By Monte Ferguson
MacOS X is now three years old. We've gone beyond the stage of early adopters. This OS is no longer perceived as experimental. It is now the day in and day out OS of mainstream Mac users all over.
Apple has managed to keep to a very aggressive release schedule which brings welcome benefits to its users. In the last three years we've seen four releases. Each release has brought welcome new features, and the return others. In many ways the OS is still evolving. Yet, this is the most Mac-like version of MacOS X yet. Users long familiar with the classic MacOS will feel much more at home with Panther than they ever would with MacOS X 10.0.
The same technological underpinnings that have made previous versions of MacOS X successful underlie this version as well. Those core attributes being: True virtual memory, Protected memory, Multiple user environment, and a modern Graphics architecture. True virtual memory means that the days of running out of memory, or having to adjust a programs memory allotment, are long gone. Protected memory keeps unruly, or misbehaving, programs from bringing everything to a screeching halt. Instead of crashing your Mac you can just force quit the misbehaving app and go about your usual business. The Multiple User environment allows several people to share one computer. Each person can have their own unique space, with their own settings and apps. Thanks to Quartz Extreme, MacOS X comes with a modern graphics architecture. This means that the OS itself supports many features, such as anti aliasing, which would have to be built into each app. It also allows some really complex compositing and graphics effects never before seen in the MacOS.
Now that we've covered some of the background on MacOS X, let's get down to what makes this release unique. Invariably the question comes up; What makes this release worth the price of upgrading? As in years past, that ultimately comes down to your judgment. However, Apple advertises that there are over 150 new features in MacOS X 10.3, aka Panther. It's up to you to decide if those features are enough to tempt you to plunk down your hard earned cash.
For many years the Finder was practically invisible to the average user. You worked with it every day but never paid it any attention. That certainly has changed with MacOS X and especially in Panther. The new finder jumps out at you with its brushed metal windows, ala iMovie and iTunes. Apple has added a sidebar to every Finder window. The sidebar holds things like mounted volumes, as well as alias' to common destinations like Applications or Documents. You can also add your own favorite places by dragging them to the sidebar. Gone is the toolbar, at least for storing favorite locations on your hard drive, in the Finder. The Finder in Panther actually lets you find things. A new search box is part of every Finder window. The Finder window automatically updates, much like an iTunes search, as you type. The Finder window also has a Network Browser built right in. You just hit the Network item and then navigate to the computer or the shared folder you're looking for.
Other Finder improvements include: The Action pop up menu in every Finder window. This pop up menu lists the various things that you can do with a selected item. You can now securely delete items in the Trash.
(Editor's note: When you delete files normally, the Finder simply removes the file from the directory listing, but the actual bits of data are still on your disk. This is adequate for most cases, but if you need to permanently erase files so that no one can recover them, you use Secure Empty Trash. This takes a little longer, but means erased files are completely overwritten and cannot be recovered.)
Another new, and somewhat controversial, feature in the Finder is the ability to encrypt your home folder, using a feature Apple calls FileVault. The entire contents of your home folder are protected using Advanced Encryption Standard 128-bit encryption. When you log in to your account, and open files, they are automatically decrypted in the background for your use. When you save, or close the files, they are automatically encrypted again.
New Open and Save dialog boxes. The new dialog boxes allow you to: view and browse through items in a list or column view; The Sidebar is also available just like in other Finder windows.
Expose is one of those features you have to see to really appreciate. Once you've used it you get rather hooked on it. What Expose does is help you navigate through multiple windows you might have open at the same time on your screen, or get to something on the desktop. Expose allows you to: tuck all windows out of the way so you can get to the desktop; minimize windows so that you can select the one window you want to use at the time; or allow you to select to show only one applications windows (thereby hiding the other apps windows). Expose uses some of the Function keys on the keyboard, but you can set up your own hot keys for Expose. This feature may not sound impressive but trust me, it comes in very handy.
Fast User Switching
Apple has taken a page from Microsoft with this feature, and improved upon it. We all know that MacOS X is a multi user operating system. Which means multiple people can use the same machine. But, if you wanted to switch between users previously, it was a real pain. The issue was that the active user had to be logged out and all of his programs and files closed. Then the new user had to start up his session. You can still work that way if you want, but Fast User Switching allows you to switch between users without logging anyone out. To switch to a user account, just choose it from the menu at the right of the menu bar, then enter the user's password. To switch back to the first user, choose it and enter that user's password. All of the apps of each user will remain up and running until they completely log out. Apple has even created a snazzy 3d spinning cube effect to visually let you know you're switching between accounts. (Unfortunately this effect only works on G4 and G5 systems.)
