The number of cool things you can do with your Mac will probably surprise you. For example, did you know you can use it to catch a burglar, take over somebody else's Mac or even save the world? Yes, it's all true!

Here we'll show you some of the cool tips and tricks the MacFormat team have picked up over the years, using Macs day in and day out. Of course, seasoned pros will know most of these tricks, but we expect there could still be a few in there that will surprise even the most gnarly old Mac expert.

So, let's start our little tour with a look at how to turn your Mac into a home-security camera.

1. Catch a burglar

burglar

See that camera leering at you from your Mac? Well it's got more uses than just making FaceTime calls or taking amusing pictures. It can keep a watch over your house while you're out.

Using an app such as EvoCam ($30), you can use the camera as part of your home security system. Another option is SecuritySpy (from £30).

Then there are apps such as iAlertU (free), or Lockdown (free) that sound an alarm and take a picture if someone meddles with your Mac, so they'll be put off and you'll know who it is.

It's a great way of protecting your kit if you're somewhere public and you've had to leave your Mac alone for a moment (of course, you'll have locked it down with a Kensington lock too, won't you?).

2. Create stopmotion classics

Stop-motion

Sure, if you wanted to create a stop-motion movie, you could buy software such as iStopMotion, but in fact you don't have to spend a penny.

Set up your stills camera on a tripod pointing at your scene, take a picture, move your characters, take another, repeat.

If you want to take a time-lapse film, connect your camera over USB, open Image Capture (in Applications), choose File > Take Picture. Tell it how frequently you want a shot taken.

Once you have your image sequence, launch QuickTime Player 7 choose File > Open Image Sequence, choose a frame rate and click OK.

3. Turn it into a retro games machine

Emulator

Most Mac gamers know the joys of digital download services, such as Steam, but few are aware of the Mac-emulation scene. Thanks to emulator programmers such as Richard Bannister, you can play classic games of yore from just about any platform you care to remember.

While emulation software is perfectly legal, the issue of acquiring game images, or 'ROMs', is murky. Some developers permit fan sites to host releases no longer on sale (such as www.lemon64.com), but other archives operate under the hazy rubric known as 'abandonware'. Be wary of your sources and use them at your own risk.

OS X offers support for many USB game controllers, but drivers are needed to use an Xbox 360 gamepad. You can find one here.

4. Plug in and use any scanner

Scanner

Your Mac can scan without installing any software, by doing it directly from Preview or Image Capture.

First of all, plug in your scanner. To scan using Preview, from the File pull-down menu, select 'Import from Scanner' and choose your model of scanner. A scanning window opens, from where you can do a preview scan, select an image format, scan in colour, black and white or text, set the resolution and more. You can even correct the brightness, tint, temperature and saturation.

Scanning through Image Capture is very similar. Open the app, and a connected scanner should appear in the side bar. Select your scanner, and it works in exactly the same way as scanning through Preview.

If you don't need comprehensive controls, both applications have a Show/Hide Details button that toggles between a full control window and the bare minimum of settings for a quick and easy scan.

5. Use it without a mouse

No mouse

The mouse (or trackpad) has been integral to Apple and its OS pretty much since the year dot, but with a few smart keyboard shortcuts, you can do a huge amount on your Mac without going near it.

Aside from the obvious keyboard shortcuts that you'll see listed next to menu items, meet the application switcher. Press Command+Tab to bring it up. Hold down Command and press Tab repeatedly to cycle through your open apps; add Shift to move in the opposite direction.

That's all well and good for switching between programs, but if you've got several windows open in a single app - say a couple of Pages documents - press Command+' to cycle through the open windows. And if your web browsing's built around tabs, press Ctrl+Tab to cycle through these in Safari. As with the application switcher, simply include Return to flick through them in the opposite direction.

When you're navigating your files and folders in Finder using the arrow keys, you've no need to move your hand anywhere to open anything. Pressing Command+Down Arrow opens whatever you've got selected, while Command+Up Arrow opens the next folder up in the hierarchy.

And if your Mac's set to open each folder as a new Finder window, you can override this by holding down Option as you press one of the above commands, which will close the current window as the new one opens.

