Saturday, February 18, 2012

Brown crayon and other Mountain Lion observations

In my younger days when I did a lot of backcountry hiking and camping I actually observed mountain lions on a few occasions, albeit from a safe distance. I generally treat beta OS releases the same way – I'm happy to let others jump in and risk their data and sanity. But a client who's a developer offered to let me spend some time with the 10.8 Mountain Lion Developer Preview on an otherwise pristine Mac. Since I wouldn't be risking my system or data, I gladly accepted. I didn't look into everything – I don't do instant messages/chats and I'm not a big iCal user, so I didn't spend much time with the new Messages app or the rebranded Calendar, for example. In any case, my first impressions, in no particular order, are as follows.

I use the Notes feature in Mail quite a bit, so I was interested in the new separate Notes app. I had thought that it was replacing the feature in Mail, but that's not the case – Notes is still in Mail, crappy font and all. The two don't integrate in any way that I could determine.

The Notes interface, like iCal (or Calendar in 10.8), uses the visual analogy of a real-world notepad, complete with the torn-off sheet remnants at the top of the page. Is the torn sheet look really so compelling that we need it here as well? The default font ("Noteworthy") is much better than that used by the Notes feature in Mail, but is still a handwritten-style font. To the left of the Note window is a sidebar which lists your notes. The name of the selected note is circled in what looks like brown crayon. Not sure what that's about, but it's taking this analog analogy too far. I'm aware that I'm using a computer to take notes. Is this level of visual connection to paper-and-pen (or crayon) necessary?

I also noticed a couple of oddities in using Notes. First, apparently you can't change the name of your note short of changing the first line of the note itself. Maybe it's just me, but I think I should be able to change the name of the note (leaving the first line of the note unchanged) by clicking on the note name once it's been selected, as you can with file names in the Finder and playlist names in iTunes. Granted, the same issue exists in the Notes feature in Mail, but you would think a full blown application would offer something this basic. In addition, I had read that you could "pin" a note to your desktop, somewhat like Stickies (which is also still around in 10.8 for some reason). You can do this, it's just not readily apparent, or at least it wasn't to me. I tried dragging it to the desktop, as you can do with tabs in Safari, but that didn't work. There was no visual cue for how to do this and no menu item – indeed, if I hadn't read about it, I wouldn't have realized it was possible. What you do of course is double click on the note name, something I figured out eventually but should have been more obvious.

Completely by accident, I discovered something else in Notes that I hadn't known about – if you type command - period a scrollable list of word suggestions pops up. This apparently already exists in TextEdit but I hadn't been aware of it. It works in TextEdit and Notes, but not in Mail or Reminders for some reason.

Safari has some changes to the interface that I truly don't like. First, I hate the combined address/search field. That may just be me being set in my ways, but I like keeping the two separate. Since Safari doesn't know when I begin typing whether I'm entering a URL or a search query, the autocomplete function is less specific and therefore less useful. I would be okay with it if I could switch back to the way it was before, but there's no apparent way to do that. Also, combining the fields seems to have killed off the Snapback feature, something I use all the time. Again, I didn't see a way to bring it back. Second, tabs now take up the entire width of the Safari window and the results are just ugly. If you have only two or three tabs open, each tab is ridiculously wide. It does let you see more of a long page name, but when you have three tabs with page names like Apple, Google, and YouTube the names appear in the middle of the tabs with large amounts of blank space to either side. It just looks bad. Finally, I don't like the new Reader button, which rather than being a subtle grey icon at the end of the address field is now a large, bright blue monstrosity that I find distracting.

I've said a lot of negative stuff here, and at least some if it is just my own curmudgeonliness. But there are some good things. First, the release feels very solid – I didn't have any crashes and everything seemed to work well. Also, there's a definite feeling of a speed increase. Safari, the App Store, and iTunes all seem to launch and load much more quickly than in Lion. Of course, this is running off of a hard drive that has nothing else on it, and in the case of iTunes it didn't have a library of media to load. But even so, I think the OS is snappier than Lion. Loading internet content (in Safari, the App Store, and iTunes) was definitely faster on the same connection than a similar machine running 10.7.2.

There is also a minor change to Dashboard. When you click on the plus sign at the bottom left, the available widgets now appear in full screen grid, similar to LaunchPad, rather than in a horizontally scrollable bar at the bottom of the screen. I think this is an improvement, but I don't really care that much because I don't use Dashboard.

Overall, I'm happy with the responsiveness and speed of 10.8. But much of the look and feel in the included apps as well as some of the functionality leave me disappointed. I keep reminding myself that this is just a preview and a lot can change between now and late summer when the final version ships. Here's hoping someone at Apple agrees with me on at least some of this and changes are made.

At the very least, can we get rid of the brown crayon?

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