Mac OS X Public Beta Review

By Jason Buck

Unless you've been abducted and experimented on by aliens for the last couple of weeks, you know that Steve Jobs finally made available to the public a version of Mac OS X in the form of a public beta.  I ask anyone reading this review to keep in mind that regardless of whether or not you can buy it from Apple, this is still definitely beta level software, and there will likely be many changes and drastic optimization before version 1.0.


The Mac OS X Beta About Box

Let me start by saying OS X is superb.  I have switched to it as my primary OS.  The interface is both beautiful and highly functional, it is incredibly stable, and it may be the first time I have felt the first beta release of any software was really usable.  Column view is really great, once you get used to using it, as is the dock.  In this article you will read many comments on things that are unimplemented or not up to snuff as of yet.  This is not to criticize Apple, or their new OS, nor to make anyone leery of it.  It is so that you can see the progress that has been made, and what still needs to be done.  The reason Apple has continually pushed back the release of OS X is that they truly need the time to bring this OS as close to perfection as possible, as this is really a make or break turning point for the Mac platform.

For the most part I will not be writing about things Apple has already officially stated about Mac OS X.  If you have not been following moonrockreptiles coverage of Mac OS X, or what Apple has said or shown of Mac OS X, or if you need a refresher, you should review the material at Apple's website and/or watch Steve Jobs' Apple Paris keynote, or read earlier moonrockreptiles OS X coverage.

The installation requires that you boot into an OS X native installer from the CD.  On  my iMac DV SE (99) with 128 MB's RAM the installer informed me that the installation would take 22 minutes.  It took 11.  After it installs your machine restarts and you step through the setup assistant.  Your machine restarts a final time, you log in, and you are up and running Mac OS X Public Beta.

It seems as though Apple has stripped at least some of the debug code.  Startup times are quicker than they were in DP4, it now takes almost exactly the same amount of time it takes a default installation of Mac OS 9 to boot up.  (I measured 1 min 17 sec to boot OS X from power-up to desktop, and 1 min 16 sec to boot OS 9.)  Applications launches are also much quicker than DP4, but still lag a bit behind OS 9.  However, it doesn't FEEL like it is laggier than OS 9 due to the fact that even while an application is launching you can do something else.  In fact in some instances OS X is faster for application launch, such as when launching multiple Applications.  Under OS 9 when I start up my computer I usually launch ICQ, Eudora, and a web browser (I change preference on this frequently).  I have to launch ICQ, wait for it to open, then launch Eudora, wait for it to open, and finally I launch my web browser and wait for it to open.  Under Mac OS X I usually launch Mail, Fire, and a web browser all from the dock, all at about the same time, and they all seem to launch nearly as fast as if I had only clicked one of them.  Live dragging and scrolling are nice and snappy (unlike DP4).  Unfortunately there were no applications or demos included to test OS X's native Open GL implementation with, and I have yet to find any third party native apps that show it off.  The ability to copy and past font settings (without copying any text) is really cool too.

The virtual memory and multitasking schemes are fantastic.  I opened every application the operating system comes with (except for classic), as well as several I downloaded, including the carbonized Maya Paint Effects screensaver.  I had a quicktime movie and two quicktime streams playing, was listening to an MP3, and surfing the internet, with almost no slowdown.

There have been a few interface refinements/enhancements.  You can now resize the dock by clicking the line that separates apps from documents and dragging down or up instead of having to go into the dock prefs to adjust it's size.  The Dock's magnification option is now turned off by default, probably to maximize performance.  The icons in the dock look a bit sharper than they did in DP4 when magnified.  For that matter they do in the finder as well.  The red gumdrop button on a window containing a document in which you haven't saved changes now gets a dark red dot in the center of it (I'm told this is a feature that was in NeXT Step), and the document icon dims.  The clock can now float semi-transparently on the desktop or it can sit in the dock, and in either mode you can have real-time ticking seconds.  Most of the millions of UNIX directories and files have been hidden in the finder and in most navigation services dialogs, though you can still see them all in Classic navigation services dialogs.


A saved document


An unsaved document

Which brings us to Classic.  A very impressive improvement over DP4.  Integration with the OS X finder is far more invisible, though the fact that it has the platinum interface makes it look very out of place when all around is aqua.  When I first attempted to switch the aqua theme in classic, OS 9's appearance manager would snap back to platinum.  I know there are several aqua theme's out there, so it may only do that with the one I have.  I noticed, though, that other themes worked fine.  The solution turned out to be switching from platinum to a different theme, then switching to Aqua.  Classic fits in much better now.  Classic's performance is drastically improved.  Perhaps the best part is that Classic now supports graphic acceleration, allowing most games to function in it.  It is still, however, a ways from perfect.  Whenever you have Classic running the whole of OS X takes a performance hit, and the more applications you have open the worse it gets.  Games and applications that use 2D graphics acceleration approach the performance of running natively, provided you don't have too many other Classic applications open.  3D games are a different story.  Though they are obviously graphics accelerated, the graphics tend to run jumpy.  Hopefully Apple can improve this by 1.0.

