Blog Post

OS X Hidden Gems

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

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. The “dot” has evolved from the close “x” which was changed to the “broken x” when you had unsaved changes. That concept has existed for over 20 years. I remember it on early X Window implementations, certainly on NeXTStep machines. I would bet Windows and Macintosh had it fairly early on, as well.

  2. Xairbusdriver

    Not sure what difference it makes whether you’ve seen and know what the dot means. The OS won’t let you quit an application that has data not yet saved, anyway. Perhaps a trivia question? ;-)

    On the other hand, how many have looked at the Universal Access Preference Pane? Lots of ‘tips’ in there, including zooming in any app.

    The basic idea is to try using the command, control, option keys (and all possible combinations of them) with every control you see. And don’t forget command+comma, apparently many will be surprised at what’s available in an apps preferences. 8-)

    Finally, before you start using an app, check every menu and any item that has “…” after the title. At least have some idea of what you can do in the apps menu structure. Most apps are not “jump-in-the-seat-and-turn-the-key” to start driving! There are usually dozens of “accessories” that you’ve already paid for just sitting there waiting to be used. And that even includes Finder. 8-) Explore, enjoy, learn! It’s not Windows! LOL!

  3. Another shortcut is that when editing a name of a file / document on the Desktop, select it (one click) and tap the enter key – the name can be typed without having to wait for a second click … which, if it follows the first click too closely, will open the document / file – and perhaps start / open an app when you didn’t need it opened.

    If you use command+shift+3 to take screen shots, you probably will need to rename those Pictures with something more descriptive.

  4. Control+command+D does not present a definition to me in Safari. Right-clicking a word gives me options that include Look Up in Dictionary. Is this Snow Leopard only or does this have to be ‘turned on’ somewhere before it functions?

  5. If you have Bluetooth enabled, you get a few more options when you hold Alt and click as well. Yay for NSMenuExtra… now if only apple would open it up and let 3rd parties do cool stuff too :

  6. jitplecheep

    Option + most of the F1-F12 (special-)keys open corresponding system-settings.

    Cmd + F3 shows the desktop instead of exposé (i find this very useful!)

    Shift + F3 or F4 slows blending of exposé or dashboard (Cmd + Shift + F3 for the desktop)

    Cmd + esc starts Frontrow

    Thanks for sharing, everyone!

  7. jkrewall

    In programs such as TextEdit or Word, there is a thumbnail at the top next to the title of the document which you can click and drag into Mail to add it as an attachment.

  8. I don’t think anyone mentioned this yet;
    There’s an old trick that exists since MacOS 7.x, and it’s super-useful:
    In any application, you can command-click the name (in the titlebar) of an open document to show the path to the root of your hard drive; then clicking any of those folders will open them in the Finder..

    • That is the same as the article’s tip about the Finder – it works since a window is like a document in that it has a pathway to its location. Either command+title or control+title will accomplish this.

  9. Wow these are great. I switched from pc to mac a few years ago and wouldn’t swap my MacBook pro for anything it’s the best computer I’ve ever owned. I guess I just got it and started using it i didn’t even think about those small extras! Some are really useful. Thank you.

  10. Awesome tips!

    Now i have to look deeper to see if I could find some and post it….

    I never knew what the little red down mean… Most of my elderly students, can’t even see it… Hahahhaa
    Great tip!

    • Command+Asterisk is the shortcut to a system wide service to “Get result of Applescript” in the Services menu. When you activate it, you’ll see the Application’s menu (e.g. TextEdit) flash briefly. It should work in any app that uses the standard Cocoa text interface. It doesn’t understand math the same way the Spotlight shortcut does (e.g. put 5! in spotlight and it will come up with 120, but this script apparently doesn’t know how to recognize a factorial).

      Whole books have been written about Applescript and Services, so if you find something like this convenient, you may want to look into Snow Leopard’s greatly overhauled Automator, Applescript and Services menu features and see if you can make a tool for yourself.

  11. the dot was new to me – maybe cos i always relied on the faded file icon in the doc titlebar, i hadn’t noticed it before

    when at work i’m running tiger and i always miss the cmd+r in the open and save dialogues which shows the file in the finder. Find it very useful at home.

    also at times in the file save / don’t save requesters, tab cycles through the options and it’s actually space that is used to select the highlighted option (this behavior isn’t uniform throughout all apps)

  12. Guillaume

    I can’t believe some of you didn’t knew what the dot meant : probably one of the first things I noticed when I switched to Mac. I new most of the tips in the article and that others you guys said. But I admit I’ve been looking for such listing to know all of them. ;-)

  13. marcelebrate

    Another: Holding shift while using a vertical mousewheel will do a horizontal scroll.

    Essential for those of us who don’t have horizontal scrolling on our mice or find the motion unintuitive.

    Great list.

  14. Thanks for the tips. If you do a quick search on the net you will be able to find lots of tips. In addition to the first tip with the dot in the close button: notice the icon next to the name of the document changes to a pale version as soon as you make a change and the document needs to be saved before closing it.

  15. If all of this is new to you, you never used your eyes or other help using your Mac. Especially the little dark circle in the close button must be so common known.
    Option plus any volume key starts systemcontrols for sound.