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OS X: The final step along the yellow brick road

By Nobody Special (feedback), March 27, 2001

Ever since the release of the PowerPC platform in 1994, Mac users heard promises of a new operating system to unlock the power of their hardware, give them the ability to do great new things and provide them with tools far superior to anything else in the known computing universe.

Mac users have had to keep the faith that one day Apple would deliver. Over the last seven years we’ve heard wondrous tales of Taligent, were given the promise of Pink, and told of the deeds of Dylan – all mythical entities that never produced so much as a screen shot. We got closer with Copland. We could see it – Themes and all – but the arrow of impracticality stabbed that sucker through the heart mere months before its supposed ship date. Then there was Rhapsody, the desktop operating system that became the most undocumented server OS in the business.

Days ago, Apple released Mac OS X. Whether this lands us squarely at the gates of the Emerald City is going to be hashed out on every Mac Web site and Usenet group from here to Christendom. So with little further ado, here are our thoughts.

We’re not in Kansas anymore

When we last looked at Mac OS X we noted that it was promising but somewhat pokey, incomplete and a little rough around the edges. That was to be expected from a beta version. The final version, which shipped March 24th, has to measure up to a harsher yardstick.

It has to be as easy to use as the old OS and deliver the power we’ve been waiting years to get. Using that scorecard, Mac OS X loses on the ease of use and gains back on the as-yet unrealized potential under the hood.

The installation process, which was a snap on the beta, is improved in the final version, thanks to a setup assistant that makes the task of setting up administrator and user accounts a snap. This process could be considered optional, as it’s quite possible to get the new OS to boot to a desktop without the user ever having to look at a login screen.

Users have the option to drop Mac OS X on top of an included copy of Mac OS 9.1 or run the new OS on its own. The copy of OS 9.1 is intended to provide the Classic environment where all your older programs exist. Without Classic, the RAM requirements drop down to 64MB, but if you want to run your old programs on the new OS you’ll need to load OS 9.1 and have 128MB of RAM in your system.

User accounts add complexity to the OS, but it pays off in that when Junior trashes his account, Pop’s banking records don’t also go down the tubes. The administrator – that would be Pop – has the ability to repair Junior’s trashed portion of the OS without disturbing files of the other users. Most Windows users would kill for this degree of protection against rogue installations.

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Some of the features we found missing in the beta are back in the commercial release. The Apple menu is back, as is the Location Manager and elements of the Control Strip, although these elements are not back in the way a Mac user would expect to find them.

The Apple menu retains the functionality of the beta menu system. The significant point there is that users can’t place aliases of their favorite programs in the menu. Those can now be dropped into the Finder window’s toolbar. The Networking control panel supports multiple networking setups, giving the user the functionality of Location Manager.

Items from the control panel can be dragged into the dock on the bottom of the screen. So, you have the functionality of quick access to system settings provided by the Control Strip without the mile-long string of icons that one usually gets when clicking on the old “belt buckle”.

The bouncing icons in the Dock can be turned off for those who disliked that behavior, and Apple has made it more difficult to have the Dock accidentally spring up whenever the cursor venturs toward the bottom of the screen. Now, the user has to move the cursor below the visible portion of the screen, or click on the bottom portion of the screen to make the hidden Dock spring to life.

The Dock still has its share of detractors. Old NeXTies, who seem to be coming out of the woodwork these days, would prefer the ability to mount the dock vertically on the right side of the screen so that it more closely mimics the behavior of the NeXT Shelf. For them there are already utilities and hacks that can accomplish that.

Now fly! Fly! Fly!

We noted that the X beta was a little slow and we expected Apple to make it run faster when the commercial release was out. Well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so we chose three applications to use as a yardstick of sorts.

We picked Bryce 4, Corel Knockout 1.5 and Seti@home because all three have an OS X variant in beta form. This allowed us to take a look at the OS’s performance with current apps and have a bit of sneak peek at what the future might hold in store once Mac OS X apps are more commonplace. For the record, all of these informal tests were run on a dual G4/450 with 384MB of RAM.

