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The many faces of Apple’s OS X applications

finder iconGiven my background with, it's quite clear I'm an OS X fan. But that doesn't mean I think it's perfect. While there are many, many things it does quite well, there are also areas that bother me, and make using OS X tougher than it should be.

One such area is the consistency of applications' interfaces. Long a hallmark of the Mac experience, major pieces of that consistency have been falling away slowly but surely as OS X and its applications evolve. With the recent release of OS X 10.4, I thought I'd take a look at the state of application consistency in OS X. Generally speaking (Java applications excepted), menus remain a high point of consistency. File and Edit are always there, with there generally familiar choices. After that, of course, the menu structure is up to the program designer. But overall, I have no complaints with menu consistency in OS X. It's the actual application interfaces that are bugging me.

Interface Indecision

Generally speaking, I think Apple's applications can be divided into six types of interfaces -- these are just Apple's apps, not any third-party stuff (and I'm leaving Java out of it for now). Although there are no standards for this, I've made up some groupings for each application and utility included in the standard OS X 10.4 installation. I've also included some of Apple's 'for sale' programs (these are noted with emphasis in the lists). Next to each entry is a small thumbnail of that type of interface (click it for a larger version), along with my commentary on what I think of that particular look. The number in [brackets] next to each category is the number of Apple-provided (free) applications and utilities in that category, to give some idea of the distribution. Although some programs seem to have elements of different interfaces, I went with what felt "most right" for the given application.

Old School Metal [15]
These are programs that have what I call "heavy metal" windows from early versions of OS X, as seen at right. This category includes:

  • Address Book, Automator, Calculator, DVD Player, Finder*, Font Book, iCal, iChat, iDVD, iMovie HD, iPhoto, iSync, iTunes, QuickTime Player, Safari, Sherlock, Grapher, Keychain Access

    * The Finder can also have an Aqua-ish interface, if the Toolbar is turned off.

When this look first appeared, I liked it, though I found it quite heavy to look at for long periods of time. At first, this wasn't a problem, as there weren't many applications on the list that I spent a lot of time using. Then Safari came out, and things changed -- suddenly, I was looking at the dark metal header area for hours at a time. Though I still don't hate the look, it's no longer my favorite. I hope, over time, tha the 15 or so entries in this category slowly migrate away from this look.

Aqua [25]
More design holdouts from OS X 10.0 (with some tweaking, of course), these programs have an Aqua-patterned toolbar topped by Tiger's new smooth metal window border. Thanks to JPEG compression, the Aqua stripes are a bit tough to see in the screenshot at right, but they're there. The Aqua apps include:

  • AppleScript Utility, Script Editor, Internet Connect, Keynote, Pages, Preview, TextEdit, Activity Monitor, Airport Admin Utility, Airport Client Monitor, Airport Management Utility, Airport Setup Assistant, Audio MIDI Setup, Bluetooth Firmware Updater, ColorSync Utility, Console, Digital Color Meter, Directory Access, Disk Utility, Migration Assistant, Netinfo Manager, Network Utility, ODBC Administrator, Printer Setup Utility, Software Restore, System Profiler, VoiceOver Utility

Over the years, the Aqua stripes have really been toned down, to the point where they don't bother me as much as they used to. In particular, the stripes in the menus used to be much more pronounced than they are now, and on certain monitors, I found them really hard to read. Now the stripes (in both menus and toolbars) are much more subtle, adding just a bit of depth. It's still not my favorite look, but the subtle striping really isn't bad at all.

Smooth Metal 1 [5]
New with Tiger, these programs have replaced the Aqua-striped toolbar with a 'light metallic' toolbar, though Aqua stripes may still appear in window backgrounds. Toolbar buttons, if present, are outlines without a fill color. They include:

  • Dictionary, Help Viewer, Image Capture, Spotlight, System Preferences

Interestingly, Smooth Metal toolbars take on an Aqua appearance when placed in the background, making them look identical to an active Aqua window. I like the Smooth Metal look, as there aren't any remnants of the Aqua lines in the toolbar to grab my eyes' attention. The very subtle gray gradient also lends a pleasing quality to the toolbar area, making it less intrusive than, for instance, the Heavy Metal look. About the only thing I don't really like about this interface are the toolbar buttons. I find them bland, similar looking, and (on a busy toolbar) hard to click on quickly without really paying attention.

Smooth Metal 2 [1]
Very similar to Smooth Metal I, but the toolbar buttons are colored in. So far, there's only one program in this category:

  • Mail

Based on the response on the web to date, this new toolbar look is quite divisive: it seems most people either love it or hate it, with few falling in the middle ground. Personally, I'm in the 'love it' camp. It starts with the clean Smooth Metal 1 look, and adds some color and differentiation to the toolbar buttons -- this makes it easier for me to quickly find the button I'm after. This is by far my favorite look for an OS X application.

