Finder & Mail Core apps that still suck in Mac OS X Lion

When I announced that I was going to be reviewing Lion, I promised some crankiness. But then I kicked things off with glowing praise of the Lion Recovery Partition. The Lion bashing will now commence …

Real Mac power users know that and the Finder have always been the can’t-live-with-’em, can’t-live-without-’em turds of OS X. Each can be replaced, but only with awkwardness and ugly compromises. Other stock Apple apps are either better or can be replaced or ignored easily enough. These two are the nearly unavoidable ones, and so chronically buggy and ill-conceived that only dilettantes and dabblers can possibly be content with them.

I had dared to hope that Apple might finally address some of their serious inadequacies in Lion. Mail in particular seemed to have a long list of improvements, especially — crucially! — to its searching. Alas, as usual, the incremental improvements are a disappointment, and bugs still abound.

Lion’s Buggy Finder

Captain’s log …

Day #1 with Lion. The Finder’s perpetually neglected list view mode refused to sort. A single pair of filenames out of two dozen spastically swapped places every time I clicked the column header (to change the sort order) while everything else stayed still.

Finder jankiness like this has been a nearly hourly experience since I installed Lion — and it has ever been thus. Some other prominent glitchiness I’ve seen in Finder since installing Lion:

Deeper, darker flaws still ignored

The Finder still baffles even genius users with its unparseable rules for view persistence, and its crazymaking non-spatial browser behaviour — “like remembering names without faces to go with them” — failings clearly and correctly explained by John Siracusa for Ars Technica way back in 2003.

This is one of the best examples in tech history of Apple perpetually ignoring a well-crafted and prominent criticism. Either they don’t get it, don’t agree, or don’t care, and it’s baffling and irritating no matter what.

All my files: so close, yet so far

One of the Finder’s shiny new leonine features — a file-browsing mode called “All My Files,” which shows you all your own stuff and, more to the point, nothing else — illustrates the feel of the continuing inadequacy of the Finder quite nicely. Praised by other reviwers (including even mighty Siracusa), this feature will probably be handy for many beginners with just a few files, and I have little quarrel with that. I never resent a perfectly good feature for another kind of user, as long as it doesn’t get in my own way much.

Nor do I mind a new feature as long as it’s not a ridiculous vestigial stump of something that would have been useful to me as well, if only it had actually been done properly. Ahem.

<understatement>All My Files could certainly have been better conceived for users with more complex libraries of files.</understatement>

For example, rather comically, when organizing my files by kind, AMF uses just three daft categories for my files: “developer” (892 php files, mostly), spreadsheets (just 24 of them), and “documents,” which contains literally everything else — all 9000 of my other files, arranged in a cute and utterly useless horizontal row of icons, just a handful visible at a time, in a horizontal list so long that a small twitch the finger on the trackpad zooms through dozens at a time, like a super-smooth rolling file cabinet drawer a mile long. So useful!

And if three categories seems a tad stingy and wrong, click on the all-powerful “more” button … which makes the “more” button disappear! (That’s literally all that happens.) So it’s technically a “less” button. Facepalm.

Depending on the settings, AMF can still be handy for me. In particular, I do like the core concept that AMF really will show me all my files: it goes deep, beaming through my entire home folder hierarchy like an X-ray, which is super useful sometimes. And yet it is also Apple-hamstrung, because you can only go deep into your entire home folder at once, rather than narrowing the view to, say, just “all my music” or “all my pictures” … which would actually be majorly useful.

So useful, in fact, that there is an app for that, Leap, which was definitely inspired by the craving for AMF-like power. Leap is not rendered obsoleted by Lion, because AMF is so close, yet so far. AMF is mostly useless at dealing all my files at once: the massive, diverse library of files I work with every day is just too much. And although harmlessly avoidable, it certainly leaves me with a “thanks for nothing” taste in my mouth — because there is so much else the Finder still needed for a serious user, that could have been done without bothering the beginner any more than I am bothered by All My Files.

Folder merging at last! But with a stupid catch

Yet another example of a so-close-yet-so-far upgrade: the Finder will now properly merge one folder with another in a copy job, a basic file management feature I had begun to fear I would never see in my lifetime. And yet, rather tragically, the goodness of merging came at a surprisingly high and irritating cost: “Don’t Replace” is no longer an option when copying multiple files. Pierre Igot explains in his usual scathingingly detailed style, and I could not possibly agree more.

Why acknowledge the need for the feature by building it, but then cripple it by making an obvious usage of it impossible? If people can comprehend file merge in the first place, then they can comprehend the need to not replace duplicates. Thwarting that simplification to the point of insulting the intelligence of users — even beginners.

Finder: still sucky

So the Finder remains almost laughably simplistic, limited, and buggy, which is pretty much how nearly everything about the Finder has always seemed to me … and still does in Lion.

Next time: the suckiness of Mail.