Take Control of Customizing Leopard: Expose & Spaces

Editor’s Note: The following article is an excerpt from the just-released Take Control of Customizing Leopard, a $10 electronic book available for download from TidBits Publishing Inc. The 138-page ebook introduces readers to all the new and revamped features in Leopard, looking at Time Machine, Spaces, changes to the Finder, and much more.

Here’s a news flash from the Department of Unintended Consequences: windows are great, but they’re also a problem. As soon as you have more than a few windows open at once, it’s clear that those windows are like automobiles, and your monitor is like a Los Angeles freeway—it’s overcrowded, and no matter how much you widen it, it’s still going to be overcrowded. This is particularly a problem on an operating system like Mac OS X, where the windows of different applications can become intermingled with one another. Finding the window you want can be like searching, amid the distracting red herrings, for the Purloined Letter: you might not be able to see it even if it’s in plain sight.

To ease the window traffic on your monitor, Apple has provided various devices for helping you see the windows you want to see. In 2003, in Panther, Apple introduced Exposé as a way of letting you switch quickly among all your open windows (or get them all out of the way so you can see your Desktop). Now Leopard introduces Spaces, a true virtual desktops implementation that lets you switch between entire sets of windows at once. Your task is to decide whether you went to use either or both of these, and to customize them with triggers so that you’ll use them readily.

Set Up Exposé

Exposé’s All Windows mode: all windows from all applications appear, the Desktop darkens, and hovering the pointer over a window colors it and shows its title.

Let’s start with Exposé, and in particular with an overview of how to use each of Exposé’s three modes: All Windows, Application Windows, and Desktop. Once you understand these three modes, you’ll be ready to customize Exposé so that you can summon those modes whenever you like. I assume that you have not yet customized Exposé; the keyboard shortcuts I start with (and which you might want to customize) are the Leopard defaults.

All Windows mode Press F9 to see Exposé’s All Windows mode in action. It reduces every open window of all applications to a thumbnail. (By “a thumbnail” I mean that the windows appear at a size small enough, and in such a position, that they all fit on the screen without overlapping; it’s quite clever, really.) You can move from window to window by pressing the arrow keys, and pick the one you want by pressing Return; or use the mouse, hovering over a window to see its name and clicking to select it. To cancel All Windows mode, press F9 again or press Esc (or click the Desktop).

Exposé’s Application Windows mode; all windows of a single application (Safari is shown here) appear simultaneously, while those of other applications are darkened behind them.

Application Windows mode Press F10 to invoke Exposé’s Application Windows mode. It reduces every window of the current application to a thumbnail (Figure xx). The windows of other applications are darkened behind them. Also, once you’re in Application Windows mode, you can decide to see every window of a different application; press Tab or Command-Tab repeatedly to change which application has the focus. As with All Windows mode, you can arrow through the windows or click the mouse to pick one. To cancel, press F10 again or press Esc (or click on the darkened background).

Desktop Mode Press F11 to experience Desktop mode. It shoves all windows outward, revealing almost the entire Desktop. You can now work in the Desktop (and the Finder) normally. To switch out of Desktop mode and restore your windows, press F11 again or click in the darkened region at an edge of the screen.

Warning! In Desktop mode, be careful not to press extraneous keys on the keyboard. The reason is that although no windows are visible, initially you are still “in” the window where you were working when you entered Desktop mode, and key presses will be sent to that window. For example, if you were working in Microsoft Word, and some text was selected, and you then were to enter Desktop mode and hit the A key, the letter “a” would replace the selected text in your Word document. (Guess how I know that?)

Tip In All Windows mode or Application Windows mode, you can press Tab or Command-Tab to switch to Application Windows mode (if you’re not already in it) and see a different program’s windows. In Desktop mode, you can press Command-Tab to choose a different application, cancelling Desktop mode (unless the application you choose is the Finder). And, in any mode, you can switch directly to any other mode by way of its keyboard shortcut or other trigger.

