Mac OS X 10.3 (Panther) full review

The long-awaited upgrade to Mac OS X is finally with us. Apple claims 150 new features, though it hasn’t actually published a list to help us find them all.

First and foremost, the installation is as slow as with Jaguar. There are three CDs, plus an additional one for installing the developer tools. If you don’t remember to uncheck the options for multiple language settings (assuming you aren’t a polyglot), the installation can take as long as two hours on slower machines.

Unchecking the language options and the printer driver options will halve installation time. I would allow the best part of an hour on most machines, though a G5 installation took only ten minutes or so.

Smooth operator

Once Panther is installed, the first thing you’ll notice is the smooth-grey document headings replacing the ribbed or corrugated, look of Jaguar.

I’m a proud early adopter, but at first I wasn’t sure about the new look. A week later I’m coming round to it, including the brushed-metal finder windows, but it’s taken a little time.

The new Finder is better in some ways, but is slightly dumbed-down. Now that the shortcuts are at the side, clicking on them doesn’t allow you to backtrack using the bottom scroll bar in the column view. This means that clicking the Applications icon doesn’t give you a way to navigate back to the Library folder.

One welcome change is the Network icon’s new function – now, it actually connects you to the network. Of course, us early adopters figured out that in previous versions, OS X’s network icon was there as nothing more than a decoy for the unwary.

It will take some retraining to take it seriously again – but if you’re new to OS X, it will make perfect sense from the off.

Exposé – hot or not?

One of the most hyped features of Panther is Exposé, the magical window-management system. By hitting a hot-key, or mousing over to a corner of the screen, all the windows can be shrunk and laid out, inviting you to click them to bring them to the front.

For people with many open windows in their normal working life (like me), this sounded great. I must say, though, that I haven’t taken to it as much as I thought I would.

The theory is fine, and the demos – where a screen full of wildlife photography is magically shuffled – looked great. But I find that my dozens of type-filled pages look pretty similar when shrunk.

I’ll persist with it, but I suspect arty types will find more use for it than me. If you use the hot-corners to activate Exposé, it also has a habit of doing it when you don’t want it to.

The new look-&-feel doesn’t appear to have affected the performance of the Finder; it’s no slower, but not noticeably faster, either.

Fast user switching

Visually, Panther is different – but functionally it’s going to change the way we work. Fast user switching makes it much easier to have people hot-desking, when you use whichever Mac is free and still have access to your files.

Multiple users on one machine may seem an odd way for people to work if they aren’t used to it, but it does have lots of scope for all kinds of working environments. Fast switching makes it easier and quicker to change from one user to the other.

FileVault is a new and welcome feature, in particular for portable users. Laptops go missing from time to time, whether left on the bus or nicked from your office. It’s bad enough that somebody has your computer, but having access to your work or personal files can be disastrous too.

FileVault encrypts your data, and makes sure that thieves have no chance of getting anything in your home folder. It’s a great comfort, but beware. There is a master password, and if you lose or forget it, your data isn’t coming back. Ever.

At press time, some users had reported problems with FileVault resetting or destroying data for Safari, Address Book, Mail, Keychain, and the Dock. Apple is aware of the problem and has issued advice.

Mail has been updated to version 1.3, a seemingly minor update that includes some key functions. The most talked-about feature has been the threading of email conversations, but that doesn’t really excite me.

The real key – the thing that might tempt me away from Entourage – is the ability to only open HTML images in emails if you want to. This means that HTML spam, which habitually uses hidden images to identify live email accounts, is foiled. It also means that you need to hit a button to load the images of legitimate mail, but it’s a small price to pay for radio silence from spammers.

I don’t want to waste too many words on font management, but the new Font Book makes font management easier than it has ever been in any version of the Mac OS. I can just see font-management software makers cowering at the thought that Apple has finally addressed this thorny issue.

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