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The Naked Desktop and Other Desktop Usage Patterns

First, let me say, I don’t intend this to be some sort of OS pissing match. I’m sure you can dig up some old USEnet or BBS posts from the early 90’s when I was brash and bored enough to engage in platform debates. I probably should have been chasing girls or studying, but instead I was dialing up The Network. Long ago I decided that, though I had dogs, I didn’t want to take them to that fight.

To each his own.

The Naked Desktop

Jon Udell recently posted a screencast about his attempts to achieve a distraction-free desktop. The idea is that you want as few things on your screen as possible, ideally only the UI artifacts (windows for the most part) you’ll see will be related the thing you’re doing or working on — web pages, PDF files, text/code your editing, etc.

It hadn’t occurred to me, but that’s one of the primary desktop usage patterns I try to practice: I like to get as many unneeded or rarely used things off my screen as possible.

In Windows-land, this is always annoying: you have to delete all those stupid AOL and other crap-icons, and then there’s that damn tray with all it’s icons. Ugh. Don’t get me started. The Windows interface is like going to a Wal-mart where you get blasted with the mega-pickle jar special of the day right next to shelves of neon-plastic cups and Bubba Kegs. Why does cheap have to equate with ugly? A mystery for the ages.

Udell shows off using several of the key features in OS X for keeping your desktop as naked as possible: hiding, Apple/alt-tabbing, Exposé, and Desktop Sweeper. In addition to his practices, I have a few of my own. They’re no uniquely mine at all: I’ve aggregated them from several sources. But, since several of you have switch over to OS X recently (ignore the hype! ;>), I thought I’d outline some of the ways I use it. It’s taken me awhile to discover some of them.

The Goal

The goal, or mindset, of The Naked Desktop is to see the minimal amount of windows and wing-dings on the screen. It’s very much like the “keep your inbox empty” mindset that the GTD and email-nuts came up with a few years ago. (That mindset, by the way, is great.)

Thus, much of the below has to do with reducing the amount of things you see on your screen(s). To put it in one word: simple.


The Naked Desktop

Menufela is the application/util that kicked off this post. Menufela is a tiny utility (a preference panel, actually) that auto-hides the menu-bar. The effect is subtle in the above screenshot, but it’s dramatic once you start using it.

In OS X, the menu-bar takes up a thin sliver at the top of the screen. Windows keeps the menu in the application Window, while OS X anchors the menu-bar at the top of the screen.

Auto-hiding the menu-bar may seem trivial, but combined with Dock auto-hiding (see below), it keeps your desktop about as naked as possible, leaving just the windows for running applications to deal with.

One “bad” thing I’ve noticed is that I loose track of time more easily because I don’t have the menu-bar clock in front of me all the time. That might be good though…given that I have plenty of alarms and notifications for events I need to get to ;>

Menufela is $5, but it’s well worth it.

The Dock

My Dock

The Dock is OS X’s answer to the Start button and taskbar in Windows. It displays icons for commonly used applications (which come pre-selected, but you can configure it to your heart’s content) mixed in with currently running applications.

You can see mine above. The icons with little black arrows under them are running. Also, Dock icons can bounce when an event occurs (like when Adium, my IM client can’t log into an IM network) and the icons get “decorated” when the application state changes (like to show me the number of unread emails I have). While some folks have well reasoned reasons for detesting it, I like it.

For the purposes of this discussion, the Dock is relevant for two reasons:

  • I put the applications I use frequently (daily and weekly) in the Dock. This way, I don’t have to dig around in the Applications folder (kind of like Start->Programs in Windows) to start those. For example, I use Audacity to edit podcasts, so I keep the Audacity icon in the Dock. Also, I removed a lot of the default icons from the Dock (like iMovie): you can do that by just dragging them off.
  • I set the Dock to auto-hide. This way, it only shows up if I hover the cursor at the bottom of the screen, achieving our goal of keeping the desktop as naked as possible.

I’ve noticed that a lot of tech-heads put the Dock on the side. I’ve tried that many times, but it never feels right. Perhaps you’ll like it.

Also, if you’re a command-line freak, you’ll probably want Quicksilver instead of the Dock. I try using Quicksilver about once a month, but I must not be a real command-line fan ’cause I never get into it. I also keep a messy offices (though, I’m much better than I used to be), so I think it has something to do with liking to see everything rather than “pull it up” as needed (never-mind if that contradicts the contents of this post…move along…).

