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CS4’s Application Frame: Yea or Nea?

One of the early controversies about InDesign CS4 is the Application Frame. This is part of a revamp of the Adobe Creative Suite 4 interface which is found in almost all the CS4 applications. In Windows, or when selected on the Macintosh, the Application Frame places all the elements of the InDesign workspace in a single window with a gray background. When you move or resize elements within the frame, the other elements resize so nothing overlaps.

Windows users of InDesign are already saying to themselves, “What’s the big deal?” because Windows always displays an application’s elements inside a single window which hides the desktop and other applications. But some Macintosh users are outraged, judging by comments by some early users of InDesign CS4 on the Macintosh User to User Forum. For example, Dave Saunders sounded off: “I hereby declare that I have tried the application frame and found it to be a misguided, annoying, interfering, overbearing abomination.” Macintosh users are used to having floating windows which can show the desktop in the background, or to mix windows from different applications.

Here’s what my screen looks like on my MacBook Pro looks like with the Application Frame turned on:

Frame On

And here’s what the same page looks like with the Application Frame turned off. Notice how part of the Bridge window appears at the bottom left and bottom right behind the InDesign window.

Frame Off

Here are some reasons why I think this controversy is much ado about nothing: (1) The Application Frame is not turned on by default on the Macintosh. It will not appear at all unless you choose Window > Application Frame to turn it on. (2) You can always switch it off. (3) The Application Frame on the Macintosh can be resized to make it smaller: Just drag the bottom right corner, and you’ll see a resizing cursor. When I have the frame on, I typically leave a little bit of the desktop showing on the right, giving me a quick way to jump to it by Option-clicking the desktop (a Mac shortcut that’s been around forever).

Frame resizing handle

Also, although some Mac users claim that this interface is very “unMaclike,” in fact there are several Mac applications?even those from Apple itself, like iTunes?which run in one window.

One of the other great features of InDesign CS4 (and the other Creative Suite 4 applications) is that you can have multiple InDesign documents open as separate tabs in your document window. This can be done with the Application Frame on or off.

I find myself going back and forth: There are some things that the Application Frame is very good for: When I’m teaching a class, or demoing a technique online, I find turning on the Application Frame is less distracting. You can’t see other applications behind InDesign. Also, if I’m heavily using InDesign primarily, I find the same advantage. However, sometimes I may be frequently going between two applications. Then, I’ll turn off the Application Frame so I can see windows from both applications at the same time.

Another part of the controversy is that a couple users have claimed that InDesign CS4 doesn’t remember the size of the Application Frame. Sandee Cohen, who had supported this claim in the User to User forum thread, recanted and said that she was only testing on a late beta version of InDesign CS4 which quit unexpectedly, presumably not saving the frame size. I’ve not found that a problem in the release version of InDesign CS4.

The great thing is that, on the Macintosh at least, you can have it both ways: turn on the Application Frame or turn it off, as you need.

Steve Werner

Steve Werner

Steve Werner is a trainer, consultant, and co-author (with David Blatner and Christopher Smith) of InDesign for QuarkXPress Users and Moving to InDesign. He has worked in the graphic arts industry for more than 20 years and was the training manager for ten years at Rapid Lasergraphics. He has taught computer graphics classes since 1988.
Steve Werner

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26 Comments on “CS4’s Application Frame: Yea or Nea?

  1. It doesn’t work in CS3 either. I said this to David Blatner and he was baffled. I’m on windows, so there is something definitely wrong with the Application Frame Window memory.

    I think this is Adobe’s polite reminder to Mac users how lucky you are to be working on a Mac. Some of us are given Windows computers and told to work with it.

    I don’t mind either or, as I’m familar with both and find them both equal in the pro’s and con’s.

    However, it’s not the end of the world for Mac users, as you have the option, where us Windowers don’t. :(

  2. I needed a new laptop since my Dell is about 4 years old. Still works but a bit long in the tooth.

    I just ordered a Macbook but I can’t stand that standard Mac interface of being able to see through to the desktop. I find it distracting as hell.

    The application frame is getting enabled and it’s never getting turned off.

    In case that’s not clear…I vote Yea. :)

  3. Potential bugs aside, I agree with Steve that this whole debate and “controversy” is much ado about nothing. I just don’t understand the level of concern here.

    Personally I like it — and anybody who is into color correction/management, productivity and maximizing screen real estate should as well. It is definitely not misguided. Not that I think it is, but who cares about this feature not being “Mac-like”. I want to get the job done and this will help me do it faster.

