iTunes 5: The new ‘unified’ window theme

Posted by Pierre Igot in: iTunes, Macintosh
September 12th, 2005 • 10:10 am

Much will no doubt be written about this latest addition to the family of window themes in Mac OS X. iTunes is no longer brushed metal! Daring Fireball has a pretty funny take on the whole thing… Seriously, though, where does this new theme leave us? Let’s see…

First of all, let’s remember a few things. Brushed metal has some advantages: Unlike traditional Aqua windows, brushed metal windows can be grabbed from many different places in addition to the window’s title bar. In order to move a brushed metal window around, you can click on any area of the window that’s in brushed metal: dead space between buttons in the title bar, window padding on the sides, etc. On the other hand, one of the many drawbacks of brushed metal is that it looks the same whether the window is in the background or the foreground.

In Mac OS X 10.4, Apple introduced a new “unified” window theme that actually combines the benefits of brushed metal windows and of traditional Aqua windows. That’s the theme that’s used in Mail 2.0 and the new System Preferences application. Like brushed metal, the unified Aqua look combines the window title bar and the tool bar into a single entity, and if there is dead space (between buttons) in that entity, it can be used to drag the window around. Unlike brushed metal, however, there is a significant visual difference when the window is in the background. Like the original Aqua title bar, the unified title bar/toolbar switches from the 3D Aqua look to a flat look with very faint stripes. This is very helpful visually when you are trying to distinguish between the foreground window and background windows.

What about this new dark-gray unified look used in iTunes 5? Well, like the unified Aqua look, it keeps the title bar and the toolbar combined as a single entity, and you can indeed click anywhere in the unused background of this entity to drag the window around.

Sadly, however, the new dark-gray unified window theme in iTunes does not change depending on whether the window is in the foreground or in the background. In other words, the other key benefit of the unified Aqua theme is lost. And that, to me, is a major disappointment.

I can understand Apple’s need to preserve the visual identity of iTunes. After all, it is one of Apple’s signature applications, and it has a strong visual presence in Apple’s promotional efforts regarding the iPod, the iTunes Music Store, etc. In that respect, the introduction of the new dark-gray unified theme makes sense, because it looks rather similar to the brushed metal look. But Apple could have done this and preserved the other key advantage of the unified Aqua look, which is the strong visual difference between foreground and background windows. Apple could have used a paler shade of gray, and a flatter look, for dark-gray unified windows in the background. They did not.

This means that the new theme doesn’t really help clarify things and doesn’t really bring any hope of a more consistent and more user-friendly use of window themes in Mac OS X in the near future. Even if Apple also adopts this new dark-gray unified theme for other brushed metal applications, including the Finder and Safari, it still will not help in terms of distinguishing between the foreground window and background windows.

(The new theme also introduces other minor changes, such as the disappearance of window padding on the side, and round corners with a smaller radius. The disappearance of window padding eliminates the ability to drag the window from its side edges, but it also eliminates something that was a significant waste of space, and another source of inconsistency — especially when it comes to window width — in Mac OS X. As for the different round corners, God knows what Apple intends to do here.)

2 Responses to “iTunes 5: The new ‘unified’ window theme”

  1. LoonyPandora says:

    I agree with all those points – I think that perhaps the smaller radius on rounded corners is to appease the Windows users – Windows isn’t as ’rounded’ as Mac OS, so Apple are catering to the larger audience :-/

    I expanded on my own thoughts in my own blog.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    Might have to do with the Windows version — although I fail to see how it makes sense to impose a more Windows-like design on the Mac version. Surely the two versions don’t actually share the same window-drawing code!

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