Review: Apple's Jaguar is One Cool Cat

Mac enthusiasts say Apple is the mother of all invention. Maybe they're right. Microsoft took six years to deliver the kind of operating system the company promised in 1995. Windows 95 didn't live up to the hype until Windows XP. Apple managed the same feat in less than two years. Mac OS X 10.0, released in March 2001, lacked fundamental features such as CD burning and DVD playback. Successor 10.1, which debuted in September 2001, delivered better performance but couldn't match some of XP's best features. But Mac OS X 10.2, also known as Jaguar, beats Apple's original promise of a robust, modern operating system and outclasses Windows XP's handling of multiple programs running simultaneously. Still, many important changes are mere catch up to XP or even Apple's older Mac OS 9.

Apple delivered my official Jaguar copy on Aug. 16, 2002, about a week before OS X 10.2's official Aug. 24, 2002 release. Talk about efforts to woo the reviewer: Apple preloaded Jaguar on a PowerBook G4 800. But I already had been working with betas and final code obtained though "special sources." Before Apple's woo-the-reviewer package arrived, I had the "unofficial" official release running on three Macs: Dual 1GHz Power Mac G4, 700MHz flat-panel iMac and another PowerBook 800.

Apple claims to have packed in more than 150 new features into Jaguar--and they show. Little tweaks and changes can be seen throughout the entire OS. But some of the most important changes, surprisingly, are the least obvious. For this reason, I will post a first take on OS X 10.2 and add to it over the coming weeks.

Anyone upgrading to Jaguar--and at least all Mac OS X users should consider doing so--will find the install to be a long one. Sixty to 90 minutes was typical for my test machines. Strangely, that works out to be longer than for IBM's ill-fated but delightful OS/2--itself a record breaker for long installs--and much longer than Windows XP. The user can reduce the install by customizing the process, rather than relying on the default settings. Interestingly, the Power Mac and iMac took about the same amount of time to upgrade, while the PowerBook took much longer.

Speedier performance is one of the most remarkable improvements following the upgrade. Almost any Windows upgrade or administration of a service pack slows down performance--at least in my experience. But all three Macs perked up after upgrading to Jaguar. Quartz Extreme, Jaguar's new graphics rendering engine, may account for much of this improvement. Quartz Extreme shifts more graphics work to the Mac's graphics accelerator, taking much of the load off the PowerPC processor. But users upgrading some iBooks or older Macs will find their graphics accelerators are not supported by Quartz Extreme. Other benefits of the enhanced Quartz will work, but the biggest benefit will be lost.

The difference in handling shows, because of Quartz Extreme and for other reasons. Mac OS X 10.2 manages multiple tasks much more smoothly than does Windows XP, which often hesitates when switching between applications. I've often suspected XP's problem is related to how the operating system manages the graphical user interface--a problem Apple doesn't appear to have with Jaguar. This issue of how the operating system handles on the road, so to speak, is an important one. The smoothness of moving between tasks or applications is remarkably better than Windows XP, greatly reducing waiting time, and so accumulated frustration. Even on a two-year-old G4 Cube--with 400MHz PowerPC processor and 384MB of memory--Jaguar operated remarkably well. Windows XP installed on the same vintage of PC would have frequently puffed and stopped for breath when carrying even modest loads.

With Quartz Extreme, Apple also has served up more control over font smoothing, which can be adjusted for LCD or CRT monitors. Windows XP and Mac OS X handle font smoothing in different ways. As a matter of technology, Apple has done the better job making the feature available to different applications. As a matter of taste, I prefer the look of fonts rendered using Microsoft's ClearType technology found in Windows XP and Microsoft Reader. Still, for reasons that must make sense to Microsoft, XP users need to go online to adequately adjust ClearType, which does not work well on CRT, or tube, monitors. Mac users with CRT monitors get the benefit of Jaguar's improved font smoothing. XP users are out of luck unless they switch to a LCD, or flat-panel, monitor.

Renovations and remodeling

Apple has done an excellent job improving major, existing bundled applications while adding some very exciting new ones. Even so, too many new features play catch up with Windows XP. Worse, many of the most enticing new features, such as Rendezvous, are still works in progress.

