Four useful hidden features of OS X that everyone could use

FinderIconXApple has built OS X to be quite intuitive, and while you can get many things done by pointing and clicking, and using the keyboard in standard ways, there are some services and features in OS X that can be quite useful for taking a closer look at things, looking up definitions, or getting around your files and folders. While there many such hidden features in OS X, here are a few that you could possibly use on a more frequent basis.

Screen Zooming

If you ever find yourself squinting at your screen or leaning in to take a closer look at what you are seeing, you can do the same by enabling Screen Zooming. Go to the Accessibility system preferences, where you will see an option for “Zoom.” In here you can check the option to either use keyboard shortcuts or scroll modifier keys to zoom your display in. My recommendation here is to use scroll gestures with the default “Control” modifier key, and then click the “More Options” button to set the screen image to move continuously with the mouse pointer.

Screen Zooming options in OS X

The options for screen zooming are in the Universal Access (or Accessibility) system preferences.


While there is no Siri service for OS X, a somewhat similar experience can be found in the Dictation service. When enabled in the Dictation & Speech system preferences (especially with Enhanced dictation), you can press the Fn key twice with a cursor in a text field and be able to have OS X transcribe whatever you speak. This is useful, but in addition, if you go to the Accessibility system preferences, you can enable Speakable Items, where you set a hotkey that will trigger the system to listen for specific commands that you can speak to have the system open or quit applications, or get information such as the time.

Dictation in OS X

With Enhanced Dictation enabled, OS X will show you live feedback of the phrases you say.

Spotlight Calculator

With the large storage capacities of modern Macs, Apple’s Spotlight search tool is exceptionally useful for quickly finding what you need; however, in addition to being a searching feature, you can use Spotlight to quickly run a simply mathematic calculation. Just open Spotlight, and then type a calculation such as “2*(3+sin(2*pi))^4” and you will see the result displayed. You can then press Command-C with the result highlighted to copy it, so you can quickly paste it into another application.

Calculations in Spotlight

Typing a calculation into Spotlight will show its result, which you can then copy and paste.

Word Definitions and Suggestions

In many applications, when typing words you can look up possible words based on the characters you have just typed, by simply pressing the Escape key. Try typing “as” in a program like TextEdit, followed by tapping Escape, and you will see a drop-down menu of possible word completions. In addition, if you ever need to look up a word, you can right-click it and choose “look up WORD” from the contextual menu, or hover your mouse cursor over it and tap with three fingers on an Apple multi-touch trackpad.

Word definition lookup in OS X

You can right-click a word or tap it with three fingers to look up its definition.

3 thoughts on “Four useful hidden features of OS X that everyone could use

  1. Tom

    For dictionary definitions (for those of us without ‘magic’ trackpads) you can just Command+Ctrl+D when you hover over a word to get the same dictionary/Wikipedia drop down. I find it much faster than using the contextual menu…

  2. Julia

    I didn’t know about the zoom feature. Thanks for that!

    The dictionary lookup feature I had read about before. But it doesn’t work in my Firefox browser (or any other non-Apple application?) which renders it a lot less useful. So I forgot about it. I will forget about it again. In some ways Apple is its own worst enemy.

    1. Gary

      No, it’s not just Apple’s own apps. It’s pretty much any app that uses the standard libraries that Apple provides to the developer community. I reckon that will account for the majority of apps in common use today.

      Apps like Firefox are developed as a cross-platform endeavour and the developers have produced their own equivalent code which provides the same functionality across every platform for which Firefox is available. Consequently, apps like that don’t support some of Apple’s core technologies.

      Slightly perversely, in the Microsoft Office 2011 suite, Word doesn’t support the three-finger dictionary tap, but Outlook does – go figure. 🙂

Comments are closed.