Improved Font handling
Managing fonts can be a real challenge in MacOS X. That's because there can be up to 5 different places that fonts can be found in. To ease font management for the average person Apple has created a new app, Font Book. Font Book makes it easier to install, preview, search, and activate the fonts you need. Also, the Font panel provides advanced typographic controls, and the Character Palette lets you preview and select the right character variation. Font Book helps you install fonts, organize your fonts, activate and deactivate fonts. It also can preview what a font will look like.
Built in Fax Support
Who would have thought, by now, that faxing would be a must have feature? Well apparently it is. Unfortunately there is a real dearth of fax software for MacOS X. Apple has chosen to step in and offer built in faxing capabilities. Sending a fax is as easy as printing a file.
You can now send a fax to contacts in your Address Book from any application that prints. You can also receive faxes and organize them using Mail and view them using Preview. To fax a document to someone, first choose File > Print. Then click the Fax button in the Print dialog to address the fax, choose a cover sheet, and send it. To set up your computer to receive faxes, use the Faxing pane of Print & Fax preferences.
Bundled App's Receive Updates
MacOS X comes with an assortment of built in tools. But it also comes with an assortment of independent programs. Among the updated or new programs are Mail, Address Book, Safari, iChat AV, Preview, and XCode.
MacOS X's built in email program gains some new features as well. Among its new features are: viewing messages by threads, drag and drop addressing, safe addressing, and response history.
Threads support comes in really handy if you get a bunch of mail on all kinds of topics. If you choose View > Organize by Thread, Mail groups together messages about the same topic. You can also collapse a thread in the Mail viewer window. When you select the thread you see a summary message that shows information about the messages in the thread.
Drag and Drop addressing means Mail now treats each address as an object. When you move the pointer over an address, it's highlighted. If you drag the address, you can move it to a different address field. To add an address to your Address Book, hold down the mouse button and choose the appropriate command from the pop-up menu.
Mail lets you specify "safe" Internet domains, such as your company's domain. If you type an address that isn't in one of the safe domains you specify, Mail highlights the address, so you won't inadvertently send messages to the wrong person or address.
After you reply to a message or forward it to someone else, you can easily locate your outgoing message. Just click the Reply or Forward icon next to the original message to see the reply or forward you sent.
If you use a Microsoft Exchange mail client or Mac OS X Address Book, the Microsoft Exchange Mail Conduit lets you access personal addresses located on an Exchange server. Address Book also comes with several easy to use conduits so you can import address entries from several popular email programs like Entourage and Eudora.
iChat is Apple's AIM compatible instant messaging program. This app takes a big move forward in Panther. While you can still text chat with your buddies, this new version also supports video and audio chats. (Video chats require a high speed connection. Audio only chats can be conducted over dial up and high speed connections.) iChat allows you to have darn amazing quality full screen video and audio chats in real time. (For video chats Apple says that you need a FireWire video camera, or you can buy their iSight camera.) At first this ability was limited to just Mac users with iChat AV but now, with the release of AIM 5.5 on the Windows platform, you can video chat with Windows users too. iChat displays easy to understand icons next to buddy names to let you know if someone can have a text only, audio and text, or video/audio/and text chat session.
Safari is Apple's web browser. It sports the Apple interface elegance that we've come to expect from Apple. It's main controls are easy to use, and minimalist. But don't think that means it's not a capable browser. It is. Safari sports some really nice features that makes the browsing experience fun. By far the most useful feature is tabbed browsing. This allows you to open multiple web pages but keep them docked, via tabs, to ONE browser window. You can even set a collection of bookmarks to open into tabs. Google searching is built into Safari. Just click the Google search box in the toolbar, type a word or phrase, and press Return. To repeat a search, click the magnifying glass and choose the search from the pop-up menu. Apple has added a nifty feature called SnapBack. Say you've started browsing from a central web page and want to quickly jump back to it. All you have to do is hit the SnapBack button to jump back to that page, no need to repeatedly hit the back button. (You can do the same thing with the Google search box. Safari includes a built in pop up window blocking feature. Managing and organizing your bookmarks is darn easy in Safari. You can add a web page as a book mark by hitting the plus button. Organizing your bookmarks looks much like iTunes. You have to see it for yourself, but trust me on this, naming, moving, and arranging bookmarks is really easy in Safari. Safari also maintains a history of every web site you've visited lately. If you use Apple's iSync, and .Mac, you can sync up your bookmarks with all of the computers you use.
