Making Your Mac Yours
OSX is pretty good out of the box but it really shines when you customize it to better fit your needs. I will show you how to use both stock and 3rd party apps/utilities to create a better experience. Some customizations are set and forget, others require you to build up the habit of using them. It’s not hard, you just have to remember to use these amazing tools. Heed my words well, adopt these tools slowly and make a point of learning what they can do or their potential is lost.
To be clear I am not telling you that all these apps are for you but they are definitely worth checking out. Try the demo if they sound interesting and buy if they work for you.
This post will be updated as OSX is updated.
For many customization means changing how it looks. While some visual changes are superficial they can enhance your experience.
This is where you will be doing most of the customization to built in apps and utilities. You can do much more in System Preferences than I include here, so explore and tweak and see what works for you.
Note: I still struggle to remember where different settings are. Try using the search in the top right corner to find what you are looking for.
The dock is at the bottom of your screen just taking up space, even when you aren’t using it. Go to System Preferences and click on ‘Dock’. There are a few things you can do to make the dock less intrusive:
- Hide the dock. (My personal choice, this hides the dock until you move the mouse to the bottom of the screen.
- Make the dock smaller. (Or bigger) You can make your dock smaller so you can always see it but it doesn’t take up much space.
- You can also turn on ‘magnify’ which magnifies the dock as you mouse over it.
- You can also set where you want to see the dock be it the bottom, left or ride side of the screen.
Organizing The Dock
Your dock may be filled with apps you don’t use. Apple puts a lot of stock apps on the dock and while it’s nice Apple includes so much software you probably don't need it on your dock. You can remove items by clicking and dragging them away from the dock. This will stop them from showing up when they are not running. Conversely if you want to have an app stay on your dock just right click the icon, go to options, and click ‘Keep In Dock’.
If you look at your dock and are unsure which apps are open you can check the box ‘Show indicator lights for open applications’ in the same menu. It puts a little light under the icons for apps that are currently running.
The menu bar can quickly become cluttered with a mess of applications and utilities. There are a few ways to clean up the menu bar.
- Stock Apps/Utilities: You can toggle a menu bar icon for some stock apps/utilities by going to System Preferences. Find what you want to hide, click on it, and hope it has an option to toggle “show __ in menu bar’.
- 3rd Party Apps: Some third party apps allow you to toggle a menu bar icon on and off through the apps preferences.
Complete Control: You will need a 3rd party app called Bartender (Mac - $15) to really customize your Menu Bar. Bartender allows you to do 3 different things with Menu Bar icons:
- Do nothing
- Show in Bartender Bar
- Completely Hide ‘Do nothing’ and ‘Completely hide’ are pretty self explanatory. The Bartender Bar is a secondary menu bar that you can access by clicking on an icon in the regular Menu Bar or with a keyboard shortcut. This allows the Menu Bar to look very minimal and uncluttered while still having all the functionality that Menu Bar apps give. This may not be useful to you if you don’t mind the clutter, or have a large screen, but it may be a necessity on an 11” Macbook Air.
I get most of my wallpapers from the Kitsune Noir Wallpaper Project. A design blog that partners with artists to showcase cool wallpapers. I am also partial to these OSX inspired wallpapers that can be found here.
You want to find pictures that fit your screen, to do that you need to know what the resolution is. Just go to:
- The Apple icon (top left)
- About This Mac
- Press the More Info… button
- Find the number (It will be something like 1440 x 900)
You can set a picture to be your desktop background in a couple of different ways.
Right click in the Finder.
- Click ‘Services’
- Select ’Set Desktop Picture’
Go to System Preferences
- Desktop & Screensaver
I changed the colour my Mac shows when I highlight text. I went from the default blue to the colour of the hexagon on the top on this page. If you want to do this it is found under ‘General’ in System Preferences.
Popclip ($4.99) is a handy tool that activates anytime you highlight some text. It shows a little menu right over the highlighted text, similar to how iOS works but more powerful. You can customize the tools available to suit your needs. For example:
- When I highlight a web URL I can save it directly to Pocket.
- When I can write a note to myself I can send it to another app without switching apps.
The 3rd party extensions are what really make it useful though. You can find a list here to see if they are things you would need.
Text Expansion allows you to type a short snippet and have it expand to some pre-set text. For example:
omw —becomes-> On my way!
Apple has some basic text expansion built into iOS and OSX. It can be accessed in ‘System Preferences’ under ‘Keyboard’ and then click on ‘Text.’ This is a very basic implementation of text expansion but it might suit your needs. If you are unsure what you would ever need text expansion for, look at these examples:
- aadress = My home address. This is useful for online shopping by eliminating the chance of making a typo.
- nname = My name.
- mmail = My main email but I also have others for each of my different accounts.
