Improve Window-Management in OS X with Afloat [Mac Only]

via by Jackson Chung on 12/10/08

I have to admit: I love large screens. I envy anyone working on 30″ Cinema Displays, opening several Safari windows and arranging them so that everything is laid out before them.

Everyone knows that large screen-estate enhances productivity, it’s not a myth. With that said, browsing and working on my 13″ MacBook isn’t a bed of roses.

It’s hardest when I have to work with multiple documents because it gets extremely difficult to view everything at a glance, especially if I have to cram them onto my tiny screen.

I’m only an indigent student so getting a larger external display isn’t an option, unless you’re offering to donate one. Up until a few days ago, Spaces was kind of the only method I knew of to pseudo-increase my screen-estate. Then I bumped into Afloat and was surprisingly pleased.

Afloat doesn’t do anything to increase the number of desktops I have or affect the amount of screen space either. No, it does something slightly different although amazingly intelligent - it changes the way we manage our application windows. By allowing a combination of transparency, pinning windows on top or on the desktop and making them act as an overlay; it has helped me to overcome some of the major issues I had to deal with.

Before I go any further, I have to elaborate that Afloat will only work with Cocoa applications in Leopard. Unfortunately, Carbon applications like iTunes and Finder aren’t getting any love. However, this may all change when Snow Leopard is released since it is purported to be fully-Cocoa.

If you’re going “Huh?” at the terms ‘Cocoa’ and ‘Carbon’, don’t fret. I was once in your position, regular users like us probably don’t realize that there are several different frameworks crunching their gears behind the scenes of OS X. To learn more, check out this article from Macworld on Carbon versus Cocoa.

Now back to the subject.  Afloat adds the ability to make application windows transparent so that you can see through it into the window below. It may not sound like much but on a small screen, it does wonders. Imagine yourself trying to type out some text from a photo (a snapshot from a Powerpoint slide, for example) and you have to constantly switch from image viewer to the text editor. By setting the image editor as an overlay (Overlay is a feature whereby the application window is set to appear transparent, is always on top and isn’t affected by clicks), you can now place the image viewer directly over the text editor and type away.

Like I mentioned earlier, Afloat can keep certain application windows above all others. This can be useful when you’re trying to keep track of something, making the application viewable at all times even when you switch between several other programs. There is no way to do this natively in OS X.

Afloat can also pin your application window to the desktop so that it appears beneath the desktop icons and all other opened windows. This is useful when you want to… be able to pin a window to the desktop? Using Exposé to Show Desktop will actually reveal any window which is pinned there. The only problem occurs when clicking on desktop icons: the clicks actually fall through to the application window below, if there is one. So slight arrangements are necessary to make this work properly.

Overall, Afloat has made life easier for me in cases when I had multiple applications opened and needed to refer to several of them at once. But then again, I wouldn’t be having this problem if I could afford a larger screen. If only.

Like always, Afloat is free and was developed by a µISV called infinitelabs. So if you like the program, donations are greatly appreciated.

(By) Jackson Chung is a full-time medical student attempting to perform a juggling act with relationship, studies and his future.

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Tags:afloat, transparency, window management

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