Preview: What to Expect from Mac OS X Panther 10.3

I was able to try out and preview Mac OS X Panther 10.3 for the past few months after WWDC and for the last few days I am running a latest version. So, what to expect from Mac OS X when it comes out on the evening of October 24th? Come in and have a look in this preview article. Update: screenshots removed at request of Apple.

Installation
The installation procedure hasn’t changed, but now it requires the two first CDs and if you want extra things (e.g. X11), you will need to have ready your third CD as well. I installed clean on both my Macs, because upgrading wouldn’t work on my 12″ Powerbook (Jaguar “had errors” the installation was insisting). That was not a big deal for me as I don’t have any important data on my Macs, but it may be troublesome for people who who are trying to install on their primary machine. The default filesystem used is Journal-enabled (thank Dominic Giampaolo, filesystem god, of ex-SGI, ex-BeOS and ex-QNX fame, for that).


The Goodies
The biggest new feature on Mac OS X, according to Apple, is the new Metal-looking, multi-threaded Finder (re-written from scratch). The user now has handy shortcuts on the left side of any Finder window, shortcuts that lead to folders, other computers, media, disk images etc. You can also label files and folders according to their importance so you can easily spot them with a simple glance at the screen. Additionally, when double-clicking apps to load, a nice effect will zoom in and fade the icon’s application, giving the user a smooth launch feedback feeling.


Exposé is indeed the coolest new trick we’ve seen lately on any OS, making the usage of virtual screens less needed (however, I will still keep my handy CodeTek VirtualDesktop utility). Using the keyboard+mouse, F9-F11 keys or “hot corners”, you can trigger the OS to display your open windows in one large view. The effect is like a big bang, with each window shrinking in size and moving outward until they’re all on one plane. You can then select which one you would like to re-appear on top. It’s configurable to “expose” all windows, just applications, or just move everything out of the way for a clear view of the desktop. It would be great if Apple would add mouse gestures for Exposé though, because reaching for the F-keys all the time isn’t convenient (and I dislike hot corners). The hot corners feature can result in accidentally engaging Exposé, which can be a jarring experience.


iChat AV is a useful AIM clone and if you happen to have an iSight (as I do), it makes it even cooler and more useful, as the iSight enables the videoconferenciing feature. Picture quality with iSight is marvelous, however I would have liked iMovie to recognize the camera as Firewire DV camera (which is what it is). Personally, most of the time I use Fire instead of iChat because I also need MSN, Y! and ICQ support. I hope Apple considers adding these popular formats to iChat (if that’s possible, license-wise) as that way it will see many more “switchers” from Fire or Proteus to iChat.


Fast User Switching’ is here too and it allows you to change users without logging out of your applications (by using another cool looking QuartzExtreme-powered special effect). This is a great little feature for families or people who share the same computer. I would have prefered the option to have a small 16×16 icon on the menu bar that clicking it would drop down the list of users, instead of displaying my full name on the menu bar. Even on 1280×1024, it does not leave enough screen space for some demanding apps that span across 12-14 menu items. It’s bad enough for my name, but I imagine that someone with a full name like Alejandra Francesca Rodriguez López de Medina won’t be happy at all to see that on her 1024×768 iBook or iMac… I filed a usability bug report with Apple a few months ago about this, and the reply was “this feature is working as intended”. Right.

An updated Mail.app brings threading and will filters spam pretty efficiently. An updated Preview application renders and searches through PDFs much faster than previous versions, while the new utility named Font Book fills in a much-needed functionality hole in OS X, allowing you to organize and install/remove Fonts from the system. Another new addition is FileVault: you can secure your documents with AES-128 encryption. Though I don’t think I will personally ever need this feature, I am glad it is there. Safari is now at version 1.1 and cookies seem to work much better now. Internet Explorer 5.2 is also included, and as much as I like IE on Windows, I despise its “forgotten” Mac version. It is Safari all the way for me now, as it is indeed the fastest-scrolling/resizing (and possibly rendering) browser on the Mac platform today.


