OS X Comes of Age

The Mac community has been buzzing about Mac OS X for years. But even Apple admits that OS X’s previous incarnations—from last year’s beta to this spring’s first “final” release—were only for people who wanted to experiment with and explore the operating system’s new features. For these early adopters, OS X was a glimpse into the future—the rest of us just sat back and waited for the future to arrive.

Apple’s new version of the OS, Mac OS X 10.1, is what we’ve been waiting for. With improved reliability, dramatic speed boosts, many interface improvements, and a clutch of native software, this release is the first version of OS X that’s truly ready for general use.

Although Mac OS X is still not a feature-for-feature match for Mac OS 9, it’s no longer a step backward (see “Are You Ready for OS X?” June 2001). This version combines much of OS 9’s functionality with a collection of improvements that make upgrading to OS X a serious possibility for even dyed-in-the-wool devotees of the classic Mac OS.

Speed Boost

Most Mac OS users asked Apple to improve OS X’s performance before adding whizzy new interface additions or networking utilities—the fact is, the first version of OS X was slow.

Fast and Furious Apple says version 10.1 is “all about performance,” and our tests bear that claim out. The Finder is now quick to respond to clicks, double-clicks, and drags—in many cases, OS X’s responses are now faster than OS 9’s. Menus drop from the menu bar much faster than they did in version 10.0, and a moderate-size folder can now be copied in the blink of an eye.

Application launches are also much faster in this version. When a couple of programs are running, a new program launches in a single “bounce” of its icon in the Dock. The more programs you have running, the longer launching a new one takes, but starting apps is no longer the trial it was in the initial release of OS X.

Lab Testing Macworld Lab compared Mac OS X 10.1 with Mac OS X 10.0.4 and OS 9.2.1, and found that the new version of OS X was clearly faster than its predecessor (see “A New 10”). OS X 10.1 also tended to be as fast as or faster than OS 9 on G4 systems, but it was slower on G3 Macs.

Generally, drawing on-screen graphics has gotten a big boost in version 10.1, especially in the 3-D realm. According to Apple, the speed of graphics drawn via OpenGL has increased by 20 percent in this release. In addition, OS X 10.1 offers native support of the GeForce3 acceleration card. In our graphics-intensive Quake III tests, version 10.1 was clearly faster than version 10.0.4, but it was slower than OS 9 on all systems except the dual-processor 800MHz Power Mac G4. Oddly, OS X 10.1 actually performed worse than version 10.0.4 on our PDF scrolling test—and both lagged very far behind OS 9.

According to Apple, every dimension of the operating system has been modified to improve performance—the virtual memory system, the file system, the graphics subsystems—and there have been innumerable small speed improvements as well. Our tests verify Apple’s claims. The most impressive improvement was in iMovie rendering, which was almost twice as fast in version 10.1 as in version 10.0.4.

And the speed boosts aren’t limited to OS X–native applications. Our tests show that applications tend to run almost twice as fast in OS X 10.1’s Classic environment as they do in OS 9. Most actions in our Photoshop 6.0 tests took only a few seconds longer in OS X 10.1 than in OS 9—but they were faster under OS X 10.1 than under OS X 10.0.4.

The result of Apple’s tweaks to OS X is an operating system that feels eminently usable, a big change from the hair-pulling experience that was version 10.0.

Interface Modifications

Giving Mac OS X a speed boost may have been Apple’s primary focus, but Mac OS X 10.1 also features a host of interface changes. Some new additions boost productivity, while others are tweaks to poorly thought-out features from OS X’s first release (see “Mac OS X Face-lift”).

Dock Tweaks The biggest change to the Mac interface in OS X was the addition of the Dock, a strip of icons showing running applications and minimized windows while also functioning as a launcher for commonly used items. You can now move the Dock from its standard position at the bottom of the screen to either the left or the right, and other changes have been made.

Apple now offers two options for minimizing and maximizing windows when you move windows into or out of the Dock. In addition to the much-ballyhooed “genie” effect, there’s a subtler and much faster scaling effect, which shrinks a window (without any processor-intensive warping effect) that’s on its way to the Dock.

