80 handy OS X Lion tips and tricks

5th Jan 2012 | 10:15

80 handy OS X Lion tips and tricks

Fun and useful things you can do in OS X Lion

80 cool OS X Lion features

Almost four months ago, OS X Lion escaped from the Mac App Store and took up residence in Macs around the globe. And for the most part users are quite happy with their new house guest. Yet part of the fun with any new operating system release is uncovering all the new features - and make no mistake, this big cat has plenty of them.

Despite Apple's efforts to outline more than 250 new features in OS X Lion on their website, many users are still discovering new items daily, which is keeping the folks who track such features working overtime in their efforts to expose them.

However, we realise that many of you don't have enough time to put on your sleuthing cap and play Sherlock Holmes with us. That's why we've assembled a massive list of all the cool little discoveries we've found.

So without further ado, let's get our big cats in a row (so to speak), dig in our claws and unearth 80 OS X Lion tips...

01. Birth date year optional

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Many of us know the month and day of our family and friends' birthdays, but we might not know the year. Thankfully, Lion's Address Book couldn't care less, allowing you to enter just the month and day, which will carry over to iCal just fine - without displaying their age. Make sure Birthday is selected in Address Book > Preferences > Template > Add field.

02. FaceTime calling

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OS X Lion also adds a FaceTime link to the Address Book to make it easy to keep up with friends and family. With a contact open, click on any email address, choose FaceTime and enjoy your chat.

03. iPhoto faces

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OS X Lion makes it easier to attach images to your contacts in Address Book by linking to iPhoto's Faces feature. Double-click on a contact's photo and after a moment, click on the Faces icon at the bottom-left to browse from your iPhoto library. Make your selection, zoom and crop and you're good to go.

04. Lose the space

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By default, OS X Lion treats the Dashboard overlay as one of your desktops, much to the chagrin of long-time users. This deprives it of its quick-reference usability. Fortunately though, it's easy to undo, simply by opening System Preferences > Mission Control and unchecking the very first option, 'Show Dashboard as a space.'

05. Assign your desktops

All apps in OS X Lion can now be assigned to specific desktops, all desktops or none at all, right from the Dock. To do this, simply Ctrl-click on the app in question, manoeuvre to Options in the pop-up menu and select the appropriate choice from the 'Assign To' options.

06. Access recently opened files

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The OS X Lion Dock just got a little more useful with the addition of a list of recently opened files for relevant applications. To access them, simply Ctrl-click on any app in your Dock and up pops a list of recently used files for that selection.

07. Volume encryption

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FileVault 2 got a major overhaul with OS X Lion, and one of the biggest features has to be the ability to encrypt an entire volume rather than just a user's Home folder. Just turn it on, enter a recovery key and sit back as a blanket of security is applied to your entire volume.

08. Lose the indicator lights

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So you love the Dock, but just aren't feeling it for those indicator lights below each open application. No problem - OS X Lion now allows you to turn them off by opening System Preferences > Dock and unchecking 'Show indicator lights for open applications'.

09. Quick Look stacked files

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Finally, stacks are made more useful! From any folder stack in your Dock, simply mouse over the one you'd like to Quick Look and hit the space bar. As if by magic, you'll get a nice big preview of that file, same as you would from a Finder window, in fact.

10. Encrypt external disks

In addition to encrypting your entire system volume in OS X Lion (instead of simply a user's Home folder in the prior version), users can now choose to encrypt external USB or FireWire drives as well. The option will come to your attention in the Disk Utility app at the time of disk formatting.

11. Emoji emoticons added to special characters

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This tip actually works from any app that uses the Edit menu. To get your Emoji on, simply go to Edit > Special Characters and browse to the new Emoji section of the sidebar. Double-click or drag a selection to insert it into the active text field.

12. File sorting

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OS X Lion introduces a new toolbar method for sorting files based on a variety of options including name, kind, application, four date-related options, size, label or none, which keeps things the way they were in Snow Leopard. Now you can separate folders from documents and much more, making it easier than ever to find what you're looking for.

13. Gesture navigation

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If you prefer to view your files as icons, OS X Lion now allows for gesture-based navigation as it displays Finder items. Files in each particular group are now displayed in rows of icons, allowing you to easily swipe through them with a trackpad.

14. Keyboard shortcut to Downloads folder

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Once a file you've downloaded has vanished into Safari 5.1's tiny Downloads window, how can you find it again? There are several ways, but one of our favourites is using the Command+Option+L keyboard shortcut in the Finder. This pops it open - even if you were just browsing another Finder folder.

