Tips For Managing Your Dock

Take a look at the bottom of your screen and you’ll see the familiar row of icons known to all Mac users as the Dock. The  icons are a quick and convenient way to launch applications and bring open windows to the front, but they’re slightly unusual in that they’re activated with just a single-click rather than the normal double-click.

The Dock contains application and file shortcuts

Applications, Stacks and shortcuts are accessible via the Dock

The Dock is surely one of the Mac’s most handy features – providing a way to quickly open apps and get to files and folders that you use regularly. One of the great things about the Dock is that it can be easily customised to behave exactly as you want. For example, you can reposition the Dock anywhere on-screen, reorder items and access shortcuts from the Dock, as well as activate contextual menus that show additional options for each icon.

Here are just some of the many ways to get much more out of your Mac’s Dock, as well as a couple of add-ons / utilities that let you customise it’s behaviour even more.

General Tips

Some of the following tips are fairly obvious while others are not, but they can enhance the way the Dock works to become a much more useful tool.

1. Grey Out Minimised Apps

Without doubt one of the most useful applications on the Mac is Terminal. There are literally hundreds of system commands that can be entered in Terminal to change the behaviour and appearance of your Mac.

When an application is running in windowed mode (i.e. not fullscreen) pressing Command-H will hide that app’s windows. However, in the Dock the icon doesn’t change. Wouldn’t it be nice to grey out those icons so you can easily see which application’s windows are hidden. This is possible using a one line command in Terminal.

The first thing to do is to open Terminal from within the Applications -> Utilities folder (or just use Spotlight and type Terminal).

Next, paste the following command into Terminal and hit Enter.

defaults write showhidden -bool YES

Then simply type the following followed by Enter:

killall Dock

You should now notice that any hidden applications are shown greyed out rather than fully opaque as shown below (I’ve hidden the Pages window in this instance).

Grey out the icons for any applications that are hidden

Grey out the icons for your hidden applications

To reverse this behaviour, just substitute YES for NO as follows (don’t forget to hit Enter and then use killall Dock as before):

defaults write showhidden -bool NO

1. Add and Remove Dock Items

Adding an application to the Dock is simple – just drag the icon onto the Dock in the position you’d like it to be and let go of the mouse. Removing an app is also a cinch – drag the icon off the Dock towards the desktop and let go – it’ll disappear in a puff of smoke.

You can also click the Launchpad icon in the Dock and drag the application icon to the Dock; the icons in the Dock will move aside to make room for the new one. If you want to add a file or folder to the Dock, just drag its icon from any Finder window (or the desktop) and drop it on the Dock.

To remove an item from the Dock, drag its icon an inch or more off the Dock and wait a couple seconds, then release; the icon will disappear in a puff of smoke (make sure you drag it far enough and wait for the smoke icon to appear). There are some icons that you can’t remove from the Dock, such as the Trash and the Finder.

There’s also another way to remove an item from the Dock: right-click any Dock icon and select Options from the pop-up menu, then select Remove from Dock.

The easy way to remove an item from the Dock using the right-click menu

Remove an item via the right-click menu, or just drag it off the Dock and release your mouse

2. Show or Hide the Dock

Not everyone wants the Dock to be visible at all times. In fact, it can be quite useful to automatically hide when not in use to save some screen real estate, especially on a MacBook.

Thankfully, many of the Dock’s basic options are accessible in System Preferences in the Personal section as shown below.

Many of the basic Dock preferences can be controlled from here

The basic Dock options are accessible via System Preferences

With the Dock preferences pane open, tick the option called Automatically hide and show the Dock. Now, the Dock will pop into view when you move your mouse to the lower part of the screen (or whichever side it’s docked to) and hide again when you move the mouse away.

Automatically show and hide the Dock when not in use

Automatically hide and show the Dock to save screen space and reduce clutter

3. Rearrange The Dock Icons

It might seem obvious to experienced Mac users, but many people don’t actually know that items in the Dock can be moved with ease. Just click an icon and drag to a new position. The icons either side will automatically move out of the way to make room. Simply release the mouse when it’s in the desired place.

