50 really useful OS X timesaving tips

10th Feb 2013 | 12:00

50 really useful OS X timesaving tips

Quicker ways to find files, launch apps, and more

The Finder and OS X

Mac OS X is the best-looking operating system around, but it's also one of the most capable. Underneath all the eye candy is a serious amount of functionality and although you may not have realised it, there are many different ways to carry out everyday tasks using your Mac.

The Finder and the other tools and apps that run on OS X are a treasure trove of shortcuts, tricks and techniques that can help you do more and do it faster.

As the OS has changed it's added features from iOS and also taken on many more online features with the inclusion of iCloud in 10.7 Lion. As is the Apple way, these features tend to fit seamlessly together and it's often possible to sync, share and send files and information between lots of different devices with ease - if you know how.

Some of these tips may be shortcuts that will save you time. Others could be things you may not have even known were possible, like compressing an iMovie project for lots of different devices with a single click or sending iPhoto albums directly to Facebook. With more and more people using their Macs both at home and at work, there's never been a better time to unlock the true potential of your system with these insider tips…

1. Send items directly from the Finder

If you are using OS X 10.7 or 10.8 you will be able to open a Finder window and then select one or more items in a folder or on your Desktop, then use the Share button from the window's title bar to send those items.

There are three options available. Email opens a new message in Mail with the files included as attachments. Messages opens a new iMessage with the items attached, and lets you specify one or more recipients. AirDrop shows you the shared folders of nearby users who have AirDrop enabled, and lets you fire the files to them. Obviously Mail and Messages work better with smaller files, and AirDrop is capable of dealing with larger ones.

2. Learn more about your wireless connection

If you hold down the Option key while clicking on your Airport Wi-Fi icon in the menu bar, you can make OS X show you more detailed information about your current connection. Above the list of available networks it will display the wireless mode, wireless channel in use, wireless security type and transmit rate, all of which can help to troubleshoot problems with your connection.

3. Change your default Finder view

When you open a new Finder window, OS X 10.8 defaults to showing you 'all your files'. To change this, go to Finder > Preferences from the menu bar and locate the option 'New Finder windows show'. From its drop-down menu you can choose your boot drive, Home directory, Desktop, Documents or a custom folder, all of which offer a clearer idea of what you're looking at.

4. Reveal your Library folder

OS X 10.7 and 10.8 hide your User > Library folder by default but it's sometimes necessary to access it for troubleshooting or other reasons, since important items live in it.

In the Finder, choose Go > Go to Folder. From the resulting window, enter the folder's path, which will be /Users/username/Library. Once the folder appears you can drag it to your Favourites list to the left of the Finder window and it will then be permanently accessible.

5. Take advantage of Quick Look

QuickLook

Quick Look can preview multiple documents at once. Select a number of items in the Finder then hit the space bar. Pressing the left and right arrow keys on the keyboard will now cycle through them, and pressing the Grid button in the Quick Look window will display all items in a single window.

It's possible to open a document in its associated application by using the Open In button at the top right of the Quick Look window.

6. Use Smart Folders effectively

Smart Folders

Often overlooked, Smart Folders can be really useful. Select File > New Smart Folder in the Finder and then add criteria to the folder as you would if performing a search. For example, 'kind is image' and 'last opened is in the last one month'. Then click Save. This folder will always show files that match those criteria, automatically updating itself so it stays current.

Another great timesaver is to select several items in the Finder then choose File > New Folder With Selection, which places the items into a new folder automatically.

7. Collect items together in an archive

Multiple-select items in the Finder then right click on them and choose Compress Items. This creates a smaller-sized zip archive that is much easier to email, send by iMessage or upload to a file sharing service like Dropbox than lots of individual files. If you need to add password protection to the archive, use a third-party compression app instead.

8. Customise your desktop & screen saver

Screensaver

Go into System Preferences and locate the Desktop & Screen Saver section. Under Desktop, you can choose from the included images, or select one from your iPhoto library or a custom folder. You can even specify times changes if you like, to keep things interesting.

In the Screen Saver tab, you can assign hot corners to start your screensaver as well as showing a clock whenever it's running. In the Security & Privacy tab of System Preferences you can choose to require a password to stop the screen saver, which is still the simplest way of securing an unattended Mac - extremely useful in an office environment or one in which kids are apt to fiddle.