15. Merge folders

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In the past, copying a folder with the same name to a new location was strictly a no-no. That's all changed in OS X Lion, and now you'll get the option to merge folders or keep both folders when doing so. Oh, how we love the little things in life…

16. Move instead of copy

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We've always been able to move files to different folders by dragging and dropping with the Command key held down, but now keyboard junkies have even more options. Simply use Command+C as always to copy one or more files, then use Option+Command+V when pasting, which will actually move the file from its original location to the new destination.

17. Navigate with gestures

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With all of the new gestures, it's no surprise that Apple removed the previous method of navigating back and forth through Finder windows. But it's still there - simply hold down the Option key while you swipe left or right with three or four fingers (depending on how you have it configured) to navigate Finder windows instead of spaces.

18. New folder with selection

If you frequently move files into folders, you'll love OS X Lion's new ability to select one or more files, then pull up a contextual menu with a Ctrl-click. At the top of the menu you'll see 'New Folder with Selection' - select it and watch as your files literally jump into a new folder.

19. Multiple selection animation

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This one is mostly eye candy, but it does come in handy for showing a user what will happen when they drag and drop. Select more than one item to drag to a new location and you'll see the selections collapse into one as you do so, then separate again as you hover over the new destination.

20. No more AirPort

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Not everyone has the extra money to spend on Apple-branded wireless routers, which is probably why OS X Lion has now changed the AirPort menu in the Finder to simply 'Wi-Fi' - a label which, when you think about it, makes a whole lot more sense anyway.

21. No more looping app switcher

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Prior to OS X Lion, holding down the Command+Tab keyboard shortcut to open the application switcher would result in a potentially epileptic situation as the switcher moved the selection across your available apps in an endless loop. The good news is, Apple has changed this behaviour and the app switcher will now stop at the end of the row - without looping into infinity and beyond.

22. Reveal the user library folder

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While holding down the Option key is one - well, option - you can get your user Library back more permanently by heading to Applications > Utilities > Terminal and typing 'chflags nohidden /Library' (no quotes) and hitting Return. Welcome back, Library folder.

23. Queue up your Trash

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You'll be seeing one less unwelcome notification in OS X Lion: have you ever been in the middle of a lengthy trash-emptying session and tried to drag other unwanted files inside at the same time? OS X would refuse to move those files, but with Lion, the trash now forms a queue - if it's busy being emptied, any new trash will simply queue up behind the current dump.

24. Sidebar icon size

Aghast at the size of your Finder sidebar icons after opening OS X Lion? Thankfully, Apple has a setting for that which you can find under System Preferences > General; choose between Small, Medium or Large for 'Sidebar icon size'. Note, however, this also affects the size of the sidebar icons in the Mail app as well.

25. Visit the user Library folder

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Apple has decided a user's Library folder should be none of their business with OS X Lion, which has made many long-time users nervous. But it's easy to access it: From the Finder, hold down the Option key as you select the Go menu and you'll see Library sandwiched between Home and Computer. Select Library to open it in the Finder.

26. Window edge resizing

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Apple comes through again, with the ability to resize application windows from any edge - gone is the little corner graphic in the lower-right corner of each window. Better yet, power users can hold down the Shift key to maintain the current window's aspect ratio while resizing, or hold down the Option key to maintain the centre point.

27. Call up Dictionary

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Need more information about a specific word? Select it and doubletap with three fingers to immediately highlight it in yellow and call up the dictionary, thesaurus and Wikipedia information for said word.

28. Quick Add

Apple makes it easier than ever in OS X Lion to add new events to iCal, with the use of regular language phrases. For example, typing 'Benji's birthday at 4pm' allows iCal to parse the name, time or location into the proper data using Quick Add.

29. Two-finger drag between months

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Frustrated that Apple has made it more difficult to move between calendar months in iCal? Forget the clicking and use a two-figure drag left or right to get the job done, complete with a page turning animation.

30. Year 'heat' mode

Suppose you want to see at a glance which days are busier than others for an entire year. Previously in OS X, that was impossible. Enter OS X Lion's new year mode: it shows 12 months at a time, using colours to represent your availability for each day, with busier days appearing more 'hot' than others.