These are my personal shortcuts but a common way to stop accidental triggers is to add a symbol before the letters such as ,,nname.
Different text expanders offer different price points. aText (Mac - $4.99) is what I use. It offers most of the features of more expensive expanders for a much cheaper price. It supports images, forms, and even keystrokes besides the regular text expansion. If you need a more powerful text expander check out TextExpander (Mac - $34.99). Text Expander was once the king but as other expanders gained its functionality it has become over priced. (In my opinion.) Personally I would start with the built in option and get used to expanding text and when it becomes a habit look at which expander is right for you.
Your web browser will probably be one of the most used apps on your Mac, so why not make it better? You can find all sorts of different extensions that make tasks like saving to Pocket or Evernote, adding features to various website, and best of all blocking ads. Do you have Ad-Block on right now? If not you are missing out on a much better web experience.
Try not to clog up your menu bar with a bunch of extension buttons, you don’t want a Internet Explorer/toolbar situation. You can visit here to peruse what is available. Or go to ‘Safari’ in the menu bar and click on ‘Safari Extensions…’. To manage the Extensions you have installed go to:
You can also customize what you see on your toolbar by right clicking it.
You probably know Fantastical (Mac - $19.99) from its iOS versions (iPhone - $9.99 iPad - $14.99). I like Fantastical for the simple fact that it lives on my menu bar. It’s a light weight menu bar app that allow you to quickly add events/reminders in natural language and see what your day looks like.
Default Folder X
Default Folder X ($42) solves one of the little annoyances of OSX, save location. When you go to the open or save menu it rarely opens to the folder you want. There are a number of reasons why this happens but all you need to know is that Default Folder X solves this problem. You can set the folder that is shown when you save or open files. It can be set on an app by app basis, significantly speeding up your workflow if you save/open a lot of different things.
iStat Menu ($16) shows you system monitoring in the menu bar. Things like RAM usage, internal temperatures, and other useful things can constantly stream information to you. This app is for those worried about memory management, photo/video editors, and gamers playing graphic intensive games. For most people this is completely unnecessary. I don’t want to make it seem like the app is useless, but it just isn’t as necessary with Macs that have SSD’s and/or have 8GB’s of RAM. (Unless you’re doing CPU/GPU intensive tasks or have a ton of apps open at once.)
Disk Inventory X
OSX doesn’t have a great default way to see what’s taking up space on your hard drive. Disk Inventory X (Free) shows you, in decreasing order, what is hogging up space on your hard drive. It’s a free application but if it helps you donate to the developer.
(If you can’t figure out why your hard drive is filled up a good culprit to check is iOS back-ups and apps. They can take ten’s of GB’s of space up and multiple back-ups can be kept for each device.)
Store Your Files In The Cloud
You can gain so much functionality by just changing where you store your files. I save almost everything to Dropbox (2 GB Free). (This will probably change to iCloud Drive when OSX Yosemite/iOS 8 is released.) Rather than save everything to local storage and be annoyed when I can’t access the file on one of my other devices, I save everything to Dropbox. This makes my files available across all of my devices. Dropbox installs folders on the Mac just like ones that are stored on the local drive so it isn’t any different to save or open files. When you install Dropbox for Mac it syncs everything to the local drive so even though everything is in the cloud it is also stored locally.
You may notice that when you press the maximize button (green plus, top left) it doesn’t fill the screen, instead it makes the app as big as it needs to be. You also have to manually re-size applications by dragging the sides. To easily change window sizes, and orientations, download Better Touch Tool. It allows you to drag windows to the sides of the monitor to automatically re-size them to pre-determined sizes. For example, dragging a window to the top of my screen makes it fill the whole monitor, dragging it to either side makes it fill that half of the screen.
Hot corners allow you to launch actions by moving your mouse to the corner of the screen. (I really like this feature but some people hate it.) In System Preferences go to:
- ‘Desktop & Screen Saver’
- ‘Screen Saver’
- On the bottom right you will see a button for ‘Hot Corners…’.
This allows you to set things like ‘put display to sleep,’ ‘Mission Control,’ ‘Application Windows’ and more to open when you move the mouse to the assigned corner. I wouldn’t recommend using the top left corner for ‘put display to sleep’ because it’s easy to move to far when going to close a window.
Note: If you are unwieldily with a mouse or trackpad you may want to leave these off.
Change Default Finder Folder
By default the Finder shows you ‘All My Files’ when you open a new window. (Which I find to be totally useless.) How do you change this?
- Go to Finder
- Click the word ‘Finder’ on the top left of the menu bar.
- Click ‘Preferences’
- Under ‘New Finder windows show:’ choose the folder you want from drop down menu.
