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Mac OS X 10.3 Panther Unleashed

Mac OS X 10.3 Panther bounded out of its lair over the weekend, giving us the opportunity to start using the shipping version and see how it compares to what was promised by Apple at the Worldwide Developer Conference in June (see "Mac OS X 10.3 Panther Springs at WWDC" in TidBITS-685). Apple has packed numerous improvements into this release, both on the surface and under the hood, and has also finally implemented some old favorites. Is it worth the $130 upgrade price? Read on for some of the highlights, and decide for yourself.


New Finder — The first obvious changes appear in the Finder, which gains the same brushed metal sheen as iTunes and adds the Sidebar, a pane on the left side of every window that provides quick access to volumes and your home directory. If you don’t want the Sidebar to occupy as much space, you can drag the separator bar to view as little of the contents as you want, down to just icons. If you drag the bar all the way to the left, or double-click it, the Sidebar disappears. Open and Save dialogs also include the Sidebar, simplifying navigation.


The Sidebar replaces, in theory, the Favorites window: drag a folder to the Sidebar to add it to the list, or drag items out of the Sidebar to remove them with the same "poof" animation used when removing items from the Dock. However, Favorites isn’t completely gone, even if there’s no keyboard shortcut or menu item for it. Open the Library folder in your Home directory and drag the Favorites folder to the Sidebar to reclaim your favorites.

Other improvements in the Finder include on-the-fly searching, which displays matching items as you type, the reappearance of Finder labels, and a Windows-inspired interface for switching between open applications: press Command-Tab to select the applications’ icons in a row onscreen (Proteron’s LiteSwitch X performs the same functionality, and the company posted an "open memo" to Apple this week, drawing attention to Apple’s controversial appropriation of third-party technologies in the Mac OS).

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Exposé — One surprise at WWDC was the introduction of Exposé (accented at the end and pronounced "ex-po-zay"), an innovative method of unraveling the inevitable tangle of application and Finder windows. When activated by a user-configurable shortcut key, mouse button, or dragging the pointer to a screen corner, Exposé temporarily shrinks and rearranges the windows to make them more visible. Pressing F9 resizes every window so there is no overlap; you can then click the one you want to bring to the front. F10 exposes the front-most application’s windows in a similar way and dims the rest of the screen for better contrast. F11 works in the opposite fashion, zipping every window offscreen to reveal the Desktop.


We were slightly skeptical of Exposé at first, but the simple and elegant implementation is starting to win us over. You can either press and release one of the shortcut keys to keep the Exposé display on screen, while you choose a window, but if you keep the shortcut key pressed, you need only mouse over your desired window and release the key to activate that window. One annoyance: Exposé doesn’t display Classic windows in its thumbnail view.

Fast User Switching — Previous versions of Mac OS X required you to completely log out if you wanted to activate another user on the same machine, which meant quitting open applications and essentially restarting your Mac, but without the startup chime. In Panther, you can have multiple users logged in simultaneously, preserving the state at which you switched to a different user. You switch among different users by choosing the desired user name from a new menu on the right side of the menu bar. For homes that share a Mac among multiple family members, Fast User Switching is a godsend, and it has already made the cost of the Panther upgrade worthwhile for me: I needed to help someone configure an application from scratch, so I was able to quickly go through the steps using a brand new user, switching from testing to the email I was writing.

For pure eye-candy tastiness, Fast User Switching is likely to be a feature that many people will try out, even if they don’t end up using it frequently. Instead of just displaying another user’s Desktop, the environment graphically rotates as if each user belongs to one side of a cube, at least on my 15-inch PowerBook G4; it just switches on my Titanium PowerBook G4 and Adam’s iBook. I haven’t had a chance to see how the 3D metaphor works with more than six users; it would be swell to have a new cube fly in from a point in space, but I doubt Apple has extended the visual metaphor that far.

I have noticed that some applications behave differently when you switch between users. iChat automatically goes offline, but logs back into the AIM network when you return. Similarly, iTunes stops playing music, but unfortunately it doesn’t start playing again when you’re back. Also, be careful restarting when other users are active; if they have unsaved work and you can’t access their accounts, they’ll lose their changes (you need an administrator password to do this).

FileVault — Responding to the security needs of corporations and privacy-minded individuals, Panther introduces FileVault, a feature that encrypts the contents of your Home folder using AES-128 (Advanced Encryption Standard) encryption. After FileVault is enabled, you can still use items in your Home folder as you normally would, but they’re encrypted and decrypted on the fly as you open and close them. This makes it extremely difficult for someone to access your data, such as if your laptop is lost or stolen.



