Are You Ready for OSX?

OS X is here at last, and you can't wait to begin using it. The impulse is understandable, but switching to OS X May not be prudent. Usually, when Apple releases a new version of the Mac operating system, the questions you have to ask yourself are: Am I ready? Do I have the right model Mac? Is upgrading worth the cost? (In OS X's case, that's $129.) All of these questions apply to Mac OS X, but this time there is another, equally important question to ask yourself: Is Mac OS X ready for me?

This is a brand new Mac OS, built from the ground up. There is a chance that it will run your current applications more slowly (or not at all), that your external hard drive or printer will not be compatible with it, and that it will be unbearably poky. Macworld Lab and I hooked up dozens of peripherals to see which ones worked with OS X. We compared the speeds of applications running in Mac OS X and OS X's Classic environment (which lets you run Mac OS 9 applications within OS X) with those of applications running in Mac OS 9.1. (See "A Perfect 10?" for details.)

Should you upgrade? Let's take a look at the factors that will affect your decision.

Tomorrow's Mac

There are a lot of reasons to switch to Mac OS X. First, it's the future. This summer, Apple will begin shipping all Macs with OS X installed. Apple will continue supporting Mac OS 9 on older machines for some time, but OS X will be the focus of all future improvements to the Mac.

That's a good thing. OS X is a delight to look at. Sit in an Internet café with OS X running on your PowerBook-make sure you're positioned so that other people can view your screen-and you'll see what I mean. People notice OS X.

But OS X's beauty is more than skin deep. It's built on a solid foundation: Unix. As a result, Mac OS X should prove more crash-resistant than previous versions. OS X also takes advantage of multiple processors better than OS 9 ever has. Users of dual-processor machines should eventually feel an overall performance boost in day-to-day work.

Like a Rock Perhaps the most important reason to switch to OS X is an invisible one: stability. The new operating system does away with extensions and control panels, which are often the cause of crashes. Moreover, when an OS X-native application does crash, the operating system and other active applications keep running-most of the time-so you don't have to reboot your Mac. When applications running in Classic crash, however, they can hang up the Classic environment and all programs running within it. But as more OS X-native applications become available, crashes should be few and far between.

To help you avoid system meltdowns, Mac OS X provides a new version of the Force Quit feature. If an application freezes or seems to be endl

Aqua Appeal The most obvious reason to switch to OS X is its interface. Aqua is arguably the best-looking computer user interface ever designed. It takes advantage of the PowerPC G4 microprocessors' computational muscle to provide smooth antialiased text, transparent windows and menus, and animated interface elements. Some people (I'm one of them) think Apple has gone a little too far in the eye-candy department. But even we curmudgeons have to agree that Aqua is a thing of beauty and a joy to behold.

In addition to the luscious look of Aqua, Apple has brought a lot of changes to the way users interact with their Macs. (See "The Face of OS X") for a visual guide to the elements of the new interface.

What's Missing

With all that OS X has going for it, why should you wait to switch? Three reasons: performance, applications, and drivers.

Performance It's a bit early to make definitive pronouncements about OS X's performance. Its real benefits will be known only after the arrival of OS X-native versions of applications, which take full advantage of the OS. For now, most must run in Classic mode. But we do have some preliminary results to report.

Most people who have loaded OS X will tell you that the Finder "seems slow." Our tests confirmed this. Timed against the Finder in OS 9.1, OS X's Finder made a disappointing showing when we asked it to open about 200 folders. Running OS X on G4 systems did close the speed gap significantly, and even on G3 systems, increasing RAM from 128MB to 256MB improved scores substantially. See "A Perfect 10?" for more test results (from Macs with 256MB of RAM only).

In most Adobe Photoshop tests-Photoshop runs only in OS X's Classic environment-OS 9 had an edge over OS X that ranged from slight to very significant. Here, too, performance improved greatly on the G4 systems. In our Microsoft Excel test, a spreadsheet calculation took anywhere from two to four times as long in Classic as the same calculation in Mac OS 9.1 straight up. Ouch!

OS X showed promise in one area: scrolling through a PDF document. This test showed us some of the potential of OS X-native applications. Because graphics in OS X are based on PDF, scrolling through a PDF document was at least twice as fast in OS X as in OS 9.1.

OS X seems optimized to take advantage of the G4's AltiVec instructions. (AltiVec is a set of PowerPC instructions paired with a vector-processing unit that enables a G4 chip to perform calculations on up to 16 data elements simultaneously-in applications written for AltiVec.) But OS X also appears to like lots of RAM. When we installed OS X on several Macworld systems, we found that Macs with less RAM slowed to a crawl when asked to do difficult tasks, or multiple tasks at once.

