My First Mac Archive

This article was first published on 2008-10-03. Due to the age of this article, it is included here for archive purposes only.

One of my top reasons for buying Apple products is that every aspect of their products is designed to perfection. The design direction coming out of Apple HQ is strong and clear. But what do you do if you don’t like what they deliver? In most cases, not much. If you don’t like Steve’s vision, tough luck.

Fortunately, Apple has loosened its grip (somewhat) when it comes to OS X. Certainly not to the extent that many critics would like, but you can customize what your Mac looks like on screen. Let’s take a look at some easy ways to customize the way your new Mac looks.

The Biggest Splash
Changing your desktop wallpaper is the easiest way to make a big change to the look of your Mac. Wallpaper is the term for the image that covers your screen behind all the icons on your desktop. On a new Leopard Mac, the default wallpaper is the purple Aurora image that is the mark of Leopard (OS X 10.5).

It’s super easy to change. Just right-click on the current image and select "Change Desktop Background" from the pop up menu. That will bring up the Desktop and Screen Saver preference pane.

Click on the Desktop tab if it is on the Screen Saver tab. Now all you need to do is drag an image onto that large preview box in the upper left.

There are 3 sources to use for images to drag. The first is the Apple supplied images at the top of the list under the preview. Apple has included dozens of high quality images for your use. Under the Apple images is a list of iPhoto events and albums. You can click through there to find one of your own photos to use. Lastly, you can just drag a picture file from a finder window or even a web page right onto the preview.

Getting images from the web is a great way of finding new and unexpected images for your desktop. There are many sites to check out with a variety of styles to select from. One I found easily with a bunch of free photos is Also, don’t forget Google Images. Just select Extra Large Images from the drop down menu when browsing.

TIP: be sure to get an image that has dimensions the size of your display (ideal) or bigger. To find that, check the Displays preference pane in System Prefs.

One last note on wallpaper: You can select a group of images and have them rotate on a slow slide show basis. Just click through the option at the bottom of the preference pane.

Customizing Icons
The first thing I do with a new Mac is change the icon for the hard drive. I have no idea why Apple decided to be so literal with the image of the hard drive. No one but us geeks know what an internal hard drive looks like! My approach is to instead use an icon of what my Mac looks like on the outside, not the inside.

Most icons are very easy to change once you know how. Other icons that are tied to the system like the Trash, Finder, etc. can be changed with a utility. It’s a little more complicated, but you can change most every icon on your Mac if you try.

First, the easy swaps. Most files, folders, aliases and programs can have their icons swapped for a different one. The easiest way is to find an icon from somewhere else and copy it. The way you copy it is to open the Info box by selecting the icon you like and hitting cmd-I, or Get Info from the File menu. The image in the upper left is the icon. You can select the icon with your mouse, then select Copy from the Edit menu. Next you just open the Info box for the file you want to change, select the icon and then Paste from the Edit menu. Ta-da! Now just close the Info boxes.

Just like wallpaper, there is a ton of resources on the web for icons. InterfaceLift has a bunch of free ones to download as does the Icon Factory. Just remember to get ones for Macs, not for Windows.

Making Your Own Icons
It’s really easy you want a square or rectangular image for an icon. Just open the image in Preview, Select All, Copy, then go to the target’s Info box (above) and hit Paste. If you want an irregluar edge to your icon, you can try using the primitive tools in Preview to select the part of the image you want to copy.

But if you have Photoshop, use those tools to seperate the part of the image you want and put it on a transparent background. Add a drop shadow or glow if you want. Then save the image as a PNG file and reopen it in Preview. Next just follow the same steps as above.

Has your taste for custom icons turned to an obsession? Want to turn pro with your new skills? Take a look at IconBuilder from Icon Factory. It’s a Photoshop plug in that helps automate the professional creation of icons.

Want the keys to all the icons on your new Mac? Take a look at CandyBar from Panic. This little app can help you customize the system icons that you can’t reach with the Info box. It also will help change the look of your Dock.

Icon Size
You can change the size of the icons on your Desktop and in your folders. Go ahead and right-click on the desktop or window of your choice and select Show View Options. Adjust the Icon Size slider to get it how you like it. I’ve noticed that many people with just a couple icons on their Desktop will max the size and it looks pretty cool. I will often max the size of photo icons I have in folders so I can see them without opening them.

Don’t forget the Dock!
Changing the dock is #2 on MFM’s 5 Things to Do After Starting Up Your New Mac article. Don’t overlook that you can change the size and the location of the Dock in the Dock preference pane. These options are also available from a right-click in an empty part of the Dock. My recommendation is to move the Dock to the right side, reduce the size and turn magnification off. And if you hate the Dock, you can choose to hide it.

In addition to those options above, you can organize the Dock to your liking. Take out the icons you never use and put in apps and folders that you do. It’s your Dock. Just because Apple loads in their recommendations doesn’t mean you need to keep them all.

Lastly, as mention above, CandyBar can change the look of the Dock itself. You can adjust the texture, outline and "on" symbols.

How About Those Finder Windows?
There are several ways to adjust the look of the Finder windows. Like the Desktop, the biggest impact is changing the window background. You do this at the bottom of the Show View Options box mentioned above. You can choose a solid color or a picture instead of the default white background.

Did you also know you can get rid of the side bar (left) and tool bar (top) as well? Just click the white button in the upper right to toggle them on and off. Turning them off and having a new background really impacts the way the window looks.

You can also customize what’s in the Tool bar and side bar. We covered it for Tiger (OS X 10.4) here in Customizing Your Finder Windows and the techniques still work for Leopard. In addition to changing the look, customizing the Finder windows can really help you be more productive.

TIP: To actually change the look of those icons in the tool bar, you’ll need an app like CandyBar.

Bonus Round
Here are two more small options to change your look even further. The first is you can make the Menu bar at the semi-transparent which shows a bit of your desktop background through it. Just check the Translucent menu bar box at the bottom of the Desktop preference pane.

The other is to turn the red-yellow-green buttons on the upper left of all windows to grays. You’ll find that command in the top menu on the Appearance preference pane. Just select "Graphite" instead of "Blue".

These are the 5 easiest ways to make a big impact on how your new Mac looks. There are even more involved ideas out there, such as having your widgets appear on your desktop. Share your favorite ideas in the Comments section below!