Windows environment, although I’ll leave the troubleshooting with the IT guy. On the Classic Mac OS I could troubleshoot my own computer but not so much with OS X, although I haven’t found any occasion yet to do so. There are some things I like about Windows (I use Windows XP) like being able to rename or move a file from an Export, Import or Open dialogue box. I don’t like the close button of the application and the document so close to each other. I’ve accidentally exited an application when I just wanted to close a document so many times. It’s very frustrating when the application you just closed takes forever to relaunch, like Adobe Illustrator. You could finish a plate lunch by the time Illustrator is ready to work on. I prefer the Mac way of going to the menu bar, or using the keyboard to exit or quit an application.

    In the end the Mac environment gives me the most satisfaction but I know that Windows also provides the best environment for others.

  8. Another Difference that throws Mac newbies:

    When you move or copy a folder to a location which already has a folder of the exact same name Macs and Windows do different things.

    The Mac will completely replace the original folder with the newly moved or copied one. It will put up a dialog box asking you if you want to replace the original and you have to click a button that says ‘Replace’ to get it to do so. (This underscores the importance of new Mac users crossing over from Windows actually READING the Mac’s dialog boxes. Windows simply throws up way too many pointless dialog boxes so the user becomes accustomed to clicking the default button to make them go away without bothering to read them.)

    A Windows box will create a hybrid of the two folders instead of replacing one with the other. If the new folder you are moving/copying contains files that don’t exist in the original, then those new files are added to the original.

    On the Apps Folder:

    This is just a plain old folder where you can drag apps to in order to keep things organized.

    The apps folder is no different in function than the My Documents folder in Windows. You can put a document in any directory on your disk and use it, but if you keep them all in My Documents you don’t have to wonder where you put it later.

    On the OK Button:

    MacOS Preferences has a button with the exact same function as the OK button in a Windows control panel. It’s the bright red round one with the ‘X’ in the top left corner.

    In Windows you have both an ‘Apply’ button which tells the control panel to apply the settings changes you have made, and an ‘OK’ button to make the control panel close.

    I suggest you’re actually missing the ‘Apply’ button and not the ‘OK’ button. (The fact that you don’t always have to hit the Apply button in Windows to Apply changes is retarded and beside the point.)

  9. The menu bar at the top is one of the single best features of MacOS. As already noted, you fling your mouse towards the top and you’ll hit it. Lokk up Fitts’ Law or go to Selecting menu items in Windows requires careful aim if the [program] window is not hard up against the top of the monitor. Or we can all use shortcuts!

    Interesting note on closing files not closing the .app in MacOS; why would you want to? Closing a file is closing a file — you may wish to open a new one later. An exception to this general Windows behaviour is Adobe Photoshop; closing the last file does not close the program, a possible inheritance from its Mac roots?

    Until I worked out that each Windows application runs in its *own* window, I had a hell of a time using PCs. I still prefer the MacOS way of doing things, but used PCs to teach multimedia for 5 years so can speak from some experience.

    I have a feeling that many PC users find the Mac too “loose” or “open”, being able to mix and match documents willy-nilly, and accidentally click through to the desktop, and finding themselves suddenly in the Finder — whaaaaaaaa? There is software that prevents this click-through, and it might be useful for newbies. I use Desktop Curtain together with Volumizer.

    And the age-old Mac practice of using the Desktop to save and keep files is getting a bit old considering how many files we all generate and use these days (and since the Desktop Folder is visible under X, we can navigate that as well as any other folder).

    There are plenty of freeware and shareware add-ons that modify OSX to suit the individual — there is even an imitation of the Start Bar!

  10. David Risley says:

    Re: Ian Goss

    Have you tried using Windows? It is certainly not hard to get to the menus. And my point with OS X has more to do with the top menu and multi-monitor support. If you have not tried using OS X with several screens, you probably think the top menu is great. If you have, you will find it is annoying to have to span several monitors to get to a menu option.

  11. The key to Apple’s top menu superiority is the abilty to flick the cursor to the top and not have to worry about overshooting it. I do find that with large monitors or multple montors (and depending on the mouse you use and its drivers), a single filck may not suffice. With a little investigation you can find third-party mouse drivers that let you customize the mouse acceleration curve so that you can get to the menu bar in one swipe but still have fine cursor control for small movements.

  12. David Risley says:

    No, the solution is for Apple to change the menu. Fitts law only works in a single monitor situation, at least practically. I currently have four monitors attached to the Mac Pro. If I am working on an application on the far monitor, I have to scroll over TWO SCREENS to get to the menu bar for the program I am working worth.

    I like OS X, but this particular feature is idiotic.

  13. No, the menu will not be changing after 25 years of working that way with no complaints except that very occasional newbie switcher. (And up to six monitors have been supported since ’87.) I’ve never known an experienced user of both Macs and Win who wanted to change it. Four monitors is rare to the point of being a non-consideration.

    Still, you might try DejaMenu for acess to the menubar from anywhere as a contextual pop-up. That should take care of it.

  14. 23 years, sorry. And I’ve never tried DejaMenu so I can’t vouch for it.

  15. So Apple should put menu bars in all it’s Windows (and make everyone give up Fitt’s law) so that people with four monitors aren’t inconvenienced. I’m sure they’ll get right on it.

    Actually I do sympatize. My first thought would be for Apple to allow the user to copy the menu bar to additional monitors (in the Displays preference). You could then use the nearest of the duplicate menu bars.

    For the time being, I’ll bet that there is a 3rd-party solution to your dilemma. I know back in the good old days of Mac OS 7, I had an extension (it might have been Now Menus) that gave me the entire menubar as a heirarchical list if I clicked the desktop while holding down a modifier key. A judicious search of the web might turn something up.

  16. I was a little snarky. It probably wouldn’t kill Apple to put a menubar on each monitor reflecting the app fronted on that monitor.

    OTOH, you could always use Spaces on one good screen and get your desk back.

  17. A comment on David Risley’s comment:

    “The program menus always sit at the top of the screen, separate from the main program interface.”

    No, the top menu bar *is* the main program interface; it switches to suit as each app is brought to the front by whichever means. It’s the document-centric rather than program-centric approach again (look up “OpenDoc” for a *really* document-centric concept)!

  18. Menu bars on each monitor, all associated with an app exclusive to that screen? Use Windows. Or learn shortcuts.

  19. Hey, even Al Gore uses only three monitors at a time. And I have used MacOS with multiple monitors.

  20. Good comment on using Spaces. Since Leopard I haven’t connected my second monitor. Maybe if I get more widgets? 🙂

  21. Jerry Koske says:

    I use both Windows Vista (64 bit) and OS X. I have used Windows for many years and OS X for two years. I still prefer having the menus inside of the Windows ala Windows over the OS X desktop menus. When I work, I am running several programs at once, each open in it’s own Window. I can’t do this with OS X. I am much more productive using the Windows Interface. This is true using multiple monitors or a single large monitor.

  22. Jim Mulchinock says:

    I’m also a long time Windows and Mac user – – graphic designer. I prefer Mac OS X but the Windows user’s remarks about the menu being difficult to use over multiple monitors is bang on. Don’t appreciate the snarky comments that only four monitor users will find this to be an issue.

    I use two side-by-side monitors and when I have two Adobe Illustrater docs open on the far right one, a Photoshop doc in the middle region and an InDesign doc on the left, it IS a long and annoying journey back to the left monitor. Even more annoying if you have to access the menu a lot. I used to think it was weird Mac OS was like that and Windows graphic designers had a huge edge.


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