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Why doesn’t Mac OS X’s green Zoom button maximize windows?

Why doesn't Mac OS X's green Zoom button maximize windows?

If you are perplexed as to why Mac OS X’s green Zoom button doesn’t always maximize windows to full screen like in Microsoft Windows, there’s a perfectly good explanation. In fact, it truly makes sense when you think about it.

As mentioned in MacYourself’s previous article, “Mac switchers: 7 Windows concepts & habits you need to let go,” the biggest hurdle many new Mac users face is their own frame of mind. Rather than trying to make Mac OS X work like Windows, the best approach is to start fresh and be open to different ways of doing things. The Windows-based habit of maximizing windows to fill the entire screen is just that – a concept from Windows. The Mac’s green Zoom button – called the plus (+) button by some – is meant to behave differently. And, even though it may seem erratic and random at times, there is usually a method to its madness.

Real world examples

In order to best understand the green Zoom button found in the upper-left corner of each window, let’s study it’s behavior with a few different applications. In Finder, the Zoom button toggles between the small window size I set for myself and a tall window size Finder chose for me.

Mac OS X Zoom button in Finder

Why did the window get taller and slightly wider, but not quite full screen? Because there was enough content in the window to fill the screen vertically. Horizontally, there was nothing left to show other than white space – so Finder decided not to display it.

Now let’s look at Apple’s website in Safari. Notice the first image below is a very small window with both vertical and horizontal scrollbars. The second image shows what the window looks like after clicking the Zoom button. Again, it takes up all of the vertical space because there was more scrollable content to be seen. The third image illustrates what the screen would look like fully maximized Windows-style.

Mac OS X Zoom button in Safari

Notice the wasted blank space on both sides of the maximized window and how it serves no purpose? That’s why the Zoom button ignored that empty background. It analyzed the web page I was viewing at the time and sized the window to match its content. Try web pages with a different width and it will size the window differently each time, depending on what’s on screen.

Of course, there are a number of applications in Mac OS X that appear to go full screen when the Zoom button is clicked. Mail, iCal, and iPhoto (among others) can be “maximized”, for example. Isn’t that inconsistent with the two cases shown above? Actually, quite the opposite. iPhoto can display more images at once when the window gets bigger, so there is enough content to justify filling the screen in all directions. The same goes for iCal – it can show the entire month’s view and give each day a bigger space to fit its events. There are functional reasons for blowing the window up to that large of a size and the Zoom button is intelligent enough to determine when and when not to do it.

Mac OS X Zoom button in iCal

Modern concepts

The idea of maximizing windows might have been a good one back in the day when monitors could only display a small 800×600 pixels. Now that we have high resolution widescreen displays, however, making every window full screen no longer makes sense. It will usually result in wasted screen space that could otherwise be used to show more content at once. For instance, you could have your iChat buddy list and a chat window open alongside Safari as you browse. If Safari was maximized, you’d have to manually switch back and forth between the two applications to check your updated buddy list and read new IM’s.

But what about those who prefer to maximize their applications so they can focus on the content without distraction? Rather than making the window bigger and covering background windows with useless empty space, Mac OS X has a handy feature called “Hide Others.” Just press Cmd+Option+H on the keyboard or hold the Option key, right click on your current app’s Dock icon, and select “Hide Others” from the menu. Now all you’ll see is the window you want to work with while the others are hidden from view – no clutter and no unnecessary wasted space.

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55 Comments Have Been Posted (Leave Your Response)

Great Article. Next time someone asks me why isn’t “the maximise button working?” I can point them here!

I was a bit disapointed with this issue but now I use SizeWell ( which is ultimate!

All the best

Apparently, not being able to view as much data as possible is an Apple concept.

That figures! :)

Still waiting for the iThink, where apple-users don’t even have to think for themselves anymore.
By then, your whole life will be ‘iLive’d for you.

“It’s not a bug, it’s a feature” is a concept apple is still able to sell.

Dan, I’m sure you’re just trying to make a joke, but did you even read the article? I thought it clearly showed that OS X does show as much data as possible when it’s available. If there’s nothing to show, what’s the point of maximizing?

> If there’s nothing to show, what’s the point of maximizing?

