Switch Different

OK, so I haven’t written much on this blog since it started, but I figured I’d toss an entry on the barbie on this Fourth of July.

See, turns out a buddy of mine recently “switched” to a Mac. Not by choice, it seems: it’s not that he’s heard all these great things about using a Mac, and decided to jump in. Rather, his job requires that he rotate among the three major OSes (Mac OS X, Linux, Windows), and he recently started using a MacBook Pro. He has several “first impressions” which he writes about in his blog.

Much of what he complains about is typical fodder for switchers: behavior of keys, expectations of windows functionality, etc. Nothing he says is inherently bad, it’s simply learned (or preferred) behavior. In effect, he’s fighting a decade-plus of muscle memory: it’s the same thing I’d go through if I suddenly found myself forced to use a Windows OS after my 15 years of Macintosh experience.

There’s a brief (hah!) point-by-point response to his concerns after the jump.

Here are my buddy’s concerns:

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?

No doubt there have been many Mac users asking for this functionality over the years, but Apple hasn’t introduced this to the OS to date. I’m sure there’s a really good reason having to do with consistency or lack of necessity or some such. In my experience, my windows are usually pinned to the top left, and I only need to make them wider or narrower, taller or shorter, and don’t even think of doing this from alternative corners. Of course, that may well come from the fact that I can only resize from one place and have made accommodations for this “short coming”.

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.

I’m not sure what my buddy means by “affordances” in this context, but no Mac OS menu item changes its appearance to make it “look” like a menu: the fact that an item is in the (one and only) menubar is what makes an item a menu. Every item in the menubar is, by definition, a menu, right down to the clock. I currently have nine items on the right side of my menu bar, and each of them brings up a menu when clicked.

There’s no inconsistency I can see here (“inconsistent with what?” would be my followup question; the fact that the window’s close/maximize/minimize icons highlight isn’t reason to have every item on a separate menubar highlight on hover. That just becomes eye candy).

QuickTime is as crappy on Mac OS as it is on Windows.


It’s impossible to maximize the window,

Hm. When I click the green “maximize” button, the window smoothly animates to the size of the screen’s width. (I can also choose View > Fit to Screen (or press Command-3) to do the same task.)

it doesn’t give you any indication of the total length of the movie,

True, there’s no way on the player’s controller to see the movie length. That’s pretty lame. You can get the information by bringing up Window > Show Movie Info (or Command-I), where the duration is listed.

it doesn’t let you bookmark your views,

I’ll admit ignorance, ask “what are your views?” and move on.

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”?).

The “Pro” designation, of course, is to let you know that Apple sells a $30 Pro version of the software, and that the menu items preceded by “Pro” will be available to you upon purchase. Yes, it can be a little frustrating to want to use a menu item that’s there but greyed out all the time, but that frustration goes away with a five minute retail therapy session. (It’s worth it for all that QuickTime Pro can do.)

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.

I use VLC for many codecs not supported by QuickTime. Sometimes I use Mplayer too. Yay Open Source! Yay third-party developers!

Although… do those Windows open source players allow me to play high-def video? Adjust playback speed? Provide multi-channel audio output? Capture video from a Firewire-equipped camera? Seriously. I don’t know jack about Windows software.

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

Developers have requested that Front Row be opened up so they can plug in their application’s functionality. Maybe Apple will heed the call in a future version of the OS.

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).

This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the power of QuickSilver. QS is not just a way to find files on your computer (although it does that remarkably well). No, QS is a keyboard-driven tool-chain. In addition to finding files (and manipulating them), it’s also an application launcher, keyboard shortcut creator and application accessor. With QS, I can, for example, select, compress and attach a file to addressed email with a few keystrokes. The sequence is as simple as:

  • Command-Esc (bring up QS)
  • Type the file name, hit Tab
  • Type ‘compress’ and hit return (creates zip file) (QS automatically selects the just-created zip file, so I can continue on)
  • Type ’email’, hit Tab
  • type the address I want (if it’s in Address Book, QS will highlight it) and hit return

Mail will open up with a new message, the file attached, the To: field already populated.

It takes longer to read what I do that for me to actually do it (about three seconds), especially once you use QS for a while, as it remembers what you type. Simply put, QuickSilver is one of the most powerful additions to Mac OS X out there, and I strongly recommend everyone take some time to learn its power. It’s way more than just a file finder.

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.

