Guide to System Preferences in Sierra
In the second of our three-part series, Craig Grannell reveals how to personalise your Mac’s settings
The options you’ll see within the Displays pane are in part reliant on your Mac hardware. At a minimum, you’ll see Display and Colour tabs for, respectively, setting resolutions and colour profiles. If you’ve multiple displays, that will add an Arrangement tab; some displays will also provide an Options tab.
Within the Display tab, you’ll see an image representing your display (or the closest Apple
equivalent), Resolution options, a Brightness slider, and some other settings that are determined by your hardware set-up. Under Resolution, ‘Best for display’ sets your display to the most optimal choice. Click Scaled to instead select from other supported resolutions. Hold Alt when clicking Scaled and you’ll get a larger list of resolutions. Some of these may not be supported well by your display, so use caution. Holding Alt and clicking Scaled a second time reverts the list to recommended resolutions for your machine.
Resolution: On non-Retina Macs, specific resolutions will be listed (such as 1920x1200); on Retina Macs, you instead get pictorial representations of what your selection will achieve, labelled with the likes of ‘Larger Text’ and ‘More Space’. Clicking an option will immediately change your display’s resolution.
The Brightness slider adjusts the display’s brightness setting more rapidly than using your keyboard’s media keys (F1 and F2), and on notebooks you’ll have an optional checkbox for automatically adjusting brightness; this is worth keeping on at all times unless you find it doesn’t work well for you.
The other options you may see are:
Rotation: Adjusts the rotation of the screen to 90-, 180- or 270 degrees. Refresh rate: Adjusts the refresh rate. Gather Windows: In multiple-display setups, you will get a separate Displays pane on each screen. Clicking this button gathers them all on to one screen.
Detect Displays: If you’ve multiple displays connected and the Arrangement tab does not appear, hold Option and click Detect Displays to give the pane a nudge.
AirPlay Display: This mirrors the display to another compatible screen, such as your television via an Apple TV. This option can be more easily accessed by checking ‘Show mirroring options in the menu bar when available’. This gives you a drop-down AirPlay menu alongside the likes of Spotlight and your menu-bar clock.
Note that should you own a Retina Mac and/ or want a more traditional resolution switch in the menu bar, consider installing the free but capable Display Menu (tinyurl.com/hecvezt), the userfriendly Resolutionator (tinyurl.com/zep6s84), or the extremely versatile SwitchResX (madrau.com).
The Color tab is something typical users will never need to visit, but if you work with photography and design, you may need to calibrate your display. Unchecking ‘Show profiles for this display only’ will list some popular profiles you can choose from. ‘Open Profile’ loads the current profile into the ColorSync Utility app, so you can delve into its details in the ICC file format. Delete Profile deletes any selected custom profile but will not remove those that are preloaded on to your machine.
The Calibrate option loads the Display Calibrator Assistant, a wizard for calibrating your display and creating a new bespoke profile for your particular setup. The initial screen includes an ‘Expert Mode’ checkbox for users who require additional options beyond the defaults.
The aforementioned tab appears when multiple displays are connected. If two
displays are mirrored (denoted by the ‘Mirror Displays’ checkbox), basic representations of them will be overlaid. When this option is not selected, you can drag the displays around to change their positions. Typically, it’s common to place one next to the other, providing a logical pathway for your mouse cursor to use, but you can place one on top of the other, if you wish. One of the displays shown in this tab will have a menu bar on, and that can be dragged to another to make it the primary display; however, as of OS X Mavericks, every display has its own menu bar anyway.
Finally, the Options tab provides settings specific to that display, such as using the display power button to sleep/wake the Mac or power down/power up the display, or disabling its own brightness controls. Click the lock and authenticate with your username to make changes.
Energy Saver options
The Energy Saver pane is designed to adjust power settings based on user-defined criteria, which can be especially useful when eking out extra minutes from a notebook. You may need to click the lock and login to make changes.
Again, there are variations on this pane, depending on the hardware you own. Desktop machines get a single pane with separate sliders for defining how long the Mac should wait before sleeping the computer and display. Further options enable you to sleep disks when possible, wake the Mac for network access, and to start-up your Mac automatically after a power failure. ‘Enable Power Nap’ is also available for Macs with newer
processors; when selected, this option enables your Mac to perform basic tasks while sleeping, such as backing up to Time Machine and making iCloud updates.
The Schedule button provides further control, enabling you to define a start-up/wake time and a sleep time. These can each be set to run daily, only on weekdays, only on weekends, or only on a specific day of the week.
