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macOS Hidden Treasures: Dominate the Dock

The Dock has been a core aspect of the Mac experience since the earliest days of Mac OS X. In fact, the Dock actually predates Mac OS X, since it was also prominent in NeXTSTEP. It displays open applications, offers a quick way to launch favorite apps, and holds shortcuts for documents and folders.

You’ve probably used the Dock so often and for so long that you don’t think about it. We’ll explain everything the Dock does, from the basics to tweaky capabilities that may be new to you.

Today’s Dock is split into three sections, marked by dividing lines: Handoff, apps, and a third area that contains documents, folders, and the Trash.

Using Handoff in the Dock — Let’s dispense with Handoff first, since it’s a one-trick pony and not something that many Mac users who we know use.

The Handoff section contains only a single icon and appears only if your Mac is receiving a Handoff signal from another iOS device or Mac.

For instance, if you open a Web page in Safari on a compatible iPhone, you might see a Safari icon at the left or top of your Dock. Click that icon to open the iPhone’s Web page in Safari on your Mac. You might also see icons for Mail, Reminders, or other Handoff-savvy apps.

For more on Handoff, check out Scholle McFarland’s “Sierra: A Take Control Crash Course,” which has an entire chapter about it.

Opening and Switching to Apps via the Dock — More commonly, the first section of your Dock contains apps that are either currently open or that you have saved to the Dock for quick access. Clicking an app either opens it or switches to it. In macOS 10.12 Sierra, open apps are denoted by a small dot underneath the icon (or on its side, if you’ve moved your Dock to the left or right edge of the screen). In earlier versions, the Dock gave open apps other markings, such as triangles.

If you don’t recognize an icon in the Dock, hover your mouse pointer over the icon and a tooltip appears showing the app name. This also works for documents and folders, where it’s even more useful, since their icons are often somewhat generic.

When your goal is to end up with a particular document open in an app, a more efficient way to open or switch to that app is to drop a compatible file onto it. For example, if you drag a text file from the Finder and drop it on TextEdit’s Dock icon, TextEdit opens with that document.

If you see an app icon with a question mark, it means that the source file has been deleted, thus breaking the Dock’s alias. You’ll need to figure out what happened to it in the Finder.

Although it’s hard to imagine anyone bothering to do this, you can also open an app via its contextual menu. Access it by clicking and holding, Control-clicking, right-clicking, or force-touching the Dock icon, and then choose Open.

Other App Actions from the Dock — Although the contextual menu is a silly way to open an app, it provides access to a wide variety of more useful actions that you can perform on apps:

    • Quit an app: To quit an open app from the Dock, choose Quit from the contextual menu. Unless you’ve set that app to stay in the Dock, its icon disappears from the Dock when it quits. Pressing Command-Q in the app is easier.
    • Force Quit an app: If an app is frozen and won’t quit via the usual method, open the app’s contextual menu and hold Option to turn Quit into Force Quit. Remember that Force Quit closes the app instantly, without prompting to save your work. We’ve found this more successful than the dialog you get by choosing Force Quit from the Apple menu.
    • Relaunch Finder: You can’t quit or force quit the Finder, but you can relaunch it if it’s giving you trouble. To do so, hold Option as you invoke the contextual menu and choose Relaunch. Note that Relaunch won’t appear if you press Option after opening the contextual menu, as it does for Force Quit.

    • Keep an app in the Dock: If you’d like to be able to open a currently running app from the Dock at a future time, choose Options > Keep in Dock from the contextual menu. A check mark appears next to Keep in Dock.

      Another way to keep a running app in the Dock is to move it anywhere within the Dock. Click, drag, and drop, and the app will stay in the Dock.

      Of course, you can also just drag any app icon from the Finder to the Dock to add it, whether or not it’s running.

    • Remove an app from the Dock: The most intuitive way to remove an app from the Dock is to drag it far enough out of the Dock for the Remove popup to appear and then release. If you change your mind mid-drag, either drag the app back to the Dock or press the Escape key.

      To remove an app from the Dock via the contextual menu, choose Options > Remove from Dock if the app is closed or Options > Keep in Dock if it’s open. (Remember, a check mark appears next to Keep in Dock if that option is engaged.)

      Note that removing an app from the Dock doesn’t affect the actual app, since the Dock icon is merely an alias. If you delete an app from the Dock, you can still find it in the Finder, usually in the Applications folder.

    • Hide an app: If you don’t want to quit an app, but instead merely get it out of your way, you can hide its windows by choosing Hide from the contextual menu. Click the app’s Dock icon again to reveal the hidden app.

      An easier approach is to Option-click the Desktop, any other app window, or any icon in the Dock. Or just press Command-H while the app is in the foreground.

