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I’m releasing this in advance of Crystal Clear 1.5 since it’s ready to go and there may be one or two folks who are tired of dealing with the “roll your own” menubar from version 1.2, even though it did eliminate the ugly menu-extra smudgies of previous releases.
With Crystal Menubar, you just drag the application to your hard drive (the “Applications” folder, maybe?) and click it. This will put the nice, clear Crystal Menubar in its rightful place at the top of your screen. After that, you can just forget about it. Use whatever desktop picture that strikes your fancy!
If you decide to use it, just add it to your Login Items in System Preferences (the Accounts pane) so it gets launched when you log in.
After all, who would ever install an opaque window? In the real world, a window by definition is clear—you can see through it. If it weren’t clear, you couldn’t very well call it a “window.” In other words, an opaque window is an oxymoron. Yet, that very oxymoron is the norm on our computer desktops today. As Crystal Clear evolves, its aim is coming closer to making opaque windows as much of an oxymoron on your desktop as they are in that wall over there.
Computer desktops have slowly evolved since 1984, when the first Macintosh was introduced. With each operating system release, Apple has added more realism to the graphics that make up application windows, the desktop, and their various “widgets” and icons. Microsoft and other GUI-design-wannabes have followed along as closely as they could. Through this process, our software windows and icons have gained a little 3D through primitive shading, higher resolution displays, larger icons, better shadows, alpha transparency and compositing, smoother animation and transition effects, and so on. These changes have produced a dramatically more “realistic” look-and-feel today than we had in the beginning. Undoubtedly, this evolution will continue, and desktops 10 years from now will make today’s look similarly primitive.
The Crystal Clear experiment is asking the graphical question, “How about using transparency to improve realism, while enhancing the beauty of our desktops at the same time?”
Up to now, the Crystal Clear theme for Mac OS X has brought clarity to your Aqua window toolbars, titlebars, and menubars. Crystal Albook icons clarified your system and application icons. And there has been much rejoicing.
However, a common question from early users of the theme was, “How about the window edges? How about the status bar? How about Safari’s bookmark and tab bars?” Unfortunately, none of the tools in a Mac OS X themer’s bag of tricks (chiefly, ThemePark ) can help affix transparent colors or graphics onto those bits of Aqua windows, so I had to throw my shoulders up in a major, sad shrug.
Fortunately, my little experiment in alpha transparency didn’t end there. The SetAlphaValue software that’s been a key part of Crystal Clear’s magic from the beginning has led me on a merry (well, mostly merry) romp through Objective-C and Cocoa Land, the world of geeky wonder that lies behind each object on your Mac OS X desktop. With much open-source Cocoa software code, two excellent books, and the rich universe of web Cocoa resources in hand, I’ve been slowly absorbing the syntax and grammar of Objective-C, the programming language of choice for Cocoa application development. As I got deeper into the “messaging” framework that’s a key part of Cocoa, I realized I could hack SetAlphaValue to do much more than just adjust window transparency.
This article introduces the latest version of Crystal Clear, which features an enhancement to the system menubar transparency that was described in an article last week. Although I didn't find time to work on the Crystal Albook icon set since the last release, Crystal Clear has a large number of enhancements in various button elements, as described below. I do hope to get some work done on Crystal Albook next time around.
- An experimental approach to solving the problem of "extra overlay shine" on most menu extras in the system menubar (statusbar). This approach can eliminate the visual discord created as menu extras overlay their own "toolbar" over the preexisting one. In opaque toolbars, this isn't noticeable, but it's bothersome in any toolbar with alpha transparency. (This part of the update is described in the recent Mars article, "Desperately Seeking Clarity: Wiping the Dirt from My Crystal Clear Menubar."
- Crystal Clear toolbar elements for Camino.
- New design for menu selection highlights in Crystal Clear Dark. Similar highlights also appear now in the Finder sidebar.
- Completion of pushbutton and popup button elements for Carbon apps (such as Photoshop). (The buttons were already complete for Cocoa apps.)
