Thursday, 1 November 2007

A Linux user fights Mac OS X Leopard. Days 2-4

In the previous post, I wrote about my very first (3 hours) impressions on using Mac OS X, comparing it with the operating system I mostly used before, that is Linux.

Some day has passed, I used Leopard a bit more, and now it's time for some new random thought.

Of dock and stacks. I begin to have problems with the dock. I figured out that nothing like an application menu is easily available on this thing. I tried to "emulate" that by using stacks, but this does not really work. Stacks are an OS X Leopard innovation. Basically, if you drop a folder on the dock, this will show up as single icon. Clicking on it , you see the content of the folder, stacked. See here for example.

There are several problems with stacks. First, the stack icon is basically a superimposition of individual icons of things in the stack. A very bad idea. For example, my Documents folder is represented in the dock by a .zip dull icon, because the first file OS X sees is a zip file. Of course, I cannot customize the icon appearance. Nothing in that icon tells me it's my Documents folder.

Compare it with KDE standard behaviour, where you can place additional menus at will on your panel. Kubuntu uses it to have a standard "Places" menu where you have links to your home folder, the network computers, storage media and other users folder. No Finder clicking needed. See this screenshot for example. Also XFCE implements that. In this, for usability, Linux desktop environments beat OS X hands down.

So, to have an application stack, you have to put your applications in a given folder, then drag this folder on the dock, and you'll find yourself with a crippled menu-like thing that doesn't allow for menu hierarchy, with incomprehensible icons. Don't like that, and the neat visual effects make me cry even more: instead of an awesome-looking menu-like thing, we have a crippled thing that just looks awesome.

The Dock seems also subtly buggy ; it lost application links on me at least a couple of times. Hope it gets fixed soon.

I like the fact that an active application is evidenced on the dock, instead of taking space of an application bar. It seems a bit inconsistent from time to time (now Firefox for example brought another icon of itself on the dock, with a bright spot underneath, instead of adding the spot on the icon I launched it from), but maybe it's me not understanding its logic.

Finder. It seems me and this thing cannot be friends. It's such a retarded file manager that makes Windows Explorer look cool. Tree view is available, but why can only you switch from tree view to icon view to the three-panes view? In Konqueror I have available a tree view of my folders on the left, like the Bookmarks panel of a browser, and then the main icon view of the currently selected folder. So you can have nice previews and you can easily navigate the tree, all in once. Windows too, if I remember correctly, allows this.

If there is a free, decent OS X file manager let me know.

Open source applications. I mostly use open source software, and it is of course repackaged for Mac OS X too. Sadly, OS X looks a bit of a neglected platform for open source, which is very strange given its Unix foundations. I installed Firefox, Thunderbird, VLC, FreeCiv, Celestia, Inkscape, NeoOffice, aMSN and Gimp. Mixed results. Firefox and Thunderbird seem to work perfectly. Java and Flash support is installed by default, which is a good good thing. aMSN also integrates nicely, and is visually much better on OS X than on Linux.

GTK applications, like GIMP and Inkscape, are another story. They work fine, provided the X server is on, but using a GTK app on OS X is tiring. I am accustomed to mix and match look-n-feels on Linux, so aestethics is not the problem. The problem is the mixmatch of two paradigms: the "menu-bar-always-on-top" of native OS X and the "menu-bar-is-in-the-window" of almost all other operating systems. Mixing widget appearance is fine; mixing usability paradigms is an hell.

I think Apple should give the users the possibility to configure OS X so that the menu follows the application. I don't know if it does; it can be some advanced setting, but it has to be made easy. OS X forces its paradigms on the user and applications, disregarding anything away from this paradigm. It would also be nice if other operating systems can follow the OS X paradigm at user will, but the default is not the OS X one, so it's Apple that has do to that first. Good to think different, bad to force everyone to think like you.

I noticed also that OS X packages are left behind in terms of stability and being up to date. Celestia and GIMP crashed on me quite often -GIMP regularly when I try to draw. The GIMP binary is a 2.4 release candidate -no 2.4 final binary is available. Freeciv 2.1.0 is unavailable for OS X, and 2.0.9 doesn't start at all -it shows the initial screen, then silently dies. OpenOffice is unavailable unless in the reincarnation NeoOffice, which is behind at version 2.2. On Linux, most of these packages are rock solid and up to date. I will have to try MacPorts soon, that probably can improve the situation, but it's not an easy install and it's OK only for power users.

Don't know who's in fault here, but the situation could improve.

iTunes. I wanted to play an mp3 folder from a DVD-r. So I inserted the disk and dragged the folder on iTunes. That bitch, instead of simply playing, copied all the mp3s in the Music folder, reorganized them on her way, and only after begun playing. Didn't. Ask. Me. Anything. This is an insult -I never asked you to copy a file, let alone to copy in a location I didn't told you and to reorganize them as you (not me) find pleasurable!! It's incredible such a totalitarian approach is default behaviour. iTunes should at the very least have asked if I wanted to copy-and-reorganize folders, or not. I didn't touch it anymore. I hope someone can point me to a better music player.

Terminal. Didn't use it a lot, but it's OK. Its default appearance is terrible, but it can be customized and has true ARGB transparency. It also has tabs, which are a really useful thing. It seems thing are not color-coded as much as in Linux, which is a bit sad, but not essential.

Spaces. Spaces is Mac OS X Leopard implementation of virtual desktops. Virtual desktops are something I simply cannot live without. Unix had it from decades, and I'm extremly happy to see them implemented by default and easily activable. Only little drawback is they lack a clickable preview on the menu bar or the dock. Virtual desktops lose a bit of usability if you can't see what's in them. Again, KDE (but also GNOME) here lead the pack.

Network management. As far as I can see, wireless and DHCP connections Just Work. Good.

Suspend. I still haven't understood what happens when I close the lid. Does it go to suspend-to-ram or suspend-to-disk? Can I choose? Can I freely bring the laptop with me without shutting it down? Probably it's just me not being accustomed to laptops, but OS X should give me a better control on this. However it works seamlessly, something that I doubt is on Linux.

Login screen. I haven't figured out a way to change the login screen background. Also, when choosing the picture login avatar, OS X doesn't rescale it if it's larger than the default, but allows only you to zoom it in. A minor detail, however.

General impressions. This review was much on the negative side, but it's a simple selection effect. What I had to say in detail was on the negative. There is a positive side, of course. OS X is a usable and decent workplace, and beats standard Windows most of time. Aestethically, it's really pleasant and day to day work can be done. The problem for me is that there is not much to be enthusiast about. If the OS X interface was one of the Linux desktop managers, it would probably be considered cool but not really superior.

What really I dislike of OS X is its "totalitarian" approach. Do you want a different skin for the window manager, an application menu, a different menu layout? Too bad, you can't. If you like the OS X way, all is fine. If you don't, Apple simply does not care. I know that third-party applications can overcome most of these limitation, but it's simply wrong that I have to look for third party, unsupported apps to do things that every other OS allows me to do by default.

Linux surely is still behind in terms of overall usability. Hardware support has incredibly improved but it's still flaky here and there, there are inconsistencies, things are not as perfectly polished as they should be. And Linux must be installed by hand, thus putting users in the realm of the unknown. However, from the interface productivity and usability point of view, Apple in my opinion has no more the high ground. They are more or less equal; strenghts and weaknesses being differently distributed but quantitatively not much different. It seems to me that now Apple has as much to learn from open source desktops as open source desktops learned from it.