The Desktop and the Desktop Folder

The Desktop and the Desktop Folder

The Desktop is one of the busiest areas of any Mac. Since it's the easiest place to get to quickly, and you can (almost) always see it, many people use it as a place to put frequently used items, work in progress, and even permanent files and folders. If you've chosen to show mounted volumes on the Desktop, you also use it to access those volumes. Here are a few tips to help you get to it more easily and make it work better for you.

Where/What Is the Desktop Really?

If you're a veteran of Mac OS 9 or earlier, you probably know that the Desktop was actually an invisible folder called Desktop Folder at the root level of the hard drive. If you had multiple hard drives, each of them had their own Desktop Folder. These Desktop Folders were shared by all users.

In Mac OS X, because each user has their own Desktop, the Desktop is handled a bit differently. It's still a folder; however, each user has their own Desktop folder, located at ~/Desktop (I actually mentioned these folders in Chapter 1). If you look at your own Desktop folder, you'll find it contains everything that is visible on the Desktop of your computer (except mounted volumes, of course).

Note 

If you actually see a folder called Desktop Folder at the root level of a volume when running Mac OS X, it's because that volume was used under Mac OS 9 or earlier. (Perhaps you booted your computer into OS 9, or used your computer in Target Disk Mode on a computer running OS 9.)

Tip 

If you boot into Mac OS 9 and need to access something on your Mac OS X Desktop, remember that it won't appear on your OS 9 Desktop. You need to navigate to ~/Desktop to find it. Likewise, if you put something on your Desktop under OS 9 and later boot into OS X, it's not easy to access that item. I'll talk more about this situation in Appendix A, "A Tale of Two Systems."

View Options for the Desktop

User Level:

any

Affects:

individual user

Terminal:

no

If you select the Desktop (by clicking anywhere on it), and then choose View Show View Options, the View Options window will appear (it will say "Desktop" in the title bar), and will present you with options specific to the Desktop (Figure 5.5). You can choose the size of Desktop icons, ranging from tiny (16 × 16 pixels) to huge (128 × 128 pixels). You can also choose the text size of Finder labels (file names, item info, etc.), as well as choose whether you want those labels to appear below or to the right of Finder icons.

Figure 5.5: View Options for the Desktop

The "Snap to grid" setting, if checked, keeps Finder icons arranged in a neat grid; you can drop an icon anywhere, and it will instantly snap to the closest grid space.

Tip 

If you don't select the "Snap to grid" option, you can still make Desktop icons snap to the invisible grid; drag an icon (or icons) to the approximate area you want them to be, but before you release the mouse button, hold the command key down. When you release the mouse button, the icon(s) you have moved will automatically position themselves as if "Snap to grid" was enabled. (Conversely, if you enable "Snap to grid," the command key will temporarily disable it for the current drag.)

"Show item info" provides additional info about an item directly below the item's name; the actual info provided differs depending on the item. For volumes, you'll see the total space used on the volume and the free space remaining; folders will show the number of items (files or folders) at the root level of each folder; info on graphics files will include the dimensions of the picture (in pixels); and movie and sound files will be listed with the length of the movie or sound.

If you select "Show icon preview," any graphics files (GIF, JPG, TIFF, etc.) that contain an icon preview will use those icons instead of their default file type icons.

Note 

Normally, when you select an item in the Finder, its icon becomes shaded; however, if you select "Show icon preview," a side effect is that this shading no longer occurs for items with icon previews. As a result, you cannot tell if such an item is selected in the Finder. Unfortunately, there is no way around this at the time of this writing.

Finally, "Keep arranged by" allows you to keep files and folders arranged by name, kind, date modified, date created, or size (always in ascending order), so items with a filename or type that starts with "A," older items, and smaller items will be listed first. Note that if you've checked "Keep arranged by," and you've also selected to show mounted volumes on the Desktop (in Finder Preferences) the boot volume will always be listed first, followed by other mounted volumes, then files and folders.

Accessing the Desktop (Especially When It's Hidden)

User Level:

any

Affects:

individual user

Terminal:

no

I'm sure you've been faced with this situation before—you need to open a file you've placed on the Desktop, but you can't see it because of all the windows that are open. Although the Desktop is extremely handy in terms of providing quick access to files, one of the biggest obstacles most people experience in using the Desktop for this purpose is that it is often obscured by Finder and/or application windows. Fortunately, under OS X there are many ways to get around this obstacle. I've included a few here. (These methods are useful even when the Desktop isn't obscured; I use a couple of them as my regular method of accessing Desktop files and folders.)

