Mavericks and display management — a headache

It’s been more than ten years since I used a desktop Mac model as my main machine. After the iMac G3, I spent a year with the clamshell iBook G3/466 special edition as sole work machine. (At the time it was rather powerful for my needs.) Then, when I upgraded to a PowerBook G4, for me began the era of dual-display configurations and ‘extended desktops’ — and since 2004 my main setup has been a Mac laptop connected to a bigger external display. 95% of the action, for me, happens in the external display, while the laptop screen is relegated to a minor role (I typically keep Finder windows from external drives and servers open on the MacBook Pro’s display, and very little more).

Therefore, my typical dual-display configuration looks like this:

Display arrangement ann


Now, I’ve never found the previous Spaces-based virtual desktop and display management particularly problematic. There was the occasional nuisance, but nothing terrible. (At least for how I use my Mac.) Things started to get annoying under Lion and Mountain Lion with Mission Control, especially with different Finder windows open in different Spaces: I’m sure you got mad as I did when going back to a specific Finder window accidentally opened on another Space meant visually jumping from Space to Space — Whoosh… to Space N.1! Then whoosh… back to Space N.4! — and so on.

It was annoying, yes, but predictable. Since upgrading to OS X Mavericks that desktop-jumping back and forth has gone, but the overall display management has been rather erratic and unreliable for me. As you can see in the figure above, now Mavericks puts a menubar on both displays, to (supposedly) facilitate handling different applications, windows and interface elements on different displays. As the Multiple Displays blurb on Apple’s OS X webpage says, There’s no longer a primary or secondary display — now each has its own menu bar, and the Dock is available on whichever screen you’re working on. You can run a full-screen app on one display and have multiple windows on another display, or run a full‑screen app independently on each display.

Which is great and all, but sometimes things don’t behave as you’d expect. When you’re working in one display, usually you’ll have an active menubar there and the Dock will be placed on that same display. Yet — and I haven’t been able to fully reproduce this behaviour — sometimes you quit a full-screen app and you’ll find the Dock placed on the display you’re not actively using. Or you return to the Finder, quickly open a new Finder window with ⌘-N, only to find that the active menubar is on the other screen, and the window has been created there. Or the Finder’s ‘Copy’ dialog that appears when you’re copying files and folders, starts being displayed on the ‘wrong’ screen.

And then the other day, after watching a video in full-screen mode, this happened:

Half half ann

On my ‘main’ display I was left with the active menubar, but the application switching interface (the bezel with the array of open apps that appears when you press ⌘-Tab) and the Dock had been moved to the ‘secondary’ display. You may say, Fixing that is easy: just click on the inactive menubar on the MacBook Pro’s display, make it active, then go back to the external display, make the menubar active there again, and all the UI elements will return to the external display where they were before. But no. Clicking on the inactive menubar didn’t make it active. Everything remained stuck in the arrangement depicted above until I repeatedly tapped ⌥-⌘-D to hide and show the Dock. After many attempts, the Dock finally appeared on the main screen and everything went back to normal.

These may be considered minor annoyances, I know. But what’s maddening, in my opinion, is their utter unpredictability. They get in the way of what you’re doing for no apparent reason (you’re not doing anything ‘wrong,’ often you’re just switching from an application to another) and certainly don’t make for a smooth or seamless multiple displays management.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!