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ATPM 9.02
February 2003


How To




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How To

by Sylvester Roque,

Personalizing Your Mac 101

All right, I admit it. I am just a little jealous. You finally got that new Mac. Either the elves at Cupertino finally came through, although a little late, or you saved enough money on your own. Now that you have the new machine, you’re probably wondering what’s next.

If you are anything like I am, you did not get right down to work. That quarterly report will have to wait just a little longer. You would like to do a few things to personalize your Mac and give it a personality all its own.

Before we begin, let me say that none of these modifications will involve opening the computer’s case, painting the case, or removing any internal parts. If you are interested in this type of modification, I suggest you check out some of the wild designs at Applefritter. Although I would love to try some of these ideas, my spouse strongly suggests I refrain from using the sharp objects and soldering irons usually needed for such projects. Given my history of tool-related injuries she is probably right.

Homemade Launcher

I have a confession to make. My wife has finally persuaded me to like something from the PC. She liked the taskbar so much that she created a folder in the OS 9 Apple menu and placed an alias there for each program she used regularly. By placing the aliases in folders, she achieved some level of organization. I missed this feature in OS X until I figured out an alternative that uses no software and does not patch the system in any way. Here are the steps:

Open the Users folder of your hard drive. Open the folder that matches your username and press Command-Shift-N to create a new folder. Give this folder any name you like. For the sake of argument, let’s call it Launcher. Inside this Launcher folder, I added subfolders for various types of applications: Graphics, Utilities, Games, etc.

Open the Applications folder. Single-click on one of the applications that needs an alias. Then, press Command and Option simultaneously while dragging the icon to whatever subfolder you want to put the alias in.

Now that you have all your aliases where you want them, close any open folder so that all you see is the Launcher folder you created. Drag this folder into the right side of the Dock somewhere between the divider bar and the Trash. When done correctly, you will have one folder in the Dock that has all the subfolders and aliases you created. When you click on the folder, the subfolders pop up just as they used to in the Apple menu. Selecting the alias that you want will launch the program.

To add additional programs later, place the alias in the Launcher folder that you created in your home folder. Any changes you make here will be reflected in the Launcher folder that is in the Dock.

If you place your Launcher folder inside the Shared user folder, the “Launcher” folder will be available to all users. I prefer placing a copy of the Launcher in each user’s folder. In this way, the programs available to each user can be different.

System Preference Panes Are Your Friend

If you have been around the Mac for a while, you know that before OS X, control panels, system extensions, or some combination of the two types of files accomplished most system customizations. Under OS X, most of these settings are controlled by the System Preferences application. This is a good place to start modifying system settings. Access this application by choosing its icon from the Dock or choose it from the Apple menu. I will not go through the settings for each of the panels. Most of the settings are self-explanatory. We will focus on the things that are easy to miss.

Change the Color of Highlighted Text

I have been using OS X ever since 10.0 came out and I like almost everything about it. At first, I did not like the default color for highlighting selected text. I put up with it until this past summer when I had time to poke around and find a solution. Open the preference pane marked General and click on the pop-up menu marked Highlight Color. If you do not like one of these options choose Other…. This will bring up a panel that allows you to adjust color settings until you find a color you like.

While you are here, look at your settings for font smoothing. At the bottom of the window is an option to turn off font smoothing for fonts at or below the specified size. Font smoothing makes text below certain sizes look better, but slows down video performance on some systems. Your options are to turn off font smoothing for sizes of 8, 9, 10, or 12 point and below. Some users have reported that adjusting this setting makes the display seem to run a little faster. You cannot really hurt anything by experimenting with this setting. Experiment a little and find the value that’s best for your system.

Saving Your Screen

Until OS X came along, I had not used screensavers in a very long time. Beginning with System 7, every time I used a screensaver application it crashed something on my system. With OS X, screensavers have proven to be a lot more stable for me. Apple includes some neat screen effects as a starting point but you can create some of your own with relative ease. Here are some things to remember once you have opened the Screen Effects preference pane.

By default, the OS looks in your home folder in a subfolder called Pictures. You can use a different location if you wish. Make sure you click the Screen Effects tab. Select Pictures Folder, click Configure, and then click Set Slide Folder. A dialog box will appear allowing you to choose the folder containing pictures you wish to use in your slide show.

Make sure your pictures are in the right format. I have tried JPG, PNG, and TIFF files. These files seem to work fine. I do not recommend using GIF files because they usually do not have a high enough resolution to look good.

