Mac OS X For Starters: Setup Tips & App Recommendations

Prelude: I’d like to think of my works as being greater than the sum of their individual parts, but I also figured you might elect to skip the introductory section and head straight to the setup and app suggestions (emphasized below). Returning readers who saved this for future reference may also find the menu useful:


Buying My First Mac

My first Mac arrived this winter. I’d like to say it was an unusually sunny day, but the truth is I wouldn’t have noticed even the most abundant rainfall. This machine is a thirteen-inch late 2013 Macbook Pro, with the processor upped one level to the 2.6 GHz i5 model and the RAM maxed to 16GB.

And, I love it.

My attitude towards Apple started shifting exponentially after my father returned from a 2007 business trip to Thailand with a gift: A first generation iPhone. It wasn’t available at the time here in Israel. As a teenager in the very early 2000s — being a PC power user — I always ridiculed these ostensibly expensive Apple computers and those who bought them. After all, the layman’s argument for getting a Mac (no viruses) was irrelevant to me. I knew my way around popups and fishy websites.

Despite appreciating the iPhone’s superiority from the get-go, I never considered buying an Apple laptop until mid–2012, mere weeks after starting to write here. That’s also about the time I began reading blogs again.

I started noticing a pattern: My favorite writers and biggest inspirers, people like Shawn Blanc and Matt Gemmell, were predominantly on Macs. I started investigating their setups and workflows, and the (now trivial) conclusion became clearer and clearer the more I dug: Like the iPhone, Apple’s laptop supremacy lies in its ecosystem (hardware + software), not in machine specs.

Indeed, you can buy a computer roughly 1.5 times more powerful than my Macbook Pro for slightly less than what I paid for it; but what I failed to understand in 2010 that I understand today is that Apple charges an expensive premium for the user experience. And, to each his own, we should examine this benefit-cost ratio individually to see whether our needs (or desires) justify this premium.

For the record, I think the usually cheaper Windows machines are still a better fit for people with monetary constraints or those who don’t use their computer for professional or creative purposes.

For me — after a bit more than a month — the “Mac investment” has justified its worth.

Why and How I Wrote This

The why: I bought my Mac only five months after the decision to get one as I preferred to wait for the Haswell line to roll-out, and so I had plenty of time to learn about the major (and more subtle) differences between my Windows environment and my future OS X one.

More importantly, I was interested in the most seamless way to convert from a PC power-user setup to a Mac one. I still have a lot to learn, but not nearly as much as I thought, merely a month after the transition.

During the period of anticipation, I scrounged blogs, websites and forums. The result was a big Simplenote file that included initial setup instructions, common keyboard shortcuts, applications — several I used regularly and more that I had never heard of before — and a backup strategy.

Every piece of advice or application mentioned here can be found quickly or eventually through Googling. The goal of this article is to hopefully save you some time and effort by collecting them in one page.

The How: This guide is lacking; I wrote it this way on purpose. The main goal is to provide you with a decent starting point from which you can further extend OS X for your own needs. Not all aspiring power-users want the same customizations or the same level thereof, but most of us share some universal needs that I’m hoping to address (if only partly) here.

Another goal is to keep app recommendations relevant to the broadest possible audience — an indispensable app for a photographer may be useless for a novelist, and while I use all of the apps listed here, I chose to arrange them under four labels:

  • Essential
  • Recommended
  • Frequently mentioned
  • My additions

Except for the last category, all applications mentioned here are ones I believe a photographer, a novelist, and a lawyer can exchange over a cup of coffee without any of them asking, “whoa, now what would I need that for?” Again, they will not satisfy all of their individual needs, only the ones they most likely have in common.

On Paid vs. Free: I believe my most important resources are time and energy, not money. This does not mean I buy every app I read about, but if it saves me time, agony, or effort, I’ll pay for it. What I’m saying here is that there is a possibility that you will find cheaper or free alternatives for apps listed here. In any case, I suggest you do your own due diligence. I admit I’m picky and even somewhat spoiled in this regard.