31. iPhoto Faces

Address Book isn't the only OS X Lion app to gain the ability to quickly and easily add photos to your contacts. Click a buddy icon in iChat, click Edit Picture and then the Faces button at the bottom-left, where you can browse through all available iPhoto Faces and choose the best one for your buddy.

32. Unified Buddy list and instant messaging

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OS X Lion adds Yahoo! Messenger to the iChat party, but buddies who have multiple chat services will only appear once, keeping your buddy list clean. What happens when you want to instant message them? You'll be asked which service you wish to connect through first. You'll also get one unified status update across all of your services as well.

33. Drag Favorites to Dock

If you find yourself frequently visiting the Launchpad to open a particular app, it might be time to add it to your Dock for even faster launching. Thankfully this is as easy as selecting the icon in Launchpad and dragging it straight to the Dock.

34. Favorites bar

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Do you find yourself accessing certain folders in Mail more than others? Keep them a click away by dragging the folders to the new Favorites bar, which is sandwiched between the toolbar and the main Mail window. From there you can easily access existing subfolders by clicking on the downward triangle instead.

35. Formatting bar

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Formatting your rich-text emails is a snap in OS X Lion. Simply start a new email, then click the 'Show Format bar' button (sandwiched between the attachment and photo browser at the upper right). Now you'll have easy access to font, size, formatting, paragraph structure and much more.

36. Lose the widescreen Layout

OS X Lion has a new look for Mail that takes a nod from the iPad, but it's not to everyone's taste. But don't worry: you can get things back to the way they were in a jiffy by going to Mail > Preferences > Viewing and checking 'Use classic layout'.

37. Separate conversations

OS X Lion Mail now groups your emails by conversation, which helps reduce clutter and stay organised with your recipients. Inline controls make it easy to reply, forward or delete messages. But if you want to access emails one at a time, click the number to the right of your conversation and you'll be able to quickly get to any of them with just a click.

38. Show Mailboxes

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Mail defaults to hiding all of your mailboxes in OS X Lion, but you can get them back quickly by using View > Show Mailbox List. Keyboard aficionados can do the same with a Shift+Command+M shortcut, or use a simple click on the Show button at the far left of the new Favorites bar.

39. Show Related Messages

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With so many emails flying back and forth, it's easy to get confused. OS X Lion's Mail app adds the ability to show messages related to others in your inbox. To turn this feature on, go to the View menu and select Show Related Messages, which will now display previous replies or even messages you've filed or trashed.

40. Sidebar icon size

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Looking to squeeze more folders into view in your OS X Lion Mail sidebar? There's no preference for this in the app itself, but strangely Apple has incorporated it into System Preferences > General. Change 'Sidebar icon size' to your choice of Small, Medium or Large, but be forewarned - this also affects the Finder sidebar as well.

40 more overlooked Lion features

41. Browse your desktops

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Want to flip through your open desktops to see what's active on them before committing to a switch? Simply hold down the Option key as you select the desktop in Mission Control, which will slide the new desktop into view without actually opening it for you so you can preview first.

42. Different Desktop backgrounds

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If you're working with different Desktops you might want to enjoy a different look for each one. To do this, simply visit each Desktop, open System Preferences > Desktop & Screen Saver and choose a new background image. You can then repeat this for your other Desktops. Perfect for those times where one simply isn't enough!

43. Drag apps to Desktops

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You'll probably already know that a three-finger swipe upwards puts you in OS X Lion's Mission Control, where you can drag windows between your desktops. But did you know you can move entire apps as well? To do this, instead of dragging a window, click and hold on the app icon and its open windows will follow.

44. Control Desktop arrangements

With OS X Lion, Apple tries to help users at every turn, no matter how jarring it might be. But fear not, you can take matters into your own hands by visiting System Preferences > Mission Control and unchecking 'Automatically rearrange spaces based on most recent use'.

45. Viewing gestures

A trackpad coupled with Mission Control is a user's new best friend. Swipe two fingers up to spread out a cluster of app windows (or enlarge a single window), swipe three fingers (or four, depending on your prefs) to the left or right to move back or forth through desktops or exit Mission Control by using a three-finger swipe down.

46. Lose the screen flash

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Users have always been able to temporarily disable the white screenflash in Photo Booth by holding down Shift while a photo is being snapped. But now there's an option under the Camera menu to disable it for good, should you dislike this feature and want rid of it forever.

47. Show Magnifier

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If you need to zoom in and get a closer look at an image or document in Preview? Apple now includes a Magnifier tool with OS X Lion - simply tap the '§' key located under Esc and it will pop up. Pinch to increase or decrease your view inside the Magnifier.

