Mini Tutorial: Open up! (When documents won't open)

Mini Tutorial: Open up! (When documents won't open)

Ted Landau

One of the most basic and common tasks for all Mac users is to open a document. In most cases, what you need to do barely requires explanation. You simply locate the document in the Finder and double-click it. The needed application, if not already open, launches and the document opens with it. End of story. Could there possibly be a need to write a tutorial on such a mundane subject?

Well, yes. For at least two reasons.

First, Mac OS X provides a rich array of alternative ways to open documents. Each way either best suits a particular situation or a particular user's personal preference. It pays to learn what best suits you.

Second, there will be times when a document will resist opening correctly via the standard methods. Knowing the alternatives then becomes critical. For example, what if you double-click a PDF document and it launches Acrobat when you wanted it to open in Preview? Or what if a saved Web page launches in Explorer when you wanted it to open in Safari? Or what if no application launches at all ? and you instead get a message that says that Mac OS X could not find an application to open it?

In this article, we?ll explore what you can do when these problems pop up.

But before we even get started, here's a quick tip: If a "wrong" application ever starts to launch, and is taking a long time to finish, you can instantly quit it by click-holding on its bouncing icon in the Dock. The Dock menu will appear and one choice will be Force Quit. Select it. Now you can get back to opening your document in the "right" application.

If a double-click of any document does not open what you want, here's what to try next:

Drag the document to the application icon

Okay. Most Mac users know this one. When in the Finder, just drag the document icon to the desired application icon (in a Finder window or even in the Dock). If the application is one that works with the type of document you selected, the application's icon should highlight (turn darker in color). At this point, let go of the mouse and the document will launch in that application.

Use the application's Open dialog

If the Finder is giving you problems, the usual solution is to select the document directly from the desired application. To do so, launch the application and select its Open command (from the File menu). From the dialog that appears, navigate to the folder that contains the document, select the document and click the Open button. You're done.

Figure 1: An Open dialog

One downside to the Open command is that it may take a bit of effort to navigate to the exact folder where the document is located. Here are a few tips to speed up your search:

  • Use the Open dialog's sidebar. If the folder you want to reach is listed in the sidebar, just click it and you are instantly transported there.

  • Use keyboard shortcuts. Several of the keyboard shortcuts in the Finder?s Go menu also work in Open dialogs. For example, Command-Shift-H takes you to your Home directory. Command-Shift-G is a bit special. It results in the appearance of a Go to Folder dialog. To use it, type the path to any folder, click the Go button, and you are taken there. Note: You need to know UNIX conventions to use this option effectively. For example, ~ stands for your Home directory and forward slashes are used to separate folders. Thus, to go to the Preferences folder in your Home Library, you would type: ~/Library/Preferences. The Go To Folder option is especially useful to navigate to invisible folders (such as UNIX directories). For example, to go to the var directory, type: /var.

  • Drag any folder icon from the Finder onto an Open dialog; the dialog's folder listing instantly relocates to that folder.

  • Type any letter on the keyboard, and the highlighted file name in the Open dialog instantly shifts to the first file in the currently selected folder that begins with that letter.

  • Use Default Folder, a third-party utility. To make navigating Open dialogs even easier, get Default Folder. Among other things, it remembers the last folder you accessed from each application and automatically returns to it the next time you select Open from that application.

Use Open With

This option is convenient when you don't want to bother locating the needed application on your drive. For example, if you have a PDF document that opens in Acrobat by default, you could use this option to easily get the document to open in Preview instead - without having to locate Preview. The option is also valuable when you want to make permanent changes to how a document opens (so that, for example, the next time you try to open the PDF document, double-clicking launches Preview by default). There are three main ways to access the Open With command.

Finder?s File menu. The File menu contains a command called Open With. To use it, first select the document you want to open, then click-hold the Open With command. A hierarchical menu will appear. At the top of the list will be the default application. This is the one that would launch if you just double-clicked the document. Below that name is a list of all other applications that the Mac believes can legitimately open the document. To open the document in one of those applications, just select it.

What about, in the rare case, where the application you want to use is not listed anywhere in the menu? That?s when you select the bottom item in the list: Other?. This brings up a Choose Application dialog similar to an Open dialog, except it lets you choose applications rather than documents. Navigate to the location where the application you want use resides and select it.

In the most rare cases of all, you may find that the desired application's name is dimmed and cannot be selected. Why would this happen? Because Mac OS X believes that the application is incapable of correctly opening the document. If you believe your Mac is misinformed, and want to force the document to open with the application anyway, you can do so. From the Enabled pop-up menu at the top of the dialog, select All Applications rather than Recommended Applications. The dimmed applications will still be dimmed, but you can now select them.

