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Monday, January 10, 2011

25 Essential Steps to Setting up Your New MacBook

Like so many others this holiday season, you've found yourself the proud owner of brand new MacBook. Welcome to the cult; your black turtleneck is waiting by the door.

But in all seriousness, there's lots to do with your new Apple Mac, and we're here to get you set up. Whether you're new to Snow Leopard, or a hardened user from the 68k days, we've compiled a handy step-by-step list of app recommendations and tweaks — all chosen to make the laptop that "just works" work even better. Let's take a look at the essentials.

1. Software update OS X
Just because you've picked up the latest MacBook doesn't mean your software is current too. Chances are, there will be a few updates to download on your first boot, and you'd be wise to get them sooner than later — lest you fall victim to an unfortunate bug or security risk months down the road.

2. Transfer Your Old Files
Depending on your previous machine, you have a few options for migrating files, games and apps to your new laptop. Previous Mac owners have the option of using Snow Leopard's built-in Migration Assistant — found in Applications/Utilities — which transfers files, applications and system settings from your old machine. You can even restore data from a Time Machine backup as well.

Of course, should you be a Windows users, or just plain old-fashioned, you're free to load all those files onto some removable media and copy them manually — or over the network, if the option is there. Which brings us to our next step...

3. Properly Set-up File Sharing

While the Apple Filing Protocol (AFP) is enabled by default, this won't do much good if you're trying to interface with a Windows machine. For that, you'll need something called SMB, which allows Snow Leopard to play nice with non-Apple systems. First, head to the Sharing panel in System Preferences, and enable the File Sharing checkbox. You can add folders as you see fit, and activate SMB sharing from the Options button above. Just remember to set things up accordingly on your Windows machine if you want sharing to go both ways.

4. Execute Your Backup Strategy

Be it Time Machine or third party software, it's important you setup a suitable backup solution from the beginning — lest you lose all those Tina Fey DVD rips months down the road. Snow Leopard's own Time Machine is a decent backup solution for system-wide imaging, should you have an spare internal or external drive to spare. Otherwise, cloud-based services like Dropbox — which we've covered before — do a great job at archiving only select files or folders, even syncing them between multiple machines for the ultimate in redundancy.

5. Install Drivers/Extension and Other Peripherals
While Macs may "just work" most of the time, that's not to say you still won't need software for your weird and wonderful collection of hardware. OS X does a good job at including common drivers for things like printers, mice and cameras, but you'd be wise to swap those generic kexts (kernel extensions) for manufacturer—made alternatives. Many devices have special or advanced functionality that OS X may not know how to control on its own; Logitech mice and keyboards come to mind.

6. Unlock Your Trackpad's Full Potential

First time Macbook owners will notice that Apple is using a different kind of trackpad than most — one with a full range of gestures and multi-touch commands. But not all of them are enabled by default. Handy functions, like right-click and tap-to-click, can be enabled with a quick trip to System Preferences' Mouse pane, in addition to other useful variables, like tracking speed or scrolling sensitivity.

7. Power-Saving Fixes

Whenever you close your MacBook 's lid, it puts your laptop to sleep — a "feature" which will no doubt drive long-time Windows users insane. Luckily, third party tool InsomniaX will override your Mac's innate desire to sleep-on-close, allowing your apps to continue running long after the lid has been shut. And of course, you can do the opposite too; OS X's Energy Saver panel will let you determine when to activate various power-saving modes, from display shutoff to full-system sleep, after a set period of time.

8. Set Up User Accounts
If this is a shared MacBook, now is the best time to set up multiple user accounts — before other users get their hands on it, that is. Not only does this keep files and settings separate from other users, but allows you to set file, folder and application permissions on a per-user basis. And even if you're not planning to share, visiting the User Accounts panel is still worth your time. This is where startup application settings are stored, and the place to go should you absolutely require Plants vs. Zombies to launch with every boot.

