Hands-on with Spaces, Mission Control, and Split View in El Capitan

Learn how to use these features in El Capitan to make your desktop more manageable.

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OS X offers different tools for working with multiple applications and windows, allowing you to switch apps by clicking icons in the Dock, or by pressing Command-Tab and using the Application Switcher. But if you work with more than two or three apps, you may find that your display becomes messy. I generally have at least a half-dozen applications open at any time, and having all those windows on my display can make things confusing.

Fortunately, El Capitan lets you use Spaces, or virtual desktops, to organize your windows, and keep your apps from becoming unwieldy. Spaces are part of Mission Control, a built-in feature that lets you glance at every currently open app and window on your computer. You can access Mission Control in several ways:

  • Click the Mission Control icon in the Dock;
  • Press Control-Up Arrow;
  • Press F3;
  • Perform a three-finger upward swipe on a multitouch trackpad;
  • Move your cursor to a hot corner (see this article to learn how to set hot corners).

Why Spaces?

Spaces lets you create multiple “desktops,” organizing your apps and windows so they’re visible on separate desktops, instead of all on the same desktop. When you want to view a specific app, you can switch to that app, or to its space, and see it without obstructions. And, using Mission Control, you can get a bird’s eye view of all your spaces, and all your windows. Here’s what my Mac looks like in Mission Control:


My MacBook with Spaces.

As you can see, I have four Desktops, or spaces, and iTunes is labeled as being in its own space. (When you activate Mission Control to see spaces, you’ll first only see the names of the desktops in the top row; slide your cursor to the top of your display to see thumbnails of each of the spaces, as in the screenshot above.) iTunes gets a named space because it’s in full-screen mode (choose View > Enter Full Screen to activate this). The Dock, which is normally hidden on my display, also slides out from the side when I activate Mission Control.

In order to ensure that I can work efficiently and without interruption, I have set up my apps in different spaces. For example, the first Desktop has a Finder window and Safari. The second desktop has Tweetbot, my Twitter client. The next one has Mail. And iTunes is on its own. When I’m writing, I have whichever app I’m using for writing—today it’s iA Writer—open as well. If I need to work with other apps, I add them to other spaces. I also keep an empty space with a white desktop background for when I need to take screenshots of windows without anything distracting behind them. (You can set a different desktop background to each space.)

On my iMac, where I do most of my work, I have a couple more spaces, for apps like Evernote and Todoist, and a space for my calendar app (Fantastical), which, while not in full-screen mode, is large enough to fill my display, making it easy to see my appointments and tasks.

You can switch among your spaces in three ways, even if Mission Control isn’t visible:

  • Press Control-Left Arrow or Control-Right Arrow;
  • Swipe to the left or right with three fingers;
  • Switch to an application in a different space. This takes you to that application’s window in its space.

Organizing apps in Spaces

You can add as many spaces as you want. Invoke Mission Control and click the “+” button at the top-right of the window. This adds a new space to the right of the existing, numbered desktops, but to the left of any apps that are in full-screen mode.

If you’re in a specific space and you launch an app, that app opens in the current space. But the next time you open it, you may be in a different space. One way to stay organized with Spaces is to pin apps to specific spaces. To do this, open any app in a specific space, and click on its Dock icon. Choose Options, and you’ll see the Assign To section lets you choose All Desktops, This Desktop, or None.


Assign apps to spaces from the Dock.

The first choice means that the app will display no matter which space you’re in. I use this for the Finder, so I can always access my Finder windows. Setting an app to This Desktop means it only shows up in a specific space; when you switch to the app by clicking its Dock icon, or by pressing Command-Tab, El Capitan takes you to its space. And setting this to None means that apps display only in the Spaces where you open them.

Split View

El Capitan introduces the new Split View. You can have two windows display side-by-side without having to manually resize the windows to get them to fit. To do this, click and hold the green zoom button on one window. Release this button, and that window fills the left half of the display. Move your cursor to the right side of your display and click a window. That window expands to fill the other half of the display. You can also initiate Split View by invoking Mission Control, dragging a window to the top bar, then dragging another window on top of it.

You can drag the divider between the windows, if you wish, to show more or less of each one. And these two windows are a space; if you invoke Mission Control, you’ll see a desktop named with the two apps. To exit Split View, hover your cursor over that space and click the double-arrow button that displays at the top-left corner.


The double-arrow button attached to a split-screen space lets you restore your windows to their previous sizes and locations.

You can also click the green zoom button again for one of the apps in Split View. That app returns to its normal view, but the second app remains in a space in full-screen view. Click its green zoom button to exit full-screen view.

Spaces helps resolve the distracting problem of working with multiple apps. Learning how to set up Spaces, and how to organize your virtual desktops, can make working with lots of apps much smoother. This is especially useful on a laptop with a small display, but you may find, like me, that using this on any Mac makes it easier to work.

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