Applications As we went to press, few popular programs had been upgraded to take advantage of Mac OS X's new features. Most widely used applications won't be available in Mac OS X-native versions until summer or fall. (See "Applications: The Missing Link.")

You can run OS 9 applications in OS X's Classic mode-but why bother? Doing so won't give you any of the advantages of Mac OS X, and programs often run more slowly. It's true that you can switch back and forth between Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X as necessary. But would that really be an improvement?

Drivers A less obvious problem with OS X is the lack of native hardware drivers. Drivers are special pieces of software that handle interactions between your Mac and the things attached to it. Without them, many of your peripherals won't work. Devices awaiting OS X-native drivers include many printers, scanners, RAID arrays, CD and DVD drives, video-capture cards, cameras, and fax modems.

With the new OS, Apple provides built-in drivers that support many popular USB ink-jet and laser printers, USB and FireWire hard disk drives, and USB digital cameras. In our tests, all of these devices worked as expected. Printing went smoothly, we were able to attach and detach drives without a problem, and our Olympus E-10 digital camera worked fine with OS X's Image Capture application.

We had mixed results with USB scanners. Our Canon CanoScan FB 630Ui scanner worked with applications running in the Classic environment-we had no OS X-native applications to test it with-but our Visioneer Strobe Pro NT didn't.

We were able to get three FireWire camcorders-a Sony DCR-TRV320, a Sony DCR-TRV11, and a Canon Elura-to work with the newly released OS X-native version of iMovie. They wouldn't work with Final Cut Pro running in Classic (Apple does warn that Final Cut Pro isn't supported by Classic).

Other consequences of the driver problem may not be evident at first. For example, you can't run Retrospect Backup in Mac OS X. Before you perform a backup, you need to reboot your Mac in OS 9.1: no Mac OS X-native drivers are available yet for the dozens of different devices used during backup operations. (Retrospect does have a Mac OS X client, so over a network, you can back up Macs running OS X if the backup process is controlled from a Mac running OS 9.)

What It All Means to You

Here's how these limitations might affect some typical Mac users.

User Type 1: The Creative Professional Graphics professionals will certainly appreciate the stability of OS X, but only when the applications they use are available in OS X-native versions.

The two most important applications in desktop publishing are QuarkXPress and Adobe Photoshop. Quark has given a sneak peek at an OS X-native version of XPress but hasn't said when it will be available. Adobe has been even more secretive: the company showed Photoshop running under OS X very early in the new operating system's development cycle. But now it will say only that the next major release of Photoshop will be OS X-native-no word on when that program will ship. Adobe's position is similar for Illustrator, InDesign, GoLive, and AfterEffects.

Then there's the scanner problem. If you want to get traditional paper photographs into a page layout, either for print or for the Web, you need a scanner. But a scanner requires a scanner driver: while some USB scanners' drivers appear to work in the Classic environment, SCSI scanners need native OS X drivers to work with applications running in OS X and in Classic.

Many graphics professionals use AppleScript to automate their workflow, and they could have problems moving their scripts to OS X. AppleScript works for applications running in OS X or Classic. The OS X Finder, however, is not as scriptable as the OS 9 Finder, so scripts that invoke Finder functions may break under OS X.

Suppose you're designing only Web pages-doing no prepress work-and that you use Macromedia's Dreamweaver and either Fireworks or Adobe ImageReady. All of these programs will run under Classic, but neither Adobe nor Macromedia has announced dates for delivering OS X-native versions.

For all creative professionals, the hidden demon of OS X is fonts. Those available to your OS X-native applications are the ones installed in your OS X System folder, while the fonts available to applications running in Classic are installed in your OS 9.1 System folder.

These two folders are completely independent of each other. From Classic, programs can't see the fonts you have installed in OS X, and OS X-native programs don't know what fonts you have installed in OS 9.1. If you want a font to be available in OS X and its Classic environment, you must install it twice.

The Verdict If you earn your keep churning out graphics and designs, whether for print, video, or the Web, there's no good reason to move to OS X yet. In fact, when it comes to just about anything you need-applications, scanner or camcorder support, AppleScripted workflow, fonts-OS X will bite you. Your livelihood depends on your Mac. It's working fine with OS 9, so stick with it for now.

User Type 2: The Small-Business Owner If you own a small business, you probably use applications such as Microsoft Office, MYOB AccountEdge, FileMaker, and Power On Software's Now Up-to-Date & Contact. Perhaps your Mac doubles as a fax machine. How would you fare with OS X?

