They finally wore you down. Your friends' and co-workers' tales of the MacOS –an operating system with such elegance that anyone could master it, so safe that viruses barely exists, and with powers and abilities far beyond those of, well, Windows—have convinced you to switch. There's no better time than the holidays to make the leap, when you could receive a brand new Apple computer of your own as a gift.
One little problem: After you boot up your shiny, new Mac, you might not have any idea what you're doing. How do you move over your files? Can you use the same applications? And for the love of Jobs, how do you move your iTunes from Windows to Mac?
If you have any proficiency at all with Windows, it's more about unlearning old ways of doing things. The devil, however, is in the details. The Mac differences, while plentiful, should be easy to overcome, so don't fret, because we've got you covered.
Packing for the Move
First thing you need to do is backup all your important files for transfer. Luckily the days of file formats working on one OS platform and not the other are long behind us. Your video, pictures, music, and documents should make the switch-over without issue.
If you're already using a backup and synchronize service like Dropbox, SugarSync, Syncplicity or even Apple's own Mobile Me on your Windows PC, they have Mac clients as well. You can get your important data transferred instantly that way. Unless you have a lot of files, then it won't be very instantaneous.
Of course, a massive collection of files could also be transferred to external storage, from a USB flash drive on up to a multi-terabyte NAS on your network. Either should be equally accessible from your new Mac when attached to your home network. (Let's not even go the route of backup to a CD or DVD, or that whole direct-cable-connection stuff. Spend a few bucks on a router if you don't have one, it'll make all the difference to network your computers and no one should be using a broadband Internet connection without one).
Things get a little trickier with specialized data like stored email messages. If you're using Mozilla's Thunderbird, which already uses the mbox file format, you can just take all the files and put them on your Mac and import them to Mac OS X's Mail or the Mac version of Thunderbird. For other email software, you may have to export the data to mbox format. If you used Microsoft Outlook, you might have to buy third party software like MessageSave to do the conversion.
Better yet, just convert over entirely to using a Web-based email like Gmail or YahooMail, and then you can access your messages anywhere. There's even a complicated way to get your Outlook file into Gmail. Below, we go into special detail on dealing with that most annoying and necessary of programs to transfer: iTunes.
Acclimating to MacOS
Once your files are transferred to your new Mac, you're ready to go, right? Not exactly. If you use programs that work on both platforms –like Firefox, Thunderbird, LastPass, etc. (see below)—you'll find you can get up and running quickly. But while 90% of how you compute isn't all that different, there are some Mac methods that can be especially hard for experienced Windows users to acclimate to.
1) Desktop and Finder: You'll easily recognize the desktop on your screen, where you can store icons for files and folders, in particular your "Macintosh HD" drive icon. But the differences from Windows quickly become apparent. First, icons flow from the top right down, instead of the top left. There's a dock full of icons on the bottom, which is similar in ways to the Windows taskbar. The top edge of the desktop has a bar running all the way across that changes settings depending on the program you open—this is where you access menus that in Windows would be part of each individual program window. On the right side of that bar, however, are some permanent MacOS System Tools. The Finder is the MacOS equivalent of Windows Explorer, for finding files and folders to work with.
2) Installing Programs: Instead of double clicking on a .EXE file like you do in Windows and then watching the installation program copy files to who-knows-where on your hard disk drive, the Mac makes it simple. The installation files typically end with .DMG; to call it an "installation" file is a bit erroneous however. It is just a disk-image distribution file, with the application inside. The better DMG files will, when double-clicked, show a graphical Finder short cut to indicate that you should copy the application file to your Applications folder on the Mac. If it doesn't, you can manually go to your Macintosh HD, look for Applications, and put it in the folder yourself. If you want the new app on the dock at the bottom of the Mac desktop, just drag one from the Applications folder.
3) Uninstalling Programs: Again, simplicity rules. Instead of using a control panel to find and uninstall programs, like you must do on Windows, you can just go into Applications, find the program you no longer want, and drag it to the trash.
