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Mac OS X Panther upgrade

A lot of folks have grumbled about paying $130.00 to upgrade to say that it is definitely worth it: maybe you feel cheated because you just paid for Jaguar six months ago, but you will be happy after you install this. The hype, for once, has reality behind it: this is as good as Apple said it would be.

Not that it's flawless. I've already found some broken stuff, and no doubt I'll find more. But that's minor little annoyances; the important things are working, and the new features are great. These little things will get fixed, and life will be beautiful.

I really mean that: this is the first time I've ever felt like I have a better desktop than Windows. Don't misunderstand: I've always felt that any Unix system was preferable to Windows, but with Panther, the Mac can look Windows squarely in the eye and say "I can whip your butt". It really can.

Upgrade or fresh install

I don't like IPU's (In Place Upgrades). No matter how well they are engineered, the fact is that upgrading an existing system and retaining existing settings is difficult, and can cause things to break. The breakage can be subtle: those maddening little things that aren't quite right or that don't happen every time, but often enough to annoy. It can also be delayed: you may not find out you have a serious problem until much later, perhaps when some patch upgrade is applied and breaks down totally. For these reasons, I much prefer to do a fresh install, and restore and reconfigure as needed.

On the other hand, most people won't do that, so I felt this review should follow the path most users will probably choose. I can always go back later and do it my way, but for this first pass, I did the IPU. The first challenge was backups.


My iBook is weak on backup. I do regularly rsyncs of the most important things to two other machines and my iPod, but I didn't put DVD-RW in it, and CD writing of 20 GB isn't something you want to do very often. I don't really have enough space on the other boxes to store EVERYTHING, and also there is my natural impatience: I could have shuffled things around and got a complete backup of the iBook, but I wanted to get going with the Panther upgrade. So, I started triage: couldn't live without this (back it up to CD), would be annoyed if I lost this (rsync it off to the other boxes), could reinstall this if I had to (do nothing). And then, with only the slightest hesitation (have I forgotten anything?), I popped in the Panther CD and rebooted. If the upgrade failed and I needed to start from scratch, well, so be it.

The Gods are Kind

Just about two and a half hours after starting this, my iBook presented me with its normal login window. I logged in, and everything looked normal. My normal startup items opened up: Safari, Mozilla, Mail, Terminal. At a quick glance, they looked to be the same. In fact, you wouldn't even know anything was different. But it is. Very different.


The first thing I wanted to try out was Expose, so (having done my homework so I knew what to do), I pressed F11 and instantly (and I mean INSTANTLY) all my open windows disappeared and I had my Desktop. That's a great feature, and of course Windows has had it for a long time now (though I like pressing F11 much better than searching for "Show Desktop" on the toolbar). Windows doesn't have the rest of Expose's tricks though: I pressed F9, and all my open windows tiled across the screen. Passing the cursor over any of them tells me what it is:

(Large PNG Image)

Hold SHIFT before pressing the function key to see the effects slowly. You can customize the keys used or use mouse gestures to call up Expose.

There's more: F10 brings up a similar screen, but this time its only the open windows of whatever it is you are currently working with: a great way to quickly find the web page you lost in the background.

In either F9 or F10 mode, TAB cycles between windows, similar to Windows ALT-TAB. No problems or surprises here; Expose works as advertised and I know that F11 key will be worn down soon: switching to the Desktop is a constant activity.

Speaking of TAB: Apple-TAB calls up a floating Dock that you can select from. I don't like it myself, but someone might (those who like their dock hidden).

Fast User Switching

Windows XP introduced "switching users". Of course SCO and Linux users have had that ability (through console function keys) for years, but Mac OS X does it better. If Fast User Switching is activated, your login name appears on the far right of the top toolbar. Click on that, and you can choose to switch to another user or to the regular login Window. The rotating cube graphics effect that has each session on a face of a cube that rotates into place is cute and quite effective. I like to have a "sacrificial" user, without administrative rights, that I can use when I am testing more dangerous things and don't want to take ANY chance of something bad happening to my ordinary account. I can now switch to that user easily, and switch right back to what I am doing in my ordinary login.

But while testing this, I found the first bug: adding a user is a little bit broken. You can add a new account, but it doesn't show up in the manager reliably. This of course could be from doing an upgrade rather than a fresh install. System preferences are broken in another way: Show All or any other choice after using Accounts just gives me a blank screen. I have to quit out and come back in.


Mail has some new features. If your actual mail server adds Spam headers, Mail can be told to honor them. There's also a new ability to thread messages, which is very helpful. Supposedly, it can also track replies you have sent, but I've been unable to make that work at all - again, probably due to upgrading rather than doing a fresh install. However, if I select Threaded view, and then Apple-Click on Sent, the replies are properly threaded and shown. Well, not really "properly": they are threaded strictly by subject. That's still useful though.

There are other changes and improvements too, but these were the most important to me. I did notice a new "Exchange" choice in new account setup, but I didn't test that or any of the other Windows newtwork features (LDAP authentication being the most notable).

Fax printing

Print dialogs now include an option to Fax. That will be useful now and then. Apparently Panther can also be a Fax server; I'd find that useful when away from my office and in need of receiving a fax. I haven't tested that yet though.


The Panther pages at Apple list the many other improvements and changes. None are of particular interest to me, though I do want to take a look at Xcode later, and I also want to install the optional X11 software. There are useful changes to how Finder displays files, and the ability to color tag files etc. These may be useful to some people.

Over all, in spite of the few bugs, I'm very happy with Panther. When I have a little spare time, I'm going to do a fresh install which will (I hope) eliminate those little glitches. One of the bugs that is not minor is that I can't use Help: it crashes immediately. I don't like Apple's Help system anyway (it's dependence on the web is quite annoying), but there are times I would like to have it, and right after doing an upgrade certainly is one of those times!

Emptying the trash can now be "Secure Empty Trash", which overwrites files before trashing. The Finder can now zip up any file or files (they call it "Archiving"). Any mounted disks now are shown in Finder with an Eject button next to them; no more dragging to the trash is necessary. That includes ftp sites you may have opened. In general, the whole Finder interface is much improved; I like it much more now. I used to get a little confused now and then; the new look makes it much more obvious where you are looking.

I didn't look at Safari particularly because I much prefer Mozilla. I always have Safari active (for checking another view of web pages I create, mostly) but I think Mozilla is much better.

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© Tony Lawrence

In Windows, _I_ like pressing [win]-M to minimize all windows rather than searching for 'Show Desktop' on the task bar. I also like pressing [alt]-tab to scroll through a list of iconified running applications.

Well, actually I'd rather use something that actually works, like *nix, and having started on the Apple ][, I'm glad to see panther. I got a chance to play with it whilst visiting a customer and I must admit, I was truely impressed.

-Hemo at ujoint dot org

I'm too old to know about Win- keys :-)

I did know about Alt-tab though, and didn't mean to imply that this didn't exist in Windows.


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