On one side of the personal computing gulf that exists in this world are names like Panther, Cougar, Leopard and Lynx — all past, present and future codenames for Mac OSX. On the other side, there’s Longhorn, which sound like the name plaque on the old, broken-down house from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The Macintosh has never had the biggest following, but it’s got the most loyal. There was widespread trepidation among Mac devotees when the UNIX based OSX appeared a few years ago, a world away from OS 8 or 9 that they’d spent five years getting used to. Word is that now they’re more or less being won over, including in the market where Apple is strongest — graphics and printing (and in which much of the latest software only runs under OSX).
The changes in Panther make life easier from a usability point of view, but Apple are really pushing OSX towards home users and students who share computers. A lot of the new improvements concentrate on changing users and individual security, as well as further bolstering their self-styled ‘digital lifestyle’.
Further strengthening the functionality of several user accounts, Panther expands on the controls the administrator assigns each user, and instead of having to log out completely each time you need to change users, they’re all accessible from a drop down menu in the menu bar. Plus, if you’ve got the right graphics card, it’s a chance to see some of Panther’s grooviest magic — the image on the screen spins as if on a giant cube, the next user’s desktop and preferences coming into view, with no need to reboot.
The ‘new’ Finder is where most of the changes have taken place. The one Apple are pushing the most — Expose — is a neat keyboard shortcut set that arranges every window you have open into view so you can just click on the one you want to access, or clears the entire screen with one button so you can access your desktop.
In fact, Expose makes you realise how clunky OSX was starting to feel. As a user experience, it’s sometimes too reminiscent of working on a Windows machine (of course, that might just be because we’ve become so adept at navigating after so long on OS 8 and 9).
As Apple claims, Panther has a very strong memory architecture, so you’ll be able to work with more applications and tasks running than you believed possible under OS9. All versions of OSX including Panther are very clever at isolating each task from the rest, so when something crashes, it no longer takes your whole system with it.
Your applications still aren’t perfect though, and you’ll get the chance to use the force quit window a few times. And it seems at times that everything is tied together a bit too closely. On an older G4, a system issue caused by too many things happening made the USB port drop out of commission, rendering the keyboard and mouse useless. It was the only time during testing Panther has to be force-rebooted.
The finder has had too many refinements to possibly list — among them remodeling it’s look on the Safari browser, the ability to browse remote disks without having to mount them on your desktop, and the welcome return of being able to label icons with colours.
There’s a host of new and updated features. iPhoto, iCal, iSync, iMovie and iChat are all either new or have major new features, the most heavily promoted of the latter being the promise to usher in mass-market live video chatting. For best results, you’re supposed to shell out another $250 for the cute iSight camera, and of course it’s all based on the widespread use of broadband Internet access, so it’s not ideally suited to the Australian telecommunications market.
All in all, Panther isn’t an essential buy if you’ve got an older version of OSX. In truth, you can still get by fine on OS 9 — plenty of people are, particularly in the graphics professions where computer users have more important things to do with their time than learn new systems from the ground up.
But if you can handle another wallop worth $230 to your hip pocket and you like having the latest of everything, there are a lot worse purchases you’ll make this silly season.