I've owned precisely one dozen Macs in my life. That means I've had plenty of opportunities to refine my process for taking a new, pristine Mac and making it feel like it's truly mine. Over the years, I've narrowed that process down to the following steps:
Fix the Finder
I like to have immediate visual feedback when I insert, attach, or remove media to and from my Mac. That's why I like to see all attached volumes on the Desktop. I need my icons!
While I’m in the Finder's preferences pane, I also turn off the annoying warning when you change file extensions. (I sometimes need to change, say, a .txt file to a .html file, and don't want a warning every time I do.) Then I change the default behavior for Spotlight folder searches—that is, the searches you perform with those in-line search boxes in the Finder window toolbars. I prefer that those search the current folder by default, since I use the global Spotlight search when I need to look more broadly.
How to do it Finder -> Preferences, General tab, toggle checkboxes for Show These Items on the Desktop. Switch to the Advanced tab and uncheck Show Warning Before Changing an Extension. On the same tab, change When Performing a Search to Search the Current Folder.
Install QuickSilver, Dropbox, Growl
There are several keyboard-based launchers for OS X. But to me, for quickly launching apps, performing calculations, and visiting Websites, Quicksilver ( ) is the best. I just hit Control-Space, type a few characters, and Quicksilver does what needs to be done. Any Mac that doesn't have Quicksilver installed feels truly crippled to me.
Dropbox and Growl ( ) fall into the same must-have category. The two apps are free now. But they make computing so much better that, if they started to charge, I’d pay whatever they asked. Dropbox is like IMAP for my files: I always know that I’m working on the latest version of any document, no matter what computer I use. Growl displays subtle visual notifications for dozens of key events—when Dropbox updates files, or when I receive new mentions on Twitter, or when NetNewsWire ( ) has updated my feeds. It’s informative without being invasive. There's other software I need and use daily, but these are must-haves that help me tackle the rest of my Mac setup to-do list.
Keep the desktop clean
Yes, I like my desktop icons. But I'm averse to MDS (Messy Desktop Syndrome). Instead of cluttering my screen with application and document icons (from Web downloads and the like), I create a Pseudo-Desktop folder on my actual desktop and toss everything in there. Once every week or two, I go through it and prune its contents—filing what I want to keep, tossing whatever I don't in the Trash. To further reduce my desktop clutter, I resize the icons to 48 pixels by 48 pixels.
How to do it Control-click on Desktop and select New Folder; name it whatever you wish. To adjust icon size, Control-click on Desktop, select Show View Options, adjust the Icon Size slider.
Tweak the look-and-feel
To make things look and feel right, I need to make a few adjustments: In Exposé, I set a the bottom right of the screen as a hot corner to reveal the desktop instantly. I enable Full Keyboard Access, so that the Tab key navigates from one form field to the next. I disable the Caps Lock key to PREVENT ANNOYING MISTYPING. I opt to set the timezone automatically and to display the time and date in the menubar. Finally, I turn off the translucent menubar; it only makes things harder to read.
How to do it In the Exposé tab of the Exposé and Spaces preferences pane, open the lower right drop-down for Active Screen Corners and select Desktop. At the bottom of the Keyboard Shortcuts tab of the Keyboard pane, select All Controls. In the Keyboard tab, click on Modifier Keys, select the keyboard you're using, and then select No Action from the Caps Lock Key drop-down. In the Date and Time pane, open the Time Zone tab and put a checkmark by Set Time Zone Automatically Using Current Location. (Airport has to be on for this to work.) In the Clock tab, put a check by Show Date and Time in Menu Bar. Finally, on the Desktop tab of the Desktop And Screen Saver pane, select Translucent Menu Bar.
Tweak under the hood
While I'm in System Preferences, I also make some less visible changes. I configure Spotlight so that it won’t bother checking for results from Mail, iCal, and other apps I don't use. I turn off Bluetooth (and remove it from the menubar). I turn on Remote Login and Remote Management, so that I can control my new Mac from any of my old ones. Finally, I set Software Update to check for updates daily and, under Startup Disk, I choose the Mac itself as the startup disk. (The last one theoretically improves boot times. By default, new Macs don't actually select any drive, including their own main internal drive, as the startup disk. That means your Mac must scan all connected drives when you boot up.)
How to do it In the Spotlight preferences pane, uncheck document types that you don't need or use. Disable Bluetooth on its preference pane, unchecking the topmost checkbox to turn it off, and the bottommost checkbox to remove it from the menubar. Toggle Remote Login and Remote Management in the Sharing pane. Finally, select your own Mac from the list of available drive icons in the Startup Disk pane.
Shrink the Dock
I like to keep only twelve core apps on my Dock. They include Safari, NetNewsWire, iTunes, Adium, Coda, and Tweetie; they're the ones that are almost always running anyway. I remove all the other apps and folders that Apple puts there by default. Next, since there’s then no need for the Dock to eat up oodles of screen real estate, I shrink it so it’s between 50 and 60 pixels tall. Finally, I customize the Dock so that hidden applications are dimmed.
How to do it To resize the Dock, click and drag on the striped bar that separates applications from folders and stacks. (Or open the Dock preference pane and use the Size slider there). To dim hidden apps, I use tip number five in this Dock how-to.
I make several adjustments in Safari’s preferences. I save downloads to the Desktop, rather than the Downloads folder; I then do manual triage on the Desktop, mostly by funneling files to the Pseudo-Desktop (see above) or deleting them outright. I set the homepage to blank, tell Safari to remember my usernames, bar it from automatically opening supposedly safe downloads, turn on the Develop menu, and turn on the status bar. And my Safari setup isn’t complete until I install ClickToFlash.
How to do it In Safari's Preferences, under the General tab, select the Desktop from the Save Downloaded Files To drop-down. On the same screen, clear the Home Page box; while I'm there I also set New Windows Open With to Empty Page. Before you switch tabs, uncheck Open "Safe" Files After Downloading. On the AutoFill tab, make sure all three checkboxes are checked. On the Advanced tab, check Show Develop Menu in Menu Bar. Finally, download and install ClickToFlash.
Turn on live spell-checking
It confounds me that this isn’t the system’s default. Once you've enabled it, you'll see red squiggly lines automatically under misspelled words in almost any app—including text boxes in Safari.
How to do it Type some text in an app like Safari or Stickies. Right-click on your text, choose Spelling and Grammar, then Check Spelling While Typing.
Of course, there are plenty of other things I do after that—installing key apps like Adium ( ), NetNewswire ( ), and The Hit List; setting up up site-specific browsers for my two Gmail accounts with Fluid ( ); using another Terminal hack to turn on double scrollbar arrows; and on and on. But the steps above are the ones I absolutely have to take care of as soon as possible.
Obviously, not every item on my list will make sense for you, but you probably already have a list of your own. If you haven't written that list down somewhere, you should. That way, when you finally take the plunge and splurge on that new MacBook Pro, you’ll know just what to do when you first take it out of the box.