A Primer on Common Mac Software Terms

If you’re new to the Mac, be it this is your first machine or your switching from another system like Windows, you may be not be familiar with a number of Mac terms and phrases.  This article will helps serve as an intro into the Mac world and a quick overview of software terms used in it.  This article will be updated as new ones come out or we find others we may have missed.


Airdrop: AirDrop Airdrop is a feature built-into macOS and iOS that allows the quick transfer of documents, pictures, and small video or audio files between various Apple devices, whether they are your own or to other people’s devices.  It uses both the Wifi and Bluetooth of the devices for short range, quick transfer of these files.  I find it useful when I have pictures on my iPhone that I want to add to an article.  Rather than trying to mess with transferring them over cable or deal with cloud storage, I can select to share it via AirDrop to my Mac, where the picture will be sent wirelessly and directly to my Mac, where it is saved in my Downloads folder.  The same is true going the other way, where I can AirDrop a file from my Mac by dragging it into the AirDrop section in Finder, or by right clicking the file, hit “Share” and selecting “AirDrop”  I’ve also used it to quickly throw pictures into my friends Photos apps or share files to them that I’m not worried about being in sync.

AirPlay:  Airplay

AirPlay functions to broadcast media to other supported devices.  This can be audio to compatible speakers like the HomePod or the Sonos One speakers, or video and pictures to the Apple TV or compatible TV’s ranging from LG to Samsung.  It essentially allows you to basically take what you’re watching or listening to off your phone or Mac onto other speakers or screens to share with others or get a better experience.  You can even broadcast your entire screen and wirelessly use it as a second screen or projection display.  Some devices with the newest revision of Airplay will even let you broadcast audio across multiple devices, for example take a playlist you’re listening to and share it to both the Apple TV in one room and a speaker in another room.

App Store: App Store

If you’re already familiar with your smartphone, then you’re aware of the concept of an App Store. Much like on those devices, the Mac App Store is place for you to buy, download, and install software for your Mac.  Everything from games to development software to even Microsoft Office.  All of it is vetted more or less by Apple.  That said you can still download apps from other sources like Firefox, LibreOffice, Steam, etc.  Still, this is a great place to start to get stuff you can trust.

App Switcher: App Switcher

The App Switcher is a quick way to switch between actively running apps on your machine.  Just press the “Command” and “Tab” key at the same time.  Once it pops up, while still holding the Command key, you can press the tab button to navigate the select right along the bar.  Once you’ve highlighted the app you want to switch to, let go of the command button.  This will take you to the desktop where the app is located and bring it to the forefront of the screen.  The exception to this is if the app is minimized, the app will stay minimized, but the menubar will change to reflect that the selected app is now the active one.

Application Folder:Application Folder

The Application Folder is the default location where all your apps are installed. Unlike apps on other desktop platforms, apps tend to be centralized on the Mac in a single location.  That said, apps can be stored and run from almost any location on the Mac, but most apps default to installing in this folder.  There is also an Applications folder in an individual’s user folder, that are for apps that are meant to be only available for that user.  That said, this is not frequently used.  The most common legitimate use case I see it used for is it is the place that Chrome Apps are stored if you use that function.


Automator is an almost secret powerhouse of the Mac.  It allows you to create apps, actions, scripts, and routines on your Mac similar to Siri Shortcuts and IFTTT, but for way longer and with even more power.  You can set it to trigger your screensaver on a keyboard command, batch rename files, even help you fix weird quirks like removing duplicate entries in the “Open With” right-click menu, and that’s just the scratching the service.  If you’re interest in getting started, I’d suggest digging into the Automator community over on Apple’s forums.

Boot Camp: Bootcamp2

If you want to run Windows on your Mac, you have 2 options: virtual machines or Boot Camp.  Virtual machines let you run an instance of Windows like an app within your Mac, but Windows will then need to share its resources with all the other services on your Mac.  Boot Camp, in contrast, turns your Mac into a full Windows machine.  Once you’ve bought a copy of Windows and have it on a flash drive, you can then run the Boot Camp Utility on your Mac to setup Windows as another part on your Mac’s hard drive.  Once complete, whenever you turn on Mac you’ll have the option of starting it up as a Windows machine or into its native Mac machine.

Disk Utility: Disk Utility

Disk Utility is the built-in disk repair tool.  Found in the Utilities folder in the Applications folder.  It serves multiple functions.  For one, it helps you format drives, be they internal or external, flash or spinning disk, to various formats to be used with the Mac or other desktop systems.  It can also scan for damage and corruption and attempt to repair disks in the event it finds any.  It’s the first tool recommended in most situation for many maintenance problems like slowness, boot issues, etc.

Dock: Dock

The Dock is a quick launch bar for your apps and folders.  You can drag apps from the Finder or Launchpad into the Dock for quick access.  You can also drag apps off the Dock that you don’t use frequently, with the exception of Finder and the Trash.

