Hey Apple, give me visual clarity

The Mac OS X user interface is too big and too fuzzy. Compared with Mac OS 9, running under OS X feels like someone smeared Vaseline all over my monitor.

commentary As those of you who tuned in last time will remember, I recently discovered that I was spending more time running Mac OS X than Mac OS 9. This state of affairs snuck up on me, but makes plenty of sense in hindsight: I can do a lot of nifty and useful stuff under Mac OS X that I couldn't do under Mac OS 9. But there are two things I miss dearly whenever I'm in X: visual clarity and interface sanity.

Compared with Mac OS 9, running under OS X feels like someone smeared Vaseline all over my monitor. I have uncorrected vision, and I'd like to keep it that way as long as possible. But prolonged exposure to Mac OS X--particularly its anti-aliased text--really peeves my eyeballs.

The abundant anti-aliasing is just one of the many problems I have with the Aqua interface. The gratuitous shadows around windows eat up screen real estate that I would rather keep to myself. I'm greedy with my pixels and don't like it when Aqua absconds with them.

My (admittedly) subjective impression is that, in terms of how much useful information I can fit on the screen, 1024x768 under Mac OS X is the functional equivalent to 800x600 under Mac OS 9. Call me a cynic, but I have a nagging suspicion that someone at Apple thinks this extravagant use of screen real estate is an excellent way to get us all to upgrade to larger LCD displays. Judging from my recent experiences with iBooks and the generally spiffy 800MHz iMac I'm currently running through its paces (more on that in a future column), Aqua looks better on LCDs than on a CRT.

BIGGER IS PROBABLY not better in this case. If I'm working on an Excel spreadsheet under OS X, a larger UI means I can fit fewer cells onscreen. Same for text editing; wasted pixels means less text is visible at one time, which means I spend a lot more time scrolling around a document than I should have to.

But Aqua isn't just big and fuzzy. Some of its new interface behaviors hurt my brain. Take application and window layering. In OS 9, an app's windows are clustered together: When you bring one document window to the foreground, all the other document windows for that application come with it.

Under OS X, each document window is its own layer. Let's say you open multiple documents in a given app, then go off and do something else for a while. All those documents will recede into the background. So far so good. But if you then click on one of those documents, you will get just that single window; the remaining documents remain in the back somewhere.

This feature is, I think, a fundamentally flawed bit of UI design. Users associate applications with tasks; the documents in an open app are part of that association. When one document is at the forefront, all the others that belong to that app should come with it. It's not as if Aqua provides a global menu for accessing all open windows, like Windows's Taskbar; that would be far too consistent and sensible. Adding a "bring all to front" menu is just a band-aid to hide a mistake that didn't need to be there in the first place. Fortunately I have DragThing, which serves as an antidote for this and other cognitive dissonance generated by Aqua.

AQUA IS BUT ONE FACET of the OS X user experience, though. The Finder is the other. Indeed, many Macintosh users continue to equate the Finder with the Mac user interface, and rightly so. If Aqua seems slightly raw, the new version of Finder could use a few more minutes in the oven, too.

I think the Finder engineers are a generally brainful bunch. But I also think they've had some mercurial decisions about the Finder UI imposed upon them. For example, Finder 10.1.0 introduced a feature where icons arrayed in a grid on the desktop would automatically rearrange themselves to avoid the dock. Since the dock changes size automatically, this means the Finder could--and would--move around my icons at its whim. Clearly, my desktop was no longer my own. It belonged instead to a piece of code that thought it was smarter than I was. This feature's aggression was toned down in subsequent system updates, but remnants remain.

Apple once owned the uncontested moral high ground when it came to UI design. The original Mac OS interface--including the Finder--was brilliant. When it wasn't intuitive, you could figure out how to get things done without fear of destroying anything too valuable. In general, it worked the way you expected it to. It benefited from subsequent evolution, but it started out with well-conceived precepts.

AQUA, BY CONTRAST, feels like a muddle of new interface elements thrown together with the primary goal of looking maximally different, both to minimize comparisons with Mac OS 9 and to engender lots of oohing and aahing about its eye candy-ness. Unfortunately for Aqua and the OS X Finder, high-quality user interaction design is not about eye candy; it's about either assisting or getting out of the way of the human trying to get work done. This is my computer, not Aqua's, and the UI designers at Apple would do well to remember this.

I have high hopes for the forthcoming major release of Mac OS X for many reasons. One of them is that I fervently hope both Aqua and the Finder get a thorough going-over by experienced interface designers. There's no reason why Mac OS X can't attain the same high-quality user interaction design we became accustomed to from Apple with the Classic Mac OS.

What do you think? Is Aqua better than Mac OS 9's Platinum interface? What does OS X do better than 9, and vice versa? How do they compare with Windows XP? TalkBack to me below.

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