How to switch apps well on a Mac?
April 25, 2011 6:24 PM   Subscribe

I just bought my first Mac (Leopard). It seems like Command + tab to switch applications is way less useful than Ctrl + tab was on my Windows--I don't really want to tab between things I've shut but not closed (or however you say it), and repeatedly four-finger swiping to view all open apps makes me have to look for which one I want every time, which is slow. Am I missing something?
posted by wpenman to Computers & Internet (34 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I believe Witch does what you are looking for.
posted by AaRdVarK at 6:32 PM on April 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Do new macs have the F3 key that spreads out all your open applications so you can just click on the one you want?
posted by pecknpah at 6:34 PM on April 25, 2011

pecknpah: yes.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:35 PM on April 25, 2011

If you press command-tab and keep command held, you can run across the list of apps with your mouse and pick the one you want. Just release Command when the mouse is over the right app.
posted by Brockles at 6:36 PM on April 25, 2011

What are you trying to do? Command tab is the same as alt tab in windows (which I assume you are talking about, unless windows 7 has some function assigned to ctrl tab I am unaware of). If your problem is tanning through open applications with no windows open the the hurdle you have to clear is closing applications when you are done with them and not just closing all their remaining windows. You can quickly close programa you are done with by holding down command and tabbing to them then hitting q when they are selected. Scrubbing through expose can be slow if you don't know what you're looking for, there's a bit of a learning curve for identifying windows by their look.
posted by grizzly at 6:37 PM on April 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

it took me a little bit to get used to doing a Cmd Q to actually quit things.

also Expose is your friend, as well as Spaces.

spaces i really like when working with lots of open windows...i can have Dreamweaver open in one Space, browsers open in another, browsers where i'm actually browsing and not testing in another, and then i can use Ctrl plus arrows to move around. it's pretty nifty.

expose - F9, F10, F11. you can customize what they do too. but shows all open windows (in that Space), F10 shows all windows of current app you're on (so if i'm Word and have two other Word windows open, F10 will pop up only the Word windows).
F11 is like Show Desktop.

you can also set up the hot spot corners to do stuff as well, like show desktop or whatever.

it's all under System Preferences.
posted by sio42 at 6:38 PM on April 25, 2011

Would hot corners be an alternative for you?
posted by Cuspidx at 6:38 PM on April 25, 2011

If you're like me and coming to Mac from Windows, and you like using your keyboard, because it's more efficient than reaching for your mouse all the time, prepare for some frustration.

Although Macs come with a whole lot more "Lifestyle Apps" than Windows, the basic shell (Explorer for windows, Finder for mac) just isn't as tuneable or usable. You will have to track down third-party programs (that cost 5-20 dollars) to get back some of the things you are used to. Or you can decide to use your mouse more -- Mac assumes the user will be using the mouse primarily.

Good Luck.
posted by benito.strauss at 6:39 PM on April 25, 2011

I alternate between Windows and Macs. For whatever reason, Macs are more gesture/mouse oriented. This was a source of frustration for me until I upgraded to OSX Lion, which is still unreleased, and they seem to really, really have improved things. sio42 is right on in that you need to be looking at expose/spaces to do what you're doing. It took me at least a couple of months to be completely comfortable on a Mac, so if you're just out of the box new, give it some time.
posted by geoff. at 6:42 PM on April 25, 2011

I've shut but not closed (or however you say it)

I'd probably call that "Don't have any windows, but haven't been quit".

As for dealing with command-tabbing through apps, one solution could be to get in the habit of quitting applications you are done with, rather than just closing their windows. Alternately, look at what's good at being able to command-tab to such applications—it lets you quickly switch to them, open up a window, and start working, and all from the keyboard.

Exposé, what you're getting to with the four-finger-swipe-down and what pecknpah is getting with the F3, works as an application switcher, but I find it more useful when I have a particular window (not just application) that I want to switch to. Alternately, command-tab to the application, then command-~ to switch windows.

