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Working with Windows, Folders, Files, and Applications

This chapter is from the book

Have you kept up with me so far? In the first two chapters, you've set your computer and operating system and discovered the neat, orderly Mac desktop, which is designed to mimic a typical office desk in terms of layout.

On your computer screen, you see a visual representation of what you want (an icon), and you use your mouse or keyboard to select and work with that item. In this chapter you will learn how to interact with windows, folders, files, and applications.


While Finder windows were introduced in the last chapter during our discussion of the file system, here we are going to take an up-close look at windows and their use. Basically, windows are holders that appear on your desktop to display whatever you are working on. Finder windows contain listings of folder, files and applications, while application windows provide a workspace where you can write a document, view an image, or do whatever it is the application was designed for.

To make an open window active, you click it (it makes the title black and brings it to the front). Every time you open a folder or drive of any kind (including your hard drive as we discussed in the last chapter) by double-clicking it, it opens a Finder display window (see Figure 3.1). The one I'm showing here is the icon view.

Figure 3.1Figure 3.1 This is a typical Mac OS X Finder window in icon view.


In the upper-left corner of each window are the Close (red x), Minimize (yellow –), and Zoom (green +) buttons. Differentiated only by color and position, the corresponding symbol appears in each button when the mouse cursor nears.


If you choose the Graphite appearance option in the General panel in the System Preferences icon, you won't see the colors. Regardless of the appearance choice you make, when you move your mouse over a button, you'll see an "x" appear in the Close button, a "-" in the Minimize button and a "+" in the Maximize button to remind you of what it does.

Clicking the Close button closes the open window. The Mac OS X Minimize button shrinks the window into an icon view and places it in the Dock. This icon is a miniature of the original window—down to the items it contains. In some cases, the icon even updates its appearance when the parent application generates new output. Clicking the icon in the Dock restores the window to its original position and size on the screen.


When you close a document window, you aren't closing the program. The program remains active until you choose Quit from the application menu—or the File menu in a Classic Mac OS application—or press Command-Q.


Double-clicking the title bar of a window has the same effect as clicking the Minimize button. The window shrinks to fit in the Dock.


The keyboard shortcut Command-M also minimizes the current window and reduces it to an icon on the right side of the Dock (M = minimize). To make a minimized icon larger again, just click once on that icon in the Dock.

The Zoom button (usually) opens the window to the size necessary to display the available information. Most Windows PC users expect the maximized window to fill the entire screen. However, if there are only three icons to be shown, Mac OS X doesn't waste space by filling up your window with blank space.


Holding down Option while clicking the Minimize or Close button results in all the windows in the current application being minimized or closed.

Hide/Show Toolbar

In the upper-right corner of some windows (including the windows for the Finder and applications such as Mail and Preview, which we'll look at in some later chapters) is an elongated button, called Hide/Show Toolbar, that can be used to quickly show or hide special toolbars in the top of the application window. The result of hiding the toolbar in the Mail application is shown in Figure 3.2.

Figure 3.2Figure 3.2 With the task toolbar hidden, the window occupies less screen space.


Apple advocates toolbars in applications to increase usability and efficiency. However, because individual developers must write their programs to support the toolbar button, you shouldn't expect all applications with toolbars to have the Hide/Show Toolbar button.

The toolbar version of the Finder window provides several useful controls for viewing and navigating your files.

In the upper-left corner of the toolbar are the Back and Forward arrows—click it to return to the previous folder. Using this technique, you can dig many levels deep into the file system, and then quickly back out by using the Back button. The Forward arrow enables you to follow the same path back to inner levels.

By default, there are several other elements in the toolbar, as shown in Figure 3.1. From left to right, you see the View selector, buttons to Computer, Home, Favorites, and Applications, and the Search text entry field.


Separate from the Finder toolbar is the status bar, which shows the number of items in a folder and the amount of space available on the drive. The status bar can be toggled on and off by using the Show/Hide Status Bar command in the Finder's View menu. The status bar can also contain one of two icons in the left corner of the bar: a grid pattern that indicates use of the snap-to-grid function, and a pencil with a slash through it that indicates a folder is read-only.

Finder Window View Options

Let's take a look at the view options for Finder windows. Three buttons in the View selector enable you to control the way information is displayed in the Finder window.

Icon View

The first time you log in, the Finder is in toolbar mode and using Icon view. If you've already been using the Finder and are no longer in Icon view, you can quickly switch to Icon view by choosing As Icons from the View menu or by clicking the first button in the View selector of the toolbar. Figure 3.1 shows the Finder window in Icon view. In Icon view mode, you can navigate through the folders on your drive by double-clicking them.

