Getting Started with GeekTool

Once a tool employed mainly by hardcore users, GeekTool seemed to begin exploding across OS X desktops in 2009. But despite its widening usage, many still are unfamiliar with this fantastic utility (you’ve probably seen it, and not even realized) or just don’t know how to leverage it. If you fit either of the above stereotypes, then today is your lucky day, because I’m going to point out some great examples of GeekTool, and just how to put it to good use for yourself.

Simply put, GeekTool displays information at the desktop level (meaning it’s not clickable), right on top of your wallpaper image, in a ‘Heads-up-display’ fashion. It’s interesting (to me at least) to see how the use of a simple yet powerful tool evolves. For those of us who began playing with GeekTool long ago, it was used in a very utilitarian fashion — the output was simple lines of text displayed on the Mac’s desktop (three year old screencast here shows what I mean). And while the content that we’re seeing displayed with GeekTool hasn’t changed much, some designer-types out there have taken the display of that information to the next level. The great part is that it’s super easy to do with GeekTool — but more on that in a bit.


To get some inspiration — and a great feel for what we’re talking about — check out Flickr for photos tagged with ‘geektool’, or LifeHacker’s Featured [Mac] Desktops. I’ll be here, so take your time. Or if you’re ADHD, here are a couple quick examples:

So some good stuff, eh? It’s pretty neat to see the way that GeekTool can be used to morph meaningful data into specific wallpaper images, or going that extra yard, to coordinate with a custom GUI theme. Clearly some people have a solid eye for design, and the time to monkey around and put in some extra awesome. Not so much for me, which is why I pointed you in the direction of some great examples. I however, threw in some extra Geeklets on my desktop to show you what you can do.

Getting Started

So now you’re probably primed and ready to put GeekTool to work for you. It’s not very difficult, so let’s get started. I’ll assume you’ve already installed it. Since it’s a Preference Pane, it lives in the System Preferences (found under the Apple menu or in your Applications folder).

There are three types of information you can display using GeekTool:

  • File — Originally intended for viewing Console type log files. Point it at any text file you choose — those with text-based todo lists will love this feature.
  • Image — GeekTool’s developer identifies this as useful for viewing the images generated by monitoring tools. While Analytics and whatnot may be just what the doctor ordered, you can display any image, or image URL with this.
  • Shell — This is where the real power lies with GeekTool. Run either a Shell Command, or point at a Shell Script file to run. If your bash-fu is strong, you’ll be running wild. But fear not, there are a multitude of examples out there to lean on if you need some help with this geekier part.

To begin using a Geeklet (as they’ve been deemed in the 3.0 version), select the File, Image, or Shell that you want to use, and drag it to your desktop. Once there, the Geeklet properties window will populate, which is where all the magic (configuration) happens.

Drag & Drop

The great thing about the latest version of GeekTool is that you can drag and drop your Geeklet wherever you want it on screen. In earlier versions, there was a lot of trial and error involved as you had to enter the coordinates and dimensions of a Geektlet. It was time consuming to say the least — but you can still tweak these settings in the Properties window if you need to fine tune . Once it’s where you want it, define the image or file location of the data you want displayed, or drop a shell command in there. If it’s necessary, there’s space to set a refresh time in seconds.


Now we come to the part that the designers like. Click the aptly named button, “Click here to set font & color…” Up pops an OS X window that should be familiar for selecting font, font color, font size, and so on. Your Geeklet updates in real time, so you can adjust your settings on the fly. Suddenly those log files don’t seem so bland anymore…well, maybe not.


The crazier you get with GeekTool, the more Geeklets you may find yourself creating. You can group them into categories, and turn them on and off as desired. The uses for this obviously vary from person to person based on their workflows. But I could easily see having a set of Geeklets in a group for work information, and a set for home use. A GeekTool menubar item can be turned on so you can quickly maintain these Geeklet groups without having to launch the Preference Pane.


The spot that gives most people trouble is coming up with the shell commands or scripts to run. I have some limited background using Unix, so have come up with a few simple commands in the past. Luckily, there are lots of people out there who are smarter than I, and are happy to share their work with others via blog posts. Yay! Here are several of the more helpful posts I’ve come across.

GeekTool is such a free-form utility that it’s difficult to outline all of the settings and uses. It’s one of those situations where it’s great to let your imagination run wild, if only your knowledge and expertise can keep up. If you find yourself lacking the latter, post your questions below, and if I can’t help, I’m certain some of our brainiac readers will be able to chime in as well. And if you just want to show off your GeekTool-fu, we’d love for you to share some links here as well.