Personally, I also like having Quicksilver installed, both as a way to switch applications, as a keyboard-based application launcher, and as a way to get quick keyboard-based access to files, address-book entries, etc.
posted by JiBB at 6:43 PM on April 25, 2011

not to start any start any sort of derail, but i am an avid keyboard shortcut user and once i figured out the mac version of what i needed, i don't really rely on the mouse anymore than i used to.

the OS X Missing Manual book was pretty good. i just sort of perused it as the bookstore and had a couple "ah ha" moments that really made it easier. maybe that would be helpful for you too.
posted by sio42 at 6:44 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

BTW, BetterTouchTool is wonderful for remapping shortcuts and gestures (even on your keyboard) to be more to your liking. Also comes with a Witch-style window switcher.
posted by ConstantineXVI at 6:45 PM on April 25, 2011

Alternately, command-tab to the application, then command-~ to switch windows.

Or go to the application icon on the dock, click and hold for all that application's windows to appear.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:47 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think your solution may be: F3 to bring up all your open windows, then arrow keys to highlight the one you want, then Return to make it active.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 6:48 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might also find cmd+` handy; it switches through the open (ie. non-minimised) windows of a program. So if you are like me and have 4.... 6.... 10 browser windows open at once, you can flick through them without resorting to the mouse.
posted by liss at 6:55 PM on April 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Four finger swipe left or right. Brings up the same "command+tab" menu.
posted by 3FLryan at 7:11 PM on April 25, 2011

Hit f3 (the rectangle-in-square key) and tab around to the window you need. It's a little different in that it's window oriented rather than app oriented, but it moves just as quick once you're used to it.

What's more, you can assign spaces a hot key, so you can zip through workspaces, and then thru the open windows in that workspace. It really is worth your while to check out the Expose and Workspaces control panel.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:12 PM on April 25, 2011

And, I should add, after you four finger swipe left or right, you can just click on whichever program you want.
posted by 3FLryan at 7:13 PM on April 25, 2011

I mean, come on. You don't even have to let go of your beer.
posted by 3FLryan at 7:17 PM on April 25, 2011

I generally find cmd-tabbing through apps on a mac more convenient than on windows machines. However it is possible you're looking for something

Hit command-tab and keep the command button pressed down.
Hit tab a few times.
Now hit the ` key (above the tab - called "backtick"), and you'll go through the list of open apps backwards.

Now if you have multiple windows open for a particular app hit command-` repeatedly to cycle through all the windows on that particular app. (I'f you've only just arrived at that app through command-tab command-` be sure to take your fingers off the cmd key before hitting cmd-`)
posted by singingfish at 7:36 PM on April 25, 2011

I happily use the mouse as little as possible.

I've installed and would highly recommend the free program Alfred. It's a little like Quicksilver in that it's primarily a fast program launcher. It doesn't quite have the sophistication of Quicksilver, but what it loses in buller-points, it gains in speed. It's really fast. I think it's available on the Mac App Store too.

More importantly, I've simply got into the habit of Cmd+Tabbing through the various programs I have up, and I've learned to be quite good about Cmd+Q(uit)ing programs that I'm done with. The tip that grizzly mentioned, about hitting Q when Cmd+Tabbing to quit things quickly is a gem - I do that all that time and it definitely saves my precious mental vegi-bacon. I usually have between 7 and 12 or so programs open, depending on what I'm doing, but one crucial thing to remember is that the last program active will be the first one in the Cmd+Tab queue. It works beautifully if you're frequently switching between two or three programs.

The other mental difference is that on Windows, Alt+Tab sometimes counts different windows of the same program as different items, whereas it doesn't on a Mac. To swtich between windows, you need Cmd+`. Yes, `. That's the little key to the left of Z. This is a goddamn gem of a keyboard shortcut and should be the first thing any new Mac dork learns. In fact, I'm gonna put it in bold, it's that good. Cmd+` Learn it and love it, people.

