Hey Apple! Fix the green button already!

99 Comments

Sometimes it zooms, sometimes it maximizes and sometimes it just does wacky stuff that no one can really explain. The green button in all OS X windows has been a nuisance since the public betas and it’s (long past) time Apple fixed it.

A Brief History

Actually called the zoom button, it dates back prior to OS X (at least as far back as System 6) and was one of only two buttons in the Macintosh windowing interface (the other being the close button). Back in those days, the zoom button actually did what it was supposed to do: enlarge or shrink the window to the minimum height and width necessary to fit the graphical content. A second click on the button would return the window to its previous state, essentially working as an Undo.

A user could always drag the right-hand corner of a window to resize it, but that is an imprecise action with a mouse and one that is essentially unnecessary since the computer knows the exact coordinates to size the window to eliminate the need for scrollbars. Once you added or removed files to a folder, you could click the Zoom button to quickly resize it to its most efficient size. In an operating system designed for dragging and dropping files from one window to another, this was incredibly useful.

That usefulness continued throughout the years as the zoom button kept its place in the interface through all the iterations of the Classic MacOS (7-9) and it even gained the ability to maximize windows (option-clicking the zoom button).

Where Things Went Wrong

The intent of the zoom button was brought to OS X in the green button even in the beta versions. Unfortunately, its effect was not so easily ported. Finder windows seemed to be blind to the Dock in early versions of OS X. Clicking the green button would enlarge the window so that it touched the bottom of the screen, leaving the bottom-right resize corner underneath the Dock.

This was compounded by the Finder’s seeming inability to remember window sizes. Even on the rare case that the green button resized the window correctly and there were no visible scrollbars, on reopening the same window a scrollbar would appear on one or both sides.

Even today, in version 10.4.9, the Finder still has problems correctly sizing even simple folders with less than 10 items in list view. To make matters worse, a second click rarely works as an Undo. Instead it picks a new size, often worse than the last one.

For instance, I have my Applications folder set to Icon view, Keep Arranged by Name and three columns wide. If I click the green button, what should happen? It should grow the window vertically to the top of the screen and the bottom of the screen (above the Dock) to accommodate the 100+ icons and shrink the window horizontally to fit exactly the three columns currently showing. What does it do instead? It shrinks the window horizontally so only two columns of icons are showing but leaving nearly a full column of empty space on the right. Oops, let me hit the zoom button again. Now it’s shrunk the window again so there’s only one column of icons but nearly a full column of empty space. Why not click it again and see what happens. Now it has shrunk the window horizontally so much that there’s a scrollbar at the bottom. One more time? Now it has extended the window vertically so it extends beyond the bottom of the screen and the resize handle is completely inaccessible (see this screenshot). The only way to fix the window’s size is to turn off the toolbar and press the green button. Gee, that was intuitive.

Of course, the list of weird Finder behavior could fill a book (a poor-selling and depressing one, but a book, nonetheless). But the Finder isn’t the only application where the green button acts abnormally. In Preview, when viewing an image smaller than full-screen, it will expand the window, but not to full-screen. And it won’t enlarge the image, so it just half-fills your screen with a bunch of gray border area.

In Safari, where the button should expand the window horizontally to accommodate the length of the active web page, sometimes it moves the entire window so the titlebar is in the middle of the screen and the status bar is below the bottom and inaccessible. Sometimes it moves the window to the right just one or two pixels, and you can slightly see the windows behind the browser on the left. I’m at a loss to what the point of that could be.

This bizarre and useless behavior of one of OS X’s longest-running interface controls is simply unacceptable. Longtime Mac users are left frustrated by something that worked so easily and consistently on older, inferior versions of the Mac.

The green button is not a maximize button

Windows users probably find the green button even more frustrating because they’re familiar with the longtime three-button Windows controls of close, minimize and maximize. Since OS X windows also have three buttons (just on the opposite side of the titlebar) and two of them are close and minimize, you can’t really fault them for expecting the green one (which shows a + symbol when moused over) to be a maximize button. It’s not uncommon to see a new Mac user mention the lack of a maximize button on a blog or as feedback to a ‘Switch to the Mac’ article.

Except when it is

Further confusing matters for these users is that in some applications the green button does maximize the window to full screen. Applications such as iMovie, iPhoto, iCal and GarageBand, for instance, will expand their single-window interfaces to the entire screen when the green button is clicked. As will Utilities such as Activity Monitor, Disk Utility, Network Utility and System Profiler. Even blank windows in Dictionary, TextEdit and Terminal will expand to full screen when the green button is clicked.