List View

The next view to explore is the Finder's List view. You can switch to List view by clicking the middle button in the Finder's View selector or, if the toolbar isn't present, by choosing As List from the Finder's View menu. Demonstrated in Figure 3.3, the List view is a straightforward means of displaying all available information about a file or folder in tabular form.

Figure 3.3Figure 3.3 List view packs a lot of information into a small amount of space.

The columns in the List view represent the attributes for each file. Clicking a column highlights it and sorts the file listing based on that column's values. For example, if you want to locate the most recent files in a folder, you can view the folder contents in List view and click the Date Modified header. By default, the column values are listed in descending order. Clicking a column header again reverses the sorting order. An arrow pointing up or down at the right of each column indicates the current sort order.

You can change the width of the columns by placing the mouse cursor at the edge of the column and click-dragging to the left or right. You can reposition the columns by clicking and dragging them into the order you want. However, the first column, Name, cannot be repositioned.

When a folder appears in the file listing, a small disclosure triangle precedes its name. Clicking the triangle reveals the file hierarchy within that folder. As with Icon view, double-clicking a folder anywhere in this view either opens a new window (if you're in toolbar-less mode) or refreshes the contents of the existing window with the new location.

Column View

Unlike other views, which can either overwhelm you with information or require multiple windows to move easily from point to point, the Column view is designed with one thing in mind: ease of navigation.

The concept is very simple: Click an item in the first column and its contents are shown in the next column. Click a folder in this new column and its contents are shown in the next column, and so on. Figure 3.4 shows a multicolumn display that reaches down two levels.

Figure 3.4Figure 3.4 Using the Column view, you can easily navigate through the folders on your hard drive.


If you use the horizontal scrollbar to move back along a path, the folders you've chosen remain highlighted in the columns. You can, at any time, choose a different folder from any of the columns. This refreshes the column to the right of your choice. There's no need to start from the beginning every time you want to change your location.

One big bonus of using Column view is the ability to instantly see the contents of a file without opening it. If you choose a file or application, a preview or description of the selected item appears in the column to the right. For an example, take a look at the far right column in Figure 3.4, where a representation of an image file is displayed. When you choose an application or a file that cannot be previewed, only information about the file is displayed, such as the creation/modification dates, size, and version.

Show View Options

For each of the three Finder window views, there are additional settings that you can customize by choosing Show View Options from the View menu. You can also choose whether your changes apply to the current window only or to all Finder windows.

For Icon view, you can scale icons from the smallest to largest size by dragging the Icon Size slider from the left to the right. You can choose how the icon is labeled, including the font size and label placement. You can set how the icons are arranged and what color the window background is.

List view enables you to choose small or larger icons, text size, and which columns of information to display with the filenames.

Column view gives you options for text size and whether to include icons in the preview column. There are no global settings for this view.

Customizing Toolbar Shortcuts

You can customize your Finder toolbar by adding other predefined Mac OS X shortcuts or by removing the default items in this way:

  1. Choose Customize Toolbar from the View menu.

  2. From the window containing all the available shortcuts (shown in Figure 3.5), locate the item you want to add.

Figure 3.5Figure 3.5 Finder shortcuts give you single-click access to applications, folders, and special features.

  1. Add a shortcut by dragging it from the window to wherever you want it to appear on the toolbar.

In addition to these predefined options, users can define their own shortcuts. To do this, simply drag common applications, documents, and folders to any place on the toolbar.


When you modify your toolbar, it's modified for all Finder windows in your workspace, not just the currently open folder. However, the changes that you make to your toolbar don't affect other user accounts on the same computer.

When folders and applications are added to the toolbar, a single click on the icon opens or launches the selected item. Users can also drag documents onto an application icon or folder icon in the toolbar to open the file by using the application or to move the file into a folder.

Window Scrolling, Moving, and Resizing

Because windows can't always to be large enough to show everything inside them at once, they support a feature called scrolling. Scrolling allows you move the viewable area of a window's contents by moving up and down (or left and right). The tools that allow scrolling appear on the left for vertically scrolling and on the bottom for horizontal scrolling. Here is a description of each:

  • Scroll arrow—Click it to move up or down slightly through a directory or document window. Hold down the mouse when clicking an arrow to get a continuous motion.

  • Scrollbar—Click and drag on this bar to move back and forth through your folder list or document. The distance you can move depends on how big the listing or document is.

  • Draggable area—This is the place where you can drag the scrollbar (see following). If the area is white rather than blue (and the scrollbar isn't there), it means that the entire window is displayed on your screen and there's nothing to scroll to. You'll notice that there's both a horizontal and vertical draggable area.

