A Beginner’s Guide To the Mac App Switcher

You can use the App Switcher to quickly and easily switch between running apps. It is a keyboard shortcut, but not as simple to use as just pressing the keys. You can use it to see which apps are running and pick which one to bring to the front, all without lifting your fingers off of the keyboard. You can also use it to quit apps.

Video Transcript
If you're new to Mac one of the things you may not be using yet is the App Switcher. You may not even recognize the term App Switcher. All it simply means is the keyboard shortcut to be able to go from one app to another.

So here I have a very crowded desktop with a whole bunch of different apps running. I can look in the Dock here and I can see which apps are running by looking for the dot underneath the app and I can click on an app to go to it.

But if I want to do it with a keyboard shortcut and not be bothered with bringing up the Dock and looking for things I can use the App Switcher which is simply the keyboard shortcut. Command, that's command not control, and the Tab key.

Now the way I want to do this keyboard shortcut is I want to hold the Command key down first and then press Tab. As soon as I do that it brings up the App Switcher. You can see it here. It overlays everything on the screen and shows me all the apps that are running with large icons. I can see the second app is highlighted. That's because by activating it I hit the Tab key once. So I've moved from the current app which is Mail, the one on the left, to the next app which is ScreenFlow, which is what I'm using to record this.

Now I can continue to hit the Tab key. This whole time I'm holding down the Command key. I have not let my finger off the Command key. I tap the Tab key over and over again to move the highlight from one app to the other. When I get to the app I want, for instance Notes here, I release the Command key. Then Notes is the one that's brought to the front.

Now I'll do it again. I'll hold the Command key down, continue to hold it, and I'll tap the Tab key once. It brings it up and you can see it's in a new order. Notes is now all the way on the left. That was the one I had running in the front. The one I had running in the front before that is Mail. So it's the second one in line. I can continue to use the Tab key to move between all of them. When I get to the one I want, like System Preferences, I release the Command key and it brings that one to the front.

Now you can do this very quickly. If you want to switch between the two apps that you're using the most, say for instance I'm going between System Preferences and Notes all the time, I can do Command, Tab, release; Command, Tab, release. It's going to go between these two. Not so useful for those two apps but say you're doing research and you're writing something. So you're switching between Pages and Safari all the time. Then it would be more useful. Command, Tab, Command Tab to go between those two apps.

Now you can so some other things with the App Switcher as well. For instance, as I'm holding the Command key down and using Tab, if I use the Shift key in addition I go backwards on the list. But I don't have to actually go backwards because if I continue all the way to the right and do it one more time it loops around. It goes to the first one. So I can go through all the apps just by hitting Tab over and over again.

Another thing I can do here is I can Quit apps. So say I look at this and say boy, I don't really need iTunes running. I still have the Command key held down this entire time and I'm going to tap Q rather than tab. Instead of going to the next app in line which is Photos, it's going to Quit the current app. So iTunes now gets Quit and you can see it moves the highlight over to Photos. So I can use this as a way to Quit apps that I have running as well.

So it's a handy little thing to be able to use the App Switcher to basically go back and forth between all the apps that you have running, bring each one to the front without having to take your hands off the keyboard especially if you're busy typing in various apps that you're using.

Comments: 8 Responses to “A Beginner’s Guide To the Mac App Switcher”

    Mark D.
    12/1/17 @ 2:33 pm

    When you a bunch of apps running, you can also use the mouse pointer to select once of the apps in the App Switcher (while still holding down the Command key), as that can be faster than pressing the Tab key multiple times if the app you want to switch to is towards then end.

    Dennis Craig
    12/4/17 @ 8:15 am

    I have been a user of the App Switcher for a long time…however, I sometimes have a problem getting Safari to open when I highlight it in the Switcher—I have to use the mouse to select it from the dock to open it. It seems that Safari is the only one that does that. Is there a reason? Thanks!

    12/4/17 @ 8:24 am

    Dennis: Perhaps Safari is running, but there is no open window? In that case, if you “switch” to Safari, it will switch to it and you can see “Safari” in the menu bar since it is now the frontmost app, but it still doesn’t have an open window. You’d need to use File, New Window to open a window. However, in the same situation, if you click on the Dock icon for Safari, it switches to Safari and also recognizes that no Safari window is open and automatically opens a new one.

    John Bedrossian
    12/7/17 @ 8:13 am

    Hi Gary,
    When I hold down command and hit the tab key I get the app switcher on the screen, but when I release the command key I go back to the original app not the new one??

    12/7/17 @ 8:48 am

    John: Have you tried it in different circumstances? Are you sure the app is not changing — look at the top left corner of the menu bar to see the name of the frontmost app.

    John Bedrossian
    12/7/17 @ 1:30 pm

    yes, OK, the menu bar changes but what’s on the screen doesn’t change. ??

    12/7/17 @ 1:32 pm

    John: It sounds like the app you are switching to simply doesn’t have any open windows/documents. So open/start one.

    John Bedrossian
    12/9/17 @ 7:00 pm

    Gary,
    thank you, yes I guess I didn’t have open windows in the apps I was trying to switch to. thanks

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