posted by Thom Holwerda on Thu 6th Dec 2007 16:27 UTC

"The Finder, Quick Look, Stacks, Spaces, and Spotlight"

The Finder

The next area where Apple claims to have made major improvements is the Finder. The Finder has always been a problem child in Mac OS X, and it has been criticised heavily for its inconsistent and downright aggravating behaviour - both by me, as well as more eloquently by Siracusa at Ars Technica. The major problem for me, personally, was the apparent split personality within the Finder: it tried to be a navigational as well as a spatial file manager at the same time, even though these concepts are fairly mutually exclusive - consequently, the Finder did not pass the test in either paradigm.

The biggest problem with this split personality lay not in the fact that the Finder could switch between the two; the problem lay in the fact that the Finder was actually both at the same time. You could press the little dash button to change between the two paradigms, but especially the spatial bit just did not work very well. As I noted in my little rant on the Finder:

"The spatial version of Finder is a bad implementation of the concept as well; for instance, open directories are not marked as such, which is a very important aspect of the spatial metaphor.

But wait! That's not all! The spatial metaphor is only retained when you start navigating the filesystem from the exact same window you toggled the dash widget on! When you toggle the widget in /usr, destroy that window, and then start navigating in /bin, you get back to the navigational Finder; while when you start browsing in /usr again, you are back in spatial mode! Insanity!"

These were not the only problems. Another irritation is that the Finder litters the filesystem with binary .DS_Store files, in which things like window position and size are stored. You are forgiven for never having seen these files - you will notice them when moving data between Macs and other operating systems - directories coming from a Mac may each contain such a .DS_Store file. Apart from all these problems, the Finder also had major, well, speed issues: the spinning beachball has been a common sight while using the Finder to navigate through network shares.

Apart from the performance issues, none of these problems have been addressed in Leopard. In addition, the new Finder even creates a few new problems.

Performance-wise, as many other reviewers have noticed, the new Finder is a definite step up from the previous Mac OS X releases. I regularly move files between my standard desktop box and my Mac, and I have yet to encounter a spinning beachball while doing so. This will please many of you Mac users out there; I am fairly sure that the performance complaints weigh heavier than the behaviour complaints to most of you.

As said, the behaviour issues have not been fixed. The Finder still suffers from a severe case of split personality disorder (no, not schizophrenia, that is something completely different), and few steps have been undertaken to fix this problem. I second many others that have been saying this for years: split the Finder into the two paradigms, and allow users to select which mode they prefer, and make the Finder stick to that choice. The default should be browser mode, as that is what users have come to expect in this day and age.

Comparison of the Finder's Sidebars in Tiger and Leopard.Still, Apple has not exactly been standing still either. The Finder's interface has been renewed, bringing in some major iTunes-esque features such as the new sidebar and Cover Flow. The new side bar is a tad bit annoying. In previous versions of the Finder, you could adjust the size of the items in the side bar easily; you could make them smaller, bigger, you name it. I preferred them bigger, because I put links in there to my most used folders, to be able to drag and drop stuff into them very easily. The new sidebar only allows for the items to be really, really tiny, making it a lot more difficult to drop files and folder into the items of the sidebar. The good thing about the new sidebar is that the layout has been improved, and you can store Spotlight searches in the sidebar, a welcome addition.

Initially, I had a hard time seeing a use for Cover Flow other than as a show-off gimmick in Apple Stores and retailers, much like the magnification of dock items. In all honesty, that view has not changed much. I do not think I have ever used Cover Flow in a substantial way - except in combination with the Finder's best new feature: Quick Look.

Quick Look

Quick Look is amazing. With a simple press of the spacebar, any selected file will be previewed in a slick black overlay window. It works with documents, photos, images, audio files, movies, you name it. You can even use Quick Look in Time Machine mode (more on that later), and you can find Quick Look all over the system. Received an email with an attachment? Select the attachment, hit the spacebar, and see a preview before you ever have to save and/or open it.

Quick Look is one of those typical Apple things: sure, it has been done by other operating systems, but Apple has done it well, in a way that is both unobtrusive as well as easily accessible. A definite thumbs up to Apple, and I would love to see this feature making its way to other desktop environments.

Quick Look has a flaw though - a flaw that is actually caused by the Finder (no surprise there). Let me explain - say you are in icon view, the view I use in my pictures and documents folders, since it allows you to see previews, and still retain good overview thanks to the Finder's new ability to resize the grid (you can reduce the spacing between icons). Now, the problem with this view is that the arrow keys work in a fairly weird way. Where in other operating systems you can use the left/right keys to browse through the contents completely (as in, you automatically jump to the next/previous row when you reach the last column of a row by pressing left or right), this does not happen in the Finder.

