When I started using Mac OS X, back in the days of the public beta, I was both confused and disappointed. The habits and familiarity I had developed over more than a decade working with Macs had been tossed by the wayside. Mac OS X offered a totally new user experience, and one that threw me for a loop. I didn’t do much more than fiddle with that beta version; while I am an early adopter, I didn’t want to adopt something that was so sketchy.
Then came the first official release. It was better, but many things were still missing. I began using it more, especially to update a manual I wrote for a popular utility. But my usage of Mac OS X remained, at the time, very limited. I ran Mac OS X on my iBook, but I kept my main computer running Mac OS 9 so I could get "real" work done. When the 10.1 release came out, life began to improve. Not only had Apple refined Mac OS X’s interface, but I started to use it more and became more comfortable with the changes – if only because my work, writing manuals and books, required me to do so. The turning point came when I started co-writing my first book, Microsoft Office v. X Inside Out, and I looked more closely at just what was behind Mac OS X’s attractive interface.
Quite a few books on Mac OS X have hit the stores, some written during the public beta, others before the 10.1 update came out. But the many improvements that appeared in 10.1 made these early books obsolete almost instantly. That left us with another flurry of books that followed the 10.1 update (which will certainly be somewhat out of date soon, when 10.2 comes out, but that’s the way this business works). From this last set, I’ve examined more than a dozen Mac OS X books, and have chosen two that, to me, seem to offer the most useful information for intermediate or advanced users. Beginning users have a variety of other books that will help them get started (and I hope to look at a few in upcoming articles), but if you, like me, have been working with Mac OS X since the beginning, these two books will probably be the most valuable for your library.
One of the most interesting (and frightening) things about Mac OS X for us long-time Mac users is its Unix foundation. Chris Pepper covered much of this in several TidBITS articles already, but suffice it to say that we Mac users now have at our fingertips some intensely powerful – if not user-friendly – tools. Although many Mac users don’t want to fiddle with command-line programs (and I am one of them), I’ve discovered that they can be real lifesavers at times. There’s nothing wrong with long-time Mac users refusing to use command-line tools – Apple certainly doesn’t require it – but there’s equally little wrong with dropping into the Terminal every so often to do something that’s much easier from the command-line.
Everything about OS X — Several years ago, David Pogue and O’Reilly & Associates created the Missing Manual series, a now-successful imprint. His Missing Manual series has raised the bar in computer books – these books are generally well-written, complete, and full of tips and tricks. One of the most successful books in the series was his Mac OS 9: The Missing Manual, which gave many users the detailed information they needed to go beyond the basics. I reviewed it for TidBITS two years ago, and it remains one of my favorite books for those needing to learn more about Mac OS 9.
Now Pogue is back with the followup: Mac OS X: The Missing Manual. Like the Mac OS 9 book, the Mac OS X Missing Manual follows a logical sequence. If you read it sequentially, it starts with the Desktop (folders and windows, organization, the Dock, and the toolbar), then moves on to examine applications. The sections that follow deal with a more heterogeneous group of subjects: the Components of Mac OS X section covers preferences, the programs that come bundled with Mac OS X, and CDs and DVDs; and the Technologies of Mac OS X section deals with users, networking, graphics, sound, and the Terminal. The final section explains using Mac OS X to go online, and several appendices offer menu by menu explanations, talk about installing and troubleshooting, and provide some Web sites and additional books to consult for more information.
To Pogue’s credit, he fills the book with useful information, from the basics of setting up user accounts and using windows, to how to set up a network. Everything is here – a brief section entitled The Very Basics even explains clicking and double-clicking. But, like Pogue’s Mac OS 9 volume, this is not a book for beginners, who would soon be lost in the sheer quantity of information.
I learned many things I hadn’t previously known – keyboard shortcuts for quick navigation in the different Finder views; how to create and manage user accounts; and some neat hacks, such as redefining keystrokes, something that used to be a breeze with ResEdit, and which now must be done from the command line.
One especially useful section is the first appendix, The "Where’d It Go" Dictionary, which lists the many things that Apple replaced from Mac OS 9 when creating Mac OS X. It’s a boon for new users looking for familiar landmarks. I do have to disagree with one snide remark Pogue makes, however: under the heading Button View, he says it’s "gone – to the great disappointment of the six people who ever used it." Not only do I miss button view – it’s a great way to roll your own launcher using pop-up folders – but I personally know more than six people who use it.
When I was reviewing Mac OS 9: The Missing Manual, I commented, "The problem here is that the book is written more like an encyclopedia or other reference book." You can level the same criticism at this book – it’s an encyclopedia, and many of its chapters read like a series of tips, keyboard shortcuts, and workarounds. This is both positive and negative – while the breadth of Mac OS X calls for a thorough approach, the almost list-like nature of the book can be overwhelming.
Mac OS X: The Missing Manual has 450 pages and lists for $25; it’s currently available for 30 percent off from Amazon, and it’s extremely likely that your favorite bookstore will have it as well.
For Power Users Only — Mac OS X Unleashed, by John Ray and William C. Ray, is one of the biggest books on Mac OS X, and the one that currently gives the best coverage of its Unix underpinnings. With nearly 1,500 pages, this huge tome covers an incredible amount of information, but is relatively weak on the basics. It’s not a book for beginners, nor for those who don’t want to learn about the command line, given that the heart of the book, about 300 pages, is devoted to using the command line. Plus, a good part of the book deals with using Mac OS X as a server, which isn’t essential for many users.
The extensive coverage of Unix begins with the most basic commands to run from the command line: cd, ls, rm, and others. For users with no Unix experience, this section reads like a tutorial. It gives concrete examples you can type into Terminal to see what happens. Follow along with the authors, and you will quickly understand the main Unix commands that you may need to use. I learned more than I thought I wanted to know as I worked my way through these chapters. (And the best way to learn these commands is to use them; following the authors’ examples is helpful.) I am now confident when I open the terminal, though I try not to do it often.
Mac OS X Unleashed remains a high-level book, written more for administrators than average users. Sections on FTP serving, mail servers, and Web serving are well beyond what most of us need, but if that’s the sort of information about Mac OS X you’ve been hungering for, this book won’t disappoint.
It also features strong chapters on connecting to Windows – much easier under Mac OS X than Mac OS 9 – and other subjects such as Perl scripting, printer and font management, and system maintenance. Unfortunately, covering all these topics in depth can have negative consequences – it is a huge, dense book that may throw off a lot of intermediate users by its size. But if you want to learn more about what lies under Mac OS X’s pretty interface, this book is for you. All that paper also doesn’t come cheap, with a list price of $50, though the 30 percent discount currently in place at Amazon drops the price to a more reasonable $35.
Which to Choose? Although neither of these books is appropriate for the beginner, they approach the more advanced aspects of Mac OS X in different ways. Mac OS X Unleashed focuses much more on Mac OS X’s Unix underpinnings – power users who want the keys to the kingdom should buy this book. In contrast, Mac OS X: The Missing Manual is exactly what it says – a reference manual. It deals with the basics, all the basics, and then everything else. It suffers, at times, from being a compendium, though its index is sufficient to find most everything you need.
The two books actually complement each other well. One provides a window on the visible side of the operating system and the other looks behind the scenes; many intermediate to advanced users of Mac OS X will need a little from each. If you don’t even want to run Terminal – and I’m sure many of you don’t – the Missing Manual is probably all you need.
In the few months I have had these books, both have gotten a fair amount of use, and, next to all the other Mac OS X books on my shelf, they have turned out to be the ones I look to first when I need to know something.
[Kirk McElhearn is a freelance translator and technical writer living in a village in the French Alps.]