TotalSpaces Fixes Mountain Lion’s Awful Spaces Implementation

I never liked OS X’s Spaces. Even in Snow Leopard, before Apple overly simplified their implementation of multiple desktops, I felt that something was missing. I could never make Spaces work the way I wanted, and it only got worse when Lion removed the option to arrange spaces in a grid.

Then I tried TotalSpaces, and suddenly multiple desktops became integral to my workflow. Let’s take a look at how it won me over, and why TotalSpaces is what Spaces should have been.

Grid-Based Layout

The most common gripe people have with Spaces in both Lion and Mountain Lion is that all of your desktops and full-screen apps are lined up in a row. Switching between them proves annoying and time-consuming as you either bring up Mission Control and peek at the tiny thumbnails to see which Space you want, or you run through them individually — carousel style — until you reach the desired Space.

Mission Control’s not so great for managing a lot of Spaces and apps.

You can tell OS X to rearrange spaces so that the most recently-used are made earlier in the sequence, but that gets confusing pretty quickly. You can set up keyboard shortcuts for each desktop (though not full-screen apps), but that’s less elegant than the standard Control-arrow key shortcut.

TotalSpaces replicates all of these options, but it also lets you put each of your spaces in a grid. For whatever reason, grids are conceptually so much easier to handle than continuous lines. Instead of remembering that iTunes is in the fifth space from the left, you need only recall that it’s in the top-right space — or whatever your arrangement entails. Or, if you’d like to mentally separate full-screen apps from your desktops, you could have a vertical row of spaces and a horizontal row of full-screen apps.

Arrange your spaces in a grid. Additional full-screen apps appear to the right of the top row.

It’s easy to customize your layout, with maximum grid sizes of 6×2, 5×3, or 4×4 accompanied by any number of additional full-screen apps appended to the top row. Full-screen apps can be assigned to a place in the grid, too, so long as one is available. Best of all, these spaces can wraparound — circulating such that top joins to bottom and right is connected to left (either in the same row or the next one).

If you prefer the hard edges of a strictly-defined box, it’s still super easy to switch quickly between non-adjacent spaces. Just tap Control-Shift-Space — or whatever you use for a hotkey — to bring up an exposé-like overview grid and click the one you need. While you’re in the overview you can drag windows between spaces, too. I have saved so much time with this — it means that in a four-space setup every space is always a single swipe or key press away.

Dragging a window from one space to another in the spaces overview.

It’s frustrating that you can’t try other, grid-like but non-grid shapes, and that you can’t have the grid expand according to some pre-defined ruleset when you add additional full-screen apps (such that instead of going out in a single-file line to the right, as is the Mountain Lion behavior, they might expand rightward in a two-ply line, or even amass around the edges of your grid). But then, that’s not the worst problem ever.

Assign Apps to Spaces

The built-in Spaces app gives you some freedom to assign apps to specific desktops, but it’s a bit wonky and requires that you first move to the relevant Space then bring up a contextual menu on the app’s icon in the Dock. TotalSpaces simplifies the process with a Settings panel from which you can assign any app to any or all desktops. It’s such a little difference, but it makes the mental barrier of getting spaces set up so much easier to overcome. (Now if only there could be a way to assign specific windows from each app to different spaces without things occasionally going haywire.)

Manage which apps are assigned to which desktops easily in the Preferences.

Change the Transitions

I’ve saved my favorite feature for last. Apple’s transition between spaces gives me a headache. I get queasy as my eyes try to focus on text and interface elements that judder and sputter across the screen, even on my speedy new quad-core iMac. It’s also painfully-slow, forcing you to wait as the desktop traverses the last few pixels at a glacial pace before finally locking in place.

I’m not a fan of Spaces’ sliding transitions.

TotalSpaces lets you change the speed of transitions, swap the sliding animation for something more palatable, or disable them entirely. There’s a slider for adjusting the speed, and six transition types to choose from. The default is Slide — Apple’s Spaces transition.

The others are worth trying out if you do like having a bit of animation to your transitions. Cube does a fancy 3D rotation, while Swap looks kind of like pieces of paper in a pile being reordered. Flip flips the display like a card, revealing another desktop on the other side. Reveal pulls the current Space away to reveal another beneath.

Customize transitions to your heart’s content, with any of six core animations to choose from.

I favor the sixth choice, Fade, however. While the others draw your eyes quickly from one place to another (or, in the case of no transition, confuse you with the suddenness), Fade gently fades one desktop to white while the other pops in beneath it. Adopting this transition actually reduced my eye fatigue from long stretches at the computer. It turned me from reluctantly trying multiple desktops — because I know it’ll help my workflow — to a spaces power-user. I didn’t even realize how much I hated Spaces’ sliding transition until I saw this Fade animation for the first time.

