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The Mac OS X beta was a preview for hard-core fanatics. OS X 10.0 was not for the faint of heart. And OS X 10.1 was the first version of Apple's new operating system that was ready for everyday use. So what should we make of OS X 10.2 -- also known as Jaguar -- now that it has arrived?

With OS X 10.2's scores of new features and many tweaks to existing features, even OS X's harshest critics have to admit that Apple has sanded off most its new operating system's rough edges. But is OS X 10.2 worth $129? We reviewed a final version to help you gauge its appeal, whether you're an OS X 10.1 user or an OS 9 stalwart.

Refined, Familiar Interface

Each time Apple updates Mac OS, even minor interface changes are readily apparent -- and they often improve your computing experience more than the promised productivity improvements. So while it's fair to say that none of the interface changes in this update are revolutionary, Apple has made several important, though almost imperceptible, refinements.

Drop-down menus, while still slightly transparent, are much more opaque, making them more readable. A pop-up menu in the General preference pane lists four antialiasing algorithms, so you can choose the method of smoothing text that best fits your monitor and, even more important, that is easiest on your eyes. We found that the new LCD-optimized antialiasing settings made text more readable than the single setting offered by previous versions.

Apple's interface designers have toned down the pulsating blue default button in dialog boxes, making its effect subtler. All the Aqua buttons have a flatter appearance, and drop shadows are lighter -- a small but noticeable improvement.

Another minor tweak is equally welcome: an Apply To All option makes copying large numbers of files in the Finder easier. It lets you quickly tell the Finder whether you want to overwrite files or leave them alone; in previous versions, you needed to click on the Replace button once for each file that matched the name of an existing file.

And throughout the operating system, you can more easily access the interface with your keyboard (instead of your mouse). Open and Save dialog boxes can now be sensibly navigated with arrow keys, eliminating one major frustration of previous versions; however, you still can't type a letter to automatically move to a file whose name begins with that character (a feature we used every day in OS 9).

But there are some additions that will no doubt cause a few interface critics to complain -- while regular users simply wonder what the fuss is all about. The arrow cursor now casts a slight drop shadow (fortunately, none of the other cursors do -- imagine trying to do Adobe Photoshop work while casting shadows on your workspace!), folders open slightly when you drag items over them, and the spinning beach ball cursor you see when your Mac is overtaxed with tasks has turned into a shiny lollipop.

The most ballyhooed interface addition in OS X 10.2 is an old standby from OS 9: spring-loaded folders. While some people never took advantage of this one-drag approach to moving files in the Finder, those who did grew to rely on it and will be grateful for its return.

Tangible Improvements

Beyond the interface niceties, OS X 10.2 offers improvements in functionality and speed.

Quartz Extreme -- One of OS X 10.2's key features is Quartz Extreme, a concept that can be difficult to understand and even harder to see when you're running the OS. Essentially, Quartz Extreme is a technology that off-loads most of the burden of displaying your Mac's interface to the Mac's dedicated video processor and video RAM. However, this technology works only on systems with an Nvidia GeForce2 MX, GeForce3, GeForce4 Titanium, or GeForce4 MX card (AGP version, not PCI), or ATI AGP Radeon card, with at least 16MB of VRAM. This means that Quartz Extreme will work with all current Mac models, as well as most Macs released in the past year or so.

It's hard to know whether Quartz Extreme is running on your Mac, but you can find out by popping in a DVD movie and then adjusting the volume or pulling down a menu. If you can see through the transparent object to the movie playing behind, your Mac is using Quartz Extreme. Granted, seeing through menus into DVDs isn't much of a feature -- but that's not why Quartz Extreme is important. By using your video subsystem to composite all the different objects on your Mac's screen, the technology allows your Mac's main processor and memory to concentrate on other tasks. The result is a system that feels more responsive, especially when it's busy with other tasks. When we had lots of applications open in the background, there were far fewer spinning cursors in OS X 10.2 than there were in OS X 10.1.