    More importantly, the fact that it’s turned off by default and you do not have to use it makes any complaints seem pretty mute to me.

    Good job Adobe. Keep it coming.


  4. The main reason the application frame is useful is for two monitor setups. I would bang my head on this because in a PC this is a no brainer.

    Let say you want to copy a color value from Photoshop to Indesign each maximized in its own monitor. You couldn’t with the previous CS3 because the pallets from photoshop would disappear when you pressed on indesign and vice versa. The only thing I mad is that they did not integrate this into Dreamweaver.

    I say YESSSS

  5. Technically, iTunes doesn’t “run everything in one window” like a standard Windows program. No Apple app does (on the Mac). If you don’t believe me: open a video window, get info, preferences, equalizer, etc. Notice anything? Yep, they are not a part of the main window and can be dragged anywhere, including outside the main application window.

    So long as the Windows interface is only an option on the Mac and not mandatory, I don’t care (and will never use it. if I wanted to run Windows, I’d have a PC!).

    Personally, the only things that bother me about CS4 is the ugly interface (CS2 was lively, but cluttered; CS3 was/is drop dead gorgeous – seriously, it makes happy just starting it up, well not counting the stupid icon; CS4 though looks like a bad 90’s era high school linux project) and the steep hardware requirements. The first is sad, but not a deal breaker; the second means CS4 will have to wait for a bigger budget to update everybody’s hardware first.

  6. Don’t get me wrong: I like it, I like a grey background. BUT I hate it to maximize it EVERY time I start InDesign…

    EDIT: Hey, this is what I found (Mac). Instead of maximizing it, start in the not maximized window then DRAG it by hand to maximize on screen (so do NOT use the maximize window button). Now it DOES remember its size (for now)

  7. Bob,

    You’ll probably be running Windows most of the time on your Macbook anyway, no?

    How are you managing the software licenses? Are you purchasing two licenses for all your programs?

  8. I thought I would not like the Application Frame, but now I am thinking I will use it. I have left it on for a while now and have been liking it. I am reserving final judgement because I need more time to decide, but for now it’s a Yea.

    As for the maximizing issues others mentioned. I too had the problem that it would not remain maximized on relaunch. But I found a workaround. If you maximize the Application Frame, then slightly resize the Application Frame, even just a pixel, it then seems to remember the size!

    Best wishes,

  9. Sounds like the App Frame just craves a little human touch. Awwww. The Application Frame … it’s needy. Sweet li’l thing!

    I’m like Dan … didn’t think I’d like it … now I keep it on all the time on the Mac. I normally use the Application Switcher to move to the Finder anyway.


  10. This is a clear cut case of Mac fans doing their “but we want to be different” thing. It’s an option that’s turned off by default, so they have nothing to b**ch about.

    Adobe needs an Officer Barbrady posting in their forums: Nothing to see here people… move along.

  11. No, this isn’t about “being different”. And in betas, which most of us/those, who are disgruntled, the Application frame was turned on by default (Fireworks). However, the Applicaton frame (or tabs) breaks Exposé, which is about breaking habits, breaking workflows — that’s why I personally don’t like it and will never use it. Since it’s an option, I’m not too concerned about it at all ;)

    What about using two monitors, by the way? With the Application frame turned on, how does this work? Does it work at all (giben that the two monitors are of different sizes…)? (I’m not having the final version, as we Europeans still have to wait for whatever reasons :/)

  12. My opinion was (as usual) deliberately overstated, but for me, it is essential, even on my trusty old 1280 x 854 tiBook, to have an InDesign document and an ESTK script side-by-side so I can be working with both at once. The application frame just adds too much space overhead. It would take a pair of monitors to make their use viable for this kind of activity.


  13. >I?m baffled by the ?option-click the desktop? line. What does that do that a plain old click doesn?t?

    If I simply click the desktop when visible it makes the Finder the current application but it doesn’t hide InDesign. I won’t be able to see the desktop.

    Option-clicking make the Finder active, and HIDES InDesign, showing the desktop.

    That keyboard shortcut works in any other Mac OS X application, but actually goes back to Mac OS 9 or earlier.

    There are of course other ways of getting to the desktop but that one is strongly embedded in my memory.

  14. @Fred: Not necessarily.

    I do training and consulting work. Many, but not all of my clients are Mac based. While it’s really not that big a deal to use a Windows version for demos and training I like the idea of having the best of both worlds especially if one of those rare O/S based issues arises.

