Does Apple Hate Big Desktops?

A recent post by Tog speaks to issues with recent Apple UI design decisions, and that got me thinking about a bit of pet peeve of mine. My complaint? Much of the Apple desktop experience for Macs seems to presume the use of modest-sized screens (up to around 1900×1200 or so). Some of the historic holdovers (menubar fixed at the top, the dock fixed at some location on the desktop) as well as the newer arrivals (full-screen mode for Mac apps) all make the assumption that no one actually wants to use either a really big monitor, or a multi-monitor setup.

The Fixed Menu Bar

The position of the menu bar on a Mac has remained the same since the original 1984 Macintosh. It has gained (and then lost) colour, and it has also started to include handy little indicators and quick access to things you are running. But it remains firmly glued to the top of one of your screens. If you are using a notebook, or a modest-sized single-screen Mac (such as some of the iMacs), this isn’t really a big deal. However, as soon as you get into the bigger machines (like the 27-inch iMac), the fixed menu bar becomes a liability.

I have a desktop Mac that I use with a pair of 24″ monitors (no, not Cinema displays. Those were way too expensive for what you get). They sit side-by-side, and the menu bar is placed on the right-hand screen. This positions the menu bar in a somewhat-centralized location, meaning that I don’t have to travel too far with the mouse to get to it. However, I could drive up to 6 monitors, and there have been times where I would like to have had a 3×1, a 2×2 or even a 3×2 configuration for things I was working on. I never bothered, and lived with flipping through virtual desktops instead. Why? I’ll answer the question with another question: where do you put the menu bar?

If I put it in it’s “natural” location, the upper-left corner of a 3×2 (so 3 monitors wide and 2 high), then I’m looking at a 3-day trek for the mouse pointer to get to the menu bar when I’m the bottom-most, right-hand screen. I could put it on the middle, bottom-row screen. That makes it sort-of central. But I’m still having to move the mouse a lot to get to the menu bar.

What would be better? Have the option to attach the menu bar to the top of every application window. On smaller screens, like a MacBook, I’d opt for the fixed menu bar. That way it only takes up a modest amount of space in one place (rather than each window getting one, taking away real estate from the desktop). But for a multi-monitor setup, I want one on each window. Now the menu bar is in the context of the window, and (reasonably) close at hand. I have enough space that I can afford to dedicate space for the menu bar in each window.

But What About The “Other” Items?

This doesn’t mean that the “other” items (like time, date, volume, etc) are repeated on each window. I would still keep the bar at the top as a place for them. I don’t use them very often, so they don’t have to be readily-at-hand for me to access them. But the Apple menu, plus the usual occupants (File, Edit, Window, etc) need to be close. I use those a lot more.

Yes, this takes space away from other bits of the windows. It is a trade-off to have easier access in exchange for space. Being able to do it on an app-for-app basis would be even better, because then I could choose. For some apps, I rarely (if ever) touch the menu bar. In others, I’m using it on a regular basis, so I want the menu bar handy. It’s complicated, but I sure would like the option of choosing on an app-for-app basis.

The Dock

The dock is one that is mixed for me. I don’t find it to be as bad as Tog says in his piece, but having it fixed in one location (and on one monitor) can be irritating at times. Conceptually, it isn’t substantially different that the task bar from Windows (the pre-Windows 8 task bar, not the disorganized mess that Windows 8 is now). I liked to be able to see, at a glance, what is running. It’s great to simply click and be taken to the app in question. Keeping apps I use regularly in the dock (and not flooding it with everything) is handy.

But on multi-monitor set-ups, I wouldn’t mind having the dock visible on every monitor. Again, it takes up space, but I can manage that with a combination of changing the magnification and hiding the dock if necessary. I wouldn’t mind even being able to set it on a monitor by monitor basis (stick it to the bottom on the bottom row, and the top on the top row). Again, it’s complex, but it sure would be more flexible.

Full-Screen Mode

Using full-screen mode in a single-screen environment isn’t bad. I’ve largely stopped using it, though, because it becomes pointless on a multi-monitor setup. When you full-screen an app window, it only uses one of the available monitors, and it makes the remaining monitor(s) useless. Now I’ve got an app that I have to 3-finger swipe past wasting (in my case) 50% of my available desktop space. Because I switch between a desktop and a notebook on a regular basis, I’ve stopped using fullscreen, simply because I forget it exists.

It would seem to me that fullscreen mode on a multi-monitor desktop should simply maximize the window to fit the monitor it resides in. Don’t create a new virtual desktop (and leave the desktop the app came from empty). Just use the monitor it is sitting in. I might use it more if this was the behaviour. Otherwise, I’m just going to ignore it. I have a dual-screen setup for a reason, and I won’t bother with something that is now about aesthetics and not real usability.

No One Is Perfect

Every environment has its foibles and follies. While I certainly prefer the current Mac environment over Windows 7 and older (and Windows 8 can be, at times, an unpredictable and unusable mess), and I certainly prefer it over Linux, it definitely isn’t perfect. I’m not sure that, relatively speaking, it is radically “better” than Windows 7 or most X-Windows environment. It isn’t worse, but that’s me. Others will have a different opinion, and they are entitled to it.

But what I do hope (but won’t bet on) is that Apple will think more about people with larger and multi-monitor setups. It’s usable, but it isn’t always ideal.