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  • The Leopard Report: Does the Finder Make the Grade?

    December 6th, 2007

    For years, Mac users and tech pundits were repeatedly begging Apple to do something to fix the Mac OS X Finder. The arguments were all over the place, using such obtuse references as “spatial.”

    Spatial? Well that refers to the direct relationship between a Finder window and a single folder, very much in the fashion of the Classic Mac OS. In Mac OS X, you can, in the fashion of some productivity applications, get alternate views of the same folder in multiple Finder windows.

    Regardless, this is only a small part of a discussion that has raged ever since Apple unleashed the Aqua interface for Mac OS X back in 2000. Yes, it was more than seven years ago, which is an eternity in the personal computer business.

    Since then, it seems to be that nobody really took to the new Finder. Sure, the column view, something descended from a number of other file viewers, was a useful alternative to keeping tabs on your stuff, at least in my opinion. But the Mac OS X Finder itself always seemed to be a half-baked application, simply because it had fundamental problems that persisted, in large, part, from system version to system version.

    Some suggested the Finder’s ills could be blamed on Apple’s decision to use Carbon instead of Cocoa as the basis for developing the application. The reason Carbon was selected was, they claimed, to encourage third-party developers to port more of their legacy applications to Mac OS X, also using Carbon. As you recall, Carbon was a reworking of the original Mac OS APIs, supposedly to simplify porting to the new operating system.

    But the whole argument was academic and hardly useful in the real world. I wanted something that worked, and I’m sure most of you agreed with me.

    Well, over time, the Finder got better, and you could sometimes even get it to remember size and position, after a fashion. But there were fundamental performance limitations that could make the fastest Mac on the planet come crawling for help.

    The most common symptom was initiating a few copying modes, where you put files on a couple of other drives, file shares, or combinations of the two. That example of multithreading would proceed all right, but then try to open a Finder window and view the contents, or launch an application. Suddenly everything came to a screeching halt as the system seemed to run out of breath. Call it Finder asthma.

    Even worse, if something made a file share drop off the network — and it could be a simple thing such as your MacBook Pro going into sleep mode at an inopportune time — it would take agonizing seconds and perhaps even a couple of minutes for the Finder to get the message, during which time the system bogged down completely.

    In practice, of course, not all of these ills could be traced to the Finder. Lots of things happen within the inner sanction of the file system when you are copying files, displaying the contents of a Finder window and keeping tabs on a network connection.

    Regardless of what may have been fixed or improved, there are still mixed feelings about the Leopard Finder. What about the new eye-candy, such as Cover Flow and Quick Look? To be sure, it looks as if Apple simply grafted the essence of the ever-popular iTunes interface onto the Finder and pretended it was something special.

    Well, maybe that’s true, in part. While I’m not so enamored of Cover Flow, be it in the Finder or iTunes, Quick Look is really snazzy, and it’s not exclusive to the Finder. Apple Mail and Time Machine have it too, and I wonder if any third-party applications will join the club.

    But where the pedal meets the road, the Leopard Finder is actually quite an improvement over its predecessor. Due to internal changes, you don’t see a Finder hang when a file share is disconnected from the network. What’s more, those multiple file copying operations don’t have near the drag on system performance as they used to. It’s not perfect by any means, but certainly Leopard remains quite usable despite a busy Finder.

    In large part, I consider the Finder a fairly substantial improvement. Sure, some of the features that the critics want aren’t there. It would be nice, for example, to be able to change the type size for Sidebar items, because those of you with less-than-perfect vision might find the lettering to be a bit too small. Not me, mind you, but I can see their point.

    But it all comes down to how millions of Mac users react to the changes. My views hardly count in that club. If enough if you dislike the Mac OS 10.5 Finder, Apple might consider even more changes, or perhaps a few reversions, come 10.6.



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    7 Responses to “The Leopard Report: Does the Finder Make the Grade?”

    1. Mike says:

      “The arguments were all over the place, using such obtuse references as ‘spatial.'”

      I think the ideology of a “spatial file manager” is the oddest most retrograde idea around in file management. Apple’s attempting to cater for people who have this notion has a number of undesirable consequence, one of which is the dreaded .DS_Store files. And Apple *still* provides no way to turn off the production of these on the primary volume. At least it’s no longer necessary to litter network shares with them any more, but it would be nice to be able to shut them off entirely and not have to worry about having to remove them from zip archives and the like, so as not to send useless junk to people on other platforms.

      It can also leads to undesired changes in the file manager’s view options, including the very size and shape of its window, sticking because of these files. I guess these viewing modifications come in with disk images from third-parties or something. I suppose this wouldn’t happen if one always opened every directory in a separate window. But who — apart from “spatial” advocates — is crazy enough (or has the time) to do that?

      In a thread about Dolphin, KDE’s new file manager, someone complains about that doing something similar. He says: “What I don’t like about dolphin is that damn “.dolphinview” in every folder I view with it.” Later in the thread the poster is reassured:

      “Aaron J. Seigo has fixed this, so like in Konqueror the standard .directory file is used instead. Additionally it is configurable whether Dolphin should remember the view properties at all; this means no .directory files if this feature is turned off”

      As simple as that. But Apple, by contrast, provide no means to turn off their equivalent.

