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Getting Started with Mac OS 8.5

The wait is over: with considerable fanfare, Apple last week released Mac OS 8.5, billing it as a smarter, faster version of the Mac OS with enhanced Internet integration and a raft of new features. The good news is that these claims are all true, and although Mac OS 8.5 isn’t an ideal upgrade for all Macintosh owners or everything Mac owners dreamed about, it is a solid leap forward, with significant new capabilities and under-the-hood transformations.


Just the Facts — Mac OS 8.5 requires a PowerPC-based Macintosh with at least 16 MB of RAM (Apple recommends 24 MB; I recommend even more). Unlike previous releases, Mac OS 8.5 does not support 68040-based Macs, or 68K-based machines upgraded to PowerPC processors. A bare-bones installation requires about 50 MB of disk space; recommended and optional components boost that to 150 MB and higher.

Mac OS 8.5 is available on CD-ROM for $99 from the Apple Store and for lower prices from Apple dealers and TidBITS sponsors Cyberian Outpost and Small Dog Electronics. If you bought Mac OS 8.1 after 14-Sep-98 you can upgrade to Mac OS 8.5 for $20 using an upgrade coupon available in PDF format. If you recently bought a Mac without Mac OS 8.5, you may be able to upgrade for $20 via Apple’s Mac OS Up-to-Date program.


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Installing Mac OS 8.5 — For most users, installing Mac OS 8.5 will be simple – the installer application is straightforward and had no problems with clean installations or installing over existing system folders in my testing. If you’re using third-party hard disk drivers, make sure they’re compatible with Mac OS 8.5 before you install and make sure the Mac OS 8.5 installer doesn’t replace them with Apple’s disk drivers. Do let the installer update any Apple disk drivers. You should also write down your TCP/IP and dial-up settings before installing Mac OS 8.5. If you’re using Open Transport, you can export your settings, then import them after installation.

The Mac OS 8.5 installer permits customization of packages before installation begins and can add and remove selected software once Mac OS 8.5 is installed.

As always, make a full backup of your Mac before installing new system software. If you aren’t reliably and consistently backing up your data, you must. This has nothing to do with Mac OS 8.5: it’s just common sense.


Performance — The first thing many Mac OS 8.5 users will notice is that it’s faster than previous versions of the Mac OS – sometimes much faster. One advantage of developing Mac OS 8.5 only for PowerPC-based Macs is that Apple was able to rewrite major portions of the core operating system using PowerPC-native code. Areas of the operating system that see the most benefit include QuickDraw and QuickDraw Text (the Mac OS’s fundamental graphics and text rendering tools); routines that handle menus, controls, icons, lists, windows, and dialogs; and internal event management.

Mac OS 8.5 also includes a new PowerPC-native version of AppleScript, which Apple claims can be as much as five times faster than earlier versions. Scripts I tested typically run more than twice as fast as they did under Mac OS 8.1. Apple is also touting improved network performance, which is generally true, but the greatest benefits are seen between systems running Mac OS 8.5 on high-speed 100Base-T Ethernet networks.

Application Switcher — After installing Mac OS 8.5, you’ll notice the Application menu on the far right of the menubar sports the name of the current application along with the application’s icon. Long-time Mac users may find this annoying, but it’s beneficial to less sophisticated Mac users, who often have trouble figuring out which application is in the foreground if it lacks open windows. A small vertical beam enables you to reduce or eliminate the amount of space given to the application name.

You can tear the new Application menu off the menubar entirely – drag your cursor off the bottom of the menu until an outline appears, then release the mouse button. Now you’re looking at the Application Switcher, a floating palette that displays your currently running applications as buttons, and lets you switch between them by clicking. You can also switch between applications at any time by pressing Command-Tab.

The Application Switcher is capable and configurable. You can drag & drop items onto running applications, and Option-clicking an application switches to that program while hiding the current one. Similarly, clicking the palette’s zoom box hides or shows application names, Option-clicking the palette’s zoom box toggles between large and small icons, and Option-Shift-clicking the palette’s zoom box toggles between horizontal and vertical displays.

You can change the Command-Tab shortcut for moving between programs (it can interfere with HyperCard, FileMaker Pro, and other applications). The new HTML-based Mac OS Help features a script to change the key combination; look under "Files and Programs." You can also change the key combination and other options using a third-party utility such as SwitcherSetter from Chris Gervais, or the stack in the HyperCard Update folder on the Mac OS 8.5 CD-ROM. Some of Application Switcher’s more obscure capabilities are accessible only via these utilities or AppleScript.


