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  1. Computer Skills
  2. OS X
Computers

Getting Intimate With Your System Preferences: Personal Settings

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Difficulty:BeginnerLength:LongLanguages:

Today, we’ll take an in-depth look at the System Preferences. We’ll check out virtually every option and every checkbox so you’ll know where to tweak which settings. If you're a new user who still finds Macs a little intimidating, I think you will be surprised at just how easy it is to change things around.

Part 1 of 4- The Personal settings

At first glance it’s not necessarily apparent, but there’s a lot of power hidden in your System Preferences. We will cover everything there is and split up our in-depth look into several articles here on MacTuts+ to keep it manageable for you.

The first part will cover the section labeled “Personal”, where you can change everything from your desktop wallpaper to your language, date settings and security options.


The System Preferences

I do remember from my dark days - a.k.a. when I was a Windows user - that I never really felt comfortable tweaking settings. I did, mind you, but I usually messed something up while doing so.

The Settings in OSX on the other hand look friendly and each category is represented with a colorful icon.

Your Mac's System Preferences Your Mac's System Preferences

The five sections each hold a different number of categories; the last section “Other” will only be visible if you actually have a third party application or service installed that lives in the preference pane.


Section: Personal

The “Personal” category holds eight different panes and deals mostly with configuring the user interface, from looks to language to security.

Category: General

The General Section has the most basic settings
The General Section has the most basic settings

As the name implies, the settings you can adjust here apply to pretty much everywhere in OS X. First off are Appearance and Highlight Color. Appearance offers the choice between blue and graphite. What it does is change the colors of the three tiny bubbles in the top left corner of every app window. By default, they are red, yellow and green. Switching to graphite takes the color out and leaves you with grey.

The color of the tiny bubbles on the top left of every window
The color of the tiny bubbles on the top left of every window

The label “blue” is a little misleading here and I think something like “color” would make much more sense, but at least now you know.

The highlight color affects every selection you make: text in a word processor, the URL in your browser, an image from a website. Whenever you select anything, it will be highlighted.

Change the highlight color to something you like
Change the highlight color to something you like

There are nine preset colors for highlight colors, but you can pick your own if you select other at the bottom. If you’re more into pink or want to keep it neutral in silver, here’s the place to go.

Next up are the scroll bars and how you interact with them: since Lion, scroll bars have sort of vanished, which led to some confusion early on for switchers and still is the reason for despair among many new Mac users. Rest assured, the scroll bars are still there, you just can’t see them.

Settings for the scroll bars
Settings for the scroll bars

The first setting in is called Show scrollbars automatically based on input device. You’ll see them if you’re using a mouse or the MacBook’s trackpad, for example. The next, When scrolling, means that the bars will appear - magically - when you start scrolling anywhere. And if you want to go old school, simply check Always and they’ll be there at all times.

Now, let’s assume you’re in a large Pages document or reading a long article in your browser. You quickly want to go to a specific spot. There are two options.

Jump to a certain position by clicking in the scroll bar
Jump to a certain position by clicking in the scroll bar

Either leave it at the default Jump to the next page, which will take you to another page by default. You will notice it in the browser - it will scroll down just the width of your display, even if it should have gone a lot further down compared to where you clicked.

Now, if you select Jump to the spot that’s clicked it will actually take you there immediately. Even if you keep the next box checked (“Use smooth scrolling”) it will be very fast and you’ll see virtually no animation.

I myself prefer the original setting, but if you happen to work in a large document, maybe your thesis or a documentation you have to throw together for work, the second setting might help you more in getting things done faster.

Another checkbox is de-activated by default: Double-click window’s title bar to minimize. Usually, you’d use the tiny yellow orb in the top left corner of an app’s window. If you’re like me and have trouble hitting it precisely, just check this option to have a much larger target area.

Mashed in here, even though it concerns a completely different area of a window, is the setting for the icon size within the sidebar.

