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BookBITS: Mac OS 9: The Missing Manual

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In 1990, I bought my first Macintosh, a PowerBook 100 that included a whopping 2 MB of RAM, a 20 MB hard disk, and System 7. As a new computer user, I was amazed at how easy it was to use, and, especially, how simple and clear it was to manage the system software.

Those days have changed. My latest Mac, an iMac DV SE, came with 128 MB of memory, a 13 GB hard disk, and (here's the big difference) Mac OS 9. Although I no longer have the old PowerBook for comparison, I remember the System Folder taking up only a few megabytes of hard disk space. On my iMac, the default System Folder (without any third party additions) takes up 175 MB for 2,179 items. Needless to say, the Mac OS does a lot more than before, but it has become far more complex and confusing.

For a guide to the new operating system, I turned to the much-hyped Mac OS 9: The Missing Manual, by David Pogue (Pogue Press/O'Reilly, 2000, $19.95). (David also worked with TidBITS publisher Adam Engst on Crossing Platforms: A Macintosh/Windows Phrasebook; see "Macintosh-Windows Translation Dictionary" in TidBITS-509.)

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Not in the Box -- There is a trend in the software industry that started a few years ago, and is becoming the norm: many programs no longer ship with printed manuals. TidBITS commented on this back in mid-1998 in "The Death of Documentation" in TidBITS-428. In the best of cases, you get a well-formatted PDF file of the manual; sometimes the manual is composed of HTML files (such as the help system included with Mac OS 9); and, in the worst case, you get some kind of Internet-based help that is neither practical nor easy to use. For complex applications or system software, these help systems are seldom sufficient. Also, accessing electronic help often obscures the program about which you're seeking (leaving you frequently switching between overlapping windows) or changes the state of your computer, further confusing matters. One of the great advantages of a printed manual is that it can sit on a desk or your lap for easy reference without altering what appears on screen or changing what the computer is doing.


I consider myself a Mac power user, and have never felt the need for a third-party book telling me how my Macintosh works. I have always managed to find enough information from user groups, magazines, and electronic publications like TidBITS, but Mac OS 9 seemed far more daunting than previous versions.

I don't know exactly what I expected to find, but I must say I was surprised. There are many new functions in Mac OS 9 that I knew little about, some functions in other recent operating system versions that I never really explored, and some simple tricks that I never considered.

I actually read the book from cover to cover, so I could see exactly what I was missing (but I am one of those people who likes reading computer manuals). After having discovered many new details of Mac OS 9, I've dipped back into this book often for more. For instance, the presentations of new features, such as Multiple Users and the encryption options, gave me an awareness of how these features work. The chapter on managing memory, while not totally new information to me, is well designed and gives a crash course in understanding both how the Mac OS uses memory and how to tweak it for maximum performance.

The book's organization reflects the way a new user might approach a Macintosh: first the Mac desktop, followed by help using applications, then the components of the system itself, details of getting online, and finally networking. The presentation of the Mac OS 9 desktop is a fine and detailed introduction to the operating system's basic interface features. You learn how to tweak and configure the desktop, windows, and folders to fit your needs.

From there the book goes on to discuss applications: how they work, how to manage memory, and an introduction to AppleScript. This last section was, indeed, no more than an introduction, and provides little information on programming with the AppleScript, which is a bit of a shame. AppleScript is one of the key unappreciated features of the Mac OS, and a better presentation could show just how useful it can be.

Part three examines the components of Mac OS 9 and is probably the most useful section to me. I've often wondered exactly what all those extensions and control panels do, and I finally found out about many of them that I could disable to save memory. For example, it's useful to know that if you are not running a network, you can safely disable both the AppleTalk and File Sharing control panels. If you're not planning on having multiple users work on your Mac, you can turn off Multiple Users. Tips like these free up memory for other uses, and can be a boon if your computer contains a relatively small amount of RAM, such as the 32 MB in the early iMac or iBook configurations. (You can also find detailed information about the contents of your System Folder using the shareware InformINIT or Extensions Overload; Casady & Greene's Conflict Catcher also includes an extensive reference library.)


Two short chapters give an overview of using the Mac with the Internet, and the next section talks about setting up a network with your Macs. Then the book examines a few disparate subjects, such as printing, sound and video, speech recognition, and ends up with three appendices on the different menu commands, installing the Mac OS, and troubleshooting.

Encyclopedia Macintosh -- There are few negatives in this book. The main one that stands out is the author's claim that the book "is designed to accommodate readers at every technical level," but real beginners should stay away from this book. If you are just starting out with the Macintosh, you would be better off looking for a book written expressly for beginners. The problem here is that the book is written more like an encyclopedia or other reference book. It is not a tutorial, even though, as I said above, the order of chapters does reflect the way one might approach a Mac. But once you get to know your Mac, this book would be an ideal reference manual, thanks also in part to an excellent index.

The book carries David Pogue's distinctively light-handed writing style, and the layout makes it one of the most visually satisfying computer books I have ever read; kudos to designer Phil Simpson and the rest of the book's production team. The typeface is easy to read, sidebars and figures are prominent and informative, and section titles are reversed in a black box at the page edges, making it easy to thumb through the book to find what you are looking for. Also, like other O'Reilly titles, the book has a lie-flat binding that helps prevent pages from flipping on their own when the book sits on your desk.

While this book lacks the detailed tutorial quality that would make it ideal for beginners, it will be very helpful to any Mac users who are beyond the beginner stage, want to know more, or who desire a reference manual to everything in Mac OS 9.

[Kirk McElhearn is a freelance translator and technical writer living in a village in the French Alps.]


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