Apple goes to great lengths to make your Mac as easy and as intuitive to use as possible, but that doesn't mean there aren't ways in which you can improve your experience even further.
Whether you're new to Macs and looking for a friendly guide, or a long-time Mac user who's hoping to glean some new approaches to familiar tasks, there's a tweak out there to change the way you use your computer for the better.
In this article we'll reveal 50 different tips and techniques for getting the most from your Mac. We'll cover fundamental aspects of using your Mac, from using Finder to browse your files, to switching between desktops using Mission Control. We'll even show you how to give your operating system a lick of paint with some handy customising pointers.
All of the tips in this article work with OS X Lion, but the vast majority also work with Snow Leopard too. So sit back and prepare to enhance the way you use your Mac.
01. Manage what starts with your Mac
Do certain programs you rarely use insist on starting with your Mac? Or maybe you have a number of applications you always use that you'd like to start automatically when you first log on each day, saving you the bother of doing so manually.
To manage your startup items, open System Preferences > Users & Groups. Select your user account and click the Login Items tab to see what's starting with your Mac. Unwanted items can be removed by being selected and then clicking the '-' button.
To start a favourite application with your Mac, click the + button instead, then click the Application link under Favorites to locate the app you want to launch at login time. Select it and click Add. If you want the app to start in the background, tick the Hide box before closing Users & Groups.
02. A smarter way with folders
Smart folders enable you to build up customised folders containing files of a certain type, name or whatever criteria you choose. The files are left in their original location - instead the smart folder is basically a set of links to those files, so you can have the same file contained in more than one smart folder without creating copies to clutter up your hard drive.
Smart folders are created by saving the results of a search you've performed, and they can be created in a number of ways: choose File > New Smart Folder. Type your search term - a name, for example - then click the + button to start adding filters to restrict what files are displayed: for example, to search only for image files, choose Kind followed by Image. Add more filters if you wish.
Once the results are to your satisfaction, click Save, give your smart folder a name and leave Add to Sidebar ticked if you want to be able to access it from the Finder sidebar.
03. Window management tweaks
Resizing application and Finder windows can be a bit tricky, which is why Lion has introduced a number of great new features that will appeal to many.
First and foremost, you no longer need to grab a corner of the window to resize it - you can now resize by clicking and dragging on any part of the window edge. If your window is the right aspect ratio, but the wrong size, hold down the Shift key as you drag it, and it will resize proportionally. If you'd like to make it wider or taller at both ends, hold the Option key when you click and drag one edge, and the other edge will resize at the same time too.
You can also move windows when clicking on an edge by first dragging in the wrong direction - for example, drag up or down when clicking on the left or right edge. Once it's moving, you can drag the window in any direction.
04. Resize an app to full-screen
Lion introduces full-screen support, which allows supported apps to take up the entire window. Not all apps are compatible, and Snow Leopard users may be feeling a little out in the cold.
One workaround is to install a free program called Right Zoom for Mac. This little gem 'fixes' the green zoom button in selected applications or Finder windows, so when clicked the window will always resize to the full available width and height of your desktop. It's not as good as full-screen mode, but it's a decent substitute.
Once downloaded, unzip Right Zoom and drag the app to your Applications folder before launching it. You'll be prompted to configure it before use: tick Activate Right Zoom to get started and work your way through the options, which allow you to restrict its use to specified apps or when you hold the Option button as you click the green maximise button.
05. Revamp the startup screen
Fancy changing the background colour and logo that appears when your Mac boots? It's a simple procedure with a free tool called BootXChanger; it sadly doesn't work with newer Macs including the 2011 MacBook Pro, Air and Mac mini. It should work with older Macs, though, even those running Lion.
BootXChanger is refreshingly simple to use, considering what it does. Follow the link above to download the app. Once that's done, open it and then drag your choice of logo - nine alternatives are supplied in the Sample Boot Images folder - onto the program window.
Next, choose a new background colour, click Apply and reboot to see the fruits of your handiwork. You can use any square PNG image - try to keep the size down below 512x512, or as little as 90x90 if possible - but we recommend using the Chrome Apple logo with a white background for a really classy startup look.
06. Customise file and folder icons
Icons help identify what's going on, but sometimes you might feel uninspired by a particular icon being used, or find folders hard to find in a sea of identical-looking icons. The good news is that customising your icons is a simple affair with two basic choices.
The first is to assign a colour label to the selected folder or file name - choose File > Get Info in Snow Leopard, or simply pick a colour label from the File menu in Lion.
Alternatively, change the icon itself. First, locate one - it can be another file or folder icon, or an icon file (search Google for 'free mac icons'). Select the file containing your chosen icon and press Command+I. Click the icon and press Command+C, then open the Information pane for your target file or folder, select its icon and press Command+V to replace it.
