What’s the best way – no, the only way – to know what you can do with your computer?

Know what you can do with your applications!

Remember, there’s really no such thing as “using the computer”. It’s all about using applications.

But you don’t need to set aside a month and learn how to use all of your applications (or “apps” for short). When you decide to use a specific app, that’s the time to learn the details. For now, all you need to do is this:

  1. Check out what apps you have; and
  2. Have a rough idea of what each one does.

That’s easy. Do that, and no matter what you want to do with your computer, you’ll always some idea of where to start!

Meet the apps

In alphabetical order, here’s a look at 20 pre-installed Mac apps that you may find handy, interesting, and easy to learn from the get-go. I’ll introduce apps that are included with OS X 10.10 (code name “Yosemite”); if you’re using a different version of OS X, details of your apps, including their icons, may differ.

These are only casual and very brief introductions; speak up if you want to hear about some app in more detail!

So. Say hello to these guys:

App Store

App StoreInterestingly enough, the (alphabetical) first app is an app for… getting more apps (both free and paid). It’s not the only way to add more apps to your Mac, but is definitely the easiest way.

Installing software used to be a pretty ugly operation: Find the desired software online or in a shop, download the required file or insert the purchased CD / DVD disk, find and open the file that starts the installation process, follow a bunch of arcane instructions while clicking button after button, and when all is done, figure out what was installed and where, and what remaining stuff (if any) should be deleted. Things got even more complex if an online purchase was required. And when it came time to update the software to a newer version, typically you went through the whole process again…

With the App Store app, you click to confirm that you want to install the desired app… and all the rest just happens automatically. Done. Even better, you can similarly update to new versions with a single click, or even let App Store do that automatically on its own. In short, getting new apps, and keeping them up to date, has never been easier.

calculator-iconCalculator

This is perhaps the app that needs the least introduction. It calculates stuff. Like a pocket calculator. That’s pretty much it.

But if Calculator seems a little too basic for you, click the app’s “View” menu at the top of the screen, then click “Scientific”. Whoa! That’s a lot of buttons. (Click “Basic” to get the simple calculator back.)

If you look at the Calculator’s menus at the top of the screen, you’ll find a few more tricks, including speech if you’d like a little vocal feedback, and the ability to perform all kinds of unit conversions.

Calendarcalendar-icon

The Calendar app is not just for looking at dates; it’s also for scheduling your own appointments and activities. You can create multiple color-coded calendars (“Work”, “Home”, “School activities”, etc.); view schedules by day, week, or month; set up alarms to remind you of upcoming events and deadlines; and do much more. Calendar can even show you maps and weather forecasts related to your upcoming appointments.

Calendar may not sound exciting, but it is a handy app for organizing your activities.

contacts-iconContacts

This is an address book – a computer version of the paper version lying near your home telephone. I know, that sounds really exciting – but Contacts shares its information with other apps that need it, and that’s pretty useful. For example, if you tell Contacts the name, phone number, email address, and birthday of your friend Bob, your iPhone will list “Bob” among people you can call with a single touch, your Mail app will recognize the email address for “Bob”, and your Calendar app will show Bob’s approaching birthday.

Contacts can also print addresses onto mailing labels, organize people by group (“Family”, “Project Team”, etc.) for mass emails, and do much more. Instead of juggling address books and scattered bits of contact information, make Contacts your central storehouse of people information.

dictionary-iconDictionary

Like Calculator, there’s not much introduction needed here: Dictionary is a simple app for looking up the meaning of words. But it’s actually a collection of many reference books: American and British dictionaries and thesauruses, several foreign language dictionaries, even an “Apple Dictionary” of terms specific to Apple products. The Dictionary app can also include Wikipedia (the online mega-encyclopedia) among the sources it searches. (You decide which sources Dictionary consults for you: under the “Dictionary” menu, open “Preferences” and check the reference sources you want it to use. Let me know if that doesn’t make sense to you!)

dvd-playerDVD Player

This app’s name pretty much tells its story. Needless to say, it’s only of use if your Mac has a DVD drive – that is, the device, built into your Mac or hanging from it by a cable, that sucks in and plays the DVDs you feed it.

