Tutorial: Getting into Login Items: Part 1

Tutorial: Getting into Login Items: Part 1


Ted Landau
August 2005

If you've never used Login Items, it's time to give them a whirl. They are among the most convenient shortcuts in Mac OS X. Actually, even if you have never created a Login Item, you may be using them anyway, as a result of applications that automatically add themselves to your list without exactly telling you.

And for those already familiar with Login Items, there may still be some tips and tricks of which you are unaware.

In this two-part tutorial (concluding next month), we explore all about Login Items. Using a Q&A format, I'll explain what Login Items are, how they work, and how to get the most use out of them.

Note: Exactly how to access your Login Items has varied as Mac OS X has evolved from 10.0 to 10.4. Unless otherwise specified, this article assumes you are using Tiger (Mac OS X 10.4).

Q. What is a Login Item ?

A Login Item is simply a file that has been added to a Login Items list. All files on the list automatically launch whenever you log in to your account. That is, they launch just after the point where you enter your password and click the "Log in" button. If you have selected to automatically login, they similarly launch just after you would have otherwise clicked the "Log in" button.

If you log out of your account, and re-log in, the items in your Login Items list are launched again?even if you are not doing a full restart of your Mac.

If there are multiple user accounts on your Mac, each user maintains their own Login Items list. So what launches when you log in is not necessarily what launches when some one else logs in.

Login Items are not usually files that specifically require to be launched at login to work. They can be ordinary applications or documents that could be launched at any other time as well. If an item is a document, it will open via its default application. You can even select a folder as a Login Item, although all this does is have the folder window open in the Finder.

Login Items have always been a part of Mac OS X. However, Apple changed their name to Startup Items in Panther. This was an annoying source of confusion, as there was an entirely different category of file also called Startup Items. Happily, in Tiger, Apple reverted to calling them Login Items again.

Q. Why would I want to add a file to my Login Items list?

Mainly for convenience and saving time. Here are three common more specific reasons to use Login Items:

  • Launch applications at login that you always want running. These are typically utilities that modify the way Mac OS X works. For example, on my Mac, Default Folder X (a utility that adds options to Open and Save dialog boxes) and Snapz Pro X (an alternative to Mac OS X?s built-in screen capture commands) are among the files that I have on my Login Items list.

  • Run a script that you want to execute each time you log in. You may have created an Automator workflow, AppleScript file or Unix shell script to perform some action that you would like run each time you login (perhaps something as simple as executing the Finder?s Empty Trash command, just to make sure it is periodically emptied). Adding an self-executable version of the file (such as an AppleScript applet or an Automator application) to the Login Items list is all you need to do to make sure the task is carried out as desired.

  • Automatically open a set of files that you are currently working on. Suppose you are using Keynote to create a presentation. In addition, you are using Excel to create charts to be included as part of the presentation, as well as iPhoto for pictures to be added. Until your presentation is done, you want all three applications, plus the relevant documents, to open automatically each time you log in. That way, you are ready for action as soon as login is over. After adding the needed files to your Login Items list, you can get a cup of coffee while everything is taken care of for you.

Q. How do I check to see what Login Items I currently have on my list?

Launch System Preferences and click to open the Accounts System Preference pane. From the row of tab buttons, select Login Items.

This will bring up a list of items preceded by the text: "These items will automatically open when you log in." That's your Login Items list. If nothing is in the list, you have no Login Items at the moment.

Note: You can only access the Login Items list for the currently logged-in account (presumably your own account). If you click the name of any other user in the left-side column of the Accounts pane, even if you are an administrator, Login Items will vanish from the selections in the tab bar.

{Figure 1: A Login Items list}

Q. How do I add an item to the Login Items list?

There are at least 3 ways to manually add a new Login Item to the list:

  • Add it from the Login Items window. From the Login Items window in the Accounts pane, click the Add ( ) button at the bottom of the window. An Add sheet will drop down. Navigate to the file you want to select and click the Add button.

    Alternatively, you can simply drag a file's icon from its Finder window to the Login Items list.

  • Add it from the Dock. If the item is currently in the Dock, click-hold the icon to bring up its Dock menu. One of the items in the menu will be Open at Login. Select it.

  • Add it from the software's Preferences options. Some programs include an option to add themselves (or some related software) to the Login Items list. For example, if you want Default Folder X to run at login, just select the " Enable at Login" option from its System Preferences pane window.

    In some cases, a similar option may appear only when you first install the application.

