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Macintosh Reference Guide

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Last updated Feb 25, 2005.

In a remark widely derided as inane, Steve Jobs said that one of the goals when designing Mac OS X was to make it so attractive that the buttons would be "lickable." Silly as it may seem to admit, I think Apple hit the mark. The small red, yellow, and green buttons in the upper left corner of most windows really are as tempting as the sugary Candy Buttons we scraped off paper rolls with our teeth as children. And the ubiquitous throbbing aquamarine OK buttons appear to have been carefully squeezed out of a tube of Colgate MaxFresh toothpaste.

Even if you find the Mac OS X interface so attractive you're actually tempted to eat it, you may be interested in tweaking it a bit to make it even prettier and more productive. Begin by choosing Apple > System Preferences, then click Appearance (see the following figure).

Figure 94

Figure 94 Appearance preferences control not only the Mac's aesthetics, but also functional features, too.

There are two things you should know about Appearance preferences, right from the onset. First of all, changes to settings are implemented immediately. There's no need to "apply" or "save" your settings by closing the window. This allows you to quickly see the effect of your changes by switching to another open application, and to switch back to revert to the original setting if you don't like what you've done.

The second thing to understand is that not all applications are affected by Appearance preferences. If a developer took a "roll your own" approach to programming, his products may not rely upon the prebuilt tools controlled by Appearance preferences. The only way to tell if this is the case with a particular program is to experiment for yourself.

The Appearance pop-up menu affects the overall look of buttons, menus, and windows. Apple offers only the Blue and Graphite themes. To my tastes, the Graphite theme is so boring it should be called Corporate Gray instead.

Apple was more generous with the Highlight Color pop-up menu, which contains eight default colors, as well as the ability to choose whatever you like from a color wheel. I'm perfectly happy with the light blue default color for selected text and lists, but it's nice to have the flexibility to express yourself. If you really want to go wild customizing your user interface, <a href="">check out ShapeShifter</a> ($20 shareware), a program with more modification options than a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon.

To change the location where scroll arrows appear in windows, select one of the "Place scroll arrows" radio buttons. The default is to have the up arrow at the top of the scroll box and the down arrow at the bottom of the scroll box. The disadvantage to this arrangement is that the arrows are so far apart you spend a good deal of effort moving the cursor over the one you want. By grouping them together, you can go to one place regardless of which direction you want to scroll. Unfortunately, Apple places the scroll arrows together only at the bottom of the scroll bar. <a href="">Download the freeware TinkerTool</a> if you want them together at both ends. TinkerTool also allows you to tweak many other settings that are similar to those found in Appearance preferences.

The next set of radio buttons determines what happens when you click in the scroll bar. If you select "Jump to the next page," whenever you click below the scroll box in a vertical scroll bar, the application should reveal the next page in the document, just as if you've pressed the Page Down key on the keyboard. If you select "Scroll to here" instead, the application should reveal the page corresponding to the cursor's approximate position in the document. In other words, if you have a 10-page document open and you click towards the bottom of the scroll box, the last page appears. Since you can use Page Up and Page Down keys to move around documents a single page at a time, I prefer the "Scroll to here" method.

The "Use smooth scrolling" checkbox remains a mystery to me. When disabled, if you press Page Down, the screen immediately displays the next page in the document. When smooth scrolling is enabled, the next page sort of scrolls into view, but the effect is hardly "smooth" on my relatively powerful 1.8GHz iMac G5. Unless you're a fan of jerky screen redraws, turn this option off.

Select the "Minimize when double clicking a window title bar" checkbox if you want another way to make windows disappear. By default, most windows have red, yellow, and green buttons in their upper left corners. Click the red button to close a document; click the yellow button to minimize the window to the Dock (click its thumbnail in the Dock to restore it to full size); or click the green button to make the window shrink or grow, depending upon its current state. When this checkbox is enabled, double-clicking a window's title bar has the same effect as clicking the yellow minimize button. If you prefer having the window collapse into its title bar—as it used to do since the introduction of System 7.5 in 1994—<a href="">download and install WindowShade X</a> ($10 shareware).

The "Number of Recent Items" pop-up menus determine how Mac OS X keeps track of the applications and documents you open. Normally, Mac OS X automatically watches what you're doing and places the most recently opened items in the Recent Items submenu in the Apple menu (see the following figure).

Figure 95

Figure 95 Cover your tracks if you don't want your computing habits followed.

If you have nothing to hide, tracking recent items can be rather useful, because the Recent Items submenu gives you a handy way of reopening a recently-used application or document without the bother of locating it in the Dock or Finder. However, if you prefer never leaving a trail of digital breadcrumbs, choose Number of Recent Items > None, or choose Apple > Recent Items > Clear Menu to erase the current batch of items.

To fine-tune the appearance of text on screen, choose from the "Font smoothing style" pop-up menu. Mac OS X uses a technique known as anti-aliasing to trick the eye into seeing a smooth curve, when in fact a line is made up of square pixels in a ragged stair step pattern. Apple recommends medium smoothing for computers with LCDs, and standard smoothing for computers with CRTs, but you can experiment with all four options to find the one that pleases your eyes.

If you're using small font sizes in your documents and feel that the smoothing is actually making tiny text fuzzy and hard to read, choose a larger font size from the "Turn off text smoothing for font sizes" pop-up menu.