Stacks in Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard): One step forward, a dozen steps back

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
November 7th, 2007 • 10:18 am

I am a bit late to the Leopard party, because I was waiting for my copy of the GM version of the new operating system, which the AppleSeed program only shipped after the software was made publicly available in stores. Since stuff sent by courier from California takes about a week to reach me here in southwest Nova Scotia, I only got the package yesterday.

I must say that the installation process itself was really almost as painless as it can be. I had prepared myself by making a complete bootable backup of my startup volume, and also by installing all the latest versions of the potentially problematic third-party software that I use.

I then booted from the Leopard disk, and used the “Archive and Install” option with the option to preserve user and network settings. I also customized the installation to remove unwanted localizations and printer drivers. The installation process started, with an estimate of the time it would take of approximately 40 minutes. But in truth I don’t think it even took half of that. The slightly frustrating part was that the progress bar arrived near the end in about 20 minutes, but then stayed stuck there for at least another 5 minutes, with more hard disk activity and the optical drive occasionally spinning up, only to spin back down after a few seconds. So the progress bar itself, as usual, was not really a very accurate indication of progress. But I am picking nits here.

I then restarted from the newly installed system volume and logged in with the Shift key down, thereby preventing the operating system from automatically launching all my login items. I just wanted to make sure they all worked by launching them one by one.

Of course, I had to reinstall a few things that use system extensions and require a restart, including LittleSnitch and USB Overdrive. I also took that opportunity to install the recently released iTunes 7.5 and QuickTime 7.3. Maybe it was a bit unwise to install all of this at the same time, but it all went without a hitch.

The last thing I had to do was to turn off the 3D visual style for the Dock. I find the style rather ugly and utterly useless. Whenever I have Finder windows (or any windows) open near the bottom of the screen, which is pretty much all the time, the reflection of these windows creates a background on the reflective surface that is far too bright and makes the bright dots indicating currently running applications nearly invisible. I am very relieved that, at the last minute, Apple included an alternate visual style for the Dock on the side that can also be used for the Dock at the bottom through a small Terminal hack.

But really, the whole thing is quite embarrassing for Apple. And of course, it does not stop there… There is the whole issue of what has happened to the right-hand side of the Dock. It is really head-shaking-in-disbelief stuff.

First, though, I will mention the one single positive aspect of the changes introduced by Apple in the Dock in 10.5, which I have not seen mentioned elsewhere. With the new behaviour of folders in the Dock (the so-called “Stacks”), it is now finally possible to use the right-hand side of the Dock without having to hold the mouse button down.

For years we have been able to pull down menus from the menu bar with a single click instead of a click-and-hold. (The traditional click-and-hold still works as well, of course.) This ability, which was copied from the Windows world a long time ago, if I am not mistaken, is particularly useful in the case of fairly long menus or menus with a deep hierarchy, because in those cases it is very difficult to explore the menu in a single mouse movement, and with a click-and-hold you are forced to keep your finger down on the mouse button during the whole mouse movement.

With a single click, you can just click to pull down the menu and then move around with your mouse without having to maintain the tension required to hold down the mouse button. Like I said, it is particularly useful for long/hierarchical menus.

The single benefit of Mac OS X 10.5’s Stacks feature in the Dock is that it now lets you use a single click. In fact, it is now the only way to access the contents of the folder/stack. If you click-and-hold, you get a short menu with a few (very limited) options for the stack. So, unlike what happens with menus, the single click and click-and-hold now have two different meanings here.

Of course, everything else about these stacks is just totally wrong.

The “icons on an arc” feature (called “View as Fan”) is totally useless eye candy. I dare say that there is not a single UI expert in the whole wide world who would argue that it is not more difficult to reach a target on a curved path than it would be on a straight path. It serves absolutely no purpose, except presumably to satisfy Steve Jobs’s appetite for useless eye candy.

The “Grid” display mode is only marginally more useful. All of a sudden, it seems that Apple has rediscovered the virtues of icon view. But at the same time they have gone out of their way to make this icon view less useful than it could be. Icon are displayed in a huge size (which is not customizable), but the file/folder name label underneath each icon is truncated, as if they could not have used a little more room on this already huge grid to display the name in full (or at least 2 or 3 lines, as in the Finder).

The most irritating aspect of both the “Grid” and “Fan” modes, however, is the total absence of hierarchy. If you want to access anything in a subfolder, you are taken back to the Finder. So that completely eliminates the usefulness of the right-hand side of the Dock as a shortcut to quickly browse a hierarchy of stuff, even one with minimal depth. And of course, this was precisely the thing that I personally was using the right-hand side of the Dock for.

