Take Control of Customizing Leopard: Expose & Spaces

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). ]

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