I can’t stant it no more

October 12, 2007

I admit it, I simply cannot use Vista laptop for more-less serious tasks and I’ve completely given up using it for GUI design.

I never though I’d want to have XP installed on it that much… Sorry, Microsoft, but Vista is a fucking slow and buggy piece of crap and I can’t imagine any good use for it.

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Vista icons: could they be better?

July 18, 2007

No vector icons. OK, bitmaps are usually large enough. But are they worth looking?

Iconfactory, the creators of original XP icon theme has made a lot in order to give Vista a brand new look. However, what we actually see is far not as good:

computers.jpg

Just compare the same computer’s icon from Iconfactory portfolio with the one from an actual Vista.

The reason, I suppose, is simple: unwilling to pay for a complete icon suite from Iconfactory Microsoft has just taken a sample set and made the rest by its own designers (obviously far not that skilled). As a result, we see lots of elegant and nice looking icons (like Recycle bin) aside with ugly, blocky and aliased ones you’ll unlikely wish to enlarge.


Vista, the next “Millenium”?

July 15, 2007

Last week I had a chance to make a test drive of Microsoft’s latest effort in Desktop OS development, Windows Vista. Actually, after reading numerous reviews and/or previews I had a mixed feeling about a need to look at it at all, but my designer’s curiosity has won. So, in short, what do we get on upgrading?

Pros:

  • Vista Aero UI is pretty. Really pretty. Just as much as some people love Wincustomize stuff they would love Aero, especially its clean skin and small details like Window header blur or “file flare” animation on copy.
  • Explorer is redesigned for good. Breadcrumb control (previously actively used by GNOME Nautilus) makes navigation more efficient and file thumbnails are more useful than before.
  • Aero UI has finally got rid of this nasty “GUI art” (redraw problems) and thus looks a bit more pleasant.
  • Gadgets and Desktop search are nice addons to old XP Desktop.

Cons:

  • It’s damned slow! On a modern PC with an excellent video card, modern processor and 2 Gb of RAM it’s visibly slower than XP. The difference is subtle at first, but the more you work, the more you notice annoying control delays. Besides, “eating” half a gigabyte of RAMjust after start…
  • Aero is annoying. In a few hours “wow” effects stops and you understand all its ugliness. All this sexy animation, stripes and highlight is very impractical and non-functional. The difference between active and background windows merely exists, soaped backgrounds make you mad, rolodex view is merely usable and taskbar hints are sometimes lost. You may return to the simplified non-transparent version of UI, but it’s times less eye candy and just ugly. Even with hardware acceleration minor graphical quirks exist, like windows, slowly restoring its content after minimizing…
  • The new UI is very inconsistent. You’ll have to learn things anew and controls seem to be located in the most bizzare places…

Overall, it’s disappointing. After 5 years of development we come up with a merely usable product (software, unwilling to operate properly, “are you sure?” anti-user protection on each step, slow operation…) with very arguable advantages over XP. Do you really want Vista? Try Mac or Linux first… Seriously. Macs had most of this stuff in Tiger for years and they’re more functional. Linux offers a competing Desktop with a much less price. And what about Vista, I’m not even sure Microsoft would be able to fix all the quirks with its service packs, so we may probably have to wait for the upcoming Windows 2009 or whatever it delivers next.


Who made who: Apple vs Microsoft vs all others

June 20, 2007

The “who stole from whom” on Microsoft vs. Apple UI discussion seem to renew again with the release of Windows Vista and the upcoming release of OS X 10.5 “Leopard”. With implementation of hardware destkop acceleration in Linux (thanks to Beryl/Compiz project) overall mess has only increased, so some freaks even state that Apple “stole” cube effect from Linux (sic!).

Fortunately, we have internet, books and other media to help us find the truth out.

Short story

As you may already know, today’s GUI is a far offspring of Star UI developped by Xerox PARC. That’s it: during the 70th, PARC used to be a blacksmith of what we now call “graphical user interfaces”. Nevertheless, with Xerox losing interest to its own computers and concentrating on copier machines people started leaving.

If you try to trace biographies of some of PARC’s leading UI researches you’ll also ind out that many of them used to work in Apple as well. This looks familiar, right? Apple not only managed to get some of the best designers in the industry, but also got rights to use some graphical interfaces already created by Xerox.

So, what does Microsoft have to do with all this? The thing is that Apple has licensed Microsoft some of its UI in return for some investments and the promise to continue development of the Office suite for Mac.