Really, Classic is the only remotely weak link in OS X.  It's a marvelous piece of engineering, but it will always pale in comparison to an OS X native app, and it will always be a haslle to use OS 9 applications under OS X.  It is quite necessary for Apple to include it however to ease migration, and it does work well considering, I just hope that all the software developers get out their carbonized applications as rapidly as they say they will, so I can ditch Classic.

Stability in OS X is rock solid.  In fact the only way I have managed to lock the system to the point of having to force restart is by making Classic crash really hard.  Most of the time when a Classic app crashes you can just force quit Classic and restart it, which is fantastic.  If, however, an application crashes really hard you can continue to use OS X, but cannot quit the Classic app.  You can even force quit Classic, but the app stays open.  If you then try to restart, shut down the computer, or try and log out, everything manages to quit itself including the dock and the finder, leaving you with your desktop picture, and the inability to do anything but force restart.  Fortunately there are enough carbon and cocoa apps out that I find it to be fairly rare that I have to use any classic apps for my day to day tasks.

One thing I never understood about DP3 (the first version of OS X I used), DP4, and Mac OS X Public Beta is the fact that when you create a new file, or you download a file it often takes a while for it to appear in the directory.  If you know the answer to this you should post it in the moonrockreptiles forum (Click the little forum button on the side bar of this page).

Internet Explorer has improved in usability, speed and stability since DP4, but still has quite a few issues.  I recommend downloading Omniweb.  Though neither are perfect (they are both development releases) Omniweb  seems much faster and much more stable, probably because it is written for Cocoa instead of Carbon.  There is a build of the Carbon release of Mozilla available, however it doesn't seem very far along in development (though it is M17), and it still has the debugger installed which makes it fairly slow.  The developers in iCab told us they hoped to have a carbonized version available in October.

A pleasant surprise was that beta works great with the MS Intellimouse, including recognizing the right click and differentiating it from the left click, bringing up contextual windows.  The scroll wheel works in Applications that support it, including Omniweb, Mail, Text Edit and others but unfortunately excluding the Finder and IE.  Neither feature works in classic, and putting the OS 9 Intellimouse drivers into the classic system folder crashes it.

Quicktime seems rather like a place holder, probably for Quicktime 5. It is rather slow, and it lacks many of the features that appear in the OS 9 version. It now supports internet streaming quite well though!

Mail has had a couple of refinements (really shaping up to be a nice e-mail client).  It is now better integrated with the address book app, and a little red circle with the number of new messages that arrived appears on the mail icon in the dock regardless of what application you have in the foreground.


The concept of OpenDoc seems to have lived on.  Capabilities can be implemented globally, for example any application written to use it can take advantage of OS X's built in spell checker, highlighting potentially misspelled words as you type.  Right clicking or control clicking brings up a list of alternatives.


There is a built in screen saver, though hopefully someone will figure out how to make modules for it (there doesn't seem to be an SDK available, yet) as it only comes with the default module.  The default module is not the cool icon thing that Steve Jobs showed at the Paris Expo, but just a graphite Apple logo which occasionally disappears and reappears on different spots on the screen.


The screen saver panel

The music player is nice, but lacks support for many features seen in most other MP3 players (such as Sound Jam, or Audion) like skins or plugins.  It also has the irritating tendency to skip when you are doing much of anything in the background.  If all you need is a simple player, though, it is nice little program.

The system prefs are sort of like IE's user selectable buttons.  You can view them all in an icon mode and drag the ones you use most commonly to the horizontal scrolling window in which they were all contained in DP4.  Your web server preferences are still set in the networking panel, but your FTP and Telnet server preferences are in the sharing panel.  Oddly the other server capabilities that were built into DP4 seem to have disappeared, such as Remote Shell, Remote Login, Remote Mach IPC, Finger, and Mail Server.  To make changes to many options in the system prefs you have to put in the root login and password, even if you are logged in as root.  Actually there isn't exactly a "root" account automatically, it is now more OS 9ish in that whatever you choose as your login and password in the Setup Assistant will be the system's "Owner"  If you like you also now have the option to make the system log in under any off the accounts you have set up automatically on start-up.  This is particularly nice if you are the only user.

The developer stuff is gone, and the .app file name extensions have been dropped.  File names can finally be up to 255 characters.  The finder will actually let you type as many characters as you like however if you exceed 255 when you click away you get an error message and the file is reverted to it's previous name.


All in all a very, very impressive release.  If you consider yourself an average user, however, you will probably want to wait for the version 1.0 release.  If you vidi yourself a power user, you probably won't be able to keep away from it.  Mac OS X is shaping up to be everything Apple promised and more.  It looks as though it is what many of us have long hoped for, and not what some have feared.  In the coming months, the Macintosh landscape is going to change drastically.  I definitely think for the better.


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