Please Buy Cheetah3d

Usability and 3d software, from the expensive to the free to the cheap.

Among my various half-assed skills, I can model, texture, and light 3d graphics (or “cg” as it’s now referred to by the cognoscenti). I have a bunch of examples here, but I’ve put one up here (it was my design for QuickMP3’s icon) to brighten up my blog with a picture for a change.

Anyway, I’ve used a lot of 3d software over the years, but I’ve never been a hardcore pro, and I’ve always thought that my stuff didn’t quite cut it, especially where character modeling and animation were concerned.

Back in the heyday of multimedia development, when you needed quite a lot of skill and knowledge to get even quite modest stuff even working on most hardware and people like me could get paid — literally — hundreds of thousands of dollars for a couple of months’ work simply because no-one else could do it that fast, that cheap, or that well, my casual interest in 3d led me to spend quite ridiculous amounts of money on 3d software.

For example, I spent something like AUD $15,000 (~USD $11,000) over a three year period on licenses and upgrades for Strata Studio Pro, ElectricImage Animation System, Form*Z, and 3D Studio Max (along with Character Studio). While these purchases were always “justified” by the work I was paid to do (hey I was earning six figures, I had no dependents, and it was tax deductible), in part, with them, the real reason I kept buying new packages instead of just making do with (say) Strata Studio Pro (relatively cheap at ~$1200) was that I kept thinking if only I had feature X I would be able to do character animation.

Anyway, I’m someone who expects to make major progress in new areas with relatively little effort, and if I don’t I tend to do something else. For example, if I have some fairly major programming project that requires me to learn a new programming language, I tend to expect to get the project substantially working within a few days or pick a new language. (This is not the way to approach character animation.)

Well the good times have gone (oddly enough, roughly coincident with the dot com bust) and I don’t have tens of thousands to waste on software I hardly use, so I started trying to work with very cheap or free software. (Even the upgrade prices of most of the packages I’ve mentioned are high, except for ElectricImage which has other issues.) In any event, all the major vendors give you free demos these days, and I must say that the free demos are not encouraging. (Hint for marketing pros at Autodesk et al: letting people have free demos won’t work if you simply convince them they have no clue how to use your software.)

Here’s my very quick summary of the high end 3d market. This is the stuff of religious wars … I’m not trying to diss your favorite product.

Usability

3D Studio Max wins
Cinema4D pretty good
Maya bad
Lightwave bad and strange
XSI very bad and very strange

Functionality

Maya wins for post production, Max wins for games
Everyone else is a close second (for either)

In general, 3d programs are really complicated. I mean really, really, really complicated. This complexity is used to justify 3d programs having really bad UIs. 3d Studio Max wins because it does some really obvious stuff well:

  • You can draw stuff by clicking on a tool and then dragging in your view. The thing you want to create will appear more-or-less where you expect it to. Insofar as it behaves oddly, you can figure out how to fix it fairly easily.
  • You can move the viewport around fairly easily and intuitively.
  • You can select things by clicking on them.
  • You can modify your selection by clicking on modifier tools.
  • You can “see” most of the things you can do either by clicking tabs or right-clicking. Commands that don’t apply to the current selection will generally be greyed out.
  • Undo works

In usability terms, of the high-end 3d programs, 3D Studio Max is (relatively):

  • Visible
  • Forgiving
  • Explorable

(Sadly, even today, Usability is hardly a well-established discipline — just consider the fact that two of the best known “gurus” in Usability (who work together) have quite different priority lists (Tog’s, Nielsen’s) for usability.)

For what it’s worth, I don’t think much of Nielsen. Two of his ten items are, essentially, online help. If your users are looking for online help you’ve generally failed. Another item: “Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.” is absolutely right for some things and absolutely wrong for a large class of other things (you need to give the user more information when they’re doing less common tasks).

The point is, the best high end commercial 3d software scores about 5/10 on the usability scale.

None of these features conflicts with the complexity of 3d programs, and yet few or none of these things are true of any of 3d Studio Max’s competitors. Unless you work almost daily in most high end 3d programs you have to remember the weird characteristics of each program to use it at all (forget about efficiently).

