The Power Fundamentals Series is a streamlined selection of power tips, as opposed to, say, a complete manual or full cheat-sheet of shortcuts, which can be found elsewhere. These tips are essentially for efficient usage — especially in the enterprise where time is of the essence, but with benefit to any users needing to rapidly become proficient on the Mac.

The first installments will be the easiest to grasp, but will contain tips which form the foundation of highly productive usage as you build up your knowledge. The more proficient of you may find some of this to be too basic, but sometimes even old hands will pick up something new or slightly different from a refresher.

The amount of benefit you gain will depend on how far you would like to take the series. Although aimed at fresh Mac users in the beginning (perhaps those switching from a different OS), I have come across 30-year Apple veterans who were able to find something new in the basic tips I will be covering at the beginning of this series. To get you on your feet quickly, some topics will be covered briefly early on, and then covered in more depth later in the series.

I’ve tried to skip the really-obvious, and covered-elsewhere type of advice and opted for covering items not immediately apparent when faced with a new Mac, as well as providing best practices for specific scenarios.

Mac Basics on Apple’s own website provides the closest approximation to a Mac manual and provides detailed coverage of features in linear and wiki-type format.

If you feel I have missed something or disagree with a proposed tweak, please feel free to comment below. As the series is being written live / “on-the-fly” your comments will influence subsequent articles.

Note: This series was created for MacOS X 10.8 Mountain Lion. However it will be highly applicable down to MacOS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. MacOS X 10.5 Leopard users will obtain some benefit. 10.4 Tiger or earlier users may find many places where these tips don’t apply.

What you can (and probably should) do with a brand new Mac or a fresh installation of MacOS X

Customize your Mac early-on in order to stay on top of navigating and managing your files in the way that most suits you and your profession.

Learn good habits and easy power-tips right from the start, or un-learn less productive habits and add some powerful basic tips to your bag of tricks.

MacOS X is the world’s most advanced operating system “under the hood”. To some outsiders it seems “tinker-toy”, but that is due to a highly organised classification of features. You could, in fact, neatly unwrap its powerful features for a lifetime. Thankfully it’s default settings are for the least advanced users. For pro work, these settings should be modified.

Part 1 – The Dock, opening and switching between apps

Level: Beginner / Switcher
The scenario:
You have a brand new Mac* or an older Mac and have just installed MacOS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, 10.7 Lion or 10.6 Snow Leopard. You have already set the Mac up using the “wizard” type screens (appearing in series), starting with your country screen and ending with the time zone screen.

Figure A

Assuming you didn’t transfer all your settings from a previous Mac you’ll be faced with a default desktop showing a big galaxy picture (to get a perspective on it all) and a menu bar at the top.

* Although the Power Fundamentals series uses a new MacOS X installation as a starting-point, this first post also applies to an existing “worn-in” system. Later posts may refer to aspects of the system you may have already customised, but you will find it easy to re-tweak those settings.

At the bottom is…

The Mac Dock

Figure B

If you’ve switched from Windows, you’ll find the Dock similar to the Taskbar in one of its main purposes: it’s a home for your most-used applications (programs), and provides a quick way to launch them and access or hide their open windows. The dock is also home to the Trash can (Recycle Bin) and can also hold folders, the contents of which can be customized to display in a number of ways.

Where the Mac Dock differs from its Windows counterpart is initially noticeable in its styling. Since the Dock is an application launcher first and foremost, for the most part it displays big, simple icons with an optional magnification/bulge effect (created by Bas Ording), which has arguably become the principle defining visual feature of MacOS X since its debut in 2001.

Other functions normally located in the Windows Taskbar, such as the system tray, date and time, network and volume control are found in other parts of MacOS X — mainly in that other visually-identifying Mac feature, the Menu Bar.

For detailed coverage on the Mac Dock please take a look at Mac Basics: The Dock on Apple’s website or, while still in the Finder, click on the Help menu (or Command-Shift-? Question Mark):

Type Dock in the Search box, click on Dock Basics:

To keep an Application in the dock for later use:

  1. Drag a closed app onto the Dock from a Finder window (i.e., The Applications folder), or…
    Launch an app using another method (see Power Tip #2 below)
  2. Right-click (or ctrl-click) on the app in the Dock
  3. Go to Options – Keep in Dock

Removing apps is simply a matter of dragging them off and away from the Dock, then letting go. They will disappear in a puff of environmentally friendly cyber vapour.

