In Apple's animal kingdom, Mac OS X has evolved from Cheetah (10.0) to Puma (10.1) to Jaguar (10.2). The next sharp-toothed release (10.3), dubbed Panther, is due by the end of this year.
Panther's many additions and enhancements include a brand-new Finder, which has improved save dialog boxes and search features, and new contextual menus. Apple has given more power to its Mail application, integrated faxing into the OS, and added font management. And that's just the start.
Although Panther still isn't ready to be released into the wild, here's a bit of what you can expect when this big cat matures.
The most widely used part of Mac OS is the Finder. In Panther, Apple has updated the Finder and added some OS 9–like functionality.
The new Finder has the brushed-metal look of iTunes and iPhoto. All available volumes (including iDisks) are visible in the Places sidebar on the left of the Finder window, and you can move custom files and folders to the lower part of the window -- a nice addition for those who miss OS 9's Apple menu. Redesigned save dialog boxes also take advantage of Panther's improved Finder interface.
The new Action button brings up a contextual menu based on the current selection. It lets you perform tasks such as aliasing, printing, sending files to the Trash, and labeling files and folders by color -- an old favorite from OS 9.
And the Finder has a greatly improved search function, similar to the one in iTunes and Mail, that shows results as you type. -- jonathan seff
Panther's new Expose feature can help you quickly sort through the chaos of several applications running at once.
It lets you use keyboard shortcuts and hot corners to manage your clutter, so you don't have to hide, move, and minimize open windows to find the one that you need.
You can activate Expose by its default function keys, set your own keyboard shortcuts, or assign each of its three viewing modes to a different corner of your screen. Once you've assigned a viewing mode to a screen corner, you move your cursor to that corner to switch to that mode.
Choose the first mode to view all open windows. Expose shrinks and places each window so they all fit on screen without overlapping. The more items you have open, the smaller each window becomes (this may make it hard to identify windows, especially if you have a small monitor). But as you mouse over each minimized window, the name of the application, folder, or document appears. When you click on a window, it pops to the front and the others go back to their original positions.
The second mode brings every window in the current application to the front while graying out the rest of the windows. This can be handy if you have several Photoshop documents open, for example.
Select the third mode to momentarily hide all open windows so you can access something on your desktop. This makes it easy to find and open a document, unmount an iPod, or send a file to the Trash. -- kelly lunsford
Apple's free e-mail program, Mail, gains more power in Panther. One big addition is the ability to track e-mail threads -- multiple messages with similar subject lines. Threads make it much easier to keep track of back-and-forth e-mail conversations. This feature is currently part of other e-mail applications such as Microsoft Entourage and Qualcomm's Eudora.
Apple says that Mail performs faster. And now the program uses the same HTML rendering engine as Safari, so HTML messages should display more quickly and accurately.
Mail also strengthens address management and Address Book ties. E-mail addresses are now objects that you can drag between fields, and you can display your Address Book contacts as names.
Other improvements are better spam filtering and a Safe Addressing feature, which highlights unfamiliar domains so you don't accidentally send sensitive information out of your office network, for example. -- jonathan seff
OS X's Font Panel let you change font sizes and group fonts into collections, but it was far from a full-fledged font manager. Font Panel couldn't activate or deactivate collections (handy when you have many fonts), and it worked only with some programs -- so it was more a curiosity than a useful tool. Mac users who wanted help organizing and managing large font collections turned to standbys such as Extensis's Suitcase and DiamondSoft's Font Reserve.
Font Panel remains in Panther, but it's joined by a new application, Font Book. Though designers may still benefit from Suitcase and Font Reserve, the rest of us may have all we need in Font Book.
When you have a lot of fonts, finding a specific one can be hard. You can use Font Book to classify fonts in many ways, including by project, kind (Classic, Fixed Width, and so on), or end destination (such as a Web site). You can also control which fonts are available in a particular application. In QuarkXPress, for example, you might want to see only PostScript fonts.
You can preview a typeface in Font Book and install or disable it (or an entire type family) by clicking on a button at the bottom of the Font Book window.
Font Panel has also been updated. Its Character palette lets you preview a character, such as the letter N, in every active font. You can also create styles, such as shadow and underline, by combining effects and fonts.
Both Font Book and Font Panel include a search function that allows you to find any font on your Mac or network. -- terri stone
Fast User Switching
OS X has always been a multiuser environment. Each user has a set of applications, settings, desktop pictures, and more. Switching between users, however, has always been a tedious, disruptive process. Panther's Fast User Switching changes that.
Switching to another user no longer requires that you log out -- which closes and quits all open documents and applications -- and then log in to another account. When you choose a new user from a list at the far right of the menu bar, that user's desktop immediately rotates into view, in the same state it was left in.
This new feature seems ideal for home or small-office environments, where multiple people may use a single Mac. You can add or remove user accounts from Fast User Switching via the updated Accounts preference pane. -- jonathan seff
More Panther Enhancements
Preview A new version of OS X's built-in PDF viewer is faster and has indexed text searching, PDF text copy, URL support, fax viewing, and PostScript-to-PDF and EPS-to-PDF conversion.
FileVault A new feature uses the 128-bit Advanced Encryption Standard to encrypt and decrypt your Home directory's contents on-the-fly. And the Secure Delete Trash function can completely erase files from your hard drive.
Faxing Apple has bundled fax software with many Macs in the past, but Panther supports sending and receiving faxes via modem. You can now fax directly from any application that has a Print command; you can pull fax numbers from your Address Book. There's also a new preference pane for fax management, called Print & Fax.
iChat AV This update to Apple's instant-messaging application enables audio and video chat with Apple's $149 iSight camera or another FireWire Webcam or camcorders.
AppleScript Improvements to AppleScript include a redesigned Script Editor and new ImageEvents commands. Combined with the Folder Actions feature -- which lets you attach scripts to folders -- AppleScript can now perform a series of commands: for example, resizing images, putting the original images in another folder, and making a copy for print and a JPEG for the Web.
Printing Panther's printing software supports drag-and-drop desktop printers (as in OS 9), Windows printer sharing, and a virtual PostScript printer that will let you print PostScript files to any non-PostScript printer. -- jonathan seff