To the hundreds of millions of Windows users, news about Macintosh enhancements might barely register on their collective radar. But the Mac is undergoing a renaissance these days, similar to the sweeping improvements the PC world is experiencing with Windows XP. After years of work, Apple has finally released a bulletproof next-generation OS that's as easy to use as it is easy on the eyes. It's called Mac OS X (pronounced ten), and the latest revision—version 10.1—is the first revision that's worthy of your attention, regardless of which OS you currently use.

The parallels between XP on the PC side and OS X on the Mac side are none too subtle. Both OSs are based on a solid core, or kernel, that was previously unavailable to consumers. On the Mac, this kernel is called Mach, and it's based on rock-solid UNIX technology, giving Mac users a break from the system-error bombs that plague older versions of Apple's OS. Both XP and OS X feature a colorful new UI. On the Mac, the UI is called Aqua, an appropriate name given the modulating blue gel-cap buttons and liquid-like onscreen elements. And both OSs seek to integrate into your digital life. On the Mac, this concept is called "the center of your digital lifestyle;" Apple markets the system's connectivity with digital media, the Internet, and various types of devices. Last January, Microsoft unleashed a similar marketing campaign just days before Apple.

Microsoft and Apple developed XP and OS X in parallel, and although the first version of OS X (10.0) shipped months ago (in March), the OS wasn't ready for consumers and casual users until 10.1's release in late September. By that time, Microsoft had already released XP to manufacturing, so whether certain features debuted first on one system or the other is unclear. But one thing is clear: This new Mac OS offers at least as much of an advance for users of that platform as does XP on the PC. Comparing the two, of course, is inevitable.

XP vs. OS X


The truth, however, is that such a comparison is almost doomed to failure. Mac partisans will cry foul when they hear that XP's task-based UI is a true innovation that makes OS X's rusty desktop metaphor seem tired and old by comparison. And Windows jockeys will recoil in horror when they discover that the digital-movie features in Mac OS X—iMovie 2 and iDVD2—don't just surpass what comes free in Windows but completely blow away most commercial Windows applications as well. Overall, however, the contest is something of a toss-up: OS X performs certain tasks better, and XP performs others better.

Given this stalemate, the most obvious conclusion is that XP and OS X are different, and overall, neither really has a huge advantage over the other. For Apple, the news is mixed. By leveling the playing field, the company has made huge advances over previous versions of its own OS, which had fallen behind Windows technologically some time ago. But because Mac OS X isn't demonstrably better than Windows, it's unlikely that a measurable number of Windows users will defect to OS X. That said, OS X is almost a no-brainer for any Mac user with fairly modern hardware. And for Windows users interested in digital video, the Mac is suddenly the place to be. Let's take a closer look at this exciting new OS.

OS X Highs and Lows


Mac OS X will install on any USB-capable Mac with at least 128MB of RAM, a much more realistic minimum than Microsoft publicizes for XP. That said, the system is a memory hog, and I recommend at least 256MB of RAM and a fast G3 or G4 processor for optimal performance. You can dual-boot OS X with the older OS 9 system, and this setup gives you the capability to run older OS 9-compatible applications, albeit in a slow-to-load compatibility environment whose stability is as shaky as that of OS 9 itself. A less popularized but, in my mind, more elegant way to install OS X is on a system by itself: You can't run older OS 9 applications in such an environment, but if you're not relying on such legacy programs, you'll save a ton of disk space.

OS X boots quickly, and shuts down and comes out of sleep mode instantaneously, functionality that Windows systems can only dream of. I have no doubt that Apple's simultaneous hardware and software development has given it the edge in this area, and although the raw horsepower of the PowerPC chips that power Macs use has fallen behind that of the Intel-compatible designs on the PC, the Mac clearly benefits from this symbiotic relationship. With enough RAM and a decent processor, Mac OS X 10.1 is responsive, even snappy—something that couldn't have been said of the initial OS X release.

Aesthetically, OS X is a winner, although I wish the UI was more configurable, as it is in Linux and, to a lesser degree, in XP. You're basically stuck with Apple's default blue color-coded UI or a drab gray-scale version that harkens back to the original 1984 Mac. But Apple did create a new Quartz rendering engine for OS X that brings the power of Adobe Postscript to consumers, offering a lush and beautifully rendered environment with super crisp text, photographic icons, and 3-D effects. The text is so sharp, in fact, that it (pardon the pun) renders silly Microsoft's claims for ClearType, which works well only on certain LCD monitors. Text on OS X is sharp and clear in an otherworldly way and much nicer than anything in the PC world. Working with text is a joy, whether you're editing a Microsoft Word document, reading a Web page, or even browsing the local file system from a UNIX command line. You have to see it to believe it.

Less successful is the Mac desktop, which doesn't offer much of an improvement over previous versions. The desktop has icons and windows as before and of course they're nicer looking. The OS X Dock is likewise a toss-up; it confusingly combines application launchers with Windows taskbar-like functionality. In other words, the icons for applications that are running appear right alongside icons for applications that aren't running. You get used to it, but in other OSs, different parts of the UI handle these two separate concepts. OS X 10.1 added the ability to move the Dock to the left and right sides of the screen, instead of stranding it on the bottom. This is a great idea (it's been in Windows since 1995), but the desktop icons can float under the Dock, which is annoying.

