I have been using Stage Manager on my Macs on a daily basis for well over a month now, and I have… feelings about it.
Whereas it is literally the only way I can do multitasking on my iPad, I do have quite a few more choices on the Mac–anything from virtual desktops with Mission Control to hard-core fully keyboard-controlled window tiling using Amethyst (I mostly just use Moom or Phoneix, but do dip into both extremes).
Let’s start with the positives because, well, it has some. I’ve found it to be a decent way to do context switching between several tasks I have to do concurrently–and I do a lot of context switching throughout the day.
And, of course, unlike in iPadOS, I can arrange windows exactly the way I want them when they’re on the desktop (which I am mostly doing using Moom and Phoenix). Something that was a bit unexpected is that I am now back to using Parallels daily, and Stage Manager works pretty well will Windows applications in Coherence mode. I can even set up window groups with applications from both platforms.
The one thing I find useful in it is the ability to switch between contexts quickly while keeping an eye on apps–you start researching something, get your notes and a browser window going, then switch away to handle e-mail, a call or check on an ongoing 3D print, etc., but if you have a large display (and I have two of those now), you can still keep an eye on things.
Mission Control sort of lets you do that as well, but you have to toggle it.
However, Stage Manager is an absolute pain when you are setting up a new context or need to bring in a new window to a group. Shift-clicking on things to bring them to your current group feels like a gigantic kludge, and is extremely fallible since you often click on the wrong window or (even worse) just switch between groups by mistake.
Also, the fact that it behaves differently whether you click on a sidebar window or its icon is just maddening, and I have to wonder what Apple UX people were thinking when they thought that was a good idea.
Dragging and dropping files (yes, like in ancient times, when such things were natural) is possible, but almost inevitably ends up becoming a highly visual game of whack-a-mole as you are forced to switch between a Finder window that isn’t in the group you are working in (they never are) and the target application you need to drag a file onto.
And that just highlights the fact that the window animations get really boring after a while. Yes, they’re fast, but any benefit of, say, spatial awareness they might bring is spoilt by the fact that windows all go into the same place on the side of the screen. It’s like the Genie effect when you minimize stuff to the Dock.
But the absolute worst part is actually switching between groups, which is completely broken as far as I’m concerned.
Whereas iPadOS has keyboard shortcuts to switch between application groups, macOS (up to and including 13.4) has exactly zero ways to manage Stage Manager or window groups by default (the most you can do is define a shortcut to turn it on and off), and that makes it effectively useless for anyone who’s used to using Mission Control/Spaces–which is superb at switching between virtual desktops, and lets you move windows between them with ease (even more so if you use something like Moom).
So there is no way to transition your mental model from using Spaces to Stage Manager groups. But my key point here is that Apple should have added keyboard shortcuts for group switching from the start (
FB12194002, if you care).
Also, Stage Manager is not properly baked in to the WindowServer either. You can hover your mouse pointer over the maximize button to get a “remove window from set” option, but that’s about it.
Furthermore, another incredibly irritating behavior is that moving windows between displays creates a new group on rather than adding them to the current one on the destination display, which forces you to switch back to the group you were in and then pulling that window “in”, giving rise to another game of whack-a-mole.
Again, the only thing Stage Manager affords me over traditional Mission Control/Spaces is that I can see all my “contexts” on screen. And I’m really sad that is the only benefit it brings. I guess that Apple thought it would be better than virtual desktops in that regard if you can spare the screen real estate, but since it fails rather spectacularly in making switching between activities more efficient, I have to wonder why it came about in the first place (iPadOS would work fine with a direct port of Mission Control).
So maybe window groups are something that was dreamt up for, say, the allegedly upcoming headset. Or just a way to make Mission Control more visually accessible. I don’t know–what I do know is that, for actual work and constant context switching, it fails to deliver in both ease of use and efficiency.
For me, a huge part of that is the lack of proper keyboard shortcuts to switch between groups (on the Mac), and the awkward workarounds you need to do to add or remove windows from a group–and I’m frustrated that Apple hasn’t accounted for either.
Update, a Month Later
For whatever reason, I soldiered on and kept using Stage Manager on a large, dual-screen setup. Either through habit or Stockholm Syndrome, I’ve come to the following realizations:
- I like having a visible backdrop to my windows–that is, having a large, expansive wallpaper behind them. I tend to favor either geometric patterns or natural landscapes (and use a script to grab the Bing “Image of the Day” in UHD resolution), and I honestly don’t mind the “waste” of screen real estate when I’m focusing on one specific thing (in fact, I often start a new window set when I’m starting a new task).
- Having windows tiled to cover all of my screen or completely visible all the time obscures the wallpaper, but from a practical perspective it can also be distracting, especially if like my inbox or messaging apps they tend to have just enough activity to throw you off every few minutes–which is why the sidebar is a pretty decent place to “park” those.
- I can deal with having multiple sets of windows for concurrent tasks just fine–so well, in fact, that I am starting to prefer it to Spaces to some degree. I end up using a couple of full-screen windows for some tasks, like accessing remote desktop environments or running VMs (and those sort of count as Spaces). So yes, having sets of windows as working contexts works well for me.
- Needing to manually arrange windows with the mouse is one of Stage Manager’s biggest drags (pun intended). It would be really nice to have some sort of semi-automatic window “tiling” (like what was previewed at WWDC) happen when you bring a window into a set (and yes, I realize that a lot of people would hate that). I’ve started coding a simple “spread out tiling” algorithm in Phoenix, but it’s a non-trivial endeavor and I have to trigger it manually.
But the thing where Stage Manager still falls completely flat and which I struggle with every time is (besides keyboard shortcuts to switch between groups) how fiddly it is to add a new (or existing) window to an active set.
Having the whole thing whooshing back and forth as you hunt for the app or window you want to bring “in” to a current activity (which may already be in another set, so Shift-clicking is impossible) is still Stage Manager’s Achilles heel, and it really needs to be fixed.