Archive for category Mac

Confessions of a reluctant switcher (part 2)

I’d like to come back to my initial observations on Mac OS’ handling of window management because the more I figure it out, the less it makes sense.

You will notice that comments on my initial blog entry on this topic are usually along the lines of “I use Exposé all the time, I’ve never had any problem” and “Just use the right side of the dock, that’s what it’s for”.

The problem is that both these answers are wrong, and I’m beginning to understand why. The first hint I got was my realization that sometimes, pressing Alt-~ would only cycle through three FireFox windows while I’m pretty sure that I have more than six windows open. Where did the other three go?

And then, the same remark with Exposé: I know I have six windows, why do I only see three when I press F9?

The answer is probably obvious to Mac OS veterans but baffling to anyone else: Exposé and Alt-~ will only show you windows that are not minimized. If you want to pick a window that was minimized, your only choice is to click on an icon on the right side of the Dock.

This is bad for two reasons:

  • There doesn’t seem to be any keyboard shortcut for selecting a minimized window (this is part of a more general problem: Mac OS is quite hostile to keyboard shortcuts, which is very irritating when you are a proficient Windows keyboard user).

  • If you are looking for a window, you first need to remember if you minimized it or not, and then you know in which location you should look for it.

This latter part is really a momentous UI error, and it’s known in the UI field as a “mode”. Modes have been deemed evil a long time ago and most modern UI interfaces avoid them like the plague, Windows Office applications being a pretty good example of how to achieve that goal. When your application has a “mode”, you are putting a burden on the user and you are forcing her to remember what the current mode is before she can decide what a certain command is going to do. One of the first (and worst) offenders is the famous vi, on which every single letter will have a different action depending on whether you’re in edit mode or not.

This also explains some of the comments I have received on my previous entry, such as “I rarely ever minimize, I just leave all the windows open all the time”. I initially thought the person who wrote that was kidding, but I know now that he was serious, and the reason is obvious now: when you have a mix of minimized and open windows, finding the right one becomes a challenge, so your only bet is to always minimize or to never minimize. Coming from Windows, this is a philosophy that’s extremely hard to embrace.

I understand the initial intent of trying to separate “applications” from “documents”, but this metaphor is completely broken nowadays. Is a FireFox windows with many tabs open an application or a document? Well, this is actually the wrong question, you should really ask “Did I minimize that window last time I saw it or did I just move it in the background?”.

Again, Windows gets it right by putting all the windows in the same stack. Whenever you need to look for one, you look in one place, and some third-party utilities let you refine your search.

Well, to be honest, Windows only gets it partially right as well, since it won’t let you narrow down your search to only windows of the current application, hence my confessed love for TaskSwitch XP.

The ultimate window switcher?

So what’t the solution to this window management mess on Mac OS? There actually is one, and interestingly, it was never suggested by any of my expert MacOS buddies: if you right click on the icon of the application on the Dock (the left side, not the right side), you will get a list of all the open windows, minimized or not.

Right-click for the win!

This is exactly what I need and my experience with window switching has become a lot smoother since I discovered this.

It’s not perfect, though, and this leads me to my second main gripe with MacOS X, which I will address in the next entry. Until then, feel free to share how you switch windows on Mac OS in the comments, since I’m really curious to learn about the working habits of veteran users.

Confessions of a reluctant switcher

I have recently been “forced” to start using a Mac Book Pro, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to write down a few notes as I begin my journey toward a world that’s supposedly filled with milk and honey. But before I do that, let me say a few words on my background, so you know where I’m coming from.

I’ve been using computers pretty much since the age of 10 and since then, I have moved from programmable HP calculators to small computers (PC-1211 anyone?) then Apple ][, Amiga and finally, Windows pretty much ever since. I have spent a lot of time on Linux as well in the early days (back then, we were already saying that Linux was going to break through any day now) but gave up on it in despair five years ago after I realized how much it was stagnating.

At my work, I now find myself constantly switching between Windows, Linux and Mac OS. And I’m not exaggerating. I’m using at least two of these operating systems every day and more and more often, all three of them.

Finally, I don’t succumb easily to the fan syndrome and I try to keep a technical and objective judgment on everything.

Now that this is out of the way, here are my impressions after one week of diving into Mac OS.

  • I can only resize from one corner and the cursor doesn’t change. Windows has let me resize windows from all four corners and even from all four edges of windows since the early 90’s. What’s taking Apple so long?

  • Overall, Mac OS shows an extreme lack of affordances. For example, the menus on the top right corner of the menu bar
    1) don’t look like menus at all (they look like icons) and
    2) when you move your cursor over them, you still have no idea that a menu will unfold if you click them.
    This inconsistency is even more surprising considering that the close/minimize/maximize icons in the top left corner have a hover animation when you move your cursor over them

  • QuickTime is as crappy on Mac OS as it is on Windows. It’s impossible to maximize the window, it doesn’t give you any indication of the total length of the movie, it doesn’t let you bookmark your views, it has the infuriating menu items preceded with “Pro version” that you can’t pick (they probably took a page off Real’s book… nice. How about a little of “Do no evil”?). In short, the simplest Windows open source player you can find on sourceforge, such as Media Player Classic, run rings around QuickTime. For now, I have switched to VLC, which supports Full Screen but unfortunately, is not recognized by the remote.

