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Our Favorite Hidden Features in Mac OS X Lion

A major operating system update is a large, complex beast (and in this case, one that roars and eats gazelles for lunch). Apple touts top-tier Lion features like Launchpad, Mission Control, and extensive gesture support, but hundreds of improvements and changes abound. We’ve collected an assortment of fun and useful tips that you’ll want to try during your first few hours with Mac OS X 10.7 Lion.

You’ll learn about even more Lion features — complete with far more detail than you’ll find here or anywhere else online — in Matt Neuburg’s 167-page “Take Control of Using Lion,” available now for $15.

Getting Comfortable in the Finder — The Finder is typically the first thing you see when you use your computer (although with Lion’s new Resume feature, that may be less true than in the past), and you may be a little disoriented when you first try to use it in Lion. These hints will get you past those first few moments:

  • All My Files is a new smart folder, and you’ll be hard pressed to miss it, since it appears first in the default Finder window sidebar. (A smart folder is a saved Spotlight search.) If you prefer not to use it, you can remove its listing from the sidebar using the contextual menu or by choosing Finder > Preferences. You may find it more convenient to hide All My Files and to add your Home folder to the sidebar in its place (again, you can do this with Finder > Preferences).

  • To remove something from the Finder sidebar, hold Command as you drag it out. (This was actually introduced in a late version of Snow Leopard, but it continues to bedevil people; see “Mac OS X 10.6.7 Changes Finder Sidebar Behavior,” 18 May 2011.)

  • The default display of All My Files may catch your eye because it uses the Finder’s new Arrange feature. This cool new feature groups files, and labels each group. The Finder window toolbar contains a new Arrange pop-up menu to make grouping easy. But then what about sorting? The secret is to hold the Option key as you choose from the menu; this changes Arrange to Sort. If you sort when there is already an Arrange option in force, you sort within each group. (For a fun visual example of arranging in Lion, open the Applications folder into Icon view, arrange by application category, and then, if you have a trackpad or Magic Mouse, swipe horizontally back and forth over a category.)


  • You can now select several items in the Finder and choose File > New Folder with [number] Selections to put them all into a new folder.

  • The top-level Applications folder has new permissions that make it hard to remove anything; if you try to drag something out of the Applications folder, it may stay there, and you’ll get an alias instead. The solution is to hold Command as you drag. (If even that doesn’t work, it’s because the application belongs to Apple, not to you, and you’re no longer allowed to move it.)

  • You may not have used copying and pasting in the Finder much in the past, as a way of moving files and folders from one location to another, because in the past it didn’t move them: it only copied them, causing you to end up with two copies of everything you pasted. But in Lion, if you hold Option when pasting a copied Finder item (Command-Option-V), it really does move it.

  • When you copy one file over another with the same name, you’re asked whether you wish to replace the existing file. But now, you can also click the Keep Both Files option. The existing file appears with “copy” appended to the name.

  • When you’re viewing the list of results from the Spotlight menu, hover the pointer over an item to view a new Quick Look panel to preview the item’s contents.


Meeting Mission Control — Mission Control is just Exposé by another name, with Spaces folded in (there is no longer a separate Spaces preference pane or application; instead, you manipulate spaces at the top of the Mission Control screen). It’s easy to use, but here are some hints:

  • To add or delete a Desktop space, hold Option to make the big Plus button and the “x” buttons appear in a corner of your screen.

  • To navigate to a space without leaving Mission Control, hold Option as you click the space.

  • To get a better look at a window, mouse over it and press the Spacebar.

  • You’ll probably discover full-screen windows immediately; Safari and Mail, for example, offer you the chance to turn a window into a full-screen window (look for a button near the upper right of the window). What may not be obvious is that full-screen windows occupy their own spaces, shown at the top of the Mission Control screen. You can navigate to and from them just like navigating to and from spaces (and if you have a trackpad or Magic Mouse, there are handy gestures for this). When working in a full-screen window, move the pointer to the top of the screen to summon the menu bar. One obscure trick: to get a window out of full-screen mode, you can simply press the Esc key.

Connecting to Other Members of Your Pride — In addition to adding AirDrop for easy file transfers between nearby computers, a few other networking features stand out:

  • In Lion, screen sharing is easier than before — you can now log in and control a user account even if the computer is being used by someone with a different user account.

  • Lion eschews Apple’s 12-year-old trademarked term AirPort to describe wireless local area networking in favor of Wi-Fi, the industry-standard certification term. The AirPort menu and other items throughout the Mac OS X interface are now labeled Wi-Fi.