However, even ignoring the fact that several of the Take Control authors experienced data loss with FileVault while testing beta releases of Panther, FileVault has a serious architectural limitation in that it creates one large file to house your Home items. For many of us, that file will be humongous (as in many gigabytes), since the Home folder by default contains files such as digital photos, iMovie media files, and the iTunes library. This is a problem for two main reasons.

  • Even a small amount of data corruption due to a failing hard drive or other problem could render everything in your Home folder inaccessible. Talk about putting all your eggs in one basket…

  • The smallest change to any file in your Home folder will cause the modification date of the entire FileVault file to change, and backup utilities such as Retrospect will copy the whole thing. (Dantz has listed some known issues with Panther and FileVault on their Web site.)

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FileVault isn’t a bad idea, but it scares me (and everyone else at TidBITS) silly; I can’t imagine entrusting all my data to that single file, much less screwing up my backup strategy to accommodate it. Apple should modify FileVault so you can encrypt only specific folders, thus letting users protect only sensitive data, rather than wasting time and effort on other mostly innocuous files.

Font Book — The Mac has always been on top of typography, but managing fonts has been persistently cumbersome. Font Book is a good step in the right direction, giving most users more control over fonts without having to wonder if they’re copying font files to the correct Fonts folder. You can enable or disable fonts, group typefaces into categories, and search for fonts in the same manner as in the Finder or iTunes. Graphics professionals will likely choose to stick with a font management utility such as Suitcase X or Font Reserve, but for most people Font Book provides enough control.


The tricky part of using Font Book is figuring out its rules for enabling and disabling fonts, since you’ll see different results depending on whether you disable a font when it’s selected in All Fonts or in a particular collection. Matt Neuburg devotes several pages to this topic in "Take Control of Customizing Panther."

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Virtual Private Network (VPN) Connections — Apple has been toiling behind the scenes on technologies that don’t necessarily include splashy graphics or an improved user interface. Case in point: built-in VPN support, which many companies use to communicate safely with employees who travel or telecommute. VPN connections essentially capture all of the ports on a machine and bundle them up into an encrypted tunnel to another computer somewhere on a local network or elsewhere on the Internet. Because all data entering and leaving the machine is encrypted, and there’s only a single point of entry or departure – the VPN connection – you’ve simultaneously reduced the potential of machines being attacked or compromised while eliminating networking snooping whether on a wired or wireless connection. Using the Internet Connect application, you can configure either L2TP-over-IPSec or PPTP connections.

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On the other side of the data pipe, Mac OS X 10.3 Server has both kinds of VPN services built in, making it relatively simple and inexpensive for a small office to hook up a Panther server machine and use the Panther VPN clients to secure their wireless connection.

Should You Upgrade? A major release of any operating system brings with it a number of impressive new features as well as the certainty of glitches that need to be worked out, and Panther is no different.

For example, TidBITS Contributing Editor Glenn Fleishman and I, both recent purchasers of new 15-inch PowerBook G4s, discovered that Panther seems to be persnickety about RAM. The third-party generic RAM we installed seems to be the cause of problems (in my case, Panther would not even run on a completely new installation on a separate partition, and I got repeated system freezes on my main partition installed with the Archive and Install option). Swapping in the original 512 MB of RAM that came with my PowerBook seemed to solve the problem. (Upgrade tip: don’t immediately sell your original RAM on eBay.)

Also, a number of users are reporting that external FireWire drives that are connected when Panther is restarted can become irrevocably corrupted, so make sure you have offline backups of data on external drives before (and while) using them with Panther. And, as with every Mac OS update, some third-party applications and utilities will require updating before they work properly under Panther – be sure to check the Web sites of those products to see if any essential program is Panther-ready.

That said, Panther has a lot to offer. I’ve been impressed not only by the number of new features, but by the sense that Mac OS X is becoming more refined as it matures (perhaps because I remember when it was an awkward toddler). Even as extra bullet points are added to the feature list, I get the sense that just as much effort is being applied to making this Unix-driven system user-friendly.

Plus, Panther just feels faster and more responsive than Jaguar. Granted, I’m now using one of Apple’s fastest laptops, so I’ll be curious to see how my previous 400 MHz Titanium PowerBook G4 runs after upgrading. But I’m starting to see reports that indicate Apple’s engineers continue to optimize Mac OS X’s code to squeeze out better performance.

In the end, the upgrade question comes down to what sort of a user you are. Adventurous early adopters should of course upgrade to Panther immediately; it’s too much fun to explore and play with the new features. More cautious users might want to hold off a bit, not necessarily for a 10.3.1 release, but just until more of the glitches have been identified and can thus be avoided. And unlike the upgrade from 10.1 to 10.2, which we considered essential, we can see some non-demanding users sticking with Jaguar from inertia alone.

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