Mac OS X’s Preview application: still needs work

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
July 5th, 2005 • 12:53 am

Mac OS X’s Preview application, which is the default reader for PDF and picture files, has consistently improved over the years. Yet even version 3.0 (included in Tiger) still suffers from annoying quirks and flaws that limit its appeal as the default PDF reader application.

For example, say you are in any Mac OS X application with a document window open whose contents would fill multiple pages when printed. Now select the “Print…” command in the “File” menu. In the “Print” dialog box, click on the “Preview” button.

This automatically opens a PDF preview of the printed file in Mac OS X’s Preview. Since the printed file has multiple pages, Preview also automatically opens the drawer on the side that shows a thumbnail of each page.

Now try pressing the Page Up or Page Down key. They do not work! You can a stupid alert sound, as if you were doing something wrong! As far as I can tell, the problem is that, when Mac OS X opens the PDF preview in Preview, its puts the focus on another part of the interface, namely the bar at the button with the “Print” and “Cancel” buttons.

This is pretty dumb, considering that, when viewing a multiple page preview, the user will very likely want to preview several pages of the document before going ahead and printing it! Worse still: it’s rather hard to tell where the focus is in Preview. You have to press the Tab key repeatedly and, depending on whether you have Full Keyboard Access on or not, it will take you several tries before you finally manage to put the focus on the main part of the window, so that the Page Up and Page Down keys actually work as expected!

(I have FKA on on my machine. For me, the quickest shortcut is to press shift-Tab twice. Your mileage may vary. You might want to use your mouse to click on the main part of the window. It could be faster…)

It’s all rather embarrassing in terms of its lack of usability.

Preview also has other flaws. For example, there is no option to open the same PDF document in a second window. If you have a PDF document open in Preview, and you double-click on the document in the Finder to open it a second time, Mac OS X simply puts the focus back on the already open window. And there is no “Open in Second Window” in the “Window” menu.

This is an annoying limitation, especially when you are viewing a PDF document with some pages in landscape orientation and other pages in portrait orientation. Whenever you go from a landscape-oriented page to a portrait-oriented page or vice versa, you have to rotate the document to view the page properly — and also, most likely, resize the window so that the text is big enough to be readable. If the user had the option to open the same document in a second window, he could have one window with the appropriate orientation and size for portrait pages, and another one for landscape pages.

Finally, there is the issue of Preview’s text search feature. First of all, you are forced to use the drawer, even if you don’t like it and have closed it. There is no option to use a “Find” dialog box that would float above the document window instead. For people with limited screen real estate, this is rather irritating, especially since using a “Find” dialog box for searching for text in a document is a pretty standard feature in many Mac OS X applications.

Then if you do a search and go to one of the results, and then click on the small “x” button in the search field to stop the search, Preview stays on the page that you have just selected. Granted, this makes sense in a number of scenarios, where you might be looking for a specific page in a document. And you can easily go back to the page you were viewing before starting the search by clicking on the “Back” button in the toolbar.

The problem with this is that it is not consistent with what happens in other applications. In the Finder, for example, if you do a search for a file, when you click on the “x” in the search field, the Finder window automatically returns to its previous state. It’s the same thing in Mail’s main viewer window.

This is because these search features assume that, once you’ve found what you were looking for, you have opened the corresponding result in a separate window. Because Preview forces you to work within a single window with a search drawer, however, it has no choice but to be inconsistent with other Mac OS X in the behaviour of its interface for the search feature.

Part of the problem here is that the very concept of a window drawer is still something that is rather new, and neither Apple nor other developers seem to be quite sure about what it should be used for. Remember, for example, that the list of mailboxes in Mail 1.x was a drawer. It was rather weird, especially since you could never really put the focus on the drawer. In Mail 2.0, the drawer is gone.

In iCal, the information details about the selected event in a calendar are displayed in a window drawer, but this drawer can be “detached” and turned into a separate inspector type of window. Clearly, here again, Apple is not sure that the drawer thing is a good approach.

To me, one of the main problems with drawers is the focus issue. In Preview, for example, depending on whether the focus is on the drawer or on the main window area, the Page Up and Page Down keys have a different behaviour. And I frequently find myself pressing the Page Down key and expecting Preview to go down a page, only to see it scroll down the drawer of thumbnails instead. Why does this happen? Because the only visual indication that the focus is on the drawer and not on the main window is the selection colour. That’s not enough. It seems to me that, in a properly designed interface, the user should never easily lose track of where the focus is. Preview is a failure in that respect, and it has a lot to do with the use of the drawer for too many things.

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