The Energy Saver pane on notebooks make some changes to these options, providing the means to define different settings for battery power and when you’re using a power adaptor. The Battery tab logically removes automatic restart after a power failure and waking for network access. You can also show your current battery status in the macOS Sierra menu bar by clicking ‘Show battery status in menu bar’.
The MacBook Pro with Retina display makes further adjustments, removing the ‘Computer sleep’ option and adding the means to prevent the computer from sleeping automatically when the display is off.
In all cases, Restore Defaults will revert your Mac’s settings to factory defaults. The CDs & DVDs pane only appears if you have an optical drive for your Mac. This doesn’t need to be a built-in drive – just one that’s attached to and recognised by your system.
The five menus are all broadly similar, enabling you to set a default action when certain types of optical media are discovered by your Mac, namely
the insertion of: a blank CD; a blank DVD; a music CD; a picture CD, and; a video DVD. If the option is set to ‘Ask what to do’, you’ll get a dialog box on inserting a relevant disc. Alternatively, you can define a specific application or script to run, or tell your Mac to do nothing by selecting ‘Ignore’.
The Keyboard pane provides a great deal of control over keyboard input. The Keyboard tab has controls that change how your hardware works. The Key Repeat and Delay Until Repeat sliders, respectively, determine how rapidly a character repeats when its key is held down, and the delay that occurs before the repeating starts. Not all keys repeat. Although you can create a
row of hyphens by holding ‘-’, holding a letter will instead bring up a pop-up with related alternate characters, such as à or ä when holding ‘a’; typing the adjacent number to any of these makes a selection without using the mouse.
The awkwardly named first checkbox in the Keyboard pane, ‘Use all F1, F2, etc. Keys as standard function keys’, determines whether the top row of keys on your keyboard performs actions such as adjusting brightness and switching tracks in iTunes, or literally sends function-key-presses. The latter is often helpful in design software. Tick the checkbox and special features will require you to also hold the ‘fn’ key to activate them.
If you’re using an older keyboard with a newer Mac, certain functions may not be available via special keys, but FunctionFlip enables you to remap keys to the likes of opening Launchpad (F4 on newer keyboards). However, you’ll need to approve its use in Security & Privacy.
The second option enables you to access the Keyboard Viewer and Emoji & Symbols from the menu bar; these appear under a single menu extra. If you also have multiple input sources (see later), this menu extra will likely display as a flag. If not, the icon resembles a small keyboard with a Command icon.
Underneath these checkboxes are two buttons: one to set up a Bluetooth keyboard, which brings up the standard OS X discovery window, and one to change how Modifier Keys work. Using the menus in the drop-down sheet, you can turn off modifiers (Caps Lock, Control, Option/Alt, Command), or swap them round. Unless doing so for accessibility
reasons, they’re best left alone. ‘Restore Defaults’ in this window restores factory settings.
The Text tab provides a wealth of autocorrection features. To the right are checkboxes for automatically correcting spelling, and, as of macOS Sierra, automatically capitalising words and adding a period with a double space (like on iOS). The Spelling menu provides the means to select a language (automatic by default).
Software will sometimes override any defined system default, and require you to specifically turn on such changes in Edit > Spelling and Grammar/ Edit > Substitutions, or equivalent settings.
Below the Spelling menu are options for automating smart quotes/dashes, and also for setting the formatting of smart quotes.
The Replace/With table is for adding specific corrections, which is useful for regular typos you make that macOS does not correct or spellings it erroneously updates. It can also be used as a basic text expansion tool, for example expanding ‘omw’ to ‘On my way!’. It’s also possible to add multi-line entries in the With column by holding Option/Alt when hitting Return for a new line.
Your shortcuts will be shared using iCloud and can be especially handy on iOS where typing’s typically slower. Experiment with using words followed by a double comma, which expand out to regularly used phrases or hard-to-access characters, such as ‘fivestar,,’ becoming five unicode stars. (Double comma is a good ‘trigger’, since it’s a pairing you’re unlikely to use elsewhere, and the comma key is readily accessible.)
The Shortcuts tab houses system-wide and custom app-specific shortcuts, which are userdefinable. These are categorised in sections, selected from the pane on the left; click one and you’ll see all associated shortcuts on the right. Below the right-hand pane is a Restore Defaults button that reverts any changes for the current category alone.
