Make Leopard leap: Time-saving tips for OS X 10.5

Whether you're writing a report, editing home movies and posting them to YouTube, or managing complex spreadsheets, you want to do it as quickly and easily as possible. But because we all develop our own habits for using a computer -- maybe somebody showed us how to do things a certain way or we've figured them out on our own through trial and error -- we don't always work in the most efficient or organized manner.

This is especially true when we're new to an operating system. And for new Mac users and longtimers alike, Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard is filled with new ways of getting things done. That's where these tips come in. They're all about learning to make better and more productive of use of what's already there.

Keep your workspace organized with Spaces

One of the biggest computing productivity killers is having to pause to search through different windows and applications to find the one piece of data or button that you need. Keeping everything as organized and uncluttered as possible -- and knowing how to navigate through applications and documents quickly -- can cut out much of this frustration and downtime.

Enter Spaces, a feature introduced with Leopard that lets you create up to 16 virtual desktops. Each Space acts a discrete desktop, only displaying the windows that you open while in that Space or drag into the Space later (though every Space will display the Dock, menu bar and any desktop icons you have).

This lets you organize large numbers of open windows and applications in separate spaces and keeps them from overlapping and getting lost behind one another. You can have dedicated Spaces (one for office applications, one for e-mail and chat, one for Web surfing and another for iTunes) or you can simply drag windows from one Space to another on the fly as you find windows piling up.

To enable and configure Spaces, use the Expos & Spaces pane in System Preferences. You can choose to create as few as two or as many as 16 Spaces by adding rows and columns of individual Spaces, which line up in a grid format.

As great as Spaces is, the key is to tap its features effectively and not overcomplicate things. To that end, here are some tips for using Spaces well while avoiding being overwhelmed by it.

Use only as many Spaces as you need. If you need only two (say, one for writing and one for Web browsing), don't create eight of them; it'll take you longer to find documents in each one. You can always add more Spaces as you need them.

Turn on the Spaces menu bar icon. This allows you to always know which Space you're working in. It can also be used to switch to a specific Space or open the Spaces preferences (which are part of the Expos and Spaces pane in System Preferences).

Use keyboard shortcuts to switch among spaces. In my experience, keyboard shortcuts are the easiest way to navigate Spaces. By default, you can flip from one space to another by holding the control key and using the arrow keys (though you can customize this in the Spaces preferences). You can also enable switching to a specific Space by its number by holding the control key and the appropriate number key.

If you're more of a mouser, you can position the pointer against an edge of the screen to switch Spaces, which works well if you want to drag a window to another Space.

Understand how to work with the Spaces overview. By pressing F8, you can get an overview of all your Spaces and all their windows. Click a Space to switch to it, or drag windows from one Space to another.

If you hold the command key down when dragging windows, you'll actually drag all windows of an application (not just the selected window) into a Space. Finally, you can also press the C key to collect all the windows into a single Space.

Bind applications to a specific Space -- with caution. Binding an application to a Space ensures that it will always launch and create new windows in that Space. This is a very useful feature, but it can be overdone, particularly if you find Spaces easier to use on the fly rather than rigidly defining how each Space is to be used.

If you do use application binding, you'll probably find it a bit faster and easier to set up if you drag and drop application icons into the Spaces preferences pane (right onto the preview icon of the Space) rather than using the built-in list box.

Find windows and applications fast

Although Spaces is great for organizing, chances are you'll still need to look around for a specific window or application at times. Using the keyboard shortcuts for Spaces, as outlined above, is one way to do this. The various Expos? options, which were introduced in Tiger, can also help:

    • Press the F9 key to quickly shrink all your windows and arrange them neatly so you can see every window on your desktop (or in a Space) at a glance.
    • Press F10 to highlight all the windows of the current application.
    • Press F11 to move all windows out of the way and see the desktop.

In the Expos and Spaces pane of System Preferences, you can customize these shortcuts and set up hot corners, which trigger the feature when the pointer is in the appropriate corner of the screen.

And don't forget about the good old application switcher: Press command-tab to quickly cycle through all running applications (even those with no open windows). There's also a lesser-known key combination that makes a great companion to the application switcher: Press command-? (command-tilde key) to cycle through all the open windows of a single application.

Get the most from Quick Look

One of the best productivity features introduced in Leopard is Quick Look, which allows you to preview the entire contents of a document, picture, movie or any other file directly from the Finder (by simply clicking the space bar) or Mail (using the Quick Look button displayed in any e-mail message that has attachments).

If you're quickly scanning e-mails or searching through folders in the Finder, Quick Look is a huge time saver, and you should get in the habit of using it regularly if you don't already. Here are a couple of tips to get even more out of Quick Look:

Use Quick Look with the Finder's Inspector (also known as the Get Info dialog) to get full details about a file and its metadata -- additional information such as file creation and modification dates, digital camera information for photos, duration for audio or video files, file size and Spotlight searchable comments. The Inspector can also be used to change permissions, lock a file against editing or even change the application that will be used to open the file by default.

