Working on the Desktop

You can’t really expect any computer to keep its- own files tidy. If you’re always rearranging all of the items on your hard disk then you really should read this document. However, before considering the files themselves you should think about the way such items can be viewed in the Finder.


Each item that appears in a Finder window has a distinctive icon, which is also shown in the Open and Save panels of your applications. These icons are related to the Kind description that’s shown when you select View ➡ as List (see below). The most common items are described as an application program package, a document or a folder.

Icon Names

You can rename most icons, although renaming some items, such as applications, isn’t very useful. There’s a delay between clicking on a filename and when you can actually edit the name, this being set by the Keyboard Repeat settings in the Keyboard & Mouse pane in System Preferences. If you want to quickly edit a name, just select the item and press Return.

Having renamed an item you can press Return or perform another task to confirm your entry. If you make a mistake before pressing Return you can select Edit ➡ Undo or press -Z. You can also use Edit ➡ Copy, Paste or Cut (or the -C, -V and -X keyboard shortcuts) whilst editing a name, as you would in any other application.


The Finder can show items in different ways. View ➡ as Icons gives large icons that fill the window, making it difficult to organise. View ➡ as List is much more useful, since you can see numerous files in a small space and can sort them according to Name, Date Modified, Size or Kind by clicking on the appropriate column header. The number of columns can be adjusted by selecting View ➡ Show View Options or pressing -J (see below). In addition, you can reverse the order of sorting by clicking on the direction arrow. Finally, you can expand folders by clicking on their disclosure triangles.

View ➡ as Columns makes it easy to navigate through folders and is the best option if you like working in a single window.

View Options

You can select View ➡ Show View Options or press -J to customise the current window. The options vary with the View selection and are self-explanatory. The following items only appear in the options for an as List view:-

Use relative dates

Allows dates to be shown as Today, and so on. This is useful and is best selected.

Calculate all sizes

This option forces the Finder to show the size of folders. However, this is a slow process that adds up the sizes of individual files in the folder. So, unless you like slow listings, leave this deselected. Anyway, to find the size of a folder you can just highlight it and select File ➡ Get Info.

Standard Folders

Mac OS X consists of a huge number of files and folders. This complexity is mainly due to its ability to support multiple users. The following folders can be seen at the top level of your drive:-


This folder should contain all the applications used in Mac OS X, as well as many of their support files. Generally speaking, you shouldn’t mess around with the files in this folder.


Contains extra support files and settings for all users. Best left alone.


Contains files used by the operating system that shouldn’t be modified by users.


Contains the home folders for all of the users.

The folders in your home folder are as follows:-


Contains all the items on the current user’s desktop.


As the name implies, this is where you should keep most of the files that you create, apart from movies, music and pictures (see below). Ideally, the material be organised in the same way as a real folder. So don’t put too many layers of subfolders within any one folder, otherwise you’ll spend the rest of your life navigating through them.

By adding a prefix to any subfolder’s name you can change its position in a list. The following prefixes, in order of precedence, will move an item nearer to the top:

Option-space Space ! " # $ % ​& ' ( ) * + , -

whilst the following will force an item towards the bottom:-

† ° ¢ £ § • ¶ ® © Ø ​∞ ¥ ¡ ¬ √≈ ∆ « » … ​– — ÷ ◊ € ‹ › ‡

Note, however, that the latter characters can’t be used for files that are to be conveyed over the Internet and can cause confusion when transferring files to other computer platforms. Note that / (forward slash), \ (back slash) and | (vertical bar) are especially unsuitable, since they are used for dividing directories in file paths. The use of a : (colon) is prohibited by Mac OS X for the same reason. Generally speaking, names that only contain 0-9, A-Z, a-z, spaces and _ (underscore) are preferred.


Contains extra support files and settings the current user. Best left alone.


Contains movies that you’ve created: as used by iMovie.


Contains music that you’ve acquired: as used by iTunes.


Contains pictures that you’ve acquired: as used by iPhoto.


Contains shared files to which other users have access.


For storing the pages for your own Web site.

Folders and Files

Opening applications and documents is easy but moving around folders, commonly known as navigation, can be tricky, especially if you’ve forgotten where an item is kept. Fortunately, the Mac OS has many helpful features, such as the Recent Applications, Recent Documents and Recent Servers items that appear under the Apple menu.


An alias is a special file that points to a ‘parent’ file. To create an alias, select a file and choose File ➡ Make Alias, or press -L. Alternatively, select the file, press -Option and then drag to the required location for the alias.

Aliases can perform numerous tricks. For example, if you regularly use a file that’s on CD-ROM, you can create an alias of the file and put it on the desktop or in a convenient folder. When you want to get to this file you can simply open the alias and you’ll be prompted to insert the CD-ROM.

The Sidebar

The sidebar that appears along the left-hand edge of each Finder window in Mac OS X 10.3 and above is particularly useful: you can drag frequently-used items into this area at any time and then open them again whenever you need them.

Unlike earlier versions of the system, Mac OS X 10.3 and above don’t normally have a Favorites folder in Finder windows or in the Open and Save panes of applications. However, such a folder can be provided by opening ~/Library and dragging the Favorites folder onto the sidebar. You can then add aliases to Favorites by selecting the required items and pressing -Shift-T.

Opening Files

Mac OS X includes a huge amount of software for almost every user. However, if you want to open a specific item by pressing a particular key combination on the keyboard you’ll need a macro utility, such as QuicKeys.

To open any item you must do one of the following:-

Double-click the icon

This works fine, as long as you’re already in the Finder and the icon isn’t hidden behind something else. An alias gives easier access, particularly if it’s kept on the desktop. However, too many items in this area can be messy.

Select the icon and press -O

This has the same effect as double-clicking the item.

Ctrl-click the icon and select Open

This has the same effect as double-clicking the item.

Open the item from within an application’s Open panel

In Mac OS X 10.3 and above this includes a sidebar, which usually contains frequently-used items. You can also get to items in Favorites and Recent Items from the top menu. The items in Recent Items also appear under the Apple menu.

Click a button in an application launcher

This can suffer from the same problem as clicking on an icon, although recent launching utilities let you to organise your applications in a sensible manner.

Press a special key combination

Although this may require a macro application, it’s an excellent way to reach files and folders, providing you can remember the key combination. It’s best to consider the keys to be used when naming files or folders, such as Ctrl-W for AppleWorks.

Mac OS X 10.3 and above incorporate the FileVault security system, which can be actuated from the Security preferences pane. This automatically encrypts the files in your home folder. However, the opening and saving of files works as normal, each file being decrypted automatically on opening and then encrypted again on saving.

Documents and Applications

Although each document is normally opened by the application that created it, you can change the preferred application at a later date. Mac OS X normally links files to their application by filename extensions, although creator codes, as used in the Classic Mac OS, can also be employed.

You can change the preferred application for a particular document by Ctrl-clicking the file, choosing Always Open With and selecting the required application. Or you can select the file, choose File ➡ Get Info, click on the triangle by Open with and choose an application. However, if you want all files of this kind to be opened by the application, click on Change All.

General Hints


MacWorld magazine (UK), IDG Communications, 2004

©Ray White 2004.