Mac 101: Diving into menus, part 1

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When we met the Finder a few weeks ago, you learned that OS X offers a menu bar, as well as menus to populate it. In one of the many instances of “we’ll discuss this at a later time,” I mentioned that we would soon dive into the workings of OS X’s menus. That time has arrived. Let’s get started with the contents of Finder menus.

Apple menu

The contents of the Apple menu.

As I hope you recall, that apple symbol at the far left of the menu bar is not merely a decoration. It’s a true-blue menu heading. It contains commands for taking broad actions on your Mac. Specifically, it includes:

About This Mac: Select this command if you ever need to know the Mac operating system version you’re running (as I write this, the most recent is 10.8.2), the type of processor (the computer chip that's basically the brains of your computer), how much memory is installed, or the name of the Mac’s startup disk.

And why would you want to know such things? If you ever have a problem with either your Mac or an application running on it and you find yourself on the phone with a technical support representative, that person may very well ask you for this information. Now you know how to find it. To dismiss this window, just click on the red button in the top left corner.

Software Update: In earlier versions of the Mac OS, choosing Software Update launched a Software Update application. Under Mountain Lion this command now takes you to the Mac App Store—Apple’s online software emporium. (Your Mac must be connected to the Internet for this command to work.) We’ll talk about the Mac App Store in an upcoming column. For now, you simply need to know that when the Mac App Store launches, you’ll be taken to the Updates area. If you have any applications on your Mac that can be updated with newer versions or if there are updates to the Mac OS itself, you’ll find them here. To actually download and install the updates, you can either install them in one go by clicking Install All Updates or you can cherry-pick the ones you want by clicking the Install button next to individual updates.

App Store: Wait, didn’t we just visit the Mac App Store with the Software Update command? We did. The difference here is that when you choose App Store, you’re taken to the store’s homepage, where you can see popular and recommended applications.

System Preferences: It’s within the System Preferences application that you configure most of the settings used by your Mac. If you have an iOS device such as an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad, you can think of System Preferences as the Mac’s Settings screen. If you’re coming from a Windows computer, this is similar to Windows’ Control Panels. System Preferences is a big topic and one we’ll look at over the course of a few future columns.

The Dock command's submenu.

Dock: Dock is the first hierarchical command that we’ve encountered. To its right you see a right-pointing triangle, indicating that there’s another menu (or submenu) available for this command. In this case, those other commands are 'Turn Hiding On', 'Turn Magnification On', 'Position on Left', 'Position on Bottom', 'Position on Right', and 'Dock Preferences'. When you choose a Turn X On command, it changes to 'Turn X Off' so that you can put things back the way they were. Rather than have me explain what all these commands do, feel free to choose them and see what happens. If you’re unhappy with the results, I’ll remind you of the default settings: Dock hiding is off, as is magnification; and the Dock is positioned at the bottom of the Mac’s screen.

If you choose Dock Preferences, you’ll be taken to the Dock system preference. To leave, just click the red button in the top left corner of the System Preferences window.

Recent Items: Your Mac keeps track of the handful of applications, documents, and servers (other computers that are networked with yours) you’ve most recently used. If you can’t locate a file you were using an hour or two ago, check this menu and see if the document’s name appears in the submenu.

Force Quit: If an application you’re running becomes unresponsive—meaning you click on buttons and commands and nothing happens or you see a rotating, rainbow-colored beachball icon that never disappears—that application is likely frozen and can’t be quit by normal means. If, however, you choose Force Quit, you do exactly that—force the application to quit.

The Force Quit Applications window.

When you invoke this command, you’ll see a Force Quit Applications window that lists all currently running applications. Any applications whose name appear in red (and is usually followed by the words Not Responding) are locked up and need to be force quit. To do that, just click on the problem application and click the Force Quit button at the bottom of the window.

The exception is the Finder. You can’t force quit it, as your Mac needs it to be running to carry out certain chores. So when you select Finder in this window, the button changes to Relaunch. Click that button, and the Finder will quit and start up again. Any menus and open windows will briefly disappear. Other applications will continue to work as they should.

The Force Quit keyboard shortcut is a good one to know just in case the Finder gets so mucked up that you can’t access the Apple menu. The command is Command-Option-Esc. (See the recent "Mac 101: Your input devices" if you’re not sure where these keys are located.)

Sleep: You can put your Mac into a power-saving state by choosing the Sleep command. While sleeping, most Macs won’t do anything (in a future column I’ll talk about some more recent models that can do things while sleeping when you use something called the Power Nap feature). The advantage of using Sleep rather than shutting down your Mac is that it comes back to life much more quickly when you next want to use it. To wake up a sleeping Mac, press any keyboard key.

Restart: Although you can leave a Mac running for weeks on end, there may be times when you want to restart it. If it seems to be running more slowly than usual, for example, restarting it can help. And some applications and updates ask that you restart after installing them (though most will offer a Restart command of their own).

