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How can I stop windows on my mac (Mac OS Snow Leopard) from hiding when the app that owns the window loses focus.

Not all apps on the mac do this, but Photoshop and Transmission are perfect examples of apps that exhibit this behaviour.

It's frustrating when you want to type notes in another app (e.g. word processor), but refer to the contents of the window that hides when you focus the word processor to start typing your notes!

There must be an option (or hack) to disable this?

I always thought Apple were supposed to be the masters of UI design, but allowing apps to do this seems wrong.

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It's actually a really good idea from a UI standpoint, since your screen isn't unnecessarily cluttered with panels that you don't need outside that application (99% of the time), but I can see why you're frustrated. A way to disable it would probably come in handy for the other 1%. – Sasha Chedygov Jan 29 '11 at 8:16
@musicfreak This is the explanation given (or at least hinted to) by Apple too. – Daniel Beck Jan 29 '11 at 8:17
up vote 4 down vote accepted

You are probably talking about Utility Windows or Panels.

From Apple's Human Interface Guidelines:

(all boldface highlighting by me)

Panels are either application-specific or systemwide. Application-specific panels disappear when the application is deactivated.


A user can open several panels at a time; they float on top of document windows. When a user makes a document active, all of the application’s panels should be brought to the front, regardless of which document was active when the user opened the panel. When your application is inactive, its panels should be hidden. Panels should not be listed in the Window menu as documents, but you may put commands to show or hide all panels in the Window menu. Figure 14-38 shows examples of different styles of panels.

This article explains who's resonsible for their behavior:

Utility window example by Apple

Mac OS X utility windows differ from their Windows counterparts in several significant ways:

  • They have a drag strip that enables users to reposition them on the desktop, but the drag strip usually does not have a text title.
  • When your application is in the background (that is, its windows are inactive but visible), its utility windows should be hidden from view. (You are responsible for implementing this behavior.)
  • In addition to application-specific utility windows, Mac OS X also supports system-wide utility windows, which remain visible even when the parent application is hidden from view.

Highlighting again by me.

Seeing as application developers need to implement this behavior themselves, I don't see a sane way around this behavior (sane meaning, neither changing the applications' code at runtime, nor changing the Cocoa frameworks somehow). You can, of course, petition the Transmission folks to use a regular window without this behavior (like changing from Finder's Show Inspector to Get Info).

If I'd have to guess, you want to do something unusual, such as create software documentation. That's probably why this behavior doesn't work for you.

As a workaround, quickly make screenshots of these panels and view them while working in another application.

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Thanks for the detailed answer. Marked as accepted, as a workaround seems the only solution. – Bryan Jan 31 '11 at 12:32

In some cases, an alternative workaround to taking screenshots is to switch directly to the window you want to have focus (i.e., your text editor or whatnot) from the window you want to remain visible, without using a form of app switching (the dock, cmd+tab, etc).

You can do this in at least two ways:

(1) Arrange the windows such that you can click into the window you want to have focus while the window you want to remain visible has focus.

(2) Use Exposé (F3) to switch directly to the window you want to have focus while the window you want to remain visible has focus.

This works, at the very least, for Photoshop document windows, and may very well work in other circumstances. Note that this will not work, for instance, for the more traditionally 'palette-like' Photoshop windows (layers, toolbars, etc).

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