OK, I got nothing for this. It’s one of my own pet peeves. Alas, the Apple Human Interface Guidelines state that each application is responsible for determining what the Zoom button does:

Your application determines the minimum and maximum window size. Base these sizes on the resolution of the display and on the constraints of your interface. […]

Your application also sets the values for the initial size and position of a window, called the standard state. Don’t assume that the standard state should be as large as possible; some monitors are much larger than the useful size for a window. Choose a standard state that is best suited for working on the type of document your application creates and that shows as much of the document’s contents as possible. […]

The zoom button should not cause the window to fill the entire screen unless that was the last state the user set.

It used to be (in Mac OS 9 and earlier Systems) that the Zoom button was a toggle between the user’s set state (the size you made the window), and the largest the window can be on the screen.

With 30″ monitors, that is apparently no longer a good idea, but I still wish there was a way to tell a window “make yourself the size of the screen (or as big enough to show me all your content)”. And of course, some of Apple’s own applications (I’m looking at you, iTunes) have a completely non-standard behavior for the Zoom button.

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.

Hm. The only place you need to double-click is when launching a file or an application from the Finder. Everywhere else is a single click: Dock launches, menu item selections, dialog buttons, text field selection etc. When selecting text, you certainly can double-click, but this is a shortcut to select a word, not a requirement.

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.

The Mac OS X HIG is extremely clear on this:

Use the Command key as the main modifier key for keyboard equivalents.

The rest of the world may use “Control-B”, but the Macintosh isn’t “the rest of the world”. Command-B has been “bold” in word processor style applications os Macintosh from day one, and any application not using Command-B for bold on the Mac is violating one of the oldest Macintosh conventions out there (along with Command-S to Save, Command-O to open, Command-Q to quit, etc.).

Eclipse is a Java application, and, as such, is likely suffering from “write once run anywhere” syndrome. Don’t blame the OS, blame the application. I’d love to see what other applications on the Mac use Control-B for bold (and aren’t Java or straight ports from Windows/Unix).

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.

And the rest of us are used to having the Command key under our thumb.

Of course, you can always swap Command and Control: it’s under the same place you’d remap Caps to Control: System Preferences > Keyboard & Mouse > Keyboard > Modifier Keys.

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

No clue. I use one of the many native text editors (grin). If you must use Emacs, there’s always Enhanced Carbon Emacs or Aquamacs Emacs. Assuming a key definition doesn’t fix things.

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).

Oh, how you will love Exposé! With a keystroke, you can show a minimized version of all of your windows, Command-Tab among them. You can Command-` to cycle among all applications and have just one application’s windows show minimized (while everything else is darkened). You can Command-Tab to the specific application and again show only that app’s windows.

If you want to get fancy, you can set up a hot corner, so you can “throw” your cursor to (say) the upper right, and all your windows will minimize for you, and then select from those windows.

In short, everything you want is available using Exposé, you just need to get to know it.

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.

Again, ouch. As Uncle Ben said, “with great power comes great responsibility”. Besides, kids are expensive anyway.

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.

Fortunately, you have a Mac Book Pro, so you can do two-finger right-clicks. I’ve gotten used to using Control-clicking over the years. I find it easier, generally speaking. Besides, there are fewer “required” right-clicks in Mac OS X than in other OSes.

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.

Alas, I can’t comment on this at all: I’m a 12″ PowerBook user, so no backlighting for me. My girlfriend syas she finds the backlighting very useful on plane rides, and that she only uses it as additional ambient lighting (that is, it’s not to help her type).

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.

I suppose it can be confusing, and generally speaking, the Dock isn’t my favorite interface item in Mac OS X. I basically ignore it as much as possible, and use QuickSilver for most of my application launches, and Exposé for my window management. Most of the apps in my Dock are running apps, and I only use the minimized windows sparingly, I just hide my unused apps (and their windows).

(My Dock is always on the right side of my screen, but a vertical screen shot would be annoying.)

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.

I’m not sure what this means. When you de-minimize a window, there’s nothing in the Dock to click on again. (Oh, here’s a Minimize shortcut: double-click the title bar instead of the (smaller) dot.)

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).

There is: Command-M. It’s under the Window menu.

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.

I wonder if this means “delete as in a file”. If so, there’s Command-Delete to move an item to the trash. No need to Control-Click at all.

As my buddy says, it’s only been a week. Most of his complaints come out of not knowing the Mac. Given time (and a willingness to change), I’d bet most of his complaints will fade away (only to be replaced by newer ones, I bet!).