Beat the System6 ways to customize your Mac's Finder and user experience

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Made-up Mac

This post is part 5 of a series, Getting the most from your new Mac.

You've fallen in love; you never knew it could be like this. When you compare the object of your affection to your ex, you can't believe what you once settled for.

But like any lover, you can't help but noticing one or two things that could be just a tiny bit better. Maybe your beloved even has a couple of quirks that are downright annoying. And isn't it your job -- the job of any admirer -- to bring out the best in your darling?

Happily, it's easier to tweak your Mac than to upgrade your boyfriend or girlfriend. Here are some adjustments that any new Mac user should undertake, or at least consider, until your computer is exactly right for you.

  1. Customize your dock. That row of icons at the bottom (or if you've gotten fancy, at the side) needn't contain the apps that Apple, in its infinite wisdom, stuck there. If there are apps you're not using, drag them out and poof! they're gone. Not gone gone -- they're still in your Applications folder. But the dock shortcut is outta there; now you can add the applications that you really use without ending up with an insanely cluttered dock. (A dock full of Apple's default icons is a sure sign of a Mac newbie.) Just drag an app's icon in there, or ctrl-click on the icon of any active application (all active apps show up in the dock) and select "keep in dock".  You can also resize your dock by hovering over the dotted line that divides your apps from your folders. Speaking of folders, here's a neat trick: putting your applications folder in the dock (just drag and drop); clicking that folder pops up a spring-loaded list of applications you can launch from there. And if you want to find new apps to try out, try looking over the shoulder of any Mac user; if you see unfamiliar icons in their dock, ask them what the app is and what they use it for.


  2. Go Places. Your Finder windows and open or save dialogue boxes will show you a left-hand column with all the drives currently mounted on your computer, plus your favorite places (typically, your home Places in Finderdirectory, documents folder, pictures folder, etc). Just like the dock, this list of Places can be customized. If there are folders you don't use often, drag their folders out of this list; they'll disappear from the list but stay on your computer. Then drag any folder you use frequently onto the list of places (taking care not to drag it directly onto another icon; if you do that, the folder will be placed inside the folder you've just dragged it onto). Your frequently-used folder will now appear in your list of places, and be readily accessible from any open or save dialog or from any Finder window.
  3. Be controlling. If you're missing your right mouse button, let me introduce you to the control key. Holding ctrl while clicking your mouse button acts just like a right-click on a Windows machine; it gives you a menu with lots of additional options for whatever you're clicking on.
  4. Take the shortcut. Learning keyboard shortcuts will make you a much more efficent Mac-er. One of my favorites: holding the Command key (the one with the apple on it) while clicking a link in Firefox or Safari, to open that link in a new tab.  If you want to get really hardcore, or you just really hate your mouse, try Quicksilver, an application that lets you do just about anything you can imagine via keyboard, and then some.
  5. Get smart. You can create smart folders or groups in the Finder, Mail, Address Book and iTunes, which essentially create virtual folders based on rules. For example, I've got a smart folder I created in the Finder, called "presentations"; it contains all the files on my computer that are either PowerPoint or Keynote files. The original files stay with the projects they're related to, but I've got a single place to look for all presentation files whenever I need to create a new presentation that draws on my previous work.
  6. Just say no. There are some really hot-looking Apple doodads you may want to live without. I leave my screen saver turned off, because it annoys me to have my windows disappear; I only rarely use my Dashboard (which provides access to a range of small utility applications), and I personally find Exposé (which lets you get a bird's-eye view of all your open windows) to be dizzying, probably because I have so many open windows that it looks like this:
  7. Expose screenshot

Make your Mac yours, and you'll find that your passion for the platform will deepen into lasting commitment.

Which Finder and system tweaks have made you love your Mac more than ever?


iAlja says

June 10, 2009 - 12:25am

I really like this series of tips for new Mac users, good job! And welcome to the Mac family! :)

I'd just like to add something to this post: "If you're missing your right mouse button, let me introduce you to the control key." Actually, Apple's Mighty Mouse does support right clicks, no need to get used to using the Control key for every right click. Here's an excellent tutorial on how to that.

Right click of course also works on other mice as well. While I love the simple design of the Mighty Mouse, its tiny scroll ball can get extremely difficult to clean, so I switched to a regular mouse.

Camden Spiller says

June 10, 2009 - 10:30am

Great post.

Two comments:

Quicksilver: The biggest teak/add-on I've enjoyed when it comes to navigating around the Mac is definitely Quicksilver:

Spaces: I also have a gazillion windows open, and I love spaces, but it was pretty useless for me (Especially with browser windows, etc.) until I discovered that I could uncheck the "When switching to an application, switch to a space with open windows for the application" box in the "Expose & Spaces" preferences.

Mike says

June 10, 2009 - 9:52pm

I haven't used Mac until now but debating with myself whether it is any better than Windows? If yes, in what ways? If I decide to use Mac I would definitely go with your tips. - Mike

MattjDrake says

July 1, 2009 - 11:59am

I switched over to Mac a year ago - it took a while to get used to, but after a few months I like Mac enough to change over completely.  Really, the thing that Mac has going for it is that there is a lot of new software that makes a lot of sense.  Everyone seems to work well together on Mac - with Windows I never felt like my apps interacted with each other or myself that often.

MattjDrake says

July 1, 2009 - 11:56am

Great tip on dragging folders in the "places" area on Finder!

Ajmaal Firdowzi says

August 10, 2009 - 12:52pm


Thanks a million. this is exactly what I was looking for.

I am a banker & I just bought a Mac computer with my bonus I last week. Its the first time that I am using a Mac operating computer & I didn't quite understand how to use it properly though I am able to get familiar with the basic operations.
I was able to find this post on Mac terminal skins - but is quite hard & complicated to understand for me. Its the first post that came across for me since I mostly use that blog for information.
Its a good blog, but then, I found yours & its really great there are so many & topics to discuss. Although its hard for me to understand some things, I guess that this will be a fast track to get familiar Mac operating systems.

I thank you you for this amazing post. Keep it up. I will keep it touch.

Thanks again.

please notify me thru email if possible if you have any other tips like this. its simply amazing.

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