Review: Mac OS X 10.1

To the hundreds of millions of Windows users, news about Macintosh enhancements might barely register on their collective radar. But the Mac is undergoing a renaissance these days, similar to the sweeping improvements the PC world is experiencing with Windows XP. After years of work, Apple has finally released a bulletproof next-generation OS that’s as easy to use as it is easy on the eyes. It’s called Mac OS X (pronounced ten), and the latest revision—version 10.1—is the first revision that’s worthy of your attention, regardless of which OS you currently use.

The parallels between XP on the PC side and OS X on the Mac side are none too subtle. Both OSs are based on a solid core, or kernel, that was previously unavailable to consumers. On the Mac, this kernel is called Mach, and it’s based on rock-solid UNIX technology, giving Mac users a break from the system-error bombs that plague older versions of Apple’s OS. Both XP and OS X feature a colorful new UI. On the Mac, the UI is called Aqua, an appropriate name given the modulating blue gel-cap buttons and liquid-like onscreen elements. And both OSs seek to integrate into your digital life. On the Mac, this concept is called “the center of your digital lifestyle;” Apple markets the system’s connectivity with digital media, the Internet, and various types of devices. Last January, Microsoft unleashed a similar marketing campaign just days before Apple.

Microsoft and Apple developed XP and OS X in parallel, and although the first version of OS X (10.0) shipped months ago (in March), the OS wasn’t ready for consumers and casual users until 10.1’s release in late September. By that time, Microsoft had already released XP to manufacturing, so whether certain features debuted first on one system or the other is unclear. But one thing is clear: This new Mac OS offers at least as much of an advance for users of that platform as does XP on the PC. Comparing the two, of course, is inevitable.

XP vs. OS X

The truth, however, is that such a comparison is almost doomed to failure. Mac partisans will cry foul when they hear that XP’s task-based UI is a true innovation that makes OS X’s rusty desktop metaphor seem tired and old by comparison. And Windows jockeys will recoil in horror when they discover that the digital-movie features in Mac OS X—iMovie 2 and iDVD2—don’t just surpass what comes free in Windows but completely blow away most commercial Windows applications as well. Overall, however, the contest is something of a toss-up: OS X performs certain tasks better, and XP performs others better.

Given this stalemate, the most obvious conclusion is that XP and OS X are different, and overall, neither really has a huge advantage over the other. For Apple, the news is mixed. By leveling the playing field, the company has made huge advances over previous versions of its own OS, which had fallen behind Windows technologically some time ago. But because Mac OS X isn’t demonstrably better than Windows, it’s unlikely that a measurable number of Windows users will defect to OS X. That said, OS X is almost a no-brainer for any Mac user with fairly modern hardware. And for Windows users interested in digital video, the Mac is suddenly the place to be. Let’s take a closer look at this exciting new OS.

OS X Highs and Lows

Mac OS X will install on any USB-capable Mac with at least 128MB of RAM, a much more realistic minimum than Microsoft publicizes for XP. That said, the system is a memory hog, and I recommend at least 256MB of RAM and a fast G3 or G4 processor for optimal performance. You can dual-boot OS X with the older OS 9 system, and this setup gives you the capability to run older OS 9-compatible applications, albeit in a slow-to-load compatibility environment whose stability is as shaky as that of OS 9 itself. A less popularized but, in my mind, more elegant way to install OS X is on a system by itself: You can’t run older OS 9 applications in such an environment, but if you’re not relying on such legacy programs, you’ll save a ton of disk space.

OS X boots quickly, and shuts down and comes out of sleep mode instantaneously, functionality that Windows systems can only dream of. I have no doubt that Apple’s simultaneous hardware and software development has given it the edge in this area, and although the raw horsepower of the PowerPC chips that power Macs use has fallen behind that of the Intel-compatible designs on the PC, the Mac clearly benefits from this symbiotic relationship. With enough RAM and a decent processor, Mac OS X 10.1 is responsive, even snappy—something that couldn’t have been said of the initial OS X release.

Aesthetically, OS X is a winner, although I wish the UI was more configurable, as it is in Linux and, to a lesser degree, in XP. You’re basically stuck with Apple’s default blue color-coded UI or a drab gray-scale version that harkens back to the original 1984 Mac. But Apple did create a new Quartz rendering engine for OS X that brings the power of Adobe Postscript to consumers, offering a lush and beautifully rendered environment with super crisp text, photographic icons, and 3-D effects. The text is so sharp, in fact, that it (pardon the pun) renders silly Microsoft’s claims for ClearType, which works well only on certain LCD monitors. Text on OS X is sharp and clear in an otherworldly way and much nicer than anything in the PC world. Working with text is a joy, whether you’re editing a Microsoft Word document, reading a Web page, or even browsing the local file system from a UNIX command line. You have to see it to believe it.

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