Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Why Mac OS X’s UI is Fundamentally Superior to Windows

As a computer enthusiast who has used Microsoft DOS, 3.1, 95, 98 ,NT, 2000, XP, and 7  (No, I don’t consider Millennium or Vista Operating Systems) I often get asked a rather complex question by friends and family when I recommend Mac OS X.  “Why is OS X better?”  Given the price up front for a new mac, faith in my word is not always an option so I’m required to list examples.  Having to recall the multitudes of poor design decisions I’ve endured over the years and demonstrate how Windows can get in the way of productivity is tough to quantify on the spot.  That’s why I decided to summarize the little UI light bulbs present in OS X

For most Windows users design isn’t a first consideration.  In OS X it’s evident from the moment you press the power button and are greeted with a gorgeous anti-aliased (smoothed corners) logo.  While in windows you get a pixelated unrefined start up bar graphic.  Is this important from a utilitarian aspect?  No, but it is indicative of the overall attention to detail that goes into Mac OS X’s user interface, icons, and it’s underlying architecture.

Applications: OS X Document Based vs Windows Application Based

At the application level OS X takes a well thought out approach to handling windows.   Each window is a document that is part of the parent application.  There are some exceptions to this rule but it is the norm.  A user may hide all of an applications windows and still have the application open.

The situation isn't as straightforward on Windows where typically each window usually represents an entire application.  If a user wants to load two documents simultaneously the absence of a single effective method means Windows applications rely on an assortment of behaviors.  Notepad pictured above uses the simplest method. To open multiple notepad documents you must launch multiple copies of the application. While this works for small, lightweight applications, it's not as suitable for larger memory intensive programs.  This policy also forces the user to quit the entire application when closing the window of a document.  Often this is not desirable.  Take OS X Mail for example.  A user can close the main Mail window and still receive notifications because Mail hasn’t quit.  Also since Mails window is closed its isn’t taking up space in a taskbar like Windows Live Mail which exits when you close it’s window.

Another method Windows uses for organizing windows is MDI or Multiple Document Interface.  Application windows are organized as document windows trapped inside the application main Window.  This prevents the user from moving documents out of the parent application, or having different documents overlapping.   Switching between windows becomes awkward with lots of documents open, as shown below

Multiple Document Interface based windows

In windows 7 many applications are now taking a hybrid approach to MDI.  Microsoft Word comes to mind first.  Word enables a user to open multiple documents in separate windows just like OS X but you are still forced to have at least one window open if all documents are closed albeit and ugly one that is missing everything but the toolbar.   Each of these solutions are not as elegant as OS X document based applications.

Apple File Menu vs Windows File Menus 

Since OS X uses document based application windows, all that is needed is a single file menu to represent any selected application no matter how many documents it has open.  Apple’s fixed file menu is shown at the top left of the screen in the same location for any active or selected application.  OS X’s only trade off is 20 pixels of lost space, a worthwhile concession, especially in comparison to the redundant pixels in multiple instances of Notepad.  The Apple menubar also provides other obvious advantages to windows for new or seasoned users. Users need not learn or configure the position for every new applications file menu and are able to more effectively use muscle memory due to its constant location.  Because Microsoft does not have User Interface Guidelines like Apple does, Windows developers can and do put their file menus wherever they choose.  This system wide design choice translates to a horrible lack of consistency for the user.  It must be noted that some Windows applications allow you to change the default file menu position.  While I am capable of figuring this out my mother is not.

Apple Menubar consistency

Windows Notepad Live mail and IE Inconsistent menus

Finder vs explorer

Though Mac OS X’s finder is far from perfect, it’s aesthetically more appealing, better designed, and less unintuitive than Windows Explorer, especially for an inexperienced user.  Right away you can see Microsoft’s usual lack of attention to meaningful detail in that switching between icon, list or column views requires more clicks than it would with Finder. -

OS X has Spring Loaded folders, which are an excellent concept for moving files or folders.  Spring loaded folders work by dragging any object over a folder and then pausing, which causes the folder to open automatically and allows drag and drop file system navigation.   It’s an innovative way to move a file a couple of directories quickly without having to open an additional window like Explorer requires.  

Another timesaving feature of finder is how it handles removable media, which gets mounted on the desktop for quick access.  As usual Explorer requires multiple clicks to get to the same inserted media.  (Are you seeing a pattern here?) In Finder folders or files may also be color labeled a handy feature not present in Explorer. If that wasn’t enough Quicklook in OSX Finder allows the user to look at the contents of any file by zooming in to a 512x512 representation with the press of space bar.  

Dock vs Taskbar

Good user interface elements are a juggling of innovation and compromise.  The windows taskbar has gradually moved towards the Docks way of doing things.  I think most people would agree visually the dock is more appealing than the taskbar.   As an application switcher and launcher the Dock does everything the taskbar does as well or better in addition to key functions the taskbar doesn’t.  Here is a common example.  Sometimes a user will want to open one file type in various applications depending on its content.   The Dock enables a user to drag a file onto it and conveniently launch that file in any suitable application.  In the following scenario below, the user wants to open an html file for editing that would otherwise open by default in firefox.  The dock allows the user to drag it onto Dreamweavers icon to launch it for quick editing instead.

