iOS 4 folders: Usable, but poorly implemented

I’m a fan of Apple’s iOS 4 upgrade for the iPhone and iPod touch. The new multitasking and Mail features alone are great, but I was especially eager to get my fingers on the new folders feature.

Folders are essentially collections of apps. That concept appeals greatly to people (like me) with screenful-upon-screenful of apps; by grouping similar apps together, you can clean up your many home screens and spend less time swiping.

But there are two elements to iOS 4 folders that are—to use the technical term—really, really annoying.

Annoyance #1

iOS folders can only hold 12 items. That’s dopey.

Ignoring the four permanently docked apps at the bottom of each Home screen, you can store 16 apps per page on your iPhone. I imagine I’m not the only person on the planet who, prior to the launch of the new folders feature, organized his apps by screen. My first Home screen was devoted to the apps I use the most often, a few others to my favorite games, and one screen to apps for my kids.

The common factor on each of those organized screens? They all included 16 apps. Apple’s design decision to limit folders to 12 apps requires that I reorganize my apps a lot—which isn’t just unpleasant, it’s unnecessary. Look at the “full” folder pictured to the right.

Are you seeing what I’m seeing? Namely, that nearly 80-pixel-tall region at the bottom of my screen where all you can see is my cobblestone wallpaper? You know what would fit just perfectly there?

Four more apps, that’s what. I’m thinking that Apple feared putting any “non-dock” and non-fast-app-switching apps along that bottom row might confuse folks, but I disagree with that hypothetical decision I just invented. As is, even if you’re not a former adherent of the “organizing by screenful” mentality, this folder layout involves a bizarre use of wasted space.

I can even explain further why Apple went with the 12-app limit, though that doesn’t excuse the choice. The picture at left shows what happens when your folder is in, say, the second row.

Aha! Since this folder was in the second row, the iOS bumps it up a bit to make room to display the full contents, splitting the just-under-80-pixel difference between the top and bottom of the screen. Now there really isn’t enough room, sucker!

Except, of course there is.

I’d much rather see folder icons always slide up to the very top or very bottom when opened, to allow space for 16 apps, instead of settling for this overly-constrictive approach.

Of course, limiting the number of apps per folder isn’t Apple’s only math problem. To wit—

Annoyance #2

Quick! How many apps are in this folder?

If you guessed nine, you could not be more wrong—but don’t worry, it’s not your fault. This is a bigger challenge to solve than Annoyance #1, but Apple’s good at handling big challenges. (The company employs Steve Jobs, for crying out loud.)

Since the folder icon only shows a 3-by-3 grid of the apps it contains, it’s currently impossible to look at a folder’s icon and tell:

a) whether said folder is full (i.e., contains Apple’s current foolish maximum of 12 apps, and thus will ignore any more apps you attempt to drag into it), or

b) precisely how many apps said folder contains, if that number is greater than or equal to nine.

When a folder is full, it still darkens as you drag another app over it, as if to indicate that you’re about to add that app to the folder. But since the folder is full to capacity, when you release your finger, the app just slides right back to where it was, and nothing changes.

It’s thus imperative that folders reflect their fullness. I’m no designer, but I’m sure Apple could come up with a visual cue to indicate whether a folder is full or not. And again, I’d prefer that fullness only be reached when your folder hits 16 apps, which may only make the icon challenge tougher.

So those are my two objections to iOS 4’s current folders implementation. I can admit that I’m happier with folders than I was without them, but my concerns are real, and I don’t actually consider them especially picky. Clearly, Apple needs an overall slicker approach to iPhone app navigation, and folders are meant only as a temporary assist in a world fast approaching a quarter million iOS apps. Even as a stop-gap solution, though, this implementation of folders feels half-baked.

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