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I remember reading that one shouldn't store files on the desktop. I don't remember what the reason was. Something to do with the Finder treating files on the desktop differently. The advice given was to store files in the documents folder.

I'm not looking for anecdotes ("I never had problems!"), but a technical explanation for why this might be a problem or why it cannot be a problem.

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Simple answer: no, not really, not unless you have hundreds or thousands of files on the Desktop.

It can be really, really hard to navigate a Desktop chock-full of icons, though:

enter image description here

But there is one thing to consider - Quick Look processing & RAM usage.

Quick Look allows you to select an item and preview it with a quick tap of the spacebar. There are many different file types supported, from MP3 and AAC to JPEG and MP4. While Quick Look is a fantastic tool to have, it will be your enemy if you keep Pages or Word documents, images, videos, music with artwork, and anything else it supports previewing on the Desktop. The tool is always ready with previews, so when you have a lot of documents on the Desktop, all those previews will have to be temporarily stored in the RAM. This means your Mac can become extremely slow."

(I lifted the bulk of this answer from this link.)

On older Macs with limited RAM, this can become a huge problem. On newer Macs with much larger RAM availability, it may be less of a problem.

But this doesn't mean you should leave hundreds or thousands of files on the Desktop.

Personally, I download files to the Desktop, then move them elsewhere when needed. Files like disk images (.dmg) or archives (.zip) are better handled (IMHO) from the Desktop because the don't usually stay there when done.

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  • Why download to ~/Destop when there is a directory ~/Downloads ?
    – mmmmmm
    Mar 30, 2022 at 15:21
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    Personal quirkiness. I keep the space underneath Macintosh HD clear of files, and downloads stack up where I can see them and then operate on them. I found that the Downloads folder can quickly become cluttered with files, and they become 'out of sight - out of mind'. Being present on the Desktop forces me to deal with them immediately. I don't like a cluttered Desktop. My wife has a Downloads folder with (at last count) ~ 2300 files. 90% of the files she has no recollection of downloading (some are over six years old) but she doesn't want to touch them. To each his/her own.
    – IconDaemon
    Mar 30, 2022 at 15:45
  • I sort of have that thought but I use Hazel to archive the Downloads folder to a dated archive - and I clean up when I get a lot
    – mmmmmm
    Mar 30, 2022 at 16:28
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The issue was that the WindowServer treated each icon on the Desktop as a Window object. This design harked back to the original Classic Mac OS.

This meant that file icons on the Desktop used more RAM than files within a Finder window.

However, changes to the Finder and the WindowServer in recent years have reduced this problem, while better hardware has also minimized the effect.


Although large numbers of files on the Desktop may not affect the performance of the computer, they certainly affect the performance of the user!

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  • The Window server surely comes from NeXT and does not have much to do with Classic MacOs. And even then it uses rather different display code ie Quartz rather than Display Postscript
    – mmmmmm
    Mar 31, 2022 at 10:25
  • @mmmmmm Yes, you may be right, but the concept of icons on the desktop being windows stemmed from the original GUI, and probably even Xerox PARC. It was certainly true that lots of files on the desktop caused slowness on System 7 etc.
    – benwiggy
    Mar 31, 2022 at 11:01

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