An Overview of Your iMac’s El Capitan Desktop

By Mark L. Chambers

The El Capitan Desktop on your iMac isn’t made of wood, and you can’t stick your gum underneath. However, this particular desktop does work much like the surface of a traditional desk. You can store things there, organize things into folders, and take care of important tasks such as writing and drawing (using tools called applications). Heck, you even have a clock and a trash can.

Follow along as you venture to your Desktop and beyond.

OS X Desktop
Everything El Capitan starts here: the OS X Desktop.

The Dock

The Dock is a versatile combination: one part organizer, one part application launcher, and one part system monitor. From the Dock, you can launch applications. The postage-stamp icon represents the Apple Mail application, for example, and clicking the spiffy compass icon launches your Safari web browser. Icons on the Dock also allow you to see what’s running and to display or hide the windows shown by your applications.

Each icon on the Dock represents one of the following:

  • An application you can run (or that is running)
  • An application window that’s minimized (shrunk)
  • A web page URL link
  • A document or folder on your system
  • A network server, shared document, or shared folder
  • Your Trash
iMac Dock
The Dock can contain all sorts of exotic icons.

The Dock is highly configurable:

  • It can appear at different edges of the screen.
  • It can disappear until you move the pointer to the edge to call it forth.
  • You can resize it.

Dig those icons

By default, El Capitan always displays at least one icon on your Desktop: your iMac’s internal drive. To open a drive and view or use the contents, you double-click the icon. Each icon is a shortcut of sorts that represents something, including

  • CDs and DVDs (if you have an optical drive)
  • External hard drives, solid-state drives, and USB flash drives
  • Applications and documents
  • Files and folders
  • Network servers you access

Note that an icon can represent applications you run and documents you create. Sometimes you single-click an icon to watch it do its thing (as on the Dock), but usually you double-click an icon to make something happen.

The menu bar

The menu bar isn’t in a restaurant. You find it at the top of the Desktop, where you can use it to control your applications. Virtually every application you run on your iMac has a menu bar.

To use a menu command, follow these steps:

  1. Click the menu title (such as File or Edit).
  2. Choose the desired command from the list that appears.
menu commands
Clicking a menu displays a list of menu commands.

When you click a menu, it extends down so that you can see the commands it includes. While the menu is extended, you can choose any enabled menu item (just click it) to perform that action. You can tell that an item is enabled if its name appears in black. Conversely, a menu command is disabled if it appears grayed out. Clicking it does nothing.

When you see a menu path printed in this book (such as File Save), it’s just a visual shortcut that tells you to click the File menu and then choose Save from the drop-down menu that appears.

Virtually every Mac application has some menus, such as File, Edit, and Window. You’re likely to find similar commands within these menus. However, only two menus are in every OS X application:

  • The Apple menu, which is identified with that jaunty Apple Corporation icon. This is a special menu because it appears in both the Finder menu bar and the menu bar in every application you run. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in iTunes or Photoshop or Word. If you can see a menu bar, the Apple menu is there. The Apple menu contains common commands to use no matter where you are in El Capitan, such as Restart, Shut Down, and System Preferences.
  • The Application menu, which always bears the name of the active application. The DVD Player menu group appears when you run the El Capitan DVD Player, for example, and the Word menu group appears when you launch Microsoft Word.

You can also display a context or shortcut menu — which regular human beings call a right-click menu — by right-clicking the El Capitan Desktop, an application, a folder, or a file icon. (If your iMac is equipped with a trackpad, you can right-click by tapping the trackpad with two fingertips.)

The Finder menu bar is your friend

Whenever the Finder itself is ready to be used (or, in Mac-speak, whenever the Finder is the active application), the Finder menu bar appears at the top of the screen. You know the Finder is active and ready when the word Finder appears at the left of the menu bar.

There’s always room for one more window

You’re probably already familiar with the ubiquitous window itself. Both El Capitan and the applications you run use windows to display things such as

  • The documents you create
  • The contents of your drive

For example, the Finder window above is where El Capitan gives you access to the applications, documents, and folders on your system. You use Finder windows to launch applications, to perform disk chores such as copying and moving files, and to navigate your hard drive.