So far on my site I’ve just published Linux reviews. While I have been working on this OS X review along with a Windows 7 review, it’s actually quite odd that my first if not one of my earliest reviews was NOT for an OS X release. I’ve been using OS X longer than I’ve used Linux, and have been using Macs since I first started using computers. So why the long wait to write a review?
Part of it may be that OS X, along with other Apple products, have for the most part been in their own little world. In the great Mac vs. PC debate, I’ve happily sat on the sidelines as I used all three OS’s at work and at home. Like Windows and Linux, there are many things about OS X that I really like, and a few things that I wish could be refined or completely changed. On my MacBook I’ve started with 10.4 and it’s now on 10.6, and it’s been easy to see that each new release has been changing things, mostly for the better. While this review will primarily focus on OS X itself and its core, I will also discuss the other Apple-developed software that goes along with OS X, as well as some apps that are OS X-exclusive. I will also compare some apps that can be run on Windows and/or Linux as well, such as Firefox and Microsoft Office.
Unlike Windows and Linux, OS X cannot be (easily) installed on just any hardware. It is intended to be used solely on Apple hardware. Many have criticized this, as they feel Apple can charge a higher price for their hardware and offer the user fewer choices.
As someone who happily builds their own system for Linux/Windows, I can agree with both sides of this issue. I do think Apple makes the best laptops in the business, hands down. Their unibody aluminum construction is un-matched, and their magnetic power connector is genius. However, I have had to deal with numerous failings in their laptops as well as iMacs. Both of these systems place a premium on space, which results in poor cooling and such. I’ve also have had more than usual bad luck with the hard drives used in Apple systems, but I would hope the slow move to SSD will alleviate this problem for all PC manufacturers.
Apple also continues to not offer a true middle-ground PC. While the iMac is a great value, it is basically a laptop in that all of its components are integrated including the screen. What about the user who would like a separate tower case to allow upgrades and the choice of their own screen, but doesn’t have the budget to pay for the ridiculously over-specced and over-priced Mac Pro? For that user, I would have to say they may have look at a Linux/Windows build. Going that route, a user has nearly infinite choices, both for their hardware and software.
For some users, that many choices can be too daunting or just unreasonable. They may want something that Just Works. Do I think having to use an Apple system is worth it simply to have access to OS X? Depending on a user’s needs and budget, I can say yes.
When booting from the OS X disc, it will come up to the welcome screen and you can begin installing it. Unlike the installers for Windows and Linux, it won’t give any prompt for erasing or managing partitions on the drive. By default, OS X will ask what kind of install to do, with the selection set to “Upgrade”. In order to perform a clean install, you have to go to the menu at the top and select “Disk Utility”. In this program you can erase a drive, set-up a partition scheme, etc. Like other OS’s, I always perform a clean install to prevent any problems. Once the disc has been prepared, you can quit Disk Utility to return to the OS X installer. It won’t show any options on the screen for what you’d want to install; you have to click “Customize”. The default choices are fine, but you can save a bit of space by not installing fonts and such for other languages if you know you won’t be using them. After those changes are made OS X will begin installing. The install doesn’t take too long, and once it’s finished it will restart and prompt to set-up a user account.
When OS X loads up the desktop, the first thing to notice is the 3D dock at the bottom of the screen. It looks nice and has most of the default applications in it. One change that Snow Leopard has made is that the hard drive isn’t shown by default on the desktop, so once you eject the OS X disc the desktop is blank. I’m not sure why this change was made, but it’s one that I don’t like at all. Most users won’t know to either hit “Command-N” or go through the menu to open a new Finder window. In the Finder preferences you can enable hard disks and connected servers to appear on the desktop.
The overall appearance and layout of Finder hasn’t changed much from previous OS X versions. In the Finder window there’s now a slider at the bottom right when in Icon view to easily change the size of the icons, which is a nice shortcut for computers that don’t have a trackpad with the advanced gestures available. I recently discovered this when setting up a new MacBook Pro, and you can use two fingers to pinch and change the icon size. Another great feature is Quicklook; when a file is highlighted, you can press the Space bar to get a preview of that file, regardless if it’s a picture, document, PDF, etc. It’s a great way to quickly check a file without having to open any programs.
Like previous OS X versions there are alot of applications to get started. Safari has become an excellent browser, though I still prefer Chrome and Firefox over it. TextEdit is a good text editor and can now open and edit .doc files. Mail has also had alot of work done and is a great program to use for Gmail and Exchange accounts. It’s not a complete Outlook replacement for those coming from a PC, but it compares much more favorably than Thunderbird or such. iTunes has alot of changes as it’s added support for the iPad and such. Although like previous OS X versions it won’t have the latest version of iTunes, and it’s highly recommended to update it along with everything else through Apple Software Update.
