Mac OS X Jaguar Roars to Success

Jaguar, the latest iteration of Apple’s Mac OS X operating system, offers greatly enhanced compatibility with Microsoft Windows, a superb spam-killing e-mail program, and numerous minor improvements.

The previous release was 10.1, and while this one is formally known as 10.2, it offers far more than the .1 incrimination of its version number implies. Apple proudly proclaims that the new OS contains 150 new features, and while I’ve only directly experienced a handful of them, those few are enough to justify the upgrade’s hefty $129 price tag.

First and foremost among the operating system’s improvements is its Windows compatibility. This is something I haven’t seen played up much in the reviews I’ve read, but it’s absolutely crucial, especially for Mac users who still need to worth with Windows machines (which, last I checked, was pretty much everyone running an Apple machine).

Under previous versions of OS X, it was possible to connect to Windows machines, but it wasn’t exactly easy for non-geeks (or even for geeks). The new version fixes that — simply go to the Finder’s “Go” menu and choose “Connect to Server”. A list of Windows and Mac machines available on your network appears. You can then log into them as you would from a Windows machine, and when completed, network folder appears on your Mac’s desktop. You can then access the machine as you would any other networked resource or drive. You don’t need to do anything special on the Windows side — your standard Windows File Sharing set-up will suffice.

Admittedly, these new networking muscles aren’t perfect. The first time I tried it, the connection failed, and I got a decidedly Unix-like error message that was so cryptic as to be useless in figuring out what went wrong. The problem was that I got my password wrong, but something that said that in English would have been helpful.

Also, while connecting from a Mac to a PC is simple, I haven’t been able to do the opposite trick yet. No doubt I just need to play around with it some more, but it would be nice to see Apple release some sort of Windows-side app (or maybe just a Mac one) that makes it easier for Windows machines to see Macs out of the box.

The second most impressive improvement is ini the Mail program. While I don’t find it as flexible as Microsoft Outlook XP on the PC side, it has a killer feature that has me reading my mail on my Mac more and more: “Junk Mail”. This program intelligently detects Junk Mail as it arrives in your mailbox, and then dumps it into a separate folder that you can then browse and delete at your leisure. It works far, far, far better than Outlook’s own “Mark as Junk Mail Sender” feature, which only seems to key on sender. Since most of the junk mail I get is similar in content, but widely varied in sender, Outlook’s approach is all but useless for me (strangely, the Junk Mail detector in Microsoft’s own Web-based Hotmail is far better than Outlook).

When it ships, the Mail program is in learning mode — it doesn’t actually move any e-mail, it just flags what it thinks is junk. You can then unflag any e-mail that isn’t junk, as well as any messages that the program missed. Once you’re confident that Mail knows what it’s doing, you can end training and go into normal mode. In my experience, the program’s caught about 90% of the spam that I get on any given day, and has made remarkably few mistakes. Mail is now definitely one of Mac OS X’s killer apps, especially for folks like me, who get a ton of junk mail (I easily get 20-30 junk mail messages a day).

There are two annoying problems with Mail, which have been present since the initial 10.0 release. First, the program is remarkably stupid about knowing when you are online or off. While it can work in Offline mode, it will only do so after attempting to connect to the net and subsequently failing. This generates an unhelpful error message, and if you have multiple e-mail accounts (as I do) it generates one for each account. Further, it does the same thing when you’re sending a message. As someone who uses OS X on a laptop, this is particularly annoying.

Also bothersome is the program’s propensity for wanting you to authorize the program to access your encrypted mail account passwords after every single security upgrade released by Apple. Again, you need to do it for each account you use, and the message is not user-friendly. This should be streamlined so that you only have to allow the program to access your passwords once. Further, the message should make some sort of sense to non-geeks.

Minor defects aside, the networking and mail improvements are excellent, and almost justify the cost of the upgrade by themselves. But there are numerous other incremental improvements that really make the OS shine.

For one, even on slower G3 machines, like my dual-USB white iBook, the OS is noticeably faster. It still doesn’t fly like it does on a G4, but its a welcome improvement. For those with G4 processors and a suitable graphics card, the speed improvements are even greater thanks to something called “Extreme Quartz”. This enhancement switches over some of the basic drawing duties of the machine to the graphics card from the processor, and speeds things up considerably.

