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OS X is cool, but not for everyone

It’s stable and attractive, but the inevitable bugs are there, too. Mac Advisor hed: OS X is cool, but not for everyone dek: It’s stable and attractive, but the inevitable bugs are there, too. by Dennis Sellers

Mac users have waited years for Mac OS X, Apple’s first complete operating system overhaul since 1984. Now it’s here and available for $129. And while I’m X-cited, even a bit X-static over the next generation operating system’s potential, I wouldn’t be X-actly honest if I said it was for everyone. In fact, longtime Mac users who don’t like change may find the transition X-cruciating.

Okay, enough of the X-asperating puns-especially since the OS’s named represents the number 10, not the letter X. In case you’ve been out of touch for the past couple of years, let’s offer a quick refresher. Mac OS X isn’t truly an update to Apple’s operating system, but a whole new critter. It’s built on a UNIX-based foundation that offers such under-the-hood features as true memory protection, pre-emptive multitasking, and symmetric multiprocessing when running on multiprocessor Power Macs.

If you’re not into technical buzzwords, what matters is that Mac OS X is extremely stable and very clever about using system resources. It’s crash-resistant, easy to navigate, and pretty much ends the days of those pesky “out of memory” messages. If you use a Mac laptop, you’ll love Mac OS X’s advanced power management that lets PowerBook and iBook systems wake from sleep almost instantly. And if that mention of UNIX worries you, don’t be alarmed. Apple has done a fantastic job of hiding UNIX; most Mac users won’t even know it’s there except for the reliability and efficiency of the operating system.

Mac OS X is not only buff; it’s beautiful, and positively overflowing with eye candy. The new “fluid” interface, dubbed Aqua, is eye-popping. Apple’s Quartz 2D graphics engine (based on the Portable Document Format) offers gorgeous graphics and broad font support. The inclusion of OpenGL and QuickTime 5 offers a core for top-of-the-line 3D graphics and streaming audio and video.

So what’s not to love? Well, Mac OS X still has several missing features and some irritating glitches. Currently, there’s no support for DVD playback or ability to record CDs. Those features are promised in a spring update that may already be available by the time this column sees print. Also, Mac OS X doesn’t offer built-in support for the new GeForce graphics accelerators that come with new Macs, but Apple hasn’t said when it will rectify this.

Finally, some Mac users may want to wait until all their favorite applications are tweaked for Mac OS X (or Carbonized). Though Mac OS X will run most software in its Classic environment, many products still have to make the transition to take advantage of the new operating system’s strengths. In fact, Mac OS X native versions of some of Apple’s own applications–iDVD, DVD Studio Pro, and Final Cut Pro 2–have yet to arrive, though you can grab X versions of iMovie 2, iTunes, and a preview of AppleWorks 6.1 from Apple’s Web site.

I’ve been using Mac OS X for several weeks now on a spare Mac–a Power Mac G4/450 dual processor system with 256 MB of RAM–and here’s what I’ve discovered.

X-actly as advertised

I found installing the system and configuring it for Internet access surprisingly painless. First, I updated my Power Mac’s operating system from OS 9.0.4 to OS 9.1 with the 9.1 CD that’s part of the Mac OS X package (yep, you actually get two operating systems when you buy Mac OS X). After updating to 9.1, the installation of OS X itself went flawlessly and took about 15 minutes. After installing and rebooting, Mac OS X led me through a series of welcome/registration/ customization steps, which were accompanied by soothing music and flowing graphics.

On restart, it took Mac OS X approximately 80 seconds to boot. The plethora of X-native applications and utilities that come with Mac OS X were very zippy in opening (under five seconds). When I launched the Classic environment (the environment for running legacy, non-Carbonized applications) it took 53 seconds. While Mac OS X may seem a bit sluggish (depending on your hardware setup) compared to the traditional Mac OS, Mac OS X’s Classic mode works much better than I’d anticipated. There’s very little hit on my Mac’s performance. Classic runs almost all my legacy software–mainly Photoshop and Office 2000–with no trouble. Even most of my extensions and control panels–which include Grammar Checker, Action Files, CopyAgent, and QuicKeys–worked, although they’re pretty much limited to the Classic environment.

