Long-Lived macOS

4 September 2018

The Mac is old. And that’s a good thing.

As anyone will tell you, thirty isn’t really that old an age for a person. But for an operating system, yeah, thirty is pretty old. iOS and Android, the last two to take the world by storm, are only just over ten years old now.

A lot has changed since the Macintosh was first unveiled in 1984. Computers age — or, rather, new ones become more capable than the old — far more quickly than people do. Over the last three decades, Macs have become exponentially more useful and more intuitive, both on the hardware and software sides. But for all its change, macOS still contains many remnants left over from its past.

Of course, none of these remnants are from the operating systems of all the way back in 1984. Some of them are actually pretty recent. But the point isn’t that every part of older versions of macOS has remained; what makes macOS so powerful is that it has had years to mature and grow, with new versions adding layers of features. As these layers have stacked on top of one another, many features have been forgotten or gone unnoticed, but luckily not by everyone.

Finding the hidden gems of macOS is like paleontology — the old gets buried by the new, but what you can find if you dig is pretty great. At the same time that macOS has changed, aged, and buried its past, it’s left fossils behind. Not all of the old stuff is still around, but the bits that have lasted are the bits worth knowing about. You can find them if you just start digging.

Uluroo isn’t here to give you a history of macOS, in part because he’d probably get a few parts wrong, so let’s fast-forward a bit closer to the present. Yesterday, Uluroo started a Twitter thread about the old and forgotten features of macOS that have stood the test of time. John Gruber retweeted the thread, and it got a veritable explosion of replies containing tips, tidbits, and advice.

This article is a compilation of the best ones. But before we get to that, a bit more on why these are so great. The Mac has a vast array of hidden menus, useful keyboard shortcuts, and forgotten features; there are so many it would be absurd to try to cover them all in this piece. The reason these are forgotten, hidden, and yet still useful is simple: there are so many things that it’s easy to forget all but the most basic ones. If it’s not widely used, a feature can quickly be forgotten — “fossilize,” as it were.

When Uluroo first used a Mac, the keyboard shortcuts he needed to know were few: ⌘⇧3 for screenshots, ⌘S for saving documents, ⌘Z for undoing, and ⌘C and ⌘V for copying and pasting. Over time, though, he learned about ⌘⇧4 for selecting a small portion of the screen to capture, ⌘X for cutting text, and a few more.

In more recent months and years, and even more so after this Twitter thread started, Uluroo has absorbed a barrage of advice about macOS. Some of it was familiar but forgotten, some of it completely new. You should really read all of the replies to the thread, as there are too many to list in this short article.

The point of all this is, macOS has so much functionality, both old and new, that remembering all of it is nigh-impossible. And it’s great to be reminded sometimes. A simpler operating system such as iOS is great because it does the things it does really well, and it’s pretty easy to remember how to do things; but macOS is great because it does way more things, and you can use or ignore whichever ones you wish. Unfortunately, much of this wide array of features can be easily forgotten.

Okay. As promised, the list. First, let’s talk about keyboard shortcuts and modifiers.

⌘⇧Y: send selected text to a new Stickies note on the desktop. Uluroo is astonished that he had never known this shortcut until yesterday. Apple has let Stickies fade into the background of macOS, but at least it hasn’t killed the app completely. It’s very useful for storing tidbits of text for a short period of time, and Uluroo plans to use it more in the future with the help of this keyboard shortcut.

⌘⇧4 followed by Space: screenshot a specific window.

Holding ⌥ while doing that: screenshot a window with no drop shadow. (Thanks to Casper for those two.)

⌥⇧ while changing volume and brightness: adjust those in quarter increments. This gives similar precision to that offered by the brightness and volume sliders in iOS.

⇧⇥ while adjusting volume: hear an audible tone to see how loud you’re making the sound. (Thanks to Joshua for those two.)

⌘-click on the directory name in a Finder title bar: show a selectable folder hierarchy of your location in the file system. (Thanks to Mars for that one.)

⌘-click to drag open windows around the screen without leaving the current window. (Thanks to Simon for that one.)

⌘⌫ returns an item in the Trash to its original folder. (Thanks to Ed for that one.)

⌥-click the Notification Center menubar icon to turn on Do Not Disturb. (Thanks to Mike for that one.)

⌥-click a lot of menu items to get more options. (Thanks to Steve for that one.)

Now, built-in apps and features:

Dashboard is still skeuomorphic. This surprises Uluroo a lot, given that iOS 7 killed skeuomorphism completely on the iPhone five years ago.

Many of Dashboard’s built-in widgets have a refreshingly retro, though inconsistent, aesthetic: Stocks, Dictionary, Weather, Calculator, Calendar, and more all look like they’ve gone untouched since the days of Scott Forstall. The World Clock widget’s second hand moves in the same way as a real clock, rather than moving in a smooth, uninterrupted motion like in iOS and watchOS. Apple still has a built-in “Tile Game” widget. Uluroo wonders if Dashboard will ever be updated to behave more like the Mac’s version of Control Center, or if Apple just doesn’t care much about it anymore.

You can still download third-party Dashboard widgets. Apple’s own webpage for Dashboard downloads is extremely dated yet full of choices. pongClock is one of Uluroo’s favorites. The widget he uses most often, though, is actually Apple’s own Calculator. When he needs to do a quick calculation, he just invokes Dashboard from a Hot Corner and uses one of the three Calculators he has side-by-side (so he can quickly do multiple calculations while preserving answers).

DVD Player still exists, despite the fact that Macs don’t come with DVD drives anymore. It’s curious that DVD Player isn’t an optional download. Obviously it’s useful for those who need it, but it’s un-Apple-like to keep such a dated technology going for so long. (Thanks to Evgeny for pointing this out.)

Chess is actually still quite a lot of fun. A few months ago, Uluroo was on a chess-playing kick and would practice strategies against his Mac during his free time. You can also change the difficulty setting to make it as easy or hard as you want. (Thanks to Ramy for that one.)

.textclipping. You can literally drag text to the desktop as a .textclipping file and AirDrop it. This is pretty awesome; it seems almost like it could serve as an alternative to Messages for temporary, expiring communication. (Thanks to Dustin for that one.)

Proxy icons. Thanks to Chris for giving the name of the feature. So you know how in the title bar of a document in apps like Pages, you see a little mini icon next to the file name? You can drag that icon and use it in all the ways you’d expect to use the file itself if you were to drag it from its location in Finder. Thanks to arbear for that one. And as Mark says, you can right-click that proxy icon to see a nested view of its file path.

Huge thanks from Uluroo to everyone who has contributed to the thread so far. This article will get updated as more advice is shared. These features are only forgotten and hidden if we forget to use them, so it’s great to know that there are people who know the ins and outs of macOS.

Year by year, decade by decade, layer by layer, macOS has gained more functionality with every update. The many iterations of the operating system have brought with them new features while often preserving old ones. The result is a montage of old and new, past and present, blending together to form a remarkably robust and functional platform. Whether as Easter eggs or as life hacks, hopefully these features can be of some service to you. There’s a lot more to macOS than you might think.

The Mac is old. And that’s a good thing.