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I've used a lot of operating systems, and those that support mouse cursors usually default to a black one with a white outline, with the notable exception of Windows. I used to think that this is because the designers of Mac OS wanted it to be different from Windows, so they used an inverted palette for the cursor, and then designers of other operating systems used the same as Mac OS because of the same reason, or because Mac OS is 'cooler'.

However, since I've used Mac OS more, I've realized that it's very heavily geared towards visual arts (a much more advanced color picker, font book, display profiler, etc. than any other OS), so they likely didn't pick the design of their cursor for such an arbitrary reason as "it's different".

Thus, there must be a benefit to this, but one does not come to mind. Certainly when I think of the Windows cursor, I think of it being more precise for some reason. So, what is the benefit to using a black cursor with a white outline, rather than a white one with black?

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    I find the Mac cursor to be more annoying than the Windows version. The white outline is often invisible (because most applications, websites etc. have a white background), which means that the white outline (e.g. the cursors active point) can't be seen... – Henrik Ekblom Mar 11 '15 at 16:31
  • @HenrikEkblom even worse, I believe the Mac OS cursor's "active point" is actually the topleftmost black pixel, within the white outline. – Ben Leggiero Mar 11 '15 at 17:23
  • The Mac UI was inspired by early Smalltalk UIs, which had a black pointer (without outline) – obelia Mar 11 '15 at 20:56
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I don't have a definitive answer for why Apple made the decision they did. But here's an answer based on UX analysis:

  • The pointer cursor needs two high-contrast colors to ensure it can be discerned against backgrounds of any color (eg an all-black cursor would get lost in a black background).

  • The most neutral high contrast colors are black and white.

  • For the Mac, pointer precision is important because it is used in graphical apps (one of the original strengths of the Mac vs Windows).

  • Most editing and graphics apps have white or light colored backgrounds.

  • A black triangle with (a) point of focus at tip of the triangle; and (b) white outline is the best pointer for these white backgrounds, because the pointer and its tip render with the highest contrast.

  • A white pointer with a black outline is problematic on white backgrounds. The tip of the pointer cannot comfortably be on the black outline because it would be awkward against dark backgrounds. It can be at the tip of the white interior, but that means the user will need to perceive the negative space of the arrow, which adds cognitive load.

  • On top of the white-pointer accuracy issues, it is also harder to locate on white/light backgrounds due to lower visual mass than black.

So for reasons of both accuracy and discernability, the black pointer is better for the common-use-case white/light backgrounds typically found in desktop apps.

I'm sure it only helped Apple to note that the black pointer is also think different from Windows white :-)

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    Interesting note about the precision in the arts, because, as I stated in a comment on my post, the Mac OS X cursor's hotspot is several pixels deep into the graphic, guaranteeing whatever you're clicking is hidden. At the same time, Windows' default cursor's hotspot is also the topleftmost black pixel, but that means it's also an exterior pixel, so your target is less hidden. – Ben Leggiero Mar 12 '15 at 14:22
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The Mac UI was inspired by early Smalltalk UIs, which had a black pointer (without outline). Most of both the Smalltalk and Mac screen was white, so a black pointer was more obvious. The Mac UI added the thin white outline so it would show up on better on the black regions of the screen (original Macs had only black and white screens).

Windows possibly used a white pointer with black outline to be different. Microsoft, at the time didn't have nearly the UI expertise Apple did (Apple poached some UI experts from Xerox PARC). Also, Windows had color from the start, so maybe they assumed there would be more color on the screen and the white pointer would be obvious enough.

  • Fascinating; I didn't know Smalltalk even had a history in UI, but I should've expected as much. – Ben Leggiero Mar 12 '15 at 14:25
  • @BenC.R.Leggiero - Smalltalk was the first system to bring together windows, icons, menus and pointers (WIMP). It was the inspiration for the Mac UI. – obelia Mar 12 '15 at 19:59

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