SolutionBase: Inside Apple's System Preferences

Apple's System Preferences console serves as the Macintosh's counterpart to Windows' Control Panel. Erik Eckel shows us how multiple common desktop and system settings are configured on a Mac.

One of the biggest challenges that must be overcome when deploying, supporting, or administering Apple computers is locating common configuration settings. Fortunately, Apple PCs feature a single application from within which most desktop and system settings are configured.

Most Windows administrators, of course, are already familiar with Windows' Control Panel. From within Control Panel, Windows administrators configure everything from hardware device drivers to fonts, display options, network connections, and more.

Apple's System Preferences console serves as the Macintosh's counterpart to Windows' Control Panel. Just as multiple common desktop and system settings are configured within Windows' Control Panel, so too are the same settings adjusted on Macintosh computers. In this article, we'll take a look at Apple's System Preferences.

Finding System Preferences

The System Preferences console is easily accessed. By default, its icon (a light switch accompanied by an Apple logo) is parked within the Dock (itself the equivalent of Windows Taskbar), as you can see in Figure A.

Figure A

System Preferences are easily accessed by pressing on the System Preferences icon within the Dock.

Pressing on the System Preferences icon opens the System Preferences menu, which is also accessible by selecting Finder | Applications | System Preferences, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B

Apple's System Preferences console serves as the Mac's counterpart to Windows' Control Panel.

The System Preferences sections

The System Preferences console itself is broken down into four sections:

  • Personal: From within which appearance, Dashboard & Expose, Desktop, screensaver, Dock, international, security, and Spotlight (integrated desktop search) settings are configured.
  • Hardware: From within which Bluetooth, CD, DVD, display, energy, keyboard, mouse, print, fax, and sound settings are configured.
  • Internet & Network: From within which .Mac (Apple's online service for backups, e-mail, storage, and other features), network, QuickTime, and sharing settings are configured.
  • System: From within which user accounts, Mac Classic (compatibility options for older Macintosh programs), date, time, Software Update (the equivalent of Microsoft Update on the Windows platform), speech, start up, and Universal Access (accessibility) settings are configured.

In the following sections, we'll explore the desktop settings and configuration options available within each System Preferences entry. With that knowledge in hand, even Windows administrators that have never booted a single Mac will at least know the location of common (and critical) settings.


The Appearance page, shown in Figure C, stores settings related to the overall look of buttons, menus, windows, text, scroll arrows, scroll bars, recent items, and font smoothing styles. For example, administrators specify the color of buttons and menus using configuration options found on the Appearance page.

Figure C

Scroll arrow behavior, button and menu colors, and font smoothing are among the options configured from the Appearance page within System Preferences.

Windows administrators should also take note that Apple systems, by default, place the up and down arrows together at the top of windows. Windows users will find subsequent page layouts confusing, as Windows places the up scroll arrow at the top of a page and the down scroll arrow at the bottom of a window. From within the Appearance page, the scroll arrows can be configured to mimic those in Windows (by selecting the At Top And Bottom option within Place Scroll Arrows).

Dashboard & Expose

Expose is a Mac OS X feature that enables Apple users to view all active windows simultaneously. From the Dashboard & Expose page, shown in Figure D, users can specify which actions should occur when the cursor is placed in any of the screen's four corners.

Figure D

Using the Dashboard & Expose page, users specify the actions (such as displaying all open windows) that should occur when the cursor is placed in the screen's four corners.

Users also use the Dashboard & Expose page to determine which screen corner is dedicated to calling the Dashboard, the Apple window that displays Widgets (small, often interactive tools) selected by the user. Other settings configured from this System Preferences menu include keyboard and mouse shortcuts.

Desktop & Screensaver

Apple's Desktop & Screensaver menu hosts configuration options similar to those found on the Windows Control Panel's Display applet's Desktop and Screen Saver tabs. In addition to configuring Desktop backgrounds, users can select the screensaver of their choice and specify how quickly the screensaver is triggered.


Dock settings are configured, as would be expected, from within the Dock menu. Options available to users include specifying the Dock's size, magnification level, screen position, and animations.


Language settings are configured from within the International page. In addition, date, time, number, and currency formats are set using the same System Preferences menu, as are input options (such as the use of character palettes for foreign languages).


Security settings, such as requiring a password for whenever the Mac wakes from Sleep or the screensaver, are configured within the Security menu. Options for the Mac OS FileVault, which encrypts a user's home folder contents, are also set within the Security page, as shown in Figure E.

Figure E

FileVault, password, and login settings are all configured using System Preferences' Security page.

In addition to setting a Master Password for the Mac, users can secure the system's virtual memory, instruct the Mac to automatically logout after a set period of minutes and require the system password whenever unlocking secure system preferences.


Spotlight is the Macintosh's integrated desktop search. Selecting Spotlight within System Preferences provides access to configuring specific Spotlight options. Besides selecting the specific categories -- default categories include Applications, Documents, Folders, Mail Messages, Contacts, and Images -- within which Spotlight should search for items, users can set default keyboard and window shortcuts. Using a provided Privacy tab, users can also specify which locations Spotlight should not review when preparing search results.


