Exploring Safari's preferences

Last week, for the sake of completeness, I took you on a tour of Safari—an application that you likely used to read the lesson. This week we’ll dig deeper and explore some of Safari’s most important preferences. To begin, choose Safari > Preferences.

General

The General tab is your gateway to choosing a default browser, selecting a search engine, and choosing what you see when you first launch Safari, and creating new windows and tabs. Here are the settings you’ll see:

Default web browser: Much as Apple would prefer that Safari launches whenever you click a link outside the browser, you can choose another browser such as Chrome or Firefox as the default instead. To do that, click the Default web browser pop-up menu. If you’ve installed another browser, its name should appear in the list. If it doesn’t, choose Select and then navigate to the browser you wish to use and click the Select button.

Default search engine: Safari uses Google by default for Web searches. But you can change that default to Bing or Yahoo by clicking this pop-up menu.

Safari opens with: Safari under Mountain Lion remembers the tabs and windows that were open when you last quit the browser. If you like, you can have those views saved and then opened when you next launch Safari. To do that, choose All windows from last session from this pop-up menu. Otherwise, Safari will open with a new window.

New windows open with: From this pop-up menu, you choose what Safari displays when you open a new window (or one is opened for you when you first launch it). By default you’re taken to Apple’s website, which is a nice bit of advertising for the company but may not be something you wish to see. If you choose Top Sites, you’ll see a grid that displays thumbnails of sites you visit frequently (or have just recently visited). Homepage takes you to the site entered in the Homepage field below, Empty Page displays a blank page with no Web address, Same Page displays the same page you have open in another window, and Bookmarks shows the page you’d see if you clicked the Bookmarks icon in Safari’s toolbar.

New tabs open with: The choices here match those found in the ‘New windows open with’ pop-up menu.

Homepage: If you’d like Safari to open to your Facebook page or your third-cousin’s blog, just enter that address in this field and choose Homepage from the New windows open with menu. Or, if you just can’t decide, cruise around the Web for awhile, and when you find a destination you like, click the Set to Current Page button.

Remove history items: Safari will, by default, keep track of the sites you’ve visited. It stores this information in its history. You can choose to delete this history at particular intervals—after a year, month, two weeks, one week, or a day. If you like, you can instead choose Manually and issue a command to empty it (something I’ll show you how to do in next week’s lesson).

Configure the default Web browser, windows, and tabs in the General preference.

Save downloaded files to: By default, Safari saves downloaded files to the Downloads folder, which you’ll find in your user folder. But you can ask Safari to download these files to any folder you like. Just click the menu and choose Select. In the sheet that appears, navigate to a folder you find more convenient and click Select.

Remove download list items: If you’d prefer that others using your account not see what you’ve downloaded (or if you’re a tidy person), you can choose to have items in the download list removed. This doesn’t throw away these items, it only removes them from the list—they remain in the Downloads folder (or wherever you’ve chosen to store these things). By default, you remove items by clicking the Downloads button at the top-right of the Safari window and then clicking Clear in the resulting menu. But you can instead choose When Safari Quits or Upon Successful Download from this menu, and Safari will follow your orders.

Open “safe” files after downloading: Safari has a good sense of which file types are naughty and which are nice. (Meaning which can be potentially malicious.) Check this option, and the nice files will open without your having to issue a command or double-click a file.

Tabs

If you’re not using tabs—Safari’s way to open and access multiple webpages within a single window—now’s the time to start. Do so by choosing View > Show Tab Bar. Now let’s see how you can configure those tabs with Safari’s preferences.

Open pages in tabs Instead of windows: The main reason to use tabs is to avoid having multiple open windows clutter your screen. This setting helps in that it determines when tabs should appear. The default Automatically setting means that Safari will make every attempt to open a new site in a tab rather than a window. You can optionally choose to have new pages never or always appear in tabs.

Tabs are a great tool for more efficient browsing.

Command-click opens a link in a new tab: The meaning here is clear. I point it out simply to suggest that you learn this helpful shortcut.

When a new tab or window opens, make it active: This preference is turned off by default and I leave it that way. I occasionally open multiple links within a page for later browsing by using the Command-key shortcut I just mentioned. If I enabled this option, I’d routinely be taken to the linked page in an active tab. I’d rather browse these tabs later.