You can chose from three settings - small, medium (default), and large - and those will affect the display in your Finder, for instance. If you have trouble discerning the icons, make them larger. If you put a lot of folders or locations in the sidebar for quick access, you can keep an eye on all of them by shrinking the icon size.

Effect of adjusting the icon size
Effect of adjusting the icon size

Next up is a really neat feature that I’ll bet you a lot of experiences Mac users don’t know about and if they do, use too little. It’s called Number of recent items. Wondering what it does? Yeah, you should!

Take a look at your menu bar (the horizontal bar at the very top of your screen, it’s always there). See the Apple to the very left? Click it and then look for “Recent items” and move your cursor over it.

Did you know how useful
Did you know how useful "Recent Items" could be?

Amazing, isn’t it? All of us who have cursed under our breath (or more pronounced) about having to look for a file we just moved somewhere, maybe indadvertedly - we could’ve had it easy.

So, that’s what this setting is for. You can set something between none and fifty for documents, applications and servers.

Fine tune the settings for recent items
Fine tune the settings for recent items

Beneath those three drop downs you’ll spot an inconspicuous checkbox, which was part of a lot of controversy when Lion launched. Restore windows is part of Lion’s Resume feature. In short, it saves the state of a document or window when you quit an app or shut down your Mac.

Say you’ve opened a PDF document in Preview, shut down your Mac and then re-opened Preview. It will launch that same document, even if you quit Preview before shut-down. Now, that feature has its benefits - if your battery gives out on your MacBook, if you had to leave your work space hastily and somebody shut the Mac down - you won’t lose your work, you don’t even need to save it. It will be done for you. That’s incredibly convenient for a lot of users, especially those who are not so tech-savvy (yes, I’m looking at you, mom).

If you, for whatever reason, loathe the feature or need to disable it, here’s the place to do it. Just make sure you do it before you get used to the convenience of not having to save anything.

Tip: Do not confuse this with another setting that appears in your shut down screen called “Reopen windows when logging back in”. This one will remember which windows and apps were open when you shut down; the “Restore windows” will remember the content.

The last two settings concern the display of fonts. The smoothing will make the edges on some font faces smoother, thereby easier to read. You can disable this for small font sizes because they can become too hard to read.

Change the font smoothing options if the defaults don't work for you
Change the font smoothing options if the defaults don't work for you

Category: Desktop & Screensaver

I guess this is the screen most of you will know since most Mac users change their desktop wallpaper at one time or another. To the left, you can see a pane where you set the source of the wallpapers and the content of those folders is displayed to the right.

Set a nice wallpaper for your desktop background
Set a nice wallpaper for your desktop background

By default, you will see the “Apple” folder, iPhoto and your default “Pictures” folder. If you click the little plus sign at the bottom of the left pane, you can add any other folder where you stored images.

If you selected an image that is not exactly the resolution of your screen, a drop down option-list will appear.

Adjust the display of wallpapers smaller or bigger than your screen resolution
Adjust the display of wallpapers smaller or bigger than your screen resolution

It will let you select between different settings. Experiment to see the different effects and find the look that you like most.

Below the image preview, there are two checkboxes, the first one labeled Change picture. Once you select it, the drop down next to it will be activated.

Create a background slideshow from your images
Create a background slideshow from your images

In effect, it will create a slideshow of all the images in your currently selected folder and change the images by way of fading in the time-interval you selected. Check “Random Order” and be surprised.

In the Screen Saver tab you can - as the name suggests - change your screen saver. There are quite a few to chose from; additionally pictures and events, faces and places from your iPhoto library can be used for a slideshow.

Set and adjust your screensaver
Set and adjust your screensaver

You can randomize them, add a clock display and show them on the main screen only, meaning that secondary displays won't be affected. Depending on the saver selected, there might be additional options.

Through a slider you can set a time when your screen saver should activate; if your display will go to sleep prior to that, you'll get a warning. The button Hot Corners will be explained a little further down.

