- The Tech Night Owl — Cutting-Edge Tech Commentary - https://www.technightowl.com -

Living with Leopard: Book IV — Spaces, Spaces and More Spaces

I feel real lucky to be using a 30-inch display, because I need lots of space on my screen with which to get work done. Now I have to tell you that the first Mac I brought into my home (after working at an office with one for several years) came with the famous Apple 13-inch color display. But I felt constrained, because I couldn’t even place the contents of a single page in a document on the screen without reducing its size to near unreadability.

I recall that I found a system extension in those days that hacked the graphic drivers to stretch the screen slightly, to eliminate most of the telltale black border of a CRT. Sure, I could buy a larger display, but if you think today’s 30-inch models are expensive, double that price to get a 19-inch circa 1990.

Over the years, software developers have come up with “virtual desktop” software that would compartmentalize your application windows into separate locations, which you could switch to with a keystroke. Some content creators with a larger budget than I had at the time just bought multiple monitors and rejoiced in being able to put QuarkXPress on the left display and Adobe Photoshop on the right.

Well, the multiple desktop software really didn’t impress me, so I just used utilities that would automatically hide the applications you weren’t working in. Under Mac OS X, there’s AutoHide, a freebie, and a shareware variant, HideIt Control. But, as I said, they were limited to displaying a single application unless you held down a special key, usually Shift, when you switched to another application. That would allow both to occupy the same screen real estate.

In loading up on features for Leopard, Apple took the virtual desktop idea and ran with it, coming up with Spaces. Because it’s built into the system, you don’t have to contend with possible incompatibilities. Even better, they’ve made it so simple to configure and so smooth in operation that once you’ve used Spaces, you’ll never go back.

To get started, just open the Exposé & Spaces preference panel and click on the Spaces tab. From here, you’ll see a grid of four virtual desktops. You can add up to 16 by clicking the available plus signs in the Rows and Columns field. Applications can be attached to a single space or all spaces.

My initial setup took maybe three or four minutes. From then on, when I click on an application’s icon in the Dock or launch it, I’m automatically switched to the appropriate desktop in a fancy visual flourish, typical of Apple. It all happens in a flash, even quicker than those application hiding utilities. I’m impressed.

In my situation, I configured spaces by category, and I suspect that will represent the most common setup scheme. The applications I use to produce my radio shows reside on one desktop, writing in another, browsing in a third, plus separate screens for iChat, Mail and the rest.

In all, I configured 12 Spaces environments, and, after using it a while, I moved applications from one to the other until, as they say in the fairy tale, everything was just right.

If you have forgotten where you’ve placed things, and that’s understandable, the F8 keystroke will invoke all of your chosen desktops in a single screen, in an Exposé-style layout, and you can drag and drop your applications to the appropriate location. A quick perusal of Apple’s Help menu will provide more options and shortcuts for Spaces, so I urge you to look it over and consider the various possibilities. Even though Spaces is easy to use, it is quite sophisticated in its execution, as you’ll learn soon enough.

In regular use, Spaces is pretty benign. Other than the visual effect, you hardly know it’s running. It’s not quite trouble-free, however. In some situations, I’ll move to a new desktop while an application is launching, and it’ll suddenly appear in the wrong place. I’ve also run into a situation on several occasions where switching to an application delivers a blank desktop, with no windows on display. Annoying? You bet.

I’ve duplicated this troubling symptom on a PowerPC and Intel-based Mac, so I suspect I’m either doing something wrong or too quickly — and I have no idea what — or there is a bug in Spaces that Apple needs to address. I’m voting for the latter.

There are two solutions, other than simply restarting your Mac. One is to bring up the Spaces Exposé display with the F8 shortcut, and click on the desktop you want. That step doesn’t eliminate the problem; it just allows you to bypass it. The other step does zap the symptoms, and it involves going to the Utilities folder, and launching Activity Monitor.

With Activity Monitor running, select Dock, choose Quit Process from the application’s window and select Quit from the confirmation dialog. Your Dock will disappear and restart itself, after which Spaces will behave normally. Yes, Spaces is, like Dashboard, connected to the Dock.

I’m sure some of the Mac troubleshooting sites will make a huge deal of this singular problem, but I regard it as minor, and the fix is trivial. More to the point, there will be that inevitable 10.5.1 update before long, where I’ve little doubt that this and perhaps other Leopard issues will be resolved.

Regardless, I love Spaces. And I’ve retired all of those auto-hiding utilities for good.