Should You Upgrade To Mac OS 9?
October 28th, 1999

Again this week we'll be dealing with just one issue. I think this is important enough to spend some time with, and so we will do just that. However, if you have a question that just can't wait until I answer it in a column here, head on over to the Ask Dave Forum where you can post your question live. We'll all do our best to help each other out, and I think it should work out quite well. Otherwise, you can e-mail your questions directly to me at [email protected]. Without further ado -- on to the question of the day (and it's been asked by SO many people):

Everyone writes, "Dave! Should I upgrade to Mac OS 9?"

Well, this is kind of a loaded question. We've had the chance here to play with it some in The Mac Observer Ask Dave labs, and all in all, it's a good experience, but it comes at a price.

New Features

  • Sherlock 2 - Yeah, everyone talks about it, but is it all that much better? In a word, yes. Built-in search sets alone are enough to draw attention to this handy little tool, but its ability to search and compare prices for us online shoppers is fantastic. It's fast, it works, and it even has the new "brush-metal" interface that made its debut with QuickTime 4. Some people don't like it. I, for one, think it's just superb.

  • Multiple Users - This isn't going to appeal to everyone, but it will certainly have its followers. Once enabled, this brings up a dialog box at startup asking you to identify yourself. After you choose your username from a list, you then authenticate with your password and it lets you in. In addition to keeping pesky prying eyes away from your unattended computer, Multiple Users offers separate settings for each user with what Apple calls "Virtual desktop." Separate preference folders are maintained for each user, which means your default Word settings and your E-Mail files can't be affected when the kids login to the computer to play online. It also sets up a secure folder for each user, allowing true separation of work files depending on your login.

    Multiple Users also allows the administrator (locally or over a network) to decide which applications people have access to on a user by user basis. This is ideal for classrooms, or even homes where you've got multiple members of the same family sharing one computer. You may not WANT the kids getting into Netscape unless you're around, and this is one way to safeguard things.

  • Voiceprint Password - Well, we all saw Phil Schiller demo the voiceprint password at various keynote speeches, and I must say it has worked flawlessly for me. Again, not for everyone, but it's certainly cool to try out once... "My voice is my password" will be a mantra for many.

  • Keychain - Like Sherlock 2, this is reason alone to go get Mac OS 9 right off the bat. Either connected to the Multiple Users feature or available as a standalone component, the keychain finally gives us Mac users something the Windows world has had for some time: the ability to type just ONE password and have our computers remember all the rest. I have passwords for e-mail, web sites, and file servers that I need to keep track of. Now, with Keychain's help, all I do is enter one password when I start my computer, and that unlocks all the rest of my stored passwords for the computer to use when it needs them.

  • Auto Updating - Again, something Windows users have had since the debut of Windows 98, Auto Updating allows our computers to work a little smarter, keeping themselves up to date, and sometimes behind our backs! The Software Update control panel lets you manually check for updates to your System software, and it also lets you set a schedule for this to be done automatically. As of this writing, nothing has changed, so I haven't seen it in action, although reports tell me that, with Auto Update enabled, drivers for new USB devices are downloaded automagically as soon as the device is plugged in! Sounds nifty

  • Encryption - Again, another feature that works as advertised. You can control-click on a file or folder and the Mac OS will ask you for a password and then encrypt the selected item(s) on the spot. It's nice enough to then store your password in the Keychain, so you don't have to bother yourself with yet another piece of information to write down and lose. Double clicking on an encrypted file will decrypt it (with the right password, of course), and then open the file up like normal. Quite smooth.

  • TCP/IP-based File Sharing - Can you say "Finally"? I knew ya could. Appletalk is neither fast nor is it routable over the Internet, and, to be honest, that was starting to get to be a drag. This will be quite beneficial to anyone sharing files over 100Base-T ethernet connections, and, of course, anyone who needs to share resources (or connect to shared resources) over the Internet. It works flawlessly, and can be enabled or disabled without disturbing your Appletalk File Sharing, for security reasons (check last weeks column on dedicated Internet access and security concerns for more information).

  • ColorSync 3 - Adding yet another level to ease in the color matching arena comes ColorSync 3. Its improved interface, ability to set profiles by device type, and full support throughout the entire workflow (from input to editing/retouching to output) will make life a lot easier for design professionals.

  • Large-file support - Finally, the Mac OS officially supports files larger than 2 gigabytes. Mac OS 9 now handles files up to 2 terabytes in size (yeah, you think that's large enough, but eventually it, too, will be too small!), and also allows for filenames up to 255 characters in length. Both of these features require support from developers, but this is the first step in getting it out there.

  • Reworked Alert Messages - Instead of alerts taking control of your entire screen and requiring you to click "OK" in order to get past them, alerts have now taken on a much less intrusive role. They appear as little yellow notices in the upper right hand corner of the screen. They don't jump in front of any active windows, and are generally less intrusive while still being quite noticeable. It's a minor change, yes, but its one that smoothes the workflow.

So you say, "Yeah, Dave, that's great. But should I get it? What are the downsides?"

And the answer is, yes, get it... SO LONG as you have enough memory to spare. With Virtual Memory off, I found Mac OS 8.6 was taking up about 34 MB of RAM at bootup. Mac OS 9 takes up about 42 on the machines I've worked with here. So I wouldn't recommend doing it unless you've got at LEAST 96 MB of RAM, and preferably more... like 160. We immediately found that those machines where 128MB was "enough" to function with OS 8.6 required a bump up to 160 with Mac OS 9. But it seems to be worth it. It's quite stable, it honestly seems to be faster on most machines, and other than a few problems with older applications (like Stuffit Deluxe) it seems to be quite compatible with everything we've tried.

Go get it while it's hot, folks. I think you'll be happy. Have any questions? Either visit the forum or e-mail me at [email protected]. I'll do my best to accommodate you!

P.S. Have a Nice Day