Everything You Need to Know about Mac System Preferences

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Apple’s Mac computers offer a lot of settings, preferences and options all organized in a single place: System Preferences. Accessed from the Apple menu, this is the main hub for all of your basic settings within macOS. Everything that you can hope or want to configure can be done right here. There are settings for everything from Bluetooth to Siri to tweaking the settings of your keyboard, printer or mouse. Want to change your wallpaper or change the position of your dock? That can be done in System Preferences as well. Here is everything you need to know about macOS System Preferences.

System Preferences Layout

The first thing to know about System Preferences is its layout. The app is organized into four distinct sections.

Mac System Preferences Overview

1. The top left is basic and just your name plus a preselected logo.

2. At the top right of the screen are two icons that lead to Apple ID and Family Sharing options. Clicking on Apple ID will open another window where you will see all of your Apple ID and iCloud account settings. This includes what’s currently syncing with iCloud, existing payment options linked to the App Store, and resetting or changing your Apple ID password.

3. Moving more toward the middle are two sections of icons.

  • The first one covers more personal settings that you will need for your Mac. This includes things like the system language, dock settings, choosing a wallpaper, setting up Internet accounts, adding additional users and more.
  • The second one is more focused on how your Mac interacts with hardware or software. This includes things like setting up external displays, tweaking your keyboard settings or adding new Bluetooth devices like a keyboard. You will also find settings here for Time Machine backups.

4. Finally, the fourth section at the bottom of the preferences screen is where you will see any third-party apps that have a preferences pane.

If this layout feels confusing, and it often can be, you can choose to view the preferences window another way. Go to “View -> Organize alphabetically,” and you can see all of the settings in alphabetical order. This has the side benefit of making the app feel slightly more compact and less overwhelming for new Mac users.

Settings Options

Mac System Preferences Dock Settings

Each preference window includes a new set or sets of options that can be changed, tweaked or altered. For example, if you go into the “Dock” pane, you will find options for changing the size of the Dock, moving it to the left or right of the screen rather than the bottom as well as what happens when you minimize a window. You can also choose to hide the dock so it only appears when you bring your mouse toward the bottom of the screen. As you can tell from just the Dock preferences choices, each pane has a variety of options available to it.

Mac System Preferences Admin Lock

Some panes have locks on them, as indicated by a closed gold lock. Administrator access is required to make any changes. A good example of this is going into “System Preferences -> Users & Groups -> Login Items.” This settings pane allows the Mac owner to change what apps start up every time the Mac is rebooted. In order to make a change here, the user or owner must know the admin password. Any option that requires an admin password is also dimmed so it cannot be clicked on without the unlock password being entered.

Finding Options

Mac System Preferences Dock Search

There is a good chance, especially for new Mac owners but also for experienced users, that you might not know where a setting option lives. In that case, the search field at the top right of the preferences window is your best friend. Any option that matches your search will show up as a list as well in the preferences pane it is located in. While the search function might seem redundant, it’s actually a really great resource to help jump directly to a tab rather than poking around in a variety of windows.

When You See a Red Badge

Mac System Preferences Red Badge

Oh no, a red badge appears on the System Preferences app icon on your dock. What does it mean? There is nothing to worry about. Apple will provide a red-badge indicator in the event you have not completely set up iCloud. Alternatively, if you have a macOS software update that needs to be completed, a red badge will also appear indicating the computer needs to restart or begin the update.

Remove Unwanted Preferences

In the event the System Preferences window is too overwhelming or if you only want to see the options you use most, you can remove unwanted options. Cleaning up the menu will allow you to only leave the settings you want. To get started, open System Preferences by clicking on the Apple menu at the top left of the screen and then clicking “System Preferences.”

1. Begin by clicking on “View” at the top of the screen and then selecting “Customize” from the drop-down list.

Mac System Preferences View Customize

2. Uncheck any of the menu options you don’t need or want access to.

Nine Mac Hidden Settings System Preferences Customize

3. These options can be added back at any time, so removing them is not permanent.

Mac’s System Preferences menu is your go-to for any and all changes or tweaks you want to make to your Mac. Becoming familiar with it, especially for new Mac users, is critical to getting everything you can out of your Mac purchase. Once you are familiar with the System Preferences, the next thing is to understand how the system folders work.

David Joz
David Joz

David is a freelance tech writer with over 15 years of experience in the tech industry. He loves all things Nintendo.

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