We all know about the big-name apps and tools built into Mac OS X. Most of us couldn’t get through the day without Safari, for example, or Mail. 

But there’s many, many more gems that you most of us don’t even know exist. However, they’re all there for a good reason – to make life easier for you. 

Let’s take a look at what can be found if you dig a little deeper than usual.

Keychain Access

Easily the most useful “secret” app in OS X’s armory, you’ll find Keychain Access in the Utilities folder of the Applications list in Finder. Be cautious using it, however, because it’s the kingpin of your Mac’s security system in many different ways. 

However, one terrific thing Keychain Access can do is show you your passwords. Have you ever been logged automatically into a website and then realised you’ve forgotten the password you originally typed? Now you can find out. Just type the name of the website into the search field at the top right, then double-click the entry in the list of results. Then check the Show Password box at the bottom of the dialog that appears, and enter your login password when prompted.

This trick works for passwords you might’ve entered for apps, too – just type their name into the search field – and even for OS X system services like encrypted disks. 

Some of Keychain Access’ other useful tricks include the ability to create secure, encrypted, password protected notes – just click the option on the File menu – and the ability to scan your password keychain to ensure there’s no faults (click the Application menu and then Keychain First Aid). 

Console

Want to look like a hacker? Just open the Console app, which is in the Utilities folder of the Applications list, and then switch it to full screen before hammering away randomly at the keyboard. Anybody passing by will be sure you’re most of the way towards breaching NORAD. 

Console does have a legit use, however, which is to show what apps and the system are “saying” at any given moment, via log file output. And that’s not too simplistic an explanation because most software outputs human-readable comments for diagnostic purposes. For example, in my Console window as I write this I see “LaunchServices: Could not store lsd-identifiers file”. I don’t entirely understand what that means but I do know something couldn’t be stored somewhere, and this is certainly more useful than something like “Error #2439”. 

As the above error message shows, however, not everything Console reports should be considered a problem. In fact, 99% of Console’s output is utterly inconsequential. Just like humans, software likes to chatter away. However, if you’re trying to solve a problem then opening Console before you use the errant app or system service can provide vital clues. If you’re seeking help from those cleverer than you then some Console output will be very helpful indeed – just select the relevant line, usually indicated by the name of the app in question, then tap Cmd+C to copy it, and paste it wherever necessary. 

Display Calibrator Assistant

Apple does an excellent job properly calibrating the colour balance of built-in screens on the iMac and MacBook ranges. Sadly, it’s less terrific at providing decent colour calibration for any third-party external display(s) you might attach to your Mac. Add in the fact that ambient lighting can make even built-in displays look screwy and you might be wishing there was a way to take control. 

Well, there is, and you’ll find it by opening System Preferences, clicking the Displays icon, clicking the Color tab, and then clicking the Calibrate button. If you’re using OS X El Capitan you’ll be able to adjust the display’s white point, which is to say the warmness or coldness of the screen. However, on older versions of OS X you can click the Expert Mode checkbox to be shown a million more calibration options, and on El Capitan you can hold down the Alt (Option) key while clicking the Calibrate button to see the same choices. Alternatively, remove the check from the Expert Mode box to simply adjust display gamma.

If you select the expert option a wizard will walk you through the calibration steps, and mostly it’s simply a matter of dragging sliders until you’re happy with the results. After you create your new calibration give it 15 minutes of use to give your eyes chance to adjust. All new calibrations seem a little strange at first.

Fonts Palette

Apps that involve you typing something, such as word processors or text editors, usually include a way of adjust the font via a toolbar or inspector. However, there’s sometimes an even better way and that’s to use the Fonts palette – a floating window with pretty much every possible font adjustment option, including some that are just daft such as the ability to add a shadow to text. You can make the font palette appear by tapping Cmd+T (sometimes Shift+Cmd+T) in apps like TextEdit, Pages/Numbers/Keynote, Notes, Mail, the various Omni Group apps, and so on. Alas, Microsoft and Adobe prefer their own way of letting you access fonts, so the palette is unavailable in the likes of Photoshop or Word.

