Labels vs Tags


One of the new features OS X Mavericks introduced in the Finder are Tags. Judging from the reactions since this feature was revealed back at the WWDC, many people seem to like Tags a lot. While I have no doubts that tags may be a useful way for some people to organise their files, I am rather underwhelmed by their visual implementation, and find that the previous Finder Labels had a visual immediacy that rendered them more intuitively practical, for lack of a better expression. I’ll try to explain my point with a few simple examples.

Here’s a Finder window in Mac OS X 10.4.11 with some preference files in column view that I highlighted with different colour labels:

Finder labels

They stand out, right? Well, that’s the point. With folders containing dozens of files, by colour-coding some of them with labels you can differentiate those files from other regular (or less important) files; but it’s also a way to find specific items more quickly when navigating folders and subfolders full of files and documents. Inside a few crowded folders I frequently browse, I assigned a yellow label to certain files to have them work as visual markers. In other folders containing documents I’m translating or working on, I used labels to mark each document’s current status: grey for review, yellow for in-progress, and green for completed.

Mavericks turns the old Finder labels’ way of highlighting the entire file name into a simple coloured dot. Maybe some will find it a more elegant and visually pleasing change. I find it a bit of a usability step back.

Here’s a Finder window in Mac OS X Mavericks:

Finder tags 1

In icon view especially, the little dots are more difficult to locate at first glance than labels, and the folders they should mark as important or different from the others, well, sort of lose that importance. In other words — at first sight, everything in this folder seems to have more or less the same importance. Nothing really stands out.

Compare tags in a Finder window (column view) with the old labels you saw in the first image:

Finder tags2

I don’t find them as visually powerful and effective as the labels they replace. Imagine if you were to highlight a passage from a textbook by making small dots with a highlighter near the beginning of a paragraph instead of highlighting all the sentences you need to find at a glance and memorise when browsing.

Oh, and here’s what happens when you slightly resize the same window:

Finder tags3

It would have been nice to have a Finder preference to toggle the way Tags highlight files: new-style dots or old-style label highlights. I’m sure Finder Tags have a greater degree of flexibility in how they work when compared to the old Finder Labels, but I’m really disappointed by their loss of visual impact. In this regard, Labels are much more effective.

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