1. Computer Skills
  2. OS X

Tips and Tricks for Making the Most of System Preferences


System Preferences: one of the most basic and most used aspects of Mac OS X. But how well do you really know your way around it? What hidden features have you never discovered? Let's take a look at some rarely discussed ways to use and tweak your System Preferences setup.

Three Steps to Mastering System Preferences

To become a System Preferences pro, you have to master three different areas: quickly getting to the pane you want, cleaning up your panes by cutting the clutter and organization methods for those you want to keep. We'll take a look at these areas below and some tricks related to each.

System Preferences
System Preferences

Quickly Jump to Any Pane

The System Preferences window can be a little overwhelming to new users. There are a ton of icons and settings in here and finding what you're looking isn't always the most intuitive process.

Let's take a look at some methods for quickly finding the pane that you're looking for in seconds flat.


The search bar is an obvious feature, no surprises here. Simply begin typing the name of the pane that you're looking for and you'll see the matching options filtered out live with a spotlight effect.

System Preferences
Searching for a Pane

Pretty straightforward right? The coolest part though that you may not have realized is that you can find any setting using this search bar. For instance, let's say you want to turn a firewall on or off, where would you look? A quick search reveals not only the panes where the term "firewall" appears, but also shows you the specific settings that are available and where they can be found.

System Preferences
Search for a specific setting and find where it's located.

Alphabetical List in View Menu

I like the default category organization for the preference panes, but sometimes I'll spend a full minute looking for that dang "Sharing" or "Accessibility" pane and would just prefer a quick alphabetical list.

Fortunately, you can find that very thing under the "View" menu.

System Preferences
Check under View for an alphabetical listing.

It may seem a bit out of the way, but when you know precisely which pane you're looking for, this list can be much more effective than sifting through the grid of icons.

The "Show All" Button's Secret

Can't be bothered to bring your cursor all the way up to the menu bar? Fret not, there's an alphabetical list just like the one that we saw above hidden under the "Show All" button at the top of the System Preferences window.

System Preferences
Click and Hold "Show All" to see an alphabetical list of panes.

To access this menu, simply click and hold the "Show All" button until you see it appear, then click on the pane that you want to open.

Cleaning Up

The last section taught us how to quickly find a specific pane or setting, regardless of the clutter that appears in the System Preferences window. In this section we're going to learn to further improve your efficiency here by cutting out the stuff that you don't need.

Hiding Panes

Admit it, there are probably at least a few preference panes that you never use. For instance, my Retina MacBook Pro has no optical drive, so "CDs & DVDs" isn't something that I bother with.

If you never use some of these panes, then they're really just cluttering up your interface and distracting from the utilities that you actually need. Fortunately, you can fix that!

System Preferences
Here you can choose which panes you do and don't want to be visible.

Go to View>Customize… to bring up the checkboxes shown in the image above. To hide a specific pane, simply uncheck it. Once you're finished, click the "Done" button and the unchecked panes will disappear.

Tip: Unchecked panes are hidden, not deleted. They still appear in the alphabetical lists from above and can be brought back with another click of the "Customize" item.

Deleting Panes

There are several different types of software that you'll find yourself installing on your Mac, most of which fall into four categories: normal apps (dock apps), menu bar apps, Dashboard Widgets and Preference Panes.

All of these are related, but they all each have a unique behavior that isn't mirrored by the others. It's also important to note that the process for uninstalling each of these can vary.

It's also important to note that the process for uninstalling each of these can vary.

If you love installing random stuff on your machine as much as I do, then you'll likely have a few third party Preference Panes, which appear in the "Other" category near the bottom of the System Preferences window. I've easily surpassed two rows of third party panes before, a situation that led me to reign in my pane addiction.

So what do you do when you decide that you want to delete some of these old third party panes that you don't need anymore? There are two possible answers.

Deleting Panes Through Finder

The first method is to go through the Finder and manually drag the panes to the trash. This is a little tricky though because they can be scattered in different places around your machine. For instance, if I hit up Library>PreferencePanes, I only see a single item, despite the fact that I have several third party panes installed.

System Preferences
Some, but not all, third party panes can be found in the Library folder.

The secondary location to check is in the main Library folder. Go to Macintosh HD>Library>PreferencePanes with "Macintosh HD" being the name of your startup disk. When I look here, I find the remaining panes not listed in the previous directory.


If you want a more direct and simple way to delete a pane from System Preferences, simply right click on it in the System Preferences window. This should bring up the option to remove it.

System Preferences
Right-click to delete a Preference Pane.

Doing this will not only remove the pane from the UI here, it actually goes in and locates the pane file and tosses it in the trash. This effectively means that you shouldn't have to worry about tracking down various panes in the Finder, the right-click method is enough to get the job done.

Alternative Organization

As I mentioned before, the default method of organization for Preference Panes is by category. If you simply can't get used to this though and find yourself always using the alphabetical list or search features instead, you should consider setting the default organization to alphabetical.

System Preferences
Check under the View menu for an alphabetical organization option

Checking that little box takes away the nice horizontal stripes and category names and turns the System Preferences window into a plain old grid of icons listed in order of their starting letter.

System Preferences
System Preferences with Alphabetical Organization

It may not be as pretty, but for some, it makes the whole thing a lot easier to use. No more hunting around for that lost pane!

It's Your System, Tweak It!

I'll bet that most OS X users never even consider using some of the techniques that we've outlined here. Hiding seldom used panes and switching up the organization method may seem a little unorthodox, but who cares? You should tweak this window so that it fits the way you think and work.

In a time when Apple is cracking down as much as possible on the freedom that users have to mess with their systems, you should take advantage of the control that you still possess!

Looking for something to help kick start your next project?
Envato Market has a range of items for sale to help get you started.