Tue, Feb 12, 2008, 4:41pm A Simple Fix For Spaces — C'mon, Apple
Computers » Mac » OS X
(Last updated: Wed, May 28, 2008, 5:10pm)
paces, for the lack of a simple checkbox, is practically useless.

Spaces, if you don't use it, looks like a great implementation of a multiple desktop manager. Even if you use it a little bit, you will appreciate some good things:

  • The way it beautifully scopes out and in to different workspaces
  • The easy ways to drag windows (though no better than X workspace managers here)
  • It also does the very best job of detecting and dealing with multiple monitors of different screen sizes.

But then really use it. It will frustrate you to distraction. Most people I know who have tried to use it to get work done have stopped using it the same day. With 10.5.2, I thought for sure Apple would have corrected the most egregious problems with it, but it looks like they're here to stay for a while. But these are the big problems with it:

  • Switching applications may very well whisk you away to another space unexpectedly.
  • Opening a new window may whisk you away to another space unexpectedly.

This really disrupts the workflow to ever have the Space change on you without your say-so. For instance, say I have Safari running with just one window open, on another workspace. In order to open a new Safari window in this Space, where I'm currently trying to be productive, I follow these steps:

  1. Switch to Safari -- this switches to the workspace with the other, irrelevant, Safari window is already open. Already I'm annoyed. I'm not even intuitively sure which Space I'm in if I have more than 4 of them.
  2. Open a new window.
  3. Hit F8 to bring up the overall Spaces layout.
  4. Move new Safari window to the workspace I wanted to be in (and never intentionally left)
  5. Hover my mouse over that space and hit F8 again.

By this point I'm so mad at spaces that if it's the 3rd time it's happened, I simply quit Spaces and murmur under my breath about how I wish there was some hack to fix this.

This could all be a big to-do over nothing if only Apple simple added ONE checkbox to the preferences in the Space control panel that said, "Only switch spaces when I explicitly request to do so." That simple. WTF. Why cripple what should be a proud part of the OS X GUI?

BTW, I've talked to dozens of Mac developers who all tell me how they used it for a couple of days, then stopped, all over this exact issue mentioned here. I don't know a single user who said they use it and are happy. Not a one. Sad.

Well, until they see the light on this, thankfully there's still Desktop Manager (update: seems to be broken in Leopard)

Update 10.5.3 comes and …


  • Mark Kozlowski (Wed, February 13th, 2008, 9:46am UTC)
    I wish that each space could be assigned a different desktop background. When I'm just surfing the net or emailing I like my nice desktop picture and don't care about a clutter of screen grabs and downloaded pdfs on that desktop. When I'm into photo editing I want a solid grey background with nothing on the desktop. Spaces just seems to clear other applications while leaving the desktop unchanged with no option to alter it.

  • Tim Koss (Wed, February 13th, 2008, 9:48am UTC)
    I am a Mac developer — both desktop and web apps — and I have used spaces since I got Leopard (the day it came out) — I love it — yes, I would rather it had some option that you described, but I am very happy with using it how it is — it has improved my development life over Tiger.

    There — one for you

  • Rainer Brockerhoff (Wed, February 13th, 2008, 9:55am UTC)
    While I could cope with having it switch to a space when I switch to a new app — after all, I configured that app to be within that space — what I hated was it switching spontaneously. Say, I'm working in some space and Adium is in another. Someone calls me up for a chat, and I get switched to the Adium space while I'm typing! This is intolerable.

  • Thornrag (Wed, February 13th, 2008, 10:14am UTC)
    I'm not sure it's for Spaces to fix, really. But I understand your complaint.

    I have two suggestions:

    Make a new window from Safari's contextual menu in the Dock. Move to your new space, right-click on Safari in the Dock, then select New Window.

    Manually-assign bothersome applications to "Every Space." This effectively disables Spaces for the app you select, keeping it active in all spaces at all times.

    I can see why you'd find this annoying, and I do occasionally get annoyed when I'm whisked away to another space. But tracking focus and preventing input misdirection is a tricky issue… would you prefer to be whisked to the window that has focus, or would you prefer for the focus to be thrown offscreen while you stare at an empty space, left to type into windows you can't see?

    Would you prefer finding your way back to where you were before being whisked away, or wandering around your various spaces to find the one with the app that has focus?

    I'm not sure these issues are as simple as a checkbox. But maybe you can make use of Safari's Dock menu, or the "Every Space" application assignment to streamline your Spaces usage.

  • Patrick (Wed, February 13th, 2008, 10:20am UTC)
    I agree that the problem that you outlined with Spaces exists. I'm using Spaces occasionally and am satisfied with it, but I'm not a heavy user.

    I would like to call you on one item. You said "Most people I know who have tried to use it to get work done have stopped using it the same day." Can you give me a count of:
    1. People you know who have tried to use Spaces;
    2. People you know who have tried to use Spaces and stopped using it the same day.

