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15 Things Apple Should Change in Mac OS X

Two of our top operating systems editors sound off

By Scot Finnie and Ken Mingis
December 14, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Editor's note: After reading this story, several of our readers wrote in with their own Mac OS X Pet Peeves. And many readers recommended fixes and workarounds for the problems we outlined here; see How to Make Mac OS X Better: Readers Show the Way.

In many ways, it's easy to slam Windows XP and Vista: Just start counting security flaws or user experience nightmares. When you're the Goliath of the operating system world, everyone wants to hurl stones. But what about the proverbial David, or in this case Apple Computer Inc.'s Mac OS X? Looking for flaws in Apple's operating system seems like picking on the little guy -- until you remember that Apple is doing very well these days and has made much of its vaunted user interface and seemingly secure operating system underpinnings.

Even though it's been out for more than 18 months now, Mac OS X 10.4, or Tiger, is a noticeably better operating system than XP or Vista. But it's not perfect. OS X has its own quirks and flaws, little irritants made all the more irritating by the fact that they come out of Cupertino, which should know better. There are some things about the way it works that aren't as flexible, usable or convenient as Windows.

Since we highlighted 20 Things You Won't Like About Windows Vista, it's only fair to take a look at the little things in Tiger that users find equally annoying. With perhaps one or two exceptions, our list isn't about making Apple's operating system work like Windows. It's about making the Mac all it can be.

There are probably a lot of features and functions that Apple could -- and probably will -- add to OS X. But we're not pointing out missing features; we're focusing on 15 of the little things already in OS X that need refinement or rethinking based on our everyday use of Macs.

15. No Date Display. For all their convenience features, one of the most obvious data points that neither the Mac nor Windows quite does properly is your basic readout of today's date. You probably already know today is Thursday or Friday. What you're more likely to be unsure of is whether today is Dec. 7 or Dec. 8. When you think about it, is there really any more obvious piece of information that people tend to forget than today's date? Isn't this an obvious thing a computer should display? We think so.

Apple displays the date, grayed out, on the menu that opens when you click the clock face on the right side of the main menu. Windows delivers today's date in a pop-up when you hover your mouse pointer over the clock in the taskbar. Until Vista, Windows didn't even have its own calendar. People use their Windows XP clock-settings configuration dialog to check calendar dates. (As a result, they often wind up changing their system dates accidentally -- which these days can trigger a nasty WGA (Windows Genuine Advantage) antipiracy warning.)

Apple has a couple of choices. It could, and we think should, add a basic six-digit date area to the main menu-bar clock. It might read Dec-07, or for outside the U.S., 07-Dec. Considering all the other programs that append icons in that area, Apple should feel no compunction about using this space. Lose the day of the week if you have to, or make it optional. Another possibility is to make the iCal icon in the Dock dynamically display today's date at all times. It does so automatically whenever iCal is running. Why not just make it dynamically display today's date at all times?

(See How to Make Mac OS X Better: Readers Show the Way for a solid workaround to problem 15.)

14. Widgets Can't Be Placed on the Desktop. The Dashboard is very nice, but its all-or-nothing approach is frustrating. We want to be able to drag and drop individual widgets to the desktop. Granted, we don't want many widgets on the desktop. We might like more if they weren't so large. The Dashboard looks great, but while we nip in to use the calculator now and then, it doesn't get as much use as it might. There are also some readout-type functions (how hot is my Core 2 Duo?) we might like to have that just wouldn't be all that useful when you have to actively pursue them to see them. Windows Vista's Sidebar is slightly better than the Dashboard because it can optionally display at all times, or you can put individual Sidebar Gadgets on the desktop.

(Readers wrote in with a workaround to problem 14, but unfortunately it causes a worse problem. See How to Make Mac OS X Better: Readers Show the Way.)

13. Inconsistent Use of Context Menus. Apple should fully enable context menus in Finder and other Apple software. We're not saying the Mac should rely solely on context menus in even tiny facets of the user interface -- that's a mistake Windows and third-party developers make on that platform. But context menus are useful process shortcuts for more experienced users. No one is forcing anyone to use them, so there's really no reason for longtime Mac users to be upset about this change to OS X. To each his own favorite way of working.



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