Rendezvous may be Mac OS X 10.2's most promising and frustrating new feature. Rendezvous promises to simplify finding people, peripherals or other computers on the network. The feature eliminates the need to remember identifiers like Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. Finding something on the network is as easy as point and click. But peripheral manufacturers will have to support Rendezvous for the benefits of the technology to reach its full potential. That will take time, although Epson, Hewlett-Packard and Lexmark have committed to supporting Rendezvous in some future network printers. For now, Rendezvous is best used finding other computers on the local network. The feature also adds cool capabilities to iChat, Jaguar's new instant messaging program, such as quick identification of other people on the local network and sharing files with them.

As for iChat, Apple has done a fairly good job making instant messaging cool. Messages appear next to the buddy in a bubble talk window reminiscent of the comics. In a nice touch, a blank bubble appears while a buddy types a message. The program supports all the basic instant messaging features and even adds spell checking, which is lacking on most competing products. But iChat lacks many sophisticated chatting features, doesn't support some file sharing options and fails to offer videoconferencing capabilities found in Yahoo! Messenger or Windows Messenger. Maybe iChat's most compelling feature is compatibility with the AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) network. Apple gives iChatters the choice of using AIM or .Mac for instant messaging.

Sherlock 3 perhaps is Mac OS X 10.2's standout feature. Originally introduced as a local disk and Internet search utility, Sherlock started on shaking legs. But the new version has found firm footing--and, whoa, can it walk. Apple has evolved Sherlock into a utility for delivering Web informational services to the Mac. The first iteration of Sherlock 3 features 10 channels: Internet, Pictures, Stocks, Movies, eBay, Flights, Dictionary, Translation and Apple Care. The Internet search feature is competent enough but not exceptional. On the other hand, searching for Joe Wilcox yielded this Web site as the first choice. The search feature using Internet Explorer 6 for Windows yielded one of my July CNET News.com stories--this one about a wireless deal between Microsoft and AT&T wireless. The second choice led to Joe Wilcox Indian Den in Sedona, Arizona. (It's a great store by the way. I shopped there during an Arizona vacation!)

Pictures searches Getty Images for pics that can be purchased online. Not surprisingly, I couldn't find my mug or any pictures of my home town. Other searches were more promising. I could have purchased a nice black and white photo of a dung pile, but decided to be thrifty. (Hey, my neighbor has got a dog and I have a digital camera.) The Stocks channel is a great way for getting stock news on companies, compete with charts on their performance. Movies proved to be my favorite channel. I could quickly find movies in my area, while watching previews within the Sherlock 3 window. Information is provided by Moviefone, from which tickets can be purchased fairly easily with the aid of Sherlock 3.

Yellow Pages can't be far behind Movies for niftiness and convenience. I quickly found my local Papa Johns pizzeria, complete with a detailed map and driving directions. The eBay channel is surprisingly good at turning up and tracking auctions. I followed several Sonic the Hedgehog UFO plush toy auctions for my daughter, but couldn't force myself to pay a couple hundred bucks for a stuffed character. My one gripe: The eBay channel often would not display the item's image, even though one might be available on the auction site.

Travel, not surprisingly, served up flight information. Dictionary delivered standard online definitions or synonyms. Translation was loads of fun. Hopefully, someone who reads Chinese can tell me if the feature is any good. I typed, "My leg is broken." Here is the English to Chinese translation I got back: 我 的 腿是 殘破 的 。.

Apple largely revamped Mail, which is based on Unix mail (Mac OS X is a Unix-based OS). The earlier versions of the program performed slowly and offered much fewer features than competing e-mail applications. But with the new version, Apple has largely resolved--but not eliminated--the performance issues and added some nifty new features. The Junk Mail filter is astoundingly astute at filtering out junk e-mail. The filter isn't perfect, but it's very good. Once the user completes a training period for sorting through e-mail deemed as junk, Mail dumps junk e-mail in a special folder for easy sorting.

Still, many of the new features play catch up with other e-mail programs. Transferring e-mail to folders is still a cumbersome process, Apple continues to favor rich text over HTML and the program doesn't track replies with the original messages, among other shortcomings. Mail's importing from other applications still needs work, although Apple fixed the majority of glitches. Nevertheless, I had some problem importing messages and folders from Microsoft's Entourage and failed in the process from Mozilla. Other features touted by Apple, such as the playing of QuickTime movies within e-mail, are long-time Entourage offerings.

