The Mac’s Dashboard is a great idea: a separate work area where you can store mini-applications called widgets that can do all sorts of wonderful things, from telling you the current weather, news and stock prices through to giving you calculators, translation tools and games.
On the whole, it’s nice to have those widgets hidden away on the Dashboard. You can bring them up instantly with F12 (F4 on newer keyboards), and dismiss them all just as easily.
However, sometimes it’s useful to have a widget on your desktop, where you can keep an eye on it. Examples include calculators, clocks, and anything that you need to look at while you’re working. By default, the Mac doesn’t let you put widgets on the desktop, but there are a couple of ways you can work around this.
Free those widgets
One trick is to switch Dashboard into developer mode – the mode that widget developers use to create their widgets. To do this, open a Terminal window (Applications > Utilities > Terminal) and type (all on one line):
defaults write com.apple.dashboard devmode YES && killall Dock
… then press Return. Your dock should disappear and reappear. Now hit F12 (F4 on newer keyboards) to bring up the Dashboard. To drag a widget onto your desktop, start dragging it in the Dashboard, then hit F12/F4 while dragging to dismiss the Dashboard. Now position the widget on your desktop and release the mouse button. Here’s a BBC Radio widget on my desktop:
To put a widget back on the Dashboard, do the opposite: Start dragging it, hit F12/F4 to bring up the Dashboard, then position it on the Dashboard and let go of the mouse button.
As you might imagine, you can turn off developer mode at any time with:
defaults write com.apple.dashboard devmode NO && killall Dock
If the idea of messing about on the command line doesn’t appeal, there’s a handy widget called DevMode that lets you flip in and out of developer mode at the click of a button. It even shows you what mode you’re currently in.
A nicer way to do it
While this quick hack works, it’s not without its problems. For one thing, any widget you drag onto your desktop now consumes CPU cycles constantly, even when the Dashboard is hidden. Another problem is that the widget is always on top of other windows, so it gets in the way.
While it’s not possible to do much about the CPU thing, there is a neat app available that solves the “always on top” issue. It’s called Amnesty Singles, it costs $10 and it allows you to convert any Dashboard widget to a standalone app so you can run it on your desktop.
In true Mac style, all you do is drag and drop a .wdgt bundle onto the Amnesty window to turn it into an app:
(In case you’re wondering where your currently-installed widgets live, the system widgets are in /Library/Widgets and your user widgets are in ~/Library/Widgets.)
Once you’ve created and saved your widget app, double-click it to launch. It behaves just like a regular app, with an icon in the Dock and a menu bar that lets you do useful things like set an auto-refresh interval, and control whether the app sits on the desktop, behaves like a regular app window, or floats on top:
An even nicer way to do it
Finally, to really go to town with your widgets, check out Amnesty Widget Browser ($20). This installs itself in the menu bar and lets you instantly add any installed widget to your desktop. It has all the features of Amnesty Singles, plus you can do wacky stuff like scale and rotate widgets and make them see-through:
(Not sure how useful a rotated widget is, but a translucent widget is pretty nice!) The app also comes with a selection of bonus widgets for you to play with, including a nice flip clock and the classic “Snake” game. Ahh, widget heaven.
Speaking of bonuses, here’s a bonus widget tip: You can quickly remove a widget from the Dashboard by hovering the mouse cursor over it, then holding down Option and clicking the close button that appears. Neat!