Mac Terms Explained: A Glossary of Mac Terminology

Are you new to the Mac, or thinking of diving into the world of Macs? The following is a list of technical Mac terms that you may find handy. I came across most of these terms myself when I first bought a Mac, so I thought it’d be useful to gather them together into this glossary.

I hope you find it useful! If you’d like to see a term added to the list – or you think one of my definitions needs correcting – please let me know in the comments below. Thanks! 🙂

.dmg file
See Disk image.
.plist file
See Preferences file.
Activity Monitor
A Mac OS X utility (Applications > Utilities > Activity Monitor) that lets you view information about the apps and processes currently running on your Mac.
See Apple Hardware Test.
AirPort (and AirPort Extreme etc)
Apple’s name for the common Wi-Fi protocols, 802.11b, 802.11g and 802.11n, used to network Macs (and/or PCs) together wirelessly.
A small file that links to another item on the Mac hard disk, such as a document, folder, or application. When you double-click an alias, you open the original item.
Alt key
See Option key.
Apple’s professional photo management and retouching app. Its main competitor is Adobe’s Photoshop Lightroom.
A common abbreviation for “application” – a software program.
Apple Hardware Test
A program that runs tests on your Mac hardware to look for problems. How to run Apple Hardware Test.
Apple menu
The first menu item on the menu bar at the top of the screen. Contains various system management functions.
Apple’s customer support and hardware servicing arm. The standard AppleCare plan features 90 days of free phone support and 12 months of warranty, but this can be upgraded by purchasing an AppleCare Protection Plan.
AppleCare Protection Plan
An upgrade to the standard AppleCare warranty and support service. The AppleCare Protection Plan (APP) gives 3 years of warranty and technical support for products such as Macs and iPods.
An easy-to-learn scripting language that you can use to automate tasks on your Mac. AppleScript programs can issue commands to most Mac apps, making it easy to automate tasks such as opening, editing and saving documents.
Archive and Install
A method of upgrading or re-installing the Mac OS X operating system. The existing system files are moved to a Previous System folder, and new system folders are created. You can optionally preserve your existing user accounts and data with this method. More info. Also see Erase and Install.
A supplier of graphics chips used in many Macs. ATI dominates the graphics chip market along with Nvidia.
Like AppleScript, Automator lets you automate repetitive tasks by issuing commands to applications running on your Mac. A set of commands is known as a workflow. Automator is very easy to learn, since it uses a graphical interface to construct workflows.
A wireless technology designed for transmitting data over short distances (between 1 and 100 metres). Common uses include mobile phone headsets; wireless keyboards and mice; and tethering mobile phones to laptops to allow internet access via the phone. Most Macs and many Apple accessories are Bluetooth-enabled.
Boot Camp
A utililty that comes with Mac OS X, allowing you to install Windows on your Mac in a separate hard disk partition. This allows you to dual-boot – that is, choose to start either Mac OS X or Windows when you start up your Mac.
Berkeley Software Distribution. An old version of the UNIX operating system, on which Darwin is partially based.
A folder containing related resources that is presented as a single “file” to the user. Applications and plugins are usually grouped as bundles. Bundles are convenient to use – for example, to run an application bundle, you just double-click the bundle’s icon.
A temporary storage area for frequently-accessed data. In mac terms, the term Cache usually refers to the files stored in ~/Library/Caches.
The “bong” sound that your Mac makes when it starts up. (If it annoys you, you can turn it off.)
Combo drive
Apple’s name for the older, cheaper optical drives that can read and write CDs, but only read DVDs. These days practically all Macs come with SuperDrives.
Command key
The key with the Apple and/or clover-leaf (⌘) symbol (usually next to the space bar). Mainly used where you would use the Control key on Windows.
A Mac OS X diagnostic tool (Applications > Utilities > Console) that allows you to view various log files, such as the system log and mail server log.
Refers to holding down the Control key and clicking the left (or single) mouse button. Has the same effect as right-clicking with a 2-button mouse.
The core operating system on which Mac OS X is based. Darwin is Free (open source) software.
A Mac OS X app that can hold widgets (mini-applications). By default the Dashboard is hidden out of the way, but you can toggle the Dashboard and its widgets by pressing F4 (F12 on older Macs).
Data fork
A feature of the Mac OS X file system that allows data, such as the contents of a document, to be stored within the same file in which resources are stored. Also see Resource fork.
A type of RAM (memory) chip commonly used in current Apple computers. SDRAM (synchronous dynamic RAM) allows data to be pipelined, providing fast throughput. DDR3 (double-data-rate three) is twice as fast as the older DDR2 SDRAM.
Disk image
