Need a little help figuring out your new iMac or MacBook? You’ve come to the right place. Check out our updated survival guide for the basics on Mac OS X, including details on the latest “Mountain Lion” features, illustrated guides for updating and backing up your Mac, must-know tips, and more.
What is Mac OS X?
It’s the software that powers all the day-to-day features on your iMac or MacBook. Every time you click a menu at the top of the screen, open a folder on your desktop, or search for a document on your hard drive, you have the Mac operating system (or “OS”) to thank.
OK, so what does the “X” in “Mac OS X” stand for?
It stands for “10,” as in the Roman numeral—and specifically, it means we’re currently using the tenth major version of the Mac OS. Mac OS X first arrived for desktop Macs way back in 2001, and had been preceded by—you guessed it—Mac OS 9.
What is “Mountain Lion”?
Over the past 11 years, there have been seven big updates to Mac OS X, and the latest update, 10.8, is nicknamed “Mountain Lion.” Previous updates to Mac OS X have been named “Panther,” “Leopard,” “Snow Leopard,” and plain-old “Lion.” Yes, it’s safe to say that Apple has a thing for felines.
Anyway, Mac OS X “Mountain Lion” (which came out in July 2012) adds more than 200 new features to the Mac operating system, including a “Notification Center” with alerts for incoming e-mail and calendar alerts, voice dictation, text messaging with iPhone, iPad, and other Mac users, and the ability to “mirror” a newer Mac’s display to an Apple TV-connected HDTV.
Check out Apple’s rundown of the 200 new features in Lion right here.
Where to get Mountain Lion
Lion is available for download from the Mac App Store for $19.
Can your Mac handle Lion?
Generally speaking, you’ll need an iMac or MacBook Pro that was manufactured no earlier than 2007, or a MacBook circa 2008 or later.
Specific iMac and MacBook models have different requirements, however; click here for more details.
Should you install Mountain Lion right now, or wait?
As of this writing, Mountain Lion is barely a month old, and while the update has proven to be fairly stable, Apple has yet to release its first bug patch. So, here’s the question: should you be prudent and wait to make the Mountain Lion leap, or should you go ahead and take the plunge? Click here for my advice.
How to install Mountain Lion
The Lion installation process is fairly straightforward, but it will require at least an hour of your time.
Once you purchase Mountain Lion from the Mac App Store, your system will download the update and alert you when it’s ready to begin the installation process. Just follow the prompts (there are only a few), sit back and wait. After a restart or two, your Mac should be all et.
Don’t even thing of updating your Mac’s operating system without backing up your hard drive first. Luckily, backing up your hard drive is easy thanks for a Mac OS X utility called Time Machine; here’s how to use it.
Mountain Lion tips
Before you jump to the Mac App Store and begin installing the new Mountain Lion update, there are three essential things you should do to prepare your system.
The Mac’s Mountain Lion update boasts a clever trick: the ability to fill in blanks on almost any PDF, including those that aren’t designed for easy text entry.
Want a break from all the banners and alerts from the Mac’s new Notification Center? You put all your notifications on “pause” with a simple swipe and click.
Once you update your Mac to Mountain Lion, you’ll be able to make those nearly invisible scroll bars a tiny bit thicker.
More Mac tips and tricks
The Mac’s handy Mission Control feature lets you manage multiple desktop “spaces” at once, each filled with its own assortment of open documents and applications. Sounds confusing, I know. But once you get the hang of it, these additional, virtual desktops can become addicting—and even essential.
Does scrolling on your Mac feel backwards to you? Blame Apple’s new “natural” scrolling feature. Luckily, turning it off is a cinch.
Hey, what happened to the scroll bars on your windows? Don’t worry—you can get them back in a few clicks.
Want quick access to the mailboxes you use the most? Just drag them into the new Favorites bar in the Mac’s revamped Mail application.
Your Mac boasts an easy-to-use (and now vastly improved) utility that will protect your Mac’s hard drive with an almost impenetrable cloak of encryption. Here’s how to turn it on.
Want to zoom in on a web page, twirl a snapshot in iPhoto, sneak a peek at the desktop, or look up the definition of a head-scratching word? You can do all that and more with a simple swipe, “pinch,” or tap on your Mac’s trackpad.
Your Mac has a built-in speaking clock that will read you the time every hour, on the hour—or the half hour, or even quarter hour. Here’s how to turn it on.
Making a new “space” in Mission Control, the Lion feature that gives you a bird’s eye view of all your virtual desktops, is easy—if you know where to look.
Thanks to a new system update, you can easily reorder your virtual desktops in Mission Control, no elaborate workarounds required.
There’s a way to assign an app to a specific desktop in Mission Control, perfect for keeping your programs in their proper “spaces.”
Got a contract or some other document that you need to sign and return via email? Just snap a photo of your John Hancock with your Mac’s iSight camera (just about any recent iMac or MacBook should have one), then paste it into the document you need to sign.
Got a jumble of icons cluttering your Mac’s desktop? Are you desktop icons too big—or too small? Wish they would just arrange themselves? Help is here!
You can expand, shrink, move, and otherwise tweak the Mac’s dock in just a few clicks, as well as rearrange, add, or zap any app, folder, or file icon.
Having a tough time maneuvering your fingertips around multi-key combos like SHIFT + ALT + DELETE? The “sticky keys” feature in Windows and Mac OS X can help.
Want to sneak a peek at just about any document on your Mac’s desktop? Try this: just use the spacebar.
Yes, you can get Lion’s missing scroll bars back, but the same can’t be said for the arrow buttons that used to flank the scroll bars.
Switch applications, take a “quick look” at a file, get help, and more, all without touching your Mac’s mouse or trackpad.
Squinting at your computer screen? You can zoom the entire display on your PC or Mac, a handy trick for anyone with iffy eyesight. Here’s how.
Turn on the Mac’s hot-corner feature to jump to Mission Control, clear your desktop, and more, all with a simple flick of your fingertip.
It’s easy to “unthread” the mail conversations in your Mac’s Mail inbox messages—or at least it is once you know the setting you need to tweak.
Looking to add your own folders to the Mac sidebar? Or perhaps you’d rather make the sidebar bigger, smaller, or just plain gone. Help is here!
Want to save both your eyesight and your sanity? Here’s an easy way: by dipping into your system settings and boosting the size of the mouse pointer.
Sick of striking the Caps Lock key by mistake? The good news is that turning off Caps Lock for good on a Mac is easy.
How long does it take for your Mac to start up? Too long? Maybe your Mac is trying to launch too many apps when it’s first starting up.
Get more help
Have more questions about Mac OS X, or Mountain Lion in particular? Click here for help—and remember, there are no dumb questions.