Take Out the Trash Another tweak to the Dock alters an interface quirk that’s been with the Mac since it was introduced: namely, the mixed metaphor that is the Trash. Logically, when you put a document into something called “the Trash,” you expect it to be thrown away. But does it make sense, especially for novice users, that you drag a disk to the Trash to eject it?

In OS X 10.1, the icon transforms itself based on context: the familiar garbage-can icon remains when you drag a document to the Trash; an eject-button icon appears when you drag a removable disk to the Trash; and a “burn” icon shows up when you drag to the Trash a CD-R that’s destined to be burned with OS X’s new data CD-burning features.

Quick Access In OS X’s original release, controls for many common system preferences were hidden deep in the System Preferences application. In version 10.1, Apple has brought them to the forefront by adding a series of icon menus to the right-hand corner of the Mac OS menu bar.

This new method lets you view a portable Mac’s battery status, set your system volume, monitor AirPort signal strength, choose AirPort servers, and modify display and networking settings—and it’s as easy as using Mac OS 9’s Control Strip.

Even the clock in the top right corner is now a drop-down menu—if you click on it, you can see the weekday, date, and time, and have quick access to clock settings and the Date & Time preference panel. You can rearrange menu-bar items by Command-clicking and dragging them into position. You can also remove an item by Command-clicking and dragging it off the menu bar; then you simply watch it disappear in a puff of smoke—much easier than turning it off via its preference panel.

Docking Control Although Apple prefers that third-party software developers not add items to the menu bar, some have done so—Aladdin, for example, with StuffIt Deluxe 2.6.5. These, however, cannot be moved or removed. Alternatively, developers can create items whose icons sit in the Dock and provide a set of commands when control-clicked on. For example, a future, OS X–savvy version of Palm Desktop might have an icon in the Dock that revealed the current day’s appointments and to-dos, as well as shortcuts to launching the full Palm Desktop application or making a quick appointment.

Apple itself is taking advantage of this technology. iTunes—now part of OS X—offers a contextual menu, which indicates the title and artist of the currently playing track and gives you pause and track controls, in the Dock.

Preference Order In the first release of Mac OS X, Apple replaced control panels with the System Preferences application, a multipaned window with 21 preference items to click on. For users still trying to adapt to life without control panels, the sea of icons in System Preferences was especially confusing.

With 10.1, Apple has tried to clean up the System Preferences application, dividing preference icons into four categories: Personal, Hardware, Internet & Network, and System.

A few preferences behind those icons have changed, too. For example, the Desktop preference panel’s Desktop Pictures option now lets you view a folder’s picture files as thumbnails, making it easier to select a picture to place on your desktop. If you want to enable or disable any of OS X 10.1’s new menu-bar icons, you do that via the relevant preference-panel settings, such as the new Show Displays In Menu Bar option in the Displays preference panel.

Improved Access There’s one new preference panel in Mac OS X 10.1: Universal Access. Like the Easy Access tool found in the classic Mac OS, Universal Access serves people who have difficulty using mice or keyboards. From the Keyboard tab, you can activate an option that allows you to enter a sequence of modifier keys as a key combination. For example, if you can press only one key at a time, you can press the command and P keys in succession, instead of simultaneously, to get the Print dialog box.

From the Mouse tab, you can enable a feature that lets you use the numbers on your keypad to control the cursor. Or you can eliminate the need for a mouse altogether by opening the Keyboard preferences panel and turning on Full Keyboard Access (control-F1). This feature lets you control the menu bar, the Dock, windows, tool bars, and palettes entirely through the keyboard.

Logging In Unlike Mac OS 9, which offers the Multiple Users feature as an option for shared Macs, Mac OS X requires everybody to log in as a user. (Apple has just managed to hide this fact by having the system create a user when you install OS X and then log you in when you boot up. You can change that setting via the Login preference panel.)

