by Ted Landau
The software developers that work for Apple are akin to miracle workers. Think about it. Apple, with resources inevitably limited as a consequence of its 4% market share, has come up with three major upgrades to OS X in three consecutive years. In contrast, Microsoft's next major Windows upgrade (code-named Longhorn) has likely been delayed until 2006.
But even without the Windows comparison, Apple's upgrades would be impressive. To see what I mean, take a brief scan of Apple's Mac OS X Web pages for Panther. You'll see a litany of new and upgraded features--from the newly designed Finder windows to Exposé to FileVault to Fast User Switching to Font Book to the much-enhanced Preview to Faxing and Desktop printers. And that just skims the surface. Panther also smooths out many of Mac OS X's rough edges, providing a level of maturity and stability that far exceeds Jaguar.
But, because of my troubleshooting interests, when I look at a new OS, my attention inevitably turns to the less publicized underneath-the-surface changes to the OS. Some of these changes are so "small" that Apple has yet to document them. You only discover them when you happen to trip over them in your meanderings around the OS. Others are bigger but still not among the first things you will trip over when exploring the OS. I'll give examples in a moment. But first...
Currently, I am working on the final revisions to my new book on Panther, called Ted Landau's Mac OS X Help Desk (Peachpit 2004). Actually, several months ago, I had just finished a Jaguar-based version of the text when it became clear that Panther would be out in the near future. So it was back to the drawing board to revise the book for Panther before the Jaguar version was even published. As such, you can imagine that I viewed the new features in Panther with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was as eager as any Mac user for new and exciting features that would make Mac OS X easier, safer, more productive, and/or more fun to use. On the other hand, a part of me hoped that changes would be kept to a minimum because it would minimize the amount of work I needed to do to revise my book. At the very least, I hoped that the changes related to troubleshooting, the focus of my book, might at least be minimal.
No such luck. The more I worked with Panther, the more I realized that no aspect of the OS was so major or so backwater as to be immune from revision. I virtually had to go over every single line of my book--because I could never tell when some offhand comment in my book would now be in error because of some small and/or undocumented change in Panther.
Worth it? Or not?
As I went down the list of small things that had changed in Panther, I found myself repeatedly asking: "Was this change worth it?" That is, did the change improve the OS enough to justify the headache of having to revise my book? Happily, the answer was most often yes. But there were some resounding no votes as well. Here's a sampler of these smaller changes in Panther--and my vote as to whether or not the change was worth making:
- Force Quit. When an application freezes, wouldn't be nice to have a command that could immediately force quit the application--without needing to go to the Dock or access the Force Quit window? Apple thought so as well. New in Panther, just press Shift-Command-Option-Escape and the frontmost application is instantly force quit. You can access this same effect via the Force Quit command in the Apple menu; hold down the Shift key when you access the menu and you will see the new variation listed. Meanwhile, in the Force Quit window itself (accessed via Command-Option-Escape in Panther, the same as it was in Jaguar), the name of a frozen application is no longer indicated in red. Instead, the words Not responding appear after its name. This is more informative than trying to guess the meaning of a color change. Chalk these changes up to the "Worth it" column.
- Software Update's Install and Keep Package option. In Jaguar, you had to choose whether to have Software Update automatically install an update or download the Installer package file to the Desktop (where you can then select to manually install it later). In Panther, you can do both at once: Just select Install and Keep Package from the Update menu. Now you get the convenience of an automatic install, but still retain the package file in case you want to install it again or install it on another computer. By the way, the downloaded files no longer arrive on your Desktop. They have been moved to the Packages folder in the root level Library folder. This one's definitely worth it.
- Desktop Printers. In Mac OS 9, you could create a desktop printer icon for each connected printer. If you then dragged a document icon to this desktop printer, the document would immediately print. Panther finally brings this convenience to Mac OS X. Just select Create Desktop Printer from the Printers menu of the Printer Setup Utility (what used to be called Print Center in Jaguar). Drag a document to it to print or double-click the desktop printer to access its printer queue. This is a welcome arrival (although I wasn't thrilled about having to change every mention of Print Center in my book to Printer Setup Utility).
- Default Printer. In Jaguar, your default printer was always the one you most recently used. Not exactly what most people wanted. In Panther, you can specify a printer to always remain the default--even if you select a different printer occasionally. To do so, just select your option in the new Print & Fax System Preferences pane. Worth it!
- Console. The Console utility received a welcome overhaul in Panther. For starters, you no longer need to enable Crash Reporter in Console's Preferences to have crash logs created and maintained. It is always enabled. Also, if you select Show Log List from the View menu, you get a list of all available logs. No longer do you need to remember the name and/or location of a specific log file. Worth it for sure!
- Disk Copy gone; Images menu in Disk Utility. Apple dropped Disk Copy altogether in Panther. Don't panic. You can still mount and create disk images. You just do it differently. Mounting disk images is now handled by a faceless application in the CoreServices folder: DiskImageMounter. This is good overall, as it makes mounting images more transparent; they now appear to work like any other mountable volume in the Finder. The ability to create and edit images is handled by an Images menu in Disk Utility. Unfortunately, a few options available in Disk Copy did not survive the transfer to Disk Utility. And the whole re-arrangement is confusing at first. On balance, I give this a marginal "Worth it."