Customize Exposé triggers

Customizing Exposé comes down to picking a congenial trigger mechanism. You can trigger each Exposé mode in one or more of these three ways:

  • Type a keyboard shortcut , possibly involving one or more modifier keys. (As we’ve already seen, Exposé works this way by default: F9 triggers All Windows mode, F10 triggers Application Windows mode, and F11 triggers Desktop mode.)
  • Move the pointer into a corner of the screen , possibly while pressing one or more modifier keys.
  • Click the mouse , possibly while pressing one or more modifier keys.
  • So now we’re off to the Exposé view of the Exposé & Spaces preference pane to set up our triggers. But before we get there, be thinking about what you want your triggers to be! The point of this customization is to help you use Exposé. Exposé is no good to you if you don’t use it. And you won’t use it if the triggers don’t feel easy and natural to you.

    The Exposé view of the Exposé & Spaces preference pane, showing how overcrowded it is. There are three sections; the bottom one is devoted to Dashboard (which isn’t mentioned in the name of the preference pane), and the top one has pop-up menus that involve not only Exposé and Spaces but also Dashboard, the screen saver, and screen dimming (one such menu is shown here).

    The Exposé view of the Exposé & Spaces preference pane is a little bit complicated because it shares real estate between settings for Exposé, Dashboard, and your screen saver (Figure x). But that’s okay; dive right in anyway.

    Corner of the screen trigger In the Exposé view of the Exposé & Spaces preference pane, look at the upper section, called Active Screen Corners. Each pop-up menu represents a corner of your monitor, and contains an item corresponding to an Exposé mode: All Windows, Application Windows, or Desktop.

    To make it so that moving the pointer into a corner of your screen triggers an Exposé mode, choose that mode in that pop-up menu. If you want to require that moving the pointer into a certain corner won’t trigger anything unless you also are already holding down one or more modifier keys—a good idea, since it will then be less likely that you’ll trigger something by accident—hold down the desired modifier keys (Shift, Control, Option, or Command) while choosing from the pop-up menu.

    Keyboard shortcut trigger In the Exposé view of the Exposé & Spaces preference pane, look at the middle section, called Exposé. You will see one or two columns of pop-up menus (depending on whether or not your mouse has extra buttons). The left (or only) column of pop-up menus represents keyboard triggers, each one corresponding to an Exposé mode: All Windows, Application Windows, or Desktop.

    To make it so that pressing a keyboard shortcut triggers an Exposé mode, choose that shortcut in that pop-up menu. Your choices of keys to form the basis of your keyboard shortcuts are the F-keys and the modifier keys. If you want to require that an F-key-based keyboard shortcut should involve one or more modifier keys, hold down the desired modifier keys (Shift, Control, Option, or Command) while choosing from the pop-up menu.

    Warning! The pop-up menus permit you to choose a modifier key (such as Control) all by itself. Most keyboards have a left and right instance of most modifier keys, so you can use one for typing and the other as a trigger; but on a smaller keyboard, don’t assign your only instance of some modifier key as an Exposé trigger, or you won’t be able to use it for typing!

    Mouse button trigger In the Exposé view of the Exposé & Spaces preference pane, look at the middle section, called Exposé. The right column of pop-up menus (if there is one) represents keyboard triggers, each menu corresponding to an Exposé mode: All Windows, Application Windows, or Desktop.

    Note : You won’t see a second column of pop-up menus if you don’t use a mouse or trackball with extra buttons. In that case, you can’t make a mouse button trigger and you may skip this section.

    To make it so that pressing a mouse button triggers an Exposé mode, choose that mouse button in that pop-up menu. If you want to require that the mouse button trigger should involve one or more modifier keys, hold down the desired modifier keys (Shift, Control, Option, or Command) while choosing from the pop-up menu.

    On my desktop computer, this happens to be my preferred way of triggering Exposé. I’ve turned off the non-mouse keyboard shortcuts for Exposé altogether, thus freeing up F9, F10, and F11 for other purposes. Instead, my Logitech trackball has a right button, and I’ve set my triggers for the three Exposé modes to be Command-Right Button, Option-Right Button, and Shift-Right Button. I like these mouse-click shortcuts because they are easy and quick to perform, but just about impossible to perform accidentally.

    Set Up Spaces

    Mac OS X is based on Unix. Since the dawn of Mac OS X, though, users familiar with Unix have complained about the lack of a virtual desktop system , something present in any Unix X-Windows interface. But no longer! In Leopard, virtual desktops are here, and they are called Spaces. If you’ve never used a virtual desktop, you’re in for a treat. But first, understand what a virtual desktop is.

