Cover Flow is Pretty, but Fairly Useless

by James R. Stoup Jun 25, 2007

I had many different reactions to Jobs’ recent keynote, chief among them being surprise, joy, and excitement. However, when he finally got around to discussing the new Finder, disillusionment decided to make its entrance. I do think that this improved Finder is better than the current version, but that isn’t saying a whole lot. I suppose after all of this time I was expecting something a bit more revolutionary rather than evolutionary. Because as nice as this new Finder is, I just refuse to believe that that is the best Apple’s designers could come up with. But what has annoyed me the most about the new Finder is Cover Flow. My thoughts on Cover Flow can best be summed up in four words: “Don’t believe the hype.”

Eye candy isn’t very useful
Why such harsh words? Because, as nice as Cover Flow is in iTunes it is completely wasted on the new Finder. Not to mention the time wasted coding that could have been better spent on other issues (like including an option to make the freaking menu bar NOT transparent). Yes, Cover Flow bothers me greatly. I don’t like it already because I know I will virtually never use it. And Jobs’ cool demo aside, when will your average user actually use this feature? Well, if they want to look through their music they would use iTunes, if they wanted to view their photos they would use iPhoto, and so that leaves what for Cover Flow to do? Flip through Word documents? I don’t think so. Why, then, are we now touting eye candy as anything other than it is? Don’t lie to me and talk about how useful this will be.

Ah yes, my dream has finally come through! I can now flip through Word documents that are 1/8th their normal size! Hot damn, I can practically feel my work flow getting faster! Or better yet, PDFs! Who hasn’t dreamed of the ability to scan through tiny versions of the first page of a PDF document. Good luck reading the text that will be in size 2 point font. Yep, you will be zipping right along…until you run out of data in the cache. Which brings me to my second point.

Not as fast as you think
Does anyone remember during Jobs’ demo when he was flipping through files and accidentally viewed one file too many? What happened? Yeah, he got lots of blank slots because these images weren’t in the cache. So what did he do? He reversed course as fast as possible to revisit the images that had already been loaded. He did this instead of waiting around for the rest of those files to be loaded from the disk. Now, he was running a brand new machine with lots of RAM with the newest version of the OS on it, and he still had noticeable paging issues. Granted, this isn’t really his fault; after all, you can’t load the entire hard drive into main memory. But it does illustrate the inherent problem with Cover Flow, it is only as fast (and thus useful) as the amount of memory you have. But remember, we aren’t talking about some heavy duty application that slows down due to lack of memory, we are just browsing files! Say that with me again, we are just browsing files. We aren’t editing images, making movies, or playing games—we are looking at the files on our hard drive. This really shouldn’t be a taxing operation. Oh, and that piece at the end where he showed using Cover Flow over a network to access a remote machine? If you really think that is how it’s going to work on your Mac then I have some property on the Moon to sell you.

The band aid solution
In the final analysis, I distrust both Cover Flow and this new iTunes-like Finder because they are just band aid solutions. The Finder needs a real, honest-to-goodness overhaul. Bolting on more eye candy and calling it a solution isn’t really going to fool anybody. And I don’t care how pretty it looks if it isn’t functional! OS X is already sleek and beautiful enough, it doesn’t need more transparent menu bars or flashy icons. What it needs is a better way to access files. Making the dock 3D was nice, adding stacks was cool, but that still doesn’t change the fundamental shortcomings of the Dock. The Finder is no different. All of the slick animation in the world isn’t going to change the fact that a better way of doing things is needed. Is Apple now taking a page from Microsoft’s playbook? Have they really decided to use the old “If we can’t make it useful at least make it pretty?” I would hope not. This is one Mac user who is hoping that 10.6 will finally address these problems. Or maybe the Redskins will win the Super Bowl first. One is looking about as likely as the other.


  • I know that you guys work to drum up hits by turning increasingly critical against Apple’s work, but I’ll bite anyway…

    Coverflow, like other viewing options (icon, column, etc) is useful when it’s useful.  For music, I think it’s fantastic, particularly for browsing.  When I want to search, however, a different viewing metaphor is better.

    If utility were the only concern, perhaps we should just have one huge alphabetical list?  Oh, so…wait—that would get tedious to sort through.  Perhaps we should subgrup that list.  Oh, wait… but there are so many things in this subgroup that aren’t the same.  Oh, wait… maybe we could view them to make a quick visual inspection of what they are. Isn’t that Coverflow? 

    Oh… yeah.  Nevermind.

    ricksbrain had this to say on Jun 25, 2007 Posts: 14
  • James, while I agree with you that Coverflow just seems silly inside Finder, the really important question is: What happened underneath?
    Basically, we all know the current Finder sucks. Not just because its UI is crap, but because it still has major issues refreshing information, handling vanished network shares (CRAP, CRAP, CRAP!) etc.

