How to Magnify Your Mac System Pointers

Let’s talk cursors. Actually, it’s the old-timers who say “cursors” while everyone else calls them “pointers.” Apple uses both terms interchangeably in their documentation. These are the darling little on-screen indicators designed to provide feedback to users. According to the latest revision of Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines document, there are eighteen system pointers in OS X.

The Accessibility panels in Mountain Lion and earlier

Some typical OS X system pointers

The two most common pointers we’re all familiar with are the “mouse pointer” – “arrow” is it’s official moniker – and the “I-beam,” used to indicate the text insertion point wherever you need to… well, insert text. And then, there is the dreaded “Spinning Pizza of Death.” That last one is what I call it.

The Spinning Wait cursor

The Spinning Wait Cursor (that’s Apple’s terminology)

For the sake of accuracy, let’s call it what Apple deems to be the official name: the “Spinning Wait Cursor.” On second thought, “Spinning Pizza of Death” is more fun and tasty, but I digress. You don’t want to see this one often, but why we see it occasionally, as well as how to avoid it, are subjects for future tips.

That out of the way, let’s get down to the main point…I mean topic: how to resize the pointer.

The size of these system pointers can be easily altered in System Preferences—in Mountain Lion, you’ll find it in the highly useful Accessibility pane; in Lion and earlier versions of OS X it’s called the Universal Access pane.

This feature is particularly helpful to Mac users whose eyesight may not be the best. It has other practical uses as well: finding the cursor in a sea of monitors connected to your Mac, enlarging various tools such as those found in Photoshop’s tool palette, and for emphasizing operations when demonstrating software to a live audience or to viewers of a screencast.

I know what you’re thinking: “Sure, but as soon as I make the cursor even a bit larger, it really looks awful!”

That’s has been true until now. Before Lion, any magnified cursor adopted the unwanted “jaggies.” While certainly still useable and useful to a degree, it just felt like we were back in the 8-bit graphics world of the early eighties.

Cursors with jaggies

The Dreaded “Jaggies”

Starting with Lion, the entire set of system pointers is anti-aliased or smoothed out nicely when magnified.

Examples of smoothed pointers

Examples of smoothed pointers

The jaggies are completely eliminated on all magnified system pointers. They look much, much better. There doesn’t yet appear to be support for third-party application-specific pointers, such as the aforementioned Photoshop tool pointers. These will magnify, but with the less-than-ideal pixelated look. However, any system pointers utilized within a third-party application will sport the newer, sleeker look.

Let’s see how we can set our cursor size. In Lion and earlier versions of OS X (recalling that the smoothed pointers first appeared in Lion), choose Apple menu > System Preferences, and then click Universal Access. Next, click Mouse (Mouse & Trackpad on portable Macs), and drag the Cursor Size slider to the right to make it larger. 

In Mountain Lion, the Accessibility panel now replaces the older Universal Access Panel and is flaunting a shiny new look. Click Display, and then drag the Cursor Size slider to the right to make it larger. In all versions, as you make the cursor adjustment, you will see the change in real-time.

The Accessibility panels in Mountain Lion and earlier

The Accessibility preferences panel found in Lion and earlier (left) and in Mountain Lion (right)

Things look so much better now with the smoothed cursors.

For those readers who may have additional issues locating the cursor on screen, there are several utilities available from the Mac App Store that assist in locating a camouflaged cursor.

One that I have used for several years is PinPoint (US$2.99) by Lagente Software. This little gem is handy when projecting my Mac’s screen to an audience. With PinPoint enabled, the pointer becomes highlighted and animated in such a way that it is it is easily viewable by all. With keyboard shortcuts I can easily toggle the feature because there are those times during an on-screen demo where highlighting or animating a pointer becomes more of a distraction than a benefit.

I hope you find these pointers useful! Your overall user experience will be even more rewarding when you adjust your cursors to your liking.