    Thanks. My point is that the referenced quote appears to be a rhetorical device, and may not be factually true. If I'm wrong, let me know.

  • AdamC (Wed, February 13th, 2008, 11:46am UTC)
    I just got started with Space and I find it very interesting and learning to use it more and more.
    It reminds me of windowshade but this one is one is different and better than windowshade because it gives me a new desktop to work with a new app.

  • Jeff (Wed, February 13th, 2008, 12:50pm UTC)
    Mark K — I fully agree that associating background pictures with each Space would be a real help. I've always like that X window managers do that. It would mean Apple would have to refactor how they do Desktop assignments currently (which is something they should do, but probably won't).

    Tim K — Ok! I also talked to another person who uses it today in IRC, so two and counting. Truly, I want to be happy with it.

    Rainer — Great point. That's very annoying, and nicely segues into Thornrag's post…

    Thornrag — You're right that the focus issue is complicated, but since the user should always be in control of their work environment, if focus is needed somewhere on another workspace, the focus request could come in the form of a hopping icon in the dock, an idiom which is already available. Clicking on the dock icon could then whisk you to the appropriate window on the right space, and it would be with the user's permission, so it also satisfies the principle of least surprise.

    As a matter of design philosophy, I don't think that the GUI should ever switch focus from one window to another window without permission of a user. Even when such a thing happens without Spaces running it creates a bad user experience.

    Patrick — I had mostly talked to developers, about 20 of them, before writing this. I basically asked them if they used it, and if not why not. They all on their own made the same basic complaint that I had and said that they turned it off as soon as they tried to seriously use it for work. None of them said they still used it, many of them said they'd like to use it if this problem could be solved. All my asking took place over email, IM and IRC.

    AdamC — Don't let me sour you. I'm just hoping for an even better experience. I've gotten used to using many different workspace managers on many different operating systems since over the years and this one is just a couple of features shy of being a very good one.

  • Patrick B. (Wed, February 13th, 2008, 1:18pm UTC)
    The behavior of spaces is definitely by far my biggest frustration with Leopard. It annoys me constantly every day, and I use it heavily for my work (a space for each article I'm researching/writing).

    Beyond the flow-interrupting behavior you mention, there's an outright bug. If you use apple-tab to switch back and forth between two applications, the behavior you get from spaces DEPENDS ON HOW LONG YOU HOLD DOWN THE APPLE KEY! If you switch so quickly that the dark-gray application picker never appears, you will stay in the same space and just switch applications, even if both applications have other windows open in other spaces. But if you hold down the apple key long enough for that grey application picker to come up (to let you choose, say, the third or fourth most-recent application instead of the most recent one), spaces will fly you over to some other space!!! This happens even if you choose the most recent application from the grey app chooser box, which is functionally equivalent to the quick apple-tab trick, so why the difference in outcome???

    This is especially annoying when you're frequently switching between two applications, for example to copy and paste bits of text between them. As you get into your rhythm -- copy, apple-tab, paste, apple-tab, copy, apple-tab, paste, etc etc -- occasionally you might hold down the apple-tab for a split second too long and you get flung over to a different space. This irritates me to no end.

    I'm shocked that Apple didn't fix this bug in 10.5.2 .. it should be glaringly obvious to anyone that uses spaces often. I'm also very surprised that I don't see more blog entries and articles complaining about this bug and about the obnoxious "normal" behavior that you point out.

    Apple needs to fix this bug and implement the opt-out check box that you suggest ASAP.

    As for the predicament mentioned above about switching to an app and being left with an empty screen … maybe there could be a compromise where apple-tabbing to an app (pro-user behavior) will never fly you to another space, while clicking on the app in the dock (beginner behavior) will fly you to a space to reveal that app's open window. Maybe that distinction could be made explicit in the preference pane as well, so that the user can choose whether either or both methods for switching apps is/are exempt from the spontaneous space-switching behavior…

    Fix this Apple, please! I'm begging here…..

    And a question in the meantime .. so does DesktopManager still work in Leopard? I don't see a new version…

  • Bob (Wed, February 13th, 2008, 1:51pm UTC)
    I'm on Tiger (bought Leopard the day it came out, not ready for primetime for me) and I'm using You Control Desktops for virtual desktops, it works very well. It has a checkbox to "do nothing" when switching to an app with a window in another desktop, the very checkbox you wish you had in Spaces. I don't use it though because I like my apps segmented into their own spaces, e.g. Firefox windows all on one space.

    I've heard it can work simultaneously with Spaces in Leopard, not sure how though, you might want to look into it, there is a demo. www.yousoftware.com

  • Jeff (Wed, February 13th, 2008, 2:42pm UTC)
    Patrick B — You make a great point about that bug. And it turns out that while Desktop Manager runs, it doesn't function right on Leopard (all windows confined to first workspace).

