Mail in Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard): Useless progress bars

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Mail
June 9th, 2008 • 10:25 am

I don’t know what Apple’s engineers did to the progress bars in Mac OS X 10.5’s applications, but they sure are much less useful than they used to be.

A progress bar is, as the name implies, a way to indicate the progress of an action that takes a long time, so that the user gets a sense of how long it’s going to take and how long he’s going to have to wait.

There are progress bars everywhere in Mac OS X. Here’s an example, in Safari’s Downloads window:

Progress bar in Safari

I am a Mac user who tries to work as efficiently as possible, which often means juggling with multiple tasks simultaneously, instead of waiting for each one to complete before moving on to the next one. And because my Internet connection (via satellite) is still relatively slow, I especially like to be able to keep an eye on the progress of processes that involve downloading or uploading stuff.

This is one of the main reasons why, in Mac OS X’s Mail, I like to keep the “Activity” window open at all times. Those of you who never have Internet connection problems probably can live without it, but as someone who has to manage more than a dozen different e-mail accounts and who frequently receives large attachments via e-mail, I need to be able to keep an eye on things, to tell what is going on at any given time, and the “Activity” window is essential in that respect.

In Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard), Mail also has a “Mail Activity” pane in the mailbox drawer on the left-hand side:

Mail Activity pane

But it’s nowhere near as useful, so I keep that pane closed and I use the “Activity” window instead (which can also be moved around and resized).

The problem with the “Activity” window in Mac OS X 10.5’s Mail is that its progress bars are simply not as reliably updated as they used to be in previous versions of Mail.

Just this morning, I received an e-mail with a 2.3 MB attachment. Typically, this kind of message still takes a little while to arrive on my machine, even when my connection is working at optimum speed (which it not always is). Until the message downloading process is complete, I have no idea who the message is from and what it contains. So I like to get some sense of what is going on by looking at the “Activity” window.

But here is what I saw when receiving this particular e-mail message this morning:

Activity window with progress bar

And that is not just what I saw when the message started arriving. That is what I saw throughout the downloading process, until the message was there in my Inbox, after a minute or so, and the progress bar went directly from 0% to 100%.

I am sorry, but this is not what I call a progress bar. It’s completely useless. What’s the point of having a progress bar if it cannot show the progress? Staying at 0% for one minute and then jumping from 0% to 100% in one second is not a useful indication of progress. I can understand Mac OS X having some difficulty dealing with the low-bandwidth situation, but surely it still can do a better prediction job than this!

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. I experience this all the time with the “Activity” window in Mac OS X 10.5’s Mail. Unless I only receive lots of very small messages, the progress bars are effectively useless. All I can tell from looking at a picture such as the one above is that a downloading process is going on and that it is going to take a while. That’s it. I have no idea how long it’s going to be, and I have no idea who the message is from.

Things used to work much better in Mail in previous versions of Mac OS X. So it is quite obviously something that Apple’s engineers broke in Mac OS X 10.5. But since I doubt very much that there is a single Apple engineer working on Mac OS X who still has to use a relatively slow Internet connection on a daily basis, I suspect that this is something that they simply do not care about very much.

And the problem is not limited to Mail either. I have already commented on Mac OS X’s Finder’s struggles with folders containing large numbers of files. When the Finder has to copy or move large numbers of files, it goes through a “preparation” phase that sometimes takes much longer than the copying or moving process itself.

Here again, in Mac OS X 10.5, you get a progress bar indicator that is far from being as useful as it could be. The preparation phase involves the rotating “candy cane” animation that just means “busy,” with no indication of time, and then the display only switches to an actual progress bar when the copying or moving process is already half-way through.

I see this all the time in Mac OS X 10.5’s Finder, not just with folders containing large numbers of files, but when copying or moving individual files that are fairly large. Here again, the progress indicators are much less reliable (and therefore much less useful) than they used to be in previous versions of Mac OS X.

The problem in that case is not with the fact that Apple’s engineers have forgotten the pain of having to use a slow Internet connection. It is that they don’t seem to feel the pain that we feel when having to use the f**king Finder. After all these years, Apple still does not seem to realize how frustrating this piece of software is when you have to use it on a daily basis for all kinds of file-related tasks. They seem to think that it’s “good enough,” which is an attitude that I associate with Microsoft. I expect better from Apple. For some reason, when it comes to the Finder, they keep failing to deliver. It’s probably time for me to start seriously exploring alternatives such as Path Finder.

As for Mail, I am afraid that there are no easy solutions. But what is for sure is that, for some reason, in Mac OS X 10.5, the “Activity” window has become significantly less useful than it used to be. I would very much like to know why. But it probably has to do with engineering issues that are beyond us mere mortals.

3 Responses to “Mail in Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard): Useless progress bars”

  1. ssp says:

    Problems like these are usually unknown to me but after experiencing them first hand on my parents’ 33K modem line in South Africa I can fully understand the agony. It doesn’t seem like OS X is ever tested in low bandwidth situations.

    The problem I had back then was that Mail usually polls my POP account every 5 minutes. As Mail needed more than 5 minutes to download the 100+ messages in the account (without useful progress information particularly on large messages as you point out), I couldn’t see how far I was in the progress (or whether things got stuck, say) and the additional POP requests started slowing things down even more.

    Not so impressive. And I guess that this implicit assumption of having a fast internet connection will become more and more prevalent if anything.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    Unfortunately, there are several aspects of Mac OS X that appear to be predicated on the availability of a fast connection. The Help “feature” is one. It keeps checking Apple’s web servers for updated versions of the help pages, and that slows things down to a crawl. It’s ridiculous.

    I also have a list of Safari annoyances that are directly related to the bandwidth. In other words, if you have tons of bandwidth, these are issues that you barely notice, but if you don’, then you do, and how.

    And let’s not even mention .Mac and the iDisk…

  3. ssp says:

    Incidentally I’m not coughing up for .mac and possibly for just the reason you mention I dislike the help system, because it feels strange that my help searches should be shared with the internet. (This also makes the feature a bit mysterious to me as it’s never quite clear where help comes from and whether that lookup would also work when I’m on the train). That’s a shame because a few places of the help can actually be helpful. But I won’t know because – together with the annoying floating window in X.5 – I just stopped using it.

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