You can also try Spaces and all that jazz, which I do sometimes when I need to move concentration, but most of the time I just stick with what I mentioned above.

Oh, one other thing that might help you get to keyboard nirvana is going to System Preferences > Keyboard. Then, under Keyboard Shortcuts, turn Full Keyboard Access to All Controls.

Good luck!
posted by Magnakai at 7:47 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Wow, thanks, guys! I'm excited to explore the pros and cons between Alfred, Quicksilver, and Witch. I didn't know about `. And that Full Keyboard Access tip is golden.

I still don't understand why Macs let you close things without exiting... if you want it handy but not present, that's why you MINIMIZE it, says my Windows brain.
posted by wpenman at 8:16 PM on April 25, 2011

You'll come around on Open-But-No-Windows. I like to keep as few windows open at a time, so when I'm not using Firefox (for example) and can just Cmd-w all the tabs. Then when I need to get back to the web, I just Cmd-tab over to FF, Cmd-n to open a new window. And the new window pops up right away, no delay waiting for the program to open. I don't think I've minimized a program in OS X since the week after I got my Mac.
posted by auto-correct at 8:27 PM on April 25, 2011

I still don't understand why Macs let you close things without exiting... if you want it handy but not present, that's why you MINIMIZE it, says my Windows brain.
I was going to comment, but decided not to. But you mentioned it again, so I'm commenting.

Open up Word on Windows. Type a letter to your grandma. Save it. Now close the document (Ctrl + W). Notice Word is still open. Guess what you just did? Closed things without exiting. Want to exit Word? You should have hit the horribly awkward Alt + F4 combination.

But not all Windows apps let you do this. The Windows implementation is horribly inconsistent. At least Mac apps are consistent. There's closing your documents (cmd + w) and there's quitting the app (cmd + q). If I want to close the document but not the program (because I want to keep program open to use later) I will do that. If I'm done with the app, I'll close the app.

I'm not sure why it's such a hang up.
posted by Brian Puccio at 8:32 PM on April 25, 2011

I still don't understand why Macs let you close things without exiting.

Because a window is a document, not an application.

Repeat that a few times, put it on a sticky note on your screen... you'll "get it" sooner or later, and then you'll realize it's a paradigm thing.

Also, maybe something useful: with most modern Macs, loaded as they are with RAM and fast hard disks, there isn't as much reason to quit applications as there once was. Having an app "not running" is not functionally much different than "idle, so its using almost zero memory with everything else swapped out to virtual memory on disk". And that happens automatically. Leaving it running is often a lot of time-savings, versus a cold launch each time you need an app.

I often have 30 or 40 apps running. Sometimes I look at the size of the list via command-tab and laugh at myself. I'll then point at a few that I haven't actually used in weeks and command-Q them right from that switcher.
posted by rokusan at 8:38 PM on April 25, 2011

The big difference between the Mac OS and Windows is that Alt-Tab on Windows goes through windows. On a Mac, Cmd-Tab goes through applications. They are not the same thing.

One thing to keep in mind is that on a Mac, you can cycle through multiple windows in the same application using Cmd-` (command-tilde). This is pretty handy. Many times on a Windows machine I'd end up cycling through all of the open windows in the system, while on my Mac if I know I want to go from Spreadsheet 1 to Spreadsheet 2, I'll Cmd-Tilde over while staying in the same app.

Also ... while rokusan has a point about modern Macs having enough resources so that quitting applications is not strictly necessary from a performance perspective, I'd argue that the idea of quitting applications when you are no longer using them is part of the UI paradigm that OS X uses; it's sort of a built-in assumption. If you decide never to quit an application and leave them all running that's fine, but you're sort of fighting how the designers intended and expected you to use the software. In doing so, you'll pretty much make the Cmd-Tab feature pretty useless, since it'll be filled with applications that you're not really using.