In addition, Classic mode — which emulates the earlier OS 9 operating system — loads much quicker on all Macs. It’s a good thing too, since Apple has announced that you will after January 1, all Macs will boot into OS X, and ONLY OS X. That means if you need to run something in OS 9 on a new Mac, you’ll have to do it through Classic. Having a quick loading Classic mode will make that bullet easier to bite.

Spring-loaded folders make a welcome return in Jaguar. This feature, which was a staple of OS 9, allows you to drag a file to a folder and then have that folder “spring” open. You can then move the file to subsequent folders, each opening in turn. When you release the file, it’s moved to that folder, and all the subsequent folders close. For some reason, Mac OS X doesn’t complete that last step of closing the window, but the rest works properly. As in OS 9, spring-loaded folders are very useful, but you need to use it yourself to truly appreciate it. Unfortunately, you still can’t “window-shade” windows — a technique that closed a window down to its title bar — but that ability is available through third-party developer Unsanity’s WindowShadeX app.

Much has been made of the newly revised Sherlock internet helper app. Under previous versions of OS X and OS 9, Sherlock served as the OS’s search tool. Under Jaguar, search is properly moved to the Finder (think of the Finder was Windows Explorer for the Mac), and Sherlock has been turned into a Internet utility. And what exactly does that mean? Well, for starters, it lets you do Web searches without having to visit a specific search engine, browse movie-times without launching a Web browser, translate languages, get current exchange rates, and more.

All of this is doable through a Web browser as well, and non-Sherlock users may not see the point of launching an app like Sherlock when its just as easy to launch Internet Explorer or Mozilla and surf to a page. To that, all I can say is … go to an Apple store and try it. Sherlock offers a streamlined net experience that gets you the information you want faster than you could through a Web browser.

Many reviewers were blown away by Sherlock and it’s potential. I’m less impressed, but I’ve been using a similar program, called Watson, for months. Watson is faster, better, and more expandable than Sherlock, offering nearly two dozen channels compared to the six available on the Apple app. The Mac community roundly criticized Apple for “stealing” Watson’s idea, but frankly, I never got their complaints. Watson was inspired by the original Sherlock, so why should Sherlock not be inspired by Watson? Plus, Watson is just better. It sees development by both Kareila (the software company that created it) and enthusiastic fans. As a result it offers unique channels like Meerkat (geek news provided by O’reilly) and Baseball scores that Sherlock hasn’t even hinted at including.

OS 10.2 heralded a number of new “iApps”. The first, iChat, is an AOL Instant Messenger-compatible chat program that looks slicker than AOL’s offering, but doesn’t offer as many features. The most glaring oversight is a lack of support for the IM staple “Buddy Lists” — hopefully they’ll show up later. As is, the app is functional, but I did notice a performance hit on my iBook while running it.

Released apart from Jaguar, but requiring it to run, are iCal and iSync. iCal is a calendar program that works similar to Outlook, and offers quite a few enhancement’s over Microsoft’s signature time management/e-mail program. For example, the calendar allows you to categorize calendar dates and “to do” items, allowing you to maintain separate schedule for work and home, but have those items appear on one unified calendar. Even cooler is its ability to publish those calendars to the Web, either to your .Mac account (a pay-only service offered by Apple) or to some other WebDAV capable server.

This ability to publish calendars, and to have other people then subscribe to them, is very cool, and it’s something that Macaddicts have been taking full advantage of. Within weeks after its release, Web sites like began serving up a plethera of calendars. For example, I now have subscribe to a U.S. Holidays calendar from Apple as well as iCalShare’s Rush calendar — which includes tour dates, album release dates and other important milestones in the band’s history.

I like iCal, and I’ve been using it extensively, but I do have one quibble: it’s sluggish on my machine. Admittedly, I have a 500 mhtz processor in my iBook, but the 384 megs of RAM I have installed is usually more than enough to offset that. I hope future version speed up performance for those at the lower-end of the spectrum.

I haven’t used iSync yet — I don’t have a handheld with a USB connection — but I can tell you that it lets you sync your Mac’s calendar with Apple’s iPod, Palm OS-based handhelds and even a few cellular phones. It’ll also sync up calendars on multiple Macs.

In the final analysis, Jaguar is a well-rounded upgrade offering speed and feature enhancements that easily justifiy its $129 price tag. This is the OS that OS 9 people have been waiting to upgrade to, and its the one that has a serious shot at luring away Windows users. Buy it. You’ll like it.