9 MacBook Pro tips everyone needs to know

The MacBook Pro 2021 (14-inch)
(Image credit: Henry T. Casey)

Update: If you bought a MacBook Pro between 2016 and 2019, you may be eligible for part of this $50 million settlement.

I just got a new 14-inch MacBook Pro, and — since the supply chain delays meant I waited more than a month from purchase to delivery — I've had a lot of time to think about how I'd customize it. I've even started thinking about all the stickers I'm going to affix on its lid. But that's a topic for another day.

This piece is going to break down the first nine things to do when you set up a new MacBook Pro. These tips will also come in handy even if you've owned your MacBook Pro for a while. The system preferences to consider changing, the apps you need to download and various other things I've learned reviewing Macs for the last 5 or so years, and using them since started with the original Bondi Blue iMac back in 1999.

Oh, and most of these recommendations also apply to older MacBooks Pros and the MacBook Air. So, no matter which of the best MacBooks you just got (I'm envious of all the new 16-inch MacBook Pro 2021 owners), I've got good ideas. Because, to paraphrase Pedro Pascal in Wonder Woman 1984: your MacBook Pro is good, but it can be better.

Also, a bonus piece of advice: you may need this app if you want to live stream on your Mac.

1. Start anew (if you can)

a brand new desktop on a MacBook Pro

(Image credit: Apple)

Your mileage may vary on this. If you have a very particular set of customizations that you love and need, stick with Migration Assistant or the backup tool of your choice (I prefer SuperDuper!). But, personally, I gotta give a heads up about how much simpler this method is. 

When I got my new 14-inch MacBook Pro 2021 in December 2021, I simply migrated files over. For the sake of a cleaner setup, with less cruft and saving space, I just was judicious about what I needed and what i didn't need. 

The only problem, obviously, is that this sends me down a big path of changing my favorite settings back to my normal. Which is what inspired me to write this story.

2. Find the right screen scale for you

Display settings on a MacBook Pro

(Image credit: Apple)

So, this may be something that takes some trial and error, but macOS' default screen scaling (aka resolution) isn't for all. Open System Preferences (Click the Apple icon in the top left corner of your screen, and then select System Preferences) and click Displays. 

Under Resolution, select Scaled. You can now adjust from having larger text or more space on your screen. Try 'em all, see what you like. Currently, I'm sticking with Default, but I keep considering More Space.

Then, there are two other settings that I always turn off. I'm the type who wants full control over my screen, so I disable "Automatically adjust brightness," because I don't need macOS fiddling with my brightness level based on my ambient lighting (I do love the similar feature in the Kindle Paperwhite Signature Edition and the Kindle Oasis, but that's a whole different story).

I also turn off True Tone, another of Apple's tools that changes your display due to ambient lighting. It tries to find the true white balance for you, and I often find it becoming more yellowed than I like. That's the last thing I need when I'm editing photos and video on my MacBook Pro.

To help manage your display full of windows, check out the one Mac app I can't go without.

3. Un-break Apple's default scrolling

The Trackpad settings on a MacBook Pro

(Image credit: Apple)

In System Preferences, tap Trackpad. There are three default settings in this section that I know people love to change. Personally, I tap Scroll & Zoom and turn off the Scroll direction: Natural setting. This is a setting that was inspired by the iPhone, but inverted the Mac's default scrolling direction. I'm old enough to prefer it the other way, and stubborn enough to dislike change (also, there is no benefit to either direction), and don't want to get used to it. 

The other settings you may want to change are under Point & Click. Some people turn on Tap to click option, to avoid having to do a more forceful press when clicking something. I just think it leads to a lot of accidental clicking (so I keep it disabled). Friends have also told me they think the Mac's Tracking speed — how fast the cursor moves — is too slow, and that can be adjusted by moving the Tracking speed needle to the right, closer to fast.

4. Supercharge the corners of your screen

Hot Corners settings on a MacBook Pro

(Image credit: Apple)

I don't know where I'd be without macOS' Hot Corners (probably using a third-party app to do the same thing). Hot Corners is a macOS function that activates a command or feature when you move your cursor to one of the corners of your screen.

By default, the Mac only uses one of the four Hot Corners — and it uses it for a feature you may 1) not know about and 2) not care about. That's QuickNote, where you can keep a running note document that's tied to specific websites or apps, by hovering your cursor in the bottom right corner.

On the Mac, I'm less in need of QuickNote (Drafts is right there in the dock, always ready for me to capture a new idea), but I haven't turned that off yet. Instead, I activate the top left corner for the Mission Control option. Mission Control shows all your open (and un-hidden) windows on each of your screens, and it's often how I find things in a sea of too many windows.

Other Hot Corners options include Desktop (temporarily hiding everything on your screen to show your desktop) and Put Display to Sleep (which may be a little much for something you could accidentally activate).

