Mac 101: All about windows

If you’ve just come to the Mac from a PC you may have wondered where Microsoft got the name “Windows” for its operating system. Without delving into the politics of the thing (because some people are still sore about it), let’s just say that Microsoft was inspired by one of the Mac OS’s most prominent features: virtual windows that gave users a visual metaphor for the way their files were organized on their computers. Microsoft, much to Apple’s chagrin, thought this a wonderfully descriptive name for its graphical user interface (known by its initials, GUI) and so Microsoft Windows was christened.

Let’s just go over this “visual metaphor” business in a bit more depth. As I’ve mentioned in a past column, much of the Mac GUI is based on analogies: You have a "desktop," and "folders" on that desktop contain other folders as well as "files." In essence, the OS X interface offers a virtual filing cabinet for your stuff.

In truth, under the hood is some variety of storage media (a hard drive that stores its data on magnetized platters or a solid state drive that stores information on computer chips) with information scattered all over it. If it was possible to look at this media with a magnifying glass and see all the bits of data on it, you wouldn’t see files and folders all neatly lined up. Rather, one portion of a file would be here, another bit over there, and yet one more bit way over yonder. And its host folder would be somewhere else altogether. So, all this talk of folders and files is really just a way to simplify a complicated reality by packaging it in a more familiar form. Scattered bits and bytes of data written to media we don’t understand. Files and folders, we do.

But that file and folder analogy doesn’t hold up for long. If you have a real folder purchased from the stationery store, open it. What do you see? Right, the less-glossy inside of the folder and anything that the folder contains. Okay, so now do the same thing with a Mac’s virtual folder and what happens? You do not see a drawn representation of the inside of a folder and the paper files within it. Instead, you spy a rectangular shape with stuff in it. Or, put more succinctly, a window.

See? Analogy completely busted. Although it’s perfectly legitimate to say, when looking at this window, that you’re peering inside such and such a folder, the thing you’re looking at is a window. Like pronouncing Massachusetts' Worcester, wooster, you accept it and move on.

So how do you go about producing one of these things? There are a couple of ways. If there are currently no open windows on the desktop, simply click the Finder icon in the dock. (This is the first icon, which has the smiling face that seems to be split in half.) A new window will open. If a window is already open and you’d like to create another one while using the Finder application, you can click the File menu and choose New Finder Window. Again, a new window will appear. Now, let’s see what’s in that window.

The anatomy of a Finder window

Top o’ the window to you

Along the top of the window you’ll see a variety of items (follow the illustration to see where they are). They include:

Window name: At the top center of the window you see the name of that window. This reflects the name of the folder you’re currently looking in. In Mac OS X Mountain Lion new windows default to All My Files.

Close, Minimize, Zoom buttons: The Close (red) button does exactly what its name suggests. Click on it and the window disappears. When you click on the Minimize (yellow) button the window will shrink and settle on the right side of the dock. This allows you to move the window out of your way but quickly open it again by clicking on its tiny image in the dock. When you do, it expands to its original size on the desktop.

Apple tells us that the green Zoom button allows you to maximize the window’s size. If you have a bunch of items in it, clicking the Zoom button will expand the window so you can see as much of its contents as the limits of your Mac’s display will allow. In truth, the Maximize button is a little more complicated than that but this isn’t the proper place to go into all its vagaries. You can read my What Exactly Does the Finder’s Green Button Do? if you’d like more details.

Back and Forward buttons: I’ve mentioned that the Mac OS organizes data in a hierarchical folder structure. So, it’s possible to open one folder, open a folder within that folder, open yet another folder within...well, you get the idea, you just keep digging down through folders. As you do this, the contents of the open window change from one folder to the next. One way to navigate your path between these folders is to use the Back and Forward buttons. For example, if you’ve opened Folder A and then opened Folder B within Folder A, you can quickly move back to viewing the contents of Folder A by clicking on the Back button. If you then wanted to return to Folder B, click on the Forward button.

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