OS News’ review of Mac OS X last week certainly stirred up controversy, partially because some die hard Mac fans perceived that it was improper for an outsider (someone who is not an everyday Mac user) to me making broad criticisms after only a superficial introduction to the New operating system. Well, folks, that’s why they call it a review. We thought that Apple’s major new OS also deserved a road test, and there were two very important events in Mac OS X history just a few days ago that toppled the last major obstacle to making it ready for millions of Mac users to start using it as their everyday OS: the 10.1 release and the release of Microsoft Office X. Last week, I made the switch and started using Mac OS X as my everyday OS. Here’s how it went:
I have been using a Macintosh since 1993. When the first Macs came out in the 80’s, I wanted one so badly, but my parents thought it was too expensive. We did not get a personal computer at all until about 1987, and it was a cheap PC clone. I had been involved in a pilot writing program at my high school in 1985 where we had learned how to compose our writing on the computer (Apple ][) rather than write it longhand then type it in, as was common in those days. I have rarely set pen to paper ever since. I moved from Bank Street Writer to Wordstar on DOS, and I became a word processing power user. It was in college that a roommate introduced me to the Mac SE/30 and Microsoft Word 5.1. It was love at first sight. Right after that, System 7 came out. It was a dream.
The purchase of my first Mac coincided with my introduction to the internet. I’d dial up to my school’s VAX and keep my gopher site updated. It was also my first exposure to a real server operating system, and I still have a soft spot in my heart for VMS. I quickly became a Mac fanatic. I followed the goings-on in Cupertino with bated breath. I lusted for Copeland (Apple’s ill-fated replacement to the Mac OS). I watched Be with anxious anticipation and hoped it might form the basis for a new Mac operating system. You see, I recognized, even in 1994, that the Mac OS had its problems. Call me naive, but I don’t think that even one computer crash is acceptable. By the time Mac OS 8.6 had come out, it had reached a level of utility and stability that was really remarkable considering its humble heritage, but we all knew it was time for something new.
When Apple brought Steve back in 1996 with the NeXT OS in tow, I was shocked and hopeful. I had always admired NeXT from afar, and with my work on the internet, I had become quite familiar with UNIX, developing server-based software for BSD OS and, soon thereafter, Linux. The powerful underpinnings of Unix with the refinement and usability of the Mac OS seemed like the logical combination. I started OS News in 1997 primarily because of the excitement that I felt for Rhapsody, the code name for the OS X project. I have installed and used virtually every single release (public or otherwise) of Rhapsody, Mac OS X Server, and Mac OS X since that day. I’ve been using the new OS for this and that, on and off, for over a year. It wasn’t until last week, though, that it was ready for me to use as my everyday OS. Now that it is, here’s my experience.
Stability and performance
The primary “modern OS” feature that I was looking forward to was added stability. System wide crashes are unacceptable, and having one app bring the whole system down fills me with rage. On this front, Mac OS X delivers. I have found that Microsoft Entourage is not very stable. It’s prone to crash while it’s in the background, but since it doesn’t bring the system down with it, I don’t really care. I just start it up again. I like the bouncy icon anyway.
There has been a lot of griping about the speed of Mac OS X, but it’s not a big problem for me. Compared to my first Mac and most of my early Windows machines, it’s blazing fast. I remember slow computers, and this is no slow computer. Version 10.0 was too slow. This version is okay, and I hope we see some more speed improvements and that Apple doesn’t just depend on Moore’s Law to make the problem go away. I’m road testing the new OS on a Powerbook G3 500 and a G4 Cube, each with plenty of RAM.
Protected memory, true multitasking, multi-processor support, and advanced file systems are all great, but nowadays they’re not special, they’re merely required to compete on an equal footing with every other OS.
The change in the familiar interface was a mixed blessing for me. I have always considered the Mac OS interface to be the best of the available OSes, but still lacking in both utility for power users and in intuitiveness for newcomers. I depended on hacks like TaskMenuBar, Program Switcher, and multi-button mouse enablers to keep me operating most efficiently. I don’t like to have to click all over the place to open apps, switch between apps, hide apps, and move files around, but I appreciated the fact that the Mac OS gave me the option of customizing things, and in a really elegant way sometimes. Building a customized Apple Menu is a smart solution to a difficult problem. Though Mac OS X’s interface has improved since the first version (remember the decorative Apple logo in the top center?) in some ways it’s still inferior to the old Mac’s. Again, the 3rd party hacks are starting to come to the rescue.
One thing that has improved in Mac OS X is file management. The old finder was always great, but it didn’t scale up to the larger drives and corresponding huge numbers of files that people have now. The new customizable finder, that lets you switch views easily and make shortcuts to frequently used folders is a move in the right direction. It balances between the familiar and the new quite elegantly, I think.
The Airport, display, sound, and battery widgets in the menu bar are a handy feature, but there’s not that much room up there, so it’s no cure-all. I always used the control strip in the old Mac OS, but I never really liked it. I also used to use Hoverbar, which was similar to the Dock in some ways, but, like the control strip, could be hidden with a keystroke. I used function keys to hide and show tools like the control strip and hoverbar, and also to hide and show applications. It was handy. The inability to hide the dock with a keystroke is my number one complaint about Mac OS X. Please, please someone make a utility that lets me hide the dock with a keystroke.
