The difference between Spaces and Desktops

I’ve been confused and frustrated about the difference between spaces and desktops. (See my question about this) in another topic.

So, i did some research and came up with the following. I hope people find it interesting and appropriate for posting.



  • The Mission Control section of the Shortcuts Tab of the Keyboard System Preference refers to desktops.

  • When you open Mission Control you see desktops at the top of the screen (and I don’t think there is any way to rename them).

  • There is of course the Finder desktop.

  • There are also desktop pictures

Desktop Spacess

Conclusion: the two terms aren’t used interchangeably, but they are pretty close in meaning and in any case are severely overloaded.

I think it’s like this:

  • Each space contains a desktop…
  • so a space is a container,
  • and a desktop is the thing it contains.

I think. :slight_smile:

PS: I didn’t intentionally resurrect this topic. The OP got edited and it showed up at the top of recent topics, and I just replied to it.

Mission control preferences refer to “spaces”, but Mission Control shortcuts refer to “desktops”

And there are the bits of documentation that refer to “desktop spaces”.

I don’t see any reason to say that a space contains a desktop rather than the other way around.

Moreover, if one of those can only contain one of the other, what’s the point of having both? I think “spaces” are a historical remnant.

It is confusing, but I recently learned this:

  • Space is the top-level, global object
  • Each Space can use the default Desktop, or have it’s own Desktop, which can be fully customized.

It is confusing because of Apple’s inconsistent use of terminology, and it is not immediately clear what the relationship is among Mission Control, Spaces, and Desktops

Here’s my current understand of these terms, subject to further edification:

  • Mission Control
    • Management tool for Spaces
    • Allows you to see what’s in a Space, Change Spaces, Move apps to a Space
  • Space
    • A customized collection of desktop and apps
  • Desktop
    • The screen object you actually see
    • Has properties that can be customized from System > Desktop
      • Can have zero or more icons/objects shown on it.
    • When you change it, you are changing the Desktop for the current Space

Do an Internet search on “mac mission control spaces”, and you will find articles like this one:
Use Mission Control on your Mac

To belabor a point, my OP showed how Apple uses the terms inconsistently, somewhat interchangeably, and sometimes in the same phrase. I wasn’t trying to sort out the truth, I was trying to point out that you can’t find the truth from Apple’s usage, including its documentation.

What shows icons/objects is neither a space, or a space-type desktop, nor the Finder. The icons for objects and folders are there no matter what application is current and whether or not the Finder is hidden. (I use Desktop Curtain to hide all that clutter.) They are on what has from the beginning of (Mac) time been referred to as a desktop — that was probably the primary metaphors on which the Mac GUI was based. My reference to the Finder desktop was a lazy inaccuracy — what I meant is the ancient desktop that shows icons which the Finder manipulates, but isn’t the Finder itself.

What’s this? In the Mission Control world spaces and desktops, whatever they mean, have a 1-1 relationship.

One way to come at this is to consider the Desktop & Screen Saver Preference Pane, where you can set the color or picture of a “Desktop”. Each space-desktop has its own color or picture as its background. Hmmm – what gets the color or picture is, I think, yet another use of the term “Desktop”. That is, there is a background called the “Desktop” on top of which are file, disk, and folder icons, on top of which are application windows. When you switch to a Desktop/Space with Mission Control or its keyboard shortcuts, you end up with a possibly different background color or space, the same set of “desktop” icons, and 0 or more application windows, some of which may appear on all desktop-spaces, and some of which may be assigned to the specific space-desktop you switched to.

I hope that confuses things further :-). It’s an interesting research project.

As best as I can tell, that is incorrect, but Apple’s usage continues to blur the difference:

According to:
OS X El Capitan: Work in multiple spaces

OS X El Capitan: Work in multiple spaces
If your desktop becomes cluttered with open app windows, you can create additional desktops, called spaces, to organize the windows. When you work in a space, you see only the windows that are in that space.

You use Mission Control to show the Spaces bar, where thumbnails represent your spaces and apps you’re using in full screen or Split View.

As of this moment, I believe that “desktop” mostly refers to the original desktop, which is actually a Finder object.

“Spaces” are “virtual desktops”, that can contain windows of different apps (but all windows of a specific app are on the same “Space”), and have a different background color/image. But all “Spaces” share the same items in your ~/Desktop folder, which are displayed on all Spaces.

This issue is confusion because Apple has been changing definitions and terminology with almost ever new OS X release since 10.8 (maybe earlier).

Maybe the easiest way to keep clear on this, is to always think of the “Desktop” as a Finder folder.

whatever :frowning:

OK, you’re own your own now. Good luck.

“you can create additional desktops, called spaces, to organize the windows” in my original post was a quote from Apple’s help document OS X El Capitan: Work in multiple spaces So in at least one place Apple says desktops are space. I don’t know why the writer of that document didn’t see the weirdness of stating that equivalence.