Nine fantastic ways Mac users can tame Leopard

When Apple Inc. shipped Mac OS X 10.5 “Leopard” in October, Macintosh users were divided about some of the interface changes Apple had made from prior Mac OS X releases.

Chief among these love ’em or hate ’em changes were the newly translucent menu bar and the 3-D, shelf-like Dock , as well as the new Stacks feature , which, when you mouse over a folder in the Dock, displays the folder’s contents as a column of icons or a rectangular grid.

It didn’t take long for power users and shareware developers to find ways to tweak the new user interface. At first, modifying Leopard required a level of comfort and experience using the Mac OS X command line and/or modifying system files. Over the past six months, however, the options for tweaking Leopard have become more sophisticated and easier to manage.

Today, most changes can be done easily by any Mac user without trepidation. Here, we’ll highlight ways to make Leopard more Tiger-like, customize its look and feel to reflect your personality, and show you how to improve certain Leopard features.

Get back the look of Tiger

Apple’s response to complaints about the translucent menu bar came with February’s 10.5.2 update , which allows you to turn off the translucent look. If you preferred the look of the menu bar in Tiger, just uncheck the Translucent Menu Bar option in the Desktop & Screensaver preference pane.

You can go even further with a free tool from MD Softworks called LeoColorBar , which performs a handful of tweaking functions, including restoring the familiar rounded edges to the menu bar — another subtle change in Leopard. It also lets you choose a color besides Apple’s familiar brushed-metal gray for the menu bar, a nifty tweak in its own right.

The Leopard 10.5.2 update did not address complaints about the 3-D look of the Dock when it is positioned at the bottom of the screen. (When placed on the right or left of the screen, Leopard’s Dock reverts to a 2-D style.)

LeoColorBar comes in handy here as well — it can restore a 2-D look to the 3-D Dock. For those who like the Tiger look, this tool is a must.

Replace the glowing Dock indicators

While LeoColorBar can give you a 2-D Dock, it doesn’t change the indicators for running applications. In Leopard, these indicators were changed from simple black triangles to glowing dots.

If you want to get the triangles back, a free tool called Dock Delight allows you to do so with just a couple of clicks. Again, it’s a great tool for anyone who preferred the pre-Leopard Dock.

If you don’t want the glowing dots but weren’t crazy about the triangles either, you can customize your Dock with an indicator icon of your choice by replacing the default images the Leopard uses to create the indicators. Though not difficult to accomplish, this does require some minor changes to the Leopard system files, as detailed at the Silver Mac blog . You can even download a handful of free prepackaged alternate indicators to use.

Really trick out your Dock

So far, I’ve talked a lot about customizing the Dock to make it look and act more as it did in earlier Mac OS X versions. But that isn’t your only option. If you like the idea of a 3-D Dock but not the glass-shelf look, check out the options at and Dockulicious. Both of these sites maintain dozens (if not hundreds) of alternate Docks that you can download and easily install with tools available from either site.

Instead of the glass shelf, you can have an iPhone-inspired Dock, a Dock that looks like a patch of lawn, one that looks like the icons are sitting atop a wood-paneled coffee table or even a Dock that looks like a tattered old pirate map. There are endless options ranging from stylish to whimsical to downright weird.

If you’re not into themed Docks, you can also use DockColor to simply change the color of the standard 3-D Dock.

Make Stacks look and act consistently

In the Leopard 10.5.2 update, Apple responded to criticism about Stacks by making the feature optional. Users can now choose to display a folder placed in the Dock as a hierarchical pop-up menu of the folder’s contents (as previous Mac OS X versions had done) rather than as a stack.

While this choice is an improvement, the update didn’t address the major problem with Stacks: the changeability of their icons in the Dock. By default, the icon displayed in the Dock for a Stack shows tiny icons for the first few items (documents, image files, applications, folders, etc.) contained within the folder, stacked three-dimensionally, one in front of the other. The icons included in a Stack’s representation in the Dock are arranged in alphabetical order of the items inside the folder.

Apple’s intention here seems to be that a Stack icon will always reflect the contents of the folder that it represents. Unfortunately, this means that every time you add a new item to a folder represented by a Stack, the Stack’s icon in the Dock may change. As a result, there is no real consistency for folders whose contents change often.

Even when folders don’t have constantly changing contents, it can be difficult to tell which Stack is which without mousing over them to see their names highlighted. For example, two of the Stacks in the screenshot above look identical simply because they both contain folders and Word documents, and both happen to have folders within them whose filenames are alphabetically listed before any other items.

Although it doesn’t change the overall behavior of Stacks, Stacks in Da Place is a great donationware tool for solving the problem of making each Stack look consistent regardless of its contents. It lets you select a single icon that will be perpetually displayed as the front icon in a Stack so you’ll always know which Stack is which.

A great companion to Stacks in Da Place is one of several series of drawer-style icons for Stacks by Yasushi Chida (note that the majority of text on this site is in Japanese) that make your Stacks look like filing cabinet drawers or bins containing the icons of the items in the folder being displayed.

