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Mac OS X is a complex and powerful operating system, and even those of us who have been using it since its initial release have to admit that we don't know all its secrets yet. Here are some tips and tricks you probably haven't encountered in your everyday use of OS X -- they can help you customize your computing experience for greater efficiency and enjoyment.

The Listless Login Screen

There are two ways of displaying the login panel. The user-friendly way is the list of names, but for greater security (though less convenience), you may prefer to require that would-be Mac users type both their names and their passwords into text boxes. This way, would-be evildoers have to know both the correct spelling of a legitimate account holder's name and the password.

Most people think that getting to this text-box login screen entails opening System Preferences, clicking on Accounts, clicking on Login Options, and turning on Name And Password. The truth is, though, that there's a much quicker way to switch, without even involving System Preferences -- it's a trick you might use when, for example, you want to log in as console or root (advanced techies, you know who you are), which requires that you type the name in.

From the list-of-names view, hold down the option and enter keys, and then click on any name. The login panel switches to displaying the text-entry boxes, where you can log in as root or console.

To switch back to the list view, just click on the Go Back button in the lower left corner of the login panel. (Changing the panel this way is a onetime affair; at the next login, the dialog box will be back to its previous state.)

The Silence of the Startup Items

What Apple calls a login item is a program, file, folder, or other item that you've designated to open automatically when you log in. If the first thing you do is check your e-mail or a favorite Web page, by all means designate your e-mail program or Web browser as a startup item, so it will be open and ready when you've finished your morning coffee. (You build your list of automatically opening items by dragging their icons into the Login Items panel of System Preferences.)

But sometimes you don't want your regularly scheduled programs to fire at startup. Maybe you're dying to see whether your spouse, boss, or senator responded to your e-mail and you just want to get to your desktop as quickly as possible, without waiting for all your login items to open. Or maybe you've recently installed a program that you think might be causing problems when it autostarts.

In these cases, you'll want to stifle login items, preventing them from opening. To do that, hold down the shift key just after entering your user name and password on the login screen; then press return. You arrive at the desktop, with nothing open but your mind.

Adding Text to the Login Screen

In case you've been lying awake wondering how to add a line of customized text to your login window, help is at hand. No, really. Maybe you work somewhere that requires a disclaimer on the usage of computing resources. Or maybe you want to add a personal touch to your login window -- a daily reminder to floss, for example. Adding this line of text entails editing a special preference file -- a running theme in the OS X hacking community.

Go to the root of your hard drive and open Library: Preferences. Inside is a file called .loginwindow.plist. To edit it, drag its icon onto the TextEdit icon (which is in your Applications folder).

The file contains a long list of bracketed words known to programmers as tags. Just below the first tag, insert these two lines:

<string> Your text goes here </string>

Replace Your text goes here with whatever you'd like displayed in the login window. (The text is left-justified. If you want it to appear centered, you'll have to type a bunch of spaces in front of it.)

Choose File: Save. When TextEdit tells you it can't save the document, click on Overwrite. The next time you log in, you'll savor the results of your modification.

Changing the Alert Volume

As far as your speaker volume is concerned, there are two categories of sound in OS X: alert beeps (noises that you hear when your system does something it's proud of, such as receiving an e-mail, or concerned about, such as crashing a program) and overall volume (the sound level for playing CDs, MP3s, and Doom). The volume control in your menu bar (which you can turn on in the Sound panel of System Preferences) changes the overall system volume. But if you drag the slider while holding the option key, you change only the alert volume.

The Volume-Changing Click

When you increase or decrease the volume on your OS X machine via the keyboard, you hear a muted clicking noise to help you gauge the new level as you set it (unless you've turned off this feature in the Sound preferences panel). If you want a longer or less coworker-friendly noise, you can change this click to anything you'd like. All you need is a standard sound file in AIFF format -- a Bart Simpson snippet, a rude noise from the Internet, or whatever.

Then proceed like this:

1. Open System: Library: LoginPlugins: BezelServices.loginPlugin: Contents. Your job is to replace the standard sound file within Contents: Resources -- but you'll be thwarted by the highly skeptical attitude that OS X takes toward people who try to fool around with it. In short, you're not allowed to change anything in the System folder. But you, intrepid hacker, don't care about that. As long as you have an administrator account, you can change whatever you like just by telling the system software that the owner of the Resources folder is you, not it.

2. Highlight the Resources folder, and then choose File: Get Info. The Info window will appear.

3. Expand the Ownership & Permissions triangle. If you see a locked-padlock icon, click on it. OS X will ask you to prove your administrator status by entering your account name and password; then click on OK.

