Some key differences between macOS and Windows that switchers have problems with


I’ve been trying out macOS on the latest Intel MacBook Air to see how I can get used to it as a daily driver and these are the things that I found are the most “annoying”, switching from Windows, although I’ve been adapting to them and I don’t find the design choices unreasonable:

macOS has a unified menu bar for all applications, always at the top of the screen, instead of being inside the window

This is a holdout from some Unix operating systems from a long time ago, which is probably why it’s in macOS, considering NeXT’s experiences with Unix before Apple brought Jobs back in. It’s a bit jarring at first, especially when using multiple tiled windows at a time. I think one of the reasons why Apple targets smaller screens is because they feel that a lot of users would rather just run applications full screen and toggle between them. This is main pillar of the iPad UX. With that in mind, the “foreground” application window is the one that controls what shows up in the menubar, and newer versions of macOS dim inactive background windows. Earlier versions didn’t make that distinction as apparent though.

The red X “close” button doesn’t close an application

It closes the window for the application, but the application remains running. Some Linux desktop environments still do this, but most just follow Windows methods. Again, this is another holdout from Unix where only the X-Window presentation of the application closes, and the application can still process data in the background. The dock at the bottom of the screen shows a dot or underline (depending on OS version or customization) under any running application icon. To completely shut down an application, you use Command-Q or find it in the menubar under the app name (making sure it’s the active window/application).

The green “maximize” button is actually a full-screen button (in newer macOS versions)

This will toggle between your floating window size and full-screen, hiding the dock and menubar. macOS has double-click gestures as well. If you double-click an edge of a floating window, it’ll extend that edge to the edge of the screen, excluding the menubar and dock space. If you double-click anywhere in the top part of the window, it’ll maximize the whole window without going full-screen. If you click and hold down on the green full-screen button, there’s a split-screen option that will also run in full-screen, similar to an iPad or Windows 8.x. macOS lacks the auto-resize window docking options that Windows 7 onward includes. I use Parallels Toolbox, which has its own Window Manager utility that includes the auto-resize window docking feature, but it’s something you have to pay for. It comes free with Parallels Desktop.

Minimized windows have their own space in the dock

This one is kind of weird but some Linux desktops still do this. If you have an application running, a dot shows up under the icon. When you minimize the window, another icon is created to the left of the separator bar on the dock. You can turn this functionality off in System Preferences if you’d rather not have it show an extra icon.

Shortcut keys seem weird at first, but easy to figure out when you understand this methodology

Most Windows shortcut keys use either Control or Alt as their main modifier key. Most macOS shortcut keys use Command (the one with the funny cloverleaf thing on it), whereas Control and Option (and sometimes Shift) are just extra modifiers for the Command shortcuts. Very few macOS shortcut keys use only Control or Option as their only modifier. I rarely hit the Control or Option key on a Mac keyboard. Many of the Windows Control-key shortcuts are exactly the same as the macOS Command-key shortcuts, such as Select-All, Cut, Copy, Paste, Search/Find-in-Page, Undo, Redo, Quit (although few people use Ctrl-Q on Windows anymore), etc. I would say that Apple does put a lot of emphasis on keyboard shortcuts – remember they had single-button mice for a long time that required modifier keys to get a secondary click, although all Mac’s have had multi-button mice and trackpads for years now too. Keyboard workers will find that the list of OS keyboard shortcuts is extensive. Oh, and Alt-Tab works as Command-Tab, but doesn’t show thumbnails. Mission Control shows thumbnails, but you don’t need a special shortcut key because Mac keyboards have a dedicated function key for it (usually F3 unless it’s a third-party keyboard).

The dock is like most docks. And THANK GOD for Launchpad

The old way of finding applications that weren’t pinned to the dock was to go to the Finder menubar, under the Go menu, click Applications, and load up an application like the Windows 2/3 Program Manager. Launchpad is like the iPad Home Screen – simple, limited, but gets you to your apps quickly. The one curiously left-out feature from Launchpad though: you can’t uninstall non-App Store apps from Launchpad. Launchpad doesn’t support dragging those icons into the Trash to uninstall them either. To uninstall DMG-style apps, you have to into the Application folder and drag the icon from there to the Trash. Otherwise, Launchpad is all good.