Moving into the System Preference's Hardware section, Bluetooth options are configured, naturally enough, from the Bluetooth page. Users can configure Bluetooth settings (such as discoverability, use of setup assistants, and the PC's ability to wake to Bluetooth activity), devices (including keyboards, PDAs, and mice), and sharing (such as file transfer, PDA synchronization, and folders available to Bluetooth devices) options from the Bluetooth menus.

CDs & DVDs

From the CDs & DVDs page, users specify the actions that should occur when blank CDs, blank DVDs, music CDs, picture CDs, and video DVDs are inserted. Options include prompting the user what to do, opening various Apple software programs (such as iTunes), or triggering a third-party application.


Users specify the Mac's display resolution, brightness, and color levels using the System Preference's Displays menu. Using the Color tab, users can also specify specific display profiles (default options include Color LCD and Generic RGB) and open the Apple Display Calibration Assistant (used to create a custom ColorSync profile).  

Energy Saver

The Mac's Energy Saver menu, shown in Figure G, provides access to similar settings found within Windows' Power Options Properties page (reached by pressing the Power button found on the Screen Saver tab of Control Panel's Display applet). Available options, however, are greatly simplified by default on the Apple. Instead of selecting various values for standby configurations, powering down hard disks and other obscure settings, Mac users are automatically presented with simple selections for Power Adapter or Battery (on laptops). Users can select from three preset optimization levels (options include Better Energy Savings, Normal, and Better Performance),

However, an available fourth Custom option provides power users with the ability to configure custom settings. For example, users can enable the Mac to wake when the modem detects a ring, determine whether an Ethernet administrator should be able to wake the system and dictate processor performance. Using a provided Schedule button, users can also specify start, wake, and shutdown times, thereby automatically configuring the Mac to power up or down at specific times on specific days.

Figure G

Mac users can toggle a Show/Hide Details button to reveal additional energy saver options. Here, additional power settings are displayed within the Energy Saver page.

Keyboard & Mouse

The System Preferences' Keyboard & Mouse page -- complete with Keyboard, Trackpad, Mouse, Bluetooth, and Keyboard Shortcuts tabs -- hosts settings for everything from mouse and trackpad tracking, scrolling and double-click speeds to key repeat rates and trackpad gestures (using two fingers to scroll within an open window). The Keyboard & Mouse menu is also used to confirm Bluetooth mouse and keyboard battery levels and configure a variety of keyboard shortcuts (such as copying pictures to the clipboard, hiding the Dock, and enabling or disabling Universal Access zoom).

Print & Fax

The Mac's Print & Fax System Preferences page is similar to Windows Printers and Faxes applet. Thus, it's a critical system applet used to configure and administer connected printers and fax machines. This is shown in Figure H.

Figure H

The Mac's Printers & Faxes page is essentially the equivalent to Windows' Printers and Faxes Control Panel applet.

Installed printers appear within the Printing tab. In addition to configuring Printer Setup and viewing and administering printer queues, Mac users confirm ink levels, specify default paper size, and configure specific fax options (including fax number, the number of rings permitted before answering and actions to be taken when a fax is received) using provided tabs.

The provided Sharing tab, meanwhile, enables Mac users to make installed printers and fax modems available to other computers.


Audio options, meanwhile, are configured using the System Preferences Sound page. In addition to configuring event sounds using the Sound Effects tab, users can configure audio input and output settings (including input levels and volumes, speaker volume, balance, and speaker type).


.Mac is Apple's proprietary online service. Its System Preferences application is the first option within the third System Preferences section (Internet & Network).

The optional subscription provides Mac users with a .Mac e-mail account, off-site data storage, synchronization assistance for multiple Mac systems, and more. The .Mac page hosts the settings for specifying the member's account username and password, configuring synchronization, iDisk (off-site backup) and other advanced settings.


The Network System Preferences menu, shown in Figure I, provides access to critical network settings, including those used by the Mac's internal Ethernet port and Airport wireless modem. By default, the Network menu displays Network Status, or information specific to each active network interface.

Figure I

The Mac's Network System Preferences menu maps to Windows Network Connections Control Panel applet.

To configure network settings for a specific network interface, users need to select the respective network interface (either from the main window or by selecting it from the Show drop-down menu) and press the Configure button, as shown in Figure J.

Figure J

Selecting a specific network interface within the Show drop-down menu enables users and administrators to specify the interface's specific network settings.

Numerous wireless settings are configured by selecting Airport (either from the Show drop-down menu or the main Network Status window). In addition to listing preferred networks (and the order in which the Mac system prioritizes available wireless networks), an available Options button permits configuring other settings (including whether an Administrator password is required to change wireless networks, automatically adding networks to the preferred networks list, and prompting users before joining available wireless networks).


