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Spaces Review

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Spaces Icon 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 It’s a fairly good program, but lately I kept noticing an error reading: “: The function `CGSUniqueCString' is obsolete and will be removed in an upcoming update. Unfortunately, this application, or a library it uses, is using this obsolete function, and is thereby contributing to an overall degradation of system performance. Please use `CFSTR' instead.” Troubling.

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.

Spaces 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.

Spaces Screenshot

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.

23 Responses to “Spaces Review”

  1. TinyElvis: It would not be a bad idea making every space an individual desktop, it would actually make it less cluttered. How the OS handles it is no biggie, how does OS X know what to do when you Apple-Tab? How does the iPhone know how to predict what you wnated to type when you make a typo?

    There are VMs out there that lets you get a true virtual desktop and makes it easier to handle. If you want space 1 to be web browsing, space 2 to be programming and such then it makes sense to only be able to access the programs associated to that space when tabbing.

    Alternativly you could have one combination for tabbing between all programs and one combination for just tabbing between programs associated to that space.

  2. One additional trick to switching spaces is to use your “Expose” hot corners for Spaces instead. Then switching can be done with the control-keys or with just a flick of the mouse, depending upon where your hands happen to be at the moment.
    With most of my windows assigned to various Spaces, I hardly use nor need Expose any more.
    Quite a few more tips to making Spaces more useful can be found at under: Confessions of a Space-oholic

  3. I was using Virtues for a while and it too allowed you to have different desktops for each “space’. this was really helpful to identify which “space” you were in.

    Maybe in 10.5.1?

  4. You Control:Desktops is the best virtual desktop program I’ve found–better than Spaces. You can customize each desktop; you can control which of your desktops appear as icons in the menubar; you can control which and where your apps will be seen. It’s great.

  5. Eric,

    Time Machine does support shared-network folders for backup. I have my Mac Book set to sync to a shared folder on my Mac mini. The catch seems to, unfortunately, be that the other machine needs to run Leopard too.

  6. After using Leopard for about a week now, there are a few glaring omissions in an otherwise great operating system. I’ll try to itemize and explain these the best I can.

    * Spaces:
    Spaces is missing a few key features that I feel would be greatly beneficial.
    1) Allow me to name the spaces. I’m probably never going to assign an application to a
    certain space, but move things around and my current task changes.

    2) Show the dock in the spaces view.
    3) Show window positions (outline) in the pager, and simply outline the currently
    selected desktop. A number really means very little.

    I feel you’ve tried to reinvent the wheel. Linux/BSD have had virtual desktops for a while, take some lessons from their development.

    * Stacks:
    It is my opinion that stacks, in it’s current form, is broken. I should not be
    required to use them in every instance. The biggest of these examples would be
    the Applications and Utilities folders I have located on my dock. Currently,
    with stacks, my Applications folder looks as if it’s another link to my Address
    Book. My Utilities folder looks like a link to Activity Monitor. I recommend
    the following additions or changes:

    1) Allow me to disable Stacks, on a per-folder basis, if possible.
    2) Allow me to set the icon for a stack. There are cases, like the downloads folder
    where I would like to keep stacks, but I hate the dynamic icons.

    * Mail:
    Please, please, please, build in support for GnuPG!

    * Time Machine:
    It would be nice if Time Machine supported *any* network accessible shared drive.
    At home, we have a server with RAID/etc setup for backups. Currently, I back up
    my Mac Book Pro and my Powerbook G4 via rsync across my network. Really, there
    shouldn’t be any reason Time Machine shouldn’t support this. I would like to
    see the following additions to Time Machine:

    1) Support for “locations” and networks devices.
    It would be nice if I could have a folder for work, that was backed up via
    Time Machine to a work-accessible back up host. When I’m at home, let me
    back up to my USB/Firewire HDD.
    2) Support for network backup devices via AFP, Samba, and ssh/rsync.

  7. If you open the Find dialog for a Pages document in one space, trying to do a Find on a Pages document in any other space switches you back to where the Find dialog first came up. Not very helpful.

