Preference settings: where to find them in macOS Sierra (v2)

If you do have problems with getting Preference settings to stick, where do you look for the property list file containing them?

As a general principle:

  • Apple and App Store apps should now be accessed via ~/Library/Containers/[app signature]/Data/Library/Preferences, where [app signature] is something like com.corpname.appname
  • settings which apply to all users, particularly if they apply before a user logs in, are normally in /Library/Preferences
  • settings which apply to an individual user, only after they have logged in, are normally in ~/Library/Preferences (that’s the Library folder in your Home folder)
  • settings files should be named something like com.corpname.appname.plist, but many still aren’t.

If you’re in doubt, open the Preferences (or other) folder in which you suspect the file is stored, and order the files by time and date last changed, the newest at the top. Open the app/pane, make a change in the Preferences or other settings, and the property list should shoot to the top of the Finder window.

For some years now, preference files are handled in a deceptive way by macOS. If you try making manual changes to them, those changes are likely to get ignored and reset. Before making any changes to preference files, consult this article for the best solution.

The safest way is to use the command tool defaults in Terminal, with a command such as
defaults delete ~/Library/Preferences/com.appvendor.appname.plist
where com.appvendor.appname.plist is the name of the preference file to be deleted, including the .plist extension. If you use this on preferences stored in the main /Library/Preferences, you’ll need to preface that command with sudo to obtain the necessary elevated privileges.

Here is a list of well-known preferences files, for macOS Sierra 10.12. These are essentially the same as in El Capitan, but Yosemite was slightly different, and earlier versions even more different.

Activity Monitor preferences ~/Library/Preferences/
Airport preferences /Library/Preferences/SystemConfiguration/
Ambient light sensor /Library/Preferences/
App preference settings ~/Library/Preferences/[app signature].plist
App Store account settings ~/Library/Preferences/
App Store autoupdate settings /Library/Preferences/
App Store settings ~/Library/Preferences/
Apple accounts enabled /Library/Preferences/SystemConfiguration/ and ~/Library/Preferences/
Apple Magic Mouse gestures ~/Library/Preferences/
Apple Magic Trackpad ~/Library/Preferences/
Apple Remote Desktop /Library/Preferences/
Archive Utility ~/Library/Preferences/
Audio MIDI Setup ~/Library/Preferences/
Audio settings /Library/Preferences/Audio/ and /Library/Preferences/Audio/
Automator ~/Library/Preferences/
Bluetooth configuration /Library/Preferences/
Calculator exchange rates, etc. ~/Library/Preferences/
Calendar ~/Library/Preferences/
ColorSync calibrations ~/Library/Preferences/
Contacts ~/Library/Preferences/
Crash Reporter ~/Library/Preferences/
Date & Time menubar clock ~/Library/Preferences/
Date & Time timezone auto setting /Library/Preferences/
Desktop ~/Library/Preferences/
Dock ~/Library/Preferences/
Emoji & Symbols palettes ~/Library/Preferences/ and ~/Library/Preferences/
Energy Saver settings were at /Library/Preferences/SystemConfiguration/ but as of 10.12.2 have moved to /Library/Preferences/, and in 10.12.3 are in[UUID].plist, where [UUID] is replaced by your hardware UUID.
Find My Mac /Library/Preferences/
Finder ~/Library/Preferences/
Help ~/Library/Preferences/
iBooks ~/Library/Preferences/ and ~/Library/Preferences/
iMessage ~/Library/Preferences/
Infra-red controller /Library/Preferences/
iTunes ~/Library/Preferences/
iTunes, Aperture, iPhoto paths ~/Library/Preferences/
Keyboard settings before login /Library/Preferences/
Keyboard settings after login ~/Library/Preferences/
Login window /Library/Preferences/
Miscellaneous preferences ~/Library/Preferences/
Network extensions /Library/Preferences/
Network interfaces /Library/Preferences/SystemConfiguration/NetworkInterfaces.plist
Network settings /Library/Preferences/SystemConfiguration/preferences.plist
Network Utility ~/Library/Preferences/
Photos ~/Library/Containers/
Power Management were at /Library/Preferences/SystemConfiguration/ but as of 10.12.2 have moved to /Library/Preferences/, and in 10.12.3 are in[UUID].plist, where [UUID] is replaced by your hardware UUID.
Printers /Library/Preferences/org.cups.printers.plist
Remote Access servers /Library/Preferences/SystemConfiguration/
Safari ~/Library/Preferences/
Siri ~/Library/Preferences/
SMB servers /Library/Preferences/SystemConfiguration/
Software updates /Library/Preferences/ and ~/Library/Preferences/
Spaces ~/Library/Preferences/
Spotlight ~/Library/Preferences/
Text substitutions (Keyboard pane, Text tab) in an SQLite database in ~/Library/Dictionaries/CoreDataUbiquitySupport/ under your UUID; not readily editable or removable
Time Machine backups /Library/Preferences/
Universal Access ~/Library/Preferences/
User dictionary in an SQLite database in ~/Library/Dictionaries/CoreDataUbiquitySupport/ under your UUID; not readily editable or removable
WiFi settings /Library/Preferences/SystemConfiguration/

Some settings are not stored in preference files. Some essentials are set in the SMC or NVRAM, detailed here. Usernames, passwords, and security certificates are of course stored in keychains, which are covered in several other articles here. Traditional Unix config files are very rarely used by macOS, but may be used by services and servers running on macOS: check their documentation.

Recent Items are kept in ~/Library/, and full details are given here. The Launch Services database keeps track of document types and how they relate to apps, and is detailed here. Metadata attached to folders and files is stored in the file system’s volume metadata, and is detailed here.