System Preferences

How to Make Text and Other Items Bigger or Smaller on Your Mac’s Retina Display

For decades, people with vision problems have adjusted their system resolution to make things like text and interface elements bigger. This is a terrible idea, because it distorts basically everything on your screen. If your Mac offers a Retina display, the System Preferences offers a better way.

Instead of changing the system’s resolution, macOS can scale things like interface elements and text, allowing photos and other graphics to still take full advantage of the display’s native resolution. It’s somewhat akin to the DPI scaling on Windows 10, but a lot less confusing.

How to Adjust Your Mac’s Display Scaling

To explore these settings, head to System Preferences > Display.

Under “Resolution,” check the “Scaled” option. You’ll be presented with four to five choices, depending on the size of your screen.

I’m using a 13-inch MacBook Pro with a resolution of 2560 by 1600 pixels. I’m presented with four options, all of which “look like” a hypothetical resolution on a previous-generation Mac. The default, for example, “looks like” 1440 by 900 pixels, which you can see by hovering your mouse pointer over the option.

The two options below the default “look like” 1280 by 800 and 1024 by 640, as I work my way down. The option above the default “looks like” 1680 by 1050.

These numbers are somewhat arbitrary, in that they are related to how previous-generation Macs looked at particular resolutions. The precise choices offered will vary depending on your specific Mac model. And to be clear, your system resolution doesn’t actually change if you choose a different setting: just the scaling of things like text and interface elements will change. The result is similar to changing resolution on older Macs, but without the visual distortions.

Are you wondering what this looks like? Well, here’s my desktop set to the default setting, which “looks like” 1440 by 900 pixels.

And here it is when I choose the “More Space” option, which “looks like” 1680 by 1050 pixels:

As you can see, the browser window takes up a lot less space on my desktop now, and the menu bar looks quite a bit smaller. If you have good eyesight, this setting can make your Mac’s display feel quite a bit bigger, allowing you to have more things on the screen at once.

Going the…

How to Encrypt Your Mac’s Time Machine Backup

You encrypt your Mac’s system drive like you should: if your computer is stolen, your data is safe from prying eyes. But on your desk, right next to your Mac, is a carbon copy of everything on your hard drive: your Time Machine backup. Wouldn’t anyone who grabbed that drive have access to all the same information?

Yes they would, which is why it’s important to encrypt your Time Machine drive. There are two ways to do this, and both are relatively straightforward. You can retroactively encrypt your existing Time Machine backup, which allows you to keep your old backups. The downside: this retroactive encryption can take a long time, which is why you might want to simply create an encrypted partition using Disk Utility and back up to that. Let’s go over both options.

The Slow, But Non-Destructive Option: Encrypt Your Current Backups

If you have Time Machine set up on your Mac already, you can encrypt your drive retroactively. The process is going to take a while—for a one terabyte mechanical drive, the process could take more than 24 straight hours—but you can start and stop the process as many times as you like.

Head to System Preferences > Time Machine, then click “Select Disk.”

Select your current backup drive, then click “Remove Disk.”

Yes, we have to remove the drive before we can start encrypting, but don’t worry: your backups will remain on the drive. Click the “Select Backup Disk” button.

Click your old Time Machine drive in the list of options, then check the “Encrypt backups” option.

How to Control When macOS Updates Are Installed

Updates are necessary, but annoying. Which is why your Mac, by default, installs them automatically.

System updates protect your Mac from malware and other threats, and occasionally add new features. The same goes for software updates, so it’s important to keep all your apps up to date. But popups asking users whether they want to install updates have a way of being ignored, even when the user knows that updates are important. So automatic updates make sense for most people.

…But not all people. Some of you prefer having control over what is installed when. Happily, there’s a way to take control, and it’s in System Preferences.

Click the “App Store” button and you’ll see the automatic update settings right at the top of the window.

The first two options are about checking for and downloading updates—not installing them.

  • The top option, “Automatically check for updates,” controls whether your Mac regularly checks for new versions or not. There’s no good reason to turn this off: it’s important to know about updates when they’re ready.
  • The next option, “Download newly available updates in the background,” controls whether or not you need to tell the system to download updates. The only reason to disable this feature is the need to manage bandwidth usage. If you don’t have that need, it’s best to leave this enabled.

Again, neither of these options installs updates automatically: they just set whether the system should look for updates regularly, and whether the system should download those updates when available. If you check the above two options, and only those options,…

How to Add or Remove Icons From Your MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar

Not sure you love the touch bar? Maybe you mostly just don’t love what’s on it. No worries: that’s easy to change.

I’ve long had a troubled relationship with the top rows of keys on the Mac. Some, such as the volume and brightness toggles, I use constantly; others, like the Mission Control and the Launchpad, I’ve never touched. There were ways to swap out these key’s functions for something else, if I decided to put these buttons to work, but they depended on third party software and often didn’t work consistently. Plus, they key itself would look the same, meaning the icon wouldn’t match any new functionality.

