Mac OSX – Heuristically Polished

October 31, 2009

As I love Apple, I figured I’d do one of their products for my Heuristic comparison.  Yet I didn’t want to do the iPhone or iPod, since those have been analyzed to death, so I instead decided to focus on Mac OSX.  This is one of their products which is most often overlooked, but is just as important as the aforementioned iThings.  I am both a PC user (cost and compatibility) and a Mac user, but in the end I’ll always prefer Mac OSX.  Here is its Heuristic evaluation:

1)  Visibility of System Status. When using Mac OSX, the system status is always readily apparent.  Open applications have a blue dot below them to stand out, the active window is dark while the others are faded, and the always-visible Menu Bar at the top will change to reflect in what program you are.  If it’s a MacBook, battery life is displayed in the upper-right.  In both Macbooks and desktop Macs, other indicators are also displayed in the upper-right, such as the time, wireless Airport status, and Bluetooth status.  If the Mac ever gets overloaded and freezes up, the user definitely knows because the dreaded Spinning Ball of Doom replaces the mouse cursor.  Knowing what is going on with your Mac is never a problem.

2)  Match Between the System and the Real World.  Since this is an operating system, it doesn’t exactly resemble anything in the real world physically, but elements within do correlate to real-world equivalents.  One example of this includes the ubiquitous office naming system – i.e. files, desktop, and some Mac-unique concepts like Stacks (multiple-file organization on the dock) and Spaces (multiple desktop workspaces).  There is also the dock, which houses the most-used applications and resembles a boat dock.  Icons in Mac OSX also look very much like their real-life equivalents, right down to the Mac Hard Drive icon.

3)  User Control and Freedom.  The user is free to do as they please and has complete control over all shortcuts in Mac OSX.  He can open any number of applications and/or windows that he pleases, customize keyboard shortcuts for features like Expose, and adjust just about anything in System Preferences.  If he wants to close a window but keep the application running for easy future use, he can simply close the window and Mac OSX keeps it running until he actually “quits” out of it.  Desktop and screen savers can be customized heavily as well, including not only the desktop image itself, but the organization of files on there (this may seem like a no-brainer, but it is important).  Hard drive contents are easily searchable with Spotlight.  Workspaces can be changed with the Spaces feature.  And let’s not forget Time Machine, an automatic backup system built into 10.5 and later.  With this feature, not only can the user back up when he wants to, but he can “time travel” to recover a file from any point in the past, like if he changed something, saved, and decides he wants the earlier version instead the next week.

4)  Consistency and Standards.  Starting with Mac OSX 10.5 Leopard, all windows and Apple-built applications in the OS have the same uniform look and feel to them.  The Menu Bar at the top is always there, only changing contents to reflect each program.  Icons for all programs have the same look and feel to them, no matter by whom they were developed.  In all the Apple-supplied programs, graphics are similar, like with iTunes’ Coverflow and iPhoto’s photo-viewing options.  Everything has the same polish and clean design.

5)  Error Prevention.  This is HUGE on Mac OSX, and one of the reasons why I like it so much.  It has error prevention built into the core.  There are virtually no viruses, despite the rising number of Mac users, and not nearly as much spyware can glom onto your system like on Windows.  De-fragmentation is basically unneeded except in the direst of cases, since the OS does it in the background for you.  And the OS is stable.  Programs may crash sometimes, and the computer may get overloaded like any computer, but the vast majority of the time Mac OSX will not crash.  There are no Blue Screens of Death.  If a program is acting unruly, the user can right-click on the program’s icon in the dock and Force Quit it, no Ctrl+Alt+Delete needed.  Simple as that.

6)  Recognition Rather than Recall. This is something Apple had in mind from the very beginning when they designed the Mac OS.  Unlike Windows, which was developed by and for engineers originally, Mac OS was developed to be easy to use for the average person.  Once one goes through the basics of how to navigate files and programs, it is stupidly easy to do it again.  And yet, for one used to Windows, Recall may be much more strained when making the switch.  The Menu Bar is at the top instead of the bottom, system options have to be accessed through the Apple icon, the close button for windows is in the upper-left instead of the upper-right, and the OS is application-based, not window-based like Windows.  This last point can be particularly disorienting for someone who is used to the fact that the program is closed when the window is closed, for it is not so on Mac OSX.  But all these problems are not really that big of a deal after a little getting used to.

7)  Flexibility and Efficiency of Use.  Here we have two conflicting points.  While the OS itself is flexible (see above’s customizable examples), the actual development is not.  Most people, myself included, do not see this as a problem since we’re not programmers, but to the development community Apple’s tightly-controlled, closed-source platform is stifling (Windows is also closed-source, as an aside).  This means no one can do anything to change it except Apple, so technically this is very inflexible.  I suppose that’s why Linux is around.  But Mac OSX is very efficient, especially 10.6 Snow Leopard, which has a very tiny footprint on the hard drive and is easy on resources.  Using the OS is also efficient, since there is no bloatware installed and there is no slow-down (with the obvious exception of running highly-intensive programs).  Searching is a breeze with Spotlight.

