Death by Papercut
After buying my first Mac a few months ago, I soon grew quite fond of it as the most powerful computer I have owned to date. It zips through every task I can think to throw at it, and I can spend an entire day working without needing an outlet. Even better, it takes up so little space and ads such insignificant weight to my backpack that I regularly reach behind me just to make sure I didn’t forget it somewhere. My 15" Retina MacBook Pro not only outclasses every one of my previous computers in raw processing power, I can confidently say that this device is the best I have ever owned. And then to sweeten the deal, Mavericks puts my past operating systems to shame. Especially coming from the current Windows world undergoing a forced devolution to Windows 8, I did not realize how relieved I would feel back in the traditional desktop computing paradigm ironically only present in OS X these days.
Despite all its high points though, I do have some issues with this computer and the underlying operating system. In fact, I can think of quite a few extremely pedantic critiques concerning everything ranging from the way the power button works to how Apple’s Dictionary app displays antonyms. These built up inside me over the last few months to a fever pitch until I could not stand it any longer, and so I decided to write about them. Fair warning, though: when I say “extremely pedantic”, I mean that in the truest sense of the phrase. The vast majority of the issues I will raise here likely only bother me and as such I do not mean to say that Apple ought to fix any or even some of them. Rather, consider this my utilization of a socially acceptable means through which to vent about a few minor annoyances in an otherwise splendid user experience.
Every time I approach my computer, I reach for the one opening in the MacBook’s uniform bezel to pry screen from keyboard and begin work. Sometimes, I wish I had the option of opening my laptop from more than the one area closest to me. Unfortunately, the device’s inhbitingly thin seam makes this all but impossible.
Before I even open the lid though, I have to decide which way to position my computer. Obviously, one of the long sides faces me; but which one? The only telling mark on the entire computer, save the ports I refuse to turn my computer sideways to examine every time I want to use it, is the Apple logo which regularly does absolutely nothing for me. I’m getting better at this, but hey — what about an inlay all the way across the front rather than a paltry inch-long strip directly below the trackpad? Seems logical, and it would solve both this and my previous issue in one fell swoop. Not to say that Apple should do this, though, because that’s not the purpose of this article: I’m just commiserating on a few grievances that have become more akin to festering wounds as of late.
Speaking of annoyances — talk about a segue, right? I doubt you saw that one coming — I really dislike how the charging cable’s indicator light defaults to green when first plugged in before invariably turning orange a few seconds later. It would make much more sense if it immediately lit up orange instead, because no matter how long my computer has run off its battery it will have lost some charge. If, after a few seconds, it changes from orange to green, fine: although my battery meter may read 100% after ten minutes in a coffee shop, I know it no longer has a full charge. Don’t try to fool me into thinking otherwise, no matter how briefly.
On the topic of peripherals and the wires connecting them, Apple has a habit of making cables that give off the impression of durability, yet fail after a relatively short period of time and normal use. That’s not even the problem I have with them, though; I don’t expect my charging cable to last more than a year or two. Rather, I hate how every one of Apple’s cords retain whatever shape I happen to contort them into for a frustratingly long period of time.
Back when I had an iPod Nano and then, later, an iPod Touch, I wrapped my headphones around the device before stowing it in my pocket. Over time that imbued the cable with an irreversible bend at each point it curved around the side of my iPod, so I took to wrapping my headphones in as large a loop as humanly possible before slipping them into my pocket. This way, when I pull them out I won’t have to deal with coils, knots, or curious twists and turns no amount of adjusting will ever remove. Apple’s computer charging cable, atop those strange little clips, shares the same problem: every time I unravel it beyond the usual six inches I use when at home, I must first massage the cable into a relatively straight line lest the coils tug too hard on the frustratingly weak MagSafe adapter and prevent my computer from charging at all. Or take my 30-pin dock connector connectors, for example: mine all have a permanent curvature because they sat bowed like that for an extended period of time. Now, no matter how I use them, they always revert to that shape.
I would love to see Apple improve their cables. If they could make them last longer at the same time, great; if not, how about starting with the squiggly headphone cables? The likelihood of catching a headphone increases exponentially with the squiggly-ness of its cable, after all, and we most certainly do not want that. As with everything in this article, I could choose not to care, as most will do. But you know what? It would be nice if I didn’t have to make that decision at all.
Okay, suppose I managed to charge my computer, plug in a pair of headphones, and get the lid open — a veritable feat in and of itself. Before I can do anything with the computer, it has to wake up first. Most of the time that takes a few seconds, tops, but occasionally I find myself wondering why my laptop won’t turn on, only to have it awaken as if a reluctant teenager getting out of bed in the morning. I know what Apple is going for here — I’ve heard the story of Steve Jobs walking into a planning meeting for the MacBooks, unlocking an iPad, asking why the Macs didn’t work that fast, and walking out — but the MacBooks still have yet to reach that point. They may be close, I must admit, but — as the saying goes — close only counts in bombs and hand grenades.
