Living with Leopard: Book II — The Controversial Interface

October 30th, 2007

When some of you first saw the Leopard version of the menu bar, I bet there were a few grumbles about its near-invisibility with some screen backdrops. Indeed, I suppose Apple’s interface designers took the hint and made it less transparent as time passed. At least, that’s what it seems based upon what Steve Jobs presented at the last WWDC and the finished product released last week.

So if you stick with the standard space travel motif that represents the heart of the Time Machine interface, the menu bar remains gray, with a slight level of translucency, and the labels are all clearly visible. The same holds true with the traditional Mac OS X ocean blue background. Some colors, however, may present obstacles to proper menu bar display, and you just might not want to use them, at least until Apple or someone provides a tool to kill the transparency effect. But even if Apple doesn’t come through for you, a third party will take care of it for you, because there are lots of things buried in the system that you can access via the appropriate command line, courtesy of Terminal.

In the scene of things, however, the menu bar doesn’t annoy me at all, nor am I married to a particular desktop design, but let’s move on to something that actually polarizes millions of Mac users.

Yes, I’m talking about the infamous Dock, which, as most of you know, is descended from the original NeXT Dock. Now to be perfectly fair, the NeXT computer attained a special, almost mystical, status among Mac users in the late 1980s and early 1990s, even though it was a total failure in the marketplace. There were lots of system add-ons that mimicked portions of the NeXT user interface, such as The Black Box from Andrew Welch.

Now of course, most of you know Andrew from his shareware company, Ambrosia Software, and the great Mac-only games and utilities he’s delivered over the years. These days, I’ve become a fan of one of their newest products, WireTap Studio, which combines a sound capturing application with fancy post-production features for editing your audio recordings.

Well, in those days, The Black Box brought the NeXT Dock and other interface niceties to the Mac platform. It stands to reason that, when the NeXT look and feel was combined with the Mac OS, some of the components of the former would appear in the latter.

When I first wrote about the Dock for CNET when the Mac OS X Public Beta appeared in 2000, my editor added the descriptive phrase, “cartoonish, goofy” to my article. That alteration, however, didn’t accurately relfect my personal viewpoint. In fact, the Dock never bothered me at all, and I was perfectly content to leave it at the bottom of the screen. I know some of you prefer to have it placed on the left or right ends your Mac’s desktop, but I like it just like it is, with the icons sufficiently large so I can tell one from the other.

With the arrival of Leopard, lots of you are complaining — with clear justification mind you — that the Mac OS 10.5 Dock, with its shelf and 3D-style reflections, is nothing more than a useless piece of eye candy. It is no more functional than the previous versions. It just looks different. In fact, the blue globes below an application that are supposed to show they’re running are often difficult to see, but I don’t agree. Once your eyes become accustomed to the new look, you will find the new order perfectly acceptable.

If not, just take a trip to the Terminal and enter the following commands:

$ defaults write no-glass -boolean YES; killall Dock

Once you press Return, the Dock will restart, and will become 2D, very much in the fashion of the Tiger Dock. Or just move it to the left or right side of the screen, which conveys the self-same visual effect. Happy now?

Now other than its well-known performance hangups, I was always a fan of the Mac OS X Finder, particularly its column view feature, another NeXT influence. But you had to agree that performance could be pathetic under load, particularly when performing multiple copying operations.

From a performance standpoint, the Leopard Finder is a huge improvement. Not perfect mind you, but far fewer spinning beachballs, evidently the result of superior multithreading. The new file sharing scheme is also a revelation, because it makes both volume and screen sharing a piece of cake, hardly worth a trip to a Help menu. Compare that to Microsoft’s inability to figure out how to explain Windows networking without a pathetic setup wizard. What’s more, if a network share drops off the network, it doesn’t affect the Leopard Finder one bit. That’s also a huge plus.

Yet the critics still aren’t happy. The Finder’s blue/gray look is dull, drab, lacking sufficient contrast between the background and the various labels. Again, I just don’t agree. To me, the Finder is simple, elegant, fast and easy to manage.

Where Apple and I part company is the new flat desktop folder scheme, subtly embossed to indicate the ones with special purposes. The problem is that you have to look twice, or maybe three times, to see that embossing, so the subtle look’s purpose is defeated. This is a trivial issue in the scheme of things, however. All Apple has to do is fix the various image files to look more distinctive, and I’m sure third parties will deal with it soon enough.

At the same time, I understand that many of you aren’t enamored with these and other elements of the Leopard interface. Unfortunately, whatever Apple does, they can’t please everyone. But if they get enough negative feedback, they eventually get the message, and don’t be surprised if there are a few changes here and they way before Mac OS 10.6 appears.

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14 Responses to “Living with Leopard: Book II — The Controversial Interface”

  1. shane blyth says:

    I heard people bleating but decided to install Leopard and I was pleasantly surprised.
    I think the bleaters get too much “air time” these days and people that moan seem to get more people hitting their blogs This helps them because people love to respond to criticism and more hits on the web is always advantageous.

