Using Dashboard in 2013

Remember Dashboard? That area where you keep these tiny, simple widgets for converting measurements, checking sport scores and stock prices, and more? It happens to still be alive, even if you’ve likely quit paying much attention to it these days.

Is there any reason you should still use the Dashboard? Turns out, it’s still a plenty useful little Mac tool, and I’ll likely still be using it until Apple finally drops it entirely. Here’s why.

Oh Widgets.

Widgets used to be one of the hottest things in tech, and everyone had them, not just Macs. Google had Google Desktop on PCs, Yahoo bought out Konfabulator, one of the original widget engines, and Microsoft had the Sidebar Widgets in Windows Vista. Even KDE, one of the more popular Linux desktop environments, had their own widgets. It seemed you weren’t a proper tech company without your own desktop widgets engine.

Widgets were easy to make, since they were mainly based on web code, and they seemed exciting at first. They were for the most part just web code – HTML, JavaScript, CSS, XML, and some images. Almost anyone could throw one together. So for a time, it seemed that almost everyone had a widget for their service, almost like the mobile apps craze of today.

But the widget craze is mostly over. Google discontinued Google Desktop in 2011, Yahoo killed their desktop widgets in 2012, and Windows 8 dropped support for the Vista-style widgets. Apple, it seems, is the last man standing with a functioning widget system that’s still supported. But even Apple’s Dashboard support seems to be waning, at least if you base your opinion on their incredibly dated Widget gallery.

The Dashboard Widget page sure doesn’t look good today…

Seems Like Dashboard Met iOS…

That said, Dashboard still got a bit of attention in OS X Mountain Lion, enough that it seems that Apple might not be done with it just yet. Dashboard now has a ton of iOS style to it. You’ll see all of the widgets you can use on their own Launchpad-style page by clicking the plus button in the bottom left of Dashboard. You can click and hold on the Dashboard icons, and they’ll start shaking just like Apps do in iOS or on OS X’ Launchpad. What’s interesting here is that all of the icons are small squares, so they look so much like iOS apps. You can drag them into folders, or click the x to delete them. You can remove any dashboard widget except the included ones, no matter where you downloaded them from, unlike Launchpad which only lets you uninstall App Store apps.

Seems like I’ve seen that before … in iOS!

And, of all things, Dashboard works great with the latest OS X features. Widgets are sandboxed, so you’ll see the Contacts widget that ships with OS X asking permission to see your contacts, of all things. Dashboard is also integrated with Spaces, so if you swipe to the right from your main desktop you’ll see the Dashboard in its own space. Or, you can still have it open in a semi-transparent layer on top of your desktop if you’d prefer, ready to be brought forward with a keyboard shortcut.

Dashboard’s settings.

Apple’s own Dashboard widgets got a touch of iOS style, too, with the Stocks and Weather widgets looking almost just like their iOS counterparts. There’s also a few oddly redundant widgets; why would anyone want a separate dictionary widget when the dictionary is integrated so beautifully throughout all of OS X? But there’s still a few widgets that fill in a nice, niche need on the Mac that’s filled by built-in apps on iOS, and Apple seems to have decided that the best way to bring them to the Mac was with widgets. Some of the very best current Dashboard widgets from 3rd party developers are compainion apps to iOS apps, such as Delivery Status, DashNote for Simplenote, and Notefile.

That almost makes you wonder if Apple has some idea of making Dashboard into a way to run iOS apps on the Mac, or if they perhaps plan to make a way to turn Widgets into simple iOS apps. I highly doubt they’d ever have full widgets on iOS, Android-style, but turning a Dashboard widget into an app similar to the Stocks app with the Stocks Dashboard Widget … that could be very interesting.

Safari: Dashboard’s Killer App

I still use Dashboard daily to check the day’s US Dollar to Thai Baht exchange rate, the weather forecast, and today’s stock prices. It’s all stuff I do from my iPhone, and so it’s nice to have the same things on my Mac during the day. But what keeps me using Dashboard is Safari. Just open any site that you’d want to check often, right-click, and select Open in Dashboard. You’ll then get to select anything on the page to clip and turn into a live widget in Dashboard.

Safari, meet Dashboard.

It’s an old trick, one that’s been around since Leopard, but it’s still a good trick. In fact, it’s the one that got me started using Dashboard again this past fall, and has kept me using it ever since. I used it to grab a quick countdown widget of the days until my wedding from WolframAlpha, the awesome computational web app that powers much of the fun stuff in Siri. Just search for something that’ll change over time (days until a certain date, a stock price, planes currently flying over you), clip the part of the site you like, and then you’ll be able to check up on it quickly by switching over to Dashboard. No extra tabs needed.

My Dashboard, complete with a web clip

Many sites work great like this; you can keep up, say, with the top of your Facebook, Hacker News, Reddit, or any other site with a web clip. You can open a mobile or responsive site in a small window, then clip it to fit more on your Dashboard. Or, WolframAlpha gives you a great way to make more app-like widgets that give you info you might otherwise need a specialized app for. You can’t interact with the web clip, for the most part, but you can click links on the page to open them in your default browser. So, it’s best for seeing things you’d otherwise have opened a new tab in your browser to see, not for using web apps, but it can still be very useful.