- Disk Restore in Disk Utility. Speaking of Disk Utility, Panther adds an entirely new feature to it: Restore. This allows you to restore a volume from an image file or other mounted volume. This should ideally eliminate the need to use Terminal or third-party utilities such as Carbon Copy Cloner to make back-ups copies. But Apple needs to do a better job of explaining how this feature works : Can it make a bootable copy of a volume? Isn't it really a Backup and Restore feature, and not just a Restore feature? The answer to these questions is "yes" (although some users report problems booting from a restored volume). You can even use Disk Utility's Restore when booted from an Install Mac OS X CD, to restore your startup volume in an emergency (assuming you previously made a back-up). These Restore features are based on the asr Terminal command (which was also available in Jaguar). But I suspect that the average user would never glean all of Restore's advantages from reading the help information that Apple includes. Overall, this addition is definitely worth it, but it needs more end-user friendly documentation.
- Network System Preferences redesign. The Network System Preferences pane got a major overhaul in Panther. It offers something for everyone. For average users, the new Network Status pane goes a long way to de-geeking what still remains the most incomprehensible part of any OS: you can now instantly see what each active port is doing, including which one is connected to the Internet and with what address--all stated in relatively plain English. For the techies, Panther provides the ability to Renew a DHCP Lease as well as set the Ethernet speed, duplex and MTU size. Prior to Panther, changing these settings required complicated hacks or third party utilities. This one is most definitely worth it!
- AppeFileServer and SystemConfigurations to /Library/Preferences. In Jaguar, numerous networking preferences were set either in the AppleFileServer section of the NetInfo Database or via files in the SystemConfiguration folder located in var/db. Accessing the former required the hassle of using NetInfo Manager; the latter required root access. In Panther, all of these settings have been moved to files in the /Library/Preferences folder where they can be more easily accessed and modified. It took awhile to figure out where everything wound up, but the rationale for the moves makes sense. Unequivocally worth it!
- Network Browser and Connect to Server. Compared to how it was handled in Jaguar, the Network Browser in Panther simplifies and makes more reliable the process of connecting to a local shared computer. The main problem is the "disconnect" between how the Network Browser does this and how the Connect to Server command handles the same job. When using Connect to Server, connected volumes appear on the Desktop and in Finder sidebars. Not so when you use the Network Browser. There should at least be an option to have them work similarly--especially since most users prefer the way Connect to Server works. Bottom line: There are good things about the changes, but they don't quite overcome the negatives.
- Login Items now Startup Items. In Jaguar, there was a Login Items System Preferences pane that conveniently listed all your Login items. It's gone in Panther. It's been moved (for no compelling reason I can think of) to a section of your Account listings in the Accounts System Preference pane. Not content to stop there, Apple went a step further and renamed Login Items to Startup Items. What? Did they forget that this name was already being used for a completely different function: the contents of the Library/Startup Items folders? Not only was this change not worth it, it is a positive annoyance. And I expect that Apple will change this all again in the next update--as book authors are forced to waste more time on these senseless revisions.
- Go To Folder option gone from Open dialog box. In Jaguar, if you wanted to open a file from an application's Open dialog box and the folder that contained the file was invisible, you could use the Go to text box to navigate there. It appears gone from Panther, but not really. If you type Command-Shift-G (the same shortcut for the Go to Folder command in the Finder), a Go To box drops down. I suppose the idea is to hide the more "advanced" Go To option unless you really need it (in which case you are presumably smart enough to know this command). Personally, I would have preferred if they left it the way it was.
- Activity Monitor. It's now called Activity Monitor instead of Process Viewer. And what used to be CPU Monitor is now built-in to it. And you can now use it to monitor memory or disk usage or disk activity. And there are many more ways to filter the processes list. And there's a new Inspect command. And from the Inspect window you can see all Open Files used by a process. Or you can click the Sample button and from the Display pop-up menu, you can select whether you want the sample displayed in Number of Seconds or Percent of Parent. And...Wait a minute!! Do we really need all of these features available in an end-user utility? Some of the changes here are welcome. But others should have been restricted to a utility on the Xtools CD. Worth it overall? Maybe. But can you say "overkill"?
- Groups: staff not the default. Check out the listing in the Get Info window for a file you own. The group name listed there is the same name as your account. And guess what? You are not even listed as a member of your self-named group (as checked in NetInfo Manager). Still, you are a member of your self-named group. In Jaguar, the default group in these cases was "staff" to which all local users were automatically members. This change in Panther provides some increased security (no one automatically gets access to your files by virtue of their group membership). But it makes it more difficult to share files among local users. Plus, if you upgrade from Panther, old accounts retain the Jaguar method; only new ones use the Panther method. Overall, this change is marginally not worth it.
- Authenticate to move or delete. Here's a surprise. Many of the operations that were outright prohibited in the Finder (such as moving files from the /System folder) can now be done by anyone with administrative access (after entering their password in a dialog box). On the one hand, this is a great convenience that eliminates the need for a cornucopia of work-arounds that required Terminal, Get Info window modifications, or third-party utilities. On the other hand, any administrator (which includes anyone who sets up a Mac for themselves) can now much more easily completely trash the operating system. Worth it? Ill let you decide on this one.
