The Mac of Today - Is it Time to Switch (Part 2)

Readjusting to the MacOS Interface

Wednesday, April 13, 2005 by Zoomba | Discussion: Personal Computing

Part 2 - Readjusting to the MacOS Interface

Welcome back! This is the second part in a five part series examining the Macintosh to see whether it has come far enough to seriously entice PC users to jump the fence and try living the Steve Jobs way. Part 1 was meant to establish a bit of background so you know where I'm coming from in these articles. Essentially I started on Macs, made the jump to PCs in 1996 and have just recently returned to the Mac fold so-to-speak. This segment will focus on the User Interface of MacOS X.

My Powerbook's Desktop

The Hard Adjustments

It's never easy switching between Operating Systems, they all do things differently. While many features are at least similar in location and behavior between platforms, some changes just toss you for a loop. Several times in OS X, both my knowledge of the old Mac world as well as Windows completely failed me.

1) The New Apple Menu

The new and improved Apple Menu

The new Apple Menu is something that took me a while to get used to. Under the old MacOS, it was a sort of catch-all space for you to place shortcuts, get quick access to system configs etc. Think of it as a disorganized Start Menu. The new Apple Menu is streamlined and you can no longer hide shortcuts within it for quick access.

Now, the menu is meant for quick access to the core system tools. You can get to the System Preferences (Formerly called Control Panels), make changes to the Dock, determine which location you are at so your computer can utilize the proper network settings (I have configs for my apartment here in CT as well as for my parents home in PA whenever I visit), access to recent items, system software updates and the core Shutdown/Restart/Sleep options as well as a logout choice.

So basically, out of the box you have nothing in OS X that comes close to the Start Menu in Windows, or the old Apple Menu from days long gone. This meant I had to relearn where a lot of system tools were hiding. This led me to my second adjustment problem...

2) Where the (&$#@ are the printers?!!?

Ok, if you are familiar with the old MacOS, you know that the printers are handled through the Chooser, which you get to from the Apple Menu. The Chooser was sort of a swiss army knife as it was where they threw in all the system functionality they couldn't fit somewhere else. This was where you handled printers as well as connecting to network drives etc... Well problem number one is the Apple Menu as I knew it was gone, so I had to find out where they went and hid them. First I went running off to see if they were hidden in the System Preferences (Control Panels)... nope. I was left to dig through the directory structure manually to find it. I finally found it as a Printer application within the Utilities directory under Applications. Now in retrospect this is a logical place for a Printer tool to be kept, but it is counterintuitive to what Mac and Windows has done in the past.

Once I got used to where it was, I found the Printer tool to be incredibly useful and very easy to use!

3) Why won't it sort the icons how I want them sorted?

I'm accustomed to the Windows way of sorting items within a folder. Folders first, sorted alphabetically, then files sorted alphabetically. This allowed me to quickly find a folder if I was looking for a folder, or a file if I was quickly looking for a file. Unfortunately, in OS X it seems to want to force me to always list in pure alphabetical form, mixing folders with files. This is such a disconnect to how I'm used to working that I *still* haven't grown accustomed to it in the year I've been back on the Mac. This is one of those cases where I butt up against the Apple mindset that they know best how I should use my machine, and lock away certain customizations. There HAS to be a hidden config somewhere that changes this, so I can get things sorted the way I like, but I've yet to find it.

Old vs New - The Old MacOS to the New OS X

When you look at the older versions of MacOS and then at the new OS X, it looks like you're dealing with a completely different interface that holds little in common with the old version. In some cases, that's certainly true, but in many cases it's the same functionality with a new, pretty set of graphics over it.

Pre MacOS X
  • Contains Macintosh Hard Drive
  • Displays external media
  • Contains Trash Can (Recycling Bin)
  • Contains Macintosh Hard Drive
  • Displays external media
  • Contains Dock
Folder Navigation
  • Available Display Modes: List, Icon, Column, Tree
  • Sorts all items alphabetically
  • Defaults to open new folders in existing window
  • Available Display Modes: List, Icon, Tree
  • Sorts all items alphabetically
  • Defaults to open new folders in new windows
System Configuration
  • Each system component managed by individual control panels accessable by drop-down from the AppleMenu
  • All system components rolled into a single System Preferences application. Accessable from the AppleMenu or the Dock
Accessing Open Applications
  • Could select Application from the App Menu on the top right corner of the screen. Once in an application you could then flip through windows
  • All open Applications listed on the dock, click-and-hold on an icon to get a pull-out menu listing all open windows.
File Sharing
  • Activated through the File Sharing Control Panel
  • Connect to other shares over AppleTalk through the Chooser
  • Activated from the Sharing panel within System Configuration
  • Connect to other shares on the network (AppleTalk, Windows, Samba, any major standard) through the "Go" menu

There are a multitude of other common activities that map between the two systems, but the above suffice to show the differences and how, while different, remain pretty similar in form. It's not too hard to figure out the new way of doing things if you're used to the old way.