Shortcuts are edited by double-clicking the zone to the right of a shortcut’s name and then holding your preferred key combination. For example, select Screen Shots in the left pane, then doubleclick to the right of ‘Save picture of screen as a file’ and hold Ctrl and §. This will update the shortcut for taking a screenshot from the standard Shift-Cmd-3. Should you create a custom shortcut that clashes with another, you’ll be informed (a warning triangle
will be displayed, and also highlight the relevant category where the clash has occurred) and should then change one of them.
In App Shortcuts, you can create your own shortcuts for menu commands that don’t have them, or ones you want to change. Click +, choose an application (or ‘All Applications’ if you want your shortcut to apply across all apps with the same command), type the exact menu title, and then add your shortcut. Click Add to continue. For example, if you’d like a quick shortcut for exporting PDFs from TextEdit, you’d choose TextEdit in Application, type ‘Export as PDF…’ in Menu Title, and then click inside Keyboard Shortcut and add your shortcut (such as Cmd-E). Note that the ellipses is required in Menu Title; that can be typed using Alt-;.
Be careful to not override existing shortcuts within applications when adding custom ones, and note that you cannot revert this entire section to factory defaults; instead, you can select individual shortcuts and use the ‘-’ button to delete them.
At the foot of the window, you can adjust how the Tab key works. By default, it will switch the cursor focus between text boxes and lists. So in Safari, for example, pressing Tab switches you between input boxes on a web page, but if ‘All controls’ is active, Safari tabs and web page buttons are added to the cycle. In Mail, instead of only tabbing between panes and search, ‘All controls’ adds buttons and the ‘Sort by’ menu to the cycle. Generally, the defaults are fine and faster, but ‘All controls’ is a useful accessibility aid; you can also use Ctrl-F7 to toggle this command in an ad-hoc manner rather than triggering it in System Preferences.
The Input Sources tab enables you to add different keyboard layouts that you can switch between, such as ones that aid input in alternate languages, or the Dvorak ‘simplified keyboard’, which rearranges the keys in an attempt to increase typing rates and decrease errors. On selecting a keyboard, a preview of the layout is shown.
Optionally, you can choose to show the input menu as a menu extra, whereupon you’ll see a flag or icon (as appropriate) in the menu bar to denote your current keyboard. Click it and choose a source to switch to it. You can also from this menu select the Character Viewer and Keyboard Viewer.
Shortcuts > Input Sources will appear on adding a second input source. This enables
you to define a shortcut to switch to the next/ previous source (Cmd-Space by default, which clashes with Spotlight, so it’s best to change that to something else). The final checkbox enables you to automatically switch input source when you’ve chosen an input source for a document. The setting remains active only until the document is closed. For example, if you were working in two documents, one in English and another in Icelandic, you would choose Icelandic as the input source for the latter. Then as you switched between documents, OS X would toggle your input source between English and Icelandic keyboards without you having to do so manually.
The Dictation tab, when available, provides access to the interface for setting up dictation
functionality. You choose an input source from the menu under the mic icon, select a language from the ‘Language’ menu, and choose a shortcut for activating dictation (Fn twice by default) from the ‘Shortcut’ menu.
Within the ‘Language’ menu, you can add further languages by selecting ‘Add Language…’ and choosing from the options in the sheet that appears, but note each may lead to a download.
When dictation is active, a little microphone pop-up appears and you can start talking. If you’re using enhanced dictation (which is on by default in macOS, but may require a download when activated for older systems), words will appear roughly as you speak. If not, you’ll have to occasionally pause to let your text upload, get translated and then download to your Mac.
While dictation accuracy isn’t perfect, you can improve your resulting text by manually stating punctuation and styles (such as ‘comma’ and ‘new paragraph’); rather oddly, the system understands ‘smiley face’ and ‘frowny face’, too. You can also use the keyboard to edit text while you speak.
Using your shortcut again will turn off dictation, or you can click the Done button on the pop-up.
The Mouse pane is where you define settings for a mouse connected to your Mac. The pane’s appearance can vary greatly, and is fully contextual, the options presented depending on your hardware. On opening the pane without a mouse connected, it will show an image of Apple’s Magic Mouse, and state your Mac’s searching for a mouse.
The pane will update when a Bluetooth mouse is found and you can then (if relevant) start the set-up process; alternatively, you can just plug in a USB mouse. Regardless of the hardware you add, Set Up Bluetooth Mouse remains a button option at the bottom-right of the pane; adjacent, if relevant, will be your Bluetooth mouse’s battery level. Apple provides a support document on pairing Bluetooth accessories with a Mac.
