How to maximize screen real estate in OS X

DisplaysIconXIn most instances you may want to have as much desktop space on your Mac as possible to get your work done. While you can organizing windows on your screen and streamline your workflow to reduce clutter, nothing beats having a large workspace on which to open apps and view numerous windows of your files. For any Mac there are several approaches you can take to increase this and get more work done, or at least have more area on which to put your clutter.

Direct screen real estate expansion

The best way to increase your workspace is to add one or two more monitors to your system. Attaching a large external display via Thunderbolt, HDMI, or other port will allow you to move your work between your built-in monitors and the new display.

When you connect a new display, OS X will place it to the right of your current monitor by default, but generally there is at least a little height difference between your monitors. You might also have a monitor in a special location, such as wall-mounted above or at an angle to your main display.

In these situations you can configure OS X to adjust its output to mirror the monitors’ physical arrangement:

  1. Open the Displays system preferences
  2. Go to the Arrangement tab (only available in multi-display setups)
  3. Move the rectangular display icons to reflect the relative position of the displays on your desktop.
Display arrangement system preferences

Precisely place your monitor offsets to properly align them. In this case, the larger display is physically higher on the desk than the smaller adjacent display, so I have reflected this positioning in the system preferences.

For all monitors, but especially Apple’s Retina displays, you can also increase your screen real estate by maximizing the display’s resolution settings. Objects on your screen will size proportionally with your display’s resolution, so while content is larger at smaller resolutions, the larger you can comfortably set the resolution, the more you will fit on your screen. In addition, while Retina displays manage intermediate resolutions reasonably well, non-retina displays will show obvious anti-aliasing of non-native resolutions that reduces the crispness of display content. Therefore, be sure to use native resolutions, if possible.

Since displays of different physical dimensions may have the same virtual resolution (ie, OS X sees them as the same size), you may run into a problem content does not align properly between your displays. In these cases, you have two options:

  1. Adjust the display resolutions so items on each are closer to the same size. This is more feasible with Retina displays, since otherwise you may run into the aliasing problems mentioned above. Note that after adjusting resolutions, you may need to re-visit your display arrangement settings to ensure they are properly aligned.
  2. Align the center of the displays in your arrangements. To do this, first arrange your monitors in the Displays system preferences so they are approximately close to each other. Then imagine a physical dot on the exact center of each of your monitors, imagine a virtual line between them, and locate where the line crosses between the two monitors (tape up a string, if you need to). Now move your mouse cursor to the point on your main monitor where the line crosses to the second monitor, and when you push the mouse cursor over to the second monitor, note any jump in its physical position. If there is no jump, then the monitors are aligned along their centers. If there is a jump, then slightly adjust the display arrangements and re-try until the jump disappears.

Virtual options

While adding a second monitor is the classic way of expanding your Mac’s screen area, there are a couple of options in OS X that will give you more area to work with, without any extra hardware or expense.

The first of these is multiple desktops, where you can create a second virtual monitor on any Mac that will create duplicates of your current screen area that you can switch between.

  1. Enter Mission Control (press the mission control function button on your keybaord).
  2. Move your mouse to the top of the screen where you will see small representations of your current desktop views.
  3. Click the plus button to create a new desktop view.
  4. Optionally drag a few windows from your current view to the new view.

Now you can switch between your desktops by holding the Control key and pressing either the left or right arrows.

Using this option, you can create as many desktops as you want, and treat them as if you have separate monitors attached to your Mac. Need another monitor? Just create a new desktop and spread your work out to it. Unfortunately multiple desktops does not give you as direct of a view of your work as having separate displays, but it does allow for good isolation of work tasks (e-mail and chats on one, design and photography on another, etc.).

A final option you have is to manage how you display your Mac’s Dock, and in more recent versions of OS X, how you manage your menu bar. While they each have indicators that many choose to keep on screen, your Dock can be resized or even hidden, and in modern versions of OS X your menu bar can also be hidden. Doing this will add another inch or so to your screen, which can give you 10-15% (or more) additional screen real estate that you can use.

Settings to automatically hide the OS X Dock

Check this box in the Dock system preferences to automatically hide the Dock.

To auto-hide the Dock, go to the Dock system preferences and check the option to do so. Alternatively you can reduce your Dock’s size and then make use of magnification settings to keep it on screen and view only what you want by hovering over it. Positioning it either on the left or right as opposed to the default along the bottom may also give you more manageable screen real estate.

Settings to hide the menu bar in OS X

Check this option in the General system preferences to automatically hide the OS X menu bar.

To hide your menu bar, go to the General system preferences and check the option at the top to automatically hide and show the menu bar. This will make the menu bar behave just like a hidden Dock, where moving your mouse to the edge of your screen will reveal it after a brief moment.

2 thoughts on “How to maximize screen real estate in OS X

    1. B. Jefferson Le Blanc

      Unfortunately, it’s not possible to increase the font size in the Finder beyond 16, the limit in place since pre-OS X days. This is a bit of a mystery to me, given how screen resolutions have increased since then. On a retina display, not to mention a 5k iMac display, even 16 (point?) type is quite small. Of course these days Macs are designed for people with 20/20 vision or better. So if you’re over 40 you’ll probably have to use a smaller screen resolution to read anything in the Finder.

      It’s easy enough to increase font size in web browsers, but if you are using a small laptop this soon reaches a point of diminishing returns. The same is true with font size in other applications. Ultimately the problem is not the size of the font but the size of the screen. Which is essentially why the iPad Pro has a larger screen, now comparable to a small laptop, though with a higher resolution than most.

      Apple made a successful bet that consumers would prefer a lighter portable computer and would go for it even if the screen was smaller. Improved graphics processors made this possible, providing good resolution at smaller screen sizes with relatively good energy efficiency. But even Apple was forced to acknowledge that there is such a thing as too small, hence the recent move to larger iPhone models. Here, of course, Apple was not the pioneer but a reluctant follower—Samsung was selling boatloads of their big smart phones with high-rez cameras and multiple speakers. The same factors pushed the iPad to grow past its original modest size. Steve Jobs thought 7″ was enough. The market said otherwise and Tim Cook, being a numbers guy, followed the market trends rather than Steve’s preconceptions.

      Still, if you use an 11″, 12″ or 13″ screen, you may continue to struggle with font size and the strategies Topher describes will be useful. Even a 15″ laptop screen is not all that large, though it may seem so in comparison to a MacBook Air. Many still regret the loss of the capacious 17″ MacBook Pro, though few miss the weight of the thing.

      All that said, modern Macs do a much better job of supporting multiple screen resolutions than was once the case. So changing the resolution is perhaps the best way to improve readability. That way you won’t have to mess with your apps all the time. And there are utilities available that make it easy to switch resolution if that becomes necessary, the best know of which is SwitchResX, (I have not stake in the app and in fact do not use it myself).

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