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Columns & Editorials

July 23rd, 1997

Review by:
Mike Lambert ([email protected])
Bryan Chaffin ([email protected])

Mac OS 8 - Resistance Is Futile
July 23, 1997

The hype surrounding Mac OS 8 hasn't been on a par with, say, the Rolling Stones bellowing "Start Me Up" during Windows 95's rollout a couple years back. However, if you pilot a Macintosh regularly in your work or play, Mac OS 8 is currently, and should remain, the biggest blip on Apple's radar, at least until Rhapsody appears next year.

Mac OS 8 (a.k.a., Tempo), the semi-successor to Apple's now-defunct Copland project, officially was announced on July 22, and is expected to reach stores by July 26th. It's definitely worth the asking price of $99, although there are several upgrade paths to be investigated (especially if you invested in Mac OS 7.6 within the last few months). This is an outstanding, feature-laden upgrade to an OS whose appearance was getting long in the tooth, and whose performance was a bit frayed around the edges. Apple also deserves kudos for getting this product completed and out the door as originally scheduled -- a major feat considering the company's inability to stick to production deadlines in recent years (and a fact that has actually garnered favorable press coverage for the first time in recent memory).

Mac-focused print and Web media outlets have been in a feeding frenzy for months, featuring and hawking OS 8. You may, in fact, already be tired of reading story after story about all of the splendid, gee-whiz features included in this upgrade. No matter; whether you're over-eager to get your hands on this software, or whether you're sitting tight to see if any (or how many) bugs crop up, be certain of one thing: Mac OS 8 is one upgrade you should not miss out on.

Unless, of course, your Mac doesn't make the cut, in terms of system requirements. OS 8 will only run on those Macs equipped with 68040 and PowerPC processors. If your Mac passes that test, then be sure that you also have enough RAM and hard disk space to accommodate the upgrade. OS 8 will run in as little as 8 MB of physical memory (with virtual memory on, and set to 16 MB), but we recommend having at least 16 MB of physical RAM for satisfactory performance (and preferably 32 MB of real RAM to be comfortably safe). In addition, a basic installation of OS 8 will gobble from 70 to 90 MB of hard disk space, and if you install all of the ancillary extensions and applications, you can count on parting with nearly 150 MB of hard disk space -- an admittedly hefty chunk of digital real estate on any Mac.

But enough introduction -- lets' get down to where the rubber meets the road. The Webintosh staff has put OS 8 through its paces, and here's our take on one of the most compelling OS upgrades in the history of the Macintosh:


About Box
Even the Mac OS' About Box receives a major makeover in OS 8. The hidden Finder About Box (access the About Box with the option key depressed) is rejuvenated as well.

Appearance Control Panel
While not going as far as Copland's infamous 'Appearance Manager', the new Appearance Control Panel in OS 8 allows at least some manipulation of your machine's look.

Copying/Popup Window
As you surely know by now, OS 8 brings multitasking to the Finder. Copying and emptying the trash each now receive a separate thread, but unfortunately, formatting a floppy is single a monotonous task.

Desktop Pictures
Mac OS users have always had the ability to display full screen images on their desktops, but only through the use of a shareware add-ons. This functionality is now part of the OS, and Apple even includes a handful of pictures.

Finder Preferences
The old 'Views' Control Panel in previous versions of the Mac OS has been replaced by the Finder Preferences panel which is located in the Finder's Edit menu.

View Options
After having to bring up this window everytime we want to change the way our windows function and appear, we, quite frankly, are getting sick of this little guy.

Finder 8.0: Easy On The Eyes
The most obvious changes in OS 8 are the visible ones. Apple has instituted the 3-D, grey-shaded "Platinum" theme across the board, along with the new default font, Charcoal. Believe it or not, Charcoal grows on you after awhile, and we found it much easier to look at all day long than Chicago (though you can reselect Chicago as the system default if you want to go back).

Several legacy control panels -- Color, Views, and Desktop Patterns -- have been reworked and combined to create new ones: first, the Appearance panel lets you set the preferred colors for text highlighting as well as the "neon" progress bars. Here you also turn collapsible windows on or off (you collapse a window by double-clicking on its title bar, or by clicking on the new widget in the upper far right of an OS 8 window). Second, the Desktop Pictures control panel lets you have the best of both worlds, by allowing you to choose one of a variety of new desktop patterns, or a full-bleed color picture to be displayed on your Desktop.