Under OS 9.1 Seti@home (Version 3.03) took about 22 hours to complete one unit of work. That time remained unchanged in OS X with the native variant of the program.

Corel Knockout took about 10 seconds in 9.1 to do its thing to the tutorial file we chose. Those times were largely unchanged when running the program in Classic or using the beta version of the program in OS X. One point worth noting about the beta version of Knockout is that the images it generated were richer in color and looked better overall than with the current version of the program.

A simple rendering of an island in the ocean in Bryce 4 took 1:45 to complete in Mac OS 9.1. The same drawing took 54 seconds to complete in Classic while the OS X beta of Bryce did its thing in 1:40. Oddly enough, the beta did the same drawing in 15 seconds on a 533MHz machine. Clearly, somebody at Corel has been very focused on drawing out the most performance they can from the 32MB Nvidia graphics card in the newer hardware.

Sadly, though, Corel has a lot of work ahead of it before Bryce is ready to ship for OS X. The beta has serious issues with Aqua’s transparency-capable windowing system, and the quality of the images it produces are blotchy and very badly pixilated. Knockout, on the other hand, behaved as if it were ready to ship this week.

Out on the Internet, downloads from Internet Explorer 5 came through at roughly 120Kbs on our cable connection in OS 9.1. Downloading the same files on the Carbonized version of Explorer that ships with OS X yielded throughputs that were nearly double that rate.

Overall, on the G4s OS X feels crisp and snappy, though not overwhelming speedy. Some of our testers on older G3 hardware found it to be heavy chugging – especially when Classic was up and running. As always, the performance you get depends on the power you have.

I’ll get you, my pretty

In our look at Mac OS X beta, we were frankly stunned at the speed of Classic and its ability to run everything we threw at it. This time around we tried throwing some of the quirkier apps in our arsenal of software, hoping to find a chink in the armor. We failed to put a dent in Classic, or at least any bigger dent than that which we noticed six months ago.

Pangea Software still has issues with Mac OS X. Their latest offering, Cro-Mag Rally, refuses to draw to a full screen; Nanosaur 1.1.7 still looks like it is being drawn on a 2MB video card. Cro-Mag Rally flags the user to look for updates on Pangea’s Web site while Nanosaur happily chugs along oblivious to its downgraded graphics.

Otherwise, it’s generally safe to say that if your older program runs in OS 9.x, it will run in Classic and at about the same speed.

The only caveat to that statement is that users will have to make an adjustment to their Displays control panel in order to run educational programs and games that demand to be presented in 256 colors. The adjustment is a trivial one click of the mouse in the only box on the screen.

Another long lament of ours in respect to OS X was partly answered by Apple. We were wondering how long it was going to take third-party vendors to provide native drivers for their wares. None of the drivers that currently work in Mac OS 9.x will allow you to access those devices through Mac OS X.

Imagine our surprise when we loaded OS X and found drivers for about two dozen USB printers, support for Adaptec’s SCSI cards, Zip drives and ATI’s line of Mac-compatible video cards. How quickly other third-party vendors jump on the OS X bandwagon is anybody’s guess. But for the moment, Mac users have far more choices for peripherals than they did when the first iMacs came to market nearly three years ago.

Doctor of Thinkology

One of the main reasons professional Mac users have been looking forward to Mac OS X is the bevy of tools the OS was to provide. Yes, the tech jargon of pre-emptive multitasking, symmetrical multi-processing and protected memory all have their appeal to those who understand the thirty-dollar phrases, but it’s more important to have some tangible proof that making the transition is going to be worthwhile in terms of getting work done.

There are two little applications in OS X which demonstrate the lure of the operating system’s underpinnings to the graphics industry.