  • Lion updates Mac OS X’s hoary software base station feature, found in the Internet Sharing service of the Sharing preference pane, to enable the use of four channels in the 5 GHz band. Internet Sharing turns a Mac into the equivalent of a Wi-Fi router, but until Lion, it was limited to the crowded 2.4 GHz band. 5 GHz is much less crowded, and can provide a better chance at a high-speed signal, even though the signal won’t travel nearly as far as an equivalent 2.4 GHz channel. Channels 36, 40, 44, and 48 are all available to Internet Sharing, as well as to Computer-to-Computer (ad hoc) networking (an option in the Wi-Fi menu).

  • Sadly, in Internet Sharing-based networks and Computer-to-Computer networks, Apple left intact WEP-only security, which is easily broken and causes incompatibility with some devices that have 802.11n built in, such as some Android phones. Ideally, Apple would have added WPA-based security to these software-generated Wi-Fi networks.

Text in Context — As soon as you begin working with text in Lion, you’ll begin to notice differences, such as:

  • Lion gains iOS-style auto-correct features as you type. When Lion detects a potentially misspelled word, an alternative appears in a small box below the one you’re typing — press the Spacebar or punctuation to accept the alternative, or press Esc or click the small X icon to dismiss the suggestion.

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  • Can’t remember which key combination creates an accented letter, such as “é”? Press and hold a key to bring up accented alternatives, a feature introduced in iOS. You can click the accent you want, or, since your fingers are already on the keyboard, press the number that appears below the character you want.

  • Apple now includes an emoji font (Apple Color Emoji) for adding emoticons. To access dozens of symbols, bring up the Characters palette in an app such as TextEdit or iChat, select Emoji, and locate the picture you want.


Pimp Your Preferences — System Preferences has a couple of hidden new features:

  • To reduce the number of icons shown in the main pane of System Preferences, choose View > Customize. The result is that all icons acquire checkboxes, which you can uncheck to specify that a particular icon shouldn’t appear. In this way, you can reduce the icons to those you normally use. No functionality is lost, because you can still navigate to any preference pane using the View menu.
  • There’s a new way to see the View menu. Instead of going into the menu bar, click and hold down on the Show All button at the top left of the System Preferences window.

A Miscellany of Tricks — Here are some miscellaneous tricks you might not have known about:

  • You can now display a custom message on the login or lock screen (for example, your name and contact information in case the computer is found). Open the Security & Privacy preference pane, enable “Show a message when the screen is locked,” and enter your text.

  • Horrified by the new look of Apple Mail? To restore the old tripartite display in Mail, choose Mail > Preferences. Click the Viewing button, and select “Use classic layout.”

  • In the category of “Why did it take so long to implement this obvious feature?”, you can now drag a file from Safari’s downloads list to move the downloaded file to a new location in the Finder.

  • Auto Save already works in a few Apple applications, and third-party apps are starting to support as well. It’s pretty obvious how to use it (mostly you don’t use it; you just save a new document once and then let the system save it from then on). But here’s one non-obvious feature: to determine how long must elapse before an autosaved document is automatically locked (so you can’t accidentally change it), access the setting in the Time Machine system preference pane (which is silly, as this lock has nothing whatever to do with Time Machine).

  • Do you hate “inertia,” where a window keeps scrolling after you end your scroll gesture? The pop-up menu to turn it off is hidden in the Universal Access system preference pane. Click the Mouse & Trackpad button (or just the Mouse button) and then click Trackpad Options (or Mouse Options).

  • Want nicer text-to-speech voices? There are now lots to pick from. Open the Speech system preference pane, click Text to Speech, and from the System Voice pop-up menu choose Customize. You can sample all voices, but the unchecked ones are not installed; selecting one and clicking OK will start downloading it via Software Update. (Hint: try the British-accented Daniel.)

  • Lion’s new Resume feature automatically opens any application’s documents that were active when the app was quit. That can be jarring to people who traditionally quit an app when finished with a document. To ensure that a completed document does not automatically open the next time you launch the application, hold Option and choose [the Application Name] > Quit and Discard Windows, or press Command-Option-Q. Alternatively turn this feature off completely in the General system preference pane; you can then ensure that an open document does automatically open the next time you launch the application, again by holding Option as you quit the application.

  • To prevent all applications from reopening when you restart your Mac, do not hold Option as you choose Apple > Restart or Apple > Shut Down — so that the dialog appears — and uncheck “Reopen windows when logging back in.”

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