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The Leopard Report: Does the Finder Make the Grade?

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.