Apple has really updated Preview with this release. Apple touts it as the fastest PDF viewer for the Mac. Although Adobe might not like that characterization, it is correct. Preview gained support for hyperlinks, and URL's in PDF documents. Now if a PDF has a link to a web site, or to another portion of the same document, you can quickly jump to that destination. Preview can now render a single EPS file or an entire PostScript job as a PDF file. Simply double-click the PostScript or EPS file in the Finder and Preview automatically converts the file to high-quality PDF data, which you can print or save as a PDF file. This version finally adds the ability to copy and paste text from PDF documents. Preview improves the legibility and quality of fax documents you receive, so they are easier to view on screen or read in print.
When Apple purchased NeXT, and it's operating system, it gained some quite capable programming tools. Apple has updated them as MacOS X has matured but this release showcases some new and improved features. To mark this as a new release Apple has done away with names like Project Builder and Interface Builder. Now Apple calls its programming tools Xcode.
The new programming tools come with the full retail release of Panther, or you can download them for free from Apple's developers web site. Xcode is notably faster than previous builds of the programming tools. Xcode comes with a really nifty feature called Fix and continue. What this lets you do is run your program, and if you see a problem, you can fix it on the fly. All while the program is running. Xcode now only links the object code needed to open your app, instead of all of the code. This really aids in the debugging cycle. To save even more time, Xcode stays ahead of you by advance-compiling changes while you are still making them in your code. By the time you are ready to save and recompile, Xcode has already done most of the work. Using Rendezvous-based distributed builds, Xcode farms out the compile workload to idle desktop computers or dedicated Xserve servers. Xcode's Smart Groups organize your files for instant access to every element of your project, so you spend less time finding your code and more time creating it. Xcode includes a new search interface that uses live project indexing to deliver instant results that are always up-to-date. As you type your search, filter searching automatically refines the results. As you type function and variable names, Xcode suggests complete named elements from API documentation and the current project index.
Panther sports improvements for folks who are more interested in the Unix underpinnings of MacOS X. MacOS X has an improved NFS file system, and Kerberos and IPv6 integration. It also sports a complete X Windows implementation for Mac OS X. This allows you to easily run many popular X11-based applications. (X11 programs are graphical programs that run under a graphical shell which sits on top of Unix.)
There's an awful lot to like in this release. First off, Panther is definitely faster than Jaguar was. I'm talking faster and more responsive on the same systems that Jaguar had been running on. Expose comes in handy more times than I can count. It's one of those features that feels so natural you wonder how you got by without it. The new sidebar might take some getting used to but it can definitely be a handy feature. The new activity monitor is a definite plus. It gives you a comprehensive report on all aspects of your system. Improvements to Preview definitely help a lot. I hardly ever launch Adobe Acrobat Reader anymore. Fast user switching definitely helps out in labs or home situations where more than one person uses the computer. A quietly added new feature, a journaled file system, helps users out a lot. You won't notice it in a day to day setting. But if you do lock up or crash it will make recovery much easier, and much faster.
If you own an original beige G3 or Wallstreet Powerbook you are out of luck. Panther only runs on systems that shipped with USB ports pre-installed. The sidebar has been chided as being more screen clutter. Many folks aren't happy with the brushed metal look of the Finder. File Vault has been a controversial feature. It's controversial because a glitch can lead to all of your data in your home folder being lost. iChat AV's usefulness was initially quite limited as it was initially only available to Mac users. Price remains a gripe of many users. They object to paying full price for Apple's nearly annual major updates.
Panther is a worthy successor to Jaguar. It's more stable and faster than Jaguar was. Which is quite a compliment. If you just purchased Jaguar last year you might be asking yourself if it's worth it to upgrade to Panther. You will have to weigh the benefits against the costs for yourself. For those who've been holding back from upgrading, now is a good time. This release is about as responsive as MacOS 9 was. It also covers nearly all of the same features as MacOS 9, plus some OS X only additions. All in all this release is a winner.
Posted: Thursday, September 1st, 2005