OS X Comes of Age

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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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