How to Make OS X’s Exposé Work: 5 Productivity Tips

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Working on a Mac is a nice experience. Not only because of the aesthetics, but also because of the many useful tools built right into the operating system. One such tool is Exposé, which allows instant access to just about anything on your desktop with the press of a button. If used correctly, it can be a powerful ally in the war against screen clutter, but if you’re unfamiliar with it, it can seem quite daunting.

That’s where I come in – I’m here with five useful tips that will allow any Mac user to get the most out of Exposé, and their screen space.

You may be interested in the following related posts as well:

What does Exposé do?

So, what exactly does Exposé do? To find out, we can head on over to our System Preferences. In the System Preferences you’ll see several sections, but the one you’re looking for is right at the top, dubbed “Personal.” Here you’ll find the “Exposé & Spaces” button, which you’ll want to click.

Screenshot
Here is where you’ll find Exposé in the options.

Once inside Exposé & Spaces, make sure that you’re in the Exposé tab, not Spaces. Here you’ll see two sections, one titled Active Screen Corners, and the other titled Keyboard and Mouse Shortcuts. Underneath the latter you’ll see the three flavors of Exposé, “All windows,” “Application windows,” and “Show Desktop.” They work as follows:

  • All windows: This feature allows you to see every single window you’ve got open. If you’ve got a lot, this can mean making them all very small, but if you’ve only got a few, it can make swapping applications easy.
  • Application windows: Once used, this feature will bring forward your current application and allow you to easily swap to others (explained better in tip #3).
  • Show Desktop: When activated, this will move all open windows to the edge of your screen, allowing you unabridged access to your desktop.

Screenshot
This is what you should see when you open up the Exposé options. If you entered the wrong area, click the “Show All” button to return to the System Preferences.

Now that you know the ropes, let’s get our productivity on!

Tip #1. Use Apple’s Extra Keys for Exposé

Apple’s new chicklet keyboards are great. They’re easy to type on, they’re quiet, and they have an extremely low profile. One thing Apple didn’t quite get right though, was the access to their Exposé controls. F9 through F12 used to be the domain for this great feature, but as many of you know, those spaces are now occupied by multimedia and volume controls.

But, what most users seem to miss is that right next to these reworked buttons are the F13 through F19 keys, all of which have no default bindings. If you’re willing to move your keystrokes a bit outside of the norm, just move Exposé’s controls over slightly to the right. My personal preference is to simply shift the keys over, and bind “All windows” to F13, “Application windows” to F14, and “Show Desktop” to F15.

Screenshot
This is my personal recommendation on how to rebind your Exposé keys.

Tip #2. Use Extra Mouse Buttons!

While many of you may already be huge fans of Apple’s Mighty Mouse, I’m going to have to ask you to kick that to the curb. Sure, it’s a pretty mouse, but I find that its extra buttons are a pain in the butt to use! As a part time PC gamer I’ve had my fair share of experience with mice, and as a computer user, the only mouse that I’ll swear by is my Logitech MX518 (though, any mouse from the MX series will do). Sure, it may not be smooth white like Apple’s offering, but with two side buttons that you can easily click with your thumb and a shape that fits your hand like a glove, it’s more mouse than the Mighty Mouse will ever be.

Typically Apple products do their best to be as sleek and streamlined as they can, ridding themselves of clutter (which is great, don’t get me wrong). However, side buttons on a mouse aren’t clutter when used in concert with OS X’s built-in features. Namely (you guessed it), Exposé.

Screenshot
Your mouse may not look exactly like this, but any buttons in this area will suffice.

For my window swapping needs, I find that using the “All windows” option bound to one of my side buttons is the most practical. Sure, you can use Command+Tab to make your way through all your applications, but I’m positive that once you get the opportunity to use this feature in this setting, you’ll never look back.

Screenshot
If you have a lot of windows open, you mighty see something like this when you hit your “All windows” button.

But what if you’re a laptop user? Worry not – you can still use this feature as well. Just pick up a small wireless mouse (or Bluetooth if you’ve got it built in, which you should) and be sure to look for extra side buttons when making your selection!

Tip #3. Get a More Detailed Look At Your Windows Without Clicking Around!

If you’ve got a lot of windows open, Exposé’s “All windows” feature will make them small, there’s no doubt about it. And, if you’re into design or writing, the chances of having a lot of windows open is high.

So, while Exposé is a great tool for finding what you need quickly, there can be issues of window size once everything has been laid out in front of you. This is where keyboard shortcuts come in! Once you’ve clicked your key to use the “All windows” or “Application windows” feature, click your Tab key to cycle forward through them, and Shift+Tab to cycle backwards. This will fade out everything except for the window that you’ve cycled to, making it much easier to focus on.

Tip #4. Simulate Swiping

Alright, alright. So you didn’t want to go out and buy a new mouse – there’s nothing wrong with that! But, if you want to impress all your Windows using friends and you’ve got a Mac that’s not quite of this generation, you can simulate some of the multitouch features that our modern mobile brethren have access to, with only a few simple tweaks.