Hiding – Apple-H, Shift-Apple-H

As the name implies, hiding is the act of making all UI artifacts for a selected application disappear. The program doesn’t stop running or even minimize, it just doesn’t show up on your desktop anymore. Once you alt-tab to it or select it in the Dock, all the windows reappear.

In Windows, this doesn’t exist so much. As in OS X, you can minimize applications, but that’s not quite the same.

It took me awhile to appreciate how much hiding made my desktop life better. It does two things: cleans up your window-clutter and makes using Exposé to manage your running apps quicker (see below).

Another interesting usage pattern is to use Hiding instead of alt-tabing: keep hiding applications until you find the one you want.

You can also “Hide Others” to hide all the windows except the currently selected applications. So, if I have up and I can see Firefox and iTunes in the background, I can Hide Others and I’ll just see

It may sound corny — it did to me at first — but once you start using it, it makes sense. What happens is that it focuses your attention on the task at hand and, thus, increases your velocity at the same time as making you feel a little calmer. (Yeah, that sounds corny too, but it’s true and valuable.)

Another tip is to hide applications that you start at login. For example, I use auto-start Stickies (I keep ad hoc notes in them), but I’ve selected to hide them when they start. So, when I log in to my Mac, they start up, but I don’t see them. Many non-Apple applications (I shake my fist at you Skype!) are jerks and ignore this.

When I’m in Windows-land the combination of Hiding and Exposé is what I miss most.

Exposé – F9, F10, F11


I had even less appreciation and understanding for Exposé when I first started using OS X. I thought it was just pretty eye-candy with no reason: many reviews and snarks reflect that thinking.

In fact, Exposé is the answer to the question “where the hell is that window?” Every time I get “lost” in my desktop, I hit F9 and get a quick view of everything that’s running.

Exposé also works with Hiding in an helpful way. Hidden windows don’t show up in Exposé. So, when cleaning up your desktop, you can go through an Exposé-Hide-Exposé-Hide cycle. You use Exposé to find an app you can hide, hide the app, use Exposé again, hide the app, etc., until you have only those windows open that you want.

The F10 key does the Exposé thing with all the windows for the current application. I don’t really use this. Instead, I use Apple-~ (that’s tilda) to “tab” through those windows. I tend to keep the number of windows I have open for an app to a minimum. If the app has tabs (like Firefox or iTerm), I rarely use extra windows at all.

On the other hand, I use F11 more which is the Exposé command to shove all the windows “off screen” and show you the desktop. I use my desktop as a crude to do bucket for PDFs to read or other action items and folders for things like receipts and flight/hotel itinerary. So, I press F11 to get straight to those things. Really, I should use my desktop for more things, but I haven’t discovered those “things” yet. For example, It’d be really nice if the Dashboard could be the desktop instead of a separate “layer” above it.

alt-tab – Apple-tab

alt-tab bar

alt-tab is, of course indispensable. On OS X, it’s actually Apple-tab, but come one, the concept is like xerox, kleenex, or “to google”: it’s beyond what the actual implementations is. Hence, I always say “alt tab” instead of the proper “Apple/Command tab.”

In OS X, when you hit alt-tab, a translucent window with icons for all the running apps pops up (see above screenshot). Windows has the same, but, of course, the OS X one looks nicer: eat it! ;>

The primary thing I wanted to point out aside from using alt-tab is that, in OS X, you can use the mouse to select icons in that alt-tab panel.

This is useful if you have a lot of apps running: selecting the icon with the mouse can be faster then alt-tab’ing to the right icon. I didn’t notice that I used this until I tried to do it on Windows and couldn’t.

Virtual Desktops

Way back when I used X-Windows, I was a virtual desktop nut. A virtual desktop means that you have more than one desktop that you can keep application windows on. It’s like hooking up another monitor to expand your desktop, not just mirror it.

For example, you might have 4 desktops: you keep your web browser on one, your editors on the other, your email client on another, and keep the other desktop handy for other apps. The idea is that you can switch between these desktops when you switch between your different “modes”: reading web pages, editing code, etc. It’s as if you can cluster together windows and hide or show them all at once by switching desktops.

The first thing I did when I got my PowerBook was install Desktop Manager to get virtual desktops. But, once I hooked up an external monitor (and started using Synergy) and got more familiar with hiding and Exposé, I stopped using virtual desktops. I kept loosing track of where my applications where. Having another monitor hooked up to keep Eclipse in took care of my desktop-per-mode needs.

Now, of course, I code less, so when I do, I don’t really need a separate desktop. Using Hide and Exposé does the clutter cleanup that I need.