A file containing a “virtual disk” that you can access by double-clicking the file’s icon. Commonly used to bundle an application’s install files into a single, easy-to-download package.
Disk Utility
A general-purpose Mac OS X utility (Applications > Utilities > Disk Utility) for manipulating hard disks, CDs, DVDs, and disk images. Features include verifying and repairing hard disks; creating and burning disk images; formatting disks; and erasing disks.
The Mac OS X launcher. The Dock is the bar of icons usually at the bottom of the screen. Clicking the icons launches applications or opens files or folders. The Dock also has a Trash icon for storing deleted items.
Drop Box folder
A folder in each Mac user’s Public folder that is writable (by not readable) by all other users on the same Mac (or another Mac on the same network). This allows other people to “send” you files or folders.
Erase and Install
A method of upgrading or re-installing the Mac OS X operating system. The entire hard disk is erased, and a fresh copy of Mac OS X is installed. You should back up your hard disk first, and you’ll have to set up all your applications and settings again after the install. More info. Also see Archive and Install.
A Mac OS X feature that instantly reveals all windows in an app (press F10), all windows in all apps (F9), or the desktop (F11). This makes it quick to find any window that you need.
FileMaker Pro
An easy-to-use database application with a graphical front-end, popular on Macs. The publisher, FileMaker Inc, is now owned by Apple (though the software is cross-platform).
Final Cut Pro
Apple’s professional video editing software, only available for Macs. Comes as part of Final Cut Studio. A cut-down version, Final Cut Express, is also available. FCP’s main competitors include Avid Media Composer and Sony Vegas Pro.
The Mac OS X app that lets you view and manipulate files and folders. It’s the first app you see when you first log in to your Mac. You can switch to the Finder by clicking the Finder icon on the left hand side of the Dock.
Like USB, a standard way to connect peripherals to a computer. Also known as IEEE 1394. While USB is more popular, FireWire is better suited to high-speed peripherals.
Force Quit
Stop an application running immediately. Force quitting is useful if an application has “hung” (become unresponsive and is displaying the spinning beach ball of doom. To force quit an app, switch to another app (such as the Finder) then choose Force Quit from the Apple menu.
Apple’s music authoring software – part of the iLife suite.
Gigabyte – a unit of measurement of storage. A gigabyte is a thousand million bytes (though it can sometimes be slightly higher than this, depending on interpretation). One byte is enough to store a single letter of the alphabet. Commonly used to refer to RAM and hard disk size.
Get Info
The Mac equivalent of Windows’ Properties dialogs. With many items – such as files and folders in the Finder, or songs in iTunes – you can right-click (or Control-click) the item and choose Get Info to retrieve information on the object.
A Mac OS X utility (Applications > Utilities > Grab) for taking screenshots on your Mac.
Home folder
The top-level folder for storing your documents and other data. Each user on a Mac has their own Home folder, located inside the /Users folder.
Apple’s calendar application that comes with Mac OS X. iCal lets you create multiple calendars; view each calendar by day, week or month; add events and appointments to calendars; sync your calendars with other people; and create To Do items.
Apple’s instant messaging app bundled with Mac OS X. iChat can work with AIM, MobileMe, ICQ and XMPP protocols, and allows text, voice and video chats.
A remote, virtual disk that you can use to store and share your photos, movies and other documents. You can access your iDisk from any Mac. This service is included as part of a MobileMe subscription.
Apple’s DVD authoring software – part of the iLife suite.
Apple’s suite of personal media apps. Contains iPhoto (for photo cataloguing and basic editing), iMovie (for movie editing), iDVD (for DVD authoring), GarageBand (for music composition), and iWeb (for website authoring). MobileMe subscribers can also create online photo and video albums using iLife.
Apple’s movie editing software – part of the iLife suite.
Intel Core 2 Duo
Core 2 is the name for a range of Intel CPUs, or processor chips – the “heart” of modern Macs and PCs. Most current Macs use 2-core Intel Core 2 Duo chips, while Mac Pros use 4-core Intel Xeon processors.
Apple’s photo editing software – part of the iLife suite.
A Mac app that synchronizes iCal and Address Book data with handheld devices, such as smartphones and Palm organizers.
Apple’s free music management app, shipped with Mac OS X and also available for Windows. iTunes is also used to sync various Apple devices such as iPods and iPhones with Macs or PCs.
Apple’s Web authoring software – part of the iLife suite.
Apple’s suite of Mac office apps. Features Pages (a word processor), Numbers (a spreadsheet app) and Keynote (a presentation app). Also, (currently in beta) is a subscription service letting you upload and share iWork documents collaboratively.
