posted by David Adams on Thu 28th Apr 2005 07:05 UTC
IconOSNews reviews Apple's latest OS upgrade. Is it an overpriced, glorified point release or a truly worthy upgrade with major new functionality? Is it a Longhorn killer or just more of the same? We'll take a look, and try to see what's on the surface as well as what's under the hood.

First, a disclosure: I'm a dedicated fan of Mac OS X, though a daily user of a Windows desktop and Linux server. My personal machine, a 1.25 GHz 15" Powerbook with 1 GB of RAM, is the seventh Powerbook I've owned. Just as I have enjoyed the highs (2300c, current 15" Aluminum) and lows (5300) of the Powerbook line, I've done the same with the Mac OS. I was one of the many Mac users who was losing patience with the old Mac OS, which had gone downhill since version 7.6, and was very excited about OS X, only to be a bit disappointed with its real-world quirks. But, just as it's a really good time to be a long-time Apple stockholder today, it's a really good time to be a Mac user.

Across the board, today's crop of Apple hardware is beautifully conceived, well-built, and priced fairly. The Mini and the iBook, in particular, are machines that I would recommend to anyone who needs a new computer and is interested in trying out the Mac. And Tiger, the latest version of the Mac OS, is a very good operating system.

Bloat is a common problem in software today. Software companies only make money if they sell software, and since software doesn't get used up or wear out, like a tube of toothpaste or a pair of shoes, the only way companies can earn more money from current customers is to make people buy newer versions. Aside from the dirty tricks that some companies use to force upgrades, the most common way to entice users is to add functionality. Sometimes this added functionality is superfluous, even useless, and often its presence only serves to make the software larger, slower, less stable, and less usable. That's called bloat, and users complain about it all the time. We've become accustomed to new versions of software requiring faster hardware to run slower with each new release. With the Mac OS, Apple has been bucking the trend. Each version seems a bit cleaner and runs a bit quicker than the last.


A cynic would say that each version of the Mac OS is cleaner and faster only because the earliest versions were so slow and cobbled-together that there was huge room for improvement. And that cynic would be partially right. Turing the already-aging NeXT OS into Apple's "modern" OS was a huge task, and I'm sure developers took many shortcuts to make it happen on schedule. But every version since 10.1 has been perfectly serviceable by today's operating system standards (which are pretty low). Tiger continues this trend, as expected. On my same old Powerbook, everyday tasks happen just a bit quicker, and the dreaded "spinning beachball" that appears when the system is bogged down or even frozen has rarely showed its face in the four days I've been using the new OS. I don't have any scientific benchmarks, just plain old subjective observation, but Tiger is faster and a bit less prone to hiccups than Panther was.

A couple of the areas where Mac OS X 10.3 felt especially slow when compared to other platforms and technologies -- web browsing and search -- have been improved dramatically. Browsing with Firefox or IE on Windows has been faster for as long as I can remember. For most of my time as a part time Mac/part time Windows user, I have generally liked the functionality of the Mac browsers better, even preferring the Mac version of IE to the Windows one, features-wise, but lamenting the fact that page rendering performance on Windows was generally better. Especially as Mac IE was stagnating and before Safari came out, this was particularly painful. Safari was a great step forward, but I still recognized that Windows was snappier. No more. My non-scientific tests with Safari 2.0, new in Tiger, and Firefox 1.0.3 and IE 6.0 on Windows XP find very little difference in perceivable rendering speeds across the board. Some browsers render some sites a bit more quickly, but there is no clear loser. Safari 1.x was clearly slower on most sites.

Similarly, though the native Windows search feature has never been particularly good, the arrival on the scene of Google Desktop Search and its ilk have raised the bar significantly. Apple's new Spotlight feature is a fast new indexed search that is perhaps still not as mind-blowingly fast as Google's appears to be, but is much more useful. A Spotlight search for "business plan" on my hard drive yields up not only the various MS Office documents related to schemes past that are buried on my drive, but also email messages, PDFs, and other files that mention the term. Spotlight also indexes my iCal events, Address Book entries, images, and Safari bookmarks. It's not only one stop shopping, but its various tools for narrowing searches by date, location, and kind are so intuitive that I predict that within 18 months every desktop operating system will be copying it. Keeping track of 80 Gigs of old crap has never been easier.

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