The dock. So close and yet so far. In its default configuration the dock is a travesty, and it’s difficult to make it much better my fiddling with available settings. I have successfully pinned it to the lower right hand corner, which gets it out of the way, but it’s still bothersome. The Windows-esque pop-up function is just annoying because it always ends up popping up when I don’t want it to, and most of the other customization options are basically pointless. The jumping icons and sucking apps are fun to watch, but don’t make my life easier. Magnification isn’t interesting, and I want the dock to be as small as possible so it will be less intrusive, so most of the otherwise-useful in-dock tools like calendars and clocks are uselessly illegible. The worst thing about the dock is that most apps disregard it and will happily pop up underneath it if given the chance. I hate to say this, but the dock should behave more like Windows in that respect. If the dock is showing, it should represent the edge of the screen and windows should line up with it. I am hopeful, though, because the changes that the dock needs to be a really great tool are quite minor, and I’m sure that even if Apple doesn’t smarten up, someone will figure out how to make it perform better.
I’m glad Apple moved the Apple menu back to its traditional spot, but it’s a shadow of its former self. It can’t be customized. The System Preferences link doesn’t cascade to the actual preferences. It has a useful link to “get Mac OS X Software” but I can’t trash the link once I’m done with it. Keep the Apple Menu the way it is, but let me customize it.
Mac OS X is pretty. Anti aliasing, shadows, transparency, high resolution icons, translucent lollipop colors. The Quartz interface seems to work pretty nicely. The candy colors are taken a little too far in the case of Microsoft Office, but I think that it’s the inevitable result of the combined influences of Windows XP and Mac OS X. I’ve always liked clean, bright interfaces, so I’m pretty happy with this one, and I know that there is plenty of opportunity to customize it: increasing or decreasing transparency, changing colors, removing shadows, etc.
One thing that I’ve always loved about the Mac OS is that it was pretty easy to figure out how things worked under the hood. If you opened up the system folder, you could add or remove elements there and you’d have a pretty good idea what would happen. Apple Menu Items, Extensions, Control Panels, and Fonts can be enabled and disabled by moving them around. Mac OS was like my old 1980 Yamaha motorcycle. It would stop running sometimes, but I just had to get off and jiggle something and it would start up again. All the parts were laid out for you to see and touch, and you had a pretty good idea of what everything did. Mac OS X reminds me more of my 1999 Audi A4. The engine is literally covered in a plastic case. Even though you can easily take the case off, underneath is a labyrinth of tubes and wires that are incomprehensible to an armchair mechanic like myself.
I know my way around a command line quite well. I’ve been using Unix and Linux for years on the server side, and I use Linux on the desktop frequently. One of the first things I did in OS X was drag Terminal.app to the dock. There’s not much need for it day to day, just as Apple intended. I know, though, that under the veneer of the Mac OS X UI, there are thousands of hidden files that are making everything happen. It’s an unknowable, mysterious jumble to the common user, if they’re aware of this at all. I realize that there are many benefits to this approach, and if given the choice between user-servicability and reliability, I’ll choose reliability. Nevertheless, I’ll mourn the loss of simplicity.
For me, though, it’s very liberating to be able to use the vast library of Unix software that’s available. It makes Mac OS X a very interesting server operating system, at least. And kinship with the Linux and FreeBSD movements should prove to be a big boost for Mac OS X. I haven’t made much use of the Unix functionality in Mac OS X yet because I will probably continue to use Linux to power my servers. I want Mac OS so I can run apps like Word, Powerpoint, Entourage, BBedit, Instant messaging, and web browsers. I like the Unix underpinnings as a security blanket. It makes me feel like I’m in good company.
Being an early adopter
The hardest thing about using Mac OS X every day have been common early adopter problems. There are numerous little apps and hacks that I have grown to depend on that are not yet ported. The Control Panels that gave the Mac OS full support for the Microsoft Natural Keyboard and Intellimouse Explorer have left me somewhat crippled. I haven’t tried hotsyncing my Palm yet, and when I do, Avantgo probably won’t work. I still have to pop into Classic from time to time, but it works pretty well. Photoshop still isn’t native, of course. All these things will come with time.
I am pleased with OS X. I don’t think I could have used the old Mac OS for much longer. The little details that bother me about the new OS are similar to the little details that bothered me about the old Mac OS. The most serious problems with the old OS (stability) are now finally fixed. I’m no lover of Microsoft, but to exist in the business world today, it’s hard if you don’t have Office. Office on Unix is a great combination, and Mac OS X is the only game in town. OS X allows me to co-exist in my Linux and Windows-using office quite nicely, and exchange files with people whatever platform they’re using.
There are some serious interface problems with the new OS, most notably with the dock, but they will probably be addressed in time. You should only make the switch right now if you’re willing to deal with a few growing pains, but Mac OS X is entirely usable now, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s a great time to be a Mac fan.