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Leopard: Dashboard, Dashcode & Front Row

November 2nd, 2007
Mac OS X extra layer features worthwhile

Web Clip and the Movies widget: (usually) helpful

In Safari, Web Clip is triggered through a scissors button that allows the user to make a Dashboard widget out of the page that they are currently browsing. The interface requires very little effort to grasp well. A solid white rectangle appears around the cursor, following it. When the cursor is dragged over an element on the page -- such as a picture, list, or body of text -- the white bounding box snaps to surround it, much like how double-tapping works in Safari on the iPhone. Anchors surrounding the box allow the user to manually adjust the selection from the page in case it is not exactly right. Click "Apply" at the top of the page and you are whisked away to Dashboard, with your own custom web comic or newsfeed widget. Once the page is captured in Dashboard, it can be given a different border, ranging from faux picture frames to giving the page a ripped-out appearance.

Selecting a page element in Safari

The final results in Dashboard

The system is simple and works well, but it becomes apparent that there are limits which could be problematic in the future. The page can be dragged around within the frame, but the frame itself can not be re-adjusted; time did not allow me a chance to verify if the widget is smart enough to tell whether or not the monitored element changes (for example, a web comic changes from a three- to four-panel design). If not, this could be an issue for pages that change element size regularly.

By contrast, the Movies widget in Dashboard is more immediately and universally helpful: although a small addition, it saves valuable time having to navigate overly complex movie theater websites and jumping to a separate site to watch a trailer for the same title. The widget will not match the quality of dedicated trailers, but for casual or last-minute research for a night out, Apple's interface could well replace most third-party widgets entirely.

Playing a trailer in Apple's Movies widget

Dashcode proves handy, but potentially daunting

Dashcode is simple to use, but not as simple as I was originally hoping when details about the app were scarce. Most of the process for creating the widget is done through a GUI, but some of the more advanced features require knowledge of how to write code. Since I only understand a modest amount of programming, Dashcode's methods are still a little unapproachable in that regard, but understandable. There are only so many things one can do in a programming environment by manipulating GUI elements.

Editing a new widget in Dashcode; note the guide in the corner

Basic widgets are easy to make, and I came up with a basic RSS news reader in under an hour. The interface is a little intimidating for someone who doesn't have a background in software development, but the company has added a valuable feature in the bottom-left corner of Dashcode's window which walks you through creation from start to finish, making it easy to understand the process after spending only a brief amount of time leafing through the features.

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Front Row gains through shadowing Apple TV

Front Row has been completely redesigned, with an appearance strongly resembling that of the AppleTV interface. This is a switch for the better, as the new interface is cleaner and better organized. The interface is also quicker to load, available a few fractions of a second after clicking "Menu" on the Apple remote versus the time-consuming spin animation from the original version. Apple has also created an icon for Front Row in the Applications folder, allowing for placement in the Dock much like Dashboard or Spaces.

Front Row's icon

Anyone who has used an Apple TV will be familiar with the interface, but for those new to the media hub, the interface operates even more like an oversized iPod than the original Front Row: the user selects the music, videos, or podcasts they wish to browse from a linear list, then selects a sorting method -- by artist, by album, by TV show, and so on. The interface is less dramatic but arguably more pleasing thanks to the increased speed.

There was a minor inconvenience when it came to slideshows, which seem to break from Apple's traditional emphasis on placing essential features in a single interface. Making a slideshow was straightforward enough, but the default music track ("Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring") would insist on playing regardless of what iPhoto album I chose. There were no album-specific options I could change. I was able to create a slideshow and change the music from within iPhoto, but it takes away from that pick-up-and-go appeal that I value from Apple -- doubly so knowing that Apple has had the opportunity to add this simple option ever since Front Row's first release in late 2005.

concluding thoughts

Dashboard and Front Row all have a very refined feel as of Leopard. They blend into the overall experience without becoming ungainly add-ons; Apple has seemingly understood for these programs that simple interfaces win out over flashy visuals. Dashcode and Web Clip also show a long-awaited recognition that outside developers -- and even end-users -- are just as important to making widgets as Apple itself. So far, Apple's additions on these fronts are pleasing -- and hopefully an inkling of more powerful media and web tools to come.

Pros: Elegantly presented. Performance has been optimized from Tiger. Dashcode is a nice addition. Cons
Cons: Dashcode not approachable for beginners with big ideas, lacking audio controls in Front Row.