Category: Dock

The dock is the bar which is, by default, located at the bottom of your Mac’s screen and which holds all open applications. You can adjust it here.

Tweak your Dock
Tweak your Dock

The size obviously controls the dimension of the dock - if you have a lot of items living in there, you might want to go for smaller. If you only have a handful of apps, go for larger.

The Magnification setting controls how much the items in the dock will grow when you move your mouse over them. That’s pretty much a setting that will differ with the taste of every user.

Magnify your dock items
Magnify your dock items

If you don’t want to have your dock at the bottom of the screen but rather at the left or right (maybe those coming from Windows?), use the Position on screen option.

For fun, hold Shift when clicking the yellow minimize button – it will create slow motion effect.

If you are just annoyed by your dock being present all the time and stealing valuable screen space, jump to the checkboxes at the bottom and make sure Automatically hide and show dock is selected.

If you are not using the dock, it will disappear, but the moment you move your mouse cursor to the bottom (or right and left) of your screen, it will appear again, overlaying whatever reaches to the bottom of your screen.

We left out one setting above which controls the effect with which windows are minimized. By default, the Genie effect is used. Hit the yellow button in any window (top left) and you’ll see how the window becomes less wide at the bottom and is sucked down.

For fun, hold Control when clicking the yellow minimize button - it will create slow motion effect. The alternative is the Scale effect, which simply scales the window down; I personally don’t like it as much, it’s too much fun to watch the Genie effect.

If you’re low on dock space, the Minimize windows into application icon will prevent open, but minimized app windows to clutter your dock. The downside: You won’t see your active windows at first glance.

Minimize windows separately into the dock or into their respective app icon
Minimize windows separately into the dock or into their respective app icon

Animate opening applications will simply add a bounce effect to the icons in the dock while the application is loaded. I had to check that several times - on my new MacBook Air with its SSD it’s almost non visible since apps launch incredibly fast.

Show indicator lights for open applications will add a tiny glowing dot beneath open applications, making it easier for you to see at once if you’ve started an app already.

Category: Mission Control

Mission control gives you an overview of all your open windows, thumbnails of your full-screen applications, and Dashboard, all arranged in a unified way.

If you’ve ever been annoyed by the Dashboard having it’s own space - if you don’t use it or if you sick of seeing it every time you cycle through full screen app windows - simply uncheck the option here.

Tweak your Mission Control settings
Tweak your Mission Control settings

To bring up the dashboard anyway, either use the F12 key or on a MacBook, fn+F12.

The next setting might delight the control freaks: Automatically rearrange spaces based on most recent use does what it says, but if you want your spaces to be in a specific order, disabling this setting will let you take back control.

Arrange your spaces manually or automatically
Arrange your spaces manually or automatically

The last option, When switching to an application… will simply cause you to jump to any open window of that app, no matter in which space it’s in. Disabling it, well, it’s rather confusing. You will have access to applications, but you won’t jump the app’s open windows. To be honest, I can’t think of why you would want that; it will force you to cycle through your spaces manually.

The options summarized in Keyboard and Mouse Shortcuts allow you to control certain actions from your keyboard.

Set keyboard shortcuts for actions
Set keyboard shortcuts for actions

There is a wealth of options and you can set the shortcuts you like best and can remember easiest. In effect, you can mimic gesture-behavior with keystrokes; if you’re on an iMac without a trackpad, this will enable you to access Mission Control etc. quickly.

Don’t overlook the inconspicuous button labeled Hot Corners… at the bottom of the window.

It allows you to assign actions to the four corners of your screen. In my example, moving my mouse cursor the the top left will put my display to sleep. You can select a number of options from the drop-down menu for every corner. Leaving it blank will deactivate the corner.

Assign actions to corners of your screen
Assign actions to corners of your screen

Category: Language & Text

One of the best things about OS X is the ease with which you can switch your system language. Your Mac comes pre-installed with lots of different languages. Simply drag the one you want to top and boom - your Mac will speak Russian, Spanish or German immediately.