Finder Features — The Mac OS 8.5 Finder boasts many new features, some of which are subtle. You can finally resize and (except for the Name column) reorder the columns in Finder list views, and you can use the Finder Preferences to create default settings for all Finder views, then convert any Finder window to those settings using its View Options dialog.

Folder windows now display proxy icons in their title bars; you can drag these proxies directly to a different location without having to open the window’s parent folder, locate the item you want to move, and then move it. You can also scroll Finder windows without using the scrollbars by Command-dragging in the content area.

The Finder’s Get Info windows feature multiple panels for general information, sharing privileges, memory settings (for applications), and printer capabilities (for desktop printers). Each item is available directly via contextual menus as well as in the Get Info window.

The Finder is smarter about email addresses and URLs. If you drag a URL or email address from an application like Eudora or BBEdit to the desktop, the Finder creates an Internet Location File instead of a text clipping. When you double-click an Internet Location File, the Finder uses your Internet preferences to handle it. Unfortunately, earlier versions of the Finder don’t recognize Internet Location Files or treat them as text clippings, so exchanging the files with earlier versions of the Mac OS is awkward.

The Finder sports new a new Add to Favorites command which creates an alias to a selected item in the new Favorites folder in the Apple menu. At first, Favorites seem like a half-baked attempt to add bookmarking capabilities to the Finder. However, Favorites are worth keeping an eye on since they tie in with Navigation Services, Mac OS 8.5’s replacement for the awful modal Open and Save dialog boxes. Only a few applications (like Anarchie Pro) support Navigation Services currently. We’ll talk more about Navigation Services soon.

Celebrity Makeover — One anticipated feature in Mac OS 8.5 is support for themes, originally slated for Apple’s long-defunct Copland OS project. Themes give users a high degree of control over the look and feel of their Mac, such as choosing window styles, system fonts, menu items, scrollbars, background pictures, buttons, and other interface elements. Several alternate themes have been heavily publicized, and Apple’s failure to deliver theme support in previous versions of the Mac OS inspired products like Kaleidoscope, which has long provided much the same functionality. (Kaleidoscope has been updated to work with Mac OS 8.5.)


Mac OS 8.5 delivers on Apple’s promise of theme support in the Mac OS, albeit not to the degree many Mac aficionados have expected. The new Appearance control panel subsumes the older Color, WindowShade, and Desktop Pictures control panels, providing a multi-tabbed interface for controlling various interface elements. (Mac OS 8.5 includes five new system fonts, but there are other font changes – for instance, Monaco has a new semi-serif look that takes some getting used to.) The Appearance control panel also enables you to have TrueType fonts smoothed (anti-aliased) above an arbitrary point size. Not all Macintosh applications are Appearance-savvy: some menus won’t appear with proper fonts or colors, and some window elements might be out of place. For the most part, however, these problems are only cosmetic.

Although Apple developers had access to Gizmo and Hi-Tech themes while Mac OS 8.5 was in development, Mac OS 8.5 ships with only one theme: Apple Platinum. I suspect this is a conservative move by Apple to protect the renowned Macintosh look and feel. Frankly, few things will drive a new computer buyer away from an iMac faster than the Gizmo theme, which turns a standard interface into a cacophony of color, clutter, and chaos. If you desire more customization, try Kaleidoscope. Further, although Apple hasn’t released details on creating theme files, enthusiastic Mac programmers are already reverse-engineering Apple’s themes and developing tools to create new ones. A few documents imply Apple and other companies may distribute new themes in the future.

All that aside, sound tracks will be the love-hate feature of Mac OS 8.5’s themes. Like the popular but long defunct SoundMaster control panel, themes can include a sound track for actions involving windows, menus, window controls, and various Finder actions. For instance, using Apple’s Platinum sound track dragging a document across the screen causes a slight ticking, which even pans left to right as you move the document from side to side. Sounds play when windows open and close, when you select menus and menu items, when you scroll windows, and in response to many other events. I initially thought the Platinum sounds were distracting, but the sounds are surprisingly well thought-out, and now a silent Macintosh seems odd and somehow dry. Sound tracks aren’t for everyone, but you might want to give them a chance.

