Optimizing Mac Software

In my earlier articles about speed, I made the point that much of speed depends on what software you choose and how you set it up for the way you work. In How to Pick Faster Software, I gave some yardsticks you can use to measure how good your software is. Now I’d like to move on to the second step.

Back and Forth

Once you have the right software, you need to set it up for the way you like to work.

There’s one case that is so complex I will need to deal with it separately. When it comes to setting up your Finder and System software, there are many things to consider. That will be a long article, since different versions of the Mac OS have different optimal settings.

When you download a new program from the Net, what’s the first thing you do?

You get half a point for saying you use StuffIt Expander to expand it. You lose the other half because you should have your Mac do this automatically. I suppose I’ll give full credit for checking the software with virus software.


The answer I had in mind should be looking at the preferences.

One of the flaws of the Mac that seems likely to be fixed with Mac OS X is finding the preferences option. Unfortunately, Apple did not standardize where preferences are selected in the menu bar. Some programs use the File menu, and many use the Edit menu. Still others use a different menu. On top of that, there is no standardized keyboard shortcut for preferences. Although these problems are not insurmountable, the Mac world would be a better place if preferences were standardized.

The Aqua guidelines for Mac OS X offer some hope, but it will take a little time to get used to the changes. The guidelines define a new application menu that is the name of the application and is located about where the File menu is on the current Mac OS. This application menu will have some of the things found in the current application menu, such as the Hide command.

The application menu, by the way, is located on the top right of your screen and has the icon (and possibly the name) of the current application. The Mac OS X application menu will also have things that don’t logically fit into the File menu, like Quit and Preferences. These changes should eventually make menus more logical and easier, but it’s hard to say what the transition will be like.

Preferences are important, because they are the way the programmer can offer you control over your software.

When I was a child, my sister got a present for Christmas from my aunt and uncle. They got her a one-size-fits-all nightgown. It was huge! It became a bit of a family joke, but I thought it was neat, since we could almost use it for a tent. Since the nightgown was designed to fit everyone, it ended up fitting my sister poorly.

Software needs to be tailored to you in just the same way.

One of the things that I worry about is the over-consolidation of the software industry. Huge software houses are best at making one-size-fits-all programs, but those are not the programs that most users need. I have always preferred smaller companies, because they often write programs with more character that reflects my personality.

For example, I loved my word processor, WriteNow, because it is lean and does what I want with minimal fuss on my part. But apparently most consumers prefer larger software, because it never was competitive with Microsoft Word.

I have a wonderful painting program called Apprentice that makes natural looking artwork. But Delta Tao never made a dent in Adobe’s revenues. If you like small programs, remember to vote with your dollars.

Setting Up Your Applications

No matter what software you use, the preferences are the way to make it fit you well. Since I don’t know what applications you use the most, I’d like to describe a few commonplace preferences.

Many applications have a preference for a default font. If you are not printing with that application, I suggest you consider one of Apple’s best fonts, a bitmapped font called Espy. You can read more about it in some of my early articles on Low End Mac.

How does choosing Espy everywhere make your computer faster? How fast you read depends on several things, one of which is your familiarity with the typeface. That’s why you may have to reread a line that someone prints in a medieval-looking font, for example. Espy is a font that is designed to look good on your screen. If you use it, you may agree with my assessment that it is friendly and makes reading more enjoyable.

Toolbars are an option that has proliferated over the past five years. When Microsoft Word 5.1 was released, it brought toolbars into the mainstream. Before 5.1, toolbars were usually constrained within the document window. But in 5.1, the toolbar got a life of it’s own. Toolbars are a common interface item now; it seems that if having one toolbar is good, having more is better. For instance, iCab has four different toolbars that I can choose. A toolbar button can be chosen with one click, while the equivalent menu option requires at least two clicks. So a toolbar may make you quicker at using the software.

The downside is that you can easily use up the space on your screen if you turn on all the toolbars. As usable space on your screen gets smaller, you spend more time scrolling. The alternative is to spend some time learning the keyboard shortcuts for your application and limit your toolbars to one or less. If you use a toolbar, check to see if you can customize it. Why not take your favorite buttons from several toolbars and put them on your custom tailored toolbar? And why waste precious toolbar space on a Save button when you already know that Cmd-S will save your file?

I think you should carefully read every single preference when you first start using a program. Don’t worry about changing them or even understanding them if they are confusing. One of the insights of the Macintosh is that the blame for confusion rests on the computer. If something doesn’t make sense even after you read carefully, it is not your fault. Computers should be easy to use. Even complex scientific principles, for example, can be made clear by a teacher like Bill Nye the Science Guy. Software should be like that.

Much of a program’s functionality may be hidden in the preferences. Likewise, there may be options that can prevent you from wasting your energy getting frustrated later on. Spending a few minutes at the beginning will give you an idea of what options you may want to change. As you get accustomed to the program, you will feel more capable of deciding what preferences work best for you. If there is a preference there, it means that the programmer thought it was important for you to be able to control it. Don’t waste that opportunity.

As you become a more capable Mac user, you will probably spend more time tweaking preferences. That brings up two final points. First, it takes a lot of time to set preferences. Even if you have all your original software CDs, you need to consider backing up your computer. If your computer crashes, it could take hours to go through all your software programs and reset all the preferences.

They say there are two kinds of Mac users: Those who believe there are two kinds of users, and those who do not. No, wait, that’s not it. The two kinds of users are those who have lost data and those who are going to.

No joking – if you use computers, you will lose data. Take steps to reduce the impact now.

Second, there is an option called Stationary that gives you an easy way to save preferences for a type of document that you recreate frequently. Before the days of computers, people used paper stationary so they did not have to type the return address for every letter. On Macs with System 7 or later, you can use stationary to prevent the same type of repetitive work.

For example, if you make a weekly spreadsheet for work, you could make a skeleton of the spreadsheet. Enter all the data that is the same each time, like the titles of the columns. Format your columns and even enter the equations for calculating the results, but don’t enter the data.

This is the reverse of what most people do. Then use Save As and make it stationary. When you open stationary, the system copies the file so your original is intact for later use. If your program doesn’t give you an option for creating stationary, don’t despair! Save the document anyhow. Then go back to the Finder, “Get Info” (Cmd-I) for the document, and in the bottom right of the Info window you should see a checkbox for turning the document into stationary.

I hope you feel encouraged to take control of your preferences. Setting preferences is a key step in matching you and your Mac so that you can work faster together.

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