The rest is pretty minor

All in all, most of the rest of the differences are like the differences between Windows and Linux, or iOS and Android. There’s going to be different names for applications that mostly do the same things, and icons might be in different places on the screen, but the newer versions of macOS are pretty clean and fast.

Is there anything else I missed?

Comments (34)

34 responses to “Some key differences between macOS and Windows that switchers have problems with”

  1. bkkcanuck

    "macOS has a unified menu bar for all applications"

    I got use to this pretty quickly, I actually have issues with Windows now. The unified menu at the top is one copy of the menu (I actually set both the top menu to auto-hide - unless I place the mouse at the top of the screen; and the bottom dock to auto-hide [I also set the doc to small icons and have magnification set so it magnifies where the mouse is in the doc]). The unified menu only takes up the top of the main screen, windows has it on each window which can waste space when you have the windows around like me. It has been up at the top since before the kernel was unix (pre MacOS X).

    Windows Apps now have it sometimes at the top of the window, sometimes in other locations if the menu bar compresses in applications etc. (a little inconsistent).

    "The red X “close” button doesn’t close an application"

    Correct, it will have an insignificant footprint in memory if the memory is not actively needed. Applications receive different requests from the OS and are suppose to deal with different cases (low memory, etc.).

    I don't worry about closing applications until I am doing a reboot.

    "The green “maximize” button is actually a full-screen button (in newer macOS versions)"

    It has a dual purpose, you can click an hold it down - and it can be used to do split screen as well. If application windows snapping etc. there are applications like "magnet" (I think $2.99USD on the App store).

    "The dock is like most docks. And THANK GOD for Launchpad"

    I set the dock to auto-hide and magnification on with it set high. I actually hate launchpad. I do have the Applications at the top of my "Finder" folders - and appreciate it is a flat structure. Spotlight (or in my case Alfred - I turn spotlight hot keys off and it pulls up Alfred which is the granddaddy app in comparison to Spotlight). cmd-space - box appears in the middle of the screen and type the first few letters of the app and then hit enter and it loads...

    "To uninstall DMG-style apps, you have to into the Application folder and drag the icon from there to the Trash. Otherwise, Launchpad is all good."

    Actually to uninstall pretty much all applications it is drag to trashcan (and I empty it). There is no registry, the Application folder that you see there is actually named <application name>.app and you can right click and look in the folder from finder (it has all the resources and binaries in a folder structure under <application name>.app).

    • waethorn

      In reply to bkkcanuck:

      You can uninstall App Store apps like you do on an iPad: click and hold on any icon in Launchpad to get "wiggle mode" for all icons, and App Store apps show small X's on them. You can uninstall them that way.

      You can right-click on the Launchpad icon in the dock to get a list view, but you can't drag any items out of that list to Trash or to pin to the dock. The Applications folder shows up in the "jump list" (whatever they call that in macOS) when you right-click on the Finder icon as well, so there's a quicker alternative way to get to it, aside from using the menubar.

      Microsoft's new Powertoys Run launcher/search utility uses Alt-Space. Alt on a Windows keyboard is at the same position as Command on a Mac keyboard, being directly beside the spacebar. Spotlight on macOS will also do simple math calculations (even currency conversions) without launching the calculator, much like the Windows utility.

      I mentioned the click and hold function of the full-screen button too.

      • bkkcanuck

        In reply to Waethorn:

        I forgot one thing, when an application is loaded in macOS I believe there is one copy loaded (and remains loaded as you said) -- while I believe Windows loads the application itself once for each instance that you run.

