This week, Apple will officially release Mac OS 8, a new version of the Macintosh operating system, billed as the most significant update since 1984 (expect ads with a flying saucer motif). Mac OS 8 offers new features and interface changes, plus a surfeit of Internet software – all surrounding Mac OS 8’s centerpiece: a PowerPC-native, multithreaded Finder.
The changes in Mac OS 8 are difficult to sum up in a brief article, so we’ll give Mac OS 8 additional "under the hood" coverage in upcoming issues.
System Requirements & Ordering — Mac OS 8 has higher system requirements than any previous system, mandating a 68040 or PowerPC processor, at least 12 MB of physical RAM (with Virtual Memory to allow for 20 MB total), and a minimum of about 65 MB of disk space (a complete install takes about 130 MB). Just as Mac OS 7.6 left 24-bit Macs and 68000- and 68020-based machines behind, Mac OS 8 does not support 68030-based Macs, including multitudes of Mac II series machines and numerous LC, Performa, and PowerBook models. In addition, Mac OS 8 does not support 68030 machines upgraded to 68040 or PowerPC processors via upgrade cards (although logic board upgrades are okay). For those machines, Mac OS 7.6.1 remains the last supported operating system.
Mac OS 8 costs about $99 on CD-ROM; floppy disk versions cost about $25 more and lack some extras. Owners of Mac OS 7.6 can use a $30 rebate certificate that should be in the Mac OS 8 package, and if you purchased Mac OS 7.6 from 01-Jun-97 through 31-Jul-97, you can get Mac OS 8 for the cost of shipping; details should be in the 7.6 package.
The update should be available by the end of this week from Claris, major mail order houses, and retailers. Many resellers (including Claris) have limited time offers and discounts on other products with Mac OS 8, so it might pay to look for a deal.
Apple plans to release internationalized versions of Mac OS 8 throughout the rest of 1997.
A Whole New Finder — The most significant enhancement in Mac OS 8 is a new, multithreaded, PowerPC-native Finder. Multithreading means the Finder can now simultaneously perform many tasks – like copying files and emptying the Trash – that were previously done one at a time. Though third-party products have offered such features, multithreading provides plenty of other, subtler improvements. For instance, Finder windows now open while other things are happening (a handy feature when you work with large folders, CD-ROMs, or slow servers), and Finder windows now update more quickly. These changes make the Mac OS 8 Finder feel snappy, although it takes time to learn to take advantage of the multithreading. We’ve been taught for years that the Finder doesn’t do these things; now we don’t expect it to.
You might not notice the multithreading right away, but you’ll certainly notice the Finder’s new "platinum appearance." Everything uses greyscale coloring and a new 3D look. You control the appearance via the Appearance control panel, where you set if the platinum appearance should be used everywhere instead of the old System 7 look, and if the system font should be the traditional Chicago or the new Charcoal. Using the platinum appearance for all applications generally works well (I found a few cosmetic glitches in some programs); the most common annoyances involve window placement, since the dimensions of some windows are now several pixels larger. Apple has posted screenshots showing off the new look:
The new Appearance Manager (controlled via the Appearance control panel) does not enable you to switch your system’s appearance to new, often outlandish themes publicized of late. However, Mac OS 8 includes the groundwork for multiple appearances, and developers can write programs that use appearance themes: expect to see more along these lines. If you’re desperate to play with your Mac’s appearance, check out Kaleidoscope; version 1.7 is supposed to work with Mac OS 8.
The new Finder features spring-loaded folders – you double-click a folder without releasing the mouse after the second click (a "click and a half") – to drill down into your folder hierarchy and then put a document in a particular location or open a particular folder. When you release the mouse, all the intervening windows close, leaving an uncluttered desktop with just the items you want.
Finder windows can be converted to pop-up windows (or "drawers") that live as tabs at the bottom of your screen. Drawers slide open when you drag items into them or click their tabs, but close as soon as you’re done with them. Other new commands include keyboard shortcuts for revealing the original item an alias points to (Command-R) and moving an item to the Trash (Command-Delete). You can also set which columns appear in the Finder’s list view on a window-by-window basis (but you can’t change the columns’ order or width).
New System Features — Mac OS 8 sports several new productivity features. If you Control-click almost any item in the Finder (including the desktop), a contextual menu appears and offers commonly used commands. The menubar and pop-up menus feature sticky menus that stay down once you click them. I thought this feature would be most useful for RSI sufferers, but now I use it constantly, particularly to navigate large pop-up menus. Other new goodies include the built-in capability to use pictures as a desktop backdrop and an About box that better represents how much memory programs are using.
