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Review: Mac OS X

Posted Friday April 6, 2001


On Saturday March 24th, 2001, Apple shipped a new version of its operating system, Mac OS X. More than a new version or an upgrade, Mac OS X is a completely new operating system that Apple has been developing for several years. Rather than paraphrase, here is Apple's description: "Mac OS X is a super-modern operating system that combines the power and stability of UNIX with the legendary elegance of the Macintosh. Mac OSX features a stunning new user interface called Aqua, making your work and play on the Mac even more intuitive for new users, while providing powerful, customizable tools for professionals. At the foundation of Mac OS X lies an industrial-strength UNIX-based core operating system that delivers unprecedented stability and performance."

Apple has taken its own technologies like their easy-to-use user interface, QuickTime, FireWire, AirPort, AppleScript, ColorSync, and Sherlock, mixed in technologies from their purchase of NeXT like the Mach kernel, Exported Application Services, Cocoa, and the Dock, built them around the latest version of BSD UNIX, added some industry standard technologies like OpenGL 3D, Java 2, PDF, and Unicode, and come up with brand-new technologies like their Quartz 2D imaging model, to create an operating system that really has it all.

This release from Apple will advance operating system technology to the next level and provide Macintosh users with a great technology platform for many years to come. This is a quick review of Mac OS X and some of the software that ships with it, but there is also a detailed description of many of the technologies in the new operating system with a comparison of the features in Mac OS 9.

I picked up my copy of Mac OS X on the morning of the 24th. Three CDs and a manual ship in a box with a big, translucent, blue X on the front. Three CDs you say? Yes, that is one of the nice bonuses. You get a Mac OS X CD, a CD filled with developer tools from Apple, and a Mac OS 9.1 CD, so you are really getting two OSes for the price of one.

I restarted my iMac, and had it boot from the Mac OS X CD. The first thing I noticed was the beautiful new look of the operating system. Apple's goal was to create a user interface that is even easier to use and more appealing than the existing Mac OS, and they are calling it Aqua. It really is a pleasure to look at. The menus are slightly translucent as are the print and save "sheets" allowing you to see through to what they cover. Buttons have a very liquid 3D look to them. Everything seems to have more depth to it with smooth translucent drop shadows. Instead of having a grey bevelled edge, default buttons softly throb like the power button on a new Mac when it is in sleep mode. Even the installer has a wavy watery animation and blobs of water oozing back and forth while you wait for it to finish its task. Apple has really polished their OS to match the stunning look of their new computers.

Installation is easy. Since Mac OS X is a truly multi-lingual OS, the first screen asks you what your primary language is. As of this writing, the choices are English, Japanese, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Dutch. More languages are sure to follow. After selecting your language, reading the ReadMe, and agreeing to the license agreement, you get to the actual installation screens. Step one: pick the disk on which you want to install Mac OS X. Step two: make optional customizations to the install process. There are very few customizations to make, so I just clicked install. Step three: just like setting up an iMac, there is no step three! Just restart your Mac and you're running Mac OS X!

When Mac OS X starts up for the first time, it takes you through a setup assistant that is similar to the one in Mac OS 9. It also helps you set up your connection to the internet, asks you for your iTools account info or even sets up a new iTools account for you, and configures the included email software for your email accounts. It is helpful to have your TCP/IP settings, iTools user name and password, and email configuration settings available for this process.

Once you are done with the setup process, you get your first look at the Mac OS X Finder.

Apple's focus has been to simplify the user interface and make everything more intuitive while adding powerful new features. Most of what you know about the Finder in Mac OS 9 still exists in X, but things have been enhanced and refined. For instance, there were great looking icons for everything in Mac OS 9, but in Mac OS X you can change the size of icons separately for each window if you want and the size can be increased to 128 pixels by 128 pixels. This makes thumbnail icons for graphic files easily distinguishable. Finder windows can now have an optional toolbar that you can completely configure. Along with the traditional icon and list views, Apple has added a column view which displays two or more list columns side-by-side in a Finder window. This view allows you to move through a folder hierarchy very quickly and provides the ability to play QuickTime movies and audio files right in the Finder. Spend a little time going through the System Preferences (similar to Mac OS 9's Control Panels) to get the Finder and the system working just the way you want.

