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Mac OS X is a slick and beautiful operating system. Still, the allure of personalizing one’s environment—to make it more aesthetically pleasing—is tempting. Why should your Mac look like everyone else’s? Luckily, with the help of a few inexpensive applications and system hacks, you can give your interface a whole new look.

Apple usually frowns upon system hacks (also known as haxies ) because these interface tweaks involve replacing system files. It is true that a haxie can occasionally interfere with some applications, especially when you upgrade your OS. If you choose to modify your interface, use caution. It’s usually best to disable all haxies before upgrading.

As I write this, there’s very little support for interface manipulation on Intel Macs. In particular, Unsanity, a company that specializes in interface modifications, hasn’t yet released Universal versions for many of its applications (check out a compatibility list ). An Unsanity representative stated that Universal versions for all products were in the works.

Change your look

When you renovate a house, nothing gives you more bang for the buck than a new paint job. You’ll get the same impact on your Mac when you change its theme. A theme is a replacement set of windows, buttons, process bars, menus, and fonts. It can change the color of your interface elements and the texture of the windows (see screenshot).

If you’re using Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger) with a non-Intel Mac, the best way to modify your theme is to use Unsanity’s $20 ShapeShifter 2.3.1. This application replaces OS X’s interface elements with ones you create or download. (It also saves a backup of your original files so you can revert to them later.)

ShapeShifter lets you download some featured themes from within the application, but you have even more choices online—from themes that may look like Windows XP and Be OS to ones customized for the holidays. Some of my favorites (all available from InterfaceLift) include Daisuke Yamashita’s Neos and Pulsar, Takashi Izawa’s Shinobi, and John Tewksbury’s Titanium.

To select a theme, open the ShapeShifter preference pane and click on the Download tab for a preview of a featured theme. Click on Next to browse through the others. If you like one, click on Download. When the download finishes, click on the Apply tab and then on the arrow next to Themes. You’ll see the theme’s name in the list here. Select it and the preview window offers a glimpse of how it will look (for a more comprehensive view, click on Preview). When you’ve settled on what you want, click on Apply Changes. Log out and log back in (under the Apple menu, choose Log Out user name ) to see the full effect. If you want to get back to your original look, click on Restore Defaults.

ShapeShifter doesn’t just affect the Finder windows and menu bar. Applications such as Apple’s iTunes and iPhoto get a makeover, too. If you don’t like how a particular application looks with a new theme, you can choose to exclude it. Click on the Exclude List tab in the ShapeShifter preference pane and add the application to the list.

Before ShapeShifter 2 came out, you were essentially stuck with a theme’s quirks. Sometimes, particularly in dark themes, you’d end up with unreadable text (black text on a black background, for instance). Not anymore—if you don’t like something about a theme, you can tweak it. In the Apply tab, you’ll find a Tweak button. This launches the guiTweak application, which lets you alter the color of any theme element.

Overhaul your icons

If you’re not quite up to a complete theme change or if you want to take your theme even further, consider updating your icons. It’s a snap to change a few icons here and there. If you’re using OS X 10.3 or higher, just click on the icon you want to copy in the Finder and choose Edit: Copy (Command-C). Then click on the folder or file to which you want to assign this icon, press Command-I to open the Get Info window, click on the small icon image, and choose Edit: Paste (Command-V).

For a systemwide icon swap, both Intel and non-Intel Mac users can turn to Panic’s CandyBar 2.6.1 ($13). CandyBar can replace practically every icon on your computer, including system, volume, network, media, and application icons.

You can pick and choose what type of icons you want to replace. For instance, if you’d like all your document icons to have a new look, click on the System tab in the CandyBar window. Then drag and drop your new icon into the Documents well and click on Apply System Icons. You must provide an administrator password and then click on Relaunch Finder to apply your changes.

If you want to replace all of OS X’s icons, check out CandyBar’s iContainers. Use these prepared packages of system icons to quickly revamp the look of everything from your external hard drives to your home folder. CandyBar comes with two sample iContainers, Litho and Monolith System. Go to the Iconfactory to find more. Double-click on an iContainer file to populate all the wells in the CandyBar window with new icons. Click on Apply System Icons, provide an administrator password, and click on Relaunch Finder to apply your changes. Anytime you want to change back to OS X’s default icons, just click on Restore Icons and then click on Relaunch Finder and Relaunch Dock.

If you want to collect even more custom icons— Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, and holiday sets, for example—download Panic and the Iconfactory’s $19 icon organizer, Pixadex 2.0.2. Browse the many Pixadex iContainers. Drag icons from Pixadex directly into CandyBar wells.

Make your desktop your own

Your desktop picture defines your Mac’s overall look, so why settle for standard fare? After all, this image stares at you every morning after you turn on your computer. The easiest way to change it is by going to the Desktop & Screen Saver preference pane. Click on the Desktop tab and then use the list on the left to choose from Apple’s supplied photos and colors, or to navigate to and select any image on your computer.

Don’t miss the Change Picture option at the bottom of that window. After you choose a folder of images, select this option and then pick a time frame—for example, every day or every five minutes—from the pop-up menu. Now your desktop picture will cycle through the folder of images. If you’re using iPhoto 6, you’ll find this option grayed out when you select one of your iPhoto photo albums. Click here for a workaround.

But what if you want to take your desktop to the next level? Don’t hesitate to get creative with the abundance of images you’ll find online. You can even get Automator involved. In The Mac OS X Tiger Book (Wiley, 2005), Andy Ihnatko outlines an Automator workflow that snags NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day and sets it as the desktop background. (Download the workflow.) Put a workflow like this in your Login Items, and you’ll automatically get a brand-new desktop picture every day. Go to the Accounts preference pane and click on the Login Items tab. Click on the lock and enter your administrator password. Finally, click on the plus sign (+) and navigate to the workflow.

If you don’t easily get motion sickness, you might try a moving desktop. Julien Couthouis’s free CoolBackground lets you use a screen saver as your desktop image. The program is processor intensive, so use it only if you have a very fast Mac. CoolBackground works only with non-Intel Macs running OS X 10.4.

Remember the little things

If you’re on a mission to customize every corner of your Mac, don’t leave your cursor behind. Another Unsanity application, the $10 Mighty Mouse (non-Intel Mac only; OS X 10.3 and higher), can turn your mundane cursor into a Stealth fighter, a shark, a smiley, and more. Mighty Mouse also lets you change the size of your cursor. (Magnify the cursor to the largest size and you’ll see why Unsanity calls it mighty!)

[ Anton Linecker is a writer and technical advisor living in Los Angeles. ]

I customized my Mac using Unsanity’s ShapeShifter to apply Daisuke Yamashita’s Neos theme in white (A). Then I turned to ShapeShifter’s options to improve text legibility and darken the sidebars (B). Enlisting Panic’s CandyBar, I replaced all the icons with Sascha Höhne’s Snow E.2 collection (C). My desktop picture is FraxDesk no.7, by Scott Chitwood (D).
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