It might not be the most useful thing on your Mac, but it’s useful enough to keep me using Dashboard. And even if the iOS app aspirations fall through, I hope Apple keeps Dashboard around if nothing else than for web clips.

Conclusion

It’s tough to say if Dashboard is here to stay. Apple could always cut it out in the next version of OS X, or leave it half-neglected. Either way, the newer iOS style widgets and web clips are enough to make it useful for me, and I for one am glad it’s still in OS X. And if you’d like to make your own Dashboard widgets, here’s a quick tutorial from our friends at Mac.Tuts+ on how to do just that!

Do you still use the Dashboard? If so, I’d love to hear what widgets you’re using!


  • Steve Castaneda

    Whoa! The “open in Dashboard…” option is totally new to me, and awesome. Thanks for that tip! I watch mortgage interest rates along with stock/bond prices daily, so this is definitely a nice feature.

    • Lê Hùng Thiện

      “Open in Dashboard” feature works not well. Let’s try

  • David

    I used to use Dashboard very frequently, primarily for the calendar, weather, a Doppler radar, and for iStat Pro. I have iStat Menus, as well, but only used two of the sensors – iStat Pro allowed me to see everything. I’ve also used the note “stickies” in Dashboard, and occasionally use a package tracker through Dashboard as well.

    Unfortunately, the Dashboard “ecosystem” is growing stale. The Doppler radar widget that I use has some glitches and isn’t being updated, and iStat Pro is no longer supported (and required some user modifications to fix two graphical glitches introduced with OS X 10.8). I prefer to use Dashboard as an overlay, rather than its own space; Apple’s removal of a key dedicated to Dashboard on its newer keyboard layouts makes it slightly more inconvenient to activate Dashboard. I made a new hotkey for it, but it requires two keys to be pressed instead of just one. If you’re activating Dashboard at least once every hour, that becomes a pain.

    After discovering Bartender, which allows me to show and hide a second menu bar and put other menu bar items inside, I’ve replaced many of my Dashboard widgets with menu bar items. I’d hesitate to say that it’s more convenient than using Dashboard was, but it seems like Dashboard is on the way out; if Apple doesn’t remove it entirely, then it will slip into irrelevance simply because old widgets aren’t updated and become buggy or completely unusable.

    • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

      Very, very true, and all things I should have mentioned. The nice, modern 3rd party Dashboard widget is few and far between, and menubar apps – of all things – seem to be taking over many of the things people would have use Dashboard for in the past.

  • Jeremy

    Never been into Dashboard, ever. Tried it out, i just don’t like it.

  • Ed

    dashboard is awesome, I use it all the time. All they need to do is put a widgets section on the App Store, in both osx and ios…. Boom new market created from a dying one!
    Widgets are awesome… People don’t know about them tho!!!

  • nacho

    I am a hard user of the Safari webclips too, but I mainly use this option to view images I have stored on my hard drive and I look at frequently (such as the genetic code or Pubmed shortcuts), so I don’t have to look for them on Spotlight every time I need that information. It’s as easy as dragging the file on Safari’s icon, so it opens on a new window, and then selecting “Open in Dashboard”.

  • Tim

    Konfabulator wasn’t “one of the original widget engines”, it WAS the first. Arlo Rose conceptualized it in 1999. Everyone else copied it (almost exactly). Apple lost a really great developer from the Mac platform because of that error on their part. Arlo Rose did many cool things. I wish he would come back to the Mac.
    I’d like to say Microsoft and Google paid him licensing fees for it, but they did not.

    I still use Dashboard every day.

  • Anton

    I use the converter.. and that’s about it.

  • Steve Castaneda

    I discovered on big caveat to using webclips, in that if the clip itself uses flash, all hell breaks loose on my macbook Air. Fan speeds go out of control because CPU usages skyrockets.

    The clips work well for non-flash stuff though. (I was trying to add a 1 yr history for 10 year treasury bonds from Yahoo Finance, which uses flash for a slider thingy)

  • Dan

    I use Dashboard Widgets all the time! (as an overlay like in SnowLeopard, assigned to the Dashboard-Key on the fullsize Apple Keyboard)

    My most used widgets are the Dictionary widget (including some custom dictionaries/thesaurus), GAget (Google analytics), MAMP Control, Paymo Widget (paymo.biz time tracking), HSLider (HSL sliders and plain ol’ text fields to tweak colors), Designers Toolbox, Currency Converter, and some more design/development related Widgets.

    I hope Apple keep the Widgets in OS X.

  • guestuser

    Dashboard is great, I wish it got more attention. Unfortunately weak hardware specs in Apple Macs and OSX 10.7 update force me to avoid using my widgets on a regular basis (which should be the opposite). Love widgets and I’m still waiting for them in iOS.

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