- New Crystal designs for the bevel buttons (butted and otherwise) that are the bane of my existence when theming Mac OS X. (O! Apple... Please make these go away in Leopard!)
- Reworking of the large metal buttons.
- Various other tweaks and fixes, plus a few more menu extras.
Future releases will work on standardizing the appearance of various otherwise-similar button elements, reducing the height of some pushbutton elements, and completing unfinished work on the slider elements.
I think of the menubar smudges as "extra shine," because that's kind of what they are: They result from a double layer of the menubar graphic in the space the menu extras occupy. This smudging might not be so distracting if it were applied evenly across all of the menu extras, but of course that's not the case. As a result, from the first menu extra over to Spotlight, the "smudge" comes and goes and can be visually disturbing if you let it.
This smudging is the number one complaint about Crystal Clear, and I'm very pleased to announce that the new version will offer a nice, clean, truly crystal-clear menubar with (virtually) no dirt whatsoever! Unfortunately, you can't download it today, because I don't have all the files quite ready. But I promise to make them available very soon.
With the recent launch of Windows Vista and its new Aero interface, everyone who knows of it is thinking about transparent/translucent windows. Indeed, folks who are into theming have known of Aero for years, since, well, it’s taken Microsoft years to get it to market.
Mac users have already enjoyed transparency in their applications for years now, though not as part of the window “trim.” (As I discuss briefly later on, Aqua doesn’t actually have much “trim”.) Rather, it’s just something we take for granted in applications like the Dock, Dashboard, and Expose, and QuickTime Player (which pops up throughout Mac OS X to present slideshows, image thumbnail views, and of course full-screen video), as well as in Apple’s growing use of “HUD” displays, which use a transparent black interface.
Then, of course, there are apps like Quicksilver, which has taken advantage of transparency in its Bezel interface for years, and more recently in its amazing, animated Cube interface, Growl, which uses Apple’s bezel framework in several styles, and numerous others like DropCopy (whose whole interface is transparent), QuartzClocks (which lets users adjust the transparency of your chosen clock), and AlarmClock (which again uses the bezel framework to great effect).
Nevertheless, when I first saw Mac themer/designer Ice Specter’s attempts to develop a transparent theme for Mac OS X that would duplicate the look of Aero, I was “hooked on transparency” in a big way. At the time, I didn’t realize that Ruler Aero, Ice Specter’s theme, was emulating the new Windows “look,” but it wouldn’t have mattered in any case. For one thing, as cool as Ruler Aero was, it wasn’t usable enough, and it had this disconcerting blend of transparent toolbars (in metal apps) and opaque ones (in everything else). It was a proof-of-concept, and a terrific one at that.
But from the get-go, what Ruler Aero made me lust after wasn’t Windows Vista Aero-style translucency, but rather totally transparent windows. In addition, I wanted a theme that would give me transparent toolbars in both metal apps like the Finder, QuickTime Player, and Safari and in regular Cocoa apps like Preview, Mail, Activity Monitor, Keynote, and Pages (in other words, in most of the apps I use).
However, after experimenting off and on for a couple of years to achieve the look I had in my head, I had pretty much given up. Every thread I followed in the theming forums concluded that transparency wasn’t possible in a Mac OS X theme except in the few places Ruler Aero had achieved it. I concluded that Apple had designed Mac OS X and Aqua so as to completely thwart all attempts at my transparency nirvana.
Then, quite by accident last month, I stumbled onto a setting in Apple’s Cocoa framework that finally unlocked the secret of transparency for Mac OS X’s toolbars. I’ve now finished applying that setting to a Mac OS X theme that enables totally see-through windows, and I’m calling it “Crystal Clear.”
What could be more logical–or more beautiful–than crystal clear windows on your Mac? Were grey metal windows something we yearned for? Of course not! Windows were made to see through.
Coming soon to a Mac near you… Crystal Clear, a new experiment in alpha transparency for Mac OS X.
Here are some preview shots of a few of my favorites.