Taking a Harder Look at OS X

Apple's new operating system has earned glowing reviews. Try it on an older computer, however, and it's a different story

By Charles Haddad

With its photo-realistic icons, OS X is beautiful. And it's as stable as my in-laws' 50-year marriage. But boy, as my New York mother-in-law would say, what a pain in the tuchus! I mean that because of what it won't let me do and what it makes me do -- which is rethink how I use a Mac. My habits are grounded in nearly 20 years of experience, and they're really hindering me in grasping OS X.

That's just one of the conclusions I've reached after a month of playing with Apple's newest operating system. I wanted to experience OS X the way the bulk of Mac users would, so no high-powered Macs equipped with hundreds of megabytes of RAM for me on this test drive. I installed OS X on an 18-month old iBook that I figured represents the type of machine most popular with students, teachers, and home users. And I used OS X for tasks most people do every day, such as e-mailing, writing, cruising the Web, and playing an occasional game. Among the programs I tested were Office 2001, Nisus Writer, Quicken 2001, and After Dawn's version of Solitaire. And to show how brave I am, I shunned all offers of expert help from Apple and others.

I wanted to rough it, guided only by the skimpy manual included with the shrink-wrapped version of OS X. In fact, that small manual gave me a big insight right off the bat. Remember how the pundits used to crow that computers would someday eliminate paper? Well, ladies and gentlemen, that day has arrived among software developers. Not even the richest ones, such as Microsoft, provide a decent manual with their increasing complex software. But I digress.


  OS X got me raving as a columnist, but the new operating system didn't make a good first impression on me when I approached it as an average user. It took nearly two minutes to launch and another two minutes to fire up the "classic shell" necessary to run applications designed for previous Apple operating systems. Such sluggishness is simply intolerable today. I'm sure Apple will fix this quickly. In fact, the company released its first update last week and initial reports are that it speeds up both OS X and its classic shell considerably.

Once launched, OS X does indeed look stunning. The icon of the hard drive is now a sharply rendered metallic representation of the real thing. Every color is brilliant, and the system is fun to watch. There are flashing blue buttons and bouncing icons representing applications launching.

The fun, however, soon wears thin. Before long, the beautiful graphics become passé. What you really care about is how quickly and easily you can get things done. As Chico Marx once said, "mustard's no good without roast beef." And the roast beef in this case is the ability of OS X to handle most current applications, juggle several of them at once, still run smoothly, and not crash.


  How does OS X measure up? I'd say only so-so right now. The best part is its stability. My version of Nisus Writer was continually crashing under System 9, Apple's previous operating system, but it never wavers with OS X. Office 2001 is granite. And, yes, Quicken did crash -- but true to Apple's hype, a crashing application doesn't take down the system.

While crash-proof, some older applications still act funky. Quicken 2001 opened some files but not others. Nisus could only open one file at a time. And some programs, such as eMedia's Blues Guitar instruction software, wouldn't work at all. OS X also messed up some of the basic functionality of my iBook. Many times it wouldn't go to sleep like a nice computer --­ not even when I closed the lid. And one time it just went blank while still running. To fix it, I finally had to hard crash the iBook by sticking a paper clip into the abort hole.

That blank screen scared me. But even scarier is the fact that Apple has yet to develop an automated way to uninstall OS X. That means you have to uproot every piece of it yourself, a procedure that reminded me of the time I tried to rid my yard of kudzu, a vine strangling much of the suburban South. So take heed. OS X is not for your garden-variety Mac user who thinks it might be fun to fool around with a new operating system for a while. Once OS X is in, it's staying, just like that kudzu I failed to uproot in my backyard.


  None of the above is fatal. Apple will have most of it fixed within six months. But what the company can't change is how OS X forces you to use the Mac in a new way. I struggled with this and suspect many others will, too. Gone, for example, is the ability to drill through spring-loaded folders to find a file. Nor can you drag and drop a file through a nest of folders. That makes copying, saving, and backing up on OS X a major pain. And it detracts greatly from the experience of using the new system.

Still, the conveniences we longtime Mac users have come to take for granted weren't developed overnight. It will take time for Apple and third-party developers to really understand OS X and devise a set of comparable short-cuts and conveniences for it. My advice: Let others be the pioneers. If you want to play with OS X, do it on somebody else's computer.

Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BW Online

Edited by Thane Peterson