A better Command-Tab

Here at Mac Gems HQ, we’re big fans of Proteron’s $15 LiteSwitch X, which replaces Mac OS X’s Command-Tab application switcher with a more functional version. Like the built-in application switcher, LiteSwitch X pops up an onscreen list of currently-running applications and lets you quickly switch to one by pressing the Tab key until the desired application is highlighted. However, LiteSwitch X improves on several of the built-in switcher’s features and adds a bunch of its own.

Unfortunately, ever since Apple switched to Intel processors, we’ve been stuck using our new Macs without LiteSwitch X, which didn’t work on Intel Macs. But late last week, Proteron released the long-awaited LiteSwitch X 2.6 (   ), a Universal Binary—and my MacBook Pro finally feels right. (In addition to Intel-Mac compatibility, version 2.6 also adds integration with Cocoatech’s Path Finder —if Path Finder, a Finder replacement, is running, LiteSwitch X will use Path Finder instead of the Finder.)

LiteSwitch X

Now, I generally don’t devote an entire column to a piece of software just because it’s now a Universal Binary. But I’m making an exception for LiteSwitch X for two reasons: First, because I consider it to be one of my personal “must install right away” Mac OS X utilities. But second, because I’ve seen a number of questions recently—both in email and on Mac-centric blogs—wondering why someone would spend $15 for “functionality already built into Mac OS X.”

In fact, it was reading such a sentiment over on our own MacUser blog that inspired me to finally sit down and say, “Here’s why.” That and a recent Mac OS X Hints poll that showed that of the nearly 1300 respondents who claimed to use some method of keyboard switching—OS X’s built-in Command-Tab switcher, LiteSwitch X, Keyboard Maestro, or Witch—as the method they most often use to switch between applications, only 3 percent (39 respondents) use LiteSwitch X. Clearly, there’s a lot of “Why would I need that?” going around. (In fairness to LiteSwitch X’s poll numbers, Mac OS X Hints readers tend to be early adopters—I’m sure that more than a few LiteSwitch X fans with Intel Macs were likely using other methods at the time of the poll simply because LiteSwitch X wasn't yet compatible.)

Since my job as Macworld’s resident Gemologist is not only to find Gems, but also to explain why I think they’re so cool, here are the reasons I find LiteSwitch X to be an indispensable utility:

  • LiteSwitch sorts applications properly. What’s “properly"? The current app shows up first in the list, then the most recently used app, and so on. Since you’re more likely to want to switch to an app you used recently than one you haven’t used in a couple hours, this makes for a better switcher, in my opinion. (Tiger’s built-in switcher has improved significantly in this respect compared to earlier versions of the OS, so if you’re using Tiger, this benefit won’t be as big of a deal to you.)
  • LiteSwitch lets you choose your preferred keyboard shortcut. You can’t choose any shortcut, but you get a wide enough variety of choices that you’re likely to find one you like: Command-Tab, Option-Tab, Control-Tab, Command-Return, Option-Return, or Control-Return. With the built-in switcher, it’s Command-Tab or nothing.
  • LiteSwitch makes it easier to cycle backwards . If you’re running Panther or earlier and want to cycle through applications in reverse order using the built-in switcher, you have to use the somewhat awkward keyboard combination Command-Shift-Tab. With LiteSwitch X, you use the much easier Command-Shift or Command-`. (Tiger’s built-in switcher has added Command-` support.)
  • You can perform more actions on the selected application. When an application is highlighted in LiteSwitch’s onscreen display, you can use keyboard commands to quickly switch to it, hide it, quit it, force quit it, or switch to it and hide all other apps. (The built-in switcher gives you options for only switch, hide, and quit.) And if you click-hold (or right-click) on an application’s icon in LiteSwitch’s display, a contextual menu provides additional options: Get Info, Show In Finder, Hide/Show, Switch & Hide Others, remove from LiteSwitch’s display permanently, Relaunch, Quit, Force Relaunch, Force Quit, or Mark for Quit when LiteSwitch exits. (All of these feature are also available via the keyboard—no mousing required.) In many ways, these features (and the next one) make LiteSwitch X a sort of pop-up “Dock.”
  • You can drag-and-drop files onto apps in LiteSwitch’s switcher. For those who keep the Dock hidden, or don’t use the Dock at all, this is a handy feature.
  • You can prevent particular applications from showing up in the switcher. If there are particular applications you never access via the onscreen switcher—DragThing, LaunchBar, and Office Notifications are a few good examples—you can choose to omit them from the display altogether to reduce “switcher clutter.”
  • You can choose to display background applications in the switcher. If there are background-only applications you’d like to be able to access quickly, you can set LiteSwitch to display them. (Used in combination with the previous feature, you can decide which hidden applications appear—a useful approach, considering how many background apps are actually running on some Macs [see the screenshot below].) Although many people will never use this feature, I’ve found it to be, when combined with LiteSwitch’s other features, the quickest way to quit or force-quit a background app. (One feature I’d like to see: a way, when LiteSwitch’s switcher is displayed, to toggle the display of background-only apps. This would be useful for quickly working with background apps—for example, quitting a background process—without having to view backgrounds apps all the time.)
    LiteSwitch X with background apps displayed—who knew there were so many?
  • You can customize window-layering. LiteSwitch’s Window Layering settings let you choose how your windows behave. For example, although some people like OS X’s default approach to application windows—where clicking on a window brings only that window forward, leaving all other windows in the same application where they are—some of us prefer OS 9’s behavior, where clicking one window in an application brings all windows in that application to the front. (Yes, you can approximate this by clicking the application’s Dock icon, but it’s not really the same.) You can bring back this behavior via the Classic Window Mode. Other options include Classic Finder Windows, where Classic Window Mode applies to only the Finder, and Single Application Mode, which brings the chosen application to the front and hides all others.
  • The “re-open event” option is cool. When you switch to an application using Mac OS X’s built-in switcher, nothing else happens. When you switch to an application using the Dock, on the other hand, if there are no documents or windows open in that application, a new one is opened automatically. This is a cool feature of OS X, but you can take advantage of it only if you use the Dock to switch between apps—or if you use LiteSwitch and enable its “send re-open event” option. I use this feature scores of times each day. For example, in order to cut down on screen clutter, I often close Entourage’s main window when I’m done reading mail and I close Activity Monitor’s Activity Monitor window before switching to another application; when I switch back to one of these apps via LiteSwitch, a new main window or Activity Monitor window, respectively, is automatically opened. This feature is also useful for document-centric apps; when I switch to BBEdit, for example, if there’s no document open, I usually want to create a new one.
  • You get more display options. Unlike the built-in switcher, you can change the color and transparency of LiteSwitch’s onscreen overlay; choose the size of icons in the switcher (and, thus, the size of the switcher itself); and choose for hidden applications to appear “grayed out” in the switcher.
  • LiteSwitch works better with OS X’s “Zoom” feature. If you’re visually impaired and use OS X’s Zoom feature, LiteSwitch moves with the screen, letting you easily view the entire application switcher; Mac OS X’s switcher freezes the entire screen, preventing you from viewing the entire switcher (or the rest of the screen, for that matter) while the switcher is displayed.
  • EDIT: You can move the switcher. Don’t like the smack-dab-in-the-middle-of-the-screen location of your Command-Tab switcher? With LiteSwitch X, you can reposition it, using the mouse, higher or lower. You can’t move it horizontally—I’m not sure you’d want to, given that it automatically expands horizontally to accommodate more applications—but vertical movement means that if you prefer, you can have the display appear near the top or bottom of your screen instead of in the middle. (Thanks to Macworld forums member OM_user for this tip!)

Whew! Convinced yet? OK, granted, LiteSwitch X’s appeal is likely limited to OS X geeks, productivity freaks, and those who enjoy power-user tweaks. (I know plenty of people who wouldn’t even notice, let alone take advantage of, the above improvements over OS X’s own switcher.) And even among the target audience, each of LiteSwitch X’s features, by itself, may seem minor. But once they’ve collectively become part of your everyday workflow, LiteSwitch X becomes a major productivity booster (or, at the very least, makes OS X more pleasant to use)—and it does so without making you learn an entirely new way of interacting with your Mac. In fact, I think the best measure of LiteSwitch’s utility is is that when you first start to use it, you hardly notice the differences between it and OS X’s built-in functionality; but after using it for a while, if LiteSwitch is suddenly taken away—say, for example, when Apple releases Macs with new processors inside and LiteSwitch isn’t yet compatible—OS X just doesn’t feel right. LiteSwitch X is one of the first things I install when I get a new Mac—and now that includes Intel-based Macs.

UPDATED 7/24/06, 5:15PM to add description of LiteSwitch X’s location option.

LiteSwitch X 2.6 is a Universal Binary and works with Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger) and later.

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