Depending on how you’ve got things set up, DVD Player will pop up automatically when you feed the Mac a DVD (it may take a few seconds; be patient), or nothing may happen, in which case you simply need to launch DVD Player yourself. From there, use DVD Players’ on-screen control window, or its menus at the top of the screen, to play the movie, skip around its chapters, change the size of the movie window, and so on.

facetime-iconFace Time

Face Time is Apple’s name for its service that allows face-to-face calls over the Internet – “video phone calls”, the sort of miraculous communication that old movies thought would arrive together with flying atomic cars. (Still waiting on those…)

Face Time users can all talk with each other over Macs, iPhones, iPads, or iPod touches. Your Mac has to be equipped with a video camera in order to take part in video calls, but Face Time can do audio-only calls too, if your Mac is camera-less (or if today’s a bad hair day).

There’s no per-minute, or even per-day, cost for Face Time users chatting by video or audio; it’s free. The times we live in…

finder-iconFinder

The Finder (yes, Apple places that “the” in front) is a special app. Its icon doesn’t appear in your Applications folder. (Go ahead, look. It’s not there.) That’s because you never need to start it up; it starts up automatically. You can’t easily shut it down; even if you do, it re-launches itself immediately. Its icon automatically appears in your Dock, and can’t be removed. It’s like an always-smiling party guest who just won’t leave

Wait – there’s a reason why the Finder get this special treatment. It’s your Mac’s file manager app, and a file manager is an important thing. It’s the app for interacting with any and all of your Mac’s files – your text documents, audio files, video files, image files, even other applications. The Finder is what you use to organize files into folders, to open folders to see what files are inside, to rename or duplicate files and folders, to delete files and folders you don’t need, and to do much more.

These tasks strike some learners as esoteric “computer wizardry” – but really, they’re nothing difficult. If you learn a bit about the friendly Finder’s many powers, you’ll become far more confident in using your Mac.

itunes-icon iTunes

Hoo-boy. iTunes started years ago as something really simple: a place to organize and play “music files” – that is, songs (or other pieces of audio). Since then, it’s been saddled with features for organizing and playing videos; buying or renting videos and music (through Apple’s “iTunes Store”); listening to “radio” stations (they’re Internet streams, not AM/FM radio broadcasts, but the old-timey name “radio” lives on); managing podcasts and digital books and “iTunes University” lessons; managing devices like iPhones and iPads; and more.

Most people agree that iTunes has become a bit of a mess; it’ll probably get broken up and slimmed down some day. In the meantime, rest assured that if you just want to play music from a CD, or music already stored in your Mac, iTunes can do that.

launchpad-iconLaunchpad

This app is what’s called an app launcher. Unlike most apps discussed on this page, Launchpad doesn’t present you with any windows, or even menus at the top of the screen. It just performs one trick when launched: it shows all of your apps’ icons, spread over the screen like an iPad or iPhone screen, so you can launch one of them. “Hi! Here are all of your apps. Pick one, and I’ll launch it!” That’s what Launchpad says.

Launchpad is not the way to launch apps; it’s just one convenient way, for Mac users who like the iPad/iPhone way of doing things. And in true iPad/iPhone fashion, when Launchpad’s screen full o’ apps is displayed, you can drag the app icons around to rearrange them as you like, or drop one onto another to create a folder, or drag an app icon onto a folder to place it inside, etc.

mail-iconMail

As the not-so-creative name suggests, the Mail app handles email: receiving, sending, and organizing email, for one account or many accounts, as you like. (It’s happy with many different kinds of accounts, too: iCloud, Yahoo, Gmail, AOL, Microsoft Exchange, etc.) There are plenty of other email apps out there should you not care for the pre-installed Mail; some Mac users prefer installing and using one of those, but everyone I know seems happy enough with Mail.

Mail has a few special tricks, like the ability to create fancy decorative email messages. But for the most part, it just handles email. Which is all it needs to do.

maps-iconMaps

This app shows maps, complete with landmarks, attractions, shops, restaurants, this and that. Additional information, such as phone numbers and reviews for restaurants, are just a click away. You can also specify a starting point (like your current location) and a destination, and Maps will show you how to get there by car or on foot. And here’s a neat trick: Maps can show not just flat road maps but also maps using actual satellite photo, with land features (mountains, etc.) in full 3D, and even buildings for some cities depicted as 3D objects.

