macOS & Poor Vision: How do I Use it?

I already explained how I configure the iPad to turn it into this neat ultra-portable device that I use with no problem despite my bad eyesight. Now, it’s the Mac’s turn as, by default, every text and menu are way too small and not contrasted enough for me.

Matte screen protector

Like with the iPad, the first thing I do on any new machine that comes with a glossy screen–a.k.a. any new Mac save the mini–is to apply a matte screen protector over the damn mirr–sorry–over the glossy screen.

Of course, like with the iPad, there is a slight loss in sharpness but I don’t mind it, and it’s not like I have much choice anyway.

Plus, I should add that I don’t use my laptop’s screen that often since I mostly use it as a desktop replacement, in clamshell mode and hooked to an external display. Which is matte, btw. It’s 24” Dell with a 1920×1200 resolution: not a high-end display, but I could put a lamp right in front of this thing without being disturbed at all. I love it.

Dark Mode

There is no way around this for me, as I can barely look at light/white UI: it’s blinding, and it hurts.

If you don’t run macOS Mojave or a more recent version, there is no Dark mode but you can fall back on the good old Invert colours, see at the end of this post.

You turn Dark mode on and off in the System Preferences->General.

Pro tip: if you often switch your theme, install NightOwl. It puts a little owl icon in your menu bar that lets you quickly switch mode by right-clicking it or with a keyboard shortcut:

I like it when I have to deal with those apps that still do not play nice with Dark mode–looking at you, Pages–for which I switch macOS to Light mode and then use Invert colours to turn everything black. But more on that later.

Reduce transparency and increase contrast

In System Preferences-> Accessibility-> Display, I check Increase contrast. This will also activate Reduce transparency, just below it.

I would like to have a darker UI but I can’t use the Display Contrast slider because, like its name suggests, it affects the whole display, including pictures and video which I don’t want to change.

A bigger Cursor

In the same window, I use the Cursor size slider to make the cursor bigger.

As you can see in the previous screenshot, I need not make mine that much bigger to see it well, but it’s enough to make a difference. What would be even better is if we could change the cursor’s color–like it’s now possible to do under Windows 10.

Bigger icons and texts in sidebars

Be it in Mail, the Finder or in any app that uses Apple most recent APIs, you can have bigger icons in your sidebars.

Go in System Preferences->General and change Sidebar icon Size to Large.

Bigger icons and texts in the Finder

Open a new Finder window and Cmd+J to access its settings.

Set Text Size to what you want (I set mine to 16, which is the max), and click Use as Defaults at the bottom of this window to use these settings with any new window.

Don’t forget to change the size of your icons and their spacing. That’s for the Icon view. For windows where you use List view you must to do a similar change using somewhat bigger icons and up to 16 for the text size–I’ve no idea why we can’t have bigger text.

MacOS will sometimes ignore my new settings, so I do them over again. And again. And again. Until it finally clicks for good.

Change screen resolution

OK, it’s not the most subtle way to make macOS more readable, but it works: lowering the screen resolution will make its content appears bigger–yeah!.

Alas, using LCD displays, it will also reduce its sharpness–booh!. But t doesn’t matter to me as I’d rather have a less sharp but readable content, than a razor-sharp but unreadable content.

The Mac comes with a bunch of pre-defined resolutions you can select in System Preferences→Display. Check Scaled to unlock them and see which one are available as they will vary depending on your Mac and its display(s).

On a laptop, or on any Mac using its integrated display, you’ll see pretty little icons like these, with no value indicated/ Move over any of the icon to see its actual value under the miniature of your Mac.

If you use an external display, you’ll probably get a simple list with no pretty icons. Here again, the actual values will be different depending on your display:

That’s great save for the fact that with my external display, not counting its default native 1920×1200 resolution, Apple only provides two usable resolutions. The two smaller (1280×800 & 1024×640), and they are too small to my taste (the other two resolution are not 16:10 and they make everything look slightly distorted on screen).

So, I created my own resolutions.