        • waethorn

          In reply to bkkcanuck:

          I don't know if macOS has a restriction that prevents you from opening more than one instance of any given application. Windows does allow multiple instances for applications, but some applications prevent you from opening another instance too. Many macOS applications allow multiple windows and this seems to be what keeps the application processes running in the background (this is how Apple explains it - only "multi-window" applications don't close when using the red-X button), so it's difficult to verify where multiple instances would come into play. Some of the OS components only support a single window, and fully terminate when using the red button.

          • bkkcanuck

            In reply to Waethorn:

            I am not talking about instances that way. Let us take Word as an example, on macOS the binary executable is loaded, and you have the dynamic memory of the application window (the variable data) running, if you run another independent 'window' (application) - it creates another set of dynamic memory for that new window and uses the same copy of word executable in memory. I believe Windows you will have multiple complete copies of Word application code running if you did the same thing.

            • wright_is

              In reply to bkkcanuck:

              Word is a bad example, I think. If I "open" word multiple times in Windows 10, I still have one copy of Word running, plus a sub-thread for each open document in those extra windows.

  2. matsan

    My pet peeve is the lack of a built-in application window switching like Alt-Tab on Windows. Exposé/Mission Control is OK for one Desktop, but switching between application on different desktop requires me to reach for the mouse or trackpad. MacOS's Cmd-Tab just jumps between application and with multiple windows in each application this is not enough. The Swedish keyboard makes many of the default shortcuts (like cmd-[) impossible to use. I know you can switch but then they often collide with application's shortcuts. Even with a shortcut working, "Move focus to the next windows" doesn't work across different Desktops.

    The multiple Desktop management I really like and use daily with 4-5 desktops and 2-3 full-screen apps. With an external keyboard i have configured alt-cmd left/right to flip between them and alt-cmd 1/2/3/4 (on numpad) to jump directly.

    During the years I have tried several application switching utilities but have now settled on AltTab (open source, available on GitHub) which closely mimics Alt-Tab on Windows and HyperDock (€7) that gives previews of application windows in the dock.

    • rsfarris

      In reply to matsan:

      I don't know if this works on the Swedish keyboard, but you can CMD+` (directly above TAB) to cycle between windows of the same app, which could solve or mitigate at least one of those problems.

      • matsan

        In reply to rsfarris:

        Problem is that we have the degree symbol ° there. Getting to ` requires the use of AltGr (right side of spacebar) and that is a dead-key so it doesn't work with Cmd.

        My friends that are deep into video editing all use English layout keyboards for their work (to get sticker overlays etc) and then switch to a Swedish when writing emails.

        • wright_is

          In reply to matsan:

          It is the same with German keyboards.

          In fact, Apple is very developer unfriendly, their keyboards don't have {}, [] marked on them at all, they are only available on German keyboards with AltGr. On "standard" keyboards, they are on AltGr + 7 & 0 and AltGr + 8 & 9 respectively. On Apple they are shifted, I think, from memory 6 & 7 and 8 & 9 respectively. The \ and | are also missing on Apple keyboards and the "@" symbol is moved from the standard AltGr + Q to AltGr + L.

          • matsan

            In reply to wright_is:

            In Scandinavia we have been plagued by Swedish/Danish/Norwegian combination keyboards (mainly on HP and Dell's consumer models). They are crazy in colour with white, blue, red and green symbols all over the keys, not indicating modifier combinations but the actual characters.

            Don't know about the German keyboards, but on the Swedish keyboard (, [ and { are at least on the same key (8) albeit with three different modifiers - Shift, Alt and Alt+Shift. I think it works excellent for writing code and is (with the exception of ) consistent with the PC layout.

            For my MacBook 16" main computer I have picked up a couple of USB keyboards from eBay because of issues with the BT Magic Apple keyboard constantly disconnecting and getting "stuck" keys producing lines of same character. The BT mouse is only with me when travelling, otherwise it's an old LogiTech with the receiver in the USB port of the keyboard. Too many BT-enabled devices on the desk I guess.

            I like the feel and travel of the USB keyboards much more than the "Magic" BT keyboard.