When it was first released, the Maps app took flak for showing some incomplete or even wrong information. After many improvements it’s still not perfect, but it’s pretty good now and getting better all the time.

facetime-iconMessages

The Messages app is for what’s called chat or instant messaging or texting: communicating with people through text messages. (It replaces a similar, earlier app from Apple, called iChat.) It can naturally communicate with other people using Messages on Macs, iPhones, iPads, and iPod touches, and also with people using many other services (AIM, Yahoo Messenger, Google Talk, Jabber, and SMS). In simple terms: With Messages, you should be able to chat with just about anyone.

Apps like Messages are a welcome replacement for SMS (Short Message Service), an older texting service offered by cell phone companies. SMS messages (or texts) often cost a lot and were typically limited to short messages. Like SMS, the Messages app delivers your texts almost instantly – but it’s free and doesn’t limit the number or length of your texts. Messages can send files (photos, videos, documents, etc.), or record and send your voice as an “audio clip”. If you tire of text and decide to have a normal audio or face-to-face video conversation, Messages can switch you to Face Time (see above). And in a final neat trick, Messages can let you or your chat partner see each the screen of the other person (should you choose), a great way to collaborate on a document or get help for a computer problem.

missioncontrol-iconMission Control

Like Launchpad above, Mission Control doesn’t toss up some new window, or even show menus at the top of the screen. It just performs one trick when you launch it: it shows you miniaturized versions of all the windows open on your Mac – all the stuff that’s going on – so you can easily jump from one window to another. In short, it’s a simple way to “get around” from one app to another app, or from one window to another window. (This is one of those things that’s easier to show than to explain!)

A good way to use Mission Control is to place it in your Dock for easy access. The next time you’re looking for some window buried under a bunch of other windows, click Mission Control, spot the window you’re looking for, and click on it. Boom, it’s now front and center on your screen. Carry on!

notes-iconNotes

Notes is an easy-to-use app for writing stuff down. Lists, ideas, novel drafts – anything. Notes will accept a little fancy formatting, and can even include images within your notes, but overall it keeps things simple.

One nice feature: Unlike a typical word processor app, Notes doesn’t bother you with saving and later re-opening files. Notes handles the organization of the notes you create, quietly and behind the scenes. It simply shows you a list of the notes you’ve created so far;  you need only pick one, or make a new one, and start writing.

Your Mac’s Notes app will automatically share your notes with the Notes app on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. You can even get at your notes from someone else’s computer, by using your Apple ID and password at the iCloud website. For all of these reasons, Bit Cafe recommends Notes as a good place for taking “tech notes” as you learn things from this site and from other people.

preview-iconPreview

Preview is an often ignored and under-appreciated app. It’s what you’d call an image viewer app: it’ll open up and show you many types of image file (PDF, JPG, GIF, PNG, and more). It offers tools for zooming in and out of image details, searching for text, jumping around pages in multi-page images like a long PDF document, and more.

Preview is also a simple image editor app. It can “mark up” documents with comments, highlighting, arrows, added text, etc.; fill in PDF “forms”; adjust an image’s color, contrast, exposure, etc.; rotate, resize, or crop images; remove swatches of color (like a background) from an image; and read in images from a scanner (a device for “sending” paper documents, etc. to your computer).

PDF doesn’t offer fancy tools for graphic artists, or tools for organizing loads of photos. But if you just need to look at some images and maybe make basic changes, don’t forget that you’ve got a handy toolbox in Preview.

quicktime-playerQuickTime Player

Like Preview above, this is an app with a somewhat inscrutable name. (“QuickTime” is an old name for Apple’s many technologies related to handling images, video, and audio. The term isn’t heard much these days, but it lives on this app’s name.)

Simply put: QuickTime Player does for video what Preview does for images. It plays video files and lets you make a few simple changes, like rotating video that displays wrong-side-up, trimming unneeded bits from the beginning and end of a video, or converting a video into another type of video. For fancier video editing, though, you’ll need some other video editor app.

