Tweaking OS X

There has been some discussion (Tim Bray, Eric Meyer, MacDevCenter) of how people configure OS X to make it more usable for them. I trim down the Dock’s contents and add several things:

  • A-Dock
  • While it doesn’t have the massive number of features of DragThing, A-Dock gives me what I want: a separate Dock for folders and a way to quickly reveal the desktop. I place this in the lower right corner of the screen to take advantage of Ye Olde Fitts’s Law.

  • F-10 Launch Studio
  • This allow me to quickly launch any application without using much screen space unless it is activated with either the keyboard or by a hot corner (Fitts’ Law again). Applications can be organized into groups, which can be further organized alphabetically or by user preference. I have sent them some feedback asking them to add the ability to define row or column groups, depending on user choice.

  • CornerClick
  • I quickly miss the features this offers when not installed on a machine. It fits so easily into my workflow and is so simple, it feels like a natural extension of the interface. I imagine Exposé will make some of my settings redundant, but I’ll probably find new uses for it.

    I keep my Dock pinned in the bottom left corner (no magnification, no bouncing), populated only by the few applications that I leave running constantly such as Safari, iChat AV, iTunes, Terminal, Kung-Log, and Camino. These are never displaced by applications which come and go due to their left alignment. It makes the Dock far easier to work with.

    The corners make for easy targets, so I use them quite a bit.

Furthermore . . .

Why does iTunes not remember the position of playlists that are opened as separate windows?

Also, Excel would benefit from cursor coordinate highlighting – the column and row which the mouse cursor was in should highlight slightly to make it easier to determine precisely what cell you are in.

It's blue, it's an address . . .

But it’s not a link! I am rather tired of Read Me and help files under OS X that have Web and e-mail address links colored with the default browser link colors, but do not function as actual links. If you are writing a help file in which addresses will be displayed, write it in HTML. I don’t know if the situation has changed any in 10.3, but Apple really ought to make it possible for documents authors to include working URL links in RTF files.

Safari, Camino, and OmniWeb’s “Open URL” services are handy, but not nearly as simple as clicking on a text link.

Attack of the filename dependency!

A friend was having trouble installing the OS X version of Mozilla Firebird. This process is usually extremely simple: double-click the compressed file (assuming your browser or compression utility doesn’t handle such things automatically), mount the disk image, then drag the application to wherever you would like it to reside.

I was perplexed as to what the problem could be until he pasted the text of an error message into an IM: “the document “mozillafirebird-0.6.1-mac.dmg.g is an unknown format.” The .tgz file extension had somehow been screwed up. Adding the t z to the opposing sides of the g fixed the problem and made the file usable.

The moral of the story is that file extensions are an archaic, oftentimes perplexing way to determine file types. MIME types or T/C codes are much more transparent to end users. No user should have to guess as to a file’s type in order to access it. While there is no perfect typing system, filename extensions are certainly one of the worst.

iTunes stream browsing, nested playlists

An interface for Internet audio streams more like the Library and Music Store browsing interfaces is one of the few things I would change about iTunes.

Two panes spanning the full height of the window – genre in the left, station in the right. This would allow for easier categorical browsing.

The downside would be that you couldn’t view multiple stream categories at once. That capability doesn’t seem all that useful, so I don’t think it would be missed.

Also among my few feature requests is nested playlists. Having a sizable collection of music , I have several playlists of one genre, divided based on year. I’d like to be able to shove them into a top-level container labeled with the genre name, allowing me to keep them together without being constantly displayed. I understand the desire to keep things simple, but we don’t all have the luxury of monitors running at 1600×1200.

Another drag

I would like to be able to drag the address bar link/icon from Safari to the Mail Dock icon to open a new message with that URL in the body. This sounds reasonable to me. Some of my other ideas may be wacky or impractical, but I don’t think that is the case with this one.

MT vs. iBlog

Apple is giving away a registered copy of iBlog to all .Mac subscribers, but I don’t think most MovableType users will find it of much use. While the interface is nice and it integrates decently with several of Apple’s iApps, it is missing too many great features. I’ll be sticking with Kung-Log + MT.

Pros:

  • The built-in stylesheet editor is far better for those who aren’t comfortable writing their CSS by hand.
  • Navigating your postings using the calendar in the lower left of the main window is quick and easy.
  • No database configuration required.

Cons:

  • No database to store things in!
  • No web interface for posting or management.
  • No web posted comments.
  • No TrackBack or similar feature.

Cross tab dragging

Safari has a real usability problem: trying to drag an address bar link from one tab to another that is open to your Bookmarks library is impossible. This is rather irritating.

I have no idea if this is possible, but how about making the tab open to Bookmarks spring-loaded? If I drag an address from the location bar to the tab, that tab should become active. Problem solved.

Item and selection count display methods

Rather than use the status bar display dependent method currently implemented in OS X, how about using some of the Quartz engine’s compositing features to display an overlay graphic of the number of items currently selected in a window?

My idea is this:

As a user moves through a window selecting items, a counter would appear inside the window, dynamically displaying the number of items selected. Ideally, this would include both the number of total items in a content area and the number currently selected by the user.

This would have to be rendered one of two ways, based on continuity of selection:

  • If the selection was contiguous, the counter would appear beneath the highlighted items. This would make the meaning of the counter more obvious.
  • For non-contiguous selections, the counter would be rendered in an appropriately contrasting color scheme against the background of the window.

In both instances, the counter graphic would have to be transparent enough to allow the user to read all text (file names, list-view column information) below it with ease.

Advantages over current implementation:

  • Not dependent on the user enabling the status bar in the Finder (which is off by default, at least in Jaguar). This appears to have changed in Panther due to the new design of the Finder.
  • Directly related to that, this method does not use additional screen space, using the window as its display canvas.
  • Maintains user focus on the selection area and the actual task of selecting; does not force their eyes to move to the status bar, a rather small target, then back to the items they are selecting.
  • Looks spiffy!

Potential problems:

  • Counter could become obscured in very small windows.
  • Potential visibility problems for Finder windows in which the user has set a custom background color or picture.
  • Placement of the counter in the Finder’s column view.

Ultimately, I think this sort of thing could replace the status bars of a number of applications. The status bar in Mail is particularly wasteful – it uses the entire width of the main window simply to display “xxx messages (xxx KB).” While it does also display the information related to sending and receiving mail, this could be displayed in a status bar such as that used in OmniWeb, only appearing when information needs to be displayed. The persistent information could be displayed in a floating counter/status item.

Random thoughts:

  • Should the counter float on top of the window’s content for a moment, then fade into the background? It would stay in the foreground while selecting items.
  • How would the desktop be handled? Currently, there is no counter for the desktop unless it is viewed as a window. Perhaps a counter should appear only when selecting multiple items?
  • Would it make sense for the counter to follow the mouse as long as it remained within a selection area?

A mock up of this idea would illustrate the concept far better than any written description. I should learn how to use Interface Builder anyway.

In the interim, I’d appreciate it if iTunes would display the number of selected items rather than just the total.