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Mac tips (not only) for switchers

[2011-03-22] apple, hack, computers, mac
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If you are new to the Mac, everything can feel a bit off. This post tries to help. And might even teach you something new if you are already familiar with the Mac. I am also mentioning some advanced things which should be interesting for programmers and people coming from Linux.


  • Option key ⌥: Mac speak for “Alt”.
  • Command key ⌘: Used for menu commands.
  • Aqua: The name of the Mac OS X GUI. Meaning: You can usually substitute “GUI” for “Aqua”, sometimes also used to differentiate X11-based programs from true Mac OS X programs.
  • Cocoa: An object-oriented API for writing Mac OS X programs, inherited from the NeXT operating system. A variant of Cocoa, Cocoa Touch is used on iOS devices (which run a port of Mac OS X).
File System
  • Applications: Mac applications are just directories whose name ends with “.app”, in the Finder, you can use the context menu to look inside such a folder.
    • Thus, one can easily bundle files with an application. This was used when Apple switched from PowerPC processors to Intel processors to include binaries for both architectures in a single application.
    • Applications are easy to install and uninstall: You just copy them wherever you want to use them and trash them for deinstallation. Alternative ways of installing are via Installer packages and the Mac App Store.
  • File system layout: Inspired by the Unix /usr/bin etc., but a bit easier to understand.
  • Hidden files: Under the Finder (but not under the shell) much of Mac OS X's Unix personality is hidden. Similarly to Unix, files whose names start with a dot are not shown in the Finder.
  • Use an Option click to position the cursor in the terminal, e.g. when you are using emacs over ssh.
  • Open files with Mac applications:
    • open . # open the current directory with the finder
    • open -a textedit myfile.txt
    • open -a textedit # just open the program
  • Drop files on a Terminal window to paste their path.
  • ssh-agent: Already runs for the complete session (including all GUI apps). Thus, you only need to ssh-add your keys (via Terminal).
GUI, various apps
  • Drag and drop
    • D&D and Option-Tab: You can use Option-Tab during D&D, in order to easily transfer data between programs.
    • D&D a file on Mail.app: Creates a new email message whose attachment is the file.
  • Finder: Command-clicking on a window title gives you a list of folders enclosing the current one.
  • Sleep display:
    • Put the cursor in a hot corner. Use “System Preferences → Desktop + Screen Saver → Hot Corners” (or search for “corner”) to configure a corner so that the display is put to sleep if the cursor stays in it.
    • Type Ctrl-Shift-Eject
Keyboard and keyboard shortcuts
  • Mac OS X has many keyboard shortcuts [4].
  • Many Emacs key bindings work in Mac applications (Ctrl-A, Ctrl-E, Ctrl-K, etc.)
  • Keyboard and character viewer menu: can be enabled via the “Keyboard” preference pane. Allows you to access characters such as arrows from any application.
  • Use F1, F2, etc. as function keys: Helpful if you develop with an IDE, enabled via the “Keyboard” preference pane.
  • Command key combinations and dialog windows: In some cases, you can use a Command key combination to click a button. For example: When you are in danger of overwriting a file, a dialog appears and you can use Command-R to replace or Command-D for “Don’t Save”.
  • Shut down dialog: activate via Ctrl-Eject, type the initial character of any of the buttons to click them.
Making screen shots
  • Including a mouse pointer in the shot: This is where the “Grab” application helps.
  • Entire screen, window, selection: See Preview.app, menu “File” which has a submenu for screenshots.
  • Entire screen: Command-Shift-3
  • Selection: Command-Shift-4
    • Benefit: Can also be used to count pixels on screen
    • Variation: Hit space and get a cursor that selects a window to be shot.
Spotlight [5]
  • Activate via Command-Space
  • Calculations: addition, multiplication, etc. Even sin and cos work. [6]
  • Filter by file type: For example, “kind: pdf”.
  • Phrases: Put words that should appear in a given order, next to each other, in quotes.
  • Exclude folders: Use the Spotlight preference pane to hide some folder from indexing and appearing in search results.
Enabling Hidden Features in Apple's Programs. Apple's apps store their preferences quite cleverly in a tree that can be accessed from the command line. Thus, the following hacks are possible. Close the application before performing them.
  • iTunes: By default, the Ping button transports you to the iTunes store. Option-click instead gets you to your own library. The following preference makes the latter the default.
    • In Terminal type: defaults write com.apple.iTunes invertStoreLinks -bool YES
  • Safari: Enable the debug menu (which has some nifty stuff in it, you can e.g. change the user agent)
    • Type: defaults write com.apple.Safari IncludeDebugMenu 1
  • Terminal: Enable focus-follows-mouse
    • Type: defaults write com.apple.Terminal FocusFollowsMouse -string YES
Related reading
  1. Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard: the Ars Technica review
  2. Essential Mac applications
  3. Gimp on Mac OS X
  4. Mac OS X keyboard shortcuts
  5. 11 Tips To Use Spotlight More Efficiently
  6. Spotlight - Calculator Functions
  7. Mac keyboard and trackpad: save battery power