Change The Default App Certain Filetypes Are Opened In
If you open every movie file on your Mac with VLC (Free) you don’t want to have to right click the file, click ‘Open With’ and then find VLC. To make a certain file type open the app you:
- Right click a file in Finder
- Click ‘Get Info’
- Change ‘Open With’ to the app you want
- Press ‘Change All’.
Tap Rather Than Click The Trackpad
You can turn this feature on by going to:
- ‘System Preferences’
- Turning on ‘Tap to click.’
If your only experience with "tapping" trackpads is the errant clicks produced by cheap Windows PC's you probably have a hate for this type of interaction. (I know I did.) However, the Apple trackpad is the best out there and their click recognition works much better, I almost never have accidental "clicks". Try it out for yourself, I have come to love it.
Alfred (Mac - Free, Powerpack - £17) allows you to launch apps, search iTunes, see your full clipboard, and a plethora of downloadable workflows that do amazing things, all with a quick keystroke. At it's most simple you can launch an app with a hotkey or keyword. There is a free version with the basic features but if you buy the Power Pack you get so much more. Some of the things you can do by launching Alfred.
- Search your files
- Search a bunch of different websites
- Clipboard History
- Search and control iTunes
- 1 Password one click bookmarks
- system commands (it's so easy to shutdown or put your Mac to sleep)
The stock version is great but where it really shines is the ‘Workflows’. You can create your own or download them from the web. Some of the ones I use.
- Open a group of files and apps
- Hotkeys for different things (option + c brings up my Google calendar)
- Google search with suggestions
- Control Rdio
Basically anything you want, the Alfred community has a workflow for. (You can create your own as well.) I have keywords to set up my work environment, so pressing cmd twice, typing Monday and pressing enter opens all of the apps and files I need for that day. When I use my sisters Mac I continuously hit Cmd Cmd and wonder what is wrong with it. It is an integral part of my Mac and would happily pay for the app again and again. (Though I don’t have to because I am a ‘Mega Supporter’.)
How to start with Alfred
- Download the free version.
- Start simple, just launch apps with it. The more you try and learn at once the less you will use it.
- Look in the Alfred Preferences and click the usage tab. When you think you are using it enough look into the features of the power pack.
- Buy the power pack.
Build the habit up to use it before you buy it. It's mandatory on all my computers and with some use it will be on yours too. It is available here. The power pack is £17.
Right now, Spotlight is a pretty great way to browse your files or launch an application. You can also use Spotlight to quickly find a file, application, contact, email, and much more through search. It can return an overwhelming number of results so you may want to modify your results to suit your needs. This can be done in ‘System Preferences’ under ‘Spotlight.’
I personally prefer Alfred but Spotlight can be a very powerful tool. I should note Spotlight is about to get a whole lot more powerful with OSX Yosemite.
This isn't an app so much as a feature you may not be using already built into the programs you use every day. When I want to close a window, cycle between apps, quit an app, or cycle tabs on your browser, I use keyboard shortcuts. The less you have to take your hands off the keyboard the faster you will be. It amazes the people watching you when you switch apps, cycle through the open windows on the current app, resize an app to full screen, save, and quit all without touching the mouse. Here are some basic ones to get you started and once these are second nature to you check out Cheat Sheet (Free) for a handy way to view many available keyboard shortcuts for the current app you are looking at.
- Quit app - Cmd + q
- Save - Cmd + s
- Cycle open apps - Cmd + tab
- Cycle browser tabs - Control + tab
- Cycle open windows of the current app - Cmd + ` (the button to the left of 1)
Automation can take a lot of the monotony out of owning a computer. I have rules set up to:
- Move pictures I save to my ‘Downloads’ folder to a folder in my photo library called ‘Unsorted.’
- Copy my writing folder once a day to a secondary hard drive.
- Add tags
- Organize files
- Rename files
Admittedly I am barely scraping the surface of what automation can do but there are two apps and a website you should check out to get started:
Start up Apps
Some apps automatically start up on log in. This can become a problem because as you accrue more and more apps it can slow down your Mac. So how do you stop apps from starting up automatically? There are two ways:
- There might be an option in the apps preferences. You can find the preferences by clicking on the name of the app in the top left of the menu bar. Or by clicking on the icon for Menu Bar apps/utilities.
- To manage all of your start up apps you will need to go to:
- System Preferences
- Users & Groups
- Login Items
- Click the lock to make changes
- Select the app you don’t want to start up at login
- Click the minus symbol below the list of apps
Default Folder X ($42)
Ad-Block (Free but you can donate)
iStat Menu ($16)
Disk Inventory X (Free)
Alfred (Basic is Free)
Cheat Sheet (Free)
Better Touch Tool (Free)
Keyboard Maestro ($40.45)
I didn’t start using all these apps overnight. I slowly built up the habit by adding them one by one to my Mac. The most useful apps in the world are useless if you forget about them. Find the biggest annoyances you have and solve them one at a time. Have fun.