There are, however, glaringly unimproved areas of Mac OS 8. Opening the Chooser is still like having a flashback to 1988 (although it now works on a locked volume), and the standard Open and Save dialogs recall 1985: Many enhancements – pop-up windows, hierarchical Apple menus, and keyboard shortcuts – seem geared to work around these and other shortcomings, rather than fixing them.
Installation — Mac OS 8 has the same sort of catch-all installer that Apple introduced with Mac OS 7.6, which drives a plethora of secondary installers. Although the installation process is a bit clunky, it’s much better than manually running through the installers. Mac OS 8 includes two setup assistants – Mac OS Setup Assistant and Internet Setup Assistant – which step you through naming the machine, selecting a printer, and connecting to the Internet. The Internet Setup Assistant seems most useful if you know what you’re doing; for instance, most people who connect to the Internet through a LAN won’t know what subnet mask they should use. These Assistants pick up some information from previous systems, but a clean install of Mac OS 8 gives the Internet Setup Assistant virtually no data to work with, and naive users may think they must sign up with an ISP (offers are built in).
Internet Integration — Apple says Mac OS 8 offers a higher level of Internet integration than any other operating system – if that’s true, it’s a reflection of the sad state of Internet access today. With three exceptions, Mac OS 8’s Internet integration is a cumbersome bundle of existing software (three Web browsers, three email clients, PointCast, Castanet, and more). I recently set up both my sister and my parents with Internet access, and I can’t imagine pointing them to this cacophony of software and calling it superior Internet integration.
So what are the three exceptions? The first is an AppleScript (really!) called Connect To… that lives in the Apple menu. From any application, choose "Connect To…", type or paste a URL, and you’re on your way. It’s minimal, but effective. The second is Apple’s Personal Web Sharing, a tiny, hardy Web server that can be configured much like File Sharing. You need a stable IP address to use Web Sharing effectively with the Internet (which excludes most dial-up users), but it’s great for testing CGI programs and sharing data on a local TCP network (aided by Personal NetFinder, which can give Finder-like list views to Web users). Don’t be confused by Web Sharing’s old ReadMe file: it implies that you must revert to Mac OS 7.6 to use Web Sharing with PCI-based machines, but in fact you need Mac OS 7.6 or later.
The third exception is more subtle: Internet Config. Apple slyly puts Internet Config 1.3 in an Internet Utilities folder, but Internet Config in fact serves as the backbone behind the Internet Setup Assistant, the Connect To… script, and more. Apple doesn’t appear to discuss Internet Config anywhere in the Mac OS 8 documentation, but it’s good to see a freeware solution developed by the Mac Internet community being distributed with Mac OS 8 (see TidBITS-255).
Speed & Compatibility — I’ve used various versions of Mac OS 8 for the last several weeks, and I’ve found it stable and responsive. A bad cable forced me to revert to 7.6.1 for a few days, and I was startled by how much the older OS got in my way. The new system lets applications share the CPU more efficiently, so background tasks run faster, and some programs see performance improvements of as much as 25 percent. However, though Mac OS 8 lets me do more of what I want when I want, it’s not necessarily faster: for instance, copying files can be slower than in Mac OS 7.6.1, since the Finder allows more time for other things to happen. I don’t mind, especially since the Finder is dramatically faster in the background under Mac OS 8.
Almost without exception, my conservative set of third-party control panels, extensions, and utilities have worked on my Power Mac 7600. I’ve seen reports to the contrary, but on my machines (a Quadra 650, a Duo 2300c, and a Power Mac 7600) the Finder crashes immediately if I load any component of Now Utilities from versions 5.0.3 or 6.7. Now Software is looking into reported problems with OS 8. Connectix says RAM Doubler works with Mac OS 8, although Speed Doubler is incompatible and should be avoided. Symantec has released updates to Norton Utilities and Suitcase. If you use MacsBug, you need version 6.5.4a3 with Mac OS 8.
Worth the Weight? Most people will find Mac OS 8 a worthwhile upgrade, providing they have the CPU horsepower and memory to let it thrive. Apple expects OS 8 to drive sales of new hardware and upgrades, as long-time Mac owners bite the bullet and step up to the new system. I think some will criticize OS 8 for being more Windows-like than previous releases, and there’s some basis to those complaints. However, OS 8 is elegant and powerful, and your machine will never be mistaken for anything but a Macintosh.