By November 8, 2007

Confessions Of A Space-oholic…

It’s my turn. I rise to my feet and move to the podium. Staring out at a gathering of mostly sympathetic faces, I clear my throat and say, “Hello, my name is Michael, and I’m addicted to Spaces.”

As one, the members of the group reply, “Hello, Michael.”

And so it begins.

It wasn’t always like this.

Long ago, I was happy with just one space. Well, not really happy, perhaps, now that I look back on it. Maybe resigned would be a better word. Still, knowing I had only one space in which to work, I set out to master it.

I hid the Dock, as it took up precious space on my screen that I could use for my own ends. I hid and restored entire applications, as need be.

I arranged my workspace meticulously, such that every window of importance had a visible corner or edge upon which I could click to access it.

I used utilities like WindowShade to float windows, make them translucent, and so I could easily roll them up and minimize them and set them aside.

I also used Sidenote, popping pages of notes out and then quickly sliding them back again, out of sight, but not out of mind.

And I was a master of Expose, with every corner of my domain “hot” and ready to respond to every flick of my mouse or finger. That still wasn’t enough, so I upgraded to a 17″ MacBook Pro, and then to a 24″ iMac, each time hungering for more and more space.

With all of these techniques at my disposal, I confidently ran Mail, iCal, Dreamweaver, Photoshop, NetNewsWire, Safari, Firefox, Word, Excel, iTunes, Preview, TextEdit, Finder, Fetch, and more, all simultaneously and all while laughing and cackling with glee at my power. (Okay, maybe not cackling… exactly.)

Then came Spaces.

When I saw the Spaces demo during the keynote my first impression was one of polite interest. “That looks kind of cool.” I thought. “Now tell me more about this Time Machine thing.

Then the day came when I got my own copy of Leopard. And Spaces…

After installation, I played with several of Leopard’s new features, hooked up my backup drive to Time Machine, and then decided to give Spaces a whirl. At first, there were just two. Then four. Then six. I couldn’t stop myself. Currently there are nine.

And I’m seriously considering twelve.

Here’s my current layout…

Going in “Spaces” order, left to right, top to bottom, we have in the top row..

1) My “communication” space with Mail and iCal (assigned).
2) My Dreamweaver development space (assigned).
3) Photoshop (assigned).

Middle row…

4) My newsroom, with NetNewsWire (assigned) and Safari.
5) My Safari and FireFox development space (unassigned).
6) Bridge or Aperture or iPhoto, depending (assigned).

Bottom row…

7) Finder and System Preferences (assigned), iTunes (everywhere).
8) A “project” space. Also RDC and/or Parallels (assigned).
9) Another “project” space, usually Word or Excel (unassigned).

Spatial organization…

This layout isn’t accidental. I spend a lot of time in Mail and in my RSS newsreader, so those are my “main” spaces, and as such are linked closely together just one control-up/down arrow apart. (Mail is also control-1.)

Similarly, the browser windows I use for testing in space 5 are directly beneath Dreamweaver, also linked just one control-up/down arrow apart. Save and upload a file in Dreamweaver, and do a command-down-arrow. Refresh the browser window and check things out. Pop back up with command-up-arrow and continue editing.

Same for Photoshop and whichever image library program I’m using in 3 and 6.

Horizontally, my Dreamweaver space is just one control-right-arrow away from Mail in space 1. When doing other “project” stuff, space 9 is just one one control-left-arrow away in the other direction.

These “just once removed” adjacencies play a major role in getting the most out of Spaces.

This arrangement also lets me get the maximum use out of screen hogging applications like Dreamweaver, Photoshop, and Aperture.

You might read the above one more time, using the screen shot to visualize the “moves”.

Application assignments….

Once you know where your applications need to be, the next step is keeping them there.

Application assignments play a significant role in taming your Spaces. Most major applications like Mail, Dreamweaver, and Photoshop are permanently assigned to their proper locations using the Spaces System Preference pane. (See my application list above for other assignments.)

Same for the cluster of Finder windows in space 7, mapped using a method mentioned in a previously tip. A few, like Stickies and iTunes, are mapped to “every” space so the same window is always seen no matter what space I’m in.

Others, like Safari, are not mapped at all, as they tend to be needed in multiple spaces, like testing in space 5 and blogging in space 4.

You may need to experiment a bit to find the proper balance, but mapping assures that after a time you’ll always know where a given application can be found.


Formerly, both lower window corners launched Expose. Mentally, I maintained a “map” of where all of my hidden windows were most likely to be, and so I’d zap the mouse left or right to the proper corner to pop up and hit the window I needed. With Spaces, both corners now launch the “meta-space”, as now I know exactly where I’m at, and exactly where I want to go.

With each application and its associated windows slotted neatly away with no overlap, there’s a lot less hiding and minimizing and shuffling going on. In fact, I rarely visit my beloved Expose at all these days. Sad, really.

Who cares what people say?

Some have panned Spaces, saying that the concept has existed in other systems for years now. My response? So what? Like most things done by Apple, Spaces gets the concept right, with a level of integration and a fluidity of motion that no other OS can currently match.

A few have mentioned that, like Time Machine, Spaces is just a bunch of pretty effects… which misses the point entirely. Yes, Spaces has plenty of pretty effects. All of which combine to subtlety remind you where you’re at, and where you just came from. Such mental cues don’t happen by accident. They’re the hallmark of good design.

Finally, a few other people have described Spaces as simply “Expose on steroids.” Which, for the most part, is true. You see, both exist to let you spend more time on getting work done, and both exist so you’ll spend less time shuffling windows around your desktop, trying to find what you need when you need it. Spaces just does a better job of it.

