Everything You Need to Know about Your Mac’s Dock

Tim Brookes 26-02-2015

The dock is to OS X what the Start menu How To Build A Desktop Start Menu Replacement In Windows 8.1 Are you tired of the Modern interface? Windows 8.1 allows you to boot to the desktop. If only the restored Start Button would launch a proper Start Menu! Well, it sort of can. Read More is to Windows (though that comparison worked a lot better four years ago 2015!? No Way Microsoft! How to Get Your Windows 8.1 Start Menu Now Windows 8 won't get a native Start Menu after all. But why wait on Microsoft? Here's how you can help yourself with third party tools like Classic Shell or Start8 and other workarounds. Read More ). It’s the primary way many users interact with Mac OS X, but a lot of people still don’t know some of the most basic and useful things the dock is capable of.


That’s why we have decided to compile everything you need to know about your Mac OS X dock into one compendium of multi-tasking mastery Do More, Better: Enhancing Multitasking in Mac OS X Multitasking is not always a choice. When you have to write up a report, you need access to your text processor, but also to your reference material. While working, I often end up working with... Read More .

You’ll probably know how to do many of these things, but you might also be surprised at what you’ve been missing for all these years.

A Dock of Two Halves

There are two sections to the Mac OS X dock – the left-hand side (or top if your dock is located on either side of your screen) which deals with applications and system items, and the right-hand side (or bottom) which is where you will find the Trash, files, folders and minimised windows.

Everything You Need to Know about Your Mac's Dock twohalves2

This might seem obvious, less so if you’re wondering where that minimised window went. Note that windows that you hide (more on this later) will not appear next to your folders as they are technically not minimised.


Add or Remove Dock Items

There are a few ways of adding an application to your Mac dock. First you can open a new Finder window, choose Applications in the sidebar and then find the app you would like to add. Click and drag the application to the dock – your other icons should move and make space for it – then release to pin it there permanently.

Everything You Need to Know about Your Mac's Dock keepindock

If the application you would like to pin is already open there’s an easier way. Simply two-finger click (or right click, or control+click) on the application and check Options > Keep In Dock.

Files and folders can also be pinned to your dock, but they live on the right-hand side (or bottom) near the Trash. You can click and drag a folder in Finder, or click and drag the Finder window’s icon to grab the currently open directory, and place it on your dock.


Remove & Reorder Items

Apple only requires that two items remain in your dock –Finder and Trash. To remove items from your dock, click and drag the icon away from the dock until “Remove” pops up. Applications can also be removed by unchecking Options > Keep In Dock.

Everything You Need to Know about Your Mac's Dock remove

Note: Currently-open applications will always appear in the dock, whether you have added them or not. If you have removed an application from your dock and it’s still showing up, it’s probably still running.

You can reorder any of your icons (except Finder and Trash) by simply clicking and dragging. Your other icons will make space.


Running & Quitting Apps

When you click the little red “x” in the top-left corner of a window, you’re generally not closing the app itself but just the currently open window. This can be confusing to start with, but if you look at your dock you will see small dots next to currently-running applications to denote which are still active.

Everything You Need to Know about Your Mac's Dock quit

In order to quickly quit an app, two-finger click (control+click) on its icon and choose Quit – you’ll see the dot disappear. If the app is being especially problematic, two-finger click then hold the Option key and Force Quit will appear.

Hiding & Minimising Windows

Clicking on the yellow “–” in the top-left corner of windows will minimise the current window, and doing so will cause it to appear in the right-hand section of the dock near the Trash. Click it again, and you’ll see the familiar Mac OS X “genie” animation as it maximizes again. Simple.


Everything You Need to Know about Your Mac's Dock genie

You can also hide windows using either two-finger click (control+click) and clicking Hide or by using the far more handy keyboard shortcut of command+h. When you hide a window, it will not appear anywhere in your dock – you’ll have to click the respective application item in order to reveal it again.

Assign Apps to Desktops

One particularly handy feature is the ability to tell certain apps to only open on certain desktops. You can add multiple desktops to OS X simply by accessing Mission Control, either by swiping upwards with three fingers or hitting the F3 key on most modern Macs. Hover your mouse in the top-right corner and click the plus “+” that shows up to add a desktop. You can swipe between these using horizontal three finger gestures, or using the control+arrow keys.

Everything You Need to Know about Your Mac's Dock assignapps

To assign an app to a certain desktop, first open it and position it on the desktop you would like to use. Next two-finger click (control+click) its icon in the dock and choose Options > Assign To: This Desktop. Now when you open the app, it will default to the desktop you have chosen. Undo this by choosing Options > Assign To: None.

