An Introduction to Spaces on OS X

Spaces was a new feature introduced in OS X Leopard, designed to offer a user friendly front-end to a virtual desktop system. This allows you to run more than one computer “desktop”, flipping between them with a key combination.

You can use different spaces for various tasks e.g. one for business, one for personal work, and one purely for video/music. They offer a handy solution for visually separating different applications. This article will provide an overview of how Spaces work, explain how you can add extra functionality to them, and offer a few examples of when they come in handy.

Spaces Preferences

To use Spaces, you’ll need to be running the latest incarnation of OS X – Leopard. The main preferences window to turn Spaces on and off can be found in System Preferences > Exposé & Spaces:

Spaces Preferences

Spaces Preferences

Getting started is as simple as ticking ‘Enable Spaces’. You can configure the number of different spaces you have (and their location) by adjusting the number of rows and columns towards the top of the window. It is best to keep the setup simple at first – stick to just two or four spaces at the outset.

Assigning Applications to Spaces

Adding Applications

Adding Applications

One of the particularly useful features of Spaces is the ability to have an application automatically open in a particular space. This can help to keep different tasks separate from one another without requiring you manually move windows around.

The section entitled ‘Application Assignments’ will list all the configured applications, along with the space they are assigned to. Clicking the + icon will bring up a list of recently used software to allow quick assignment of an application to a space. You can click ‘Other’ to browse manually if the desired application isn’t present in the list.

If you decide that an assignment isn’t working as well for you as expected, clicking the minus icon will stop Spaces from automatically moving windows for that app.

Switching Between Spaces

For a virtual desktop system to work well, it’s important to make switching between spaces very simple. Three methods exist for doing so in OS X:

Via the Menu Bar

Clicking the Spaces icon in the menu bar will bring down a list of the available desktops to switch to. The icon will also show the number of the desktop currently open. Swapping is as simple as selecting a different number from the menu.

Spaces in the Menu Bar

Spaces in the Menu Bar

Via the Spaces Interface

Hitting the F8 key (or a different key if you’ve altered the assignment) will switch to an Expose style view, showing each available space and the windows currently contained within it:

Viewing all Spaces

Viewing all Spaces

You can either click a space to move into that desktop, or drag and drop windows around between spaces.

Via a Key Combination

The third and simplest method is to use a key combination. Pressing a modifier key (specified in the Spaces preferences above) along with one of the arrow keys will move you to the adjacent space – either up, down, left, or right. A small display will appear, illustrating which space you’re currently viewing and where it lies in relation to the others.


hyperspacesBy default, it can be difficult to customize Spaces on OS X. One notable request was the ability to have a different wallpaper background for each space. Fortunately, a third party app called Hyperspaces has sprung up to allow just that – along with various other features such as labeling and colors.

A free demo is available for customizing up to three spaces. Any more than that, and you’ll need to pay $12.95 for a full license. Not cheap, but it can make Spaces considerably more enjoyable to use.

Uses & Conclusion

The idea of “virtual desktops” is certainly not new, and has been present in various Linux distributions before development of Leopard began. The implementation in OS X is remarkably simple, and it makes running multiple spaces a simple and visually appealing feature.

If you’re wondering how Spaces could really benefit you, here are a few examples of situations where they can come in useful:

  • Separate “work” and “play” to ensure you aren’t distracted when trying to focus on a task
  • If you’re working on several projects at once, running a separate space for each means that you won’t need to open and close Finder windows (or apps) as often
  • Children in the house? How about running one space for them so they don’t mess up everything else you’re working on.

Enjoy running multiple desktops, and feel free to share any other novel uses in the comments.