One source of frustration for Mac users, especially those switching over from Windows, is the inability to switch between windows of an application using command + tab. Fortunately, many developers have come to the rescue offering solutions that allow for switching between open applications and windows within the same app using a keyboard shortcut.
One such application is Optimal Layout . But to think of Optimal Layout as just an application switcher would be a serious understatement of this app’s capabilities. It’s more of an application / window switcher plus all-around window manager. This app has become indispensable for me in my daily computing. It is set to open at login and seems so natural to OS X that in my mind its functions should be standard in in the OS. Read on to find out why this app fits so well into daily computing on OS X.
Before Apple required sandboxing of apps in the Mac App Store, Optimal Layout was available for purchase there. I have been in contact with the App’s developer, Benedict Lowndes, and he is still actively developing the app and it is available for purchase on Optimal Layout’s site.
Optimal Layout As Application Switcher
The inability to switch between windows is annoying, and mission control, while useful as a quick overview of all the apps running on your Mac, is not an ideal solution for quick window switching. Optimal Layout (OL hereafter) is a great utility app that gracefully corrects this shortcoming. The app lives in the menu bar and can be activated using a key combination of your choice. I use the command + tab key combo, replacing the native application switcher. Thus, hitting command + tab switches to the last open window, regardless of the app.
Pressing command + tab and then holding down the command key brings up a very useful interface for cycling through open windows. You even get a preview of the window on the right side of the interface! Other functionality is similar to the functioanlity of the native application switcher: keep pressing tab to cycle through the windows, you can also use the arrow keys or the mouse to select the window you need, add in the shift key with the tab key to reverse cycle through the windows.
Besides switching between windows, OL allows users to take many other actions on windows. This is one area where OL is particularly useful. Here is a non-exhaustive list of actions you can take on windows using Optimal Layout that I find most useful (all of these shortcuts apply when Optimal Layout is in front, so the command key is being held down):
- Hide the window (command + H)
- Close the window (command + W)
- Quit the app (command +Q)
- Minimize the window (command + M)
- Zoom the window (command + G)
- Activate a search of open windows (command + F)
What about windows on other desktops? Right now, windows on other desktops are not shown in Optimal Layout’s list. Instead, applications on other desktops are shown at the bottom of the list. The ideal functionality would be to show the last used window regardless of desktop (or at least have this as an option). According to conversations I have had with the developer, this capability is in the works.
I can think of only one gripe I have with the way OL works as a window switcher—sometimes activation has a significant delay, even if I am not taxing my machine’s resources. Of course, performance and stability enhancements are on the horizon as the app is still being actively developed.
The look and feel of Optimal Layout’s list of windows is highly customizable—so for all you techy types out there, which I assume most of you are since you are reading this, have fun customizing your experience with the app!
Optimal Layout as Window Manager
OL stands out from the other window-switching utilities because of the added functionality it provides as a window manager, i.e. the ability to quickly and easily resize and move windows. In fact, you could argue that OL is more of a window manager than a window switcher. You know what? I am going to abstain from attempting to label this dynamic application.
Manage Windows When Optimal Layout is Activated
When OLis activated, the right-hand pane shows you a preview of the selected window. Hovering your mouse over this pane reveals a grid. Clicking and dragging on the grid allows you to resize the selected window.
You can resize as many windows as you want as long as Optimal Layout is activated.
Alternatively, you can create predetermined positions in OL’s preferences and the positions are available when OL is activated. The buttons for the predetermined positions show up above the window preview in the interface.
Manage Windows Using the Menu Bar
If you so choose, predetermined window positions can also live in the menu bar. OL allows you to place icons in the menu bar that can be clicked to resize the currently active window (see the screenshot above).
The user has complete control over the number of positions presented in both the menu bar and in OL’s interface.
Manage Windows With Keyboard Shortcuts
Keyboard enthusiasts will appreciate the functionality of OL’s keyboard shortcuts for managing windows. The first way you can use the keyboard to manage windows is to assign keyboard shortcuts to the predetermined window positions. I use this to quickly assign windows to halves of the screen for comparison.
OL also allows users to move windows without using the mouse. Holding down the keys alt + command you can move the active window around the screen using the arrow keys. “What about resizing windows without using a mouse” you ask? “I don’t like having to find the edge of a window and then click and drag to resize”. OL allows for resizing windows using the keyboard also. Hold down the keys shift + alt + command and use the arrows to resize the active window.
Optimal Layout not only replaces OS X’s built-in command + tab application switcher, it also adds functionality as a window manager that other window switching apps lack. There are a couple of things that need improving: performance and better management for windows in multiple spaces. That being said, all-in-all, this is a great utility that is indispensable for may daily computing.
I have not covered all of Optimal Layout’s features in this review. If you use Optimal and find a feature useful that is not mentioned here, let us know in the comments.