This is where the touch bar shines. You’re in control of which buttons show up, and how they show up. And it’s easy to customize out of the box.

What’s on the Touch Bar?

Before we talk about customization, let’s talk through the basics of how the touch bar works. Here’s what the bar like without any application open:

The escape key takes up the leftmost spot, as it pretty much always does. On the right we’ve got four buttons, which Apple calls the Command Strip. You can tap the left-facing arrow to expand this strip, showing a collection of buttons similar to the top row of physical keys on other MacBooks.

This is called the Expanded Control Strip. Most users will only see it when they specifically expand the Command Strip. It’s possible to make this the default, though (more on that later).

For now, let’s talk about the rest of that empty space, which Apple refers to as App Controls. This space is used by whatever app is open, to show basically whatever that application feels is important. Safari gives you back buttons, a search bar, and a new tab button, for example.

Microsoft Word, meanwhile, gives you exactly the sort of buttons you’re used to seeing in a Microsoft Word toolbar.

And some applications, mostly older ones, show nothing at all here. That’s about all the touch bar can do, save one more trick: the old-fashioned F keys…

How to Use macOS’ Spotlight Like a Champ

There are two kinds of Mac users: those who use Spotlight constantly, and those who ignore it.

If you’re in the second category, that’s too bad: everything about using a Mac gets faster with Spotlight. This search tool doubles as a text-based Siri alternative, and with just a few keystrokes, you can launch or look up anything. Getting started couldn’t be easier: just click the little magnifying glass.

But if you really want to be quick, don’t click: press Command+Space on your keyboard to launch Spotlight. If you only learn one Mac keyboard shortcut, make it this one. You’ll instantly see a blank search window.

What can this search box do? A lot: just start typing. Let’s dive in, starting with the basics and working our way toward lesser known features.

Getting Started: Looking for Files

The basic functionality of Spotlight is instant search of every file on your computer. A very simple use for this is to launch software: just type the name of the program.

Results will pop up instantly as you type, and you can hit “Enter” right away to launch an app or game. It feels silly at first, but it’s actually faster than clicking an icon somewhere—you never even have to take your hands off the keyboard. Once you get used to it, you will seriously wonder why you ever opened software any other way.

You can also use this to launch individual panels in the System Preferences, again just by typing the name.

This becomes really useful when you need to quickly find a file. If you want to quickly find a photo you took in Paris, just hit Command+Space and search for the word “Paris.”

In the above example, you’ll notice that music came up before photos. No matter: you can use the up and down arrow keys to quickly jump from item to item. As you scroll through the photos, you’ll see thumbnails in the right panel.

Searches look at filenames, but in the case of documents, Spotlight also looks inside the file. For example: way back in college, I helped publish a parody publication that was “written” by a cat named Muffles. All these years later, searching Spotlight for “Muffles” brings up the document, even though “muffles” is nowhere in the filename.

If you’re like me, sometimes you can’t remember where you put a document, or what its filename was. In those cases, typing a phrase you know is in the document can help. You can open the document by hitting Enter, or see where it is in the Finder by hitting Command+Enter.

If you want to get fancy, you can also use basic boolean queries, including OR, AND, and NOT. It’s usually not necessary, but good to have sometimes.

Searching for Files With Natural Language

Spotlight is useful enough for simple searches alone, but you can go deeper by using natural language. What does this mean? That you can type surprisingly specific queries and get the results you’d expect. For example: type “pictures from december…

Why Do Some Mac Apps Need to “Control This Computer Using Accessibility Features?”

Some apps, like Dropbox and Steam, will ask to “control this computer using accessibility features.” But what the heck does that even mean?

The wording is confusing, to say that least. What does this permission actually grant? Basically, this gives the app in question the ability to control other programs. Apple outlines their advice here:

If you’re familiar with an app, you can authorize it by clicking Open System Preferences in the alert, then selecting the checkbox for the app in the Privacy pane. If you’re unfamiliar with an app or you don’t want to give it access to your Mac at that time, click Deny in the alert.

But that just leaves more questions. Why do you have to give this permission at all? What does giving this permission mean—will such applications really “control this computer”? And why is this called “Accessibility” access, instead of just system access? Let’s break this down.

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Why Do I Have to Do This?

The process of enabling Accessibility Settings is a bit convoluted. You need to open System Preferences, then head to Security & Privacy > Privacy > Accessibility. From there you need to click the lock icon in the bottom-left corner, enter you password, and only then can you grant your application access.

So why do you have to do this? The answer, in short, is to protect your security.

By default, Mac apps are self-contained, and can’t change the way you interact with the system or other applications. This is a very good thing. It prevents sketchy things from happening, like games you’ve downloaded logging your keystrokes or malware clicking buttons in your browser.

But some applications need to control other applications to…