Pragmatism in the real world

OS X Tips and Tricks

It’s been around 18 months since I wrote up some notes about OS X, so clearly it’s time for an updated article.

This article is intended to give a quick and easy introduction to some key things that I think you should know when you move to using OS X.


  • There’s one menu bar for all applications. That is, you can only see the menus for the currently active application.
  • Closing the last window doesn’t exit the application. Use cmd+q or the Quit menu item on the “application name” menu.
  • System Preferences is available via the Apple () menu.
  • Finder is the name of the file manager.
  • Preview is the name of the PDF and image viewer. It’s more powerful than it looks.
  • Turn on View->Show Path Bar in Finder.
  • Browsing Mac 101 if you’re new to Mac can be helpful.

Launching applications
Your applications are stored in /Applications. The easiest way to get to them is via Launchpad. If you’ve used an iPhone then it will look familiar!

The next easiest way is to press cmd+space and then start typing the application’s name.

The best way is to use Alfred or LaunchBar.

App Store
Get your software from the App Store if you can. It’s easier than dealing with license keys and will integrate with Mountain Lion’s notification centre and with iCloud for syncing data with iOS apps.

Get a cheap USB external hard drive and use Time Machine. There are no excuses.

The green button at the top left of a window is called Zoom, not Maximise for a reason! It doesn’t do the same thing. OS X has “full screen mode” which is accessed by pressing the diagonal arrows in the top right of a window.

Force quit
It’s rare for an app to hang, but it does happen. If you need to force an application to quit, hold down ctrl and the alt key and then click on the app’s icon in the Dock. select “Force quit” from the context menu.

If your Mac was made after 2010, enable FileVault within System Preferences -> Security & Privacy -> FileVault. Also, set your computer up so that a password is required to login on start up and from sleep. It’s worth it for the peace of mind if your laptop ever gets stolen.

British English dictionary
System Preferences -> Language & Text -> Language. Click “Edit List…” and find “British English” in the list and select it and press OK. Drag to top of list if not already there.

The # symbol on a UK keyboard
alt+3 gives you a #! Just remember that Americans called the # symbol “pound”…

The file system: HFS+
HFS+ is OS X’s filesystem and is case preserving, and is not case sensitive. Be aware of this at all times, or create a separate “HFS+ (case-sensitive)” partition using Disk Utility. Note that your main partition should be standard HFS+.

Keyboard access
System Preferences -> Keyboard -> Keyboard shortcuts. At the bottom, select “All controls”. You can now use tab to move between buttons in a dialog box and press the space bar to select a tabbed-to button (blue focus outline).

Keyboard shortcuts

  • The cmd (command) key has the symbol ⌘ is used where Windows/Linux use the control key.
  • Option is another word for the alt key and has the ⌥ symbol
  • If you have a menu open, pressing Option will sometimes show alternative menu options. e.g. Finder’s Go menu will show the Library menu item if you hold down option.
  • On the UK keyboard layout, the hash (#) character is found via option+3.
  • Cmd+tab switches applications; Cmd+` (backtick) switches windows within an application.
  • Cmd+space opens system wide search (called Spotlight)
  • Shift+Cmd+[ and Shift+Cmd+] usually switch tabs within a window.
  • Cmd+t will open a new tab in apps that have tabs.
  • Moving the caret:
    • left/right: move caret one character
    • alt+left/alt+right: move caret one word
    • cmd+left/cmd+right: move caret to start/end of the line
    • cmd+up/cmd+down: move caret to start/end of the document
    • The ↖ and ↘ arrows move the screen to the top and bottom of the document, but do not move the caret!
    • In the text fields of Cocoa applications (most apps), control+a/control+e to move the caret to the start/end of the line. This also works in Terminal.
  • Cmd+g is find next
  • Cmd+e will put the currently selection into the find buffer. This means you can select some text, press cmd+e, cmd+g to find the next occurrence of the currently selected text. (This works in pretty much all apps)
  • Cmd+r to refresh a web page as F5 doesn’t work in Safari
  • Finder shortcuts:
    • The return key renames a file, not opens it!
    • cmd+down to open the selected file
    • cmd+up to go up a directory
    • shift+cmd+g to go to any specific directory. Useful to get to /usr/local/. Also works in any open/save dialog within an application.
  • Within a sheet:
    • Return key to select default option (filled in blue)
    • Escape key to cancel
    • cmd+delete to “Don’t Save” in a save sheet
  • You can create (or edit) your own keyboard shortcuts for any application’s menu item using System Preferences. This is really really good!

iPhoto opening on connection of iPhone

If you need to stop iPhoto opening every time you connect a camera or a phone, open Image Capture and select the camera in the list and then look at the panel in the bottom left.


  • Shift+cmd+3 for the whole screen.
  • Shift+cmd+4 and draw a rectangle with the mouse for an arbitrary area of the screen
  • Shift+cmd+4 then space then click on the window to get an PNG of that window.
  • Consider TinyGrab or Skitch if you want to share them


This is the command line application for OS X. Underneath, you have BSD, so it’s works properly! Most common cli apps that you expect to be here are, such as, ls, du, df, curl, svn, etc. For anything else, use Homebrew.

  • open .” will open a finder window in the current directory
  • Open Terminal Here is a useful script for Finder. Store in ~/bin and drag it onto your Finder toolbar.
  • My article on changing the Terminal’s colours is useful.
  • Cmd+t for tabs in a Terminal window.
  • Cmd+k to clear the buffer.

GCC / development
Install the Apple Command Line Tools for Xcode. An Apple Id is required, but you don’t have to pay for them. If you want to develop Cocoa applications, then get Xcode from the App Store.

Unix utilities
Install Homebrew.

Apple supply a reasonably recent version of PHP with their latest OS, so you may as well use it. I wrote it up here:



This is just an unsorted list of useful apps!

I hope this is helpful!