Become a Mac Power User: General OS X

An attribute of Apple’s (s aapl) OS X operating system that I love above nearly all others is that there’s so much power beneath the simple and elegant interface. Although there are many undocumented features of OS X, we’re going to look at some that are fairly well publicized, but that you may not be familiar with in practice. The following five tips are fairly simple, yet working them into your computing habits will surely make you feel like a “Power User.”

Drag and Drop. Anything.

For many, this technique requires thinking slightly outside the box. Go ahead — drag anything, and drop it anywhere. Want to launch a picture file in Photoshop rather than Preview? Just drag the image file onto the application icon for Photoshop. Maybe you just read a great idea on some webpage that you want to revisit later — select that text, drag it to the desktop (or any folder) and have a text clipping to read later. If using Spaces, from the far-out view of all desktops, try dragging iTunes (for example) to a different desktop.


labels1Not to be confused with Keywords, Spotlight Comments, or the common term, ‘tags’, Labels are a feature in Finder that let you color-code your files. Control-click (or right-click) on a file/folder to access the labels. By default nothing has a color label applied, but you can choose from Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Purple and Gray. The names associated to each color can be edited in Finder’s Preferences, but default to the color name. Using Labels can be useful for quick visual separation of important files, Finder sorting, or anything that seems useful to you.

Smart Folders

Open a Finder window, and scroll down the left column (where all the folders and drives and such are displayed) until you see the “Search For” heading. If you expand it (arrow pointing down) you should see some purple folder icons, each with a gear on them (this signifies a Smart Folder) with names like ‘All Movies’, ‘All Documents’, etc. Click on one of these Smart Folders and you’ll see just that — all documents on your system, regardless of the folder they live within. You can create your own Smart Folders based on a myriad of file attributes like modified date, kind, label, contents, size, and on and on. There are so many uses for such functionality, but a quick illustration may be to keep anything with contents = “taxes” in one Smart Folder for reference when you need to file your annual return.

Multimedia Inter-connectivity

mediabrowser1 It almost goes without saying that the iLife applications all tie-in with one another, but OS X makes it simple to pull your music, photos, and movies into any other application you may be working in. Whenever an Open Dialog window is launched (to open or browse for a file from within an application) there’s the left column that holds quick access to Documents, Pictures, etc, but if you scroll down further (as you did with the Smart Folders earlier) you’ll find the “Media” header. Expanding it (arrow down) will let you choose from Music, Photos, and Movies, which tie into the media libraries for your different cataloging apps (iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, and PhotoBooth for example). This is far easier than navigating the folder structure for the media files, or copying a photo from iPhoto to your desktop!


spotlightcalc This was a cornerstone feature of OS 10.4, aka Tiger. Integrated desktop search was fairly huge in concept. Spotlight didn’t immediately knock socks off, but it has grown some in the four years of its existence. Not only can you perform powerful searches using Spotlight, but you can also use it to launch programs and perform calculations without needing Calculator. If you like this functionality but are still left wanting, checking out Quicksilver or Google Quick Search Box (the up-and-coming Quicksilver replacement). The former does it all and plenty, plenty more, but is getting long in the tooth and generally out of support/development. The latter is pretty fresh and not as fully featured yet, but is being vigorously developed. Both will likely blow your mind if you dig this entry-level functionality offered by Spotlight.

These five features of OS X aren’t so tricky that they should induce cold-sweats. Giving them a try for yourself can lead to great improvements in productivity — of course with everyone’s personal computing styles, your mileage may vary — and make you feel like the proverbial “Power User.”