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The Pursuit of Perfection: Hidden Gems in Apple Design

Apple Logo

If you ask any of the Apple “fanboys” why they are so devoted to Apple (s aapl), at least one of the reasons you will hear is that Apple “sweats the small stuff,” which really proves its dedication to user experience and attention to detail.

Here’s a few of my favorites that demonstrate Apple’s attention, not just to its hardware and software, but to even the product packaging. See how many you may have noticed before, and feel free to add any that I might have missed in the comments below.

Serial Numbers

AirPort Extreme Serial Number Location In the world of computers, serial numbers are important for a variety of reasons, including verifying warranty status and determining the correct specifications, to name a few. Many Apple products feature, in addition to their standard serial number, a barcode that makes reading this serial number much easier for Geniuses or other technicians.

Though some newer models have forgone barcodes, such as the 2009 model MacBook Pros and MacBook Air, barcodes can still be found on many other Apple products. In addition to serial numbers represented as barcodes, some Macs, like the Mac Pro, also include a barcode for the system’s MAC address. Though it changes from model to model, Apple has often put these barcodes and serial numbers in easily accessible places.

On the Power Mac G5, the serial number was located on the inside of the tower, behind the aluminum side panel. On iMac G4s and eMacs, the serial number was located on the inside of the optical drive cover. This really made it easy to quickly locate a serial number if you couldn’t access it through the OS.

Fiat Lux a la Mac

As many people leave their Macs running non-stop throughout the day, they have likely stumbled upon the infamous sleep light. Much like a heartbeat (or “snoring”), the little light pulses while your Mac sleeps. When the iMac G5 originally shipped, its sleep light indicator was bright! It didn’t bother people during the day, but for those who kept their iMac in an office or bedroom, it could light up the whole room at night. Apple issued a firmware update that reduced the sleep light’s brightness during evening hours, giving a much more relaxing pulse than before.

Beyond sleep lights, other indicators on newer Macs are typically hidden until needed. Take for instance the iSight indicator light, built into displays, which is seemingly non-existent until the camera is activated. Similar to the sleep light on the unibody MacBook Pros, the power light on the new aluminum Apple Wireless Keyboard blends in seamlessly until its activated. The thin aluminum that has been perforated with tiny holes for the light to shine through, but when there is no light, the keyboard looks seamless.

MagSafe ConnectorIndicator lights on power adapters are also worthy of mention. With once quick glance, you can easily see what is going on. If the light is amber, the battery is charging. If the light is green, the battery is fully charged and ready to go.

Another interesting use of light is the Apple logo on the rear of the portables. The light that illuminates this logo is simply excess ambient light from your display. Go ahead and take a look. Lower the brightness on your display and watch the apple dim.

Product Shots

iMac Clock View The next time you see a promotional shot for an Apple product, take notice of the time. For many years, whenever a Mac has been shown displaying the OS X desktop, the clock indicates the system version that the Mac ships pre-installed. This trend even carries forth to Apple’s retail stores, where display signage and wall banners that showcase Leopard prominently feature the system clock at 10:50. Due to only having 60 minutes in an hour, showing a clock at 10:60 for Snow Leopard would not make much sense. Pre-release screenshots from Apple still display 10:50, so this trend will likely end soon.

In the iPhone arena, all of the promotional images of the iPhone and iPod touch all display 9:42 (except one preliminary image,which displayed 9:41). What’s the significance of this? Some think it may relate to the time the iPhone was originally introduced; others see it as a somewhat disjointed homage to Douglas Adam’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.” Most of my research seems to confirm that 9:42 was the actual time of the iPhone announcement during Steve’s keynote in 2007.

Hidden OS X Easter Eggs

Clock Widget Apple’s attention to detail moves beyond the hardware and into its software as well. Take for example the Clock widget in the Dashboard. Look closely at the second hand and notice how it vibrates much like a real clock does.

For those that use Mail, as you drag the divider between the date column to expand or make the column smaller, the formatting of the date dynamically adjusts to fit. If there’s room to display the time, it shows up. As you make the column smaller, the formatting reduces to fit. Most email applications would just truncate whatever did not fit in the column.