Note that unless otherwise noted, the tip table for this section applies to all of the following tips.

Hiding Everything but the Finder

If you're trying to get to the Desktop, but you have a number of application windows open, you can just hide all applications except for the Finder. There are actually two ways to do this: if the Finder is active (the current application) hold down the command and option keys and click the Finder icon in the Dock. All other applications will be hidden. If another application is active (frontmost), you can use the same procedure, or you can hold command+option and click anywhere on the Desktop itself to get the same results.

Hiding Everything Including Finder Windows

The only drawback to the method I just described is that if you have a number of Finder windows open, they won't be hidden (so they may still obscure the Desktop). You can minimize each Finder window to the Dock by clicking the yellow minimize button in the top left corner, or you can minimize all Finder windows at once by holding option as you click any window's minimize button.

However, that's a bit of a pain. Instead you can use the donationware Show Desktop (http://www.everydaysoftware.net/). When launched, the Show Desktop icon appears in the Dock just like any other application. When you click it, it will hide all running applications, and has a preference to automatically minimize all Finder windows, as well. Shift-click the Show Desktop icon in the Dock and all windows and applications will be revealed again.

Accessing Desktop Contents Directly

If your goal isn't necessarily to view the Desktop, but to simply access files or folders that reside there, you can do so in a number of ways without having to hide or close Finder and application windows. Here are a few quick solutions.

Accessing Desktop Contents from a Finder Window

In terms of accessing files and folders that reside on the Desktop, the first thing to remember is that the Desktop is simply a folder, just like any other folder in Mac OS X. Because of this, you can easily access its contents in any Finder window. Simply navigate to your home folder, and open the folder named Desktop. Any file or folder on your Desktop resides in this folder, and you can perform any actions on them here that you could by accessing them on the Desktop itself.

Accessing Desktop Contents from the Dock

As I'll discuss in more depth in Chapter 6, you can place any folder in the Dock and access its contents easily. If you put the previous tips and this one together, you'll see that you can actually put your Desktop folder in the Dock. To do this, simply navigate to your home directory in the Finder and then drag the folder Desktop to the Dock (you'll have to drag it to the right of the Dock's divider line). You'll then see an icon in the Dock that looks like the Desktop.

If you click and hold on the Desktop icon in the Dock (or control/right-click), a menu will pop up, listing the contents of the Desktop folder (which are simply any items sitting on your Desktop) (Figure 5.6). Selecting an item will open it directly. If any of the items are folders, you'll notice an arrow next to their names, indicating a hierarchical menu. Thus from this menu you can open any file on the Desktop, as well as any file within any folder on the Desktop.


Figure 5.6: Accessing the Desktop folder in the Dock
Accessing Desktop Contents Using MaxMenus

User Level:

normal or admin

Affects:

user or computer

Terminal:

no

Along the same lines as the previous hint, numerous third-party add-ons allow you to easily access the contents of the Desktop. My personal favorite is MaxMenus (http://www.proteron.com/), which lets you create multiple menus, each with different contents. After you've installed Max-Menus, you can easily create a menu for the Desktop:

  1. Open System Preferences and select the MaxMenus preference pane; click on the Menus tab.

  2. Choose where you'd like the menu to appear from the Choose Menu pop-up. I personally use the Lower Right setting, as it's closer to the Dock where the mouse cursor tends to be a lot anyway, but another of my favorites is the "Menubar empty area," which lets me click on any empty area of the menu bar to access my custom menu.

  3. In the list of available items on the right, click Desktop and drag it to the menu items list on the left (Figure 5.7).

    Click To expand
    Figure 5.7: Creating a Desktop menu in MaxMenus

  4. You can choose extra options for the menu by clicking the Edit button next to the Choose Menu pop-up. For example, you can change the color of the menu symbol that will appear in the specified corner of the screen, and you can choose to access the menu by a simple mouse click, a combination of keys and the mouse, or via a keyboard combination.

  5. When you're finished, close System Preferences. Your new menu will be accessible in the corner (or menu bar area) you've chosen.

    Now that we've covered the Desktop, let's talk about Finder windows.




 
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