Beginners start here: Stacking up

Sean McNamara
21 January, 2008
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One of the most touted features of Mac OS X v10.5 (Leopard) is the concept of a "Stack" in the Dock. Stacks take the place of folders on the Dock — in fact, they’re just a different way of viewing folders placed on the Dock.

Despite the fact that Stacks are just a view of folders placed on the Dock, they behave very differently to the way folders on the Dock worked in prior versions of Mac OS X. Since the earliest days of Mac OS X, navigation of folders in the Dock was just like navigation of any other popup hierarchical menu. Also, folders placed on the Dock looked like folders and custom folder icons were represented faithfully.

Stacks depart from these conventions — when clicked, they show either a fan or a grid of the contents of the folder, with no navigable hierarchy (sub-folders are just icons like all the other contents). Instead of displaying the standard folder icon (or, if it’s set, the folder’s custom icon), the Stack’s icon on the Dock is the icon of the first item (as determined by the selected sort order), overlaid on a reduced icon of the second item, overlaid on a reduced icon of the third icon, and so on (see the screenshot "Stack overlaid icons"). If a different item becomes the new "first item as determined by the selected sort order", the icon on the Dock changes.

What this means is that folders on the Dock usually look like documents and that you can’t necessarily get used to a folder on the Dock keeping the same icon over time — it depends what you put in the folder and what sort order you specify. A typical example of this is the Downloads Stack, which is set by default to sort by Date Added — which means whichever is the most recently downloaded file is the one whose icon is displayed for the Downloads stack.

Many users of previous versions of Mac OS X have protested these changes and the inability to navigate folders in the Dock as in pre-Leopard days, and new users can find the apparently changing behaviour/presentation confusing the say the least. If current rumours are true, Apple is addressing at least some of these issues in the yet-to-be-announced-and-released v10.5.2 update — the navigable hierarchical popup menu view seems to be about to make a comeback in that update. Until then, let’s try a few things to try and tame Stacks, or at least make them more usable.

One of the easiest things to do to get a consistent took to your stacks is to use a placeholder file which always comes first in the Sort by criterion. An example of this is a file with the icon you want for your stack having a space at the start of the filename and choosing the "Name" Sort by criterion — the file with the space will always precede normally-named files and will therefore always have its icon as the frontmost one in the stack on the Dock.

The easiest way to get files like this is to use prepackaged ones — my favourites are the DRAWERS icons sets from Japanese blogger optica optima. These look like drawers which have the contents of the folder in them (seethe screenshot "Stack drawers"). They’re well-designed and attractive and clearly indicate the contents of the Stack. I just choose the appropriate icon and drag the file to the folder. In its current incarnation, you may have a display anomaly when the icon is first displayed (like an application icon with a crossed circle on it) — restarting your computer or dragging the Stack off the Dock then dragging the folder back to the Dock will fix this. Another nice feature of these icons is that the icon file has a modified date set in the future, so if you Sort by date modified rather than name, the drawer icon will still display.

If you want to preempt the v10.5.2 update and get some of the older style functionality back, you can use Rainer Brockerhoff’s Quay program, which is beyond the scope of this blog entry to cover.

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