Discoveries in Mac OS X Snow Leopard: Preview


I think most users are indifferent to Preview. They double-click a PDF or image file, view it, and then quit the app. In Snow Leopard there’s a reasonable chance they might notice it all happens faster, and the toolbar has changed, but nothing else. I think that’s a shame.

Snow Leopard’s Preview received enhancements that will elevate it from frequent use to a workhorse for me. However, the way some features were implemented seems odd…

PDF = Pretty Darn Fast.

Preview is fast. I mean, it’s really fast. It was always a quick little sucker, but in Snow Leopard’s 64-bit trim it opens images and PDF files (even large ones) extremely quickly.

For PDFs, other enhancements include:

  • Smart text selection (e.g., selecting just one column).
  • Open multiple documents in one window; you can search all at once (this can be very handy).
  • Speaking of search, it utilizes Grand Central Dispatch to increase speed.

You can also view a PDF as a contact sheet of pages, like so:

Preview PDF Contact

I trashed Adobe Reader the minute Preview first appeared, though admittedly my PDF needs are not extensive. (I don’t use Adobe Reader on my Windows machines, either). In Snow Leopard, even some die-hard Reader holdouts can probably let go of Adobe in this area.

Do I Have To Draw You A Picture?

Well, yes, sometimes I do. In Leopard, Preview gained the ability to annotate images with ovals, rectangles, arrows, and text. It also gained the “Instant Alpha” feature from Apple’s iWork apps. It’s useful to annotate pictures with text, or highlight a certain area. Preview’s newfound capabilities were welcome, and I utilized them often.

The problem is that the features were deficient. It didn’t take long to identify what was missing:

  • It draw ovals, but not circles.
  • It draw rectangles, but not squares.
  • It draw arrows, but not lines.
  • No control over arrow thickness.
  • It has any color you like, as long as it’s red.

(That last one isn’t so bad, since red is superior to the other, lesser colors of the spectrum. Still, the lack of choice was odd.)

New and Improved

Lines Thick and DashedThe best news about the new Preview is that it addresses the above deficiencies:

  • Hold down Shift while drawing an oval or rectangle to make it a perfect circle or square.
  • You have control over arrow heads, placing them at the beginning, end, both ends, or none. (The latter option, of course, makes it a line.)
  • You can choose line thickness, which includes an option for dashed lines.
  • You can choose a color for annotated items.

Having discovered the above, I tried some other keyboard tricks:

  • Hold down Shift while drawing a line to constrain it to 45 degree angles.
  • Hold Option while drawing circles, rectangles, and lines to draw them from the center.

Very good, Apple.

Meet Me At The Bar

Annotation ButtonThe annotation bar, that is. Previously you could add some annotation tools to the regular toolbar (images and PDFs had their own toolbars). Now there’s just one standard toolbar, and a button on it brings up a new “Annotations Toolbar”. It’s different for PDFs and images:


PDF Annotation


Image Annotation

This makes it easier to access annotation items, and only displays when you need them. It’s very nice, though a bit incomplete.

You Got What You Wanted, What’s The Problem?

The devil’s in the details, and I’m a bit puzzled by Apple’s implementation of the new stuff.

The annotation toolbar is at the bottom of a window. Why? Who decided I should mouse up for menus and most toolbars, but mouse down for other controls?

Annotations Inspector ArrowsI like the annotations bar, so I’ll take it where I can get it, but why doesn’t it hold all the annotation controls? For example, draw an arrow. Its color, thickness, and dash can be modified from the annotations bar, but what about arrow heads? You’ll only find them on a new tab in the Inspector.

Show the Inspector, and next to the tabs of document information is a new tab for annotations. Here you’ll find the options for arrow heads.

Annotations Inspector BubblesFurther, you’ll find two more features not on the annotations bar. One of them is the choice of fill color. The other applies when you have a text box selected. You can pick a style of “Speech Bubble” or “Thought Bubble”. (Yes, now we can make our subjects talk, which is handier than one might imagine.)

I love these features, but Apple had a whole new annotations bar to work with and couldn’t fit them on it? Oh well, they’re not that hard to get to when you need them.

“Eight-by-ten Colored Glossy Photographs With Circles and Arrows and a Paragraph On The Back Of Each One Explaining What Each One Was”

(Sorry, but there was no way I was writing this article without the above reference.)

For me, the new tools have many uses:

  • My most recent cry for circles was when I did the image at the top of this article. The thought bubble would have taken 20 seconds with circles, but took a couple minutes because I had to make ovals circular, and occasionally started over when I wasn’t happy with the results.
  • Of course, I hadn’t even dreamed of the thought bubble actually being drawn for me, which is now the case.
  • As for lines, there are times I’d rather underline an item, but put a rectangle around it instead because lines were not an option.
  • I’ve already used the line thickness — along with a more neutral color — to draw over sensitive information in a screenshot I posted elsewhere.

