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Tidying Your Mac
by Clare Shumway


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Recently I tried to use someone else's Macintosh computer. As I sat at the monitor I found that the screen contents were totally disorganized; there were icons for applications and documents all over monitor's screen. When I attempted to find a particular application it was eventually located in the "Preferences Folder" within the "System Folder", a most unlikely site. When asked, the owner's response was "I've been hunting for that." This and a similar experiences with the computers belonging to others has prompted me to write the following tutorial

General Overview

You've just purchased a new Macintosh and can't wait to start it up and begin doing all those things that one is supposed to do with a computer. A card that came with the new equipment reminds you to "PLEASE READ THE MANUAL FIRST!" but who among us can wait long enough to read a manual? I couldn't. So, after correctly connecting cables from the "box" (CENTRAL PROCESSING UNIT or CPU) to the monitor, the mouse, the keyboard and the printer, you dive in. You're off like a "herd of turtles!"

Fortunately a "Mac" will usually tolerate this approach and will operate properly despite its owner's lack of understanding. However, after a time you will find that a document on which you spent so much time can't be found without a tedious search (sometimes you never find it) or you realize that you're spending too much time online and your telephone bills are too high. Then, one day, someone sits down at your keyboard to use your machine; if honest and direct (blunt), he/she will let you know that they "can't make heads or tails of your setup."

When using another person's computer it disturbs me when there appears to be no rational approach to the way in which the hard disk's contents are organized: word processing applications may be hidden in the System Folder, word processing documents are tucked into a graphic application folder, last year's income tax return is lost somewhere in the System Folder, etc. When the owner is questioned, it is evident that he/she needs to come to an understanding of the terms DESKTOP, FILES, FOLDERS, APPLICATIONS, EXTENSIONS, etc.

This tutorial is an attempt to introduce the most basic concepts of organization and function of your new Macintosh with the hope that you will avoid some of these problems. It will be a "down-to-earth" and nontechnical description.


The image that you see on your monitor's screen when the computer first boots (is turned on) and before any applications are running is the DESKTOP. In its simplest form it will contain only two items: the MENUBAR , the bar across the top of the screen with the Apple symbol in its left corner, a number of words or icons along it and a small icon of a computer screen on the far right. If you hold the mouse button down on one of the words or icons another list of words, the SUBMENU, may appear below it. The contents of these menus and submenus differ with each program or application that you run, but in all instances they permit you to make your wishes known to the "infernal machine" beneath or next to the monitor. To carry out these "orders" you hold the mouse button down with the cursor over the word or icon on the menubar, drag the cursor down the submenu until the command you seek is highlighted and then release the button. I will omit a discussion of the function of the various commands and leave that for your reading or experimentation.

The second item found on a minimal desktop is an icon for one or more DRIVES or DISKS which appear in the upper right hand corner of the screen; if you have more than one drive attached to the computer, the icon in the right upper corner is for the disk containing the software responsible for operating the computer itself, the SYSTEM SOFTWARE or OPERATING SYSTEM. It takes its position in the right upper corner because it "loads" first when the computer is "booted" or turned on. These icons may have been given a name such as "Macintosh HD" but you may choose another moniker for it.

Hard Drive

This is the storage site or file cabinet for most of the information that can be accessed by your computer; it contains several FOLDERS, just as a file cabinet would contain rows of folders. In turn, these folders may contain APPLICATIONS that are pieces of software that instruct your computer how to do something (start up and operate the computer, create a letter, write a paper, send a message via e-mail, draw a picture, create a graph, etc.) or DOCUMENTS which may be textual material (letters, articles, data bases, etc.) or graphics such as pictures, graphs, diagrams, etc.

With but few exceptions, it is important to "file" these items in correct and appropriate places. (Note: While reading this material it will help if you turn on your Mac and perform some of the acts as you go along. By performing these procedures while reading, you'll come to understand how and why the machine functions as it does.)

