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Tweak your Mac preferences – with caution

Here’s what you need to know.

This guest Tip is written by Graham McKay.

Seasoned users of a Mac will be aware that almost every program, aka application aka app, has a set of “preferences” that we can change. These preferences are accessed via the menu bar or with the keyboard shortcut of Command (⌘) , (comma).

gm_casual-150Graham McKay is a long time corporate IT guy, originally from NZ but now in Sydney, who has recently decided to break out of the grey suited world and share his extensive Apple OS X troubleshooting skills via his own consulting company.

In general the preferences for an app are stored within a file specifically for that app and and the current user.

The file itself will usually be found in the Library folder for the current user and the name will generally include the developer. For example, for Apple Mail my preference file is



The Mail menu has a Preferences… section.

Troubleshoot by moving the prefs file

The preference file is created by the app the first time we use it and this gives us the ability to do some simple troubleshooting if an application has strange symptoms. It is also one of the reasons why “installing” an application is so easy on a Mac.

Rename or move the preference file and then re-open the application to cause the application to re-create a default preference file.

Tweak settings with the command line

We can go a bit further than that however if we’re interested in “tweaking” settings that the application developer has built in but not made accessible via the normal preferences interface.

OS X provides a command line interface for changing the contents of a preference (plist) file.

For instance the latest version of Mail has some animated effects that we may dislike and which can be disabled with:

defaults write com.apple.Mail DisableReplyAnimations -bool YES

That’s a little bit too geeky and also we need to know about the available hidden preferences before we can change them.


Secrets preferences.

Use Secrets to tweak settings the easy way

The solution to that is to use a free tool called “Secrets” that presents, via a graphical interface, a list of the known preferences for many different applications and allows us to change them.

Secrets itself is installed as a System Preferences pane. Download it from blacktree-secrets.googlecode.com/files/Secrets_1.0.6.zip

Open the zip file then double click the prefPane file to install it.

Beware — there may be dangers

There is a caveat with this tweaking — do so at your own risk.

Some “secrets” are hidden by the developer to help keep a simple interface while others are hidden because there are potential side effects. I recommend that you only change one preference at a time.

If you think you’ve tweaked a preference that has caused side effects you can try the troubleshooting step mentioned above of renaming or moving the tweaked preference file, or restore it from a recent backup.

However, I find that judicious preference tweaks often allow me to customise my Mac to be closer to my ideal.

Tell us in the comments how this Tip helped you.

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