The Better Way to Use Stacks in OS X

Old Macintosh desktop computers

Just like you can stack books, chairs, and even old Macs, you can stack files and folders in the Dock in OS X. Only they take up a lot less room.

Far more powerful than many users give it credit for, the Dock isn’t just a launching pad for apps you frequently use. It also has a special section for folders that you commonly access.

These “Stacks” allow you to see the contents of folders without needing to open a new Finder window.

There’s more to Stacks than meets the eye, as you’ll see in the tips below.

The Basics

By default the Downloads folder is show, but any folder can live in the Dock and give you quick access to the files in it. The icons for Stacks folders are a live preview of what’s inside the folder. If the folder is empty you’ll just see a single folder. If there are folders and files in it, you’ll see those icons as well.

Stacks folder icons

Note the difference in icons in the image above. Starting on the left, you have (1) a folder with images in it, then (2) an empty folder, (3) a folder with multiple subfolders, and finally (4) a folder with subfolders as well as text documents. Each is a live preview of what’s inside.

To add a folder to the Dock as a stack, just drag and drop it from wherever it currently is onto the right side of the Dock, past the small divider line.

Now that you know the basics, it’s time to start tweaking stacks to be far more useful.

Stacks Settings

Each stack has its own view settings associated with it, so you can change how each folder is sorted, viewed, and displayed.

To access this menu, right-click (or Control-click) on any folder in your Dock.

Settings menu for Stacks

First you have Sort by. This is just how the stack is sorted and has nothing to do with how the folder itself is sorted.

Next you have Display as. There are two ways to show folders in your Dock: as a folder icon or as a stack. The default is a stack, but if you keep things in the folder that you don’t want previewed, choose Folder and all you’ll see is a folder icon.

The last setting is View content as. This is where you can start really customizing how your stack looks. The default setting is Automatic, which means your stack will change views based on the size of the contents. But you can change it to any of the others for a constant look.

Here is what each view looks like:


Fan view of stacked files


Grid view of stacked files


List view of stacked files

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As you can see, each displays the same files in a different way. It’s best not to leave this view type up to chance, so set the one that fits the folder’s contents best. For example, a folder full of images would take advantage of the Grid layout best, while a folder of text documents would be perfect in List view.

With the basics of stacks and their settings under your belt, it’s time to go a little deeper (cue “Inception” sound). Next we’ll look at a few hacks to get the most out of Stacks.

Hacking the Stacks

We’ve all been there before. You finish working with a file, save it and close it, but as soon as you close it you realize you’ve forgotten where it was saved.

Now starts the frantic hunt for the file you were just looking at. Or worse yet, you’re 10 folders deep editing a text file, and 20 minutes later you need to find it again.

You could navigate back through all those folders. Or you can use this hack to place all your most recent files right into your Dock as a stack.

Recent Documents Stack

Open up Terminal (Applications > Utilities > Terminal) and paste the following code into the window:

defaults write persistent-others -array-add ‘{ “tile-data” = { “list-type” = 1; }; “tile-type” = “recents-tile”; }’ && killall Dock

Code in Terminal window

This command will do two things. First, it will add a “Recent Applications” stack to your Dock. Second, it will restart your Dock so the change gets applied.

Once your Dock comes back, you’ll see a new stack at the end of the list. If you click on it you’ll see the last 10 applications you opened.

But this section is about showing recent documents, not applications. To do that, right-click on the new stack and choose Recent Documents.

Recent Documents highlighted in Stacks Settings menu

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Change How Stacks Look

We already went over the various view settings for stacks, but there’s actually a hidden way to make them look totally different. All you need to do is run a Terminal command and you get a different view where you can adjust the size of preview icons.

Side-by-side comparison of new and old stack layouts

To get the new stack layout, paste this command into Terminal:

defaults write use-new-list-stack -bool YES && killall Dock

To return your stacks back to their original view, paste this command into Terminal:

defaults write use-new-list-stack -bool NO && killall Dock

Just like the command for recent documents, this one will change your stacks view and restart your Dock to apply it.

Make sure you’re viewing each stack as a List and now you should see the new Stacks layout. To increase or decrease the preview icon size, just click the stack to view it and press Command + or Command – on your keyboard.

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Stacks can help keep all the applications and files you use most close at hand, without cluttering up your Dock with an individual item for each one. Any folder on your computer can be a stack, so stack away.

When you want to remove a stack, just drag it out of the Dock and hold it for a second or so until a little smoke icon appears in the corner of the file, and then let go. It should disappear from the Dock.

View Apple’s help documentation on Stacks here.

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