It’s that time again: A new big cat is upon us, and while it hasn’t brought about the rumored ‘Marble’ aesthetic, there’s been a lot of enhancements, tweaks, and improvements to the user interface and graphics of Mac OS X 10.6, commonly known as Snow Leopard.
After a huge release like Leopard, which brought very radical change to the way our favorite OS looks, feels, and works, including a complete redesign of its icons and UI ‘theme’, Snow Leopard’s (incomplete) roundup of UI changes can only feel minor. Nevertheless, it shows some beautiful classroom examples of what composes true attention to detail.
Since Snow Leopard has quite a few interface changes and tweaks, I’ve organized them into four sections. I’ll kick off with the most visible changes, and round the article up with (very) minor tweaks that are hardly noticeable, but show us that Apple still hasn’t lost its touch.
The most obvious change in Snow Leopard’s out-of-the-box appearance is the refined Aurora desktop background. I’ve seen a lot of people sticking with Aurora as their background of choice while Leopard was out, preferring it massively over the old ‘blue swooshes’ designs. Snow Leopard continues the pink/purple space theme, but refines it by making the whole a lot softer and with less interfering big stars. When Leopard first came out, there were a number of complaints about big shining stars in the background making menubar text illegible or making items in the Dock appear active. There’s about 10 bigger stars in the background now, and they’re all in the very middle section of the image. Overall, there’s more stars, lending the background a bit more detail and ‘realism’. The aurora itself also resembles actual Aurora Borealis much more.
Apple has also been quick to update their own website with Macs using the correct desktop background image now, whereas upon the release of Leopard, most Macs on apple.com had the Tiger background showing.
Another change, which might be minor to some, is the redesign of several icons. No, it’s not very apparent on the surface, but the small sizes of a lot of icons have been completely overhauled, giving them a crisp appearance at 16, 32 and 48 pixels. The dynamically generated image thumbnails and blank document icons are also no longer a thorn in the eye of pixel-perfect icon lovers. Time Machine’s icon is a nice example:
I really like being able to see an actual arrow in the small Time Machine icon now. Some icons, like the hard disk’s are unchanged, however. Perhaps they’re due for some pixel love in 10.7.
Immediately apparent when using Snow Leopard are the Finder changes. Dragging to make a selection box on the desktop fades the box out neatly instead of just making it vanish. The same ‘fading’ effect happens with selected states of files and folders on the desktop. In the Finder itself, you can now browse through PDF files page-by-page, even at extreme 512 pixel icon sizes. The same goes for movies.
Stacks now have a means to navigate folders, which uses very iPhonesque widgets:
I wonder why they are using the iPhone iPod app-style back arrow instead of a written ‘Back’. I assume it was done to save screen real estate, but iPhoto still uses ‘Back’ instead of an arrow.
Exposé, iPhoto, iTunes and Safari (that is, its top sites view) now share a somewhat similar selection style:
Speaking of Exposé, it’s been a huge update for one of my favorite features. The new Exposé lets you sort windows by name and application (try using ⌘+1 and ⌘+2 while in Exposé), has a ‘Quick Look’—like way of zooming in Windows, and finally makes file dragging behavior consistent. Previously, a user could drag a file into a folder, stack, or other filesystem element and make the element ‘spring’ open after keeping it held over its icon, allowing further navigation. This is now extended to whatever apps are running, allowing you to pick a window in Exposé after holding the file dragged over its dock icon.
Exposé also has a vastly different way of arranging the window previews when compared to Leopard. Consider this comparison of the old and new behavior, with Leopard on the left and Snow Leopard on the right:
As you can see, the old method was slightly more economic, allowing you to see the window previews better and arranging windows quite arbitrarily. The new method is a bit more aesthetically pleasing and less organic. It also shows minimized windows.
The first time I used Snow Leopard, I noticed a few other nice, but minor tweaks of the new big cat.
System Preferences introduces a whole set of new icons. The Energy Saver panel now features a power-efficient CFL lamp, instead of the old incandescent lamp icon, which is very nicely in line with what the icon is supposed to mean. The icons for Desktop & Screensaver, Time Machine, and Bluetooth were tweaked.