9. Take Control of Your Desktop

OS X has a couple of handy, built-in features that can help you take control of your desktop — and you'd be smart to customize them too. Using keyboard commands or mouse buttons, you can trigger Exposé to tile, organize or isolate your open application windows on-screen. Turn on Spaces, and you can send those windows to other virtual desktops. Finally, Hot Corners works exactly as the name implies, allowing you to assign various OS X functions to your screen's four corners — all in the name of efficiency.

10. Lock On to Network Locations
You wanted a laptop for mobility, and so you'll probably be using it in more than one place. If that's the case, setting network locations is a smart way to keep unique connection settings separate for frequently traveled places. For example, if you have a static IP at work, but a dynamic setup at home, you can specify a different preference for both — including unique DNS and proxy and security settings too.

11. Give Your Dock an Upgrade
The Dock isn't perfect, but there are ways to make OS X's iconic launcher a little more useful. Visual aesthetics, including size and positioning, can be controlled via System Preferences, for a less-intrusive look. Meanwhile, HyperDock, which we've covered in the past, gives open applications in the Dock a Windows 7-style preview window, useful for viewing open windows at a glance.

You can even kill this, 3D Dock in favour of the 2D variant — usually available only when the Dock is positioned on the side — using the following Terminal command:
defaults write no-glass -boolean YES; killall Dock

12. Give Spotlight a Steroid Boost While we're talking about system improvements, it's worth giving Spotlight a look. OS X's built-in universal search tool is great for finding obscure documents and snippets of text, but what if it could do the same for launching applications too? Instead of simply locating that folder of cute cat pictures, you can use Quicksilver to automatically launch iPhoto or Aperture too, all with one keystroke. Meanwhile, Namely — described as "Spotlight for applications" — allows you to search for apps with your keyboard instead of digging through the Dock instead.

13. Install Disc Extras
Though your Mac comes pre-installed with the latest version of Snow Leopard, not all of OS X's features are included. X11 and XCode are Apple development tools that are sometimes required by certain applications — primarily utilities and third party system apps — and can be installed from the included Snow Leopard DVD. While the average user user is unlikely to require either XCode or X11, you're not the average user, are you? You can always uninstall them later if you really need the space, though they don't take up much.

14. Get Burned

We know you're probably aching to start burning mix CDs the minute you open your MacBook, but we'll have to implore you to wait just a bit longer. While OS X technically has a built-in disc creation utility — the aptly named Disk Utility — you'll probably want something a little comprehensive for your next party mix. Your best option by far is Burn, a simple yet feature-filled app that handles everything from audio to DVD video — along with added features like ID3 tag editing and file conversion too.

15. Talk To Me
iChat is great and all, but it's hardly the most-used chat client — or the best, at that. Instead, install an alternative app like Adium as soon as possible. Not only is this one of the nicest looking OS X chat clients around, but the latest version has full support for Google Talk, Facebook and even Twitter, in addition to the usual compliment of AIM and MSN support. Audio and video chat are absent here, however, which means Skype is your next best bet, and essential for any new OS X install.

16. Learn To Share

There comes a time when every new Mac user must download some perfectly legitimate Linux ISOs — and we've got the software to do it. uTorrent and Transmission are both perfectly capable Bittorrent clients, and you can't really go wrong with either. Just don't expect the same level of customization and options as you'd get from Windows' uTorrent build. But if uploading is more your thing, Filezilla a solid, multi-platform FTP client that should handle most file transfers with ease. It's not quite as flashy as apps like Cyberduck, but works just as you'd expect an FTP client should.

17. Multimedia Matters
Snow Leopard comes with Quicktime, and that just isn't going to cut it as a serious media player these days. Instead, get VLC. We've detailed our love affair with the player before, and it truly is the best one on the market, capable of playing nearly any format you throw at it. In terms of audio, however, iTunes is actually a decent media player under OS X, and exhibits none of the resource-hogging characteristics of the flawed Windows port. You'll be fine sticking with it, especially if you have an iOS device to sync.

