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Mission Control 101: How to Use Multiple Desktops on a Mac

mac-mission-control-multiple-desktops

The Mission Control feature in Mac OS X allows you to arrange windows into several different screens you can quickly switch between. This feature was formerly known as Spaces, and is called virtual desktops or workspaces on Linux.

For example, you could have a desktop for work programs and a desktop for personal applications. When you want to switch between work and play, you can simply switch virtual desktops without having to move all those windows around.

Getting Started With Mission Control

Multiple desktops are part of the Mission Control feature. To access it, swipe up with three or four fingers on your trackpad — the number of fingers you need to use depends on how you have your trackpad set up. You can also just tap the F3 button on your Mac.

mission-control-mac

In addition to all your open windows, you’ll see a single “Desktop” at the top of the screen by default. Drag and drop a window from the Mission Control view to the right of the desktop thumbnail and your Mac will create a new desktop, placing that window on it. You can keep creating additional desktops in this way or drag-and-drop windows between desktops all you like. A single click here will take you to the other desktop.

If you move your mouse to the top-right corner of the Mission Control view, you’ll also see a + button you can click to add a new desktop.

To remove a desktop from here, hover over its thumbnail in Mission Control and click the X icon. Any windows open on the desktop will appear on your current desktop; they won’t be closed. You’re not allowed to close Desktop 1.

mission-control-add-desktop-mac

Moving Between Desktops

Once you have your desktops set up, you can quickly move between them by placing three or four fingers on your trackpad (again, it depends how you have your trackpad set up) and swiping to the right or left. You can also press Ctrl + the Left or Right arrow key to move between desktops.

switching-between-desktops-mac

You can also move windows between desktops by dragging and dropping them to the edges of your screen. Click a window’s title bar, hold the mouse button down, and move it to the right or left edges of your screen. After a moment, you’ll be taken to the desktop to the right or left, where you can drop the window. This allows you to move windows around without visiting the Mission Control screen.

move-window-to-another-desktop-mac

Full-Screen Windows

Full-screen windows are treated as their own separate desktops. Once you click the button at the top-right corner of a window to put it into full-screen mode, it will appear alongside your virtual desktops in Mission Control. You can switch between full-screen windows and virtual desktops with the same swipes and Ctrl + arrow key shortcuts you use to move between desktops.

full-screen-window-in-mac-mission-control

Assigning an Application To A Desktop

You can assign applications to specific desktops — or all desktops — from the dock. Your Mac will remember this setting, so it will automatically open each application’s windows on the desktop you choose in the future. This can save you quite a bit of time, as it means you only have to organize your windows into different desktops once. You can also use this feature to have a specific application window appear on all desktops, following you everywhere so you won’t lose track of it.

First, switch to the desktop you want to assign the application to. Next, hold Ctrl and click the application’s icon on the dock. Point to the Options menu and select the desktop you want to assign the application to. You can have it always appear on all desktops, always appear on the desktop you’re currently on, or not assigned to any specific desktop.

assign-application-to-desktop-mac

Setting Per-Desktop Wallpapers

You can choose a different desktop background for each desktop, if you like. This can help you keep your desktops straight, especially since there’s no way to rename the desktops — they’ll always appear as Desktop 1, Desktop 2, and so on.

To do this, click the Apple menu on the panel at the top of your screen, click System Preferences, and click Desktop and Screensaver. Choose a new wallpaper and it will appear only on the current desktop. If you’d like to change the wallpaper for another desktop, move the window to another desktop and change it again. (You can also assign the System Preferences window to All Desktops to make this process faster.)

mac-mission-control-per-desktop-wallpaper

Configuring Spaces

To configure the way Mission Control and Spaces work, use the Mission Control panel in the System Preferences window. Click the Apple icon on the menu at the top of your screen, select System Preferences, and click the Mission Control icon. From here, you can change the way Spaces function and configure keyboard shortcuts.

mac-configure-mission-control[4]


Multiple desktops have always been a popular feature for Linux geeks, and they’ve been available on Mac OS X for years. Unfortunately, this feature is unavailable on Windows unless you install third-party virtual desktop tools. We probably will never see virtual desktops included in Windows, as Microsoft is focused on their new Windows 8 interface.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 01/28/14

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