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Mac OS overhaul

A look at the test version of Apple's new operating system shows it is slick, stable and RAM-hungry.

By JULES ALLEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 2, 2000


photo
Click for larger look at Aqua
This shot of the Aqua user interface for Mac OS X shows the new Finder surrounded by new and old calculators, the Dock and desktop preferences panel, the process list and the Dock, at the bottom.

X marks the spot for Apple Computer as the Macintosh's operating system gets a much-needed overhaul.

The beta, or test, version of Mac OS X (that's pronounced 10, Roman numeral-style) is certainly sexy when it comes to eye candy. Like an '80s bachelor pad, there's plenty of brushed chrome and gadgets lying around. This new version of Apple's more elegant alternative to Microsoft Windows offers something to look forward to when the final product is released next year.

Compared with its predecessors, the new Mac OS promises more stability, fewer lockups and, if a program dies or misbehaves, fewer reboots. And it comes with a full supply of jargon at no extra cost, such as "pre-emptive multitasking," which means that one program can't take over the system and bring it to its knees. It's like having a traffic cop in the computer regulating the system's resources. It's a concept that will be familiar to users of Unix, Windows NT or Windows 2000 but still is just a dream for those with other versions of Windows.

The new user interface, called Aqua, is graphically intensive and requires a high-power video card. People using Mac's current OS 9 got a taste of what was to come in the latest incarnation of QuickTime, Apple's video and audio player. If you liked what they did to QuickTime, you'll love OS X.

Mac's new look
Here are some of the new features of the Mac OS X beta
Using Aqua is an animation fest: Minimize a window and it turns into an icon in a flash, settling in a taskbar at the bottom of the screen. As applications open, the icons bounce up and down in the Dock.

The whole screen has a translucent look, even in the drop-down menus. I hope users will be able to control this look in the final release because I can imagine some people may find that it interferes with readability.

Each window has a drop shadow that adds a 3-D look and helps visually organize what's on the screen. I found Aqua to be highly intuitive once I let go of my preconceived notions about how a Mac OS' graphical user interface, or GUI, works.

photo
Windows in the new Aqua interface give the desktop depth with drop shadows and transparent areas.
The long-awaited beta is arriving at a good time. Mac OS 9 is getting long in the tooth and is almost as much duct tape as it is operating system. While OS 9 had its share of innovations when it was released last year, it's based on much of the code from what was known as System 7 and earlier.

But Mac OS X is not a final product in this prerelease tryout. It is fit mainly for geeks, not humans, to test and try. Weird and unexpected things could happen to your data, which could cause you unnecessary pain. If you're not 100 percent sure whether you should install the beta version, you certainly shouldn't.

Also, before you whip out your credit card and get on the phone, make sure your Mac hardware is capable of running OS X. It's not compatible with 68k-based or early PowerPC-based Macs. The 68k-based Macs can't handle the current Mac OS 9 either. You'll need beefy hardware to get the most out of the OS X beta. A G3-series central processing unit and 128 megabytes of random access memory are the minimum, though reality is closer to 192 megs or more of RAM.

Like all prerelease versions, these system requirements are subject to change. When the final version comes out next year, it could take less RAM and be noticeably faster if other prerelease software is used as a measure. Some reports have OS X running in as little as 96 megs of RAM.

With those warnings out of the way, there are a lot of positive things to be said for this preview of the next Mac operating system.

Installation took about 20 minutes on my new G4 Cube and went almost flawlessly. It rearranged things on my hard disk, which was initially disconcerting when I rebooted back into OS 9 later. OS 9 system files and applications are placed in one Mac folder, while OS X items sprinkle themselves around the top of the disk, something I found explained in the documentation. Switching between the two operating systems is fast and easy. Nice.

My keyboard and mouse refused to work during installation. I have a PC keyboard and mouse hooked in with a USB adapter, not a standard setup. However, unplugging and reinserting the USB plug did the trick, and, after installation, things worked properly without the plug shuffle.

Mac OS X's underpinnings, known as Darwin to the Mac faithful, are based on technologies from Apple's 1996 acquisition of Steve Job's NeXT computer and the NeXTSTEP operating system, as well as other open source and free software components.

What's beneath the GUI has philosophical similarities with the Linux operating system: It's free and open source. As a user who likes to get under the hood and play, I was thrilled to be able to pull up a command line interface and do geeky things such as move files around by command rather than dragging and dropping them. The beta comes with a lot of my favorite tools, such as the Perl programming language and the Apache Web server.

But where the real value comes in OS X is Aqua, which hides the Unix-like complexity from humans.

Aqua and its components allow you to run most of your old Mac OS 9 software as well as the new applications that will take full advantage of the new system. I used current versions of programs such as Macromedia's Dreamweaver, America Online's Instant Messenger and Microsoft Word without incident.

This is where the need for RAM, and lots of it, comes into play. My new G4 Cube came with a respectable 192Mb of RAM, probably the minimum you'd want for anything more than casual use. To run older versions of software, or Classic in Apple parlance, a RAM-hungry OS 9 emulation layer is launched.

The Mac's traditional stronghold has been education and publishing. Recent Apple dog-and-pony shows of new hardware and OS X have seen support promises from the usual suspects: Adobe, Macromedia and Microsoft promise native versions when the final version of OS X ships.

Eventually, you'll probably upgrade your software as vendors move on and leave OS 9 behind. That shouldn't come as a real shock because the software business has been a subscription service anyway.

When I reviewed Apple's AirPort wireless networking (Tech Times, June 26), I made the bold statement that it was revolutionary. Wireless allows me to work anywhere within 300 feet of the base station, which changed the way I work. But the one thing stopping me from using the OS X beta as my primary desktop operating system is that it doesn't support the AirPort wireless system. I'm guessing that it just wasn't ready in time for the public beta. Apple's nifty Internet-based Software Update utility, built into both OS 9 and OS X, will no doubt have an AirPort update in the near future.

The OS X beta isn't particularly happy about being disconnected from the Internet, especially during startup. For instance, it tries to set the computer's clock to the correct time when it boots up by connecting to Apple's public Network Time Server over the Internet. If you're off the grid, this slows the startup. It's a minor concern but I hope Apple addresses this for people who have metered Internet access.

The Aqua user interface is a shift away from OS 9's cozy, familiar feel and some users will hate it. I predict one of the first available third-party software packages will emulate either the Start button in Windows or the Apple menu in OS 9.

The Aqua interface hides what's Unix-like underneath so you don't need to know a thing about Unix to benefit, just as Windows users don't need to know about DOS anymore.

And there's that wonderful, bullet-proof stability. My Linux and NetBSD machines need a reboot when new versions of the operating systems come out. Windows 2000 has made some great steps in the right direction, but new software installations require too many reboots. You may not need to keep your machine on for six months at a time but getting closer to appliance-like stability is awesome.

OS X is the reason I bought a PowerBook and a Mac Cube. I'm glad my bet paid off. As a technical user, I'm thrilled by what's under the hood. Non-technical users will be thrilled by the stability and the departure from crashes that have plagued previous versions.

If OS X delivers the core set of features that are in OS 9 next year, Apple has a winner on its hands.

Mac OS X beta

If you want a copy of Mac OS X beta, it's available only on CD-ROM from the online Apple Store (www.apple.com/store/); it can't be downloaded. It's $30 for the CD and documentation. There's a pay-per-use 800 number that's answered seven days a week if you need live support. Beta programs are generally supported only through e-mail and electronic bulletin boards, so having somebody to call is a welcome change.

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