Then there’s iTunes

And then there’s iTunes, where clicking the green button of the main window actually shrinks it to a mini-player. This command is (ironically) called Zoom in the Window menu. iTunes also has the distinction of being one of the few (only?) applications to have a keyboard shortcut for the green button: Control-Command-Z.

Who can blame Windows users for being confused when the Windows version of iTunes—probably the most well-used Apple application for Windows—has a full-screen maximize button and the OS X version doesn’t? The other major Apple application on Windows, QuickTime Player, also has a maximize button.

What to do

First, the Finder’s zoom button must be fixed. It should behave consistently and be useful. Is it the only problem with the Finder? Certainly not. But after six years and three paid upgrades to OS X, it’s an issue that still lingers unnecessarily. Different applications assign different behavior to the green button, but Apple can’t blame anyone else for how it works in their applications, which make up a larger percent of the OS than ever before.

Second, iTunes needs to change its behavior. The green button should not turn iTunes main window into a mini-player. It should follow the example of its iLife brethren and maximize the main window as much as necessary vertically to show all the playlists and as much as necessary horizontally to show all the metadata columns. The mini-player functionality can still be invoked via the Window menu and the keyboard shortcut. And if a visual control is necessary, create a distinct interface icon. As one of Apple’s most important applications, and one most likely used by Windows switchers, it should be setting an example for best behavior, not weirdest.

Maximize vs. Zoom

I realize that many former/current Windows users would prefer the green button maximize the window when clicked and many longtime Mac users would prefer the green button zoom the window as it sorta does now. So how do you solve an issue where one person wants the behavior one way and another wants the behavior to do something different? Preferences. OS X already has preferences that deal with Windows/Mac differences. The “Automatically log in as” and “Always open folders in a new window” preferences makes OS X a little more like Classic Macs. And the “Show all file extensions” is probably valued by many Windows switchers. More importantly, users can choose what they prefer, be happy and not go griping on blogs about X Things They Hate About Using OS X.

The zoom button used to be useful and reliable, Apple. Make it that way again.

99 Comments

Craig Talbot

I have to agree with other posters. Actually other than close and minimise, I too learned quickly not to use the green button. It would be nice if it did something useful consistently, but the problem is now of course none of us would use it because we have already learned to ignore it. Out of curiousity am I the only one who never uses that wierd get rid of the toolbar button either?

Sharpe

It’s neither a maximizing nor a zooming button. Think of it as a button for the optimal size. Developers are to write it in their code how big their app’s window is to optimally present the content. In some cases, optimal size means a smaller window than the user assigned size if the user wastes window space. Blame the developers for not properly doing that, not the concept (yes, that includes Apple developers for some of their apps).

Mitch

MacDork (comment # 1) says it all!

Thanks for the laugh.

Scooter

The buttons on MS Windows are actually (From left to right) the minimize, restore, and close. (not close, minimize and maximize)

Microsoft’s original design goal was a toggle between a ‘smart’ middle button, one that would naturally tile the windows. But that was never to be…

Ryan

I often find myself intentionally avoiding the green button, as it never seems to do anything besides make the window worse than it already was. It is also annoying when I click it and nothing happens, so I click it again–it minimizes… When my Windows friends use my laptop and they say, “How do I maximize this window?”, my response is usually, “Well, you have to…”.

Brian

Apple will never fix this because they know you’ll buy the new OS regardless. Apple only does something when they can list it as a new feature. A damn shame.

dssdf

Fortunately mac os x is good at remembering window sizes that the user manually changes. I rarely maximize something (on mac and windows) so the green button is the least used. Even if fixed to behave consistently i would still rarely need the button. But yeah, it ought to be improved. There are bigger fish to fry. Like full virtual reality porn.

Argyle

“It should grow the window vertically…”

Please stop using “grow” as a transitive verb – it’s really not. Look it up. You don’t “Grow your business” or “Grow the economy.” These things can grow, or you can help these things grow, but you can’t grow them. It’s just wrong to use the word that way.

Drives me nuts…

getgreg

@Damon Schreiber

It took me forever to understand the behavior of the red button. The big problem with it is that most users don’t realize which applications can have multiple windows and which do not. I definitely think this should be next on on Apples fix list.

Quickly followed by making Cmd+Tab restore a minimized application when switching to it…

Joseph Duchesne

Kevin> That feature is called window shade, and I believe there is a program called windowShadeX that does the trick.