Bottom line…

Spaces is a power-users dream tool.

And I’m addicted to it.

Excuse me, but I think I have to call my sponsor now.

* * *
Continued in More Confessions Of A Space-oholic


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  1. So why would you need twelve? Sounds like you have it nailed.

  2. Henry Story says:

    Well I find that spaces *could* be dead cool if only it allowed one to switch reliably between apps in the same space. I find that for apps that have windows open in multiple spaces – you mention Safari as being on such app that naturally need this type of behavior – one cannot reliably switch between them using exposé.
    See my

  3. Michael Long says:

    @John: Mostly to have extra “space” for temporary projects.

  4. Michael Long says:

    @Henry, Ah, if I read you correctly, you’re tabbing between sets of application windows while in Expose?
    Umm… yeah, I can see the problem. My only suggestion would be to switch to F9-All Windows. With most applications in their own space, an individual space is much less likely to be as cluttered with extraneous windows, making Expose’s “application” mode much less useful than it was previously.
    I also do development, and as I indicated in the above article, I tend to use a few more spaces than I think most people consider using. So let me ask you this: You’re hitting a function key while working in NetBeans to do an Expose so you can click and pop into the right window for testing, correct?
    So let’s say you had 6 spaces (3 cols, 2 rows) and you had NetBeans maximized in space 2. Why not now hit control-down-arrow and pop into the space where Safari and Firefox reside in space 5 with windows already visible and ready to go? Then popping back up again to NetBeans with another keystroke? This is what I do currently with Dreamweaver and Safari/Firefox/Opera, and it works well for me.
    In a very short while the up/down keystroke sequence becomes almost second nature. Change. Save. Down. Looking good… wait. Drat! Up. Oh, there’s the problem! Fix. Save. Down. Refresh. Eureka!
    I sincerely believe that getting the most out of Leopard lies in getting out of one’s comfort zone and working WITH the new features.

  5. Svein Olav Nyberg says:

    In Linux (I use the Mandrake distribution), you can right-click the frame bar and get a choice as to which space you want to assign the window to. Very convenient. And elegant. With Spaces, you have to _drag_ the window into one side of the screen to move it around to the next space. Very inelegant and very inconventient.
    What would have been nice to have? A shortcut other than mousepointer-into-corners to open the Spaces overview, and the ability to move wndows between spaces in the overview. That would have made up for some of the inconvenient inelegance mentioned above.
    PS: I too use 12, both on the Mac and in Linux.

  6. Michael Long says:

    Svein, I don’t get it. First, you can move windows between spaces in the overview. Just drag them. Or drag to an edge while in a Space. Or click on the window title and do a control-arrow or control-number.
    Second, you can activate the overview from the Spaces Dock icon, a function key (F8), hot corners, and/or by assigning Spaces to buttons 3 or 4 of a mouse. Somehow I’d think that ought to be enough.
    Currently, with the adjacencies I mention in the article, about 80% of my navigation is control-arrow, maybe 1% control-number-key, perhaps 5% clicking the application in the Dock, the rest hot-corners.
    Note that I never use the F8 function key method, as my sole overview activation method lies in hitting the left or right hot corner. Since I’m going to have to use the mouse to pick the space anyway, I may as well go in that direction and pop it up that way as well.

  7. random8r says:

    Dude! I’ve got a major gripe with spaces… and that’s that it’s application-centric, not work-context-centric.
    In other words, it’s focussed on particular applications, and not particular tasks that we do.
    You’ve already started to notice this, no doubt, with your use of safari.
    I’m a web application developer in Rails, and I have contexts… where I need Mail, Textmate, Pages, Terminal, a Database application and Safari or Firefox (or sometimes Parallels) open all at once… but with multiple things going on… so, if you call that a “slice” for a workflow – so that one particular app will have documents for all of those applications open simultaneously, then I want all of that stuff on one screen at once…
    I’d also like spaces to be able to be labelled – and to display this label when you switch or reference a space – like… keep the number, but yeah…
    So that… essentially, I have one “work context” per space…. now in order to minimize SUB-clutter, they could potentially create a “cube” effect that slides around multiple virtual faces, and that’d be cool (with a transparent view into the others through the desktop pattern would be mad… but I digress…
    Spaces as it stands doesn’t let me work in the workflow I wanna work in – it doesn’t minimize my clutter, it simply “pigeonholes” it into a different pattern… I want an easy way to CONTEXT-SWITCH rather than an easy way to APPLICATION-SWITCH, I mean, otherwise apple-tab does pretty much almost exactly what spaces does! If you minimize the apps you don’t want visible, right?

  8. Aldebaranian says:

    Speaking as a long-term (~20 years) user of virtual desktops I agree that Spaces is fairly close to how you want it to work, but I must admit that at the moment I cannot use it for serious work.
    There are several reasons – the most important is the animation on switching pages. It makes my motion sick, and I see on the web that others have the same problem. It is a real shame that this cannot be turned off in Spaces, for a power user there is no need for indications, I know perfectly well where I am and where I am going even on a 9×9 grid, so while it is useful for the novice it is essential to be able to switch it off.
    The other problem with Spaces as it is now has to do with Terminal – it seems few of you use that extensively but the way I work I often have 5-6 terminal windows open spread around on screens and the switching between these is non-trivial in Spaces – this is a place where e.g. KDE has a better solution.
    Hopefully Spaces will improve, but for the moment I have reverted to VirtueDesktops for my day-to-day work.