Control freaks: A user's guide to Apple control panels

On a Mac, control panels define how the operating system behaves, appears, and connects to other devices. In this article, Schoun Regan examines some of the control panels used in System 8.5.x and up.

On a Mac, you use control panels to define how the operating system behaves, appears, and connects to other devices. Control panels also allow the operating system to be modified by third-party software—that is, software not created by Apple Computer. Control panels normally reside in the Control Panels folder within the System Folder, and you can access them easily by using the Apple menu.

While most control panels are fairly straightforward, you can make them even more useful by taking advantage of some tricks and tips. In this article, I'll discuss some of the control panels used in System 8.5.x and up.

The Appearance control panel, shown in Figure A, is actually a small application, and it uses the Appearance folder in the System Folder to store its themes, sounds, and images. The Themes tab lets you select themes, which change the look of windows, menus, fonts, sound icons, and the background image or pattern. Apple themes are uniquely designed to showcase a given style.

Figure A
The Appearance control panel is actually a small application.

Should no themes strike your fancy, you can select the Appearance tab and choose a style for menus, icons, and windows. This tab also allows you to change the Highlight color, which is the color that appears when you select text. As an added bonus, you get to change the menu and control color, too—this is the color that overlays menu items when you’re scrolling through a menu.

The Fonts tab features options for setting the Large System Font, Small System Font, and Views Font. The Desktop tab permits you to alter the pattern of the background by choosing a pattern from the list on the right. If you’re not happy with the patterns, you can choose an image to display in the background. Stock images come with all Macs, and you can find additional images on the CDs included with your Mac. If you'd like to place an image file of your own on your Mac, open the Place Picture dialog box and locate the image you wish to use. You have five choices for placing the image:
  • ·        Position the image automatically on the screen.
  • ·        Tile the image.
  • ·        Center the image.
  • ·        Scale the image.
  • ·        Fill the screen with the image.

Keep your screen resolution in mind. An image that is 640 x 480 may not look so great when displayed full screen on a 1024 x 768 monitor. Choosing an image with a large file size will increase the amount of memory used and will probably slow down the performance of your Mac.

The Sound tab lets you change what Apple calls sound tracks and allows you to associate a sound with certain functions. The main sound track is called Platinum Sounds. You can download a cool utility called SoundSet Constructor that lets you assign sounds to events; be sure to place the sounds in the Sound folder in the Appearance folder. If recording sound tracks is not your thing, head to channel1 and choose from a variety of sound tracks for your downloading pleasure.

The Options tab lets you place scroll arrows adjacent to one another and allows you to “roll up” a window—like a window shade—by double-clicking on the title bar of that window.

Once you choose your favorite settings on each tab, you can save all your preferences as your own theme by clicking the Theme tab and choosing Save Theme. You can take a short video tour of the Appearance control panel.

Apple Menu Options
Yet another little application that replaced a popular shareware control panel, the Apple Menu Options control panel, shown in Figure B, enables you to view subfolders of folders under the Apple menu as hierarchical submenus. It also allows the automatic storing of aliases of recently used files (called documents in the control panel itself), applications, and servers in appropriately named folders under the Apple menu. This is useful for newer Mac users, because they don't need to know how to navigate the hierarchical menus to retrieve files they've created.

Figure B
The Apple Menu Options control panel lets you view subfolders of folders under the Apple menu as hierarchical submenus.

You have the option of choosing the number of recently used items and whether to create folders for all three items: files (documents), applications, and servers.

Close View
An actual control device, the Close View control panel, shown in Figure C, has been around for a while. It is not included in a standard install, so you must do a custom install or search for it on the CD included with your Mac. This control panel lets you magnify the screen; you choose the magnification amount and whether to invert the colors on the screen.

Figure C
The Close View control panel lets you magnify your screen.

By setting the magnification to 8x, you create a small black box around the cursor that enables individuals with visual impairments and small children to follow the cursor. Give this a try when teaching someone how to use a mouse for the first time.

