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When the Mac operating system OS X 10.4 (aka “Tiger”) was first announced, there were two things that I instantly fell in love with: Automator and Dashboard. While Automator is great when you really want to geek out, Dashboard is a great companion for new and veteran users of the Mac.
Dashboard is a semi-transparent “layer” of the operating system that contains small, self-contained applications called “widgets.” These widgets allow you to do everything from convert currency to check the local weather. With thousands of widgets available — and even the ability to create your own — Dashboard can be a very useful (and powerful) tool for a new Mac owner.
How to View Dashboard
One of the best features of Dashboard is how it sits quietly in the background until you ask for it — and there are multiple ways to ask. The easiest way is the keyboard shortcut, which depends on your keyboard configuration. For my iMac the shortcut is F12 (there’s a small picture of a speedometer). For the new unibody MacBook it’s Fn+F12 (the function key bypasses the default volume controls). Of course, these default keyboard shortcuts can be customized in System Preferences.
You can also access Dashboard by creating a “hot corner” that will activate Dashboard when you hover your mouse over the corner of your choice. You can set up a hot corner by going to Preferences and navigating to the Desktop and Screen Saver pane.
And finally, you can access Dashboard by clicking on the icon in your dock. If you’ve removed it then you can easily find Dashboard in your Applications folder where you can drag it back into the dock for easy access.
How to Use Dashboard
Once you’ve activated Dashboard, the real fun begins. If you’re looking at Dashboard for the first time, you’ll most likely notice a handful of the 20 widgets that are included with Dashboard (if I counted correctly). Luckily, with each update to the operating system Apple (s aapl) adds a few new widgets (most recently Movies and Web Clip) so the true Mac fans don’t get bored.
But the widgets you see on the screen are only a few of these built-in widgets. In order to see the rest, click on the small “plus” button in the lower left-hand corner.
A small toolbar will pop out containing all the widgets installed on your computer and available for use.
To add a widget to Dashboard simply single-click or drag the widget onto the screen. This will add an instance of the widget to Dashboard. I say “instance” because each widget is self contained — meaning you can run multiple copies of your favorite widgets at the same time. This is especially useful when placing multiple sticky notes or for tracking multiple time zones.
Done with a widget? While the Dashboard toolbar is open you’ll see each widget has a small ‘X’ in the upper left-hand corner. Simply click and the widget will vanish. You can also use Dashboard’s “Manage Widgets” feature, but I find it easier to simply click and disable the ones you don’t want.
Now when you first add the World Clock widget you may not be too impressed that it only shows the local time in Cupertino, California. The World Clock, along with most widgets, are customizable. When you hover over a widget you’ll see a small ‘i‘ appear (see above screenshot). Clicking on that icon will bring up additional information about the widget, as well as any options that you can tweak.
Dashboard Widget Resources
If you like the functionality of Dashboard you’re in luck… there are hundreds if not thousands of Dashboard widgets available. New ones are being developed every day too — in fact many popular applications include a Dashboard widget version of their program in the installation package and many websites have created specialized widgets for their RSS feeds and other information.
One of the largest sources of widgets is Apple’s own download page. There you will find more widgets than you’ll know what to do with. In addition to browsing the various categories (games, sports, news) you can see the Top 50 list or the most recently added widgets.
Dashboardwidgets.com also has a strong collection of widgets in addition to forums and development guides (if you’re inclined to begin creating your own widgets). The site allows you to sort by date, downloads, or rating which is very helpful in finding the most popular widgets.
How to Install or Remove Widgets
Once you’ve downloaded your favorite widgets, the next step is to install them. And in true Apple fashion, installation is the easiest part. After downloading your widget, simply double-click on the icon and you’ll see a prompt asking you if you’d like to install the widget. Click install and Dashboard will open and place your widget in temporary “test drive” mode where you can use the widget before actually keeping it on your Dashboard. If you click delete while in “test drive” mode then the widget is moved to the trash never to be heard from again.
As mentioned above, if you don’t want to use a widget anymore, simply click the small ‘X’ in the upper corner and it will be out of sight. But if you want to remove the widget from even coming up as an option in your Dashboard toolbar, then navigate to to /Library/Widgets for Apple original widgets or ~/Library/Widgets for your own user folder. Then simply drag the widget into the trash.
Just Getting Started
If you enjoyed this introduction to Dashboard then check back soon for a future post on more advanced features and tricks — like moving widgets to your desktop and syncing your widgets with Mobile Me.