    We’ll never see a Keynote where Steve comes on stage saying:
    “Well, we know this product sucks, but finally we fixed all these little annyoing bugs!”

    So let him show us some more or less impressive eye candy and hope the team got some time fixing the more important issues at hand.
    Although Apple’s track record in that topic is not so great - they are nearly as bad as Microsoft in regard to fixing stuff and making it useful. :-(

    hessi had this to say on Jun 25, 2007 Posts: 8
  • Coverflow really is not that big of a deal in itself, but if you look at what the merging of iTunes and the Finder could be, then you start to see what might happen.

    The Finder is essentially a way to organize files via a limited set of metadata. iTunes organizes a subset of these files with an expanded set of metadata. iPhoto? Same as iTunes.

    So imagine if extensible metadata is built into the Finder directly. iTunes? not needed. iPhoto? not needed for organizing, just for image editing.

    XFS provides the perfect opportunity to do this. Imagine just setting a smart folder that has your MP3 files and is set to browse music via artist, album, etc…. With an integrated preview/player, and the ability to organize properly, this is basically what you have in iTunes.

    That is basically how I see the finder going in the 10.5 iterations, more metadata added to the finder, mimicking the iTunes interface, and the slow phase out of specialty organizing apps like iPhoto and iTunes.

    akatsuki had this to say on Jun 25, 2007 Posts: 6
  • I have yet to read a blogger who “gets” Cover Flow for the Finder.


    Sorry for yelling, but all the bloggers seem to latch onto this as if it is the gospel truth.

    It’s not intended to scroll through your whole hard drive. I saw another metaphor (probably here) that compared it to leafing through an enormous 1950’s style file cabinet front to back to find that one manilla folder.

    That’s not how users will be using Cover Flow in the Finder.

    Cover Flow is another way to quickly find a specific document after you’ve narrowed your parameters.

    Haven’t you ever had a folder with a bunch of documents that have similar information, and/or somewhat cryptic file names, but you know the one you’re looking for is among them?

    The old way of finding the document was to open every file, either one at a time, or selecting a huge group and opening them all at once with the app and cmd-W through the windows until the want you want rises to the top. This is not exactly the best approach if the number of documents is significantly above 10 - 20.

    Cover Flow allows you to get a quick view of those files without having to open every single one. We’re not browsing every file on the system, just leafing through that one subset of documents, searching for the file we know we’ll be able to identify on sight.

    Now add Spotlight to the mix. Perhaps we know the document contains specific keywords, but we have many of these documents spread around the system in various folders. We do a keyword search and get our subset of documents, but still, because of cryptic files names, or the large number of documents that might contain the search parameters, there are too many documents to quickly find what we’re looking for.

    Cover Flow, again, provides us a quick file browser to allow us to select the right document.

    How hard is this to figure out?

    Criminy… The whole point is that we’re getting AWAY from using the Finder as a file browser by clicking from one folder to the next and using it more like a database search with a preview mode.


    Why is it that no one gets this?

    vb_baysider had this to say on Jun 25, 2007 Posts: 243
  • I find this article rather disappointing.  Cover Flow can only be useless if you don’t have a particular use for it.  I do a lot of photography, image editing, and page layout.  I’m sure cover flow and quick look will be exceptionally useful.

    The idea that a photographer would use something like iPhoto is just ridiculous.  It’s slow, awful, awkward.  I personally think it’s an absolute embarassment to OS X.  When I’m sorting and organizing hundreds of photos, I’ve long relied on the Finder, Preview, and Automator (for tagging, filing, renaming, etc)

    Cover Flow will be an immense help to me.  Even if it’s a little slow right now, the rate at which the performance of computers increases it will be wonderful in a year or so.

    There’s plenty of other things about Leopard that I do find ridiculous, however.  iChat with PhotoBooth effects?  Time Machine?  The Menu bar?  There’s much to be disappointed with.  Cover Flow isn’t one of them.

    Galen777 had this to say on Jun 25, 2007 Posts: 2
  • I’m surprised so many people have completely missed the point of Coverflow in the Finder. Maybe it’s because Apple has called the Finder a “NEW” Finder. Sadly it isn’t. But the addition of Coverflow could be one of the most important changes Apple has ever made to OS X.

    Look at iTunes. We now know that there may be over 500 million copies of iTunes out there. If you ignore multiple downloads I’m betting there are still at least 100-200 million actively used copies. Now, the current iTunes has Coverflow. Anyone with iTunes knows how to use it because it is dead simple. Now, Apple can go to any iTunes user out there (the Windows using kind) and say “Look, if you can use iTunes, you can use a Mac.” That is a very powerful thing.

