Much is being made lately of Microsoft Windows 7 and it’s new taskbar. I’ve been running the beta myself and consider it a nice improvement over Vista. One of the improvements is in the area of window management. The new taskbar shows previews of all the […]

spacesviewMuch is being made lately of Microsoft Windows 7 and it’s new taskbar. I’ve been running the beta myself and consider it a nice improvement over Vista. One of the improvements is in the area of window management. The new taskbar shows previews of all the open windows in an app when you hover the mouse over it, and will switch to that window if you click it. 

While the above is nice, I’ve seen a few comparisons of this windows management to that of Apple’s Dock. The problem there is that OS X’s windows management is not handled by the Dock. About the only “window management” you get from the dock is that if you right-click an icon the popup menu will list open windows. Big deal. 

If you want to compare Windows 7’s windows management to that of OS X, then you have to compare the new taskbar features to that of Apple’s Expose and Spaces. In this comparison, in my opinion, Windows 7 falls far short. 

spaces-prefsOne thing to consider is that Spaces is fully customizable, and you really should look into the way you work and set it accordingly. By default there are four spaces, but for my work I decided that six made the most sense. I’ve set them up as follows: 

  • Space 1 – My information space. Mail, Address Book and iCal run here. 
  • Space 2 – My “web” space. NetNewsWire and Safari run here. I probably spend more time in this space than any other. 
  • Space 3 – My music space. Generally, iTunes is always running here, and GarageBand opens here as well. 
  • Space 4 – My productivity space. All the iWorks apps open here. 
  • Space 5 – My media space. Aperture, iPhoto, iMovie, Graphic Converter, and others open here. 
  • Space 6 – My “Microsoft” space. VMWare Fusion (I have VMs for XP and Win7) and Microsoft’s Remote Desktop open here. So does Firefox, since its home page is set to quickly check my Outlook email. 

In addition to the above, I have numerous apps designated to “float” from space to space. Essentially, these follow me to any space I enter. A few of these are: 

  • iChat
  • TextEdit
  • Preview
  • Finder
  • Dictionary
  • Skitch

There are more, but the idea is these are apps I don’t want to be “cut off” from just by swapping spaces. 

With all the above, Spaces and Expose work beautifully together to make a boatload of open apps and windows seems trivial. Easiest way to show this is via some screenshots. 

Below is Space 5 (you can see the number in the menu bar). I generally run my media apps full screen. 


Below is the same space with Expose activated. You can see I have TextEdit and iChat open, and since they follow me from space to space they are available here. 


Below is Space 5 with Spaces activated. You can see all I’ve got going on with this shot. The front window in each space is what happens to be in front at the time I invoked spaces. 


Now let’s take this to the final step, and invoke Expose after Spaces. You can see that every window is available to me with just a click, no matter what space it’s in. 


I am constantly switching windows, so another important form of customization is in how you choose to invoke Expose and Spaces. 

On later model Macs F3 invokes Expose, and on the unibody MacBooks a four-finger swipe down does the same thing. Since I think the glass trackpad on the unibodies is one of he greatest Apple advancements in recent years, I always use it to invoke Expose. However, aside from the four-finger gesture, I’ve set it to activate when I move to the upper right screen corner. As for Spaces, by default it’s in the Dock, but I remove that and invoke it by moving the cursor to the lower left screen corner. Since I’m right-handed, the gestures to lower-left and upper-right screen corners are most natural to me, and make switching windows incredibly fast. 

The beauty of Apple’s windows management implementation is that by spreading out your apps among various spaces, no one space ever tends to overwhelm you. Personally, I never need to hide apps any more. 

Further, there are customizations of Spaces for switching between spaces, or switching directly to a space, with the keyboard. And Expose has customizations to show all windows, or just those of the current app, or clearing all windows and showing just the desktop. The latter is particularly helpful in that once the desktop is exposed it’s “live”. By that I mean you don’t just get to view it, as Windows 7’s desktop feature allows, but you can actually grab icons and “hold” them while sliding the app windows back in “underneath” what you’re holding.  

In my opinion, Mac OS X’s windows management is still light-years ahead of Windows 7. If you’re not taking advantage of what OS X offers in this regard, then you’re missing out on some very efficient ways to work.

  1. ApplesAndOranges Wednesday, February 18, 2009

    I think you are trying to compare apple and oranges (no pun intended). Spaces is nice yes, even though it was “borrowed” from Virtue Desktop but you cannot compare it to the new taskbar in Windows 7 – they are completely different in what they are trying to achieve in terms of user experience.

    Also, I think your review seems to be more about how you organise your desktop than about sujectively examining features in each OS. That’s a shame because you had a great opportunity to call out the great features in both OS’. No doubt you’ll get all defensive about this comment and claim I am mad. Oh well, remember the golden rule – all feedback is good feedback.

    1. Brian Lee Siew Hong Thursday, March 4, 2010

      On the contrary, I think the article’s main goal wasn’t to compare features, but give an overview on how windows are managed on OS X, and how he prefers that to how they’re managed on Windows (oh the irony).

      Again, he’s just showing you how he does it, and saying that he likes it better. There’s nothing to be defensive about, really.