    I for one, like the new dock and I have no issues with it or the menu bar for that matter. There are already plenty of apps (and they are free) to make the menu bar solid or to change the dock to 2D .. you don’t need the command line to do this either.
    The more important thing (as you have pointed out) is the performance of the finder, especially as it use to work with networks. But overall Leopard is FAST>>>>>> This is an area i here little about but compared to upgrading (or downgrading depending on your view point) from XP to Vista, Leopard kicks butt in the area of performance. Leopard is alot snappier in the finder and everywhere else for that matter meaning where poor Windows users got a slower system we get a fast one.
    PS One thing i really like with the new Dock is the indicators to show an app is running.. I never liked those little triangles and found clients missed them. The new blue “lights” stand out more.. though again other people say they cant see them and want the triangles back.. maybe they make their docks 4 mm high or something!

  2. You’ve never lived until you see a 4mm Dock. I have one client, a graphic artist, whose Dock is so small, you almost need a magnifying glass to see the icons. 😀


  3. shane blyth says:

    but does he use magnification..?

  4. shane blyth says:

    ok I just tried the dock at it’s smallest size possible and turned magnification right up.
    The interesting thing is with the new dock i can easily see (without it magnified) the indicators to show an app is running

  5. but does he use magnification..?

    Did I also tell you I hate magnification? 🙂


  6. shane blyth says:

    nope magnification is cool… didnt you know ?

  7. Dana Sutton says:

    On the very day that Leopard was released, so were at least two hacks that let you bring back the 2-D look of the Tiger Dock, and I seem to recall reading about a hack that puts an opaque white background behind the Menu bar. These are no doubt the first stones of what will soon be an avalanche of interface-changing gimmicks for Leopard. Which is nothing new. It’s a pretty basic fact of Mac life (and a great one, I think) that we all get to second-guess Apple’s interface designers and can customize our Mas to suit our own needs and tastes. So when Apple puts out something I don’t personally like I don’t get my butt in an uproar, there’s almost always an easy fix (and most of these interface hacks I’ve used, going back to OS 7, don’t do very much to destabilize or slow down the System). Look at this way, Apple’s interface screwups are somebody else’s opportunities.

  8. Bob Wilson says:

    Thanks for the tip Gene. I backed up the Dock prefs file and modified it using Property List Editor instead of using the Terminal command. I then logged out/in. To me, this makes a huge difference. Without the glass appearance, I can now easily see which applications in the Dock are active.

  9. ToWS says:

    Opinions regarding the appearance of the reflective dock are just that, opinions. One man’s meat etc etc.
    Surely, however, what is unarguable is that ‘Stacks’ are a huge downgrade from docked folders in Tiger. OK, I can see that a Stack for new downloads is a great idea. But why force dock folders to use the Stacks system?
    First consider their appearance… The Stack that represents my Applications folder has the Address Book icon! (Address book is the first thing in the Applications folder). The Stack that represents my Home folder has the icon of my Desktop folder! (The Desktop folder is the first thing in my Home folder). The real Desktop Folder Stack has the icon of a text file.
    That is just madness.
    Even worse, Stacks don’t work well either. Opening the aforementioned Applications Stack doesn’t display all my apps (there are too many to fit on the screen). Neither does it allow nested folders to spring open.
    We had far superior functionality in Tiger. Who decided to allocate hundreds of man hours of to change something that worked well into the current mess? What a waste, both of their time and, more annoyingly, of mine.

  10. mikhailovitch says:

    Stacks sucks.

  11. Yeah.
    Stacks sucks.

    Well, it’s hard to disagree. Stacks are somewhat less than I expected.


  12. shane blyth says:

    evidently there is a way to get non stacks working i read somewhere.. stacks can work for you… you just look at things a different way. I find having the downloads there useful and sort it to the last file added works well. Frankly the new speed of spot ligth and the fact they you no longer have to hit apple + enter to launch (or hit the down arrow once then enter) id positive.
    Most apps I simply type the first 2 letter and hit enter and it will instanly launch. It is very fast and I find better than using the dock to launch most stuff. I am enjoying making certain apps open by default in different spaces.. Once you get use to this (took me a few minutes) i find it gret that things are more ordered and in the same “space” fiddling with the sapces options in system preferences gives you some powerful new ways to get your work done in a very orderly fashion. The more I use Leopard the more I like it but I still cant see why people cant see the active apps in the dock. To me and my friends they think it is easier to see than a little black triangle… maybe it is the different backgrounds. But to me the little lights stand out more.

  13. The menu bar and Dock are both great. I like the new ones better than the old. Not so sure about Stacks though. Have modified the folders so they never change appearance.

  14. Dan says:

    The menu bar and Dock are both great. I like the new ones better than the old. Not so sure about Stacks though. Have modified the folders so they never change appearance.

    How did you do that?

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