Buying and setting up a new Mac

MacBook ProFrom time to time I am asked to recommend or set up new Macs for family and friends.

If asked what Mac to buy, I recommend an iMac if it’s going to be used for video editing, as a TV, or as a shared computer, holding videos, photos, books and music for a family. An iMac plus an iPad makes a powerful combination, shifting files between them using iCloud and Dropbox. A student or true road warrior might need a MacBook Pro; or, consider a combo of an iMac with a MacBook Air. Think of a Mac Pro as a Big Mack truck, an iMac as a full-size pickup, a MacBook Pro or Air as an SUV, the iPad as a car, and the iPhone or iPod touch as a bicycle or scooter. A car does many things best – email, web browsing, photo management, note-taking, e-book and pdf reading, etc. But where I come from, many car owners also need trucks.

FWIW: I love my current setup, which includes Apple monitors on my desks at work (2×27″) and at home (1×30″), run by a Retina MacBook Pro. Before that, I enjoyed a 13-inch MacBook Pro (after using the Retina display, there’s no going back).

In addition to the companion iPad, here are the accessories I recommend for a typical Mac purchase:

  • An external hard drive. With Time Machine and drives getting cheaper all the time, external backup is a no-brainer. Get this before any other accessories; it’s as important as the computer itself. Flash drives, or smaller external hard drives, are useful for exchanging files.
  • AppleCare Protection Plan, 3 years. I recommend this as essential for laptops, and as suggested for desktops. The first year is free. If cash flow is a problem, buy the extension for another 2 years at the end of the first year.
  • MacBook: A slipcase to carry the laptop by itself or within a backpack or briefcase. Excellent slipcases are made by Incase and booq, among others. I’m personally very happy with this one from STM. Also, make sure that the owner has a sturdy backpack of non-rip fabric, and if not, I recommend a sleeve-backpack combo such as those sold by booq or STM, among others. It makes no sense to invest over a thousand dollars in a computer and economize by entrusting it to a $25 backpack from Walmart.
  • iCloud (setup instructions). iCloud seamlessly integrates documents and data between devices, whether iOS or OS X, in Apple apps such as Pages, Numbers, Keynote, Notes, Reminders, iPhoto, Mail, iCal, and Contacts. Going forward, it will be supported by additional apps, both from Apple and third parties.
  • iWork. Don’t let someone overlook iWork and buy Office instead. Let them save their money with iWork and purchase Scrivener, DevonThink, and other useful Mac apps, not to mention an iPod, iPhone or iPad (!) with the money that would have been washed down the drain with Office.
  • Dongles: Don’t wait until you need these – for a laptop in an academic setting, it’s only a matter of when, not if. The time will come during the lifetime of the laptop that someone will want to connect it to a data projector, external monitor, or other peripheral device. So consider the following dongles, depending on the computer and setup: computer to VGA, computer to DVI, mini-Display port to HDMI, thunderbolt to firewire, thunderbolt to ethernet.
  • Remote: Whether for a laptop or an iMac, I think the remote is a good thing to have. It’s great for sitting back and watching movies, for controlling iTunes from across the room, and for advancing Keynote slides. However, an iPhone can do all these things, too.
  • Apple Magic Trackpad for an iMac, and Apple Magic Mouse for a laptop. A mouse for a laptop? Yes, because it makes the transition to the trackpad easier for former Windows users not accustomed to one. Apple gestures are fantastic, and I prefer the Magic Trackpad over the Magic Mouse, but the mouse is a security blanket that facilitates the switch. A mouse is useful when one is working at a desk, and as a Keynote remote (if the owner doesn’t already have an iPhone). If the owner has an iPhone or a remote and is already accustomed to an Apple trackpad, skip the mouse. If you’re getting a desktop, don’t skip the Magic Trackpad. With Lion and Mountain Lion, gestures are so much more efficient and largely replace use of the mouse. It’s the end of an era.

Here’s a checklist of what I do when I set up a Mac. Most of the steps below are quite idiosyncratic, and reflect my personal preferences for working with a Mac. Some of these preferences will need a little explanation to the owner (such as hot corners, and the trackpad and mouse System preferences). But to me, these settings are slightly better than the defaults, and completing these steps for someone makes their discovery of how the Mac works a little more enjoyable.

  1. Print out the Mac cheat-sheet. Fill it out as you proceed, and when you are finished setting up the computer give a copy to the owner for future reference. UPDATE: I now recommend setting up 1Password for this purpose; buy it from the Mac App store. Check out 1Password’s features and screenshots at the Agilebits website, and show your friends and family how to use it. It is simply excellent, and becomes even more handy the more you use it.
  2. Unpack, plug in and start up the computer. This is the best part! It’s no favor to someone to let them miss the unpacking and first time starting up, so let them do this if you can.
  3. Classic Mac startup logo