    2. Scott Schuckert says:

      While I certainly agree that schizophrenia is on of the Finders major problems, the abandonment of the spatial file manager is the most preposterous solution I’ve heard yet. I’ve used OS X since before the public beta, and have never ONCE used the “New Finder Window” command, or simultaneously opened two views of the same set of files. Do most people have the habit of looking at everyday objects through a series of mirrors? It’s the spatial nature of the Finder that allows new (and many experienced) users to comprehend what’s going on in their computers.

      No, the solution is to divide the two types of views, precisely as Windows has done. This allows both groups of users to enjoy an optimized UI.

    3. Bob Douglass says:

      Scott- You said:
      “…I’ve used OS X since before the public beta, and have never ONCE used the “New Finder Window” command, or simultaneously opened two views of the same set of files…”

      Well, I sure have. Next time you want to move assorted files into a folder that happens to be located ‘way down’ the list, out of a window’s present view, sure you can drag the file(s) down and scroll until the desired target comes into view, then drop. But this gets old, especially if you do it repeatedly to the same target.
      A better (IMO) way is to open a new finder window, scroll until the ‘target’ is visible in that window, then drag the desired items from the ‘original’ window into the ‘new’ window.

      I hope that made sense… 🙂 It’s much easier to do it than to explain it.

    4. Dana Sutton says:

      The argument between the last three contributors is instructive. The lesson to be learned is that it’s impossible for any given “one size fits all” scheme can keep everybody equally happy. These guys obviously use their Macs differently (no great surprise there). I must say I personally do like the spatial model, simply because it helps me visualize and remember the structure of my folders and files (which, no doubt, is exactly why the HFS structure was invented in the first place) Yes, digging down a bunch of levels is a bit of a chore, but if I find I’m doing this repeatedly to get to the same location I use aliases to bail myself out. But if somebody thinks he can live without the spatial metaphor, surely some Finder options could be created to accommodate him. What is a bad idea is to force a single-scheme straightjacket on everybody. Apple’s design team should take note.

      By the way, this idea of introducing flexibility certainly should apply to Stacks: Apple needs to give us a way to switch the darned thing off.

    5. The argument between the last three contributors is instructive. The lesson to be learned is that it’s impossible for any given “one size fits all” scheme can keep everybody equally happy. These guys obviously use their Macs differently (no great surprise there). I must say I personally do like the spatial model, simply because it helps me visualize and remember the structure of my folders and files (which, no doubt, is exactly why the HFS structure was invented in the first place) Yes, digging down a bunch of levels is a bit of a chore, but if I find I’m doing this repeatedly to get to the same location I use aliases to bail myself out. But if somebody thinks he can live without the spatial metaphor, surely some Finder options could be created to accommodate him. What is a bad idea is to force a single-scheme straightjacket on everybody. Apple’s design team should take note.

      By the way, this idea of introducing flexibility certainly should apply to Stacks: Apple needs to give us a way to switch the darned thing off.

      Maybe Apple should just go all the way and include a global spatial Finder setting in the preferences dialog, so you get it all, if that’s what you want — no exceptions.

      Does anyone vote for the phrase: “schizophrenic Finder”?

      Peace,
      Gene

    6. Dan says:

      It seems to me that few people who dislike the spatial finder are graphic artists. Dragging files between open windows is really the easiest way to do the kind of things an artist needs to do. If you crank up the icon size in a window you get pretty viewable image previews and can grab things you need without having to rely on filenames that may have been created to suit the database (p115-2341-xyy.jpg) instead of the artist.

      I think some programmers (web, system, and applications) sometime forget that not everyone uses their computer for programming.

    7. Patrick says:

      Hmm, badmouthing the Finder, I can’t resist 😉

      I like QuickLook a lot, it’s the best thing about Leopard as far as I’m concerned, but truth be told: the Finder still isn’t ‘fixed’ and arguably is more ‘unfixed’ than it ever was before. To give just one example: in list view new folders are always created at the top level of the viewed hierarchy, even when you have selected a nested folder. This is so obviously not ‘the right thing’ to do. Many other usability problems have also remained unsolved — again — this time around, and as time goes by it becomes clear that there is no desire at Apple to try. This seems to be ‘it’, as far as Apple is concerned.

      The strange thing about Leopard to me is that navigating and interacting with the operating system has become more difficult compared to Tiger. The Finder added CoverFlow (fluff) and retained most of its bad habits, the Dock became uglier and killed folder navigation, the Spotlight menu can’t find useful things such as preference files or crash logs anymore (these are useful features for anyone developing or supporting software…).

      The Finder is a very blunt tool, especially in the hands of power users. Its behavior is unpredictable (how and where will a new ‘browser’ appear now?) and offers almost no useful options for configuration (why not let me set the preferred column width and column order for windows — or indeed let me pick which columns/properties I want to see). This is an important area where Mac OS X strangely lags behind its competitors.

      The Finder is in many ways the software equivalent of the one button mouse (also not fixed…).

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