Siracusa on Panther

John Siracusa has reviewed every major release of Mac OS X, including the public beta, for Ars Technica. His reviews are exhaustive, accurate, and insightful, and his review of Panther is no different.

What Siracusa does so well — year after year, with each review — is to examine nearly everything that’s most notable about the latest version. He writes about what deserves to be written about, both good and bad. So many times with reviews of any nature, one gets the sense that the reviewer is following a formula: spend the first two-thirds of the review saying what’s good, then sprinkle in a few negative points to make it seem “balanced”.

Mac OS X 10.3 is, inarguably, very good. System-wide performance is better; the user-interface feels faster; Exposé and Fast User Switching are cool and useful; Open and Save dialogs have been reworked from scratch and are no longer horrible. The list of Panther superlatives is long, and Siracusa covers them all.

Equally inarguable, however, is that Mac OS X is not perfect. Some of its flaws are inexcusable, particularly those which are clearly regressions from the old Mac OS.

For whatever reason, there exists a subset of Mac users who dogmatically insist that these two points are mutually exclusive — that if Mac OS X is excellent, then it therefore has no serious flaws. That if Mac OS X has become a much better system than the old Mac OS was, then it therefore must be better in every single regard.

This is nonsense, of course. The two points are not mutually exclusive. And, not surprisingly, a large number of Panther’s significant deficiencies are related to the Finder.

Or perhaps this is surprising, given that Panther’s Finder was billed as brand-new by Steve Jobs during Panther’s unveiling at this year’s WWDC. Siracusa calls it correctly:

The Finder has not fundamentally changed in Panther.  "But wait!" you
say, "What about the brushed metal, and that sidebar?  It's <a
href="http://www.apple.com/macosx/features/finder/">a whole new
Finder</a>!"  Sadly, that is not the case.  Although the appearance has
changed in somewhat dramatic fashion (depending on how you feel about
the brushed metal look), the user interface of the Mac OS X Finder is
essentially unchanged.  As you may already know, I consider this <a
href="http://arstechnica.com/paedia/f/finder/finder-1.html"> a bad
thing</a>.  But before we get into all that, let's look at what has
changed.

Siracusa’s coverage of the Panther Finder is pure genius, and the whole thing is set up perfectly by this virtuoso introductory paragraph. This paragraph deserves to be examined piece-by-piece:

The Finder has not fundamentally changed in Panther.

Siracusa starts with a crisp pinprick, deflating the Apple/Jobs spin that the Panther Finder is totally new. No fanfare, no gloating, no fuss.

"But wait!" you say, "What about the brushed metal, and that sidebar? 
It's <a href="http://www.apple.com/macosx/features/finder/">a whole new
Finder</a>!"  Sadly, that is not the case.

Given that so many people are under the impression that the Finder has fundamentally changed, Siracusa acknowledges the misconception.

Although the appearance has changed in somewhat dramatic fashion
(depending on how you feel about the brushed metal look), the user
interface of the Mac OS X Finder is essentially unchanged.

Knowing that many readers are already off balance, having expected an overview of a brand-new “user centric” Finder, Siracusa summarizes in one sentence how this “brand new Finder” misconception has taken hold: The Finder does look new, but the brushed metal windows are, literally, only skin deep.

As you may already know, I consider this <a
href="http://arstechnica.com/paedia/f/finder/finder-1.html"> a bad
thing</a>.

Here, Siracusa offers full disclosure: He’s already stated the Panther Finder “has not fundamentally changed”; and for three years, he’s been arguing that the Mac OS X Finder is a poor implementation of a flawed design. So, before he even gets into it, he’s acknowledging that he knows that we know that his remarks about the Finder are not going to be pretty. He’s saying, Look, I welcome you to take what I have to say about the Panther Finder with a grain of salt. Just hear me out.

But before we get into all that, let's look at what has
changed.

And, here, the genius. Siracusa’s 10.3 Finder coverage spans three pages, and the order in which he’s organized it is perfect. First, what’s new: the metallic theme, the Sidebar, the return of System 7’s Labels after a three-year hiatus, and per-window Search fields. None of which features are really a big deal.

Next, Siracusa pans the Finder’s deplorable performance. It is horribly slow when displaying the contents of folders which contain a thousand or more files. And the file views in the Panther Finder — including the desktop — still don’t update automatically to reflect new files and folders created by other applications. These are not subjective problems.

Only on the third page of his Finder coverage does Siracusa dive into the big picture of the Finder’s confusing and flawed UI design. Some readers will dismiss this, because it is subjective. But Siracusa is right, and he makes his case well. And but because he waited to discuss the subjective UI design issues until after he’d covered the non-subjective performance issues, he has perhaps won over readers he might otherwise have lost, had he opened his Finder coverage with barrels blazing.

These three sections of Finder coverage seem so logical, so obvious — but achieving this sort of “obvious” organization is the real ballgame when you’re writing something as long and wide-ranging as a comprehensive review of an operating system which is so large that it spans four installation CDs (counting the development tools, which is fair, since Siracusa covers them too).

It’s gotten to the point where I don’t know what I look forward to more: Apple’s annual Mac OS X update, or Siracusa’s review of it.

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