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Mac users take note: the next-generation operating system has landed. Sort of.

Apple's next-generation operating system may not be finished yet, but it's taken its first big step forward with the release of an early version of Mac OS X.

This is a "public beta," meaning that Apple is letting us get our hands on a version of Mac OS that's definitely not fully formed. More than that, Apple is making users who are hungry to get their hands on the future of the Mac pay for the privilege -- the Mac OS X beta costs $30 and can only be purchased via the Apple Store. The public beta will stop working on May 15, 2001, and Apple says it currently has no plans to offer owners of the public beta any discount toward purchasing the final version of Mac OS X.

What does Apple gain from releasing an early version of Mac OS X? The release offers tangible proof to all Mac users that the company is working toward a stable, modern operating system. But perhaps most importantly, Apple also gets the Mac's most-serious, hard-core users to put OS X to the test before it's officially released. Apple has created a detailed Web site where beta users can leave their feedback. Presumably, this information will help the OS X team iron out the kinks before the new operating system's final release in early 2001.

IE 5

Internet Explorer 5 is one of the Mac OS X-native applications to come with the Mac OS X public beta.

If you don't have a Mac that shipped with a G3 or G4 processor inside, your chances of using the Mac OS X beta are not very good. Apple says Mac OS X only supports Power Mac G3s (beige and blue models), Power Mac G4s, iMacs, iBooks, and black-colored PowerBook G3s. The company also recommends a minimum of 128MB of RAM.

If you're planning on using Mac OS X's Classic mode, which allows you to run Mac OS 9 applications, you also need to own a copy of Mac OS 9. OS X's predecessor isn't included in the beta package, and Classic won't run without it.

The good news is that the Mac OS X installation procedure is very straightforward. You will not need to pull a Mac out of the closet or cross your fingers as you erase the previous operating system from your primary machine. When you install the public beta on the same hard drive as your existing Mac OS 9 system, a new control panel named System Disk will appear. It lets you switch back and forth between OS 9 and OS X at will. As a result, giving Mac OS X a test drive is much less traumatic (and much easier to back out of) than previous Mac OS upgrades.

Control Panel

Mac OS X replaces the Control Panels folder with the new System Preferences application, which lets you customize your operating system settings within a multipaned interface.

If you install the Mac OS X beta, your Mac will be radically transformed. That's because Mac OS X is a completely new operating system, not merely an impressive revision of the existing Mac operating system. That much is clear the first time you boot up the system: you must type in your user name and a password just to reach the Finder.

Once you get to the desktop, you'll find it's a radically different place. At the bottom of the screen, you'll see a row of icons called the Dock. If you're familiar with Microsoft Windows, your first reaction will probably be one of recognition -- the Dock looks similar to Windows' Taskbar, and all minimized windows appear there. The Dock takes the place of both the Apple menu and the Application menu. You can drag commonly used programs and documents there for quick access, and all running applications appear in the Dock with a small triangle under their icons.

The Finder is different yet familiar. There are icons sitting in a window, but by default that window has a Web browser-style tool bar, a back button, and a pop-up list that shows you where your current folder stands in the file hierarchy. If you double-click on a folder, the contents of the new folder replace the current contents in your Finder window. And if you like, you can view your drive's contents in a new multicolumn browser view. Also, your hard drive icon appears not on the desktop but at the "Computer" level of the Finder. (You can drag an alias of your hard drive to your desktop, which some would argue is much the same thing.)

Text and icons are also very different under OS X. Icons can be much larger than they are in Mac OS 9 and you can choose how big you'd like them to be via a preference slider. Text everywhere is antialiased, with smooth edges that make it much easier to read.

Music Player

The Mac OS X beta comes with several new versions of familiar programs, as well as a few new entries. Several programs have been modified to take advantage of Carbon, a system that transforms old Mac programs into Mac OS X-native applications. In addition to Microsoft Internet Explorer 5, Mac OS X also provides native versions of StuffIt Expander and QuickTime Player.

New applications include Mail, an Internet e-mail client application with support for styled mail, mail rules, multiple mailboxes, and more; Address Book, a personal information manager with support for finding people via the LDAP Internet protocol; and Music Player. Music Player is a combination CD and MP3 player. At this point, it's not fully functional -- playlist support is limited, it won't look CD track information up via the Internet's CDDB database, and it doesn't even recognize the ID3 system of embedding song information in MP3 files.

For most Mac users, the most important Mac OS X program is Classic, the program that provides compatibility with Mac OS 9 applications. Once Classic is up and running (it loads automatically when you launch any Mac OS 9 application), it acts as a virtual Mac OS 9, letting your old programs pretend to be running in the operating system they were designed for.

Classic is a remarkable achievement, but it's still pretty weird. All the windows of Classic applications appear in the old Apple interface design, not the new Aqua interface of OS X. When you're using a Classic application, the Apple Menu reappears, complete with all the control panels, extensions, and other stuff that's a part of Mac OS 9. Even the Mac OS 9 Control Strip appears when you're running Classic. This can be confusing.

Some important items aren't working in the Mac OS X public beta, and if you rely on them, you're out of luck. AirPort, for example, does not work with this beta. Classic applications can't print to USB printers. You can't boot Mac OS X off of a FireWire drive, and many peripherals won't work until their manufacturers release new, Mac OS X-compatible driver software. You can't mount any AppleTalk-based file servers--only ones that are using TCP-IP based file sharing.

But of course things aren't working fully in Mac OS X right now. That's why they call it a beta . It may not work quite right, and it may have its share of bugs, but Mac OS X is the future of the Mac. And, finally, that future has arrived.

5 Reasons to Install Mac OS X Beta

1. One day, all Macs will work this way.

2. You'll get a chance to try out new features and complain to Apple about the ones you don't like before they're set in stone.

3. It's easy to switch back and forth between Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X, so if Mac OS X isn't working for you, you can always just switch back.

4. You'll get to try out a slew of new Mac OS X-native applications that will be in beta testing at the same time as Mac OS X.

5. PowerBook users will marvel at how quickly Mac OS X wakes up from sleep--in only a few seconds.

5 Reasons to Avoid Mac OS X Beta

1. It's a beta. Parts of it aren't going to work right, some features aren't working at all (AirPort for one), and there's always a chance it could do something to your data.

2. You have to pay $30 for software that's unfinished and expires next May. Apple may not even let you apply that money toward the purchase of the final version of Mac OS X.

3. Classic mode allows you to run all your Mac OS 9 applications, but in practice it's weird and a bit unstable. As a result, you'll probably need to switch back to Mac OS 9 whenever you need to do a lot of heavy work in a classic application.

4. Not only are most applications not Mac OS X native, most of the extensions and utilities you use to enhance and personalize your Mac aren't there yet, either.

5. Got something other than an original G3 or G4 Mac? Got one of the original PowerBook G3s? Well, forget it. Mac OS X isn't made to work with your system at all.

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