    A virtual desktop—called, in Leopard, a space —is basically a particular set of windows open on your computer. These windows can come from any applications. The idea is that at any given moment, you are working in some space. Any windows you see are part of that space. Any windows you open are part of that space. Even if you hide or minimize a window, it’s part of that space. The space consists of all the windows you’re working with now.

    But there can be more than one space. So, meanwhile, as you’re working in this space, there may be another space consisting of the windows you were working with when you were working in that space. Do you see where this is heading? At any time, you can switch spaces, and presto: all the windows from the current space vanish, and all the windows from the space you just switched to appear.

    It’s actually a little more complicated than that, but not much; a mark of Apple’s implementation of virtual desktops is its deliberate simplicity. Let’s dive in and begin enjoying Spaces.

    Start using Spaces

    Before we get into the various ways you can customize Spaces, I recommend that you set it up with a quick, minimal configuration that will let you start using it immediately, with ease and comfort. Here’s how:

  • Turn on Spaces: Head for the Spaces view of the Exposé & Spaces preference pane. Check the “Enable Spaces” box.
  • Show the Spaces menu: Also check “Show Spaces in menu bar.”
  • Reduce the number of spaces: Click the minus (-) button to the right of the word “Rows.” This will start you off with two spaces (the minimum) instead of four (Apple’s default).
  • You’re now all set with some excellent initial settings for Spaces. You can begin using Spaces immediately, and can perform further customizations at your leisure, once you know more about how you want to use Spaces. Let’s make Spaces do its stuff! Here we go…

    Prepare to switch spaces

    To use Spaces is to switch spaces. For example, at present you’ve got two spaces, numbered 1 and 2. (You can see this in the upper region of the Spaces view of the Exposé & Spaces preference pane.) If you’re in space 1, you might want to switch to space 2. If you’re in space 2, you might want to switch to space 1. There are three ways to switch, and you can use any or all of them.

    Tip: You are about to practice switching spaces. But switching spaces is not much fun if one of your spaces is empty! And if you’re just getting started with Spaces, one of your spaces probably is empty. So here’s my advice: If, as you’re experimenting with switching spaces, you encounter an empty space, start up an application that isn’t already running. Any application will do, but Safari, Mail, iTunes, and iPhoto are good choices because they have big, easily identifiable windows. The presence or absence of this window will clue you in as to which space is currently showing.

    Display all spaces: In this approach, you display all spaces at once, rather like Exposé’s All Windows mode. Then you use arrow keys, Tab, or the mouse to pick a space.

    Displaying all spaces. Here, Safari is in space 1, TextEdit and a Finder window are in space 2.

    You have a choice of many ways to enter All Spaces mode.

  • Click the Spaces icon in the Dock (assuming the Spaces icon is present in the Dock, which, by default, it is, as shown to the right). Try it now!
  • Use a keyboard shortcut . To configure a shortcut, in the Spaces view of the Exposé & Spaces preference pane, use the left (or only) “To activate Spaces” pop-up menu, exactly as I described earlier for the Exposé keyboard shortcut trigger. The default shortcut is F8.
  • Use a mouse button . You won’t have this option unless you use a mouse or trackball with extra buttons. If you do, then in the Spaces view of the Exposé & Spaces preference pane, you can use the right “To activate Spaces” pop-up menu, exactly as I described earlier for the Exposé mouse button trigger.
  • Move the mouse into a screen corner , possibly while holding a modifier key. To configure a corner, switch to the Exposé view of the Exposé & Spaces preference pane, and choose Spaces from one of the the Active Screen Corners pop-up menus, much as I described earlier for Exposé.
  • Use a menu: In this approach, a status menu appears near the right end of your menu bar. It contains numbers representing your spaces. To switch directly to a specific space, choose a number from this menu. To enable or disable this menu, in the Spaces view of the Exposé & Spaces preference pane, check or uncheck “Show Spaces in menu bar.”

    If you’ve been following along and obeying my recommendations, you’ve already enabled this menu. Try it now! Observe that the Spaces menu has a really helpful feature: its icon in your menu bar is the number of the space you’re currently in.