Plug in the most basic possible mouse and you’ll see ‘Tracking speed’ and ‘Double-Click speed’ sliders, which, respectively, enable you to adjust how far the cursor moves across the screen when you move your mouse, and how quickly you need to double-click the mouse button for that action to be registered by macOS. Only set either value towards Slow if you’re a relative newcomer or require slower responses for accessibility reasons; otherwise, tend towards Fast, especially with tracking. Doing so means you can cover more screen space with smaller mouse movements.
With more powerful/capable mouse hardware, you’re likely to see more options. Plug in a twobutton mouse and you can define the left or right button as the ‘primary’ one for click events (the other being reserved for the contextual menu); mice with scroll wheels will add a ‘Scrolling speed’ slider. Multi-button mice, such as Apple’s old Mighty Mouse, may provide the means to assign actions to specific buttons, for example triggering the application switcher.
With Apple’s original Magic Mouse, you get a significantly different Mouse pane, split into two tabs: Point & Click and More Gestures. Each of these houses a small number of options, and also videos of each option in use; these automatically play back when you hover the mouse cursor over the relevant item – you don’t need to click.
Point & Click includes a Tracking slider, and also checkboxes for ‘Scroll direction: natural’, ‘Secondary click’ and ‘Smart zoom’.
‘Secondary click’ when active enables you to use the right-hand side of the mouse as a virtual right-click button; the option can be switched to the left of the mouse by using the pop-up menu under the item’s label.
The other two options when active echo iOS devices. ‘ Smart zoom’ enables you to double-tap in Safari to zoom the content the mouse cursor is over; a second double-tap reverts. When active, ‘Scroll direction: natural’ scrolls content in the direction you move your finger, like you’re pushing or pulling it. Turn off this setting and macOS will behave as older versions of OS X did, with your drags essentially controlling scroll bars rather
than directly manipulating content. (So dragging downwards would scroll content upwards.)
In More Gestures, you can activate commands for swiping between pages with one or two fingers, swiping between full-screen apps with two fingers (assuming the previous option is not set to use two fingers), and accessing Mission Control with a two-finger double-tap.
The Trackpad pane enables you to define functionality for your notebook’s built-in trackpad, or for a Magic Trackpad connected to a desktop machine via Bluetooth. Like the Mouse pane, if no trackpad is found, you’ll see an image of Apple’s Magic Trackpad and the pane searching for one; again, there’s a set-up button and you can refer to Apple’s support document for pairing advice.
Available options will vary depending on the hardware you have available.
The Trackpad pane provides three tabs: Point & Click; Scroll & Zoom; and More Gestures. Many of the options can bring macOS inputs closer to what you experience on iOS. Hovering the cursor over any of the options provides a video that’s representative of the hardware you’re using.
Point & Click’s options are all about moving the cursor and manipulating on-screen content. With ‘Tap to click’ active, you only need to tap your trackpad for a click event, rather than pressing down until the hardware physically clicks; we recommend this setting unless you accidentally trigger clicks all the time. ‘Secondary click’ enables you to bring up context menus with a two-finger tap, or alternatively (via the menu options) by clicking in the bottom-right or bottom-left corner.
If Look Up & data detectors is active, you can three-finger tap on a word and a pop-up will provide its dictionary definition.
The ‘Tracking speed’ option enables you to adjust how far the cursor moves in relation to your gestures (in much the same way as the equivalent option in the Mouse pane). On hardware that supports it, you will also be able to define the click pressure and toggle Force Click and haptic feedback. (This being used when performing gestures such as Quick Look with a more forceful click.)
In Scroll & Zoom, there are four optional settings: Scroll direction: natural; Zoom in or out; Smart zoom; Rotate. ‘Zoom in or out’ and Rotate are two-finger gestures (respectively, pinch and rotate)
that ape iOS equivalents, zooming or rotating documents in compatible apps. ‘Scroll direction: natural’, as per the Mouse pane’s setting, ‘pulls’ scrolling content in the direction your finger moves, like it does on a touchscreen; and ‘Smart zoom’ intelligently zooms and unzooms a section of a web page in Safari.
The final tab, ‘ More Gestures’, provides a raft of options: Swipe between pages; Swipe between fullscreen apps; Notification Center; Mission Control; App Exposé; Launchpad; Show Desktop. In each case, activating the option will enable you to trigger the labelled action by performing the associated gesture, for example accessing Launchpad by pinching with a thumb and three fingers. In the case of the swipe settings, Mission Control and App Exposé, there are alternate gestures available,
although if you select a setting that clashes with an existing one, the new choice will be activated and the other will be disabled.