QuickTime settings, including logging registration codes for QuickTime Pro, are configured from the QuickTime menu. Using the QuickTime System Preferences page, users can also specify whether QuickTime movies should play automatically within Web browsers, set how updates are to be managed, and set streaming speeds and MIME settings, among other features.


The Sharing menu, shown in Figure K, provides access to critical system settings. In addition to enabling Personal File Sharing, Printer Sharing and Windows Sharing, Mac users rely upon settings configured within the Sharing screen to configure FTP access, remote login, personal Web sharing, the Apple Remote Desktop, and other services.

Figure K

Critical system services, such as the ability to share files and printers with other Mac and Windows users, are configured using Sharing System Preferences.

Mac users also specify the traffic the integrated firewall should allow and prevent using the Sharing menu's Firewall tab, as shown in Figure L. Using provided New and Edit buttons, Mac administrators can add specific TCP and UDP ports the internal Mac firewall should pass or block.

Figure L

The Mac's internal Firewall permits enabling or denying specific applications and TCP and UDP ports.

Other settings configured from the Sharing page's Internet tab include enabling the Mac to share its built-in Ethernet, FireWire, and Airport interfaces with other computers. When sharing the Mac's network interfaces with other computers, administrators can specify security settings (such as required WEP keys) using a provided Options button.


The Mac's Accounts page -- the first entry within the System Preferences' System section -- essentially maps to the Control Panel User Accounts applet in Windows. Using the Accounts menu, users specify user accounts, set user account passwords and pictures, and schedule different items to open automatically whenever a specific user account logs on to the system. This is shown in Figure M.

Figure M

The Mac's Accounts System Preferences page maps to Windows User Accounts Control Panel applet.

In addition, Parental Controls are configured within the Accounts page.


The Classic page hosts configuration options designed to enable older Mac applications to work with Mac OS X. Users and administrators leverage Classic System Preferences to trigger a compatibility environment allowing older Mac apps to run properly within Apple's newer operating systems.

From the Classic pages and tabs (which include Start/Stop, Advanced and Memory/Versions), users start or stop the Classic compatibility environment. Further, using settings found within the Classic pages, users specify whether the Mac should generate warnings when the Classic environment is launched and whether Classic status is to be displayed in the Mac's menu bar. Administrators can also monitor Classic application memory use using the Classic Memory/Versions tab.

Date & Time

Date, time, time zone, and specific clock settings are all set from within the Date & Time pages. Users can also set the Clock to announce the time at specific intervals throughout the day, as well as whether a digital or analog clock should appear within the Mac's menu bar.

Software Update

Software Update lists simple options designed to help users and administrators keep Mac systems current. Two tabs exist: Update Software and Installed Updates.

The Update Software tab enables users and administrators to specify how often the Macintosh system checks for updates. Available options are daily, weekly, or monthly. Users can enable or stop the Mac from automatically downloading important updates in the background, or check immediately for updates using a provided Check Now button.

The Installed Updates tab, meanwhile, lists installed updates as well as the date and time the update was installed. In addition, the Installed Updates tab lists the version number of each installed update. Using a supplied Open As Log File button, administrators can also export the system's entire Software Update as a single searchable log file.


Speech recognition and text-to-speech parameters are configured using the Mac's Speech System Preferences menu. In addition to specifying the speech recognition microphone, the Speech page is used to calibrate the microphone, indicate when the speech recognition device should listen for input, and specify which items (such as application-specific elements, address book entries, menu bar contents, and other components) can be voice-activated.

The Text To Speech tab, meanwhile, contains numerous settings designed to assist users in customizing the Mac OS X included feature that converts on-screen text to audio. Users can configure the feature's system voice (several male and female voices are provided) and speaking rate, among other options.

Startup Disk

The Startup Disk System Preferences entry permits a Mac system's users to specify the system to be used when the computer is booted. Users can choose to enable a network-based startup, or, alternatively, set Mac OS X to serve as the default startup option. Alternatively, users can choose Target Disk Mode, in which the Mac (upon its next restart) can be connected to another Mac system using a FireWire cable, thereby permitting the Mac system to be used as an additional hard disk.

Universal Access

The Mac's Universal Access menu -- which includes tabs for Seeing, Hearing, Keyboard, and Mouse & Trackpad -- basically maps to the Accessibility Options applet in Windows. Using settings found within Universal Access, Mac users and administrators can specify whether the Mac's VoiceOver feature (which converts on-screen text to audio), Zoom (which enlarges text), Display (which can set black-on-white and white-on-black displays), and numerous other options are enabled. This is shown in Figure N.

Figure N

The Mac's Universal Access settings map to those found in Windows' Accessibility Options applet.

Users can also specify that the Mac screen flash whenever an alert sounds, set sticky key settings, configure key repeat delays, or enlarge cursor size.


Configuring Mac system settings can prove intimidating, especially to Windows administrators unfamiliar with Mac OS X. Knowing how Mac System Preferences map to common Windows' Control Panel applets, however, can help set administrators at ease and shorten any learning curves.

By Erik Eckel

Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president o...