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ATPM 17.01
January 2011


How To



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How To

by Sylvester Roque,

Making the Most of What’s Already on Your Mac

Before buying new software for your Mac, why not first check out the marvelous things that are already there? In the first part of a series aimed mainly at new Mac users, let’s take a look at some of the useful things you can do with just the software that’s already on your Mac.

By the time you read this, the new year will have already started, and I’ll probably have already broken a resolution or two. Like many of us, you’ve probably spread a little more holiday cheer than your budget would like. As a result, you don’t have a lot of spare cash around to buy software for that shiny new Mac. Don’t worry about that. You might not find as much pre-installed software on your Mac as you would on some Windows machines, but the software that’s there is actually useful. You won’t find any useless bloatware here.

Where Did I Put That File?

We’ve all had it happen at one time or another. You wrote something brilliant last week but can’t remember where it’s saved on your hard drive. Spotlight is just the thing for you. You may not have noticed the small magnifying glass icon in the upper-right corner of your Mac’s screen. That’s the starting point for Apple’s Spotlight program, and it’s been there all along waiting for a chance to shine.

Spotlight allows users to search for and locate applications, documents of various types, and System Preferences panes. With the exception of some system files, if a file is on your Mac and you don’t know where, this is probably the easiest way to find it. Spotlight made its first appearance with Mac OS X 10.4, but it reminds me of another Apple search tool called Sherlock, which was introduced in Mac OS 8.5.

At its heart, using Spotlight is as simple as clicking the magnifying glass and entering a search query into the text box that appears. The results of the search query are updated in real time as you type. I don’t use Spotlight as much as some of my friends do, but I still find this aspect of Spotlight amazing. When you see your file in the list, select it and the file opens. This is a quick way to open a file or launch an application.

You may have noticed by now that your Mac has a Dictionary application. Perhaps you have even opened it to look up a word. That method works well, but why not avoid the step of manually opening the Dictionary? Enter the word you want to define in Spotlight and select it from the list of results. In no time at all, the Dictionary opens to your selected word. How about surprising your friends by performing Boolean searches or basic calculations? Double-check the calculations, though; there may be a bug or two in this feature.

Let’s Get Organized

Spotlight is great for finding misplaced files, but what if you have folders for several ongoing projects and need the same file in multiple folders? Putting copies of the file in each folder would mean that you have to update the copies each time the original file changes. Instead of assigning project files to different folders, why not assign each project its own smart folder and have your Mac gather the relevant files for you?

I have written about smart folders before as one of the gems included in Mac OS X. I view smart folders as an extension of the Spotlight search functions. In essence, saved search criteria that are displayed as folders. When you open a smart folder, the view shows you all files that match that folder’s search criteria. Making the best possible use of this feature may require taking a few extra moments to tag files with appropriate search keywords. Find out more about smart folders in one of my previous articles about smart features commonly found on Macs.

Let Me Have a Quick Look at That

I don’t use every built-in feature of Mac OS X every day, but there are some that I use so often I don’t think of them as separate features until someone points out that they haven’t always been there. For me, Quick Look is in that category of indispensable features. I use it almost daily and have since its introduction as part of Leopard in 2007. Why is Quick Look so useful to me?

I have a number of files on my Mac with filenames that give me no clue whatsoever to their content. Some were named “Untitled” by default, and I didn’t rename them when they were created. Those are probably from my video capture card, and I have at least three of these at the moment. Other files were given names that made sense at the time but aren’t very helpful two or three years later. In either case, Quick Look comes to the rescue.

Quick Look does exactly what its name implies: it presents you with a quick preview of a file’s content without having to open a larger application. Using this feature couldn’t be simpler: from the Finder, click once on a file to select it, then tap the Spacebar once. Quick Look will attempt to display a preview of the file’s content. It recognizes a wide variety of graphics formats, PDFs, text files, and Microsoft Office documents, among other things. When it comes to media files such as movies or audio, if QuickTime can play it, Quick Look can preview it for you complete with sound.