First, make your way back into the Exposé options, and direct your attention to the Active Screen Corners portion of the window. There, you’ll see four different pull down tabs, each corresponding to a corner of your screen. It’s here that you can give your Mac that futuristic feel, without having to spend that modern chunk of cash.

Screenshot
Feel free to try out any corner, but this one is my personal preference for simulated swiping.

The way I typically use this section is by binding “Show Desktop” to a corner of my screen. That way, it feels like I’m swiping all off my cluttered windows away in one smooth motion, making my desktop accessible.

You can, however, use this section for plenty of other things, including: starting your screen saver, putting your display to sleep, bringing up your dashboard, as well as the other features of Exposé.

Tip #5. Move Around and Resize Non-Active Windows

I’ll admit, this isn’t a tip that’s entirely in line with Exposé. That said, I should warn that as great as Exposé is, using it isn’t always the answer. Sometimes there are easier ways to complete a simple task, and getting the most done with the least amount of work is the goal, isn’t it?

Let’s say that you’re writing an article, and you’re using an external source for said article. You’ve got a Safari window open, but what you’ve already used all of the information on the screen. So, what are you to do? Click back over to the window? No! Simply use some keyboard shortcuts and move, resize, and scroll through that window.

If you’re using one window, and you’ve got another of interest that isn’t selected, you can move it around by pressing down your Command Key and the clicking the background window’s title bar. Once you’ve clicked, you can move it around wherever you want. And if you use this very same key shortcut on the lower right-hand corner, you can resize the window.

Screenshot
This Safari window was resized and scrolled through without once leaving the Microsoft Word document.

Scrolling, on the other hand, is much easier to do. All you need to do is move your mouse over the window and scroll your mouse wheel (or scroll ball, as Mighty Mice have) up or down, and you can navigate the contents of the window without a hitch.

I sincerely hope that these tips have given you some insight into the possibilities that OS X’s native tools have. While most computer users feel that, like cars, computers will break if you decide to tinker with them, that’s just not the case.

But, remember that these tips are just that – tips. Don’t feel that you have to use them exactly as I’ve listed here, spend some time messing around with it so that it works best for you. Just make sure that you get the most out of your time, and make every convenience possible work for you.

Related posts

You may be interested in the following related posts as well:

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Andy Salisbury is an experienced tech writer with a sweet tooth for PC gaming based out of Seattle, WA. You may recognize his name from such venues as PC Gamer, Maximum PC, Nintendo Power, GirlGamer.com and GamesRadar.com. When he's not busy keeping track of the gaming and tech industries, he likes to play the drums (poorly). You can keep track of him via Twitter, where you can read his most intimate thoughts (just so long as they're 140 characters or less).

  1. 1

    Number one

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  2. 2

    Great article. I never knew about holding CMD to interact with other windows without bringing them to the front. However, what you didn’t mention in the article is that it actually allows you to do almost anything in that window – not just move and resize!

    Snow Leopard seems to bring even more great little features like this to OS X, such as holding down a key to make all other windows move out of the way when moving windows, as seen in this video, and clicking and holding on a dock icon to exposé the windows for that app.

    -Scott

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  3. 3

    Of the idiots.

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  4. 4

    The first feature everyone learns has been explained.
    There wasn’t much need for this article.

    More quirky mac tweaks would be appreciated.

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  5. 5

    Sorry but why to rebind the exposé keys? Simply use the exposé key (F3) and CMD + exposé to view desktop…

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  6. 6

    Stephan Lenting

    June 20, 2009 1:24 am

    Well… you’re cool to be #1 >.<, i guess you should give a big party…

    I gave Exposé and Spaces a try, but my MBP became really slower.
    And if you’re tired of the many windows, try using ‘minimize’.. it sure helps a lot..
    You can always open the minimized windows from your Dock.
    That’s organized enough for me!

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  7. 7

    thanks

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  8. 8

    I must say, I agree with Jack Griffiths.. nothing new (for Mac users) has been explained in this article.. Sorry guys!

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  9. 9

    Thanks Kayzah,
    didn’t know about the CMD+exposé shortkey!
    Though i agree most of this article covers the basics, its still a great reminder to use these functions since they do save some time.

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  10. 10

    I can’t see how Expose could cause a (significant) slowdown – it’s not really a separate process from the window manager, and mostly uses the GPU rather than CPU.

    Spaces – possibly more so, in that it’s maintaining more ‘desktops’ but even so, it’s the number of windows that is likely to be more significant (as each app is writing to its window, and the windows are composited together to form the desktop).

    And to be honest, I’ve not noticed any problem with slowdown when I’ve had 30 windows open across two Spaces on a MacBook, let alone Pro, but I have noticed it when I have specific apps open (i.e. ones that eat memory like Parallels).

    It may be more of a consequence of the fact that they encourage you to have more windows open?

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  11. 11

    Nice Tips! Thanks form Germany!

