My computer should stay out of my way

While I am a big supporter of automation and getting tedious, repetitive tasks done by a computer, I also believe that my software should also just stay out of my way and let me do things the way I want. Using a Mac regularly over the last week has made me realize how true this is. I want to use my Mac as a simple media center, which means using the iLife software to manage my music, pictures and a few movies. I’ve used iTunes on Windows and I quite like it, iPhoto was something I was looking forward to, but unfortunately, it isn’t quite what I wanted it to be.

Both iTunes and iPhoto use libraries which keeps the user from having to manually manage and worry about the actual file. While that may be acceptable for the average user, for someone like me who likes knowing where my files and wants to keep everything well organized, the library concept is one abstraction too many. Neither program has a file-manager like view, if something is in your filesystem, but not in your library, you won’t be seeing it. This wouldn’t really be a problem if your filesystem was always well-organized, but considering that yoou may have lots of different media files from lots of different places, chances are, it isn’t organized. Added to that is the fact that even if you take the time to organize your libraries, your files may still be just as disorganized. In this case, your software doesn’t get out of your way and doesn’t make it really easy to do things yourself when you want to.

So what’s the solution? If you want to keep your files well managed you’ll have to do it yourself. The first thing to do is to stop your software from messing with your filesystem in the first place. Turn off copying of files from their actual location to the library directory, that’ll save you quite a bit or disk space and turn off any option to order the files according to the library. That’ll get your software out of your way. Before you start reshaping your files structure, it’s necessary to have a solid idea of how your files are organized. I keep my music organized by artist and album and my photos by date and event. A good naming convention also helps for the times you have to move your files and are stuck without your library. There are AppleScripts that will rename your audio files according to iTunes library information. iPhoto will only rename the files if you export them from the libary. You may want to rename your photos manually with descriptive titles, but if you want to use automated data like the date and time, then try ExifRenamer, which can extract metadata from your photos and renames accordingly.

iPhoto doesn’t allow you to selectively import photos from your camera, and it doesn’t let you choose where to place your photos. My workaround for this is to use the software that came with my camera to move photos into my file structure, rename them with ExifRenamer and only after that import them into iPhoto. Tedious, but it works and it let’s me use the excellent iPhoto export plugins for Picasa Web and Facebook.

While I’ve talked about media files, the same principles apply to other files as well. If your computer won’t play nice and get out of your way, you’ll just have to push. Sometimes using some other software will make things a lot easier (Winamp and Picasa come to mind). But if that is not something you want to do, then some brute force might be needed.

Why I love the Mac

Thanks to my job with Information Technology Services at my college I’ve managed to get my hands on an old G$ PowerMac. It’s a decent machine with a 1.25GHz PowerPC processor and currently 768MB of RAM, but what really makes Macs what they are is the world-class Mac OS X operating system. I’m currently running a fully upgraded Tiger 10.4 with iLife ’06 and I can only say that it simply rocks.

Firstly, it’s beautiful. The looks are clean, bright, but not gaudy and the UI stays out of your way for the most part. There aren’t too many customization options, but for me at least, I don’t want to customize it. I haven’t even changed the default wallpaper and somehow, I really don’t think I will. For anyone used to a a Windows or Linux interface, the Mac does take some getting used to. The lack of some sort of a start menu can be intimidating at first, but thanks to the Dock’s flexibility you can just drag your Applications folder into the dock and it gives you a menu on right click (or control-click). Any other folder dragged onto the Dock also gives you a menu in the same way, saving you from having to open Finder all the time. Talking about Finder, it fulfills its role as a discrete file-management application. The ability to easily and directly mount FTP shares and other forms of network drives makes it particularly useful to peopple who need to work across a network.

Besides the UI there is one other thing that I deserve special mention: application install. Having experienced application install procedures on Windows and Linux, I’ve come to believe that the most important thing in an application installation system is simplicity. Users should not have to go through a dozen complex steps to install a simple program. On a Mac, some programs come with Windows style installers, but for many others, double-clicking on the downloaded file for an application will give present you with an icon which you can drag to your Applications folder and everything else happens automatically and behind-the scenes. Simple, isn’t it?

Though I’m well on the way to becoming a Mac fan, I do have some gripes. Though Expose is a great way to manage open windows, it can become slightly confusing an involve a fair amount of mouse movement if you have lots of windows open. Holding the Apple key and hitting the Tab key provides a list of open programs, but not open windows, making it useless if you’re trying to quickly switch between several open PDFs or something similar. I’m looking for something more keyboard friendly than expose, but haven’t found anything yet.

As for Leopard, I’m still not ready to switch. I am looking forward to using Spaces, and I actually like most the new UI features, but the incompatibility are not something I’d like to deal with. We have it running on a test machine at work, so I get to try it out often, but I think I’ll wait a few months before taking the plunge.