The last feature of Quick Look is a real treat. Suppose you’ve just received a file from a colleague and don’t have the right application to open it? Give Quick Look a try; it might be able to come to the rescue. If you are consistently finding a file type that Quick Look can’t open, search the Internet. There are plug-ins available that allow it to recognize even more filetypes.

Does Your Dashboard Need a Widget or Two?

Until recently, I’ve gotten away from widgets a bit, but I think I am going to go back to using them more often. “What are widgets?” you say and, more importantly, “Why would you want them?” Widgets are essentially mini applications that add additional functionality to Mac OS X. No matter whether you want to check the weather or time, monitor your Mac’s stats, track packages, or follow the sport of curling, there are widgets for that, and more besides.

If you want a good idea of the size and versatility of these programs, take a look at the top fifty Dashboard widgets. Not only will you find a wide variety of programs, but you’ll also find that many of them are tiny in comparison to full-blown applications. On the day that I searched, the smallest widget called Boredom took up 36K of space, while at the high end, Age of Curling took up 10.7 MB. The savings in size seems to be due in part to the fact that these mini applications do one or two things rather than trying to do everything.

Mac OS X ships with some widgets pre-installed and waiting to be used. Accessing pre-installed widgets, adding new widgets, or deleting ones you no longer need is all done through Dashboard. You can open Dashboard by launching it from your Applications folder, but I find it easier to launch from the Dock: look for an icon that resembles a tachometer.

Clicking the Dashboard’s icon causes your screen to darken slightly and several applications to open on top of anything already on the desktop. In a typical installation, you will see a clock, calendar, weather widget, and basic calculator. The clock is generally set to the same city you used to designate your time zone when you set up the Mac, so it’s probably set correctly.

The weather widget, on the other hand, seems to default to Cupertino, California. While it might be nice to know the weather in Cupertino, it’s probably more beneficial to know the weather in your location. Changing the location is as simple as clicking the tiny “i” in the lower right corner of the Weather widget. When it flips, you can enter a new location as well as decide whether you want temperatures displayed in Fahrenheit or Celsius. I use this widget on my desktop all the time, and the temperature and conditions it reports match what is reported in other sources.

If the handful of widgets I’ve discussed so far were all there was to Dashboard, I wouldn’t be getting very excited. Depending upon which version of the OS you are running and on whether other widgets are installed, there may be others not showing on your screen. Click the tachometer to see if more widgets are present. When the screen darkens and the widgets appear, click the “+” in the lower left corner of the screen. If more widgets are installed, they will appear at the bottom of the screen. Use the small arrows on screen, if necessary, to scroll through the list. Activating one of these widgets is as simple as double-clocking it. When Dashboard is in this mode, deactivating most widgets is as simple as clicking the small “×” that appears on each widget.

If you’ve gone through the list of widgets already on your system and still can’t find what you need, don’t despair. A wealth of new widgets is just a download away. The best place to start looking is probably Apple’s widget site. If the perfect widget still eludes you and you decide to try your favorite search engine, specify “OS X widgets”; otherwise you may end up with a long list of Konfabulator/Yahoo widgets. In keeping with the spirit of this article, many Dashboard widgets are free. Of those widgets currently listed in the top fifty on Apple’s site two were shareware, two were demos, and the remaining forty-six were freeware.

Final Thoughts

This is the first in what I hope will be an ongoing series of articles that describe useful features built into Mac OS X and the software that ships with new Macs. This month has barely scratched the surface of the built-in features. I haven’t even touched on Spaces, Exposé, and a host of others.

I would also like to include future how-to articles covering projects that can be completed using the software that ships with a Mac—and perhaps the occasional bit of freeware. I don’t have anything against software developers; I’m simply trying to illustrate what can be done with the pre-installed software. In order to do this well, I’ll need input from our readers. If you have a project idea that can be completed using pre-installed software or a minimal amount of freeware, let us know. I need all the ideas I can get. Be sure to leave your name that so we can give appropriate credit. Just to get you thinking a bit, here’s an overview of my friend Tricia’s Grandma Videos. Just a little food for thought till next month.

Also in This Series

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