OS X Basics: Navigating OS X

Lesson 2: Navigating OS X


Getting started with OS X

Video: Getting Started with the Desktop

Launch "Getting Started with the Desktop" video!Watch the video

Whether you're new to computers or just new to OS X, it's important to learn the basics of using your computer. If it all seems a little overwhelming right now, don't worry! We'll take you through it step by step and show you some of the most fundamental things you'll need to know, such as how to work with the desktop, how to open and close windows, and how to turn off your computer.

The desktop

Once your computer has finished starting up, the first thing you'll see is the desktop. You can think of the desktop as the main workspace for your computer—from here, you can view and manage your files, open applications, access the Internet, and much more.

Click the buttons in the interactive below to become more familiar with the desktop:

labeled graphic

Notification Center

The Notification Center displays an alert when you've received an update. It can be customized to let you know of upcoming appointments, tweets, news, and other real-time events. It remains hidden until you click its icon in the top-right corner.

The Notification Center was introduced in Mountain Lion and is not available in earlier versions of OS X.


When you click the magnifying glass icon, it will open Spotlight. Spotlight allows you to find a file or application by typing the name (or just part of the name).

Date & Time and Settings

On the right side of the menu bar, you will see the date and time, along with shortcuts you can click to adjust settings like sound volume.

Menu Bar

The menu bar will contain different menu options depending on which program you're using. In this example, the active program is Finder.

Apple Icon

In the top-left corner of the screen is the Apple icon, which you can click to access your System Preferences, recent documents, and more. You can also use it to shut down your computer.

Desktop Background

The desktop background, or wallpaper, allows you to personalize your computer. You can either choose a built-in background or use one of your own images.

Folders on the Desktop

You can keep folders, files, and shortcuts on the desktop so they'll be easily accessible.


When you delete a file, it is moved to the Trash. This allows you to recover the file if you change your mind. To permanently delete a file, you'll need to empty the Trash.


The Dock can contain shortcuts to applications, files, and folders. If you have multiple programs open, you can use the Dock to quickly switch between them.


Launchpad allows you to see a list of all of your applications. It is designed to make it easier to find and organize your applications.

Launchpad was introduced in OS X Lion, and it is not available in earlier versions of OS X.

Open Folders

When you double-click a folder, it will open in a specialized program called Finder. This lets you navigate to the specific file or folder you want.

Working with applications

Video: Using the Dock

Launch "Using the Dock" video!

An application—also known as a program—is a type of software that allows you to complete tasks on your computer. OS X comes with many applications you can use. For example, if you want to browse the Internet, you can use Safari, the built-in web browser for OS X. One of the easiest ways to open an application is by clicking its icon on the Dock.

To open an application:

  1. Using your mouse, click an application icon on the Dock. In our example, we'll open Safari.
    screenshot of OS X
  2. The application will appear in a new window.
    screenshot of OS X

If you don't see the application you want, click the Spotlight icon in the top-right corner of the screen and type the name of the application with your keyboard to search for it.

screenshot of OS X

Working with windows

Whenever you open a file, folder, or application, it will appear in a new window. You can have multiple items open at the same time in different windows. You'll use windows all the time, so it's important to know how to switch between open windows, how to move and resize windows, and how to close windows when you're done using them.

Parts of a window

You'll see the same three buttons in the upper-left corner of almost every window. These buttons allow you to:

  • maximize button Maximize: Click here to make the window larger. Click again to return the window to its original size.
  • minimize button Minimize: Click here to hide the window. The window will be minimized to the Dock. You can then click the icon for that window on the Dock to make it reappear.
  • Close button Close: Click here to close the window.

To move a window:

  1. Click and drag the top of the window to move it to the desired location on the screen. When you're done, release the mouse.
    screenshot of OS X
  2. The window will appear in the new location.

To resize a window:

  1. Hover the mouse over the lower-right corner of the window, then click and drag the mouse to make the window larger or smaller. When you're done, release the mouse.
    screenshot of OS X
  2. The window will be resized.
    screenshot of OS X

Quitting applications

Unlike Microsoft Windows, closing a window in OS X does not automatically quit an application. The application will continue running in the background even if it doesn't have a window open. To see whether an application is running, look for a small light below the icon on the dock. In the image below, you can see that there are four open applications (Finder, Safari, TextEdit, and iTunes).

screenshot of OS X

To keep your computer running smoothly, you may want to quit an application when you're done using it. To do this, click the icon on the dock to switch to the application, then click the application name in the top-left corner of the screen and select Quit from the menu that appears. Note: You won't be able to quit Finder because OS X requires Finder to run continuously.

screenshot of OS X

You can also quit an application by pressing Command+Q on your keyboard. This is an example of a keyboard shortcut—we'll talk much more about these in our lesson on Keyboard Shortcuts in OS X.

Shutting down your computer

When you're done using your computer, it's important to shut it down properly. If you want to stop using it temporarily, you can also put it in Sleep mode.

To shut down OS X:

Click the Apple icon in the top-left corner of the screen, then select Shut Down.

screenshot of OS X

Restarting and Sleep mode

You'll notice other options next to the Shut Down command. For example, if your computer has become slow or unresponsive, you can choose Restart to quickly turn it off and on again.

You can also choose to put your computer into Sleep mode. This mode turns off most of your computer's processes, but it remembers which applications and files are open. This allows the computer to start up more quickly because you won't have to wait for the operating system and applications to load. Note that your computer may go into Sleep mode automatically if you haven't used it for more than a few minutes.

screenshot of OS X

If you have a laptop, you can simply close the lid to put it into Sleep mode.

Waking your computer from Sleep mode

If your computer is in Sleep mode, you'll need to wake it to use it. To wake the computer from Sleep mode, click the mouse or press any key on the keyboard.