Browsing the web

9. Harness the power of right-clicking

Right-click

More or less anything on a web page in Safari can be right-clicked to reveal extensive menu options. Right-click on a link for example, and you can open it in a new window or tab, download linked files, or add the link to your bookmarks or to your reading list.

For any text you can right-click and choose to run a Google search for that text without having to copy and paste it into Google first. Select text and from the right-click menu, choose Speech > Start Speaking and your Mac will read the text out to you. Right-click on an image and amongst the many options is the ability to add it straight to your iPhoto library or use it as your desktop picture.

10. Use an ad blocker for cleaner browsing

If your browsing is blighted by too many ads cluttering up the screen and flashing away at you, try installing AdBlock from safariadblock.com. This identifies and blocks almost all ads, showing simply empty space instead. It has an Easy setting, or it can be customised to allow specific domains to pass unfiltered. You can even block ads specifically for certain domains but have them shown everywhere else.

11. Reset specific parts of Safari

Reset safari

If Safari is behaving oddly, maybe loading very slowly or crashing while other browsers or devices are working fine, you can use the Reset Safari command from the Safari menu to clear out some or all of its cached data.

In the vast majority of cases, this action restores speed and responsiveness to the browser. Bear in mind that you might want to uncheck the option to remove all saved names, passwords and autofill data since many people rely on the browser to remember the many logins they have.

12. Switch between search engines fast

If you click on the magnifying glass icon in Safari's address bar you can access a list of recent searches and quickly re-run any one. You can also clear the recent searches without having to reset the whole of Safari, and also change the default search engine from Google to Bing or Yahoo if you like. In Safari 6, typing a search term directly into the address bar and pressing return will run a search in your search engine of choice. There's no longer a dedicated search field in Safari.

13. Master your browser's tabs

Tabbed browsing is a great way to manage multiple web pages. If you have bookmark folders, hold the Command key while clicking on one to open all the links contained inside in new tabs. Pick tabs up and drag them left and right to re-order them, and drag a tab up or down to open that page in a new window. Right-click on any tab just by its name and see multiple options including the option to close all tabs but that one.

14. Share web pages the smart way

Sharing options

You can send pages to people really easily from within Safari. On any open page, click the Share button at the top left corner of the window and (assuming you've already set up these accounts in System Preferences > Mail, Contacts & Calendars) post a link straight to FaceBook or Twitter, or send a link in a new iMessage.

Even more usefully you can email a page in several ways. Select Email This Page from the Share button and a new mail message will open with the page contained inside. You get the option to send the page as a regular, working web page, a text link only or a PDF (Portable Document Format). The PDF option is great for ensuring that whatever device someone reads the email on, they should be able to open it.

Working with photos and movies

15. Upload and share from QuickTime

Quicktime upload

When you open a movie in QuickTime Player and mouse over to reveal the playback bar, you will see a Share icon to the right-hand side of this bar. This can be clicked on to reveal options to mail or AirDrop the file as well as uploading it to FaceBook, Twitter, YouTube, Vimeo or Flickr.

There are limits imposed by some of these services, like a 15-minute maximum for YouTube, for example. You can choose Edit > Trim and reveal iOS-style trim controls to shorten your video, then upload it.

16. Take advantage of Preview

Preview gets more features in every version of OS X and in 10.8 it's really quite adept at working with images. Open a picture in Preview and there's a Share button that in addition to emailing or AirDropping, allows import to iPhoto, and upload to Flickr, Twitter or FaceBook.

Click the Edit button in the toolbar to reveal a range of drawing, captioning and text tools. You can even resize images by entering specific new dimensions and export to a number of formats. In fact Preview now offers many of the basic features of a professional image editor like Photoshop.

17. Quickly switch iPhoto libraries

In iPhoto you no longer have to use the trick of holding the Option key while starting the app to switch between libraries, although this still works if you choose to use it. You now have the additional option of starting iPhoto then going to File > Switch To Library, which reveals the same Library chooser window. You can even create a new library from here as well.

18. Convert movies with QuickTime Player

export from quicktime

If you have a movie file that iTunes won't read, you could use a third-party utility like MPEG StreamClip to convert it. QuickTime Player X is also able to do this and you can choose File > Export To > iTunes and then select a target option.

Compress for iPod and iPhone, iPad and newer iOS devices and also create larger versions for Mac or PC playback. If you have the older QuickTime Player 7 installed, you get a wider choice of export options for different devices.