The Taskbar tries to pin the file to notepad’s menu.  Pointless.  Note the inconsistent file icons compared to OS X.

Here a user wants to edit an image in Photoshop instead of just viewing it in preview, which is the default application for image viewing in OS X.  Simple, drag it onto Photoshop and open it.

Windows again slows down the users productivity by not opening the image.

The dock scales better both vertically and horizontally.  The taskbar can’t be resized smaller only larger and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a user make it larger since it’s ugly and the space it takes up isn’t practical.   

Rearranging icons, adding, and removing icons looks and feels better on the Dock due to more deail polished graphics.  The dock can be fully customized without opening up any panels and individual system settings can be accessed directly from the System preferences icon.  Badge notifications on applications pinned to the dock provide superior visual clues to the user about what an application is doing and have done so for years.

Icons pinned to the dock have Extra functionality as well.  iTunes skip, pause, Mail compose message, drop a file onto the Mail icon and it will attach to a new message, Drag any text to the Mail icon to compose a message with the text as a body.  Also the dock can pin any folder as a "stack".   Why Microsoft doesn’t allow pinning individual frequently used folders to the taskbar is hard to understand.  .  Opening enclosing folders with right mouse from the dock is another useful and missing feature from the taskbar which can’t do any of the above.   

Minimized applications in the dock show live previews that are always visible and let the user know at a glance which application and document they are looking at.  The Windows 7 Taskbar preview disappears as soon as the user stops hovering over the selected application's normal pinned icon, which is again an extra step.  Also the windows taskbar isn’t as visually obvious when minimizing an application to it or in determining if one has been minimized.  

In its default configuration or user customized the OS X Dock is more visually appealing, versatile, and a better application launcher, switcher and manager than the Windows Taskbar.  For anyone that thinks Microsoft hasn’t copied the OSX dock, I think it’s telling that the dock has conceptually remained consistent since its release while the taskbar has changed dramatically.  Take a look at screenshots of the win95 taskbar, windows XP taskbar and the Windows 7 taskbar in sequence to see that it has become essentially a less useful copy of the OS X Dock.

Windows Task tray VS OS X menu Icons

I can say without exaggeration that I have quite often seen an inexperienced user’s PC with 20 to 30 icons in the task tray. For some reason Windows developers think it’s a great idea for every piece of software even printer drivers (yes you HP) to run in the background and notify the user of every possible mundane occurrence.  There are far too many “Me too” processes hanging around waiting just in case a user may need them.  This takes up system resources, slows system start and is inefficient.  It’s one of the requests I get the most “can you fix my slow starting pc”

In contrast here is OS X with dozens and dozens of applications installed.

Can you be vigilant and maintain the assault by non-essential services and notifications that pollute the windows task tray?  Yes you can, but you shouldn’t have to.  You don’t in OS X

Ribbon interface 

Another design travesty in Microsoft’s arsenal is the Ribbon interface introduced with Office 2007.  It bombards the user with options and takes significant ui real estate.  It’s entirely too difficult to memorize for a menu/toolbar and it’s a complete break from the usual way of working in windows.  I’m not saying breaks can’t be beneficial like switching to OS X from Windows; this just isn’t one of those changes though.  As an Office user it takes longer to use ribbon to do tasks in word than pre ribbon Word used to, unless I’m using keyboard shortcuts, which thankfully haven’t changed.

“There is just too much to process on the screen. It’s a Swiss Army Knife with every tool exposed (well, not all of them). Not only is it too much, but the density, the proximity and variety, make it difficult to process quickly or to associate a function with a location. For example, it’s impossible to mentally associate upper-middle with paragraph styles because upper-middle is too broad and would include many other functions. My mind must process the ribbon each time rather than jump to a location.“  Windows UI Blog 
Ribbon Example. Windows Live Mail vs Apple Mail

OS X System Preferences vs Windows Control Panel

System Preferences in OS X is a superior tool for changing computer settings in comparison to Control Panels default configuration.  As clearly shown in the above image, making changes in System Preferences requires fewer mouse clicks and less guessing by the user as to which category Microsoft decided to put their desired object in.  As an example look at both images and tell me which one would be quicker to change settings for your mouse.  You’ve already thought of it haven’t you?  After scanning and reading the categories in Windows Control Panel a user must then decide that hardware and sound is where they can find and configure their mouse.  After clicking however, there is no mouse icon only a small link, which requires further examining.  It’s only one extra click you say? All these little things add up and they are hard to remember, hence the reason for the article!  Reading small text is more difficult than visually seeing the icons as presented in System Preferences.  The user can change Control Panel’s default display presentation but this is one needless extra step.

 Another shortcoming of Control Panel is how objects show up that you don’t even have hardware for or can’t use.  Windows 7 comes with BitLocker encryption capabilities that can be setup in Control Panel.  It’s only after you enable this feature that Windows informs you that your PC doesn't have the required piece of hardware (a TPM module).  In contrast, with Apple's approach system preferences items that are hardware-dependent appear only if that hardware is installed.  System Preferences typically doesn’t show options not included on your Mac.

