by Rael Dornfest

One of the most common complaints I hear from those migrating from that other operating system to OS X is the lack of decent alt-tab functionality.

That's not to say that OS X doesn't have an alt-tab -- it does. And alt-tab-alikes abound. LiteSwitchX does a nice job of fixing OS X's default inability to alt-tab back and forth between the two most recently foregrounded applications.

But in fact, it's not the alt-tab, per se, that's at issue. It's the Mac concept of windows belonging to applications rather than existing semi-autonomously that causes unrest. While hopping from to IE to BBEdit is a snap, it's simply impossible to alternate between, say, Google and Slashdot residing in their own IE windows or Document1 and Document2 in Word. Some applications do provide their own local keyboard shortcut -- Command-~ in both IE and -- but this is a rarity and varies from application to application. Other applications assign windows to Command-# keys, but who the heck can bear all that in mind while actually trying to get some work done.

My kingdom (or an honourable mention) for an alt-tab as nature intended it.

What alt-tab-alike do you use?


2002-07-31 15:21:01
I could not agree more
and I just dont get why Apple have not given both cocoa and carbon an easy way to switch between windows. The easyest way would be to use option-tab like it is now, and then alt-tab for windows within an application. Simple as that.
2002-07-31 16:28:32
Window's aren't autonomous
Personally, I think that MS Window's convention of treating every window as a separate application is unnatural and confusing.
The way that Windows applications are driven by the windows themselves practically force this view and it seems many people get used to it.
But on the Mac windows aren't autonomous (not even semi-autonomous). It's a single application opening several windows; Alt-Tab switches between applications.
OK, having a conventions to cycle through windows within an application might be useful - but not all applications are strictly document oriented.
It might help to consider Alt-Tab, on both platforms, switching between event handlers - which is to say, menu bars. On Windows, there's one per window; on the Mac, one per application. Simple.
2002-07-31 17:02:46
Here's the Solution......
Go to and get LiteSwitch X.

It's free, and out-tabs Window's alt-tab.

Try it. Love it.

2002-07-31 17:05:58
Or....try reading the article. :/
I was just too excited by this utility that I was intro'd to about two weeks ago, that I had to share.

After reading the article, I feel like an @ss.

2002-08-01 06:13:09
Keep hope alive
In OS 9, I used LiteSwitch mapped to my Option-Tab keys to switch between applications and a Wapp Pro demo (I think mapped to Control-Tab, it's been a while) to switch between windows of a given application.

Smooth and seamless. I was in less "danger" of leaving an application accidentally (as happens in Windows) because of this separation of switching functions.

My veggie-beef with Apple is the commandeering of the Alt-Tab function for its own hideously ill-conceived switcher.

By this I refer to the fact that;

(a) There appears to be no way to cancel a selection once made. To change one's mind, one must Shift-Tab open app by open app back to the active application (or Tab forward, depending on how far one has gone down the list).

(b) There is no way to turn it off. Adobe Illustrator 8, one of my main productivity tools, has a glorious cursor switch mapped to Command-Tab. It was around before Apple added its switch feature to any OS and it has become ingrained in my workflow. Using Illustrator 8 in OS X (Classic) is now a comedy of errors as I find myself suddenly in another application whilst trying to switch selection tools.

Doubtless, no-one at Apple uses Illustrator, or takes into consideration existing shortcut habits of its users. I am sure that other applications have key combos that have been broken by Apple's refusal to make this "feature" optional.

end rant.

2002-08-01 06:29:37
Better than Alt-Tab, built-in
Just click-and-hold on an application in the dock, and you'll get a pop-up list of all the open windows in an application. You can go directly from one window in one application to another window in a different application.
2002-08-01 07:56:02
Windows is Schizo Too
Ever notice how every email you open up is in the task bar but Photoshop only appears once?

Ever get annoyed with the fact that you can't rearrange the task bar?

Ever try to close out a browser window but it annoyingly pops up when you right click its task bar button?

Ever notice how Excel will remain open and in the task bar even when you close all it's windows?

Ever want to Command H hide an application in windows to access the application behind it?

Application shifting in MacOS 9 was clearly an inferior add-on cludge. Win98/2K is a step up, but OS X does it right by drawing a pretty clear line between what the OS does and what the application does (ignoring Command M that is...).

In better behaved apps, like BBEdit, you can customize the window shifting to your needs. For example, I have BBEdit set to switch windows with Command Tilde, the same as IE. Further, since you can customize the dock by simply dragging an app to where in Command Tab line you want it, you have better control over app changing than if it was based on a mysterious "order of last use."

2002-10-01 07:59:24
Keep hope alive
> (b) There is no way to turn it off.

Actually, in the default install of MAC OS 9 at least there is a way to change it. I don't know if the Application Switcher Extension needs to be active to change this, but I do know that it can be subsequently turned off and the keyboard mapping will retain the setting you set here. Since I don't yet use OS X I don't know if it'll work in Classic mode.

Go to Help -> Help Center
Search for 'Application Switcher'
Click on 'Switching between open programs'
At the bottom of the help page, click on 'Help me modify the keyboard shortcuts'
Click Yes, Click Yes, Choose which keystroke modifier you wish, Choose which key you wish it to be, Click OK, Click OK
Quit Help Center


2005-02-04 07:23:42
Um, try F9?
On OSX, F9, F10, and F11 are used - and are far superior to Alt-tab. Try it, you'll be amazed.

F9 causes all windows to shrink down and tile out on the desktop so you can choose the one you want to be active.

F10 causes only the windows of the current application to be visible (shrink and tile)

F11 pushes all application windows off to the sides of the screen so that the desktop is visible.

(For all of these, hitting the button again puts everything back right where it was)

2005-05-22 23:38:34
I also agree
This is an old post, but to comment on some comments:

First, liteswitchx does not add document-based switching, only improves mac's built in application-based switching. It's worth getting, but couldn't they have added this functionality?

Second, Expose functions sure look cool and work in a pinch, but do not offer document-based switching. They show you your documents, and then you can click on one. If it works for you, excellent. Does not for me though.

Finally, it's application-centric of the Mac to offer application-based switching. If "everything's a document" holds true, then just let us switch between all the documents. The Mac party line has been to let the user think of most everything as a document, not an application. Yet Cmd-Tab clearly violates that idea.

So, yes even 3 years after this post, the problem persists. And for the record I am an (almost) happy Mac user. I have used the Mac for some time, but have not regained the speed I had with Windows' Alt-Tab. I think the point is that Windows' Alt-Tab may not be better, but for those who've used it for years (and used it intensely) there is no effective substitute for it on the Mac....

Unless of course you know of one. Please post if so.

2005-06-25 20:47:55
Found it!
It's Apple + `

It was on some google link. Oh man this makes me pretty happy.

2005-06-25 20:50:05
Found it!
That's the backtick button, same as ~

Just thought i'd clarify