Return of the Mac, new and improved

The new Mac OS X introduces some innovations to the familiar features that Mac users know. Charles Arthur road-tested the system - and was, on the whole, impressed
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It's not quite ready for prime time," cautioned a friend when I mentioned I was hoping, at last, to get my hands on a copy of Mac OS X - the "public beta" of the new operating system that will power Apple Macs from next year.

It's not quite ready for prime time," cautioned a friend when I mentioned I was hoping, at last, to get my hands on a copy of Mac OS X - the "public beta" of the new operating system that will power Apple Macs from next year.

And while I'd certainly agree with that finding, after a few days spent using it - and considering what the alternatives are - I'd have to say that all that remains before putting it on the road are a few tweaks and twiddles. Once those are done, OS X (you're meant to pronounce the X as "10", but that sounds prissy, and calling it "Ex" sounds much more, well, X Files-ish and mysterious) really will be ready to roll.

The beta, it's true, is not ready for prime time. You would not really want to use this all the time; apart from anything else, there are too few applications available on it, though more are appearing every day.

That said, the first draft of this article was written on it, using TextEdit, a simple text editor which is included; and more applications are rewritten for it each day, now including iCab, probably the fastest, smallest browser for the Apple Macintosh platform, and Soundjam MP, which is Casady & Greene's top-flight CD/MP3 player (and my weapon of choice).

Normally, I avoid beta products, but the temptation to see what everyone else was going on about - both grousing and praising - on the newsgroups was too strong.

Yes, OS X's new model of thinking certainly does take some getting used to. Once it starts up (which happens much more speedily than with OS9), you're confronted with a blank desktop with a blue Apple logo in the top menu (click it: nothing happens) and a bunch of icons - called the "dock" - stuck on bottom of the screen. Click the Mac smiley face there and you're in business. A window comes up showing your hard disk, its main subfolders, and any other disks that are connected to your machine.

Yes, it's a new way of interacting. But no, it doesn't take long to get used to, providing you're prepared to go with the flow. And for former Windows users and people who've never touched a computer before, it will make perfect sense, as they don't have the mental baggage of users of earlier Mac systems - who want this menu here and that one there and this disk here.

And there are loads of keyboard shortcuts for things like switching applications and (my favourite) hiding applications you aren't using. Yup, the Mac OS has finally caught up with - and, once again, overtaken - Windows in the usability stakes.

The interface, called "Aqua", is in general quite lovely: jelly blobs all over the screen, pulsing option boxes, a smooth overall feel.

However, I did find it very bright. That's because the edges of all the windows are white, as are the tops of windows. Normally in Windows and "classic" MacOS (as it is now beginning to be called), window edges are grey. You soon realise why as you squint at the screen and then start fighting off a headache. Memo to Apple: fix this soon.

The second current problem is the "antialiasing" which is used all over the place. This is a process used to prevent black diagonal lines on white backgrounds from looking jagged, and it puts "grey" pixels in between the jagged points.

Unfortunately, on OS X Beta, it really doesn't work. On the Powerbook I tested it out on, it looked like someone had smudged the screen with margarine. Other people can bear antialiasing, but I hate it; only by choosing a tiny size of a non-aliased font could I begin to write without feeling uncomfortable.

And when I viewed pictures (such as the movie trailers supplied with the beta), their sharpness threw the fuzziness of everything else into sharp relief. I am told though that this is a high priority for improvement in the final release.

So, that's the cosmetic stuff - what about how well it actually works? Steve Jobs has made much of OS X's Unix underpinnings. It's based on NeXT Computer's operating system, which ran on Intel and Motorola chips (by the time the company was bought in 1996 by Apple, which got Jobs for free, who then ousted Gil Amelio, the chief executive).

Unix can handle lots of applications at once, doesn't really care how much RAM you have (it swaps unused bits to disk), and is essentially industrial strength - most Web servers use Unix. If one program crashes, then the rest carry on untouched, rather than needing an entire machine restart.

(Personally, though, I find that OS9, the present version, is already robust in this respect.) Yes, OS X demonstrated all Unix's strengths - but also some weaknesses. I did manage to completely crash the system twice. I think.

Why am I not sure? Because OS X uses "pre-emptive" multi-tasking. Classic Mac OS programs are meant to co-operate by letting other applications have the processor as soon as they're done. Such "co-operative" multitasking, as that is called, can have advantages.

The Mac designers back in 1984 discovered that if the mouse was given lots of processing time - that is, it reacted right away when you clicked - then you tended to think the machine was more powerful than it actually was. And that remains true to this day: click the Apple mouse, and the machine stops everything it's doing, your dutiful servant.

In OS X, though, the mouse driver is just another program. The trouble with that is that it can get pre-empted by other programs, and so it can often be jerky. This is very off-putting and it can give the impression that the machine is dead, when actually it's just busy dealing with another process before it comes back to the mouse.

Memo to Apple: fix this right away, or people will think OS X is a lot worse than it is.

Overall? I think it's going to be a hit. Expect a formal release by about March next year; but don't pass up the chance to try it out - though be careful, and don't install it on any disk partition that is vital to your work or your sanity.