My first 48 hours enduring Mac OS X

I got my new iBook a couple of days ago, and finally tried this Mac OS X thing for the first time. After doing all the software updates, this is what I found.

General (Mac OS X 10.3.2)

  1. Pressing any key on the keyboard will wake the computer from sleep, but clicking the mouse button will not.

  2. In Windows and in Mac OS pre-X, an ellipsis following the label for a button or menu item means further information is required to carry out the command implied by the label. In Mac OS X, however, an ellipsis means nothing in particular, and so does the lack of an ellipsis. (For anything you think it might mean, at least one of these is a counterexample: Open Location… in Safari; About in any application, Address Panel in Mail, and Downloads in Safari; the main Help menu item in any application.)

  3. The Application menu (which appears to be a dumping ground for menu items that should not exist) has a different width in every application. This means the File, Edit, and View menus are in a different position on the menu bar in every application, making them slower to get at.

  4. Some windows use a brushed metal appearance, while others do not. This distinction exists for no apparent reason.

  5. In the Finder, Safari, Mail, and the Help Viewer, instructions for using a search field are placed inside the field, disappearing when the field is focused. This slows you down by making you check whether the text needs deleting every time you use the field, and it also hides the instructions just when you need them most.

  6. Date and time entry fields in OS X are several hundred percent slower to use than the equivalent controls in Windows or Mac OS pre-X.

    • The and keys cannot be used to increment and decrement values.
    • The and keys cannot be used to navigate between components of a date or time. Tab and Shift+Tab are used for this purpose, inconsistent with their use in all other controls in the OS.
    • Mistyped values cannot be retyped without selecting or deleting the previous value first.
  7. Some listboxes (such as the Song list in iTunes, and the Buddy List in iChat) alternate blue and white highlighting to distinguish consecutive items, while others (such as the Source list in iTunes, and the List view in the Finder) do not. This variation exists for no apparent reason. To make things worse, Mail uses the same shade of blue by default to highlight message threads.

  8. Disclosure triangles always look unavailable. (Indeed, they are almost indistinguishable from the icon of an unavailable Forward button in Safari or the Finder.)

  9. Exceptions to the previous problem are the disclosure triangles used in Open and Save dialogs and in the Authenticate alert. These disclosure triangles have a different appearance from those in the rest of the OS, for no apparent reason.

  10. Pressing the Escape key would be a reliable method of cancelling any drag, except that it doesn’t work when dragging an icon out of the Dock.

  11. Dragging to the menu bar would be a reliable method of cancelling any drag, except that it doesn’t work when moving a window.

  12. Sheets move together with their parent window, which is good, but they cannot be moved independently of their parent window, which is bad. When asked if I wanted to save changes [sic] to a newly-created TextEdit document, I could not remember whether what I had started typing was important, and I could not move the sheet out of the way to look.

  13. Until you start dragging, resize handles and scrollbar thumbs give no indication of whether you clicked on them successfully or whether you missed.

  14. Any scrollbar, when scrolled as far as possible to the top or left, looks as if it could be scrolled three or four pixels further upward or leftward.

  15. The subtle ribbing within a scrollbar thumb stays in the same place (relative to the scrollbar as a whole) while the thumb is being dragged. This is subtly distracting because it does not make sense: the ribbing is not visible in the rest of the scrollbar trough, and therefore must be part of the thumb.

  16. It is easy for important controls — such as a window’s scrollbar buttons and resize handle — to become unclickable because they are stuck under the Dock. The Dock cannot be hidden temporarily, but even if it could, that would only be a workaround, not a solution. 2004-02-28: It has been pointed out to me that Command+Option+D will put the Dock into auto-hide mode, which is somewhat similar to hiding it temporarily. I hadn’t found this myself because it isn’t mentioned in the help topic Shortcuts for the Dock, or in the help topic Shortcuts for the system, or in the help topic Using the Dock, or in the help topic The Dock is in my way, and because the Dock submenu of the Apple menu had been removed by FruitMenu which I was using to fix the jumping-menus problem. Incidentally, I’d expect the need for a The Dock is in my way help topic to result in the Dock itself being fixed by the third annual update to the OS, but it hasn’t.

  17. In many applications (including iChat, Help Viewer, Mail, Preview, and Safari, but not iTunes), scrollbars in a background window will scroll in response to the same click used to bring the window frontwards (in Apple parlance, they allow click-through). This makes focusing a window without scrolling it frustratingly difficult, since the scrollbar trough is often a large fraction of the only visible edge of the window.

Finder (10.3)

  1. Adding unpredictability to the previous problem, a Finder window’s scrollbar correctly ignores click-through when it takes focus from another Finder window, but incorrectly allows click-through when it takes focus from a non-Finder window.

  2. The Finder presents a non-spatial interface by default. Those people most likely to need the simplicity and realism of a spatial interface are those least likely to realize it exists or how to achieve it.

  3. Even when the spatial mode is achieved, it fractures by allowing the same item to be visible in two places at once. This problem can be experienced by opening the Desktop folder, or by expanding the disclosure triangle in a list view for a folder that is already open in its own window.

  4. Normally, an alias to an item has the same icon as the original item. Unfortunately, there are some exceptions. These include (unless their icons have already been customized) the Applications folder, the Library folder, the System and System Folder folders, the Users folder, anyone’s home folder, their Desktop folder, their Documents folder, their Library folder, their Movies folder, their Music folder, their Pictures folder, and their Public folder. In other words, for all folders that have non-generic default icons, aliases to those folders fail to inherit the same icons.

