How to find the settings you want in the Mac’s System Preferences

There are 30 items in the Mac’s System Preferences app, and behind each item are several menus, options, and check-boxes. Here’s how you find the one you want, using System Preferences’ built-in Search feature.

The problem: too many preferences!

macOS System Preferences, showing all preference panes
System Preferences, showing 30 preference panes

Look at all those icons! And some of the names aren’t all that descriptive. It makes finding the setting you want a little bit of a needle-in-a-haystack thing.

Note: officially, each item in System Preferences is referred to as a “Preference Pane.”

The solution: use the Search feature

Don’t just poke around, opening one Preference Pane after the other. Instead, let the Mac help you find things by using the Search feature. Just type something into the Search box at the upper right of the System Preference and see what the Mac highlights for you.

Searching for Scroll Bar settings.
On the left: searching for “scroll bar.” On the right: after clicking “General” — there are the scroll bar controls.

You can click the preference pane that’s highlighted (the brighter it is, the more the Mac thinks it’s the one you want), or you can click items in the menu that drops down from the search box. Either way, you’re transported to a preference pane that hopefully has what you want.

You don’t even have to use the exact words that Apple uses. For example, someone coming from the Windows world would want to know how to change the “wallpaper” on her Mac, and could search for that… and the Mac is smart enough to match “wallpaper” with “desktop picture.”

Searching for wallpaper controls on a Mac
On the left: searching for “wallpaper.” On the right: after clicking the highlighted Desktop & Screen Saver preference pane

Here I’ve searched for “speakers” and found all sorts of interesting related items.

Searching for "speakers" in the System Preferences.
On the left: searching for “speakers.” On the right: after clicking the highlighted Sound preference pane.

Here I’ve searched for “voice control” and found those options are in the Accessibility preference pane.

Searching for voice control in System Preferences
On the left: searching for “voice control.” On the right: the Voice Control settings, after clicking the highlighted Accessibility preference pane

Sometimes the setting you want isn’t where you’d expect it to be. For example, in older Mac systems (10.14 and older) we had an iCloud preference pane. In Catalina, we don’t. iCloud is still a big deal in Catalina, so, if you’re using Catalina, where do you find the iCloud settings?

Looking for iCloud settings
On the left: Mojave’s System Preferences, showing the iCloud preference pane. On the right: Catalina’s System Preferences– where’s iCloud?

Well let’s just search…

Searching for iCloud settings in Catalina
On the left: searching for iCloud. On the right: after clicking the highlighted Apple ID preference pane

(I don’t like that the menu covers up the highlighted Apple ID preference pane icon– that’s bad.)

In conclusion

Let the Search box help you out. It helps you find what you’re looking for, and it reveals other settings that you might not have known existed. And it’s much, much faster than clicking all over the place trying to find things.

Nice touch: System Preferences reverts to showing all preference panes as soon as you type in the Search box. So you don’t have to manually click the “All preference panes” button first. Try it and see!

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