5. The Dark Mode decision

Display modes on a MacBook Pro

(Image credit: Apple)

Even though you may have chosen one option in the initial system setup, let's talk about the three display modes you get under System Preferences > General

Here, you can pick Light, Dark and Auto. Personally, I'd go with Auto. I like both light mode and dark mode, preferring the former as I wake up (I associate dark mode with night time) and want the latter at night when I'm not trying to blast my eyes with all the white light of the MacBook Pro 14's very bright panel. 

Your preference may lead you to a different call, but this is where you make that decision.

Be sure to read our guide on how to clean a MacBook screen to keep it looking its best.

6. Customize the Finder

The Finder Preferences on my MacBook Pro

(Image credit: Apple)

While using Finder, hit Command + , (comma) to open up the Finder Preferences. This screen can be so important that I'm still thinking it should be in System Preferences (but I digress).

First, under General, you may want to click the button next to Hard disks, so that your laptop hard drive is a visible on the desktop. I usually would do this, but I haven't yet (not sure why not). Then I change the New Finder window option, which defaults to Recents, a sorting of recent files on your Mac that has never suited me. 

Next, tap Sidebar at the top of Finder Preferences. A lot of these options were unchecked by default for me, and that was no good. I made sure Music and Pictures were visible, and you may want your Laptop view — which has all connected drives, plus your laptop internal drive and network — to be visible as well.

Lastly, under Advanced, I turn on both of the "Keep folders on top" options. Now, both in Finder windows and the desktop, under many (but not all) sorting options, your file folders will be separate from 

7. Install this password manager

The 1Password app on a Mac

(Image credit: AgileBits)

I'm not trying to be your parent, but you're using a password manager for unique and complex passwords right? You're not recycling the same easy to guess combination of your pet's name and your birthday, right? 

And since you're using a Mac, you're like me, and using 1Password, the Tom's Guide pick for best password manager for Mac and iOS users. Because 1Password is pretty much the first new app I ever install, because it's the app that helps me log into all my other apps.

If you're not, it's a great time to start.

8. Now, onto the apps

All of the apps on my MacBook Pro

(Image credit: Apple)

You probably have a lot of apps you already love, but let me break down the ones I'm using. Drafts is a must-have for me, as it's a giant hyper-functional notepad that syncs across all of my devices. Whenever you open it, it jumps right to a fresh new blank document. 

Then, I install my podcast app (or podcatcher if you're fancy) of choice: Overcast (an iOS app that's been ported to the Mac). It's just more well-designed and fully-featured than Apple's default podcast app, with audio tricks to raise voice volume when needed and smart speed for taking out long pauses.

When it comes to general productivity, I'm using Fantastical for a better Calendar app (Apple's catching up but not there yet) and Todoist and Due for planning and reminders.

Setapp on a MacBook Pro

(Image credit: Apple/Setapp)

Due, I should note, is also available in the amazing Setapp, which I've been testing since it first debuted. It's a subscription service that packs a ton of well-designed and powerful Mac apps (and their iPhone and iPad versions) into one monthly fee. Those apps include the lovely Bartender for managing the menu bar icons — a new priority thanks to the notch in the 2021 MacBook Pros. Setapp even has the beloved Downie, a fantastic utility for downloading YouTube videos.

I'm also using Deliveries to track my packages and shipments, because I'm 1) still working from home and 2) living a life of online retail therapy.

Amphetamine is a favorite of mine when I want to make sure my MacBook's screen doesn't turn off. I also love Jettison, which makes sure your external drives eject when you sleep your system. 

You may notice I didn't mention Google Chrome. That's because I don't think it's necessary, and I advise against it. You can make do with Safari, probably. Or you'll learn you need Chrome. But that decision can wait.

9. Get your Apple Pay and security right

Save yourself from the mistake I made. In System Preferences, open up Wallet & Apple Pay. If you're using Apple Pay, and already added multiple cards, double-check the menu on the left to make sure that the right card is set as your default. This can be an annoying thing you don't want to deal with later.

Then, open Touch ID to set up more than just one finger. You want to be able to unlock your Mac without thinking about which finger to use, right?

And one last thing. If you use an Apple Watch, in System Preferences, open Security & Privacy and turn "Use your Apple Watch to unlock apps and your Mac." This hasn't been a 100% perfect feature to me, because I often use my Mac from a slight distance, surrounded by other tech, but this is a wonderful feature.

Next: Here's how to install Rosetta on Mac so you can run apps created for Intel chips on computers with Apple Silicon inside. If you are looking at speeding up your Mac, we have some simple tips in our guide on how to speed up your Mac.

Henry T. Casey
Managing Editor (Entertainment, Streaming)

Henry is a managing editor at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and all things Apple, reviewing devices and services for the past seven years. Prior to joining Tom's Guide, he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. He's also covered the wild world of professional wrestling for Cageside Seats, interviewing athletes and other industry veterans.