Less successful is the Mac desktop, which doesn’t offer much of an improvement over previous versions. The desktop has icons and windows as before and of course they’re nicer looking. The OS X Dock is likewise a toss-up; it confusingly combines application launchers with Windows taskbar-like functionality. In other words, the icons for applications that are running appear right alongside icons for applications that aren’t running. You get used to it, but in other OSs, different parts of the UI handle these two separate concepts. OS X 10.1 added the ability to move the Dock to the left and right sides of the screen, instead of stranding it on the bottom. This is a great idea (it’s been in Windows since 1995), but the desktop icons can float under the Dock, which is annoying.
Another big weakness of the UI—and frankly, this is also a huge problem in XP—is that it doesn’t remember folder-view settings. So don’t bother spending any time ordering icons alphabetically or whatever, because your changes won’t stick. And because OS X has carried over the Mac’s historically willy-nilly view styles—where icons can sit anywhere in a window—you’ll often find yourself looking for an icon that is sitting “off screen” in an area of the window that isn’t displayed.
OS X Digital-Media Features
As previously mentioned, Apple bills OS X as the ultimate digital-media OS, and although this claim is a bit exaggerated given XP’s digital-media features, OS X does offer some compelling advances over other systems.
For digital music, Apple offers the recently released iTunes 2, a nice MP3 jukebox that also lets you rip MP3-formatted music from audio CDs, burn custom-mix audio CDs, and listen to Internet radio stations. Apple iTunes is a joy to use, and I wish an application of its simplicity was available on the PC in place of the bloated, slow Media Player for Windows XP (MPXP). And the new version offers an equalizer with 22 presets, song cross-fading, and other new features. On the other hand, I wish iTunes offered compatibility with Microsoft’s Windows Media Audio (WMA) format, which is superior to MP3 in virtually every way.
For playing back movies, Apple offers its QuickTime player. As with iTunes, the QuickTime player is simple and easy to use. Best of all, it supports (naturally) the superior QuickTime movie format, as does iMovie, the company’s incredible movie-maker software. Apple iMovie is such an advance over anything that’s available on the PC that I recommend that anyone who wants to get into this exciting field at least evaluate the Mac. With iMovie, you can record full-screen digital video in QuickTime format; edit that video with special effects, titles, background music, voice overdubbing, and other effects; and then output to tape or QuickTime format for distribution by email or the Web. It’s a wonderful end-to-end solution that makes Microsoft’s Windows Movie Maker (WMM) look sick by comparison. Equally stunning is Apple iDVD, which makes creating DVD movies with professional menus and effects equally simple. Simply take a movie created in iMovie, add professional menus and text, and you’re done. The Windows world doesn’t have anything comparable, at any price.
Apple’s digital-imaging features aren’t quite as compelling—especially when compared to what comes in XP. OS X 10.1 includes new Image Capture functionality that recognizes a wide range of digital cameras. When you plug in a compatible camera, a small application launches that lets you save the images to your Mac. It’s not a bad little program, but it lacks important ease-of-use features included in XP’s Scanner and Camera Wizard. Worse, the OS X shell doesn’t afford Apple’s default Pictures, Movies, and Music folders any special status, making them difficult to find and less intuitive than their Windows equivalents. Apple could apply the iMovie/iDVD concepts to digital imaging for better success in this area.
Overall, however, OS X’s digital-media features really set this OS apart, and although XP comes out ahead in some areas, the digital-movie features alone are reason enough to consider a Mac.
Applications and Compatibility
Apple is currently navigating the slippery slope between its unstable but well-supported past (OS 9) and its reliable but relatively untrodden future with OS X. As stable as OS X is, it won’t matter unless the applications you need are available in that environment. And although the pickings are still slim, they’re getting better all the time.
The most crucial application release for OS X should ship shortly after you read this. Dubbed Microsoft Office v. X for Mac OS X, this eagerly anticipated follow-up to Mac:Office 2001 includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Entourage, an Outlook Express-based personal information management (PIM) application. Office v. X is a work of art that uses all of Apple’s UI advances and incorporates several features Windows users will have to wait on for months. And it’s compatible, of course, with Windows versions of Office. I’ll look more closely at Office v. X’s digital media features soon.
Email and Web-browser applications are widespread on OS X. For email, I’ve tested Apple’s own free Mail.app as well as Eudora, which are both excellent. Web browsers include Internet Explorer (IE) 5.0, Netscape 6.2, and OmniWeb, among others. For smaller utilities, you have many choices for text editors, compressed file extractors, and similar utilities.
Beyond that, however, it’s a waiting game. Adobe’s award-winning graphics programs are coming soon, the company says, and other Mac application makers promise OS X-specific versions eventually. Gaming is a particularly sparse area at this time, although some game houses—notably Quake creator ID—promise OS X titles soon. And, of course, the vast library of OS 9-compatible titles are still available, although somewhat saddled by the Classic environment under OS X.
Mac OS X 10.1 brings the Apple world on par with PCs running Windows XP, an interesting development given the previously wide gap between the two platforms. For users interested in digital-media functionality, especially digital movie making, Mac OS X now offers a compelling solution that in many ways outperforms Microsoft’s offerings. If you’re a PC user, you’ll have to weigh the benefits and costs of switching platforms or maintaining a second, somewhat incompatible PC. But the most commonly used applications are available on the Mac, along with unique Mac-only software, and it’s not that hard to make the transition. It’s definitely worth looking into.
Mac OS X 10.1 costs $129 and is available from Apple and various retail stores such as CompUSA. Mac OS X 10.0 users can upgrade to the new release for about $20.