The hallmark of Apple Computer's products is, more than ever, careful attention to detail. I have learned that little things often make the difference between a decent PC and an unacceptable one, or between a good software program and a great one. From the latest desktops to a new version of Mac OS X software, Apple is getting the little things right.
The latest operating-system release -- technically version 10.3 but better known as Panther -- is loaded with subtle improvements rather than new features. Some of the changes are more flash than substance, such as the use of 3-D effects, a move also planned for the next version of Windows. Other new features are catching up with the current version of Windows, such as the ability of users who share a computer to switch instantly among their individual desktops, as well as built-in encryption for data files.
The best stuff, however, is unique to Panther. My favorite feature, which Apple calls Exposé, is a neat solution for the confusion that can result when you have a lot of overlapping windows open on a screen. A single keystroke pushes all the windows to the edge of the screen to expose the desktop. Another shrinks the open windows and tiles them in a non-overlapping arrangement so you can see all of them at once. A third key does the same, but only for the windows used by the active program, especially useful in multi-window applications such as Adobe (ADBE ) Photoshop. It's a simple idea but an elegant tool for taming your desktop.
MAKING MACS SAFE for the corporation is an important goal of Panther. Many corporate tech managers would rather see a virus invade their systems than let a Mac in the door. The new operating system lets Macs participate fully in a Windows network. Macs can log into Windows servers; Mac users can have their home directories there; and Macs can gain access to network resources, such as file servers and printers. The built-in mail program even works with Microsoft's (MSFT ) Exchange corporate mail system. With Panther offering the security and rock-solid reliability of its Unix underpinnings, companies should give the Mac a fresh look.
With this latest revision, I think OS X is the best operating system available to consumers. It's easy to use and takes far more advantage of the power of today's computers than the eight-year-old design of Windows. My only real criticism is that the $129 price ($199 for a "family pack," usable on up to five computers) is steep for an upgrade -- which generally runs about $100. Anyone who doesn't depend on some Windows-only program should consider the Mac for their next computer.
The PowerMac G5 is another example of attention to detail. The G5 is not for everyone. It's a 40-pound behemoth with a starting price of $1,999 aimed at Apple's high-end market of creative professionals and scientists. Apple's hold on this constituency had been jeopardized because its G4 Macs were falling behind the speed of workstations based on Intel (INTC ) chips. The G5 uses IBM's (IBM ) new Power PC 970 microprocessor (for more on the chip technologies, go to businessweek.com/technology). I can't confirm Apple's claim that it's the fastest personal computer in the world, but it handled video-editing chores using Apple's high-end Final Cut Pro software faster than any PC that I have used.
In a world where most desktop computers look as if they have gotten 30 minutes at most of attention in a design studio, the new Mac is a beauty, from its brushed-aluminum case to an interior that is free of sharp edges. And despite an intricate multi-fan cooling system needed to deal with a very hot processor, the G5 is quieter than most desktops, including the G4.
I'm not sure Apple products have made it to the "insanely great" standard set by CEO Steve Jobs, but they are very good. If you haven't checked out a Mac lately, you may be pleasantly surprised by what you see.
By Stephen H. Wildstrom