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OS X 101: Secrets of the Dock, Part 1

The Dock is OS X’s command center. Although it seems to be a simple thing, it has more features than you might imagine, and it has power over things you might not expect it to. The Dock lets you know which programs are running (any application with a black triangle underneath its icon). It lets you store applications for easy launching. (Drag the application from the Finder into the left side of the Dock.) And it allows you to store folders, other objects, and—temporarily—program windows in its right pane.

Custom Dock You alter the Dock’s behavior through the Dock preference pane. This is where you can control the Dock’s size, magnification (whether it uses the zoom-in effect when you mouse over an icon), screen position, and bouncing-icon effect, and it’s where you choose whether it remains visible at all times. You can also set some of these items by choosing Apple: Dock or by using the hidden contextual menu in the Dock itself. Just control-click anywhere near the Dock’s dividing line, and you’ll see a secret pop-up menu that offers the same entries as the Apple menu item.

And each icon in the Dock has a contextual menu associated with it. You can activate these menus by clicking and holding on the icon for a second. To avoid the delay, control-click on the icon, or use the right mouse button if you have a multibutton mouse. In OS X 10.3 (Panther), the standard contextual-menu options let you choose any program’s open window, show the program in the Finder, hide its windows, or quit it. OS X 10.4 (Tiger) also lets you add the program to your login items—a handy time-saver.

Application-Specific Tricks Some programs may have additional useful features buried in their contextual menus. The iTunes menu, for instance, includes information on the currently playing song, and it lets you switch tracks or pause the player. This is a great way to manage your music without having to stop what you’re doing. (Contextual-menu selections from the Dock don’t activate the associated application.)

System Preferences’ contextual menu lets you quickly select any preference pane, which is great when you know exactly what you want to do. Click on other programs’ Dock icons to see what they have to offer (see the screenshot).

Dock Shortcuts Want to find a docked program in the Finder without using the contextual menus? Just Command-click on the icon: the folder holding the program will open in a Finder window. To hide the current program’s windows when switching to another program, hold down the option key before clicking on the new program’s Dock icon. You can hide all open windows, other than the next program you’ll use, by pressing Command-option and clicking on the icon of the program you want to switch to. To restart the Finder, hold down the option key, and then click and hold on the Finder icon. You’ll see a Relaunch entry at the bottom of the pop-up menu. This is different from clicking and holding on the Finder icon and then pressing the option key: that changes the Hide option to Hide Others (the latter works for any program in the Dock, and it changes Quit to Force Quit for everything but the Finder).

Big Dock, Little Dock Sure, you can resize the Dock by dragging the vertical bar that splits the two sides. But the Dock also has a series of preferred sizes. If your computer relies on these predrawn icons, it doesn’t have to spend time interpolating (or guessing) what an icon should look like, based on the nearest defined size. Using the preferred sizes makes your icons appear sharper. Hold down the option key before dragging the divider line; the Dock will resize in steps, showing only its preferred sizes.

Next month, we’ll discuss the right side of the Dock and some of the great things you can do over there.

The Dock’s useful options vary by application. Mail’s contextual menu lets you compose a message or check for new messages.
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