Because things change. I understand the concept, only enlarging the window as large as it needs to be. But my Mac is not a good mind reader and inevitably, a few minutes later the window needs to be larger, so I must click on the button again.

In this instance, imho, Mac has it wrong and Windows has it right.

My Mac tells me how to think. Instead of adapting to me, it forces me to adapt. I want a full screen all the time so I can focus on what I’m working on. I don’t want to see purple, or other windows in the background. I don’t want to have to click three buttons to do something that should only take one (“CMD+Option+H” vs. + button).

Mac has many features that beat Windows, but this isn’t one of them. Maybe mac could add a full-screen button next to the + button, or allow users to change the zoom-button settings in preferences according to the desires of the user.

Until then I fell my mac is annoying and could use serious improvement in certain areas like this one.

or you can click + while holding shift and the window will maximize correctly :)
found this a week ago on my 2nd day as a Mac user

To the previous poster… the shift key doesn’t do anything. Maybe it works for you in certain programs, but definitely not all of them.

Hm… it’s certainly dfferent than Windows. But I’d be careful with using words such as ‘modern’. Have you by any chance taken a peek at the newest Mac OS incarnation’s feature called ‘fullscreen apps’ or sth along the lines?

I’m afraid modern means exatly taking over the whole screen. You may argue it’s because of the tablets and uniforming iOS/MacOS L&F, and you’d probably be right, but the fact remains.

For sake of satisfying all customers, from what I’ve seen, you will still be able to do things the old way, as fortunately full screen apps seems to be an alternative rather than a replacement.

But the change will come, if tablets and smartphones will contain their ‘ubiquitousness momentum’. And it’d be nice to use all these in the same manner.

Myself, I’m all for app taking the whole screen along with the menu bar. Humans are single tasked machines. I want the app I run to be my new context, and free of distractions of OS artifacts.

with Windows you can maximize and then zoom in to see text also what if you do not want the distraction of desktop wall paper?

August 12th, 2011, 2:37 PM

One could definitely argue that Apple is “iThinking” your life for you. Or you could simply chalk it up to being different from Windows.

I supported Windows machines for 10 years since I was 15. In that time, the Maximize button came in handy and I would have agreed with the “Humans are single task oriented” comment above. But when it was time for me to finally stop using company machines for my personal needs, I opted for an Apple. I opted for the Apple to avoid explanation-less blue screens and software written by one company that actually works well together, as though it’s designed that way. Personally, I was often left wanting more/better integration between Microsoft applications running on a Microsoft OS. But whatever…

In the end, the green plus button on Mac OS just works differently. If you don’t like how it operates, you can always just size your windows yourself as you do with Windows. Close the window, and typically it reopens with the size you last used. Last I checked, Windows worked similarly too.

If you love Windows that much, just shut up and use it. Why hover around a Mac focused website just to piss all over someone else’s time and effort to educate others?

Wow..this was one thing that always puzzled me when I had to work with a friend’s Mac..I thought he had screwed up some OS setting – I didn’t realize this was the defaul behavior. It really sucks.

One when is working on a screen for any duration of would like to work without seeing the shinies in the background..and typically you need to keep pressing that stupid button if your content increases.

This is LAME.

Just a thought – instead of saying how awful it is, why not just use the powers of the Internet to find a solution to it ( might work)?

Would have to agree with a.r.u and Ant – It’s not Windows.. It’s not meant to be Windows.. It wasn’t designed for Windows users.. =)

Having also used Windows for 15+ years and only switching to OS X in the previous month I have to say I’m quite enjoying it – So the green button doesn’t maximise to full screen (why bother having it in a window at all then?) but using other tools like jitouch’s expanded gesture control ( to quickly resize with the flick of a fingertip gives far more control and flexibility..

