Mac Musings

Is the Dock a Hopeless Kludge or Just in Need of a Few Tweaks?

Daniel Knight - 2005.01.20

Few things have earned the praise and disdain of OS X users more than the Dock, which combines a program launcher, active program tracker, and place to store minimized windows in a single location.

I've enjoyed using the Dock, and I made some adjustments to my Dock today after reading Bruce Tognazzini's updated Top Ten Nine Reasons the Apple Dock Still Sucks.

Let's look at the nine reasons remaining from Tog's original list of ten:

The Dock Is Big and Clumsy

Using Apple's default settings, the Dock is indeed big and clumsy. It has huge, attractive icons, and it uses up about 70 pixels at the bottom of the screen. Worse, it can get longer as you work - launching any program that doesn't already have an icon in the Dock results in its icon being added to the Dock.

Yes, you can reduce the height of the Dock, and that does make it less obtrusive, but it also makes the icons smaller and harder to distinguish.

Add to that the fact that the resize handle in the lower-right corner of most windows can hide behind the Dock and be inaccessible, and having the Dock centered at the bottom of the screen becomes problematic. Some people like hiding the Dock, but I like to know where I'm aiming my mouse.

My solution: Put the Dock on the right.

Identical Icons Look Identical

In earlier versions of the Mac OS, the Dock displayed thumbnail views of minimized windows. Nowadays OS X sometimes uses the same graphic for each minimized window - or perhaps that's something handled by individual programs. I find that when I minimize a Firefox window, it does look like a miniature version of the browser window I've minimized.

Still, the smaller the items in your Dock, the harder it is to distinguish one minimized window from another. Magnification helps, but I find that an annoyance I won't live with.

Dock Objects Have No Labels

Dock objects have labels, but they aren't visible in the Dock. You can mouse over each icon to read the label. Tog doesn't care for that. I don't mind it at all.

Dock Objects Need Color

Dock objects are displayed in full color, but they don't reflect any color labels that might have been applied to them. I agree with Tog that if the user has used a color label on a file or folder, the Dock should reflect it.

The Trash Can Belongs in the Corner

Fitt's Law says the corners are the most easily reached parts of a display, followed by the sides. Unless the Dock is anchored to the corner (mine is, and several third-party utilities will allow you to do this), it's easy to miss the Trash. There are even utilities that put a trashcan on the desktop for diehards.

Apple should allow users to anchor the Dock to a corner. The Dock is already capable of doing this, but Apple doesn't let users access that setting in the OS.

The Dock's Locations Are Unpredictable

The Dock itself will always be where you put it, but if it's hidden (really the only time this becomes an issue), you don't know just where a specific icon is until you unhide the Dock. Further, icons added to the Dock during use are appended in the order added, so items won't be in the same order day after day, week after week. This reduced our ability to rely on visual memory.

The Dock Is a Sprawler

Tog seems to love working with a hidden Dock and wishes there was a better way to unhide it. I've suggested that Apple add a tab to the Dock (see Of Docks and Roadblocks, and Tog agrees that the hidden Dock needs to work in conjunction with a visible target. This could eliminate the way the hidden Dock pops up any time your mouse goes to the edge of the screen.

The Dock Replaced Better Objects

Yes, the Dock replaced better objects, and that in turn created an after-market for third-party solutions, many which simply duplicate the better ways of doing things Mac users had with the classic Mac OS - and others going well beyond Apple's vision for the Dock.

Tog has an entire article devoted to these better solutions. I still haven't found the ideal replacement or supplement for the Dock, although I have tried several of his suggestions.

The Dock Adds Bad Behavior

"The Dock adds a whole new behavior: Object annihilation. Drag an object off the dock and it disappears in a virtual puff of smoke. This is the single scariest idea introduced to the Macintosh since the original bomb icon."

No, but it might be the scariest idea since the self-emptying Trash Mac users put up with prior to System 7. Every time you restarted your Mac, it emptied the Trash, so you couldn't recover something you'd inadvertently thrown away.

My Dock in 2003

My Dock in 2005

My Dock

Tog has some good thoughts, and Apple has worked to make the Dock pretty flexible. But it does try to do too many things - file launcher, program tracker, and resting place for minimized documents. And you can also use it to drag-and-drop files for use in an app.

Because the Dock is a great program launcher, mine is pretty full. The two images to the right show my Dock in 2003 and today. (These images are reduced to 730 pixels from 900+ pixel originals.)

There are some changes from 2003 with OS X 10.2 and now with 10.3. Internet Explorer and iCab no longer appear in my Dock, since I very rarely use either. I've removed Sherlock, which I use maybe once every year or two. System Preferences has been withdrawn, since it's available under the Apple menu.

I'm no longer using PowerMail 3, POPmonitor 2, that little utility that made it easy to switch between OS 9 and X (my eMacs don't boot into 9), Stickies, WebChecker (a great URL manager that's Classic-only), and BBEdit Lite 4.6.

After the Finder, iTunes, and iCal, I now have my two email apps, Mac Mail and GyazMail, followed by NetNewsWire Lite and Bookmark Tool 1.2. The latter is a decent URL manager, but I'm using RSS feeds more than ever before, so NetNewsWire Lite is my site tracker of choice today. (That's the role WebChecker used to have.)

I've added Shiira and Firefox, the two browsers I use the most, and grouped them with Safari, followed by my messaging clients. There I have Yahoo! Messenger, the one I use the most, as well as iChat and MSN Messenger, which I use rarely.

Going down the Dock we have Sp@mX (review forthcoming), TextSoap, File Synchronization, SuperDuper!, X Resource Graph, Claris HomePage 3, Photoshop 5.5, GraphicConverter, Mizer 1.3, Text Wrangler 2, iPhoto, SpamSieve, AppleWorks, and Screenshot Helper, a neat program that lets me put a plain background behind windows I want to snapshot for use on LEM.

Over the past few weeks, I've eliminated a couple Classic apps, replacing BBEdit Lite with the now-free TextWrangler and Claris Emailer with GyazMail. The only Classic apps I'm still using regularly are Claris HomePage, Photoshop, and Mizer, and there's a fair chance I'll be moving from Photoshop 5.5 to Photoshop Elements 3 later this year.

My Dream Dock

Three browsers, two email programs, three instant messengers, a couple spam-fighting apps - it would be so nice if the browser could simplify things by providing a single browser icon which would pop up a menu of browsers. Ditto for email, messaging clients, and so forth. Eliminating 6 or 8 icons would make what's left larger and easier to work with. And that might make those numbers some programs display (how many unread emails?) easier to read.

It would also be nice if there was a way to tell a program "don't display an icon in the Dock." I know SpamSieve is working, but I don't need to access it. My email programs do that automatically.

Here's what I'd end up with - a Dock that can hide but keeps a visible tab, one that you can click through to reach windows partially behind the Dock, one that lets power users group apps together using classifications (e.g., browsers, email, messengers) and lets users anchor the Dock to a corner of the screen.

The Dock may be a thing of beauty, but it becomes so cluttered that the beauty is lost as each icon shrinks more and more.