You can access the Inspector directly from the Finder using command-I key combination when the file is selected or while viewing a Quick Look preview.

Use Quick Look from Open and Save dialogs. As detailed at Mac OS X Hints, Apple has created an AppleScript called Quick Look Droplet that lets you drag and drop any file from an Open or Save dialog onto its icon.

A Quick Look window will open right there, letting you see a full preview (as opposed to the standard thumbnail) without opening the file or exiting the dialog and returning to the Finder.

Be sure you have all the Quick Look plug-ins you need. Leopard relies on plug-ins for Quick Look (stored in /Library/QuickLook) to be able to preview different document types. Most Leopard applications include their plug-ins automatically, but for some document types that aren't application specific, including compressed files, you may need additional plug-ins.

Fortunately, two great lists of available plug-ins are available online at QuickLook Plugins List and QLPlugins.

Save time with saved Spotlight searches

Quick Look's natural companion, Spotlight search, is another technology that offers Leopard users a productivity boost. Its basic search capabilities make it a powerful tool for locating anything from documents to e-mails; just build simple searches for phrases using the Spotlight icon in the menu bar or by pressing command-space bar.

You can also get much more granular by using Leopard's canned searches (including the saved search options in the Finder's sidebar, or as saved searches of your own design (sometimes also referred to as Smart Folders because they appear as a special type of folder in the Finder). Either approach lets you search for documents that meet any combination of over a dozen different possible criteria with a single click if you opt to save a search to the Finder sidebar, or a double-click if you choose to save a search as a Smart Folder.

You can create Smart Folders on the fly from a Spotlight search results window by using the Save button in the upper-right-hand corner of the window, or you can create one at any time choosing New Smart Folder from the Finder's File menu or clicking option-command-N.

The concept of smart search items actually pervades much of Leopard beyond Spotlight and the Finder. You can use the same technique to create Smart Albums in iPhoto, Smart Playlists in iTunes and even Smart Mailboxes in Mail. Once you get started with the concept of smart search items, you'll likely come up with ever more creative and helpful ways to use the technology.

Find menu items and commands

Another helpful piece of Spotlight technology can be found in the Help menu of any Leopard-aware application. Not only can you search for information included in an application's help documentation, but the Help menu lists available menu commands as you type, making it quick and easy to find commands without searching through every menu and submenu (which can be quite a chore in many applications).

Also, don't forget that right-clicking (or control-clicking) on virtually any item in any application will reveal a context menu with both application-specific and more general Leopard commands that apply to that item.

Make the Finder work your way

Many users leave the Finder environment largely as Apple designed it. While there's nothing wrong with this, there are a few things you can do to make the Finder more helpful and intuitive. First and foremost is to customize both the toolbar and sidebar. Customize the Finder toolbar. The Finder toolbar, which displays at the top of each Finder window, contains a handful of buttons, including a trio for adjusting the view of the window, one for activating Quick Look without using the space bar, a gear menu (which offers access to features also found in context menus and the menu bar) and a Spotlight search box.

You can customize this to include a wide range of additional (or fewer) buttons using the Customize Toolbar option from the View menu in the menu bar.

Although there are a number of commands included in the Customize Toolbar dialog (Eject Disk, Burn Disk, Delete and New Folder, to name a few), most people don't realize that when this dialog is displayed, you can actually drag any application, file, Automator workflow or script to the toolbar, turning it into a launching pad for any manner of individual items or automated tasks.

Use the path bar. Another option in the Finder that makes overall navigation of your system easier is the optional path bar (choose View Path Bar from the View menu). The path bar displays the file path to your current location along the bottom of the Finder window. To go up one level (or five levels) in a folder structure is as easy as clicking the appropriate point in the path bar.

Go directly to the folder you want. For users already familiar with navigating based on a file path, there's also the Go To Folder command (command-shift-G from the keyboard or under the Go menu in the menu bar), which allows you to enter a file path to any point on your Mac's hard drive. Although this is fairly common knowledge, most people don't know that it also works from inside Open and Save dialogs, providing an excellent way of quickly changing your open or save location without having to navigate the entire file system.

Go beyond the Finder. If you really want quick navigation and access to certain commands and features, there are some great third-party alternatives to the Finder. The very popular Quicksilver, for example, provides a completely different menu-driven method to access Finder-related features and to browse the contents of your Mac. Other similar options worth checking out include Butler and LaunchBar.

Use Automator to speed up repeated tasks

Since I've touched on the idea of using Automator workflows in the Finder toolbar, it's worth mentioning this powerful tool. Automator allows you to string together actions from the Finder and other applications to create reusable workflows.

Actions, each of which performs a specific task such as selecting an item, come packaged with Automator and many third-party applications (including Office 2008). Using them, you can string together both simple operations (such as selecting or opening an item) and complex operations (such as locating and extracting text from a PDF file or combining photos into a slide show or movie) to create complex workflows quickly and easily.

The effect can be much like a powerful scripting language, but one that is extremely simple to use. Just select your actions from any applications and drag and drop them together.

Check out the following resources for more information on Automator, additional actions and sample workflows:

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