Sunday, April 13, 2008

Why-Mac Part One: Window Management

Apple stock compared to the Nasdaq and Dow Jones.

Until recently, there were no real contenders to Microsoft's OS monopoly. Since the release of OS X and the iPod, however, Apple has steadily begun to challenge that dominance. Apple has over 19 billion dollars in cash stashed away. Their stock price, despite recent declines due to economic fears, has increased over 350% since 2005. Studies have shown 40% of incoming freshmen at some universities using Macs, and Apple has garnered a 25% market share by revenue for laptops sold by all manufacturers for February 2008.

Why-Mac will be a series of articles explaining in detail how I have found Mac OS X to be the best in usability, productivity, and aesthetics. Much has been written about switching to Mac or intricately tweaking OS X, but most of this information is either very basic or too technical. These articles will span the middle ground. For readers who are familiar with computer usage and MS Windows, recent switchers or those considering a Mac, it will present details about how Macs are different and how those differences can make you more productive. Hopefully even longtime Mac users will find some tips and tricks and come to understand their computer better.

First, a bit of background on what qualifies me to be writing these articles. I started using personal computers at the age of 11 on a Texas Instruments 99 4/A. My parents wouldn't buy any game cartridges for it, so my brother and I learned to program in Basic. Later, I became a fan of Atari computers. The Atari ST used the GEM interface, which was a knock-off of the Macintosh OS, but it offered more "Power Without the Price". In high school, the local newspaper published a letter to the editor in which I argued against the purchase of Macs for our school (infuriating our computer teacher). After high school, I worked at a couple of PC clone stores, selling, building, and repairing computers. I learned the workings of DOS and Windows. The promises of Microsoft for each revision of Windows would excite and then disappoint me. In 1995, I became an internet programmer and later learned Java. My experience with Macs began shortly after OS X was released. Having tinkered with Linux off and on for years, the stability of Unix coupled with a nice user interface appealed to me. I got my first Mac in 2001, spent a couple months learning OS 9.2 in order to understand some history, then plunged into OS X and never looked back. While I don't like to consider myself a "fanboy", as my friend said on the matter, "There is no fervor like that of the converted." Without further ado, here then is part one of Why-Mac.

One of the primary differences between Windows and OS X that is often overlooked is the basic way applications are run and windows handled. The Unix world uses the concept of a window manager. It decides how to arrange and display the individual windows of running applications. Though MS Windows and OS X lack a true window manager program, for ease of discussion I will nonetheless use this terminology.

The OS X window manager offers many usability and productivity advantages over Windows. As most anyone who has used a PC and a Mac knows, the running application in OS X displays its menu options, File, Edit, et cetera, at the very top of the screen. Windows on the other hand, puts these options within the window of the program. Ergonomics experts talk about Fitts's Law, which calculates the amount of time for a desired target to be accessed when doing something like moving a mouse. It has been shown that having these common options on a border makes them easier and faster to access.
Safari windows revealed by Exposé.
The next OS X feature that is often overlooked is how multiple documents within one program are handled. Unlike Windows, Mac OS distinguishes between an application and its separate documents. This enables several advantageous usage scenarios. Take the Safari web browser, for example. If several separate windows are opened, they can be quickly switched between by using Command and ~, the tilde key, (i.e. Apple-~). To view the open windows graphically, press F-10 to activate what Apple calls Expose, which also gives the ability to click on a desired document. If you want to switch to a different program altogether, say going to iTunes to change playlists, pressing and holding Command-Tab shows the current apps. Sensibly, they are shown only once, not once for each open document. Similarly, the Dock shows running applications, not their individual windows.
Alt-Tab reveals running applications.
There is even more granularity available, though. Minimizing a document by pressing the yellow minus sign removes it from this internal list, so it no longer appears in Exposé or when switching with Command-~. This is useful, for example, when there is a website I want to read but not right at the moment. A tiny screenshot of the minimized window appears in the Dock, complete with the icon from its parent application to make distinguishing it easier.
Safari windows minimized in the Dock.
OS X has also retained the Macintosh feature of hiding an application. Pressing Command-H makes a program hide. Its minimized windows are removed from the Dock (though the program's icon remains), and Exposé no longer shows any of its documents. The program can be unhidden by selecting it with Alt-Tab or clicking on the Dock icon.

The differentiation between windows and applications provides still more benefits. Pressing Command-W on a Mac will consistently close only the current document window. Pressing Command-Q will quit the entire application and close all of its documents. In MS Windows it tends to be a crap shoot whether Alt-F4 (the shortcut for closing a window) will exit just that document or the entire program. In addition, an option available only in OS X is running a program with no open documents. At first this seems nonsensical and confusing. If you close all a program's documents, it remains running with its menu bar at the top of the screen but nothing below. An obvious use for this functionality is loading a program like Photoshop and leaving it run even when no images are currently being edited. Photoshop has many plug-ins and takes a long time to load. Being able to leave it open in this way is a real productivity boost.

The newest OS X, Leopard's window manager also gives the option of placing programs on various virtual desktops. This feature is called Spaces. It provides a simple way to segregate your work into separate domains; a further option that eliminates the clutter of running many applications and makes accessing information faster and easier.

The final area of window management in which OS X excels is maximizing windows. In the Microsoft world, maximizing a window means making it take up the entire screen regardless of how much information it actually presents. In most OS X applications the documents are smart enough to resize only as much as needed. For example, when zooming in and out on images in Photoshop, a maximized image window will fit the size of the image on screen as long as there is available real estate and not cover additional space with a blank window.

This concludes part one of my Why-Mac series. Understanding window management is key to maximizing productive computer use. Mac OS X facilitates efficiency by providing the aforementioned means of organizing, viewing, and switching between applications. The rest of this series will look at more ways Macs enable a more pleasant and productive computing experience.

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