7 Things to do when Setting Up a new Mac

You can do great stuff with a Mac right out of the box. But if you want to do more stuff, and do it faster, more efficiently, and more easily, do these seven things first. It takes just a few minutes and you’ll be paid back every day, many times over.

It’s not too late for you to do these things now!

1. Turn on the scroll bars.

Scroll bars are good! They show you how much more content there is. Look at these screenshots, one with the scroll bar showing, the other without:

Safari document, with and without scroll bars.
With scroll bars, and without

With the scroll bar showing, you can tell, at a glance, that we are halfway through the article. The small size of the elevator box within the scroll bar indicates that we are seeing only a very small bit of the article– it’s a long one. (A bigger elevator box indicates we are seeing a larger percentage of the content.)

Apple turns the scroll bars off, by default. You should turn them back on. System Preferences/General/Show scroll bars: Always.

Settings/General/Show scroll bars:
Scroll bar settings are in the General preference pane

2. Turn off Handoff

Handoff is a feature that solves a problem nobody has. What it does is, it lets you start writing an email (or a text message) on your iPhone (or iPad), and then finish writing it on your Mac. If you’ve ever seen an icon like this at the front end of your Mac’s Dock, that’s Handoff, and the idea is you would click that icon to finish whatever job your iPhone (or iPad) was doing at that time.

Handoff icon, appearing out of nowhere
Handoff icon, appearing out of nowhere

In my experience, which is rather broad, I have never seen someone use Handoff. Never! I have seen people annoyed by Handoff’s icon jumping into view, then disappearing, then re-appearing, etc. Distraction is bad. Turn Handoff off. (Of course, if the idea sounds good to you, leave it on, and use it!) System Preferences/General/Allow Handoff between this Mac and your iCloud devices (OFF)

General preference pane showing how to turn off Handoff
Don’t allow Handoff between this Mac and your iCloud devices

3. Increase the number of Recent Items

The Mac does a great job keeping track of documents and apps that you’ve recently used, a far better job than Word and Excel and Photoshop do. I’m hoping you’re already using Recent Items (under the Apple Menu), and now we’re going to make it even better by telling the Mac to track more items. The default is ten: 10 documents, 10 servers, 10 apps. Change it to 20 (or more). Yes, you have to find a balance between the convenience of finding something in the Recent Items menu and the inconvenience of having a really long menu, but for me, I lean toward the convenience. Pick a big number and see how it goes. Prediction: you’ll like it.

Recent Items, set to 20 Documents, 20 Apps, and 20 Servers
Recent Items, set to 20 Documents, 20 Apps, and 20 Servers

Note: the Recent Items menu won’t change instantly. If it was set to remember ten items, and you change it to 20, you will still see ten… until you use your Mac a bit more. Check back later and see if the list has grown. Basically, what you’re doing when you increase the number from 10 to 20 is you tell the Mac to NOT remove the tenth item in the list when you add an eleventh. System Preferences/General/Recent Items: set to 20 or more.

Recent Items: ten items and twenty items, compared.
More items = more chances to find what you’re looking for

4. Show the Day of the Week and the Date in the menu bar

How much time have you wasted wondering, “What’s the date?” Yes, you can click on the time in the menubar and get the date that way, but why not show it all the time? You can have it all: date, time, and the day of the week, all at a glance. It only takes two seconds to click the time, I know, I know, but those seconds add up. Do it once a day and that’s 730 seconds, or twelve whole minutes and change, per year.

Day, Date, and Time all showing at once in menu bar
Day, Date, and Time all showing at once
Date & Time preference pane settings: turn on both Date options
Date & Time settings: turn on both Date options

5. Turn off “Hot Corners”

Does your Mac’s screen seem to jump around when you move the mouse to certain places? That’s probably because you have “Hot Corners” turned on. Hot Corners let to tell the Mac to do certain things when you move the arrow pointer to any of the four corners. (The most commonly seen “certain thing” is “Show the Desktop.”) This is a Bad Idea, as you will almost certainly trigger Hot Corners by accident many, many more times than you will do it on purpose. The top left corner, in particular, is really easy to accidentally hit, so do yourself a favor and go to System Preferences/Desktop & Screen Saver/Hot Corners… and change every corner to “nothing.”