When you restart your Mac, it briefly powers down and then starts up again. Depending on how your Mac is configured, you may next be taken to the Login screen or the Mac could move directly to the Finder for your user account. By default, under Mountain Lion, any applications and windows you had open when you chose the Restart command will open again once the Mac is up and running.

Shutdown: To turn off your Mac you choose this command rather than pull the power plug or press and hold on the Mac’s power button to immediately shut down your Mac. You do this because, as with the Restart command, it allows your Mac to gracefully quit all its open applications. If you suddenly deprive your Mac of power, it’s possible that you could prevent it from saving a file you’re working on or, worse, corrupt data or put your Mac into a state where it can’t be easily restarted.

Log out: In our inaugural outing—"Mac 101: Getting set up"—I explained that OS X was designed as a multiuser operating system. In plain English, that means that many people can use the same Mac but work in their own little space that’s dedicated entirely to their stuff. Think of this as a building with different rooms, each decorated as the occupant likes.

Mountain Lion's Login screen.

Each person using the Mac sets up a user account—mine might be called Chris, while my wife’s would be Zelda (if, indeed, that was her name). When I’m finished working in my user account, I can leave it (or log out of it), making the Mac available to other people and their accounts. To do all this, I choose the Log Out command. When I do, the Mac again gracefully quits all running applications, but instead of restarting or shutting down, it takes me to the Login screen. Here you find listed any user accounts that have been set up on the Mac. To use one, just click on its icon and then enter the password associated with that account.

Application menu

The Application menu (showing Finder).

The menu next to the Apple menu is generically called the "application menu"—because this menu bears the name of the application you’re currently running. So, if you're currently using iTunes, this menu will be named iTunes. If you’re working with photos, there’s a good chance you’re using iPhoto and therefore iPhoto appears in this position. For the time being, we’ll look at what appears here when you’re in the Finder.

About Finder: Any application you’re running should have an About command in the first position. Like the About This Mac window, this command gives you details about the application’s version number, which, can be helpful when you’re speaking with tech support.

Preferences: This is another command that you’re likely to see in most applications. When you want to configure some of an application’s settings—how windows appear or the way particular options work, for example—you select this command. (Another keyboard command worth memorizing is Command-comma, which invokes many applications’ Preferences command.) In the Finder this command produces the Finder Preferences window, which we’ll look at sometime in the future.

Empty Trash: If you have something in the Trash, this command will be black. (If the Trash is empty, the command will be in gray, indicating that you can’t use it.) To truly delete the contents of the Trash (though there's a caveat to this—see "Secure Empty Trash" below), choose Empty Trash and, in the resulting window, confirm that you want to do this by clicking the Empty Trash button.

Secure Empty Trash: Wait a sec, didn’t we just empty the Trash? Well, yes. However, when you empty the trash you don’t truly vaporize the files that were in the Trash. Rather this command tells the Mac, “I’m going to remove any reference to these items but they’re still on the hard drive. If you need some space to create new files or save something somewhere, feel free to overwrite these files at your leisure.”

That means that with the right tools, you could recover the files even though you’ve “trashed” them. What Secure Empty Trash does is overwrite the area of the hard drive where these files were stored with nonsense data, making them pretty darned unrecoverable (an expert with very advanced tools might still be able to recover portions of the data, but unless you’re an International Man of Mystery, don’t sweat it).

Services: Services are little chores that your Mac can carry out. For example, you could send a bit of selected text to Twitter or look up a selected word in the Dictionary application.

What appears in this menu depends on which application you’re using and what’s selected in that application. For example, if you launch Apple’s simple text editor application, TextEdit, and select Services from the TextEdit menu, you’ll see just a couple of commands. However, type some text and then select that text, and you'll see several more options—Make New Sticky Note, Search With Google, and New Email With Selection, for example.

The number of commands you see under TextEdit's Services command increases once you select some text.

Services are widely ignored by even experienced Mac users. Don’t make that same mistake. You'll find good commands under the Services command. Explore it as you work with different applications, and you’ll likely find some useful commands.

Hide Finder: This is another command you’ll always find in application menus. Choose 'Hide nameofapplication', and that application and its windows will disappear. The application is still running—you’ve just moved it out of the way so you can see other applications and their windows. To make that application reappear, just click on its icon in the Dock.

Hide Others: This works in a similar way. The difference is that when you choose Hide Others, everything but the application you’re currently working with disappears, again giving you a little visual breathing room.

Show All: When you want to see all the windows within any open applications on your Mac, choose Show All.

Quit: Because you can’t quit the Finder (again, because the Mac OS needs it to be running at all times), you won’t find a Quit Finder command in the Finder menu. You will, however, find a Quit command in nearly every other application’s application menu. When you want to close down the application that’s front and center on your Mac, invoke this command (or, better yet, press the Command-Q keyboard shortcut).

And more

The Mac has a lot of menus and commands, and I don't want to overwhelm you with an unending article on their intricate behaviors. Let’s give you a week to absorb what you’ve learned so far. Next week, we’ll move further along the menu bar.

Next week: Diving into menus, part 2.

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