Mac 101: Dealing with the Dock

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One has views on the matter

We’ve got application icons down cold. Now let’s talk about other items you can place in the Dock. We’ll start with the generic-looking About Downloads item that appears just to the left of the Trash. What is that thing?

Broadly, it’s a hint at how folders are represented in the Dock. Click and hold on that document, and you see a couple of items—About Downloads and Open in Finder—spout up from the Dock. If you’ve downloaded a few other items, they will appear here too.

The glory that is Fan view

What you’re looking at is one of the Dock’s folder views. This one is called Fan view. In Fan view you can see the icons for up to eight documents. When a ninth document is added, the icon at the top reads 1 More in Finder. Add another document, and that changes to 2 More in Finder. If you click that 2 More in Finder button, the folder opens to reveal its contents. Also, when an item is added to this folder, its icon appears in the Dock when the fan is collapsed, thus helping you to recall the last thing you downloaded.

As you can imagine, this view isn’t terribly helpful if you have two dozen (or more) items in a folder. Fortunately, the Mac OS is fairly intuitive about the views it presents. For example, navigate to the Applications folder at the root level of your hard drive, and drag it to the right side of the Dock; you’ll still see the first icon in the folder, but if you click on that icon you don’t see Fan view. Instead, you’re looking at Grid view, where your applications are arranged in a rectangular window. This is a scrollable window, so if you don’t see all your applications, just scroll down to expose them. To launch an application, click it. To open this folder, scroll to the bottom of the grid and click Open in Finder. To collapse the window, either click outside of it or click the downward-pointing arrow that appears under the window.

Dock folders with loads of items will appear in Grid view.

I’m sympathetic to the cries of “Chris, as much as I love the eye candy, this doesn’t seem like the most efficient way to browse through a folder packed with files.” You’re right, it’s not. Thankfully, you have options.

Hold down the Control key and click one of these folders. Ah ha! Here’s where the magic happens. You can now choose exactly how you’d like to display this folder’s contents.

Skipping the sort options for a moment, you can choose a Folder or Stack display. The Stack display is the one that shows an item’s icon with some clutter behind, indicating that more files are in the folder. Exactly which icon displays depends on how you’ve configured the folder’s sorting options (which we’ll get to shortly). The Folder view simply shows a folder icon. If it’s one of Apple’s “special” folders—System, Library, Users, Applications, Desktop, Documents, Downloads, Movies, Music, Pictures, Public, or Utilities—the folder will bear an identifying icon.

In the menu’s View Content As area below, you can choose one of four options: Fan, Grid, List, or Automatic. You understand what Fan and Grid views are. List view is the way we old-time Mac users used to view files from the Dock: Choose this view, click a folder, and a scrollable list of items appears. Any item with a right-pointing triangle next to it bears subfolders—folders inside that folder. Select one of those items, and a submenu appears, which shows you the contents of that folder. See a triangle there too? Yep, you’ve found another folder. Select it, and you’ll see the contents of that folder. This is called a hierarchical menu, one that allows you to dig down through many layers using this folders-with-triangles scheme. To launch an item in this view, just select it and click.

My favorite is List view

The Automatic option is almost always chosen by default, but that default will select either Fan or Grid view, not List view. Personally, as a longtime Mac user, one of the first things I do is change these views. I always choose to display items as folders and in List view. I find the Fan view impractical as it doesn’t display enough items, and Grid view seems a waste of space. For quicker navigation, give me a list every time.

Now, back to the Sort By area. Regardless of which view you select, you can choose the way in which the items in a folder are displayed. Your choices are Name, Date Added, Date Modified, Date Created, and Kind. The default Downloads folder, for example, is sorted by Date Added, which makes sense as you likely want quick access to the last thing you downloaded. For my Applications folder, however, I want items in alphabetical order, so I choose Name. How you elect to sort your folders is, of course, entirely up to you.

Getting trashed

Before we leave the Dock, I have to note that something smells a little funny over there on the far right side. And that would be the Trash. Let’s go dumpster diving!

The Trash is good for a couple of things. As its name implies, it’s where you drag files that you no longer want. If you do that to an empty Trash, you hear a paper-crinkling sound effect and the icon shows paper within the trash can. To dump the Trash, choose Finder > Empty Trash. The contents of the Trash will be removed from a directory the Mac OS maintains that lists all the files on your computer. Although the items’ directory listings may be gone, the files themselves aren’t—they’re still on your Mac. However, with their directory listing missing, the Mac OS now grants permission for the storage area currently reserved for these files to be available for storing other files, basically allowing the Mac to overwrite that portion of the storage medium when it wants to.

If you find this arrangement worrisome—you want your trashed files to be gone for good and all—you can instead choose File > Secure Empty Trash. Invoke this command, and the Mac will not only remove the files’ directory listings but also overwrite the space they occupied with nonsense data, which is secure enough for the vast majority of people. (If you’re an International Man of Mystery, naturally you’ll want to take sterner measures.) Note that when you choose this option, the Mac takes longer to empty the Trash.

If you’ve thought better of trashing one item or another, you can easily recover the item provided that you haven’t emptied the Trash. Just double-click the Trash icon to open the Trash folder, and then drag out the files that you want to keep.

The Trash serves an additional purpose, one that’s left over from the old days of Macintosh computing. If you want to remove a hunk of external media from your Mac—say, a mounted CD, a USB key drive, a classic iPod, or an external hard drive connected via USB, FireWire, or Thunderbolt—you drag that item’s icon to the Trash to eject or unmount it.

When you start to drag one of these things, the Trash icon changes to an Eject icon, making it easier to understand that you’re not throwing away the contents of whatever’s stored on the item but rather simply disengaging it from your Mac. When the item’s icon disappears, it’s safe to unplug the device.

Next week: Marching into System Preferences

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