Mac OS X System Icons


If you've ever wondered where the icons on your Mac are stored, you may have come to the right place. There are two main places where icons are stored:
  • If the icons are part of an application, then they are probably stored in the application as an .icns file. This article is not about these icons. If you're looking for these, go somewhere else, like Google, where tons of information on these exists.
  • The icons that are shared by many applications or by "things" that are not applications are probably system icons — icons that are part of the operating system (Mac OS X) and are stored on the system folder.

Some Terminology

  • The '~' (tilde) character in a path denotes the path to the home folder.
  • Panther: Mac OS 10.3; Tiger: Mac OS 10.4; Leopard: Mac OS 10.5
  • A foreground application (normal application) has a Dock icon. Finder and Safari are foreground applications. Dashboard is not a foreground application. The Dashboard dock item is a small application that only launches the Dashboard. Help Viewer is a foreground application in pre-Leopard Mac OS X.
  • A background application has no entries in the Force quit window, ⌘-tab, and Dock, and no own menu bar entries. When a background application is active, you won't really know. One of the only indications is that the menu bar entries of the frontmost application are dimmed (unselectable). DiskImageMounter, Dashboard, and Dock are examples.
  • A process like an application can quit nicely, saving settings an data that my need to be saved. It may also terminate suddenly because of a crash (unexpectedly quit) or if it was killed.
  • Paths: You can enter a path in the Finder by choosing Go » Go to Folder… (⇧⌘G). You can also type the path into Terminal, preceded by the open command, that is, "open", space, path. For example: open ~/Library/Preferences . Put a backslash before spaces in paths or put the whole path in single quotes.

The System Folder

The system folder is located in <startup volume>/System and has a path of /System. It contains the information that is necessary (or very helpful) for the system to run.

The system folder contains system applications. These are a part of Mac OS X and should not be removed. These include:

  • The Finder


    The Finder quits nicely on logout. When the Finder quits nicely, it will remember the open windows and will open them on the next launch. If the Finder is quit nicely, it will stay quit. If it suddenly terminates, it will be relaunched automatically (because it probably quit due to an error and most users would not know how to launch it (click the Dock icon)). If Finder is not open and no other foreground applications are open, Finder will be relaunched.

    The desktop is a Finder window with no background so that you can see desktop background through the window. This means that when the Finder is not open, you will only see the desktop background on the desktop. You will still see the menu bar, menu extras, and the Dock as these are not part of the Finder.

    Even though ⌘-clicking the Finder Dock icon does not reveal its location, the path listed here is the path to the real working application. If the Finder quits for some reason, you can type (in Terminal): open /System/Library/CoreServices/ to launch the Finder.

  • The Dock


    The Dock is a background application. The Dock quits nicely (by sliding down) on logout. If the Dock suddenly terminates, it will suddenly dissapear. Either way, the Dock is relaunched (except at logout). When the Dock is not running, previously minimized windows suddenly appear, windows can't be minimized, and the minimize button is dimmed on newly created windows.

    If the Dock exits when a window is minimizing, the window will freeze where it is, and the application that controls the window will no respond for a few seconds. After that, you will have a awkward window that still responds to your commands! Just remember that when you click any target in the window, you must click the place the target was if the window was not minimized. The window will retain its appearance until it is minimized. (You can do Window » Minimize (⌘M) if you can't click the minimize button.)

  • Dashboard


    The Dashboard is run by the Dock. ( in the Applications folder does nothing but activate the real Dashboard.) Widget Installer opens and installs your widgets files. To install a widget yourself, copy (or move) it to ~/Library/Widgets.

  • SystemUIServer


    Controls the Menu Extras and Spotlight (including Spotlight windows, but not including the search box in Finder). Menu Extras are the icons that appear on the right side of the menu bar. The standard menu extras are in the folder /System/Library/CoreServices/Menu Extras . Double-click on a menu extra file (.menu file) to use it. SystemUIServer opens these files. Menu extra files can be located anywhere. Some third-party applications come with menu extras files inside them.

  • loginwindow


    loginwindow is the application that (guess what?) keeps you logged in. Each user runs an instance of loginwindow. Telling loginwindow of a certain user to quit will result in it trying to log out that user. Force-quitting loginwindow logs out immediately. As far as I know, it is also responsible for relaunching the Finder and Dock when they crash. It displays the "Are you sure you want to log out?" windows, but it is a background application.

  • Other CoreServices applications

    Most of the other applications in the CoreServices folder have plain names that clearly state their purpose. They are in the CoreServices folder probably because

    • they are not meant to be double-clicked,
    • to prevent the user from finding out about them (to provide a better user experience),
    • or to prevent the user from removing or modifying them.

System Icons

Here's html page that links to various system icons and other system images.

The icons page was created with Safari's Snippet Editor in the Develop menu, TextEdit, and AppleScipt.

Here's what you need to know about the icons page:

  • Files. The icons page is a single file. You didn't download any icons; the icons shown are those that are on your computer right now. This means that you can only see the images if you open the page on a Mac. The page itself is just text — only 160 kilobytes. (Update: This page was originally created for Mac OS X Tiger. Some icons have moved locations or disappeared since; you'll get a "broken image" box where they should be.)
  • File Types. You should use Safari to open this page, because it supports the displaying of Apple Icon Image (.icns) files. Firefox gives you boxes where the Apple Icons Images should be. (Update: Quick Look also works.)
  • Link Handling. You should also use Safari because of what it does when you click a local link. When you click on a local link (a link that points to something on your computer) in Safari, it will open that file (or folder) or show it in the Finder. Firefox will download the file or (if it is a folder) display the contents of the folder in the browser.
    Specifically, when clicking on a link,
    • Safari will tell the computer to open: folders (Finder) and Apple Icon Images (Preview).
    • Safari will display in the browser window: PNG and TIFF images.
  • Local Resources. For some security reason, Safari does not allow remote sites to load local resources. That is, a website cannot make Safari show you something on your computer. But webpages on your computer can do that. So you must download this file to see it correctly. Clicking on the link will download the file.
  • So, you must download this file and open it with Safari to view it correctly.

Download here: SystemIcons.html

Questions, comments?

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