You know, I just stumbled across this article as a long time mac user who was wondering exactly what it was that button did, because it does seem somewhat random. In previous generations of Mac OS (like seven and eight) I did find it somewhat useful, but going to large screens and OSX I’ve started to find it a bit offputting. I resize all my windows myself.
That being said, having used many windows machines, and actually having owned a ThinkPad, I’ve got to say that the window maximise button has only ever pissed me off. I do multitask, whether it’s running office with a browser and maybe a pdf for reference, or simply running more than one browser window, and having only one window available for viewing at a time is simply stupid. Like this article says, lots of wasted space, and you have to go find your window before you can look at it. Or else suffer from a ridiculously clipped window that’s snapped itself to exactly half the screen. I like my windows floating around, and not taking up everything, thank you very much!
Now that’s just my opinion. To all you Windows users complaining out there, there are different ways of doing things, and they are all equally valid. Maybe you think that one is more equal than all the others, but that doesn’t make the others any less equal, does it?

Chalk me up on the “No Windows’ version is just better” crowd.

Firstly, browsing the web I don’t want to be clicking the + button every time I visit a page which is slightly wider.

Secondly, Fitt’s Law! It’s so much easier to hit the scrollbar in Chrome when it’s resting on the right hand side. I end up using the keyboard on the Mac because it’s harder to hit the scrollbar than on Windows.

Also, dragging windows around is hard! If you’re pixel perfect OCD like me it takes ages!

I think this should be an option. I’m cool with mac users preferring their intelligently randomsizing, they can have it. Just give me the choice. I do think you can go too far with too many choices. But I don’t think this is too far.

I just switched to Mac in July. I was wondering what this button did, and now that I see its purpose and can utilize it, I love it. The thing I have hated about mac is that it is hard to switch between windows. I don’t like to have to keep opening expose. with this, I can have a clean fit at the push of button. Since I have a track pad, I have programmed the trackpad to do a center top single tap as a shortcut for the zoom button. WOOT

This is the ONLY thing i hate about a mac. OK i get it that there’s nothing else to display on whatever im looking at. But then I go to the next web page or click a folder in finder that has a lot of files to display. NOW WHAT? You expect me to keep clicking the green button EVERY time to adjust my window size??? VERY inconvenient. at LEAST have the option of being able to set the green button to fully maximize or to “auto maximize” or something. Again I love my mac but this feature was probably the dumbest thing mac came up with.

Dude, “required.username”, I literally just filled out this dumb comment form (required email? really? I don’t want to chance being on a mailing list, of course I’m just going to put something fake!) to tell you how awesome you are.

This has probably only been my gripe with OSX, ever. For personal use and for development, the only thing that has consistently kinda irked me is the fact that I click “Maximize”, or whatever the green button is meant to be, and then when the window only goes to half screen I have to manually stretch it, spend 2 minutes trying to make it pixel-perfect with my screen edge because I’m OCD about it, and so on.

The holding Shift *does* work. If it doesn’t work for you, you probably aren’t on Lion. So to everybody here, to the author of the article, to OSX lovers everywhere – just hold shift, my esteemed internet bro-friend. Just hold shift while clicking the button and all of your woes will melt away like butter on the red-hot angry faces of all the trolls in these comments. To all the “aww snap man windows did it better this time”, I say you’re mistaken. To everybody saying “OSX forces you to blah blah blah, iThink hahaha get it I’m a comic genius!” you’re mistaken. OSX gives you the option to use a superior auto-adjusting window resizing tool, and now the option to have it function different if you’d like simply by holding a modifier. That’s +1 Steveyboy, -1 Billy…boy. Besides, I’m pretty sure most people using Macs as their go-to machines on a daily basis are pretty used to modifier keys from shortcuts, etc.

Anyways, thanks again “required.username”. If you’ve got the balls to post your home address on the intarwebnet I will mail you a steak. Go get a PO box. One that’s refrigerated.

Don’t argue. Just install Better Touch Tool. It has window snaping like Windows 7. Anytime you need a window maximized, you snap it to the top edge and you’re done. w00t!

I found this article looking for a keyboard shortcut for the plus button which now I found it has to be customized. I’ve been a Windows user since 3.11 and I too was confused about what the plus button did at first. For those that are complaining about it not taking up the full screen in Safari theres an easy way. All you have to do is zoom the website you’re on. On my laptop I do a two finger double click or double right click. You can also use the keyboard shortcut “command +” Once the content on the page is too big or just enough to fit on the screen when you hit the plus button it will fill the screen. If you close the window like this it will remember it for the next time you open a window. Also you can upgrade to Lion and use the new full screen feature.

