How to quickly locate a specific setting on your Mac

System Preferences for OS X Yosemite app icon full size

Just like the familiar Settings application on an iPhone, iPod touch and iPad, the macOS System Preferences is probably the most frequently used application on your Mac.

If you’re new to the Mac, System Preferences—much like the Control Panel on Windows—is a one-stop shop for adjusting various settings on your computer. Various settings are categorized into logical sections and laid out as a grid of  preference pane icons.

In this post, we’re going to outline five different time-saving ways to jump quickly into any specific setting nested within System Preferences.

Method #1: Use the Dock, Luke!

Most people launch System Preference from the Dock and then navigate its interface the old-fashioned way. But if you know where a setting is located beforehand, why not save yourself a few clicks and jump straight to it, directly from the Dock?

Step 1: Click and hold the System Preferences icon in the Dock. A contextual menu will pop up and populate with the available preference panes.

OS X El Capitan System Preferences Dock shortcut Mac screenshot 001

Step 2: Highlight a desired preference pane in the menu and let go the mouse button. System Preferences launches immediately, taking you to the appropriate setting.

Related: How to quickly locate a specific setting on iPhone, iPod touch and iPad

Method #2: This button has a secret

System Preferences includes a Show All button which takes you back to the main view of preference icons from wherever you happen to be in System Preferences.

OS X El Capitan System Preferences search Mac sceenshot 009

But as it turns out, this button does more than that.

Step 1: Launch System Preferences on your Mac.

Step 2: Navigate to any setting section or sub-section you like.

Step 3: Say you now want to jump to a different preference pane. Just click and hold the Show All button to see the available preference icons in a pop-up list.

OS X El Capitan System Preferences search Mac screenshot 008

Step 4: Highlight one, let go the mouse button and you’ll jump straight to it.

Method #3: use built-in System Preferences search

Have you noticed a handy search box in the top-right of the System Preferences window? It’s for locating related settings on your Mac quickly and effortlessly.

Step 1: Launch System Preferences on your Mac.

Step 2: Type a term in the search field located in the top right.

OS X El Capitan System Preferences search Mac screenshot 001

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.

Related: how to show or hide setting icons within System Preferences window

Method #4: Spotlight is your friend, my friend

In addition to built-in search, you can land on specific preference panes right from your Mac’s global Spotlight search—because life is too short.

Step 1: Press Command (⌘) – Space to open Spotlight and start a search. Type your search term like you would into the built-in System Preferences search.

OS X El Capitan System Preferences Spotlight shortcut Mac screenshot 001

Step 2: Use up and down arrow keys to select a desired preference pane in Spotlight search results, and hit Enter.

Tip: To prevent Spotlight from searching certain apps, including System Preferences itself, go to System Preferences → Spotlight → Search Results and uptick checkboxes next to apps you want excluded from the system-wide search feature.

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Any pane or setting surfaced within System Preferences’ embedded search field can also be pinpointed with ease through the macOS system-wide Spotlight search.

Method #5: Good ol’ function keys

As pointed out by Dave Mark of The Loop, a commenter has said that you can jump to some (but not all) System Preference panes quickly by pressing the Option (⌥) key and one of the function keys on the keyboard.

A few examples: Option-pressing the brightness function keys (F1 and F2) launches the Displays preference pane. Option-volume (F10, F11 and F12) brings up the Sound preference pane. Option-F3 launches Mission Control settings and Option-pressing the backlight function keys on the keyboard (F5 and F6) opens the Keyboard pane, and so on.

System Preferences FAQ

Should you have further questions about using the aforementioned methods to quickly locate specific settings on your Mac, this mini-FAQ will come to the rescue.

Can I use broader search terms for preference panes in Spotlight?

Of course, simply describe what you want (i.e. to share a printer with other computers, type “share printer”). You can even use Windows-friendly terms. For instance, searching for ‘wallpaper’ surfaces the Desktop & Screen Saver pane.

Does hiding preference icons affect searching?

In a word, no. If you hide some icons from your System Preferences view you’ll still be able to find hidden settings through Spotlight or System Preferences search.

OS X El Capitan System Preferences search Mac screenshot 005

As evidenced above, I hid the top row of preference icons (General, Desktop & Screen Saver, Dock and so forth), and yet could locate settings for desktop pictures via Spotlight and System Preferences search.

Must I remember precise setting name?

Again, no.

System Preferences and Spotlight take queries that don’t match official setting labels 100 percent. This lets you type a word or phrase that describes what you want to do, instead of having to recall the specific setting name.

As mentioned before, former Windows users can search for ‘wallpaper’ (the term officially used on Windows) and System Preferences will point them to the appropriate sub-section within the Desktop & Screen Saver preference pane.

OS X El Capitan System Preferences search Mac screenshot 002

But it goes even deeper than that. In the following example, I typed ‘windows’ and got results for adjusting features like Windows networking and file sharing, restoring windows in Finder, Exposé shortcuts and more.

OS X El Capitan System Preferences search Mac screenshot 003

Regardless of how generic your queries might be, System Preferences and Spotlight will do their best to surface results that could be useful. In another example, I typed the word ‘search’ and saw results for search domains, Spotlight search categories and an option to block search of private files within Spotlight.

OS X El Capitan System Preferences search Mac screenshot 004

On a final note, your view of System Preferences may differ from mine because setting icons vary depending on your system and any apps you have installed.

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