But comparing the how the two are similar and accomplish the same tasks is pretty boring, and since most people reading this are pretty computer saavy this is all painfully obvious stuff. The real fun with OS X is what it brings to the table in terms of NEW stuff...

New Toys!

So what new and flashy things does MacOS X bring to the OS world that have been sorely lacking from other standard Operating Systems? Well, lots of stuff actually. Now, some of these, such as the Dock, have been recreated by other developers for the Windows platform. I'm not looking at these as features that are necesarily EXCLUSIVE to the Mac, just ones that are bundled as standard features. It's all well and good to be able to add functionality through third party software, but it's at times preferable to have some functions built into the system, allowing for greater stability, as well as interesting hooks into other applications. I don't need a flood of comments like "Oh you can get that functionality with Software XYZ!" That's not the point here.

There are four new aspects to the User Interface that I particularly like. These are by no means the ONLY UI improvements you'll find in OS X, as there is a LOT of functionality built right into the Finder (such as CD Burning), these are just my favorite ones.

1) Exposé

Exposé is probably one of the neater features bundled with MacOSX as of 10.3 (Panther) It allows you to quickly gain access to several views of your system with just the press of a key. This is a function I don't think I've seen in any version of Windows, MacOS or Linux, but I bet we'll start seeing it in the next major versions in the coming years.

There are three views you can activate with Exposé, the first being the ability to essentially "Zoom Out" and view every window of every application you have open on your computer by pressing the F9 key. You are presented with a series of thumbnails of your currently open windows, mousing over them gives you a little bit of information on the window such as the application and document title. Clicking on an item will zoom it to the forefront. This is great if you regularly have a dozen windows open and become confused or forget what else you have running, or whether or not you already have a file or web page open in the background.

The second view you can access by hitting F10. This will show you all open windows within the current application. This is nice when you have multiple word documents, or multiple browser windows open. Once again, clicking on a thumbnail will zoom that window to the forefront.

The third and most familiar mode to Windows users would be the Show Desktop mode. By hitting F11, all windows zoom off to the edges of the screen, clearing the way back to your desktop so you can quickly access your hard drive, any disks, or downloaded files you may have sitting on the Desktop. In this mode, along the edges of the screen you'll see a darkened region, sometimes with the edges of windows showing. You can just click on the darkened regions to bring back all the windows that were hidden.

To de-activate any view, you can also hit the corresponding function key again. It will return you to the window you were previously in.

Exposé screenshots and captions taken from

2) Dock

This is the one part that most people visiting this article (either through JoeUser or WinCustomize) are the most familiar with. Apple added a "dock" to the system that acts much like the task bar does on the Windows side of life. Active applications reside here, as well as shortcuts to commonly used programs and games (or whatever you want to put on there). This is also where they've decided to place the Trash Can, removing it from the desktop where I'm used to it being. The dock can be customized a number of ways. You can position it on any side of the screen. It defaults to the bottom, but I have it aligned to the right of the screen. You can also scale the Dock to any size you like, turn icon maginification on or off, add or remove shortcut items as you like etc... If you've ever used Stardock's Object Dock (free or Plus) you know how the Dock works, and you know how useful it can be. It fits in with the entire OS X motif in ways that the old AppleMenu or a taskbar from Windows would not.

3) Spring Loaded Folders

This is one of those features that once you use it you think to yourself "This is just so obvious!" I'm sure everyone has had to drag and drop a file from one folder to another, but first had to click through a ton of folders in between to find the destination, then, with both the destination folder and the origin folder open, drag and drop. Seems simple because that's how we're used to things working. Well, OS X does it much better! You have an application on your desktop that you want to move to your Applications directory. Click and hold on the file, drag it over the Macintosh HD icon, it will automatically open the Hard Drive in a window. Continue to hold down the mouse, and now drag the file over your Applications folder icon, it will then open that directory and you can just release the item in the window. Ta-da! It's incredibly easy and intuitive to move files and folders around, reducing the amount of clicking you have to do.

Notes for Windows Users

There are a few points that are going to confuse life-long Windows users about the UI. I'll try and address them now...