Any apps actively running will sit in the dock as well with a dot or light underneath their icon.  If any apps are not normally part of your dock but are running, they’ll be on the far right side of your apps in the dock, but just left of the folders and trash.

You can likewise put folders that you frequently access, and they’ll sit on the far right side of the Dock next to the Trash Can.



FaceTime is Apple’s proprietary video and audio calling service.  FaceTime allows you to easily call using video or audio only to other people with an Apple account and a compatible Apple device, namely a Mac, iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch.  Unlike your regular phone, this is a VoIP service, meaning that it works over your Wifi, Ethernet, or cellular connection to the Internet.  If you don’t have an Internet connection, you’re not making calls.  It’s very easy to setup, use, and very robust.

Finder: Finder 1

Finder is one of the most basic and oldest apps of macOS.  It is essentially the tool use to move and manage your files, folders, apps, etc.  By default all your data, excluding the apps, are store in your user folder, which is typically your name or the name of the account you created on your Mac.  You also have files living outside of your user folder, such as other users’ folders, but also apps, preferences, and other files the system uses to run.



Handoff is a feature that allows you to handoff a task from one Apple device to another.  For example, if I’m working on an email in the Mail app on my iPhone, and I’m near my Mac, then I may see the Mail icon with a small phone badge next to the Finder logo.  I can click on that and pass the work I’m doing on my phone over to the Mail app on the Mac, and continue the work.  This goes also for notes, Reminders, texts, websites, and more.



iMessage is Apple’s proprietary messaging service.  Much like FaceTime, this requires an Internet connection to work, be it Wifi, Ethernet, or a cellular connection.  iMessages are blue circles in the chat and are encrypted so that only you and the people in your messaging group can see them, whereas regular SMS texts are green and have no encryption.  iMessages also have additional features such as faster sending, message effects, being able to like or favorite messages, etc.


iOS is the collective term of the operating system of iPhones, iPod Touch devices, and iPads, though recently iPad got a variant specifically for it called iPadOS.  This is a secure, mobile ready system that was designed from the core of macOS, but adjusted to learn from past security and design issues of previous systems.  It’s rather light, runs on a variety of devices, and has many apps, though it is not as easily customizable or powerful as its older sibling.



Launchpad is an iOS style app launcher that can be accessed by either the Launchpad icon in the dock that looks like a rocket ship, or using the trackpad gesture of pinching 4 or 5 fingers together.  This shows you a fullscreen view of all your apps.  Typically the first page is for Apple’s default apps, with the other pages being the rest of your apps.  However you can move them around the various screens and into folders.


There are two “Library” folders.  The first is the System Library, which is at the base of the drive and holds the majority of the operating system as well as settings for the entire machine, among other things.  The user Library does the same, but only for the logged in user.  This is typically the majority of where technical manipulation goes on in the system.


Yes that capitalization is correct, macOS is the operating system that runs on Mac computers.  This name was given in some of the most recent iterations of the OS.  Previous names include Mac OS, OSX (read OS 10),  or Macintosh OS.  It is the base that communicates with the hardware, connects you to the Internet, runs your apps, and more.

macOS Names:

Since Apple modernized and revamped the Macs with the OSX label, it has given code names to their system to designate them.  While these names were originally only used within Apple to talk about new systems, these names eventually made their way out to the public who loved it and became part of the naming scheme.  Originally, the names were based off of big cats, such as OS 10.4 “Tiger”, 10.6 “Snow Leopard”, and 10.8 “Mountain Lion”.  Starting with 10.9, the system names changed to location names, such as 10.10 “Yosemite”, 10.12 “Sierra”, and 10.15 “Catalina”.

Menubar: Menubar

The menubar is the black or white bar that lives at the very top of your Mac screen.  On the far left side is the Apple icon that lets you access quick options like the App Store, System Preferences, or to restart, shutdown, or log out of your machine, among other things.  To the immediate right on that is the file menu for whatever app you’re currently running.  Typically this is the name of the app, followed by the menu options such as File, Edit, Tools, etc.  This changes whenever you switch the active app.  To the far right is the system tray.  Here is where background apps, such as file syncing tools and information apps, as well as quick access to system utilities like your Wifi, Bluetooth, sound, etc.

Mission Control:

Mission Control

Mission Control acts as an overview for your activities.  This can be activated by hitting the Mission Control key on the keyboard (F3 key) or swiping with 4 fingers up on your trackpad.  When activate, you can see all apps actively running on each desktop, as well as the different virtual desktops, full screen apps, items on other monitors, and your dock all at the same time.  This lets you get an overview of what you’re actively working on, quickly switch between apps,

Night Shift:

Night Shift

Night Shift is a relatively new feature in Mac OS.  When enabled, it will adjust the screen tint to a more yellow tone that should help reduce the amount of blue light coming into your eyes from the screen.  This supposedly should help reduce strain on your eyes and help when working on your machine late at night, though at the moment studies are mixed on how much help such a thing could actually provide.  The default schedule is to turn on at sunset and off at sunrise, but you can adjust this your own schedule, or just manually enable it.  You can also adjust the tint of the screen to be more yellow (“more warm”) or more blue (“less warm”) when it is active.