This is just a small list of a huge number of little details found on a lot of Apple products that really make them a joy to use. The tipping point, so to speak, is that Apple doesn’t market any of these as “features,” it’s just the fact that they took the time to integrate them subtly into the Apple experience that makes it all worthwhile.

If you’ve found other examples of Apple’s attention to detail, let us know in the comments!

64 Responses to “The Pursuit of Perfection: Hidden Gems in Apple Design”

  1. I remember reading a quote once, something like “after using a Mac, using Windows is like going backward in time by ten years to an environment that doesn’t work very well.” Even Windows 7 – it’s faster but retains the lack of usability and human-factors engineering.

  2. A few more:

    There is no “file manager” in the Mac – the entire O/S is the file manager. Unlike Windows.

    Unlike Windows, the associations between filetypes and applications on the Mac don’t always break. And if you want to set a new default app to open a filetype, just do a command-i for the file-info dialog box and click “open with…” to change it by navigating to the app. And you can click a button to change the association globally.

    The Mac has no “registry” (well, it does, sorta, but why should anyone but a developer need to access it? MSFT insists that all users become familiar with it, it seems)

  3. Not everyone appreciates high quality design. Even more people don’t understand what it takes to create high quality designs. Apple has incorporated the highest standards of design for hardware and software since the Lisa. I truly believe that the people who get indignant about our appreciation of Apple’s design details really don’t understand how difficult it was to achieve these small gems.

    Here is an incredibly subtle design detail that ultimately shows Apple’s attention to even basic design principles – The tiny speaker holes cut into the aluminum of my MacBook Pro are aligned perfectly with the top and bottom of the keyboard buttons. The keyboard is recessed into an elegant sloped ‘valley’ leaving the top of the keys flush with the surface laptop. What makes this significant is that the ‘valley’ has rounded corners and offers a potential grid point for the speaker holes, but the alignment is with the keyboard keys. The keyboard keys are black and the speaker holes are black, therefore making this an extended design element across the laptop surface. Very subtle and very beautiful.

  4. mike sanders

    Re Serial Numbers
    Under the Apple Open About this Mac then click on the Version, one click shows the build number click again for the serial number. This does not require a genius.

  5. George Fulton

    Great topic –

    Gesturing. It’s just too cool and has spoiled me forever. These tiny refinements are what make the experience of using a Mac ‘sticky’. Being able to four finger gesture up to hide windows and down to reveal all open windows just blows me away having previously f9, f10, for several years.

    The new track pad on my MacBook Pro – the coated glass. An amazing feel to it and so responsive. Gone are the pains I used to get in my pointer finger from tracking.

    The MacBook Air drop down plug-in panel opens downward like a flying saucer- saving room and contouring to the shape of the chassis elegantly. The Mag-Sage plug on the MacBook Air is even more elegant than the one on my MacBook Pro with it’s cylindrical shape.

    The fact that there is a design similarity between the face of a G5 Tower and the iPhone.

    An obvious one. The iPhone visual voicemail just still slays me. The whole user experience transcends all my previous voicemail experiences where you have to remember to press ‘4’ to back your message up, or ‘6’ to advance, was it ‘2’ to delete or save or ‘3’?, etc. Visual voicemail is just about worth the cost of the iPhone alone.

    On iPhone that little bounce when you are moving a page around and get to the edges of the canvas of the page etc. No abrupt stop, a happy little bounce.

    These are the things that make a Mac Sticky. When you get on a non Mac, or even an older Mac you realize there’s something major missing in the user experience.

  6. Jean-Abel

    Interesting article and comments. Can I go back in time ? Back to when Apple was just starting its incredible come-back.
    In those days, I had a bondy-blue iMac, a beautiful computer, an amazing piece of design. And what I particularly loved about it was… under the keyboard and mouse ! There was a part with a kind of “3d” effect color, very cool. You could also see it inside the little compartment where the cables were connected to the computer.
    I still wonder, up to this day, why the guys at Apple put so much effort in that little part, which no one would see during normal use !? Was it like a bonus, just to impress the fans even more ?

  7. Sean Casey

    I have an iPhone 3G, OS 3.0. I found, by accident how you can ‘quick scroll’ to the top of any page or list by touching the top of the screen. Very nice, especially since some of these web pages are Really long.
    I would like to see the same shortcut to getting to the bottom of a page or list, but haven’t found one. Is there one on this phone that someone knows of ? Is it on the new iPhone, but not in OS 3.0? This is one of those things that seems extremely logical.