Did you know your Mac spoke a lot of different languages?
Did you know your Mac spoke a lot of different languages?

If what you’re looking for isn’t there or the list is too stuffed for your taste, hit the Edit List button at the bottom. Here you can select which languages will be shown in the main list.

Check the list for even more languages
Check the list for even more languages

It seems, though, that the newest generation Mac have lost the Klingon language. My 2006 Mac actually came with a preset for that. Too bad for the geeks out there.

The other setting in this tab, Order for sorted lists, will affect how items are sorted in the finder. Usually, they are sorted by name or date or another characteristic, but if you select a language here, it can influence the “by name” sorting in the Finder.

The next tab, Text, deals with manipulating and correcting text. There are number of presets for text substitution.

Text and symbol substitution to quickly insert symbols or correct regular typos
Text and symbol substitution to quickly insert symbols or correct regular typos

So, instead of searching forever for the copyright symbol, simply use the available substitution (c). Have a typo you make often and want automatically corrected, for example the popular “teh” instead of “the”?

Simply hit the plus sign beneath the list and enter the misspelled word and the correct replacement.

Add your own subsitutions
Add your own subsitutions

It doesn’t work for you? Keep in mind that you can't use this everywhere by default, but have to enable it for many applications. Unfortunately, it doesn’t say this anywhere, which can be pretty confusing. In Pages, for example, go into the application settings and to the tab Auto-Corrections and check the last check box. In most other apps, you have to go to the Edit menu –> Substitutions and select Text Replacement.

Activate text substitution in any app
Activate text substitution in any app

Back to our system setting: The checkbox Correct spelling automatically does what it says and Spelling can either be set to a specific language or you’ll let your Mac figure it out along the way (for people who write in more than one language, leave it at the default, it’s pretty good).

Chose a language for the spell check
Chose a language for the spell check

Word Break will affect how a word is highlighted when it’s double clicked. There seems to be some specifics in certain languages; you can adjust the setting here if you’re not happy with the default. I haven’t really noticed any difference though.

Last, Smart Quotes are also something that differs between languages and purposes. Writers will need different quotes than programmers. In the English language, different quotes are used than in German. If you’ve ever wondered how you can finally set the ones you like, there you go.

You need different quotes? Here you go.
You need different quotes? Here you go.

The Formats tab is a pretty important one, but usually you won’t have to do anything here. When you set up your Mac for the very first time, you’ll be asked to select the region you’re from and your system language. Based on those information, the defaults are set.

Adjust date, time and number formats throughout the OS
Adjust date, time and number formats throughout the OS

You should not make any changes here unless you are absolutely sure what you’re doing! You can mess up pretty badly; my mom managed to create her own time zone and calendar and was stuck on 2 February 2012 for about a month until I visited her and figured out what she’d done (and she still denies it).

For all non-western users, the Dates options will allow to select a different type of calendar.

Interesting. Different calendars have different years.
Interesting. Different calendars have different years.

You can actually try that safely; it’s fun to see in which year those other cultures live. Also, if you’d prefer your week to not start on a Monday, change it here.

If you know what you’re doing, hit the Customize button and create a custom date format. There are some presets which will help you understand just what goes where.

Create a new date format, if you dare
Create a new date format, if you dare

The Times section allows you to change the time format, but not the time itself (there’s another setting for that).

As with the date, you can also create a new time format
As with the date, you can also create a new time format

Numbers is a preset that depends on your language setting; if you are like me using a different language from the region your are in, it may be that those settings are not what you need. For example, the decimal and thousand separator are reversed in Germany compared to the United States. Since I’ve selected English as my system language, it always presents me with the wrong separators (try prepping your taxes in a Numbers file - it will drive you nuts). This is the place to adjust the setting.

Adjust the number and currency separators
Adjust the number and currency separators

At the very bottom, you can select the applicable Currency and Measurement units, depending on where you live.