    Bob — I can see that if I could keep each app in one workspace I'd be ok, but it doesn't work with my workflow, unfortunately. As for You Control: Desktops, I don't see them having updated it since Tiger, so not sure if it works on Leopard.

  • Bob (Wed, February 13th, 2008, 2:48pm UTC)
    Oh I forgot to mention the page that has the newest version. Even though it says beta but I'm running 1.3 beta4 and it is rock solid in Tiger. Give it a shot.


    "You Control: Desktops 1.3 b5 — Dec 04, 2007

    The fifth beta release of You Control: Desktops 1.3 is now available. This update includes a number of Leopard compatibility fixes in addition to ongoing fixes and enhancements for both Tiger and Leopard.

  • Gordon Williams (Wed, February 13th, 2008, 5:26pm UTC)
    I have two displays connected to the Mac. One aspect of space switching I would really like to see is the option to lock down the second display so that only the main screen shares the spaces. At the moment, switching spaces involves the windows on both displays sliding off the screen. One of my main reasons for having the second display is for putting things like Mail, iTunes, videos, Activity Monitor or fullscreen VMware PCs on there. Currently switching spaces while a movie is playing puts it out of view, which is somewhat annoying. Having a fullscreen Guest OS running on a second display gives the illusion of having a second PC under the desk. Switching spaces quickly destroys that illusion. What's the point of a floating CPU meter in the Activity Monitor Utility if it slides off the screen when changing spaces.

    I guess the big problem with implementing this would be when palettes of an application eg Photoshop, are on the second display — the other big reason for having one, or if a single window was spread across the two displays. Perhaps the best solution would be some way to lock individual windows so they always stay on the screen, with everything else moving. This would work well I think even for single displays. The locking could be toggled in the Spaces Application e.g. by option-clicking on the miniature representation of the window. Programs like the Application Monitor could set a new window property to make this happen by default i.e. the CPU usage monitor.

    At present I limit myself to two horizontal spaces as more than that just confuses me and I start wasting time looking for the window I want. With four or more spaces it actually starts to get a bit nauseating.

  • Patrick B. (Wed, February 13th, 2008, 6:37pm UTC)
    Here's a partial (and imperfect) workaround for the issue:


  • Perry (Thu, February 14th, 2008, 2:32am UTC)
    I basically agree with Gordon and suggest that Patrick's link should be read carefully. I remember (correctly I hope) a Linux virtual desktop (don't remember which one though) that was Task based rather than App based and it made perfect sense at the time. Two horz spaces for me and Space-2 is rarely used anymore. Depend on Quicksilver, GeekTool groups, Desktop-layer browsers, multiple monitors, Emacs, Metadata (another Apple implementation failure that Quicksilver helps with) and Expose while waiting for task-based virtual desktops to be built-into the OS. Oh yeah, thank-you hyperjeff for a site I consistently remember to visit from one OS to the next.

  • Jeff (Thu, February 21st, 2008, 2:57am UTC)
    Patrick B — I tried that hint, but it started making my whole system act funky and I had to disable it. Perhaps that's why it's not officially implemented yet. Others seem to have had success with it, though.

    Perry — You're welcome! More good stuff to come.

  • Barrett D (Mon, March 3rd, 2008, 1:13pm UTC)
    The above hint does exactly what the title of its page says: "Disable Space switching on Command-Tab in 10.5.2" but this *doesn't* fix the problem mentioned in the article. It makes Spaces even more annoying.

    Say I have a few xterms open on two different 'spaces'. Because of the foolish way that Apple implemented virtual desktops, if the last xterm I was using (before the current one) was on another 'space', and I hit 'cmd-tile' to switch between the applications windows, I lose focus of my current window, but it doesn't bring up another xterm.

    It's even more annoying this way than before. The above hint is a hack in the worse sense of the word. Apple needs to reprioritize the way they do window history tracking to so that one can choose not to switch desktops in a sane way.

    This is how it ought to work if I don't want to switch spaces unless indicating explicitly:
    I have xterms A & B open on space 1, and C & D on space 2. I'm working in xterm A. I explicitly switch to space 2, and xterm D. I explicitly switch to space 1 and xterm B. When I hit cmd-tilde, I should be moved to xterm A, not D, and I shouldn't be left with no focus at all.

    I'm really disappointed Apple couldn't rip off virtual desktops properly.

  • Gus (Mon, May 19th, 2008, 4:53pm UTC)
    Lets not forget that linux has had this working CORRECTLY for like 10 years. Also the 3rd party betas like virtueDesktops, desktop manager and the others ALSO pretty much had it right. Its like Apple forgot to do ANY research. Also for those of you that advocate the use of these 3rd party betas from 10.4, in my experience they end up behaving exactly like Spaces due to something in 10.5. It has made me think quite hard about "downgrading" back to 10.4. I have used linux for years and even the beta-ware in 10.4. For those of you who think you like Spaces, have you actually experienced multi-desktops outside of what Apple gave you?

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