Smarter Thumbnailing

The Mac OS X Finder should catch up to and improve upon the thumbnailing functionality of KDE’s Konqueror and GNOME’s Nautilus. I’ve previously stated that such thumbnails are of limited use, but that will change as screen resolutions and DPI counts rise.

Save My Place! (1.7 MB PDF)

The movie portion of my mockup assumes support for icons larger than OS X’s current maximum of 128 x 128. There is supposedly already some support for 256 x 256 icons in Mac OS X, but I don’t know of any application using this size or of a way to scale existing icons to 256 x 256 through the GUI.

For consistency’s sake, the zooming animation used when opening and closing files should be of the thumbnail, not the generic filetype icon as is currently done. Try double-clicking a thumbnailed image (generated by the Finder, not set as a custom icon) in Icon view to see what I mean.

Microsoft stealing from commie scum

For example, document icons are no longer a hint of the type of file, but rather a small picture of the file itself. The icon for a Word document, for example, is a tiny iteration of the first page of the file. Folders, too, show glimpses of what’s inside. Such images can be rather small, but they offer a visual cue that [assists] in the searching process, Allchin said.

News.com: An early peek at Longhorn

The K Desktop Environment‘s Konqueror has supported icon thumbnails for numerous document types and folder content hints for several years. Apparently, the KDE developers have a time machine that allowed them to travel to 20xx so they could steal these “innovations” from Longhorn!

  • File thumbnails
    1. MP3 audio*
    2. JPEG (PNG and many other image types are also supported)
    3. KPresenter document (the KOffice slideware component)
    4. KSpread document (the KOffice spreadsheet)
    5. KWord document (the KOffice word processor)
    6. SVG
    7. HTML
    8. PDF
    9. EPS
    10. MPEG-4 Video
    11. AVI (DivX)

    *Konqueror can also preview audio files, playing the file when the mouse cursor is held over the icon for one second or so. It isn’t a must-have feature, but it is kind of cool.

  • Folder content hints; these are not custom icons — Konqueror automatically badges the folder with the icon of the majority filetype.

While I am happy to point out that KDE beat Microsoft to the market with these features by several years, they aren’t as useful as one would hope. Seeing a thumbnail of a text document really isn’t much use when it is between 100-200 pixels. I do like image thumbnail icons (which pretty much every environment’s file manager has provided for a while) because they are visually distinct and it is useful with some PDFs. As for folder content hints, they break when a folder contains several different types of files.

Remember: those dirty open source communist hippies just copy Microsoft’s super fabulous products and it’s never the other way around. Ballmer told me so.

Donning The Fedora

Since switching my Linux machine from Gentoo to Fedora Core 3, I’ve noticed:

  1. Font anti-aliasing is much better. I can’t make a fair comparison to Mac OS X since my iMac is of the LCD variety while my Linux machine has a ViewSonic 17PS CRT.
  2. Nautilus, the GNOME file manager, can now reliably browse Samba shares. It’s much slower than Konqueror (the KDE file manager/browser/kitchen sink), but it works.
  3. GNOME no longer crashes the X server after about a half hour of inactivity. That one got really annoying.
  4. Nearly everything feels faster, despite one of the supposed benefits of Gentoo being that, because everything is built using custom compiler settings, you end up with a finely tuned system.

The few things I dislike about the default Fedora Core setup:

  1. BlueCurve is ugly. Switching to the default GNOME look is easy, with KDE only being complicated when it comes to the K Menu (think Windows Start menu), which required going through and choosing the default KDE icons for the different menu categories (Internet, Office, etc.).
  2. The BlueCurved OpenOffice is functionally acceptable, but I really prefer the Ximianized version that fits much better with the default GNOME appearance.
  3. The ability to shut down cleanly broke between FC2 and 3. A search of the Fedora forums showed that this is a problem for a number of people.

In other news, WordPress 1.3 looks like it will be a nice release (I’m running alpha 5).

"Options create anxiety"

Options create anxiety. When people are trying something new it’s extra-important to remember this, because there’s already a built-in level of anxiety when trying something new.

Brent Simmons on the design of MarsEdit

This is particularly applicable to the KDE project, which struggles with featuritis and interface clutter. New users are already in generally unfamiliar territory with KDE — throwing a zillion toolbar buttons and menu options in their faces doesn’t help alleviate the discomfort created by unfamiliarity.

