Washington Apple Pi

A Community of Apple iPad, iPhone and Mac Users

Mac OS X for Dummies

by Bob LeVitus and Shelly Brisbin

Review by David L. Harris

Washington Apple Pi Journal, reprint information

I had to renew my AppleWorks Users Group membership and buy a battery for my B&W G3, so I added a copy, available at discount, of Mac OS for Dummies to my order. I hoped to learn something about Mac OS X, and get a more satisfying mental "picture" of Mac OS X than I have been able to get from playing with it part time on my Macintosh.

The book is a 334-plus page, large-size paperback, with normal size text and large titles. It uses big icons on the sides of the pages to mark various sections that the authors consider important. The writing style is chatty and personal, but I found it got on my nerves after a short while. The greater part of the book is written for Mac novices, but with the assumption of Mac OS X as the operating system--as would be appropriate for someone who has just bought a new Mac, and has not used a computer much before.

The introduction of the book is "about this book," and details some of the conventions the authors use, how the book is organized, and the uses of margin icons. It is probably a standard Dummies book format.

Desktop Madness: Navigating Mac OS X

Chapter 1 is the very beginnings: how to turn on the Mac, what you should expect to see after bootup, possible problems at bootup, and basics such as the meanings of words like "point," "click," and so on. It also tells how to shut down your Mac and how not to. All very basic.

Chapter 2 is "Meet the Desktop"--what are those things on the screen: the Dock, icons, windows, menus, aliases. Icons are said to be "little pictures" that are all "containers that hold things," something that is confusing to a more advanced user who distinguishes between folders (icons) that contain things and other icons (e.g. applications) that don't. There is a short description of the icons you will see on the screen the first time, and how to choose a new Desktop picture. Again, very basic.

Chapter 3 gives an introduction to the Dock and the items that are on it (Finder, Mail, Internet Explorer, Sherlock, System Preferences, etc.), each looked at in a short paragraph. Often, throughout the book, details are postponed to later sections or only briefly alluded to. Adding and removing things from the Dock are explained, as well as how to set Dock preferences.

Chapter 4 is about icons, in all their various forms. The authors present icons as the primary realities, rather than the way I think of them, as representations of objects which are the "real" things. According to the book, a file (seen on the screen) is an icon. "Document icons are files created by applications." Or "You can open any icon in the following four ways:" It is a way of thinking that I found strange. Aliases are treated in more detail in this chapter, as are selecting "icons" and renaming them, as well as using Show Info for selected "icons."

Chapter 5 deals with Finder windows and dialog boxes. Chapter 6 treats Finder menus, the difference between the new and old Apple menu, what you can do via the File and Edit menus, the different ways windows can be viewed (View menu)--but details are postponed to Chapter 7. Other Finder menus are presented, including the valuable Help menu. Again most of the discussion is on the novice or near-novice level.

Rounding Out Your Basic Training

Chapter 7 focuses on the new Finder, which is now a window (or several) itself. The Toolbar (that part of Finder windows that runs along the top, and has icons on it) is discussed. There's more detail on the ways you can view windows--icon, list, and column views (the authors dislike the icon view), as well as how windows can be customized with background colors or pictures. As in the rest of the book there are pictures to refer to as you read about these topics. The similarity to using a Web browser when moving from one window to another is noted.

Chapter 8 is about something that confounds many new Mac users: navigating through folders, where to save items, how the Save sheet and Open dialog boxes work. The authors suggest saving most files in the Documents folder, or subfolders within Documents.

Chapter 9 is a short discussion of removable media. Chapter 10 treats, in more detail, the subject of file management, creating new folders, moving or copying files and folders, putting oft-used folders into the Dock, and the rather different nature of Mac OS X folders. Mac OS X defines a more rigid structure than earlier systems did, and playing with what's inside many folders is to be avoided unless you really know what you are doing. The various Library folders hold Font folders, and these are where you might put fonts, accessible either to all users or only to yourself. Library folders also hold preferences, but the reader is warned not to do much with them. I found the discussion of the folders found in your Home folder to be useful; I hadn't explored all of them myself.

Doing Stuff with Your Mac

Up to this point, the book is mostly basic training for Mac users, with Mac OS X as the basis of all operations. Chapter 11 introduces actually using your Mac, mostly on the Internet. Microsoft Internet Explorer, Sherlock (including indexing your Home folder), and Mail are explored in some detail. Address Book, something I had not looked into, is introduced, but "You can do some pretty neat stuff with Address Book that we just don't have room to cover in this book." iTools are briefly introduced.

Unfortunately for the novice user, most of these tools can't be used until an Internet connection is established. He or she has at least the basics of another subject to learn first. While selection of an Internet Service Provider (ISP), and using a modem or high-speed connection is discussed, details of settings must be gotten from your ISP. Considering the state of knowledge of Macs by the help departments of many ISPs, you might better consult your local user group.