First Steps

Inspect & drool

By the time I finally got my MacBook, I had already accumulated so many “to dos” and “to downloads” in my Simplenote file that I forgot to stop for a moment and enjoy its terrific design for the first time. Before getting your hands dirty, take a moment to enthuse over the aesthetics.

Update OS X and preloaded apps to the latest version

Check and update your OS X and the preloaded apps that come with the Mac.

in your menubar → ‘Software Update…’

Security

If you haven’t set a password for your user account during the first-boot setup, you can do so by going to System PreferencesUsers & Groups. While you’re there, you may want to disable the guest user account if you don’t plan on letting anyone else use your computer.

Next, you can go to Security & PrivacyFileVault if you want to encrypt your hard drive; encrypting takes time and it’s better to do it early on when you don’t have many files just yet. It takes much longer to encrypt 20 gigabytes at once than it takes to do so incrementally.

Personally, I also went to the Firewall tab in Security & Privacy and enabled it. Unlike the case with Windows PCs, I didn’t notice any effect on surfing speed or conflicts with other applications.

Trackpad

Apple’s state-of-the-art trackpad is a joy to use and will automatically increase productivity for users coming from Windows, but truth-be-told, it doesn’t come with the ideal configuration out of the box. Here’s the high-res screenshot of a comparison between the default settings and my own setup, designed to fully utilize the trackpad’s features.

Ideal Trackpad Settings for Mac OS X

Restore your purchased apps

If this isn’t your first Mac, you probably want to download at least some of the apps you purchased previously through Apple’s App Store.

App StorePurchases

Color Calibration

This is often overlooked, but calibrating your screen’s color profile is dead simple, takes 5 minutes, and can have a profoundly positive effect on your viewing experience.

I found the retina screen to be stunning from the get-go, but for the first two weeks I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was my imagination or if the colors were actually a little faded or dull for some reason. I was amazed at how richer the colors became after calibration.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with your screen colors since any changes you make are added as new profiles (unless you manually elect to override or delete any of them).

To calibrate your screen colors, go to System PreferencesDisplaysColor:

Select your current profile and then click Calibrate… to the right. When the ‘Display Calibrator Assistant’ comes up, tick the box that reads ‘Expert Mode – this turns on extra options’ and then hit Continue.

Unless you intend to use the screen for special purposes, you only want to change your native gamma, which you will be prompted to do in the very first stage. Target gamma should be left at 2.2 and Whitespace gamma at D65.

After you’re done, compare your new profile with the one you started with by selecting either of them in turns. If you’re not happy with the result, you can give it another try or two, or simply settle with one of the default profiles.

Hot Corners

Hot Corners are keyboard shortcuts on steroids, and they make me want to have an octagonal screen. They are somewhat hidden though in OS X, and can be found in System PreferencesMission ControlHot Corners (on the bottom-left part of the window).

The use of Hot Corners becomes obvious once you open the configuration menu: This feature allows you to perform common actions by simply moving your mouse to one of the four edges of your screen.

Energy Saver

From what I’ve been reading — unless you have to — you want to keep the Energy Saver settings as they are for ideal battery life (I expand a little more on battery life in the usage tips section). This may be all voodoo though, so I’d suggest you at least check it out in System PreferencesEnergy Saver.

Backup strategy

I’ve been doing a lot of research on backups lately and I think this matter warrants a post of its own, but I won’t ignore it completely just for this reason. With backups, the effort and cost should be in correlation with how critical the data on your Mac is and how quickly you would need it back in case of a drive failure.

Here’s my (somewhat obsessive) backup strategy:

  • Onsite external HDD: A 1TB high-grade drive partitioned evenly for nightly Time Machine and Carbon Copy Cloner backups. TM is a snapshot-like backup, while CCC creates bootable drive clones.
  • Offsite external HDD: A 500GB low-grade drive used for bi-weekly CCC backups. This one is kept at my folks’ house.
  • Dropbox: Backs up and syncs my working files (like this article draft) for quick access on different devices.
  • Arq + Glacier: Arq is set to backup a significant portion of my files and settings to Amazon’s super cheap cloud storage service, Glacier. With Glacier, you pay $0.011 per GB/month. The “catch” is that unlike its more expensive brother, S3, you are charged heavily for retrieving your files at high speeds. Arq (which supports both storage services) lets you calculate and control your download costs by limiting the speed at which you’re retrieving files.