For the record, I use KDE frequently, but that doesn’t mean I think it has a great out-of-the-box user experience.

Gentoo box en route

Thanks to my brother’s massive collection of spare hardware and the fact that his employer just bought everyone a new workstation, I will soon have a PC running Gentoo Linux.

This will be my first personal Linux box, though I did use Red Hat 9 on a daily basis for about three months when I was serving as a general IT geek alongside my brother at a place called Centerplex. I’d link to the website, but it’s just too embarrassing (not that I designed or coded it!).

I have both GNOME 2.6 and KDE 3.2.1 installed via Fink, but using them atop Darwin isn’t an optimal representation of their functionality because neither one is really well supported; there are rather large functionality gaps within both.

I’ll be posting more Open Source (including, but not limited to, GNOME and KDE) usability reviews as I reacquaint myself with these two environments and run into problems.

3.2.1 Kontact

Critique based on KAddressBook 3.2.1. I know KDE 3.2.3 was just released, so this may all be for naught!

The Kontact Category Selector and Editor dialog windows

Select Categories (left)

  • The full category names are not displayed, regardless of the width of the dialog window. This is particularly problematic when you have a default category called Customer that, when truncated, looks like it might be a way to create a Custom… category. You can only see that it is Customer by opening the Edit Categories window.
  • The Clear Selection button unchecks all the checked boxes, regardless of whether or not they have been selected (thereby gaining the highlight color). The way it works is not entirely unexpected, but the wording is not very clear.

Edit Categories (right)

  • When the dialog first appears, the Add button is not enabled, meaning you have to select an existing category and then click it. This minor problem is exacerbated by the next one…
  • If I click the Add button while School is selected, School is duplicated rather than a new Untitled category being created. If you really wanted to provide a category duplication button (which makes no sense to me), there is enough room to make one specifically for that purpose rather than illogically assigning the behavior to a button labeled “Add”.

My combined Kontact Category Selector and Editor mockup

My combined Selector and Editor

  1. As far as I could tell, the only way to Modify an existing category was to rename it, so I just labeled the button Rename.
  2. Alternating row colors might help. In any case, I think they look better, even in the quick and dirty way I did it in QT Designer.
  3. Labeling the Clear Selected button Clear All Checked Categories is not necessarily best, because not all themes use actual check marks. Some themes moronically use only a color to differentiate between checked and unchecked items. Interface themes do add a bit of interface unpredictability that OS X developers don’t have to worry about — note that I’m not advocating a “locked” UI for KDE!

I’m aware that I’m missing the shortcut key underlining and that my spacing isn’t perfect. I blame it on my inexperience with QT Designer (which is a really nice application).

Yes, the post title is a reference to the PBS show of long ago.

The State of the User

OmniWeb 5’s Workspaces reminded me of a feature I really liked while I was using GNOME and KDE extensively on Linux machines – saved environment states, often referred to as sessions.

Saving a snapshot of a user’s environment that is then opened when the user logs in again is a great way to preserve continuity. You don’t have to set login items to launch, you don’t have to remember what sites you were browsing, what documents you had open, and on a more general level, what the hell you were doing. With a well implemented session saving feature, the applications you had open and positioned return, the sites you were browsing reload, both of which serve to bring you back to whatever you were working on.

Fast User Switching under 10.3 (thanks for the feature, Microsoft) provides this for the most part, but it of course requires that the user be logged in and all of their applications be open, accompanied by the necessary RAM and/or swap space usage. All continuity is lost as soon as the user completely logs out or the computer is shut down.

After writing the bulk of this entry, I came upon John Siracusa’s OW5b1 write-up at ArsTechnica, in which he details why the Workspaces feature is so useful and why state retention features are so rarely implemented.

Apple implementing a state retention method in OS X would be a great way to improve the perceived stability of the interface.

GNOME 2.4, KDE 3.1

I’ve gotten both of the major desktop environments running under Apple’s X11, so I’ll be looking at them from a UI standpoint periodically. My brother was recently gifted with many spare parts (including an extra 512MB DIMM which now resides in my iMac – thanks, Jarod), so a Linux box might be in my not too distant future.

I know that both GNOME 2.6 and KDE 3.2 are not too far away, so it really would be best to wait until then to make any UI comments, which otherwise run the risk of being obsolesced.