Another characteristic of Mac OS X windows is the borderless content area. As shown in Figure 3.6, the display in most Mac OS X application windows stretches to the edge of the content window. In contrast, some operating systems such as Mac OS 9 and Windows offer window borders for dragging.

Figure 3.6Figure 3.6 The content in a window goes right to the edge.

To drag a window, you must grab it by its title bar.


Just hold down the Command key and click a title and you'll see a little pop-up menu that shows you a list of all the folders where the item is located (sometimes called a folder hierarchy).

To resize a window, click and drag the resize icon in the lower-right corner of each window. Many applications in Mac OS X take advantage of live resizing; that is, as you resize the window, its contents adjust in real-time (such as Web pages in Internet Explorer). However, unless you have a fast computer, live resizing can be slow.


There are a few new tricks you can use when working with Mac OS X windows. If you hold down the Command key, you can drag inactive windows located behind other windows. If fact, holding down Command enables you to click buttons and move scrollbars in many background applications.

Another fun trick is holding down the Option key while clicking on an inactive application's window. This hides the frontmost application and brings the clicked application to the front.

Finally, rather than switching to another window to close, minimize, or maximize it, positioning your cursor over the appropriate window controls highlights them—enabling you to get rid of obtrusive windows without leaving your current workspace.

Window Widgets

In addition to scrollbars and resize boxes, there are several other interface controls you need to know about. We'll call them window widgets. Samples of many of the Mac OS X Aqua window widgets are shown in Figure 3.7.

Figure 3.7Figure 3.7 These are the Mac OS X window widgets.

Aqua interface elements include the following:

  • Pushbuttons—Pushbuttons are rendered as translucent white or aqua ovals with appropriate label text. They're typically used to activate a choice or to respond to a question posed by the operating system or application. The default choice, which is activated by pressing the Enter key, pulses for easy visual confirmation.

  • Check boxes/radio buttons—Check boxes are used to choose multiple attributes (AND), whereas radio buttons are used to choose between attributes (OR).

  • List views—Clicking a category, such as the Date Modified heading shown in Figure 3.7, sorts by that selection. Clicking the category again reverses the direction of the sort (ascending to descending or vice versa). To resize category headings, click the edge of the heading and drag in the direction you want to shrink or expand the column.

  • Pop-up menus/system menus—Single-clicking a menu drops down the menu until you make a selection. The menu can stay down indefinitely. With Mac OS X's multitasking system, other applications can continue to work in the background while the menu is down.

  • Disclosure triangles—Disclosure triangles continue to work as they always have. Click the triangle to reveal additional information about an object.

  • Disclosure pushbuttons—Like disclosure triangles, these pushbuttons are used to reveal all possible options (a full, complex view) or to reduce a window to a simplified representation. They are used in the new File Save sheets.

  • Scrollbars—Scrollbars visually represent the amount of data in the current document by changing the size of the scrollbar slider in relation to the data to display. The larger the slider, the less data there is to scroll through. The smaller the slider, the more information there is to display.

  • Tabs—Tabs separate settings within a single window into categories by their functions, and you can see different options in each tab. By breaking up long lists in this way, windows with many options are less overwhelming, but you might have to click between tabs to find the control options you're looking for.

Sheet Windows and Window Trays

Two unique interface elements are sheets and window trays. Normally, when a computer wants to get your attention, it displays a dialog box containing a question such as, "Do you want to save this document?". If you have 10 open documents on your system, how do you know which one needs to be saved?

Sheet windows are used in place of such traditional dialog boxes. Sheets connect directly to the title bar of an open window. As shown in Figure 3.8, these messages appear inside the window they're associated with, so you'll be able to tell what the question you're answering will affect.

Figure 3.8Figure 3.8 The sheet appears to drop from an open window's title bar.

Sheets are used just like regular dialog boxes, except that they're attached to a document. Unlike many dialog boxes, which keep you from interacting with the rest of the system until you attend to them, sheets limit access only to the window in which they appear.

A window tray is an interface element that can be used by software programmers. A tray is used to store commonly used settings and options that might need to be accessed while a program is running. Figure 3.9 shows the Mail application's window tray holding a list of active mailboxes.

Figure 3.9Figure 3.9 Window trays hold options that are needed often during a program's execution.

To use active trays in applications that support their use, you typically click a button in the toolbar. After a tray is open, you can drag its edge to change the tray's size.


By default, the tray slides out from the right of the main window after you click a button to activate it. If the window is too close to the side of the screen, the tray is either forced out on the other side of the window or pushes the main window over to make room.

Now that we're comfortable with what windows can do, let's take a look at folders.

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Last Update: November 17, 2020