Exposing Leopard's Secrets: Nine Tools that Enable Hidden Features

Tools for customizing the look and feel of your Mac, scheduling TimeMachine, previewing documents and more.
Posted December 9, 2008

Ryan Faas

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Apple provides Mac users with a wide range of features in Mac OS X that allow users to customize their machines, develop workflows that meet their specific needs, and generally have a very positive computing experience. While the company freely documents hundred of these features (including over 300 that were introduced in Mac OS X Leopard last year), many other “hidden” feature live just beneath the surface.

Accessing these hidden features typically requires users to work with obscure commands in the Terminal or modify equally obscure configuration files scattered throughout a Mac’s file system.

If you’re one of those users that wants to tap into more capabilities than can easily be found in System Preferences or the Finder, but you don’t want to spend hours poking around the remote recesses of your Mac – or if you’re not comfortable modifying system files or using the command-line – there’s good news.

A handful of tools make it safe, easy, and painless to get to many of those secret options to customize and extend the functionality of your Mac.

In this article, I’ll look at nine solutions for accessing hidden and little known Mac OS X features. You’ll notice that there is some overlap in the hidden features accessible by different tools. Several of them allow you to alter the look of the Dock or login window, for example. Where tools offer overlapping features, you may wish to try (or even regularly use) one or more of them to find the best fit for how you want to customize your Mac.

1) MacPilot

Probably the biggest one-stop solution for enabling hidden features in Mac OS X, MacPilot by Koingo Software offers access to over 200 different features. The capabilities of this $19.95 tool (which comes with a 15 day trial) run the gamut from interface tweaks (like changing the look and behavior of the Dock and customizing the login window) through setting complex file sharing and user features (such as creating storage quotas on home folders, generating custom messages to be displayed when users connect to shared folders, and setting file sharing logging options).

Almost any hidden feature that can be adjusted from the command-line has an easy to use toggle in MacPilot. The application can also be used to run a handful of maintenance and troubleshooting tasks.

The list of detailed options is available from the Koingo website and is really worth looking at (and quite frankly the list is too long to detail every option in this article).

You’ll likely find the ability to do things you didn’t even think possible (like restrict the amount of RAM or number of processors used by the system). Whether you want to customize your Mac, save space by slimming down Mac OS X’s hard drive footprint, control the environment that your family members (or students in a classroom) have access to, or secure file sharing, MacPilot has features that you’ll want to explore.

2) TinkerTool

While MacPilot is one great all-in-one tool for accessing hidden features, it isn’t the only one. The free TinkerTool by Marcel Bresink also offers up a healthy serving of access to secret Mac OS X features as well.

While MacPilot focuses on providing both user interface tweaks and a large number of under-the-hood system options, TinkerTool is focused primarily on altering the look and feel of Mac OS X.

As with MacPilot, the full list of features that can be toggled or adjust using TinkerTool is too long to include here (but well worth checking out on the developer’s website). Examples include a number of ways to adjust the Finder (such as showing hidden files, removing the striped background in list view windows, and even removing animation effects – something that can improve performance of older and slower Macs), the Dock, and system level features like which Fonts are used to menus items and title bars.

TinkerTool also comes with a number of Leopard-specific options including controlling how Stacks are displayed in the Dock, setting the display of Help windows, and controlling screen sharing of other computers. In another plus, TinkerTool allows users to change some of the interface elements in iTunes 8, like removing iTunes Store links (an option that Apple removed from the iTunes preferences dialog in the latest iTunes release).

3) TinkerTool System

Also by Marcel Bresink is TinkerTool System (and like TinkerTool, it’s free). TinkerTool System is really designed more as a maintenance and troubleshooting tool than either MacPilot or TinkerTool.

In this capacity, it allows you to perform such tasks as running the Mac OS X periodic maintenance scripts and clearing cache files (including those of most web browsers). However, it does allow access to some hidden features as well, including the ability to customize the login window, analyze and lock/unlock files, set complex file permissions using access control lists, and view details about the index files used for Spotlight searching on each disk (and delete them or disable indexing). It also helps reduce the space used by the both the operating system and applications by removing unneeded language translations and non-native code, and fully uninstall all files associated with applications.

4) xMod

Similar to both TinkerTool and MacPilot, xMod also offers the ability to tweak a number of hidden user interface options in Leopard.

Again, these run the gamut from adjusting the look of the Dock to changing the look of Finder windows. It also allows the disabling of the Desktop, tweaking of the iTunes 8 interface, and the ability to adjust system level features including how and where screenshots are stored. xMod is among the newest of these tools and like TinkerTool it is a free solution. Like MacPilot and TinkerTool System, xMod can also be used to perform a variety of periodic maintenance tasks.

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Tags: browsers, Windows, OS X, Leopard, Storage

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