I can understand Apple’s intention, even if the implementation doesn’t always work properly (witness iTunes on a secondary monitor which does not fill the vertical space even though there is plenty of content left to display).

But why not offer a global preference allowing the option for it to behave Windows-style, filling the entire space?

problem is I want all content to be visible, so after dragging around windows when viewing multiple at once, and then maximize, I want it to be centered, able to view easily. help mac, be smarter! I want this and know I’m right. So many smart solutions how can you continue to neglect this?

I love how the mac evangelists will give the excuse: Hey if you don’t like it, why not just press OPTION + H + Z + Q + tap the left mouse button etc.

This is a stupid IDEA, programs are dynamic, and stuff does change from one view to the next. That’s why I want a maximize button. Secondly, if I have to re-size the window manually every time.. holy f*ck it gets annoying.

This is just as stupid as the red button not quitting an application but actually minimizing it to the dock (as if the yellow button doesn’t do this already)…

I agree Albert

A maximize button should maximize the window (to the greatest extent possible), a minimize button should minimize, and a close button should close. I really don’t care who thought of being able to maximize a window with one click. Its a great idea, one that I use routinely in windows and one that I would appreciate on the mac.

I find amusing but rather sad that whenever there’s a “Mac vs Windows” debate people get so emotive about it. These are just tools – everyone has their working preferences and most people tend to prefer what they’re used to unless it’s been annoying them.

Clearly some people prefer one behaviour and others a different behaviour – so it would have been a good idea for both MS and Apple to make this behaviour configurable.

Fortunately there are several solutions posted in this discussion thread for those such as me who prefer that maximize buttons ‘do what they say on the tin’.

I wonder though if there are any equivalent plugins for Windows to make the maximize button more Mac-like ? I’ve never come across any – or anyone wanting one…

What about Gmail? Pressing + should fill the screen because if you stretch it, your email becomes bigger. It doesn’t show “whitespace”.

I went into an Apple store recently to find out why my maximize button doesn’t do its job, and asked a “Genius” what the green button does. He didn’t have a good answer, but said it should probably make the window bigger. We used Safari tuned to slashdot, then pressed the button. It changed size so I pressed it again, but a new size came out of its algorithms. Five times in a row, and five different window sizes later, the Genius said he’d find out the answer and call me back. I haven’t heard from him in a month and still don’t know what the Green Plus is supposed to do. This article didn’t help in my quest either.. what’s with the pseudo-random window sizes? It’s obviously not just related to content amounts. Slashdot doesn’t change shape five times in thirty seconds. There’s still a mystery in there, unsolved.

Ant, hope you can get back in the ring and knock it apart for the sake of all of us.

Hi Ant,

Have you ever tried to hit the + button in iTunes ? It never resizes the window enough and you will keep having scrollbars in the app (although I have a 1680×1050 resolution). LOL ROFL LOL

I truly truly truly love Macs but you have to admit that even built in software like iTunes doesn’t prove to work in the way you pretend it does.

Take it like a man and admit that Mac have great features but also have great bugs… Did I say bug, I meant “by design features”…

It took Apple about 10 years to acknowledge that one mouse button just wasn’t enough. In fact, after a while they overcame that limit and in fact made the experience far better with touch and gestures.

I hope they take less time to admit that sometimes Windows has better features and window maximize is definitely one of them.

I have been using macs since OS7 and this zoom button thing never convinced me, neither did this article. It may as well be different approaches, but that doesn’t mean this is a good one.
Thankfully Lion has somehow fixed this issue (somehow) with the introduction of fullscreen windows. Apple designers and developers apparently haven’t thought about why people want to maximize windows, and that many times is just to get rid of all the clutter on the screen and be able to focus on one application.

Been a Windows user since 3.1 and am used to maximize meaning maximize. Bought a MBA a year ago and like everyone else this button confused me as I thought it meant maximize. Due to this article I now understand how it’s supposed to work. I’ve read MANY of the comments here and have tried all the various suggestions. Running Lion, and I suppose the green button works better, I kinda actually like what it does now that I understand how it works. I DON’T like if I’m in a browser with multiple tabs open I might have to hit the button for each tab. Aside from that I do like how I can more easily get to/see other open apps. All in all I’m willing to give it more time rather than installing a Windows maximize app. Thanks to the author and all contributors.