OS X Exclusives
There are quite a few applications that exclusively run on OS X, just as there are plenty that are exclusives to other OS’s. Whether a user wants or needs that software can determine using that OS along with or instead of another one. The list is certainly shorter for OS X exclusives, but the ones that are available are as good if not better than anything else.
Up until version 4 Cyberduck was an OS X-exclusive application for connecting to websites/servers via (S)FTP, SSH, etc. While it’s now available on Windows, its history is deeply rooted to OS X, and likely has far fewer problems on it. Another great program similar to Cyberduck is Transmit, developed by Panic Software. Panic develops software only for OS X, and their programs are of top-quality and reasonable prices. They also develop Coda, an outstanding application for web development that combines text editor, connection manager and more.
Another program which has recently spawned a Windows version is Scrivener. Unlike Cyberduck, the Windows version of Scrivener is not developed by the same person, and is even listed on a completely different website. The OS X version is a robust tool for writers, strongly supported by a sole(!) developer who is a writer himself and clearly understands what some writers will need in a program in order to complete their work. Whether used along with Word, Final Draft, etc. or as a complete replacement, this program is wonderful.
TextWrangler is a great free text editor developed by Bare Bones Software. They have a fully-featured text editor, BBEdit, and TextWrangler is a great way to see if a user would want to commit to the full program.
Things is a task management program. Along with OS X, there are versions available for the iPhone and iPad. There has been criticism of the lack of syncing between the various versions, but it’s not something I’ve been able to verify/test as I just use the OS X version. I do know there are updates fairly often, and so far I haven’t had a single problem. It’s a program that’s very easy to use and really does succeed at what it claims to do.
Carbon Copy Cloner is essentially a GUI front-end to the terminal commands available to image a drive. This program makes it extremely easy to create back-ups of a user’s folder or the entire system.
OS X Equivalents
There are alot of programs that are available on multiple OSs, primarily OS X and Windows. Some of these receive equal attention on all OSs, while other programs it’s clear to see that the Windows version has the priority.
Adobe Reader is not required as OS X has Preview, but I have encountered PDFs that don’t render correctly in Preview. The OS X version of Reader receives updates around the same time as the Windows version, and the newest X version shows the same performance improvements on OS X as it does on Windows.
Celtx is the screenwriting program that I’ve been using for quite awhile. Using the Mozilla Firefox interface framework, it was very easy for the developers to make this program available across the 3 major OSs. The Mac version is basically the same as the ones for Windows and Linux, and just like Firefox its performance is not that great, but for a free screenwriting program there aren’t many complaints that can be made.
Dropbox has an application available for OS X to allow those users sync their Dropbox folder on that OS along with Windows and Linux. Its features are exactly the same on all OSs, and each version has received updates around the same time.
Firefox has always been platform-agnostic. All major OSs are supported, and they all receive the updates around the same time. Unfortunately even with an increased release schedule and years of supposed improvement have not helped Firefox a whole lot, as its performance is pretty bad on all OSs, but it seems to be the worst on OS X. Compared to both Apple’s Safari and Google Chrome, Firefox seems to be slipping further and further behind, and it’s not helped by Internet Explorer’s massive improvements and Opera’s continued progress. Google Chrome is also available on all 3 OSs, and with a very rapid release schedule, background updating and constantly evolving feature set, it will take alot for Firefox to come back to its top position.
While available on Windows, iTunes is still clearly meant to be used on OS X. Its performance on Windows has never been good, and with its own interface framework the memory and CPU consumption doesn’t help. The only odd exception is that iTunes is available in a 64-bit version on Windows, while in OS X 10.6 it’s still at 32-bit. Many have suggested that iTunes 10.5 will finally fix that, but whether that was a complete code re-write or not remains to be seen.
Microsoft has made Office available on OS X for as long as it’s been around, and it’s clear to see that they don’t give this version of Office the short end of the stick. Each release has improved performance and features, and the 2011 version upholds that tradition. Whether a user is a fan of Windows or not, there’s no denying Microsoft knows how to make a good office suite, and even though Apple provides alternate programs they can’t really compete except on price.
Propellerheads has always developed their music applications to run as well on OS X as on Windows. The newest versions of Record and Reason still prove this, and using OS X’s wonderful audio framework as a foundation, these two programs can offer a composer almost everything needed.
OS X has evolved and expanded for a long time, and sometimes it’s hard to believe it’s actually been around for as long as it has. Within the next month or so we’ll see the release of 10.7, which shows continued refinement along with influences from iOS. Starting with a Unix-based foundation and adding on the knowledge gained from Next, OS X has come a long way to stand alongside Linux and Windows as a great OS. As always the choice of an OS will always come down to what a user needs to accomplish with a computer, and with OS X they can be assured they made a great choice.