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 '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.
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. In the latest version of System Preferences, included with 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.