19. Tag multiple items in iTunes

You might have a lot of television shows in iTunes, maybe even part of the same series, that you have ripped from DVD to watch on your Apple TV or iOS device. To tag them all at once with a show or series name or other criteria, simply hold the Shift key while selecting a range of items in iTunes, or hold the Command key to select non-continuous items.

Then press Command+I or choose File > Get Info. You will see a window called Multiple Item Information and any tags that you add here will be applied to all the files at the same time, saving you lots of effort in the process.

20. Manage pictures with Smart Albums

Smart albums

iPhoto can use Smart Albums, which work like Smart Playlists in iTunes or Smart Folders in the Finder, in that files are automatically collated in virtual folders based on the criteria you define.

To make use of them, create a new one and specify some criteria, for example 'camera used is iPhone' and 'Face contains John'. This album would automatically update itself as you added or removed images, to always show pictures of John taken with an iPhone.

21. Have a backup media player

QuickTime is great but it can't open every kind of media file and now that the excellent Perian has ceased development, you can find yourself sometimes struggling to open movie files. The best alternatives, which also happen to be free, are VLC Player and MPlayer, both fairly small downloads.

Locate your troublesome file and right-click on it. From the menu, choose Open With… and OS X will show all compatible apps on your system. To permanently associate a file type with an app, say for example to make AVI files always open in VLC, Get Info on an AVI file by pressing Command+I or clicking File > Get Info, then select VLC from the Open With menu and click Change All. You can always change this to a different app at any time.

22. Export from iMovie's Project Library

iMovie export

In iMovie you can export a project directly from the Library section by simply right-clicking on its name. From the menu that appears, choose to export to iTunes, iDVD or the Media Browser, send the video to YouTube or export it to a media file using your own specific settings.

In the Media Browser section you can choose to compress versions for several devices at the same time, from mobile right up to full HD. Choose your options, hit Publish and leave it to render. That's all there is to exporting your movie.

23. Mirror your desktop to your Apple TV

If you have a Mac released after mid-2011 and an Apple TV connected to your HDTV, you should be able to use AirPay Mirroring to send your Mac's desktop to your TV. Anything showing on your Mac's screen is mirrored. Any pictures or movies that you play on the Mac should therefore play on the TV, saving you having to convert them or build them into slideshows first.

Note that AirPlay Mirroring won't work on older Macs due to processor requirements. In this case, the alternative is to try a third-party utility such as AirParrot.

24. Use Preview's Thumbnail view

When you open a number of images at the same time in Preview you may find they all open in separate windows, which can be a pain. In Preview's Preferences go to the General section and select 'Open all files in one window'.

Now when you open multiple files they will display in a thumbnail list, making them easier to scroll between and to compare. Of course, you can always set this back to 'open each file in its own window' to force Preview to keep images separate.

25. Edit multiple images in iPhoto

Select several images in an iPhoto album by Command-clicking on them, then hit Edit. iPhoto will display the selected images in its main window and you can edit or apply changes side by side. It's a great way to quickly make changes to groups of pictures without having to create a new album for them first.

Backing up

26. Change the frequency of backups

Time machine

By default, Time Machine backs up every hour, but this may not be to everyone's tastes. Download TimeMachineScheduler free from klieme.com and use it to set the backup interval anywhere from 1 to 12 hours. There are other options to run backup at login and skip backups within a specified time range. These can be handy to use if you want to leave Time Machine on but don't want it interrupting you as you try to work.

27. Choose what gets backed up

backup files

The first time you run Time Machine it will create a working copy of your entire system but every subsequent backup will be incremental, backing up only new or changed items. It can be helpful to sometimes leave specific items out of a backup, for example a folder full of video files that is just temporarily residing on your hard drive, or a VMWare virtual machine.

These can be very large and you don't want to be backing up a copy every time you use Time Machine. Go into System Preferences > Time Machine and click Options. There, create a list of any files or folders that you want to exclude from the backup.

28. Create instant backups

It's a quick and basic solution, but if you are about to make changes to files and you think you may need to revert back to the older versions at some point, simply duplicate the files or folders in question using the File > Duplicate command or drag and drop them to another drive, where they will be copied rather than moved. It makes sense to rename the folder to indicate that it's a backup. Having a large USB or networked drive to hand to store backups can be a great idea.

29. Restore or delete items from a backup

If you need to get back an old version of a file or 'undelete' something, enter Time Machine and return to a point where the relevant item exists. You can use Quick Look to see inside the file. Then right-click and choose to restore it, or indeed to delete that instance of the backed up item, or all backed up copies of that item. Remember that if you do this they will no longer be recoverable.

