Mac OS 9.1 full review

You may not have noticed it, but Apple has quietly updated its current operating system from Mac OS 9.0.4 to 9.1. Apple made no mention of it at Macworld Expo because it wants all publicity to be channelled to its forthcoming operating system Mac OS X. Yet OS 9.1 makes significant, if subtle, alterations both to the look-&-feel and architecture of the operating system.

First off, the update from OS 9 to 9.1 is free. If you’re running a system pre-OS 9.0 and you own a Mac (made by Apple) no older than four years old, you really should upgrade to at least 9.0 (and then 9.0.4 or 9.1). This will cost you £79 – it’s well worth it (for Apple’s iTools alone).

Installation warning

Be sure to start your Mac from an OS 9 CD when installing the update – otherwise, nasty things can happen. When I tried, I got an alarming message about “Big System Morsels”, which apparently contain resources for the System and/or System Resources files. I also crashed horribly after installing 9.1 without first starting from an OS 9 CD, and had to re-initialize my hard disk. So, do as Apple says!

What’s new

Mac OS 9.1 offers some neat feature and performance enhancements, along with changes designed to begin the transition to Mac OS X – Apple’s thoroughly re-architectured Unix-based operating system due to ship on March 24.

You’ll notice that 9.1 renames the Applications folder “Applications (Mac OS 9)”, and moves the Internet, Apple Extras, and Utilities folders into it. You can’t then rename this folder from the Finder. Several preferences files – including Finder Preferences – are deleted.

OS 9.1 also removes items from the Apple Menu Items folder, such as Note Pad. This re-arrangement of folders and apps can cause problems for aliases, but these are easily fixed.

OS 9.1 also installs a new Window menu in the top Finder menu bar. This handy menu lists all the open Finder windows, including tabbed windows on the bottom of the screen.

New keyboard shortcuts make this valuable new addition even more handy. Holding down the command key while using the menu closes the window in question; command-Shift puts away a pop-up window; Control expands the selection and minimizes all other open windows; Control-Option makes the selection active and expands all open windows. This addition is one of those “how-did-I-live-without-it” type updates that makes 9.1 a real winner.

Mac OS 9.1 also includes new Finder shortcuts. You can now empty the Trash by clicking command-Shift-Delete (Backspace). View Options can be selected via command-J; and Add To Favorites is now a matter of hitting command-T.

One of the best things about OS 9 is its ability to work with Apple’s wonderful free iTools services, especially iDisk and Home Page. OS 9.1 continues the link-up by adding a “Connect to iDisk” selection to the Shortcuts button in Open and Save dialog boxes and the Network Browser.

USB printer sharing is now installed as part of the standard system software, making it possible for users on the same network to share connected USB printers. A new control panel, “USB Printer Sharing”, makes set-up a one-click breeze. This facility will make upgrading worthwhile for anyone frustrated with this output situation up to now.

I was horrified when I started using QuarkXPress on 9.1, as it refused to recognize all those function-key commands I rely on. However, this seems to be the fault of a new Hot Function Key setting that can be switched off in the Keyboard control panel. Phew!

One of the top things about OS 9.1 is its ability to burn CD-RWs without third-party software, such as Roxio’s Toast. You need to download a piece of software called Disc Burner from Apple’s Web site. Unfortunately, the International-English version of Disc Burner was not available at press time, so we couldn’t test it.

Under the hood

Many of OS 9.1’s changes are invisible to the non-programmers eye. The Process Manager is now entirely written in native PowerPC code, which reduces task-swapping overhead and improves overall system performance.

Other changes include free-space extent caching in the file system, which increases the efficiency and speed of disk transactions, and an increase in HFS+ cluster sizes to 8K for volumes bigger than 260GB.

Some changes benefit PowerBook and iBook owners. For instance, if a program in 9.1 is running a delay loop – such as for the zoom box when a window is opened – and no other processes are running, the OS puts the CPU to sleep for the duration of the loop. Over time, this should translate into noticeable gains in battery life.

The wake from sleep process is also speeded up, especially after updating over a clean install of 9.0.4.

Mac OS 9.1 also adds full support for all the keys on the Apple Pro Keyboard when used with pre-summer-2000 Macs. There are many other small alterations. When copying files, it is no longer possible to overwrite a normal document file with an alias file. And 9.1’s Finder user interface no longer allows users to turn on file sharing for folders and volumes with names longer than 27 characters.

A crashing problem that could occur when there was an invisible file in the Trash and another file with the same name was dragged to the Trash has been corrected.

Some errors that could occur in the Finder when dragging FireWire drives to Trash have also been corrected. OS 9.1’s Finder does not allow users to create an alias inside a drop box. Previous versions of the Finder would allow this operation, but they would always fail and leave a partially created alias inside the drop box. Thankfully, the new Finder no longer crashes when over 200 nested folders are expanded in a list view.

And pop-up window tabs are now resized appropriately after the 9.1 user changes his or her screen resolutions.

Ironically for an operating-system update that is meant to work better with Mac OS X, 9.1 is not compatible with the Classic environment in the OS X Public Beta – due to changes that require modifications to the Classic environment. Apple promises, however, that this update will work with the final release of OS X.

9.1 software compatibility

As with all operating-system updates, you must be ready for glitches between it and older third-party software. The first casualties caused by new OS versions are traditionally Adobe’s Type Manager (ATM) and Type Reunion (ATR).

Apple warns that “changes in Mac OS 9.1 cause an incompatibility with ATM, ATM Deluxe and ATR” and states that 9.1 dumps your old ATM control panel into the Control Panels (Disabled) folder during installation.

While Apple claims that there are ATM and ATR updates at Adobe’s Web site. Adobe tells Macworld that “the versions that were posted in October 2000 were not related to Mac OS 9.1”. Adobe has seen some reports of incompatibility between ATM Light and Mac OS 9.1, but “mostly in relation to other applications”.

Adobe’s engineering team is in the process of trying to confirm if a problem does exist: “If one exists, we plan to work on a fix, and post a new version to the Web site in the near future”.

The always-excellent MacFixIt Web site has a special Mac OS 9.1 page that is regularly updated with reported incompatibilities and possible fixes. For example, there’s a way to make sure Casady & Greene’s Conflict Catcher will work with 9.1, and confirmation from Aladdin Systems that Drag Strip requires a patch.

There are also problems with some external USB modems, according to MacFixIt.There don’t seem to be many serious OS 9.1 incompatibilities. But if this sort of stuff scares you, I’d advise you wait till you’ve checked that your favourite applications are 9.1 compatible.

But remember that 9.1 also fixes many previous system-related bugs and glitches, such as the oft-reported Sleep problems of 9.0.4. At the very least, upgrade to 9.0.4 – free from version 9.0; £79 otherwise.

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