So, Apple made it first. But even before Apple there was PARC. Microsoft “lent” some ideas from Apple and often had a “catching” role. But if you think Microsoft is researchers are only working with photocopiers and steal Apple GUI (I’m not talking on Linux as in general it has brought nothing new into the UI world) try to look at this page 😉

Long story

Some references you may find useful:

Further reading

To anyone having interest in the history of graphical interfaces let me recommend some interesting reading sources:

http://www.designinginteractions.com/ Site, dedicated to a book with the same name, “Designing Interactions”. Even though somechapters are available for free I do strongly recommend buying the book itself. Some of its most interesting parts cover the history of the very first computers’ creation, the appearance of the Desktop metaphor and interviews with people benind these wonderful inventions.

http://www.guidebookgallery.org/ – a visual guide to the history of modern operating systems. Ever wanted to compare interfaces of Apple II and Windows 1.0? Go and try it yourself. Must be bookmarked by any GUI


Think different: some hints to Mac switchers

June 10, 2007

Even though all modern Desktop operating systems use the same 30 year old metaphor of an office desk with folders and files on it the resulting experience of using them differs greatly. And while Windows Desktops hold about 90 per cent of the market Mac OS X might be the most interesting and worthy alternative to it unless you’re a poor student or OSS zealot.

No matter if you’re coming from Linux or Windows you must be ready to face some challenges. No, Mac OS is not harder to use, its just different. So, say good-bye to your old habits and welcome to the real world.

Here’re some basics to ease your migration process:

Mac is not Windows (neither it is Linux)

Your Windows and/or Linux habits usually won’t work with Mac GUI. Think different!

  • The three magic buttons in OS X are located on the left side of each windows, contrary to Linux (KDE/GNOME) and Windows. IMHO this way they take less attention. At the same time the rightmost oval button usually works for displaying/hiding the application’s toolbar.
  • The “Red cross” button doesn’t necessarily close the application. In most cases it offers “get out of my signt” functionality i.e. closes current document and hides the program into Dock. In order to quit you’ll either have to press CMD+Q hotkey or quit the program from the Dock menu.
  • The “Green plus” button is not minimize! Instead it switches between the application-defined and user-defined window sizes. It might be confusing to Windows users at first, but thankfully there’s a working workaround to make “zoom” behave like “maximize” for some applications.
  • Dock is not Taskbar. Instead, it combines functionality of an application launcher with simple Window management features. Discussions about which approach is “more correct” may last for years, but I’m sure the Dock is step forward and this is good. You may need some time to get used to this functionality though…
  • Menubar’s right part works somewhat like Windows System Tray area: some applications place their windows there instead of Dock. And even though this area cannot be minimized, you may drag some icons off it to reduce clutter (which is rarely needful).
  • Not all versions of cross-platform software look (and feel) good on Mac. For example, you may prefer to replace Firefox with Camino, GIMP with Seashore and OpenOffice.org with NeoOffice.
  • Even though Mac OS X might be comfortably operated with a one-button mouse, it does know of existance of three-button mices with two-direction wheels as well. You won’t even have to install additional drivers in many cases. Though, left mouse button might become your #1 instrument abd you may often replace the riht button’s functionality with it.

Mac OS X heavily relies on direct object manipulation

I.e. you may perform lots of operations by using drag’n’drop. Surely, this is true to Windows and (to some extent) to Linux but in OS X this model has been moved a bit further. Here’re just few samples:

  • Select text (or image) from an application and drag it to the Desktop to save it to a file.
  • Select video fragment in QuickTime and drag the movie screen to create a clip.
  • Drag an URL text to browser’s icon to open that URL.
  • Drag and drop an Address book contact to save it as a file.
  • Drag and drop an Audio CD icon to rip the CD as aiff files.

Believe me, you can do much more than just that!

Apps are different

First of all, OS X applications are often seen to end user as bundles. Bundle is a special folder with all application’s data (except for configuration files) that looks and behaves to user like a single file. In other words, even such applications as Firefox or iTunes looks like a single file for those using it. And that’s just great: no need for users to mess with lots of garbage he shouldn’t even know about. Other interesting info:

  • Most OS X applications are distributed as disk images: double click to mount the image and then drag the application to desired location (usually Applications folder). Then unmound the disk image and you’re done.
  • Many applications may be easily moved to a different location without losing their functionality.
  • Even though installers for OS X exist, they’re usually used for complex applications and frameworks.
  • Most applications may be removed by dropping them to the Trash bin. Complete uninstallation (erasing all related data like configuration files left) is possible with programs like AppZapper or uApp.
  • Unlike Windows, OS X bundled applications are really useful.
  • Contrary to a popular belief there’re lots of alternatives for your Windows or Linux programs for OS X (more on this later).