Program List
  • Start Menu -> Programs
  • Macintosh HD -> Applications
Active Applications
  • Taskbar & System Tray
  • Dock
System Configuration
  • Control Panels
  • System Preferences
Delete Files
  • Recycling Bin on the Desktop
  • Trash Can on the Dock
  • Start -> Settings -> Printers & Faxes
  • Macintosh HD -> Applications -> Utilities -> Printer Setup Utility
Mouse Menu
  • Right Click
  • Control-Click
  • Plug in a 2 button mouse and right click
Kill Frozen Application
  • Ctrl-Alt-Del -> Task Manager -> Select Process -> End Task
  • Cmd-Opt-Q -> Select App to Force Quit
Quit Program
  • Alt-F4
  • Cmd-Q

Those are the big-difference items that every user new to Macs coming from the Windows world should know.

Ok, that's it for this fast-and-furious tour of the main UI features to MacOS X. I could have spent days just examining this aspect of the Operating System, but I just wanted to hit on the high points, compare and contrast it to the older systems and to Windows. The UI for OS X is clean, well laid out and good looking. It doesn't allow you the same sort of customization many will be used to from having used WindowBlinds and the rest of the ObjectDesktop suite, but I've found little need to tweak the default appearance of my Mac. In fact I've picked up Steve's MacOS X Tiger theme suite for my PC to make my experience a bit more uniform as I move back and forth from Mac to PC.

Part 3 will focus on Software for OS X, taking a look at the bundled apps you get with the system, what major software packages are available from third party vendors, as well as what sorts of games you can expect to be able to play on the platform. Keep an eye out for that article around the end of the week.


Reply #1 Wednesday, April 13, 2005 10:55 PM
Expose is SO NICE! The lack of efficient access to tasks (like Window's task-bar) in earlier versions of Mac's OS really hampered my ability to quickly move between different open windows or programs. Expose now gives Mac's a distinctive advantage over Window's task-switching: you can set it to corner hot-spots, the second most efficient activation areas. Previously such activity was limited to LiteStep, although DesktopX began to make inroads to this with "hover" activation of objects.

Apparently there's a similar feature Microsoft is adding to Longhorn, but it's much more difficult to use: instead of shrinking all the windows on your screen and spattering them over the desktop area to select, the comparable Longhorn feature lines up all the windows and tilts them at you, like looking at slighly opened pages of a book. It's a neat looking effect for Longhorn, but entirely inefficient: windows cascaded behind the front one present a smaller target to hit with the mouse, and are therefore more difficult to hit. Does anyone know if the Longhorn feature is also accessible via corner hot-spots?
Eroticus Prime
Reply #2 Thursday, April 14, 2005 5:54 AM
In your Pre Mac OS X versus Mac OS X chart, in the Pre Mac OS X folder navigation part, you said that it "Defaults to open new folders in existing window" which is untrue, folders always open in new windows, it's impossible to have new folders open in an existing window. Also, the available view modes for files in pre Mac OS X (well, 9.2 anyway) are Icons, Buttons, and List. Sorry to nitpick.
Island Dog
Reply #3 Thursday, April 14, 2005 7:29 AM
Great articles. While I was reading this I came across this article.

Apple Posts Record 2nd Quarter Sales
By Ed Oswald, BetaNews
April 13, 2005, 5:44 PM

Apple blew past expectations, announcing record second quarter earnings and a net profit of $290 million, according to data released late Wednesday. But the good news did not end there for the Cupertino-based company; 1 million Macs and an astounding 5.3 million iPods were shipped during the quarter.

Reply #4 Thursday, April 14, 2005 7:35 AM
Great articles,Zoomba
Reply #5 Thursday, April 14, 2005 8:34 AM
The folder navigation bit was a typo, I flipped the Pre OSX and OSX items on that one. (Both folder opening and view modes). Thanks for catching that.

I'm glad people are enjoying these articles. This is the first time I've tried to write a series, or even any sort of planned-out article. Between outlining, writing, getting graphics and formatting, it's proving to be a lot more difficult and time consuming than I expected. The results have definitely been more rewarding though than when I write a regular article, and it helps to see that I'm writing something people actually want to read

Part 3 will be here either Friday or Monday evening depending on my free time.
Reply #6 Friday, April 15, 2005 12:37 PM
Regarding "Spring Loaded Folders":

This is one of those features that once you use it you think to yourself "This is just so obvious!"

So would now be a good time to plug ObjectDesktop and the SpringFolders program?

Thanks for the articles, Zoomba. They've been an interesting read.
Eroticus Prime
Reply #7 Tuesday, April 19, 2005 12:18 AM
Didn't Apple patent spring-loaded folders?

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