Mac Basics: The essentials

Learn about the essentials of using a Mac.

This article has been archived and is no longer updated by Apple.

The desktop, Finder, Dock, menu bar, Spotlight, and Notification Center

These are six of the most basic elements of your Mac.

  • Desktop
    The desktop is a place where you can put files and folders. At the top of the desktop is the menu bar, and at the bottom is the Dock. To learn more about the desktop, please see this article.
  • The Finder
    The Finder shows you your files and folder in windows, and can be used to find anything on your Mac. Each Finder window has a sidebar to help you navigate. You can choose to view windows as icons, lists, or columns. To get a closer look, use Quick Look. You can rename, create, and organize folders. For much more information about using the Finder, please see The Finder.
  • The Dock

    At the bottom of your desktop is the Dock. You'll find icons on the Dock for the Finder, Launchpad, Mission Control, Safari, Mail, Contacts, Calendar, Reminders, Notes, Messages, FaceTime, Photo Booth, iPhoto for importing and managing your photos, iTunes, Mac App Store (see below) and System Preferences to tweak your system.

    You can create stacks to the right of the line in the Dock. Your Mac comes with a built-in stack for Documents. Click a stack to see what's in it, then click any file in the stack to open it. To learn more, please see Stacks.

    The right-most item in the Dock is the Trash, which you can use to delete files and eject mounted volumes. You can move the Dock and tweak its settings. See The Dock for more information.
  • The menu bar

    Along the top of the screen is the menu bar. Its choices change based on which application you're using, or if you're in the Finder.

    Use status menus on the right side of the menu bar for things like sound, data and time, Wi-Fi connection, Spotlight, and your online chat status.

  • Spotlight

    Open Spotlight from the menu bar. Use Spotlight to search for files such as documents, emails, dates in Calendar, and webpages that you've visited. Spotlight also does math equations!
  • Notification Center (OS X Mountain Lion)
    Mountain Lion Notification Center

    Open Notification Center from the menu bar. Use Notification Center to view notifications from Messages, Calendar, Mail, Reminders, Twitter, Facebook, and other third-party apps.

Pointing, clicking, and getting around

When you move your mouse or finger on a trackpad, you control a pointer (also known as a cursor) that moves across your screen. The pointer allows you to select and interact with the various items on your screen, including selecting files, clicking buttons, dragging sliders, and so on. Sometimes the pointer may look like a hand, a crosshair, an I-beam, or another icon, depending on what you're doing and the application you're using.

For example, if you're using Safari to view this webpage and move the pointer across it, notice that it turns into an I-beam when you move it over text or a text field. When you see this, you can usually interact with the text or field below it. When you move the pointer over a button or link, the pointer turns into a hand, letting you know that you can click on the item.

Depending on what you're doing and what application you're using, your pointer (far left) may change appearances

Clicking your mouse button or trackpad button once allows you to select the item that your pointer is on. In other words, if your pointer is on a file's icon, clicking once will select it. If the pointer is on a button or link, clicking once will activate it. If your pointer is on a text field, clicking once highlights the field and allows you to start typing text in it.

If you want to open a file, folder, or application, click your mouse button or trackpad twice. This is known as double-clicking. In general, you'll need to double-click items if you want to open them from a Finder window or the desktop. The exception to this is opening stuff from the Dock—just click once on an icon in the Dock to open it.

Close, minimize, and zoom windows

Every Finder, application, and document window has three colored buttons (red, yellow, and green) in the upper left corner.

  • The red close button closes the window. You can also use the Command-W keyboard shortcut.
  • The yellow minimize button (or Command-M keyboard shortcut) shrinks the window into the Dock. Click the window icon in the Dock to restore it.
  • The green zoom button will enlarge the window's size to show as much content as possible without a scroll bar. Click it again to return the previous window size.

Launch your apps

Your Mac comes with many applications already installed. In OS X Lion and later, you can see all your apps by clicking the Launchpad icon in the Dock.

You can also open apps via the Dock, from the Applications folder, with an alias, or by opening a file associated with the app.

Mac App Store

You can find much more software for your Mac online with the Mac App Store. Simply click its icon in the Dock to visit the App Store. After purchasing and downloading, applications are automatically installed in your Applications folder, and added to the Launchpad. To get updates for Mac App Store applications and OS X Mountain Lion, simply open App Store and click the Updates tab

OS X Mountain Lion Software update window

For more information about installing, updating, or uninstalling apps, please see Install, update, and uninstall apps. To learn more about updating OS X Mountain Lion from the Mac App Store, please see this article.

Update your software

Software Update automatically checks for available updates from Apple when your computer is connected to the Internet. It takes into account the software you have installed on your computer, and new updates released by Apple so that it only shows you relevant updates. You can either wait for Software Update to make its scheduled check for updates (every week by default), or check for updates at any time by choosing Software Update from the Apple () menu.

In OS X Mountain Lion, Mac App Store provides software updates via the Updates tab, as mentioned above. Updates for software that was purchased from the Mac App Store are also obtained via the Mac App Store's Update button.

You can also manually download updates from Apple Downloads to install the software yourself. To install software, just double-click the installer file and follow the onscreen instructions. To learn more, please see this article.

Back up and restore files with Time Machine

Time Machine backs up all your Mac's files to a disk of your choice. If you accidentally delete a file, you can restore it quickly with Time Machine. You can also restore your entire system from a Time Machine backup if necessary.

Use Time Machine preferences in System Preferences to configure your options. To learn more, please see this article.

Important: Information about products not manufactured by Apple is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute Apple’s recommendation or endorsement. Please contact the vendor for additional information.
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