Without a doubt, Mac OS X is a stunning technical achievement. In fact, many tech reviewers and experts call it the best personal-computer operating system on earth. But be ware 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! 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.
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 Appendixes C and 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) com plained 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.
Mac OS X 10.4, affectionately known as Tiger, only builds on the successes of previous Mac OS X versions. You still don't have to worry about viruses, spyware, or Service Pack releases that take up a Saturday afternoon to install and fine-tune. And you'll still enjoy stability that would make the you of 1999 positively drool; your Mac may go for months or years without a system crash.
That's because 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.
So what is new in Tiger? Apple says it added 200 new features. But it also took some things away, rejiggered others, and generally fine-tuned the whole affair. For example:
Big-ticket features. By far the most hyped new features in Tiger are Spotlight, Dashboard, and Automator.
Spotlight is a new, permanent menu that lets you search just about everything on your Mac with one click (or one keystroke): files, folders, programs, calendar appointments, email messages, photo keywords, PDF and word processing documents, spreadsheets and presentations, Safari bookmarks, music files, and much more. You can even save a Spotlight search as a smart folder in the Finder, which is a continuously self-updating folder whose contents match criteria you specify. Chapter 3 is dedicated to this huge new feature.
Dashboard, meanwhile, is an intriguing strike back against the juggernaut of software bloat. You press a key, and your screen fills with tiny, dedicated-purpose mini-programs that display and process useful information, often from the Web. Apple starts you off with 14 of these so-called widgets—a calculator, weather forecaster, units converter, stock tracker, and so on—but the real magic of Dashboard is how easy it is for programmers to write new ones. Hundreds of new widgets are available for quick, free download to add to your Dashboard collection. Details are in Chapter 5.
Not nearly as many people will use Automator daily, but it's a fascinating attempt to let you write your own macros–self-running software robots–without making you learn any code. AppleScript was already an easy-to-use programming language, but it was still a language; Automator (the subject of Chapter 8) lets you build a sequence of actions just by dragging tiles into the right order.
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 Tiger, Apple has capitalized on Mac OS X's reputation for security. The built-in firewall can now make your Mac completely invisible on the Net—hidden even from evildoers' silent "ping" commands—and a new log file tracks who's trying to break in. New messages alert you when you're downloading something that could contain virus code, and dozens of smaller tweaks make things like System Preferences and software installations even more fortified against spyware. There's even a built-in password-suggestion maker.
Parental controls. You, the wise authority figure, can now specify which e-mail correspondents, chat buddies, Web sites and even programs are OK for your children.
The Finder. You can start a full-screen slideshow right in the Finder, using any random assortment of graphics as your raw material. Burning CDs and DVDs now takes up much less time and disk space, thanks to burn folders that store only aliases of the stuff you want to burn.
Underlying technologies. Some of the most deep-seated changes are under the hood. New software chunks called Core Image and Core Video provide software companies with ready-to-use image- and video-processing features; as time goes by, that will save the software companies time and keep these controls consistent across more of your programs.
QuickTime 7 comes with Tiger, too; it offers a redesigned QuickTime Player and a new compression scheme called H.264, which offers spectacular video quality at relatively compact sizes. (And hallelujah!—you no longer have to tell QuickTime how fast your Internet connection is. It figures that out all by itself.)
VoiceOver is a feature that few will use, but it's an enormous step forward for the vision impaired. It's a full-blown screen reader that tells you exactly what software features are on the screen at the moment—and lets you operate them entirely from the keyboard.
Web browsing. Safari, the Mac's Web browser, has taken a huge leap forward. Now you can save a Web page to your hard drive, graphics and all, as a single convenient icon; email a complete Web page to somebody; and, at your option, enter Private Browsing mode, where Safari records no trace (cookies, History list, passwords) of your activity. Safari can also read the exciting new Internet news format known as RSS, in which headlines from all your favorite Web sites appear in a single, tidy summary list. Chapter 21 offers a complete crash course in RSS—and Safari.
Email. Apple's Mail program has been cosmetically overhauled. Little nips and tucks are welcome, too, like the ability to add a photo you've been sent directly to your copy of iPhoto. Smart Mailboxes give you self-updating email folders based on criteria you specify; you can have a different signature for each email account; you can flag messages by priority; and more.
Tiger programs. Perhaps the least publicized new Tiger feature is the upgrades Apple made to the 50 accessory programs that come with the Mac.
For example, iChat has always permitted free, long-distance phone calls and even video calls over the Internet—but now, if you have a fast Mac and a high-speed Internet connection, ten people can have an audio conference call, and four can join in a video conference. And iChat is now compatible with Jabber, a popular open-source chat program for Mac, Windows, Unix, Linux, Palm organizers, PocketPCs, and so on.
The TextEdit word processor can now create simple tables, which helps with its other big-ticket upgrade: TextEdit can now save documents as HTML files, meaning that you can use it as a bare-bones Web-design program. Preview doesn't just show you graphics files; it has built-in image editing (like color correction) and slideshow features, too. It's always been a great PDF reader (like Adobe Acrobat Reader), and now you can annotate PDF documents with comments and ovals.
In addition to Dashboard and Automator, the other brand-new additions to the Applications folder are Dictionary (a full-blown, illustrated dictionary/thesaurus that you can summon at a keystroke) and Grapher, a stunning two- and three- dimensional graphing calcuator. Font Book, Image Capture, Address Book, iCal, DVD Player, and AppleScript have all been improved in tweaky little ways, too; you'll read about them in Chapters 8, 10, and 20.
Touch-ups. By far the biggest category of changes is Tiger is the one called Miscellaneous.
For example, Mac OS X's faxing feature is more mature now; at least it now offers a log that shows which faxes successfully went through. Thanks to a new button in the Print dialog box, you can do more with a document than turn it into a PDF file; you can also encrypt a PDF, email a PDF, or add a PDF to your iPhoto library. And talk about brilliant: One last command in that same menu lets you save a PDF copy of the open document into a new Web receipts folder, which is perfect for keeping records of stuff you buy online.
System Preferences has a Search box, so you can find a certain setting without having to know which System Preferences pane to click. (On the other hand, the System Preferences toolbar is gone, so you can't build a row of your favorite icons.)
A new button in System Preferences lets you reassign or disable the functions of your ⌘, Option, Caps Lock, and Control keys, which is useful if (a) you find yourself turning on Caps Lock a lot by accident, or (b) you're a hard-core Unix geek whose pinky always complained that the Control key on a Mac keyboard isn't in the right place.
In other news, you can finally make the cursor bigger, which is a huge help for people with giant, high-resolution screens. You can use an iSight camera as a microphone for recording and speech recognition now, too.
The complete list of changes in Mac OS X 10.4 would fill a book—in fact, you're holding it. But some of the nicest changes aren't so much new features as renewals. Tiger 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.