Change How Your Mac's Scroll Bars Work

System Preferences Let You Control the Scroll Bar Settings Including Visibility

General preference pane with scroll bar controls highlighted.
Fortunately, you don't have to live with the scroll bar defaults; you can change them to meet your needs. Screen shot courtesy of Coyote Moon, Inc.
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Apple has been fine-tuning how the scroll bars in OS X and macOS work. Starting with OS X Lion, Apple changed how scroll bars are displayed in any window that has a need for scrolling. This is different from the issue of natural vs. unnatural scrolling, which is a fancy way of saying which way a window's contents move when you scroll.

I’ll let others argue about natural and unnatural scrolling, which can be successfully argued by either side; in other words, I think it's a toss-up.

But the issue of scroll bars not appearing, or only appearing if you're in the process of scrolling, is I believe, a user interface mistake on Apple's part. Apple may have gone a little too far in its zeal to bring all things iOS to the Mac OS. While adding the option to allow scrollbars to behave like those in iOS is fine, the mistake was to set the scrollbars to work like iOS as the default. iOS and Mac devices have much in common, but one thing that is very different is the amount of screen real estate that is available to an app. Keeping scrollbars hidden in iOS apps makes sense as it allows an app to make the best use of the display size. But on a Mac, it does not make sense to try and economize on screen real estate, when in comparison there is so much space available.

Scroll Bar Visibility

The only reason to remove scroll bars is because of the amount of room they occupy; in the limited display environment that iOS devices live in, that may be a good idea.

On the Mac, it's just plain silly. By removing scroll bars, Apple removes a key visual benefit: the ability to know where you are in a document at all times. Scroll bars instantly show you your current position, as well what direction you may wish to move in to view the remaining document or go back to the beginning.

Without scroll bars, it's a crapshoot. Are you near the end? Near the beginning? Have you read the whole article, or is there more hidden below the window? Or maybe there's more to the right or left of the window. With OS X’s concealment of scroll bars, I have no idea where I am at a glance.

OS X’s default behavior seems to be to display scroll bars if and when you start scrolling. So, in order to find out whether you need to scroll or not, you have to scroll to find out where you are. Seriously, Apple, does that really make sense to you?

Configuring Scroll Bars in OS X

Fortunately, you don't have to live with OS X’s scroll bar defaults; you can change them to meet your needs or preferences.

Since OS X Lion, the scroll bar visibility settings have been part of the General preference pane; before Lion, these controls were found in the Appearance Preference Pane. The actual options and their wording have changed slightly with each iteration of OS X, but the instructions below should be close enough to work for anyone who wants to adjust their scroll bar preferences.

  1. Launch System Preferences, either from the Dock or from the Apple menu. If you're new to the Mac, you can also launch System Preferences from the Launchpad by clicking the Launchpad Dock icon, and then clicking the System Preferences icon.
  1. When the System Preferences window opens, select the General preference pane.
  2. The middle section of the General preference pane controls when scroll bars appear and what happens when you click on a scroll bar.
  3. To return the scroll bars to their pre-Lion functionality, and turn their visibility back on, select "Always" from the Show Scroll Bars options. The scroll bars will now always be visible, even when you're not scrolling.
  4. If you would rather have the scroll bars only show up when you actually start scrolling, select “When Scrolling.”
  5. If you would rather have the scroll bars appear when the cursor is in the area of a scroll bar, or when you start scrolling, select “Automatically based on mouse or trackpad."

    Click in the Scroll Bar

    The last two options provide a choice for what happens when you click within the scroll bars. You can select one of the following:

    • Jump to the next page: This will move the contents of the window a page at a time, either up or down, depending on where you click on the scroll bar.
    • Jump to the spot that’s clicked: This option lets you fly to a point within the window's contents based on where you clicked in the scroll bar. If you click near the bottom, you'll go to the end of the document. If you click near the top, you'll go to the top of the window. And if you click somewhere in-between, you'll be moved to a spot in the document that matches up to where you clicked.

    Once you've made your selection, you can quit System Preferences. Remember, you can come back to the System Preferences to modify your choices at any time

    Originally Published: 7/22/2011

    Update history: 7/27/2015, 6/29/2016