Without a doubt, Mac OS X is a stunning technical achievement. In fact, many tech reviewers and experts have called it the best personal-computer operating system on earth. But beware its name.
The X is meant to be a Roman numeral, pronounced “ten.” Unfortunately, many people see “Mac OS X” and say “Mac O.S. ex.” That’s a sure way to get funny looks in public.
Then there’s the “Mac OS” part—what a misnomer! Mac OS X is not, in fact, what millions of people think of as the Mac OS. Apple designed Mac OS X to look something like the old Mac system software, and certain features have been written to work like they used to. But all of that is just an elaborate fake-out. Mac OS X is an utterly new creation. It’s not so much Mac OS X, in other words, as Steve Jobs 1.0.
If you’ve never used a computer before, none of this matters. You have nothing to unlearn. You’ll find an extremely simple, beautifully designed desktop waiting for you.
But if you’re one of the millions of people who have grown accustomed to Windows or the traditional Mac OS, Mac OS X may come as a bit of a shock. Hundreds of features you thought you knew have been removed, replaced, or relocated. (If you ever find yourself groping for an old, favorite feature, see Appendix C and Appendix D—the “Where’d it go?” dictionaries for Mac OS 9 and Windows refugees.)
Why did Apple throw out the operating system that made it famous to begin with? Well, through the years, as Apple piled new features onto a software foundation originally poured in 1984, performing nips and tucks to the ancient software to make it resemble something modern, the original foundation was beginning to creak. Programmers (and some users) complained of the “spaghetti code” that the Mac OS had become.
Apple felt that there wasn’t much point in undertaking a dramatic system-software overhaul if they couldn’t master every key feature of modern computer technology in the process, especially crash-proofness. Starting from scratch—and jettisoning the system software we’d come to know over the years—was the only way to do it.
The result is an operating system that provides a liberating sense of freedom and stability—but one that, for existing computer fans, requires a good deal of learning (and forgetting).
The main thing you gain by adopting Mac OS X is stability. You and your Mac may go for years without ever witnessing a system crash. Oh, it’s technically possible for Mac OS X to crash, but that’s an extremely rare event. Rumors of such crashes circulate on the Internet like Bigfoot sightings. (If it happens to you, chances are good you’ve got a flaky hardware add-on. Turn promptly to Appendix B And by the way: Your programs may crash, too, but that doesn’t affect the Mac overall. You just reopen the program and carry on.)
Underneath the gorgeous, translucent desktop of Mac OS X is Unix, the industrial-strength, rock-solid OS that drives many a Web site and university. It’s not new by any means; in fact, it’s decades old, and has been polished by generations of programmers. That’s the very reason Steve Jobs and his team chose it as the basis for the NeXT operating system (which Jobs worked on during his twelve years away from Apple), which Apple bought in 1997 to turn into Mac OS X.
But crash resistance is only the big-ticket item. The list below identifies a few of the key enhancements in Panther. (Apple says it added 150 new features to Mac OS X 10.3. The truth is, Apple undercounted.)
Desktop features. Mac OS X in general makes navigating disks and folders extremely easy, thanks to features like the Dock, the Finder-window toolbar, and column view, which lets you burrow deeply into nested folders without leaving a trail of open windows.
In version 10.3, the Finder achieves maturity, turning from a squeaky-voiced teenager to a star college athlete. It’s faster than previous versions of Mac OS X, for starters. The new Sidebar is a huge idea. It eliminates much folder navigation altogether, because one click reveals the contents of any frequently used folder or disk you park there.
Other new touches include color labels that you can use to categorize your icons, a brushed-metal look for all disk and folder windows, and an Action pop-up menu (shaped like a gear) that brings the power of contextual (Control-key) menus to people who didn’t even know they existed.
Security. In an age when viruses and hackers are taking all the fun out of PCs, it’s great to be on Mac OS X. To date, not a single Mac OS X virus has emerged—partly because the Mac represents a smaller “audience” for virus writers, and partly because the Mac’s technical plumbing is more difficult to penetrate.
In Panther, Apple has capitalized on Mac OS X’s reputation for security by adding Secure Empty Trash (which deletes files you’ve put into the Trash, then scrubs the spot on the hard disk seven times with random gibberish to prevent recovery); FileVault (which encrypts your Home folder when you log out, so that nobody can access your files by restarting from another disk); and a new feature that closes down your account after a specified period of inactivity (so that the guy in the next cubicle can’t rifle through your stuff when you step away to the bathroom).
Timesavers. You no longer have to close out your account if somebody else in your family, school, or business wants to duck in to check their own email. Thanks to Fast User Switching, you can keep your programs and documents open in the background, even while somebody else logs in.
Exposé is another important advance in navigating today’s cluttered screens. It provides a single keystroke that shrinks and arranges all windows in all programs, so that you can click the thumbnail miniature you want and bring it to the front. (As you’ll find out in Section 4.3, it’s nothing like the Tile command in Windows.) Another Exposé keystroke shoves all open windows off to the edges of the screen for a moment, so that you can duck back to your Finder desktop to create a folder, burn a CD, locate a file, and so on.
You can now send and receive faxes right from the Mac, too, using Apple’s first homegrown, fully integrated faxing software.
Networking. When it comes to hooking up your Mac to other computers, including those on the Internet, few operating systems can match Mac OS X. It offers advanced features like multihoming, which keeps all networking connections (via Ethernet cable, AirPort wireless card, dial-up modem, Bluetooth cellphone, and even Firewire cable) open simultaneously. For laptop lovers, that means that your laptop can switch automatically and invisibly from its cable modem settings to its dial-up modem settings when you take it on the road.
In Mac OS X 10.3, you can still connect to another networked computer using the Go→Connect to Server command. But there’s a far easier way now: Just click the Network icon in the Sidebar. It reveals all of the Macs and PCs on your home, school, or office network, without your having to configure anything or know their addresses.
Accessory programs. Perhaps the least publicized new Panther feature is the set of upgrades Apple made to the 50 accessory programs that come with the Mac.
For example, iChat AV (ordinarily $30) comes with Panther, making it possible for you to conduct free long-distance phone calls and even video calls over the Internet. A new program called Font Book acts like a junior version of Font Reserve or Suitcase; it reveals all of your fonts, makes it simple to install or remove them, and lets you switch off sets of fonts at will.
The TextEdit word processor now offers style sheets, and it can create and open full-fledged, true-blue Microsoft Word documents. Preview, which began life as a humble graphics viewer/converter, is now a fast, powerful PDF reader like Adobe Acrobat Reader (which no longer comes with Mac OS X).
Image Capture can operate Epson scanners and many others—and it offers a mind-blowing new spycam feature using an ordinary digital camera. The Mail email program and Safari Web browser have been beefed up, too. And the humble Calculator now has a graphing mode, although you have to unlock it yourself, as described in Chapter 9.
The complete list of changes in Mac OS X 10.3 would fill a book—in fact, you’re holding it. But some of the nicest changes aren’t so much new features as renewals. Panther comes with an even more full-blown collection of printer drivers, for example, and the latest versions of its underlying Unix security and Internet software.