If you click the mouse button twice (double click) on the icon for the hard drive it will open a WINDOW (see below) that displays the contents of the drive. There you will find several folders. The most vital of these is the SYSTEM FOLDER that contains other folders for FONTS, APPLE MENU ITEMS, CONTROL PANELS, EXTENSIONS, PREFERENCES and probably many others. The System Folder also contains two other items that are vital to the operation of your computer: the SYSTEM, depicted as the icon of a suitcase, and the FINDER,represented as the icon of a monitor. It is a good idea not to place anything into the System Folder unless you are specifically instructed to do so either by someone with experience, or by the manufacturer of the software that you are installing. As you become more familiar and proficient in the use of your computer you will feel more comfortable about "fussing around" within the System Folder, but it's best to wait a bit on that.


At this point a few definitions are in order:


These are software items that direct your computer to print or display the typeface in a specific fashion. Some fonts are bold, some are plain and some are italicized. Some are serif fonts; for example this is a serif font (note the flairs at the tips of the letter). Others are sans serif (without tips), as for example this . As you work with word processors you will learn more about the various forms of fonts and their uses. A valuable introduction to this field is The Mac is Not a Typewriter by Robin Williams, published by Peachpit Press.

Apple Menu Items:

If you move the mouse cursor to the Apple icon at the left end of the Menubar and hold the mouse button down on the Apple, a submenu will appear. These APPLE MENU items makes certain programs readily accessible to you; if you drag the cursor to an item in the submenu that you wish to use or "open", the application will be launched. Some of these items include DESK ACCESSORIES, small applications such as CALCULATOR, NOTEPAD, CONTROL PANEL ACCESS, etc. that perform specific functions

Other objects can be placed in the APPLE MENU FOLDER. The latter can be found in the System Folder and anything placed within that folder will appear as an APPLE MENU ITEM which appears as a submenu when the Apple icon is clicked. In general, it is wise not to place large applications in that folder, but if, for example, you wanted to be able to open your word processing application from the Apple Menu, you could use an ALIAS (see below) of the original application.


An alias is an icon that looks just like that of an application or document, but is small and occupies very little space (i.e. 6000 bytes) as opposed to the original object which may be relatively huge (i.e 2,000,000 bytes.) It is "connected" to the icon of the original application so that clicking on it or opening it from the Apple Menu will launch the original application or document that may be located elsewhere on the hard drive.

To create an alias of a document, folder or application, highlight the item's icon (by clicking on it once with the mouse button) and either type Command-M or pull down and highlight "Make Alias" under the "FILE" item in the menubar. A new icon with the same name as the original but its name will be in italics . This alias can then be placed wherever you please, the Apple Menu Folder, the Desktop, or anywhere else of your choosing. Its purpose is to be readily accessible to you without your having to search through folders or disks for the original item.

Control Panels:

These are small software items (cdev's) that serve as control devices and perform their function while the computer is in operation. Browsing through the CONTROL PANELS folder that is located in the System Folder, will reveal items that control the action of the mouse, the keyboard, the computer's memory, the clock, etc. This folder can also be accessed by dragging the mouse cursor down the Apple Menu until the submenu, CONTROL PANELS, is highlighted. It is interesting and profitable to explore these devices in order to gain a better understanding of how the computer functions and how you can modify these functions to fit your personal needs.


These items are sequestered within the System Folder and "load" when you start the computer. They are represented by the small icons that march along the bottom of the screen as the Mac starts up. They work behind the scenes to add specific functions to the Macintosh; for example, some allow you to use a CD-ROM drive to play audio CD's; others control your modem and assist in connecting to your on-line service or fax; some assist the printer in its proper operation, etc.

Hierarchal Filing System

Your computer's hard disk can be organized as you would a filing cabinet. Apple programmers have designed what they call a HIERARCHAL FILING SYSTEM with which one folder can be placed inside another folder, and so on. To create a new folder on the desktop or in a WINDOW that is open, you can either type COMMAND (the key with the Apple on it)- N, or hold the mouse button down on the FILE item in the MENUBAR, drag the cursor down until the submenu item NEW FOLDER is highlighted and then release the button. A new folder labelled "Untitled Folder" will appear within the window; you then label the folder by typing it s name in the box beneath it. Double clicking on this folder will open a new window which represents the interior of this new folder; into this you may place other folders or items (files) such as documents or graphic images.

Everyone has his or her own idea of the "perfect" filing system; ultimately you will devise your own. The goal is to know where things are and how to quickly locate them. In order to give you some idea as to how the hard disk may be set up, I shall describe a typical system.