Hot Corners turned off everywhere
Hot Corners turned off everywhere

The Mac’s Apple menu, which you’ll access often, is VERY easy to reach (for a right-handed user). Just slam the cursor up and to the left. It’s impossible to over-shoot it. That’s what makes it so easy to hit! (In comparison, try aiming at any spot in the middle of the screen– it’s much harder, because you can over-shoot.) There’s a reason they put the Apple menu in the top left corner. Don’t mess it up by having a Hot Corner up there.

6. Turn off magnification in the Dock

The Dock is handier when it isn’t squirming around, but squirming around is what it does when it’s magnifying icons when you hover over them. It looks pretty but it’s slower to use, because things aren’t exactly where they were the last time you clicked on them. Muscle memory is important if you want to use the Mac efficiently, so let’s make the Dock quit changing, so the spots your muscles remember reflect the actual state of affairs. Make the Dock big, of course (Size control: make it “Large”). But turn the magnification off, unless “pretty” is more important than “easy to us.

Dock with magnification turned on.
Dock with magnification turned on, small Dock
Dock made large, with magnification turned off.
Dock with magnification turned off and the Dock made big
Dock settings for a desktop Mac
Dock settings for a desktop Mac

My advice: make the Dock as big as it can be, with magnification turned off. If you have a laptop put the Dock at the right side and automatically hide and show the Dock. If you have a big screen, put the Dock wherever you want (but know that the left side is where most windows want to be, so you may overlap things if you put the Dock at the left). System Preferences/Dock.

(For more great reading on the topic of “an interface that squirms around is an inefficient interface” visit this page on Bruce Tognazzini’s website. )

7. Turn off FileVault

This one’s a little controversial, but this is my recommendation: turn off FileVault encryption. Many people think “FileVault is security, more security is better,” but in most cases, the downsides are bigger than the upside.

The downsides are, if you forget the password you used to encrypt the disk, and you lose the File Vault Encryption key that Apple sets up for you, you’ll lose all of your stuff. If the disk fails you’ll have a much harder time recovering stuff from it. And if you care about performance, FileVault slows things down (a lot at first, a small amount after that).

The upside is, if someone steals your computer, they won’t be able to see what’s on the disk. That sounds good, except this hardly ever happens. And besides, encrypting your Mac’s hard drive does nothing to protect you against someone logging into your email server and reading your mail, or making purchases using one of your online accounts, or otherwise posing as you. They won’t be able to see your Photo Library, or see your downloads, or your fonts, or your desktop picture… but who cares? It’s much, much more likely that you’ll have a problem with the disk than have it stolen. So play the percentages, and make it easier for you to recover data.

Here’s another thing. Years ago, when someone died, a family went through drawers and a safe deposit box and a filing cabinet and presto, they had everything they needed. Nowadays, there’s all sorts of stuff stored on computer hard drives. I’ve been asked many times to help someone get into a deceased loved one’s computer, usually without a password. If the disk is encrypted with FileVault, I can’t do it without the password (or the recovery key), and neither can anyone else. In that case, whatever is on that disk remains encrypted– that is, unreadable. And lost.

FileVault, turned off.
FileVault, turned off

Here are Apple’s own words of warning:

“If you lose both your account password and your FileVault recovery key, you won’t be able to log in to your Mac or access the data on your startup disk.”

To me, the increased security is not worth the downsides. If FileVault is already turned on, consider turning it off. System Preferences/Security & Privacy/FileVault.

One more: make sure you have a backup!

Backup disks are cheap. They’ll save you gobs of trouble should you ever need to recover a single file, or an entire disk. Read my article about setting up Time Machine, and buy your new Mac a backup disk. Here’s a link to some recommended backup disks. This tip isn’t performance based, but if you lose a file you’ll save a ton of time by having your Time Machine backup set up in advance.

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