4. From the Owner pop-up menu, choose your account name, which is designated by the cute suffix (Me). You've just told OS X that you are the rightful owner of the Resources folder, and that therefore you're allowed to make any changes you like -- such as replacing the volume-click sound. Leave the Get Info window open for now.

5. Within the Resources window, highlight the file called volume.aiff. Choose File: Duplicate. You've just created a backup, in case you decide to restore the original volume-click sound.

6. Delete the volume.aiff file. Drag your replacement sound into the window, and rename it so that it is now called volume.aiff.

7. Finally, you'll want to return the ownership of the Resources folder to OS X. In the Get Info window,choose System from the Owner pop-up menu. Close the Get Info window. The next time you log in and tap the volume keys to adjust your speakers, you'll hear your new volume-click sound -- for better or for worse.

Insta-Closing Multiple Windows

When you find yourself with several open windows in one program, especially in the Finder, don't waste time trying to close them individually. Instead, option-click on the red close button at the top left of any open window. Presto: All windows close simultaneously (except in Word v. X -- Microsoft marches to a different drummer).

Scrolling Diagonally

At first glance, you might assume that scroll bars are an extremely inefficient mechanism when you want to scroll a window diagonally -- and you'd be right. Fortunately, OS X includes an alternative scrolling system for such situations. Position your mouse inside a Finder icon- or list-view window; while pressing 1-option, you can drag -- and scroll -- in any direction, thanks to the little white-gloved hand cursor that appears at your command.

Adding an Eject Icon

The prescribed way to eject a CD or DVD is to press the eject (or F12) key on your keyboard. That's not much help if you have a non-Apple keyboard, if you have more than one drive capable of ejecting, or if, in a fit of troubleshooting, you find yourself without a keyboard altogether. Fortunately, there's a secret way to do the same thing: install the Eject menulet.

To find the installer, go to the root of your hard drive and open System: Library: CoreServices: Menu Extras. Inside that window, double-click on the icon called

Now look at your menu bar, and you'll find the new Eject icon. Use it as a menu and choose the drive you'd like to eject.

Window Backgrounds

In icon view, you can use images or colors as the backgrounds for Finder windows. This option sounds like nothing more than eye candy. But it actually has a very practical raison d'être. If you color-code your windows, you know which folders are open on your desktop without even looking for their title bars. The windows also differentiate themselves when minimized in the Dock.

For a more dramatic effect, give your hot-projects folder a light-red background. Give less-important stuff -- lists of all the airline silverware you've ever stolen, or your screenplay-in-progress about a team of dachshund puppies who break an international weapons-smuggling ring -- a light-blue background. Light green could signify your personal-finances folder. And an image of your favorite lawn ornament could be the background for your pictures folder.

To change the background color of a Finder window, follow these steps.

1. Make sure the window is in icon view, and then choose View: Show View Options. If you want to apply a color or picture to only one folder, select This Window Only at the top of the dialog box.

2. At the bottom of the box, choose either Color or Picture. Color brings up a little frame; when you click on it, the Colors dialog box appears. Click anywhere in the Color Wheel to select a tint, or play with the display options at the top of the box (Color Sliders, Color Palettes, Image Palettes, and Crayons). If you choose Picture, click on Select to open a dialog box you can navigate through to pick an image.

As you work, remember that low-contrast or light background colors and photos work best for legibility. Furthermore, if you decide to choose a photographic background, keep in mind that the Mac has no idea what sizes and shapes your window may assume in its lifetime. Therefore, OS X makes no attempt to scale down a selected photo to fit neatly into the window.

If you have a high-res digital camera, you may see only the upper left corner of a photo as the window background. Use a graphics program to scale the picture down to something smaller than your screen resolution for better results.

Adding Quit to the Finder Menu

The Finder may start up automatically each time you log in, but behind the scenes, it's nothing more than a standard OS X program. It may not appear to have a Quit command, but you can indeed quit the Finder when you need just a little bit more memory or computer horsepower for, say, some 3-D–graphical battle simulator.

There are a number of different ways to quit the Finder -- force-quitting, for example. But if you find yourself wanting to quit the Finder with any regularity, the simplest way is to add a Quit menu item at the bottom of the Finder menu. Here's how to go about it:

Open Terminal and then type defaults write QuitMenuItem -bool yes. Press Enter and restart the Finder. Now, lo and behold, you can press 1-Q (or choose Finder: Quit Finder) whenever you want to quit the Finder. When you need the Finder back, a simple click on its Dock icon revives it.

Canceling a Drag and Drop

Suppose you're dragging an icon across the screen -- and halfway through the operation, you decide you don't want to drop it. You could, of course, mouse back and drop where you started.