A few other shortcuts that are worth knowing about are Ctrl+Eject to bring up the Sleep/Restart/Shut Down dialog, and Ctrl+F3 or Command+F3 to access different Exposé features.

6. Take over somebody else's screen

Screen share

How many times have you had a call from somebody who owns a Mac and needs your help? If you're anything like me it happens quite often. It would be so much easier if you could actually see their screen, so you could know exactly what they were talking about.

Well, you might not know it, but all Macs have the built-in ability to look at, and take over, somebody else's Desktop! So long as you're both on the internet and running OS X 10.5 (Leopard) or later, all you need is iChat.

Fire it up, then start a chat session. The next thing you need to do is get them to choose 'Share My Screen from the Buddies' menu. You'll then have the ability to control their Mac using your keyboard and mouse - it's so easy!

During screen-sharing an audio chat is initiated automatically, too, so you'll be able to talk them through any changes you're making.

7. Automate actions

Automator

Everyone forgets about Automator, the application that lets you automate repetitive tasks. It works by clicking together actions into a chain of events.

Look at the Library of Actions at the left of the Automator window and you'll see that they're split into categories, which are grouped by type. Say you want to recreate a Workflow; we use a lot to prepare CMYK images in various formats, into RGB JPEGs. We start by defining which files we want to convert; do this by specifying a range of files manually using the options in the Files & Folders library, or by effectively running a Spotlight search looking for specific types of file.

Next, drag in whatever Action you want to apply to those files defined in the first step - you'll see that the steps 'link' together to remind you that these workflows are chains of dependent steps. After converting to JPEG and applying the RGB ColorSync profile to change the colour space, we've used the very helpful 'Rename Finder Items Action' to force a JPG file extension.

Whatever Workflow you create, you can run it from within Automator, or save it as a self-contained application (File >Save As). You could, for example, have a rule set up in Mail to trigger an Automator app or script so you could have your Mac at home perform actions by sending yourself an email.

Finally, remember you can save Workflows as plug-ins for Finder, Folder Actions and more, so that you can run them by right-clicking on files or even just dropping files into a particular folder.

8. Use it as a dumb hard drive

Hard drive

If you connect a MacBook to another Mac by a FireWire cable then hold down T while you start it up, then it boots up into a special FireWire Target Disk Mode. You can now effectively use it as a removable hard drive, which is ideal if you need to transfer files from one Mac to another, or if you've got a problem that prevents the original Mac from booting properly.

With the FireWire port not being included on the latest range of Apple's MacBooks this cool tip is falling out of favour, but it can still be a lifesaver for older white MacBooks, iBooks and MacBook Pros. Make sure you disconnect all other FireWire devices before you attempt this tip though, and remove any firmware passwords first.

9. Save the world!

Folding at home

Do you want to join the fight against cancer? Or perhaps you'd like to help look for aliens? Believe it or not, you can do both with your Mac. Distributed computing projects let you put your computer's spare processing power to good use.

The project organiser's server downloads small amounts of information or 'packets' to your Mac over the internet. Your machine then processes this packet and returns the results to the server.

Projects include Folding@home, which analyses the way proteins fold and has already advanced our understanding of how cancers begin. And SETI@home looks for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence by analysing radio telescope data.

10. Doing your maths homework

Math homework

Forget that expensive scientific calculator in your bag, chances are your Mac is all you'll need to solve those tricky problems. You probably know about the Calculator app, but did you know you can use it in scientific or programmer modes?

Use the View menu to choose how it appears. If you just want to do a quick calculation, you can type it into the Spotlight search bar instead of launching Calculator - how cool is that?

And here's the really good bit - hidden away in Applications/Utilities is a little app called Grapher. This will draw you 2D and 3D graphs in a number of formats. Just select the one you want, type in your equation, press Return and your line or plane will appear instantly.

It does a whole lot more besides, including integrals and differentials, should you need them. When you're done, save, print or export as an image.

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First published in MacFormat Issue 230

Liked this? Then check out 40 cool OS X tips to save you time and effort

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