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Beyond the PC: Learning Mac tools and terms

You may know how to troubleshoot desktops in mixed environments, but can you describe the process on a Mac? Check out these Mac tools and terms.

Not only do the Mac users in your shop use different tools, they also often speak a different language. Your job as a desktop administrator is to make sure endpoint devices stay up and running, so of course it's helpful to know the tools. In addition, knowing the lingo (or at least acting like you do) can help put your Mac users at ease. Here are some Mac OS tools and terms to get you started.

The Finder

This is the Mac OS equivalent of Windows Explorer. Originally coined to describe the mechanism the Mac uses to "find" files, it dates back to the original release of the Macintosh. (Yes, it was considered an odd name back then, too.) Clicking anywhere on the desktop will bring up the Finder menu bar.

Terminal

This is the Mac version of the cmd.exe that opens up a bash (by default) Unix shell. The operating system gives you a superset of Unix commands that lets you do virtually anything the graphical user interface can -- and a good deal more. If you're a bit of a Linux geek, you'll feel right at home here. It's located in Applications > Utilities

Command key

In most cases, Mac keyboard shortcuts will use this where you would normally use the Control key. Old-timers may still call this the Apple key, a convention that dates back to the Apple II days but was dropped some time ago. If you're using a Windows keyboard, the Windows key will pick up this function.

Option key

The Mac version of the Alt key. This may be used to modify more complex keyboard commands. Used alone with a character or number key, it will display a third (and, with the shift key, sometimes a fourth) level of special characters. For example, Option-8 produces a bullet; Option-shift-8 is the degree symbol.

Disk Utility

In Applications >Utilities, this is a one-stop-shop for disk maintenance and repair. Disk Utility takes the place of a few different Windows tools. It will check and repair disks and directories, format ("erase"), partition drives, and repair the file permissions on system disks. It also gives you a way to create disk images (DMG files), the Mac equivalent of ISO files.

DMG files

These are what Mac OS uses in place of ISO files, though it can often handle those as well. They'll mount with a double-click and then look like a hard drive on the desktop. You can create them in the Disk Utility (File >New >) and create a blank one or choose from a group of files in a folder. Though not all users may recognize a .zip file -- the Finder can make those via the "Compress" contextual menu option -- DMGs are far more common. Like .zip files and ISOs, it's the most reliable way to package collections of files for sharing and download. They also preserve the functionality of aliases, or shortcuts, in the source folder(s).

PKG files

Double-clicking a PKG file launches the Mac OS installer, taking the place of both a setup.exe and an MSI. Unfortunately, they don't normally accept command-line parameters, but like applications, a contextual (right-click or control-click) menu option > Show Package Contents, will let you take a peek inside and sometimes make some useful tweaks. Like APP files, these are simply folders designed to take an action, rather than open when double-clicked.

APP files

Nearly all Mac applications have a hidden extension of ".app" in the place of ".exe." APPs, like PKG files, are actually folders that can be opened through the contextual menu.

Spotlight

This is the icon representing the Mac OS search tool. Like Windows, Mac indexes not only file names, but also the files' contents and a whole slew of metadata, which can go incredibly deep in photo, music and video files. It won't reveal the delicate and arcane system files -- you'll need to use Unix command-line tools in the Terminal for that -- but it will hunt out and launch just about anything else.

About the author:
Ric Getter is a programmer/analyst at Portland Community College, Oregon's largest institution of higher education. He focuses on enterprise deployments and remote system and application management. Getter has also been regularly writing about computers since 1999.

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This was first published in September 2014

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