I have recently purchased a Macbook Pro and I am very impressed with the machine and OS X. Coming from Windows the one thing I have struggled with is the file system and the Finder application. I suppose I am very used to drag and drop of files in Windows Explorer. As a aspiring Mac developer, should I ditch Finder altogether and use the Terminal only?

Also, whenever I am trying to decide where to put a document or file I wonder what all the directories in the UNIX file system are for and where files should go, and I end up just putting it somewhere and it seems to be a real mess now :).

Do you know of any resources/ tutorials that would be of any help?

  • 1
    I would encourage you to check out obdev.at/launchbar clipmerge and instant send are massively powerful, and you can keep your hands on the keyboard whether or not you are spending most of your time in Finder, terminal or any other app.
    – bmike
    Jul 19, 2011 at 15:25
  • As a GUI user, you are not exposed to the Unix stuff. And Finder is not that different from Windows Explorer.
    – mouviciel
    Mar 28, 2013 at 8:48

6 Answers 6


Welcome, Martijn.

I always recommend Apple's videos: http://support.apple.com/videos/#macos

For now I would also recommend you not worry about terminal/UNIX. Learn to use the Mac OS using the GUI at first, getting used to how it behaves and in which ways it might be different from the Windows operating systems you are used to.

Good luck!

EDIT: Also, it doesn't really matter where things "should" go on a Mac. You can put applications on the desktop, documents in Applications, etc, etc. Although I don't recommend that. There is a Documents folder for documents and an Applications folder for apps. Treat the Library and System folders with care (IE -- do not go into them or manipulate them until/unless you know what they are, what's inside and what the effect of your actions will be) and you will be fine. Backups are also your best friend.

  • I must admit I haven't watched any of the Apple videos, I will start with those. Many thanks for your help. Jul 18, 2011 at 21:29

In windows you got:

  • Desktop, and
  • My Documents

On OS X:

  • You got $HOME folder ( represented as ~ which also comes from OSX's unix heritage) . Here is the usual and expected place for user files. Your Documents, Music, Downloads as well as the Desktop folders all live in your home folder.

So, everything, what is YOURS put into $HOME folder somewhere. Make your own hierarchy if the default one is unpleasant or unuseful.

  • Music, Movies, Pictures are - as in windows
  • Public - your own Shared folder
  • Documents - for your documents
  • of course, you can make any number of sub-folders in your HOME.

Applications belong in /Applications or ~/Applications folder. You can put them in the another place too and OSX will find and run applications no matter where they are stored. You can make hierarchy here too, as I told once in my older post.

One more thing - Fonts, you can put fonts into $HOME/Library/Fonts, or into /Library/Fonts (for all users)

For the start, this is enough. Don't touch other folders yet (you don't need). If something needs to be used by multiple users on the same Mac, generally store it in /Users/Shared or change the permissions in the alternate place you store them.

for the common unix standard: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Filesystem_Hierarchy_Standard


Drag and drop works in Finder, although it is only possible to copy files using drag and drop.

To Copy and Paste files, use Cmd-C, open the destination, Cmd-V. **

To "Cut and Paste" (or move) files, use Cmd-C (NB: not Cmd-X), open the destination, Cmd-Alt-V.

To type in a path, press Cmd-Shift-G, or in the Menu bar Go -> Go To Folder... (2nd last item)

To "Alt-Tab" between windows doesn't really exist on Mac, but there are alternatives:

  • Exposé: If you want to switch windows within an Application, you can use Exposé,

    • To activate it on the active application swipe down on the Touch Pad (if you're on a Macbook) with four fingers.

    • To activate it for any open app, move the cursor to the icon on the dock, and then double tap (NB: not click) with two fingers on the touch pad.

  • Your can open Mission Control, four finger swipe up on touch pad, this gives you an overview of all open windows grouped in apps.

    • You can zoom in on an apps windows in Mission Control by hovering over the stack of it's windows and swiping/scrolling up with two fingers.

    • You can zoom in on a specific window by hovering over the window (whether you've done the bullet point directly above, or not) and pressing the space bar.