Many Mac users have had access to the aforementioned features for years now by installing Greg Landweber's Aaron and Kaleidoscope system enhancements, which provide pre-OS 8 Macs with Apple's Greyscale Appearance and other interface goodies (which first became famous when Apple had Copland in the works). Controlling window appearances in OS 8, while a major improvement over OS 7.x, turns out to be a bag of mixed blessings. Windows showing lists now have horizontal grid lines for improved viewing, as well as a grey-shaded highlight column. And as we mentioned earlier, OS 8 no longer provides uniform, global control over all of the Finder's windows through one Views control panel. That is a good thing at times, since OS 7.x's Views seemed too restrictive in it's window control.

While Mac OS 8 does offer an unprecedented amount of options for the appearance of Finder windows -- you can set views by icon, by small or large buttons (similar to the Launcher's buttons), or by list -- each of these options must set separately, on a window-by-window basis. This can be a tedious chore, though a solution already exists in the form of a script entitled SetViewOptions, written by John Blackburne. After some minor script tweaks, based on your own preferences, Blackburne's script will set a uniform appearance for all of your Finder's windows.

Most Finder windows settings are set under the Finder's new View menu. But it's much easier to access view options by using another new OS 8 feature, contextual menus. When you press the control key, and hold the mouse button down in any window, a pop-up menu lets you select the view options for that window, among other actions. Do the same while pressing down on a folder icon or file icon, and you get other options, including Make Alias, and Move to Trash (which also, by the way, have new keyboard commands). Contextual menus give your over-moused hand a much needed break from those cross-monitor treks to the menu bar. We foresee many wonderful opportunities for shareware/freeware authors to capitalize on utilities that beef up OS 8's contextual menus.

You may create pop-up windows (which are visually distinctive from their normal Finder counterparts) in OS 8. When you've changed a regular Finder window into a pop-up window, it shrinks to the bottom of your screen as a small tab. Click that tab, and the window expands. Click the tab once more, and the window folds itself back into it's former tabbed state along the bottom of your screen. This is a true time-saver for those oft-visited folders, and keeps screen clutter to a minimum.

Finally, one of the most helpful navigational features added to OS 8 (along with several much needed keyboard commands) is spring-loaded folders. When you commit a "click-and-a-half" on a folder icon (holding down on the half-click), the cursor turns into a magnifying glass, and that folder opens temporarily to display its contents. Select a second folder within the first, and the first closes while you peruse the contents of the second. Using this shortcut, you can burrow quickly many folders-deep on your hard drive.

In addition to the View menu, Apple has added a new Help menu in place of the question mark icon that resided at the upper right of OS 7.x's Finder. The Help menu still includes (yawn) Balloon Help, and a rechristened Apple Guide, now known as Mac OS Help, which is a more sensible name. As before, the Help menu is modified according to the currently-active application and its associated help files.

And if that isn't enough hand-holding for you, OS 8 also installs the Mac OS Info Center, a large, web browser-driven assistance guide that includes system software information, tips and advice, troubleshooting and a how-to guide which should put even the most nervous Mac novice at rest. OS 8 will present you with the Mac OS Setup Assistant, which helps you set basic Finder settings, the first time your computer starts up after installing the update. Finally, be sure to check out the option for the "Simple Finder," a setting that reduces the Finder to only the most simple and essential commands. (Although this feature was obviously designed for Mac newbies, try it out on your co-workers' or friends' Macs and watch their reactions.)

VERDICT - OS 8's Finder Appearance & Shortcuts:

Finder 8.0: Souped Up Under The Hood
Much has been made about OS 8's rewritten PowerPC-native Finder. (Mac OS 7.x ran the Finder in 680X0 emulation on Power Macs, making for a more sluggish performance at times.) Surprisingly, we found that OS 8's Finder ran some basic functions, such as copying and opening windows, slower than its OS 7.6.1 counterpart. Apple's official stance is that "OS 8 was optimized for responsiveness, not necessarily the speed of operations," which means that OS 8 probably just "feels" faster than it really is. Word from beta testers is that Apple may improve speed performance in the first OS 8.0 update.

The new Finder is also multithreaded, meaning that it can carry out several tasks at once, such as copying files, emptying the Trash, and firing up a program, all in the background while you go right on working. If you have several tasks going at once in the Finder, they actually take turns using processor time, but you won't care as long as you can still go about your normal business. (Don't give up finger-twiddling altogether though -- you must still sit through disk formatting sessions in OS 8.)

Among the variety of system software goodies in OS 8, including updated versions of QuickDraw 3D 1.5, Personal Web Sharing 1.1, and OpenDoc 1.2.1, none are probably more highly anticipated than OpenTransport 1.2. No new features have been added in this version of OT, but a host of long-standing bugs have finally been squashed, including protection from Ping of Death and SYN-FLOOD (or denial of service) attacks. During several days of hardcore Internet usage, we found OpenTransport 1.2 to be far more reliable than its predecessors. Crashes were few, and seemed to be limited to conflicts within the Internet software (browser) at hand, rather than with OpenTransport or OS 8.

