Mac OS X 10.1: The Main Features
At the July 2001 Macworld Expo in New York, Steve Jobs previewed Mac OS X 10.1, wowing the audience with a demonstration that promised massive speed improvements, the return of features previously exclusive to Mac OS 9, and a host of interface tweaks to address the most glaring of Mac OS X’s usability holes. Now that Mac OS X 10.1 is here, let’s look at the major changes. Rest assured that there are many smaller ones that we lack the space to cover here, which we’ll write more about in future issues.
Spit and Polish, Quickly — The worst problem suffered by Mac OS X 10.0 was performance. Throwing lots of RAM and processor power (particularly a PowerPC G4 with the Velocity Engine coprocessor) at the problem helped, but PowerPC G3-based Macs, and particularly those on the lower end of the RAM scale, were unacceptably slow. My 250 MHz PowerBook G3 Series with 160 MB of RAM couldn’t even restart in Mac OS X 10.0 without timing out.
Mac OS X 10.1 reduces or eliminates performance problems across the board. The most notable improvement comes in the previously dismal performance when launching applications. Wags immediately coined the term "bouncemarks" – the number of times an application’s icon bounced in the Dock – as a measure of launch speed. On my 500 MHz iBook (Dual USB) with 320 MB of RAM, I checked Internet Explorer 5.1 and System Preferences before and after installing 10.1, and both were significantly faster (though, to be fair, it’s entirely likely that Internet Explorer’s improvement was due to its own changes, not Mac OS X 10.1’s). Applications launch more quickly after having been run once (presumably due to resources being cached or more easily located), and in my tests Internet Explorer initially took 15 bounces on the first launch, and 10 on subsequent launches. In Mac OS X 10.1, Internet Explorer took only 6 bounces on the first launch and 2 on subsequent ones. System Preferences went from 6 and 5 bounces (first/subsequent) to 4 and 2 bounces under 10.1. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to test more applications before upgrading, but I can say with assurance under 10.1 that application launch time is no longer a major issue.
Many other common actions, such as moving windows, resizing windows, navigating through menus, dragging icons, and so on also feel more responsive, although it’s difficult to quantify the difference. Most Mac OS X users won’t see the interface speed demonstrated during Steve Jobs’s keynote at Macworld Expo in New York in July – that was a demo and while not necessarily rigged, certainly wasn’t representative across the board. Part of the problem is that even Mac OS X 10.1 isn’t as snappy as Mac OS 9 for these actions. It almost can’t be, since Mac OS 9 uses performance-enhancing tricks like resizing only the outline of a window, rather than the window itself, as happens in Mac OS X. Using Thousands of colors rather than Millions in Mac OS X’s Display preference panel seems to help a little by reducing the amount of data Mac OS X has to manipulate to resize a window or drop a translucent menu.
Apple also introduced a new minimizing effect called Scale – it’s perceptually faster than the old Genie effect, though the actual difference is probably only about half of a second. I’ve not noticed any benefit here, in part because the concept of minimizing windows to the Dock remains foreign to me – I prefer leaving application windows visible so I can use them as large buttons for application switching (which still annoys me in 10.1, since switching to an application with multiple windows by clicking a window reveals only the clicked window and no others, whereas clicking the application’s icon on the Dock brings all of that application’s windows to the front). Other perceptual niceties – like the zoom rectangles that accompanied application launches in Mac OS 9 – are still missing.
Finally, Apple claims that OpenGL is 20 percent faster in 10.1 and has native support for the Nvidia GeForce 3 video card, thus improving 3D rendering speed. This improvement should help performance of certain games significantly.
The only notable place I noticed no speed improvement was in starting Classic – it took 90 seconds the first time and 60 seconds on subsequent launches both before and after upgrading to 10.1. Other reports seem to contradict my experience, though. I didn’t use applications under Classic sufficiently in 10.0 to have noticed whether or not they’re faster under 10.1, although again, some reports indicate that Classic performance has improved, particularly on slower machines.