Chapter 12 discusses printing in some detail, but in a very basic way--for instance starting by pointing out the difference between a power cord and the cord used to connect the printer to the Mac. Using the Print Center to inform your Mac what printer you have is discussed, although I think with some printers the lack of Mac OS X drivers may present an unexpected surprise. The workings of a representative application's print dialog box or sheet is gone over in good detail. The idea of using different fonts to spruce up your writings is introduced, as well as where to install new fonts.

Chapter 13 is a run-through of all the default applications found in the Applications folder. I found this useful, since I had never sat down to explore them all myself. For instance I hadn't noticed that Key Caps is still present, in the Utilities folder; I have barely used it under OS 9 and earlier systems since PopChar became available. One more thing not available in Mac OS X.

Chapter 14 is about the Classic environment, which is treated as a poor stepchild. Maybe this is a good way to approach it, looking forward, but I found it slightly shocking, considering that I still do most of my work booted into 9.2.2.

Chapter 15 runs through every item in System Preferences, which interested me, as once again I have yet to explore them all. Sometimes you are advised to not mess with them "unless you know what you are doing." ColorSync is one of these. All the preference items are gone through in considerable detail. In QuickTime the authors advise setting "Play Movies Automatically;" wasn't there a virus or Trojan Horse that took advantage of this or a similar setting?

U 2 Can B a Guru

Chapter 16 is about file sharing on a home network or via the Internet. There is some discussion of setting up the home network via Ethernet or Airport. Once a network is established, there is, I think, enough detail to instruct most users how to set up sharing files between Macs, via AppleTalk or TCP/IP. Connecting to your Mac via a remote Mac is discussed. Possible dangers in allowing connections, particularly over the Internet, are not mentioned.

I found the thorough discussion of file sharing, which would probably help many a more advanced Mac user, to be incongruous, since it deals with a topic that most novices won't soon (if ever) need.

Backing up your files is the subject of the short Chapter 17. Unfortunately there still are no substantial programs for doing this in Mac OS X at this writing. The authors complain that Apple should long ago have supplied backup software with every Mac sold. Only in this chapter is the subject of viruses broached; you may find them in backups if you don't use some kind of virus-detection software.

Chapter 18 is on troubleshooting: what are the signs of hardware vs. software failure. If you can't even boot from your startup disk, try the Installation CD. Run Disk Utility and try a Repair. Maybe your Mac cannot find a disk with a valid System on it. Zapping the PRAM; re-installing MAC OS X--or, taking it into the repair shop (or Tuesday night clinic).

The Part of Tens

Chapters 19, 20, and 22 give advice on how to improve your Mac experience, either in operation shortcuts, or hardware and software additions. Chapter 21 lists ten valuable Web sites (but leaves out one of my favorites, MacSurfer's Headline News).

At the end is an appendix on how to re-install Mac OS X in case of need, followed by an index, a couple of note pages, and advertising for Dummies Online.


One of the rationalizations I had for getting this book was the thought that it might help me form a better mental picture of Mac OS X, as compared with earlier systems. Instead, this is sort of a cookbook, mostly for novices, on how to use Mac OS X. Nevertheless, it set me thinking about the factors that make me feel that my Macintosh under Mac OS X is more obscure than it is under OS 9. In OS 9 the Desktop/Finder is at the center of things; I typically have a few icons on it, in addition to the hard or removeable disk icons. There may be aliases to programs such as StuffIt Expander, or to oft-used folders. I access many applications through Favorites in the Apple menu. When I open a folder, I feel as though I am looking into a part of my Macintosh, and I can continue this as deeply as I wish. Over the years my overall picture of the Mac has not really changed since starting with the Mac Plus. I find Mac OS X/Aqua to be less intuitive, if often visually stunning.

Why is this? So far, at least, I use the Mac OS X Desktop almost not at all. It gives me the feeling of facing a blank facade, hiding what's inside, almost intentionally. You have to open Finder windows to get at many of the goodies. And they no longer give me the feeling of being containers. In spite of, or perhaps because of, their three-dimensional appearance (e.g. shadows) they lead to a feeling of flatness--of sheets, not depth. (With this flatness the column view is very handy.) And I still find opening an object in one window leading to a replacement window confusing. I guess I do need to customize the Desktop, windows, and the Dock so that things feel more natural to me. I'm thinking of even including icons in this customizing process. Icons in previous systems were icons; now they are pictures. A different way of operating. I feel there is some truth in the observation which I read recently, that Aqua is the "large print" version of a user interface. A new world, with which this long-time Mac user is not entirely comfortable.