Since none of the high end packages are terribly compelling usability-wise, there’s a very capable free alternative. Blender. Blender has recently been used to complete a very impressive short film and all the files used to create the film are available for free as well — the idea being that artists have demonstrated that they can do real high end work with Blender and are giving away the techniques they used to do it.

Now, Blender is the third least usable 3d program I’ve ever spent significant time trying to use (the “winner” in this category is Alias PowerAnimator, while second place goes to SoftImage XSI; I’m ignoring programs I essentially bounced off completely). If you go back to the list of virtues of 3D Studio Max:

  • If you figure out how to insert items they appear at fixed size at the position of the 3d cursor and aligned to the current view. You’ve probably moved the 3d cursor by accident by now so you may well not see what you’ve created. You almost never want to align newly created objects to arbitrary views so you’ll want to learn how to strip the rotation from newly created objects…
  • It’s not at all obvious how to navigate the viewport.
  • Clicking (with the left button) repositions the 3d cursor. This is not a useful feature for (I guess) 90% of users.
  • You can modify your selection in some ways by entering edit mode (press tab) and in other ways by leaving it (press tab). Anything that works in both modes behaves differently in the two modes.
  • The good news is that many commands are visible if you have the correct tab selected. The bad news is that there are two levels of tabs, the icons make no sense, and many functions are labelled using hardcore industry insider jargon (e.g. catmull-clarke).
  • Undo only works sometimes.

Hey, but it’s free.

Now I did render the forklift icon (above) using Blender. But I didn’t model it in Blender, and I had to pretty much look up documentation every step of the way. And I doubt I could do it again without going through the documentation again.

Really, the only reason I’ve persevered with Blender is that it’s free. In actual fact, it’s probably the most unusable 3d program I’ve ever used, but XSI is a dog and it’s Windows only and PowerAnimator has been replaced by the far more usable Maya (well, the far more Usable Maya 8.5; Maya 1-3 were horrible too), which I would probably buy if I could justify the expense. Also, Maya is a dog and has draconian licensing. (Blender works very nicely even on low end hardware. It’s also tiny. And did I mention it’s free? So it’s on every computer I ever touch.)

Despite being Open Source, any attempts or requests to improve Blender’s UI are met with outright hostility by the community. The users are invested in the lousy UI which they know and claim to love. The programmers are … well programmers. Either the UI makes sense to them or it doesn’t impinge on their consciousness when test rendering glass balls in HDRI environments assembled with two clicks or loaded from a file made two years ago. The best we can hope for is that the next version will have an absolutely terribly but completely user-customizable interface. This means that once you’ve figured out how to do something and provided you can be bothered you can fix each UI problem for yourself as you discover it and then try to remember what you did.

Usability Rule # … I don’t know … 7: big preference dialogs are not a substitute for decent UI design. (Why? Well for one thing, an importent way to learn to use stuff is to ask people, and people won’t know the answer if everyone is using a differently configured program. Basically every configurable option conflicts with Usability Rule #1: Consistency. This doesn’t mean that every configurable option is bad, but it does mean it comes with a cost, and the benefit had better be worth it.)

So, enter Cheetah3d. At $129 Cheetah3d 4.0 is, in my opinion, for anyone except full-time hardcore 3d artists, the best 3d program on the planet. Now, please note, I haven’t used them all, and I’ve used even fewer of them lately. But, based on my pretty well educated guesses, none of the other software out there has a fighting chance.

It isn’t the best dedicated modeler around (that would be modo or if you don’t want to spend the money perhaps silo) and it isn’t the best renderer around. It doesn’t have every feature you might want (it conspicuously lacks particles, volumetric lights and materials, and motion blur). So what’s so good about it?

  • What it does, it does very very well.
  • It does almost everything you need
  • It has a clean, uncluttered UI
  • It’s fast and light and cheap enough to be on every computer you use*
  • Even I can do character animation with it
  • It’s fully scriptable (via JavaScript but, unfortunately, not AppleScript
  • Its native file format is human-readable XML
  • It has a seamless workflow to Unity 3d

Oh, and it only runs on a Mac.

* As long as it’s a Mac.

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.