4) Closing, Maximizing, and Minimizing: In Windows, all the controls for closing, maximizing, and minimizing a window are on the upper right. On the MacOS, they're color coded round buttons on the upper left and they don't work the same as the Windows tools. For example, the green expand button on MacOS doesn't make a window go full-screen unless the contents of the window need that much screen real estate. To go full screen, you need to drag a window to the upper left, then "pull" on its lower right corner. Or download a program like Right Zoom to force windows to zoom the same way as the Windows maximize function.
5) Input Madness: Undoubtedly, the hardest thing about adjusting to the Mac will be using the keyboard and mouse. On a Windows keyboard, you'd typically pair the Cntl key with letters to make a shortcut (Ctrl+C to copy, Ctrl+X to cut, Ctrl+V to paste, for example). The letters are equivalent for Mac shortcuts, but instead of using the "control" key (as Apple calls it), you use "command" key. That might not be that hard to master, except command is right next to the space bar, where the Alt key is found on typical Windows keyboard. It will require some practice to overcome your fingers' natural desire to hit certain keys. You can find a full list of MacOS keyboard shortcuts online.
6) No Right Click: The old-style Apple-provided mouse didn't even have buttons—the entire mouse was the button. So how do you "right-click" if you're using an older mouse? First, when you click, hold it down and wait just wait, and a contextual menu will appear, if appropriate. The other option: put to fingers on the Mac track pad and then click. That brings up the contextual menu instantly. The latest Apple Magic Mouse is like a multi-finger touch-pad on top, including a spot to right click, so if you get a new Mac, you can get access easily.
7) Cntl+Alt+Delete Equivalents: You use that magic keystroke to do a lot in Windows, but it doesn't do anything on the MacOS. If you want to force an application to quit, you use Option+Shift+Command+Esc and hold for three seconds (use Option+Command+Esc to get a list of all running apps) or select Force Quite from the Apple menu in the upper left. If you want to check things like RAM usage, you access the Activity Monitor by going to the Programs menu then the Utilities folders.
Here's a quick list of software that runs on both Windows and MacOS. If you're used to it on one, you'll probably be fine with it on the other, with a few exceptions. Firefox, Google Chrome, Safari, Opera: These major Web browsers duke it out for the best speed, and they do so on both Windows and MacOS. In fact, the only big-name browser not on the Mac is Microsoft's Internet Explorer.
Thunderbird: Mozilla's email software works both sides, and makes it easy to transfer mailboxes from platform to platform.
Microsoft Office for Mac 2011: Here's where you'll find some significant differences, as Microsoft has separate teams for Office on each platform. is brand new and already our Editors' Choice with a 4.5 star rating from PCMag.com. It'll set you back $199.99 (list) for the Home and Business version, which is much cheaper than its Windows sibling at $499.
Audacity: Our favorite free audio editing tool, Audicity looks exactly the same on all the platforms it supports (even Linux).
uTorrent: Another Editors' Choice, this freebie for downloading torrent files is super-small and super-fast.
Adobe Reader: It's a must have for reading Acrobat/PDF files that litter the Internet, so you have to have it (or some other PDF reader) no matter what platform you're on.
Amazon Kindle: If you're into ebooks, but don't want to buy a dedicated ebook reader, you are in luck with this software for reading Amazon purchases on just about every device you could own. It'll even sync the last spot you read to across devices.
Digsby: Our favorite Windows instant messaging client is coming soon to the MacOS so keep your eyes peeled.
Google Earth: View the streets of earth, the stars in the sky, or even the ocean floor. It doesn't matter what your hardware choice is.
LastPass: Take complete control of your passwords and make sure they match from Windows, to Mac, to Linux and all your mobile devices with LastPass.
VLC Media Player: The tool that says it can playback anything really can (because it has all the codecs you need built it), and it doesn't matter what platform you're on.