30. Email things to yourself

Another quick and easy way to back up smaller files is to email them to yourself using a web-based email service like Gmail, Hotmail or iCloud mail. They will then be stored online and accessible from other devices. For larger files, use services like Dropbox to store items online.

31. Use multiple backup drives

As of OS X 10.8, Time Machine can use more than one hard drive for backing up your system. In its preferences you can specify two or more volumes. This is a great way to maintain two backups for extra security.

32. See inside your backups

To get a better idea of what's being copied, download TimeTracker free from charlessoft.com. This loads your backups and shows you the contents of each one in a Finder-like view, along with file sizes. If anything huge is incorrectly being included you can simply exclude it using Time machine's preferences.

iCloud tips

33. Use Documents in the Cloud

iCloud docs

You can sync documents across your devices by making sure Documents and Data is enabled in your iCloud preferences. If you use a browser on a Mac or PC to log in to icloud.com you will see an iWork section and inside this, sections for Keynote, Pages or Numbers documents.

Documents can be deleted, duplicated or downloaded from here and you can also upload from your Mac. Although the sections are named after Apple's iWork suite, you can also upload Microsoft Office formatted files and text documents.

34. Take advantage of automatic downloads

Automatic downloads

You can set iTunes on your Mac to automatically download content purchased on other devices using your Apple ID. Go into iTunes' Preferences > Store section and switch it on for music, apps or books or all three. So if you buy an album from iTunes while you're out, when you come home it will have downloaded to your Mac automatically. Conversely you can activate the same option on your iOS device so that a book you buy on your Mac from iBooks for example is also available to read on your iPad.

35. Use iCloud like Dropbox

iCloud Dropbox

There's an interesting way to fool iCloud into sharing files with your other Macs that are signed in with the same Apple ID. Ensure that in the System Preferences > iCloud section, Documents and Data is switched on. Then go to your User Library folder by choosing Go > Go To Folder and navigating to /Users/username/Library.

Inside that folder, locate a folder called Mobile Documents. If you drop additional files and folders into this folder, they will be pushed to iCloud and also appear in the same location on all other Macs that have been set up using the same Apple ID. It's worth creating an alias to the folder on your desktop for easier access.

36. Share pictures with Photo Stream

Photostream

You can activate Photo Stream from any iOS device in the Settings > Photos and Camera section. When switched on, new photos will be uploaded over Wi-Fi and available across all your iOS devices signed in with your Apple ID, and in the Photo Stream tab in iPhoto on your Mac. Individual photos can also be shared directly from your iOS device or from iPhoto, and as well as inviting specific people to be able to view the stream you have the option of making it public, so that anyone can view it on iCloud.com.

37. Share Safari bookmarks

Ever been reading a long-form article or watching a YouTube video in Safari on your Mac, then later gone out and struggled to find the correct page again on your iPhone or iPad? Fortunately there's a solution that's built in to iCloud.

On your various devices, make sure iCloud Safari syncing is switched on and as long as you were not in Private Browsing mode you will be able to see all the tabs currently open on each device that has this feature enabled. Just make sure the devices in question are signed in with your Apple ID.

In addition, items that you add to your Reading List on one device will also show up in the Reading List section of the other devices. That way you'll never forget a link again!

38. Access your music anywhere

iTunes match

If you sign up for Apple's iTunes Match service, your iTunes library is analysed and all your playlists uploaded to the cloud. Any content that is already in the iTunes Store - and that tends to be most of it - is matched and anything not in the Store is uploaded to the cloud.

By activating iTunes Match on any of your iOS devices you will be able to stream or download any of the music in your account, effectively giving you access to far more music than could physically fit on an iPod or iPhone.

Even better, you can use AirPlay to stream this to any compatible device. So imagine you're at a party where they have an Airport Express connected to their stereo. Using Wi-Fi you could access your whole music library and play it. There's full search capability of course, and the ability to build playlists on the fly, though your Mac remains the master when it comes to the main library.

39. Manage your iCloud storage

iCloud storage

Every iOS user gets 5GB of iCloud storage for free. More accurately, every Apple ID has 5GB of free storage associated with it and you can view and manage this using the iCloud > Manage button in System Preferences or inside Settings on your iOS device.

From any device or Mac running OS X 10.7 you can delete documents or backups stored in iCloud to free up space, or click on Change Storage Plan to upgrade. If you have sold a device and no longer need its backup, delete it.