Address Book is one of Mac OS X 10.2's most overhauled bundled applications. The earlier version was simply abysmal; features sucked and the program didn't work right. The earlier Address Book supposedly supported virtual contact files (vcf), but choked when importing or exporting them. Apple has resolved that problem very well. Dragging Entourage contact files to the desktop or folder turn them into vcfs that are easily imported into Address Book. Perfectly in my testing. Address Book is an adequate contact manager, but still lacks many features people on the go will demand. On the other hand, the database of contacts can be made available to almost any application, which is exceptionally handy. Both Mail and iChat use Address Book, for example.

Inkwell is Apple's handwriting recognition application, which is new with Jaguar. By attaching a graphics artist tablet to the Mac, the user can convert handwriting to typewritten text in virtually any application. Microsoft offers something similar with Office XP today and will expand that when the first Tablet PCs come to market in November.

Exclusive to Jaguar, meaning they won't work with other versions of Mac OS X, are new applications iCal and iSync. Neither application is yet available, but both are slated for September release. The "unofficial" copy of iCal I tested from those "special sources" worked fairly well. The interface is attractive and easy to navigate. But iCal appears to lack some of the more sophisticated features found in Entourage or other calendaring programs. The version I tested could not publish or access calendars from the Web, one of iCal's most touted features.

Apple came to town for a visit on July 24, with a copy of iSync for demonstration. I actually brought a blank CD along, offering the Apple folks the opportunity to burn beta copies of both iSync and iCal. I didn't get them. Apple's iSync promises to synchronize contact, and in some cases calendar, information with Palm handhelds, the iPod music player and some Bluetooth enabled cell phones. Unfortunately, iSync only supports one family of Sony Ericsson phones, which my cellular service provider doesn't carry. Because the phones use new GSM/GPRS networks not fully operational, early iSync adopters that run out and buy the Sony Ericsson phones may wish they had waited.

Big changes in small places

The majority of Mac OS X 10.2's biggest and most important changes are not altogether obvious. Apple did a tremendous amount of tweaking under the hood, so to speak. Interestingly, many changes merely unlock existing features previously available from the Unix command line. Still, these now easily accessed features and new ones are perhaps Jaguar's best changes.

Borrowing from Windows XP, Jaguar now lets the user choose which application to use when inserting CDs or DVDs. A default program can be set with this prompt or in System Preferences. But XP is more aware of different digital media types, offering a similar default program prompt for any device attached that contains digital media.

The Get Info feature for revealing file attributes catches up with Windows XP and in some ways exceeds it. Get Info now offers more file information, greater control over ownership and permissions and even a preview of the contents. Like Windows XP's similar Properties feature, files can be indexed for fast searches from the Get Info window. This indexing is important for new search features added to Finder. In one of the best enhancements made to Mac OS X, powerful search capabilities are available in any open window. By comparison, Windows XP's search feature is slow and clunky, like a Model T racing a Thunderbird.

One of the most important, unobvious changes affects sharing files or data with other computers. The File Sharing option is easier to use and delivers more options--some sorely missing in earlier OS X versions. Mac users can now fairly easily let Windows users easily share their files. More importantly, Apple has added printer sharing, a longstanding, standard feature missing in the first two OS X releases. In fact, users should scold Apple for not making printer sharing available in earlier versions; Windows has had this feature for years! The revamped File Sharing control also adds an Internet firewall option. While the earlier OS X versions included a firewall, the feature was difficult for all but the most sophisticated of users to access.

Image Capture now supports scanners, in another Windows XP catch-up feature. But the default drivers would not work with my Canon N1240U scanner, which I purchased at the local Apple retail store, I might add. Canon's drivers only work with the older Mac OS 9.

Only Apple's fine attention to detail would lead to an overhaul of an operating system's Calculator feature. But Calculator is tweaked and tucked in all the right places. Among other changes, the program easily does currency conversions, which can be updated quickly when connected to the Internet. Calculator also converts temperature, area, speed, pressure and other means of weight or measurement. No doubt, conversion will be a selling point with schools.

Classic, Apple's environment for running Mac OS 9 applications, is improved. Under System Preferences, users can now manage OS 9 applications and the amount of memory they use when running in Classic mode. Software Updates now tracks installed updates from within System Preferences. In earlier OS X versions, users had to get this manually information from a Packages folder.

