Add a "Start menu" to the Dock

2 March 2013, 09:00

You might already be aware you can add an apps stack to the right-hand side of the Dock (near the Trash). To do so, just open Finder, then click and drag the Applications entry in the sidebar to that part of the Dock. This is discussed in more depth in Tip 252 of Mac Kung Fu 2nd Edition.

Sadly, you’re not allowed to do the same on the left-hand side of the Dock where the application icons live because only actual app icons can live there.* However, a small hack can add a “Recent Apps” stack to the left of the Dock, that works in a similar way and almost resembles the Start menu from pre-8 versions of Windows. Here are the steps:

1. Open System Preferences, click the General icon, and change the Recent Items dropdown list to 30.
2. Open Terminal (it’s in the Utilities folder of the Applications list in Finder), then copy and paste the following (tripple-click the line to select it all for copying):

defaults write persistent-apps -array-add '{ "tile-data" = { "list-type" = 1; }; "tile-type" = "recents-tile"; }' && killall Dock

3. The Dock will slide out of view, then return. At the right of the left-hand side of the Dock (i.e. before the line divide separating the left and right-hand sides) you’ll see a new icon has appeared. Click it and a list of recently-used apps will fan out. It will only contain a small number of apps but will grow as time goes on.
4. Drag this new icon to the left of the Dock wherever you want it to live. You won’t be able to put it to the left of the Finder icon, which is immutable.

Remember that the new pop-out stack is a list of your most recently used apps, rather than all apps. When you start an app in the usual way by double-clicking it within the Applications list, it’ll automatically be added to this list. Its icon will be that of the most recently activated app, although will always appear to be a “pile” of apps icons on top of each other.

To get rid of the icon, just click and drag it off as usual until a puff of smoke appears.

You can change the visual style of the pop-out stack in the usual way by right-clicking the Dock icon but there appears to be a bug with the Fan view in that it won’t show more than a certain number of icons. Your mileage may vary. If you right-click you might also see that you can change the pop-out list so that it shows recently accessed servers, or volumes etc.

You can repeat the command above to create multiple pop-out lists on the left of the Dock, so could have one showing recent apps, one showing recently accessed documents, and so on.

* Tech note: Theoretically, by editing the Dock’s .plist file it should be possible to simply copy a stack from the right of the Dock to the left (i.e. from “persistent-others” to “persistent-apps”). However, if you try this you’ll find all that happens is that the folder stops being a stack and becomes simply an icon for the folder which, when clicked, opens the folder in Finder. Quite why a “recent items” stack still functions correctly on the left of the Dock is a mystery. I attempted to adapt a recent items stack so it showed a folder’s contents instead, but folder and recent item stack entries in the .plist are structured very differently. However, I didn’t really have enough time to experiment, so a solution might be out there. If you find it then please let me know in the comments.

One way to achieve the goal of a genuine Applications stack at the left of the Dock would be to edit the Dock .plist file and move all the app icons to the persistent-others side of the dock, so the Dock divider appears at the right of the Finder icon because the apps side of the Dock is effectively empty. However, this would be fairly radical non-standard customization!

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