(It’s worth noting here that video on computers remains an inherently complex topic, with all sorts of arcane-sounding video file types and formats in use. The point: You may often run into video files that QuickTime won’t play; the solution is to use some other video player app.)

reminders-iconReminders

There are a lot of apps available for organizing lists of reminders, to-do items, projects, and so on. Reminders is an example of a simple one. There’s not a lot to it. You create any number of lists, like “Shopping List” or “To-Do Today”; you then add items to each list, like “Eggs” or “Send invoice”. To “check off” an item and remove it from the list, just click on the item’s circular “check box”.

Reminders does offer a few tricks. For each item on a list, you can add some notes and an indicator of priority. As the app’s name suggests, you can also request a reminder at a certain time or at a certain place. Yes, this means that Reminders can deliver you a reminder about those eggs when you get to the store, or a reminder about that invoice when you reach your office. That’s pretty cool – except that you won’t see those reminders on your Mac if you don’t open up your Mac at those locations. Fortunately, the Reminders app will share its information with Reminders on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, so you can easily get those grocery reminders when you enter the Safeway.

system-preferences-iconSystem Preferences

Many apps let you set “preferences” – that is, they let you choose whether the app works this way or that way, so you can customize the app to your liking. Similarly, System Preferences is an app that lets you set preferences for your Mac overall, customizing it just the way you like.

Open the System Preferences app to set how you want features like the Dock to work; how you want devices like your mouse, trackpad, and keyboard to behave; what language your apps should use; what settings your home or workplace networks require to connect to the Internet; whether your Mac should “sleep” when not in use; and much, much more.

Many of the available settings will look esoteric. (Feel free to not touch any that are unclear!) Others are pretty easy to understand. Poke around System Preferences, and you may discover all sorts of optional abilities you didn’t even know your Mac had. Examples include security features (click “Security & Privacy”), dictation for people weary of typing text (click “Dictation & Speech”), and special settings for easier use by people with physical disabilities (click “Accessibility”).

textedit-iconTextEdit

TextEdit is a word processor app. It’s a simple one – the kind that some people call a text editor, saving the term word processor for apps with fancier features. Whatever you call it, it can embellish your text with fonts, colors, sizes, and even handle simple numbered lists and tables.

A secret-ish feature of TextEdit: It can open, edit, and even create files of formats (that is, types) used by a couple other word processor apps, notably the commonplace Microsoft Word. TextEdit may not handle these documents without trouble if they’re complex (created using fancy layouts and formatting, tables of content and citations, carefully-placed images, and so on), but it does great with simple documents. So if someone asks you to look at a document made with Microsoft Word but you don’t own that pricey app, no worry – let TextEdit give the job a try.

“What about all these other apps? What do they do?”

So now you know what the above apps do. Great! But there are many more pre-installed apps that we haven’t covered. And you may have many more apps that you installed later.

Do you know what all of those apps do? Or do you have apps whose purpose is a complete mystery?

Hmm. If you are uncertain over what some apps do, it’s because you don’t “get” computers, right?

Wrong! This is a perfect example of “it’s not your fault”. I have dozens of apps that I installed long ago, and whose purpose I’ve completely forgotten. Sometimes the name of the app, or its icon, suggest the purpose of the app; other times, these offer no clue at all. Sometimes opening the app will reveal a nice overview of its purpose and features; other times, the app may display only some mysterious window, or display nothing at all!

How to figure out what an app does

“What’s the app I have called X-Text-something-or-other? Did I install that? Do I need it?”

You don’t need to be uncertain, or even run to others for help right away. If you’re wondering what some app on your computer does, start with this simple list of ways to find out. You only need to go down the list until you find a satisfactory answer.

