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Spotlight’s odd definition of a match

Tonight, while doing some testing for the ever-growing discussion about my Macworld Spotlight writeup, I stumbled across yet another ‘feature’ of Spotlight that I just don’t get. I’m think I remember reading this somewhere in the hazy past, but it slipped my mind when I wrote the long article for Macworld. But after playing around some more, this new ‘feature’ has jumped well up on my list of Spotlight annoyances.

So just what is this ‘feature’ that bothers me so? It’s this:

Spotlight will, by design, not find exactly what you asked it to find.

At this point, you might be saying ‘huh?,’ but let me explain by way of a simple demo.

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More on Spotlight…

Macworld logoI know that not everyone that visits here reads my stuff over on Macworld's site, so I thought I'd put a quick note here, too. Over on Macworld today, you can read my latest opinion piece, A Dim View of Spotlight.

This piece is a follow-up to my original Shining the spotlight on Spotlight article, which (confusingly enough) appeared here on robservatory in May (I wrote it prior to the Macworld changeover). If you read the original, you can skip the whole "what I said back then" section in the new article, and just read through my latest thoughts on why Spotlight still isn't quite everything it could be.

Executive Summary: I don't like the way Spotlight works at all, but I still think it has great potential. Read the story for the specifics on why I feel that way!

A tale of three hardware interfaces…

As some of you may know, I’m relatively paranoid about backups—you can’t have too many, and you can’t make them often enough :). The site is backed up twice a day via a set of scripts that use ssh and scp (and are scheduled via cron). For my personal machine, I use two external hard drives. The smaller of these two (an older version of this 250GB Maxtor drive) is used throughout the day to make backups of my key files. It also holds secondary copies of key things such as my iTunes music collection, iPhoto library, and digital video snippets. The larger of the two drives is a LaCie 500GB Triple Disk Extreme. At the end of each day, I run a full backup of the machine to the LaCie disk, and then power it down. But this article isn’t really about my backup strategy; it’s about the three interfaces on the Triple Disk Extreme (TDE), and a simplistic comparison of their performance on my machine (Dual 2.0GHz G5, first gen).

The TDE is so named due to its FireWire2, FireWire, and USB2 interfaces. A recent conversation with Chris Breen about FireWire vs. USB2 on the iPods led me to run a few tests on my hard drive, just to see how each interface performed. What got me started down this road is some stuff that Chris wrote in a couple of different iPod reviews:

In my tests, a dual-processor 2GHz Power Mac G5 filled a 6GB mini in 15 minutes and 17 seconds over USB 2.0. Using a FireWire connection shaved a scant 18 seconds off that time.

The nano is also quicker to sync than other iPods. I synced the same 903-track playlist on a 4GB nano and a 4GB iPod mini. It took 9 minutes and 15 seconds to sync the nano. The mini took nearly 7 minutes longer to sync, finally finishing the job in 16 minutes and 13 seconds.

So while USB 2.0 may not fare so well with other devices, as far as iPods go, syncing performance doesn’t appear to be a problem.

I thought I’d use my TDE to run a few tests in the Finder, just to see how things compared there. Read on for my results…

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When is a sorted list not a sorted list?

One of the things I like the most about OS X 10.4 is Automator, Apple’s new tool to help automate routine tasks. There’s an amazing amount of power hiding beneath a relatively simple user interface. The fact that users can create their own Automator actions (not workflows, but the actual actions that show up in the Action column), as described in this hint published today, means that Automator can be easily extended by those with a bit of programming experience.

Considering both Actions and Workflows, there are already over 100 entries on Apple’s Automator Actions download page, which is quite cool. (This does, however, pale in comparison to the 1,289 Dashboard widgets currently available for download.) In any event, Automator is a good tool to have around, and I’ve already put it to use on a number of occasions.

Automator sort orderThere is, however, something that irks me about its interface. Consider the screenshot at right of the Actions associated with the Finder Library entry (hover and click to zoom).

If you scan the list of Actions, you’ll find that they’re not in alphabetical order. Well, they’re sort of alphabetized. Look a bit closer, and you’ll see that the list is actually sorted by the relevance indicator, just like the search results in Mac Help. While this makes sense in Mac Help, as you’re searching for something that’s not definite, it makes no sense at all in this context. What is this list relevant to? The Finder Library entry? If that’s the case, then how come “Get Selected Finder Items” sits at the top of the list with 100% while “Filter Finder Items” (which sounds very similar) scores 0% and is sitting down near the bottom?