Apple’s OS X help files suggest that if the pictures look fuzzy to save them at a higher resolution. I usually save pictures I want to use at a resolution that at least matches my monitor’s resolution. If my screen is set to 800 x 600, for example, I use the same resolution for my pictures. On some systems the Mac will slow down slightly as it tries to scale lower resolution pictures to match.

Be sure to examine the Activation and Hot Corners tabs to make additional setting changes. These settings are self-explanatory.

Under Jaguar, there is an easier alternative. Put the graphics files you want to use into a folder, then open the root level of your hard drive. Once you are at the Library level, open the Image Capture subfolder and then the Scripts subfolder. Drop your folder full of graphics onto the script that says Build Slide Show and it will take care of the rest. I would love to take credit for this tidbit but I picked this up on the Mac OS X Hints Web site. Check out the customized screensaver hint for the full details.

You can use the iPhoto import command to import the photos you would like to use in your screensaver slide show. Once you have imported the graphics, click on the share button and then click the Screen Saver icon. iPhoto will put the photos in the right place.

Desktop Pictures

The process for setting a new desktop picture is essentially the same as that used to set up a screensaver. Open the Desktop preference pane and look at the pop-up menu marked Collections. You can either use your Pictures folder or use the Choose Folder… option from this pop-up to select a different location.

You can use the iPhoto import command to import the photos you would like to use as desktop pictures. Once you have imported the graphics, click on the Share button and then click the Desktop icon. iPhoto will put the photos in the right place.

Just as with the screensaver option, JPG, PNG, and TIFF seem to be the best choices. Adjust the resolution of the graphic so that it closely matches your screen resolution.

You can also choose options that will have the chosen picture fill the screen, stretch to fill the screen, appear in the center of the screen, and tile. If a folder full of graphics is chosen you can set the order in which the graphics appear and the time interval that must elapse before the picture changes.

Bring on the Noise

When we bought our Power Mac 6500 I scared my wife half to death. I left a self-playing startup sound of an explosion in the System Folder with the volume cranked to full. I had also added several other sounds to the system. Until recently, I have missed that ability in OS X.

Startup Sounds

When I migrated to OS X one of the things that I missed most was the ability to add new startup sounds to the system. In the past, most startup sounds played as system extensions were loading. Under OS X this is no longer true and until recently I was unaware of an easy way to solve this problem. Now thanks to some ingenious Mac users there are some easy solutions. Here are the tools you need and the steps to take.

First you will need the right tool for the job. I have tested both Classic Startup Sound and Quick Startup Sound on my G4, and both programs seem to work well without any adverse effect on the system. Quick Startup Sound is freeware and Classic Startup Sound is donationware. Both programs install in the same way, operate in the same way, and support a variety of sound file formats.

Now that you have got the right tool, install it anywhere on your hard drive that you find convenient. While you are here, go ahead and put your new startup sound in the same folder as the program. The sound file must be in this location for either program to work correctly.

Now that we have gotten this far we are halfway home. The next step is to rename your new startup sound “defaultsound”. The filename must be one word with no quotation marks around it. Do not include the file extension (mp3, snd, etc.) as part of the filename.

There is only one step left to perform. Open your Login Items preference pane and add whichever program you are using to your login items. You now have a new startup sound that will play as the desktop loads.

Alert Sounds

If you think the included OS X alert sounds are a little anemic here’s how to add your own sounds. In order for this trick to work, a sound file that has been saved in AIFF format is required. This is the file type used for alert sounds in OS X. A variety of programs are available that will manage this type file.

Once you have a file that you would like to use, open your home folder and open the Library folder. Inside the Library folder is a subfolder called Sounds. Drop your sound here and remember the name of the sound.

Now that you have completed that step, open the Sound preference pane and click on the name of your sound. That sound will now play instead of your regular system sound.

Keep the file that you want to use short. Alert sounds play when a system beep or error message needs to occur. I can tell you from personal experience that long sounds are both time-consuming and annoying as alert sounds.

Short files also save disk space. AIFF files are uncompressed and can take up a significant amount of space.

• • •

The tips that I have given so far generally make use of software that is on most Macs without any downloading. Because they do not patch the system, these tips also do not seem to adversely affect system performance or stability.

If you want even more customization, it is possible to change a variety of other settings: the boot panel, boot strings, login panels, and login strings. The boot panel is the screen that appears while your Mac is booting and tells you what is happening. For this you need a program such as Keaka Jackson’s Visage. I used this program for about two weeks on another Mac and it has performed flawlessly. It’s more than worth the $9.95 shareware fee.

