Customizing OS X

by Sanjeeva Wijeyesakere

Disclaimer: Please read through this entire article before attempting to install or configure software. Also note that any installations you undertake are at your own risk and you should ensure that you have a working knowledge of OS X and UNIX systems and are comfortable working in a command line environment, Also, you should thoroughly read and understood the manufacturer's instructions and caveats for each software package you install. You should also make sure you have backed up ALL your data (just in case anything goes wrong).

Here are some tips on customizing OS X to make for a more efficient computing environment. As always, before making any changes to your computer’s operating system make sure you have a recent backup up of ALL your software, files and data (just in case anything goes wrong).

1. Disable Dashboard: OS X’s dashboard is something I never use and you can disable it using the following command (you can re-enable it by replacing the ‘YES’ in the first command with ’NO’):

       defaults write mcx-disabled -boolean YES
       killall Dock

2. Show the Current Path in the Finder Title Bar: Being able to see your current path in Finder’s title bar can be incredibly helpful, especially when browsing through nested folders and can be enabled with the following command (this tip is from

      defaults write _FXShowPosixPathInTitle -bool YES


       Figure 1: Before and after: The Finder title bar in its (a) default state and (b) after enabling paths to be shown

3. Disable Finder animations: This disables the scale-type animations when opening new Finder windows or the ‘Get info’ panels (from Mathias Bynes Dotfiles):

       defaults write DisableAllAnimations -bool true

4. Have spotlight default to showing search results from the current folder when initiating a search from a Finder window (from Mathias Bynes Dotfiles):

       defaults write FXDefaultSearchScope -string "SCcf"

5. Customize X-Term: The availability of an X-Windows environment makes OS X a viable environment for running a variety of scientific and open-source applications. You can customize the appearance of X11 terminal windows by editing your .Xdefaults file (you may need to create this file in your home directory if it doesn’t exist). This is what my Xdefaults file looks like (this was adpated from the Xdefaults file described at MacOSX Postdoc):

       XTerm*dynamicColors: on
       xterm*termName: xterm-color
       XTerm*ActiveIcon: true
       xterm*titleBar: true
       xterm*scrollBar: True
       xterm*JumpScroll: True
       xterm*multiScroll: True
       xterm*saveLines: 5000
       XTerm*Foreground: orange
       XTerm*Background: black
       XTerm*geometry: 100x48+0+0
       XTerm*VT100*scrollBar: true
       XTerm*font: *-fixed-*-*-*-15-*

6. Customize your TCSH shell prompt: You can change your TCSH shell prompt to display the current directory and user (useful if you use ‘su’ to switch users within a terminal session) by adding the following line to your cshrc (or tcshrc) file:

       set prompt="%/ %n%# "

7. Show hidden applications as transparent icons in the dock: You can have OS X show applications with hidden windows as transparent dock icons using the following command:

       defaults write showhidden -bool true ; killall Dock

8. Customize the standard UNIX commands: While not an OS X customization per se, you can setup aliases for common UNIX commands like ‘ls’ so that the information provided is more useful. For example, I find that aliasing ‘ls’ to ‘ls -Fh’ allows me to differentiate readily between files, directories and links. Also the ‘-h’ option displays file sizes in human-readable units like megabytes and kilobytes (when used in conjunction with the -l argument). Here are some helpful aliases I have added to my shell’s startup configuration file:

       alias ls 'ls -Fh'
       alias dl "ls -F | grep /"
       alias lf "ls -F | grep -v /"
       alias rmdir 'rm -rf'
       alias df 'df -h'
       alias du 'du -h'

9. Disable Notification Center in OS X 10.8 (Mountain Lion): While having an alert system like Notification Center built into the OS can be a useful tool, some people find it annoying. To disable notification center, OS X Daily has a technique that uses the following commands:

       launchctl unload -w /System/Library/LaunchAgents/
       killall NotificationCenter

10. Do not create .DS_Store files on network drives: This disables the creation of hidden .DS_Store files when moving files to shared volumes (fromMathias Bynes Dotfiles):

       defaults write DSDontWriteNetworkStores -bool true

11. Empty the Trash securely by default: This will change the ‘Empty Trash’ command so that it defaults to securely deleting the files in your trash. This is particularly useful if you haven’t enabled whole-disk encryption via FileVault (from Mathias Bynes Dotfiles):

       defaults write EmptyTrashSecurely -bool true

12. Start searching within a webpage in Safari by entering ‘/‘ (from Mac OS X Hints):

       defaults write NSUserKeyEquivalents -dict-add Find… /