11 System Preferences tricks every Mac owner should know

By , Feb 23, 2016

System Preferences for OS X Yosemite app icon full size

System Preferences, a built-in OS X application analogous to Settings on the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad, lets you customize the Mac to your liking.

You can, for example, adjust the size and location of the Dock, change your desktop background, set your computer’s clock to a different time zone, add or remove user accounts, dive deep into network settings and much more.

Whenever you feel like making changes to your Mac’s settings, System Preferences is the one app you’re most likely going to use. Despite it being one of the most-frequently used applications on the Mac, some folks are unaware of its less-visible features designed to make finding the right setting a breeze.

In this tutorial, you will learn about the most important System Preferences shortcuts and how you can leverage them to make the most from the app.

Before we get started, keep in mind that some settings on your Mac cannot be found within System Preferences and instead must be adjusted in their original app. For instance, various settings pertaining to apps like Mail or Safari are tucked away under Preferences in their menus.

Also, System Preferences may differ slightly from one Mac model to another, depending on the hardware and any apps you have installed.

Get to any setting fast, right from the Dock

To launch System Preferences, click its icon in the Dock or choose System Preferences in the Apple menu. However, you can select any preference pane via the app’s shortcut menu in the Dock. So do yourself a favor and click and hold the System Preferences icon in the Dock.

OS X El Capitan System Preferences Dock shortcut Mac sceenshot 001

Highlight an item in the pop-up menu and let go of the button and you’ll be taken right to that particular preference pane without having to click your way through System Preferences.

Jump to certain settings with keyboard shortcuts

Some preference panes can be quickly accessed by simultaneously pressing the Option (⌥) key and one of the function keys on the keyboard:

  • Option (⌥) – F1 or F2—open the Displays pane
  • Option (⌥) – F3 or F4—open the Mission Control pane
  • Option (⌥) – F5 or F6—open the Keyboard pane
  • Option (⌥) – F10, F11 or F12—open the Sound pane

Not all keyboard shortcuts mentioned above will necessarily work on every Mac model.

Navigate System Preferences with your keyboard

You need not lift your fingers off the keyboard to find your way in System Preferences.

For instance, to get back to where you were or advance forward, press the respective Command (⌘) – [ and Command (⌘)- ] keystroke. To quickly position the cursor in the search field, press the Command (⌘) – F combination.

To hide the System Preferences window, or all other windows, hit Command (⌘) – H or Option (⌥) – Command (⌘) – H, respectively. And last but not least, you can quit the app using OS X’s standard system-wide Command (⌘) – Q keyboard combo.

Note that the System Preferences window cannot be taken full screen nor can these keyboard shortcuts be customized in the Keyboard → Shortcuts preference pane.

The Show All button has a secret

If you launch System Preferences manually and then click on an icon to change the related system settings, and then want to open another pane, you would typically click the Show All button. It’s like the Home button on your iPhone, only for System Preferences: click it and you get back to the main view from wherever you happen to be.

OS X El Capitan System Preferences search Mac sceenshot 009

But check this out: click and hold the button and up pops a menu that lists all the preference panes. Just highlight an item and release the button.

OS X El Capitan System Preferences search Mac sceenshot 008

If you’re changing multiple Mac settings which are scattered all over the place, using the Show All button’s shortcut menu will save you more than a few clicks.

Tip: You can quickly access any preference pane in System Preference’s View menu, which will also reveal itself upon pressing the Command (⌘) – L keystroke.

OS X El Capitan System Preferences panes in View menu Mac screenshot 001

Use built-in (Windows-friendly) search

Can’t recall the exact setting name? No problem, System Preferences provides a built-in search field that you can use to quickly locate any available setting.

OS X El Capitan System Preferences search Mac sceenshot 003

As you type, possible matches for what you’re looking for appear below the search field, and one or more preference icons are spotlighted in the System Preferences window. You can also type a phrase that describes what you want to do, as opposed to needing to provide a very specific setting name.

Though you can click any highlighted icon, but why waste time when you can select an item in the list that matches what you want to do using the arrow keys, and press Enter to be taken there?

Tip: To cater to Windows users, System Preferences recognizes queries specific to PC’s Control Panel, such as “wallpaper” which highlights the Desktop & Screen Saver pane. Typing “windows” will suggest appropriate panes for adjusting related Mac features like Windows networking and file sharing, restoring Finder windows and more.

OS X El Capitan System Preferences search Mac sceenshot 004

Get to any setting through Spotlight Search

That’s right, you can also locate any preference pane using the Mac’s system-wide Spotlight Search. Click the Spotlight icon in the menu bar and type a query like you would in the built-in System Preferences search.

Select a desired result with the arrow keys and hit Enter.

Tip: To prevent Spotlight from surfacing these System Preferences panes, untick the System Preferences box in System Preferences → Spotlight → Search Results.

