Saturday, November 21, 2009

The shell team's OCD with sorting and arranging

The annoyance I am writing about in this article is one of the most horrific experiences provided courtesy of the shell team in Windows Vista and Windows 7. Essentially, they have an OCD concerning sorting and arrange files and folders in Windows Explorer. They feel automatically and immediately sorting/refreshing all items in Windows Explorer folders all the time will make life easy for users; they see no reason to give the user a choice even after several users have been complaining about this since the release of Windows Vista.

It was all fine and sensible up to Windows XP where newly created files (files pasted, downloaded or extracted from an archive) and newly created folders appeared at the end of the list of icons in any view, be it list view, details view or icon view. It was only after refreshing the view that they got logically sorted by the user-chosen sort criteria in Windows Explorer. The same behavior was in effect when renaming items. It is also why we have a Refresh button on the toolbar and in the View menu in Windows Explorer. But in Windows Vista and Windows 7 Explorer, all items are continuously sorted whether we would like it or not; we simply have no choice.

This creates several horrible issues when working with large numbers of files and folders, for example, in scenarios such as extracting/pasting several items into a folder already containing several items, it scatters them all over. This behavior also presents a problem when serially renaming items listed one after the other or simply if we wish to select multiple items after they have been pasted or created and we are not done working with them yet. In Windows 7, the "New folder" is sorted even before the user has given it a name and quite a number of times I have ended up with this error message:
This error finally made me throw up. I mean, what crap! Has this OS gone downhill! Alas if it had only stopped at this! The sort order has also been totally screwed up. Each sort criteria (name, size, type, date modified, date created etc) now has a different (depending on the criteria) sort order which may be Ascending or Descending (or anyone's guess). On the desktop for example, where usually if Auto Arrange is not enabled, before sorting, files may be lined up but sorted by date created, not sorted by any specific order but yet lined up as they were created or scattered across the desktop if "Align icons to grid" is also unchecked. If I do a "Sort by name" once and for the first time, on the desktop, it sorts in Descending order by name as well as by type so that all the folders appear at the end. It does not even exclude items like the Recycle Bin which also appear at the extreme end. Every time I have to sort twice by name to get items on the desktop sorted by name in Ascending order. Likewise, if I sort by "Date modified", it does so in Descending order as well as sorts (in Descending order) by type. What a disaster they have managed to create, of sorting!

As I said before, not many users are happy about this particular annoyance but instead of fixing it, what does Windows 7 do? It removes the Sort bar which debuted in Windows Vista except for Details view. The Sort bar allowed sorting items 1-click by any criteria merely by clicking on the header in any view. It was one of the few good enhancements made in Windows Vista (Windows 95 and all versions prior to Windows Vista have always had the Sort bar only in Details view) and now they managed to ruin that as well. Plus you can no longer freely arrange items by dragging, in any folder in Windows Explorer; you can only do so on the desktop. Items are now always aligned to grid and always auto arranged. To top it all, a catastrophic bug further wrecks this by de-selecting any selected item when sorting. Really Microsoft? Is this all the testing you could do when introducing a new view control?

Another mis-feature that I wish to highlight is from the Wikipedia article: "The Arrange By/Stack By options are only available for libraries and folders included in libraries. Plus, users can only stack by predefined categories depending on the library type. For example, users can only stack by Folder, Album, Artist, Song, Genre, and Rating for the Music library, whereas in Windows Vista, users could stack by any properties that exist for a file (common examples would be bit rate, year, composer, play count ..etc for audio files)." Clearly, limiting our choice seems to be their only goal. I doubt they even understand the difference between Auto Arrange and Align to Grid (the former aligns items to grid as well as sorts them by a specific order). What we have enjoyed for a decade now since Windows 95 is suddenly taken away from us for no reason? Microsoft simply refuses to give a choice about sorting and arranging. What is this if not an OCD?

The new Start menu also suffers from weird sorting behavior for which I have not been able to observe any specific pattern except one obvious annoyance - all the folders are dumped below and single items are put above. Yet again we get no choice.

This auto sorting in Explorer is an extremely serious usability flaw and the people on the Windows Shell team who do not understand it need to be fired for this issue which causes files to jump in a folder!! It makes Windows Vista/7/8 Explorer UNUSABLE.

I must say the Windows Shell team has failed to produce a usable shell after all the promises of Longhorn.

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