Currency change or need a new measurement unit?
Currency change or need a new measurement unit?

The last tab deals with Input Sources. Obviously, you have your keyboard, but what if you need a different layout from the physical one? Many German programmers, for example, prefer the US keyboard layout because a lot of special characters needed for coding are more easily accessible. And a lot of professional writers will prefer the DVORAK layout because it allows for even faster typing.

Need another keyboard layout. There a few to chose from
Need another keyboard layout. There a few to chose from

You can select the keyboard layout you want here, but you of course you have to know it because it will not change the labeling of your actual keys.

If you need special characters often, you can have the Keyboard & Character Viewer shown in the menu bar (for you heavy users of emoticons, this is great!)

This is what the character viewer can do for you
This is what the character viewer can do for you

Category: Security & Privacy

Be aware: If you want to make any changes in this category, you need to unlock the settings by clicking on the lock icon in the lower left and entering your password.

Here are some settings that will allow you to keep your data safer. The General tab alone is pretty nifty, even if you don’t see it at first. If you’ve said a login password for a user, you can change it here.

General security settings
General security settings

If you are using your Mac at home alone, you might want to uncheck the Require password for sleep… box - it will just annoy you after a while. If you carry your Mac with you, you should leave this box checked and set a time of your liking after which you’ll be prompted to provide your credentials.

Show a message… is actually something pretty useful - or funny, depending on your intentions. Imagine forgetting your Mac in a Starbucks or some other place. Thanks to your password, someone who finds it cannot log in, but also not find out how to return it to you since they don’t get any information about you.

Setting a Lock Message may help in this case: you can enter your contact information (name, email, phone number), promise a reward. Or, if you want to mess with your colleagues at work, set a funny saying or quote to pull their leg.

Enter a lock message to either inform or amuse
Enter a lock message to either inform or amuse

Disabling automatic login means that you have to enter your password every time you wake your Mac from sleep or power it up. Again, if you are only using it at home alone, you might not need it. As soon as others have access to your Mac or you carry it with you, you should make sure this box is checked.

At the bottom of this window you can access advanced settings. It’s pretty self-explanatory.

Advanced security settings
Advanced security settings

The most noticeable setting I bet most of you didn’t know about is the last one: Disable restarting Safari when screen is locked. So, let’s assume you might have been browsing for a birthday present for your significant other, who suddenly appeared. You quickly close your Mac, but then have to log in with the significant other still hovering around. How can you make sure he or she won’t see anything? Well, with this setting Safari won’t be visible when you start up again, even if it was open last.

FileVault is up next. That’s an entire chapter onto itself and we will cover it separately here on MacTuts+ because it’s much to complex to just summarize it here in a few sentences. If you want to use FileVault, here’s the place to activate it.

Enable FileVault
Enable FileVault

Firewall manages the incoming connections to your computer. By turning it on, you can prevent unauthorized access by apps and other services.

Activate your Firewall
Activate your Firewall

There are some settings which allow you to tweak the standard “On” feature. If you opt for Block all incoming connections, pretty much everything won’t be allowed. The downside is that File Sharing and Screen Sharing (from the Sharing preferences) won’t work either.

If you want to fine-tune which applications are allowed incoming connections, you can add them in the next window and set the status to their “Allow” or “Deny”.

Tweak your firewall settings
Tweak your firewall settings

The “signed” software mentioned in the next checkbox are apps that have a valid certificate (by some authority recognized by Apple) and which will be allowed automatically without you having to validate them manually.

The Stealth Mode will basically force your Mac to play dead to probing requests like Pings. If you have no idea what this means, don’t worry about it. The default settings are pretty safe.

Last up is the Privacy tab. There are two features in there: you can opt in to Send diagnostic & usage data to Apple. It will help Apple to improve on its products, but if you are concerned about safety, leave the checkbox off.

