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Leopard’s Spaces — Take a Hike!

Over the years, I’ve used various utilities to automatically hide the application windows I’m not using at the moment. There’s always one around, and my most recent program of choice, HideItControl, a preference panel from Derman Enteprises, once shareware, has since become free. But then so were some of other others, such as AutoHide.

Now they all work pretty much the same. When you switch to one application, the others are all hidden from view. This cleans up your desktop and makes it easier to get your work done, particularly with a smaller screen, such as the one on the MacBook and its slim and light cousin, the MacBook Air.

Most of the application hiding utilities I’ve used also have an option, usually by pressing the Shift key, to keep an application’s windows visible as you switch to another application. That way you can work with both.

With Leopard, Apple’s better idea was Spaces, a feature that lets you assign a virtual desktop, the entire screen, to one or more applications. That way, all of your, for example, audio applications remain on one desktop, and, say, your Internet software resides in another. You can also define an application to appear in all Spaces if you prefer.

Now there have been a number of virtual or extended desktop utilities over the years that have done pretty much the same thing. Most were eternally buggy, and even Spaces was a little shaky out of the starting gate, where some applications seemed to end up in the wrong space, because you opened them at the wrong time or just because it has multiple toolbars or palettes in addition to a document window.

With 10.5.2, things got a mite better, but losing palettes or toolbars was still a persistent symptom, at least for me. I would be able to maneuver back and forth and sometimes restore the missing screen widgets, or maybe not.

Just the other day, Bias-Peak sent me version 6.0 of their terrific audio editing application Peak Pro. We use it for all our post-production work on the two radio shows, by the way. Well, in the previous version, 5.2, the Contents display window would sometimes vanish during a Spaces switchover. I could restore it by turning off the Contents window and then turning it on again. With 6.0, the symptom extends, apparently, to the toolbar and the Transport windows. Again shutting them off and turning them on after an application switch restores them to visibility.

I’ve encountered similar mischief with Adobe Dreamweaver CS3, and Microsoft Word 2008 can also hiccup during the switch from one desktop to another. I encounter various difficulties of this sort with Ambrosia’s Wiretap Studio and Skype.

But why do I bother? After all, an operating system feature should be doing my bidding, and I shouldn’t have to play little games or time my application launches to conform to Spaces’ fuzzy logic.

So I turned the damn thing off!

Of course, I still need to hide the applications I’m not using, so I returned to HideItControl. Yes, it requires holding down that Shift key to keep multiple applications in the same “space” at the same time. But it doesn’t mess up toolbars, palettes and other components of an application. In fact, it seems perfectly happy working on a PowerPC or Intel-based Mac, and the latest version exhibits no problems with Leopard.

So where does that leave Leopard? Well, Spaces is a neat idea, and the implementation is clever and the special effects are neat and appropriate. But there are just far too many rough edges for me to work around to allow its use in my particular working environment.

Now I’m not going to say flat out that it’s all Apple’s fault. I suspect there are lots and lots of variables in the way applications generate windows, palettes and what-not. Somehow Spaces has to allow for those differences and, in addition, be cognizant of which window you’re in when you open an application, or switch to another Space. There’s a lot of complicated logic here, and I don’t pretend to know whether the problems are Apple’s to fix, or whether outside developers need to find ways to make their products more compliant with the various Leopard features.

I am, by the way, not averse to trying someone else’s virtual desktop utility. So I welcome your recommendations and your experiences, good and bad. And if you have good workarounds for Spaces, let’s hear that too. Regardless of which solution I may ultimately adopt, though, it has to just work. The more things I have to remember to do, the less I’m apt to seriously consider any alternatives but the one I’m using now — HideItControl.