Q&A Early Mac screens weren’t cluttered. But then, early Macs allowed you to open only one application at a time—and sometimes only one window. OS X’s Mission Control lets you manage today’s advanced computing environment by providing a bird’s-eye view of all your open apps and windows. When you learn how to manage Mission Control’s features, you’re the one in control.
Q: How do I activate Mission Control?
A: Activate it with a press of a function key, a trackpad swipe, or any keyboard shortcut you wish. If you have a newer Apple keyboard or laptop, press F3. Otherwise, F9 is the default (Fn plus F9 on a laptop). You can set your shortcuts via System Preferences in up to three different places:
The Mission Control Pane Choose from a list of options to trigger Mission Control from the keyboard and/or with a mouse button.
The Trackpad Pane In the More Gestures tab, check the box for Mission Control and select a swipe from the menu. It’s a good idea to set a motion opposite to what you’re using for App Expose (which shows all the windows for the current app); I use a four-finger upward swipe for Mission Control, a four-finger downward swipe for App Exposé.
The Keyboard Pane In the Keyboard Shortcuts tab, select Mission Control on the left and click Mission Control at the top of the right pane to select it. Select the current shortcut and press the new key combination you want to use.
Q: Why would I want to have multiple desktops?
A: Multiple desktops let you isolate apps, or even windows in the same app, from each other so you can work in a less crowded, less distracting environment. For example, you could close Mail’s Message Viewer window to neaten things up, but eventually you’ll need to reopen it. Minimizing it crowds your Dock and forces you to retrieve it from there later. Put an app on its own desktop, and it’s out of the way and yet immediately available.
Q: How do I make a new desktop space?
A: It’s a cinch: When you’re in Mission Control, move your cursor to the upper right corner of the screen and click the Add Desktop button that slides out from the edge of the screen. If your Dock is on the right, you can access Add Desktop button from the upper left corner instead.
Q: What’s the quickest way to create a new desktop space for a specific window?
A: Say you want to put iCal on its own desktop. Instead of clicking the Add Desktop button and dragging the iCal window into the new desktop, drag the window from the main desktop to the screen’s upper right corner and drop it on the Add Desktop button. Voilà! If you drag the app’s icon instead of a single window onto the Add Desktop button, OS X moves all the windows open in that app onto the new desktop.
Q: Can I move to a desktop space using the keyboard?
A: Yes. Use Control–Left Arrow and Control–Right Arrow to move to the previous and next desktops while you’re working (you can’t cycle from the last to the first desktop or vice versa).
To move to a specific desktop, use the default shortcut of Control plus the desktop’s number, with zero standing in for 10. After 10, the combo is Control-Option plus a number; so, for instance, Control-Option-3 is for desktop 13.
To change the defaults, open the Keyboard preference pane and click the Keyboard Shortcuts tab. Choose Mission Control in the list on the left, and expand the second Mission Control item on the right by clicking the arrow in front of it. To change the shortcut for any desktop, select it, highlight the current shortcut, and press the new key combo.
Only desktops that already exist are in the list; add desktops and they appear there as well, although to see them you might have to close and reopen System Preferences, and then check their boxes.
Bonus Tip These keyboard shortcuts work when you’re in Mission Control, too, so you can make any desktop the currently open one in Mission Control without having to Option-click its thumbnail (pressing Escape will then take you from Mission Control to the selected desktop).
Q: Do I have to go into Mission Control to move a window from one desktop to another?
A: No. If you know where you’re going (so to speak), you can just drag a window to the right or left until your arrow cursor is up against the edge of the screen (a caveat: this may not work in all apps). Hold it there for a second, and you’ll experience a breakthrough: The desktop that’s “waiting” in that direction slides on screen with the dragged window on it.
Q: I have a really big screen, so I don’t like dragging windows between desktop spaces. Is there a quicker way?
A: Just grab the window by its title bar as if you were going to move it, and press the keyboard shortcut for moving left or right in your desktop lineup; the defaults are Control–Left Arrow and Control–Right Arrow (again, this may not work in every app).
Q: When I want to delete multiple desktops, do I have to hover over one, wait for the close button, click it, and then hover over the next?
A: Isn’t it amazing that a two-second delay can seem so long? Get an instant close button (an X in a circle) on every desktop in Mission Control by pressing the Option key. Then click away, holding Option down for as long as you want the close buttons available.
Sharon Zardetto has been writing about the Mac since it could run only one application at a time and thinks she and it have both greatly improved with age.