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Mac 101: Meet the Finder

In the last Mac 101 column, you finished configuring your new Mac. At long last, it's up and it's running OS X Mountain Lionyouve arrived! But where exactly are you? And whats all that stuff on the screen?

Your Mac is running an application (also known as a program or an app) called Finder. More often than not, youll hear it referred to as the Finder. Given its name, is it a tool for searching your Mac?

Not exactly. Way back when the Mac was first born, Apple used a desktop metaphor to help people imagine the way their files were organized. You could think of the Finder as your desk. Inside that desk were folders that held other folders or files. So, by opening a series of nested folders, youd eventually locate the file (or document) you were interested in working with. So, in this way, the Finder earned its name: It was the starting point for finding your files.

But, as things have progressed, fewer Mac users think of it that way. There are far more efficient means for locating files than digging down through a lot of nested folders. And, with the last couple of iterations of the Mac OS, Apple is deemphasizing the notion of folder hierarchies anyway. (But thats a topic for another column.) For the time being, just think of the Finder as the place you start when you first boot up your Mac. Now let's take a look around.

The menu bar

Starting at the top of the window, you find the menu bar. Yep, another metaphor. Rather than forcing you to remember a bunch of arcane computer commands (as was the case in prehistoric times), Apple organizes common commands in a series of menus. Click on a menu headingEdit, for exampleand you see the related options in a menu below. Select one of those commands, and it executes. So, for instance, click on a file, choose the Duplicate command from the File menu, and the Mac creates another copy of the file. I'll discuss menus and their functions in a future column. For now, were just taking a look around.

In the menu bar you see a number of items. Starting from the left, theres the Apple icon. This is actually a menu. Unlike the menus to its immediate right, this one is represented by an icon rather than a word. Then comes the Finder menu. This menu is known generically as the application menu, meaning that it contains commands specific to the application youre currently working with. If you are currently using iTunes, for example, youll see an iTunes menu in this same positionjust to the right of the Apple menuand in that menu youll find commands that apply to the iTunes application.

And then there are the regular menusFile, Edit, View, Go, Window, and Help. All of these menu titles (except Go) are commonly found in other applications. And thats one of the beauties of the Mac OS. Thanks to things like common menu names and commands, youll have a certain sense of familiarity regardless of which application youre using. If you need to copy something, for example, that command will always be found in the Edit menu. If you need help in just about any application, thats exactly what the Help menu is for.

Moving to the right in the menu bar you see a series of icons that also represent menus. These menus often allow you to quickly change one of the Macs settings, saving you a trip to the Macs System Preferences application. The figure below includes the default set of icons found on a 2012 MacBook Air. Your menu bar icons may be different because some functions may not be supported on your Mac. Ill explain in greater detail what the functions represented by these icons do in a future column. For now, here's the short and sweet description, starting from the left:

AirPlay Some Mac models can project their sound and video over a network connection to an Apple TV. (Again, don't worry about it nowI'll explain it in a later column.) This menu allows you to choose the device to which you want to send the Macs audio and video. You wont find the AirPlay menu on any but the most recent Mac models.

Time Machine Computers crash, and when they do, you can occasionally lose your files. For this reason, its a good idea to back up your files. OS X includes a feature called Time Machine that allows you to easily do this. Ill explain Time Machine in a future column. For now, just know that you can invoke some of Time Machines most common commands from this menu.

Bluetooth Your Mac can send and receive information wirelessly in a couple of ways. Bluetoothwhich is commonly used for communicating between wireless keyboards, mice, trackpads, headphones, and speakersis one of those ways.

AirPort Apple calls its wireless (Wi-Fi) networking scheme AirPort. You use this menu to choose a wireless network to connect to, as well as to turn your computers AirPort connection on or off. A black fan indicates that youre connected to a Wi-Fi network. A gray fan means youre not. The fewer number of black bars in the fan, the less robust your connection to the network.

Sound Click on the Sound icon and you can adjust your Macs volume up or down by adjusting the slider.

Battery Found on laptops only, the battery icon tells you if your battery is being charged (a lightning bolt icon within the battery tells you that it is, and a plug icon means that its fully charged and plugged into an active power outlet) and, if it's not plugged into a power outlet, approximately how much battery power is left. Click on this icon to get a more accurate battery status.

Day and time Need to check the time? Glance up at this item. By default youll see both the day and time. If youd like to know the date, click on the time and the date will appear in the resulting menu.

Spotlight I mentioned earlier that there are far easier ways to find files than digging down through a folder hierarchy. Spotlight is one of them. Click on the magnifying-glass icon and you can enter the nameor a portion of the nameof an item youd like to find. A list of results will appear. Click on the one you want, and that item opens. If youve chosen a file, it will open in the application associated with it. If its an application, that application will launch. Spotlight can be used for many more things, and, as youve probably guessed, Ill devote a column to it in the not-too-distant future.

Notifications With Mountain Lion, Apple has corralled many of the alerts you receive into a single location. Click on the Notifications menu, and youll see a list of notifications that youve received. These can include things like instant-message and calendar alerts, received Mail messages, Twitter messages that mention you, and Game Center invitations.