Another big weakness of the UI—and frankly, this is also a huge problem in XP—is that it doesn't remember folder-view settings. So don't bother spending any time ordering icons alphabetically or whatever, because your changes won't stick. And because OS X has carried over the Mac's historically willy-nilly view styles—where icons can sit anywhere in a window—you'll often find yourself looking for an icon that is sitting "off screen" in an area of the window that isn't displayed.

OS X Digital-Media Features


As previously mentioned, Apple bills OS X as the ultimate digital-media OS, and although this claim is a bit exaggerated given XP's digital-media features, OS X does offer some compelling advances over other systems.

For digital music, Apple offers the recently released iTunes 2, a nice MP3 jukebox that also lets you rip MP3-formatted music from audio CDs, burn custom-mix audio CDs, and listen to Internet radio stations. Apple iTunes is a joy to use, and I wish an application of its simplicity was available on the PC in place of the bloated, slow Media Player for Windows XP (MPXP). And the new version offers an equalizer with 22 presets, song cross-fading, and other new features. On the other hand, I wish iTunes offered compatibility with Microsoft's Windows Media Audio (WMA) format, which is superior to MP3 in virtually every way.

For playing back movies, Apple offers its QuickTime player. As with iTunes, the QuickTime player is simple and easy to use. Best of all, it supports (naturally) the superior QuickTime movie format, as does iMovie, the company's incredible movie-maker software. Apple iMovie is such an advance over anything that's available on the PC that I recommend that anyone who wants to get into this exciting field at least evaluate the Mac. With iMovie, you can record full-screen digital video in QuickTime format; edit that video with special effects, titles, background music, voice overdubbing, and other effects; and then output to tape or QuickTime format for distribution by email or the Web. It's a wonderful end-to-end solution that makes Microsoft's Windows Movie Maker (WMM) look sick by comparison. Equally stunning is Apple iDVD, which makes creating DVD movies with professional menus and effects equally simple. Simply take a movie created in iMovie, add professional menus and text, and you're done. The Windows world doesn't have anything comparable, at any price.

Apple's digital-imaging features aren't quite as compelling—especially when compared to what comes in XP. OS X 10.1 includes new Image Capture functionality that recognizes a wide range of digital cameras. When you plug in a compatible camera, a small application launches that lets you save the images to your Mac. It's not a bad little program, but it lacks important ease-of-use features included in XP's Scanner and Camera Wizard. Worse, the OS X shell doesn't afford Apple's default Pictures, Movies, and Music folders any special status, making them difficult to find and less intuitive than their Windows equivalents. Apple could apply the iMovie/iDVD concepts to digital imaging for better success in this area.

Overall, however, OS X's digital-media features really set this OS apart, and although XP comes out ahead in some areas, the digital-movie features alone are reason enough to consider a Mac.

Applications and Compatibility


Apple is currently navigating the slippery slope between its unstable but well-supported past (OS 9) and its reliable but relatively untrodden future with OS X. As stable as OS X is, it won't matter unless the applications you need are available in that environment. And although the pickings are still slim, they're getting better all the time.

The most crucial application release for OS X should ship shortly after you read this. Dubbed Microsoft Office v. X for Mac OS X, this eagerly anticipated follow-up to Mac:Office 2001 includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Entourage, an Outlook Express-based personal information management (PIM) application. Office v. X is a work of art that uses all of Apple's UI advances and incorporates several features Windows users will have to wait on for months. And it's compatible, of course, with Windows versions of Office. I'll look more closely at Office v. X's digital media features soon.

Email and Web-browser applications are widespread on OS X. For email, I've tested Apple's own free Mail.app as well as Eudora, which are both excellent. Web browsers include Internet Explorer (IE) 5.0, Netscape 6.2, and OmniWeb, among others. For smaller utilities, you have many choices for text editors, compressed file extractors, and similar utilities.

Beyond that, however, it's a waiting game. Adobe's award-winning graphics programs are coming soon, the company says, and other Mac application makers promise OS X-specific versions eventually. Gaming is a particularly sparse area at this time, although some game houses—notably Quake creator ID—promise OS X titles soon. And, of course, the vast library of OS 9-compatible titles are still available, although somewhat saddled by the Classic environment under OS X.

Conclusions


Mac OS X 10.1 brings the Apple world on par with PCs running Windows XP, an interesting development given the previously wide gap between the two platforms. For users interested in digital-media functionality, especially digital movie making, Mac OS X now offers a compelling solution that in many ways outperforms Microsoft's offerings. If you're a PC user, you'll have to weigh the benefits and costs of switching platforms or maintaining a second, somewhat incompatible PC. But the most commonly used applications are available on the Mac, along with unique Mac-only software, and it's not that hard to make the transition. It's definitely worth looking into.

Mac OS X 10.1 costs $129 and is available from Apple and various retail stores such as CompUSA. Mac OS X 10.0 users can upgrade to the new release for about $20.