Still, the fonts palette a hugely powerful tool. Click the cog icon at the top left and you can access sophisticated typography tools, such as the ability to adjust ligatures. Beneath this you can create font families, which provides a quick way of accessing fonts you utilise frequently. Just click the plus button to the top right of the Collection heading. Click the cog icon and then Edit Sizes to create your own point sizes that’ll appear in all apps (this time including Microsoft and Adobe!). Ever wanted a default 15pt size option? Now you can have one. 

A neat little secret feature is the font preview, which can be activated by hovering the mouse over the bottom border of the toolbar. When the cursor turns into a drag handle, click and drag down. Clicking any font will now show a live demo.

Wireless Diagnostics

Hold down Alt (Option on some keyboards), click the Wi-Fi icon on the menu bar, and then select Open Wireless Diagnostics. You’ll see a dialog box appear suggesting the tool you’ve started – called Wireless Diagnostics – will diagnose your wireless networking issues. It might indeed do so but you can ignore all of that in favour of the Wireless Diagnostic app’s other insanely useful tools, all of which can be accessed by clicking their entries on the Window menu. 

Clicking the Scan entry, for example, will make your Mac’s wireless hardware take a look around at local wireless networks and present the kind of information that’s incredibly useful when sorting out connectivity issues, such as the signal strength of each wireless base station (in dBm, which means values closer to zero indicate stronger signals). 

Experts will be interested in the Sniffer tool that captures Wi-Fi traffic for further analysis, but arguably the jewel in Wireless Diagnostic’s crown – and a new feature found solely in El Capitan – is the Monitor window. This floats translucently, updating its graphs in real time to show the signal strength and subsequent data transfer rate. If you’ve got a MacBook can just can’t seem to hold a signal, try moving it around and watching these graphs in order to get the best result.

Image Capture

Not all the interesting gems of apps are hidden away. Image Capture is right there in plain sight within the Applications list of Finder. Most people see it everyday and entirely ignore it. Its duty is simple and might even be considered old-fashioned: should you attach a digital camera via a USB cable, or your iPhone/iPad, it lets you download the images to your hard disk. 

In fact, its name isn’t entirely accurate because it can grab any kind of file from a USB-connected device, including MP3s from music players. If your scanner has an automatic document feeder then it can also be used to accept the incoming images, although using the Printers & Scanners tool within System Preferences is perhaps a better choice for that particular task.

Image Capture is extremely simple to use. Start it and then just plug the device into your Mac. It will appear in the Devices listing at the left of the window. Selecting the device in the listing will show the images, videos, MP3s or other files in a fresh listing at the right of the screen, complete with lots of interesting technical data such as the GPS data of where each photo was taken. Scroll right to see more. You can either drag and drop the files you see directly to a folder (or the desktop), or click the Import/Import All buttons at the bottom right. 

As mentioned, Image Capture is a pretty old-school app and there’s not any integration with more modern OS X apps like Photos, or the older iPhoto. On the other hand, this simplicity is to be valued because you can click, drag, and go get a cup of tea.

Incidentally, the core functionality of Image Capture is also available via the File > Import From menu entry of Preview app although only if the camera or device is already attached via USB.

Character Picker

Hit Ctrl+Cmd+Space when typing and, hey presto, the pop-up Character Picker will appear. Once upon a time this was merely a way of gaining access to non-Latin characters and obscure punctuation, but with the advent of emoji it’s become an essential tool for inserting pretty much every type of pictogram you could need.

All you have to do is click the one you’re interested in and it’ll be inserted at the cursor position. Hovering the mouse cursor over each symbol/emoji reveals a tooltip telling you what that particular icon is supposed to represent.