    There are lots of people who are scared of switching over or just don’t think they want to because of a perceived lack of comfort with something new (in this case, OS X). Apple can further remove that barrier now with Coverflow. Does it mean every switcher will use it? Of course not, but it helps convince people to make the switch. Right now, Coverflow is one of the most important announcements to come out of WWDC, not because of the tech behind it or the usability, but because of what it means to new switchers. Apple can only sell more computers because of it.

    ibvanmat had this to say on Jun 25, 2007 Posts: 1
  • ibvanmat has hit the nail on the head. That is exactly why apple introduced coverflow into the finder. Also, by just pressing spacebar you get a full sized preview versus that little 1/8 size file. This is another article where you guys obviously missed the point, again.

    diablojota had this to say on Jun 25, 2007 Posts: 25
  • ibvanmat et al,

    After reading all these comments I must say I am somewhat confused. Everyone agrees with at least some of what I have to say, and yet apparently I still don’t “get it”.

    So, we agree that Cover Flow isn’t useful for searching large numbers of files, we agree that it isn’t useful at all for certain types of files, we agree that it will be amazingly slow (and regardless of how fast computers get in a year you still won’t be able to load the entire harddrive into memory) and we agree we agree that it isn’t the solution to the problem that is the Finder.

    And in spite of all that I’m still told that I “obviously missed the point, again.”

    Wow, imagine how pissed you guys would be if you actually disagreed with me.

    James R. Stoup had this to say on Jun 25, 2007 Posts: 122
  • James,

    You’re making yourself look silly.

    Who cares if some people agree with some of your points or your premises if your conclusion is silly?

    Besides, why on Earth would I want to load the entire hard drive into memory?  Why does it have to be useful for every type of file?  Why does it have to be “the” solution to the problem that is the finder?  I could make all of those points about ANY application and ANY feature in the OS, couldn’t I?

    ” The Finder needs a real, honest-to-goodness overhaul. Bolting on more eye candy and calling it a solution isn’t really going to fool anybody. And I don’t care how pretty it looks if it isn’t functional!”

    Well, the problem is that it *is* functional.  At least if you have a need to scan visual previews of files.

    “The Finder is no different. All of the slick animation in the world isn’t going to change the fact that a better way of doing things is needed. “

    Well, that would have been a much better topic for an article.  What exactly are you proposing?

    Galen777 had this to say on Jun 25, 2007 Posts: 2
  • First off, James, another great piece! I’ve been using Leopard since WWDC and have mixed feeling about Cover Flow. On the one hand it is very useful, especially when used with Quick Look. The other day I found a file that I wouldn’t have found as quickly using Cover Flow.

    On the other hand, when Cover Flow opens up in a window by default I immediately find it annoying and switch back to column view (my favorite).

    Hadley Stern had this to say on Jun 25, 2007 Posts: 114
  • I think that the coverflow view is not for computers, but will eventually be the best way to browse directories on the iPhone. The same thing with coverflow in iTunes. It makes way more sense on the iPhone when you have just one finger to work with, than it does on a computer where you can, for example, use the scroll button of your mouse to browse your songs in list view.

    seanferguson had this to say on Jun 25, 2007 Posts: 1
  • I beg to differ.

    As much as I love my Mac, I have always envy one small feature in Windows, the simple slideshow mode in folder view when you have images in it. The best we could do so far is to crank up the icon size to the max (128 pixel) and try very hard to be pleased with it.

    Now, with coverflow, we could do the same and more. Now, to quickly browse through the docs as well, it’s just way over the top…

    Faris Abetam had this to say on Jun 25, 2007 Posts: 1
  • Executive Summary:

    “I can’t think of any good use for cover flow in the finder so it must suck.”

    —> Hadley, if this is your idea of a great piece ... then perhaps “great” doesn’t mean what you think it means.


    SteveM had this to say on Jun 25, 2007 Posts: 5
  • I think the consensus has spoken.  While people agree that Cover flow is not the approprate file browsing metaphor for “all” data it does represent a viable choice within certain contexts.  Thus the original authors premise that it is fairly useless has seemingly been overridden by the responders.  It is my opinion that if an author posits that a feature should not have been included the burden of proof resides with that author since computing tends to improve by being more inclusionary rather than exclusionary.  I don’t see sufficient support in the following narrative from the author that warrants Apple not including Cover Flow in the finder.  The jabs at the Finder itself and the menu bar were irrelevant and specious IMO.

    Give me options and I’ll decide myself how to use my resources.

    hmurchison had this to say on Jun 25, 2007 Posts: 145
  • You’re right: CoverFlow is pretty. But you’re wrong: it is very useful. It’s just not useful for everything. Similarly, list view is useful, and icon view is useful, and column view is useful - but I don’t want any of them for everything.

    I used to avidly read AM: every news feed, every day.
    The last month or so, I started skimming, then skipping, entire articles. I removed the RSS feed.

    This article is the first article I’ve read in almost 2 weeks. And I now I remember why. :(

    oz-nom had this to say on Jun 26, 2007 Posts: 13
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