      Of course, you can also minimize a single app window to the Dock, as explained below.

    • Hide all but the selected app: To focus on a single app, you can hide all other app windows. Open the app’s contextual menu and press Option to turn Hide into Hide Others.

      Again, a quicker way to Hide Others is to Command-Option-click the app’s Dock icon or press Command-Option-H while the app is in the foreground.

    • Show all app windows: To invoke Mission Control in Application Windows view, choose Show All Windows from the contextual menu. Click a window to bring it to the front.

      Another way to invoke Mission Control is to force touch the app’s Dock icon, if you have a sufficiently capable trackpad.

    • Open an app at login: From the contextual menu, choose Options > Open at Login. A check mark appears next to Open at Login. To stop the app from opening at login, choose the same option again, and the check mark should disappear.

      You can verify that this has happened by looking in System Preferences > Users & Groups > Login Items.

    • Show an app in the Finder: Maybe you want to delete an app that’s in the Dock, or maybe you forgot where it’s stored. To reveal its actual location, open its contextual menu and choose Options > Show App in Finder.
    • Assign app windows to a desktop: If you use multiple Mission Control desktops, it can be helpful to tie an app’s windows to a specific one. Under Options in an app’s contextual menu, you’ll see a Desktops header with a list of your desktops. Choosing a desktop moves that app’s windows to that desktop and keeps them there.

  • App-specific commands: Apps can add their own commands to their contextual Dock menus. So, for instance, Mail lists open windows in its menu and offers commands for Get New Mail, New Viewer Window, and Compose New Message. Every app with custom commands will be different, so be sure to check your most-used apps.

Docs and Minimized Windows in the Dock — The Dock can also hold documents and minimized windows. To add a document, or, again, an alias to that document, to the Dock, drag it to the right side of the Dock, to the right of the divider. If your Dock is vertical, drop at the bottom, below the divider.

Click a document icon in the Dock to open it. The contextual menu offers a few extra options, but not many: Remove from Dock, Open at Login, and Show in Finder, the last of which is more useful than it is with apps.

You can even add Web shortcuts to the Dock. In Safari, click in the URL bar to reveal the full URL. Click and drag the favicon at the left of the URL bar down to the document section of the Dock to add a bookmark to that Web page to the Dock. This technique also works in Google Chrome and Firefox.

When you minimize a window, either by clicking the yellow minimize icon or choosing Window > Minimize, it shrinks into the same section of the Dock. Click a minimized window to expand it again. The contextual menu doesn’t offer any options for minimized windows other than opening them, and opening a minimized window is the only way to remove it from the Dock for good. Note that minimized windows look just like thumbnails of their windows with their app’s icon as a small badge — the badge differentiates a minimized window from a document icon.

Working with Folders in the Dock — Just as with documents, you can drag and drop folders to the right or bottom of the Dock. Clicking the folder in the Dock reveals a preview of the folder’s contents, but if you Command-click the folder, it instead opens in the Finder. You can also drag Finder items into a Dock folder to move them into that folder.

The Dock’s contextual menu for folders offers several options that let you customize how folders display in the Dock. First, you can set how the Dock preview sorts documents in the folder: by Name, Date Added, Date Modified, Date Created, or Kind.

You can also choose whether the folder appears in the Dock as a folder or a stack. Displaying it as a folder uses the same blue folder icon as in the Finder, while the stack shows a stacked preview of the files in the folder. This is purely an aesthetic choice, although the contents of some folders may lend themselves to one approach or the other.

More interesting is how you can customize the folder preview. Fan, which is an option only when the Dock is positioned at the bottom of the screen, shows the enclosed files in a curved stack with icon previews. Grid shows preview icons for the folder’s contents in a rectangle. List shows just a pop-up menu of file and folder names, and Automatic tries to choose which display to use based on how many items are in the folder.

Grid view is the most useful in general. It clearly shows all the files and folders in a format that’s easy to scan. You can also scroll through the files to see everything. Fan view shows too few items and is just strange, while List view is a bit too bare bones.

The Grid and List views also let you navigate into nested folders. Click a folder to reveal its contents in the Grid view; you can click the back button to go up one level. In List view, you can access nested folders via a hierarchical menu.

The main thing you’ll do in any of these views is open files and folders by clicking or selecting them. However, in Grid view, you can also drag files and folders from the preview to the Desktop, other folders, apps, and more.

Working with Trash in the Dock — Since the advent of Mac OS X, the Trash has lived in the Dock. It’s simple to use: click the Trash icon to open the Trash in the Finder, drag items to the Trash to delete them, and to empty the Trash, Control-click its icon and choose Empty Trash. Obviously, there are other ways of deleting files (we like pressing Command-Delete) and emptying the Trash (choose Finder > Empty Trash).

