Tips for Switching between Windows and MacOS

Prologue As a long-time user of Windows, I'm here to tell you that switching to a MacOS doesn't have to be painful. Had I had access to a post like this, I'm sure it would have saved me tons of time. If you've just received your first Macbook (or Windows machine) and want to get a head-start and become productive quickly, read on!


Are you switching from Windows to macOS, or vice-versa? Here are some tips to hit the ground running.

Good News - They Are More Similar Than Not

You will find that, perhaps unsurprisingly, Windows and macOS have very similar functionality in a lot of respects, but take opposite approaches in various areas. Switching from one to the other is like learning to drive in Britain when you’ve been driving in the US (or vice-versa).

Let’s take a high-level look at what we have in Windows and macOS.

Function name in Windows shortcut name in macOS shortcut
App List Start Menu Win Launch Pad unset by default
App Launcher Run Command Win + R Spotlight Search Cmd + Space
App Shortcuts Taskbar   Dock  
File Management File Explorer Win + E Finder Seek via Cmd + Tab
Process Management Task Manager Ctrl + Shift + Esc Activity Monitor  
Configuration Control Panel / Settings   System Preferences  
Console Command Prompt / PowerShell   Terminal  
Multiple-Desktops Task View Win + Tab Mission Control Ctrl+Up
Simple Text Editor Notepad   Notes  
Rich-Text Editor Wordpad   TextEdit  
Post-It Editor Sticky Notes   Stickies  
Simple Image Editor Paint   unvailable?  
Cloud Service OneDrive   iCloud  
Voice Assistant Cortana   Siri  
Notifications Notification Center Win + A Notification Center unset by default
Screen Capture Snipping Tool   Screenshot Cmd + Shift + 5
System Logs Event Viewer   Console  

There are some key points that I think you should be aware of.

  1. Macbook keyboards lack several keys that you might be used to from Windows-based keyboards. Don’t fret, most functionality can be reproduced using a combination of keys. The most important, in my opinion, is that the delete key on Windows is Fn + Backspace on Mac.
  2. On macOS, right-click is achieved by tapping on the touchpad using two-fingers.
  3. On macOS, swiping left or right using three-fingers allow you to switch to the next or previous desktop.
  4. The highest-privilege user on Windows is called Administrator, and on the Mac it’s called Super User or root.
  5. Software installation experience (for non-app store applications) is quite different:
    • On Windows, typically there’s an installer executable (e.g. setup.exe or setup.msi) which when run takes the user through multiple steps. At the end the application becomes available in the Start Menu. To uninstall it, use Add or Remove Programs functionality.
    • On the Mac, if there’s an installer, it has a simplistic UI that expects you to drag&drop the app’s icon from the left (or top) to the Applications icon on the left (or bottom). Otherwise, copying an executable into the Applications folder makes it available to run. To uninstall it, simply select the icon in the folder and select Move to Trash in the right-click menu.

Window Management

Most applications typically have a window as their main user-interface. Windows can be positioned and resized using the mouse/touchpad or the keyboard. A window’s control icons are on the top-right on Windows, and on the top-left on macOS. On Windows, each application owns its own menu area within the bounds of its window. On macOS, every application shares the top menu, which shows the menu of the currently focused application.

Function Key on Windows Key On macOS
Exit Application Alt + F4 Cmd + Q
Minimize Window Win + Down Cmd + M
Hide Window   Cmd + H
Maximize Window (in current desktop) Win + Up Use Spectacle
Full-screen App (into its own desktop)   Customize “Zoom” in Keyboard shortcuts
Show Desktop Win + M F11
Dock Window To Left Win + Left Use Spectacle
Dock Window To Right Win + Right Use Spectacle
Switch Between Applications Alt + Tab Cmd + Tab
Switch Between Desktops Win + Tab  
Screenshot Desktop PrtSc Cmd + Shift + 3
Screenshot Window Alt + PrtSc Cmd + Shift + 4
Magnifier Zoom In Win + = Try Cmd + =
Magnifier Zoom Out Win + - Try Cmd + -
Lock the Computer Win + L configurable in TouchPad

Spectacle is a great app for the Mac that adds Windows-like docking capabilities to applications on the Mac. Download it here. After you add it to Applications, it will appear on the top-right of the screen with a glasses icon. You’ll want to check the Launch Spectacle at Login option in its preferences menu.

Editing and Cursor Navigation

I strongly recommend spending some time memorizing and getting used to the new shortcuts for increased productivity.