VERDICT - OS 8's Performance:

OpenDoc & Cyberdog: Walking the Dog In Style
True to style, Apple killed OpenDoc just as it was finally reaching its potential. While it is unclear why Apple would have included OpenDoc in System 8 after announcing its cancellation, OpenDoc has definitely benefited. OpenDoc has been closely integrated into System 8 and boosts a remarkable speed performance improvement.

Cyberdog in particular, always near and dear to the hearts of Webintosh staff, has finally come into its own. Parsing (opening e-mail letters and web pages) is now fast. Gone are the days of pokey performance. All of the user interface elegance inherent in Cyberdog from the beginning are now paired with performance that at least matches that of its more traditional competitors. While this performance boost is most evident in the e-mail part, FTP speeds are also noticeably faster. While Cyberdog has always handled FTP downloads faster than browsers like Internet Explorer and Navigator, our initial tests indicate that Cyberdog will FTP faster than stalwarts such as Fetch. We attribute this in part to a combination of OpenDoc and Open Transport integration.

Other Live Objects and containers such as Adrenaline Charts and Numbers, and Digital Harbor's WAV perform in a similar fashion. Computational intensive programs such as Charts are more responsive, making their use flow more smoothly. While the OpenDoc developers who have clung tenaciously to the technology will be gratified to see their software running so well, the fact that it comes after its official cancellation will surely bring rancor to more than a few. Perhaps this will add new energy to the efforts of developers like Brad Hutchings and his Component X project (a new movement among OpenDoc developers whose motto is, "Decaf for Your Mac.")

VERDICT - OS 8's OpenDoc and Cyberdog implementation:

Other Internet Goodies: A Patchwork Quilt?
If you settle for the Installer's default "Easy Install" option, OS 8 will drop no less than nine separate, hard drive-hogging Internet applications and utilities onto your Mac. The programs run the gamut from plain vanilla web browsers (Netscape Navigator, Internet Explorer) to e-mail clients (Claris' hobbled Emailer Lite) to full-fledged Internet suites (Cyberdog), and even two "push" technology apps (PointCast news/advertising delivery client, and Marimba's Castanet Tuner).

A word of advice: choose your Internet weapons carefully when installing Mac OS 8! If your current Internet configuration and programs work fine for you, we advise you to install only those Internet apps in OS 8's trove that you need. However, if you find that you did, in fact, succumb to OS 8's Internet "Easy Install" option, don't despair. Apple now includes an Internet Setup Assistant to walk novices and experts alike through the process of configuring your Internet programs, as well as your Mac's PPP and TCP/IP settings. (Also to Apple's credit, a backup folder is created in the new Internet folder on your hard drive, containing any previous application's preference settings.) Apple has claimed for months that OS 8 will make it significantly easier to hook up to the Internet, but none of the included applications (with the exception of Cyberdog) achieve sufficient integration with the OS itself. There are now tiny apps -- scripts, really -- that reside on OS 8's Desktop (and in the Apple Menu) that will fire up your browser or e-mail client of choice, and (with the proper settings) attempt to establish a PPP connection. This hardly constitutes the perfect solution to integrating the Internet on your desktop, but it is a step in the right direction.

Lastly, if you're counting on Mac OS Runtime for Java, version 1.0.2, to perk up your Java experience on the 'Net, keep waiting until Mac OS Runtime for Java (MRJ) 1.5 is released later this year, or stick with your favorite browser's implementation of Java. The current version, installed with OS 8, offers only lukewarm performance (see our MRJ review and Java Showdown), but version 1.5 will include a just-in-time compiler to speed up Java applets and programs considerably. MRJ is distinctive, too, for its Applet Runner program, which will run Java applets and programs independent of a web browser and without all of the memory overhead that browser use entails.

VERDICT - OS 8's Internet Connectivity & Integration:

The Bottom Line...
We liked Mac OS 8 a great deal -- could you tell? Seriously, OS 8 is a practical, stable, and extremely usable system software update, and we can't think of a valid reason not to take advantage of it. Even if your Mac isn't up to running OS 8, we're tempted to advise you to trade up to some new iron that can handle this upgrade (and next year's Rhapsody, too). You won't be sorry.

This article's title (the evil mantra uttered repeatedly by Star Trek's Borg aliens to their hapless victims) may lead you to believe that the move to Mac OS 8 is unavoidable and inevitable. We don't want to go quite that far, but don't just take our word for it. Try out OS 8 on a friend's Mac or at a store near you -- we think that you too will find its speed, convenience, and other charms will be hard to resist. And you'll be glad all over again that you've chosen to use the best OS on earth.

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