Time Machine vs System Restore 

Apple’s Time Machine is to Microsoft’s System Restore as the word processor is to the typewriter.”

I think it should be noted that while they are both capable of System backup, Time Machine and System Restore are philosophically different.  System Restore helps deal with the inevitable fact that Windows routinely needs to be fixed and restored to a working state due to the multitude of driver, software, virus or patch issues that are a frequent part of the windows install lifespan.  Time Machine is more geared towards helping a user migrate to a new machine or hard drive, and for preventing user error such as deleting files that end up being needed at a later date.   It can restore the entire system as well but a strictly system OS backup application would be of minimal use to an OS X user because OS X rarely has any issues.

Windows System Restore, was introduced as a feature in Windows Me.   It allows for the rolling back of system files, registry keys, and installed programs to a previous state.  It doesn’t back up the users data.  You can replace your Windows install but not pictures of your son’s first Birthday, great idea.  

The three inexcusable flaws with Windows System Restore are it’s lack of backup frequency, backing up to the same drive being used, and not backing up user files.  In comparison Time Machine backs up a users complete system unobtrusively once per hour in the background to an external drive the user plugs in.  This makes restoring your system or any file to no more than 1 hour ago trivial.  

Microsoft’s System Restore shows the user how far they need to go back to restore the system with a calendar view.  Contrast this to Time Machine which displays visually down to the directory level enabling the user to cycle backwards in time by hour increments until the file or folder appears. Time Machine allows backup to a Network or external drive, and can restore single files or the whole drive,  System Restore can do none of these things.  

I would be remiss to mention that with Windows 7 Microsoft introduced “Windows Backup”.  It is not setup by default and needs configuration by the user, again something my mother or father would not be able to accomplish. Windows Backup is confusing to the novice user but it does finally enable a user to at least backup their files.  It still pales in comparison to Time Machines unobtrusiveness, reliability and ease of use.  Also most windows users I have encountered don’t even use Windows backup as it is off by default and tucked away in the Control Panel.  Time Machine is included on the dock and automatically launches requiring one click to enable it when inserting an external drive.

Windows Backup

Windows User Access Control vs OS X elevated privileges.

Microsoft introduced User Access Control in Windows Vista.  It was poorly received with most users finding it extremely intrusive.  UAC was toned down substantially in Windows 7 but unfortunately it's still a Band-Aid that doesn’t address the root of the problem, almost every application in Windows needs elevated privileges when installing.  Users become desensitized to clicking ok for almost everything they do because everything they do requires elevated privileges.  Even something as simple as installing a web browser requires admin.  In the image below Firefox is being installed on windows 7, which presents the user with the UAC dialog prompt.  

Installation of Firefox in OS X requires downloading it to the desktop and running it with out elevated system privileges.   On a properly designed Operating System a web browser SHOULD NOT require admin privileges to install. 

The vast majority of applications for OS X do not require elevated privileges to install or run.  Applications are portable standalone bundles.  A user downloads an application and can run it from wherever they choose.  As a result, when an OS X user sees the admin password dialog popup they are more likely to question why that program would require their admin password.  They certainly would not install a web browser that required their private admin password.   Despite good intentions, UAC remains pointless.  It’s the boy that cried wolf.  Turning UAC off is the same thing as clicking ok continually, so power users turn it off.  Everyone else puts up with it.

Other Miscellaneous Annoyances

The number of times windows 7 puts that blinking orange install dialog item in the task bar, with no central UI notification baffles me.  Why should a user have to click to bring up a dialog that requires the users input to continue?  This results in installs that take longer than they should, because the user assumed the application was installing unattended.  

“Microsoft Outlook. Try to export your address's to a CSV. Click the "FILE" menu (makes sense so far), then click "OPEN" (really?), then click "IMPORT" (the descriptive text says nothing about it being import and export), then choose "IMPORT TO A FILE". On Outlook for Mac, import and export are both options on the file menu.”


Microsoft Windows for all its options and compatibility gets in my way.  It’s like a boisterous loud child constantly requiring my attention and nurturing, while notifying me of every little thing going on.  I often wish it would just get out of my way and let me get on with what I’m doing, Instead of trying to second guess me all the time.  If you like serious gaming it’s the only choice you have and I will admit it has come along way with Windows 7 being the best try yet.  But at the end of the day it’s still just that, a try.  Compared to OS X it’s a try at usability, it’s a try at stability, it’s a try at convenience, and it’s a try at elegance. 

Mac OS X is not without it’s flaws, but it’s my experience that as an operating system it’s of higher quality than Windows.  This is true of software from Apple and third party developers.  Two reasons for this are developer passion and Apple laying out foundation and example with its Interface Guidelines.  Microsoft’s design on the other hand can be summed up by the laughable fact that for more than a decade a user has had to click on the Start menu to shutdown windows.  I frequently hear, “but they have 90 percent market share, they must be doing something right” and “I’m used to it.”   Well to that I say Microsoft stifled innovation and entrenched their inferior product in the marketplace with their illegal practices in the late 80s and 90s, and just because you’re used to the way Microsoft envisioned computing doesn’t make it efficient or logical.