Whatever transition you prefer, switching from one Space to another also triggers an icon that displays in the center of the screen. This icon show a small grid, shaped like the one you have set up, with the destination Space highlighted in white and an arrow pointing to it from the source Space. Believe it or not, this is a killer feature. Why? Because it ensures that you can always see where you are in the grid, and where you’ve just come from, without having to think about it.

I know where I’m going, and where I’ve come from.

Spaces Made Better

There’s only one more thing I wish TotalSpaces could fix: Full-screen apps on dual monitors (I had no problems running dual monitors with the app, aside from the OS X frustration whereby full-screen apps make one display unusable). But that’s an issue I understand is much deeper in OS X than a third-party app could hope to resolve. In the meantime, TotalSpaces at least makes dual monitors more usable with multiple desktops — thanks to its grid layout, custom transitions, and quick overview option.

If you miss the way Spaces worked in Snow Leopard, you owe it to yourself to grab a copy of TotalSpaces. It fixes every issue that Lion and Mountain Lion broke or made less usable. And it throws in a few cool new features for good measure.

With gesture support, grid layouts, custom hotkeys and transitions, app/Space management, and much-needed flexibility over full-screen apps, it’s everything that Spaces should be.


A utility that adds grid layouts, custom transitions, and several other features to Spaces in OS X Lion and Mountain Lion.



Add Yours
  • While TotalSpaces seems like an enhancement over Spaces, some of your Spaces gripes seem to be a bit overstated. “[F]orcing you to wait as the desktop traverses the last few pixels at a glacial pace before finally locking in place.” Seriously? Glacial pace? If that’s truly the case, maybe you should upgrade your PowerBook to something more modern. And switching between Spaces, well, you could just Alt-Tab to the app you want and Spaces will automatically switch to the proper Space. I’m not saying that TotalSpaces doesn’t provide some nice features that are lacking in Spaces (assigning apps to a specific Space is nice), but your complains on Spaces seem overblown.

    • I reinstalled ML on a new SSD a few months back, but on my last machine I ran some terminal script that sped up the swiping animation between spaces. I agree that the language used may be a bit exaggerated, but if you spend all day swiping between spaces, it becomes a bit annoying. That split second where the space isn’t locked into place is a bit annoying.

      • Jonathan, could you tell me what kind of script you used to speed up the swiping animation between spaces?

        Even though I got used to Spaces in Mountain Lion, the slow(er) animation speed was the first thing i realized after switching from Snow Leopard. (I’m running ML on a SSD in my 8-Core MacPro)

  • Swipes are purely “mechanical”. Apple designed them to have a mechanical feeling, you just need to understand how to control them. You don’t need to wait, just make a complete swipe on the trackpad and it will be as quick as you wish.

  • Transitions are slow by default for those who prefer to use the Ctrl + arrow keyboard shortcut, but moving a space with a gesture is much quicker and controllable.

    As for TotalSpaces, there are some things that bug me. First, I can’t make it completely gesture-based without losing the default Mission Control gesture (which is useful for exposé). In that case, the Mission Control gesture would take me one space up or down on the grid, to be coherent with the left and right swipe gestures. I could try to setup five finger swipes left, right, up and down, and keep the four finger swipe-up for Mission Control, but five finger gestures are too awkward and error prone. I’m not satisfied with keyboard-only space switching. Though I’m an avid keyboard user and get most things done with it, I really like gestures on my workflow.

    Second, even if I get both to work together it feels like and awkward mixture, because I can’t separate the spaces functionality from Mission Control.

    Third, the TotalSpaces grid view should zoom in and out, but this is a minor issue that would only add more polish. There are other obvious things that need to be polished, which maybe are hard because of OS X limitations, and this app seems to be a Dock hack.

    TotalSpaces is great, but I’m sticking with Mission Control and its better OS X integration and cool mechanical space switching (and lack of grid flexibility).

    • That’s true. In my 2009 27″ iMac sweeping through spaces is a breeze no matter how many spaces are “active”.

    • Thiago,
      I thought I had the same problem as you do. But I think there might be a workaround to it. The native OS X settings allow you to have a drag-lock to move stuff around. If you use that, you can disable the three finger drag on application windows. Once you do this, you can use the three finger swipe on TotalSpaces. And the four finger swipe is still open to Mission Control.

      I was a little irritated initially because of this hindrance, but once I tried this out, it worked perfectly without any issues. And no messy five finger swipes too. Give it a shot.