Mac OS X full review

After nearly a decade of writing about Apple’s attempts to develop a whole-new, next-generation OS – failed projects’ code-names include Pink, Copland, Gershwin and Taligent, among others – it seems weird to be able to say that “OS X is now on sale”.

Not only is the ‘X’ pronounced ‘10’, Apple has officially titled the product “OS X version 10.0”.

Although X is really a 1.0 release, calling it 10.0 will make it easier to distinguish updates (OS X 10.1, 10.5, etc). But it is definitely worth remembering that OS X is version 1.0 of a new product, not version 10 of an established one.

As such, it is missing some features, is incompatible with some software, and marks a fairly radical change from what you’re used to. That said, OS X is undoubtedly the future of the Mac.

Moving to Windows is not an easier option, because that too is due a similar upheaval with Windows XP. Mac OS X has been designed to be easier to use, more robust and faster than the current Mac OS (and, of course, Windows) – three extremely good reasons to make the leap, if not now, then some time this year.

[We tested Mac OS X on a brand-new 466MHz Power Mac (PM) G4, a Titanium PowerBook G4, a 400MHz blue-&-white PM G3, and a 300MHz beige PM G3.]

Easier to use

When you try out Mac OS X for the first time, you’re not going to believe us when we say that the new operating system is easier to use.

Novices may even learn OS X faster than experts who have been using the Mac since the mid-1980s. Mac pros may initially find using X a bit like riding a recumbent bicycle with the handlebars to their sides rather than up-front.

Apple has made navigation more straightforward; although the way we’re forced into the X organization is initially rather off-putting.

The new Finder is now separate from the desktop. It’s a customizable window with three different views – it even has a back button, just like a Web browser’s.

In particular, the new Column view is a fantastic advance. You can scroll through nested folders until you reach the document you’re after. Click on the file, and – if it’s an image, PDF, sound or QuickTime file – it appears as a fully fledged preview.

Forget the tiny picture icons that you get with programs such as Photoshop – these previews show you exactly what that document looks like, with file info displayed beneath. Better still, sound files and movies actually play right there in the Finder window.

Each desktop window has a customizable toolbar at its top. You can click on toolbar icons (or just titles, if you wish) to take you to your favourite disks, applications and servers. Ever moved or copied items to the wrong folder? OS X features an Undo function and -Z keyboard shortcut.

The Apple Menu has been quite radically changed, although not as much as first feared. The new place to store aliases, files and apps is the bottom-of-the-screen Dock.

The Dock takes some getting used to. At first, it’ll have you wishing for the old Applications Switcher and Apple Menu, but over time its photographic icons become more familiar. Keep the Dock hidden, as this gives you more screen space and stops graphic redraws in Classic.

Shift-click a Docked app, and the program you’re currently in will be hidden. Control-clicking or click-and-holding a Docked folder reveals a list of everything inside.

OS X is too heavily biased in favour of multiple users. Most Macs are used by a single person, but OS X wants everybody to be a ‘user’ rather than the owner. This leads to some duplication of folder names (there are several “Library” and “Document” folders, for instance), which is likely to confuse you at first.

Overall, navigation is easier. But the ability to pare down some of the directories would have made getting used to Mac OS X a lot easier. Prepare yourself for at least a few days of bewildered frustration in this regard.

More robust

You wouldn’t know it, looking at the pretty Aqua user interface, but Mac OS X is built on a rock-solid Unix foundation. Unix is the computer platform favoured by banks, universities and governments. It’s a mature, but modern, industrial-strength computing standard.

Apple has made the brave decision to kill all the old legacy code that has built-up like barnacles since the first Mac operating system in 1984. This new but tried-and-tested architecture is what makes OS X so much more stable and speedy.

Memory Under OS 9 and earlier, a crashed program required you to restart your Mac – if it hadn’t already frozen your entire screen. OS X’s Protected Memory isolates applications in their own memory space – so if one crashes, OS X shuts down just that offending application; letting you continue to work without needing to restart your Mac.

In addition, X’s Virtual Memory Manager automatically allocates exactly the amount of RAM needed by each non-Classic application.


Despite Apple’s hype that OS X runs faster than previous versions, we found this initial release rather sluggish in places. The multicoloured spinning disc that replaces OS 9’s ticking wristwatch is on show too long. However, X boasts some advanced features that will definitely save you time.

Intensive operations in applications running on OS 9 (and earlier) would often hog your computer until that job was complete. While you could run more than one app in 9, this multitasking was merely co-operative – meaning that one program could take as long as it wanted at a task, and all the others would have to wait in line.

