How To + Software & Apps

Unlock the Full Power of the macOS App Switcher

Posted on June 27th, 2017 by

Unlock the Full Power of the macOS App Switcher

If you’ve used a Mac for any length of time, you’ll likely know holding Command and tapping Tab activates an application switcher. This lists currently running apps, and enables you to quickly switch between them.

Yet, you might not know that the app switcher has little-known hidden secrets. This article explores such shortcuts and features, along with third-party apps that improve upon Apple’s switcher in key ways.

How to Use the macOS App Switcher

Hold Command and tap Tab to display the app switcher, which lists open apps in order of recent usage. The app switcher stays open as long as Command remains held. The second app in the list (the one used prior to what you’re currently using) is selected by default. Release Command and you switch to that app.

How to use App Switcher

If you want to select a different app, each press of Tab when Command is held moves the selection box rightwards one slot. Hold Shift as well and tabbing moves the selection to the left. You can alternatively use the left and right arrow keys to navigate. To move the selection more rapidly, hold down Tab or one of the arrow keys.

You can also use a trackpad or mouse for navigation and selection: a two-finger drag quickly moves the selection box, and clicking an app icon selects it.

How to Access Windows from the App Switcher

To access a specific app window, press the up or down arrow key when the app is selected in the switcher. This opens Exposé. Open windows are displayed as large thumbnails. Minimized windows are shown smaller, at the bottom of the screen.

Access Windows from the App Switcher

These thumbnails can be navigated using the arrow keys, or by typing a few characters to ‘snap’ to one with a specific name. (For example, ‘INT’ would likely be enough to select a Safari window housing the Intego website.) Return confirms your selection. Escape closes Exposé, existing to the app you were previously using.

App Switcher Shortcuts and Tricks

The app switcher can be used to hide or quit apps. While holding Command, press H to hide the selected app, or Q to attempt to quit it. If you keep Command held, you can perform this action on multiple apps. (Note: apps with unsaved changes don’t quit – they stay open and display dialog boxes offering to save your work.)

App Switcher Shortcuts and Tricks

The app switcher is drag-aware, so you can use it to open a document in an already open application. For example, to open a JPEG in Preview, start dragging it in Finder, press Command+Tab to open the app switcher, and drop the file on the Preview icon. You can similarly drag content – such as selected text – between apps that support doing so, although copying and pasting is usually faster.

Working with Contexts

Contexts ($9; free trial available) is an app that promises “radically simpler and faster” window switching. When activated, it replaces the default macOS switcher, and instead shows open apps and windows as a vertical list.

Contexts

Along with showing windows alongside apps, Contexts offers further advantages over the default macOS switcher. You can – with Command held – type the number displayed alongside an app or window to quickly switch to it.

If you have many apps and windows open, Contexts offers a search. Just to it from any app with Ctrl+S, or by pressing S when the switcher is already open. Start typing and the list is filtered to display only items matching your search term.

Should you wish to use Contexts and Apple’s switcher, activate Contexts, and click Pref. at the top-right of the window. In the Command+Tab section of the Preferences window, uncheck Command+Tab, and check Option+Tab. The Apple switcher will now work as normal, and Option+Tab will activate Contexts.

Customizing with Witch

Witch ($14; free trial available) takes things further than Contexts. It’s akin to a ‘pro’ take on Apple’s switcher, and offers many customization options.

Out of the box, you get two switchers (although you can create more using the + button). The first resembles Apple’s, but drills down into a more straightforward windows list when you press the down arrow on a selected app. Pressing S when the switcher’s active opens a search that’s much like the one in Contexts.

Witch

The second switcher only cycles between open windows, omitting apps entirely. Both switchers can be given unique keyboard shortcuts. (Use Command+Tab on the first to have it ‘replace’ Apple’s. Option+Tab is then a good bet for the secondary switcher.) You can also define whether the switchers list tabs alongside windows, and the sort order of what’s displayed. If you’ve always wanted an app switcher to show items in alphabetical order, Witch is your app.

Witch App

As a parting shot, Witch even enables you to avoid the app switcher entirely, by providing access to open apps and windows via the menu bar. Any defined switcher can be added to this menu extra, providing speedy access to anything that’s open on your Mac.


New to Mac? Let's get you started on the right track!

Want to get the most out of your new MacBook, iMac or other Apple computer? Whether this is your first laptop or you’ve just switched from Windows, there are a few things you should know about your new Mac, like basic keyboard shortcuts or how to use the various features macOS has to offer. Learn more about what your Mac computer can do for you at the Intego New Mac User Center: Get started now!

About Craig Grannell

Craig Grannell is a technology writer, mostly specialising in Macs, iOS, apps, and games. He’s been immersed in all things Apple for over 20 years, and enamoured with computers since getting his hands on a VIC-20 as a kid. He also has a Korg Gadget addiction. Send help. Or alternatively, visit his website, craiggrannell.com, and follow him on Twitter at @craiggrannell. View all posts by Craig Grannell →

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