    It goes without saying that Glacier is intended for data you wouldn’t need to retrieve immediately if your storage drive failed.

Pick and choose in accordance with your own needs.

Applications

Note: Some links in this guide are affiliate links, which means that I get a small commission if you purchase an app after clicking them. This does not, however, affect the price you pay as a buyer. There’s a clear disclosure policy on the about page.

Essential Apps

  • CheatSheet: Especially if you’re new to OS X, this is the very first app you want to have. Holding for a bit longer presents you with a list of active shortcuts, both global and app-specific ones. CheatSheet is also useful for existing Mac users looking to expand their shortcut vocabulary for extra effectiveness.

    Download (Free)

  • Hazel: Admittedly, this is one very useful application I haven’t fully utilized yet, but it has already saved me more than it cost. You give Hazel folders to “watch” and it will manipulate files (move, delete, tag, etc…) inside them if they match certain rules (criteria) that you specify. Hazel also keeps your trash in check and includes an (optional to use) app-sweeper function that will offer to clean “app leftovers” when you decide it’s time to ditch it.

    Download ($28, 14-day trial available)

  • Alfred 2: If I could take one app to a deserted island, Alfred would be it. It makes doing complicated stuff simple, and simple stuff even simpler. I Google from Alfred; I launch and locate files I’m working on, open folders and applications, shut down or send my Mac to sleep, start iTunes playlists, reveal my 1Password passwords, and quickly access multiple clipboard items and text snippets — all from the Alfred interface. And don’t get me started on custom-workflows!

    Download (~$28, free version available)

  • VLC Media Player: There’s no format I know of that this open-source player doesn’t support. Lightweight, relatively bug-free, and extendable through add-ons (like VLC Remote for the iPhone). Get it.

    Download (Free)

  • The Unarchiver: For all your unarchiving needs. If you also need to compress, though, go with Keka.

    Download (Free)

  • Dropbox: Unless you’ve been living under a rock, then you know what it is. I use Dropbox to automatically upload my iPhone’s Photostream and for accessing work-related files from anywhere I may need to. Hazel then sorts my photos into yearly archives.

    Download (Free, paid upgrades available)

Recommended Apps

  • BreakTime: If you’re anything like me, you probably neglect to take breaks as often as you should. BreakTime will basically force you to step away from the computer at predefined intervals. A sedentary lifestyle can shorten your life. Stepping away for a short walk and a few stretches every 20–30 minutes will help you avoid at least some of the causes.

    Download ($5)

  • SelfControl: This open-source app will make sure you can’t access the internet (or specific web services) for a set period of time. Now you can get to work because you don’t have much choice.

    Download (Free)

  • Evernote: No-brainer for anyone who finds themselves needing to save a web page (or any part of it) for future use or reference. I had previously eschewed Evernote because of its poorly designed Windows client, but the Mac version has kinda reignited my dedication for it. Evernote becomes more and more useful the more you use it.

    Download (Free)

  • Caffeine: Prevent your Mac from going to sleep or auto-dimming the screen. If you need to leave it on for the night for heavy downloads/uploads, you can turn on Caffeine and use the brightness control (F1-F2) to dim the screen completely.

    Download (Free)

  • uTorrent: The best balance between speed and stability that I’ve found in a torrenting app thus far.

    Download (Free)

Frequently Mentioned Apps

  • 1Password: I can already hear your piercing criticism. Many have 1Password at the top of their list, and understandably so: To say that it’s simply a good password manager would be an understatement, but the combined $68 price tag of the Mac ($50) and iOS ($18) editions makes 1Password a non-trivial investment for users who use less than 10 web services[1].

    I personally don’t trust even the most secure encryption model with my bank, CC or Paypal details. For everything else, 1Password is a nice convenience, but not a must-have for everyone (in my humble opinion).

    Download ($50)

  • AppCleaner: Drag an app you want to delete onto AppCleaner and it will also clean preferences files that are usually left behind. If you have Hazel, this app is redundant.

    Download (Free)

  • Skype: Describing an app that has become a verb is obnoxious.