No Longer MIA — Apple has been adding major missing features to Mac OS X – like CD burning in iTunes – throughout the four minimal updates to 10.0, but 10.1 offers a few more features to which Mac OS 9 users have become accustomed. Most notable is DVD playback, for all those people watching movies on their PowerBooks and iBooks on long flights (though DVD Player 3.0 works only on Macs with built-in DVD-ROM drives and AGP graphics, and doesn’t yet support watching DVD movies on a PowerBook or iBook connected to a television or external monitor). DVD Player 3.0 sports a new and better interface, and shows off Mac OS X’s multitasking capabilities; a friend with a PowerBook G4 Titanium played a DVD in DVD Player, played some MP3s in iTunes, and checked email, all at the same time without any hiccups. DVD authoring will also come to Mac OS X in 10.1 with the release of iDVD 2, available soon, and only for Mac OS X 10.1. And for those who have become fond of burning data CDs on their desktops, Mac OS X 10.1 now offers the capability to burn data CD-ROMs from the Finder. If you do so often, you can even add a Burn button to your toolbar in Finder windows.
Networking has also been enhanced with the addition of a version of the AirPort Admin Utility for Mac OS X, so you can now manage AirPort Base Stations without having to reboot back to Mac OS 9 (although Mac OS X still lacks Mac OS 9’s extremely handy Software Base Station capability). Plus, Mac OS X 10.1 can now connect to AFP (Apple File Protocol) servers over AppleTalk as well as TCP/IP, which makes it easier for a Mac running Mac OS X to coexist on legacy networks with older AppleTalk-based AppleShare servers. New in the Mac OS in general is a built-in SMB (Server Message Block) client that enables Mac OS X to connect to SMB-based Windows and Unix file servers (though doing so requires you to type an SMB URL in the Connect to Server dialog box; see Apple’s Knowledge Base for full instructions). In Mac OS 9, a utility like Dave from Thursby Systems or DoubleTalk from Connectix was necessary to access SMB servers, and if Apple’s implementation doesn’t become easier to use, there will still be a market for Dave and DoubleTalk.
Apple also beefed up support for printers in Mac OS X 10.1, such that it boasts over 200 PostScript printer description files for printers from Hewlett-Packard, Lexmark, and Xerox. Also supposedly improved is support for USB printers (although my Epson Stylus Photo 860 merely shows up as an unsupported printer when I plug in it).
AppleScript support has improved significantly, with additional scripting support in the Finder, plus scripting support within many of the operating system’s standard components, like Print Center, Internet Connect, and Terminal. More impressive are the many bundled AppleScript scripts, some of which are useful examples (such as one that queries an Internet site for stock quotes or current temperatures via Mac OS X’s new Web Services XML communication capabilities) and others of which actually provide missing functionality (a Switch to Finder script works like the Application menu’s Hide Others command in Mac OS 9’s Finder). Check them out in the Scripts folder in the Library folder. Even more scripts with useful tweaks to the Finder (such as opening a pair of Finder windows positioned for easy copying of items from one to the other) are available online from Apple. Promised on Apple’s Mac OS X Web pages, but not yet available, is AppleScript Studio, which purports to let scripters create application interfaces with AppleScript. Although I’ve never found AppleScript as simple as HyperTalk (the language built into Apple’s long-suffering HyperCard), I suspect the lack of built-in interface tools has been equally as daunting for many of those who appreciated HyperCard’s capabilities for building stand-alone custom applications.
Last but not least, Apple has bundled the final release of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 5.1 browser, which differs primarily from the 5.0 version of Mac OS 9 in its support for Java 2 and the addition of several useful interface touches controlled from the Interface Extras panel of Internet Explorer’s Preferences dialog box. It’s difficult to see how much better Java 2 support really is – I found some Java applets that worked right and others that didn’t, and I wasn’t able to figure out how to evaluate any real world Java performance improvements.
Smoother Aqua Sailing — With Mac OS X 10.1, Apple has listened to the user feedback many of you have sent in about the new Aqua interface, and although Mac OS X’s Aqua interface has by no means reached the maturity level of Mac OS 9 yet, it has definitely improved. Do keep sending in your feedback – it’s clearly having an effect.
Having longer file names in Mac OS X was generally considered a step up from the previous limit of 31 characters, but Mac OS X 10.0 removed characters from the middle of the filename when it was too long to display, making it near impossible to differentiate between some similarly named files. Apple addressed this limitation in 10.1 by letting file names wrap to two lines in icon view and by making the columns resizable in Finder windows using the Column view. Drag the resize thumb at the bottom of a column to resize all columns equally; Option-drag a resize thumb to resize only that column.