Extend Quick Look for folders and archives

Without any tweaking, Leopard’s Quick Look feature shows you a full-size preview of almost any file without opening an application: As you’re browsing through files in the Finder, simply tap the space bar. But there are two free plug-ins available for Quick Look that extend its functionality and usefulness.

The first is for folders. By default, when you look at a folder with Quick Look, you see some general information about the folder and its icon.

But with the Folder Quick Look plug-in , you can also see a list of the folder’s contents (optionally including all hidden files) as well as information about each item such as file size, creation and modification dates, and file type.

Similarly, Zip Quick Look Plugin allows you to peer into .zip archives. This makes it easy to see what files are contained in an archive from the Finder or within an attachment in Mail. Being able to get a view of the contents of an archive before expanding it makes it easier to work with compressed files, but it also adds a certain level of security (particularly when used in Mail) because you can ensure that the contents are something that you actually want to expand and/or open.

Add canned searches to the Finder sidebar

The Search For section in the Finder’s sidebar in Leopard gives you convenient access to any number of Spotlight searches. Apple packages a handful of these into the sidebar by default, including searches for all files modified on today’s date or within the past week.

As helpful as these searches may be, adding custom searches to the sidebar can make this feature even better. Any Spotlight search can be saved to the Finder’s sidebar.

To create a detailed Spotlight search, use the Find command from the Finder’s File menu (or the Command-F keyboard shortcut). You can designate specific locations to search and whether to search the contents of files or just their file names.

You can also string searches together from a variety of file metadata — information that is appended to files by applications, the file system and Spotlight itself.

The most common options to search for, beyond a simple string of text contained in file names or contents, include the type of file and the date a file was created or last modified.

Select “Other” in the search criteria pop-up menu to choose from a treasure trove of additional possibilities, including:

    • The file label assigned to items in the Finder
    • The album or artist information assigned in iTunes
    • Support for specific foreign languages in items
    • The number of pages in a document
    • All manner of information included by digital cameras, such as camera model or whether a flash was used

To build a search that relies on multiple criteria (all image files that were created in the last month, for example), hold down the Option key as you’re making your selections.

To save a search for later use, click the Save button in the upper-left of the search window and in the Save dialog, choose to add it to the sidebar.
If you want access to more searches in the sidebar, but don’t want to expend the time and effort to create them yourself, you’re in luck. Apple ships a number of prepackaged Spotlight searches with Leopard that don’t appear in the sidebar by default; these can be added to the sidebar in a few easy steps.

Change the log-in window

Leopard’s starscape backdrop for the log-in window is pretty spectacular, but how about using a picture of the family dog or a favorite vacation memory? Visage ($9.95 from Sanity Software) makes it easy to change not just the background behind the log-in window, but also to customize the window itself.

For example, you can insert a customized message for you or your family — or in a business or education environment, an acceptable-use policy or new user instructions. Another option: Replace the Apple and Mac OS X icons with pictures of your own.

Visage, which you can try for free for seven days, has some other cool features. You can set a screensaver as a “desktop effect” that displays continually in the background while you’re working, instead of a static desktop picture (really great with some of Leopard’s new screensaver options ).

Visage also lets you customize the text of a number of system alerts. You can add your name or favorite phrase, which is a lot of fun if combined with Leopard’s text-to-speech function: Have your Mac read alerts to you when they’re displayed.

Add more effects to iChat and PhotoBooth

Leopard introduced the ability to show special effects and custom backgrounds in an iChat video chat, with the same effects available in Photo Booth. Both applications make use of Mac OS X’s Quartz imaging layer and a series of Quartz compositions to apply the effects to input from a Mac’s iSight camera.

More iChat Effects is a package of four-dozen additional Quartz compositions designed for iChat (though they also work well with Photo Booth), all of which make chatting and picture-taking fun and crazy. Ever wonder what you’d look like in a funhouse mirror, with a neon outline or dripping fire? Try it, and you’ll know.

Also check out the site for more cool Quartz compositions — or try your hand at building some of your own with Apple’s Quartz Composer .

Create a Recent Apps Stack

Our final Leopard tweak brings us back to customizing the Dock (and requires limited use of the command line).

This easy trick places any recently launched applications — the same ones listed in the Recent Items option from the Apple menu — conveniently in the Dock, making a great launcher tool for apps you use frequently.

To add this Stack, launch the Terminal (located in the Applications/Utilities) and copy and paste (or type) the following, then hit the Return key:

defaults write persistent-others -array-add ‘{ “tile-data” = { “list-type” = 1; }; “tile-type” = “recents-tile”; }’

Then restart the Dock process by typing the following and hitting Return:

“killall Dock”

You can remove the Stack by dragging it out of the Dock as you would any other Dock item.

Ryan Faas is a frequent Computerworld contributor specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. You can find more information about him at

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