Mac OS X’s central password storage system. Each user on a Mac has a keychain, in which they can store login passwords, encryption keys, and encryption certificates. This allows you to manage all your passwords under a single login. You can view and edit your passwords and other keychain items by running Applications > Utilities > Keychain Access.
Apple’s presentation application – part of the iWork suite.
Apple’s professional music sequencer and digital audio workstation app. Used by musicians for creating, recording and mixing music. Its main rivals are Steinberg’s Cubase and Digidesign’s Pro Tools. Available in Studio (pro) or Express (cut down) versions. Much of Logic’s tech is also used in the consumer-oriented GarageBand.
Logic board
The main electronics board inside your Mac. Often known as motherboards or mainboards in the PC world.
Login Items
Applications, documents, or other things that you want to open automatically whenever you log in. To set up a login item choose Apple menu > System Preferences > Accounts > Login Items, then click the + button.
The microkernel at the heart of the XNU kernel – which is, in turn, the heart of Mac OS X. Mach manages the currently-running applications and processes on a Mac computer, allocating resources such as processor time and memory to these processes.
Mighty Mouse
A two-button mouse available as an option for Mac computers (though it can also be used with PCs to some extent). Features a central “scroll ball” that lets you scroll in all directions: up, down, left and right. Available in wired or wireless versions.
A suite of online Apple services available via a US $99/year (at the time of writing) subscription. Previously known as .Mac. Services include iDisk online storage (accessible via the Mac Finder, Windows Explorer or a Web browser); an email address, online address book, and online calendar that can all sync to various Apple devices such as Macs and iPhones; and an online photo/video gallery feature.
Apple’s spreadsheet application – part of the iWork suite.
A supplier of graphics chips used in many Macs. Nvidia dominates the graphics chip market along with ATI.
Non-volatile Random Access Memory. Macs have a small amount of NVRAM used for storing settings when the Mac is switched off. PRAM is an example of this.
Option key
A modifier key like Command or Control (usually sits between the Command and Control keys on the keyboard). Often used for secondary actions, or for entering accented characters. May be labelled, Alt, Option, or ⌥.
Apple’s word processor application – part of the iWork suite.
Parallels Desktop
A Mac application that lets you install Microsoft Windows in a virtual machine (computer) on your Mac. You can then run Windows apps and Mac apps at the same time. See also VMware Fusion.
A data area on a hard disk. A hard disk can contain a single partition spanning the whole disk, or it can contain multiple partitions.
Power Management Unit. The chip on a Mac logic board that controls power to hard disks and peripherals, as well as the Mac’s sleep/wake feature.
Parameter Random Access Memory. A small amount of memory that stores various Mac settings such as display settings and speaker volume, even when the Mac is switched off. Find out more. Sometimes you need to reset the PRAM to fix various Mac issues.
Preferences file
A file that stores an application’s user preferences. Most preferences files are stored in ~/Library/Preferences, and end with a .plist extension.
A Mac OS X utility for viewing images and PDF files. Preview supports a large number of file formats, making it a useful general-purpose image viewer.
Primary mouse button
The main button on the mouse, used for the majority of actions. This is usually the left button (or the only button on one-button mice) but this can be changed by choosing Apple menu > System Preferences > Keyboard & Mouse > Mouse and clicking Right for the Primary mouse button option.
Public folder
A folder in each Mac user’s Home folder that is readable (but not writable) by all other users on the same Mac (or another Mac on the same network). This allows you to share selected files and folders with other people.
An Apple technology capable of handling audio, video, images and other media in various formats. The QuickTime Player app uses these technologies to allow media to be played back.
Resource fork
A feature of the Mac OS X file system that allows resources, such as icons, dialogs, document window positions and so on, to be stored within the same file in which data is stored. Also see Data fork.
root user
The superuser, or administrator account on your Mac. The root user has full control over all aspects of the Mac, including reading and writing system files – with potentially dangerous consequences! For this reason the root user is disabled by default; however you can enable it if required.
Apple’s Web browser that ships with Mac OS X and iPhone OS. Also available on Windows.
Serial AT Attachment. An interface for connecting storage devices, such as hard drives, to computers. Most modern Macs use SATA. Older Macs and PCs used the slower PATA (Parallel ATA).
Secondary mouse button
The right mouse button, used for things such as bringing up contextual menus. On a single-button mouse you can achieve the same effect by holding Control and clicking the primary (left) button. You can swap over the left and right buttons if desired (see Primary mouse button).
Serial ATA