Custom resolutions, with SwitchResX

SwitchResX is a 14€ shareware that will let you quickly change resolution, color modes, screen orientation and many, many other things I’m not even sure to understand. What mattered to me was that it also lets you create custom resolutions. (It’s no magical wand, though: you won’t be able to turn your 1080p into a 4K, one, it can only go up to what your display is capable of. But it can go below.

It’s somewhat tricky to add a custom resolution, so I’ll talk about that in a dedicated blog post,[update: the how-to is available] but it’s not complicated at all and it’s working great, at least for me.

Now, next to default 1920×1200 resolution that I will use when editing photos, I have 1536×960 and 1680×1050 resolutions. 960 being the one I use when I can’t see that well–which is most of the time.

You might say there is not much difference between my 960 resolution and the 800 one provided by Apple. Sure, it doesn’t sound like much, but it is around 20% more screen real estate to display actual content. (If you’re curious, the difference between 800 and 1050 is ~30% or, to compare it with the default 1200 resolution, it’s merely ~13% less of screen real estate in exchange of a much more readable UI, imo).

To give you an idea, here is a comparison of the menu bar on my display, at 1200/960/800:

At 800 pixels, I have not enough room to display all the icons in the menu bar.
At 800 pixels, I have not enough room to display all the icons in the menu bar.

Another great feature of SwitchResX is how quickly it lets you switch resolution. Something I do all day long, as my eyesight can change a lot: they’re always one click away in the menu bar:

By default, you will have many more resolutions listed in this menu, and many other options too. I removed everything I don’t use.

Also, SwitchResX will easily manage as many screens as you connect to your Mac, and change their resolution independently.

The Zoom

I don’t have to use it that often since the last couple months–thx to the great job the doctors are doing on my eyes–but back then I used it a lot.

It’s hidden in System Preferences->Accessibility->Zoom.

Once activated, you turn it on and off using Alt+Cmd+!–which is not Ctrl+Alt+Cmd+! that inverts colors.

You can also use the trackpad or the scroll wheel of your mouse. To do that, activate Use scroll gesture with modifier keys to zoom, and define a modifier key.

Click the Options… button, next to Zoom style at the bottom of the window, to access other settings.

Invert colours

You don’t have Mojave or a more recent version of macOS?

Or you have apps that do not support dark mode?

Try Invert colours. This is what I used before Apple introduced dark mode. And I still use it when confronted to such an app. Like Pages, that do come with a dark mode save for the page itself, which for some odd reason someone at Apple seems to think it must stay white.

So, how do you do when you have to use Pages–Microsoft Word offers a much better experience in that regard if you need to use a traditional word processor, and there are many great text editors and writing environments, apps like Ulysses or Drafts, that fully support Dark mode and do not for ce the ‘page’ down your throat… once again that includes Microsoft Word which is really much better nowadays than it was say 10 years ago. But we were talking about Pages.

First, you need to activate the Invert colours either by going to System Preferences→Accessibility→Display section. Or by using its optional keyboard shortcut Ctrl+Alt+Cmd+8 (not the num. pad 8, the “!” on an azerty keyboard). But you must first activate this shortcut:

  1. Go in System->Preferences->Keyboard.
  2. Click the Shortcuts tab.
  3. In the left column, select Accessibility, and check Invert colours. To change the default shortcut, click on it.

Like the name suggests, Invert colours invert all colours on your screen, turning whites in blacks, reds in blues, and so on everywhere on the screen, including in images and videos. It’s not that subtle–much less so when compared to iOS’ much clever Smart Invert Colours that do not touch images–but it gets the job done.

The problem I have is that when I turn Invert Colours on, suddenly all my dark windows turn to something light. Which is not helping me a lot 😉

My solution is two folds:

  1. I use a keyboard shortcut to quickly switch macOS to light mode (thanks to NightOwl). Now, everything on screen is light including, say Pages: not only its page but also its menus.
  2. I press Ctrl+Alt+Cmd+8 to activate Invert colours. Now, everything is black with white text including the page in Pages.
  3. Rinse and repeat the other way around, as soon as I don’t need to use the recalcitrant app.

It’s not pretty but it works, and it’s fast: in a couple keystrokes, without even having to look at the screen, all my windows are black. And I can as easily switch back to normal using the same two keyboard shortcuts.

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