Now, I had the intention to use Quick Look to quickly show pictures to my friends (I find iPhoto overkill for just showing photos), or for simply personal viewing. However, because of the above behaviour in the Finder, you cannot easily browse through a folder's contents with the Quick Look pane open. If you reach the end of a row, you need to press down to move to the next one. This does not only break the ordering of your files - since the Quick Look pane generally covers the directory's contents, you cannot actually see the files underneath, making it impossible to navigate through your files. This is a really annoying problem, and it basically means that you cannot use Quick Look to browse through large sets of files while in icon mode.

Quick Look with Cover Flow.

That is where the Cover Flow view comes into play: in this view, you can easily browse through a folder's content with the arrow keys. So, in combination with Quick Look, Cover Flow makes sense to me. Still, I should not have to resort to changing view modes just for using Quick Look properly - especially taking the Finder's erratic behaviour with retaining view modes into account.

Quick Look has an extensible plug-in interface, allowing programmers to write their own filters for Quick Look, so support for file formats can be added later. This flexibility was demonstrated recently when someone came up with a Quick Look plugin for zipped files.

Stacks, Spaces, and Spotlight

Which, quite illogically (don't ask), brings me to stacks. Stacks are links on the dock to folders that allow you to view said directories' contents in two views: a fan or a grid.

I find stacks to be a bit of a letdown, in their current form. While the idea shows a lot of potential, Apple's implementation leaves a few things to be desired. First of all, the stacks' icons default to the very first item in the directory the stack represents. This means that in for instance the download stack, the icon is ever changing, seriously hurting the ability to easily recognise the download stack icon on the dock. If we were to look at a stack of the Applications folder, you would always be looking at the Address Book icon. This issue is fixed by these overlays, but for me, this solution did not work. That is most likely a flaw on my end, as it works fine for just about everybody else out there.

The second problem is a performance issue. The exploding animation that precedes the grid view drops frames on the brand new MacBook Apple loaned to me when the stack is large (say, the Applications folder, or my Pictures folder which has 38 folders), and that is really annoying. There are other issues, like not being able to pull up a context menu on items within a stack. These are all issues that can easily be fixed in updates, but for now, I do not find stacks to be particularly useful just yet.

Apple also (finally) implemented virtual desktops, known as Spaces, in Leopard. Many people even remotely familiar with the UNIX/Linux or BeOS worlds will welcome this addition to the Mac OS, especially seeing Apple did it in quite the slick manner - yes, another example of taking an existing concept, and making it easy to use. It is not a revolutionary new feature, but its implementation is rock solid.

You can easily bind applications to a virtual desktop, something I could never seem to get right on Compiz. You can also easily add virtual workspaces by simply adding rows and columns, allowing you to create up to 16 virtual desktops. Additionally, you can drop into a bird's eye view of all your virtual desktops (similar to the 'Expo' plugin in Compiz Fusion), where you can drag windows around, and even drag entire desktops around. The bird's eye view looks a tad bit odd with a multiple screen setup, but nothing serious. There is one tiny other problem, that most likely only goes for Compiz users: there is no shortcut for moving a single window across virtual desktops; you must use the bird's eye view for that.

Bird's eye view in Spaces.

Spotlight has also seen some major improvements. First of all, it has gotten so much faster. I already used Spotlight as an application launcher, and the performance improvements make this specific use of Spotlight so much better. Additionally, you can now easily 'stack' search criteria on top of one another within a Finder window - I felt all warm and fuzzy inside because it reminded me of (the much more limited) BFS queries. Great stuff. You can now also use Spotlight to search the contents of other Macs on your network, a much requested feature ever since the introduction of Spotlight.

Personally, I still find Spotlight to be the best implementation of system wide search. It is fast, easily accessible (cmd+space for the win!), and quite multifunctional. Compare this to the implementation in for instance Windows Vista, which, somehow, just does not seem to work just as you would expect.

Conclusion

Coming to a conclusion, I can say that the new features and performance improvements to the Finder and Spotlight are really worth it. Quick Look is a great feature, the more robust Finder will please many, and Spaces is an excellent implementation of the virtual desktops concept. Stacks have potential, but for now, the implementation leaves a few things to be desired. Sadly, though, Apple did not take full advantage of the Finder and menubar overhaul by not fixing many of the long-standing issues.

Table of contents
  1. "Introduction; The appearance"
  2. "The Finder, Quick Look, Stacks, Spaces, and Spotlight"
  3. "Time Machine"
  4. "Safari, Mail.app, iChat; Misc."
  5. "A few notes on the MacBook; Conclusion"
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