Allows you to “turn off” your Mac, conserving power, without actually having to restart the Mac from scratch when you turn it back on. Macs support various sleep modes: Quick sleep, which keeps the memory powered up; Deep sleep (or hibernation), which writes the memory contents to disk and completely powers off the Mac; and Safe sleep, which keeps the memory powered but also writes the memory contents to disk in case there’s a power failure. Most desktop Macs default to Quick sleep, while most MacBooks default to Safe sleep. Various 3rd-party apps such as Deep Sleep let you choose which sleep mode to use for your Mac.
Apple’s virtual desktop feature of Mac OS X. It allows you to spread your open apps between several virtual desktops and switch between desktops quickly, thereby giving you more desktop space to organize your open applications.
Spinning beach ball
Officially known as the “spinning wait cursor”. The rainbow-coloured spinning disc that signifies that an app has become unresponsive.
The Mac’s built-in search engine, accessed by pressing Command-Space or clicking the top-right magnifying glass icon. Allows you to search through your files, data, music, applications and so on. Also available on iPhone/iPod Touch by swiping to the right on the first Home screen.
Folder icons in the Dock that, when clicked on, reveal their contents in a fan, grid, or list format. It’s a great way to quickly access the contents of a folder while reducing visual clutter. To change the appearance of a stack, right-click (or Control-click) its icon in the Dock and choose from Fan, Grid, List, or Automatic.
Startup disk
The hard disk containing Mac OS X that is read when your Mac starts up. Normally this is the built-in hard disk, but you can use an external disk or network drive instead (System Preferences > Startup Disk).
Stands for “superuser do”. A command-line program run via the Terminal that lets you run programs as another user – usually the root user or superuser. Often used for carrying out administrative tasks.
Apple’s name for the optical drive used in most Macs. These days this tends to be a burner capable of reading and writing CDs and DVDs. You can also buy external SuperDrives.
System Preferences
A Mac OS X utility that allows you to set various preferences for your Mac. Preferences are set via preference panes; several panes are installed by default, and new ones can be installed by 3rd-party software and drivers. Default preference panes include Appearance, for customizing the look of the Mac interface, and Sound, for controlling sound effects and input/output volume.
System Profiler
A utility (Applications > Utilities > System Profiler) that displays details of your Mac’s hardware and configuration.
Target Disk Mode
A Mac startup mode whereby, instead of booting into Mac OS X, the Mac’s hard disk appears as an external disk on another Mac connected via a FireWire cable. This allows the contents of the first Mac’s hard disk to be accessed even if the Mac isn’t capable of booting (for example, if the OS has become corrupted). To activate, hold down the T key while starting the Mac.
Terabyte – a unit of measurement of storage. A terabyte is a thousand gigabytes (though it can sometimes be slightly higher than this, depending on interpretation). One byte is enough to store a single letter of the alphabet. Commonly used to refer to hard disk size.
A Mac app (Applications > Utilities > Terminal) that lets you give textual commands to your Mac, rather than using a graphical interface. Often used to perform low-level maintenance or configuration tasks.
Time Machine
Apple’s backup utility included in Mac OS X. When enabled, it regularly backs up your files and application data to an external (or network) hard disk. You can later retrieve the files or data from any previous backup that exists on the backup disk.
A Mac application published by Roxio for authoring and burning CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray discs. It can also convert various audio and video formats, and copy non-protected discs.
The Mac’s Trash can temporarily holds any files and folders that you have deleted. You can delete a file or folder by dragging it to the Trash icon in the Dock. To delete the contents of the Trash permanently, right-click or Control-click the Trash icon and choose Empty Trash.
Universal Serial Bus. A standard way to connect peripherals – such as printers and digital cameras – to a Mac or PC.
VMware Fusion
A Mac application that lets you install Microsoft Windows in a virtual machine (computer) on your Mac. You can then run Windows apps and Mac apps at the same time. See also Parallels Desktop.
A Mac OS X accessibility feature that allows user interface elements and paragraphs of text to be spoken by the Mac. Enable it via Apple menu > System Preferences > Universal Access > Seeing > VoiceOver.
A storage area accessible to Mac OS X. Typical examples of Mac volumes include the startup disk volume (usually called “Macintosh HD”), any external hard disk volumes, and any mounted CDs or DVDs.
A trademark used to describe wireless networking products and technologies, such as Apple’s AirPort base stations and cards.
A mini-application designed to run in the Mac OS X Dashboard. Widgets are built using HTML, CSS and JavaScript. You can add widgets to, or remove widgets from, your Dashboard. Many widgets are available online for download.