Now, when I try to look inside, say, my “Bookmarks” folder in the Dock, all I see is a grid of huge and completely identical folder icons, each with a short, truncated name underneath it, and if I want to access one of these subfolders (if by chance the name of the folder is short enough that I can actually make out what it contains), I am automatically taken back to the Finder, with the associated and unavoidable increase in mouse clicking and mouse moving requirements. Ugh. Is there any way that this new Dock can throw its utter uselessness in my face any more blatantly?

Thank God for DragThing, I say.

Finally, one cannot conclude a quick review of the new Dock in Leopard without mentioning the completely absurd and utterly silly way that folder icons are drawn on the right-hand side of the Dock. It is not even possible to use the phrase “folder icon” anymore! Essentially what you have as a “folder icon,” whenever the folder in question is not empty (which is pretty much all the time), is a slightly reduced version of the icon for the first item inside the folder, with a few bits of other icons sticking out from the edges.

I mean, really. It breaks one of the most fundamental things about the desktop metaphor to begin with. There is no visual indication that what you are dealing with is a folder! You are just supposed to know. And it’s an ever-changing thing too, especially if you are dealing with a folder whose contents change all the time, like… the “Downloads” folder. Of course, elsewhere in the Finder the “Downloads” folder has its own folder icon, which has nothing to do with this behaviour in the Dock—although that icon too has its own inconsistencies.

Here’s what the normal icon for the “Downloads” folder looks like:

Downloads icon - Big

And here’s what the small icon (in list or column view) looks like:

Downloads icon - Small

And here’s what the same folder looks like in the Sidebar:

Downloads icon - Sidebar

Fun, fun, fun. I already have a hard enough time trying to teach my fellow Mac users how the Finder and Mac OS X are visually/spatially organized. This is really going to help.

Like I said above, this is utterly embarrassing. I have nothing against UI improvements. But exactly in what alternate universe does this new Dock behaviour and visual appearance qualify as an improvement?

The sad reality is that we are probably going to have to live with this at least for a few years. Although the last-minute introduction of an alternate visual scheme for the Dock leaves a small glimmer of hope that all is not lost with Apple’s UI designers, it is really hard to imagine them going back to the drawing board again and coming back to their senses in a small, incremental 10.5.x update. And, given the past history of the Dock, I even seriously doubt that they will revisit this at all in the next few years. They’ll just force us to live with it, apparently hoping that, somehow, we’ll get used to it.

I am afraid that I personally am in no mood to voluntarily participate in Apple’s crazy UI lab experiments. I have work to do. So I am effectively reducing my Dock usage to the absolute minimum and using DragThing instead. But I really find the whole thing very sad and very damaging to Apple’s image as “UI experts” with the public at large. And the really sad thing is, of course, that they are the experts, i.e. that things are even worse in the rest of the technological universe.

9 Responses to “Stacks in Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard): One step forward, a dozen steps back”

  1. henryn says:

    Unfortunately, the need to do something different for each new release now an overriding factor. Apparently, Apple is quite willing to participate in the generally diminishing of user expectations in apps and OS’s, and why not? They can sell a new version with very few fundamental innovations, so they will.

    Looking the the “New Features” list on the Apple website, of the top 10, 4 are UI tweaks, three are feature upgrades of existing apps. Only one significant addition: Time Machine. (I’ll be very happy to see a really good backup system, but I’m not sure I’m willing to upgrade on the chance that Time Machine is that.) Looking at the complete list of 300 new features… I see mostly a grab-bag of predictable incremental additions and tweaks. Imagine! I can now empty the Trash from within the Trash. Whoop-te-do.

    I will admit that “Spaces” looks intriguing and may be helpful to me…

    However, I notice a disturbing trend of Apple becoming more Windows-like in their approach to the UI. Apple has always set the standard, clearly doing their homework, thinking things through so they implement the single best, “canonical” method for accomplishing a particular task. Windows has always been much more flexible, implementing multiple paths to the same result (no matter how silly some of them are) and by their willingness to try a particular –and often juvenile– approach in release ‘n’ knowing they’ll get a chance to correct their misstep or add an additional (perhaps less juvenile) interface method in release ‘n+1’.

    Hmmm, this reminds me of the late 1950’s on in the automotive industry, a period in which “innovation” was mostly implemented by moving chrome around on the body and adding “silly options” inside.

    It’s frustrating that we can only hope that real innovation is occurring somewhere inside our computers.

