I’ve been using multiple virtual desktops for years, in just about every operating system imaginable. Since sometime in 2004 I’ve used them in OS X, generally in the form of the now-mostly-defunct Desktop Manager. It’s a fairly good program, but lately I kept noticing an error reading: “
As I mentioned, Desktop Manager is dead, for all intents – still downloadable, but no one’s really expecting any further updates, and the Softpedia link to the latest update, 0.5.4, is really a link to 0.5.3. I’m not expecting the error to go away, so I was looking for another virtual desktop application. I went through a number of others, and just as I was about to give up – Apple announced Spaces. So, more than most other things, I was looking forward to Spaces.
Sadly, it’s not nearly the beauty I’d hoped. Yes, it does have all of Apple’s usual flash, but in many ways, it’s sadly lacking.
First, the pager. Many virtual desktop applications have some sort of visual pager, to allow the user to switch easily from desktop to desktop. My favorite is Desktop Manager’s convenient menubar visual pager, a series of boxes with an outline of the windows open on each. Spaces, in contrast, has one of the worst pagers I have ever seen – a tiny box in the menubar, with the number of the current desktop centered in it. There is no image at all of what’s where; it rather reminds me of the Virtual Desktops PowerToy that you can add to Windows, a sad excuse for a proper multiple desktop environment. Click on this box, and you will see a list of your desktops by number. You can also switch from one desktop to the next by means of configurable hotkey combinations, as with more desktop managers.
This is, however, somewhat compensated for by the Expose-like effect that Spaces has. Activated by F8 by default but remappable, this mode shows a full image of the various windows on each desktop. This kind of highly-visual rendering seems to be a theme in Leopard – document icons appear as an image of the document now, too. This view also lets you move windows from one desktop to another, simply by dragging. I would like to be able to see the dock and menubar in this view – it’s frustrating to move a full-screen window to a new desktop and find that you can’t reach any buttons because it’s stuck behind the dock. (I leave my dock visible on the left-hand side.)
A feature I like much more, though, is the ability to drag windows to other desktops. Grab a window, slide it off the side, and it will appear on the new desktop. This is a nicely-orchestrated switch; the window retains focus, and it seems that the desktop itself is sliding under the window. I have heard complaints that this seems too spontaneous; in fact, I often have trouble triggering it when I want to.
The drawback to this seems to be that this is the only way to move windows. You have to drag them in one of the views. I’m used to minimizing the window, switching desktops, and then reopening the window. In Spaces, this behavior takes you back to the desktop you just came from.
Spaces also lets you lock an application to a desktop, a feature often missing in desktop managers, including my personal favorite. All windows from that application – including my personal love-hate object Adium, and its ever-renewing chat and error messages – spawn on that desktop and only that desktop. Click on the application icon and Spaces will take you to the right desktop. And that goes for any application, not just those locked to a desktop.
The big feature that keeps me using Spaces, though? Interoperability. Spaces is smart; it sees and works with my existing virtual desktop solution. This means that I can have everything – the menubar pager and the app locking, for instance. When you fire up Spaces for the first time, if you have a virtual desktop program running, Spaces sees it and sorts your applications to the desktops your other manager had been using, seamlessly.