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ATPM 17.02
February 2011


How To



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How To

by Sylvester Roque,

Making the Most of What’s Already on Your Mac

In last month’s column, we looked at some of the software pre-installed on new Macs. It focused primarily on some of the organizational tools that are an integral part of Mac OS X. This month, I thought we could look at some of the features that control or enhance what you see and hear in Mac OS X. There is often third-party software available with similar or better features, but you may find that what’s already there meets your needs.

What’s Your Preference?

Prior to Mac OS X, I often found myself downloading and trying various system modification utilities to change the settings on my Mac. After a couple of bad experiences with modifications that were more trouble than they were worth, I have avoided most such “hacks” since moving to Mac OS X. That does not mean that there aren’t some useful modifications to be made. Let’s take a look at some of them.

If you don’t like the colors that Mac OS X uses to highlight text or the overall look of various windows, your first stop should be the Appearance preference pane. Changing the highlight color, placement of scroll arrows, and behavior of the scroll bar is as simple as a few mouse clicks. There are not a huge number of customization options here, but it is one of the system settings I often forget about.

I was hesitant to say anything about the Desktop & Screensaver preference pane until I realized how many times I have been asked to recommend commercial software that does something already controlled by this pane. It has separate options for both desktop pictures and screensavers, each with its own tab of controls. If you are using multiple monitors with your Mac, each monitor will have a copy of the settings appear. This allows many of the settings to be different for each monitor.

From the Desktop tab, you can choose to have your Mac change desktop pictures after a specified period of time. New photos and backgrounds you have added to your Mac may already be in the list on the left—especially if you are using iPhoto or Aperture to organize your pictures.

The Screensaver tab in this preference pane presents different options for screensavers. This is one tab I don’t explore much, since I usually just set the monitor to dim to black after a period of inactivity. The list of possible sources on the left side of this pane includes some such as “Word of the Day,” which are specifically designed as screensavers. Photos in your iPhoto and Aperture libraries also appear in the list of potential screensavers. Selecting a photo as a screensaver causes three small buttons to appear under the preview pane. These buttons control whether your photos are shown in slideshow, mosaic, or collage mode.

The Screensaver pane also presents some controls that apply to all screensavers. These options control the time until activation and whether the screensavers are presented in random order. It’s also possible to activate the screensaver early by setting “hot corners.”

What’s on Display?

If you want to make changes to how your Mac’s monitor displays information, chances are the controls are found in the the Displays preference pane. I’ve discussed most of the settings in this pane in a previous column, and they haven’t really changed since then, so I won’t repeat myself. In this column, I’d like to focus a bit on the “Color” tab of that preference pane.

The Color tab of your Displays preference pane presents a series of color profiles that can be used to alter the way color is presented on your screen. The profiles available to you will vary slightly depending upon which Mac you are using and on whether any external monitors are attached. If you are looking at the Color tab and only see one color profile uncheck the “Show profiles for this monitor only” option. Your current monitor, identified by manufacturer or model number, is usually listed first. If you are using a Mac notebook, the profile is usually listed as “Color LCD.”

Once the preference pane is showing several color profiles, switching among them is as simple as clicking the name to select the profile. The changes in color range from almost imperceptible to quite obvious depending upon how different the settings of the new profile are from your current one. It’s important to choose a profile that’s accurate for your display. That way the documents that you preview will look the same at the service bureau as they do on your Mac. Having a correct profile in the preference pane also enables you to use output profiles (e.g. in Photoshop) to preview how your images would look on a television.

The interesting thing about this tab is that you can create your own color profiles as needed. It’s possible that the current profile you are using is not what’s best for your lighting and working conditions. To create a new profile, choose the “Calibrate” option and follow the onscreen directions. In step one, I recommend choosing the Expert, mode since it gives you the opportunity to adjust a few settings that the standard options don’t access. The directions are self-explanatory, but take your time. I can’t guarantee good color results using this tool, but I can guarantee you won’t get good results rushing through the steps. At the end of the process you will be given an opportunity to save your newly created profile. The general consensus among our editorial staff is that you will get much better results using some of the third-party calibration tools that are available, but this will give you sone idea of the possibilities. (You may be interested in our calibration tutorial from 2007.)