One amazing thing Apple has done is make it so that nearly every existing Macintosh application will run in Mac OS X just as it has always run in previous versions of Mac OS. This is achieved through what Apple calls the "Classic" environment. Essentially, Classic is Mac OS 9 running on top of Mac OS X, so if your applications run in Mac OS 9, it is very likely that they will run as a Classic application in Mac OS X. There are some exceptions like extensions and applications that directly access hardware, but there are very few of those. You can check Apple's web site to see if your applications have been tested by Apple for Classic compatibility.

Classic allows you to transition to the new operating system without losing your existing software investment, but it is not the ideal way to run applications in Mac OS X. For one thing, the first Classic application you run will launch the Classic environment if it is not running already. This amounts to having Mac OS 9 boot up and it takes about a minute. Once this is done, Classic applications launch quickly and (according to Apple) some run even more quickly than they do on the same Mac just running Mac OS 9. Classic applications don't get the new Aqua look and feel and they don't get the memory protection that Mac OS X provides. In other words, if one Classic application crashes, other Classic applications and even the Classic environment can crash or become unstable. Mac OS X and native applications remain unaffected by crashing Classic applications though.

The real benefits come when you run applications that are developed specifically for Mac OS X. Apple again has done some incredible work in this area. Applications written for Mac OS X gain the beautiful Aqua interface, stability, and in many cases speed. The internal architecture Apple has added to the OS makes using applications smooth and fast. For instance, in the background you can be compressing video, listening to MP3s, downloading files from the internet, and receiving emails, without even noticing it while you surf the web.

Apple has also made life easier for developers writing Macintosh applications. They even provide new, free developer tools that ship with the OS. This benefits the general Mac population in two ways: we should get more applications with more great features more quickly, and we get to use thousands of new and existing applications written for two new application environments in Mac OS: Java 2 and UNIX. Mac OS has had Java support for quite a while, but adding Java 2 ensures that more new Java applications will work on the Mac. There are thousands of UNIX programs out there that could never have run in Mac OS before. Most of these applications should work just fine in Mac OS X with very little work from developers. In fact, many are starting to appear already. Of course these applications run in a UNIX command-line environment and may not be user-friendly to most people, but my hope is that UNIX developers will use Apple's great new tools and provide nice Aqua user interfaces for their applications on the Mac.

There are lots of great Mac OS X native applications already available from Apple and other companies on the Mac OS X CD, the web, and even your iDisk, and more are being released literally every day. Apple provides many applications that may be familiar to you like QuickTime Player, iTunes, AppleWorks, and iMovie, but they have released several that are completely new and only available in Mac OS X. A few are described below.

One of the first things you notice in Mac OS X will be the new Dock application. The Dock is a bar that floats above everything else on the screen and is positioned at the bottom-center of the screen. The Dock provides quick access to applications, docklettes, disks, folders, files, hidden windows, and the Trash. You can add items to the dock by dragging them to the Dock and remove them by dragging them out of the Dock. As you move the mouse over the Dock, items under the mouse get larger and a text label appears so you can identify them more easily. You can launch applications, open folders, and open files by clicking on them, and windows zoom in and out of the Dock with a "genie" effect providing a thumbnail of each window for easy identification. You can also hide the Dock so that it only shows up when you move the mouse to the bottom of the screen. Click and hold on applications to get a quick list of functions they can perform from the Dock, and click and hold on folders to produce a hierarchical menu of their contents for you to access.

Apple has a new email application called, appropriately, Mail. It offers everything you'd want in an email client including support for sound, pictures, movies, HTML, styled text, multiple mailboxes in multiple email accounts, spell checking, Rules (filters), sorting, searching, and address lookups from LDAP and Apple's new AddressBook. It even shows how many new emails you have in the Dock icon. Apple has posted scripts which automate the importing of email messages from Netscape Communicator, Eudora, Claris Emailer, Outlook Express, and Microsoft Entourage.

