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Mac OS X Lion: Mission Control Tips

With the recent introduction of Mac OS X 10.7 (Lion), Apple has integrated three earlier OS X features—Spaces (multiple app management), Exposé (open window management), and Dashboard (Widget management)—into one new interface called Mission Control. In this Quick Tutorial, we'll show you some tips and tricks in working with this new technology.


Of course, to actually use Mission Control, you have to open it, and there are a couple of different ways to do this. First, Mission Control is installed in the Dock by default, so you can click on its Dock icon. Next, if you have a recent Mac with a dedicated Dashboard key, hit that to launch Mission Control. Or, on older Macs, you can also use the default function key F9 as a launcher. And, if you have a more current Mac laptop with a trackpad, or use Apple's wireless Magic Trackpad, you can use the default multi-touch gesture of swiping up on the trackpad with three fingers. Most of these default launch behaviors are customizable, and there are even more you can add, as we'll see next.

Mission Control Preferences

There are two places where you can adjust Mission Control's launch settings: Mission Control's own Preference pane in System Preferences, and the Keyboard Preference pane. We'll look at the Keyboard settings first. To get to it, open the Keyboard System Preference (Apple > System Preferences > Keyboard), choose the Keyboard Shortcuts tab and then click on Mission Control in the left pane:

Keyboard Preferences Pane - Mission Control

To assign a new keyboard shortcut to launch Mission Control (or any of its other functions), double-click on the current assignment on the right, and just type in a new key or key combination:

Assign new key to launch Mission Control

If you type in a shortcut that's already in use, you'll see an alert:

shortcut already in use

A lot of these assignments are duplicated in Mission Control's own Preference pane (also in System Preferences) although the Keyboard pane allows for more customization:

keyboard pane allows for more customisation

I also want to point out the Hot Corners... assignments. Clicking that button in the pane lets you assign Mission Control's launch to one of the corners of the screen; when you move your cursor into the assigned corner, Mission Control will open:

Hot corner assignment

OK, enough about launching. What can you actually do with Mission Control?

Management & Navigation

The purpose of Mission Control is to help you manage many open applications and documents at once. However, if you're the kind of person who uses only one program at a time, closing each one after use, or routinely hides programs that aren't in use, you may not find Mission Control all that useful. If, on the other hand, you continually open apps and files and never close them, or have a hard time navigating between those open apps and files, Mission Control is for you. Mission Control can also be handy if you're running apps in Lion's Full Screen mode, as this can make it more difficult to navigate between apps. While there aren't all that many apps yet that implement full screen mode, eventually more will so Mission Control is worth knowing about.

So, let's say you have many apps open, visible, and each one has several files open. Launching Mission Control gives you an overview of all those apps and files at once:

Overview of all open apps

You'll see that at the top of the Mission Control window are your current Desktops, which by default are the Dashboard window and your actual Desktop window. Below that are all your open visible apps; note that apps you've hidden using the Hide command won't appear here. And you'll notice that apps with multiple files open, like Pages here, show the files as a stack of windows. Clicking on any one of the app's windows brings it forward, much like using Command-Tab to cycle through open apps. 

But the real power of Mission Control comes from creating new Desktops and assigning apps to them. So let's say we want to run Skype in its own Desktop so we aren't distracted by the other apps. The easiest way to do this is to launch Mission Control and drag the window of the app we want to make a Desktop for into the New Desktop area at the top of the screen:

new desktop for Skype

You'll see a small image of the overall Desktop with a plus inside of it appear in the upper right corner, and when you drop the app window, a new Desktop will be created containing just that app. To add another app to the new Desktop, just drag it into the same Desktop window:

Add an app to a new desktop

To delete a new Desktop, hover your cursor over it until you see an "X" in the corner...

Delete a Desktop

...then click on it. The Desktop will be deleted, and the apps dumped back into the default Desktop. 

To navigate between Desktops while in Mission Control, hold down the Control key and hit the left or right arrow keys; this will display the contents of the selected Desktop in the large lower window without actually going to that Desktop. To move an app from one Desktop to another, navigate to the Desktop containing the app you want to move while in Mission Control, then drag it from its current Desktop to the new one.

As you would expect, clicking on a Desktop in Mission Control will take you directly to it. What's more, the same Control-Left/Right arrow command will move you between your various Desktops. This is especially useful when you've set apps to full screen mode. In fact, setting an app to full-screen (which you do by clicking on the arrows in the upper right corner of apps that support it) automatically creates a separate Desktop just for that app. 

switch between Desktops

After that, you can easily navigate between those full-screen apps with the Control-Left/Right Arrow key command. You can also use a three- or four-finger swipe (depending on your settings) on your trackpad to navigate between Desktops.

There's one last navigation tip I'd like to share with you: when you have a bunch of files open in an app, an easy way to see what's in them is to open Mission Control, locate the app in the appropriate Desktop, then put your cursor on one of the files in the app's stack - you'll see a blue highlight around the file. 

highlighted file

Then press the spacebar to get a Quick Look-style preview of the file. If it's the one you want, just click on it to bring it forward in the app's Desktop. If not, hover over another file until you find the one you're looking for.

And that's a quick roundup of Mission Control and how to use it. It may not be for everyone, but it will definitely be useful for some, and I hope you've learned some things about it you didn't know. 

To learn more about Lion, join Francesco Schiavon in Mac OS X (10.7) 101: Core Lion.

Richard Lainhart

Richard Lainhart | Articles by this author

Richard Lainhart is an award-winning composer, filmmaker, and author. His compositions have been performed in the US, Europe Asia, and Australia, and recordings of his music have appeared on the Periodic Music, Vacant Lot, XI Records, Airglow Music, Tobira Records, Infrequency, VICMOD, and ExOvo labels. His animations and short films have been shown in festivals in the US, Europe, and Asia, and online at ResFest, The New Venue, The Bitscreen, and Streaming Cinema 2.0. He has authored over a dozen technical manuals for music and video hardware and software, served as Contributing Editor for Interactivity and 3D Design Magazines, and contributed to books on digital media production published by IDG, Peachpit Press, McGraw Hill, and Miller Freeman Books. Previously an Adobe Certified Expert in After Effects and Premiere, a demo artist for Adobe Systems, and co-founder of the official New York City After Effects User Group, he was, from 2000-2009, Technical Director for Total Training Productions, an innovative digital media training company based in New York and California.


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