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The Mac OS X Adventure Begins

By MacEdition Staff (Feedback form), 7 November 2000.

From the moment Mac OS X loads, it’s pretty clear that Mac users are facing the biggest mind-shift in their computing lifetimes.

Mac OS X is a marketer’s dream, containing every popular buzzword-compliant feature that an operating system could have these days. Staple to that, though, a learning curve that most of us haven’t faced since we first laid our grubby mitts on a computer. That leaves Apple with quite a challenge. To users, some parts of the new OS will be familiar; other parts will as strange as Greek would be to a Martian.

MacEdition ran some informal testing to gauge initial reactions to Mac OS X (see the breakout box). Here’s the rundown after a couple of weeks.

Lock and load (or, Beauty is at least skin deep)

The installation process just works. Pure and simple. Whether you create a separate partition on your drive, or drop it on top of OS 9, you’re up and running in a matter of minutes. Anybody who’s played with any Unix or Linux will be amazed at how simple Apple has made this process.

Boot times are reasonable in comparison to OS 9, and once the OS is up and running, users are treated to a drop-dead gorgeous desktop, something that truly looks 21st-century. Eye-popping gadgets like the Dock and the genie window do their tricks well enough to give most Windows users the impression that Mac OS X is a much more advanced OS than anything they’ve been exposed to previously. Users can tone down Aqua’s colorful look to a standard gray (graphite). This will be a relief to graphics pros who commonly eschew the use of extraneous color on their desktops. Time will tell whether Apple’s token graphite gesture, along with the promise of Quartz, will be enough to encourage the graphics pro market to adopt Mac OS X.

Most Mac users will doubtless rely on the new Finder as their primary navigation tool at first. Using the new tool leaves one feeling there has to be a better way to get around. It feels as clumsy as Window Manager in Windows 3.1. There is a better way: it’s called column view, and the sooner you adopt it, the better your life will be.

Users can view the contents of their drives as icons, as a list, or using the new column view. It’s an easy bet that the majority of users will adopt column view as their preferred method for navigation. Once the window is dragged all the way across the screen, the user is given access to pretty much everything in their hard drive with a single click of the mouse. It’s a different paradigm, given that we’re all used to scrolling through vertical windows, but it’s an easy adoption to make.

Icon view looks like a jumbled mess by comparison, and list view – with its sans-serif text on white background with little or no leading – looks primitive. It could use more polish, or at least be made to look as it does in Mac OS 9.

Mac OS X’s GUI monitoring utilities, kept in various places, aren’t as useful as they could be, and the Dock itself could provide better feedback to a less experienced user. It’s hard to tell which application has been brought to the front or which documents are open, and the bouncing icons and triangle widgets in the Dock don’t tell the user anything.

Mac OS X’s process manager application could really be reduced to a floating toolbar, like the tear-away Application menu in Mac OS 9. As it is currently, the process manager window is big and ungainly, and like all windows in X, it can’t be reduced to a nice compact size.

File management (or, “Where did I put that resume?”)

Since Mac OS X is a Unix-based operating system, one is supposed to believe that programs, or applications, are only to be installed into the Applications folder and that the documents you create are only to go into the Documents folder. That’s the way every other Unix operating system works and that’s the way Apple tells you this OS will work.

But we found that this isn’t the case with Mac OS X. Applications and documents don’t have to sit in strictly dedicated folders. However, installing additional software must be done more carefully than with Mac OS 9. With Mac OS X, it’s all about user modes.

The root/administrator mode is one of the Unix holdovers that do apply to Mac OS X. Every Unix OS typically assumes that a machine is being used by more than one person. Thus, there are two classes of users on a Unix system. There are users and then there is a computer god, who decides which programs will be installed on the computer, who will use them, and where the user will be allowed to place their files. This computer god has access to the root/administrator mode. Everybody else is a user and can’t do anything that the computer god doesn’t allow them to do.

Attempting to install programs while in the main user mode will result in Mac OS X crashing the installer and telling you that you haven’t got the necessary privileges for installing programs. For people who are used to working with stand-alone machines (most home users), this Unix trait will take some getting used to.

Another behavior of Mac OS X that will need to be fixed is the way the operating system handles copying massive amounts of files from one drive to another. For years Mac users have seen the “Some items you are copying...” dialogue box. And we’ve all hit the OK button to blow away that warning and waited for all those files to be copied.

Under Mac OS X, we are going to see that warning for each and every file we bring across. While this backward step will be an annoyance for even the everyday user, it will be a major pain for graphics firms where moving files, updating or changing them and moving them back to a file server is a common practice.

Some shareware developer is going to make a name for themselves by scripting this whole process, or write a utility that presents the user with a list they can click and have those files copied over. Either that, or keyboard manufacturers are going to have a steady stream of customers of OS X users who have pounded their return/enter keys to pieces.

Classic surprises (Eureka! It works!)

Mac OS X is a bit of a two-headed beast. With the new operating system, the user also gets the option of a second operating system: the good old Mac OS 9. The second operating system is referred to as Classic and it exists to give users a way to run their older programs in the new OS. Don’t throw away your Mac OS 9 CD just yet, as it doesn’t come with the Public Beta, and the final release may also omit it.