  5. Unlike the Trash in Mac OS pre-X, and even the Recycle Bin in Windows, the Trash in Mac OS X has no idea where any of the items inside it came from. Only the most recently trashed item can be restored to its previous location (unless you remember the location and drag it there yourself), and even that can only be done (using the Undo command) if trashing that item was the most recent action performed in the Finder.

  6. Trying to open a file in the Trash from the Finder will, correctly, produce an error message (to prevent people from relying on the existence of a file that will disappear when the Trash is emptied). Dragging a document from the Trash to an application should result in the same error message, but it does not; the application will happily edit and save the document back to the Trash.

  7. All folder windows zoom out from their icon when opened, and zoom back into their icon when closed. All, that is, except for the Trash.

  8. An item’s color label highlights its text but not its icon. This allows a blue-labelled icon to look selected when it is not. It also causes unnecessary difficulty in finding a labelled item quickly, particularly when it is selected or when it is in Icon view.

  9. It is impossible to view, let alone modify, an item’s color label from its Info window.

  10. Disks cannot be given color labels, for no apparent reason.

Safari (1.2)

  1. Clicking once in the address field does not do what people want 99 percent of the time, which is selecting the address so it can be replaced by typing a new one. (This can be done without interfering with those who want to select only part of the address, as demonstrated by Firefox and by Internet Explorer for Mac.)

  2. Safari’s View menu gives greatest prominence to those items that will be used least often.

  3. The dates in Safari’s History menu do not follow the format you choose in the Formats tab of the International panel in System Preferences.

  4. Dragging a bookmark from Safari’s Bookmarks page to the Trash trashes the bookmark, as it should. Dragging a bookmark from Safari’s Bookmarks Bar to the Trash highlights the Trash, as if the bookmark will be trashed, but the trashing never happens.

  5. It is unnecessarily difficult to tell whether you successfully clicked on a link (or dragged a link to a window), or whether — as often happens with unsteady hands or dirty cybercafe mice — you just missed. The cursor does not change at all; nor is there an indeterminate progress indicator, as might be expected from software that has no idea when or whether a remote server will respond. The only feedback is a partial, non-animated filling in of the address field, looking almost indistinguishable from selected text in the field.

  6. The Show in Finder buttons in the Downloads window always look unavailable.

  7. When a link’s href attribute contains a stray space character (for example, <a href=" “>accessibility in web-based applications</a>), Safari will go to the intended page, but it will never mark the link as visited.

  8. Multi-line text fields use a proportional font rather than a fixed-width font.

  9. Safari does not support HTML 4’s label element, but allows it to be styled. Many misguided Web authors style label in various ways to indicate its clickability, making its unclickability confusing.

  10. When the currently selected option in a select element is too wide to fit in the option menu, it is truncated. The truncation should be indicated with an ellipsis, but it is not.

Mail (1.3.3)

  1. The network activity window is called Activity Viewer in Safari, but just Activity in Mail. This distinction exists for no apparent reason.
  2. The Stop buttons in Mail’s Activity Viewer are over-large and garish, and have a different appearance from those in Safari’s Downloads window for no apparent reason.

  3. The default set of toolbar buttons in Mail’s Customize Toolbar dialog is not actually the default set. The true default set also includes the Junk button, at the opposite end of the toolbar from the Delete button. But in the junk filter’s Training mode Delete and Junk are used in tandem (first mark a message as junk, then delete it), while in Automatic mode they are close substitutes (Delete to delete a message, or Junk to delete it and future messages like it). Therefore they should be immediately next to each other by default.

  4. Mail does not allow plain text attachments to be saved, assuming instead that they are part of the message text.

iChat (2.0)

  1. iChat’s Buddy List window uses a mini-sized scrollbar, despite the rest of the controls in the window (and the scrollbar in instant message windows) being normal size.

  2. If an instant message window is as tall as possible, every time you type a space the text field scrolls back to the first line, hiding what you just typed.

  3. The Page Up, Page Down, Home, and End keys can be used to scroll through a Web page in Safari even when the address field is focused. The same should work in an iChat instant message window when the text field is focused, but they do not.

Help Viewer (2.0.4)

  1. The Back, Forward, and Home buttons in the Help Viewer have a slightly different appearance from those in Safari, for no apparent reason.

  2. The search field is the only usefully focusable control when the Help Viewer opens. (Focusing the content area is not useful when the Help Viewer opens, since the contents page for an application’s help should be — and usually is — too short to need scrolling.) Therefore the search field should be focused by default, but it is not.

  3. The Help Viewer often takes a second or more to perform an action. During this time, it never provides feedback that anything is happening.

  4. Unsuccessful search terms are not displayed in the Help Viewer’s No matching topics were found page. This, combined with the lack of in-progress feedback, makes it impossible to tell whether a second search has also been unsuccessful or whether it is merely taking a very long time.

But you can fix problem X by installing hack Y!

Sure, and where I can, eventually I will. But I shouldn’t have to. The problems shouldn’t exist in the first place.

So, smartypants, why don’t you report these bugs to Apple?

Because in the long run, that would be a waste of time. Apple could employ their own quality assurance people and programming people and project management people who would make sure these sort of usability problems were fixed. And indeed they used to. An equivalent list of simple usability problems I found after using Mac OS 9 for three years would be less than half as long as this list I compiled after using Mac OS X for two days.

My point is that the quality of Apple’s human interface has declined and continues to decline. That other current platforms, both Free and non-Free, continue to be even worse does not make this situation any more satisfying. Mac OS X is like Sir Winston Churchill’s description of democracy: the worst possible system, except for all the others.

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