While single-user Macs never have to see any Login options, users of shared Macs aren’t so lucky. In OS X 10.0, users had to enter a user name and password to log in to the system. With this version, however, Apple has made OS X’s Login panel just as flexible as OS 9’s—by default, the Login window now displays a list of available users for you to choose from. You can even set up icons for individual users, à la Multiple Users—just visit the Identity pane of the Users preference panel.

On-Screen Controls In the original version of Mac OS X, some hardware controls—namely, the brightness and volume controls on Mac laptops’ function keys—didn’t work correctly, and when they did work, you got no feedback that they were working. Now the brightness and volume controls work just as they did in OS 9, though they provide feedback as only Aqua could—when you adjust brightness or volume, a semitransparent icon appears, gives you feedback about your settings, and then gently fades away.

Other Choices Version 10.1 also gives back a few interface choices once offered only to users of the classic Mac OS. Through the General preferences panel, you can choose whether your windows’ scroll bars have single- or double-headed arrows at the top and bottom. From the same panel, you can define how many documents and applications appear in the Recent Items submenu of the Apple menu (a feature from OS 9’s Apple Menu Options control panel), and choose the point size at which the system should begin automatically antialiasing text.

OS X Gets Connected

With Mac OS X, Apple has attempted to make an operating system that’s a good cross-platform partner for Windows PCs, in areas from file names to networking.

File Names First off, Apple has radically changed the way the Mac handles file names. Now Mac OS is much more savvy about dealing with Windows-style file-name extensions (.doc, for example)—it can even hide those extensions from you in the Finder (see “True Names and Other Dangers”).

In addition to those changes, Mac OS can now handle long file names like those found on Windows files since the advent of Windows 95. In OS X 10.0, files could have names as long as 255 characters, but the Finder couldn’t display them. In version 10.1, the Finder can display file names on two lines when in Icon mode, making it much easier to recognize files with extremely long names.

Network Friendly Mac OS X 10.1 not only handles PC files in a friendlier manner but also has a much nicer demeanor when dealing with Windows file servers. Included as part of OS X 10.1 is a Server Message Block (SMB) client, meaning that Macs can now connect to PC servers without the assistance of an add-on such as Thursby Software’s Dave.

A Little DAV’ll Do Ya WebDAV is an increasingly popular file-sharing method, especially among Web designers. WebDAV uses Web-server technology to create file-sharing connections with less overhead than traditional networking protocols. WebDAV has been implemented in products such as Adobe GoLive and Macromedia Dreamweaver. OS X offered some support for it, but Apple has improved OS X’s WebDAV support—so much that its entire iTools file-sharing service has been connected to the new protocol. When you connect to iTools in OS X 10.1, you’re using WebDAV.

Since WebDAV is based on Web technology, it works like a Web server: connections are made only when data needs to be transferred. That’s in contrast to old-style networking protocols, which required a constantly open connection and an ongoing dialog between the server and the client. The result should be more reliable network connections (no more “server has disconnected” warnings after a period of disuse), as well as compatibility with a whole new collection of servers, especially Web servers commonly accessed by Web designers.

AppleTalk Returns In terms of compatibility with existing Mac networks, new in this version of OS X is support for an old standard: AppleTalk connections to Apple Filing Protocol servers. If you’ve got an existing Apple file server running on an AppleTalk network, OS X is finally as compatible as OS 9 has always been. In addition, OS X’s printing support has been improved, bringing it up to parity with the features of the classic Mac OS’s LaserWriter 8 driver, and adding support for more than 30 printers.

Better Scripting Finally, AppleScript support is greatly improved in Mac OS X 10.1, especially when it comes to creating scripts that take advantage of networking. Scripts can now control applications on remote Macs via a network (an OS 9 feature that OS X lacked until now) and can take advantage of the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) to access data stored on remote XML-based database servers. You can even drag AppleScripts to the Finder’s tool bars to add custom features to the Finder.

A Better Digital Hub

Earlier this year, Steve Jobs first described his vision of the Mac as a “digital hub,” the nerve center of a collection of digital devices, from cameras to handheld computers to consumer audio and video devices. Not surprisingly, Mac OS X 10.1 offers several new and improved features that tie in with the Apple CEO’s strategy.