            • wright_is

              In reply to matsan:

              I don't have a problem with Apple moving the key assignments, that is annoying, but you can learn to use it. What I find stupid is that these commonly used characters are not even shown on the keyboard. You have to "guess" where they are (and they aren't where they "should be"), and which modifier key you need to press to get them.

              Some other commonly used programming symbols are similarly hidden on the Apple German keyboard, I often have to press AltGr or Option and then run through Q, W, E, R, T, Z, U, I, O, P etc. until I find the character I want. If I don't use a Mac regularly, then that search starts again, when I get back on a Mac. It might ruin the asthetics of a "clean" keyboard layout to have "useless" symbols, like , |, {, [, ], } etc. printed on the keys, but it is a real pain as a user! Even worse when you work support and have to keep telling users how to find the characters and listen to their moaning!

  3. jimchamplin

    TLDR. It’s different. Use your eyes, reading comprehension, and previous experience to figure out how to use it.

    If one has used a WIMP GUI, all others that follow the same model are trivial to intuit. The details vary but the system will provide cues.

    It’s not like someone shoved an LCARS UI at you.

  4. basic sandbox

    I have two complaints:

    1. The Finder isn't intuitive.

    2. I miss MS Paint

    • waethorn

      In reply to basic sandbox:

      1. Finder is still better than the file browser in GNOME 3, KDE, and in Chrome OS.
      2. Preview has most of the same editing and painting controls, but you can't create blank images. If you really need a decent paint tool, MS Paint isn't it.
    • Paul Thurrott

      The Paint replacement I use on the Mac is called Paint S. It's not exactly the same, obviously, but fills the same basic needs.
  5. matsan

    BTW: I mainly launch application through Spotlight.

  6. 2ilent8cho

    If you drag the actual /Applications folder in Finder (not the sidebar icon) to the area in the dock next to recycle bin it will create a stack, right click and choose list and you get a start menu style list of all the Apps.

  7. wright_is

    The menu bar and the close button aren't hold overs from Unix, they are still there from the original Mac and the Lisa from the early 80s.

  8. shark47

    I think people make a big deal of how one OS works is more usable than the other. It all boils down to what you're accustomed to.

    I find it weird having the minimize and close buttons on the left.

    The Start menu organizes apps alphabetically in Windows. I don't think Launchpad does that and I know for sure the iPad doesn't.

    I guess the Control Center on the Mac is the equivalent of the notification center on the PC. I found this a lot more intuitive and powerful. The notification area or whatever it's called on the Windows Taskbar is pretty annoying.

    Windows kind of copied the Mac OS dock starting in Windows 7. I like how they've implemented it.

    Obviously, this are just my thoughts, given my familiarity with Windows.

  9. longhorn

    I think some of the conventions come from the first GUI ever, developed by Xerox and stolen by Apple. I don't see much resemblance with Linux (other than those Linux desktops that try to mimic Apple, for example Elementary and Gnome), because Linux is too new. Linux desktops started copying Windows and went "Macish" in the last decade.

    Not closing applications when closing windows is weird if you need to close them anyway before restart/shut down.

    Global menu bar was invented in a time computers didn't have enough resources for multitasking so there was no need to integrate the menu in the application. Maybe we should give Microsoft credit for integrated menus?

    The lack of desktop customization options in macOS feels archaic, but Apple isn't big on customization (iOS for example) and put their focus elsewhere. Letting users switch between window buttons on left hand or right hand side would be a good start. This would be welcomed on Windows too by a few users.

    But yeah, overall not a big deal navigating the UI on any system.

    • wright_is

      In reply to longhorn:

      I agree with you generally. But Linux started to go "macish" about 2 decades ago. I remember 2003/2004 having GUI widgets for KDE and Gnome that emulated the OS X Dock, for example.

      And both Apple and Microsoft were invited to visit Xerox PARC to see what they were doing with graphical interfaces. Neither directly "stole" it, they were given access to let them be inspired into producing something for the mass market.