The desktop

That vast empty area in the middle of the Macs display is known as the desktop. Like a real desks top, youre welcome to place items on this desktop, though Apple encourages you to place your files in more appropriate placesyour pictures in a Pictures folder and documents in a Documents folder, for example, or on Apple's online syncing and storage service, iCloud.

As youre just starting out, Ill plant this seed: Place files where they belong rather than dumping them on the desktop. (And yes, well talk about file management eventually.) Not only is it difficult to find files when there are hundreds scattered across your screen, but overloading the desktop with certain kinds of files can actually slow down your Mac.

The Dock

By default, at the bottom of the Macs display you see a long bar populated with a collection of icons. This is the Dock. By default the Dock holds these applications: Finder, Launchpad, Mission Control, Safari, Mail, Contacts, Calendar, Reminders, Notes, Messages, FaceTime, Photo Booth, iPhoto, iTunes, App Store, and System Preferences.

The Dock serves a couple of purposes. The first is that it acts as a way to quickly launch commonly used applications. Just click on an application and it either starts up (if it isn't already running), or the Mac switches to it (if it is). An application that is running (also known as an active application) will display a faint glow below the Docks application icon.

The majority of the Dock is taken up with applications. If you look closely, youll see a faint line near the right side of the Dock. The area to the left of that line is reserved for applications.

You can both add and remove applications from this area. To remove an application, just hold down the Option key on your keyboard (its two keys to the left or to the right of the spacebar) and drag the application out of the Dock. Its icon will disappear in a puff of virtual smoke. Dont worry, if you do this you havent deleted the application from your Mac. Rather, youve just removed from the Dock the icon that represents that application. Basically you've removed the shortcut to the application, but the program still exists in the Mac's Applications folder.

When you launch an application that isnt in the Dock, its icon will also appear in the Dock and have that faint glow beneath it indicating that its running. When you quit that application, it will disappear from the Dock.

If youd like to add that or another application to the Dock in a more permanent way, just select it (from the Applications folder, for example) and drag it into this applications area. Its icon will appear where you place it and other icons will shift out of the way.

The Dock can also alert you to things that require your attention. For example, if iTunes cant find a track youve asked it to play and iTunes isnt the application youre currently working with, the iTunes icon may bounce up and down in the Dock so that youll switch to it to learn about the problem its having. Additionally, some applications will show badgesred indicators planted on the applications icon. Mail, for instance, will display a badge indicating the number of messages its received that you havent yet read.

And you can access some settings for active applications by clicking and holding on an applications icon. For instance, if iTunes is running, you can click on its Dock icon and rate the currently playing song, pause playback, play the next or previous tracks, or shuffle songs. When Mail is active, you can ask it to retrieve new messages or you can choose to compose a new message.

To the right of the Docks faint line are, by default, two items. The first onethough it doesnt look like itrepresents a folder. Specifically, its a shortcut to the Downloads folder. When you download a file via Apples Safari Web browser, that file appears within this folder. Click on it in the Dock, and you see the folders contents.

These Dock folders can be confusing. By default, when such a folder contains just a few items and you click on it, the items pop-out in a fan list with the most recent items appearing at the top. When that folder has more than a few items in it and you click on it, those items appear in a grid. In a future column Ill discuss customizing the Finder and talk about ways to make these folders show items in a more consistent way. For now, just understand that you may see items displayed in either a Fan or a Grid view. To launch a file in one of these views, just click on it.

Finally, at the right edge of the Dock is the Trash. When you want to delete something from your Mac, just click, hold, and drag it to the trash-can icon. If the Trash contains no files, it will change from a trash-empty icon to a stuff-in-the-trash icon and youll hear a dumped-something-in-the-trash sound effect. Like a real trash can, this one isnt really empty until you do something to toss out the items in it. Rather its a holding area for items that you eventually intend to throw out for good and all. To really delete your files, click on the Finder menu and choose Empty Trash. A window will appear asking if youre really sure you want to empty the Trash. Click the Empty Trash button to do exactly that. Otherwise, click Cancel and the items in the Trash will remain right where they are.

Once youve emptied the Trash, the items that were in it are, for all intents and purposes, gone. (There are some utilities that can retrieve them, but until youre a little more up to speed on the ins and outs of the Mac, just assume theyre gone.) However, you can retrieve items if the Trash hasnt yet been emptied. To do that, just click on the trash-can icon. A window will open that shows you the contents of the Trash. Drag the items you want to retrieve out of the trash to the desktop. You can now file them away.

This area to the right of the line isnt intended only for the Downloads folder and Trash. If the area to the left of the line is for applications, this area is for everything but applications. If you have a folder you access routinely (the Applications folder, for example), you can drag it in here, and an icon representing it will appear. If youve minimized a window by clicking on its yellow button (something well get to, I promise), it will appear in this area. If you have a file that you use over and over againa text file that holds your personal diary, sayyou can drop it in here as well.

Theres far more that you can do in the Finderand we'll get to those things over timebut youre now familiar with its major elements.

Next time: We look at windowsno, not Microsoft Windows. Rather, how windows work in OS X.

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