When I first started this review of Afloat, I seriously wondered what on earth it was good for. An app that can let you keep windows stay on top of others or make them semi-transparent? Why? You see, I usually work on a 21″ iMac with an additional 24″ HD screen attached and – for work reasons – I am switching to a 27″ iMac. Screen estate really isn’t an issue for me!
But then I whipped out my 13″ Macbook I had an epiphany. All of a sudden, the ability to stack windows became useful. And then I discovered some more awesome features that I never suspected this little app could hold. Interested? Then keep on reading!
The Purpose of Afloat
As mentioned in the introduction and as the name implies, Afloat is an app that lets you “float” your app’s windows on top others – even if that app isn’t currently selected. After installing it and restarting your computer (or logging out and back in), your apps will have additional menu items in the Window category.
A word of caution: Afloat only works with Cocoa based apps like Safari and iChat (and most other apps), but Carbon based apps like iTunes or the finder ignore Afloat. You can read more on Cocoa here and more on Carbon here.
The options relating to Afloat have a tiny cloud icon in front of them. If you choose “Keep Afloat”, the app’s window will always stay on top of others. I don’t know about the usability of that option since it would always obscure the view of the windows below. In conjuncture with “Transparency” you can adjust if and how much of the screen behind the app’s window should be visible, while it still stays on top of everything else. This makes the first option much more useable.
One of the main uses people find this handy for is making videos float on top of everything else. This is built in to apps such as VLC, but is lacking in iTunes, Safari, and many other apps you may find yourself playing video through.
Harnessing the True Power of Afloat
I personally only realized the power of Aloat after checking out what was behind “Adjust Effects”. A black overlay pops up, offering you even more control over a window’s behaviour:
You can pin a window to the desktop, which means that even icons that reside on the desktop overlay that window. This way, the window is out of the way of other apps and doesn’t keep you from quickly accessing whatever you’ve put on your desktop (files, folders, links etc).
For example, if I click on the Finder outside of The Hit List, I can then click as much as I want on my task management window, it won’t select the app! If I do not activate the app by clicking the icon in the dock or switch to it via CMD+Tab, it’s almost like a wallpaper.
This can come in very handy if you need to keep an eye on something (like I do with my tasks), but don’t want to move/delete/change something by accident.
If you chose to make the window an overlay, it will stay on top of all other windows (as in “afloat”). But – and that’s a really neat thing – all clicks fall through that app’s window and affect whatever is below that window! So, how does that differ from pinning it to the desktop? What if if you need to keep an eye on something (maybe the video codec description you get from Quicktime inspector) while searching for related information (the video codecs that iTunes can handle and that are listed on the website)?
This way, you can keep the QT inspector window open while using the entire screen for your browser and still see all the information at once. Again, just one of countless examples.
Let’s get back real quick to the afloat option … after all the app is named for it so it must have some use, right? I discovered one while doing some research for another article. In my example, by setting the Text Edit window afloat and giving it about 50% transparency, I could write down some information I saw on a website without having to jump between applications. It seems like something insignificant, but again – if you don’t have a lot of screen estate, this might become an incredible time saver.
Adding Missing Functionality to Windows
Apart from managing a window’s position, there are some really, really cool things Afloat can also do. These are features I wish would come as a standard functionality in Apple’s Finder, but since they don’t, Afloat closes that gap in useability.
First of all, Afloat lets you drag a window by grabbing it anywhere. Yes, I mean anywhere as in the middle of the window. By using a keyboard shortcut (CMD+CTRL+Mouse) you don’t need to go fishing for the top bar of the window anymore.
Second, and this is my absolute favorite of all the functionality the app offers, you can also resize a window from anywhere! Using the same keyboard shortcuts but then the right mouse button, you can forget about squinting to see the tiny right bottom corner. Or about having to move a window up again before you can access the resize area. With Afloat, just click anywhere inside the window and the resize. Time saver, big time.
My first scepticism about Afloat has been replaced by absolute delight. For small screen devices such as your Macbook, the ability to keep windows afloat, pinned and/or transparent can make work so much easier. And both on portable devices and on desktops, the additional abilities to resize and drag windows from anyhwere improves the useability of the entire system (and I still wonder why Apple doesn’t include it).
Did we mention the best part: Afloat is free! There’s no reason not to give a try and see for yourself how much it can ease your every day working experience on your Mac.