A long explanation trying to justify a rubbish bit of design. Next!

OSX has flaws, Windows has flaws, and there’s plenty of third party software to help make it all better. But this article’s attempt at excusing the failure that is the “green plus” just makes me laugh. It’s like someone trying to convince a little kid to have cauliflower instead of cupcakes for their birthday.

The fact that Apple is now pushing for apps to have “full-screen” mode as an option clearly shows they understand the need for maximizing (sadly Apple’s “full-screen” implementation is also a failure right now).

It is a wrong assumption that this white space doesn’t serve any purpose. It does.

1. If the app fills the screen, then a user can fully concentrate on this one task in this app window. No distractions from the desktop or the background/wallpaper.

2. If the app fills the screen, the window’s control buttons will always be at the very left top. It’s easier to always aim for the same spot at the very left top instead of aiming for window control buttons that are at different positions each time, depending on how big the window is resized.

And that’s why I use Ubuntu. In Ubuntu you can simply throw the mouse cursor to the very top left corner to reach window control buttons, but still you have a global menu. Whereas Mac OS X has the menu panel ABOVE the window/control buttons panel.

Ubuntu is much more intuitive than Mac OS X and Windows together.

This is the STUPIDEST thing anyone has ever mentioned as a feature!!! If this is truly the reason for this limitation, then it sucks. Don’t decide for the user. Let the user decide what screen size is good for me. Damn you Apple.

This is just another mac fanboy sucking Apple’s wang and choking down the force-fed bullshit. His own explanation doesn’t even make sense in the context of this very website! Half the sidebar is hidden beyond the edge of the zoomed window. It’s shitty design and everyone knows it.

The problem is it dosent resize to display all the data available. I have to fidget with the window, then resize my columns to see the whole file name, then resize again because other information is now scrolled off, such a pain.

A good example of sacrificing usability for simplicity.

Martín Valdés de León
February 1st, 2013, 4:39 AM

I understand the point to be made about screen real estate being wasted, but having only one window taking up the whole screen forces you to focus on that and only that application, and keeps you from getting distracted by said buddy who is talking to you, without having to hide his window.

@Ben above, you’re a pathetic creature.

When you need 7 screenshots and an entire article to explain why feature X is necessary, it means it isn’t. Although I like Mac, the issue with the maximize button is better handled by Windows, by far.

Not maximizing is ONLY a 10.7 behavior. It functioned normally from ~7.1 to 10.6.8 (despite wildly different hardware and software in that range). Functionality returned in 10.8.

Having been a Mac user for the last two years it really pains me that i only fount this article now. It always frustrated me not understanding what was going on…

I think it is a good idea and with a lot of development i could actually come to like it, it needs to be smarter and to be able to anticipate my needs for the window space into the future (a tall order i know).

That being said i believe the windowing controls on Windows 7 are pretty much as good as it gets. My desktop PC has two widescreen monitors and it is almost effortless to get the window configuration i want.

I want to fill one monitor i hit maximise, i want to fill half of one i throw the window at the side (shame it can’t work in the middle).

There is some work to be done yet i hope they keep developing this feature….

Very helpful, thank you! I just got my first mac and I was wondering about the seemingly inconsistent nature of the maximize button!

To the people that say it’s a bad feature, I tend to disagree after it has been explained. I use dual 27″ monitors and I can definitely see merit in apps not going full screen with use of the maximize button. I think it’s a matter of preference.

I do wish full screen mode didn’t disable the 2nd monitor though. I understand that’s a new functionality. Hopefully in 10.9 that won’t be the case any longer… But then, Windows does the same thing with fullscreen apps so it’s not like anything is being lost there.

I use OSX and Windows for years and I must say that this behaviour just sucks in Mac. People used to say that things made by Apple are good, because Apple made them. That’s not true, and while I consider both systems great platforms (not perfect), I frequently want to just cover all screen with my window. It’s not about “wasting space”. Sometimes I just don’t want to be disturbed by other windows. In my opinion, Windows made a good choice of those three: minimize, maximize and close. Fitting window’s size to the content is a nice feature, but could be something additional, not instead of maximize.