Within the relevance sort, the sort is then alphabetic, so with some practice, you can eventually find what you’re looking for. But Apple’s use of the seemingly-undefined relevance criteria makes the task much more difficult than it should be. Consider the iTunes Library entry; it has four levels of relevance, which means the alpha sort restarts four times—and one of those times is for one lousy item! It takes way too long to find a given entry in a list ordered in this manner, and there’s no reason for it at all that I can see.

You might think that using the Applications Library entry (the first one in the list) would solve the problem, since it selects all actions and displays them at once. But no, even in this situation, the relevance sort order is maintained! As a result, I never use this entry, as it’s really, really hard to find anything.

The solution seems simple to me: Apple, please sort the Automator actions by alpha, not relevance. If you’re going to insist on a sort by relevance, then at least give us the option to sort by alpha instead…

Sept 16th Update: I emailed Sal Soghoian, the AppleScript Product Manager at Apple (and all-around good guy!) to ask for some clarification. I asked “can you shed any light on exactly how Automator sorts its action lists?” He told me that Automator does indeed sort on relevance, and that “relevance is based on input/output types, keywords, keyword order, categories, and the related actions parameter.” He also mentioned that an alpha sort has been a popular request, so hopefully we'll see it soon...

And then there were seven…

A while back, I wrote about the many faces of Apple’s OS X applications. At the time of that writing, I identified six-ish unique interface looks:

  1. Old School Metal
  2. Aqua
  3. Smooth Metal 1
  4. Smooth Metal 2
  5. Pro Interface
  6. Other/No Interface

With the release of iTunes 5.0, it seems there are now seven interfaces. For lack of a better description, I guess I would call this one Smooth Metal 3—it seems to incorporate aspects of both Smooth Metal 1 and Smooth Metal 2, yet it doesn’t exactly match the look of either of its cousins. Its predecessor, iTunes 4.9, fell squarely in the Old School Metal bucket. Here’s how the new iTunes interface looks, compared to the old:

Small old iTunesSmall new itunes

On the left is iTunes 4.9; on the right is iTunes 5.0. Click either image for a full-size version of each screenshot. There are many differences between the two interfaces, some obvious and some not so obvious. Keep reading to see some of the changes in detail, as well as my opinion on the new iTunes look.

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Multi-button mice are great timesavers

mouse picOne of the first things I tell new Mac users is to ditch the one-button mouse that Apple provides. Sure, it's simple and easy to use, but it also has limited power and you end up using way too many keyboard modifiers to get things done. There are lots and lots of multi-button mice out there, and all of them work (to at least some degree) with OS X: the second mouse button is functional by default, and will bring up the contextual menu -- that's the menu you normally reach with a control-click.

But for the most productive computing experience, find yourself a mouse that comes with OS X drivers, so that you can program all of the buttons. Logitech makes a full line of OS X-compatible mice, as do Kensington (wired, mobile) and Microsoft (check compatibility for each device; some are PC only). But this isn't a post about which mouse to use (I've chosen the Wireless Intellimouse Explorer, used for the icon in this story), but more a discussion on how to best put all those buttons to use once you have a multi-button mouse. So I thought I'd share my configuration, and ask what others might be using...

The Intellimouse Explorer has five buttons (two main buttons, a scroll wheel button, and two buttons under the thumb) plus a scroll wheel with "tilt" side-to-side scrolling. Here's how I have the five buttons set up:

  • Left button: Click
  • Right button: Control-click
  • Scroll wheel button: Dashboard (F12)
  • Top thumb button: Exposé all-windows mode (F9)
  • Bottom thumb button: Activate DejaMenu. If you haven't seen this handy little program, it's a huge timesaver. It puts any program's menubar one keyboard combo away -- no mousing required. I just assigned its keyboard combo to the thumb button, and presto, menus wherever I want them.

So that's how I have my mouse set up. I find it a huge timesaver, especially the thumb button tied to DejaMenu. No more wasted time moving to the top left to grab File when it's a simple mouse click away. In general, I love the mouse and I've gotten very used to how I've got it set up.

The one thing I find lacking in the Microsoft software is that you can't assign custom commands to modified button clicks -- i.e. I'd love to be able to assign Command-Option-button 4 to something other than the button 4 default. I think this should be possible, given that OS X can read command- and control-clicks, but Microsoft's software doesn't allow it.

Anyone else have any interesting configurations, and/or mouse recommendations?

Click [and click and click …] to install

Tiger boxIn comparison to other platforms, installing software on OS X is a breeze. Usually, you just drag and drop the program from the disk image to its destination, and you're done. Even some complex programs can be a snap to install -- Office 2004, for instance, has its installer hidden in its code, and it's smart enough to run the first time you launch any Office app. So even though it installs stuff to a bunch of places, it's transparent to the user.

