Switcher Sensei: An in-depth Exposé on Spaces

David Braue
31 May, 2010
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If brevity is the soul of wit, the designers of Mac OS X are funny guys indeed. Peppered with terms like Exposé, Spaces, Faces and Places, Mac OS X marketing collateral can sound like something out of Dr Seuss – reflecting Apple’s obsession with naming and compartmentalising every little thing and positioning it in minute detail.

While you’ve probably heard these terms, however, newcomers to the Mac may struggle to figure out their use. For all the mystique that Apple marketing gives it, Exposé is simply a way of getting more control over your desktop windows – something that’s basically accounted for using Alt-Tab in Windows.

Press F11 (or command-F3 on the newer aluminium keyboards or MacBook keyboards), for example, and all the windows on your desktop slide off the screen so you can access something on your desktop; repeat the keystroke, and they slide back into place.

Apple’s obsession with thumbnails is clear in Exposé’s All Windows feature: press F9 (or F3 on new keyboards) and your Mac will arrange your windows with all open windows on the top four-fifths of the screen, and all minimised windows in the bottom one-fifth of the screen.

Click on any of these thumbnails and the relevant window will be brought to the forefront of your desktop. You can also use the arrow keys and Enter to move among and select the window you want, and can slide your fingers along the surface of the Magic Mouse to quickly move between items.

The final Exposé feature is called Application windows, and shows only the document windows open in your current application. Press F10 (or command-F3) and maximised documents go on top; documents minimised to the Dock are shown smaller across the bottom of the screen.

If you have an older mouse, you can use the System Preferences > Mouse settings to launch Exposé by squeezing the sides of the mouse or clicking the mouse wheel. And if you have a recent MacBook, you can use a four-finger gesture to open Exposé. Expose can also be configured to use different keyboard shortcuts, or to launch when you leave the mouse in a specified screen corner; click System Preferences > Exposé & Spaces.

Spaces is a virtual window manager that allows you to define up to 16 groups of applications. Put all your work applications in one Space, for example, your Windows virtual machine in another, your favourite websites in browser windows in another, and so on.

Apps can run full-screen in each Space, but they disappear when you switch to another Space. Items stored on your desktop appear in each Space, and each uses the same desktop background.

To use Spaces, go to System Preferences > Exposé & Spaces, click on Spaces, and click on Enable Spaces. You can then choose how many Spaces you want to use, and assign applications so they always open in a particular Space, or in every Space.

Once Spaces is activated, press F8 to pull up its window, which brings up a Brady Bunch-style grid with large thumbnails showing the position of each application within its Space. You can use the mouse or arrow keys to switch between Spaces; use the mouse to drag and drop applications between Spaces or to rearrange windows within each space. You can also move application windows between Spaces by dragging them to an edge of the screen and holding them there for a moment.

You don’t need to pull up that window to switch between Spaces, however: just use Ctrl-arrow keys to slide between Spaces, or Ctrl-#, where # is the index of the Space you want to move to. The applications you were working on will disappear, and the ones you’re changing to will take their places. Used deliberately, Spaces can be a big help in keeping a cleaner working desktop.

This article originally appeared in the April issue of Australian Macworld magazine.

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