8)  Aesthetic and Minimalist Design.  This is Apple’s mantra.  Avoid excess.  Everything in the OS is highly polished, clean, and aesthetically pleasing to the eye.  Soft gradients are used extensively in windows and buttons, and, unless the user FUBARs the desktop or dock, everything there is also neat and tidy.  It’s so well done that the latest Windows iterations have been imitating it in terms of shiny design and smoothly-flowing animations.

9)  Help Users Recognize, Diagnose, and Recover From Errors. In the event a problem occurs, Mac OSX is very helpful in providing the user with information.  If a program crashes, a dialog box pops up and tells the user their options (send error report, re-start program, etc.).  If your Mac is frozen, you’re definitely told so by the lovely little spinning beach ball.  Also, if there are connectivity problems or something of the like, the OS will guide the user through what to do, such as if the computer can’t connect to the internet and the Network Manager automatically kicks in.

10)  Help and Documentation.  With every Mac comes both documentation and the OSX backup discs, so if something REALLY messed up happens, all is never lost.  There is also the Help option in the Menu Bar at all times, no matter what program.  And if you really can’t figure it out, Apple’s website is chock full of help documents and forums for solving the problem, not to mention Apple Stores and their Geniuses.  OSX is well-supported.

So, after evaluating Mac OSX with the Ten Heuristics, I’d have to say it scored pretty highly.  Aesthetically pleasing, easy and efficient to use, powerful and stable, and well-supported, once one gets used to Mac OSX it is hard to think any other system is better.  It’s not perfect, but I’d say the reason why most people don’t like it is simply unfamiliarity, or a general dislike for Apple clouds their judgment.  Can’t really fault the OS for that, though.

Mac OSX Snow Leopard screenshot

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5 Responses to “Mac OSX – Heuristically Polished”

  1. Hey Duncan. I would like to counter review the Mac OSX, if you don’t mind? =D
    First thing is, i don’t think that background defragment would make me very happy on Windows, especially when i would be trying to do stuff that takes a lot to run. I agree that everything can crash… even a best driver on the road. =P I personally don’t get the right click trick though… as i know, there IS no right click on a Mac… although i might be behind, but then Mac is starting to copy windows if that’s the case, which i would not be surprised. I disagree that PC is fully window based, some applications don’t close after you finally get them off your screen you actually need to shut them down through Task manager, which we all know and love… So, i will disagree on the window based to application based operation. Ah… finally my favorite one: this is what I have a picture of when i think MAC OSX – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWo-vDVajns So as you can see, i see it as a jail cell, instead of a sandbox like windows. And as i mentioned earlier both companies been coping each other and that’s why i am not surprised anymore when good features cross companies. And on final note, i think i would prefer to see a blue screen of death, that actually TELLS YOU something about the crash instead of seeing something spinning in the middle of the screen… but that’s just me, and yes, most of the time the blue screen doesn’t tell you anything useful unless you are a computer yourself, but at least being a n00b, it tells you to reboot the PC when that happens, being a n00b on a Mac… Well… i can see him sitting there for days, trying to wait out when the things stops spinning… =D
    Hope you like the counter review.

    • Yeah, liked it :). To address some of your points, though…

      1) Yes, there is a right click. You just have to have a right click-enabled mouse. Or, if you have a single-button Apple-style mouse, you can do Ctrl+Click and it brings up a right click-style menu.
      2)PC may not be FULLY window-based, but for the most part it is. Say you have one Firefox window open and you close it. The application is now closed. But on OSX, if you have ten windows of Firefox going and you close all of them, Firefox is still going until you actually Quit the program. So OSX is application-based. Most of the time. There are some exceptions to the rule, as always, like iPhoto.
      3) That video was hilarious. And I do agree that the development environment for OSX is closed like that little square, but for most people like me who never go into that side of things, this isn’t that big of a deal. Haha, that little girl’s face was priceless 😀

  2. annehornung said

    Wow, you did a great job evaluating a product with a lot of depth! I couldn’t agree more with your analysis ; you can’t beat Mac. Can you image the Error Prevention section alone if it were Windows being evaluated. 🙂 One of my favorite features that you mentioned is searching with Spotlight. I forget where I save files all the time, so this is a lifesaver and saves me so much time. Windows’ search component..don’t even get me started.

  3. Libby said

    I love Mac OSX, it is definitely my choice of computer operating systems. I can use a PC but I have to think about what I’m doing, the Mac is just second nature. My only issue, and you say it can be done, is the configuration of shortcuts on the keyboard. If you can do this with a Mac keyboard you will have to show me. I have even called tech support and they couldn’t figure out how to do it. They actually said it couldn’t be done.

    • Might depend on the keyboard. I personally have an Apple keyboard which has blank F keys. So, for instance, I went into the system preferences > Expose and it allowed me to choose which F key I wanted for, say, the “hide all windows” function.

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