By clicking and dragging the top of the pop-out Character Picker window, you can turn the whole shebang into an actual program window that’ll stick around as you type, avoiding the need to summon it on demand. Click the small icon at the top right of this window and it’ll turn into the full Character Picker program window complete, familiar from older versions of OS X, and complete with a search field.

Of course, you’re only able to insert certain symbols and emoji into documents that support Unicode. This is pretty much every built-in app on OS X (and you can even use the symbols/emoji in filenames!) but they’re not going to work too well within web browsers, for example, and as usual support is a little patchy within Microsoft and Adobe apps. 

Keyboard Viewer

An on-screen keyboard can prove extremely useful should your main keyboard decide not to work, or if you want your toddler’s jam-covered fingers to sully only the mouse. Few people know that OS X has one built-in (an on-screen keyboard, that is, not a jam-covered toddler). Accessing it requires a little setup, though – open System Preferences, click the Keyboard icon, then the Input Sources tab, and put a check in the box headed Show Input Menu In Menu Bar.

Subsequently you can make the on-screen keyboard appear by clicking the input icon in the menu bar (a square with the familiar command keyboard symbol within it), and clicking Show Keyboard Viewer.

You can click on any of the keys of the on-screen keyboard to type, although don’t forget first to click within your document to position the text cursor. Rather entertainingly, as you type on your actual keyboard, you’ll see the on-screen keyboard respond and show your key presses as they happen. Even more usefully, when you hold down the Alt key (Option on some keyboards), you’ll see the on-screen keyboard switch to reflect the various symbols that are available to type. The keys coloured orange apply accents or a grave to letters – type Alt+E and then E, for example, and you’ll end up with é. Try holding down Shift+Alt to see even more symbols, and note how holding down the Fn key switches the function of some of the arrow/utility keys. 

The on-screen keyboard can be resized by dragging its edges or using the green maximise window blob, and it always stays on top of other windows, so is always visible. 

Summarize tool

This is a golden oldie within the OS X box of tricks. It’s also about as hidden as they come and to make it available for everyday use you’ll need to open System Preferences, click the Keyboard icon, select the Shortcuts tab, select Services in the list at the left, and then scroll down at the right to the Summarize entry under the Text heading. Put a check alongside it.

Subsequently you can use the tool by highlighting text in a document and then clicking the application’s main menu, followed by Services > Summarize. A window will appear showing the highlighted text and you can click and drag the slider at the bottom to shrink the selection to – in theory – its most important sentences, or even to a single sentence. If you’ve selected an entire document then click the Paragraphs radio button and drag the slider to let the Summarize tool work on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis, rather than treating the entire text as one continuous chunk.

Once you’ve results you’re happy with, click File > Save As to save out the summarised text as a text (.txt) file for use elsewhere, or just highlight it all and tap Cmd+C to copy it to the clipboard. 

We’re not entirely sure how the Summarize tool achieves its magic but it can be very eerily effective at transforming a lot of text into just a few important sentences. If you’re the kind of person who’s pressed for time, or if you simply don’t enjoy reading, then give it a try while browsing websites in Safari, for example.

System Info

Arguably the OS X equivalent of Windows’ Device Manager, but showing significantly more information (and also designed only to view info), System Info can be accessed by holding down the Alt key (Option on some keyboards), clicking the Apple menu entry, and selecting the option from the list.

Using the app is simple – just select a heading at the left, and then view the information on the right of the screen. You can select text to copy and paste it elsewhere, or save out the entire caboodle by clicking the entry on the File menu. This is saved as an .spx file, which when double-clicked will open again within the System Info viewer window.

For a general rundown of all your system’s hardware, just select the Hardware heading at the left. For general information about the operating system, including uptime data and the OS build number, click the Software heading further down.

System Info also provides a neat way of accessing the similarly-useful but entirely hidden Network Utility tool that runs various network diagnostics – just select its entry on the Window menu.

Read:

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