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  12. 12

    Nodheadsoftware

    June 20, 2009 4:42 am

    Yeah thanks too !
    The Command Key one is nice
    (also from germany)

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  13. 13

    My exposé buttons are F1-F3. Why? Because I’m right-handed and thus use my mouse with the right hand. With exposé on its original keys I would either had to take my hand off of the mouse or had to cross the whole keyboard with my left hand.
    Using F1-F3 makes it much more convenient for me.

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  14. 14

    Tip #5: awesome, never knew that.

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  15. 15

    Why don’t you try KDE4? (KDE4.3 is going final very soon ;))

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  16. 16

    I use apple+tab to switch through apps I currently have running, and find this works great alongside Spaces. Most often I run two spaces, one with Firefox and one with Coda, and apple+tab between the two when coding. It’s fast, clean and looks cool too!

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  17. 17

    摇滚帮 ROCK BUNCH

    June 20, 2009 7:00 am

    I think it is cool trick to have… rockbunch.com

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  18. 18

    Like most professionals who use a Mac intensively in a production environment, I wrote off Exposé when it first came out as worthless frippery. I especially hated (and still am not fond of) hot corners, and I haven’t even given Exposé a glance since.

    But this has convinced me to give the other stuff a try. I had forgotten that it could be used to “sweep” the desktop, and I’ll see if I like all windows-tab better than command-tab. And manipulating an inactive window using command was something I’d never known at all!

    Thanks for the refresher. I always appreciate articles that include the author’s preferences and explains why.

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  19. 19

    When setting up screen corners or Exposè with keyboard shortcuts, you can also hold down modifier keys (Cmd, Option, Ctrl) so these keys can be used for other shortcuts or so you don’t inadvertently activate them.

    Try holding down the modifier keys when clicking on the drop down menus in the Sys Prefs.

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  20. 20

    On #5… the cmd trick is okay, but I *highly* recommend this little app I recently found called SizeUp. With a configurable keyboard shortcut, you can set a window to top/bottom/left/right half of the screen, or a quarter of the screen, or maximized. You can also move a window to a new space w/ the keyboard. There’s more too. It’s made my screen organized, and keeps my hands on the keyboard. So often I’ll alt-tab over to finder, cmd-n a new window, control-opt-cmd-up it to the top half, do another for the bottom half, and I’ve set up a little “copy to-from” environment. Super super handy. They do a free trial, name-your-price registration.

    And no, I don’t work for them or anything. It’s just a computer-changing app and it should be huge and get gobbled up by Apple for the next OS.

    http://www.irradiatedsoftware.com/sizeup

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  21. 21

    Great article! I’ve started using Expose more. For me the killer combination of SizeUp (size/move windows with hotkeys), Isolator (hide other apps), and Hyperspaces along with Expose has every possible feature that I would want in terms of Window and workspace management.

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  22. 22

    Shame these aren’t all relevant to those of us using MacBooks who have fewer function keys. Redefining F9-F12 was immensely irritating there (almost as irritating as leaving out the Firewire, but that’s another story…)

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  23. 23

    Gotta say, this kind of stuff is the big reason to use Linux–there’s lots of aps (window managers) that do all this stuff and way more.

    That tiling-type thing that #20 was talking about? Oh yeah, we’ve got that. And more.

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  24. 24

    Another great article…that’s what I like about you guys…you always learn something new from your site.

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  25. 25

    Guys, compendiums of knowledge often include stuff you already know. They try to include a little bit of everything, that’s why they’re compendiums.

    Good article. Veteran mac users won’t have much use for it, but I can easily see a recent switch being amazed by Expose and Spaces (like I was when I hopped OSes).

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  26. 26

    hey I just wanted to let yourself and anyone else know for tip #3 rather than using “shift-tab” you can use the ’tilda’ I think that is what the key is… so Tab for cycle forward and tilda for cycle backwards thus eliminating a key! That is the key before number one and above the tab key it has these on it — ` ~

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  27. 27

    Jeremie Kletzkine

    June 22, 2009 12:09 am

    This is amazing.. I already do EXACTLY the same for 1 year!!!
    And I use a Logitech Mx518, binded the same buttons… just like on your picture…
    Bloodbrother!

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  28. 28

    Nothing the avg. Mac user doesn’t know here, but I jump every time I see a post that may be Mac related since I’m sure there are things I haven’t discovered yet. This is geared for the novice user.

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  29. 29

    I’m afraid I have to agree David. “Move along. Nothing new to see here.”

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  30. 30

    I use all my mouse buttons for spaces + application + desktop + all window views.

    Having it all on the mouse makes me move extremely faster then using the keyword.

    But yeah this article should be like “Intro / Beginner for mac users….”

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  31. 31

    Thank you.

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  32. 32

    FAIL!

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  33. 33

    I didn’t know you could interact with inactive windows by holding cmd! That is incredibly useful, thank you!

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  34. 34

    I am researching Mac websites to make my switch from Windows to a Mac easily. This article is fantastic! Especially the corners options, which I knew about but didn’t know how to use! I like the part about the sweeping! I just don’t know if it will be useful, efficient and pain-free enough to use with a Macbook Pro though.

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