There are several other, “smaller” utils I use to achieve The Naked Desktop. In the interest of length and time, I’ll just quickly outline some. I’ll be happy to go over them in more detail, and talk about other ones I use if you, dear readers, are interested.

But, I have to cut myself off, or I’ll be typing all day.

Here are the top of the heap of other utility applications I use to keep my desktop naked:

  • Growl – Growl is “desktop middleware” that other applications use to pop up little notification windows. For example, when you get an email, a little window will pop-up in the right hand corner for a few seconds telling you the subject and who the email is from. I have it hooked up to my IM client, Adium, to tell me when someone is available and to show new messages people have IM’ed me. So, I can keep Adium hidden, and just bring it to the forefront when needed, once the little Growl window pops up, telling me, “hey, you have a new message.” Many, many other applications (even Skype!) use Growl
  • iMote – in addition to popping up Growl notifications about the currently playing song, it provides key-bindings to control iTunes. Thus, I can keep iTunes hidden most of the time and just hit Alt-Apple-[right arrow] to go the next track, or (more often, like when I get a phone call), hit Ctrl-Alt-Apple-space to pause iTunes. You can, of course, re-map those keys to whatever you want.
  • Desktop SweeperUdell recommended this app. I have to admit, it doesn’t appeal to me so I haven’t really tried it yet. Then again, how many times did I say that same thing about some feature (hiding, Exposé) seeming nutty to me until I started using it? Exactly.
  • Tabs – many applications use tabs now-a-days: Firefox, Adium, iTerm (if you haven’t for iTerm yet, you really should: tabs, baby!). Tabs are great because you can the effect of having multiple windows open without the clutter. If you’ve never used them, try using them in Firefox, and then start using them in other apps if you like it. Key to my use of tabs in Firefox is configuring Firefox to open new windows in a tab instead of a window. I hate it when web pages open new windows because it distracts me and moves the focus away. Worse, it’s difficult for me to get an accounting of all the pages I have open (though, Exposé can help). On the other hand, I have no problem with a page opening a new tab, especially because Firefox can force them to open in the background, meaning I can switch focus to them at my leisure instead of being forced to switch. The same applies to other tab’ed apps.
  • Parallels – of I had an Intel Mac, I’d be using Parallels to run multiple OS’es. I have a PPC chip though, so no soup for me.
  • Size – I’m not sure if this belong on this list, but I play around a lot with font-size and icon size. Typically, I want my icons (in Firefox, Adium, or where ever) as small as possible. On the other hand, I like really big text. I used to like small text because it looks good, but big text is easier to read (along with narrow columns); maybe I’m just getting old. For example, in Firefox, I don’t let any page make the font smaller than 15 points (you can do this in the Preferences->Content->Advanced dialog). It makes some pages look wonky, but they sure are easier to read. I use Safari for pages that are jerk-offs and render totally useless at 15 point (there’s a surprising number of these, usually web application sites; even FeedLounge looks a little wonky, though not too bad). I always have to jack the font up in Preview when looking at PDFs.

How About You?

So, what do you do to keep your desktop naked? Or, do you prefer a fully clothed one?

(Thanks goes to Matt Ray who was the one that introduced me to pretty much all of the above).

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Categories: The Analyst Life.

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2 Responses

  1. I do Windows, but not entirely by choice – but I also keep a naked desktop as much as possible. I HATE the desktop icons that Windows just LOVES to proliferate, so they get hidden; I don’t use any wallpaper; anything not active is minimised to the taskbar, which autohides (and I’m one of the geeks who anchors it to the side of the screen).

    And even though I didn’t know about it – I have often thought that clicking on an icon after the alt-tab would be fantastic – I am officially jealous!

    I am ambivalent about hiding a window’s menubar – sometimes I’d like the space back, but when an app HAS provided the function, I haven’t enjoyed using it.

    At work I use two screens – and when I’m away from the desk, it can be painful using just a laptop screen!
    Icons – yes, as small as possible.
    Text – when I got higher res screens, I started using small fonts to fit more in, but I must be getting older – I’ve had to bump up font sizes now!

  2. Thanks for the praise. I also like to have Expose mapped to the Option key for quick access (of course, now I want a way to do the Hide Others). My new quest is a way to drag windows like in Linux with Alt-dragging. And then to get rid of window borders like in my favorite theme of all time:

    You’d think I didn’t like OSX, but it’s still less of a hassle than my Gentoo desktop.