Multiple desktops were originally added to Apple’s desktop operating system in 2009, with the release of OS X 10.5 “Leopard” — but a surprising number of users are still surprised to find the feature exists at all.
Apple calls them “spaces” and they allow you to better organize your workspace, reduce distractions, and focus more clearly on the task in hand. It’s time to stop minimizing, maximizing, and juggling windows and take control of your precious screen space!
Why Do I Need More Desktops?
Imagine for a second you were to buy a second monitor for your MacBook — on plugging it in you would have two desktops, allowing you to position windows and work from both in unison. That’s exactly how multiple desktops work in OS X, except you don’t need another monitor in order to take advantage.
You can only ever see or use one of these desktops at once (provided you only have one monitor), but the feature still provides an excellent organisational aid that can help you stay focused by hiding distractions and reducing the need to move windows around constantly.
Rather than opting to set up multiple work and home accounts on my MacBook Pro, I use spaces to keep work and play separate. I have one desktop dedicated to two Google Chrome windows, side-by-side for editing, writing and researching. I have another for my personal Safari browsing session, along with Messages and Mail open at all times. Evernote and Apple’s Calendar app is reserved for a separate space. I also keep one dedicated to software like Photoshop, Audacity and TextWrangler. And not to forget entertainment — my last desktop is for music in the form of Rdio and iTunes.
You can have as many as 16 desktops at any one time (which is probably excessive) and you can use them however you like.
Spaces & Mission Control
Apple’s multiple desktop feature can be found within OS X’s Mission Control screen, accessed either by pressing F3 or using a three-finger upward swipe. You will also find Mission Control in the Applications folder, and you can pin it to the dock or search Spotlight for it if that’s your thing.
To add a new desktop you can hover your mouse in the top-right corner, or hold the Option key to reveal it straight away. When you click this button you will see another desktop is added to the list, and clicking on it will take you straight to it.
In addition to clicking on them in Mission Control, you can navigate between desktops using three-finger horizontal swipes on a trackpad or control+arrow keys on a keyboard.
You can move applications from one desktop to another either by launching Mission Control and dragging them to the space of your choosing or you can grab the window by its title bar and drag it to the edge of the screen. After a brief pause OS X will skip to the next desktop, if it exists.
You can reorder desktops — simply click and drag them. To delete a desktop, hold the Option key and click on the “X” that appears and any applications or windows will be moved to another desktop, rather than closed or lost.
There are a few more handy tips that can make navigating and using applications with multiple desktops even easier.
Head to System Preferences > Keyboard > Shortcuts to find several shortcuts you can enable for quickly switching to a designated desktop. By default these take the form of Control+Number key depending on the desktop you want to quickly access, though you can change the shortcut if you like.
Assign Apps to Specific Desktops
It’s possible to assign applications to specific desktops, so they can always be found in the same place. To assign an app to a desktop first create the desktop (if you haven’t already) and navigate to it. Open your application of choice, and two finger click or control+click its icon in the dock. Under Options select Assign to This Desktop and in future the application will always open in the currently selected space.
Assign Wallpapers to Each Space
Once you’ve created a new desktop, you can use the standard System Preferences > Desktop & Screensaver menu to pick a wallpaper. The wallpaper you choose will remain the same, even if you reorder your desktops.
Speed Up Mission Control Animations
Do you use Mission Control a lot to organise your desktop as you open more apps? Save precious milliseconds by adjusting the time it takes Mission Control to appear by defining how long the animation should run for. Open a Terminal window (either search in Spotlight or find it under Utilities in the Applications folder) and paste the following:
defaults write com.apple.dock expose-animation-duration -float 0.05; killall Dock
You can change this number to whatever you feel like, a larger number introduces more delay so if 0.05 feels a bit sudden, feel free to increase this to 0.15 or higher. In order to restore defaults, simply paste the following into the command line:
defaults delete com.apple.dock expose-animation-duration; killall Dock
It’s also possible to customise the OS X dock with hidden Terminal commands.
Mission Control, Quick Look & Dashboard
If you have a lot of windows on one screen it can be difficult to see what’s what. If you highlight a window with your mouse and press spacebar, Mission Control will zoom in and provide you with a better view.
Wish you could work on more proper desktops? Check out how to use Apple Remote Desktop to manage multiple machines.
Organization is key to a productive workspace, so you might also check out ways to automatically delete downloads on your Mac for a cleaner machine.
Image credit: Current Setup (Matthew Van Kampen)