Tiger evaluated: Dashboard

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a ongoing series of feature-by-feature reviews of OS X 10.4. Part one looked at the pros and cons of Tiger’s Spotlight search technology while part two focused on iChat 3.

I’m a paid user of Konfabulator, so I’ve already admitted to myself that I like the concept of tiny application widgets. (I’m currently using a hacked version of Konfabulator’s Weather widget to display the current temperature data from my backyard weather station on my desktop.) So when Tiger arrived, I was interested to see how I’d come to use Dashboard in my everyday life. The results so far are, I have to say, a bit mixed.

The standard widgets: Many of the Apple-designed widgets that ship with Tiger are a whole lot of fun. Some are even practical. The Dictionary widget is just about perfect, letting me look up a word quickly without launching and quitting the full Dictionary application. (And let me just say, how great is it that Apple has finally put a complete dictionary and thesaurus into Mac OS X?)

Why “just about perfect?” I’m disappointed that widgets aren’t smarter about their positions on my screen. In my mind, the best place for the Dictionary widget is lurking down at the bottom of my screen. But if I place it there and enter a word, the definition window unfurls right off the bottom edge (as shown below). It would be nice if the entire widget scooted up when displaying a definition… and went back to its lurking position when that definition is no longer displayed. A minor quibble, but it drives me crazy enough to mention it.

Dictionary and Stickies widgets

I was never a habitual user of the Stickies application—it got in my way if I left it open, and if I closed it I would forget I had left myself any notes. But I have at least one Stickies widget running at all times, full of brief “things to do” notes to myself. (You can see one in the above screenshot as well.) In some ways, the Stickies widget is the perfect use of Dashboard’s invisible-until-you-hit-F12 interface system. It’s always there… but it’s always out of my way until I need to look at it. (However, I’ve got to file more niggling complaints: it’s a shame you can’t re-size the Stickies, or create multi-page Stickies.)

Although I enjoy some of Apple’s standard widgets, others are a bit more demo-friendly than they are actually useful. I don’t find the Calendar widget—which offers absolutely no integration with iCal—to be particularly useful.

Widget management: Dashboard adds a serious new wrinkle to the Mac interface, but it’s also added some quirks that need to be addressed. The most obvious one: there’s no readily apparent way to quickly close a widget. If you click on the little plus symbol in the lower left corner of your screen, small “x” icons appear at the top left corner of all your open widgets, allowing you to close them. We savvy widgeteers have also figured out that if you hold down the option key and move your cursor over the widget, the “x” icon will appear. A hidden keyboard shortcut is not good enough.

Speaking of the the rotating plus/x symbol in the lower left corner of the screen… that it slides the entire user interface upward when you click on it just rubs me wrong. It’s great eye candy, true, but it also seems unnecessary and more than a little bit gratuitous. What’s worse, the widget list that’s revealed by the needless eye candy is really not powerful enough to manage more than a handful of widgets. I’ve already got three or four pages of widgets on my system. There’s got to be a better way to organize them than Dashboard’s current turn-the-page approach.

And, of course, Dashboard’s widget strip doesn’t let you install or delete Widgets easily. If you download a widget using Safari, by default the browser will unpack the widget and install it in your Widgets folder. But as has been proven by several clever Mac developers, having Safari auto-install widgets is not a good idea. Which is why every Tiger user should uncheck Safari’s “Open ‘safe’ files after downloading” option.

The problem is, once you do this, there’s no easy way to install widgets. Instead, you’ve got to navigate to ~/Library/Widgets and copy your widgets there. Want to remove a widget? Same deal. Yes, we’re starting to see widget manager programs (such as Downtown Software House’s Widget Manager ) hit the scene, and that’s great… but Dashboard needs some basic widget-management tools of its own. (I’d also like to see an easy facility for Widget-makers to update their widgets, so I don’t need to keep downloading new versions every week!)

Widget placement: It’s a shame that there’s no documented way to move widgets off of the Dashboard layer. I want the ability to arbitrarily place widgets anywhere, so I can have some that float like clouds above my windows, while others remain stuck to the Desktop and still others remain hidden on the F12 Dashboard layer.

Yes, there is a clever utility, Mesa Dynamics’ Amnesty, which seems to address these issues. And you can make Dashboard float Widgets above the regular Mac interface via a hidden developer preference. But I’d like more built-in control over where my widgets live. For me, some widgets (Weather, for instance) work best when they’re visible all the time. Others (like Stickies) were born to dwell on the hidden Dashboard layer.

Third-party widgets: If Dashboard is to be a success, there needs to be a thriving community of widget-makers. More importantly, there need to be widgets great and small: amazingly polished widgets that appeal to a mass audience, and quirky widgets that address very particular needs. The good news is, that community appears to be forming. Yes, a lot of the widgets on Apple’s widgets page are silly. But there are also bunches of useful ones.

Among the widgets that I’ve come to love are: Ben Kazez’s iCal Events, which displays all your upcoming iCal events; Ryan Inselmann’s Scoreboard, which shows live baseball scores (and is probably violating several Major League Baseball licensing restrictions—don’t tell!); Man Of 1000 Ages’s RadarInMotion, which displays an animated local weather radar map; and Monkey Business Labs’ Package Tracker, which tracks your UPS, FedEx, or DHL package to its destination. (Three of my favorites—Scoreboard, Package Tracker, and iCal Events—are pictured below, clockwise from the top left corner.)

Favorite widgets

In conclusion: I’ll be honest: when I initially tried out Dashboard, I was worried I would find it to be absolutely useless to my everyday life. (I thought the same thing about iChat, by the way. Shows what I know.) It turns out that Dashboard is insidious. You don’t realize you’re relying on it until it’s too late, and you’re hooked.

Dashboard’s an excellent addition to the Mac OS, and its presence in every shipping copy of Tiger will draw countless clever developers who will continue to extend Dashboard’s usefulness over the next few years. But for it to be a true success, Apple needs to give users more flexibility over where Widgets live and more control over installing, removing, and organizing them.

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