Do you know any other useful Mac terms to add to this list? Please let me know in the comments!

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7 Responses to “Mac Terms Explained: A Glossary of Mac Terminology”

  1. Marj Says:

    These terms listed by their approximate PC equivalent would be REALLY helpful for people switching to Mac from PC. For example, Quick Launch Tool Bar: see Dock. Then the user can go to “Dock” for the definition. I’m not alone on this one.

  2. Matt Says:

    @Marj: Great idea – I’ll get onto it!

  3. phil jones Says:

    nice , but seems like only a start . in the coarse of using your mac ‘stuff pops up’ a window with information , but no fix . for example putting a DVD+R in the optical bay a window appears with the following statement “Disk Write Status : Not Mounted” sounds useful but what does it mean ? seems to not be in apple help or any glossary i find this all the time , with no trail to follow . regards phil

  4. Charles Says:

    One term missing — “menu bar”
    And a suggestion — explain dmg files and why you (often) have to mount a “dmg” file to install software.

  5. Matt Says:

    @Charles: I’d have thought “menu bar” was obvious, no? Also .dmg files are covered right at the top of the post.

  6. Nancy Nowak Says:

    I have been using a Mac for years but don’t know the terminology of computers. I just bought a couple of books explaining Mac OSX Lion because I just bought a new Mac. That made me realize that I am more or less self taught and don’t know the computer jargon.

    For example, I didn’t know the meaning of words like: window, toolbar, menu and so on.

    Where can I find these basic words and their meanings?



  7. Nancy Nowak Says:

    I have been using a Mac for years but don’t know the correct terminology of computers.

    I just bought a couple of books explaining Mac OSX Lion because I have a new Mac. That made me realize that I am more or less self taught and don’t know the computer jargon.

    For example, I didn’t know the meaning of words like: window, toolbar, menu and so on.

    Where can I find these basic words and their meanings?