System Settings (System Preferences on macOS Monterey and earlier) is an application included with macOS. It allows users to modify various system settings, which are divided into separate Preference Panes. The System Settings application was introduced in the first version of Mac OS X to replace the control panels found in earlier versions of the Mac operating system.
Before the release of Mac OS X in 2001, users modified system settings using control panels. Control panels, like the preference panes found in System Preferences, were separate resources (cdevs) that were accessed through the Apple menu's Control Panel.
A rudimentary form of system preferences dates back to 1983 with the Apple Lisa Preferences menu item. This included a subset of configurable settings called "convenience settings" as well as other settings that adapted according to the programs and devices installed on the Lisa Office System. The original control panels in the earliest versions of the classic Mac OS were all combined into one small Desk Accessory. Susan Kare designed the interface for the original control panel, and tried to make it as user-friendly as possible. This design was used until System 3 when separate control panel files ("cdev"s) were added, accessible solely through the control panel.
With the debut of System 7 the control panels were separated into individual small application-like processes accessible from the Finder, and by a sub-menu in the Apple menu provided by Apple Menu Options. Mac OS 9, the last release of the Mac OS before Mac OS X, included 32 control panels. By Mac OS 9, many control panels had been rewritten as true applications.
The control panels included with Mac OS 9 are:
When Mac OS X was released, preference panes replaced control panels. Preference panes are not applications but loadable bundles for the System Preferences application, similar to the arrangement used under System 6. By default, System Preferences organizes preference panes into several categories. As of Mac OS X v10.7, these categories are "Personal", "Hardware", "Internet & Wireless", and "System". A fifth category, "Other", appears when third-party preference panes are installed. Users can also choose to sort preference panes alphabetically. System Preferences originally included a customizable toolbar into which frequently-used preference pane icons could be dragged, but this was removed in Mac OS X v10.4 and replaced with a static toolbar that featured back and forward navigation buttons and a search field.
Apple has added new preference panes when major features are added to the operating system and occasionally merges multiple panes into one. When Exposé was introduced with Mac OS X v10.3, a corresponding preference pane was added to System Preferences. This was replaced by a single "Dashboard & Exposé" pane in Mac OS X v10.4, which introduced Dashboard. When the .Mac service was replaced by MobileMe, the corresponding preference pane was also renamed.
In OS X Mountain Lion, the "Universal Access" pane is changed to "Accessibility" and "Speech" is changed to "Dictation & Speech".
In macOS Ventura, System Preferences was renamed to System Settings. System Settings has a new user interface that is similar to the iOS/iPadOS Settings app. Each category is on a sidebar to the left of the window, instead of the original preference panes that were used in System Preferences. (This new design looks somewhat similar to that of the Windows 11's Settings app, which has also added a persistent navigation sidebar.) If AirPods are connected, a menu for the AirPods will appear at the top of System Settings.
In System Settings (and earlier, System Preferences) preferences are organized by theme into Preference Panes (abbreviated prefpane), which are special dynamically loaded plugins. Introduced in Mac OS X 10.0, the purpose of a Preference Pane is to allow the user to set preferences for a specific application or the system by means of a graphical user interface. Preference Panes are the macOS replacement for control panels in the classic Mac OS. Prior to Mac OS X v10.4, collections of Preference Panes featured a "Show All" button to show all the panes in the collection and a customizable toolbar to which frequently-used preference panes could be dragged. In Mac OS X 10.3 Panther, the currently-active pane would also be highlighted in the toolbar when it was selected. With Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, the toolbar was removed in favor of a plain Show All button and back/forward history arrows.