      The only time Apple was "accused" of stealing it was when they tried to sue Microsoft for copying Apple's Finder; Xerox turned around and basically said, "er, guys, you do remember that you both came here and got the inspiration from us, stop squabbling and play nice!"

    • bkkcanuck

      In reply to longhorn:

      The Xerox is a WYSIWYG with icons a mouse and and an object style UI but the Mac UI is very much different at the time (I would say it is related and an inspiration but other than that being a WYSIWYG interface with a mouse -- the Macintosh is at most a significant evolution (difference of night and day within being graphical) of just being a GUI vs being character based. It however was not 'stolen', it was a compensated deal (pre-IPO Apple stock).

      • pecosbob04

        In reply to bkkcanuck:

        "It however was not 'stolen', it was a compensated deal (pre-IPO Apple stock)."

        As you point out the "stolen" story is pure revisionist myth. Many years ago one of the engineers that had been in the room the first time SJ came to see the Xerox Parc interface was a Xerox consultant on a large printer installation I was in charge of and he had several fun details from Steve's visit.

        What I found most interesting was that there were two distinct schools of thought among the engineers: 1)It was crazy to let Apple see this technology as they would surely run with it and 2) Show them everything and provide any help possible because they knew Apple WOULD surely run with it. They knew that they had created this great interface and that Xerox would never bring it to market.

    • waethorn

      In reply to longhorn:

      What sorts of "lack of customization" are you talking about? There's quite a lot from what I can see. More than what you get in a stock GNOME 2 or 3. Maybe not as many as KDE, but that's a mess. You can move the dock around to any side of the screen, change icon sizes with a slider (Windows only allows 2 sizes: small or large), and change some of the animations. It has its own set of customizations. It won't have every customizability option that you could think of, but neither does Windows, as even you noted.

      Also, you can set the OS to reopen windows when restarting, or just uncheck that box before the system shutdown timer runs out and it quits every app. Keeping them open is like suspending the apps, i.e. hibernating their state.

      • longhorn

        In reply to Waethorn:

        MATE (Gnome2), Xfce or KDE are in a different league, but that is to be expected.

        Window buttons - left or right

        Menu bar - integrated or global

        Start menu and/or dock

        Adjustable (height, width, position) taskbar and/or dock

        Theming - what color/shape do you want the UI to be

        Setting font size independent of scaling - not sure how this works in macOS

        What is more interesting is that with a few third party applications Windows can do most of the above. The hardest part would probably be the global menu (why would anyone want a global menu on anything larger than a netbook made for singletasking? - that beats me, but I know even some Linux users like it that way).

        macOS has uBar and then you have some sort of taskbar or dock that can be placed anywhere, even at the top where I would want it. What can be said is that macOS is the most polished UI, you just have to accept the confines it imposes. Below the UI level macOS is probably the best desktop OS, but also bloated these days. Doesn't really matter with today's hardware. Windows has also become bloated and many Linux distros too.

        "Also, you can set the OS to reopen windows when restarting, or just uncheck that box before the system shutdown timer runs out and it quits every app. Keeping them open is like suspending the apps, i.e. hibernating their state."

        That sounds reasonable.

        To summarize:

        I think the global menu is stuck in the 80s (small screen and no multitasking) and the dock is just a limited taskbar. A "taskbar" doesn't need to go full length and can be transparent so might be mistaken for a dock, but still offers full taskbar functionality. uBar does seem to be a pretty good option for macOS, but I haven't tried it. On Windows, Winstep Nexus is probably the best dock/taskbar that can be used with or without Windows taskbar.

        macOS might be the best platform for getting work done (if it supports your applications), but it's also the most limited from a customization perspective. On Windows a lot more customization is still possible.

        • waethorn

          In reply to longhorn:

          MATE isn't GNOME 2. GNOME 2 had far more restrictions. The MATE dev team continued working on it, just like how BSD evolved from Unix. GNOME Classic and GNOME Fallback are two different things as well. Xfce is a mess. Orbital on Redox is about the same as far as functionality goes, i.e. fugly out of the box and nobody with any graphical design prowess has made any themes that are usable for it while the system utility structure is just mind-numbingly bad.