As for the expand-contract. I go to the finder, I open my HD: 163 items. I hit icon view. 3 Column, two and a half show. I hit the green. It springs to the width of the 3 columns. I hit it again, it reverts back. I’ve tried this with a number of windows. Yes, the button can behave erratically in some applications, but in the finder it seems to work fine for me.

Kevin

You know what I always liked in the older versions of the Mac OS was the ability to double click on the title bar and have the program disapear, except for the title bar. I know that the OS X version of this is a windows style “minimize” but I have never really liked that.

Steve – if it depends on the developer, then why do apps that Apple has created not function uniformally? I think that was the point of the post, the button does not work the same in all of Apple’s software, and it SHOULD.

lantzn

Agreed this button has bugged me since the beta. I’ve been a Mac user since 1987 and actually want the button to work like a maximize button. I like the way it works in Photoshop. I prefer having the extentions on also.

Steve

It totally depends on the app. Good developers handle it correctly and use it to zoom to the best size for the window in its current state. MultiAd Creator uses the green button correctly.

Lucky

How come you don’t use the latest version of Yahoo! Messenger? :)

Damon Schreiber

Oh, and Photoshop. It works spectacularly well in Photoshop – always has. It shrinks the window to the exact display dimensions of your image as long as it will fit onscreen. If it won’t, it just maximises the window to the screen size. I’ve always found this one reason why I much prefer to use Photoshop on the Mac rather than Windows.

Cingular guy: the red button closes the window not the app except for most one-window apps like System Preferences and Address Book where it quits them. It’s not completely consistent, but not as insane as the green button either.

A Guy From Cingular

I rarely very rarely use the green or the yellow (“amber”) button either. Then the close button – will it close the app or just close the window and leave the app running?

Kevin

Great article, my + button is grey (does anyone else use the ‘greyscale’ optoin?) but I have had so much trouble with getting that button to do what I want that I, just like many others, have given up using it all together.

Damon Schreiber

Great article. I never realised how messed-up the green button is in the Finder. I guess like others, I gave up on using over the last few years. The only app where it consistently does what I want is iTunes where I use it all the time. I know it’s not consistent with other apps (Ha, as if!) but I love the toggle between the mini-player and the open window mode. I agree especially about the Finder. I think all the bizarre green button behaviours in the Finder would fill a chapter of your book. Please oh please, Apple, FTFF in Leopard!

Steve

I could not possibly agree more — thanks for publishing this! APPLE, WAKE UP ON THIS ISSUE!!!

mdmunoz

I personally love the green button. The developer has the final say in what it does, and that’s how it should be. I use it all the time, especially in Safari.

Scott Fannen

As a window layout “neatnik” this has bugged me too – but, I remember they DID fix it on something like 10.2.8 or something like that and the next major upgrade screwed it up again.

Pressing Option (Alt) and the green button is supposed to maximise in the Windows sense too – even that’s screwy under X.

iTunes just lives in a different universe interface-wise. I’m worried Leopard will look like it.

Who knows what Leopard will bring – still no sign on the “mystery ingredients” yet.

Galley

It’s really odd why clicking the green button in iTunes turns on the mini-player. I just want to maximize the screen!

Geoff

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as demanding that Apple fix the problem.

I can’t explain why Apple implements the zoom button as it does in the Finder. That is something that Apple could fix. But, it’s left up to the developer of any given application to implement the button properly. More often than not, it isn’t.

There’s an article at O’Reilly Mac DevCenter, “All About The Little Green Blob,” that does a pretty good job of explaining the situation (though much of it is a programmer’s read). It can be found at http://www.macdevcenter.com/pub/a/mac/2002/05/16/cocoa.html .

Matt Hoult

Sadly, I am in the same boat as “MacDork”. For me it’s the completion of the set although I wish it did something useful. I like my Windows to be positioned where I want and need them in order to be efficient and rarely does this mean clogging my entire display up with a single application window. Even if it was to do something useful I don’t know I’d use it, but I’d certainly feel a lot better.

This will be something I look forward to being fixed in Leopard as it’s currently as useful as S.M.A.R.T!

Adam

Is that really your applications list? Why do you have all the messengers installed? Why not just use Adium? On app, all messenger services?

I’m glad someone else has problems with the Green button, I just thought I didn’t knew it’s subtle actions and left it be.

MacDork

I’ve learned to simply never push that button. It’s never done what I’ve wanted it to, and is therefore just decorative.

It visually completes the stop light analogy; that’s all I expect of it.

Good job, green button!

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