DVD Arrives One of the glaring omissions in the first release of Mac OS X was support for DVD-movie playback. But this new version of OS X includes DVD Player 3.0, an application that makes the DVD-viewing experience as good as, if not better than, the one in OS 9.

The new DVD Player app has an improved remote-control palette and lets you decide how you want the player to behave when you insert a disc (you can set it to jump into full-screen mode or to begin playing upon insertion of a disc). DVD Player won’t work, though, on CI-based lue-and-white G3s and the first G4s.

Playing DVDs really shows off the power and multithreaded nature of Mac OS X. When we played a movie on a dual-processor 800MHz Power Mac G4, we could freely drag the movie window around the screen without any apparent dropping of frames. On a 500MHz iBook, that didn’t work, but we were able to use other applications while the movie played in a background window, without any hiccups or hesitation in either DVD Player or the other applications we were using.

Video Burning Mac OS X 10.1 doesn’t include software for encoding and burning DVD-Video discs, but Apple’s new iDVD 2.0—which should be available by the time you read this—requires version 10.1 to run. This means that any users of SuperDrive-equipped Power Macs will be able to use iDVD 2.0 and OS X 10.1 to create and burn DVD movies in a flash.

Data Burning Although Apple updated OS X earlier this year to allow users to burn audio CDs via iTunes, burning data CDs was still out of the question. Version 10.1 changes that equation by adding built-in support for burning data discs—either CD-Rs or, on SuperDrive models, 4.7GB DVD-Rs. When you insert a disc, a dialog box appears, asking you to choose the format for the disc. Then an icon appears on your desktop, representing the new disc. You can copy files to the disc and even make modifications to files on the disc—OS X actually creates a temporary directory elsewhere that contains all the contents of your disc, and it lets you make as many changes as you want until you’re ready to burn. Choose Burn from the Finder tool bar or drag the disc to the Trash (which automatically transforms into a “burn” icon), and the data in the temporary directory burns to the disc. Voilà—you’ve burned a disc from the Finder.

Camera Friendly Getting images from your digital camera is another important part of the digital-hub idea, and Mac OS X’s support for digital cameras is better than ever.

In this version, OS X’s Image Capture application also supports the Picture Transfer Protocol, an emerging standard for communicating between camera and computer. Plug in a camera, and pictures will automatically be transferred to your Pictures folder, or anywhere else you select. If you’d prefer to use some other utility to transfer your files, you can still shut off the automatic transfer.

The Last Word

In the end, Mac OS X will not succeed on its own. As well as Classic mode runs non-native software—and in 10.1, Classic was quite functional, if a bit shocking in contrast to the OS X–native stuff—Mac users are going to want to run OS X–native apps on OS X. For OS X to succeed, the core software must be present. (For a list of upcoming applications, see “The Face of Things to Come.”)

The good news is that the release of version 10.1 appears to be a watershed event for OS X software development. The system is so improved that several developers are creating software that requires version 10.1 to run—the biggest example being Microsoft Office X (see “Office Remodeling,” elsewhere in this issue).

There are a few holdouts worth noting, including Adobe Photoshop and Apple’s own Final Cut Pro; undoubtedly, certain segments of the Mac community will be forced to remain on OS 9 for a while. But most software is now making the move to OS X. And to top it off, version 10.1 includes two major applications itself, namely the final version of Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.1 and Adobe Acrobat Reader 5.0.

Apple’s new operating system has left the world of theory and guesswork behind—its numerous performance and usability improvements make it a mature and reliable platform. We’ve been waiting for years, but Mac OS X is now truly the operating system of tomorrow.

Fabulous Features

What’s New

  • Menu-bar items
  • Data-CD and -DVD burning
  • DVD playback (some systems)
  • Hidden file extensions
  • Connecting to SMB file server
  • Connecting to AFP servers over AppleTalk
  • Two-line file names
  • AppleScript networking

What’s Improved

  • Finder speed
  • Application-launch speed
  • Graphics speed
  • Classic-environment speed
  • Dock preferences
  • System preferences
  • WebDAV file-server support
  • Digital-camera support

Mac OS X Face-Lift

Mac OS X’s brand-new Aqua interface was a giant leap for Apple, but not everyone felt the same way about that leap’s direction. Some parts of the interface were buried away in unfamiliar places, some were not completely finished, and others were missing altogether. With version 10.1, Apple has done more to make the interface friendly and usable; those who still hanker for the days of Mac OS 9 should be pleased.