Comments on KDE 3.2beta2 screenshots

, including a number of screenshots that show off the subtle new Plastik theme, a great improvement over the Keramik theme that is the default for KDE 3.1. While I think KDE is improving rapidly, the screenshots show a number of questionable or downright bad design choices. Being a beta, this is obviously still in development and I assume some of these issues will be addressed prior to the full 3.2 release.

On a general note, I cannot determine which window is frontmost in several of the screenshots – the window titlebar or toolbar icon coloring/lighting do not change depending on layering or focus. I believe this is the case with Keramik (at least with the titlebars), so the Plastik theme may be a step backwards in usability.

KDevelop screenshot:

  1. Look at the main KDevelop window – how many different arrows buttons can you fit into one application window!?
  2. A preference to set the number of Undo steps? Why?
  3. The icon for “Highlighting” doesn’t appear to have anything to do with highlighting. How about a picture of a neon yellow pen?

Kontact/Quanta screenshot:

Several of the icons in the left-hand pane of Kontact could be improved by stripping them down to their essential elements:
  1. The e-mail icon (which is simply K-Mail’s default icon) could be improved by removing the E altogether and showing an envelope with a large postage stamp on it. The angular perspectives of the E and the envelope decrease the recognizability of these two elements.
  2. The Phone for Contacts is decent, but contacts are organized around people or organizations. An icon showing individual “people” would be better.
  3. A better icon for the Todo List would be just several checkboxes on a single piece of paper. In the current icon, the main elements are the book and the pencil – the checkboxes are ghosted and very small.
  4. The calendar icon should be reduced to a single month calendar sheet as found in traditional paper calendars or something like a single day sheet from a single day tear-off calendar.

Overall, the icons in the Kontact pane do not look as though they belong together – they do not share elements such as coloring and perspective. I know this is because the applications that make up Kontact were developed separately, with each one using slightly different icon styling. Just look at the difference between the Calendar and Todo List icons – Calendar is done in the Crystal style with an angled visual perspective while Todo List looks very KDE 2.0 with its head-on perspective. The Notes icon uses a photo-realistic style that doesn’t go with any of the other icons.

Longhorn PDC preview

Microsoft has placed three different search function access points in one window. Do they provide different functionality?

Aside from that odd repetition, the only other thing that really stands out are the gigantic controls and sidebar. Are these items resizable? I know you can turn the sidebar off altogether, but it looks like it can provide useful features.

This screenshot shows two rather lousy design choices:

A slider for adjusting privacy level? Who the fuck thought that was a good idea? Sliders should be for adjusting graduated settings like sound volume or display brightness – things that have immediate feedback. Something like a browser privacy setting would be better handled by a drop-down menu or radio buttons.

The pop-up control text is confusing:

“Prevent most pop-up windows from appearing. In some cases you will still see the pop-up windows.”

So does it stop them or what? Every fifth site I visit can open a pop-up or just on Tuesdays?

ClickOnce – single click application installation. I certainly hope this includes single click un-installation. I’ve long seen the Macintosh handling of application installation and removal as one of its strengths. The vast majority of applications can be installed by dragging them from a disk image to wherever you want them to reside. Images which are “Internet enabled” are particularly easy to install because they leave only the disk image’s contents in your download folder. From personal experience, Linux is the worst offender when it comes to software installation. Apt-get through Synaptic is a step in the right direction, but only a step.

This image of what looks to be a filesystem abstraction is interesting, grouping files related to a court case into People, Evidence, Arguments, and another whose title I cannot make out. This is probably based on the WinFS database technology. My question is how Microsoft is going to get people to enter the meta-data that makes such things possible – there is only so much that can be automatically generated.

Some of the file manager looks familiar. Meta-data display tooltips… Previews on hover… I wonder if Microsoft has been using KDE’s Konqueror browser and file manager a bit. Here is another example of Konqueror’s live previews of multiple document types (PDF, JPEG, Bitmap, text). This does seem a bit at odds with the oft repeated “all the Linux DEs do is copy Windows” statement.

I am well aware that these are works in progress. Every interface is. Longhorn will likely not be released until late 2005 or 2006, leaving Microsoft plenty of time to make improvements. I hope they realize that not everyone has a 30″ monitor and still won’t in ’05 or ’06.

Fancy Free from the album “Fancy Free” by Donald Byrd, 1969.