ZedneWeb / Thoughts / Mac OS X's new interface, Aqua

My Take on Aqua

Monday, 10 January 2000

Last week was the Macworld Expo at San Francisco 2000, at which Apple introduced a number of new products and services. They're all covered elsewhere, but I thought I'd add my two cents about one of Apple's suprises: the new interface design for Mac OS X ("ten").

A quick aside: Mac OS X is a complete rewrite of the Macintosh operating system which (finally) provides heavy-duty features like pre-emptive multitasking and protected memory, thereby making it a lot more stable and responsive. It does this by basing the OS on Darwin, an open-source OS in the BSD Unix family. (If that means nothing to you, don't worry. I won't be mentioning it again.)

The Look

The big obvious change with Mac OS X's interface, which is called Aqua, is the look. Apple has a picture of a example Aqua desktop which shows of some of the new stuff. The "Platinum" look, introduced with Mac OS 8 is gone. No more gray windows and menus and stuff. Windows and menus have a subtle, ridged metallic look. Buttons and such are glassy and semi-transparent. Menus are also semi-translucent, even if they're over windows whose content change while the menu is open (which is another advantage of Mac OS X: the whole interface doesn't grind to a halt when you click the mouse).

Icons can be as large as 128 by 128 pixels in millions of colors, although you can apparently set the maximum displayed size smaller than that if you prefer. The system scales the icons down automatically. (This scaling, like the semi-transparency, is built into the graphics system ("Quartz") which allows image manipulation the likes of which have never before been seen on a Mac.)

In summary, it looks really nice. Even if I'm not completely thrilled by the overall theme, it does look really nice.

Managing Windows

Of course, looks are arguably the least important part of the interface. More important is the stuff you actually deal with. Thankfully, Apple has kept the single menu-bar that distingushes the Mac from pretty much every other graphical user interface out there. I'm less thrilled about what they've done with the windows.

[Aqua title bar]

There are three controls on the left side of the title bar, which allow you to close (red), minimize (yellow), or zoom (green) the window. Close and zoom presumably work like their current equivalents, while minimize shrinks the window and puts it in the dock, out of the way. While I applaud the new minimize functionality (a great improvement over the windowshade feature), I'm not sure it's a great idea to stick all the controls together. Microsoft Windows has had this arrangement for a while, and I've often accidentally closed a window when I wanted to mimimize or maximize it, or vice versa. The old arrangement put the close button as far from the other controls as possible, making it nearly impossible to confuse it with the others.

Instead, the right side of the title bar is reserved for a button which puts you into single window mode. As you might expect, in single window mode you only get one open window at a time. Other windows are minimized. When you restore another window, the current window minimizes. This reduces clutter, but I'm not sure I see the benefit here. In the current Mac OS, you occasionally want to hide windows that are obscuring things on the desktop, but with the dock and the new Finder, there isn't much reason to put things on the desktop. This may indeed be a useful feature, but I can't imagine using it so often that it would need placement on every title bar.

If you're wondering how the color-blind can distinguish the window controls, don't worry. When the mouse moves towards the controls, identifying marks pop up: an 'x' for close, '-' for minimize, and '+' for zoom. They'll even show up on windows in the background, as seen here:

[Aqua window controls]

On the other hand, the changes Apple made to the Save and Save As... dialog boxes are entirely welcome. These are now examples of "sheets", which act like they've rolled down out of the title bar. You are still able to do things in other windows while a sheet is open, and the sheet will remain attached to the window if you move it or put it in the background. The dialog box itself is also very simplified, providing only a pop-up menu of possible folders and a text box for the name in its most minimal form.

The Dock

Now that I've mentioned the dock twice, I should probably discuss it. The dock is a row of icons along the bottom of the screen. Every time you minimize a window, it gets sucked into the dock. (I mean that, there's a cool animation and everything.) Depending on how the application is written, the dock will either show an icon or a shrunken preview of the window itself. When the dock grows too large to display all the icons at full size, it shrinks all the icons proportionately to make them fit. Then, when you move the mouse near an icon, it grows to full size. (That's what's going on at the bottom of the example desktop I mentioned before.)

There are some obvious similarity to the taskbar in Microsoft Windows, here, although the dock doesn't actually display non-minimized windows (so far as I know). The dock is a more elegantly designed, in my opinion, but I'm not sure how good a solution it is when you have a lot of windows open.

I think you can also place files and folders in the dock for quick access, but I don't have any report saying so right now. If so, it makes the dock that much more useful than the taskbar.

The Finder

In some ways, the Finder is what really made the Mac different: a fully graphical, consistent, and complete way to access files on a disk. I've used various Windows and Unix equivalents, and none of them have been as good as the Finder. Mac OS X has a new Finder, which Apple claims is much improved. I'm not sure of that myself.

First, the new Finder lets you set it so that when you open a folder, it re-uses the old folder's window. Hopefully, there is a way to override this easily if you really want to open a new window. I've used single-window systems, and they always run into trouble when you want to move a file from one folder to another

Second, you can now view files in with a NeXT-style browser. It consists of a number of columns. Each column displays the contents of the folder selected in the column to the left. If you select a folder in the right-most column, a new column is created, and the others all shift one slot to the left. (There's a horizontal scroll bar to keep things from going off the screen.)

I've used Greg's Browser, which provides a similar interface on the Mac, and I have mixed feelings about it. It does make it much easier to reach files buried deep in the file system, but it doesn't feel as real as the traditional Finder. I have no idea what that means, but it's the impression that I get. Maybe it's just something you have to get used to.

Other Resources

Ultimately, none of us can really judge the interface until we've had a chance to use it, which won't be until the summer at the earliest. But if you're still curious, you can check out:

David Menendez, zednenem@alumni.psu.edu