Beginners start here: Spaces

Sean McNamara
9 October, 2008
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One problem with the desktop metaphor of modern operating systems is that they can become as cluttered as a real desktop – and sorting through an array of overlapping windows can be as inefficient as just not having them (or their applications) open in the first place. But help is at hand in the form of Spaces, Apple’s take on virtual desktops, which was introduced with Mac OS X v10.5 (Leopard).

Virtual desktop applications are like scrolling windows for your Desktop. Just as a window can present just a portion of a document, virtual desktops allow you to use your monitor to see just a portion of all the windows you have open. You can think of it as having several virtual monitors and that your physical monitor allows you to look at any one of those virtual monitors (or to choose between them, see below).

When enabled, Spaces has a default of four virtual desktops (which I won’t call “spaces” to avoid confusion with the program), but this can be expanded to up to 16 desktops in a 4×4 grid. By definition, you can’t have fewer than two desktops in Spaces (one is catered to by having Spaces turned off), and you can only go up to four wide or high, so eight desktops would be a 2×4 (or 4×2) grid.

Once you have the desktops, you have to put something on them. The simplest thing to do is to drag a window to the edge of the desktop, and that window will be dragged to the adjacent desktop in that direction (you’ll get a small graphic indicating which desktop the window has been moved to).

One of the best things about Spaces is that when you switch to an application which has windows open on another desktop, it automatically switches to that desktop. The one set of applications which can sometimes get confused is Microsoft Office 2008 – I’ve found Word and Excel don’t always play nicely with Spaces if you’ve been switching desktops a lot while they’re open – just quit out and open the documents you want again in one desktop and they’ll start to behave themselves again (at least for a while).

You can also get a minimised view of the contents of all the desktops by pressing the F8 key. Sidenote: On many newer keyboards, the F-keys don’t operate as standard F-keys, but have Apple-assigned functions such as brightness control, sound control, etc. To actually press F8 (or any other F-key), you need to hold down the key marked “fn” at the bottom left hand corner of the keyboard while pressing the appropriately marked F-key. [ed. -- as another side note, those using new Microsoft keyboards may need to press the "F Lock" key once if the F-keys don't respond correctly.]

From that minimised view, you can go to a desktop by clicking anywhere in that desktop and you can move windows around by dragging them from desktop to desktop.

In the September 2006 issue of Australian Macworld, I discussed the operation of Exposé, which is a window management tool released with Mac OS X v10.3 (Panther). Exposé allows you to preview all open windows (or just those of the current application) or push them all off the screen to make switching between windows and applications easier.

Spaces does not replace Exposé; they can be used in conjunction with each other to further expand their window and application management features. For example, you could trigger Spaces with F8, then trigger Exposé’s “All Applications’ Windows” mode with F9 (or F3 on modern keyboards set to default behaviour) to show all windows in all spaces.

The Spaces preferences pane in System Preferences allows some useful modification of the application’s behaviour. You can change the number of desktops, you can assign applications to individual desktops (or all of them), you can change the key to trigger Spaces (as well as assign keys for switching between desktops without triggering the minimised view) and you can turn on the Spaces menubar item, which shows you which desktop you’re on and allows you to switch between them or open the preferences.

Virtual desktops aren’t for everyone – some people find the extension of the desktop metaphor beyond the bounds of the physical display to be too much of a mindshift, or the movement from desktop to desktop jarring (and I’m sure there are other reasons). I find them an indispensible way to keep my applications and windows in check – I can concentrate on one task at a time without hiding or quitting applications which, although I don’t want them “right now”, I need ready access to with the contents of their windows intact and available.

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