An Extra Bit of Assistance

Although features in the Universal Access pane are generally targeted to Mac users with disabilities, non-disabled users may also find some of these features useful. The settings are organized into four general areas of assistance, each with its own tab. The settings are pretty self-explanatory, but I’d like to mention a few options that seem to come up regularly as either very helpful or somewhat problematic.

VoiceOver is one feature located under the Seeing tab. It speaks descriptions of onscreen items and can be used to control the computer entirely from the keyboard. VoiceOver commands are entered by pressing and holding the Control and Option keys simultaneously, followed by a third key to initiate an action. Pressing and holding Control-Option-F for example, when VoiceOver is active, finds the next instance of the item in the search window. A quick start introduction to VoiceOver is run when you activate this feature. Give the tutorial a try. Make sure you go all the way through it, though; some of the latter screens explain how to access screen elements such as “spinners” from the keyboard and offer helpful tips on navigating Web pages.

The Seeing tab also contains a Display area, where users who need additional contrast to assist in reading the screen can control that. The primary choices are “Black on White,” which is the default, and “White on Black,” which produces an image that reminds me of a film negative. Periodically I encounter forum posts from someone who has accidentally generated this look and doesn’t know how to fix it. The good news is that simultaneously pressing Command-Option-Control-8 will toggle the settings until you get the one you prefer. The contrast levels can also b adjusted using a slider on the same panel.

The Hearing tab contains a feature which I sometimes use in libraries and classrooms when I don’t want to hear system sounds. The very first option allows one to set the screen so that the menu bar flashes whenever an alert sound would normally play. There’s also an option here to play stereo sounds as mono. I don’t use this often, but some users find it quite useful.

Take some time to look at the mouse and keyboard settings available in the Universal Access pane. You may find something useful. If you are working with Automator or AppleScript, you may be required to enable access for assistive devices in order for some commands to work properly. This option is activated by clicking a checkbox at the bottom of the Universal Access preference pane.

Bring on the Noise

At one point a few months ago, I had a horrible time switching among the various audio inputs and outputs connected to my MacBook Pro. Switching among a total of four microphones (internal built-in, USB headset, bluetooth headset, and one external) and three outputs (line out, USB headset, and Bluetooth headset) was very confusing. It seems as though no matter which option was selected I needed something different for what I was doing. I was constantly going to the Sound preference pane to make changes. Something had to be done.

At first I tried using a free program called LineIn to switch among the various inputs, since that is what I was doing most often. Before I could try SoundSource to switch both inputs and outputs, someone pointed out an interesting feature of Mac OS X that lets you select among inputs and outputs without opening the Sound preference pane. Try this tip first, and then investigate the other two piece of software since they provide some additional features you may or may not want to add.

If you don’t have the Mac OS X volume control set to appear in your menu bar already, open the Sound preference pane and check “Show volume in menu bar” before closing the preference pane. When the speaker icon appears in your menu bar, click it once to see what it looks like when opened. Now try holding down the Option key while selecting the speaker icon. This time a list of your audio inputs and outputs appears, with the currently selected options having a check by their names. Making a change is as simple as clicking on the new choice for input or output.

While we are on the subject of sound, why not have your Mac listen to you for a change? Out of the box your Mac can’t do true speech-to-text conversion. You would need some additional software that’s not free. You can, however, use software that’s already on your Mac to let your voice tell your Mac what to do.

Final Thoughts

You may be wondering why I did an entire article that ends with a discussion of sound without once discussing either QuickTime 7 or the newer QuickTime X. Well, these programs are so integrated into the way your system handles audio and video that they’re probably worth a separate article. That will be forthcoming as soon as I brush up on some of the editing tricks that are possible. I also avoided discussion of Spaces and Exposé for now. It has been a while since I used either of them, and I thought it worth taking the time to refresh my memory first. I’ve never been too sure I was making the most efficient use of those two features.

In the last two articles, I have basically focused on some of the core features of the OS. We haven’t scratched the surface yet on the useful items in the Utilities folder, the iLife suite, and a ton of other things I am sure I have forgotten. When I first conceived of this series, I thought a few articles would wrap things up nicely, but the more thought I put into it the more I see what can be done. Stay tuned; there’s more to come. Next month’s column will look at QuickTime and some useful things you can do with it.

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