Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Windows taskbar and the Mac’s Dock are the basic tools for launching apps and utilities on personal computers. Most of us just use them and don’t worry about their inherent deficiencies. Others look for enhancements or outright replacements. For your Mac’s Dock, try something in between.
The Dock traces roots back to Steve Jobs’ other company, the one after Apple 1.0, which is the one before Apple 2.0. NeXT.
In NeXTSTEP and OPENSTEP, the Dock is an application launcher that holds icons for frequently used programs. The icon for the Workspace Manager and the Recycler are always visible. The Dock indicates the program’s current state (running or not running) by showing an ellipsis below its icon if the program is not running and nothing if it is currently running.
In other words, for most Mac users this century, the Dock is where we place application and utility icons. One click of the ever present Dock icon and the app or document launches. Easy, right? Not so fast.
Almost any system wide feature that tries to do more than one task will meet with criticism, and the Dock is no different.
The most common complaint about the modern (circa 2009) implementation is that it takes up too much valuable screen real estate. Most Mac users keep the Dock on the bottom of the screen, though it works on either the left or right side.
To say the Dock gets crowded is an understatement. With the Mac’s basic applications and utilities, plus iLife and iWork, the Dock on my 24-inch iMac is full and the icons are small. It’s worse on my MacBook.
Bruce Tognazzini worked at Apple in the last century and once described the major problems with the Dock.
One of his concerns is that it takes too much space at its default size without auto-hide. He also complained that icons in the Dock only show their label when the mouse is over them, so if several aliases of a single filetype are put into the dock, differentiation between those files would be difficult or impossible without using the mouse, unless the user has changed the icons of the different files or folders.
The Dock’s lack of appropriate space to display a larger number of apps, utilities, and documents is a problem, as are the visual cues, which many deem insufficient.
Everyday Mac users will point out that the Dock can be hidden, and magnified. Hiding gives you back the screen space you lost, and magnification helps to make icons more visible when the Dock is full.
For many Mac users, Dock icons need an option for labels (labels appear when you mouse over the icon). I agree. While I can usually tell which icon is associated to which application, it slows down the launch process.
I keep all my Dock icons in the same place, Mac to Mac, year to year. Finder to the left, then major apps, then iWork, iLife, utilities, then documents to the far right. At least I know approximately where the icons reside, so they’re easier to find.
My Dock just can’t handle all the apps, utilities, games, and documents I need to access, so I also use DragThing.
Additionally, I place a dummy folder icon file in Documents, Downloads, User, Desktop, Utilities folders, and drag each to the documents section of the Dock. That gives me one click access to view the contents of each folder.
While DragThing is the cat’s meow when it comes to a Dock replacement, it’s also another thing to install, manage, and learn. My DragThing dock is huge, and made of multiple docks for multiple purposes.
Another, simpler, more elegant way is to simply have multiple Docks on your Mac. Here are four Mac utilities which do exactly that—more Docks.
DockSpaces is a free Mac utility which gives you up to 10 different docks which you can swap from the Mac Menubar. It’s like Spaces but only for your Dock. Sweet.
Docks is different. It takes a snapshot of your current Dock layout, then saves it for later use. While you’re using a single Dock at a time, multiple Docks can be used.
ParaDocks is different, but in another way. Think of it as similar to the old Mac Classic launcher in OS 9 (if you didn’t use a Mac back then, don’t worry, it’s still useful.) This utility actually convolutes the launcher process by giving you a floating window in the Menubar to switch between applications. At least the icons are named.
SwitchDock is another utility which creates multiple docks and lets you switch between them by clicking the icon. One dock goes away and is replaced with another.
All of these add-on utilities are designed to enhance the Dock experience, but also add a cumbersome layer of extra work just to make the Dock play nice nice. Even with different Docks a click away, you’re adding a click and a select to what should be an easier process.
Fortunately, Apple is in refinement mode these days, rather than revolutionary paradigm shift mode. The Dock in Snow Leopard gets more convenient. Click and hold an icon to get the nicely integrated pop up window to show what’s in a folder. Customize to your heart’s content. Anything is a click away.
The Dock also gets Expose’ ingegration. Click and hold an app icon, and all the windows from that app unshuffle using the same pop up grid. Stacks are scrollable in Snow Leopard, so the Dock becomes easier to navigate a large number of files, folders, and apps.
Like it or don’t, the Dock is going to be around awhile, whether you use one dock, many docks, or a full on Dock replacement. Unfortunately, I use both a replacement and some Dock enhancements. It’s not perfect, but it works.
We’re in the age of refinement, not revolution. For now.