  2. danridley says:

    Stacks could be great with just minor refinements. If we could badge the Dock icon, so that a unique icon remained on the top of the visual stack at all times (even reduced in size, so we could still see the top item on the stack), it would make one stack distinguishable from another, which is my main complaint.

    I’m not sure why you’re seeing a third icon style in the sidebar. On my system, column view and the sidebar use the same icon; for the Downloads folder and everything else.

    It’s worth knowing that you can command-Click on a Stack to open the folder in Finder directly.

    (Also, did you ever have to click-and-hold? Right-clicking or control-clicking a folder in the Dock would bring up a hierarchal menu, and you didn’t have to hold down a button to deal with it, at least in Tiger.)

  3. Arden says:

    Or command-click.

    Regarding sticky menus: if you have a scroll wheel or ball (and how many people don’t at this point?) you can use it to scroll up and down a menu. Very handy because you can go up or down much more quickly and easily than without.

  4. Pierre Igot says:

    Dan: I don’t think I ever realized that you could right-click or control-click on a folder in the Dock to get a sticky menu. Just goes to show that inconsistency is often synonymous with undiscoverability. Are people just supposed to know that, in this particular area of the OS, sticky menus require the use of the right-click/control-click?

    The good thing is that this works in DragThing docks as well. So at least I can still benefit from it now. Thanks!

    Arden: Yes. My point was that the requirement to click-and-hold prevented all this. But I guess if control-click/right-click provided a sticky menu in previous versions of OS X, then it was already possible at the time to use the scroll wheel for navigating the menu.

    About scroll wheels: It’s funny now how every time I work on someone’s Mac who still only has an older optical Apple mouse, my middle finger keeps reaching for the scroll wheel that isn’t there :).

  5. Mike Lauder says:


    Are you absolutely sure that you had to keep the mouse button held down after activating a Dock menu? I don’t have Tiger installed on either of my computers now, but I’m pretty sure the behavior was as it is now. Try clicking and holding to get the menu up – releasing at that point does not make it go away. You can scan through it without the menu disappearing.


  6. Pierre Igot says:

    Mike: You are right. If you click and hold for a bit, then you can release without the menu disappearing.

    Another behaviour I had never noticed! I was used to the “normal” sticky menu behaviour, where the menu stays down/up after a simple click, not a prolonged one.

    All these proprietary Dock behaviours are NOT easily discoverable. You have to know they are there!

  7. danridley says:

    The Dock’s click-and-hold behavior isn’t really proprietary and Dock-specific, just outmoded. This was the way virtually all context menus behaved in OS 9; witness all the Web pages out there that still say “PC: right-click, Mac: click-and-hold” when trying to instruct people on downloading files. In OS 9, click-and-hold, Control-click, and right-click were pretty much synonymous — and the menu behaved the same way after it came up. The Dock continued this behavior.

    I’ve pretty much assumed that click-and-hold was still a prevalent alternative, but it doesn’t seem to be — click-and-hold doesn’t bring up context menus for hyperlinks in Safari 3 or Firefox 2, for example, despite all the Web pages that still tell people to use it. Control-click and right-click still appear to be synonymous, except in menus, where Control sometimes changes menu items but right-clicking uses the normal behavior (see Finder’s Get Info/Get Summary Info for an easy example).

  8. Pierre Igot says:

    I think we need to clarify things here. When I say “click-and-hold”, I mean the traditional method of pulling down menus, i.e. clicking and holding and moving the mouse down the menu while still holding. Whereas the “trick” described here in the comments is that, on Dock icons, you can click and hold for a second or two and then you can release the mouse button and the menu stays on and you can move around the menu as if it were a sticky menu (which in effect it is, except that you have to click and hold a bit for it to become sticky, as opposed to menus in the menu bar, which are sticky with a simple short click).

    After all these years, I still was not aware of this “trick” in the Dock until it was pointed out by Mike above. And similarly I had no idea that you could control-click on Dock icons to get the same sticky menu effect right away (without having to hold).

    Which just goes to show that these things are not all that discoverable—or that I am just too set in my ways :).

    Other than that, yes, I do remember the good old days of Mac OS 9 where clicking on a web page item and holding for a second or so would bring up the contextual menu. But I didn’t know that you could release the mouse button at that point and the menu didn’t go away. Are you sure this worked even in OS 9? I suppose it must have. I just never knew about it—until now!

  9. danridley says:

    I think so, but I don’t have any handy copies of OS 9 to test on :-)

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