  4. During Startup
    • If it’s a desktop with a wireless keyboard and mouse, set them up when instructed.
    • During startup, there’s an opportunity to connect a firewire, ethernet or thunderbolt cable to an older Mac and transfer files to the new computer. Do it now if you can, because it will transfer over installed third-party apps, account and printing information, and other preferences. This step can be done later, if need be, using the Migration Assistant located in the Utilities folder. Don’t try the wireless option (unless you have a couple days to kill).
    • During startup, enter the owner’s Apple ID and password. This is used at iTunes and at the online Apple store. It can be entered later in iTunes if necessary. Enter this information in 1Password or on the Mac cheat-sheet.
    • During startup, complete the registration information.
    • Enter the owner’s full name and account name, with password and a security hint. Record the account name and password in 1Password or on the Mac cheat sheet.
  5. Open iPhoto. Say “Yes” to use iPhoto when connecting a digital camera. Say “Yes” to see photos on a map. In iPhoto Preferences, under General, check “Show Item counts.” In the View menu, under “Show in Toolbar,” check Set Desktop, Print, Order Prints, Burn. Also, import some photos (of the owner?) so that they will be available for a desktop and screen saver.
  6. Open System Preferences
    • Desktop and Screen Saver: Set a desktop and screen saver that will appeal to the owner. Set the screen saver to begin at 3 or 4 minutes. Set the lower right hot corner so that it starts the screen saver, and the lower left hot corner so that it disables the screen saver.
    • Displays: Click the checkbox to “Show displays in menu bar.” This is useful for anyone who will be presenting on a data projector or connecting to an external monitor.
    • Energy Saver: Set the computer to sleep when connected to a power adapter after 1 hour, and the display to sleep after half an hour (these are longer than the defaults). Keep the defaults for battery power.
    • Keyboard: Check the checkbox to “Show Keyboard & Character Viewer in menu bar.”
    • Mouse: For a laptop, set up a bluetooth mouse, if there is one. For a Windows switcher, and for advanced users, check the “Secondary click” checkbox to turn on right clicking. For teens through middle-aged adults, set the tracking and scrolling speeds to the next-to-highest levels. Later, show the owner how to change mouse settings. Show the owner the Trackpad settings panel also; these are too personal not to customize on an individual basis.
    • iCloud: Enter account details, and make sure they are recorded in 1Password or on the Mac cheat sheet. Set the checkboxes to use iCloud for Mail & Notes, contacts, calendars, bookmarks, Photo Stream, documents and data, and Find My Mac.
    • Find My Mac – be sure to enable this in the iCloud settings.
    • Network: set up as needed, and record in 1Password or on the cheat-sheet.
  7. Software update: Update now. Then update the system software again. Do this repeatedly until there are no more updates showing.
  8. Mail: If you have set up iCloud information in the System Preferences, Mail will already be configured to work. Add additional accounts if need be. In Mail preferences, under the Accounts pane, I set junk mail to be deleted after a month. Under the Viewing pane, I set unread messages to display in bold.
  9. Finder
    1. Choose Preferences from the Finder menu. Under General, click the checkboxes to show Hard Disks and Connected Servers. Under Sidebar, click the checkbox to show the computer. Under Advanced, click the checkbox to show all filename extensions.
    2. Open a Finder Window in icon view. Choose Show View Options from the View menu. Set “Arrange by” to “Snap to Grid” and then click “Use as Defaults.”
    3. Open a Finder Window in List view. Choose Show View Options from the View menu. Click “Calculate all sizes” and then click “Use as Defaults.”
    4. Open a Finder Window in Column view. Choose Show View Options from the View menu. Click “Always open in column view.”
    5. In a Finder window, drag the following folders to appear in the Sidebar, in this order: Applications, Home, Desktop, Documents, Downloads. Move these same folders into the right side of the Dock (except for Desktop).
    6. With a Finder Window open, choose Customize Toolbar from the View menu. Click “Use small size” and show “Icon and Text.” Add the Path button to the right of the Back button. Add the Get Info button to the right of the Action button.
  10. Open the Address Book and make sure that the owner’s address and your own are present.
  11. Open iCal. Choose Show To Do List from the View menu. Then choose Preferences from the iCal menu. Under Advanced, set To Do items to be hidden one day after completion.
  12. Open iChat, enter a username and password if it’s not iCloud, and enter your name on the buddy list.
  13. Open iTunes and sign in with the owner’s account. (For couples or families, I recommend sharing one iTunes account, in order to avoid duplicate purchases and in order to take advantage of the Home Sharing features.)
    • Open iTunes Preferences. Under General, set “iTunes U” and “Books” to show. Under Playback, check Sound Check. Under Store, check to automatically show available downloads, download prepurchased content, and download missing album artwork.
    • Download a zip package of my setup files (117 MB). These include what I consider to be essential cultural history for basic Apple literacy: the 1984 commercial, the Think Different ad, and Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford. Using a Mac is not just about using a better machine – more than an upgrade in technical specs, it’s a cultural shift. No Windows-switcher should use a Mac without watching these – they’re part of an essential enculturation process! 🙂 Import the various files in this zipped package into iTunes, and add the originals to the Movies folder if you wish.
  14. Install iWork. Complete the registration window that appears when opening any of the iWorks apps. Add them to the Dock.
    • Keynote: Under preferences, in the General pane, check “Include preview by default” and “Include obsolete animations.” In the Presenter Display pane, check “Notes.”
    • Keynote, Pages and Numbers: Under preferences, in the General pane, check “Show font preview in Format Bar.” Using “Customize Toolbar” from the View menu, add buttons for Mask, Adjust Image and Instant Alpha (place them next to Media), and Copy Style and Paste Style.
    • Perform a software update to make sure that iWork apps are current.
  15. Safari
    • Add the following to the Bookmarks bar:; Wikipedia, and any personalized websites that the owner will appreciate.
    • Create a Bookmarks Bar folder called “Tutorials” and place within it links to the following websites: iLife tutorials, iWork tutorials, iTunes tutorials, Mac basics, Mac 101, Switch 101 and Mac apps.
    • Create an Apple folder in the Safari bookmark bar. Place within it bookmarks to the following items: The YouTube video of Steve Jobs’ commencement address at Stanford; the text of that address, the 1984 commercial and the Think Different ad.
    • Consider adding a folder for blogs, too.
    • Add Safari extensions: Thurly; 1-click weather, Amazon, etc.
    • In Safari Preferences, under the General pane set the home page to something useful for the owner; remove download list items “upon successful download”; and uncheck “Open safe files after downloading” (for security). For easy retrieval of newly downloaded items, set the downloads folder view in the sidebar to sort by date.
    • In the Safari View menu, select Show Status Bar. Choose Customize Toolbar, and add buttons for Add Bookmark, History, and text Zoom. Move the extensions to the right side of the search field.
    • Place links to these apps in a Safari Bookmark Bar folder entitled “Recommended apps”.
  16. Dashboard. Set up various common widgets: Clock, Weather, translator, white pages, yellow pages, and flight tracker.
  17. Download, install, open and set preferences for useful free apps:
    • RSS reader: NetNewsWire, NewsRack or Pulse. If Netnewswire, choose “Widescreen” from the View menu. Open Safari, and in the RSS pane of Safari preferences set NetNewsWire as the default RSS reader.
    • Stellarium
    • Handbrake
    • CyberDuck
  18. Dock: Move the Time Machine icon to the left side, next to Dashboard. Remove the System Preferences icon. Add the following applications to the Dock: Calculator, TextEdit, Grab, Stellarium, NetNewsWire (or other RSS reader) and the three iWorks apps. Resize the Dock to make it shorter.
  19. Remove any superfluous files from the Downloads folder.
  20. Time Machine: connect the external hard drive and set Time Machine to back up. Leave the computer on long enough to complete the first backup.

