Earlier this week we took a look at TotalFinder, a reserved but incredibly useful Finder replacement that uses a tabbed interface to augment your typical file browsing experience.
Today we’re going to follow that up with something that’s not a subtle change but a completely re-imagined file browser like nothing else you’ve ever used: Raskin. Intrigued? You should be.
Raskin? As in…
Any of you currently reading the recent Steve Jobs bio no doubt paused when you read the name of this app. It turns out it is indeed named for Jef Raskin (1943-2005), the legendary creator of the Macintosh project and one of many rivals that Jobs would create during his initial stint with Apple.
Jef Raskin didn’t directly have anything to do with the Raskin app, but his advancements and ideas in the world of UI had a major impact on this software. Jef spent his life pursuing more human friendly interfaces for computers and is largely responsible for things like “drag and drop” (which is a huge part of what makes OS X so dang usable) and ZUI or “Zooming User Interfaces,” which is what Raskin the app uses.
Enough background though, let’s see this thing in action.
As I mentioned in the introduction, Raskin is pretty much as far away from Finder as you can get. Or perhaps a more appropriate description would be that this is what would happen if Google Earth crashed into Finder.
Just like in Google Earth, you start with a very zoomed out overview that looks simple, but actually holds an impressive amount of functionality.
I have to admit, the image above doesn’t necessarily scream user friendly file browser. So what’s going on here?
Raskin scraps the typical ideas that are used for file browsing, those being the basic icon grid and list views. Instead, it’s organized into several columns, called “Places.”
These places are conveniently auto-populated according to the folders in your Finder’s sidebar, but they’re completely customizable: add new places, delete existing ones, it’s up to you. I’ve narrowed mine to seven columns, each of which is a folder on my hard drive that I access regularly. By default, there’s also an “Applications” place off in the blue area to the side, but I recommend sticking to Alfred for launching apps as it’s not exactly Raskin’s cup of tea.
There are several ways to zoom into a place. This is one of the reasons I really like Raskin, it gives you lots of options and lets you decide how you want to work.
The simple way is to use your trackpad or mouse. The directions for this are conveniently printed right on the app’s interface.
With a trackpad, you use familiar pinching gestures for zooming in and out. With a mouse, you hold down Option and scroll. You can also easily pan around using your typical scroll actions (or use Space to activate a Photoshop-like hand tool). The more you use Raskin though the more you’ll realize that this isn’t always the best way to operate.
It’s a lot like when you first use the iPhone’s web browser, at first you do a lot of pinching because it seems cool, but ultimately you realize that double tapping to zoom in on a particular element is much faster. Raskin is exactly the same way. Instead of pinching, a quick double click will quickly zoom right into the area that you’re after.
Further, each of your places has a sequential keyboard shortcut (⌘1, ⌘2, ⌘3, etc.) so you’re never more than a second away from where you want to be. Bottom line, if anyone tells you that it’s hard to get around in Raskin it’s because they never explored further than the surface functionality.
Up Close and Personal
You may not think so at a glance, but Raskin’s interface is remarkably efficient. After you zoom into a column, you can see that it’s not a straight up representation of the folder. Instead, it’s a quick overview of what’s inside based on the files that you’ve interacted with most recently. It’s strange how much it limits what’s really there while seeming to somehow know whatever it is that I’m after.
Raskin is perhaps ideally suited for creative professionals and that really shows through here in the zoomed in view. What you see isn’t a grid of representative icons but an assortment of actual file previews that load in quickly even on my aging 2.16 GHz MacBook. This is particularly awesome when you have a folder full of images.
The really unique thing is that there’s no slider to control the thumbnail size, you just zoom in further to see something bigger!
From here you can hit the “display more” button if you don’t see what you want, open the current folder in Finder, hit Space to launch Quick Look or double click to launch a file. Lots of typical Finder actions are available as well such as renaming, applying color labels, copying and deleting.
Use With Finder, Not Instead of Finder
I think one of the keys for learning to like Raskin is to learn to see it as a complement to Finder, not a replacement. There are admittedly several things that I prefer to use Finder for, but it’s really nice to have the option to pop into Raskin from time to time.
The integration between the two is pretty solid. For instance, when you click on a folder in Finder, you can instantly bring it up in Raskin by hitting ⌘⌥ while scrolling down or just by hitting ⌘⌥R.
Who Will Hate It
Raskin is most certainly not for everyone. In fact, I can say with certainty that many users will hate it. If you want software to simply work the way you’re used to and aren’t open to learning an entirely new paradigm, then Raskin simply isn’t something you’ll enjoy.
Further, if you rarely work with images and can’t really name many shortcomings of the Finder app, then Raskin will probably just seem like it’s adding extra and fairly arbitrary complication to your file browsing process.
Who Will Love It
If you’re a creative professional who works with images all day and love trying drastically different software, then Raskin could change your entire workflow. In a sense, it’s everything Cover Flow tried to be but fell short of.
When you’re truly openminded and willing to really invest the time it takes to get comfortable with the app, then it’s a joy to use. Much like Quicksilver, there’s a lot under the hood that you don’t get from playing with the app for a few minutes. You really have to dig in and explore how it works best for you.
As you can probably tell, I really enjoy using Raskin. The interface appeals to me both as a photographer and a designer and really makes it easy to browse my work.
It’s not perfect, there are definitely a few things that I would love to see changed. For instance, the rendering is pretty bad when zoomed out. Some sort of vector system that displays the app interface elements smooth at any zoom level (like text in Illustrator) would go a long way. The place names are impossible to read when zoomed out so at the very least a large label that appears on hover would be appropriate to help you get oriented.
There are a few things that would make it easier to navigate as well. For instance, if I’m zoomed in on a place, hitting Option and an arrow key jumps quickly right or left, but at a seemingly random distance. It takes you to the next column, but it’s not in any way centered, making this shortcut no where near as practical as it could be.
On the whole though the app works surprisingly well. It’s a drastic idea and the implementation is honestly much better than I expected it to be. I’m definitely beginning to implement it into my permanent daily workflow and would miss it if I worked on a Mac without it.