- Character Palette. The Character Palette has been redesigned in Panther. And it is now more easily accessed--via the Special Characters command in the Edit menu of almost all applications. But, if anything, it is even more of a mystery to figure out. Just when you think may have a handle on it, double-click a character and watch the display shift to a Unicode table. Sigh. As if there were not enough ways to find this Palette, the Character Palette remains accessible from International's Input Menu (which now includes a revised version of the old Key Caps utility, plus a collection of Input Methods and Keyboards for foreign languages). I suppose this is all worth it for those who use languages other than English. But I can't help but feel that Apple's Human Interface Guidelines watchdog was asleep when all of this was put together.
- Files in Classic Startup now invisible. Inside the Classic Startup package in /System/Library/CoreServices is a folder called UniversalForks. It contains all the files (extensions and control panels) that Mac OS X installs or updates in your Mac OS 9 System Folder the first time you launch the Classic Environment. If you want to reinstall one of these files, grabbing it from here can be a convenient trick. New in Panther, Apple made this folder invisible in the Finder (it's in Contents/Resources). So you'll need to use a utility that can access invisible files to get these items. Only a minor inconvenience, admittedly. But why did Apple have to bother making the folder invisible at all? Not worth it.
- Terminal: bash is the new default. In Panther, the default shell for Terminal in bash. In Jaguar, it was tcsh. Unless you use Terminal, this hardly matters. And even if you do use it, most of the main commands remain the same. But there are enough differences that I had to perform major surgery on the Unix chapter of my book to make it compatible with bash. Personally, I find tcsh to be a bit more "user friendly" -- if such a term can be applied to Unix at all. Was this change worth it? It's a close call. I can come up with a few reasons to favor bash, but not enough to require making it the default shell. Anyone who wants bash as their default could instead use Terminal's Preferences to do so.
- Clock. Jaguar's Clock application is gone. It's now included as part of the Date & Time System Preferences. I suppose this makes sense. Almost no one I know ever used the Clock application anyway. Basically, who cares if this is worth it or not. Not me.
One change that should have been made but wasn't
Apple is charging $129 to upgrade to Panther. They also charged $129 just over a year ago to upgrade to Jaguar. And if you purchased Mac OS X prior to Jaguar, it cost you at least another $129. In other words, it's costing about $129 per year to stay up-to-date with Mac OS X (unless you bought a new Mac somewhere along the way and got a newer version of Mac OS X with your purchase.).
But that's not all. A few years ago, .Mac (then called iTools) used to be free for all Mac OS X users. Now it costs you $99 per year. So, if you want what you had when Mac OS X 10.0 and 10.1 were around, it is now costing you $228 per year.
If you have an iPod, and it's not the latest model, there's more bad news. Even though Apple's newest iPods have only been available since last May, owners of older iPods can't update to the latest features in the 2.x version of the iPod software. You are stuck at 1.3. Apple is treating the "older" iPod owners about the same way it treats users who are still using Mac OS 9. Except that even the oldest iPods are too new to be dead and buried in terms of software support. Still, add the cost of a new iPod if you want to keep up. And those Proof-of-Purchase coupons that came with your Mac seem increasingly like a bad April Fools joke.
To be fair, I applaud Apple's overall strategy here. Years ago, Apple was giving almost all of its OS software away for free (or close to it), counting on hardware sales for its profits. Meanwhile, Microsoft was making billions selling its OS software. Apple eventually realized that it was not unreasonable to expect Mac users to cough up the same sorts of costs that Windows users have come to expect. I agree.
Still, having to pay an average of at least $129 per year, just to keep pace, seems a bit excessive. Apple should at least have been more generous in its upgrade policies to people who had bought a new Mac or a copy of Mac OS X in the months prior to Panther's release. Maybe when Apple takes a breather and starts releasing major upgrades every 2 or 3 years, instead of every year, the current pricing policy will make sense. Until then, Mac users deserve a better break.
Last month's column on "Breaking my Cardinal Rule": a follow-up
You may recall that, in last month's column, I reported that I had to send my new PowerBook 15" model back to Apple to get its AirPort reception fixed. It came back with Bluetooth support MIA. So I had to send it back again. Despite concerns that fixing Bluetooth might make AirPort worse again, I am pleased to report that this did not happen. Both Bluetooth and AirPort are now working well and co-existing together in harmony. Unfortunately, my PowerBook came back with two of those notorious white spots on the display--even though none were present when I last sent it to Apple. So my PowerBook went back for a third repair. All is well now. But I won't be breaking my cardinal rule again any time soon.
The fine print
I omitted this month's tip-of the-month. I figured there were enough tips in the Panther coverage to make it redundant.
Each month this column will focus on some current issue in the Mac universe. Often the topic will be troubleshooting related. But I may also veer off into other directions. If you have a suggestion for a future column, or comments on an existing one, I welcome your feedback. Email me at email@example.com.