Interoperability with Windows is even better now. Samba seems to work really well. There is Exchange support, and VPN access to Windows networks is there too. On the third disk you will also find a package with support for Common Access Cards.


Interoperability with traditional Unix is also upgraded with the inclusion of XFree 4.3. I was able to run Gnome and KDE in a Mac OS X window (via Xnest — slower than the rootless X11, because Xnest doesn’t support fontconfig) or directly on the rootless X11/MacOSX shared desktop, or on a “virtual” desktop running in full screen mode on top of OSX. Good stuff, though too bad that ‘xclock’ won’t load though for some reason.


The preference panel has been re-worked a bit, the OS now has much better Bluetooth support, more printer and scanner drivers, USB 2 support, support to setup your Mac as a Remote Desktop Client, telnet/ftp/personal server abilities, print and internet connection sharing and much more, easy to setup and use via the preference panels. TextEdit can now read .doc files.


The UI has also seen a refinement. Widgets and windows are all clean-looking. I like the new tabs (they look like buttons now), I like the new tab views, the lesser trasparency in the menus, the loss of these (ugly on LCDs) horizontal lines on window backgrounds etc. If you are using a metal application and you invoke an alert or an “attached” child window on the master window, the effect of the way the child window pops up out is impressive (see it on Path Finder 3.x as well when you tell it to customize its toolbar). Overall, Apple did a wonderful job on the UI again. However, Java applications have not been updated to use the new look. They are in fact still using the same look as in MacOSX 10.1 (Jaguar 10.2 also had a UI refinement), and needless to say, they look out of place, even if Apple has the best-looking and most integrated Java apps on the planet.


Developers will feel at home with the new developer tools Apple is offering, XCode. By using clever tricks like distributed builds, zero linking, ‘fix and continue’ (an SGI innovation some years ago), code completion, fast search, predictive compilation etc. Apple is now able to offer truly competitive tools that should bring new development houses in the Mac platform and enrich it with more applications.


Other new features on OSX include a more automatic iDisk for .Mac users, better text-to-speech quality (still sub-par, though, compared to some specialized solutions I saw a few months ago), better font rendering, updated Address Book with new features, updated iSync and iCal and many more changes under the hood. Oh, I should not forget that the mouse acceleration and speed has been worked out and now we get much faster motion by the input devices. Personally, I would upgrade for just that feature alone as it has given me grief in the past.


A feature I saw on the latest betas, is the Bug Reporter, similar to Microsoft’s, KDE’s and Gnome’s Bug Buddy. When you get an application crashing, the debug symbols will load and you have the option to send it to Apple. Personally, I love this feature, no matter what OS I run. The developers need to know what’s causing problems, so I am all for co-operating with these tools. However, I saw absolutely no Privacy Policy attached to the Reporter application…


Last but not least is Panther’s speed. Users with older Mac computers (like my G4 Cube 450 Mhz) will welcome the overall new speed levels and UI responsiveness. File operations seem faster now (e.g. unarchiving, moving files from disk images to your drive etc), launch times are much better, scrolling is better too. While UI responsiveness is still not as good as in Windows XP or other OSes because of the technologies used for Cocoa/Carbon apps, the OS is fully usable and it won’t be a problem for most users. Applications that don’t use Cocoa or Carbon (e.g. X11 apps) resize and scroll extremely fast, which means that the OS’ speed is not the limitation, but the advanced techniques used on Cocoa/Carbon apps (e.g. proper non-flicker algorithms, PDF engine etc). And that’s a good thing overall. It is a give and take kind of thing: you sacrifice some UI responsiveness and you get a headache-free and good looking modern desktop.

The Not so Good
First thing I did after I installed the latest version of OSX on my Cube was to set it up as an Airport Base Station. I find the process of doing so quite convoluted. It involves 3 different preference panels plus 1 application found on /Applications (“Internet Connect”) and so you need to play around quite a lot until you figure out how to do it. At least, it doesn’t require you to mess with the command line.