Notification Center: Notification Center

Notification Center acts similarly to its counterpart in iOS.  It can be found in the Notification Center menubar item in the far right corner.  Clicking on this will open up a “Today” view, with a quick overview of the time, calendar, reminders, and any other apps you choose to have in there.  There will also be a “Notifications” tab.  This is where your notifications live from Messages, Mail, News, and any other third party apps that take advantage of Mac’s notification system.  By scrolling up further in the Notifications section, you will have the options to turn on “Night Shift” and “Do Not Disturb”, which will disable all notifications on your Mac until you turn it off or until the next day.



QuickTime is the default video player on the Mac.  If you buy a movie or show from the iTunes store, it will play in the iTunes or Apple TV app.  But if you have a video from another source, say from a digital camera or downloaded somewhere else, QuickTime will be the default app to play it.  Not only that, it has its own built-screen recording utility if you go to the menubar and hit “File” and then “New Screen Recording”.  It maxes out at 720p, the low end of high-def video, but it gets the job done for a lot of people.

Quick View:

Quick View

Quick View is a way to look at files without actually having to open them.  By selecting a file in Finder, and some other apps, and then hitting the spacebar on your keyboard, you’ll be able to get a quick view of the selected file.  You can see pictures, watch videos, read documents, and get size information about folders without every having to actually open them in your default apps.

Safari: Safari

Safari is the built-in web browser for Macs and iOS devices.  It is light, fast, and very privacy centric, while still maintaining web standards and support.  You can sync your browser tabs, bookmarks, history, and more across devices with iCloud.  You can also install extensions to up Safari’s functionality by going to the App Store.


Sidecar, image courtesy of Apple

Sidecare is a new feature provided by Apple.  With it enabled, you can use an compatible iPad as a second monitor.  This can be done either over the same WiFi connection or via a USB cable connecting the Mac and your iPad.  To do this, the Mac must be a model released in 2016 or later, running OS 10.15 Catalina or newer, and the iPad must be running iOS 13 or newer.  For full details, you can check out Apple’s website on Sidecar

Siri: Siri

Siri is Apple’s voice assistant.  First release on the iPhone and other iOS devices, it has been ported over to the Mac.  Siri lets you ask questions for information, issue commands to your home, open apps, send messages and email, and so much more.  If you enable Siri, you can activate it by hitting the Siri icon in the far right in the menubar, hitting the Siri button on your Macbook’s Touchbar, or just saying “Hey Siri” aloud.  You can find the settings for it under “Siri” in the System Preferences app.

Spaces: Spaces

Spaces act like virtual desktops or monitors. If you make an app fullscreen or split 2 apps in fullscreen mode, they become their own space (as in the “Firefox” and the “Mail & Calendar” spaces in the picture).  However you can also make spaces that act like other desktop, as if you had another monitor.  They can have their own desktop backgrounds, you can move apps back and forth between them, and you can even set certain apps to open in certain spaces, such as having one space for work, another space for your entertainment, etc.  You can activate Spaces through hitting the Mission Control key on your keyboard (F3) or swiping up with 4 fingers on the trackpad.  You can also navigate between spaces by swiping left or right with 3 fingers on your trackpad.  You can find the settings for these in the System Preferences app under “Mission Control”.

Spotlight: Spotlight

Spotlight is the Mac’s built-in search tool.  You activate it by either hitting the magnifying glass icon in the top right corner of your screen in the menubar or by hitting the “Command” key and the spacebar on your keyboard.  From here, you can search for files and folder and open them from there, or just preview those files, and you can launch apps.  But there’s more you can do.  You can use it to look up the meanings of words, their translations, locations in Maps, get information for Wikipedia for a wealth of knowledge, and so much more.  It is by far one of my favorite utilities on the Mac.

System Preferences: System Preferences


Terminal: Terminal



Trash Can

The Trash can sits in your Dock at the farthest right point with any other folders, as it technically is a folder.   This is a holding place for any files, folders, or apps that you delete from your Mac.  The icon looks like an empty trash bin when there’s nothing there, but changes to one that looks like it has crumpled up paper in it when you have stuff deleted in there.  To see what’s in it, just click on the icon to open the Finder window to see what’s inside.  To empty your trash and actually delete files, you can hit the “Empty Trash” button in the aforementioned Finder window, or you can right click on the Trash icon and hit “Empty Trash”.


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