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Mac users, take note: as of September 13, 2000, the next-generation OS has landed. Sort of. Apple may not be finished yet, but it's taken its first big step with the public 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 X that's definitely not fully formed.

So what does Apple gain by releasing this 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, the OS X team will use this information to iron out the kinks before the new operating system's final release in early 2001.

The Mac OS X beta costs $30 and can be purchased only via the Apple Store ( http://store.apple.com ). 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.

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 PowerBook G3s. The company also recommends a minimum of 128MB of RAM.

Inside X   The most visible new feature of Mac OS X is the Dock, which brings together Mac OS 9's Application menu and Launcher file utility, with a dash of Windows' Taskbar.

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.

The good news is that the Mac OS X installation procedure is very straightforward. You will not need to 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.
Music Player is Mac OS X's combination CD and MP3 player.

Once you install the beta, OS X will radically transform your Mac. It's a completely new operating system, not merely an impressive revision of the existing Mac OS. That much is clear the first time you boot up the system: you must type in your user name and a password.

Once you get to the desktop, you'll find that it's a radically different place. At the bottom of the screen is 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 (see "Inside X").

The Finder is also 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 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.

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.
"We've held this in our hands for a long time. Starting today, we want you to have it in yours."
--Apple CEO Steve Jobs, speaking about Mac OS X at Apple Expo Paris

Text and icons are also very different. Icons can be much larger than they are in Mac OS 9, and you can change their size via a slider. Text everywhere is antialiased, with smooth edges that make it much easier to read.

Few applications have OS X versions yet, so 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. Classic is a remarkable achievement, but its implementation can be confusing.

From its high-quality icons to its multicolumn Browser view, the new Finder lets you know that you're not in Mac OS 9 anymore.

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 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 use 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.

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 a bit unstable. 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. Most applications are not Mac OS X native, and 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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