Another personal gripe I have is that I can’t change the color of the Dock and I can’t place apps beneath it without resorting to hacks (on my 12″ Powerbook I want to have my Fire window underneath the Dock, as shown on my 10.2 Jaguar desktop. I always place the Dock on the sides, because most monitors are 4:3 or 16:9, which means that they are much wider horizontally, so this way I save screen space).


I would normally jump for joy at the new ability to apply AppleScripts to Finder’s files and folders via the Action menu. It is a similar concept to BeOS’ Tracker addons and Gnome’s Nautilus scripts (not a coincidence, as both were implemented by Pavel Cisler, who is now working for Apple’s Finder). However, I just can’t figure out how to use them. I enabled the “Actions”, I added some scripts in there, I right click and I only see options how to edit and remove these scripts and not how to APPLY them to the selected files/folder. Plus, my changes seem to only work for the specified selected folder or file and not across the board. I found this extremely frustrating, and I believe it is the one single new feature where Apple needs to refine the usability on how to set it up and use it. Until I can get this working, I have disabled Applescripts on my Finder.


And speaking about the Finder, it still has some bugs. Choosing “Clean Up” from the menu, it will mess up my icons and place them on top of each other on certain situations instead of actually… cleaning them up.


As I stated above, I love Safari. It is simple, cute, fast, does the job. However, I personally need two specific features:
1. CNTRL+Z (command+z) to undo a mistake that I might have done while typing fast on a textarea (it happens all the time when I am typing a post on OSNews or on Hotmail) and poof, all my text is gone inside that textarea, possibly by a shortcut I typed without me wanting to do so. I lose my whole text and there is no way to get it back, so an Undo or CNTRL+Z inside the textarea is most wanted.
2. I need a Windows Media Player plugin. Apple is touting Windows interoperability, but this is a sore spot right there. I usually need to view WMV video and movie trailers that happen to not be available as QuickTime or Real, but most of the time I wanna watch music video clips at launch.yahoo.com. I mean, I’ve got the Internet bandwidth, why not be able to enjoy Red Hot Chilli Peppers or Linkin Park videos as the average Windows user can at 300 kbps? 😛


One of the biggest differences between Windows and Mac OS X, in my opinion, is that Microsoft always tries to retain as much compatibility with previous versions as possible while Apple doesn’t. I noticed that with Jaguar and I noticed the same with Panther: about 10-20% of the third party applications just won’t load anymore, or they will crash on load. I understand that this policy has dsitinct advantages, but that’s a lot of incompatable apps (out of 7,000 available for OSX) and while most of these will be recompiled in the next few months by their authors, the inconvienience caused is already there.


Oh, and boo-hoo, my favorite background image on Jaguar (a blue-ish image with little fading rectangles) is apparently not included in 10.3.


I had no problems with stability (except a ‘Grab.app’ crash while taking these screenshots), but OSNews Publisher David Adams has had a hard crash about every three days while using Panther (7B85), caused by interactions with various applications.

Conclusion
To put a long story short, I love Panther. It has a few problems as I outlined above, but overall, this is a great update. It is a worthy operating system, easy to use, easy to set up, easy to get pleased by it. It just works. In my opinion, the only true desktop alternative to Windows is Mac OS X today, not Linux (not yet at least).


I highly recommend every Mac user to upgrade to Panther and I also recommend PC OSNews power users with some extra cash to spare consider buying either the juicy new 12″ 1 GHz Powerbook (from $1599) or the older G4 1.25 GHz PowerMac (from $1299) which do come in very favorable prices (for Apple machines) for the amount of features they carry (in comparison to other Apple machines).


I wouldn’t mind seeing an upgrade plan though. Users who have purchased Jaguar just last year, they should not be forced to pay the whole retail amount of $129 but an upgrade plan of about $50-60 bucks should be offered to them.


Installation: 10/10
Hardware Support: 8.5/10
Ease of use: 9/10
Features: 8.5/10
Credibility: 9/10 (stability, bugs, security)
Speed: 7.5/10 (throughput, UI responsiveness, latency)


Overall: 8.75


Related reading: Mac OS X Jaguar 10.2 review last year.

155 Comments

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