  2. I will be damn. I have been experimenting for week and I have come up with a setup almost identical to yours. However, the article did gave me some further insight, like which apps to live to all spaces and invoking expose after spaces. Man, that is so cool.
    Thanks again.
    I am overjoyed to see that other more enlightened OS X people have reached the same conclusion as I have even though I have a Mac for only 8 months now

  3. How do you manage to get an Application to ‘follow’ you from space to space? I use Adium and would love it to follow me when I switch spaces…

  4. Apples and Oranges,

    “… you cannot compare it [Spaces] to the new taskbar in Windows 7″

    I’m trying to avoid that very thing. I’m comparing Mac OS X’s windows management to Windows 7’s. The former’s is handled primarily via Expose/Spaces, the latter’s primarily via the taskbar.

    It’s tempting to compare the taskbar directly to the OS X Dock. But it’s also simplistic. The fact is when comparing specific OS functionality I think you have to include the various tools each OS provides for a given function. It’s certainly just fine that Win7 uses the taskbar mainly for this, but it doesn’t mean Apple is wrong to not use the Dock.

    The point of the article was that when the various windows management tools are taken into consideration, my opinion is that Apple has much better window management/switching.

    “I think your review seems to be more about how you organise your desktop than about sujectively examining features in each OS.”

    I hope not, but I felt that if I didn’t give a specific set of examples for Spaces, it would be hard to even explain it, much less show it.

    “That’s a shame because you had a great opportunity to call out the great features in both OS’.”

    That would take a HUGE article, a.k.a. “a book”. :-) The headline I hoped made it clear I was discussing windows management only.

    “remember the golden rule – all feedback is good feedback.”

    Indeed. I found yours thoughtful and appreciated it. Maybe trying to compare specific functionality of the OSes via their various tools will prove too confusing. Perhaps that’s why I’ve seen the simple “taskbar vs. Dock” comparisons that prompted my article in the first place.

  5. PiperSon,

    In Spaces Preferences, when you add an application you can assign it a specific space number, or an item called “Every Space”. Any application set to “Every Space” does just that: Shows up in every space. I have a dozen apps set that way currently.

  6. I’m not necessarily in disagreement with your opinion Tom, but Windows Management is more than “The new taskbar shows previews of all the open windows in an app when you hover the mouse over it, and will switch to that window if you click it.” That’s about all you either tried in Windows 7 or all you decided to point it. Not sure which. :)

    What about the Aero Peek function, for example? When you have multiple apps open you can hover over the preview in the taskbar, making all other active windows transparent.

    Or how about the little sliver of a button on the far right side of the taskbar? Hover the mouse over it and all windows melt away to display the desktop.

    No there’s no native virtual desktops (although that can be added), but Windows Management is more than you implied. Regardless, I’m a huge fan of Expose; I’ll have to give Spaces another try with the examples you gave.

  7. Kevin,

    I mentioned Win 7’s desktop function, pointing out that Apple’s presents a “live” view of the desktop that allows you to “pick up” an icon and hold it “over” the windows as they come back to the desktop.

    You are correct, however, that I did not point out that the Windows preview in the taskbar can be shown by itself when hovered over. Mea culpa, and thanks for reminding me.

  8. I don’t like the whole “hover the mouse over this miniscule target” thing that Windows 7 is bringing in to vogue.

    With Exposé, you take a deliberate action (for me it’s pressing the button behind the scroll wheel on my Logitech Mx5xx mouse) and you are presented with “Spaces”. Press another button (for me it’s the second thumb button on the same mouse) and you see all windows for each space.

    In Vista we already get a minature preview of the window when you mouse over the task bar buttons, and I find that I have to keep moving my mouse to get rid of the little windows that want to keep popping up while I’m busy with my mouse-intensive interfaces. I didn’t take any deliberate action to make that preview pop up, but I do have to take deliberate action to make it get the heck out of my way.

    As an example of how annoying the Windows Vista preview nonsense is, I’ll be playing EVE Online and Windows decides that my moving the mouse pointer to the bottom of the screen is a cue to display a preview of some other application – but what I actually wanted to do is click the “stop my ship blowing up” button. Of course if I am too slow I end up switching to the other application instead (“Hey!” says Windows, “I was just doing what you asked me to do!”), and by the time I’ve switched back to EVE my ship has blown up.

    As for ApplesAndOranges – trying to compare the Windows 7 taskbar to the Mac OS X Dock makes even less sense than comparing the W7 taskbar to Exposé. At least the taskbar and Exposé are about window management. The Dock is there for “gee whiz” factor and to be a default launcher application for people who don’t like using Finder.

    It’s also worth noting that unless I’m in a web browser, most of those fancy buttons on my Logitech mouse serve no purpose. At least the Mac knows how to handle multi-button mouses.

  9. Tom & others: I tend to use spaces to organise stuff by “purpose” or “project.”

    So for example right now I have Mail, Adium, iCal, AddressBook and Colloquy in my “communications” space. Over there in my “distractions” space, Omniweb is open to my LiveJournal, there’s NetNewsWireLite, and another OmniWeb window open with my Delicious bookmarks. Next is the “Web App” space where I have OmniWeb showing my Trac (project management) & web application pages, terminal open for all the Unix-ish stuff and BBEdit with my source files. The fourth space is my “EVE Online” space where I have EVE Online running, along with OmniWeb windows for various sites of interest while I’m playing EVE, Colloquy which is connected to the #eve-online channel on Coldfront, and a bunch of other stuff.

    So there are at least two completely different ways of organising your Spaces :)

  10. Not to mention the fact you can drag windows and spaces around from one space to another whilst in spaces and expose mode. Brilliant.


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