Personally I tend to quit most of my applications when I'm done using them, unless they take a long time to start up (looking at you, Aperture) and I think I might come back to them relatively soon. It's easy to quit an app right from the Cmd-Tab interface ... just keep Command pressed, tab until the icon for the application you want to quit is highlighted, and then press Q (without releasing Command). It'll start to quit, and you can do it to multiple applications in quick succession. I do this all the time since I learned it, and it's faster than switching to the applications and then Cmd-Q'ing them, because the app never comes into the foreground. You keep the app in the background and just tell it to quit.

tl;dr: While inexperienced users often get told that Alt-Tab on Win and Cmd-Tab on a Mac are the "same thing," they aren't.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:56 PM on April 25, 2011

You can also command-tab to open that switcher, then point and click on any of the items (of which there will be dozens in my wasteful, wasteful fashion), or snipe out the few you do wish to quit. No need to tab 17 times to get from item 4 to item 21. Point and click.
posted by rokusan at 10:08 PM on April 25, 2011

Some extra hints for the command-tab application switcher:
  • Hold down command and you can use tab and shift-tab or the left and right arrows to go forward or backward in the list of applications (including cycling around, handy for getting the application at the end).
  • Hitting the up or down arrows in the switcher will show just the windows of the selected application in Exposé
  • Hitting Q in the switcher will, as mentioned, quit the highlighted application
  • Hitting H in the switcher will hide the highlighted application (but leave it and all it's windows (even ones minimized in the Dock) open, just hidden) until you switch to it again (through the command-tab switcher, selecting it in the Dock, or double clicking on the application again).
  • While the switcher is open, you can also select applications with your mouse.
  • Hit escape to cancel the switch and remain in the current application.

posted by JiBB at 10:14 PM on April 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

JiBB's above comment hit the nail right on the head (and I didn't know about the up and down arrows, sweet!). Once you've mastered the keyboard shortcuts, navigating between programs and windows is a breeze. If you're still getting used to actually quitting applications, you might find JiBB's third bullet especially helpful: cmd+tab (or cmd+shift+tab to cycle backwards) towards your desired application; if you run into an application that you don't need, just hit Q (with cmd still held) and continue tabbing along your merry way to the target application while the undesired application quits itself in the background.

FWIW, I use Quicksilver for all my keyboard application shortcuts. I set aside the combination [ctrl+shift+letter], since it's rarely (if ever) used for in-app shortcuts and it's relatively easy to hit with my left pinky and ring finger: [ctrl+shift+x] for Chrome, [+z] for Mailplane, [+q] for TeXShop... the list goes on. It saves me so much time, and combined with custom keyboard shortcuts for menu items, I rarely ever have to use my mouse or trackpad.

  • read JiBB's comment on the cmd+tab switcher
  • Quicksilver is one way to set up keyboard shortcuts for applications
  • shortcuts for specific menu items can be set up in System Preferences
  • even this is pretty long for a tl;dr
  • Christ, I started typing this comment half an hour ago

posted by Rickalicioso at 12:18 AM on April 26, 2011

But not all Windows apps let you do this. The Windows implementation is horribly inconsistent. At least Mac apps are consistent.
I am a Mac user, and my response to this is "Hahahaha that's a good one, *sad laugh*"
posted by caek at 4:15 AM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


well, more consistent than Windows apps.
posted by Brian Puccio at 6:17 AM on April 26, 2011

I haven't seen anyone mention yet that [Cmd+Tab, release] switches between the current and the previous front-most applications. Toggling between these two covers about 90% of my most frequent application switching.
posted by TruncatedTiller at 6:25 AM on April 26, 2011

Don't know if it addresses your issue specifically, but for general getting-used-to-Macs help, you might find this thread full of Mac shortcuts handy.
posted by penguin pie at 6:56 AM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

4 fingers swipe down will display all the windows that are not minimized
posted by WizKid at 2:02 PM on April 26, 2011

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