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Dark Mode for Mac premiered in macOS Mojave as a simple way to toggle the system appearance from the default bright theme. The new macOS Catalina release is a software update that improves how Dark Mode works with new features.

The new OS version lets you schedule when Dark Mode is activated. This is based on sunset and sunrise by default. There are also ways to quickly toggle between light or dark themes and set specific apps to their own theme. Read on to master Dark Mode for Mac.

Getting started

Older macOS versions turned the Dock and menu bar dark, but window chrome and the web only had light modes. The Mac gained a real system-wide Dark Mode feature starting with macOS Mojave.

Dark Mode changes the appearance of built-in apps including Finder, Safari, Photos, and Music. Apps that you download and install on your Mac can also support Dark Mode. The feature is included on macOS version 10.14 and later including macOS Mojave and macOS Catalina.

Which Macs are supported?

Dark Mode is a built-in feature if your machine can run macOS Mojave or later including macOS Catalina. These Mac computers are supported:

  • MacBook models introduced in early 2015 or later
  • MacBook Air models introduced in mid 2012 or later
  • MacBook Pro models introduced in mid 2012 or later
  • Mac mini models introduced in late 2012 or later
  • iMac models introduced in late 2012 or later
  • iMac Pro
  • Mac Pro models introduced in 2013 or later

macOS Catalina version

How to change themes

macOS Catalina lets you choose your theme preference when you first set up or update your Mac. Change your mind? You can try out a difference appearance anytime, or you can set your Mac to switch themes for day and night.

Click on the Apple () icon in the top left corner of your screen, select System Preferences from the list, then select General from the System Preferences window.

macOS Catalina includes three appearance options:

  • Light
  • Dark
  • Auto

Light and Dark Mode appearances only change when you manually choose a different appearance. Prefer to use both options? Auto sets your Mac to automatically switch between Light and Dark Mode based on the time of day.

macOS Catalina Dark Mode appearance

Customizing apps

Dark Mode in macOS Catalina is a system-wide appearance, but there are a few exceptions. Certain apps and features include their own appearance preference to override Dark Mode.

For example, Mail automatically tries to use dark backgrounds for messages when using Dark Mode. If you like to run Dark Mode but prefer to read emails with a light background, you can set this preference from Mail → Preferences → Viewing → turn off “Use dark backgrounds for messages.” This will only affect messages and not the window chrome around the message content.

Dark Mode messages in Mail:

Light messages with Dark Mode in Mail:

Other customization options include:

  • Using a light appearance map in Maps
  • Overriding dark backgrounds in Notes
  • Typing on white backgrounds with Dark Mode in Text Edit

These options are available in the View section of the app’s Menu Bar across the top of the screen, or as an option in Preferences within the app.

Advanced features

Want to do more with Dark Mode? There’s an app for that. NightOwl is a free utility for macOS Mojave and macOS Catalina that adds even more control over Dark Mode.

For example, you can use NightOwl to enable:

  • switching appearances based on specific times of day that you choose
  • overriding Dark Mode to use light appearances in specific apps
  • switching between Light Mode and Dark Mode with a keyboard shortcut

The new Auto mode in macOS Catalina works similar to NightOwl’s sunset/sunrise mode toggle, but automatic appearance switching was missing in macOS Mojave. Perhaps other features will come to future macOS updates, but for now it’s a great Menu Bar utility to have on your Mac.

Going further

Speaking of apps, there is one more thing to know about Dark Mode before you master the feature in macOS Catalina.

Third-party apps that you install and download often include the ability to always use Light Mode, Dark Mode, or default to matching the system appearance. If this feature is supported, the control for it is often included within the app’s Preferences section under the app’s name in the top left corner of your screen. You may also look for View in the Menu Bar for options.

Want to know more about macOS Catalina and Dark Mode or have your own tip? Leave a note in the comments below!

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About the Author

Zac Hall

Zac covers Apple news, hosts the 9to5Mac Happy Hour podcast, and created SpaceExplored.com.