Note that relatively modern Apple hardware is more nuanced in terms of its capabilities than the settings you find within System Preferences. BetterTouchTool is worth checking out if you want to experiment with additional and more complex gestures for controlling your Mac via its trackpad.
Printer and Scanner options
The Printers & Scanners pane is used to set up printers and scanners, define default settings for use, and to access options for a selected device. The default options are defined using the two menus at the foot of the window, and enable you to choose a printer (‘Last Printer Used’ or a specific device) and paper size. The initial selection for the latter of these will differ by region (US Letter, A4, and so on).
Otherwise, this pane will begin life empty. Clicking the ‘+’ button enables you to start adding a printer or scanner. The process of installation may vary by model and type of connection.
For reasonably modern hardware, you may find macOS is capable of very quickly installing a wireless printer that you’ve already connected to your network. In such cases, the printer can be added by selecting it from the list (although networked printers will sometimes take a few seconds to appear after the window is first opened) and clicking Add. If necessary, macOS may ask permission to download software for your printer; click Install if such a dialog appears.
When working in an office setup, you may need to use the IP or Windows tabs instead. The former gives you fields for entering the IP number of a printer and the protocol to use, along with the name and location of the printer. The Windows tab is for accessing printers installed in a Windows workgroup environment. Note that if you have virtualisation software installed, you may find instances of your existing printer within this tab. There is obviously no need to install it a second time.
Once a printer is installed, select it from the list and you’ll see its information (name, kind and status). The ‘ Open Print Queue’ button opens the printer’s jobs window; ‘ Options & Supplies’ will give you details about the printer, enabling you to change its name under the General tab, and access ink levels under Supply Levels. Some printers may
offer further buttons, including website links, Driver (for details about the printer driver that’s in use) and Utility, which opens a separate printer app.
Towards the foot of the window is a checkbox for sharing the printer on the network. Select it to do so. If your device also happens to be a scanner, you will see separate Print and Scan tabs. The latter provides an Open Scanner button that launches the standard macOS scanning interface.
The Sound pane is where you define system alert sounds, and settings for audio inputs and outputs. Accordingly, it has three tabs: Sound Effects, Output and Input.
The largest section of the Sound Effects tab enables you to select an alert sound. Funk is the default; Sosumi will likely be a fun alternative for Mac veterans, given its Mac OS roots. You can add your own alerts by placing custom AIFFs into ~/Library/Sounds (for just your own account) or /System/Library/Sounds (for all accounts). You’ll need to restart System Preferences to access custom sounds from the menu.
Below this pane are settings that affect the alert sound. ‘ Play sound effects through’ enables you to define through which output you’d like alerts played. This defaults to your choice of sound output device, but can be overridden by selecting an alternate option (for example if you want alerts to play through your Mac’s speaker and not a headset you’re using for gaming).
The alert volume level can be adjusted to suit, using the slider; and with the checkboxes, you
can define whether user interface sound effects are played (such as dragging something to the Trash) and whether you get audio feedback when changing volume using the keyboard’s media keys (F11 and F12)
At the foot of the window is a global volume slider and mute checkbox (F10 is the keyboard alternative), along with a button for displaying the Volume menu-bar extra, which enables you to change the volume by clicking it and dragging the slider.
The Output and Input tabs enable you to select a device, respectively, for audio output
(such as headphones, USB headsets and devices, and Apple TVs over AirPlay) and input (linein, microphones, and so on). On selecting an output device, those that support it will provide a Balance slider to adjust where the centre of the stereo image is positioned; for a selected input device, you can adjust the input volume while simultaneously seeing the input level.
Depending on your recording software, this pane is worth being mindful of if you find recordings too quiet (input level too low) or distorted (too high). When using the internal mic, you’ll get an option to use ambient noise reduction, which attempts to reduce background noise. Leave this on, unless you’ve a good reason to disable the option.
It’s also worth realising that macOS isn’t always especially intelligent regarding whatever you’ve plugged into your Mac. With USB audio devices, it will attempt to correctly identify them and display their names within System Preferences. However, if you use a standard stereo minijack lead to connect external speakers or output your Mac’s audio to an amp via the Mac’s headphone socket, macOS has no way of knowing this, and so that output will simply be called ‘headphones’.
Note that you needn’t access System Preferences just to perform quick switches of output and input audio sources. With the aforementioned menu-bar extra activated, Alt-click it and instead of the volume slider, you’ll see a list of available output and input devices; to switch to one, just select it in the menu. AirPlay devices will be badged with the familiar icon, differentiating them from other sources.