07. Manage the Launchpad
Launchpad, which was introduced in Lion, was inspired by your iPhone or iPad's home screen. It gives you quickfire access to all of your apps from a single location, but it needs to be tweaked to reflect your needs before it can be deemed truly indispensable.
Start by organising your icons in the order you want them to appear. You may also want to move icons between pages: to do this, just drag the icon to the left of the screen to move it to the previous page, or the right to place it on the following page.
You may also want to restrict the Launchpad so that it only shows your choice of application. To do this requires a free program called Launchpad Control, which installs into System Preferences under Launchpad. From here, simply untick the items you wish to hide and click Apply to streamline the Launchpad. Re-tick an item to make it visible again.
08. Switch between open applications
If you've got loads of windows and apps hidden away to prevent desktop clutter, switching between them can be tricky. Hold down the Command key and press Tab to launch an icon-based task switcher.
You can use Tab and Shift+Tab to move between them, before hitting Return to switch to that application (you can also press Q to quit it, or H to hide or show its windows). Want more detail? Hit 1 and the Exposé Application Windows mode takes over. This gives you a preview of all the windows currently opened by the selected app.
Move between windows using Shift and Tab keys, using [Space] for an up-close preview of the currently selected window. Jump to the next app in the list with Command+'. Hit Return to select the current window and return to the desktop, or Esc to simply exit back to the desktop.
09. Search by Spotlight
You don't need to open Finder to initiate a search for files and documents on your hard drive: you can also search your Mac directly from the menu bar using the Spotlight magnifying glass icon in the top right-hand corner. The results appear via a drop-down menu, which are helpfully organised into file types, and clicking one opens it.
That's as far as it goes for Snow Leopard users, but Lion users should revisit the Spotlight bar as a number of useful enhancements have been added. First, you can now get a preview of any search result simply by moving the mouse over a specific file and waiting for a pop-up to appear.
Second, hold Command+Option as you roll the mouse over a file and its path will be revealed underneath the QuickLook window. Finally, hold Command as you highlight a document and the first instance of your search term will be highlighted at the same time.
10. Limit the scope of your search
By default, Spotlight (top-right of the menu bar) will search in no less than 15 categories, including various file and document types, applications and System Preferences. When you perform a search, you can narrow the results to specific file types by choosing Show all in Finder to open the results in a Finder window.
Click the + button next to Save and click the Any drop-down menu to limit your search accordingly. Want to search two or more file types? Simply click the + to add another file type to the list.
If you would like to limit future searches to specific types, resulting in faster searches, open System Preferences and choose Spotlight. Simply untick those categories that don't interest you, and Spotlight will helpfully ignore those file types in future searches.
You can also ban Spotlight from searching specific folders on your Mac: switch to the Privacy tab and either drag a folder into the window, or click + to add it manually.
11. Change your desktop background
If you're bored with the backdrop that greets you every time you boot your Mac, it's time for a change. Open System Preferences and select the Desktop & Screen Saver > Desktop tab.
From here you'll find a number of different backgrounds to choose from - if you can't choose between them, tick Change picture and rotate the background at set intervals, from a frankly ridiculous five seconds to a more sedate daily switch. Also tick Random order to prevent the selection getting stale.
A large number of backgrounds are provided, while you can also select something more personal from an iPhoto collection or your Pictures folder. Add additional folders by clicking + to select them. If you're going for something personal, try to resize or crop it using Preview's Tools menu to match the dimensions of your desktop. If you don't know what it's currently set at, find out from the Displays System Preferences pane.
12. Master Lion's new Finder features
The Finder has been overhauled in Lion to provide a number of useful new features. There's a new smart folder called All my files that appears in the sidebar, for example; clicking it lets you view all of your documents and other personal files, all arranged according to their type.
There's also a new button that lets you quickly choose how your files are arranged without having to select Show View Options first. There's also a new option (Date added), which is especially useful for folders like Downloads.
One thing that's missing by default from the new Finder - which may annoy you - is the status bar. Getting it back is simple enough though: just press Command+/ to toggle it on or off.
13. Lock your Mac
Do you frequently leave your Mac unattended and get frustrated at the hoops you have to jump through in order to 'lock' it, so it can't be used until you return? Then read on for a handy hint that shamelessly steals one of the better ideas from Microsoft Windows.
First, pick a screensaver that you'd like to use while your Mac is left unattended: open System Preferences and choose the Desktop & Screen Saver > Screen Saver tab to do so. If you don't want the screensaver coming on at any other time, set the Start Screen Saver slider to Never.
Now return to System Preferences and this time select Security & Privacy. Tick Require password immediately after sleep or screen saver begins. Close System Preferences and when you next go to leave your Mac, press Ctrl+Shift+Eject to trigger the screensaver and lock your Mac.
14. Work with multiple desktops
While you can keep your desktop reasonably clutter-free by minimising open windows, it isn't the most convenient way to work. A better way is to make use of Spaces (Snow Leopard) or Mission Control (Lion), which enables you to set up to 16 virtual desktops, allowing you to both assign windows to different desktops and then switch seamlessly between them.