          Likewise GNOME 3 has limited functionality out of the box. There's a lot you can't do with it, but install GNOME Tweaks (you have to, just to use the included dark-mode theme) and a bunch of third-party extensions and it becomes very customizable. This seems to be how you describe Windows too though.

          I wouldn't call macOS bloated either. Far from it. There's far less actively-processing background processes in it than Windows, although I'd have to give you a point if you wanted to call out that every binary application in macOS is 64-bit, thus will naturally be larger than a compiled 32-bit version, should one exist. At least Apple can make a fully 64-bit operating system without 32-bit components. Too bad Itanium stuff isn't around anymore....

          • longhorn

            In reply to Waethorn:
            I'd have to give you a point if you wanted to call out that every binary application in macOS is 64-bit, thus will naturally be larger than a compiled 32-bit version, should one exist. At least Apple can make a fully 64-bit operating system without 32-bit components.

            I don't know what your point is since 32-bit support in Windows x64 is a subsystem that could be removed tomorrow. It is there to allow old 32-bit binaries to run, a compability layer.

            Linux is also fully 64-bit but can use multlib to run 32-bit binaries (often disabled by default). Maybe multilib would be possible on macOS too if anyone wanted to run an old macOS binary?

            However, on ARM I don't think that approach is possible since an ARM64 CPU isn't binary compatible with ARM32 software. It's the AMD64 architecture and 32-bit subsystems that allowed a seamless transition from 32-bit to 64-bit on Windows and Linux.

        • bkkcanuck

          In reply to longhorn:

          "I think the global menu is stuck in the 80s"

          Well, both Windows and macOS primary menu locations are both from the 80s... copying everything would have gotten MS into more trouble (it did with one Lotus 123 clone).

          I actually think the unified menu bar at the top is better for accessibility.

          I am often switching between macOS and Windows app windows it becomes a game of let us find where stuff is :o. It all depends on what you are use to... but being consistently inconsistent is the worst of all worlds.

          My first tendency when wanting something from the menu is to look at the top of the screen and pull down from there.

          Then I realize it is a Windows app in Remote Desktop, and go to the menu bar at the top...

          Then I realize on many apps that they have done away with the menu bar in favour of another flavor - and it is a game of WTF is the function I am looking for (on Windows). [the first and second choices are a slight inconvience but the third one really drives me nuts]

          • longhorn

            In reply to bkkcanuck:

            There are pros and cons with everything. One could say that having a global menu bar allows for more beautiful applications although you have to look at the menu bar at the top of the screen unless you hide it.

            There seems to be a notion among application developers that menu bars are bad and this is pretty disastrous for Windows and Linux users. What happens is that all of the menu bar functionality is shoved into a hamburger menu and harder/slower to access. Think Chrome on Windows.

            It seems macOS users are much better treated and Chrome will give you a real menu bar on macOS. Maybe we should thank macOS for the survival of the menu bar? I see certain Linux environments trying to eliminate the menu bar with hamburger menus and this is so bad I can't begin to describe it.

            In that case a global menu bar is a much better idea. So when I think about it from a strategic perspective it's good that macOS has it. It kind of forces application developers to use it.

            What contributes to my skepticism of global menu bar is that I always have the taskbar at the top of the screen to minimize mouse travel between taskbar and window buttons. For a keyboard navigator this is less of a problem of course.

            Apple suffered some bad years with butterfly keyboards, thermal throttling and outdated Mac Minis, but now Apple is back on the hardware scene in a big way.

            I don't dislike macOS, I just like to punch a hole into the reality distortion field that still surrounds this company - although less of a problem after the departure of Jobs (RIP) and Ive.

  10. angusmatheson

    In my mind, I still call the Command key the “open apple” key. I haven’t booted up an apple II in many, many years. But that key will always be the “open apple” much to the chagrin of those I try to explain how to do Mac keyboard short cuts to.