Apple introduced Mac OS X in March, but you'd never know it from the company's advertising.
The first release of this next-generation operating system finally put the Mac OS on a crash-resistant foundation. Absent features, sluggish performance and numerous bugs, however, made it suitable only for software developers and experimentation-minded users. So Apple kept OS X out of print and off the air.
Mac OS X 10.1, available now, is worth a little hype.
First, it boots up faster, launches applications quicker and switches among running programs swifter than its predecessor. Outside software developers have fine-tuned their own code considerably. One result: On a Power Mac G4 desktop, Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser took 12 seconds to launch under the old version, but now flies onto the screen in two or three.
Second, it's as stable as ever, thanks to its Unix underpinnings. They keep OS X soldiering on if individual applications crash; the system can be upended by buggy hardware driver software, a weakness it shares with Microsoft's Windows XP, but Apple has fewer drivers to police than Microsoft.
Third, OS X's sleek, shimmering Aqua interface looks and works smarter than before. Apple wisely listened to its users, dumping some failed experiments and adding sorely needed flexibility.
The Dock, OS X's quick-access gallery of programs and documents, can be parked on the left or right of the screen not just at the bottom, where every other program's window overlaps it. Each program's dock icon can expose pop-up controls for its workings -- you can tell iTunes to skip to the next MP3 without having to switch to that application.
To further conserve screen space, indicators for things like monitor settings, volume and battery life have been evicted from the Dock to a perch in the menu bar.
10.1's Finder windows allow more flexibility in viewing files and folders, and they are approaching the usefulness of those in OS 9. But they still need some equivalent of OS 9's "spring-loaded folders" to allow a quick jump through the file system.
Apple also needs to fix OS X's file-name extension problem. Programs built in Apple's new "Cocoa" programming framework don't use the traditional Mac file tags that designate a document's type and creator, instead relying on extensions such as ".txt," ".doc," ".gif" and so on.
10.1 hides these DOS-esque appendages until it thinks the user is trying to edit them -- for instance, by adding an extension to a file's name in the Finder. (At least it's smarter about this than Windows, which usually tries to pretend extensions don't exist at all.)
Apple says it added this feature to ensure that no PC user will ever receive a file from a Mac owner that can't be opened. That's a laudable goal.
The problem with file-name extensions is they prevent assigning files of the same type to different programs. That is, they can't indicate that one ".htm" file belongs to a Web browser while another belongs to a Web-composing program.
Beyond speed and interface refinements, 10.1 finally fills out OS X's repertoire. You can now play DVD movies (except on some older Macs), set up AirPort wireless networks and burn data CDs without having to reboot back to Mac OS 9. (Absent, however, is "packet-writing" support that would let users move files on and off rewritable CDs as if they were enormous floppy disks.)
Apple plans to pitch OS X as a digital-media toolbox -- much as Windows XP is being advertised. Apple might have the stronger argument than Microsoft: Its digital-music player is based on the more popular MP3 format and includes no consumer-hostile copy-protection schemes.
Mac owners who own a copy of OS X or who bought a computer with it preinstalled can get this update for free through Oct. 31 at most Apple retailers. You can also get the upgrade shipped to you for $20, or pay $129 for the full version; in either case, Apple throws in a CD-ROM of programming tools, an unusual, generous freebie.
Unfortunately, for many Mac users the price of upgrading will be a new computer. Mac OS X needs 128 megabytes of memory and as much processing speed as you can throw at it. It looks its best on machines with G4 processors; on G3 Macs, you're wise to turn off some of its fancier visual effects. The oldest iMacs may not be able to run it effectively at all.
In most cases, 10.1 works blissfully well with outside gadgets. I repeatedly plugged and unplugged a Zip drive, monitor, keyboards and mice from two OS X machines and never even had to wait for either Mac to identify the new hardware.
But OS X can also get persnickety about some older devices. Check with your peripherals' manufacturer before you upgrade.
OS X runs most existing Mac applications in a distinctly inelegant "Classic" compatibility mode that's best avoided if possible. Smaller developers were the first to release OS X-native applications, but now some bigger-name titles have been revised for it, such as Intuit's Quicken 2002 and Microsoft's Internet Explorer.
More are on their way. Microsoft's Office v.X is due in November, with a slick new interface that intelligently exploits Aqua's capabilities. Versions of AOL, Palm Desktop, Qualcomm's Eudora e-mail application and other Mac staples are due in the next months, but countless others may not arrive for a while.
Another thing to watch for will be developer support for OS X's more sophisticated options, such as its ability to bundle one program and its supporting files into a single, easily installable and removable package. These have the potential to make OS X, despite its underlying complexity, even simpler to use than the system it's replacing.
With 10.1, Apple has built a fine house. Now it's up to Mac software developers to furnish the place.
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