This is just counter-intuitive. I’ve used numerous window managers on both windows and linux, and they all have an option to maximize windows in one click. I have to agree that this just sucks.

There are so many features of Windows that JUST MAKE SENSE that mac doesn’t feature and it drives me nuts. The plus button is one of them. When I try to maximize my chrome window it only fills about half the screen and it drives me nuts and I usually have to manually drag the corners out to see the entire webpage.

This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Apple simply wants to stake out irrelevant territory that hurts usability in the name of ‘not being microsoft’. This is not about ‘mindsets’ or ‘mental models’. This is about reasonably wanting to view something in the entire space possible. Jesus, the war is over. Let us use our computers!!!

Counterintuitive. I’ve been a Mac user (even fan!) for over a decade, and this *still* drives me nuts.

Just wanted to offer my opinions as a new mac user. While I see the appeal of having a zoom button, a maximize button is preferable for the following reasons:
1) If I am browsing the web, different websites might be designed for certain widths. So if I am browsing a site that is designed in for the old 1024px width and switch to one that has a fluid layout, I don’t want to have to keep clicking the zoom button.
2) Immersion. White space isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it’s nice sometimes to focus in on a particular window without having to go fullscreen.
However, I know that it’s pointless to debate this, since nothing will come of it. I will eventually get used to the zoom. :)

The problem with this stupid approach is that it requires you to repeatedly zoom windows over and over again as they change in size. Sure zooming to the visual constraints of the *current* window is nice and all, but as soon as you click a folder in Finder that has 15 subdirectories, you are now out of space and have to click the plus icon again, and again, AND AGAIN. This is really frustrating. The reason I want to maximize Finder to fill the entire screen on first use is precisely so I can avoid this behavior, because I know where I am about to browse and I know I am going to need a full screen to do it.

Just more of Apple thinking for the user instead of the user thinking for themselves.

I have been using a macbook for two years at home and windows at work god da*** apple’s macbook is so so annoying

When working with Windows on a 4 megapixel display, every time I open an application, I have to manually re-size the window to match the content so I can reference the content in multiple windows without having to open/close, move, select etc. to display what I need to see. The purpose of multiple concurrent windows, is referencing data from N number of places, without having to constantly move / size windows to see the information you need.

Productivity on people a Window box is a fraction of people on OS X. Part of this is window management, along with consistent menus, less wasted real estate on menus that are not active when windows are inactive, and many other factors.

The competing theory goes beyond window management; look at Outlook, where everything – calendar, contacts, email – is contained in a single window. OS X has mail, contacts and calendar as separate, but tightly coupled applications.

Which may also be why all studies of Mac vs. PC usage, shows that Mac users use an average of 3 times as many applications as their Windows counterparts (because it is easy?), and require less than 20% of the IT support resource.

Did a study years ago for the Defense Department on user productivity on computers, evaluation disk speed, processor speed, amount of memory, and screen size, as competing factors. For the overwhelming majority of users, productivity was enhanced by having more screen real estate, by a factor of 2 to 1 over any of the other factors. But this was based on work over the course of a day, where multiple applications are opened, and interaction between the content was required, not a role that is solely focused on a single function, like Photoshop or CAD, etc.

Ugh. I guess to summarize nicely, thanks for all that space on the left and right hand side of my window that I can’t even utilize. It’s a nice distraction and a waste. You go, Apple.

As many have said, when the contents change, it’s quite annoying to have to continually click the button to adjust the container. Just go full screen for ****’s sake.

And one more thing – sometimes people claim Apple’s brilliance by bringing us newfound ideas for UX. However, after seeing concepts like this and reading into them, I am just more and more convinced that Apple actually does things the way it does to just be different, regardless of usability or convenience. If you start to argue with a fanboy, they will eventually just tell you not to use Apple products instead of actually having a constructive argument or agreeing that Apple was wrong, even if they run out of points in Apple’s favor.

so modern concept si to enforce your users to just use whatever stupid rule you think is best. cool

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