Now, with my computer awake, I have to deal with the keyboard. Most of the time, I really enjoy this: it feels great to type on, and with the exception of those arrow keys everything has enough space to keep me from accidentally hitting the wrong key. In fact, Apple’s keyboards were one of my first and most informative experiences with their hardware: I spent a few minutes typing on a friend’s Bluetooth Apple Keyboard, and I was hooked. Tactile feedback aside though, I have no idea which shortcut symbols equate to which keys. I know a flower-like glyph represents the command key, and that an upwards arrow signifies “shift”, but what about ⌥? Or maybe the caret, because I know I’m not supposed to use Shift+6 every time I want to use that key combo. If Apple’s documentation will not use actual key names like Microsoft does — “Ctrl”, “Alt”, and “Del”, for example — just please — please — emblazon the keys with their symbols. Enable me to get better with my computer; don’t make it unnecessarily hard.
My other gripe regarding the keyboard lies at its opposite point, in the top right-hand corner: the power button. Strangely, my power button does not turn the display off every time I press it. Whenever I accidentally tap this key in search of “delete”, it somehow knows not to activate; however, when I press it down firmly, on purpose, it always works. Why? Apparently for reasons far beyong my ability to comprehend. This leads me to think that there might be a problem with my keyboard, not that the computer itself is attempting to intelligently discern my intentions with regards to this single source of input, even if that explanation is much more likely than a defective component.
Since I’m already on the topic of mistaken and misinterpreted input, how about that trackpad? 99.9
of the time it works like a charm with taps, clicks, swipes, and gestures, but that 0.1 when I have to double- or triple-tap the trackpad three times because, for whatever reason, it won’t accept my gesture — maybe my fingers are too close together; maybe the time interval between each finger landing on the screen is either too long or too short — annoys me to no end. And that’s to say nothing for its confounding inability to process even single taps on occasion. Positively bewildering. I have never had this problem on any other computer in my admittedly short life thus far. How about using some of that iOS multitouch knowhow here? Just work, please.
And then, of course, we have Mavericks. Oh Mavericks, how I love and hate you in such a visceral, constantly-at-odds way. So much about this operating system is just so, so good, yet an equal amount strikes me as close but halfway there at best. Take App Nap, for example: when Apple shipped Mavericks with the “Apps Using Significant Energy” section in the battery status menu, many reacted with a mixture of surprise and delight. Surprise that Apple would so publicly shame applications consuming too much energy, and delighted that this feature would lead to lower energy consumption in the future as consumers lobbied their favorite developers to empty that area. I have yet to see even one step in that direction. Granted, Mavericks only came out a few months ago, but after the initial hype died down around its inclusion, so did anyone caring about apps that violated it. I would have much preferred App Nap to force itself upon every single application running in my system by default. Disable the feature for approved apps installed through the App Store, if you must, but make every third-party offering subject to it unless I say otherwise.
Speaking of the “Apps Using Significant Energy” section, how about showing me the top five offenders of any level rather than only those past some arbitrary threshold? Personally, I would find much more value in this than simply showing Chrome all the time. In the middle of a coding project, for example, when I need Chrome open and a boost in battery longevity would be nice, it’s not helpful that Chrome is the only app listed there. Give me other options when this one is out of the question. This approach would have the added benefit of instituting a race to the bottom in energy consumption amongst developers for whom placement in this list, regardless of where, is unacceptable, although — as I stated earlier — I’m not entirely sure how important this is to anyone.
Having made our way up to the top of the screen, one of the most commonly-cited complaints and thus tweaks Apple nerds make to their system involves the menu bar. Not Andrew Clark and Zac Cichy’s podcast, The Menu Bar: the bar stretching across the top of your screen, inhabited by an ungodly number of app icons on its right side along with Apple’s own mandated Notification Center, Spotlight, clock, battery, volume, and Wifi menus. Unlike Windows, which allows its users to decide whether an item should display all the time, only when it requires my attention, or not at all, Apple provides for no such control. In fact, entire app categories have sprung up around this lack of customization, at the head of which is Bartender. I neither want nor need these icons taking up half my screen because Apple will not let me remove the language identifier for my keyboard, the AirPlay icon, the volume toggle that I never use, and the spotlight button, to say nothing of the other apps that don’t have an option to toggle this often unnecessary feature in their settings screen. I want control over this part of my Mac, too. It seems strange that Apple would leave such an important design element to third party developers rather than solve it themselves.
To nitpick a more basic feature, over the last few years spell check has evolved from a tool found only in Microsoft Word to a system-wide feature available in all modern operating systems. Unsurprisingly, Mavericks is no different. In fact, Apple takes it one step further and provides iOS-like auto correct in some applications. However, this is the very claim I take issue with: as far as I can tell, there is no rhyme or reason to when auto correct will activate, nor how aggressive it will correct on the off chance I do find it operational. More than this neat feature, I need consistency: either give me auto correct everywhere or nowhere at all. Auto correct informs the way I type both when present and in its absence. Making it a variable feature, then, does not exactly lend itself to a particularly positive writing experience when I have to spend an entire round of editing just fixing typos I thought it would catch.
