A Slap to the Interface: 3 Apps for OS X Window Management
OS X's interface is full of convenient tricks and functions, but there are a few things it can't do on its own. Third-party apps fill in the blanks with window management utilities that can help you avoid desktop clutter and keep an eye applications you don't want lingering in the back of the stack.
05/22/12 5:00 AM PT
Features that Apple has added to OS X over the years, like Mission Control and Spaces, have given users more options for laying out their work areas.
Each time another edition of OS X comes out with new interface abilities, the desktop feels more manageable, less constricted. The monitor may be the same size, but I feel like I have more elbow room.
However, there are still a few window management tricks and functions that OS X can't do on its own. It needs apps to help it out. Here are three that might make it a little easier to bounce around a cluttered desktop.
Apple doesn't have a monopoly on fancy OS tricks. In Windows 7, Microsoft added a handy feature that let you resize and reposition a window to exactly half the screen by snapping it to the edge of your desktop. Just grab the window by the control bar as you'd do to move it to a different position, and drag it over to the left or right edge. Now it's sized to exactly one half of your screen.
BetterSnapTool does more or less the same thing in OS X. When the app is running, drag any window to the side of the screen and it'll resize itself to fit right on the edge. Drag it to a corner and the window will festoon itself into the corner. Snap to the top and it'll make the window fill the entire screen. Snapping to the bottom does nothing.
When BetterSnapTool is running, you can access its settings through a menu bar icon. The degree of control you can get is almost overwhelming. Every detail, right down to whether windows overlap or not, can be adjusted. Keyboard shortcuts for over a dozen functions can be assigned. Some settings can be specified for particular apps.
Things get a little hairy when you have multiple Spaces running, though. Slapping a window to the side could result in a half-screen resize, or it might throw that window to the adjacent Space. Getting it to do exactly what you want may take some touchpad finesse or the use of various disabling keys, which are specified in the Preferences menu.
Still, it's reliable enough that I quickly grew accustomed to it.
The Grid Approach
Window Tidy, an app from Gareth Clarke, is available for $1.99 at the Mac App Store.
Another way to quickly sweep your windows into piles is with Window Tidy. It also corrals them into various positions on the screen, but not by having you slap them toward the edges of the display.
With Window Tidy, every time you pick up a window to move it, a set of grids appears on screen. Various regions on the grids are shaded -- left side, right side, full area and center stage. Just drag your window into any of these grids, and that's the way the window will be resized and positioned on the desktop.
In Preferences, users can design their own layouts to add to the four Window Tidy offers out of the box. The on-screen position of the pop-up grids can also be adjusted. One option allows the user to quickly lay out a one-off custom grid for whatever the top window happens to be.
On one hand, Window Tidy feels a little easier to work with than BetterSnapTool. Windows never go flying off into Spaces, and I can set a wide variety of custom window positions and sizes. But I can't find a good place for those grids to pop up. Sometimes I just want to move a window over a little, not assign it a set size and position. Having a set of layouts appear on the screen isn't always welcome. However, the app can be set to only display layouts when the Option key is held.
Float to the Top
When juggling lots of active application windows, it's easy to accidentally leave a few windows covered up by others. That's not good when it's a window that requires your constant but low-level attention. For instance, I typically keep a chat window open while working. I don't constantly chat throughout the day, but I do want to know immediately when someone's trying to reach me.
Sound alerts? That's one way to keep track -- until you turn the sound off because of some annoying Web ad and forget to turn it back on.
I've found that Afloat works much better. It offers several ways to dictate the exact behavior of a given window.
When Afloat is running, an application's top-level Window menu column will have a new set of options, marked by cloud icons. Keep Afloat will keep that window on top of all others, regardless of how the desktop is rearranged. There's also an adjuster to make the window translucent to whatever degree you want. These actions can be controlled by cursor or with keyboard shortcuts.
The Adjust Affects option provides access to more features. Here you can make the window an overlay -- it floats there above all other windows but any time you try to click on it, the command will "fall through" to the window running below. Best used when the window's translucent, obviously. Another switch will make the window appear in all your Spaces, so you'll never have to look away no matter which desktop you're on. Another option will make the window opaque when you're working on it, then fade back to translucent when you move on.
Unfortunately, the app does not work for all Mac applications. The developers say Carbon apps (Finder and iTunes, for example) won't work. Cocoa apps (Safari, iChat) will.
Also, setting up a window just the way I like it feels like more hassle than it needs to be. I think many users of this application would want to use it the same way on the same window, day after day. Yet each day when I open a chat session, I need to wade through several menu items to set it up just so. Some kind of saved settings or memory feature would be much appreciated.
Still, once I do have that window set up, Afloat adds a very valuable feature to OS X.