The ColorSync control panel, shown in Figure D, is another small application. The current version is 3.0 with MacOS 9. ColorSync is a technology that allows you to assign color profiles to files. That way, you can maintain consistent color across devices and computers. Many applications allow you to implement ColorSync, most notably Adobe Photoshop and Internet Explorer.

Figure D
The ColorSync control panel lets you maintain consistent color across devices and computers.

If you're creating a Web site and color is critical, you can embed the profiles, and Explorer will read that ColorSync profile on the end user's computer. The control panel lets you assign profiles to your scanner (the Input device), monitor (Display), and printer (Output device and Proofer). Be careful: ColorSync does NOT create these profiles; it only assigns them. Once you’ve assigned the profiles, you can choose a color management method by clicking on the CMM tab in the ColorSync window.

To import and export profile settings, click the File menu and choose Workflows. This allows you to pass along the settings to other users or import their settings to your Mac.

Control Strip
The Control Strip control panel, shown in Figure E, used to be a "just for PowerBooks" item that Apple has now included in a standard install. It has two counterparts: one in the Extensions folder that actually runs in the background after you start your Mac, and a folder in the System Folder called Control Strip Modules, where it stores the modules. The Control Strip control panel is used to show, hide, or change the font and size of the small strip usually located at the lower-left portion of your Mac screen.

Figure E
The Control Strip control panel is used to show, hide, or change the font and size of the small strip usually located at the lower-left portion of your Mac screen.

You can further modify the Control Strip by using some little tricks. First, some applications don't like the Control Strip sitting on top of them, and you may not like it either. Simply open the Control Strip control panel and choose Hot Key To Show/Hide. Then define the hot-key combination for a key sequence, such as Command-Control-Z. You now gain the ability to show or hide the Control Strip by invoking a simple keystroke combination.

Second, trim down your strip by removing modules you don't need. You can do this by removing them from the Control Strip Modules folder. Remember, you won't see immediate changes because the control panel is an application, so you'll need to restart to see the changes.

Third, if you don't like where the strip is sitting, hold down the Option key, click on the angled end of the strip, and drag it to another place on the screen. If you want to change the order of the modules, press the Option key and drag the modules left or right.

If you sometimes get an error that says Control Strip has unexpectedly quit or you’re having trouble locating a lockup, check your Control Strip Modules folder. Third-party vendors are now placing their modules with Apples, and this can increase the memory required by the application. Therefore, you may need to increase the memory of the Control Strip control panel to alleviate this problem.

Date & Time
The Date & Time control panel, shown in Figure F, is fairly straightforward. This application allows you to specify how the time and date are displayed in the menu bar at the top right of your Mac. You can set the time zone, choose daylight savings time, and synchronize your clock to that of Apple's NTP (Network Time Protocol) server. This ensures that e-mail and time-critical items are sent with the accurate time and date.

Figure F
The Date & Time control panel lets you specify how the time and date are displayed in the menu bar.

If you choose to synchronize to the NTP server, you must be connected to the Internet when the Mac is slated for synchronizing; otherwise, you'll get an error that states the NTP server could not be found. If you never synchronize your Mac to the server clock, you can disable the Time Synchronizer extension by removing it from the Extensions folder. This extension actually runs in the background during your Mac's waking hours.

Here’s another little tip: Click the Clock Options button and choose the option Display The Time With Seconds. This way, you can tell whether your Mac has frozen or the processor is just working on a task. If the Mac is frozen, the second hand will stop. If this occurs, wait about 50 seconds to ensure that TCP/IP or some other process isn't temporarily stalling the Mac. You can also choose to have your Mac chime at 15-minute intervals around the hour. This works great for taking breaks. You can view a short video tour of the Date & Time control panel.

The DialAssist control panel, shown in Figure G, is used by the Remote Access control panel. DialAssist allows you to enter the area code and country for your call. You can also add a prefix, such as 9 for an outside line or *70 to disable call waiting. You can select long-distance carriers and include a suffix, such as a calling card number.

Figure G
The DialAssist control panel lets you enter the area code and country for your call.