  1. Check out the app’s name and icon. Do these suggest anything? If nothing else, these may suggest what type of app you’re dealing with. (See What types of applications are there?)
  2. Search for information online. Use Google or another search engine, and search for the app’s name. If it has a fairly unique name like “Skitch” or “MarsEdit”, that should get you to a relevant page quickly. If it has a generic name like “Flow” or “Notebook”, you might get too many unrelated results. Try searching instead for something like “Flow app for Mac”; that should narrow the search results down to something relevant.
  3. Launch the app. If searching does you no good, or does give you a little information and makes you curious about trying the app, then go ahead and launch (i.e., “open”) the app. Does it display some screen that describes its purpose and features?
  4. See what the app shows you. If the launched app doesn’t display a helpful screen as above, does it display any sort of window? Does that window – its words, images, buttons, etc. – suggest what the app does?
  5. Check the “About…” window. When an app has been launched, it may offer an “About…” window (see the section below), which may describe what the app does. Every app should offer this window, providing that information! Sadly, though, few apps include such useful information in the “About…” window. So I’ll put the remainder of the explanation in a footnote below; you can give it a try if you like, but it’s not often helpful.
  6. Check the “Help” menu. When an app has been launched, it may offer a “Help” menu. Poke around in there; you may turn up some explanation of what the app does.
  7. Try using the app. If you’ve opened the app and it looks like what you want, start using it! Or at least, start poking around to figure out how to use it.
  8. Ask someone. This one’s pretty self-explanatory – and, if you’ve got a friendly helper nearby, may be the action you place much higher up on this list. If no one is on hand, you can of course ask strangers online. Read these tips on getting a friendly response!
  9. Meh. Forget about it. If you’ve opened the app but it doesn’t look like what you want, or if you just can’t make heads or tails of it and have no one to ask, then go ahead and quit the app. There’s no point in letting it run (possibly keeping your computer busy and slowing it down) if you don’t even know what it’s for.

So there you go. Your apps don’t need to be a mystery. Find out what your apps do, and you’ll be building a “toolbox” of amazing things you can do with your computer.

Footnotes

About the “About…” window

On a Mac, every app that displays menus at the top of the screen will offer an “About…” window with a little information about the app. Here’s how you can check it out:

When the app is open, confirm that its menu is appearing at the top of your Mac’s screen. The first menu of the app, to the immediate right of the Apple menu (the little Apple logo) in the upper right corner, will be the name of the app. Click that menu to open it. The first item in the menu will be “About (name of app)” – for example, “About Skitch” if the name of the app is Skitch. Click on this, and a window (usually a small window) will open, revealing some information about the app.

Here’s an illustrated example. I have an app called OmegaT – which, I think you’ll agree, is a name that tells us nothing about what the app does. But when it’s running, I see the app’s menus at the top of my screen, beginning with the “OmegaT” menu. Clicking there reveals an “About OmegaT” item, which, when clicked, shows information about the app. Like this:

About_Screen_OmegaT

Ah, there’s the info I wanted: The explanation may be a big technical, but it’s clear that this is app concerns language translation, and appears to be something a professional translator would use. Now I know; thanks! (And danke schön, and merci, and all that.) That’s a helpful “About” window, and is a fine example of what all “About” windows should do.

Unfortunately, few “About” windows are as helpful. Most will tell you the version number of the app, maybe the name of the designer, and maybe some copyright information, but won’t say a word about what the app does. Like this “About” window for Preview, one of the apps that comes pre-installed on your Mac:

 

About_Screen_Preview

Uh, okay… It’s Version 7.0 (whoopee!), but… what does Preview do?

In this case, I happen to know the answer: As noted earlier on this page, Preview is a fine app for viewing images of all sorts, and can even edit images in a few simple ways. Fine. But it’d be nice if Preview’s “About” window would tell us that!

So, my point in all this: While an app’s “About” window is a possible source of information about what the app does, don’t expect too much.

2 comments

  1. I have to agree about trying to figure out what an application does sometimes. Some are really unclear. I never thought much about the applications’ About window, but I think you’re right. If every app had information in there about what the app does, it would be easy to find out.

    1. It’s a little nuts, if you ask me: apps have this “About” window… which, more often than not, tells you nothing about the app. I have lots of older apps, installed long ago, that I remember nothing about – apps whose names and icons give no clear indication of what the app is. So I’m left wondering, “Why did I install this app? What’s it for?”

      If there’s anything that the “About” window should tell us, it’s what the app does, what the app is for!

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