I was pleased to find that Mac OS X’s built-in software automates some previously tedious tasks, such as retrieving pictures from a digital camera. And it has built-in support for some external devices. For instance, when I connected my VST external FireWire drive, the icon popped up onscreen immediately. Also, as I plugged in my Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 990C, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was “recognized” by Mac OS X without the installation of any drivers or other software. (Apple says that Mac OS X comes with built-in support for several popular printers. It ships with drivers for certain Canon, Epson, and HP models.)

While long-time Mac users like myself are going to face a learning curve in adapting to the new operating system, Mac OS X definitely replaces some features with new and improved ones. For instance, there’s now one control panel for Internet settings instead of four. And the Memory control panel is gone because it’s no longer required. With Mac OS X’s automatic memory management, there’s no longer a need to adjust settings for virtual memory or application memory.

Not X-actly

While some Mac OS X features are superior to those in Mac OS 9, the traditional operating system had some wonderful attributes that Apple has left out of Mac OS X. I miss the Labels menu, a quick and easy way to categorize files. I also miss the ability to schedule automatic Mac shutoffs. Without the Control Strip, it’s not as easy to change some system settings such as screen resolution and audio volume. And there’s a bit of interface confusion in switching between Mac OS X and Classic applications.

I also found an aggravating glitch with printing. Though setting up printers is a breeze, there’s an awkward process involved in printing documents as PDF files. Although Mac OS X supposedly offers this capability, accessible through the Output Options menu in the Print Center (via a save as PDF checkbox), it doesn’t work as it’s supposed to.

Thankfully, there’s a workaround. If you need to print PDF files:

Go to Print under file. Click on Preview (your Mac will then process the document). Preview should now be the active application. Proceed to the File menu and select Save As PDF, then choose where you want to save to.

X-asperating

What’s more, at least one snazzy, fun new goodie I bought doesn’t work under Mac OS X: the SoundBlaster Live! sound card. And it probably won’t work with the operating system for weeks, if not months.

There are also some other “gotchas” with Mac OS X, as reported by Ted Landau, the Mac guru who runs the excellent MacFixIt Web site:

iDisk may not work properly when transferring files.

On several Mac models, especially PowerBooks and iBooks, brightness and volume keys don’t function correctly.

Macs with older ATI accelerators may need to drop down from millions to thousands of colors to play QuickTime movies and games at acceptable frame rates.

You can’t connect to AOL via a dial-up connection.

Some third-party Ethernet cards won’t work.

Sleep is disabled on some Mac models when a PCI card is installed.

Third-party USB mice will likely have problems.

There’s no direct way to add or edit alert sounds.

AppleShare won’t work via AppleTalk, just TCP/IP.

You can’t access the AirPort Base Station via OS X. You have to boot from OS 9. (Though it’s a little awkward, you’ll need to start up in Mac OS 9.1 and use the AirPort Setup Assistant or AirPort Admin Utility to configure an AirPort Base Station. Then you’ll need to restart in OS X and connect to the AirPort network you created.)

X-tra tips

If you’re adventurous and you just have to start using the new operating system right now, back up your entire hard drive and partition your hard drive into at least two sections using Apple’s Drive Setup utility. Two partitions will let you install and boot different systems: Mac OS 9.1 and Mac OS X.

Also, use the 9.1 installer that comes with Mac OS X to put a fresh version of OS 9.1 on the same hard-drive partition as OS X. Apple has given OS 9.1 and Mac OS X folders different names, so you can install them in the same place.

By the way, if you were one of those who took the Mac OS X Public Beta for a test drive, use the Mac OS X installer to completely wipe the partition and start over from scratch, after you back up any vital data.

Here’s my advice: There should be no problem making Mac OS X your main operating system late this summer. By July’s big Macworld Expo shindig in New York, most Mac applications should have been tweaked for Mac OS X, though some “stragglers” (such as Microsoft’s Office for the Mac) won’t arrive until fall. (Adobe Systems has pledged to develop OS X-optimized versions of its software, but has offered no firm timetable.) Also this summer, Apple will begin shipping Mac OS X on its new systems.

By autumn, the missing features of Mac OS X will be added, the rough edges will have been smoothed, and the Mac platform will be on the road to the future. Except, of course, after 17 years of the “traditional” Mac operating system, the future is here now.

Contributing Editor Dennis Sellers also writes for several Mac-specific publications.

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