Classic Mode -- Let's be honest: Apple would prefer that there were no such thing as Classic. But the reality is, OS 9 will be with us for some time, running applications that will never be updated to take advantage of OS X. Apple certainly hasn't made any improvements to OS 9 as part of OS X 10.2 -- after all, Steve Jobs theatrically declared OS 9 development dead, casket and all, at Apple's Worldwide Developers' Conference in May.

In fact, you won't even find an OS 9 CD in OS X 10.2's box, but Apple says that OS 9 will be available separately, for users who upgrade from OS 8.X and require Classic-mode application support. (Of course, if you upgrade, your existing OS 9 system folder will continue to work just fine with OS X 10.2.)

But Apple has made some improvements in Classic. We found that Classic launched noticeably faster in OS X 10.2 than in 10.1 -- roughly 70 percent faster, in fact. And in case you hesitate to click on a document for fear you'll inadvertently start Classic, a handy new preference option displays a warning dialog box before

Classic starts up. And the ability to use different OS 9 Preferences folders for different OS X users will be handy for people who share their Mac with others who use Classic.

Working with Windows -- Out of the box, OS X 10.2 is interoperable with Windows to a remarkable degree. Via the Sharing preference pane, you can share your Mac's files via SMB/CIFS (the standard format for Windows file sharing) and by tried-and-true Mac OS file-sharing methods. And you can now search for and connect to Windows file servers from the Finder, just as you could for Mac file servers in previous versions of OS X. You can also connect to FTP servers from the Finder; the remote servers mount on the desktop like any other remote volume, but access is relatively slow, and you can only read, not write to, mounted FTP volumes.

For years, connecting to external ODBC databases has also been a problem on the Mac; finally, with OS X 10.2, Apple has provided a standard method for developers to use when connecting Macs to high-powered network databases.

Printing and Scanning -- For many professionals (and a few others), OS X printer support has been less than stellar, and for nearly everyone, scanner support has been even worse. Both have gotten a big boost in OS X 10.2, which has a revamped printing engine and expanded TWAIN support. But it will still take a while for third-party vendors to catch up.

Name Game -- OS X 10.2's Address Book application is a little bit like an iceberg -- what you can see is only a small fraction of what's there. Beneath the surface, this relatively straightforward contact manager has an entirely new Mac OS infrastructure: a shared database that tracks information about people you know. In fact, you may never use the Address Book application, especially once other programs are modified to support the shared database. But the database itself has the potential to eliminate redundant and out-of-date information across your Mac.

Leading the way, Apple has integrated the shared database with its new iChat application and the update to its e-mail program, Mail. iChat uses the database to map real names to AOL and screen names, so you'll know that the incoming message from pixie95370 is actually from your friend Joe. It's a good idea that will only get better as developers update their programs to support the new system.

Sharing Services -- In addition to Quartz Extreme, the other OS X 10.2-related technology innovation being promoted by Apple is Rendezvous, a networking standard that allows devices on a network to dynamically recognize one another. Like Address Book, this is a technology that will require support from software developers to truly blossom. But Apple has thrown a few touches into OS X 10.2 that hint at Rendezvous's potential, most particularly in the iChat application, which doesn't require any special registration with AOL or Apple to allow chatting among people connected to a local network -- instead, everything's handled via Rendezvous.

Ink without Paper -- When you connect a graphics tablet to your Mac, OS X 10.2 activates its Ink handwriting-recognition technology and places an Ink item in your System Preferences. Ink lets you handwrite text directly into any application with an active insertion point. As you write, a sheet of virtual paper displays your handwritten characters, and when you pause, Ink automatically converts your letters to text and inserts them in your document as if you had typed them.

Unlike many handheld devices, which require you to master a special alphabet, Ink recognizes your handwriting. In our tests, it rarely flubbed a word, though it often capitalized letters incorrectly. Ink is clearly not meant to be used as a replacement for the keyboard -- instead, it gives Apple a feature that will be required in any keyboard optional "tablet Mac," should the company decide to compete with tablet-based PCs.