But life is too short. It's much easier to press the escape key (in the upper left corner of your keyboard) while dragging and then release the mouse button. A shrinking rectangle shows you the icon returning to its original location, no harm done.

Creating an Alias of Your Home Folder

For quick access, you might want to add an alias of your Home folder to another folder -- or lots of other folders. Alas, when your Home folder is highlighted, the File: Make Alias option is grayed out. The solution is to 1-option-drag your Home folder out of its window: presto -- an alias is born.

The Permanence of Server Icons

If you're a network maven who regularly connects to a couple of servers, consider dragging the servers' icons onto the toolbar for easy access. In fact, you can set the servers to log you in automatically, so a single click connects you. Here's how to go about it:

1. In the Finder, press 1-K. The Connect To Server dialog box appears. If your network is working properly, you'll see a list of the other computers on it at the left side of the window.

2. Select the server you want, and then click on Connect. A new window will open.

3. Enter your user name and password. This is the name and password that were set up for your account on the other machine -- the one you're connecting to.

4. Click on Options -- this is the key move.

5. In the Options box, turn on Add Password To Keychain, and then click on OK. You return to the Connect To Server dialog box, having just told OS X to memorize your password so that you'll never have to type it again.

6. Click on Connect. The icon of the other computer's shared disk or folder -- the server -- now shows up on your desktop.

7. Drag the server's icon from the desktop to the toolbar. From now on, when you want to connect to another machine, just click on that icon. One click does the trick -- OS X remembers your name and password.

Unused Languages: Free Your Megabytes

Many OS X programs let you work in a number of languages. iPhoto, for example, supports more than ten languages, which contribute to its taking up a whopping 60MB or more of your hard drive.

You can recover some of that real estate by deleting the languages you don't need. You can slim down iPhoto, for example, to just under 13MB by deleting everything but English. Not bad for two minutes' worth of work.

Note that this operation involves removing files from inside a software package. If you're worried about damaging the program you're going to alter, create a backup copy of it (option-drag the application to another spot on your hard drive).

1. Control-click on a program's icon. From the contextual menu, choose Show Package Contents. Many OS X program icons are, in fact, thinly disguised folders -- and this is how you get into them.

2. Open Contents: Resources. You'll probably see a lot of files inside this folder. You're interested in folders that end in .lproj, such as da.lproj and Dutch.lproj. These are the OS X language files.

3. Throw away the files for the languages you don't speak. Close all the open windows. To make sure you've left the application healthy, double-click on it once before emptying the Trash. If for some reason the application won't run (if you dragged out something more than just .lproj files, for example), open your Trash and drag all the files you've removed back into Contents: Resources to restore the program (or just reinstate the backup you made).

Changing the Screen behind the Login Window

Behind the initial login screen, the background image is blue with some white arcs running through it in a semicircular pattern. It's very pretty -- the first 4,000 times you have to look at it. If you'd like to express your creativity by replacing this background with something groovier and more personal, you can use this technique:

1. Choose an image you'd like to use. Any JPEG or PDF file is fine.

2. From the root of your hard drive, open Library: Desktop Pictures. A list of the standard Apple desktop images appears. Aqua Blue.jpg is the file you want to replace. Drag it out of the folder to a safe place as a backup (or just rename it).

3. Drag your own graphic into the Desktop Pictures folder. Rename your file Aqua Blue.jpg. This sleight of hand allows the system to find it during the boot process.

4. Restart the machine, and your new image appears behind your login screen.

Storing Apple Software Updates

Software Update is Apple's way of cleaning up after itself. A dialog box appears from time to time, offering to install patches and updates that Apple has just released.

Unfortunately, if you ever reinstall OS X from its original CD or DVD (when you install a new hard drive or move to a new Mac, for example), you'll have to download and install all relevant updates again. You can't skip the reinstallation process, but you can skip the download step.

Preserving these updates on your hard drive is easy enough. Each time Software Update finds updates to install, select the update(s) you wish to install and then choose Update: Download Checked Items To Desktop.

Later, you can reinstall your downloaded updaters at any time by double-clicking on each installer.

Deleting Orphaned Servers

You summon the Connect To Server dialog box in the Finder by choosing Go: Connect To Server (or pressing 1-K). Once the box appears, the pop-up menu at the top of the dialog box displays a list of servers you've recently used. The trouble is that when the computers to which you connect move, get renamed, or disappear, the list provides no way to remove the dead items. The solution is to open Home: Library: Recent Servers. Inside, you will find the icons of the servers listed in the Recent Servers pop-up menu. Just delete the icons for the servers you don't want to see on the list.

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