Files in Mac OS X often have extensions, thanks to the operating system’s Unix heritage. Although the classic Mac OS’s more modern file type and creator information is still used (and used preferentially over extensions, if it’s present), extensions are unlikely to go away. In 10.1, Apple hides filename extensions by default and has added an option to the Finder Preferences (look in the Finder’s Finder menu) to show them on a system-wide basis.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, and in the process, Apple has created a thoroughly confusing morass. Individual files can override the system-wide setting for showing extensions (check the Name & Extension panel of the Get Info window), but the rules for why any given file will ignore the system-wide setting remain inexplicable. For instance, if you create a file in TextEdit while the "Always show file extensions" setting is on in the Finder, that file will always display its extension, even if you later change the system-wide setting. And some filename extensions, like .html, are always set to display unless you specifically change them in the Get Info window. Apple tries to avoid some obvious problems, so if you change a file’s extension while "Always show file extensions" is on, you’re asked if you know what you’re doing, since the change could make the file open in an application that can’t read it. The entire system needs revamping – requiring arbitrary filename extensions is both poor user interface and design laziness. Apple’s limp defenses of "that’s how other operating systems do it" and "it’s easier for Mac users to share files across platforms" are just weak – documents are created in applications, and if those applications are used across platforms, they can shoulder the burden of encouraging users to add filename extensions upon saving, as Microsoft has done well with the Microsoft Office suite.
The Dock, though essentially unchanged, has one extremely welcome new feature – you can position it on the right or left edges of the screen as well as the bottom, where it tends to obscure window scroll arrows and resize boxes. Applications can now display custom menus from their Dock icons, and when an application needs attention, its application jumps in the Dock like a kid in class begging to be called on. Apple also reduced Dock clutter by moving Dock extras to the menu bar, just to the left of the clock. Controls for switching between monitor resolutions, seeing modem status, adjusting volume, showing battery status, and switching between AirPort networks can all now appear in the menu bar (check their related System Preferences panels for controls to toggle the menu bar display). Although the Dock desperately needed to save the space wasted on Dock extras, I fear the menu bar will soon become overloaded, particularly if other developers start to put their icons up there too. One criticism – though much of Mac OS X’s interface is highly attractive, the almost-crude and primarily monochrome menu bar icons seem as graphically out of place as the disclosure triangles in the Finder’s List view.
Speaking of System Preferences, in Mac OS X 10.1 Apple reorganized the window by function, grouping the different preference panels by Personal, Hardware, Internet & Network, and System. The categorization improves the cluttered feel from previous versions, although it seems a bit arbitrary, and as with the menu bar icons, I fear it won’t scale well if developers are allowed to add their own preference panels.
Several new preference panels have appeared, including Desktop (where you set the desktop picture), and General, which bundles together options for appearance, highlight color, scroll arrows (missing is my favorite approach – double scroll arrows at the top and bottom of the scroll bar), scroll action, recent items, and text smoothing. I’ve always turned off text smoothing in Mac OS 9 for fonts under 18 point, since the hand-tuned fonts display better than the machine rendered anti-aliasing to my eyes. But Mac OS X apparently lacks hand-tuned fonts, since the system font characters and character spacing are terrible without anti-aliasing turned on in Mac OS X, especially at small sizes.
Many of the existing preference panels have changed as well. The Keyboard preference panel still lacks support for customizing function keys, as in Mac OS 9, but Apple has brought back the Sticky Keys and Mouse Keys components of Universal Access, a welcome change for those with certain disabilities or who prefer to avoid the mouse entirely (see "Accessibility on the Mac: Access Solutions" in TidBITS-569). The Network preference panel renamed the Advanced panel to Active Network Ports, which is good, since "Advanced" doesn’t tell you anything about what’s in there (I once spent quite some time troubleshooting network problems that were related to the order of the active network ports). The Energy Saver preference panel now lets you display the battery status in the menu bar, but otherwise remains far less flexible than the Mac OS 9 version, and some initial reports claim that 10.1 once again sucks battery power in laptops unnecessarily. In the Sharing preference panel, you can now allow other users to send Apple events to your computer for controlling local applications, but on the downside, Web Sharing appears to be broken in 10.1 for many people, myself included, and never gets past the startup up phase.
There are certainly more small changes in Mac OS X 10.1 that may make the difference for you between upgrading from Mac OS 9 and not, but those will have to wait for another article. However, the question of whether or not to upgrade is up next.