With the festive period upon us you may be in line for a new Mac come the big day, or hope to find something discounted in the January sales. With all Macs with the exception of the Mac Pro updated in 2012, many impressively, now is a good time to be either upgrading or intend switching from a PC world. 

The primary audience for this guide are people switching from PCs to Macs or those who have decided to explore Macs after using an iPhone or iPad. But I think even if you already have some Mac savvy, you'll benefit too—not only because we might fill some gaps in your knowledge, but also because you'll now have a place to send your Cousin Bob when you get one of his regular “How do I do this?” calls. So let’s get to it.

Starting your new Mac for the first time

I see you have a freshly minted Mac in front of you. Let’s fire it up and see what happens.

Press the Mac’s power button, and you see a grey screen that eventually displays a black Apple logo and then a spinning gear icon. This is a signal that your Mac is getting its house in order so that it can start up properly. How long you’ll wait depends on the kind of Mac you have. If you have one with an SSD (Solid State Drive) rather than a hard drive, it will start up very quickly. (Right now, that most likely means a MacBook Air.) A Mac that uses a standard hard drive to store its data will take a little longer.

Apple New Mac

When a new Mac runs for the very first time, it launches something called the Setup Assistant. This is a computer program that helps you with all the little settings your Mac needs so that it can get on the Internet, create a user account for you, properly set the time and date, connect your Mac to your Apple ID (or help you create one), and register your computer with Apple. Here are the exact steps.

The first thing you’ll be asked to tell your Mac is the country in which you live (or in which it will be used). On Macs configured for use in the U.S., this list will contain the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland. If you don’t see your country in the list, select the Show All option to get a list that includes other choices around the world. Choose the correct one and click on the Continue button.

Note that if you wait a while before leaving this screen, your Mac will start speaking to you. This is for the benefit of those with visual impairments. If you are visually impaired, follow the spoken instructions. You can have those spoken instructions begin at any time on this screen by pressing the Escape (marked Esc) key on the top-left corner of your Mac’s keyboard.

Select your keyboard

Keyboards around the world have different layouts. Your Mac wants to know which layout you use, likely the UK preferences. If you don’t see your preferred keyboard arrangement, click on Show All and choose the one that's more appropriate. Click Continue when you’re done.

Select your Wi-Fi network

As you go through the setup process, your Mac will want to connect to the Internet for a variety of purposes. To help it do that, it will look for any nearby Wi-Fi network and ask you to choose one to connect to, as shown in the screenshot (click to enlarge it). If you see a lock icon next to one, that means you’ll need to know the network’s password. Just select a network to enter the password in the field that appears.

If you’ve connected your Mac to an ethernet network using a networking cable, there’s a very good chance you won’t see this window at all, because once the Mac understands that it can connect to your network, it won’t bother asking you for a Wi-Fi alternative.

Connecting your Mac to the Internet can make setup easier

In this window you’ll also see an Other Network Options button in the bottom-left corner. Click it, and you can tell your Mac specifically the kind of network you wish to connect to (or that you don’t have access to a network at all). Your choices are Wi-Fi Network, Local Network (Ethernet), and My Computer Does Not Connect to the Internet. You needn’t have a network connection to complete setup. Click Continue to move to the next step.

Apple Wi-fi set up

Transfer information to this Mac

Your Mac can move all the data from your old computer to this new one; that old machine can be another Mac or a Windows PC. This bit of magic is performed through something called Migration Assistant. (I’ll go into the details of Migration Assistant in a future column.) If you’re reading this as you’re setting up a new Mac and want to transfer your data, go ahead and choose the appropriate option—From Another Mac, From a Windows PC, or From Another Disk. You’ll be walked through the steps of the transfer. Because this is a process that you can perform at another time, you can also select Not Now and click Continue.

Enable Location services

When your Mac is within range of wireless networks, it can tell where it is—no, not in the sense of "in the kitchen" or "outside in the garden," but where specifically it is on earth: 123 High Street, Anytown, UK, for example. In order for it to do this, however, you have to grant it permission.

Your Mac can perform some remarkable tricks when it knows where it is

And why would you? Because there are applications that can automatically provide information based on where you are—to find local services, for example. For these apps to work, you must enable Location services. If you prefer that your Mac not know where it is, feel free to leave this feature turned off. You can always enable it later. Click Continue.

Apple ID

If you’ve ever purchased media from the iTunes Store or iOS apps from the App Store, you have an Apple ID. This ID will also allow you to purchase applications for your Mac as well as use Apple’s cloud-based data service, iCloud. If you have such an ID, enter it in this window. If you don’t, click on Create a Free Apple ID to be walked through the steps necessary to obtain one. Although you’ll have to provide some personal information as well as create a user name and password, you needn’t provide a credit card number. You can skip this step by clicking on Skip or enter your Apple ID and password and then click Continue. As with many of these steps, this is something you can configure after your Mac has started up.