Lion users can quickly access Mission Control by pressing Ctrl+Up Arrow, but Snow Leopard users need to enable the feature first: open System Preferences and choose the Exposé and Spaces > Spaces tab. Tick Enable Spaces and - for easy access - Show Spaces in menu bar.
Four desktops are set up by default in Spaces - click Add Rows or Add Columns to add more. New desktops are added to Mission Control by either dragging a window into empty space to the right of the desktop or by clicking the + button that appears in the top right-hand corner.
15. Manage multiple desktops
Applications can be manually assigned to a specific desktop simply by launching them when that desktop is visible. You can also move windows between desktops in Mission Control simply by clicking and dragging their preview window to the new desktop.
Better still, you can configure applications to open in specific desktops, allowing you to effectively configure one desktop for web browsing, another for productivity apps like image editing and so on.
Lion users can assign an application to a specific desktop by right-clicking its Dock icon and opening the Options sub-menu to choose between one desktop, all desktops or - the default behaviour - no desktops.
Snow Leopard users should open the System Preferences > Exposé and Spaces > Spaces tab, then click the + button to assign open applications (or click Other to browse for one) to a specific desktop, or Every desktop if you want it universally available (recommended for key tools like Finder).
16. Set up your Dock icons
The Dock is an incredibly useful tool, giving you quick and easy access to various parts of your system, but it pays to take the time to set it up exactly how you want it to operate.
Start by customising the Dock so that it conveniently shows your favourite applications. Remove unwanted icons from the Dock simply by dragging the icon onto your desktop, where it will disappear into a puff of smoke. Next, add favourite applications to the Dock so they're permanently visible: open the Applications folder and simply drag your app's icon onto the Dock in the place where you want it to lie in the list. Make sure it's to the left of the dividing line that appears between app icons and stacked folders.
Once done, rearrange your app icons into a logical order by dragging and dropping them into place on the Dock. (You can resize the Dock on the fly by click-dragging the separator up or down with your mouse.)
17. Change the Dock's behaviour
Want to change certain aspects of the Dock's look, as well as hide it from view until you need it? You'll find most options available under the Apple > Dock menu, but to take full control of the process, open System Preferences and select Dock.
From here you can resize the Dock plus set a magnification level that makes highlighted icons more visible. You can choose to place the Dock on the left or right of the screen, plus set the Dock to automatically hide when it's not being used (just drag the mouse to the screen edge where the Dock is to reveal it).
By default, all minimised windows are displayed as thumbnails between folder stacks and the Trash: tick Minimize windows into application icon to disable this behaviour.
18. Working with Stacks
Drag a folder right of the dividing line on the Dock and it will create a 'stack' of that folder's contents, which appear when you click the folder icon. Stacks display their contents in Grid, Fan or List view - switch views by right-clicking the folder.
Files and folders can be moved from the stack to the desktop or a Finder window simply by dragging them to the appropriate location - hold the Option button to copy them instead.
If you're a Lion user you can even move or copy files between stacks in this way: open the first stack, drag the file onto another stack folder and either let go or wait for the folder window to open, allowing you to place it precisely. Lion users can preview individual stack entries by placing the mouse over it and pressing the [Spacebar] for a preview of the file.
19. Populate your Dashboard
The Dashboard lets you place a number of useful information-based tools called widgets on your desktop. A small number are enabled by default, but getting more is easy: click the + button at the bottom left of the desktop to add more.
You'll also find thousands more widgets online: check www.apple.com/downloads/dashboard. Once downloaded, you can preview a widget without having to install it: double-click the zip file to extract the widget, then double-click the widget itself.
When prompted to install, hold Command+Option and the Install button will become a Run one. Click this and the widget will open in your Dashboard, but when closed it will disappear. This allows you to give the widget a test drive - if you subsequently don't like it, just close it and delete the downloaded file. If you want to keep it, just double-click the widget file again, this time choosing Install to add it to your Dashboard.
20. Automate repetitive actions
You can't master the powerful Automator tool in a single tip, but you can get a flavour of its usefulness and power by following this simple tweak, which allows you to create a thumbnail quickly and easily by automating a number of otherwise repetitive actions.
Open Automator from the Applications folder. Select Application and click Choose. Select Photos under Library and ignore the restrictive Create Thumbnail Images option.
Instead, drag Change Type of Images across, clicking Don't Add when prompted. Pick your chosen output format - PNG or JPEG in most cases. Now drag Scale Images across - again, click Don't Add - and choose an exact pixel size (width) for your thumbnail.
Finally, select Files and Folders under Library and drag Rename Finder Items across, click Don't Add for a third time, and tweak it to Add Text (for example _thmb) after the filename. Save your application and test it by dragging image files onto it to automatically create thumbnails.