When customizing your Dock, keep it very simple and minimal, with only the main apps you use on a daily basis, for example:

  • Launchpad (for launching apps not in the Dock)
  • Mission Control (if you use it)
  • One of Safari / Chrome / Firefox
  • PhotoBooth (in case you need to snap in a hurry)
  • iTunes (if music be the food of good productivity)
  • Any of Word / Excel / Powerpoint or Pages / Numbers / Keynote
  • Any other frequently-used third-party apps
  • Any of Calendar / Contacts / Notes / Reminders
  • Any of Messages / Facetime

System Preferences and App Store are both accessible via the Apple Menu. No need to double-up.

Why keep the Dock simple? Because there are many other ways of launching apps — which will be covered here — and very soon you will have a lot of them. The Dock’s big bold style lends itself well to quickly launching your primary applications.

Power Tip #1 – Dock positioning

Our first tweak, should you decide it’s for you, is to move the Dock to the left side of the screen, changing it to a vertical Dock. Although arguably less impressive visually, for some it makes more practical sense to select an application in a quick, vertical movement, and then move to the side to begin using the app.

Since modern displays are wider than they are tall, a side Dock has less effect on screen proportions and takes up less space, especially when the hiding option is turned on.

Left is probably a better choice, seeing as Apple’s traditional and default position for desktop icons is on the right, as is Mountain Lion’s Notifications Centre.

To reposition the Dock on the left, go to:

Apple Menu | Dock | Position on Left

To turn Dock hiding on, go to:

Apple Menu | Dock | Turn Hiding On

When hidden, the Dock appears only when the pointer approaches the left side of the screen.

To toggle the bubble / bulge magnification effect, go to:

Apple Menu | Dock | Turn Magnification On

On is more useful for a very full Dock, off is better for a minimal Dock.

Power Tip #2 – Spotlight App Launcher

Someone just suggested you keep your dock minimal, but now you need an app that’s not in the dock.

You could just use the LaunchPad app in the Dock and search for the icon of the app, but there’s an even quicker method, especially when you have a lot of apps.

  1. Hold down command (⌘ or )
  2. Tap the spacebar (brings up Spotlight )
  3. Start typing the name of the app (the first three letters are usually enough)
  4. When you see its name appear opposite “Top Hit”, hit enter.

Spotlight is the Mac’s highly acclaimed search feature, which will be covered in greater depth in another post. Since it’s set to prioritize applications by default, it makes a perfect quick-launch method for any of your hundreds of apps*.
* Afraid of installing too many apps? Don’t be. The Mac can take it.

MacOS X is built on an extremely robust UNIX framework, and applications are not tied to the system. They utilise the computer’s core resources independently, so installing lots of apps won’t slow your Mac down.

A new installation of Mountain Lion has 49 applications in the applications folder and an additional 169 in other parts of the system (total 218). I’ve increased that total to an excess of 700 apps, including most of the biggest pro audio, video and graphics apps without any affect on performance.

Power Tip #3 – Application Switcher

cmd-tab – Quickly switch between open apps

You could use Mission Control (Lion and Mountain Lion) or Exposé (Leopard and Snow Leopard) for switching between Apps and their windows, but a tried-and-trusted simpler and potentially faster method is “tabbing” between apps.

  • Hold down command (cmd, ⌘ or ).
  • Keep holding command and tap Tab (⟶|) until the block highlights the App you want.
    Holding shift ⇧ at the same time as command cycles through apps in reverse.
  • Release command to switch to the App.

Or while still holding command (i.e., Still in “app switcher mode”):

  • ` (grave key aka backtick) – move highlight to the left
  • mouse scrollwheel – scroll highlight back and forth
  • left arrow – move highlight to the left
  • right arrow – move highlight to the right
  • up arrow – enter exposé (Mission Control) for highlighted application
  • down arrow – enter exposé (Mission Control) for highlighted application
  • h – hide highlighted application
  • q – quit highlighted application

Once you have switched to an app, to switch between open windows of an app:

Command ` (grave key aka backtick)

Note: Moving back and forth between Mac and Windows? This function is available in Windows as alt-tab.

Next installment

Fresh Mac – Customizing home base: The Mac Finder
(including yet another interesting way of storing and launching frequent apps)