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OS X Hidden Gems

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Have you ever noticed that little dark circle that appears within the close button of a document window in OS X when you have unsaved changes? Yeah, me neither. After years of diligent Mac use, this subtle little element somehow escaped me until now. I guess I remember noticing it at times but never realized it was telling me to save my work. It’s a nice touch and got me wondering about what other subtle elements I might have missed over the years.

I spent some time gathering up a number of these hidden gems and figured I’d list them here in the hopes that our readers could add to the list in the comments.

Save Dialog

When saving a file you can press / at the save dialog box to choose from any point in the file system via a file path.


You can press Shift + Ctrl + Eject to put external displays to sleep. On a MacBook this will force the system to sleep without having to close the lid.


Pressing the Option key when clicking on the AirPort icon in the menubar will display some detailed information about your wireless connection, including the transmit rate.


Pressing Control while clicking on the current location icon at the top of the Finder window opens a menu to let you select any parent location along that particular file path.


Pressing Ctrl + Option + Command + 8 will invert the color of your screen.


Pressing Ctrl + Command + D while hovering over a word in any Cocoa application (Safari, Mail, etc.) will automatically look up that word in the OS X dictionary app.

This list just scratches the surface of what I know are a huge number of hidden gems buried inside OS X. If you have any others you want to add to the list, please share it with us in the comments.

121 Responses to “OS X Hidden Gems”

  1. Hold the shift key while increasing or decreasing the volume keys to mute the annoying blip blip blip sound they make. Works great when you are presenting and you want to increase the volume without adding any distractions.

  2. Some good ones:

    Hold down Option and click on an application in the dock will hide the other background apps instantly.

    Hold down Command and click a menu item (like the clock) to reorder the menu bar.

    Shift-Option-Cmd-Q logs you out.

    Option-Delete deletes one whole word at a time (instead of one character at a time).

    Grab a file, activate Exposé and move it over the window you want to move the file to. It’s the quickest way to move files around a lot of windows!

    Control-Click on an application’s toolbar to customize it.

    There are zillions of them:

    • In the Finder, while in column view, dragging the || symbol below the vertical scroll bars will change the width of that column, thus allowing you to read file names that are long.

      If you hold option while dragging the || symbol, the width of every column in every window is affected. And if you use Spaces, this applies to every window in every space. It even applies to List view or Icon view when it is changed to columns.

    • Does option+delete work in just Snow Leopard? In Leopard, it deletes from the cursor back to the beginning of the word, not the entire word – unless the cursor is at the end of the word.

      Command+delete will erase from the cursor back to the start of the line.

      Fortunately, both of these can be corrected with command+z (undo).

    • MacDad, In the Finder, while in column view, dragging the || symbol below the vertical scroll bars will change the width of that column, thus allowing you to read file names that are long.
      Double click on it and it automatically enlarges the column.

  3. Thanks. Great tips. The option-click on menu items was new to me. Also works on volume. It displays your input and output options. Very nifty if you use AirFoil or SoundFlower or usb audio devices a lot.

  4. Another tip you might like —
    When you try to close a document and it offers to save it for you or not — in addition to simply hitting ‘Enter’ to choose save (the highlighted button) – you can hit Command-D to choose ‘Don’t Save’

    I use that all the time now that I found out about it.
    Command-W to close a document I was working on
    Command-D to close it without saving any changes.

  5. WOW!! Really cool tips especially the dictionary and screens for me are very useful, and the airport one is the geekiest favorite of mine so THANKS a LOT Cool Article.

  6. I wrote post 3 years ago, when I was still newish to OSX with my 5 hidden OSX gems. The best one from that list has to be summarize. Although I think the follow up I did would be more useful to the sort of readers of this blog. I love File Merge and getting widgets onto your desktop.

    It says a lot for OSX that it follows one of the key usability principals, that as a user becomes more experienced in an interface they should be able to complete tasks quicker using expert techniques. OSX is full of these.

  7. some more:
    In the Open/Save dialog :
    dragging a folder from the Finder / title bar of the Finder onto the folder dropdown in the dialog sets that folder as current folder

    This is a very old one from the times of system 7 :
    Option-Click outside the current window (onto the destop, other application) hides the current appication (like Cmd-H)

  8. Wow the first one was very nice, I had seen that dot several times but never imagined what it meant.
    Some useful shortcuts not mentioned yet are the ones to open some Preference Panes: when you press option and one of the F(1-12) buttons you open the Preference Pane related to the F-button you pressed (for example: alt+F1 or F2 (brightness) opens screens Prefpane, alt+F3 (exposé) opens Exposé & Spaces Prefpane, etc.)

    There are also some extra options for changing the volume: if you press shift while changing the volume the click won’t sound (or it will if you had already disabled it), and a much better one: if you click option+shift while changing the volume it will increase or decrease just a quarter of square (I mean those squares which indicate the volume).

  9. Love ’em all.

    The ones I use daily? Cmd-click links in emails and RSS feeds to open a link BEHIND mail. (Especially useful if you’re a Craig’s List hound, and have multiple RSS feeds to check for potential purchases showing up in your inbox daily).

    In Safari, Option-Click a link to initiate a download. Cmd-Click a link to open it in a new tab. Also, in Safari (if you frequently have multiple tabs open), Cmd-Shift Left arrow/right arrow will navigate between open tabs in a window.

