Thursday, December 29, 2011

osx vs windows redux

Ranting on obscure blogs is a bit like tossing nickels into the Grand Canyon, but... hey, a nickel!

I sometimes jump the gun in criticizing Apple and OSX. Too often that comes from inexperience with OSX. In many cases, a serious criticism of "you can't do this on a Mac" (for example, easily copying the path information from an open Finder window into a "Save As" dialog) runs head on into a "Mac just does it a different way, you Windows-muddled fool" (you can drag the little folder icon on top of the Finder window!) and gets diluted into vaguer criticisms about "UI emphasis" and "potential confusion" (the way that drag and dropping that icon feels too much like a file system manipulation... and darn it, using string-based paths is sensible, if a bit nerdy.)

So once more into the breach...

One thing holding me back from switching to OSX for my work machine is a feeling that the keyboard support isn't up to snuff... specifically on Windows, nearly every text editor I use maps ctrl-left arrow and ctrl-right arrow to jumping words. Now there is some inconsistency to it: some editors think an underscore is a word break, others don't, some jump to the start of the next word immediately, others jump to the end of the current word first. But at least the standard is there, and I don't have to interrupt my typing flow with mouse movements, or play "press and hold the arrow key 'til the cursor finally gets there".

I thought this problem sprung from Apple's pro-mouse, anti-keyboard stance. The original Mac keyboard didn't even have arrow keys! See for yourself:

But of course, I was wrong. I was expecting that all the keys I was looking for would be mapped to cmd-, which is (roughly) the Mac equivalent of "ctrl". On OSX however, the cmd-arrow keys jump either to the beginning/end of the line (left and right) or of the whole document (up and down). However, The "option" key WAS mapped to what I wanted, with the left and right jumping of words.

Arguably, Mac's use of these keys is more efficient and logical than the PC standards. There's an intuitive hook to how cmd-left/right goes to line endings, and cmd-up/down means the whole document. These keys can then play the role of home/end on PCs: home/end = line, ctrl-home,/ctrl-end=whole document. Furthermore home/end are two of the most wandering keys on laptop and compact PC keyboards, there has been no definitive consensus on where they should go, and sometimes they are mapped to special, laptop only "fn-" keys. So points to Apple for battening down the hatches on that.

So I was wrong. Mostly. But can I say Mac has too many of the wrong kind of keys? Look at this:

 "fn" "control" "option" and "command"! 4 different keys that mean roughly the same thing, "make the other key I'm pressing do something else". To make things worse, the little used key "fn" gets the most prime real estate-- the place where Fitt's Law implies the most important key should go. (To be fair, IBM/Lenovo Thinkpads make the same mistake, and it's even worse because a PC's ctrl key is much more important than the Mac's.)

Here's the same image from a typical Windows keyboard:

It's the same number of keys, but I think handled much more gracefully, with better differentiation. "ctrl" and "alt" are far away from each other. Plus in Windows, there's a stronger convention for when which is used: ctrl- combinations tend to be "do something now": copy, paste, save, new, etc. Alt- combinations are mostly used to pull down menus. (Windows used to have greater discoverability of that feature by underlining the accelerator letter on the menubar, e.g. File and Edit, but now (by default) those underlines are hidden until the user holds the alt key.)

The windows-key is special, in most sense of the word: usually it means a quick hop to the start menu (and I love the way they put the cursor in a search box there... windows-key,"program name fragment", return is a very quick way to start a program that is not frequently used enough to merit a pin on the task bar.) The Windows key also has a few obscure key combos that are all OS-wide, like win-m or win-d for hiding all windows and showing the desktop. (Though weirdly, win-d is reversible by hitting again, and the older win-m is not.)

(And it still seems odd to me that Microsoft managed to get their logo on all that hardware by all those manufacturers...)

So wrapping up my arrow key rant, Mac feels a bit klutzy to me, and it's awkward to use and annoying to remember the distinction between "command" and "option" when going back and highlighting and copy words that I just typed. To make the whole scene worse, why isn't the Option (formerly Closed Apple Key) labeled with its icon,  ?(And what kind of symbol is that anyway? To be fair I guess the Option Key has its uses, like for typing letters with accents and the like, but still there are aspects to it that seem half-baked.

Rant over! I'm still on the fence about making the "switch" (and in part because I worry about Apple being such a dominant monoculture of computing) but thinking about the UI/interface it provides makes the potential transition easier for me.

1 comment:

  1. My personal fav is Win+L, locks the screen with one hand in most situations