Function Key on Windows Key On macOS
Cut Ctrl + X Cmd + X
Copy Ctrl + C Cmd + C
Paste Ctrl + V Cmd + V
Undo Ctrl + Z Cmd + Z
Redo Ctrl + Y Cmd + Shift + Z
Delete character in front of cursor Delete Fn + Delete
Move cursor to beginning of line Home Cmd + Left
Move cursor to end of line End Cmd + Right
Move cursor to top of file Ctrl + Home Cmd + Up
Move cursor to bottom of file Ctrl + End Cmd + Down
Move cursor to beginning of word Ctrl + Left Option + Left
Move cursor to end of word Ctrl + Right Option + Right

Getting Started with Console

If you need to run command-line tools, this section is for you. The console is called Command Prompt on Windows and Terminal macOS. These run, by default, DOS or PowerShell and Bash respectively.

Function Windows Mac
Folder separator character backslash ( \ ) slash ( / )
Escape character for whitespace Pair of double-quotes ( “ ) as delimiters slash followed by the space
Print current working directory cd pwd
List files & folders dir ls
List all files & folders dir /ah ls -la
Change directory cd path cd path
Create directory md mkdir
Remove directory rd path rmdir path
Remove directory recursively rd -r path rm -rf path
Find text in files findstr keyword grep keyword
Display contents of text file type path cat path
Administrator mode runas sudo su
Current user’s home directory %USERPROFILE% $HOME or ~
Path environment variable %PATH$ $PATH
Paths separator character semi-colon ( ; ) colon ( : )
Move cursor to beginning of line Home Ctrl + A
Move cursor to end of line End Ctrl + E
Erase current line Esc Ctrl + A, Ctrl + K
Clear Screen cls clear or Cmd + K
Text-based editor   vim or nano

Additional Tips

These tips are worth their weight in virtual gold.

1. Scroll Direction

The default scroll direction on Windows and Mac are opposite. Mac calls its default direction as “natural”. Even though the direction can be changed in System Preferences, you may find that the mouse wheel direction and the scroll gesture using two fingers are still opposite. To resolve this issue, I have two suggestions:

  1. If using a Logitech mouse, see if scroll reversing functionality is available to you in the Logitech Options app.
  2. Install the free Scroll Reverser app, which will appear in the top-right menu.

2. Moving the Taskbar/Dock

On Windows, the Taskbar can exist on the top, left, right or bottom of any monitor in a multi-mon setup. It can also be configured to show all apps, or just its monitor’s apps. To reposition it, drag it from an empty space on the taskbar and drop it to any monitor edge.

On macOS, the Dock can only appear on one monitor at a time, and only at the bottom, left or right. To change its position, go to System Preferences > Dock. To move it to another monitor, drag the pointer to the bottom edge of that monitor and the Dock will reposition itself there.

3. Running Executables Downloaded from the Internet

By default, both Windows and Mac tries to protect their users by blocking execution of software downloaded on the internet. To bypass this: On Windows, right click the blocked executable’s icon and select Properties from the menu. Click Unblock at the bottom of the General tab. On macOS, go to System Preferences > Security & Privacy and click Allow at the bottom of the General tab.

4. Showing Hidden Files

On Windows, in Explorer, check Hidden Items in the View ribbon.

On macOS:

  1. Launch Terminal and enter the following:
    defaults write AppleShowAllFiles YES
  2. While holding the option key, right-click on Finder icon on the Dock and select Relaunch.

Did you know? On macOS, files and folders with names that begin with the dot character (.) are hidden by default.

5. Quitting Applications

On macOS, closing an app using the top-left red button on its window doesn’t quit the application, unlike the top-right button on Windows. To quit the application, select Quit from the applications top menu, or use the Cmd + Q shortcut.

6. File Paths

On Windows, you can set the path at System Properties > Advanced > Environment Variables.

macOS, the path is a composite value, which might contain values from /etc/paths, /etc/profile, ~/.bash_profile, ~/.bash_login, ~/.profile. To add a path on Mac, create a file whose contents is the path as follows:

echo "/some/path/to/the/binary" >> /etc/paths.d/variable  #Replace variable with a name unique in that folder

Also be aware of the existence of /usr/libexec/path_helper executable.

Disclaimer This post is based on my personal experience on the 3rd-gen Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon laptop running `Windows 10 Pro 1803` and my 2016+ MacBook Pro with TouchPad running `macOS Mojave 10.14`. The content is not meant to be complete or authoritative and I apologize for any omissions or inaccuracies.