Drag icons anywhere on the Dock to rearrange

Drag icons anywhere on the Dock to rearrange

4. Change The Dock Position

Another basic  setting is the Dock position onscreen – it can be set to either left, bottom (the default) or right. You’ll notice that when set to the left or right it gains a border and loses some of the glassy effect, but some people prefer it that way.

Move the Dock to the left or right of the screen

Move the Dock to the left or right of the screen

5. Magnify the Dock

When using the Dock you may have noticed that the icons are magnified when running your mouse over them. Magnification can be turned on or off, as well as the amount of magnification, within the Dock preferences as shown below.

If you have a very busy Dock with lots of icons that are almost too small to see, magnification can be a useful feature.

Control how much magnification is applied to the Dock icons

Control how much magnification is applied to the Dock icons

6. Use Stacks to Access Files Quickly

At one end of the Dock are items called Stacks – these are shortcuts to your Applications folder, Downloads, Documents, and any other folders that you choose to add there.

With every iteration of OS X, Stacks have become more and more useful, and are a very quick way to access your files without having to open a Finder window.

Click on one of the icons (such as Downloads) and you’ll see the folder expand into either a Grid, a curved Stack or a simple List. From the Grid view, you can also navigate to other folders by clicking once or using the ‘up’ arrow that appears in the upper left corner.

The stacks grid view

The Grid view shows the contents of each Stack folder

You can also change the various stack options by right-clicking anywhere on the folder to view the pop-up options menu. You can decide how to sort and arrange the items, for example as a Fan, Grid, List or automatically based on the number of contents.

Article 1 - Stacks 3 - Screenshot

Access various options to control Stack behaviour such as sorting and display mode

The nice thing about Stacks is that you can add additional folders as a stack just by dragging the item onto the stack area of the Dock.

In Fan mode, the stack pops out and shows the list of contents in a rather pleasing curved shape as shown below. There’s also a link at the top to open the folder location in Finder.

The curved Stack view

The traditional Stack view (useful if the folder doesn’t contain too many items)

7. Reveal Contextual Menus

We’ve already described how to open application menus by right-clicking on any icon in the Dock. But did you know you could also activate the same menu with just a long hold of the mouse?

The beauty of these menus is that they display specific items for each application depending upon what it’s doing. For example, in the screenshot below you can see that I’m playing a music track in iTunes, the name of which appears at the top of the menu. There are also additional commands to control music in this case, as well as eject my iPhone.

Reveal hidden context menus with a right-click or long hold of the mouse

Reveal contextual menus with a right-click (or a long hold of the mouse)

8. Add Spacers

If you have lots of icons in your Dock, you might want to add spaces between them to easily separate them into useful groups. This can be achieved once again in Terminal with the command:

defaults write persistent-apps -array-add ‘{tile-data={}; tile-type=”spacer-tile”;}’

Hit the Enter key and then refresh with:

killall Dock

When the Dock reappears there will be an extra space that you can move around into the desired position (or dragged off the Dock to delete it).

Add a spacer to the Dock to help organise your icons

Add a spacer to the Dock to help organise your icons more effectively

Dock Add-Ons

There are several Dock add-ons available on the Internet, but one of the best (which also lets you play with other Mac settings) is called TinkerTool.

The application is not available on the App Store but can be downloaded via the web. All the common Dock settings can be changed, as well as some additional options that would normally require Terminal commands, such as disabling the 3D glass effect and restricting users from modifying the content (such as deleting icons).

TinkerTool lets you play with your Mac settings (as well as the Dock)

TinkerTool lets you play with your Mac settings (as well as the Dock)

Another useful little Dock utility is DockView (£FREE but the full app is £2.49 on the UK App Store).

The features include live previews of windows when hovering over an icon (or when using Command + Tab), Dock badges, and the ability to close windows using the Dock.

DockView adds lots of essential windows management functions

DockView adds lots of essential windows management functions


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Chris Lee

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