Zero configuration and interportability

It’s a fact: OS X and many of its applications ahve very good default settings and rarely require any configuration at all. Non-critical data is usually hidden from user thus making it harder to make mess something (although there’s doubtly any protection from an idiot with root password). Interesting facts:

  • Most applications (and system itself!) “just work” without a need to spend lots of time on preconfiguration. OS X apps are written by sane people and most have excellent default you don’t need to touch.
  • There’s no registry to configure hidden settings although you may find some tweakers or Terminal commands to get more control on your system.
  • Applications usually rely on system data, so you won’t need to enter your name each time (it’s taken from the Address book) or configure proxy settings for each application.
  • Many devices work by just pluggin them in, without drivers or additional efforts from your side.
  • Using wireless protocols like Bluetooth or Wi-Fi is often painless.
  • Unless you’re an expert (I doubt so) you don’t need to mess with “hidden configuration” or something.
  • Most files of standard types (i.e. MP3, MPEG-4, PDF, PNG, etc…) may be accessed with build-in functionality. For example, you don’t even need an Adobe Reader in order to view PDF files.

Security

While on Windows you must install a third-party firewall and antivirus software in order to get more-less safe. For Mac users life is easier:

  • Firewall is bundled and on by default, you don’t even need to know of its existence.
  • Despite of some antivirus software “experts'” thoughts there’re no viruses for OS X. Windows viruses won’t harm your Mac either.
  • Most sensitive operations explicitly require administrator’s password, so unless you’re a complete idiot with root rights you’ll unlikely blow up your system.
  • System passwords and site passwords are kept encrypted so thiefs would unlikely to get them.
  • OS X has a decent access control system build-in in order to keep an eye on your children.

So, don’t be afraid of new functionality and giving up your old habits. In a short time you’ll understand that Mac approach is usually more user friendly 🙂


X vs XP

April 11, 2007

Sometimes it’s interesting to compare approaches of two major desktop operating systems: Apple OS X and Microsoft Windows XP.

Below are two screenshots, taken when a user attempts to close the text processor’s window with some text already in:

Windows “save changes” dialog

OS X “save changes” dialog

Pay a bit more attension to these differences:

  • Windows dialog window is created as a modal window: you may move it so it wouldn’t cover text behind it (but can’t modify the text itself!) and OS X dialog is build-in into the parent window and can’t be moved.
  • Windows dialog uses standard “warning” icon while OS X displays the application’s icon.
  • Windows dialog text is nearly useless: it’s formal, uses “machine language” and not well formatted, unlike one of OS X
  • in Windows buttons are labelled with standard Yes No Cancel labels no matter what context is. In OS X labels are more meaningful.
  • Button location is different…

Let’s talk a bit about two last differences.

Yes/No/Cancel dialogs are common to users but in fact one have to read the whole message’s text in order to decide what one has to do. Texts may differ from “Save file changes? Y/N/C” to “Are you sure you don’t want to save changes? Y/N/C” although the latter is seen rarely, fortunately 🙂

As for button placement, the principal differences are:

  • Buttons with destructive and non-destructive (Don’t save/Save) actions are separated in X:
    • Don’t save and Cancel/Save groups are divided by interval
    • Don’t save and Save buttons are plased in the opposite sides of the dialog, so you cannot mix them “by accident”
  • Taking into account that most users visually scan each dialog from top-left to bottom-right, it’s especially interesting to notice button order:
    • in X the default button is rightmost and it’s save
    • in XP Yes (Save) is leftmost, very close to No (Don’t save) and Cancel is rightmost (sic!)
    • in some Windows dialogs Help is rightmost…

So, implied default action for Apples’s OS is “Save document” while for XP it’s “Cancel and don’t bother me” or “Help!!!” 🙂

According to this document on MSDN things might improve in Windows Vista and post-XP applications, but not for too much. When it comes to communicating with the user through dialogs Windows is far behind Mac OS in nearlyevery aspect…

P.S.: Linux GNOME dialogs attempt to mimic the “apple style” of behavior, but due to developer-related problems in real life they’re still less useful…


Microsoft Vista icon design tutorial published

March 22, 2007

Microsoft has just published a draft version of their new Vista icon design tutorial. Definitely a must-know for everyone involved in the process of software design.

Even now the tutorial is quite comprehensive (especially compared to Apple’s guide with a little of useful info), but some graphics is blocky (nearest neighbor resampling, oh no…) plus some there’re certain problems with text parts on images. An excellent document nevertheless!

As you may also notice, Vista icons try to balance between a photorealistic Aqua style and “dummy”-like XP. I don’t personally like the whole their icon set, but some icons are interesting.

P.S.: does anyone know, who worked on Vista icons this time? Before there used to be IconFactory, who has made a classic XP style.