Microsoft has announced that Office won't be available for Mac OS X until fall. This means that if you spend a lot of time in Microsoft Word, Excel, Power Point, or Entourage, there's little to be gained by jumping to OS X. In fact, you might see performance decline.

MYOB is aggressively working on an OS X version of AccountEdge, which should be available by the time you read this. And FileMaker plans to have a native OS X version of FileMaker Pro out this spring.

Mac OS X comes bundled with a new Address Book application, which is integrated with the bundled Mail application and can be tapped by other OS X programs. If you're accustomed to Now Up-to-Date & Contact, however, you're in for a bit of a disappointment. Power On just released new versions that are not OS X native.

You may also be disappointed to learn that FaxSTF, the fax software that comes with modem-endowed Macs, doesn't work with OS X-not even in Classic. STF Technologies hopes to have an OS X version out by June, but the first release won't support faxing from Classic.

Does one of your customers require you to use a Windows application? If you solve that problem by running Virtual PC, mark your calendar for July. That's when Connectix plans to release an OS X-native version. Until then, Virtual PC won't work under Classic.

If you rely on speech-recognition software, be warned: neither IBM ViaVoice nor MacSpeech iListen work with OS X. IBM hopes to have ViaVoice ready for OS X soon, but MacSpeech hasn't announced any plans to deliver an OS X-native version of iListen.

The Verdict If you run your business on your Mac, the picture isn't much better for you than for the graphics professional. You can summarize your situation in two words: Microsoft Office. Wait till fall before even considering a move to OS X.

User Type 3: The Home User The least-demanding Mac users, home consumers may be the first for whom it makes sense to upgrade.

Apple has given us an OS X-native AppleWorks-it's a prerelease, or beta, version-and OS X versions of iTunes and iMovie. Casady & Greene announced plans for a beta version of SoundJam for Mac OS X. Add these to the preview version of Microsoft Internet Explorer that comes with OS X and Apple's built-in Mail and Image Capture applications, and you've got a tidy bundle of OS X-native programs.

On the downside, the lack of a compatible DVD-movie player may give some users pause. And if you've gotten used to burning CDs, OS X will be a step backward: that capability is also on the to-be-delivered list. Apple is working to resolve these shortcomings, and a fix should be along soon.

You can always boot into Mac OS 9 when you need to play movies or make CDs, but is switching back and forth between operating systems the ease-of-use Macintosh experience you're looking for? Probably not.

Games are another software category that may affect your decision. Games that run in Mac OS 9 should work fine in Classic, although third-party graphics-acceleration cards will need new drivers. Some companies are already shipping OS X versions of popular games: you can download an OS X-ready update to Cro-Mag Rally, from Pangea Software, for free, complete with a short list of known bugs. Gathering of Developers' Oni is out in a version that runs on either OS 9 or OS X. And Id Software is working on a Quake III Arena for OS X that should soon be available soon from the game's distributor, Activision. (The version released earlier by Omni Group works only with the OS X beta.)

The Verdict It may have been hard to imagine that home consumers would be first to switch to Apple's new Unix-based system. But the temptation should be resisted. You bought a Mac so you wouldn't have to worry about system configurations. You'll only give yourself headaches trying to live in the netherworld between OS 9 and OS X. Make a list of the software you use, and wait till it's all available in OS X-native versions.

User Type 4: The Mac Geek You know who you are. You've spent years becoming intimate with Mac OS's every nook and cranny. You supply technical support and advice to a vast network of people. Applications may not be so important to you because knowing the operating system itself is your trade. Plus, booting between OS X and OS 9 wouldn't be difficult for you. You might also find it fascinating to experiment with the Unix applications OS X can run, such as Apache.

The Verdict You are the best candidate for an immediate switch to OS X. It's experimental, and you are someone who wants-and perhaps needs-to experiment. $129 is a reasonable investment in your career-and in a whole new frontier to explore. Just make sure to load OS X on one of your more powerful Macs so that the experience will be exciting instead of frustrating.

A year from now, when people talk about Mac OS, they'll mean Mac OS X. It's plainly a superior operating system. Apple has laid a strong foundation for the Mac's future.

But the transition will be slow. Apple has all but admitted that OS X isn't ready for prime time. If it were, the company would be installing it on Macs today instead of waiting.

The best time to upgrade to Mac OS X will be different for each Mac user. There's no risk in trying it (except your $129). To return to OS 9, just reboot. But until your hardware is fully supported and the applications you use most are available in OS X-native versions, you're probably better off biding your time.

Contributing Editor Henry Bortman has written about Mac OS for a long time and still has a fondness for 6.0.5.

Subscribe to the Best of Macworld Newsletter

Comments