Autofill

Among Safari’s talents is the ability to fill in Web forms with particular kinds of information. With the current version of Safari, this includes your contact information (name, address, and phone number), names and passwords, and other form information (a customer number, for example). Within this preference, you can disable some of these options as well as edit them.

For instance, if when autofilling a form with your contact information you find that something is wrong—it’s using an old address, say, or some information is missing—click the Edit button in this preference to open your personal contact card in the Contacts application. Edit the contact to include the correct and complete information that autofill lacks.

Click the Edit button following ‘User names and passwords’, and you can choose to remove or expose selected passwords (something we’ll look at next). And if you click Edit next to the ‘Other forms’ option, you can choose to remove stored information for particular websites.

Passwords

The Passwords preference is closely related to the Autofill preference we just looked at. When you visit a website that requires you to create a username and password, Safari will prompt you to save that information by default. If you choose to, that information will be stored in something called the keychain. This is OS X’s secure system for storing such data. When you click the Passwords preference, you’ll see the names of any sites you’ve stored usernames and passwords for. Along the left side of the window is the address of the site, the username follows to the right, and finally you see a series of dots, which represent your hidden password. (For security, the number of dots does not correspond to number of characters in your password.)

If you can’t recall a password and you need it for some other purpose (you want to enter it on your iPhone or iPad, for example), enable the Show passwords option. You’ll be prompted for your account password. Enter it, and all the passwords in this window will be exposed. Once you have the password you need, disable that option immediately. Waving your passwords around for all to see is a very bad idea.

It’s also within this window that you can choose to remove passwords. You can remove them all by clicking Remove All, or you can select individual passwords and remove them by clicking the Remove button. When you choose to remove a password, you’re not removing it from the keychain. Rather, you’re simply removing its autofill entry.

Security

Rather than explaining every option in this preference, I’m going to issue a single suggestion: Leave the default settings as they are. These settings will work admirably for new users.

Privacy

It’s within the Privacy preference that you limit how your data is tracked. The gist is this: Websites have the ability to plant small bits of data, called cookies, in your browser. These cookies can be very helpful. For example, a cookie might alert the site that you’ve been there before so it can present you with some information that would appeal directly to you. Or a cookie could preserve a particular view you prefer. But cookies can also be issued by advertisers to track your movements around the Web, which doesn’t thrill everyone.

The Privacy tab lets you configure how and when you’re tracked.

If you like, you can remove all cookies by clicking the Remove All Website Data button. You’ll be asked to confirm that you really want to do this. Agree, and the cookies disappear. (I’ll tell you in a moment why you might not want to do this.) You can also take a gander at the cookies that are currently stored in Safari by clicking the Details button. Do this, and a sheet appears that lists each cookie. If you’d like to remove one, just select it and click the Remove button.

In the ‘Block cookies’ area below, you can choose how to deal with these cookies. By default, Safari will attempt to block cookies from other sites and from advertisers. You can also choose to accept any cookie thrown at you by choosing Always or reject all cookies by enabling the Never option. Note that if you choose Never, some sites won’t work properly because they require cookies. Netflix, for example, requires cookies so that it knows who you are and can present you with current information about your account and queue.

Websites may also ask you for location information. For instance, a shopping site may want to know where you are so that it can direct you to a local store. Using the Limit website access to location services option, you can choose how often you’re prompted for location information—once a day or once only. You can also deny any location information requests by enabling Deny without prompting.

Given the recent revelations about the government tracking our electronic movements, the ‘Website tracking’ option in this window now seems almost quaint. When you enable it, Safari will instruct websites you visit to not track you in any manner. However, they can ignore this request, as their cooperation is entirely voluntary. I switch it on—but then, I also believe in the Tooth Fairy. If you’re similarly naive, feel free to do the same.

Finally, you can prevent search engines from providing suggestions to you. When you enable this option and conduct a Web search (as I explained last week), you won’t see a list of suggestions in the menu that appears below the address/search field.

Safari has some additional preferences, but most of them are unhelpful to new users. Deal with the ones I’ve explained, and you’ll be well on your way to using Safari effectively.

Next week: Safari tips and tricks

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