TotalSpaces: How Virtual Desktops on OS X Got Its Groove Back

Recent versions of OS X, starting with Lion and continuing with Mountain Lion, have introduced some great new features for Mac users. Unfortunately, much functionality was also taken away or modified as Apple continued to fine-tune its desired OS X experience. One of the best features of previous versions of OS X that has now been greatly diminished was Spaces.

Steve Jobs WWDC 2007 SpacesFormer Apple CEO Steve Jobs demonstrating OS X Leopard's Spaces during WWDC 2007.

Spaces, introduced in 2007 as part of OS X 10.5 Leopard, was Apple’s own virtual desktop implementation. It allowed users to have multiple virtual desktops that could each contain unique sets of application windows. Users could assign applications specific to each task to one of these “spaces” and then easily switch between them with a keyboard shortcut or mouse-click. In effect, Spaces gave users with a single screen, such as those using a MacBook or iMac, the ability to take advantage of some of the benefit enjoyed by those using multiple displays.

Mission ControlThe new Mission Control.

In 2011, Apple introduced OS X 10.7 Lion and merged Spaces, along with Apple’s window management feature Exposé, into a new feature called Mission Control. Mission Control aimed to present more information to the user about which applications and windows were open, and it added better support for navigation via multitouch trackpad gestures.

Unfortunately, many users quickly discovered that Mission Control lacks much of the usefulness of the now defunct Spaces. Mission Control allows for the creation of virtual desktops, but they can only be created in a horizontal sequence, moving from left to right. Spaces allowed for both horizontal and vertical desktop layouts via grids, enabling faster navigation between them.

Spaces also allowed users to “pin” certain applications to specific desktops. Mail and Twitter apps, for example, could be set to always open on a particular desktop, which a user could think of as their “Communications Space.” Mission Control allows users to move applications between desktops, but applications do not remember which space they were last located on when reopening the app.

Note: Reader Tim reminded us in the comments that Mountain Lion's Mission Control does indeed support "pinning" applications to specific desktops, although the process is less convenient than the unified menu found in Spaces and TotalSpaces. To pin an application using just Mission Control, create a virtual desktop, move the application to that desktop, then right-click on the app's dock icon, select "Options > Assign To > This Desktop." You can also assign it to "All Desktops" which will keep the app open and visible as you move between desktops.

TotalSpaces for OS XTotalSpaces from BinaryAge.

Apple was not the first company to create a virtual desktop feature. Many builds of Linux and third-party software on both OS X and Windows introduced the concept long before Cupertino. Thankfully, third-party software companies have again stepped in to fill in the gaps that Apple left with the move to Mission Control. Our favorite is TotalSpaces from BinaryAge.

Compatible with the most recent versions of OS X, TotalSpaces installs into a user’s menu bar and provides all the functionality, and more, that was once offered by Spaces. Users can configure up to 16 virtual desktops in grids of various configurations, select custom shortcuts and hotkeys for navigating the desktops, and, most importantly, assign applications to specific desktops.

TotalSpaces ConfigurationTotalSpaces offers advanced configuration options.

To further customize the experience, users can change the visual effect used during the transition between virtual desktops. Apple traditionally used a “slide” animation in Spaces, which persists today in Mountain Lion’s Mission Control. TotalSpaces users have five additional options, including our favorite: “Cube.”

TotalSpaces Overview ModeOverview Mode in TotalSpaces.

Another useful feature is the “overview” mode, which displays all desktops at once while keeping full-screen apps separated. In this mode, users can quickly identify which desktop has a certain application window and then move applications between desktops seamlessly. Again, Mission Control allows users to see all desktops at once, but only in a tiny row of icons at the top of the screen. Further, Mission Control does not allow users to drag and drop applications between inactive desktops. Only applications and windows that are open on the selected desktop can be moved to another one.

Mission Control DemoViewing multiple desktops in Mission Control.

To illustrate, in the screenshot above, the second desktop is open and contains Google Chrome. Mission Control allows a user to move Chrome to another desktop, but not to move applications between desktops three and four, for example. In TotalSpaces, the layout of the grid is not only easier to see, but it offers complete freedom in rearranging applications and windows.

TotalSpaces makes virtual desktops addicting once again on Macs with a single display, but even those with multiple displays (the TMO production Mac has three displays) will find great benefit in being able to keep many applications open simultaneously and arranged according to task. In short, TotalSpaces not only makes virtual desktops in OS X useful again, it can also significantly increase a user’s productivity.

BinaryAge offers a fully functional two-week trial of TotalSpaces so if you’ve upgraded to Lion or Mountain Lion and are missing Spaces, check it out. After the trial, the app is currently priced at US$15. To some, that may seem a bit high for a system utility but for once you grok what TotalSpaces offers, it will almost certainly become the most-used utility on your Mac.

TotalSpaces rekindled our love of virtual desktops in OS X. Give it a try and see if it does the same for you.