The third option is Apple's installer, which helps guide the user through the software installation process. The installer is the ideal solution for programs that need to install things in many spots, and require administrative access to do so. And while using the installer is still a very simple process, I still find it a frustrating process at times.

As an example, consider my recent installation of a new version of Snapz Pro X, the indispensible screen capture tool. Please note that this is not intended to be a slam on Apple's installer or Snapz Pro X (which I rely on every day!). Rather, it's just an example of how the process can be a bit frustrating and confusing, along with a couple of suggested improvements.

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My favorite browser

Tiger boxQuite a few people seem interested in knowing which browser is "my favorite." I wish I had a simple answer for that question, but as of now, there's not just one. Before I get to my favorite browser(s), the macosxhints site has done some tracking of browser usage via the occasional poll. I've run a total of five polls regarding favored browsers since I launched the site. Below are the results for each, showing the top three in each poll, along with the percentage share for the winner.

  • Feb 2001: OmniWeb (41%), Internet Explorer, iCab. Note that the site was *very* young at this point, and the results were skewed as most of the readers were early OS X adaptors -- hence we all used the only (and best!) native browser of the day.
  • Jul 2002: Internet Explorer (40%), Mozilla, OmniWeb. The site has grown some now, and more typical users are visiting. IE takes the lead.
  • Feb 2003: Safari (59%), Chimera (nee Camino), Internet Explorer. Safari shipped in January, and by early February, it already had nearly 60% of the Hints readership.
  • Feb 2004: Safari (82%), Mozilla, Camino. Total dominance now. IE has vanished, with less than 2% reporting they use it.
  • Oct 2004: Safari (65%), Firefox, Camino. Firefox has emerged and made a pretty serious dent in Safari's domination (Firefox garnered 18% of the votes, which is basically what Safari lost from the prior poll). IE has dropped to 0.9% usage.

I should probably run another shortly; it's been over six months, and it would be interesting to see if Firefox has eaten away at more of Safari's lead. So enough of the history lesson ... which browser is my favorite?

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Should Apple applications be movable?

Tiger boxA quick entry tonight, just because the subject came up recently in this hint regarding iSync. In particular, the hint (and comments) note that iSync will fail if the application is moved into a directory whose name contains spaces. I had added an editor's aside about moving apps in OS X, and my personal belief that it's a Bad Thing to do. As noted in the second comment, it's not necessarily an issue with using applications -- they'll (more than likely) run fine from most any location. Instead, it's an issue with Apple's updaters failing if the application they update isn't in the usual spot.

Although it's my philosophy not to move Apple's applications around in OS X, that doesn't mean I'm happy about it. I have multiple partitions on my drive (partition vs. don't partition; that's a subject for another day!), and have one set up particularly for all my applications and utilities (called Apps). I put everything on that partition -- it makes it easier, for instance, to erase and install OS X if I have the need. As of result, the only things you'll find in my boot drive's Applications and Utilities folders are Apple's programs, along with anything that just won't run if it's located elsewhere (Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4, for instance, fails if it's not in /Applications). Everything else lives on my Apps partition. As much as I'd love to move Apple's stuff out of there, after reading about the issues people have had with upgraded applications not working, I've decided to just let sleeping Mail applications lie.

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How [not] to upgrade to Mail in 10.4


Thank you, Andy Warwick! I'm leaving the following article online, just so I remind myself how much time I wasted on this. However, the comment from Andy (#9 in the chain) pointed me to what I was doing wrong. So for anyone who hasn't imported their email yet, the trick to using the Mail for OS X import function is this: simply point it to your old user's Library/Mail folder, no deeper.

I still think Apple's language could have been clearer (see my #10 comment), but I retract the other nasty things I said about the import routine. When pointed at the correct folder (I just tested it), it worked like a charm. Good job, Mail team. Now how about making the import screen read simply "Please navigate to the previous Mail folder"?

This is a follow-up to my The Art and Science of OS X System Upgrades article. I'm (still) in the process of upgrading my main drive, having just finished migrating my email archives last night. Why did it take so long? User stupidity plus, in my opinion, some poor functionality in 10.4's Mail import routines.

As noted in the earlier article, I had chosen to do an upgrade install on my main drive, but to not automatically copy over my user's folder (due to all the cruft in it). It was this decision that ended up costing me many hours of email migration labor. Why, you might ask, did it take so long?

After I got 10.4 up and running, before doing much of anything else, I launched Mail and set up my two primary accounts, just so I could keep up with email while doing the rest of my work. Mail may have asked me about importing old email when I first launched it, but I don't think it did -- my ~/Library/Mail folder was empty, since I hadn't moved the old Mail folders over. Apparently if you allow the user information to migrate, Mail will automatically import your old Mail messages. Ah, I should be so lucky...

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