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What’s on your Mac desktop?

Sections: Mac OS X, Mac Software, Operating Systems, Originals

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Macworld’s Lex Friedman posted an interesting piece last week reporting on what he learned by querying several Mac experts on how they configure and use their OS X desktops these days. Starting with himself, Friedman says that on his workhorse 13-inch MacBook Air, the Dock remains in its default location at the bottom, windows arranged haphazardly, and with almost all apps appearing on an external 17-inch monitor.

However, he notes that almost everyone configures, arranges, and manages their desktop differently, and it’s interesting to learn how other folks use their Macs because they might have some good ideas one hasn’t considered. Probably my favorite Apple ad campaign ever overall was the “What’s On Your PowerBook?” series of magazine ads back in the early-mid ’90s, with various well-known (and sometimes not-so-well-known, but interesting) PowerBook users asked to list their hard drive contents. Of course in those days when the capacity of hard drives was measured in megabytes rather than gigabytes (or even terabytes), it was possible to provide relatively short lists.

In talking to several Mac experts and power users about how they use their Macs, one thing Friedman discovered is that a lot of them, including him, don’t use Spaces, Mission Control, or full screen apps. I detest full screen apps myself, but the shunning of Spaces/Mission Control surprised me. I’ve found that being able to have different desktop views, collections of running apps or multiple work-in-progress projects on the go simultaneously has proved exceedingly helpful in enhancing multitasking and general productivity. It’s one of my favorite OS X features.

Actually, the Finder itself is one of my favorite OS X features, and one that I miss profoundly in the iOS on my iPad. My desktop typically looks like a chaotic mess, since I use it as an initial dumping ground for new documents, downloads, new images, and so forth. Most stuff gets shunted to an appropriate folder in fairly short order (often my Dropbox folder these days), but I still will typically have 100 or more file icons showing on the Desktop, and I usually have a spatial idea of what’s there and where to find it quickly without any need for drilling into folder hierarchies. I’m aware that a crowded and cluttered desktop probably exacts a toll in Finder performance (for example, lengthening startup time) but the efficiency of having stuff easily available where I can find it quickly makes the tradeoff worthwhile.

OS X desktop

I keep my Dock on the right hand side of the screen rather than the bottom default position. This is partly a throwback to some third-party application launchers I used for years in the Classic Mac OS, but I also find it more intuitive, and it requires less cursor navigation than having everything at the bottom. I have the icon thumbnails set rather small, as I typically have between one and two dozen applications open.

Anyway, I love the Mac desktop and Finder (two of the best things about the the Apple desktop OS IMHO), and it troubles me that they seem to be under threat as OS X converges more and more on iOS conventions. I hope that inference is mistaken. I much prefer a document dominant organizing principle to an app dominated one. I almost never store documents in the Dock, and use the Finder and folders (or the desktop) for that.

Permanently displayed in the Dock are whatever four or five a web browsers I’m currently using—at present:

  • Firefox, Chrome or Maxthon, Opera, and Safari in about that order
  • my text-crunching mainstays Tex Edit Plus and TextWrangler
  • Fetch or Interarchy for FTP
  • Thunderbird for email
  • ToyViewer, Pixelmator, and Photoshop Elements for graphics, plus carbon app Color It! when I’m running in Snow Leopard which I still often use
  • Preview for PDF viewing and some graphics chores.

I don’t use an external display with my MacBook, even at my office workstation, although I wouldn’t be blindly opposed to the idea, especially if my next anchor Mac turns out to be an 11-inch MacBook Air. An extra screen could be sort of Spaces on steroids.

Among the Mac people Friedman quizzed about desktop habits, The Loop’s Jim Dalrymple doesn’t bother organizing his files at all—he just uses Spotlight to find stuff. Faith Korpi of the IRL Talk podcast sorts apps in her Dock by color, and doesn’t use external monitors, but does use Mission Control (bravo!). Senior Macworld contributor and TidBits founder Adam Engst has used two monitors since 1990, and is particular about where his windows are located. Daniel Jalkut of Red Sweater Software uses only the built-in monitor of his 15-inch MacBook Pro, only rarely uses full screen mode, and (uniquely among Friedman’s interviewees) keeps his Dock hidden. As he observes, “there’s no wrong way to set up your Mac’s displays, but there are plenty of right ways.”

I agree. So what’s on your desktop?

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