    Use a keyboard shortcut: You get two kinds of keyboard shortcut for switching directly from one space to another:

  • You can switch to the “next” or “previous” space within the rectangular grid of spaces, using modified arrow keys.
  • You can switch to a space by its number, using modified number keys.
  • By default, the modifier for the the arrow keys and the number keys is Control. You’ve got two spaces, so you can switch from one to the other by typing Control-1 or Control-2. (Try it!) And your two spaces are imagined as being side by side, so you can also switch from one to the other by typing Control-Right arrow and Control-Left arrow. (Try it!)

    To configure this approach, in the Spaces view of the Exposé & Spaces preference pane, choose from the two pop-up menus, “To switch between spaces” and “To switch directly to a space.” To ask for multiple modifiers (for example, you might prefer Option-Control-1 instead of Control-1, and so forth), hold the desired modifiers as you choose from the pop-up menu.

    Which method of switching between spaces do I recommend? Well, all of them, really. As a beginner, you may not be fluent with the keyboard shortcuts for switching directly between spaces: you might not easily remember them, or you might not easily envision their numbers or their imaginary arrangement, or you might forget which space is which. In that case, All Spaces mode is most helpful, and you can enter All Spaces mode through the Dock without any keyboard shortcut.

    With time, you’ll develop habits, a knowledge of your triggers, and a spatial “memory,” letting you envision your spaces geometrically and numerically. At that point, you’ll probably abandon All Spaces mode completely; you might switch directly from space to space with the menu or the arrow and number shortcuts.

    Power user tips

    Move Windows Between Spaces An important thing to be able to do with virtual desktops (spaces) is to move a window from one space to another. Since you are always in just one space, how can you possibly do that? If you’re in All Spaces mode, you can drag a miniaturized window directly from one space to another, as you can see here.

    Dragging a window from one space to another

    Otherwise, hold the mouse down on a window’s title bar and switch directly to another space with a keyboard shortcut; the window will “travel” with you to the new space. Or, drag the window to the edge of the screen and pause with the mouse still down and at the screen’s edge; you’ll switch spaces automatically , bringing the window with you.

    Use Exposé Triggers When you’re in All Spaces mode, you can use Exposé triggers. It’s particularly useful if you enter All Spaces mode and then activate your All Windows Exposé trigger. You can now see all your windows in all your spaces; click a window to make it frontmost. The image below shows an example of what this might look like.

    Using Exposé triggers while in All Spaces mode

    Set up the Spaces grid

    At present, if you followed my previous advice, you have just two spaces. But if you’re a wild-eyed Spaces power user, you might want more. You can have them.

    In the Spaces view of the Exposé & Spaces preference pane, the dark area at the top of the window contains a spatial representation of the virtual world that holds your spaces. In this virtual world, your spaces sit in a rectangular grid. The default is a 2-by-2 grid; earlier, we reduced this to a 2-by-1 grid (two side-by-side spaces). If you want to achieve some other arrangement, use the plus (+) and minus (-) buttons labeled “Rows” and “Columns.” For example, you might like to have two spaces, one above the other (a 1-by-2 grid); or you might restore the original 2-by-2 grid; or you might like four spaces in a horizontal row (a 4-by-1 grid); and so forth.

    Make application bindings for Spaces

    The middle section of the Spaces view of the Exposé & Spaces preference pane is called Application Assignments. This section allows you to bind an application—meaning that application and all its windows—to either one particular space or to every space.

    For example, suppose you assign Safari to every space. Then when you switch from one space to another, all of Safari’s windows will still be present. It’s as if Safari stood still, while windows belonging to other applications appear and vanish in accordance with what space they belong to.

    On the other hand, suppose you assign Safari to just space 1. Then all of Safari’s windows must appear only in space 1. If you’re in space 2 and you start up Safari, or open a Safari document in the Finder, or switch to Safari using the Dock or Command-Tab, you automatically switch to space 1.

    Application bindings can be very helpful, but you might not immediately see how you want to use them, and I have no particular advice on the topic. So feel free not to use them at first, or to use them in a tentative way until you develop some preferred working habits.

    [ Matt Neuburg is a TidBITS contributing editor and the author of numerous books about the Mac. His latest is Take Control of Customizing Leopard ( TidBits Publishing Inc., 2007). ]

    Subscribe to the Help Desk Newsletter

    Comments