Annals of Usability: Pathfinder 4

Like a great many Mac users and the vast majority of self-appointed usability experts, I have been very critical of Apple’s new (as in OS X) Finder. Every so often, I download the latest version of Pathfinder — the most ambitious attempt to replace it that I have found — and desperately try to like it, and then delete it and go back to the one Apple gives me “for free”.

Oddly enough, many prominent voices have said that Pathfinder is the be-all and end-all Finder replacement, and I really wonder why they think this.

First of all, let’s examine objections to Apple’s Finder. These fall into several basic categories, which all in turn either fall under the general heading “it’s not the old Finder” or “it’s not Windows Explorer”.

The Old Finder

Many of us old-time Mac users have fond memories of the Classic Finder. These generally date back to the days of, say, 1989, before hard disks became terribly large. My Mac IIci (my first Mac was a 512k) came with a 40MB hard disk, and the System folder had something like 20 files and folders in it (which I thought horribly cluttered compared with, say, System 3.2). The spatial Finder made a lot of sense back then and worked very well. Aside from a live project directory, most things stayed pretty static and having a feel for “where” everything was really made sense.

By 2000 the Mac Finder had seen its best days. Almost anyone I knew had everything set to show hierarchical list views, which kind of worked and kind of didn’t. Individual views could be very slow to update, and the whole interface was somewhat fragile.

The old Finder did have one excellent feature which I still miss: tabbed windows. They never quite worked properly, but for hours at a time they would be attractive and useful, before something messed them up and they had to be fixed. It seems odd to me that Apple never resurrected them, since they would work much better in OS X… except that there’s this pesky Dock in the way.

Windows Explorer

Windows Explorer is, at its best, quite a nice file browser and quite a nice web browser. Unfortunately, because it is both, it has the ability to morph its windows into many different forms, and whether you get the form you might prefer is quite arbitrary (no doubt there’s a consistent set of rules by which different forms are evoked, but in fifteen years of using Windows it has yet to become apparent to me).

Consequently, I cannot seem to set Explorer to always display directories in a specific way that I like, so instead I just live with whatever odd form a window takes, or when I have a specific task in mind, I go through the rather painful process of either configuring a window properly OR finding a window that is already configured properly and pointing it at the right directory (or web page).

When Mac users who are familiar with Windows point to a nice feature of Explorer and decry its missingness from OS X, they are right to do so. But they seldom add the caveat that this feature is arbitrarily present or not, or buried amid a host of horribleness beyond casual contemplation.

The Complaints

As I see it, the specific complaints against the new Finder are:

  • It doesn’t have tabbed windows.
  • Columns view is clumsy in some ways
  • Columns view lacks obvious features (e.g. sort options)
  • It’s no longer spatial
  • It’s metal
  • It behaves badly sometimes

All of these complaints are perfectly valid. Metal, in particular, is so hopelessly ugly next to the new “unified” windows in 10.4 that it should be made to disappear altogether. It was kind of cool in 2001… can we lose it now and pretend it never existed?

The problem with these complaints is not that they’re wrong, but that they’re either simple to fix (make column views sortable NOW Apple) or there’s no known solution:

  • Tabbed windows never worked properly in Classic, and there’s a dock in the way now. Figure out a way to make Finder windows “tabbify” to any side of the screen that doesn’t have the dock on it.
  • Columns view can be kind of clunky. I don’t know how to fix it and it’s better than the alternatives (e.g. huge hierarchical views).
  • Add sort options to column view NOW, please. And add filtering.
  • The spatial Finder is broken. Get over it. And please, figure out how to keep my desktop tidy without constant supervision.
  • Make Finder windows unified NOW, please.
  • If I say I want settings to apply to all Finder windows, APPLY THEM TO ALL FINDER WINDOWS.

Pathfinder is NOT the solution

I originally set out to put my feedback on Cocoatech’s forums (Cocoatech develops Pathfinder) but it seems I need to be a member, and I didn’t want to join (or if I had already joined, I couldn’t remember my userID and password). So here I am ranting in “public”.

Here’s the deal with Pathfinder:

  • It replaces column view with something more web like (a this>path>to>folder headline which I would love to see in Finder’s non-column views).
  • It provides tabbed browsing windows (not Classic Finder type tabs but FireFox / Camino / Safari / IE7 type tabs) which I would also love to see in Finder.
  • It also provides a whole bunch of hopelessly disorganized and marginally useful clutter.
  • It provides multiple redundant views of everything.
  • It can replace Finder (kind of) but the developers don’t really believe it so it does dumb things like reveal selected items in Finder windows rather than its own Windows.

Here’s Pathfinder’s problem in a nutshell: by trying to be too many things to too many people it simply becomes a clumsy mess.

It has two drawers — one on the left and one on the right. The icons to disclose the drawers helpfully resembler drawers (i.e. they indicate, kind of, that they disclose a drawer but not what you might find in the drawer).

