OS X Curiosity: Clippings

Posted on Oct 4, 2008 in Mac

Leopard is the 6th major OS X upgrade, and as such feels very refined and polished. Nearly every nook and cranny has been through a number of iterations and most features feel very well thought out.

Sometimes though, you’ll come across features or behaviours that leave you scratching your head. Today we’ll take a look at one OS feature that feels as though it was added with 10.0 and forgotten about ever since: Clippings.

Text Clippings

If you’ve ever selected a bit of text in Safari and dragged it to your Desktop, OS X will save it in a “Text Clipping” file. Double-clicking this file will open a small window displaying your text. That’s all you can actually do in that window though: You can’t select, drag or edit the text in any way.

The only way you can re-use the text is by manually selecting “copy” from the menu bar and pasting it into another application, or by dragging the text clippings file itself into another app. Both are fairly non-obvious to the casual user: The copy & paste method because you can’t actually select the text to copy (usually a requirement for copy & paste) and the file-drag method because you don’t always expect dragging a file to result in its contents being pasted (the exact result of doing this will also vary from app to app).

(Actually some experimenting reveals you can select text: Dragging the cursor over part of a clipping and then using copy & paste will only paste the part of the text that you dragged over. It turns out you are selecting – but there’s no highlighting to indicate your selection – which means this feature is actually more fucked up than I had ever dare to imagine).

Image Clippings

These are actually harder to produce: Some apps such as Photoshop will create them if you drag a selection to the Desktop. Most apps default to saving a copy of the current image file to the desktop instead, so it could be argued Image Clippings are only still around for legacy purposes. 

As with Text Clippings, you can’t really do anything with the clipping except view the image and there’s no really obvious way to retrieve your content to re-use it elsewhere. In fact they’re actually even harder to re-use than Text Clippings: You can’t open an Image Clipping in Preview or any other Image editor I tried. Dragging it to Mail will attach it to a new message and dragging it to TextEdit will open a surprisingly low-quality version of the image. The only way to access your image is via the Clipboard – pasting the image will usually work.

Missing Modern Amenities 

Neither file format supports thumbnail previews or even Apple’s much-touted Quick Look feature and Spotlight will only find your Clipping’s file names.

Get to the Point…

Okay, enough snarkyness: Clippings are an interesting idea that were probably great in the NeXTStep era, but are not very practical nowadays.

A better solution would be to simply create “proper” files that other applications can interact with normally. Instead of creating Text Clippings, the Finder could create .txt (or preferably .rtf to preserve formatting) files with your text contents and instead of creating Picture Clippings, store a .PNG file with your image contents. Both are file formats most users are accustomed to and can be used by most applications.

Hopefully this is one forgotten corner of OS X that Apple can finally dust off and give some new spit and polish in Snow Leopard.