{Figure 2: The Open at Login command in an application' s Dock menu}

Q. Each item in the Login Items list has a Hide checkbox in front of its name. What happens if I check it?

Not much. All this does is ensure that, after the application launches, it remains " hidden" ? in the same way that an application is hidden if you select " Hide {name of application}" from the program?s application menu (such as " Hide Finder" from the Finder menu). This " hides" the program?s open windows from view, reducing screen clutter (although the windows remain open and will reappear when you " unhide " the application).

If a Login Item is not something that normally appears in the Dock (and thus does not have any user-accessible menus or windows), enabling its Hide option should have no discernible effect.

Q. I have never added any items to the Login Items list. Yet there are items listed there. Why and how did they get there?

As I indicated at the top of this article, some applications may automatically add themselves (or some related component software) to the Login Items list, either when your install the software or when you select a Preferences options. The application may even do this without telling you?although it is poor etiquette to do so. Preferably, you should always be given the option to add or not add a Login Item, or at least be informed that the addition is taking place.

As to why these items get added in the first place, it is generally because the given program requires that the listed item be always running in the background for some aspect of the program to work. For example, a calendar program may need a Login Item listing to activate a background process for reminding you of upcoming appointments even when the main program is not open.

Q. Some of the items in my Login Items list have names that I do not recognize. Even when I search for them with Spotlight, they are not found. What are they and where are they located?

These are almost always items that have been placed on the list " automatically" by an application or System Preferences pane, as just described. The reason you can?t find them is that they are contained within the software's " package." That is, most Mac OS X applications (and all System Preferences panes), as seen from the Finder, are really a special type of folder called a package. To access the contents of these package folders, you can use the Show Package Contents contextual menu item. The file listed in the Login Items will typically be found inside, most often in a subfolder called Resources.

For example, the iTunes package (actually named iTunes.app), in addition to housing the iTunes application, contains a related application called iTunesHelper. Its full path is: /Applications/iTunes.app/Contents/Resources/iTunesHelper.app. This file is added to the Login Items list the first time you launch iTunes.

Similarly, the Default Folder X System Preferences pane is a package that contains an application called Default Folder X BG. The application gets installed as a Login Item when you select Default Folder?s " Enable at Login" option. This application is what makes sure Default Folder X is already running when you log in.

One way to find exactly where these items are located is to place the cursor over the name of the item in the Login Items list and wait for the yellow tooltip text to appear. The text will be the path listing of the item. To go to the folder containing the item either (a) navigate there in the Finder, by opening folders and using the Show Package Contents contextual menu item to get inside the indicated package as needed, or (b) use the Finder' s Go to Folder command and enter the pathway shown in the tooltip (minus the name of the Login Items file itself).

{Figure 3: Login Items tooltip text}

Q. How do I remove an item from the Login Items list?

At some point, you may decide that you no longer want an item in the Login Items list. For example, perhaps you deleted a listed item from your drive. To remove any item: select its name in the Login Items list and click the Delete (?) button.

Alternatively, for items that were added by an " Enable at Login" preferences option, unchecking the preference will remove the item from the list.

Remember: Removing an item from the Login Items list does not delete it from your drive. It just deletes it from the list. If you have not separately trashed the item, it remains on your drive, exactly where it was before.

Q. I removed one of the files located inside an application package from my Login Items list. Now I?ve changed my mind and want to re-add it. How do I do it?

If the item can be re-added by accessing an " Enable at Login" option from the application' s Preferences, this is the quickest route to success.

Otherwise, you' ll have to work a bit harder. Remember that you cannot use the Login Items' Add ( ) button here, as the resulting Add dialog (as with the Finder' s Open and Save dialogs) does not navigate into packages. In this case, you have several options:

  • If you know exactly where to find the file, go there and drag the file' s icon to the Login Items list. Done!

  • If you are unsure where to find the file, but remember the name of the file (or at least a close approximation to it), trying using a third-party utility such as Locator to find it. Unlike Spotlight, Locator will search inside packages. Once you have the location, go there and drag the item to the Login Items list.

  • Uninstall and reinstall the relevant software. If the item was automatically added to the Login Items list when it was first installed, it will likely be added again.

Note: In the case of the aforementioned iTunesHelper, there is another trick to getting it to re-add: Go to the Library/Preferences folder in your Home directory. Look for a file named com.apple.iTunesHelper.plist. Delete it. Now, the next time you launch iTunes, the Helper application should be re-added to the Login Items list (I said "should" because this occasionally does not work).

In next month' s tutorial, we'll continue our look at Login Items. Specifically, you' ll learn what it do if a Login Item has a Kind of "Unknown" ; where the list of Login Items is actually stored on your drive; how to create a Login Items list that works for all users on your Mac; how to troubleshoot Login Items; and a few more surprises.

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