I've just prepared the following note to send to a friend who has purchased his first Mac (a MacBook Pro 15"). Some of the comments are specific to laptop users (trackpad), but in general I think it's useful for most new Mac users.
Any comments / suggestions / critiques? I think of this as "stage one". "stage two" would jump into add-ons (FruitMenu, NuFile, iStatMenus, etc.) and more advanced tips. But I don't want to overload switchers' brains...
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The following two add-ons are essential for viewing of all video file formats on the web, including Windows Media Video files (WMV).
(Perian - The swiss-army knife of QuickTime components
(Download details: Windows Media® Components for QuickTime
Set your Trackpad preferences (Apple Menu-->System Preferences-->Trackpad
(a) check "tap to click"
(b) check "dragging"
(c) check "secondary tap" (this is equivalent to RIGHT CLICK, aka CTRL-CLICK)
Customize the "dock" - the row of icons across the bottom of the screen. You can access the options either in APPLE MENU-->SYSTEM PREFERENCES-->DOCK or by right-clicking (control-click) on the dividing line between application icons and folders on the dock itself.
Here's how *I* like it - you may have other tastes...
(a) if you prefer, the dock can be relocated from the default (bottom) position, to be either on the left or right sides of the screen (vertical).
(b) turn Hiding On
(c) in the System Preferences-->Dock Preferences, turn ON magnification, but set the slider to minimal, just enough to give you a visual cue when mousing.
(d) in the "FINDER" (which is the equivalent to Windows Explorer), open a new window (FILE-->NEW WINDOW or press COMMAND-N) and click on the Macintosh HD in the sidebar. Drag the Applications folder to the dock, below (or to the right of) the dock dividing line. You can drag any file or folder here, so it makes a useful launcher for templates / frequently access documents etc. Consider dragging the DOCUMENTS folder, etc.
(e) With the Applications or Documents or any other folder on the dock, you can single-click on the folder to give you a pop-up list of the contents, selecting an item from within the folder without opening the folder itself.
(f) CTRL-CLICK (or two-finger TAP on the trackpad) on a folder in the dock for options, I recommend "sort by name" and "display as folder"
(g) NOTE that you can remove icons of programs that you are not going to use frequently by simply clicking and dragging them off the dock ("poof!"). Applications can always be added again later by opening the Applications folder and dragging the icons to the dock.
(h) If you find dragging a bit tricky,
you can also double-click on an application icon in the Applications folder, and the icon will appear in the dock while it's running. When the program quits, the icon disappears from the dock. You can keep it there by opening the program, then Right-click (or CTRL-click, or two-finger-tap-) on the program icon and choose "Keep in dock" from the pop-up menu!
Learn the trackpad.
(a) one-finger-tap is a click
(b) two-finger tap is a right-click
(c) one-finger drag moves the mouse pointer
(d) two-finger drag scrolls the application window (e.g., up and down in a web browser window)
(e) four-finger swipe Left or Right shows currently running applications, from which you can swich to another application (same functionality as COMMAND-TAB, which is like ALT-TAB from Windows)
(f) four-finger swipe UP hides all windows and shows you the desktop
(g) four-finger swipe DOWN tiles ALL open windows, from which you can choose to switch to another application window
(a) Under "Apple Menu-->System Preferences" consider checking the box beside "Require password to wake this computer from sleep or screen saver". Useful if it will be left unattended in a café or office environment.
(b) I recommend NEVER enabling File Vault, which encrypts the hard drive on the fly. If you ever forget the password for this feature, your data is essentially GONE.
(c) Consider checking "Disable Automatic Login". This will require you to enter your username / password upon bootup. NOTE that more options regarding login are available under the System Preferences-->Accounts preference pane.
(d) Viruses: As of 11 June 2009, there are still no viruses affecting Mac OS X
However, you can be a carrier of viruses, such as those hidden inside Microsoft Office files. If you feel like you need to have a virus program to be happy, consider the free and very capable ClamXav
(e) Trojans: There are a couple of "trojan" programs which appear to be nice and friendly, but in fact damage or hijack your computer, out there. But they are exceedingly rare. Just be smart about installing only software that you trust. If in doubt, ask!
(a) Under System Preferences-->Sound, consider UNchecking "Play feedback when volume is pressed". This drives me totally batty.