The speed and compatibility of Classic are really quite amazing, considering we’re essentially dealing with an emulator. After the initial boot-up screen of OS 9, all Classic apps run in a full window mode with the menu bar and title bars retaining their older Mac OS look and functions. Carbon apps, like AppleWorks, adopt the look and feel of Aqua with little or no problem.

Your non-Carbon apps, which constitute the bulk of the programs you currently own, retain their current look and menu bars – right down to the Apple menu in the top left-hand corner and the application name/icon in the top right. Running one of these programs in the new-look OS will be no different than running it on your current operating system.

Most of the applications we ran through Classic worked fine. Photoshop, Illustrator and Bryce all ran without a hitch and without a noticeable speed penalty. MS Office loaded and ran, although we found that PowerPoint presentations need a RAM allocation as massive as Montana in order to run without dropping graphics. iMovie suffers from this problem too.

QuickTime movies, especially when run in the larger window sizes, suffer from all sorts of stuttering, even with the native version of the player. While that may give the impression that Mac OS X isn’t quite ready for multimedia, things like SoundJam and the new CD player hop and bop without a hitch.

QuickDraw 3D support in Classic is minimal at best. We tried running Bugdom and Nanosaur after the install and while Bugdom refused to load (it thinks it’s been pirated and tells us to buy a real copy) Nanosaur looked no better on our iMac SE/500 than it did on an iMac Rev A. Gameplay was nevertheless smooth as silk.

OpenGL support is a different story. Even with 8MB of video RAM, OpenGL-based graphics look astounding. The only limitation to realistic graphics in a computer game will be the artist’s ability to render those images.

We did run into one other issue where the AppleWorks tool pallette had some problems drawing to the screen on its initial run in X, but the problem went away the second time we ran the program in X. Frankly, we’re at a loss to explain the mysterious magical fix. Another pleasant surprise was the ability of OS X to pick up third-party mice without the need to install a driver for such options as extra buttons and scroll wheels.

How we tested

Our testbeds were mostly G3-based hardware and included Lombards, WallStreets and iBook laptops with a couple of iMacs and some G3 beige desktops and a G4 thrown in for good measure. The testers were a variety of professional users (graphics pros, network administrators) with a couple of unsuspecting grandmas and grampas and a couple of Mac-savvy salesdroids. Some of our testers were very experienced with Unix while others think Unix are those castrated guys who looked after the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs.

Talking the AppleTalk and TCP/IP

Another eye-popper in OS X is the inclusion of the AppleTalk networking protocol. Given all that Apple had led users to believe, one would have thought this old proprietary standard would have bitten the crisp long ago. However, with the inclusion of AppleTalk, users now have a way to connect to their older Mac systems and LaserWriters, which are in abundance in Mac-centric networks.

Sadly though, the loss of Apple’s Location Manager in OS X was the bane of our test group. With OS X, users have to manually change their settings and reboot rather than pick their settings out of a Control Strip module and connect. Location Manager was the best utility Apple introduced for PowerBook users, and we dearly hope this feature will make it back into the OS when the final version is released.

Another networking tune-up Apple could make would be to support NT authentication for Windows NT/2000 file servers. Given the tons of NT server hardware out there, including many prepress shops, this should really be a top priority if Apple wants to put their products on as many networks as possible. There’s no way a network administrator would allow a Mac user to run their non-supported system on a wide open network.

Trouble with troubleshooting

While most users can work out how to make OS X run with a couple of hours of playing, the underpinnings of OS X are a maze of DOS-style file extensions, unfamiliar names and undecipherable naming conventions. Everyone from the casual user to the trusty old Mac guru is back to square one in this respect.

Worse yet, some of your old muscle memory and automatic responses can land you in worse trouble than what you were trying to get out of. Just try zapping your PRAM and you’ll find yourself confronted with an expired beta. Remapping Command-M to minimize the active window instead of creating an alias also brings out some rather odd expressions from long-time Mac users.

If nothing else, this will give Robin Williams an excellent opportunity to add another best-seller to her already impressive array of classic Mac manuals everyone should own.

The speed issue

Given that this is a beta, and a beta is a work in progress, we would expect OS X’s speed to improve dramatically as it moves toward being a real shrink-wrapped product. It’s not uncommon for software developers to concentrate on getting their product up and running, work the kinks out, and then optimize performance as a last step.

Already we’ve seen speed increases as the various developer versions were distributed, and the beta is far quicker than any of those previous releases. Were this a final product there’d be cause for concern, as it’s slow in comparison to Mac OS 9. But Apple’s still in the bug-hunting stage, there are still hordes of drivers to be developed for legacy hardware and a few more issues that will need to nailed down before Mac users have a full-fledged OS that will replace Mac OS 9.

All in all, there’s a lot of promise in Mac OS X and lot of reasons to be optimistic. We’ll have to wait until next year to see whether our faith in the future is well placed or not.

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