While it's not perfect, I hope this is an example of the future direction of Apple's interface plans. I love the smooth metal, I like the button design, and (in the case of Mail), I like the use of color to differentiate the sidebar area from the message areas.

Pro Interface [0]
Think dark. Think really dark. That's it. That's the "Pro" interface which you'll find on Apple's "pro" audio and video applications. Below the normal Mac toolbar, you'll get a flat-gray background, black-on-gray buttons, a small font, and a very dark overall feel. The list includes:

  • DVD Studio Pro 4, Final Cut Pro 5, Final Cut Express HD, Logic Pro 7, Logic Express, Motion 2Shake, Soundtrack Pro

I have only a few of the Pro apps (DVD Studio, Motion, and Final Cut Express), and I can't say that I like the look. I'm sure they have their place in dark editing rooms where people spend hours on every last detail of color and sound ... but for my extremely non-Pro use, I find them somewhat difficult to use. The problem, of course, is that there's just so much power hiding in all these Pro apps that it becomes very difficult to design an efficient interface. With the praise and awards these programs earn in the industry, it's clear that Apple has succeeded with the users who count. But for me, I'd much rather have something that looks more like a typical Mac application.

Other or No Interface [7]
Something that doesn't fit any of the above categories. Generally just really, really different ... or no interace (i.e. no toolbar, buttons, sidebars, or even a window). The list:

  • Chess, Dashboard, GarageBand, Stickies, Bluetooth File Exchange, Grab, Installer, Terminal,

There's no screenshot here, of course, as these programs all vary so much. And that's not necessarily a bad thing -- each has a specific purpose, and its customized (or non-existent) interface.

So What's Next?

Only Apple knows, of course. But as a user, I hope to see the five main interface types reduced to simply two: one for all "non-pro" apps, based on the new "Smooth Metal" look, and the somber-looking Professional application interface. The other existing looks could easily be changed into the Smooth Metal look, with minimal user disruption (functionality wouldn't have to change, just the GUI elements). Finally, calling out the Finder in particular, there's got to be a better way to go from Toolbar to No Toolbar other than the complete shock of a heavy-metal header vanishing and leaving a largely pure white window. I don't have the answer, of course, but hopefully someone does.

None of these differing interfaces is enough to make me consider another platform, of course. It's just that I'd enjoy the experience that much more if the look of all the bundled applications were consistent ... and don't even get me started on Java's different interfaces (I'll save that rant for another day).


34 thoughts on “The many faces of Apple’s OS X applications”

  1. I'm not quite sure how giving all the buttons the same outline and background colour differentiates them. It seems more like they've become cluttered and distorted as the actual icons have been shrunk to fit in the little blue buttons.

    Also, I'd have called the 'Smooth Metal' look 'Smooth Aqua', for two reasons: they lack the metal texture of true metal windows and, in Interface Builder, they are specified with the 'Unified Toolbar' flag while Metal windows are specified with the 'Textured Window' flag. That said, I really like the unified toolbar look.

  2. To my eye, it differentiates them from the background, not from each other -- the icon on the button does that for me. But if I compare the "hollow outline" style of what I called Smooth Metal 1, I find the Mail buttons themselves much easier to pick out from everything else.

    I chose Smooth Metal for the name, simply because in my mind Aqua is synonymous with the striped look, and the stripes are MIA in this look (until the window is in the background, at least). So yea, technically, it's more Aqua than Metal. But whatever it is, I like it...


  3. I agree with you.

    I don't mind metal so much, but I think having it in Safari is sort of a bad idea. It doesn't make any sense from a HIG perspective. Then again, during the week that I used Shiira as my browser, I ended up voluntarily skinning it to metal, so that I could pick out of my other windows. The point is that metal is OK when it adds a certain flair to one or two apps, but using it for more than that becomes really visually repressive. I'm still waiting on my copy of Tiger to arrive in the mail, but based on what I've seen online, I agree that plastic is (or should be) the future.

  4. Hey rob,
    nice article, i agree on mail - it's a very nice interface.
    One to another possible argument, why cant the same company (Apple) make there own shortcuts match from one app to another? They went through the whole process of switching the perfectly good cmd+; shortcut to a cmd+, shortcut for preferences in all (?) apps, but they cant get preview and quicktime to use the same shortcut for export! (cmd+e and shift+cmd+e). Argh!


