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Columns & Editorials

by Kyle D'Addario
& Wincent Colaiuta

Customizing The Look Of OS X
July 13th, 2001

Today I am going to turn the focus away from the "technical" side of OS X and instead look at the options for tweaking the system's appearance. Apple has been rather protective about the Aqua user interface, and for good reason, even if the company has exercised some poor judgement in pursuing that protection. It is a visually stunning array of colors, pulsing button, incredible animations, and photo realistic icons. While we happen to think that all of these are good things, some of you may not. Third party developers have, of course, come to the rescue. There are a host of interface enhancing utilities on the market. These programs do not perform a total make over of the system, a la Classic's Kaleidoscope, but they do allow users to add a personalized touch to their OS X desktop.

A Note About Themes:

There are a number of programs that allow users to alter the overall appearance of Mac OS X by implementing themes. We haven't spent much time with these apps, but there have been user reports of issues with system performance and stability problems. Others have reported that their machines have become "stuck" on a theme, left without the ability to transition back to the Aqua desktop.

It is our recommendation at this time that users, in general, should avoid those applications that incorporate the use of system wide themes. As OS X matures, and along with it these programs, this situation may change. In the meantime there are a number of other tools available to tweak the system's look and feel.

The Desktop:

Depending how you actually use OS X, it is entirely possible that your desktop picture is hidden from view far more frequently than it was with OS 9. The prominence of the new Finder windows, combined with the ability to use more applications at once, and leave them running, may have changed your working habits enough to render the desktop picture almost obsolete. There is still something neat, however, about being able to customize your desktop background. There are a number of applications specifically targeted at helping users customize their desktop picture.

While not the most processor efficient program, XBack allows users to run Mac OS X Screensaver modules as a desktop image. Users are able to choose any installed module to run in the background, and XBack provides usesrs with a number of sizing options. We have found that running the application at full screen, while brilliant, takes an incredible amount of CPU power which can render your system too slow to be usable, and in its current version actually hides desktop icons. Smaller resolutions are quite usable, however. This application has an enormous amount of potential, and provides a nice alternative to the typical static desktop image.

SaverLab is another utility that is designed to run OS X Screensaver modules within a window. SaverLab also allows users to run modules at full screen, but provides a bit more flexibility in running modules in smaller windows. SaverLab windows cannot be minimized to the Dock, which is unfortunate, but this program will allow users to add some animation to their desktop.

Swap Top
Swap Top is a client for the WebShots online picture service. By using SwapTop, users are able to randomly download images from WebShots and have them automatically used as their desktop image. Users can change the frequency with which pictures are updated providing a constantly fresh image. Being surprised by a new desktop image is one of the easiest ways to keep your computing environment fresh.

Desktop Calendar
For those that used GoMac under Mac OS 9, you realize how valuable having easy access to a calendar can be. While there is no desktop calendar feature built into OS X, there are a number of third party options. Desktop Calendar is perhaps one of the most elegant solutions. The utility places a calendar as part of your desktop background allowing visual access to it at any time. It does not have the "perpetual" features of other programs, such as PandoCalendar, but adds a calendar feature as part of the overall user interface.

The Dock

The Dock is one of the most omnipresent interface features of OS X, and as such one of the most tweaked and critiqued. While OS X users are currently stuck with the Dock as an integrated part of the overall user experience, there are a number of tweaks that users can make to Apple's catch-all program launcher.

Genie Effects
For those that do not know, when a window is minimized to the Dock the animation is called the Genie Effect. This little program allows users to choose the alternative effects, which are genie, warp, or scale. Some have commented that switching the effect actually speeds system performance, but that might be in the eye of the beholder.

Transparent Dock
This very cool hack allows you to set your Dock to be completely transparent. There were hacks floating around the Web on how to make the Dock transparent some time ago, but those left the white border around the Dock icons. This utility allows you to remove the Dock background and border providing a pretty neat alternative appearance to the Dock. If a fully transparent Dock does not sound like it is for you, Transparent Dock also allows users to set the Dock to semi-transparent in either black, grey, or white, a setting I have come to prefer.

Docking Maneuvers
Docking Maneuvers is a simple utility that allows users to change the orientation and pinning of the Dock. Does the Dock being centered on the bottom bother you? Change it to be pinned to the bottom on the left-hand side of the screen. Best of all this is done through a simple pop-up Dock menu.

Dock Lock
While Docking Maneuvers allows you to change the location of the Dock, it is restored to its default bottom-centered location after each restart. Dock Lock allows users to change location and saves the changes so your customized Dock is where you like each and every time you restart or log in.

Dock Dance
We are not really sure how this fits, but this iTunes plug-in actually causes the icons in the Dock to jump and "dance" like an equalizer while music is playing. Does this have any practical value? Well, not really. But if you really want some animation added to your working environment, and you use iTunes in the background, then this might be your answer. Unfortunately, like some of the other "animation" type enhancements, the CPU drain is intense.


There is one Uber-utility for customizing OS X's appearance, and that is TinkerTool. TinkerTool includes controls for some of the programs already listed above, including the ability to change the Genie Effect and Dock location. TinkerTool, however, is much more than that.

This amazing little utility allows users to alter OS X's default font smoothing, make the icons of hidden applications dim in the Dock, and mark the current active application with a blue arrow instead of a black one. TinkerTool also allows users to easily change the transparency of any Terminal window and change the default system font.

Users are offered control over any or all of these options and playing with a combination of settings can greatly enhance the user experience.

I am sure that I missed some applications for tweaking OS X, but these are a few that we have tried and found to work reliably. If you know of others please feel free to add them to the comments below, and have fun tinkering with X!

You are encouraged to send Richard your comments, or to post them below.

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Kyle D'Addario is the assistant editor of The Mac Observer and has logged about as much time on Mac OS X as is humanly possible. Kyle studies Computer-Mediated Communication, whatever that is, at the graduate level, and was a founding member of the original Webintosh team.

Wincent Colaiuta runs Macintosh news and criticism site,, and joined The Mac Observer team as a contributor in March 2001. He has worked with computers since 1984, and his interests in that area include Macs, PHP programming and security.

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