48. Add a signature to your docs

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Preview now allows you to add a signature to documents by signing a piece of paper and using your FaceTime camera to capture it. The magic happens in the annotations section, and you can even add multiple signatures for a variety of uses.

49. Easily preview links

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Next time you receive a URL in Mail or iChat, there's no need to click on it and head to Safari to see what it is. Just hover your cursor over the link, then click on the black square and white arrow. This will use Quick Look to open the link without having to leave the app at all. Hit the Esc key as usual to close the preview.

50. Merge video clips

At last, OS X Lion's QuickTime Player makes it easy to assemble multiple video files into one. Open the first file, then drag a second onto the same window. QuickTime Player will even scale or crop files to match. You can even trim the head or tail of any clip before committing to the new file.

51. Add to Reading List

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Next time you spot a link to an article that looks interesting and you don't have time to read it at that moment, let OS X Lion's new Safari 5.1 feature Reading List take control. Shift-click the link and watch it fly up the screen and into the Reading List icon, where it's now safely saved for later consumption.

52. Smart Zoom

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Gestures seem to have attracted the lion's share of the press (pun intended), but a few of them may have been overlooked. One of our favourites is the 'Smart zoom', which emulates iOS by allowing you to double-tap with two fingers in Safari to zoom into your web content. Make sure this option is turned on under System Preferences > Trackpad first. Works great in full-screen Safari, too!

53. New Downloads window

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Click a download link in Safari 5.1 on OS X Lion and you'll see an animation fly up the screen and into a new icon - this is the new home for Downloads. Click on the down arrow on the top right-hand corner and Safari's Downloads window will pop open.

54. New tabs stay close

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We love this one! In the past, clicking a link to open a new tab meant the window would open at the end of the line, often far away from the tab that spawned it. With OS X Lion, such new tabs will pop up right next to the original, pushing the others down the line accordingly. What can we say? It's awesome.

55. Swipe through page history

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Although we miss having a two-finger swipe for Finder windows, Safari 5.1 allows the same gesture to swipe through your page history. Just need a quick peek at your previous page? Swipe the existing one over enough to see it and hold your fingers in place, then swipe back to return where you just were.

56. Pause slideshow

If you have your screensaver set to show a slideshow of images, this trick will come in handy. Want to check out a particular slide or move through them manually? Hit the Space bar to stop (or restart) the show, then use the arrow keys to navigate between images.

57. Quick-access toolbar

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If you use Screen Sharing to access other Macs in your network, Lion has a toolbar to allow quick access to send or get remote clipboard contents, snap a screenshot or fit the screen in your window.

58. Apple ID authentication

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Don't want to create user accounts for others to access your computer via Screen Sharing? With OS X Lion, you can add another user's Apple ID as an authorised users and they can log in with the same credentials used by iTunes or the App Store.

59. Observe only

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Want to keep an eye on a Mac in your network without accidentally disturbing it? Use OS X Lion Screen Sharing's View > Switch to Observe Mode to see the remote computer without taking control of its window.

60. Drag and drop

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OS X Lion makes searching in Spotlight far more usable with the ability to drag and drop found items right from the Spotlight window to another location - including an open email or via AirDrop.

61. QuickLook previews

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Here's one that Spotlight users are going to enjoy. After doing a search, hover your mouse over a selection and up will pop a Quick Look preview of that item. Even better, hold down the Command key while doing so to see where the searched string is located in that file, or hold down Command+Option to see where on your hard disk the file resides.

62. Web or Wikipedia search

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Want to do a quick web search without switching over to Safari? Type your search into OS X Lion Spotlight and click the "Search Web for" option at the bottom - Safari will jump to the front and open the search request using your default search engine. This also works for Wikipedia searches as well.

63. Accented characters

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Taking a nod from iOS, users can now simply hold down a letter and up comes a list of alternatives for the character just typed. Click on one to select it, or type the corresponding number under each option.

64. Automatic termination

This new feature requires no user interaction - literally! If you haven't used an app recently and there are no open windows for it, OS X Lion will politely quit the app in question to free up resources for the rest of the system. Of course, this works with Lion's new autosave features to make sure you don't lose any data, and developers must specifically add it. Apple's own apps such as TextEdit and Preview already support this.