  5. Thanks for the review. I agree that Apple needs convergence. IMHO, regarding the user experience, much of what was pioneered in classic Mac OS is being forgotten; and the Mac OS X interface is really getting to be quite a mess. There's just nothing to gain by complicating the interface. Simplicity and elegance wins in the long run. We can only hope that Apple will get back to its roots.

  6. I would like to see a single interface being used everywhere. That interface could then be chosen from the above options.

    Having said that, different interfaces make apps much easier to find in exposé. I wouldn't mind having different interfaces for different KINDS of apps, so long as it was adhered to.

  7. I don't know if this has been published on macosxhints or not, but Safari can be changed to Aqua. It's much lighter and (in my opinion) much better-looking than the default heavy metal look.

    1) Make sure Safari isn't running. Back up if you're feeling cautious.

    2) Open (I've also "fixed" Downloads.nib as well).

    3) The file opens in Interface Builder, select the "Window" icon in the Browser.nib window of Interface Builder, and press shift-command-I (or "Show Info", in the "Tools" menu).

    4) Make sure "Attributes" is currently selected in the drop-down-menu-that-wants-to-be-a-tab, and deselect the "Has Texture" option.

    5) Save, quit, open Safari. Enjoy Aqua goodness.

    Note: I'm doing this all on Panther. I don't know if anything has changed in Tiger.

    Hope that helps.



  8. I have to disagree on mail. I think it looks bad. It reminds me of the linux apps I use at work (I guess at least it doesn't remind me of windows).

    What I don't understand is if Apple has this multiple-personality disorder on the interface decision, why not just make it user selectable. Let one person choose metal, another smooth metal, while the other prefers aqua? Admitting they have multiple interfaces randomly does not make for a consistent interface, so at least give us the choice.

  9. I ran CageFighter the moment I had Tiger installed, so I haven't actually used Mail 2.0's new look (the screenshots just looked so ugly!). But you've convinced me to give it a try. I have to say it definitely works better than the CageFighter generated version, so cheers for that.

    I do like the unified toolbar, but I'd give it up for a consistent look to apps. I don't mind brushed metal, but it should have stayed firmly in the realm of the iApps.

  10. Did you try to patch Safari to use the Unified Toolbar look? It's gorgeous!

    Im one of those who don't like the new buttons in Mail. The color is weird, the icons inside the buttons too small. And I want my sidebar on the right, damnit.


  11. I had such hopes that the "unified toolbar" look would eliminate both metal and aqua, but no, now we have even MORE interfaces, each with their own usability quirks. I've generally gone and used Interface Builder on a lot of applications to turn them from metal to aqua. Too bad Unsanity has no intention of updating Metalifizer, now that they make money off of ShapeShifter.

    Just make it all Aqua and let the people who want something else theme it, but be consistent for crissakes! The only thing I can see staying metal would be the iApps, as they are (in cases) cross-platform and Apple has built up an identity around them.

  12. As others have noted, the "Smooth Metal" is actually a variant on the standard Aqua window, not a variant of metal windows. Its official name is "Unified titlebar and toolbar" .. the only difference between it and a normal window is that the divider line between the titlebar and toolbar is missing, and the toolbar is given the same gradient as the titlebar. (And you can drag the window by dragging the background part of the toolbar.) if you hide the toolbar, the window looks identical to a normal Aqua window. And it uses Aqua widgets, as opposed to the Metal widgets (which are slightly different than the Aqua versions .. note how NSSegmentedControl is drawn differently in metal windows for example.)

    They could have made it so that all Aqua windows got the "unified" look, but for whatever reason they made it optional. It's easy enough to modify Cocoa programs to give them this look .. just flip one bit in the NIB file. (Note that this new look is not yet available in Carbon applications.)

  13. froodiantherapy

    The thing I don't understand is the logic of the unified menubar look. Now, I know that the human interface devisions between 10.0's aqua (used for "pure" computer apps, such as TextEdit) and metal (used for apps emulating real-world devices, such as has faded quite a bit over the years, but in my mind introducing a new UI look with no real logic to it only makes the matter worse. All I'd need to be happy with the unified menubar looks is some sort of logic that dictates its use over aqua. It wouldn't even have to be a standard that was kept particularly well, I just want some sort of human interface guideline.

  14. >> Pro Interface [0]
    Think dark. Think really dark. That’s it. That’s the “Pro” interface which you’ll find on Apple’s “pro” audio and video applications. .....

    DVD Studio Pro 4, Final Cut Pro 5, Final Cut Express HD, Logic Pro 7, Logic Express, Motion 2, Shake, Soundtrack Pro >>

    Since you mention "Shake", actually the Shake interface is more different. And definitely not Apple.

