9 Apr 2016

Simplifying and Modernising the Finder

The Mac’s Finder looks simple enough on the surface, but when you look a little deeper, or try to customise it, you’ll find it’s one of OS X’s most confusing apps. It has accumulated a lot of cruft over the decades, and it looks like nobody has gone back and cleaned it up.

To begin with, the same folder appears differently based on how you navigate to it:

Both are the same folder! In the first screenshot, I double-clicked it to open it directly. In the second one, I opened another folder and then navigated to this one.

This makes no sense. A folder should look the same however you navigate to it, unless you manually changed the view. It shouldn’t change by itself.

Further, within a single Finder window, as you keep navigating, the view keeps changing, like from icons to list to columns to cover flow. Or the font size keeps changing. Or file and folder names sometimes show beside the icon and sometimes below it. And so on. This is because the Finder remembers each folder’s view setting separately.

This is a mess. The result is that you can never get it to look the way you want it. Even after you customise the view, it changes when you navigate.

Once you customise the view setting, you should click Use as Defaults:

If you don’t, you end up changing only the settings of the folder you happened to be in at that time. Even if you do, this doesn’t change the settings for all folders, only ones that don’t have a custom setting. There’s no way to say, for example, that you want a particular font size no matter which folder you’re viewing.

The hacky solution is to locate and delete all the .DS_Store files in which Finder saves its per-folder settings. When you do that, Finder uses the Defaults you set above. Until you accidentally change the settings for a particular folder, and you’re back to the DS_Store mess.

Further, these .DS_Store files get synced to Google Drive and Dropbox, causing clutter.

This is a world of complexity that doesn’t need to be there. Get rid of per-folder settings. Get rid of the .DS_Store files. Get rid of the Use as Defaults button.

Further, each of the views the Finder has — icon, list, details and cover flow — has its own view settings. Here’s the one for the icon view:

Many of these settings should be removed. Apple should pick an icon size. There’s no need for users to be able to change that any more than they need to change the size of icons on the iOS home screen. The grid spacing should be chosen automatically to show as many files as possible in the given space, but without clipping long names if there’s enough space to show them. You don’t need to be able to choose whether labels appear to the right of or below icons. Apple should just pick one.

And here are the view settings for the list view:

Notice that there’s some overlap between these two sets of settings, like the icon size, text size and whether an icon preview should be shown. You can’t set the font size once, for example. You have to set it twice. This is lame. You should be able to set the common settings once, rather than over and over again.

Notice the checkboxes at the top to “Always open in list view” and “Browse in list view”. These presumably control what view new Finder windows open in, and whether they stay in that view when you browse to another folder. Get rid of both these options. Finder windows should open in whichever view the last Finder window that was closed had. And they should stay in that view forever, until you change it.

Talking of the icon preview, you can have it on:

or off:

This setting is unnecessary. Automatically show the preview if the icon is big enough, like 100x100 or bigger.

There’s also an option to show “item info”:

Apple should get rid of this as well. There’s no need to cram this information below a file name. Not to mention that this may not be the information you’re looking for. Maybe you want the file size. Or the date of creation. Or something else. Just get rid of the option to show “item info”.

Further, icons can get misaligned:

The Finder gives you three ways to deal with this misalignment. You can leave it misaligned, if you’re the messy type. Or you can ask Finder to do a one-time Clean Up:

Or you can ask Finder to keep it aligned permanently by choosing Snap to Grid:

(BTW, why does Snap to Grid appear in the Sort By menu? Sorting means ordering them by name, size or other attribute, not aligning the icons to a grid.) 

This is all unnecessary complexity. Just keep the icons aligned all the time. Get rid of the options to keep them unaligned, and to align them once.

Talking of sorting, you can keep the icons sorted, as the above screenshot shows, or you can do a one-time sort by using the Clean Up By menu:

“Clean Up By” is a misnomer. This is also a sort. So, OS X offers two sort options, one in the Sort By menu, and another in the Clean Up By menu. This is confusing. Get rid of one.

In fact, when I said that the Finder shouldn’t remember view settings for each folder, that goes for sort order. The sort order shouldn’t change as you navigate from folder to folder. Folders should always be sorted. Get rid of the options to have the icons unsorted, or to sort them temporarily. They are always sorted. You can choose what they are sorted by, whether name or size or some other attribute, but are always sorted.


In summary, the Finder looks simple enough at first glance, but it has accumulated a lot of cruft over the decades. Simplify it by getting rid of per-folder view settings. Whatever settings you choose remain in effect as you navigate from folder to folder.

Eliminate the option to have icons mis-aligned, and the resulting options to either temporarily or permanently align them. Likewise for sorting. Items are always aligned and sorted.

View settings that are the same between view modes should be setttable once. You shouldn’t have to set the font size or icon size over and over again for each view mode.

Get rid of many unnecessary options like whether to show an icon preview and item info, how big the icons should be, where to place the labels, how much space there should be between icons, and so on. These all should be the UI designers’ job. Users shouldn’t have to bother with these any more than they adjust the background color of a toolbar.

With these changes, the Finder will be simplified, modernised, and ready for the future. Users can focus on their files rather than tweaking overly complex, unclear, settings.

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