18. Gear Up for Mac Gaming (Yes, This Exists)

When it comes to gaming, Macs are no longer second-rate citizens — and it's all thanks to Steam. The content distribution and gaming platform has an ever-growing selection of games — including big Valve titles like Team Fortress 2 and Left4Dead — ensuring you'll never be bored on those long plane rides again. Install now and you might have time to catch the last of Steam's impressive holiday sales.

19. Eliminate Risk of Windows Envy...

Cinch in action.
OS X has some nice features, but that's not to say Windows doesn't have a few tricks of its own. Aero Snap and Shake are both attractive capabilities that don't quite exist in the OS X world — but there's third party utilities to take care of that instead. Shiftit offers a set of simple hotkeys that will organize and tile windows much like you would on a PC. You can only tile two windows at a time, sadly, but it's not bad for free.

Cinch, meanwhile, brings all the goodness of Aero Snap to OS X. Drag a window to the side of the screen, and watch it fall into place. Drag it away, and the window returns to its original size. That sort of functionality doesn't come free, however — Cinch will run you $7, or you can choose to run the app as nagware instead.

20. ...or Get the Real Thing

Virtual Box
Emulating some of Window's better features is nice, but it doesn't quite beat the real thing. And while running Windows on your Mac might seem sacrilegious to some, it's not quite as bad as you think. Virtual Box is a free application from Sun that allows you to run complete, virtual operating systems on your Mac's desktop — all without partitioning or modifying your drive. Windows can be installed into an image file, and run just like any other application on your Mac, though you won't quite have all the hardware and graphical capabilities of a full-blown PC.

If you're willing to take the plunge, however, Apple's own Boot Camp utility will help you set up a complete Windows install alongside OS X. After partitioning a section of your drive for Windows-only access, you can dual-boot into either OS as you please — great for you longtime Windows users still easing into Mac.

21. Perform Filesystem Fixes
This is a common problem, so it's best to get it out of the way now — OS X has no support for writing to NTFS drives, only reading. This tends to confuse first-time users who try to use their old Windows-formatted drives with little success. However, there is a fix.

A third-party driver called NTFS-3G enables full-write support on NTFS formatted drives, and at decent speeds too. The free version should be fine for most users and works for both internal and external drives — perfect if you've just used setup Bootcamp for your Windows install.

22. Can You Hear Me Now?
Snow Leopard's built-in audio control panel is nice...but incredibly rudimentary. Windows users will no doubt miss the customization that Microsoft's own sound panel offered, but there's a way to get it back. Soundflower is a superb third party utility that gives you total control over inputs, outputs and other sound settings. You can route system audio into a recording app like Audacity, or send multiple inputs to the same channel mix — incredibly handy for those home recording sessions. Just don't expect Soundflower to keep you in key.

23. Stream It
Your new MacBook might be for school or work, but there's still a multimedia powerhouse hiding within. Each copy of OS X comes with Front Row, Apple's own multimedia interface for accessing music and movies stored on your machine — and it looks great when displayed on a big-screen TV. However, if you're looking for a bit more functionality, be sure to give both Boxee and XBMC a try. Both are highly-capable media centers with all sorts of tricks hidden within, including a capable video backends that can handle almost any format imaginable.

Of course, you can do the opposite too; instead of using your Mac as a media center, you can serve content to another player already connected to your TV instead. PS3MediaServer, which we've covered before, is great for streaming content to your PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 console (despite the name), without having to transfer it locally first.

24. Monitor System Stats
With your Macbook all but set up, now's a good time to ensure it stays running as it should. OS X's built-in Activity Monitor is nice for keeping track of the software side of things, but it's not quite as comprehensive where your hardware is concerned. Instead, try something like iStat Pro, a third-party monitoring utility that sits amongst amongst your other Dashboard widgets. Not only can you track network activity and CPU usage, but other variables like hardware temperature and fan-speed too.

25. Of Course, Learn to Coil Your Cable Sadly, there will come a time when your MacBook must be packed up and put away. And while this might be a no-brainer to some, there's actually a right way to coil your MacBook's AC adapter without damaging the cable itself. As we've explained in the past, leaving some slack around stress areas can help prevent cable damage in the long term. Those replacement adapters don't come cheap.

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