Line Up The improved Systems Preferences pane gives you easier and more-logical access to the pref­erences that control every aspect of your interaction with the OS. Preferences are grouped into four shelf-like categories rather than shown all together, and common preferences are duplicated at the top.

Drop and Give Me Options With the new Apple menu-bar icons, you can see the date and time, control your AirPort connections and view signal strength, change your monitor resolution, adjust your system volume, and more.

Pop Goes the Dock Movie Magic Apple’s DVD Player 3.0 lets you watch movies in OS X. Its control­ler is like a set-top DVD player’s, and it has full-screen and launch-on-insertion options.

In OS X 10.1, Apple added more flexibility in the Dock. You can move the Dock to the left or right side of the screen—a common user request—and you can now control actions via Dock-based contextual menus that open with a control-click. In iTunes, for example, you can see what track is playing, pause it, or go to another track in your playlist. Third parties can build this functionality into their Dock icons.

True Names... and Other Dangers

Perhaps the most noticeable change to the traditional Mac way of doing things is how the new OS handles file names. With OS X 10.1, Apple has begun to encourage file compatibility between Macs and Windows PCs by adopting (if not quite embracing) the three-letter file-name extensions that have been attached to PC files since the dawn of DOS.

Brave New.world Mac OS X 10.1 tries to shield users from the ugly file-name extensions of the Windows world, while at the same time encouraging Mac users to create files in the same way that Windows users do. Confusing? It sure is—and it could potentially pose interface dilemmas that Mac users have never seen before.

By default, Mac OS X 10.1’s Finder hides file extensions from users. Although you might look in a folder and see a Microsoft Word document called “Letter,” the file name may actually be “Letter.doc.” Apple has made it pos­sible for developers to append hidden extensions to file names, so if you choose to save a document as “report,” it may say “report” in the Finder, but the real name on the hard drive is “report.rtf.”

Will the Real File Please Stand Up? In OS X, hidden file-name extensions mean that you can have multiple files with seemingly identical names.
Version 10.1 also introduces a strange quirk to the Finder: if you’ve got more than one file with the same name, and each has a different extension, you may end up with a folder full of files that appear to have the same name (see “Will the Real File Please Stand Up?”).

Apple’s rationale is that Mac users have no interest in seeing three-letter file extensions—and Microsoft obviously feels the same way about Windows users, as it has hidden those extensions from its users since the days of Windows 95—but they’re still necessary for complete compatibility with Windows PCs, which, unlike Macs, rely on those extensions to determine a file’s type and figure out which application should be used to open a file.

Many Mac users will undoubtedly find it unsettling that, for the first time, what you see in the Finder may not be what’s actually on your hard drive. Fortunately, Apple has provided an Always Show File Extensions option in Finder Preferences; it can make sure that what you see is what you get. You can also show or hide extensions on individual files by choosing Show Info (1-I) from the File menu and selecting Hide Extension from the Name & Extension panel.

What Type Am I? Mac OS X is now much more savvy about using file-name extensions than the classic Mac OS ever was. OS X’s Finder can determine a file’s type based on its name, and treat it just as it would a native Mac document. For example, if you receive an Excel file called “spreadsheet.xls” from a PC user, it will show up in the Finder as an Excel file, icon and all. For file extensions that could potentially be owned by more than one application—text files, for example—OS X users can use the Finder to choose a program to take precedence. Choose Show Info for a document of that type, select Open With Application, and then pick the application that should own it. Pressing the Change All button will make sure that every file with that extension (whether or not it has Mac type and creator information) will be opened by the application you chose.

[Editor Jason Snell has been covering the development of Mac OS X since 1998. He wrote this story in Microsoft Word X running on Mac OS X 10.1.]

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