X’s Unix architecture allows for something called ‘pre-emptive multitasking’, which means that you can give priority to your primary application, but yet still work in other programs in the background.

This is a real boon. Going back to the stop-start world of pre-OS X is suddenly infuriating. In X, you should never have to watch a progress bar again.

Of course, like the electric-typewriter’s automatic return, this new ability to work continuously – and with fewer crashes – could have RSI-aching and eye-drying effects for Xers who don’t allow themselves some time away from their Mac.

Previous to OS X, specially optimized programs could take advantage of more than one processor in a Mac. This level of multiprocessing (MP) was beneficial to those apps (Adobe Photoshop and Cinema 4D XL, for example), but had little-to-no affect on any others.

X offers built-in support for dual-processor Power Mac G4 computers. One G4 can run a complex image transformation, while the other renders an iMovie effect, for example.

Furthermore, in X, all applications benefit from the higher performance a second processor offers.

Software compatibility

If you remember the switch from System 6 to System 7 (1991), the release of Mac OS 8 (1997) and the move to OS 9 (1999), you’ll be prepared for software incompatibilities. The jump to OS X makes the moves to 7, 8 and 9 look like hops, skips and bounces.

OS X is a totally new Mac operating system, built from the ground up rather than tweaked and enhanced like those mentioned above. Software incompatibilities are guaranteed.

That said, Apple has prepared us – and software developers – for the change by including many of those incompatibilities in 0S 9.1, out since January. OS X will run your old applications, as long as they run in this latest version of the pre-X Mac operating system.

If you’ve already upgraded from OS 9 to 9.1, you’ll know that some programs don’t get on so well with it. As 9.1 is still built from the same code base as 9 (effectively, the same code as 7 and 8 as well), it should be pretty easy for third-party software developers to fix these problems.

On OS X machines, these 9.1-compatible applications run in the Classic environment. Unfortunately, Classic apps cannot take advantage of OS X’s modern features – such as protected memory and pre-emptive multitasking.

To really benefit from OS X’s more stable and higher-performance architecture, programs must be optimized. Apple calls this program-rewriting process “Carbonization”. In addition to Carbonizing OS 9 apps, developers can write native OS X code in a new programming language called Cocoa.

While Carbon combines earlier Mac OS compatibility with native functionality on X, object-oriented Cocoa enables a more rapid development of Mac OS X applications. Apple has already Carbonized iMovie and iTunes. It has also released a preview of a Carbonized AppleWorks. Other companies are having to play catch-up.

Running your non-optimized programs in Classic mode is a little slower than under OS 9.1 on a non-X Mac. You must also install your fonts in X’s Library and Classic’s System Folder. X will live up to its speed claims only when your favourite apps are Carbonized.

Hardware compatibility

Another switching headache is driver-compatibility for your hardware peripherals. Most printers, scanners and input devices (with the exception of most FireWire hard drives, thankfully) require specific drivers to be supported by OS X.

Laser printers are mainly OK. But supported inkjets – for instance, some Epson and most HP inkjets – will be able to print, but won’t offer all the advanced options in X. Supported printers do keep all their options when you’re in Classic mode, but unsupported printers won’t print at all.

Epson, HP, Canon, Umax, Lexmark, Xerox, etc, expect to release X-friendly drivers in the coming months. Agfa, for example, has announcing X-supporting scanning software in the third-quarter (that’s July to September). Any DV camcorders supported by iMovie will be supported by the X version of Apple’s consumer video editor.

Missing features

Mac OS X is still a work in progress – a Beta 2, if you like. To its credit, Apple has publicly stated that this initial release of OS X (code-named Cheetah) is for early adopters and developers only.

This summer’s X update (code-named Puma) is the more likely real public release – and the one you should really wait for, unless you’re a real Mac addict.

The most significant missing feature is the ability to burn CDs or DVDs in X. This is pretty embarrassing to Apple, whose current marketing “Rip, Mix and Burn” campaign is all about iTunes and disc recording. Right now, OS X is also unable to playback DVDs.

While disappointing, Apple was right to hit its deadline and fix bugs in the coming months, rather than delaying X again.

Double-clicking and some drag-&-drop niceties don’t function as well as they should. And some aspects of networking require workarounds.

Apple will use its Software Update engine to roll out the many required bug fixes and feature additions for free. CD-burning and DVD support are expected sometime in April.

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