How to Change Your View of OS X System Preferences

Just the other day, I had a revelation as I was preparing lecture notes for a class I’m teaching on OS X Lion this coming semester (right as Mountain Lion is coming out. Go figure!). I realized that an alternate view of the Mac System Preferences is actually quite handy. Unlike other user interface features introduced in Lion, this one is very easy to adapt to. Plus, there are some other nice hidden features to uncover.

Note that I’m going to show you how to do these things in Lion, but all of the tips hold true for Mountain Lion, too. The only difference will be some of the labels and a couple of the individual prefence panels (i.e. Lion has MobileMe, while Mountain Lion has Notifications).

Take a look at how the System Preferences panel is laid out by default. We’ve been accustomed to seeing this since the days over a decade ago when OS X was but a cub:

The default System Preferences view.

The default System Preferences view with Categories showing.

Notice how the various icons representing individual preferences are placed according to these categories: Personal, Hardware, Internet & Wireless, System, and “Other.” In retrospect, if I ever needed to open a particular preference pane, I never knew exactly into which category to look.

For example, if I needed to access the Speech preference pane, the thought, “Oh, I need to go into the System category to find Speech” never, EVER entered my mind. Instead, I would look for the familiar little microphone icon and the word s-p-e-e-c-h. To make things even more subliminally confusing, isn’t a microphone a piece of hardware? Shouldn’t it be listed in the Hardware category? Of course, we know that the Speech settings are not a function of the Mac hardware. Still, why bother with categorizing?

Starting in Lion, we are introduced to a new and better way to view System Preferences. Check it out:

System Preferences arranged alphabetically.

System Preferences are arranged alphabetically instead of by category.

If you’re like me, seeing the Preferences icons sorted alphabetically makes things so much better. I seem to struggle less now when looking for a Preference icon. I’m not sure, but isn’t this the epitome of a first-world problem? You can set your System Preferences panel in this manner by going to View > Organize Alphabetically. Notice that you can choose any preference by selecting it directly from the View menu, and you can also choose any preference by selecting it directly.

View menu in System Preferences.

The View menu in System Preferences.

Additionally, something frequently overlooked is the search field located within the System Preferences panel itself. You are not limited to searching simply based on the preference name. Thanks to the power of Spotlight, you can search based on a function or feature you are trying to configure.

Perhaps you are not sure in which preference a certain control or checkbox is located. For instance, say I want to restrict others from printing on my Mac or network but am not sure which Preference icon to click on.

When I enter “print” in the search field, I am not only shown a drop-down list of possible items to choose from, I am also presented with a darkened Preferences panel emphasizing little “spotlights” that highlight preference icons which contain controls for a number of options related to printing. Many people are annoyed by an abundance of user interface eye-candy, but it sometimes really serves a worthwhile purpose.

The search field in System Preferences.

When using the search field in System Preferences, you are shown where to go.

We’ve seen lots of great System Preferences tips here… but, I have one more.

In System Preferences, select View > Customize, and you will discover that each preference icon sports a little check box!

The Customize view in System Preferences.

The Customize view allows you to choose which preferences to show and which to hide.

You guessed it… you can disable the visibility of individual preference icons. This can be handy where, for example, you rarely access certain preferences and want to simplify the System Preferences panel overall – you know, make the important preferences easier to find. You may want some preferences to be out-of-sight-out-of-mind on your kids’ (or spouse’s) Mac. Some other examples: hide the MobileMe preference icon since that service is no longer available; if you don’t use a mouse or Bluetooth or Parental Controls, hide these as well.

On my MacBook Pro, I now have a customized view to my System Preferences panel, and it’s rather spartan. I just see the preferences I access regularly—this is soooo much better. If I must temporarily access one that is currently hidden, I simply select the needed preference directly from the View menu. Of course, I can always turn icon visibility back on by returning to the Customize mode and clicking the little box to bring back the checkmark.

The author's customized System Preferences.

My System Preferences panel is looking pretty stark these days.

I hope you try these tips. You’ll be surprised at how nimble you can be when working smartly with your System Preferences.