  15. As someone said, OS X has drifted away from many of the features that made the original Mac OS so usable. One of the really irritating features of the Heavy Metal look is that it is exactly the same whether the window is foreground or background. The Smooth Metal look is only marginally better. Having to consciously look to judge between two almost identical shades of grey is an unnecessary imposition on users. I used to be able to use the Mac almost instinctively, and concentrate on the task at hand.. Now even basic operations have to be a conscious act.

  16. Oh yea by the way, it can make the safari's interface to look like mail. Except the buttons won't look like mail.

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  18. I totally agree with you about the Pro Interface. I´ve been using Logic for almost 10 years and i was shocked when Apple did take over the design ("Precision German engineering meets California design" ;-)). Former design by Emagic wasn´t perfect but at least it was viewable.

    What I dislike about the "Pro" look is its tinyness - most (pro-) music studios I know got the computer display on top of their huge mixing console. so they got to either reduce screen resolution or lean forward all the time to perceive smaller parts of the UI...

  19. Who cares what they look like? It's a tool, not a prom dress.

    If anything, variation helps you to find what you're looking for. What if every book on your bookshelf had the same color binding and font layout? You would *have* to alphabetize them to find what you were looking for. Personally, I only have 20 books on my bookshelf and I can find what I'm looking for very easily just by binding design.

    I suppose you're all pissed off that Honda Civics come in colors other than white, right? Nasa was going to spend $5 million on that new satellite, but it didn't look like all the other satellites, so we went to the shoe store and bought new red pumps for everyone!

  20. Well, in this case, what they look like directly affects their functionality: the toolbars vary between all of them. So trying to figure out where the buttons are, for instance, is much tougher than it should be.

    Since the toolbar buttons and interface elements vary from app to app, there would be no problem differentiating them from one another, even if the overall "theme" was the same.

    I don't mind that cars come in many colors. But I would be quite irked if the speedometer in my car had a font size, color, and style that didn't match the tach.


  21. I think the Unified Title/Toolbar is a nice evolution of Aqua and I'd like to see a lot more applications moved to it. I like the Mail 2 interface a lot, with one exception: absolutely hate the the jelly bean buttons. I downloaded Cage Fighter soley to change the buttons back to the old Mail icons(I like everything wlse).

    Safari Enhancer lets you select from Metal, Aqua, or Unified Title/Toolbar, plus it's free.

    I do think that Apple needs to step back and deicde how to normalize the interface. When I first saw a picture of Mail 2 (which I think they've actually called "Plastic"), my immediate reaction was "Another non-standard interface!" I don't mind that Apple has tweaked Aqua, but I am at a loss to explain the apparently random choice of which apps are given which interface.

  22. RobG, Here's a hypothetical question for you.. what if your tach and speedometer were in various (unexpected) locations of your dashboard. Now you want to check your speed. How much longer does it take you to figure out which gauge is your speedometer and which is your tach?

  23. One thing that I've noticed is that anything Spotlight-related is an "intense blue" color, like the Spotlight icon in the menu bar, and everything else is the normal colors.

    One interesting example is the Comments area of the Get Info window. On my Panther machine, this is located at the bottom of the window and is just another collapsable area. On my Tiger machine it has moved right up to the top and has an intense blue highlight.

    Maybe Apple is just highlighting this so that people get used to the concept of pervasive searching with the intent of turning it off in a few versions. Unfortunately, I worry that this is a sign of more inconsistencies to come.

  24. To me, it seems like there are two 'pro' interfaces. Motion, Soundtrack and DVDSP, all have a very refined interface that seems like a mix of metal and plastic, with smooth gradiants, and aqua buttons. But Final Cut has this old outdates mac OS 9 feel to it's interface, with harsh buttons.

    I admit, there is SO much going on in Final Cut that it would be difficult to change the interface, and so many editors are used to it by now, but it would not be impossible. I for one was desperately hoping it would change with FCS, but sadly it did not.

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  28. Art Khachatrian

    I personally like all of them very much, except for the cosmetic interface of the pro line products (except for Aperture, which is in fact very polished and attractive).
    It is beyond me what on earth induced Apple's decision to leave the Final Cut interface as it is: the whole thing appears, to my eyes at least, no better than the interface of any Microsoft-designed program. In a word - UGLY! Very much unlike Apple. Apple could do better than that, I'm sure.
    As for the brushed metal, I don't understand why many a Mac user so intensely dislike it (I personally think it beautiful).
    What worries me a little is the instances of occurence of Apple's brushed metal, as well as aqua, in many a non-apple products. I ponder if M$ will ever cease blatantly picking Apple's bequest (look at Vista). Or look at last generation Creative MP3 players with coloured displays...

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