40. The Apple TV loves iCloud

The Apple TV may be small but its capabilities are not. Sign in with your Apple ID and you are able to stream and buy movies and TV shows online as well as from iTunes on your Mac or PC.

Although they do download to your Mac, these do not actually download to the Apple TV since it has only a small amount of local storage. What happens is that content streams from the cloud and is stored temporarily. So when you buy a movie, each time you watch it you're actually streaming it.

You can also access your Photo Stream and iTunes Match libraries on the Apple TV, all streamed from the Internet. It's not possible - yet - to access your own movies from the cloud like you can with music.

41. Download purchases as often as you like

One of the clever things about tying everything to your Apple ID is that your various devices always know your purchase history. On your Mac, open iTunes and sign in to the Store then go to the Purchased tab under your account. You'll see a list of everything you have ever bought and this can be searched or filtered by music, films, TV shows, apps or books.

What's advantageous is that any of these can be downloaded again for free, even if you have previously deleted them from your Mac. The same purchase history access is possible on an iOS device using the iTunes > Purchased tab on the device.

42. Use cellular data with iTunes Match

If you have iTunes Match set up and switched on, you might find yourself on the move and wanting to listen to a specific song that hasn't been downloaded to your device. There's a solution: go into Settings > iTunes and App Stores and switch on Use Cellular Data. Now when you load a track in iTunes on your iPhone or 3G-equipped iPad, it will stream and be stored on the device.

Switch cellular data off afterwards to prevent any unnecessary data usage. You may also want to leave Automatic Downloads switched off when using cellular data, as these can quickly burn through your data allowance.

43. Share calendars with iCloud

With iCloud set up on your Mac and iOS devices, open up a browser and navigate to icloud.com on your Mac and sign in, then click on Calendar. You will see a list of your calendars along the left side of the window and if you click on the Edit button next to any one you will see the option to make the Calendar private or public.

To share it with selected people, choose Private then add the names of select iCloud members to invite. To make it public, click Public and you are provided with a link that other users can open in iCal, Calendar, or Microsoft Outlook. A useful function, especially for planning collaborative projects.

Stay in touch with your Mac and iOS devices

44. Use multiple addresses

Using Messages on OS X 10.8, you can go into the Preferences > Accounts section and add multiple email addresses where you can be reached. This means you can use several addresses, say work and personal ones, within the same application and without having to keep signing in and out. You're also able to use your mobile number if you have an iPhone to receive messages on your Mac.

45. Send files with iMessage

iMessage

As well as text and pictures you can drag and drop any kind of file or folder into an iMessage on your Mac to send it to one or more people. Smaller files will be sent automatically but larger ones will need to be accepted by the user at the other end before they will start to send.

46. Use FaceTime from your Mac

If you are using OS X 10.7 or 10.8 and have a Mac with a built-in webcam, you will be able to use FaceTime. This works in the same way as it does on an iOS device, and you can make or receive calls using the same contact details you use for iMessage, and also of course you have access to your Contacts list. Under the Video menu you can choose a source to use as a microphone. You can even start a FaceTime session directly from iMessage by clicking the video camera icon.

47. Message groups of people

Using iMessage on your Mac or your iOS device you can start a group message by entering the names of all the people you want to include in the To: field. Everything you send in that thread will be sent to all recipients. When someone replies, their message is shown with their name attached.

48. Activate Read Receipts

In the iMessage preferences on your Mac or iOS device, you have the option to turn Read Receipts on or off. When switched on, these show the sender that you have read their message. If switched off, there will be no such notifications. If you are looking to maintain some privacy you might want to turn these off but on the other hand if you want people to be able to see that you have read their messages, you can turn it on.

49. Easily send contacts

send contact

You can locate a contact inside the Contacts app on OS X 10.8 and use the Share button to send it via email, AirDrop or iMessage. To send multiple cards, multiple-select contacts from the list and use the Share button. Wherever you see the Share button in 10.8 there's generally the option to send whatever you are looking at off using an iMessage.

50. Use iMessage for MMS

iMessage

iMessages can only be sent to other people who are also running iMessage. It uses a data connection rather than a cellular one and every iMessage passes through Apple's servers and is encrypted.

You can send anything between iOS devices and Macs and it won't cost you anything (except data allowance, if you're sending over 3G). Using iMessage gets around cellular providers' extra charges for MMS multimedia messaging.

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