• • •

Well, I hope that gives you a few ideas. Maybe you are better at creating desktop patterns, boot panels, and login panels than I am. If not, there are many sites on the Web with these types of files. My favorite is ResExellence.

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Reader Comments (9)

George Lien · February 10, 2003 - 03:45 EST #1
I think diagrams (images) are needed in such articles.
Sylvester · February 10, 2003 - 17:20 EST #2
You're probably right George. In hindsight, there probably were some places where screenshots would have been helpful. It's always a bit of a juggling
act between the need for screen shots and the increased load time that can occur (especially on dial-up connections).

Thanks for the input.
Tom E.M. · February 16, 2003 - 13:40 EST #3
If you use ~/Library/Favorites/ as a dock-based launcher, a single Command T stroke will create an alias of the selected Finder item in the Favorites folder, and each user has their own Favorites folder. You can later file the aliases in subfolders you may have put inside the Favorites folder. This is the preferred alternative to a user-configurable Apple menu.

Of course it's about as easy to launch absolutely anything from the dock if you put your hard disk icon in there. Then you don't need to maintain a parallel hierarchy of aliases at all and can simply navigate your folder hierarchy directly.

But my favorite customization is to put the Desktop folder on the dock and to make that folder a large icon view window with a high contrast colored background such as the default aqua blue desktop picture (Command J gives this option). Now you have a "deskpad" that jumps to the top of all your other work and allows access to everything on your desktop, except mounted disks. For those, you'll have to switch to column view. The toolbar gives lots of filing options since the icons there are spring loaded (unlike in the Dock). You can put any folder there if you like.

With this innovation, I would now like to have the option of turning off the display of file icons on the screen desktop. They just clutter up my desktop pictures (which are separate from the picture installed as the background of the desktop folder window).

This is something the Mac has needed for a long time; a self-clearing desktop!
Lee Bennett (ATPM Staff) · February 16, 2003 - 14:02 EST #4
Tom - why not just keep stuff off the desktop in the first place and put everything in your user Documents folder, as it was intended for? Then just but the Documents folder in the dock instead of the Desktop folder?
Tom E.M. · February 16, 2003 - 14:36 EST #5
I do that, too. However, there is so much stuff in Documents that icon view is futile and only a list view will do. On my desktop, I like to maintain few enough items that I can keep them in an icon view and group them in a fluid way without being overwhelmed by them. My practice is to clean up as the desktop gets cluttered. It's a convenient temporary place for downloads to collect and for new items to be created, except that not much of it is actually visible much of the time. I've complained of this for a decade, but the solution is built into OS X.

Now, if only I could have my daily desktop picture go into a Finder window that could be put on the Dock and brought to the top whenever desired. Perhaps it would be back to a gray desktop, like the original 128k Mac.
Sylvester Roque · February 16, 2003 - 14:58 EST #6
There seem to be almost as many different ways of creating a homemade launcher as there are Mac users. I originally developed this idea to somewhat emulate the Windows Taskbar which my wife likes.

I'm going to try some of the suggestions posted here because they offer some distinct advantages over what I have set up.

I do have shortcuts to my hard drive in that launcher, but sometimes I find it a pain to navigate through all of the folders to get to what I need.

I have not gotten into the habit of storing information in the Documents folder because the primary drive on my iBook is small (6GB). Putting too much stuff there cuts down on the space I have available to use for memory files that OS X seems to need to create.
AJ · February 16, 2006 - 00:08 EST #7
I want a software that will divid my desktop to two or four seperate running screens!

ATPM Staff · February 16, 2006 - 00:45 EST #8
AJ - you either need to add a second video card to which you'd attach another monitor, or obtain a dual head card that has two connections on the one card.

I recently heard of an external box that attached to a computer's single video jack and offered an extended desktop to two displays. I'll post again if I can recall where I found that.

But keep in mind, you cannot do this with software alone. You must have some sort of hardware to physically attach the second monitor. There is software available that can send the video for a second display over your local network to another computer, but it does require a whole other computer to receive the signal. To attach a second monitor to your one computer, you must have two video cards, a dual-head video card, or the box I described above.
Paul Kay · October 31, 2006 - 16:45 EST #9
Hi Sylvester

How could I set a constant volume for alert sounds (whether "custom" or built-in) in OS X?
Currently, when I alter the output volume for other audio, the volume of the alert sounds is altered in the same way - which easily renders alert sounds inaudible and useless. That is because the "Alert Volume" in System Preferences/Sound is attenuated by "Output Volume".

How can I make alert sounds repeat, say for selectable period of time? Currently, when I'm located at the other side of the building when an alert sound occurs, often I don't hear it.

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