HD Window

The above illustration depicts the window one might see after opening a hard drive entitled "Mac HD". The folders on this disk are arranged alphabetically.
  • At the first level we have placed a folder entitled "Applications" and within it are two other folders, one containing applications related to word processing and a second containing graphic applications.
  • The second folder on the hard drive contains documents or products of your applications. In this example there are two folders within the "Documents" folder: one for personal papers and the other for business related items. Each of these folders in turn might contain a folder for "Letters 1996" as well as one for "Budget" or "Mailing List", etc.
  • The third folder on the hard drive has been set aside for "Games."
  • The fourth, the "System Folder;" as has been pointed out, there are many other items and folders filed within the latter
Remember that each tier of folders may contain several levels of folders just as in a file cabinet. This is what Apple means by it's hierarchal filing system.

How Do I Put Things Where I Want Them?

You have set up your filing system; the next problem is how to put items into their proper folders. The simplest way to begin is to use the Macintosh process of "drag and drop." To do this you find the document or item that you want to move to s specific folder and "select" it by clicking the mouse button on it once; this highlights the icon indicating that it has been selected (see below).

You can now place the cursor on that selected icon, hold the button down and drag the icon to the folder or disc in which you want to "file" it; when the cursor and icon are overlying that site the folder or disc will also become highlighted. Releasing the mouse button will then relocate the original item to the site of your choice. If the original item is on the same disk as its final destination, its icon will disappear from its original location. If the original item is on another disk, a small box will appear telling you that the file is being copied to its new site. After this transfer has occurred you may drag the original item to TRASH unless you want it saved at the original site as a duplicate.

A Dialog Box

Let us now suppose that you have written a letter using your word processor: in this instance you use WordPerfect, a word processing application, to write a letter to Apple Computer. Either before or after writing the letter, you place the cursor on the FILE menu item, hold the mouse button down and drag the cursor to SAVE AS... in the submenu and release the button; a DIALOG BOX (see above) appears. (Alternatively you could use the keyboard and type COMMAND-S.) You then type the name of the document into the box provided in the dialog box; in this instance you have inserted "Apple Computer 2/7/96".

This is a DIALOG BOX. It provides one with a great degree of control, not only of where to file a document, but also the format in which to file it (text, hypertext, WordPerfect document, etc.) The layout of this box will vary with the application in use, but in all instances the buttons and icons are similar.

When the dialog box is first opened the small rectangular box at the top contains the title "Miscellaneous" which is the folder that is open and ready to receive the document should you decide to place it there. If the cursor is placed on the small triangle within the box and the mouse button held down, a larger rectangle (seen above) appears.The titles beneath "Miscellaneous" show the location of this folder in relation to the "Desktop". In this instance the "Miscellaneous" folder lies within one called "Letters 1996", which in turn resides in a third entitled "CNS Files"; this last folder is located on my hard drive, "APS".

If you now click the "SAVE" button, the letter to Apple Computer will be placed in the "Miscellaneous" folder; if you drag the cursor down until the "Letters 1996" is highlighted, then release the button and click "SAVE" the document will be saved in the "Letters 1996" folder and so on.

An alternative way of moving about your hard disk is to click on the icon "APS" in the right upper corner of the dialog box; this will move me back one folder to the one entitled "Letters 1996"; two more clicks on this button will take me to the desktop.

If you should want to file this letter on another disk, either another hard disk or a floppy disk that has been inserted into the computer, click on the button "Desktop" and then move from there to the desired site using choices that appear in the window within the dialog box. After you have found the correct site, click the "Save" button and the letter is placed where you want it.

Last, But Not Least...

Spend plus or minus $75.00 to purchase the software to BACK UP your hard drive. You may never need these files, but if your drive should ever fail you will wish that you had saved all of that information stored there.

About the Author:

Clare N. Shumway is a retired Pediatrician who once swore that he would never become involved with computers. Now he spends a good portion of his spare time in front of the "infernal machine." His hobby has been photography, especially nature photography, and he now uses his Blue and White G3 to pursue that hobby in new directions. He has a web site where he displays some of his work.


Reprinted with permission from MacInstruct


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