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How do I tell if a program is running on a Mac?

Many people who are new to Apple’s OSX operating system on the Macintosh get confused about the Dock and how it works.  One of the most common questions I hear from newbies is “How do I tell if a program is running?”

OSX is a an incredible operating system, and I would go as far to say vastly superior to anything coming out of Redmond.  That includes Windows 7.  What I find even more interesting is that Windows 7 has in many ways copied the look and feel of the Mac OSX dock.  That being the case, I feel like this question will get asked less in the coming months or years as people learn the Windows 7 interface.

Let’s take a look at the Mac OSX Dock


The picture above is a picture of my OSX Dock (yes, I run Mac exclusively, although I do run Windows XP, Vista, and 7 in a VMware Fusion installation to help me with Windows articles and support).  In my Dock (the portion showing in the picture) I have Finder, Screen Sharing, Dashboard, TextWrangler, FireFox, iPhoto, Spaces, Expose, and the System Preferences application “pinned” to my dock.

If you’ve been running Windows XP or Vista, you’re likely familiar with the Windows Taskbar.  The Taskbar only shows programs that are open and/or active.

With Macintosh OSX (and Windows 7), what is shown on the Dock (or Taskbar in 7) are nor necessarily running, open and/or in use.  The Dock is more of a shortcut bar.  A list of applications that could be running.  One thing to keep in mind on the Mac though is that if an application is running it will always be on the Dock, with few exceptions.  However, it also true that just because a program is on the Dock does not mean it is running.

So how do we tell if a program is running on the Mac?


The answer is a lot simpler than you might think.  Let’s look at this picture above again, only let’s focus on three applications “pinned” in the dock.  TextWrangler, FireFox, and iPhoto.  Do you notice anything different about TextWrangler and FireFox, as opposed to iPhoto?  I know what you’re thinking. “Mac makes things easy, why isn’t this glaringly obvious?”  Well, its a throwback to previous versions of the Mac OS that kept getting “improved” upon with each new release.



I bet the second you looked at that last picture, a huge lightbulb came on in your mind.  “OH I GET IT!”  You would be correct.  The glowing dot below the applications dock icon is how you tell if a an application is actually open and consuming resources.

How do I close an application in Mac OSX?

Good question!  You’ve likely noticed when you click the red dot in the top left corner of an application that it disappears from your screen.  You’ve likely also noticed that 90% of the applications you close in this manner still have the little glowing dot below them.  You would be correct to assume that clicking the red dot in Mac OSX is not the same as clicking the red X on a Windows application.  You are only hiding the running application, not closing it, with few exceptions.

To actually close an application and remove it from memory (and stop if from consuming CPU and other resources) you have two options.

Option 1:

First, make sure the application you want to close is in focus and showing on the menubar at the top of the screen.  You can either click COMMAND-Q, or click the name of the application on the finder and select Quit.  See the following picture for an example of closing FireFox.


Option 2:

Sometimes, you don’t want to bring an application into focus, you simple want it out of memory without changing your screen layout (or the focus of the running application).  To do that, simply right click (or long click if you have “secondary click” disabled in the system preferences), or CTRL-click the icon of the application you want to close, and then simply select quit.  See the picture below for an example of this.


I hope I was able to give you a little more insight into the uniqueness of Mac OSX and that you come to love and enjoy using the Mac as much as I do.  Feel free to leave questions and comments below!

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