How to Choose the Right Tools in Preview on the Mac

I love the Preview app on the Mac. It's enormously useful, and It's just about on everyone's machine. It's unobtrusive, simple, yet powerful. I've praised its virtues before here on TMO… see How to Get the Most from Preview in OS X: Annotating. I'm not finished with Preview, as I plan to explore more features hidden in this gem. Today, I want to show you how I customize the toolbar in my copy of Preview.

Since the early days of OS X, Apple has given application developers the resources necessary to allow their users to customize the app's toolbar to their liking. This is a good thing because there are often more tools available beyond the default set that the app's toolbar is outfitted with. Toolbars can also be seen with lots of wasted space that could be put to good use.

The default Preview document window. This highlights the relatively empty toolbar.

Preview's default toolbar is fairly barren. Perhaps you like it like this. Perhaps you'd like to populate it with more tools.

This is done via the View > Customize Toolbar command found in just about every modern Mac application. It's also available by right-clicking (or control-clicking) in the gray area of the toolbar in any of the app's document windows. A pop-up menu will appear offering you the Customize Toolbar option.

Right-clicking on the gray toolbar area produces a pop-up menu with the option to Customize Toolbar.

Right-click (or Control-Click) anywhere in the toolbar's gray area to produce a pop-up menu of options.

Go ahead, launch Preview, and see for yourself (look in your Applications folder). Open the Toolbar Customization window as described above, and take a look at what's available to you.

The Toolbar Customization window in Preview.

Every app that supports toolbar customization has it's own specific set of tools that can be configured to your liking in the toolbar. Simply drag tools in and out of the toolbar area to customize.

If you have not customized Preview's toolbar already, all those tools you see up there are known as the Default Tool Set. You can add more tools, you can remove tools, and you can rearrange tools. The point is: being able to make the most common tools easily available to you can do nothing but enhance your workflow.

The author's preferred toolbar configuration in Preview.

My preferred toolbar configuration in Preview.

Take a look at my Preview toolbar. This is my customized configuration, and it works for me. I use Preview as a research tool and to support my technical writing, teaching, as well as my photography workflows. To facilitate my work, I have chosen the following tools, and placed them in a specific order that is comfortable and logical to me:

View (default): Allows me to open a sidebar which shows me different document views. In particular, I like to see the list of all annotations I have made in a document and to navigate to them quickly.

Zoom: I changed the default zoom to this configuration to aid in any photography work I do in Preview. The center control that is depicted by a '1' inside a magnifying glass allows me to view my image (or document) at 100%.

Magnify: The icon looks like a photographer's loupe – a magnifier. Great for magnifying document content with a virtual square "loupe" right on screen. A boon to aging eyes.

Inspector: All good productivity apps feature the highly practical Inspector. An Inspector is generally a floating window with lots of useful information and controls pertaining to the open document. Among other things, Preview's Inspector shows me the document's technical specs, list of keywords, and list of annotations. If the document is an image, the Inspector shows me all it's metadata available, including EXIF data that a digital camera stores with every captured image.

Page History and Page (number): These tools help me navigate pages when viewing multi-page documents.

Markup (default): Probably my most-used tool. It allows me to quickly highlight, underline or strikethrough text in a document, and in different colors. Read the article referenced in the first paragraph for details on using this tool.

Edit (default): This tool is related to markup activities and opens up a sub-toolbar showing editing tools which allow me to markup a document further with such elements as text boxes, shapes, arrows, lines, speech bubbles, notes and much more.

Search (default): This is the standard search bar for searching within the open document.

There are several tools I do not need to have quick access to – and some I never use. For example, I don't need to rotate anything, and the Rotate tool is taking up space I can use for something else. If you want to remove any tool from the toolbar, you first need to open the Toolbar Customization window as explained above. Then, from the toolbar itself, simply grab the unwanted tool with the pointer, and drag it off the toolbar. Release, and you are rewarded with a satisfying "poof" sound. Oh, and the tool icon turns into an animated radioactive fallout cloud. What better way to indicate that you have successfully eradicated the offending tool?

Don't worry, though. You can always restore a tool by dragging it back into the toolbar. Also, you can rearrange the tools to your liking by simply dragging them to exchange positions with other tools in the toolbar. Again, the Toolbar Customization window must remain open while making any changes to the toolbar layout.

You can also add spaces between tools to give your toolbar a more pleasing and orderly appearance. An example would be wanting to isolate groups of tools. Available to you are the fixed-width Space, and the Flexible Space. The latter will dynamically change its width when you resize a window.

If you completely mess up and want to restore things back to normal, you can simply drag the default set of tools from the bottom of the Toolbar Customization window up and into the toolbar. You may then start over.

The Preview document is resized-down to cause some right-most tools in the toolbar hide into an overflow menu. These are accessible by clicking on the double-arrowhead at the right end of the toolbar.

By clicking on the double-arrowhead, you can access any tools that dropped off into an overflow area.

You can have as many tools as you like listed on the toolbar. In fact, some applications provide more tools than you can shake a stick at – a very long stick. If you have a lot of tools populating your app's toolbar, and you need to resize-down a document window, the tools that would go off the page become hidden, but still accessible. The resizing action will cause a special double-arrowhead icon appear at the right edge of the toolbar. This signifies that there are more tools available in a sort of "overflow" area by simply clicking on the icon. The hidden tools are shown in the resulting pop-up menu.

Finally, notice the little "Show" pop-up menu at the bottom-left of the toolbar customization window. This is for setting how the tools are labeled in the toolbar. Since most of the time I can't figure out – or even remember – what the little icons signify, I set mine to Icon and Text.

In conclusion, I suggest you try this on other apps you use on a regular basis. Don't forget about new apps you install; see if the toolbar is customizable. Explore, and you may be surprised to find useful tools you didn't even know existed. Don't forget the Finder itself; Finder windows have toolbars, too. Try the techniques discussed here to customize how you work within your file and folder management activities.