Lost in Spaces? OS X 10.5.3 will take you home.

  • Feature – The Spaces feature introduced with OS X Leopard has been advertised as a huge time-saver, but its actual implementation only contributed to windows clutter, instead of reducing it. Luckily, a subtle change in the recent OS X 10.5.3 update has addressed this problem, turning Spaces into a valuable tool that you can finally use to group several application windows into task-oriented virtual desktops.

    Among many security and reliability improvements delivered in the recent Mac OS X 10.5.3 system update, a few user-centric improvements went below the radar. One of them is a much improved Spaces feature, actually a subject of criticism since Apple introduced as part of OS X Leopard. Basically a virtual desktop feature well-known to Unix users, Spaces makes it easy to define several virtual desktops and allow users to easily switch between them. For example, one space can be dedicated to web browsing and email activities, another to image editing, another to instant messaging and internet communications etc. This way, a user can reduce a windows clutter, at least in theory. Users can switch between virtual spaces by selecting a user-defined keyboard shortcuts or even show a thumbnail of all spaces at once (similar to the Expose feature) to select a certain space or to drag an application from one space to another.

    That was the intent. The actual implementation, however, made the feature almost unusable. The idea of virtual spaces is to separate tasks, not applications what  Apple ended up doing. It is difficult enough to group a few work-related Safari windows into one space, while assigning the remaining fun-related Safari windows to another space. When windows are grouped in such a way, the Command-Tab shortcut, which normally cycles between all running applications, would misbehave. Instead of switching between the applications' windows in the space you are currently in, it would cycle between all the applications running in all spaces.

    Users have been asking for a solution since Spaces was first introduced with Leopard. It appears that Apple listened and addressed the problem with the latest system update. The update brings a new checkbox in the Spaces panel in System Preferences, labeled "When switching to an application, switch to a space with open windows for the application." It is on by default, but if you turn it off, the Spaces feature works as you would expect it to. It enables you to actually switch only between open application windows in the active space: Once you are in a certain space, you actually stay there until you manually switch to another space by hitting a shortcut key. Unfortunately, the Command-Tab shortcut does not provide any indication which applications have open windows.

    Another useful improvement is the ability to switch to another space by clicking an application's Dock icon multiple times. A single click will activate the application and its window in the current space. If the application has no windows in the current space, no new window will be created. Subsequent clicks on the application icon will take you to the application windows open in other spaces. However, you can run into some inconsistencies with applications that open new content in tabs and not in windows. For example, suppose you set Safari to open links from other applications in a new tab. Now, opening a link from another application in a space with no Safari windows will take you to the next space with a Safari window – and the new tab will be created there. The workaround for this behavior is to change the Safari settings to open links in a new window.

    These subtle improvements make a big difference in OS X Leopard. If you never used Spaces feature and dropped it for the reasons listed above, give it another try.

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