Terms and conditions

Have trouble sleeping? Read the first few paragraphs of the terms and conditions document and you’ll be out in seconds. However, you must agree to this legalese in order to continue setting up your Mac, so click on Agree and then on Agree yet again when you've read as much as you want.

Set up iCloud

Enable iCloud to have its settings configured on your Mac

As mentioned, iCloud is Apple’s cloud-based data service. It not only provides you with a free iCloud email address but also lets you synchronise things like your contacts, calendars, email, Web browser bookmarks, notes, reminders, pictures, and some documents with other Apple devices (iPhones, iPod touches, iPads, and other Macs). When you enable this option and click Continue, your Mac will be mostly ready to perform these operations the minute it starts up for real.

Apple - setting up iCloud

Read our complete review of the new iMac - 21.5in and 27in models (Late 2012)

Messaging

Your Mac is not just a computer, but also a communications tool. If it has a video camera built in (all laptops and iMacs do) you can make video calls using something called FaceTime. You can also send instant messages with your Mac using the Messages application. In this window you’re asked which email account people can use to contact you via FaceTime and Messages. If you’ve entered an Apple ID, your iCloud email address will appear automatically—Janedoe@icloud.com, for example. If you’ve registered other email addresses with Apple—these may be older MobileMe addresses that end with .mac or .me—you’ll see them here as well. Just tick the checkbox next to those addresses you want to use and click Continue.

Use iCloud to find your Mac

When talking about Location services, I mentioned that your Mac can tell where it is. One of the greatest benefits of this ability is that if your Mac is mislaid or stolen, you can use a service called Find My Mac to track down its location. I’ll explain Find My Mac in another column, but for the time being, this is not a bad option to switch on, particularly if you’re using a laptop that you might leave in a cab or airport. Click Continue when you’ve made your choice, and then click Agree.

Read our complete review of the standard MacBook Pro (Mid-2012)

Create your computer account

The Mac operating system (known affectionately as the Mac OS) allows you to set up multiple user accounts—one for you, one for your mate, and one for your child, for example—on one computer. It’s as if every user has his or her own little room, decorated just the way they want. Under normal circumstances, no user can look in another user’s room. Again, that's more fodder for another column.

All you need to know for now is that our screenshot shows where you create your user name. To do that, enter your full name in the appropriate field. An account name will be automatically created for you, but you don’t have to use it. If your full name is Bartholomew Billy Bob Constantinople, you probably don’t want to be saddled with the terribly long account name the Mac OS would generate for you—you'd be prompted to enter that name a lot as you use your Mac. In such a case, I’d suggest you use something like Bart or Mew or, well, anything you like, as long as it’s short and memorable.

Read our complete review of the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro (Late 2012)

Read our complete review of the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro (Mid-2012)

One of the most important steps of all: Creating your account

Where you shouldn’t skimp, however, is in the Password fields. Excuse the yelling, but DO NOT CREATE A SIMPLE PASSWORD!!! And by SIMPLE PASSWORD!!! I mean password, or 123456, or 654321, or kitty, or doggie, or your first name or your kid or spouse’s first name. This is your private account, and if you want to keep it that way, use a password that other people can’t guess but that you won’t forget. Use something memorable such as the first three letters of your grandmother’s name followed by your shoe size in centimetres followed by the letters of the four words that begin your favourite limerick—anything that can't be easily guessed and doesn't appear in a dictionary.

Below the Password field, you'll see two options—Allow My Apple ID To Reset This User’s Password and Require Password When Logging In. The first option is helpful if you ever forget your password and need to reset it. (Perhaps your shoe size has changed.) The second option is useful if your computer is in a place where others have access to it. Should a surly teen start up your new Mac with mischief in mind, they won’t be able to access your account if they don’t have (and can't guess) your password. Click Continue to move on.

Select your time zone

We’re almost through. This one’s easy. By telling your Mac where you are, it can automatically set the computer’s time and date. You can tell it where you are in a variety of ways. If you’ve turned on Location services, just enable Set Time Zone Automatically Using Current Location. Your Mac will drop a pin in your general location and set the appropriate time zone—accounting for GMT and BST changes, if necessary.

But you don’t have to use this option. You can enter a nearby city in the location field or click somewhere on the map. Either one will set the time zone properly for that location. Click Continue again.

Read our complete review of the Mac mini (Late 2012)

Register

If you care to, you can register your Mac with Apple. At the same time, you can opt to allow Apple to send you marketing email as well as alert you to updates. Personally, I leave this option off—Apple is already aware that I’ve purchased a Mac, since I shop exclusively from the Apple Store. To refrain from registering, just click on Skip.

Thank you!

Yes, Apple appreciates you taking the time to set up your Mac and offers thanks. To begin using your new Mac, just click Continue. You’ll be taken to the desktop and you won’t see this setup assistant again unless you install a fresh copy of the Mac OS.

Read our complete review of the Mac Pro