Customize System Preferences

Here’s a geeky hint for your post-Independence-day Friday, whereby you can express your independence by customizing the appearance of the System Preferences panel. As delivered by Apple, each of the System Preferences panels, such as Appearance, Bluetooth, and Accounts, are grouped together in five different buckets: Personal, Hardware, Internet & Network, System, and Other.

While those are all fine category names, they could be somewhat more descriptive—Personal could be called User-Specific Settings, for instance, or Other could be called Third Party Panels. It turns out that the category names are somewhat easy to change, and the method of changing them won’t break anything else in the process. As an example, here’s what my System Preferences main screen looks like:

While I won’t argue that my categories are any better than Apple’s (they may be worse), they are mine—making my trips to System Preferences just that little bit more enjoyable.

To use your own categories on your Mac, here’s what you need to do. First and foremost, quit System Preferences if it’s running. Next, in the Finder, control-click on the System Preferences application (in the Applications folder), and select Show Package Contents from the pop-up menu. When the new window opens, navigate into Contents -> Resources -> English.lproj. Inside that folder, you’ll see a number of files, including one named NSPrefPaneGroups.strings. This is the file that controls the names of the groups in the System Preferences application. (Leave this folder open, as you’ll be needing to use it again shortly.)

Unfortunately, this file is owned by the system, so editing it is a bit more complex than a double-click. Instead, drag the file out of that location onto your Desktop (or other convenient location in your user’s Home folder). When you drag, you’ll see that the green plus sign appears, indicating that a copy will be made—that’s because you don’t have the rights to move this file. After you copy the file once, copy it again to another location: this will be your backup, for use in case things go wrong.

Now you have two copies of the NSPrefPaneGroups.strings file—one on your Desktop, and another in a safe location. Open the file on the Desktop in your favorite text editor—you can do this via File -> Open within the editor, or via drag and drop. (Make sure you’re using a pure text editor, such as TextEdit in plain text mode.) When the file opens, you’ll see that it contains these lines:

	"personal" = "Personal";
	"digitalHub" = "Digital Hub";
	"hardware" = "Hardware";
	"net" = "Internet & Network";
	"system" = "System";
	"addons" = "Other";

On each line, the word on the left is the “private” version of a category name—do not change these in any way! The word on the right is the “public” version of the name; it’s the one displayed in the System Preferences window. It’s these words on the right that you can change to whatever you want. Just make sure you leave the quotes and semicolons in place when you’re done. Here’s what my edited file looks like:

	"personal" = "Individual User Settings";
	"digitalHub" = "Digital Hub";
	"hardware" = "Physical Devices";
	"net" = "Get Connected!";
	"system" = "System Level Settings";
	"addons" = "Third Party Panes";

Notice the Digital Hub entry—this is leftover from OS X 10.2, as best as I can tell. It was replaced with the Hardware label in 10.3 and later; Apple may have left it around to handle legacy issues, though that’s just a guess on my part. There’s no point in editing that line, as it’s not displayed at all.

After you’re done editing, save the file and quit the editor. The last step is to get your modified file back in its original home. Drag and drop the file from the Desktop back into the English.lproj folder. When you release the mouse button, you’ll see an authentication dialog appear—click Authenticate, and then you’ll see a Copy dialog, asking if you want to replace the file that’s already there—click Replace. Finally, you’ll be asked to enter your admin password to approve the replacement of the system-owned file. Enter it then click OK.

Technically, you’re now done. If you launch System Preferences, you should see your newly-customized names on each category. However, because of the way the edit was done, there’s one small problem: the file you edited is now owned by your user, not the system. The easiest way to fix this is to just run Disk Utility’s Repair Permissions command. (Alternatively, you can use the Get Info window to change the owner back to system. The details on doing that, however, are left to you, the reader.)

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