Adobe Photoshop CS5: The heavy hitter of the graphics world started on the Mac, and has since moved to Windows. You'll still find a copy for both OSs readily available for $699 9 (list); the consumer friendly Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 has Mac and Win versions both in the same box for $99.99 list.
That just scratches the surface of the software that will work on both platforms, frequently for free. And don't forget the amazing wealth of Web-based applications now available that work anywhere: Gmail, Meebo, Google Docs, Yahoo Calendar, Google Reader, Zoho Suite, DimDim, and many more.
Coexist, Don't Switch
There's any number of ways to live a computing life that fully embraces both Windows and MacOS; you don't have to pick just one system, despite what the commercials may have you believe.
For example, to start, there's Boot Camp, the utility that lets you dual-boot your Mac hardware into either operating system. It sets up the partition for you, you install Windows (XP SP2, Vista, or 7) from your own disc, and on the next boot up you have a native Windows PC as well. This only works with Intel-based Macs, like the last few generations of the MacBook Pro and iMac. It even works on a MacBook Air, but you'll need to find a way to install Windows, such as plugging in an external DVD drive.
A somewhat better, but pricier, option is to use a virtualization package like Parallels Desktop 6 for Mac. For $79.99, this software keeps Windows running in the background so you can access Windows programs any time without having to reboot. You can try the free VirtualBox to get approximately the same setup with some extra tinkering to run Windows as a "guest OS."
But you might not even need to go that far if your old Windows PC is still capable of doing its job. Instead try Synergy, a free and open source project to create software that controls two or more PCs—Windows, Mac or Linux-based, it doesn't matter—using a single keyboard and mouse. All you need is an Ethernet cable to connect the two PCs; there's no pushing buttons to switch control from one to the other. This isn't for the techno-newbie, it might take some real work for it to function properly, but if you're savvy enough, give it a try.
Or just buy a KVM switch (KVM=keyboard, video, mouse) to control multiple PCs, albeit one at a time. Belkin and IOGear both make easy to use KVM switches.
The library of media you keep is generally tied to your portable media player of choice. And if you've got an iPod of any kind, chances are that library is in iTunes. The thought of moving multiple gigabytes of music and video from a PC to a Mac and making it work might seem daunting, but it can be done. You should do this for backup purposes, anyway. First, make sure you have the latest version of iTunes installed on both the Windows and Mac systems.
On the Windows side, put all your iTunes files and folders together. Go to Edit, then Preferences, and select the Advanced tab. Make sure that both "Keep iTunes Media Folder Organized" and "Copy Files To iTunes Media Folder When Adding To Library" are checked. Also, take a second to note the location of your iTunes Media Folder. Then close out of Preferences. Now go to File, then Library, then Organize Library. Check Consolidate and then click okay. This will make sure all the files are where they should be—in your iTunes folder. This process can take a long time, depending on the size of your library and whether or not you've done it before.
Once the process is finished, copy the entire iTunes Media Folder to a new drive. If you've already networked your Mac and PC, you might be able to copy it directly to the Mac. Either way, put the entire set of files to the Music folder in your Mac user folder.
It's important that you have updated to the latest version of iTunes on both computers. Otherwise, the files may work, but you might lose your playlists and other metadata once you do the transfer.
Now, you just open iTunes on the Mac and let it work its magic; it should open up with all of your music and information in place.
If you want, leave the music on an external drive, and just tell iTunes to access it there via the Preferences menu.
Very important: don't get rid of iTunes on the old PC until you deauthorize it. Only five computers can access your iTunes purchased music and videos at a time, so don't waste an authorization on a PC you're not using. You can do this from the Advanced menu.
You're a Mac Now
There's little doubt that making the switch from being an experienced Windows-based PC user to a neophyte Mac-head can have some challenges. Hopefully, the advice above more than provides the ground work to help you make the change to your computing lifestyle. The general advice given to those buying a first computer is typically "get a Mac" if they want simplicity. So coming from the complications of Windows, you already have a major leg up. Overcome the MacOS's idiosyncrasies and you're going to find yourself very happy with your choice.