Allow or deny sending of private information
Allow or deny sending of private information

The other side of the window deals with Location Services. Again, if you are concerned with privacy, disable them by unchecking the box. If they are enabled, you’ll see a list of applications which access your location settings.

Category: Spotlight

An underused feature on almost every Mac is Spotlight. You might not like it a lot, but it can help you find things quickly. It’s located in the top right of your menu bar (the loupe icon) or can be called up from anywhere with the keyboard shortcut Command-Space.

Spotlight search from the desktop
Spotlight search from the desktop

Entering a term will bring up apps, documents, emails and web searches that match it. You can fine-tune what will be searched in the system preferences.

Adjust the content which will be searched by Spotlight
Adjust the content which will be searched by Spotlight

You can also adjust the keyboard shortcut here as well the shortcut that will let you all up a separate Spotlight window instead of just the search bar.

If you have sensitive information on your Mac that you don’t want to include in Spotlight’s search, you can ban locations in the Privacy tab. Drag folders or locations there or use the plus button to add them.

Ban content from being searched by Spotlight
Ban content from being searched by Spotlight

Category: Universal Access

For those users who have difficulty seeing or hearing, Universal Access comes to aid. The first tab, Seeing, deals with helping to read content.

Universal Access panel
Universal Access panel

Voice Over will activate speech support which will speak descriptions of the items on your screen. In the utility settings, there are a large number of settings you can adjust to your needs.

Voice Over speaks to you
Voice Over speaks to you

In the Verbosity section, you can set just how much information will be read to you, with High providing the most detailed and Low providing the least information.

Verbosiy settings allow you to define just how much you want to be read to you
Verbosiy settings allow you to define just how much you want to be read to you

For those with serious sight impairment, the Braille settings cover the same thing as Verbosity, but the output will be a Braille keyboard.

The Text setting lets you tweak just how text is read to you: do you want every punctuation read to you? Do you want numbers to be read as digits or words?

Announcement will, for example, let you know when your mouse enters a window, when a modifier key is pressed - basically, Announcement is about events and you can set it up here.

The last tab, Hints, works similarly.

There are a lot more settings here; Speech, keyboard navigation, web behavior, sound and so on which each often have sub-categories of settings as well. I think it’s safe to assume that Apple tries to make sure that even if you are visually impaired, your experience with a Mac will be a pleasant one.

This was just the Voice Over settings. There’s also Zoom, which will enlarge your current window. Additional settings allow you to tweak the feature to make it best suit your needs.

The Hearing tab of the Universal Access category is aimed at those users who won’t hear any notifications. You can have your screen flash instead.

Having hearing problems? These settings will help you interact better with your Mac
Having hearing problems? These settings will help you interact better with your Mac

Keyboard is for those who have difficulties pressing more than one key at the same time. The feature Sticky Keys will treat a sequence of modifier keys (Command, Alt, etc.) as a combination.

Adjust the keyboard settings if your motor skills are impaired
Adjust the keyboard settings if your motor skills are impaired

Also, you will notice Use click sounds if you need an acoustic assurance of your typing, you can enable this feature and it will sound just like a typewriter. (Fun notice: if you are typing really fast, try it too. It will become annoying after a while, but it’s fun to hear your typing speed.)

The last tab deals with Mouse & Trackpad. You can disable Mouse Keys and adjust the trackpad and mouse options.

Assistive Support for Mouse and Trackpad
Assistive Support for Mouse and Trackpad

Troubleshooting: If you’re unable to type and letters or symbols or numbers and you’re using a keyboard that has no numeric keypad (just the numbers in one block) or Num Lock key (as is the case with most portable Macs), you might have accidentally activated the Mouse Keys. Simply click your way into this setting and deactivate them.


That’s a Wrap!

Phew, you are still here? That was a lot of information to digest, but it also was just one single section of the system preferences. Now you know everything there is to know about all the Personal settings and how to tweak them to what effect.

In the following weeks, we will continue this series by covering all the other sections in as much detail as we did here. Hope to see you there!

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