  8. haymoose

    How about the details such as “It just works” right out of the box. I bought a 17″ Unibody (my first Mac) in March and loaded VMware for running XP to use for work. I have run the VMWare session maybe once a month since then.

    I hope to remove it altogether by the end of the year. Since then two other guys in my office have made similar purchases and we sit around joking about why we did not do so before 2009!

    It is easy to fall in love with perfection, I am a switcher and born-again fanboy! Santa will migrate all my home machines to Macs this Christmas.

  9. 1) For the earlier Macbook pros & i think for the mac pro if system is in sleep mode the white light just flickers slowwwly at a pace that of human breathing in his sleep.. It looks fabulous if all lights are off & the system ” breathes ” beside you..!

    2) I really Like the windows Icon.. that of the FATAL ERROR bluescreen..hahaha..

    3) Also the way all movies music & photos are accessible through ANY of their applications like ilife & iwork.. is such a gr8 usability thought…

  10. Gazoobee

    In iPhone OS 3.0’s voice memos app, if you tap on the big retro microphone, the needle on the metre below it will jump just as if you’ve tapped on a real live microphone.

    @ Hagen Kaye: You don’t know what you’re talking about and you are misrepresenting Apple rather strongly. The fact that things change from time to time has nothing to do with overall consistency. Things always change. Apple does change things, but they don’t do it randomly as you suggest, but with an eye to clarification and … you guessed it, consistency. No one is saying they are perfect, but they are definitely more consistent than most and think through each change in a very logical way for a long tiem before it’s made. They really do “sweat the small stuff.”

  11. jesseleigh

    Seriously? Most of these things are on just about any laptop now, including Dell. If these are the things you all look for in a computer when you’re looking to buy, I can see why the American economy is going down the toilet.

    • Tuttle

      Seriously, the only thing a Dell has that’s on that list is a serial number barcode. And if your reading comprehension skills are of a level where “hidden gems” and “have you noticed…” indicate primary buying parameters then I too can see a possible reason for economic decline.

    • joseph

      What are you saying you have no idea what you are talking about. I would like you to reread that article and tell me that a dell all these “hidden gems”. And about the econ. I’ve herd enough of this people buying Macs will not hurt it all we have to do is let it get better even if people have to suffer spending will screw you up. Now lets NOT talk about the econ. on an apple and look for others ways to bash apple

  12. first… im sorry for my english, i dont speak and writte good…
    and with the post… one of the funny things of the OS is when you are conect to a PC, the icon of the pc is a old monitor whit the famous “blue screen” of windows error..
    is really funny

  13. Michael Cheung

    Photo Booth – Need a flash? The entire screen turns into one!

    Starting up with wireless keyboard – You don’t even need to have a USB keyboard plugged in. OSX will look for bluetooth keyboards automatically. (Unlike PCs where the BIOS will not bootup unless you have one connected)

    Numbers of colours – Apple just does it in the “Hundreds”, “Thousands” or “Millions”. Do you really need to know the exact number that Windows reports??

    Backlit keyboard – first time I saw this, I wanted to die. At the time, the only alternative solution by a PC maker was IBM with its “ThinkLight”… a tiny light bulb tucked into the top of their laptop keyboard ( Useful, but no where near as sexy as Apple’s design.

    Target Disk Mode – Ability to use the Firewire port to connect to another mac or external disk, and boot into that foreign disk to enable troubleshooting. So smart.

    Migration Assistant – The first time I used this was last week when I got a new iMac. I used the network cables to do the transfer, and left it overnight to do its job of migrating my Mac Mini contents to the iMac. Aside from the Chinese Input Method not being enabled and iPhoto needing me to specify the location of the library file, EVERYTHING ELSE was just perfect!

  14. How about the headphone jack. When they’re not working b/c of an obstruction a small red LED shines out of the opening. You’d never know it was there until you have a problem.