Devil in the Details

OS X 10.2 contains many small improvements. Any combination of them may be enough to make features will beckon to each user. Here are some of OS X 10.2's most interesting improvements that we haven't previously reported.

AppleScript Support -- Apple's useful AppleScript language is better supported in OS X 10.2; a systemwide Scripts menu, previously downloadable from Apple's Web site, is now included when you install the updated OS. Folder Actions -- the OS 9 feature that allows AppleScripts to run when items are added, removed, or changed in particular folders on your system -- is now in OS X 10.2. The interface for Folder Actions is a bit clunky -- you must attach the actions via a submenu in the aforementioned Scripts menu, rather than via a contextual menu in the Finder. But when it comes to functionality, Folder Actions are much improved: you don't need to leave a folder open in the Finder for its Folder Action scripts to function, as you did in OS 9.

Stronger Security -- Apple has made several security improvements. User names and passwords can now be more than eight characters long -- especially useful when you're trying to generate secure but memorable passwords. A new Keychain menu item lets you lock and unlock not only your Keychain but also your entire system: choose Lock Screen, and your Mac will instantly jump to a password-protected screen saver. Likewise, if you're using encrypted disk images created by Apple's Disk Copy utility to store sensitive information on a laptop, when you wake that laptop up, you'll be forced to reenter the secure volume's password.

Smarter Sherlock -- Apple revamped Sherlock for OS X 10.2. File-finding features have been transplanted -- with excellent results -- to the Finder itself, so Sherlock has been transformed into an Internet utility. The new Sherlock can search for Web pages, pictures, stock data, movie information, business addresses, and more. It puts a pleasing interface on information sources available on the Internet, but it's almost a carbon copy of Karelia Software's $29 Watson utility, which offers twice as many search channels, including many services not available in Sherlock. Still, if you're already planning to buy OS X 10.2 for other reasons, this fast, free utility is a dramatic improvement on the older Sherlock, which was sluggish and not nearly as useful as this edition.

Slicker System Preferences -- One area that has been cleaned up nicely is System Preferences; Apple has consolidated and tamed the multitude of preference panes. For instance, the Sharing pane is now more useful, offering the right selection of options for sharing your Mac's components, as well as a a simple interface to the basic firewall built into the OS (and it's smart enough to know when you have another utility interacting with your firewall).

Compatibility Issues

We ran a slew of OS X-native applications after our switch to OS X 10.2, and for the most part, they worked without a hitch. But we ran into some problems with utilities (including StuffIt Magic Menu, WeatherPop, MacReporter, and MaxMenus) that placed icons in the menu bar or Dock; however, we expect most of the utilities to operate well after they've had minor updates.

We installed OS X 10.2 in two ways: over existing 10.1 systems and as a clean installation. In most cases, simply installing 10.2 over 10.1 worked -- but on a few systems, we had numerous problems, especially with applications that simply would not launch. To be on the safe side, we'd recommend that upgrading users back up their systems and take advantage of OS X 10.2's new installation option, which archives your previous installation and then installs OS X 10.2. (For tips on migrating to OS X 10.2, see " Migrate to Jaguar with a Clean Install.")

Macworld's Buying Advice

OS X 10.2 is no minor OS enhancement; from a feature and performance standpoint, this update to OS X is as significant as OS 9 was to OS 8.

There's nothing wrong with OS X 10.1.5, and users who don't want to pay $129 for OS X 10.2 will be able to function just fine without it. But for most users, there are a lot of important improvements in this upgrade: performance boosts, improved printing, and interface enhancements will be immediate benefits. And over time, OS X 10.2's new technologies (including Quartz Extreme and Rendezvous) will make the update even more valuable -- a necessity for users who want to adopt the latest innovations from Apple and other Mac developers.

If you haven't yet switched to OS X, there's never been a better time -- OS X 10.2 addresses most of the complaints OS 9 users have about OS X. We recommend that you run it on a Mac with a G4 processor, and you'll want as much RAM as your system can take, but OS X 10.2 is refined and powerful -- and it's worth the move.

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