Date and Time now gets a more polished Time Zone view, which can use the Core Location framework to estimate your location and automatically set your time zone (I’ve longed for this feature for a long time). There’s a funny crossover between the iPhone and Mac OS X in this panel, and it’s not just the framework that it uses to determine your location. Once determined, it drops a pin that’s exactly like the one you see in iPhone’s Maps app.
One of the other additions inside System Preferences is a separate set of resolution modes for connected (HD)TVs. The modes 480p, 720p, and 1080i/p are all indicated as TV output modes by a small, rather funny-looking TV icon next to them in the list.
Preview has received a large amount of feature love, and shows off some neat Core Animation tricks. Viewing a multi-page PDF enables a sidebar that offers an overview of the pages, which has a ‘booklet’ icon at the top that can be clicked to collapse the pages. While collapsing, the booklet cover neatly folds over the contents.
I love the update of the Wi-Fi menu item as well. When connecting, the menubar item now animates the waves in the AirPort logo pulsing outward, and shows signal strengths in the list of access points.
As usual in an update, there’s things to whine about. Image Capture, for instance. It’s definitely a whole new app. It has powerful multi-device support, lets you use scanners without those horrible proprietary semi-Mac apps you get on a driver CD, and some sort of sharing. Too bad Apple’s designers haven’t been able to work on its appearance a lot:
Resolution independence, a feature touted since a few WWDC’s ago, has gone back a few steps and is now quite broken. This is most likely due to private ‘theme’ format changes (moving away from the old SArtfile.bin and towards CoreUI). Thanks to John Siracusa and his extensive review of Snow Leopard for pointing this out.
Something exploded when Apple first introduced the Safari 4 beta. In fact, what happened is a great way to illustrate to a casual computer user how difficult designing a user interface really is.
Apple took our tabs and put them in the titlebar. An internet outrage erupted. Every Mac-related news website and forum started filling up with discussions about the Little Tabs That Could (or couldn’t, depending on the person behind the Mac). Then, when I was just settling into being a fully self-proclaimed ‘tabs-on-top’ guy, I installed the WWDC Snow Leopard seed and heard my jaw make a cracking sound as it dropped on the hardwood floor.
Oh dear. In the end, Apple did something very unlike them. Buckling to the large amount of negative feedback, they moved Safari 4′s tabs back to the ‘right’ place: between the toolbar and the webpage.
They’ve also shown care to the minor details, as is evident by the replacement of the kludgy ‘Tabs’ preference section icon which I complained about in my Safari 4 UI breakdown.
QuickTime X has received so many changes it requires a section of its own. I think most of you will be aware of the big changes, like its compact window mode and new controller look (which appear in iTunes 9 as well), but there’s some smaller changes that are very nice to expose.
I really like the new controller look. It shares some of its traits with the (hey, we were first!) doubleTwist movie controller.
The new QuickTime controller vs. the old QuickTime controller:
Nice and crisp. There’s also a new application icon. Originally shown off at WWDC with a pinkish hue, it was recolored to be blue like the old QuickTime icon. It hasn’t been updated on Apple’s website yet, but Snow Leopard does ship with the new icon.
More interesting is the new QuickTime Safari plugin appearance. The old one was dated by all means, and while I think that it’s not so aesthetically pleasing, it does a lot of things right. First off, it hides, like the regular controller, when you don’t need it, and it foregoes the confusing old collection of arrows.
The neatest thing about that little plugin player has to be seen with your own eyes, though.
The ‘scrubber’ knob of the player actually crawls along ‘between the pixels’. In other words, it’s being drawn in code and shows progression even when the allotted amount of pixels that make up the progress bar doesn’t allow moving the playhead as far as one pixel. This is something you see pretty frequently with longer videos. The playhead would just sort of ‘stick’ to a spot until it could progress a pixel further to the right. Instead, it intelligently draws the knob in a way that shows progression without moving the entire thing one pixel.
If that’s not attention to detail, I don’t know what is.
My compliments to the design and engineering teams at Apple for making Snow Leopard a solid release. As usual, if you spot noteworthy changes not featured here, let me know in the comments!