  15. spinoza

    I’ve been using OS X for about six years now, and what I really like about the Mac OS is the elegant interplay of complexity and consistent refinement. Over time, as one becomes more versed with the OS functionality, the OS becomes an extension of one’s thinking and lifestyle. You learn to intuit certain functional behaviors that you come to expect across the whole operating system. A much wider array of people are discovering this elegance with the iPhone, but on a Mac it’s much more expansive. Because of the Mac’s rock-solid reliability and consistency, you willing to invest the time and effort to become ever more proficient in the “deeper layers” of the OS. Having come from the Windows world, I can say without hesitation that a Mac is incomparably more elegant and sophisticated as a computing environment.

    • “Because of the Mac’s rock-solid reliability and consistency,”

      One of my pet peeves is the lack of rock-solid reliability and consistency. For example, there are quite a few show stopper bugs in 10.4 that have been fixed in 10.5 when it comes to technology. As a developer you are forced to choose whether you go for 10.5 and better or work around the bugs and figure out a way to make a product 10.4 and better.

      Consistency? I constantly have to ask what version a customer is using to give detailed explanations when it comes to the OS. Simple example is –

      10.4 – control click on a file and select “Create Archive of…”

      10.5 – control click on a file and select “Compress…”

      Same function, different wording. Nothing consistent about it. Don’t spend too much time getting into the deeper layers, Apple is willing to change anything.

      Sorry for the rant, but I just hate fan boy’ism. Love the OS, make a living off of it, but let’s keep things in perspective. Apple will change anything, anytime whenever they want, for whatever reason they want to.

    • PPCforMe

      As someone with five various G3s, I really appreciate the developers who make software that is compatible with Tiger. I have one G4 that can go to Leopard, but I’ve not felt compelled to buy (and lose all Classic support, speed, software, etc.) I don’t have a Mac that will run Snow Leopard, but the judging from experience, the inevitable time when I’ll need a non-PPC Mac won’t impact me for some time. I don’t have any plans to buy a new Mac in the near future, which means there’s plenty of extra $ for software. : )

      Now that PPC won’t be supported w/SL, I expect there’ll be many more Mac owners in need of third-party software to enhance their older OS, and fill in any vacant spots Apple’s i-apps will leave. Some will still be using Tiger, either because they have necessary, expensive software that requires it, their perfectly good hardware isn’t supported, or ?.

      Thank you (and all developers) for dealing with the difficulties of designing for Tiger and make your software available for as many Mac users as possible. I sure am grateful for your efforts! (And I will be searching for your website to see if you have a nice application to support.)

    • PPCforMe

      @ spinoza

      You obviously weren’t around when OS 9 was killed off for OS X. It’s much nicer now, but in some areas OS X has yet to catch up with its predecessor. (But Apple has added a few of the old things as OS X matures.) In the early days of OS X, I can vividly remember the frustration of frequent spinning beach balls and crashes requiring force quit via power button. It’s much better now, but there are bugs even in Tiger (and later?) that are minor irritations. Happily, no power button force quits for me in years, except for two that were no fault of OS X.

    • spinoza

      “You obviously weren’t around when OS 9 was killed off for OS X. It’s much nicer now, but in some areas OS X has yet to catch up with its predecessor.”

      Speaking of Apple Design: I actually leapfrogged OS 9, going from my NeXT computer (which was my main machine for most of the 90s) directly to an iBook and Panther. There’s a lot design elements taken from NeXTStep, and OS X is an elegant amalgamation of NeXT and a Mac. I felt immediately comfortable in OS X, and between the two OSs I have really only experienced the best in a stable, well-designed computing environment.

  16. I consider myself as newbie as I owned my white MacBook only for last one-a-half year and iPod touch for six month. But, I really love functionality that offered by Apple product. Here are some of my favorites:
    – double hook for tidying up cable in macbook travel adaptor. I feel that Macbook adapter already small enough, yet this tiny unobservable function really give me huge sense. It makes my adapter not consuming a lot of space in my bag and could make non-crowded cable area during charging.
    – apple logo at the back of LCD screen. If I open my macbook in public area especially in the evening, it makes my macbook somehow glowing and attracting for most people. Very nice and in fact it is a good way for promotion, brand image.
    – the cover flow view. This is one of my biggest love with apple and most of the time makes my friends impressed with my macbook or iPod touch.

    • WHAT? Those hooks or whatever in the Magsafe adapters were for winding cables?