** (many shortcuts on Mac are the same as Windows, except often Ctrl is replaced with Cmd)


I've been through the same situation you are dealing with. The OS X finder is incomplete in some odd and irritating ways.

Fortunately, there are some add-ons to make the two platforms more similar, and add additional functionality to Finder.

  • TotalFinder is excellent. It adds the ability to Cut and Paste files, sort folders separately from files (essential, at least for me), redirects the annoying .ds_store files so if you have "show hidden files" on, they don't show up everywhere.
    It also supports a dual-pane "Total-Commander" style view, for moving files from one directory to another.
    It has an unlimited free trial. Apparently registering is a feel-good thing, mostly. The only penalty for not registering is a "Unregistered Copy" note in the title-bar of the window.

  • Witch Makes alt-tab actually useful. It basically lets you alt-tab (or "Command"-Tab, if you will) between windows, not applications. Not free, unfortunately.

  • If you don't want to use TotalFinder, there is FinderPath, which adds a real, editable path bar to finder windows. The lack of a real path bar is one of the longest-standing, stupidest oversights in OS X's Finder.

  • HyperDock is also nice, if you are not on a recent MacBook with multiple graphics cards. It adds Windows Aero-style window previews to the Dock. If you run apps with lots of open windows, it is pretty much indispensable.
    Unfortunately, it causes the Multiple-GPU MacBooks to switch from the Integrated IGP to the Discrete IGP whenever the previews are enabled (note: not only when used), even if you never trigger them to be shown.

Regarding directories,

  • Windows: C:/Users/*username*/AppData/
  • OS X: /Users/*username*/Library/

  • Windows: C:/Program Files/

  • OS X: /Applications/

  • OS X: When you install developer tools, they get placed in: /Developer
    Specifically, the XCode Binaries gets placed in /Developer/Applications

  • Great, upvoted. Pity I can't accept multiple answers (all 3 provide valuable insights). I am looking through the suggested applications and will try out some. I can see how the directories map to Windows folders. Very helpful. Thanks. Jul 18, 2011 at 22:56
  • @Fake Name: Command-` works to switch windows within the current app.
    – Harv
    Jul 19, 2011 at 20:10
  • @FakeName: The GPU switching is the reason I have gfxCardStatus - this allows me to switch manually and use HyperDock.
    – Jonas
    Mar 14, 2012 at 1:22
  • @Jonas - I've subsequently found gfxCardStatus too. My only complaint with it is it sometimes seems to forget to force the switch back to the integrated graphics when I go on batteries.
    – Fake Name
    Mar 14, 2012 at 4:41
  • @Harv -I know that. I want one to do both, because it make it a far more useful shortcut then having two separate switching mechanisms. The stack-based alt-tab switching system fits into a many-window work flow far better then any of the native options built into OS X.
    – Fake Name
    Mar 14, 2012 at 4:44

Drag and drop works in Finder - what problem are you having with it? You can drag a (or several) file(s) to a new location to move them there (if source and destination are on the same volume) or copy them (if source and destination are different). Even without TotalFinder (excellent enhancement: provides dual-pane and tabbed interface to Finder - reccommended), you can open two finder windows (Cmd-N opens the new one) to the source and destination, respectively); or use the "spring-loaded folders" feature that opens each folder you drag/hover over, revealing the folders inside. To use it, open Finder's preferences (Cmd-,) and make sure "Spring-loaded folders" is checked.


Personally, I would ditch finder altogether. It is not an accurate representation of the file system, and gets VERY confusing. The command line can be daunting at first, but if you keep working with it, you will have much better control over your machine.

  • Where is it not accurate?
    – mmmmmm
    Nov 5, 2012 at 13:51
  • I think what he is saying is, for those of us who have a structured mind and are used to using a logically organized directory tree, Finder is, well, useless. Finder on my new Mac Mini M1 (my first Apple computer) shows Favorites, iCloud, Locations, and Tags. ??? I took some photos on my new iPhone that I needed to send to a business associate. After wasting 30 minutes converting them from HEIC to PNG, and getting constant error messages when trying to upload both file types to Gmail, I finally gave up, usb downloaded them to my Windows PC, effortlessly inserted and sent them.
    – VikingGlen
    Dec 6, 2021 at 21:47

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