AddressBook is Apple's new program for storing information about your friends, family, colleagues, etc. It has direct access to and from Mail and has fields for most of the information you might want to store. It can even store a picture of each of your friends and can lookup people on LDAP servers, so it is pretty versatile. It has an import function which can probably bring in contact information from other email programs. I exported data as text from my address database in FileMaker, but I could not get AddressBook to import it. Unfortunately, the online help was not very helpful in this case. I also wish I could customize AddressBook with more fields. For instance I would like to add a Mr./Ms./Dr./Mrs. title field, and fields for middle names, scrolling notes, gender, a date birthday and calculated age based on that. It does not have an export function which would be really nice for using your information in ways the AddressBook cannot (labels, mail merge, etc.). Apple Script is not supported either which is a shame since it could be used to import and export data. It does have a very flexible category feature though so you can group your family, friends, co-workers, etc.

SimpleText has been around on the Mac for as long as I can remember, but is generally not very useful as a text editor. Apple now provides TextEdit with Mac OS X, and it is pretty full-featured. It supports graphics, spell-checking (manual and "as you type"), text alignments, ruler, tab support, hyphenation, variable line heights, and full font control including style, size, color, kerning, ligature, baseline, and character shape.

Mac OS X also ships with a native StuffIt Expander and Internet Explorer, but many other companies have been hard at work on getting their applications up to speed and Apple is tracking their progress for us. A more complete and searchable list is also available. I took a quick inventory of the applications I use and have contacted some of the companies to see when they will provide native versions. It looks like I'll have native versions of everything I use by Macworld Expo this July, but here is what I came up with:

* Adobe Acrobat Reader April 16, 2001
* Adobe Illustrator November 5, 2001
* Adobe Photoshop "the next major release"
* America Online December 10, 2001
* BBEdit April 20, 2001
* Eudora public beta now
* Fetch May 1, 2001
* FileMaker Pro May 14, 2001
* Fire public beta now
* GraphicConverter shipping
* iCab public beta now
* ICQ public beta now
* Interarchy April 26, 2001
* Macromedia FreeHand May 8, 2001
* Microsoft Office November 19, 2001
* MT-Newswatcher February 10, 2002
* Netscape public beta now
* Newswatcher public beta now
* Norton Utilities can function on Mac OS X drives now, but only if booting from Mac OS 9
* Opera public beta August 29, 2001
* Palm Desktop public beta December 27, 2001
* QuarkXPress "by the time OS X is widely adopted"
* Quicken 2002 August 16, 2001
* Retrospect public beta April 13, 2001
* StuffIt Deluxe/Expander shipping
* Toast public beta September 26, 2001
* Wacom Graphire Tablet Drivers public beta November 8, 2001

These are some native Mac OS X applications that have been around for some time as NeXT applications. I am currently testing them and I really like what I've seen so far.

* Create shipping
* OmniWeb May 7, 2001 (this is one HOT web browser!)
* OmniDictionary public beta now
* OmniPDF public beta now
* OpenBase shipping
* TIFFany shipping

Not everything about Mac OS X is perfect. Parts of the system show that Apple rushed to meet its deadline and Apple has warned that there is some functionality yet to come (like CD burning and DVD movie playing). It is probably a good idea that Apple is treating this release like an "early adopter's" version, and is waiting to ship it on Mac hardware in July. There are some features from Mac OS 9 that Apple has not included and I miss them. My printer (Canon BubbleJet 2100) is not supported yet and neither is my Wacom Graphire Tablet. Apple has a tech note available listing compatible ink-jet printers, and Brother, Epson, and Hewlett Packard have released new print drivers to support Mac OS X since it's release. I've made the bugs I've found available, and the comparison chart is a good place to see what is missing and what is new and improved. Apple has plans for two free upgrades by Macworld Expo in July and other developers are putting the final touches on their applications, but I already enjoy Mac OS X more than I do 9.

 

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