  15. Yea!
    ive recently found a job working with a mac. i see no advantage to having all my windows hanging around. If someone could explain why, please do. ive been asking for months and all i get is “you just dont like macs.” so if you have an answer and a little time…

    thanks for the option-click tip, certainly will help me cope.


  16. @Ray: You can minimize windows to the Dock, which gets them pretty far out of the way. cmd-H hides the current app, cmd-opt-H hides all other apps except the current one. And of course there’s opt-click…

    More importantly, I think you need to investigate Expose and a multi-button mouse. I set button 5 up to be Show Desktop and button 4 to be Show All Windows. (And Control-button 3 to be Show Dashboard).

    Through Expose, you can swoosh around through all your open windows or grab something off the Desktop with ease and speed. An example would be a picture file you need to attach to an email. Button 4 to click to the window you need, button 1 down (ie, left click) and HOLD to pick up the file, button 4 to fan out your windows so you can choose your Mail message again and then let up on button 1 to drop the file as an attachment into the email.

    EDIT: And FWIW, I am sort of against the frames thing because it splits the userbase into those who like it and those who don’t. Which means I have to dictate a preference so that our stations remain interchangeable. More pain for the IT mgr.

  17. I love this feature! Can?t wait to get CS4.

    I have never, and will never, understand the way Mac applications have the desktop showing in the background.

    I don?t want to see the desktop. For several reasons?

    1. In my opinion, the desktop is not a good place to work from. It?s fine for just dropping the odd thing temporarily, but if you have all your work on the desktop, to access it you have to clear everything out of the way so you can see the desktop. Then you have to look around the whole screen to see the contents (in some cases, the folder may even be off the screen!). Then you have to double-click the folder to open it. Why bother with all this when the Finder lets you easily access any folder with one click? Oh, and working on the desktop also means your work is on the same drive as the operating system, which is slower and less secure.

    2. If your desktop wallpaper isn?t black, or grey, then the colours are going to put you off your design!

    3. I just find it really cluttered and confusing being able to see other apps/the desktop while I?m trying to work. I don?t like clutter. I don?t have any toolbars or palettes open in InDesign. I just want my screen to be filled with the document. The ?Mac? way is like bad feng shui ? I don?t feel ?secure? when I use an application, I feel lost.

    4. On a Mac, if you click on the desktop for any reason, you are likely to lose the contents of your copy buffer. (Not sure if this still happens, but it taught me to never click on the desktop while working on a Mac.)

    If it were up to me, InDesign documents would not be in a window at all, they would just fill the whole screen and you?d have tabs to move between documents.

    I?ll admit, I prefer PCs.

  18. Pity this doesn’t work the same as for when you’re using Photoshop, Illustrator, Imageready et al Adobe software, because I can double click the gray background and it opens the dialog box, but InDesign doesn’t, well not CS3, does it in CS4?

  19. I can’t stand the Application frame. It’s like wearing a heavy coat that is way too small and confining. Not being able to turn it off on Windows executables is annoying as hell. I prefer the Mac because it can be turned off. Huge NO! I need access to the desktop when I’m working and that f-ing thing slows me down. Hate hate hate it.

  20. I actually use both, and I wish more applications offered as convenient a way to switch between them.

    Overall, I find running without the application frame to just be much more task-focused and less distracting. The application spreads out across your entire screen real-estate–it makes your computer feel like it was entirely designed for the task at hand. What’s also great is that floating toolbars disappear when not in use, so if you need to switch to another program for a few seconds, all that screen space automatically gets relinquished.

    I’m also one of those people who keeps documents on the desktop. I do try to keep things tidy, but I’m always going to have all the files I’m currently working on scattered around like holy spatial hell. Frameless mode plays into this nicely.

    The application frame is better for times when I’m not mainly working with the app in question, for example if I need to grab some resources from an Illustrator file. You can make it only take up a small portion of the screen, with all its toolbars visible whether it’s active or not, making it easy to compare colors and styles etc.

    A lot of people think that frameless apps are a hold-over from an earlier time in UI design. I suppose that’s true, considering that it seems like everyone is moving away from it. I’m no holdover though, I didn’t start using a Mac until 2012, long after that type of interface was considered deprecated, but I find it extremely useful, and the ability to switch between the two styles doubly so.

    Also, on OSX you can move an entire application, toolbars and all, to another screen. They take up the proper places on the other monitor without any problem.

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