      I wondered what they were for, ever since I got mine.

      I thought that those were for hanging the adapter to some overly popular piece of furniture that US/Europe people have all over their houses, so much that Apple thought it a mandatory.

  17. AUSTraveler

    While I love a lot of the design touches that Apple has incorporated, I’ve always wished that the power adapter would gain an LED power indicator, indicating whether the outlet is providing electricity.

    It’s sometimes inconvenient to unwind the cords in places like airports only to find that the outlet isn’t powered on. You shouldn’t have to connect the laptop to see if the outlet is powered. Very, very minor inconvenience but even Dell power adapters have this :-(.

    • It does, on laptops. The “MagSafe” end of the power cord has a little LED embedded in it. It’s yellow if the computer is charging, green if it is charged, and not lit if there is no power coming to it from the wall. Also, the right-most (highest power) light in the row of lights on the body of the computer flashes if the computer is charging.

  18. i think despite some bad press the magsafe adapter is a life saver. I’ve killed old laptops getting up and damaging the charge socket cause the plug has yanked the port.

    My only hope is that when the dock connector is retired it’s replaced by something as elegant and functional. I’d love a wifi transmitter and some sort of induction charging.

  19. In Finder’s Cover Flow view the directory folders have little flecks on them as if they are real folders.

    Of course the Dear Kate letter on the TextEdit icon.

    The iTunes icon needs an update though – the text around the spindle hole reads Apple 2006 iTunes 7 before passing behind the music note.

    The KeyNote icon has text on the document, but I can’t quite make it out on my 20″ screen.

    • Chuck67322

      All I could read is the first sentence which says “God, I dreamed there was an angel.”
      But if anyone could read the rest, tell me please.

  20. Howie Isaacks

    One of my favorites is the fact that all of Apple’s application icons are 512 x 512 very high quality graphics. There are details on these icons that most people will see, or never stop to notice such as the ‘Think different’ poem written on a sheet of paper in the Text Edit app icon.

    • Chris Ryan

      Great comment on the icons, guys! Apple takes this a step further in Snow Leopard. The default folder open appears to “open” when you drag files into it, instead of merely darkening like in Leopard or before.

      I’m glad Howie brought up the Think Different poem on the TextEdit icon. There’s actually more “easter eggs” hidden in Apple’s other icons. Sounds like a great idea for an article! :-)

    • Leland

      I agree, 512 icons look amazing, and are fun to design. But the user never really sees them – at least their full detail – unless they are using maximized coverflow… something that is only useful when you’re wanting to see eye-candy in the first place, or you are sight impaired.
      It may be “nice,” but is, at the same time, a tad superfluous.

    • It doesnt feel as good when the Apps you use dont have 512×512 icons. One feels like designing replacement icons, just for the sake of consistency.

      But then, PC users are stuck with 128×128 and more often than not, App icons will be 32×32 or 48×48. That was the case with me earlier.

  21. I guess I’m not a fan boy because I could easily make a list a lot longer where Apple didn’t pay any attention to detail – and I can’t find a serial number anywhere on my MacBook.

    But, I will say I’m a fan of the start up screen when you unpacked a new Mac and power it on for the first time. I think that’s a nice touch.

    • Chris Wanja

      Remove the battery, look to right of the casing..there is a sticker. If you have the new uni-body one, remove the battery, flip the MacBook from the back of the display (where it connects to the uni-body) vertically and there is a sticker there. iMacs have it on the stand at the front.


    • “In the world of computers, serial numbers are important for a variety of reasons, including verifying warranty status and determining the correct specifications, to name a few. Many Apple products feature, in addition to their standard serial number, a barcode that makes reading this serial number much easier for Geniuses or other technicians.”

      I stand corrected, apparently Geniuses can find the serial numbers easier.

    • the_0ne

      If you want to find the serial number while the machine is on, for instance to check on the warranty site. Go to the Apple menu, then go to About. Then click on the Version under Mac OS X. It’ll toggle through build and serial number there also.

  22. One detail that comes to mind is the way the iPhone shows Airplane Mode. When you enable Airplane Mode, the plane flies in from the left and stops on the status bar. When you turn Airplane Mode off, the plane flies off to the left. The animation is a very nice touch that is completely unnecessary.