65. Enhanced clamshell mode

Notebook users may recall the decidedly un-Apple way of attaching an external display to use their Mac in what's called 'clamshell mode.' That's all completely disappeared with OS X Lion. Now, you just simply attach an external display, close your notebook and the external display remains on without having to fidget with sleep mode.

66. Extra items displayed at login

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OS X Lion's login window now features a particularly handy display of the clock, Wi-Fi status and on portable Macs, even the battery charge level and status - before you even log in to your system.

67. Lose the zoom

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OS X Lion introduces a zoom effect that many users have found less than desirable. But it's easy to get rid of over at: Applications > Utilities > Terminal. Then type: defaults write NSGlobalDomain NSAutomaticWindow AnimationsEnabled -bool NO and hit Return. Log out or restart to get it working, or quit and relaunch the apps in question.

68. Restore key repeat

If you rarely use accented characters and miss having the key repeat, go to Applications > Utilities > Terminal and enter "defaults write -g ApplePressAnd HoldEnabled -bool false" (no quotes) and hit Return. Want to revert to Lion's default? Change "false" to "true".

69. Disable Resume

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If you're quitting out of an app in OS X Lion and don't want it to remember your previously opened windows, simply hold down the Option key while quitting (or using Command+Option+Q on the keyboard). This will make "Quit" become "Quit and Discard Windows" without having to disable it permanently using System Preferences.

70. New and improved

More Info OS X Lion has completely overhauled the More Info option found under Apple Menu > About This Mac. You'll now get a more visual look at your system via the Overview, Displays, Storage and Memory tabs - but fear not, the old-school method is still there by clicking System Report under the Overview tab.

71. Display a note on a locked screen

Do you want your co-workers to get the message that your Mac is not to be meddled with in your absence? Head to System Preferences > Security & Privacy, select the General tab and check 'Show a message when the screen is locked.' Now type a terse but friendly note to ward off unwanted intruders or even offer contact information should your computer ever get lost.

72. Hide unwanted options

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Once you've installed a few third-party apps, the System Preferences pane gets overwhelmed with options. In Lion, you can hide unwanted icons by clicking and holding on the Show All button, then selecting Customize at the bottom of the pop-up menu. Uncheck the ones you'd like to hide and click Done.

73. System Preferences

Resume is a great OS X Lion feature for many Mac users, as it allows you to pick right back up where you left off. However, if you'd rather boot up from a fresh start, visit System Preferences > General and uncheck "Restore windows when quitting and re-opening apps."

74. Lose natural scrolling

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Perhaps the most controversial aspect of OS X Lion is Apple's new 'natural' scrolling, which mimics iOS by tracking your finger movement. This is the opposite of the way things have worked since forever. But it's easy to get back to the old way. Go to System Preferences > Trackpad > Scroll & Zoom and uncheck "Scroll direction: natural."

75. Mail, Contacts & Calendars

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Apple has added a new option to the Internet & Wireless section of System Preferences, to keep your email, contacts and calendar accounts in one place. For example, log into Gmail via Safari and OS X Lion will ask if you want to set up the account to work with Mail, iCal and iChat.

76. New text to speech voices

OS X Lion adds a ton of new text to speech voices, but they need a download in order to acquire. Head to System Preferences > Speech > Text to Speech, then click on the System Voice pull-down and select Customize. Scroll through the massive list, click Play to preview, check the boxes for the ones you want and click OK to have them downloaded via Software Update.

77. Recent docs in App Exposé

If you've enabled your trackpad to utilise App Exposé (as either a three or fourfinger downward swipe), you will have the added ability to quickly access recent documents from many apps such as TextEdit, Preview, iWork and more. All you have to do is simply open System Preferences > Trackpad > More Gestures, select App Exposé and choose three or four fingers.

78. Restart with Resume

The ability to resume where you left off in OS X Lion is great, but it works even better when coupled with the ability to restart your computer automatically if the system locks up. To enable this option, open System Preferences > Energy Saver and make sure "Restart automatically if the computer freezes" is checked.

79. The scroll bar lives on

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The new iOS-style scroll bars appear and disappear as needed. To change this back, go to System Preferences > General and for "Show scroll bars". The system will choose based on your input device, or you can show them only "When scrolling" or "Always".

80. Enable encryption

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With OS X Lion's FileVault 2 encryption, users may be concerned about securing their Time Machine backup as well. Head to System Preferences > Time Machine, click on 'Select Disk', check "Encrypt Backup Disk", then click Use Backup Disk.

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First published in MacFormat Issue 240

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