Preview now offers more features, particularly supporting Adobe (PDF) portable document files. For example, a convenient menu tab allows quick access to any page. The Sound control is more capable, but still trails Windows XP. Users can now switch between the built-in audio controller or external speakers, such as Harman Kardon's Sound Sticks. The Energy control expands to a maximum 3 hours from 60 minutes the amount of time before putting the computer to sleep. In general, sleep mode works much better on Mac OS X computers than those running Windows XP. The feature is literally instant on or off under OS X, while the process takes 10 seconds or much longer under XP.

The Universal Access feature catches up with Windows XP big time--and in many ways eclipses Microsoft's OS. The best change is the ability to magnify items in such a way there is little or no degradation of text or images. This is a potentially a huge boon to people whose eyesight is far from perfect.

Apple also has added built-in support for Bluetooth, the emerging technology for connecting wirelessly to peripherals, handhelds and cell phones. This is a nice coup over Microsoft, which has yet to add Bluetooth support to Windows XP. Apple also incorporated 802.11b wireless networking support into Mac OS long before Microsoft added it to Windows. But Microsoft caught up and then some. Windows XP's support of wireless networking is much better than Mac OS X's.

Other changes are nice to have but most people won't need them. The desktop image can be set to cycle through to new images--get this--as often as every five seconds. The screen saver, which has been renamed Screen Effects has a nifty new feature. Those people willing to fork over $50 or 100 bucks for a .Mac account can import directly into Screen Effects slide shows their friends or family with .Mac accounts choose to make available for them.

For what it's worth, until July Apple offered online services, such as disk storage and e-mail, as part of iTools. Starting Sept. 30, existing iTools users will have to pay $50 a year for the revamped service, .Mac, and newcomers will have to fork over that 100 bucks. For existing iTools users, after they get over the grumbling of paying for something that had been free, .Mac is a pretty good deal. The service offers Web-based e-mail with 15MB of storage, 100MB of online storage with automatic online and local backup capabilities, McAfee's Virex antivirus software, personal home page with a fairly easy to use Web publisher and an online greeting card utility. When Apple releases iCal, users will be able to post and host calendars online using .Mac. The service also will work with iSync for synchronizing files and folders between two or more Macs. Apple is expected to introduce additional services throughout the first full year of .Mac's operation.

Is it worth $129?

Unquestionably, Apple has done a very good job with Mac OS X 10.2. Still, I am surprised at the number of glitches I encountered. Most are little annoyances, such as problems with Windows not retaining my resizing of the icons. (Earth to Apple: Icons set at 48 x 48 or 64 x 64 pixels by default are too big for most people.) Other problems, such as DVD movies playing at a reduced size using that woo-the-reviewer PowerBook 800, also seemed out of place for the third version of an operating system.

Still, anyone using any version of Mac OS X should consider plunking down the $129 Apple is asking for Jaguar or the $200 for the 5-user family version. Apple has added plenty of new features and tweaked enough under the hood to more than justify the upgrade cost.

But people considering a move to Macs from PCs, like those folks featured in Apple's Switchers ad campaign, should be wary. Windows XP is a great operating system, too, and brings less hassle along with it. XP may not handle as well as Jaguar, but Microsoft's operating system is more widely compatible with applications or for cruising the Web. Just ask my daughter how many plug-ins aren't available for Mac browsers on the kids Web sites she visits, as an example. Many Windows XP PCs also come with extras, like Microsoft Office XP Small Business Edition, as part of the purchase price. Mac buyers have to shell out anywhere from $300 to $500 to get Office v. X for Mac OS X. That version of Office works with some quirks on Jaguar, by the way, so waiting for a Microsoft update might be a good idea anyway.

So, what's my verdict? Jaguar is a great operating system, perhaps the best I have ever tested. But too many features play catch up with Windows XP, another great OS and one with more legs in this era of the Microsoft monopoly. On the other hand, Apple is on its second major upgrade to Mac OS X since its March 2001 release, while Microsoft for now doesn't plan a major Windows overhaul until at least late 2004. If Apple continues to push out exciting features at this pace, Mac OS X could easily leave Windows XP eating a huge cloud of dust. Now that really would be innovation in motion.

Joe Wilcox has been covering technology since 1994 and now spends his days writing about Microsoft for CNET News.com. Joe can be found online at joewilcox.com.

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