Getting a bit more specific with regards to individual apps, let’s start with Finder. I don’t need every single Finder window to open every time I CMD+Tab over to the application. Instead, just give me the most recent instance; if it just so happens to not be the one I need, I can make a quick downward swipe to view all my Finder windows, select the one I want, and then from that point on it will no longer be a source of annoyance. As it stands, whenever I or another application opens a Finder window, Mavericks bombards me with every Finder instance I did not remember to close. This could be better, to say the least.
When I got my new Mac I switched to Safari for two reasons: first, because Apple’s native web browser fits in much better with the Mavericks aesthetic than Chrome. More importantly though, Safari uses significantly less energy, as evidenced by Chrome’s seemingly permanent spot in the “Apps Using Significant Energy” section. That’s not to say I never miss Chrome, though: every time I type a URL into Safari’s address bar, I long for Chrome’s famous omnibox. If Apple could build out a feature rivaling that of Chrome in this regard, I would immediately lose any interest in ever switching; as it is though, I consider going back with every query I have to wrestle with rather than letting Chrome do the heavy lifting.
Adding to the list of feature shortcomings in Safari, for some reason it can only reopen the one most recently-closed tab. What’s more, Safari insists on using the strange shortcut CMD+Z to do so. Consider Chrome’s implementation for some perspective: in all browsers, CMD+T opens a new tab; in Chrome, CMD+SHIFT+T reopens a closed tab. Makes sense, right? Especially given the widely-accepted convention of ALT+TAB and its reverse ALT+SHIFT+TAB; add shift for the opposite effect. Chrome wins out on sensibility, then, and implementation as well: rather than merely the most recently closed tab, I can reopen as many tabs as I want with Chrome’s CMD+SHIFT+T. I can even reopen entire windows should I so desire, and fifty tabs before it if I want to. Safari, on the other hands, only lets me do this once. Quite frustratingly, I might add.
Long before switching to a Mac, iTunes has been a great source of annoyance to me. This, then, has been a long time in coming.
Radio should not be part of the Music screen. I look to Music when I want to listen to my music, and radio is another form of entertainment in a class all its own. Sure, they both ultimately play melodic tunes generally subservient to a vocal track, but the similarities end there. By the reasoning that put Radio within the broader category of Music, why did podcasts get their own category separate from audiobooks and iTunes U? And why does Internet Radio get its own section outside of Music, for that matter? All share similar qualities and universally feature recorded audio tracks. How do they rank above iTunes Radio in getting their own section? It’s ponderous, this reasoning, and unfortunately it does not end there.
While I’m on the topic of misplaced and misorganized categories, why must iTunes insist that Movies, Home Videos, and TV Shows are all distinctly different things? As far as I’m concerned — and, I would be willing to bet, the vast majority of other iTunes users as well — they are, essentially, all the same: movies. Unless one buys iTunes content and populates their library that way — and, let’s be honest, even if that trend has been increasing as of late I don’t think very many do — this distinction serves as little purpose as the seemingly random method iTunes uses to categorize newly-added media into one of its three cinematographic buckets.
And then there’s Mail, the revered Apple email client that I just can’t help but really dislike. For starters, how about some visual feedback when I tap the “Get Mail” button? I have to click with my trackpad — which I never do except in this situation — in order to know that I did, in fact, tell Mail to check for new messages. Otherwise, I have absolutely no way of telling. And without know whether I actually hit the button or not, I end up tapping it over and over again.1 I would also greatly appreciate it if Apple would speed Mail up. A few weeks ago I moved to Airmail not for any of its other features — I honestly couldn’t tell you if it had any significant advantages over Mail — but because as soon as I get an email, I get a notification from Airmail. When I used Mail, I would see new messages appear on my phone and iPad before my computer got it, and to me that is completely unacceptable.
Perhaps I should have talked about this back when discussing spell check, but the Dictionary app is, after all, its own beast. As a writer I use the three-finger tap to define a word and find synonyms in Apple’s built-in thesaurus multiple times in almost every article I write. Ignoring the problems with that instantiation, which I talked about earlier on the topic of the trackpad, it’s not an altogether terrible system; however, it could be much better. For one, Apple could do a better job of delineation within Dictionary.app. When does one definition end and another begin? How about antonyms? Currently antonyms get tacked on at the end like worthless baggage, if Dictionary displays them at all. This goes back to the problem of consistency I have raised a number of times already. And on the topic of a thesaurus, how about a better one? I end up turning to Google and Thesaurus.com at least once a day when Apple’s own dictionary fails me. I would really like not to have to take those extra steps.
So these are the most prominent problems I currently have with OS X. Over time some of these will fade, and new ones will rise up. It’s tempting to just brush them aside in a moment of glory upon discovering that my computer makes obscure tasks incredibly easy thanks to some built-in feature of Mavericks, but — as is the case with any experience — it’s important to keep in mind the downsides, for therein lie the greatest opportunities for future improvement.
↩ Like an animal.