Apple Could Learn Something from Windows 10's Multiple Desktops

Posted by Matt Birchler
β€” 3 min read

I finally upgraded my work PC to Windows 10 a few weeks ago (from Win8, shudder) and the move has been a success overall. Outside of taking almost 4 hours to complete the upgrade, everything is running smoothly. The new operating system has a few features I like, but the thing that stands out the most is how it handles multiple desktops.

Multiple desktops have been a part of Mac OS X since 2009's Leopard release, and they have been an integral part of how I organize my digital life. My Mac setup is a single 23 inch monitor with 2 desktops for windows to live in (one for design, one for development) and a few full screen apps (Ulysses, and a few that cycle in and out)1. This organization system works well for me and helps me keep my work organized. Because this makes my side work so efficient, it's always bugged me that Windows didn't have a comparable feature that I could use at my day job.

Microsoft has not only answered my prayers for having multiple desktops on Windows, but they've actually done it a little better than Apple. Shocking, I know! To explain why Windows' solution is nicer, let's talk about why Apple's is a little frustrating.

Say I have 2 desktops running on my Mac. The first desktop has a Chrome window open with a couple tabs open. When I switch over to my second desktop, I realize that I want to search for something online, so I click Chrome in my dock to open a new window on this desktop. What macOS does is shoot me back to my first desktop because that's where Chrome currently lives. While I clicked Chrome to open a new window here, the Mac interpreted that as take me to the desktop with Chrome open. It's a simple disagreement of what my intention is.

In this same scenario on Windows, I would get the result I expect: a new Chrome window would open on the second desktop, having no impact on the already open windows on desktop one.

This problem is partially solved by right clicking on the Chrome icon in my dock and selecting "open a new window" which will do exactly what I want, but it's an extra click for something that should be easier. I would say 95% of the time when I click an icon, I want the computer to open that for me where I am, not to take me to where it is elsewhere.

Windows goes a step farther by changing the status of each app in the task bar. Going back to the Chrome example from above, if I have a Chrome window open on desktop 1, but not desktop 2:

macOS shows a dot next to Chrome no matter what desktop I'm on.

Windows shows Chrome as active on desktop 1, but not on desktop 2.

It's a subtle difference, but one that exemplifies how each OS maker thinks about multiple desktops. There is a harder separation between desktops on Windows than there are on macOS. Maybe Apple prefers it this way, but I don't.

As a side note, the Mac is infinitely better when it comes to navigating between desktops than Windows. The keyboard shortcut to switch between desktops on Windows is Ctrl+Alt+left/right arrow, which it's Ctrl+right/left arrow on the Mac. Even easier is the two finger swipe you can do on the Magic Mouse or Trackpad. And all these animations are butter smooth on my 2012 Mac mini while my high end PC stutters when animating the desktop changes on Windows 10.

Another note, you can tell macOS to not switch immediately to the desktop that has the open window, but it still doesn't open a new window for you, it just waits for one more click on the icon to bring you to the other space. It's a medium solution, but isn't ideal.

  1. There is no desktop for "fun" because all that has moved to my iPad. I really only use my Mac for things my iPad just can't do yet.