PDFCompositer is a nifty little program that allows you to import graphics, rotate and resize them, add layers and shadows, and affect the transparency of those graphics. TextEdit, which ships with OS X, is another that makes use of tracking and kerning of text while supporting multiple languages and ligatures. It also demonstrates the OS’s support for enabling and disabling fonts on the fly. All these services are built into the OS, meaning that one line of code from a programmer will drop these features into any program.

It doesn’t take much of an imagination to envision that the next word processor or page layout program you buy will have these features built into it or that they will become standard fare in a program as basic as AppleWorks. Small wonder Adobe is hard at work retooling Acrobat for Macintosh.

Unfortunately, Apple’s font-handling technology is limited to 400 fonts. While that may seem like a truckload to the average home user, a large graphics house will make use of thousands of fonts to look after their clientele. So there is still a market for a good font-handling utility, but that market won’t be nearly as large as it has been.

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

As of March 24th, all previous knowledge of extension conflict resolving and other Mac troubleshooting techniques have gone the way of the ADB port. Mac OS X uses libraries as a means of extending the abilities of the operating system. A further twist to this tale is that libraries can be shared across the system for all users or localized to one user account. It’s best to think of these libraries as a sort of mini system folder within each user account.

One thing we did find out was that it is possible to overlay OS X onto an existing installation without reformatting the drive and starting from scratch. When we did that, we found the OS was savvy enough to not overwrite our network settings or mess with our passwords and user IDs. Very Mac-like, very good.

Installing programs turned out to be a bit of an adventure, as there doesn’t seem to be a consistent manner in the way installations are performed. Some installers worked with the click-and-go behavior familiar to all Mac users, while others were installed by dragging the download straight into the hard drive, much like Microsoft’s Office installer. Yet others uncompressed to a disk-like icon from which the user dragged the program to the target drive.

OS X’s System Folder, for lack of a better description, is still a structured mash that only a UNIX-head could love. Sadly, there are no third-party manuals on the market specific to OS X to explain this to people who must support Macs. Peachpit Press, IDG Books, O’Reilly, SAMs and others have announced titles that are coming, but the surest bet for Mac gurus appears to be an intensive five-day course that Apple’s iServices will be running in various American cities starting in late May. At US$2,000 a seat for this desktop support course, this knowledge will surely not be within the grasp of the rest of us outside the professional arena for a while yet.

There’s no place like home

When all is said and done, Mac OS X has more of the feel of a late release candidate rather than that of a finished product. The glaring omission of driver support for the CD-RW drives Apple is shipping with its current line up gives one pause to wonder what other critical parts of the OS are still incomplete and as yet undiscovered.

The lack of DVD playback support isn’t a deal-breaker in our books, as you can count the number of DVD software titles shipping for the Mac on one hand and still have five fingers free. But, we can see how it would be a disappointment to those who look upon the DVD player as a means to get two home entertainment systems in one box.

The numerous issues OS X has with the PowerBook family is another point which causes our eyebrows to curl quizzically. And some of these problems don’t appear to be the types of issues that lend themselves to a quick resolution. The PowerBook has a number of sleep-related issues with OS X, to the point where Apple is advising users not to swap the battery while sleeping. PowerBooks also don’t appear to like being waken from their peaceful slumber. Generally, awoken PowerBooks tend to drop their monitor and USB peripheral connections. All of this speaks to firmware issues between the ’Books and the OS. Sometimes these issues can be resolved with a firmware upgrade, but history has taught us that firmware flashes are always less than perfect; there is only so much one can do with a hard-coded chip.

On the plus side of the ledger, it’s damn tough to get this OS to crash or misbehave. It will be a while before developers will tap all the resources this OS has to offer, but there’s a lot more fertile ground for them to plow with this OS than there was with the previous version.

It’s still very much a work in progress, and the kind of thing an early adopter would enjoy playing with. If you make your living on the Mac in any field other than programming, now is not the best time to make the switch to OS X.

We are not at the gates of the Emerald City – yet. But we can clearly see it sitting out there on the horizon, and each software update we get will take us one step further along the yellow brick road.

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