Optimal Layout: Much More Than a Window Switcher

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.

This is Optimal Layout’s interface for window switching and resizing.

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.

 

Clicking on the right hand pane of Optimal Layout’s interface allows you to resize windows anywhere on the screen.

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.

Predetermined window positions can be accessed from the menu bar and from Optimal Layout’s 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.

Keyboard shortcuts can be assigned to any predetermined window position created by the user.

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.

Conclusion

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.


Summary

An all around window manager for Mac.

8
  • alfanick

    For $14.00 design that doesn’t look like crap is a must. Look for Moom.

  • rtfy

    I don’t mind the design (clean and customizable), but I do mind the performance. There is an annoying delay in calling up the window. Witch is a good switcher that is almost as fast as the Apple default cmd+tab function, but the default is still the fastest in pure switching ease and visibility. As for Optimal Out’s window resizing, I agree that Moom has it beat.

  • Simon

    Grid from Devon Technologies is nice for resizing windows. Free.

    Not sure I understand the issue with using Cmd ~ to switch between windows of an application. What is the advantage of using Cmd – Tab?

  • Jon

    While this looks like an interesting tool (I use Moom for window arrangement), I agree with the confusion around the opening premise of this article.

    Do Mac users not know that they can switch between apps with cmd-tab, and switch between the current application’s windows with cmd-` ?

  • rjleamaster

    Hi all,

    Thanks for your comments. I am going to reply all at once rather than 3 separate posts.

    alfanick: OL does more than the window resizing, although Moom does seem like an attractive option for this.

    rtfy: I agree the delay is annoying. Hopefully that gets better. One thing I like about OL is the ability to assign keyboard shortcuts to the positions. Does Moom do this too?

    Simon: Basically OL makes it so you don’t have to use command + tab to switch to an application and then command + ~ to switch within the window. You can switch directly to the window you want. You also get the window preview in the right-hand pane.

  • https://twitter.com/MacUserDO Mac User DO

    Optimal Layout is a big disappointment. It was promising, so I bought a license, but it has not been updated for about one and a half years. How comes you publish reviews for “abandonware”?!

    (I am still using Divvy which only has 1/3 of OL’s features but is drop dead easy to use.)

    @Jon: Yes, there ARE users who have been making their living using Macs for a couple of years and who still don’t know about CMD-Tab. I am not kidding, I know such a person. This is something that I guess I will never be able to understand. To me, knowing my tools is a must.

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