Takeaway: Apple hides a lot of its functionality to keep the user experience simple, but there are some advanced configuration tools you can use to unlock OS X’s powerful “secret” commands.
OS X is a powerful operating system with a lot of features that Apple hides from users in order to keep the user experience simple. There is a lot that Apple hides; so much so, that there are a number of advanced configuration utilities available to assist in tweaking these secret commands. For most users, unless you like to tinker, these tools probably may look like so much “geek fluff,” but for system administrators or power users, these tools can be extremely handy.
If you want a reliable and rock-solid set of tools, the TinkerTool “suite” is ideal. TinkerTool is a stand-alone tweaking application that allows you to configure some of the more popular user-level configuration settings in OS X. These include things like Finder tweaks, disabling the creation of .DS_Store files on network file systems, changes to the Dock, Time Capsule tweaks, changing default system fonts, and Safari tweaks. Most users, power-user or not, can gain benefit from TinkerTool, which is a free application. It contains some very useful tweaks that any user would enjoy.
To step up, there is the counterpart TinkerTool System application, which can be used in conjunction with TinkerTool. While TinkerTool concentrates primarily on user tweaks, TinkerTool System allows you to change the way the entire system operates. It also allows you to run system maintenance tasks, such as the various maintenance cron jobs (which, if you put your computer to sleep or turn off, may not ever get the opportunity to run), provides detailed system information and allows you to view system logs easily.
You can change various login or startup settings, and ACL permissions for files. There is an application uninstall feature that removes all related files and objects of an application you want to delete from the system (contrast this to dragging an app to the trash; all that gets removed is the app itself, but all the hidden preferences and cache files remain behind). It can be used to remove old log files and core dumps from process crashes. TinkerTool System is a comprehensive, as well as reliable and stable, systems administration tool for a reasonable price (10 Euros / about US$13).
If you’re looking for an app that contains the features of TinkerTool, most of the features of TinkerTool System, and allows you to tweak a whole lot more, then perhaps MacPilot would be a better fit. It is a bit more expensive than TinkerTool System, so depending on what you need, it may or may not be worth the money.
MacPilot does what TinkerTool does: provides access to hidden configuration options in a number of programs. But where TinkerTool concentrates on a few useful options in a handful of Apple-supplied programs, MacPilot provides almost every hidden option available for the same programs and a lot more besides. With it, you can tweak hidden options in the Address Book, disable Dashboard, tweak Front Row and iTunes, change iChat options, and even tweak certain non-Apple programs like TextMate, Adium, and Hazel.
Beyond the tweaking of applications, MacPilot allows you to configure most of the things TinkerTool System does and then some. With MacPilot you can change kernel network option defaults, change startup options like whether to boot into single user mode, limit the number of CPUs OS X has access to, and change whether or not the system boots into 32-bit or 64-bit mode. You can change how Spotlight works on specific disks, and fine-tune power-related options (such as whether or not to wake a laptop from sleeping if the lid is opened).
Finally, MacPilot has a number of utilities and tools built-in that make system management, if not easier, then at least quite convenient. It has a built-in log viewer, can perform routine maintenance by starting cron jobs, flushing DNS caches, updating application prebinding, and verifying preference file integrity. It also provides a GUI frontend to viewing application manpages; you can search manpages for a specific search string or navigate the UNIX filesystem and select a file to see its manpage. It also has a file browser built in that can be navigated to obtain and configure very detailed information on files.
These are three of many applications in an ever-expanding group of utilities for OS X. I have to admit that I’ve not tried them all, but I have been using TinkerTool and TinkerTool System for years and they have come in quite handy when setting up new systems or performing routine maintenance tasks.
MacPilot is a newer addition to my collection of utilities, but I am impressed with the sheer volume of tweaks it can perform, and the fact that it can be a single source of assistance when it’s time to troubleshoot. MacPilot truly is a “kitchen sink” application. Usually I’m not a fan of programs that attempt to do too much, but MacPilot pulls it off quite well, and is well worth checking out for anyone that is looking to get a little more “under the hood” with OS X.