    Download (Free)

  • Moom: Great window controller and resizer. Adds an on-hover menu to OS X’s maximize button that allows full-screen and left, right, bottom, and top-half tiling. It’s fully configurable and extendable and supports keyboard shortcuts. Moom is especially useful when I’m learning a programming language: I use a two-key shortcut that I’ve preset to quickly split my screen between an instructional book I’m reading and Sublime Text so I can exercise the code (and write notes) as I read.

    Download ($10)

  • TextExpander: Instead of having to type the HTML code for Apple’s logo wherever I want to display it in this article, I simply have it set as a “snippet” in TextExpander; so when I type the string ;alogo, it’s instantly transformed to the corresponding code, and you see a “” here. If you ever find yourself using any string of text repeatedly, this one is a great time saver.

    Note: OS X has a built-in “text replacer” that can be found in System PreferencesKeyboardText. But, TextExpander is so much more than that.

    Download ($35)

  • Flux: Reduces eye-strain by automatically adjusting your screen’s brightness and color temperature as the day progresses. Can be turned-off temporarily when doing graphic-related tasks.

    Download (Free)

My Additions

  • Cyberduck: Panic’s Transmit is arguably the best FTP client for Mac OS X, but as someone who doesn’t use FTP on a day-to-day basis, I find Cyberduck sufficient for my needs and it’s $11 cheaper than its biggest rival at the time of typing these lines. You can download Cyberduck for free and donate or buy it through the app store later.

    Download ($24)

  • Clearview: eBook readers are a dime a dozen (even Mavericks includes a version of iBooks now), but if you’re serious about reading on your Mac, I think you’re going to appreciate Clearview’s extensive feature list as much as I do.

    Download ($7)

  • Sublime Text: All the code I write (embarrassingly spare) happens in Sublime Text. You can evaluate the software for an unlimited period, but if you plan to use it regularly, buy it.

    Download ($70)

  • Byword: Byword is where I write stuff longer than a few thoughts. I have a fundamental reservation with how users are asked to pay an extra $5 to enable a feature called “direct publishing” after buying the app, but this stems more from my ideology regarding paid applications rather than how I value Byword. At $10 for the Mac and $5 for iOS, the price is well-worth it for such a well-executed product — Even without direct-publishing built-in.

    Download ($10)

  • Simplenote: Simplenote is a simple (yep) note-taking app, and that’s what I like about it: it does the job. You open it, hit the “+” button and start typing. You can later view your notes on any of your synced devices, add tags for filtering, and invite other people to collaborate with you. The (free) iOS app is one of the better designed ones for note-taking.

    Download (Free)

Usage Tips

Battery: Another subject I obsessed about for a while. That’s before coming to the conclusion that all the hassle and headache isn’t worth the $140 I might end up paying if my battery goes kaputt. I do, however, take two measures of care: First, never ever leave the laptop in the car during the summer. Secondly, try to discharge it to around 20% once a month, which isn’t too challenging in my case since I do work out of office quite a bit. Here’s what Apple has to say about Macbooks and batteries.

Hygiene: I use a lint-free cloth to clean my screen once a week, and clean the whole thing once a month. I heard that a little alcohol on a wipe does wonders for the aluminum chassis, but am yet to try this one. Read Apple’s ‘Care and Handling’ page for the official word on cleaning your MacBook.

Liquids are your enemy: I use my MacBook Pro at coffee shops a lot and the paranoid part in me always pictures how devastating it would be if water — or worse yet, coffee — was to accidentally get spilled on my machine. It doesn’t help that this one specific waitress had already bumped it against a salad plate twice, causing a microscopic scratch. When at home I avoid placing my Mac on the same surface as my drink, and I’m always alert when I’m out in public. Nobody invented a hardware backup tool. Yet.


Acknowledgements: I’d like to thank Shawn Blanc, whose writing and astute taste were the spark-plug to my conversion to being a Mac user. Jeffrey Abbott copyedited this article, and for that I thank him, too.


  1. You can, of course, buy the Mac version alone, but good luck remembering a 16-character password generated with 1Password to login to Evernote on your iPhone.  ↩︎
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