If you have an external drive that you want to dismount, or some form of removable storage (like a DVD) that you want to eject, start dragging it and the Trash icon becomes an Eject icon. It’s not intuitive, but matches the classic Mac behavior of dragging floppies to the Trash to eject them. You can also select the drive and choose File > Eject or press Command-E.

Customizing the Dock’s Look and Feel — There are a handful of ways you can customize how the Dock as a whole looks and works. To get started, open System Preferences > Dock. You can also access the Dock preference pane by Control-clicking the divider between the app and document sections of the Dock and choosing Dock Preferences (when you mouse over the divider, the mouse pointer turns into a double-ended arrow).

The first setting is the size slider. If you have the screen real estate, larger is usually better. At its largest size, the Dock automatically scales to the size of the screen based on how many icons it contains.

You can also resize the Dock directly. Move the mouse pointer over the divider between the app and document sections until it becomes a double-ended arrow. Click and drag to adjust the Dock size.

Next, you can choose to turn on magnification and set how large you want the magnified icons to be. When magnification is enabled, Dock icons enlarge as you mouse over them. It’s a cool effect that makes it easy to see icons that would otherwise be small.

The third option lets you change the position of the Dock — it’s perhaps the most important setting. By default, the Dock is displayed horizontally on the bottom of the screen. However, that’s almost always an inefficient use of space since nearly all screens are wider than they are tall, whereas most document windows are taller than they are wide. That leaves extra space on the sides of your screen, so it makes sense to pin your Dock vertically on the right or left.

Which side is better? Adam Engst prefers the right side because he uses two monitors, and positioning the Dock on the right side of the right-hand monitor prevents it from showing up awkwardly in the middle of the Desktop. Apple also offers a bit of guidance here. On the iPhone Plus models, when the phone is in landscape orientation, the iOS Dock appears on the right side of the screen. That makes sense in macOS too, since it keeps the Trash in the lower right of the screen.

The remaining Dock preferences provide mostly cosmetic tweaks:

    • Minimize Windows Using: You can choose to minimize windows using either the Genie or Scale effect. It’s purely a cosmetic choice — try both and see which you prefer. Here’s an eye-candy tip: hold Shift as you minimize a window to see it sucked into the Dock in slow motion. Similarly, holding Shift as you click a minimized window (or folder!) expands it slowly.

  • Prefer Tabs When Opening Documents: Why is this setting associated with Dock preferences? It makes no sense! The default is Always, but you can set it to In Full Screen Only or Manually. Unless you find app tabs useful in Sierra, you might want to set this to Manually.
  • Double-click a Window’s Title Bar to: By default, this option zooms the window, but you can instead set it to minimize the window if you prefer that behavior. Of course, you can just use the green and yellow buttons in the upper left of any window to zoom and minimize too, or the appropriate commands in the Window menu.
  • Minimize Windows into Application Icon: When this checkbox is selected, minimized windows don’t show up in the document and folder section of the Dock, but instead disappear into their associated app. That seems less useful to us, but your mileage may vary.
  • Animate Opening Applications: This checkbox controls whether or not apps bounce in the Dock while opening. Seeing when apps take longer than expected to launch can be instructive when troubleshooting, so we recommend leaving it on.
  • Automatically Hide and Show the Dock: When this setting is enabled, the Dock disappears unless you slam the mouse pointer to the edge of the screen that the Dock normally occupies. It’s a handy option for small screens — think about the 11-inch MacBook Air. You can also hide and show the Dock with the Command-Option-D shortcut, which you can change in System Preferences > Keyboard > Shortcuts.
  • Show Indicators for Open Applications: This option is on by default, and we can’t see any good reason to turn it off unless you’re offended by the little dots.

Outside of the Dock preference pane, System Preferences offers a few more relevant settings:

  • Icon Badges: If you see a red circle in the upper-right corner of an app’s Dock icon, that’s a badge. Badges tell you things about the app, like how many unread messages Mail contains or if Slack has new messages. To turn badges off or back on for any given app, open System Preferences > Notifications, select the app in question and set the Badge App Icon checkbox as desired.
  • Dark Mode: To darken up your Dock, open System Preferences > General and select Use Dark Menu Bar and Dock.
  • Parental Controls: If you have a small child using a non-administrator account that’s managed by parental controls, you can prevent that user from modifying the Dock. Choose System Preferences > Parental Controls > user > Other and select Prevent the Dock from Being Modified.

The Dock is easy to take for granted, but it’s a key part of your everyday Mac experience. Mastering its nuances will help you work faster, more comfortably, and more efficiently. That’s all we can think of to share about the Dock, but it’s entirely possible that we’ve missed something. If so, let us know in the comments.

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