The Game’s Afoot — The most-publicized new feature in Mac OS 8.5 is Sherlock, which replaces the Mac OS’s Find File. You still use Sherlock to hunt for files on local disks and servers – its functionality is much like Find File – but Sherlock can also search the contents of documents on indexed volumes and send queries to Internet search engines. Unlike Find File, you can keep multiple results windows open.


Sherlock’s Find By Content capability is based on Apple’s long-simmering V-Twin technology, which is now built into the Mac OS so applications besides Sherlock can use it too. (To see another instance, Control-click a text file in the Finder and choose Summarize File to Clipboard.) Searching by content requires that Sherlock first index the disk you want to search. This process can take hours and results in an index stored as a large, invisible file. (Luckily, you can schedule Sherlock to index in the middle of the night, and Sherlock can ignore items with a particular Finder label.) After it creates an index, Sherlock can quickly search the disk’s contents and provide relevancy-ranked search results that you can sort by several criteria. To use Find By Content to best advantage, use a phrase that describes what you’re looking for, rather than just a few keywords; also, take advantage of the Find Similar Files button. Because Sherlock indexes only entire disks rather than particular directories, some people will find it more useful than others. For instance, I’d love to have Sherlock index just TidBITS issues, articles I’ve written, and a few other folders, but since these items live on separate disks, the overhead might be excessive.

Sherlock’s most-advertised capability is to send queries to Internet search engines like AltaVista and Apple’s Tech Info Library. Sherlock does this by using Internet Search Site plug-ins, which live in their own folder in the System Folder. The plug-ins tell Sherlock how to send a query to a particular search engine, how to interpret results from that site, and how often to check for plug-in updates. This means Sherlock is also a lightweight Web client: it sends a query to one or more search engines, then parses the HTML returned from those sites to display a results window. Clicking a search result often displays an abbreviated preview in the search results window; double-clicking a search result opens the item in your preferred Web browser. Sherlock’s previews can contain banner advertisements from search sites, complete with animated GIFs. Although these banners are troubling precedents, their presence assures ad-driven sites that Sherlock users don’t get the benefit of the site’s searching capability without seeing advertising; otherwise, sites might ban Sherlock altogether.

Mac OS 8.5 ships with six search site plug-ins. Dozens more are already available for Macintosh-related sites, and Apple has a page of additional plug-ins for general-interest sites. We’ve created a Sherlock plug-in to search TidBITS articles – try it out by downloading it and dragging it to your System Folder.



Sherlock can also save search criteria to separate files – whether you’re searching your hard disk or the Internet – making it easy to repeat frequent queries.

Compatibility — Mac OS 8.5’s compatibility is quite good: most extensions and applications run without problems, and surprisingly few current applications seem to suffer from cosmetic Appearance-related problems. Nonetheless, some widely used applications and utilities have problems with Mac OS 8.5: here’s a quick run-down of common problems and fixes.

  • Microsoft has released a 2.9 MB patch to the English language version of Office 98 to address a delay in menus drawing and solve layout inconsistencies between Mac OS versions. The update also fixes two problems that aren’t specific to Mac OS 8.5.


  • The QuickDay and QuickContact components of Now Contact and Now Up-to-Date have severe problems when configured to add menus to the menubar. Qualcomm recommends turning off menubar functions.

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  • Kensington has released MouseWorks 5.0.5 for compatibility with Mac OS 8.5.


  • There have been widespread reports of problems with Adobe ATM and ATM Deluxe with Mac OS 8.5. Several Adobe reps have confirmed privately that version 4.0.3 of both products works fine under Mac OS 8.5. I haven’t found any problems with ATM 4.0.2, the version on the Mac OS 8.5 CD-ROM.

  • I had severe crashing problems with Symantec’s Suitcase 3.0.1 extension; Symantec hasn’t responded to my queries, or (so far as I can tell) acknowledged a problem.

  • OneClick 1.0.3, the current version, is incompatible with Mac OS 8.5. WestCode has said an update is forthcoming.


Next Time — The next part of this article will examine some of Mac OS 8.5’s features in greater detail, including AppleScript, Navigation Services, Internet and networking changes, additional software components, and new operating system features. In the meantime, please visit TidBITS Talk for more discussion about these and other Mac OS 8.5 features.


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