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Help with OS X's Help

Kirk McElhearn | Aug. 22, 2013
Everyone needs a helping hand from time to time. Kirk McElhearn shows you how to get the most out of OS X's Help system, plus some tricks for making it behave.

No matter how proficient you are with OS X and the apps you use, there will still be moments when you need a helping hand. The quickest way to find out how to accomplish a task is to get help; the kind that's included with OS X. Using OS X Help is easy, but there are some tricks that will help you use it more efficiently.

You've certainly noticed the Help menu everywhere in OS X: it's the rightmost menu in every app. The menu that displays when you click on Help may vary from a simple menu with a search field and a menu item to provide help for the current app, to a menu with links to a developer's website, support page, user forums, manual and much more.

But let's start with the simplest Help menu: the one you see when the Finder is active.

As you can see in the screenshot above, clicking the Help menu brings up a menu with a Search field, not unlike the Spotlight menu. Below that field, you see a menu item for Help Center, the OS X Help system. You can also see that the Command-? shortcut—more accurately, it's Command-Shift-/ (forward slash)—brings up Help Center, and this is the case with all apps that have help.)

Before delving into Help Center, let's look at what that search field does. Let's say you want to find out about Finder labels; type label into the field, and watch as the menu populates with two types of items.

The first are the various menu items in Finder menus containing the word "label." Hover over one of them and the menu item you've selected will display, with a big blue arrow pointing to it. This help system will lead you to a menu item even if it is buried in sub-menus, as you can see in the screenshot below. In fact, this is the best way to find a menu item when you know it's in a sub-menu, but can't remember which one.

Help on the Way
The second section in the Help menu, labeled Help Topics, is a gateway to Apple's Help Center app. Select one of them, and Help Center will open with that topic selected. (Note that you may need Internet access to view help topics. Those you've already viewed, and some others, may be cached on your Mac, but Help Center relies on documentation stored on Apple's servers for OS X and its apps.)

Navigating the Help Center window is simple. When you see a topic, as in the screenshot above, you'll often have several sub-topics. Click Show next to one of them to see a more complete explanation. Related Topics may be listed toward the bottom of the window. You can search for anything in the Search Help field. If you click the Help home button (with the house, near the top-left of the window), you'll be taken to the landing page for OS X help.


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