Whether you are the lucky person using a Mac at work amongst a hoard of unfriendly Windows PCs, or the IT guy who has to look after that Mac, here’s how to make everything work as it should, and ensure that all the Macs and Windows machines are playing nicely on your network. [Read: Mac v PC: which is best]

Read: Networking Mac computers: How to network Macs together and share files between Macs and PCs over the network

Support basic file sharing between Mac OS X and Windows

OS X supports Windows file sharing technology – known as SMB – which allows you to access folders that have been shared on Windows PCs, as well as share folders on your Mac so that PCs can access them.

To access a PC's shared folder, open Finder on your Mac then click Go > Network. Double-click the PC if it appears in the list, then click the Connect As button at the top right of the Finder window to specify the Windows login details. Read: How to view your Mac or PC screen on an iPad

Connecting to a PC’s shared folder is easy – just click Go > Network 

If the PC doesn’t appear, you’ll need to manually specify its address by clicking Go > Connect to Server. It might be possible to enter the network name of the PC (e.g. something like timothy-win7) but a more reliable method is to enter the PC’s local network IP address. This can be discovered on the Windows computer by opening the Start menu, typing cmd into the search field, then typing ipconfig in the command-line window that appears. Look at the line that begins IPv4 Address. 

Read: Yosemite versus Windows 10

Specifying a PC’s IP address will probably result in a quicker connection

If you’re using a version of OS X older than Yosemite, when typing the address on your Mac you’ll need to type smb:// first in the Connect to Server dialog box – for example, smb:// 

If the PC has a guest account you’ll connect to it automatically. To specify a user login on the PC, click the Connect As button at the top right of the Finder window, then type it when prompted.

Note that Macs can’t connect to passwordless accounts – if the Windows PC hasn’t got a login password, ask the user to add one (which is done via the User Accounts section of Control Panel). 

Read: Advanced tips for Yosemite on the Mac

Specify the username and password of the PC to connect to its shared folder(s) 

To share a folder on your Mac so PCs can access it, open System Preferences, click the Sharing icon, then put a tick alongside File Sharing. Click options and put a tick alongside your user account beneath the Windows File Sharing heading, then click Done. 

Click the plus icon beneath the Shared Folders heading to choose which folders are to be available to PCs. 

To access them from a Windows PC, open the Start menu and type network in the search field. The Mac should be listed in the view alongside PCs on the network (it’ll be identified with the icon for a PC rather than Mac). Double-click the Mac’s icon, then type your Mac’s account name and password to login. 

You can connect to shared folders on your Mac from a Windows PC

Can you AirDrop between Macs and PCs? Nope!

Incidentally, if you’re wondering if AirDrop can be used, you’re out of luck. Apple hasn’t implemented it on Windows, and nor has anybody else. However, apps such as Instashare can be installed on both Mac and Windows computers to implement the same functionality. Read: How to AirDrop from a Mac to an iPhone and iPhone to Mac.

How to join an Active Directory domain from a Mac

Some corporate networks may require you login to Active Directory domains provided by Windows Server. To do so, open System Preferences and click the Users & Groups icon. Unlock System Preferences if necessary by clicking the padlock, then click Login Options at the bottom of the list of usernames. Then click the Join button alongside the Network Account Server heading.

Joining an Active Directory domain is easy via Users & Accounts in System Preferences 

You’ll need to type the fully qualified domain name (FQDN) of the server, rather than simply the domain. Speak to your IT person to find out what this is. If your Mac isn’t using Windows Server for DNS (that is, it a router or gateway handles DNS) then you may need to enter the IP address of the server rather than its FQDN. 

After clicking OK in the dialog box your Mac will then probe the server, after which you’ll be prompted to enter your username, password and client ID. Note that you don’t need to use the Windows-style username of “domain\username” or “[email protected]”. Just type your username as given. For example, if your Active Directory username is johnsmith then type only that. You might not able to connect if your Active Directory username is identical to your Mac’s username, so ensure your IT administrator chooses something different when creating the account.

Read next: How to set up and manage user accounts on a Mac

OS X’s Directory Utility app lets you further refine your Active Directory login options 

With any luck access should now be granted but you may need (with the help of your IT person) to further tweak settings by clicking the Directory Utility button. In future this app can be accessed by opening Finder, tapping Shift+Cmd+G, and typing /System/Library/CoreServices/Applications.

Although you can login to Active Directory, OS X doesn’t allow the Active Directory administrator to set restrictions for your Mac. However, add-in software from Centrify or Dell can help plug this gap.

Read next: How to install and run Windows on a Mac

Connect to Microsoft Exchange for Outlook email on a Mac

The best way to connect to a Microsoft Exchange server is using Microsoft Outlook, which comes as part of an Office 365 subscription. Mail and Calendar within Mac can also connect – just use the Internet Accounts component of System Preferences to specify the login details. However, Mail is arguably most at home when accessing IMAP or POP3 accounts, and if these aren’t already enabled on the Exchange server then it’s worth requesting they are. To add IMAP or POP3 accounts, again use the Internet Accounts section of System Preferences and select Add Other Account at the bottom of the list. Read: Microsoft Office for Mac 2015 release date, new version of Outlook avaiiable now.

OS X’s Mail app can connect to Microsoft Exchange mail servers 

Connect to a VPN on a Mac

OS X natively supports PPTP and IPSec (L2TP and Cisco) VPN technologies, which are the main technologies in use today. To setup a connection, open System Preferences, click Network, then click the plus button at the bottom left beneath the list of network adapters. In the dropdown list alongside Interface, select VPN and then select the type of technology used beneath this. Then click Create and enter the connection details in the main System Preferences window. Putting a tick in the box alongside Show VPN Status In Menu Bar will allow quick connection and disconnection in future.

Use OS X server

A (perhaps) surprisingly inexpensive option for using Macs in a Windows environment is to request your network administrator add a dedicated OS X Server (see our review of OS X Server Yosemite). OS X Server is installed via the Mac App Store on top of an existing OS X installation. It doesn’t feature Active Directory components but is able to sync with some Microsoft services with a little adaptation.

Coupled to a Mac Mini, OS X Server is a surprisingly inexpensive way of administering Macs on a network

A Mac Mini with 2.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5, 8GB of RAM, 1TB of storage space and OS X Server upgrade comes in at significantly less than £500 excluding VAT. Thunderbolt 2 ports allow for essentially unlimited storage expansion, plus the opportunity to add additional gigabit Ethernet ports if needed.

OS X Server can be virtualised but licencing restrictions mean it can only be run as a virtual machine on Apple hardware, so can’t be run under typical hypervisor setups. However, VMware Fusion on a Mac lets you run multiple instances of OS X Server.

(Many thanks to Brian Rogers of BPR Tech for advice while writing this feature.)


Ten reasons why Macs are better than PCs

Yosemite versus Windows 10

And have some geeky fun with this guide to using terminal on the Mac