The left drawer contains a process list allowing you to conveniently and/or accidentally terminate processes with two mouse clicks at any time from any Pathfinder window. WTF? This is like attaching, say, a self-destruct next to every light switch; sure it has a plastic safety cover over it, but having a 0.1% chance of accidentally blowing up your house every time you switch a light on or off is still a bad idea.

I can’t remember what the right drawer containers, except that it seems redundant. Indeed redundancy is the watchword of Pathfinder.

In Mac OS 7 the Apple menu stopped being a list of “Desk Accessories” and became instead of list of everything in the Apple Menu Items folder. This was really cool because it let you put aliases (another System 7 feature) of all your favorite stuff in the Apple Menu. I miss this feature. So do a lot of us.

OS X replaces the Apple Menu with the dock. This has the disadvantage that it takes up screen real estate (either permanently or at inconvenient times, such as when resizing a window) and the advantage that unlike the Apple menu it can act as a target for drag operations. It also eliminates what had become a burgeoning problem for Classic, which was “multiple incompatible mechanisms for accessing everything”. In OS9 you could launch an app via the Apple Menu but only drag to an application in the Finder (barring ugly system hacks); meanwhile running Applications were visible in another menu … etc.

Both the (old) Apple Menu and the Dock have the great virtue of being user configurable. The dock has the even greater virtue of containing all running applications.

Pathfinder, by default, provides you with no less than four, and probably more, methods of directly accessing the items in the Applications folder. I don’t know about you, but my Applications folder has 123 (I am not making this up) items in it at the bottom level. (I tried tidying my Applications folder up a long time ago, and discovered that Microsoft and Adobe products no-longer updated themselves properly, so I’ve decided to treat the Applications folder as a horrible place not fit for human habitation.)

Pathfinder automatically turns things like your Documents and Applications folders into menus. Rach of these menus is essentially a horrible booby trap waiting to blow up in your face. (Either you use these directories, in which case they have hundreds of files in them, or you don’t, in which case you don’t need that menu.) All of this stuff in Pathfinder is potentially configurable, but in the end it seems like the Windows Explorer problem (can you configure it and predict its behavior?) wrapped around a just-not-terribly-good-file-browser-window.

Pathfinder is also disorganized. The menus are all enormous with no real organisation. Things you might use once in a blue moon (e.g. set window transparency) are top level items rather than justifiably buried in in a dialog box.

I don’t know why a useful feature — launching a shell with its current directory mathcing the directory you’re looking at — is buried in a menu while a useless feature (showing you a console transcript) is conveniently available by clicking a toolbar icon that looks strikingly similar to the terminal icon. Oh and why is the tabbed shell window the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen in my life? (Although Pathfinder’s About box is a contender too.)

This gets on to my final complaint. Pathfinder is, aside from its main browser Window (which is merely cluttered) horribly ugly. While the company is called Cocoatech and great emphasis is placed on Pathfinder being Cocoa throughout, just being built with Interface Builder is no guarantee of aesthetic nirvana. Every dialog box is poorly laid out, with incorrect spacing, poorly chosen widgets, or just too much crap in too little space.

Even when it tries to add clever and original features (e.g. the dropzone) Pathfinder fails to make clear what it’s doing (e.g. the dropzone). I understand the principle (you can collect a bunch of stuff to copy from one place to another) but I don’t know what happens if I change my mind halfway through, or if some of the items are only being moved within a volume while others would be copied from one volume to another. This isn’t immediately apparent, so I’m not willing to risk guessing wrong.

I understand everyone’s frustration with the Finder. It’s far from perfect, and if folders in the Dock automatically disclosed to Finder windows, Finder adopted the best features of Windows Explorer (e.g. allowed items in the left column to disclose hierarchically), and it acted more predictably it could be better, but Pathfinder is an ugly, confusing mess. At its core, Pathfinder’s browser window isn’t as good as Finder’s, and adding hundreds of doodads around it doesn’t fix that fundamental problem.

The Ribbon of Life Has a Powerful Beat

I’ve just read Jakob Neilson expounding the virtues of “Microsoft’s” “New” “What You Get Is What You See” usability initiative in Office (versus Apple’s “What You See Is What You Get” concept). Along with many in the Windows world who have been treated to betas of Office 12, he has swallowed a good deal of kool-aid and come to a bunch of erroneous conclusions.

  1. This is new (it isn’t; heck the “bold” button in Word has always been a bold b)
  2. This is one in the eye for Apple (KeyNote, Pages, several iApps, do this kind of thing already, and they do it better)
  3. It works

I can’t be bothered going into detail here, but first of all this is a step further down the path of obfuscating more efficient ways of using software (e.g., in the case of Word, using stylesheets) in favor of wasting huge amounts of space on fancy toolbars and palettes.

Ultimately, the trend (for both Apple and Microsoft) seems to be to produce a word processor with icons that create an entire “fill in the blanks” document, produced by a “design professional”. So Word’s icons might have something like a “Moby Dick” icon, where you tab to the field containing “Ishmael” to rename the main character.