OS X El Capitan System Preferences search Mac sceenshot 006

Hide some settings from your view

System Preferences presents its panes as a grid of logically group preference icons. Third-party applications may also add their own items to System Preferences. If your view has become a tad too cluttered for your tastes and you wish you were able to easily hide the items you rarely access —well, you can.

Simply launch the app and click Customize in its View menu.

OS X El Capitan System Preferences customize Mac screenshot 005

A checkmark appears next to each icon in the System Preferences window. Untick the items you would like to hide and click Done. To show hidden items, select Customize in the View menu, tick their boxes and select Done.

OS X El Capitan System Preferences customize Mac screenshot 003

Items you have removed are hidden from your view, but not deactivated completely.

Both System Preferences and Spotlight will still surface hidden preference panes when running a search, and your hidden items will continue to be available through the shortcut menu in the Dock and in the System Preferences → View menu.

In the example screenshot below, I am able to use built-in search to change my desktop background even though I hid the top row of preference icons such as General, Desktop & Screen Saver, Dock and so forth.

OS X El Capitan System Preferences search Mac sceenshot 005

Adjust icon grouping

By default, System Preferences icons are organized into logical groups and listed by category. You can switch between group organization and alphabetical grouping by selecting Organize by Categories or Organize Alphabetically in the View menu.

OS X El Capitan System Preferences icon grouping in View menu Mac screenshot 001

For your convenience, here’s the layout of the System Preferences icons after selecting the Organize Alphabetically option.

OS X El Capitan System Preferences customize Mac screenshot 006

Remove misbehaving preference panes

Third-party apps are permitted to add their own panes to System Preferences. The problem is, in some cases a pane won’t disappear after uninstalling its container app.

I hate seeing icons for non-functional panes sitting in the System Preferences window. Thankfully, you can remove any misbehaving preference pane from your system. Open System Preferences, right-click an item and select the Remove option from the pop-up menu. You might be asked to type in an administrator password to continue.

OS X El Capitan remove System Preferences pane Mac screenshot 001

Resort to removing a misbehaving preference pane yourself only if running its container app’s uninstaller, removing the app via OS X’s Launchpad or trashing the app from the Applications folder won’t yield desired results.

You cannot manually remove Apple’s stock panes from System Preferences.

Tip: You could also manually delete any third-party preference pane if you don’t mind venturing into the “/Users/username/Library/PreferencePanes” and “Macintosh HD/Library/PreferencePanes“ folders.

Change dimmed settings

Certain system-level settings in some preference panes may be dimmed. This is by design, to prevent users who lack an administrative account privilege from changing crucial settings on your Mac.

OS X El Capitan System Preferences Lock icon 001

If options in a preference pane that you wish to change are dimmed, click the lock icon in the bottom of the window and type your administrator password.

OS X El Capitan System Preferences Lock icon 002

If you navigate away from the unlocked pane or close the System Preferences window, your Mac will automatically lock any unlocked items, and this is for your own security.

Help is but a click away

If you get stuck or want to learn about all the ways System Preferences can help you customize your Mac to your liking, browse Apple’s built-in help. To bring up System Preferences resources in Apple Help, select Finder → Help and type “Customize your Mac in System Preferences” into the search field.

OS X El Capitan Help System Preferences Mac screenshot 001

And your favorite System Preferences trick?

How often do you play with System Preferences on your Mac and what do you use it most for? If you know about other trick not mentioned here, we’d be eager if you shared them in the comment section below.

Like this article? We’d appreciate if you could pass it along to your friends and Mac support folk and give us a shoutout on Twitter.

Related tutorials

The following how-tos dealing with system settings might be of interest to you:

You can browse all System Preferences related posts and access other Mac tutorials you might like in the iDownloadBlog archive.

Not sure how to do certain things on your Apple device? Let us know at help@iDownloadBlog.com and who knows, one of our upcoming tutorials may provide a solution to your problem.

And keep those how-to submissions coming at tips@iDownloadBlog.com.

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  • What a great collection of tips, Christian. I’m not gonna lie: I didn’t know about most of these.

  • Timothy

    Good tips! Not sure if this counts, but I find option-clicking the Sound/Wi-Fi/Bluetooth menu bar icons quite useful, as I now seldom need to use their preference panes.

  • White Michael Jackson

    Not a system prefs feature but holding down option and clicking on the wifi icon on taskbar to see what ip address i have

    • Nolan I.

      I didn’t know that before today. That is really useful.

  • iDara09

    In the sections title “Get to any setting through Spotlight Search:”
    I remember when I was running OSX below El Capitain, I was able to rearrange which result will show first in the search box — by dragging those checked box to the up or down as you like.

    PS: I can’t do it now on El Captain; not sure whether or not it is just me.

    • You’re right, you can no longer do this in System Preferences → Spotlight → Search Results on Macs running El Capitan.

  • Linton Findlay

    Right after Jeff did a similar article for 9to5mac

  • Nolan I.

    The dock icon does not have to be held down, it can be right-clicked. In fact most people do this instead.

  • Snehashish Panigrahi

    How do I move System preferences application out of Application folder in finder?