  • Front Row and the remote control look neat, and I still hope I can get VLC to work with them.

  • QuickSilver is nice, but no better than Google Desktop Search. Actually, GDS is better in my opinion because it also acts as a file searcher (for which I need to invoke SpotLight).

  • Not being able to maximize a window fully or even in a consistent manner is driving me nuts. Some applications maximize at half the screen, forcing me to resize them, and others will… well, do whatever they damn please. Apple should buy a Cooper book and read up on the concept of sovereign applications.

  • Mac OS forces me to double click everywhere. I haven’t double clicked on my Windows desktop since 1995, when Active Desktop came out. Fitt’s law and double clicks were revolutionary findings when the first Mac came out in 1984, but come on, this is 2006. We know how to select a menu and countless studies have proven that double clicking was one of the most confusing features of today’s user interfaces for new users. It doesn’t have to be the default, but at least, let me configure this, like Windows does.

  • MacOS is very schizophrenic with respect to the Control and Apple keys. For example, bold on Word Mac is Apple-b while the rest of the world uses Control-b. And actually, quite a few other programs on the Mac use Control-b for bold. Eclipse uses Apple also everywhere instead of Control.

  • Having said that, it was easy to remap Caps to Control. Even Windows XP still doesn’t know how to do that without a third party program. Also, I have to admit that the Apple button is a better location than control is, but the train has left the station on that one and 98% of the population is used to having their control button under their pinky.

  • The Alt key doesn’t work on XEmacs (a define-key will probably fix that).

  • The Alt-Tab behavior takes some time to get used to. As opposed to Windows, Alt-Tab only switches between applications. Once you are in the desired application, you still need to use Alt-~ to select the right window. This would be acceptable if Alt-~ gave me a minimized version of the various windows available to me, but it doesn’t: it raises all the windows to the foreground one by one. This is not only annoying (since it messes up the Z-order of your windows), it’s actually downright silly and completely inconsistent with Alt-Tab. I can still select the individual windows in the right part of the Dock, apparently, but I still want to be able to do this from the keyboard. In short, switching windows on Mac OS is a pain. The ultimate task switcher in my opinion is Task Switch XP, which lets you switch between all windows but also allows you to switch windows only within the current application with a different hot key (Alt-Control-Tab).

  • The Mac Book Pro is hot. Very hot. And I don’t mean that metaphorically. It is hot as in “put it in your lap for a few hours in a row and you’ll go sterile”. Use a protection on your lap if you are going to use your Mac Book Pro for extended periods of time.

  • There is no right mouse button on the laptop. Are you kidding me? Yes, I know that you can plug in a mouse and the right button will work right away, but I never use a laptop with a mouse, so I find myself doing the insane Control-click all the time. This is preposterous. And coupled with the absence of a Delete key (see below), I am finding myself doing finger aerobics much more often than I should.

  • The keyboard backlighting doesn’t work at all. If anything, it makes the keys less readable. Which also mades me realize that I am looking at the keyboard, something I haven’t done in more than ten years. Hopefully, I’ll be familiar enough with this new keyboard soon and I’ll stop looking at it like I did on Windows, but until then, I turned keyboard backlighting off.

  • Mixing up the quicklaunch bar and the taskbar is a mistake. The little arrow under the icons to indicate which ones are open are confusing, and I find Windows’ solution (two separate and distinct-looking bars) much more intuitive and more practical.

  • Speaking of the Dock, I can click on an icon to show the window for that icon, but if I click again, nothing happens. I’d like the window to be folded back in the Dock when I do that. Right now, I have to go to the window and click on its “Minimize” icon.

  • And while we’re on the subject of minimizing, there doesn’t seem to be a shortcut to minimize a window from the keyboard (it’s Alt-space-m on Windows, and I use it all the time).

  • The backspace key is called “Delete” but it really means “Backspace”. I miss my Delete key, I used it all the time on Windows to delete files and folders, and right now, I have to use the insane Control-Click to do these simple operations.

Okay, that’s it for today, and that’s just after one week of usage.

While Mac OS contains a decent number of tools for power users (I really love having a native UNIX shell on my laptop), its newbie-oriented interface still shows in a lot of the operations that I do on a daily basis: big fonts, big colored buttons, primitive task and window switching, shortage of keyboard shortcuts (e.g. minimizing a single window), double clicks everywhere, no delete key, no right click, etc…

Unfortunately, Apple hasn’t really shown any good sign nor will to modernize their operating system in these various areas. This might not be a bad idea, since the biggest audience remains the casual user, but until these details are addressed, Mac OS will never be the ultimate hacker operating system (which remains Windows, in my opinion).

Finally, I’d like to say that despite these gripes, the experience has been fairly pleasant so far and I’m looking forward to exploring Mac OS further, but this initial foray shows that while Mac OS has some distinct advantages for hardcore geeks like me, it’s still not the ultimate combination of hardware and software for geeks.