Put 10.5’s help windows in the background

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Amongst all the nice changes introduced by the release of OS X 10.5, one of the not-so-nice changes in Leopard is the implementation of the help system. In 10.5, when you call up help (for a program that uses Apple’s help system), the help window opens in floating mode—it’s always the frontmost window, and covers anything that happens to fall behind it.

If you’re luck enough to work on dual 30-inch monitors, this probably isn’t a big concern for you…but on my 12-inch PowerBook G4, for instance, with its 1,024x768 screen, the help window becomes pretty much the only thing I can see. Even on a larger screen, having to move the always-floating help window out of the way all the time is a real pain.

Thankfully, Apple included a hidden preference to change this behavior—I don’t know if it was in the original 10.5 release, but I know for sure it’s in both OS X 10.5.2 and 10.5.3. To set 10.5’s help windows to “non floating” mode, open Terminal and enter this command:

defaults write com.apple.helpviewer NormalWindow -bool true

That’s all there is to it—the next time you summon help, the window will switch to the background, just like most any other OS X window. (If, for some reason, you’d ever like to return to the always-floating window, just repeat the above command, but change true to false.)

You won’t, however, be able to use Command-Tab or the dock to bring this window to the foreground; you’ll have to click on it. In 10.5, the help program is a faceless background application, so it doesn’t appear in either the Dock or Command-Tab program switcher. Hopefully, we’ll see a return to the old-fashioned help system, including full Command-Tab and Dock access, in a future OS X update. Until then, though, this fix gets rid of the most annoying “improvement” in the 10.5 help system.

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