    I’ve also experienced trying to switch to an app in another space (NewsFire) not actually changing the space to that app. Right application focus, wrong space. Doh.

    A real shame for an otherwise incredibly well-implemented feature. I hope Apple are aware of these issues.

  8. My only complaint about spaces is that I can’t have different icons on the desktop in different spaces. Whatever icons are the desktop in one space are automatically on the desktop in all other spaces.

  9. Thanks for the tip of dragging windows to the edge to move from space to space.

    FYI… when you’re in F8 “Birds Eye View” mode, you can drag specific windows and even whole spaces from one space to another.

  10. I used to use Desktop Manager, too, and I actually hated that the only way I could move a window from one space to another was by minimizing it, switching, then maximizing it.

    The thing I like most about Spaces is that I no longer have to think in terms of which desktop I’m on. Now, I just focus on what I want to do. I use Command-Tab to switch to the application that I want to work in and boom, Spaces switches me to the appropriate desktop.

    I no long have to think, “oh, let’s see, I put Mail on desktop 2, so let me switch over to desktop 2, then I can read my mail”. Now, I just Command-Tab to Mail and I’m there. Sweet!!

  11. Minimizing then switching and maximizing, to move a window is a hack. Yes it works, but it works cause you found away around it. Spaces works nice, expect for the fact I don’t use the dock. Quicksilver is my friend, and when launching a program, or say opening iTunes that was previously closed, spaces wants to open in a different window. I don’t like that.

  12. TinyElvis

    It just seems like people aren’t using spaces properly. First off, the pager is just to let you know what space you are on, not show you what is in the space. Is using Expose’ that inconvenient to see what is in your spaces (assign it to a mouse button). I would rather have a larger overview of all apps in a space instead of a 16×16 square attempting to show me what is there.

    The entire point is to keep your desktop clean and use spaces as a task management system. So web design is in one space, and surfing is another.
    Here is where the only feature spaces is lacking is the ability to name the spaces beyond numbers which would make the pager even more useful.
    As for the application focus, that makes no sense. If you have 3 applications in one space, how does the OS know what app to give focus to. That is why what ever space I am in I just alt-tab to the app I need and it flips to that space giving that application focus. So to only have alt-tab show the spaces applications would be a bad idea. The point is to clear the clutter. Here is how to use spaces. Have lots of them. Safari in a space, ical and mail in a space, Dreamweaver/Coda in a space, Photoshop in a space, Illustrator in a space, Cyberduck in a space, adium in all spaces, ichat in all spaces, Snap in drag in all spaces. Not lets say I am reading an e-mail where a client wants a change on their website. Copy the text, cmd-tab to coda, space changes, coda has focus paste the text. Need to upload a file to the server, cmd tab to cyberduck, upload. Now I am not minimizing, see other pallets from other applications all over the place…. Simple!

  13. I had the problem that when I had a window of Numbers in one space, typing in a spreadsheet would somehow switch focus to a different Space. I haven’t been able to figure out the key-combo I accidentaly hit, so that was useless. I only use it with parallels now.

  14. 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

    Really?! That’s very interesting. I wrote a brief article on the history of Spaces here and the fact that Spaces retains settings from other desktop managers (probably) implies that it’s using the same system calls as exposed in CGSPrivate.h.

  15. My biggest beef with Spaces that makes me walk away from it is the fact that it does not focus on the upmost program in the space you switch to.

    So if i go from Space 1 to 2 it will not automaticly focus on the program that should be focused there. So i have to click one on the app to activate it first. This is amazingly annoying after a while and takes away all the usability of Spaces. If im gonna use Spaces it should be painless and not take up extra time.

    So now im better off not using Spaces and just tabbing between my programs as usual, then they are atleast automaticly focused.
    My girlfriend also put forward a interesting suggestion, every space should be a separate desktop with a separate Apple+Tab list. So if you are in Space 3 you cannot Apple-Tab to programs that are in other Spaces.