Drag to Open & Move Files

Mac OS X is a very drag and drop friendly operating system, and one of its best features allows you to open a file by dropping it onto an application icon. There are many uses for this – from dropping a few JPEGs into Photoshop to uploading PDF files to Evernote and even adding MP3s or images to iTunes and iPhoto.

Everything You Need to Know about Your Mac's Dock drag

There are many uses for this like dragging a URL from Safari to Evernote to clip the target webpage or opening certain files in VLC 6 More VLC Media Player Features You Must Try VLC is a media player more powerful than you might realize. Are you using it to its full potential? Here are some pointers. Read More without changing your default application for all movie files. You can drag files straight into pinned folders, too.

Display Folders as Stacks

Another handy feature is the ability to expand folders, so you don’t have to open them in Finder all the time. To do this, two-finger click (control+click) on a folder and choose Display as: Stack. Now, click the folder and its contents will expand from the dock, allowing you to access files or drag items at your leisure.

Everything You Need to Know about Your Mac's Dock stacks

Most folders will default to a grid, which provides a preview of images but isn’t ideal for navigating lots of folders. You can change this to View Content as: List or Fan (pictured above) under the two-finger click menu. You can also use the Sort by attribute to modify the order in which your items appear.

Pinning your Downloads as a stack is one of the best things you can do for your workflow, and the same could be said for the desktop (if you use it), Dropbox, Google Drive and similar cloud-based storage.

Move, Auto-Hide & Other Settings

You can move your dock to the left or right of the screen, in addition to leaving it on the bottom. Personally, I find a dock mounted on the side of my screen takes up less usable space and reduces distractions while working on my Mac Can't Get Anything Done? Block Distractions With Focus For Mac Force yourself to work instead of browsing. Focus is a Mac app that blocks distracting sites that shows you an inspirations quote when you try to visit a site you shouldn't. Read More . You can also enable Magnification, which highlights whatever is underneath your cursor by enlarging it.

Everything You Need to Know about Your Mac's Dock docksettings

You’ll find these settings under System Preferences > Dock among others – like the ability to change the dock size, toggle between animations and automatically hide the dock when not in use, requiring you hover your mouse in the immediate area to access it.

Love it or hate it, the dock can do a lot for your productivity. Did we miss any awesome dock tips and tricks? Tell us in the comments. 

Related topics: Application Dock, Mac Launcher, OS X Mavericks, OS X Yosemite.

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  1. eric
    June 14, 2017 at 1:57 pm

    I still cannot find out how to stop recent files from going to the doc. The icons end up so small as to be useless and since I used office it saves my recents anyways. No where have I found answer to this ugliness.

  2. Neville Neale
    July 19, 2016 at 9:44 am

    There is also the ability to 'Minimise windows into application icon' which I find most useful.

  3. Toaiva Tom Teevale
    June 4, 2015 at 5:33 am

    I need labels of windows minimised to the dock displayed at all times or have the ability to display or not. The only way of telling which one is which is to hover over each icon in the dock.

  4. Doc
    February 28, 2015 at 12:52 am

    I use RocketDock on my Windows machines (at the top), and aside from having a "stacks" docklet (much like a "display as grid" folder) with all my drives and often-used folders in it, it works very much like the Mac Dock, the main difference being I can remove the Trashcan, there is no "Finder"/"Explorer" (My Computer is there by default, but it can be removed), and I can mix files, folders, an analog clock, and other "docklets" (such as a non-animated weather icon that updates regularly) any way I choose.
    Since running applications appear on the Windows Taskbar, there are no minimized icons appearing or disappearing either, although that's an option.

    • Tim Brookes
      March 2, 2015 at 3:14 am

      Interesting stuff! I used Windows for a lot of my life, and I too used to use various docks. StarDock was the one to go for back in the day, though Y'z Dock was probably the closest thing to the OS X dock – so close that Apple issued a warning for the developer to shut down or face legal action.

      I think if I went back to Windows (which is unlikely but possible) I'd have to organise a replacement dock at this stage. It's just too handy.

    • Doc
      March 2, 2015 at 4:03 pm

      I've used Y'z Dock and MobyDock (also MobyDock DX), but aside from occasional (once a month or so) startup issues (the dock appears as a tiny square in the top left corner, and has to be force-closed and restarted), RocketDock has been a rock-solid utility.
      I've also used Free Launch Bar to bring back a "quick launch bar" on one "low-RAM" machine I have, and by tweaking settings, managed to make a 5-column, 2-row "quick launch" with tiny (12px) icons. Neat, out of the way, and useful.