Figure 2: The Choose Application dialog accessed from the Open With command

One word of caution: Just because this option allows you to open a given document with a specific application, doesn't mean all will go well. If, in fact, the application has no idea what to make of the document, you won't get the result you wanted. Instead, the application will either not open the document at all or open it but not display the expected contents (you'll probably get hieroglyphic-like text). In rarer cases, the application may crash.

But what if all goes well? You still have a decision to make -- assuming you ever intend to open this document again. Do you want to have to go through this procedure each time? Or would you rather be able to open the document next time via a simple double-click? If the latter is your preference, take another look at the Choose Application dialog. In the lower left corner is a checkbox labeled: Always Open With. If you enable this, whatever application you select is now permanently linked to the document. Now, the next time you double-click the document in the Finder, it will launch your newly selected application.

Actually, there is a more convenient ?secret? way to select Always Open With: When you first go to the Finder's File menu, hold down the Option key. You?ll see that the Open With command changes to Always Open With. Now, any application you select in the hierarchical menu will become the new default for that document; no need to use the Other selection.

Contextual menu. Do you find it a bother to go to the File menu to select Open With? If so, you may prefer to access the command from a contextual menu instead. Happily, Mac OS X is ready to oblige. Simply press and hold down the Control key while you click-hold the document icon. This will bring up a contextual menu for that document. You?ll see the Open With command near the top. You can even switch from the Control key to the Option key at this point, to get Open With to switch to Always Open With. Using these commands work exactly the same way as for the File menu Open With commands just described.

Get Info. Finally, suppose you want to change the way all documents of the same type open. Continuing our PDF example, you might want all PDF documents to open in Preview, not just the one document that is currently giving you problems. Mac OS X comes to the rescue here yet again. To make this sort of change, first select the initial problem document and open its Info window: select Get Info (Command-I) from the Finder's File menu or from the document's contextual menu.

Figure 3: The Open With section of an Info window

Next, from the window that appears, go to the Open With section and click the disclosure triangle (if not already opened). The pop-up menu here should list the application that currently is used to open the document. [Note: If it is the default application, the word default will appear in parentheses next to the name.] If the listed application is not the one you want, or if no application is listed, you can select a new one from the menu. This is pretty much the same thing as using the Always Open With command, as accessed from the File menu or contextual menus. What's different here is that the Info window offers two options not available anywhere else:

  • Most important, you can change the default application. This means that any similar documents currently on your drive, as well as any new ones that are created or downloaded in the future, will automatically be assigned the newly selected application as the default. To make this change, select the desired application from the pop-up menu. This lights up the Change All button. Click this button. A dialog appears informing you that all documents of this type (e.g., all that end in .pdf) will now be opened in the newly selected application by default. Click the Continue button to complete the change.

  • Second, you can make batch changes. To do this, highlight any number of documents and select Get Info. Now, any change you make in Open With will simultaneously affect all selected files.

When a double-click fails

Occasionally, when you double-click a document icon, no application will launch. Instead, you get a message such as the one in Figure 4. If you know what application you want to use, click the Choose Application button. This takes you to the same Choose Application dialog mentioned above (see Figure 2). Proceed in the same way. However, this message most often means that you do not have the application needed to open the particular type of document. This could happen, for example, if you download a file from the Web that requires a specific media player other than QuickTime -- and that media player is not on your drive. In such cases, the solution is to get the needed application. The Web page from where you obtained the file should help you figure out what application to get.

Figure 4: The message that appears when the Finder fails to link an application to a document

Is that all there is?

Are there other ways that you can modify what application opens with a document? Does the sun rise in the east? Yes, of course there are other techniques. However, these methods are less commonly needed and are too advanced to cover in this tutorial. They include such things as (a) changing a document's file name extension; (b) directly modifying a file's Type and Creator codes via third party utilities such as FileXaminer; (c) using a utility such as Default Apps to modify the Mac OS X database that stores what applications open with what documents; and (d) deleting Mac OS X's Launch Services database altogether (this would be recommended if many of the documents on your drive suddenly appeared with the wrong icon and/or opened the in wrong application). Perhaps, if I get requests, I could cover these techniques in a future tutorial. For now, what we have already covered should be sufficient to solve almost all of your "opening" hassles.

This is the first in a series of tutorials (to be published about 8 times a year) by Ted Landau. To see a list of previous columns and tutorials, click here. To send comments regarding this article directly to Ted, click here. To get Ted's latest book, Mac OS X Help Line, click here.

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