Six unexpected uses for the Application Switcher

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You’ve probably got the basics of the Application Switcher down pat by now: press Command-Tab to see a bar full of running-application icons and keep Command down as you tap the Tab key to quickly switch to the application of your choice. But, as with everything on the Mac, the Application Switcher can do more than you might guess—and it provides while-you-switch options you can’t find in Mission Control.

One general tip: Unless you’re simply moving back and forth between two programs, press Command-Tab and then let go of Tab immediately to keep the Application Switcher on the screen. This lets you see where you’re going, and approach more complex tasks, without the focus racing from one application icon to the next on the bar.

1. Quit all open applications

Say you want to install new software that requires you to quit all your programs. There’s no need to move to every program and quit each individually. Press Command-Tab for the Application Switcher and then, keeping Command down, press and hold Q. Each application quits in turn; you’ll be notified if there are any unsaved changes in documents. Encountering the Finder icon in the Application Switcher stops this quitting process (tab to bypass it and get to the next icon), and if you have an installer program running as in this scenario, you’ll want to skip over that, too.

2. Open a new window

Just as nature allegedly abhors a vacuum, users abhor a window-less application—after all, what can you do if there’s nothing to work in? If you’ve left an application (Microsoft Word, for instance) with all its windows closed or minimized, you can use the Application Switcher to return to it with a window ready for you to work in.

Command-Tab to the program in question and, before you release the Command key, press Option. Release the Command key first, and then the Option key. It’s easier if you use the Option key on the opposite side of the spacebar instead of the one next to the Command key you’re pressing—unless you want to perfect my trick of angling the thumb from the Command key so it also presses Option, then slides off Command, and finally releases Option (really!). If the target program’s windows are all minimized, the most recently minimized one returns to duty. If no windows at all are available, a new one is created. (In programs such as Apple’s Pages or Numbers, if you’ve set a preference for the New command to open the Template Chooser instead of a window, this trick opens the Template Chooser.)

3. Open a document in a different program

When you want to open a document in something other than its default application—a Word file in Pages, say—you can use variations of the Finder’s Open With command. But if the target application is already open (and can handle the document), you can also just drag the file from the Finder onto the Application Switcher bar. The trick is to start the drag operation, and pause it with the mouse button held down, before you press Command-Tab; keep Command down so the bar stays on the screen, and drag the document onto an application’s icon.

4. Bypass the Clipboard

You select a swath of text from a Word document to transfer to a document in InDesign, and realize you can’t copy and paste because you’ll lose what’s already on the Clipboard. You can transfer the selection using the Application Switcher instead.

Application Switcher
Drag and drop a piece of selected text from one application to another using the Application Switcher.
Start dragging the selection in the Word document—move it a little bit and then stop. With the mouse button still down, press Command-Tab. Holding Command down to keep the Switcher open, drag the selection into the InDesign icon. You’ll be switched to InDesign, where you’ll see the usual “ghost” of a dragged selection, just as if you were dragging it within the InDesign document itself. Drag it into position and let go of the mouse button.

Your target window isn’t frontmost in the destination? Hang on to the dragged selection by keeping the mouse button down, and press Command-~ (tilde) to cycle to the correct window. Or, use Command-N to create a new window as a drop target.

You can do this between any applications that let you drag and drop text or graphic. So, for instance, you can start in the Finder with an image file and drop it in Pages.

5. Hide and show background applications

You’re in Pages. You can see only Finder windows in the background, and you want to refer to a Stickies note. You don’t have move to background applications to rearrange windows or to hide them as you leave. Instead, press Command-Tab to open the Application Switcher, tab to highlight the Finder, and, with Command still down, press H to hide the Finder’s windows. When you release the Command key, you’ll still be in Pages.

As of Lion, you can no longer unhide a background application’s windows without being moved to that application: Pressing Command-Tab to select an icon in the Application Switcher and then H makes the hidden windows reappear, but when you release the Command key, you’ll be in that application. Command-~ (tilde) always moves you back to the previously used application (although in this case you can press the ~ key before you let go of the Command key, saving a fraction of second).

6. Trigger “application windows” for any running app

Lion’s Mission Control dethroned Exposé, but a vestige of this older OS X tool remains. While Mission Control shows you all windows for all running applications, you can also choose to see thumbnails of all the windows for a single app. This is variously referred to as “Application Windows” (in Keyboard Shortcuts preferences) or the oddly named “App Exposé” (in Trackpad preferences). The triggers you set up in those preference panes work for the current application, but the Application Switcher lets you see—and move to—the windows for any running program.

Select the target application in opened Switcher by using Tab, the Left or Right arrow key, or a two-finger trackpad swipe. Then, press the Up or Down arrow to see the windows for the highlighted application. At this point, you can use the old Exposé trick for arranging its windows alphabetically: Press Command-1. But you can also jump right to the alphabetical arrangement from the Application Switcher. Instead of using the Up or Down arrow key to open Exposé, highlight the application you want and press the 1 key (the Command key is already down), for a couple of seconds.

Bonus tip for trackpad users

Are you a Magic Trackpad or laptop user? Once the Application Switcher is on your screen (you must keep the Command key down), you can use your trackpad to navigate and select something from it.

The most obvious way is to use your finger to move the cursor to select an application and click it. A less obvious, but quicker way to navigate a long Application Switcher bar is to use a two-finger swipe when it’s open: applications are quickly highlighted in turn, and the selection wraps when you reach either end of the bar. Pressing Return moves you to the selected application, while your cursor remains in the position where it started, instead of, perhaps, at the far edge of your screen.

You’ll find other useful tips from Mac author Sharon Zardetto in her ebook, Take Control of Safari 5.

[Editor’s note: This story was updated in 11/2011 for Lion compatibility.]

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