(b) in the Sound preferences, you can also set "Ambient Noise Reduction" under the "INPUT" tab, which may make Skype calls clearer in noisy environments.
(c) this is also the place where you would select a USB digital headset / microphone, should you wish to use one. NOTE that the Mac audio-in port is LINE level, which means most PC microphones will NOT work. An external mic would need to be powered. But the built-in mic on the Mac is more than sufficient for most uses.
Customize the Finder.
(a) with "FINDER" showing at the top left, beside the Apple menu, click on FINDER-->PREFERENCES
(b) under the GENERAL tab, UNcheck the showing of Hard Disks on your desktop. There is NO REASON for you to go into the hard drive 99% of the time.
(c) this is really a matter of taste, but I believe it helps with the adjustment to the Mac environment to forget about the Hard Drive as the source of all things. Your "Home Folder" is where you live!
Understand where the Mac OS keeps things.
(a) As a multiple-user operating system, the OS keeps everyone's stuff inside their own protected folder, indicated by a little icon of a house, with your username as the folder name. The file path is: Macintosh HD / USERS / YourFolderName
For want of a better comparison, consider this the "MY DOCUMENTS" folder on your Windows machine.
(b) Within your "house" are folders for Documents. Pictures, Movies, Music, etc. DO NOT MOVE THESE
(c) Within the /PICTURES/ folder will be a file called "iPhoto Library"
if you use iPhoto to manage your digital photos. DO NOT MESS WITH THIS FILE! Manage your photos from within the iPhoto application.
(d) likewise, within the /MUSIC/ folder will be a file called "iTunes Library"
if you use iTunes to manage your music. DO NOT MESS WITH THIS FILE! Manage your music, etc., from within the iTunes application.
(e) At the root of the Macintosh HD (hard drive), at the same level as the USERS folder where YOUR "house" is, you'll find the Applications folder. This folder is accessible by all users on the computer. This is where you will find all of your programs.
(f) SUPER important: NEVER rename the Home Folder!
There are (complicated) ways to change the name, but it's really not worth it. Changing the name fo the Home Folder will result in your Mac becoming completely confused, and all of your documents will vanish.
INSTALLING and REMOVING applications
The Mac OS is, generally, far easier to deal with when adding / removing programs. There is no control panel called "Add/Remove programs".
(a) to remove a program, open the Applications folder, click once on the program icon to select it and drag it to the trash (or press COMMAND-DELETE). Done.
(b) to install a new program, you will generally download files that arrive in your DOWNLOADS folder (accessible on the dock) that are named "filename.dmg" DMG is "Disk Image".
When you double-click on a Disk Image, a new white icon will appear on your desktop. Inside it will be an application installation package (often looks like a brown packing box that is open). Double-click this to launch the installer. You will need to provide, in may cases, your password to perform the install. ONLY do this if you are confident in the source of this installation program.
Once the install is completed and the installer quits, you will still have that white icon of the open Disk Image on your desktop. You can drag it to the trash, as well as the original "Filename.DMG" file that is in your /Downloads/ folder.
(c) now that a new program is installed, you will likely need to open the /Applications/ folder (which we put on the dock in Step 4 above) and drag the new program's icon on to the dock for easy access (or use the alternate method identified in step (4)(h) above).
(d) some applications do not have an installer, but rather make it easy for you by providing an "alias" (aka "shortcut") to the Applications folder inside the disk image. All you need to do - and this should be obvious when you see it - is drag the application icon onto the alias.
There are many other things to learn in the other various System Preferences (like the screen saver, desktop picture, etc.)... but we'll leave those until you have explored and become familiar with the rest of the system.
Finally, here are some helpful websites to make your transition easier:
Apple's Official Switchers Page
Get A Mac
A good site for Switchers from Windows:
My First Mac - Help Buying and Getting Started with Your New Mac
There may be software you have used on Windows that is not on the Mac. Do a search at this site for free / shareware / commercial possibilities:
Mac OS X Software Updates and Mac OS X Downloads - VersionTracker
Peer help is always nice. Canada's Mac Community:
Canada's Mac, iPod, iPhone and Apple TV Community!
Especially check out the ehMac Pro Tips section
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Updated 2:51pm Central - thanks Chas_m!
Updated 8:50pm Central - thanks tilt, mkolesa, Ottawaman, HowEver, chewy and boukman!