Five unexpected uses for help tags

Help tags—those little yellow rectangles of information that pop up when you hover your cursor over something—do more than just provide the name and function of a button on a toolbar. Use them to find the full name of an abbreviated file name, to get a quick summary of a help topic, and more. Here are five of my favorite tricks.

1. See the full name of a file

Almost anywhere the Mac shortens a name in a narrow column, you can use a help tag to display its full name. Just hover your cursor over the truncated name in a list or sidebar in a Finder window, an Open or Save dialog box, or the Apple Mail message viewer window; this also works in the Source list (the sidebar-like area) in iPhoto.

Help tag
Hover your cursor over a truncated name in a file list or sidebar to see the full name appear in a yellow help tag.
Sometimes doing this reveals extra information. For example, in iPhoto, hovering over an album name in the Source list shows you not only the full version of a truncated name but also how many images are in the album.

2. Outwit false links in Mail

That embedded link in an innocent-looking email message may be labeled Important Info but actually take you to the website Check the URL of a link by waiting for its help tag to pop up before you click on the link.

3. Quickly view Mail attachment names

You receive a message asking for immediate feedback regarding the “Solution” file—but the message came with six attachments, all of which have truncated names. You could click the message’s Save menu to see a list of the full names of attachments, but you don’t want to save the file and then open it in its parent application. You just want to take a quick look at it with Quick Look, if only you could figure out which one it is. No problem: Hover over the icon of an attached file to see its full name, along with other potentially useful information such as its download status. (Click on it to select it and then press the spacebar to open the Quick Look window.)

4. Read a topic description in Help

Helpful help tags
Trying to figure out which help topic will be most helpful? In the Mac's Help system, hover over a topic to see a full description appear in a help tag.
You’ve done a search in the Mac Help system. (Choose Help -> ApplicationName Help from within the program you need information about.) Now you have a list of suggested topics. But which topic should you check first? It would be easier to decide if you could read more than just a one-line description. You can if you use the help tags: hover your cursor over topic and a help tag appears with a complete description in it.

5. Easily get information from Font Book

Sometimes it seems to me that Font Book has more numerous, and more useful, help tags than any other Mac utility. Want to know how many fonts are in a library or collection without deselecting the current one? Point to the library name and the info appears in a help tag. Wondering how many typefaces are in a font but don’t want to select it in the Font list and expand it? Hover over the font family name to see the answer.

Font Book help tags
In Font Book, point to a typeface to see a help tag with its font type, version, and location.
You have duplicate fonts and need to check which might be TrueType and which OpenType, which is the newer version, and where the files are on the drive, all so you can decide which ones to disable or delete? You don’t have to switch to Font Book’s Info view: just point to the typeface for an informative help tag with all the details you need.

Long-time Mac author Sharon Zardetto's current ebooks include, Take Control of Safari 5.

[Editor’s note: This story was updated in 11/2011 for Lion compatibility.]

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