In short, the new features will get a lot of use. Meanwhile, the occasional trip I made to Skitch will no longer be necessary. Skitch has now been retired; dead to me even before it was born (it’s still beta).

I could complain that I can’t create a new blank document, or duplicate an object, or group/ungroup items, but I think that would miss the point. I’d hate to see Preview’s speed and convenience sacrificed to make it more of a drawing program it doesn’t need to be.

Minor quibbles about implementation aside, the new Preview adds much-needed tools for better annotation of images. It’s not meant to be a “true” drawing program. Rather, I view the changes as Apple simply finishing the job they started in Leopard when they decided it would be useful for Preview to have markup tools. All this, and it’s faster, too. I’d call that a job well done.

Previous Articles in the Snow Leopard Discovery Series:

16 thoughts on “Discoveries in Mac OS X Snow Leopard: Preview

  1. Alice, nice to know that someone my age knows about this stuff……….Now how can I electronically add my signature to a .pdf that’s been generated by someone who does not understand that that feature must be included to facilitate that function?

  2. Pingback: PDFs Creator - EmiratesMac

  3. I think Graphic Converter is also 56 years old. 🙂

    I’ve been a GC user for I don’t know how many years (way before OS X). However, I have to admit it’s really looking long in the tooth. Still, sometimes I’d start my images there because — unlike Preview — it can create a new blank document. I use a template for creating blank Preview docs now, and with the other changes GC will be used less. Still, it’s the tool if, for example, I need to rotate objects.

  4. Nice overview. I’ve been a fan of skim lately, but I might give Preview another chance. I got the reference immediately, but then I’m 56 years old. A lot of the minor changes I have been using Skim, or Graphic Converter, or ImageJ for can probably be done using Preview.

  5. You are missing some really cool features under the file menu: Take screen shot, Import from Scanner.

    So now using preview you can grab any part of the screen without knowing any key commands and even better its faster to bring those screen shots into a place where you can annotate them.

    Also the new scanner interface is awesome.

    • All good points.

      I actually have a new Automator app that makes use of the Mac’s Take Screenshot function. The app takes a timed full screenshot (after six seconds) to the clipboard, then it launches Preview, and then it issues a Cmd-N (which creates a new Preview document from the clipboard). The six seconds allows me to pull up a menu or some other function that I otherwise would not be able to capture.

  6. Thanks for revealing the method for drawing lines without arrows! I was so stoked about the new annotation tools but could not find a way to draw a line without arrows. It never crossed my mind to open the inspector.

    Some of the design choices Apple makes boggle the mind. Why would they provide a way to change the width and style of the line in the tool bar and then hide the arrow/no-arrow option away in the inspector. It’s just loony.

    Well, at least the option is there. Thanks for the tip.

  7. “Eight-by-ten Colored Glossy Photographs With Circles and Arrows and a Paragraph On The Back Of Each One Explaining What Each One Was”

    Ah, yes “Talking About My Generation…”

    Very nice series of articles btw.

  8. I love the fact I no longer need to convert an image to PDF in order to annotate it! I use this feature all of the time now for writing documentation, where you need to circle or point to an element of a screen capture – and the wiki doesn’t do inline PDF.

    Many steps saved with this one!

  9. I believe it is “color photographs.”

    What percent of your readers will get that without using Google?

    In any case, how does it handle forms and form fields? Acrobat has a very useful feature where it can place fill-in fields automatically. And, it does a pretty good job of it, too.

    How about OCR so that Spotlight can include the PDF document when it searches for words and phrases?

    Thank you.

    • Good question. The last PDF file I used with forms (a school form for my daughter last year) worked fine, and that was in Leopard. However, I know there are different types of form fields so I certainly can’t vouch for them all.

    • Regarding whether the reader “gets” the reference or not. If they get it, great. If they don’t, and want to Google it, great. If they don’t, and don’t want to Google it, that’s great, too. As a sub-heading in the article it isn’t critical to any understanding of the piece.

  10. I just checked, and Preview still has the very serious bug of sometimes wiping out your image entirely when doing image adjustments. I’m not sure if it’s with only JPEG images, but Preview, apparently randomly, will blank out your image to become only a white box when making color/image adjustments. I’ve lost some important work in this way, and it’s so destructive that I’m very hesitant to even use Preview.

    This bug first appeared with Leopard, Preview worked fine in Tiger.

    • I don’t deny what you’re seeing, but can only add that I’ve never seen this occur. Not just in my short time with Snow Leopard, but with Leopard as well.

      • It’s a well-known issue (see, eg, ), and I was sort of hoping Apple would have dealt with it in Snow Leopard. I guess one encounters it depending on how one uses Preview. I may be running into the bug more than others because I do use Preview quite a bit for making quick adjustments to JPEG images. On the other hand I rarely use Preview for PDF files, since I have Acrobat Pro.

Comments are closed.