Mac Skeptic: What's Right With OS X 10.3

In my first Mac Skeptic, I neglected to introduce myself or the premise of this column, so let me do so now. The first personal computer I ever saw was a Mac Classic, and the first personal computer I used was a Mac IIci, with desktop publishing applications. It wasn't until I started working for PC World that I was forced to cross over to the dark side and begin using a Microsoft Windows PC, and I did so very reluctantly. Now I appreciate the power and practicality of Windows PCs, though I still feel like a Mac person. I live in a mixed-platform household and use both kinds of systems.

To a very large degree, my expectations about computer usability have been shaped by the Mac interface: I expect to be able to use software and hardware with a minimum of initial training, and I expect a consistent set of symbols and behaviors to allow me to achieve my objectives with a little experimentation. In other words, I shouldn't have to read the manual to figure most things out.

My goal in this column is to examine Apple products and issues--both promising and exciting developments, and frustrating ones as well. Don't expect me to always praise (or bash) the folks at Apple; you can expect me to call it the way I see it, as fairly as I know how.

The OS I've Been Waiting For

The debut of OS X left me a little cold; I didn't particularly like the interface and the performance was underwhelming. Jaguar (OS X 10.2) added new features and improved stability, and I warmed to it somewhat. But when OS X 10.3 was announced I couldn't wait to install it, and I haven't been disappointed.

Among the more than 150 new features in 10.3 there are many, like the FileVault automatic encryption, with that "of course it should be that way" rightness associated with Apple design. But three new features in particular make a right-mouse-button-happy, Explorer-dependent Windows user sit up and take notice.

The Finder

Finder windows now have the brushed-metal look of ITunes, rather than the college-ruled, binder-paper look that I always found a little irritating. The double-paned Finder is more functional than ever--and dare I say it, rather reminiscent of Windows' Explorer, only more flexible and less overbearing. Navigation to the top level of your system is always only one click away, and you can drag and drop your frequently used files and folders to the left pane (which Apple calls the sidebar).

There are two views for drilling down to subfolders; one with multiple panes that you navigate horizontally, one with vertically expanding and collapsing folders, as with older versions of the Mac OS. Whether you're a Mac person or a Windows person, one of them will fit the way you prefer to navigate. The Action drop-down menu provides context-sensitive commands like a right mouse-click does in Windows, and you can access it with the Ctrl key and a mouse click (Ctrl-clicking with a track pad isn't easy, though). I do wish that Finder windows could be enlarged by dragging on any edge, as Windows' windows can be; it's a pain to mouse around to the handle on the bottom-right edge to do this.

Fast User Switching

The always-available prompt in the menu bar is quicker to access than Windows XP's log-on screen (which also allows fast user switching), and the rotating 3D desktop is undeniably cool.

Exposé

Finally, a reason for function keys. This elegant desktop unclutterer lets you get at any open window, or the desktop, with one key press--or, if you prefer mousing, you can set the corners of your desktop to activate Exposé. Click on a corner and all your open windows are tiled; click on one to bring it to the front; or hide them all and show the desktop only.

On the Trailing Edge?

Are you among the stubborn pockets of resistance to OS X? If so, why? I'm interested in hearing from Mac OS 9 users who haven't upgraded. It's been three years; QuarkXPress 6 is out; new Macs are cheaper than ever. What's the holdup for you? Tell me and I'll discuss it in a future Mac Skeptic column.

  
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