    When typing text (gasp), Mac OSX allows me to use Option-left/right arrow to navigate backwards/forwards within typed text one WORD at a time, and Cmd- left/right arrow to navigate backwards/forwards within typed text one LINE at a time. Add the shift key to the above two keystrokes, and you can select backwards/forwards within typed text.

    Regardless of what open application – if you have multiple windows open for that app, Cmd-` will switch between all of them (in the order they’ve been opened).

    I love using my keyboard. Sure, a mouse is handy, and gestures are cool. But for either, I have to move my hands from where they already were… Lazy fingers? Whatever.

    • I love the cmd+` shortcut, but it doesn’t actually work on every app. I would expect it to work on every Apple app (at least those included with Mac OS X) but surprisingly I never got it to work on preview (and I really miss it there)

  10. Gazoobee

    Holding down Option key while accessing “about this mac” in the Apple menu takes you straight to the system profiler without the extra click.

    Clicking on the version number in the “about this mac” dialogue box toggles between the OS version, the build number, and the serial number of the machine.

  11. Control+Option+Command+Eject is a shortcut to shutdown… it’s nice and fast!

    The Option+Click for more detail works on more than just the Airport icon in the menubar… it works on the Sync, Volume, Time Machine… experiment clicking with Option! it’s fun!

    • Command-A gets you to Apps, Command-H gets you Home, and Command-U goes to Utilities.

      And the same shortcuts work in the Finder, except hold down the Shift key too so it’s Command-Shift-A for Apps, Command-Shift-H for Home, Command-Shift-U for Utilities.

      Just discovered Command-Shift-I for iDisk, Command-Shift-O for Documents!! Awesome.

    • If you are referring to the inverted screen, the reason it was shot the way it was is because all OS X has done is invert the screen colors. If you revert back, then open up the screenshot, it will look normal.

      On the other hand, it would have been just as simple to take a capture, then invert in Photoshop… :)

    • Road-Runner

      I’ve known about the screen capture for a long time. Another thing it doesn’t tell you on KsbjA’s link is that if you select Cmd (+ctrl) + shift + 4, then hover the crosshair over any open window and press the space bar, the crosshair turn into a camera you can in turn hover over any open bits of window visible on your screen, and it highlights it. Click on the window you want and it takes a picture of the whole window, even id partially hidden behind another one! I don’t know about you, but I found that pretty neat! ;oP

  12. I knew the dot in the close button, and I had heard of the color inversion, but the rest is completely new to me – thanks for taking the time to dig them up! Love the address bar at the Save dialog, really missed this on Mac OS. The dictionary is equally awesome, also works even on Tiger. The AirPort stuff is a bit too techy for me, but nice to know it’s there. (Btw on Tiger, instead of showing the techy numbers, it adds an About AirPort menu item, which displays component versions.) This is the kind of TAB articles I really love. :-)

  13. My favorites along these lines:

    – Cmd+R while in Open/Save will open a new Finder window for the selected file/folder. (Great for rename/copy/whatever operations while in Open/Save)

    – Cmd+Shift+. while in Open/Save to toggle system ‘.’ files/folders

    • Command+Space to bring up Spotlight, then try typing in “2+2” or whatever. Calculator will pop up as the first result and display both the equation and the answer.

    • 5/2 … results in 2.5,
      5/0 … results in divByZero,
      3+2*5 … results in 13,
      (3+2)*5 … results in 25,
      5! … results in 120,
      cos(1) … results in 0,
      tan(pi) … results in 0,
      sin(pi/2) … results in 1,
      pow(2,3) … results in 8,
      sqrt(121) … results in 11,
      log(1000) … results in 3,
      exp(1) … results in 2.718281828,

      Most of these are similar to abbreviations for functions you’d find in excel or numbers. Spotlight appears to know to ask the calculator app (or a built in library) for the result if it fits a certain format. Taking an exponent in Leopard was pow(10,2) but in Snow Leopard a simpler form is 10^2. Haven’t found the right format for taking the modulus (remainder after division) of two numbers or easily converting between two bases (eg. hex and decimal). Definitely handy for a quick result if your desk calculator isn’t out at the ready.

    • A couple of other things to add about this. It’s great if you need a quick calculation and you don’t want to take your hands off the keyboard. Command+Spacebar opens spotlight. Just type the calculation and wait (don’t press return or enter). Then to get back to typing, press the escape key twice and you’re right back where you were in mid-sentence with your hands still on the keyboard.

  14. mike2078

    I use the dictionary shortcut all the time. This is my favorite shortcut. Another really cool one is Command and space to type directly in spotlight. But you guys probably know this anyway. I hardly ever use dock or the finder any more to start apps…

  15. Haha. Nice tips. It reminded me of the time a friend in college passed out on my keyboard and somehow pressed the shortcut for the invert screen. I thought my iMac was broken and used it like that for the next month until I realized I could change it back in the Universal Access menu.

  16. Pressing Option while clicking on the battery icon on an MBP brings up the battery status in the menu (should be “normal”) – clicking it brings up a help screen explaining the various states.

    Ctrl-Option-Command-1/2/3/4/5/6 changes the order of icons on your desktop (click on desktop before this).