Energy Saver
The Energy Saver control panel, shown in Figure H, is another application. It’s gone through several incarnations and has finally ended up as a nice addition to the standard install. If you're a PowerBook user, you can create different settings for the power supply and battery. Click the Idle Sleep button to allow you to place the Mac in sleep mode after it has been idle for a specified number of minutes. If you’re a PowerBook or iBook user, you can spin down the hard disk to conserve energy.

Figure H
The Energy Saver control panel includes the Idle Sleep button and the Schedule tab, among other features.

In my opinion, the Schedule tab is the best hidden secret of the Mac, and here's why. You can choose to start up your Mac and put it to sleep based on certain times and days. For example, our training lab Macs wake up at 8:30 A.M. on weekdays and go to sleep at 8:15 P.M. My Mac wakes up at 5:30 A.M., checks my mail, and waits for me to feed it a digital cookie. I suggest you take advantage of this great feature.

The next button is the Advanced Settings button. Contrary to popular belief, it will not make you a more advanced user. What it will do is allow you to check a variety of options related to servers and PowerBooks.

Extensions Manager
Another application, the Extensions Manager control panel (shown in Figure I), has been expanded and enhanced over the years to its present form. It has a counterpart in the Extensions folder.

Figure I
The Extensions Manager control panel is used to activate and deactivate extensions and control panels.

The first item of business when dealing with the Extensions Manager control panel is to increase the amount of memory associated with it, especially if you have several third-party extensions and control panels on your Mac. Increasing the memory reduces the chance that your Mac will crash when it attempts to open and use the Extensions Manager.

As you’d expect, this control panel is used to activate and deactivate extensions and control panels. It also presents a variety of information about each item and has a few other goodies attached. Once you’ve opened Extensions Manager, select the Edit menu and choose Preferences. To display both the Type column and Creator column, select those options and click OK. This may help you troubleshoot problems later by making it easy to identify common Creator and Type codes and search for patterns in your extensions.

Next, head to the View menu and select each view in turn, noting how the window changes to reflect the view change. A particular favorite of mine is the Package view, which shows extensions and control panels in their respective sets. This window can be sorted by column title regardless of view, which helps you sort extensions by size, version, package, type, creator, name, and so on. Simply click on the column name to perform the sort.

At this point, scroll up or down as needed until you find the AppleTalk control panel, and click once on the name. At the bottom of the window, click the Show Item Information arrow to display a description of the AppleTalk control panel. This description includes the creation date, size, and location.

Now come the sets. The power of the Extensions Manager initiates from the ability to name, save, and load extension and control panel sets. These sets can help diagnose a potential problem and thin down a system for specific needs. Let's use digital video as an example. Let’s suppose you’re editing some videos on your Mac, and you prefer to have the minimum system necessary so the majority of processor power and memory became available for the job at hand. Head to the File menu and choose Duplicate Set to give you a second set to work with. Rename the duplicated set Video Set and begin clearing the check marks from options you know aren’t absolutely essential. After making all the necessary changes, close the Extensions Manager and restart the Mac. You're now prepared for some heavy-duty video editing. To revert to your normal set, open the Extensions Manager and choose your main set from the drop-down box, then restart again.

In this article, I’ve examined several of the control panels used in System 8.5.x and up. I’ve also offered tricks and tips for adjusting control panels to make them even more useful.

Schoun Regan is the training and media specialist for Complete Mac Services , an Apple VAR, training, and consulting facility in Louisville, Kentucky, that specializes in PC to Mac integration. He teaches throughout North America on a variety of subjects and software. Schoun has been associated with Apple and the Macintosh since 1985 and has authored many Web sites. Certified in several applications and areas, he most enjoys teaching graphics applications.

Schoun's a regularly featured guest on 84Online, a technology-centric radio program heard in more than 30 states on Louisville's clear-channel station 84 WHAS, and on, a TV call-in show that’sbroadcast from the Louisville area. He resides in the Ohio Valley with his very tolerant wife and children.

The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.

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