Note on security: For most users, I do not recommend installing security software (but if you do, use Sophos (free) rather than Norton). However, there are two steps I do recommend:

  1. Uncheck “Open safe files after downloading” in the Safari preferences. Instruct the new Mac user to keep the downloads folder clean so that it’s easy to find whatever is downloaded intentionally and then open it in a separate step. (Also set the Downloads folder to sort by date when selected in the sidebar of a Finder window.) Do not download and authorize the installation of applications (Trojans) from untrusted sources.
  2. Set up at least two accounts on each Mac: one as an administrator for installing apps, and a different one that is not an admin account for ordinary use. Apple says: “Administrator accounts should only be used for administration. Users should use standard user accounts for day-to-day computer use.”


For my laptop, I’ve been very pleased with JBL Creature Speakers. At work, where volume can’t be too high anyway, I’ve been delighted with the speakers included in the new Apple thunderbolt displays (these displays function as a convenient dock because they include not only good speakers but also a bevy of ports – thunderbolt, ethernet, firewire 800, and USB – all accessed simply by plugging the cable into my MBP’s thunderbolt port). For a big iMac that we use in our living room as a TV, we like the Harman Kardon Soundsticks and its subwoofer.

The Blue mic makes for a good all-purpose mic, excellent for voice recordings in iMovie, Keynote, GarageBand or iChat, and very easy to use. No audio interface is required; it plugs into USB.

We use the EyeTV Hybrid dongle, by El Gato, plugged into a USB port on our living room iMac to receive television stations over the air (in high def, for free). With it we convert old VHS tapes to digital, watch broadcast TV, and use its programmable recording features like a DVR. With EyeTV, Netflix and iTunes, we have no need for cable or a satellite dish.

We don’t have a high res TV, but if we did, we would definitely buy an Apple TV to plug into it. An Apple TV makes anything on your Mac or iPhone or iPad appear wirelessly, like magic, on your TV. It’s really cool. We now have one for work, which makes a flat panel more versatile than a smart board – with Apple TV, if it’s on an iPad or Mac, it’s on the flat panel. More on my professional blog.


Note: What to do before selling or giving away your Mac.

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One Response to Buying and setting up a new Mac

  1. Laura Mann says:

    Thank you!! This is a fantastic resource. Thanks for taking the time to put this up here. 🙂

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