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Chapter 4. Programs and Documents > Switching Programs

4.2. Switching Programs

Mac OS X includes an elegant solution to tracking the programs you've opened: the Dock.

Chapter 3 describes the navigational features of this multipurpose icon row—but once you've actually opened a program or two, it takes on a whole new purpose in life.

4.2.1. Switching Programs

The primary purpose of the Dock is simple: to let you know which programs are running. Only one can be in front, or active, at a time.

One way to switch to a different program is to click its icon on the Dock. Doing so makes the program, along with any of its open windows and toolbars, pop to the front.

4.2.2. Hiding Programs

If the open programs on your Mac are like overlapping sheets of paper on a messy desk, then hiding a program makes that individual sheet transparent. When a program is hidden, all of its windows, palettes, and toolbars disappear. You can bring them back only by bringing the program to the front again (by clicking its Dock icon again, for example).

If your aim is to hide only the program you're currently using, Mac OS X offers a whole raft of approaches to the same problem. Many of them involve the Option key, as listed here:

  • Option-click any visible portion of the desktop. The program you were in vanishes.

  • Option-click any other program's icon on the Dock. You bring the clicked program to the front and hide all the windows of the program you were using.

  • Option-click any visible portion of another program's windows. Once again, you switch programs, hiding the one you were using at first.

  • From the Application menu—the boldfaced menu that bears the program's name—choose Hide [Program Name].

  • Press -H. This may be the easiest and most useful trick of all (although it doesn't work in Photoshop and a few other oddball apps). Doing so hides the program you're in; you then "fall down" into the next running program.

To un-hide a program and its windows, click its Dock icon again, or choose the Show All command in the Application menu.

4.2.3. Hiding All Other Programs

Choosing Hide Others from your program's Application menu means, "hide the windows of every program but this one." It even hides your Finder (desktop) windows, although desktop icons remain visible. (In most programs, you're offered a keyboard shortcut for this command, too: Option--H.)

If this trick interests you, you might also enjoy its Mac OS X–only corollary, described next.

4.2.4. The Bring-Program-Forward, Hide-All-Others Trick

Here's a fantastic Mac OS X secret with no counterpart in Windows. It's a terrific technique that lets you bring one program to the front (along with all of its open windows), and hide all other windows of all other open programs—all with one click.

In any case, the trick is to Option--click the lucky program's icon on the Dock. As it jumps to the fore, all other windows on your Mac are instantly hidden. (You can bring them back, of course, by clicking the appropriate Dock icons, or by choosing Show All from the Application menu.)

4.2.5. Minimizing Individual Windows

In Mac OS X, you can hide or show individual windows, just as in Windows. In fact, Apple offers at least four ways to do so:

  • Click the Minimize button on its title bar, as shown in Figure 4-3.

  • Double-click the window's title bar.

  • Choose Window → Minimize Window, if your program offers such a command.

  • Press -M in almost any program.

In any case, the affected window shrinks down until it becomes a new icon on the right side of the Dock. Click that icon to bring the window back.


If you press the Option key as you perform any of these techniques, you minimize all of the program's open windows to the Dock. (If you had several document windows open, they turn into side-by-side document icons on the Dock.) This isn't the same thing as hiding the entire program, though; as described above, you remain in the same program, but now all of its windows are hidden.

4.2.6. Using the Dock for Drag-and-Drop

The Mac is smart about the relationship between documents and applications. If you double-click a Word document icon, for example, Microsoft Word opens automatically and shows you the document.

Figure 4-3. When you click the center button on a window's title bar, you minimize that window, getting it out of your way and off your screen. It's now represented by an icon on your Dock, which you can click to reopen the window. You can change the animation that Mac OS X uses to minimize windows in the System Preferences → Dock pane.

But these days, it's occasionally useful to open a document using a program other than the one that created it. Perhaps, as is sometimes the case with downloaded Internet graphics, you don't have the program that created it, or you don't know which one was used.

In such cases, the Dock is handy: Just drag the mystery document onto one of the programs in the Dock, as shown in Figure 4-4. Doing so forces the program to open the document—if it can.

4.2.7. The New, Improved "Alt+Tab"

Exactly as in Windows, you can switch between programs with a keystroke—in Mac OS X, it's -Tab. And like Windows, if you hold down that keystroke, you can navigate through a "heads-up" display of all open programs using the Tab key. (To move backward through the open programs, press Shift--Tab.) Figure 4-5 shows the procedure.

Figure 4-4. To open a document using a program that didn't create it, drag the document icon onto the corresponding Dock icon. This technique is ideal for opening a downloaded graphics file into your favorite graphics program (such as Photoshop or iPhoto). It's also useful for opening a Read Me file into your word processor, such as Word, instead of the usual TextEdit program.

Figure 4-5. The "heads-up" switcher lets you keep your eyes on your work, since the icons have translucent backgrounds. As you continue to hold down , you can click a program's icon to bring it forward; press H to hide a program; or press Q to quit one.

Better yet, a single press of -Tab takes you to the program you used most recently, and another press returns you to the program you started in. Imagine, for example, that you're doing a lot of switching between your Web browser and your email program. If you have five other programs open, you don't have to waste your time -Tabbing your way through all open programs just to get back to your Web browser.

Still, you can cycle through all open programs if you want to—the trick is to keep thekey pressed. Now, with each press of the Tab key, you highlight the Dock icon of another program, in left-to-right Dock order. Release both keys when you reach the one you want; Mac OS X brings the corresponding program to the front.

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