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The Jagwyre Review

Rumbles in the Jungle

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Using Mac OS X is like touring a land of fabulous ancient treasures - with a tourist authority that's still busy renovating them, and that hasn't quite completed the infrastructure.

The sights can be breathtaking, but the roads are potholed and incomplete, and sometimes you have to get out and push.

There are a few magnificent modern additions - Rendezvous, AppleScript Studio, for example - but in places the modern Apple archaeologists seem to have forgotten their ancestors techniques, and have resorted to inferior contemporary methods such as the Windows bodge of using three letter extensions for identifying the file type.

I've been recommending users from two ends of the spectrum to examine OS X: computer phobes who want functionality without fuss - and the UNIX literate or the UNIX curious. For the former, Apple's default suite of applications plays a starring role. These are much-mocked as 'wannabee' apps, but the "out of the box" experience they offer is far superior to a Windows PC. But both camps are numerically small - most potential computer users in the West have already had plenty of experience with Windows. So it's whether the middle ground must be persuaded to switch: and that middle ground includes as much as 90 per cent of Apple's installed base.

Welcome to Jagwyre

OS X 10.2 gives us the latest snapshot of this work in progress. It restores some but far from all of the functionality missing from its Apple and NeXT heritage. Apple has been listening, and fixed many of the dissonances that made the earlier cuts such a bumpy ride.

In places, Jagwyre shows important aesthetic improvements, and it's also more responsive in key places. You couldn't conceivably call it "snappy" set alongside a recent PC. If I was being charitable, I'd describe it as "stately". There's a stately wait of three or more seconds for the Get Info box to appear, for example.

NeXT wasn't built for speed, it was built for speed of development, but it rarely appeared to toil.

Here and there, the speed improvements are very real: particularly in my preferred List view. Elsewhere, they're phoney: it's as slow as before, but Apple appears to have hidden the busy cursor; which again, is less dissonant, but no speed improvement. I had higher hopes when I previewed the Jagwyre beta back in May.

However we've got the desktop back: the simple option of a smaller icon font - and less obtuse text wrapping - and reducing the random icon placement makes for a big difference.

(Folders are still created where OS X wants to put them on the desktop, not where you create them, however).

There are four anti-aliasing options: all are welcome, and this made more impact on my CRT than on my iBook's LCD.

Early reader reports suggest that the Dock is more obtrusive than ever. With earlier versions, you could (in single user mode) move it out of its "Core Services" home folder and subsequently use a replacement launcher and switcher. This now blitzes your choice of desktop background, and as one reader despairingly concludes:-

"Apple seems to have real bee in its bonnet about the Dock - it won't admit to any faults, and won't offer the choice of disabling it. There's an almost religious-like belief in the thing. If 99 per cent of users like it and want it, that's fine by me - it's a free country. I just want the choice to be rid of the bloody irritant."

Is there a way of making it one pixel big?, he asks. A good Dock wouldn't go amiss - WorkStrip X is an example of how much innovation Apple could have built into the Dock.

A few UI experiments from early Jagwyre builds didn't make into the final product: Dock miniatures - thumbnails which could be dragged to float above the Desktop - haven't made it into 10.2. Probably wisely: the behaviour was confusing since only had one chance to reactivate the thumbnail. Sound schemes haven't made it, either.

There are examples of poor attention to detail in places: Universal Access is split over two Preference Panes: the UA pane itself and 'keyboard'.

(Partially-sighted users are welcome in the Kingdom of Jagwyre: except, er when Steve disagrees. Users who need bolder windows still can't modify the size of the title bars or scrollbars, or give yourself a way of clearly indicating the foreground window from the background window without resorting to third party theming tools, such as Duality.)

You still can't sort a column view: which is infuriating when you when want the most recent files to appear at the top of the listing, for example. And the bug which screws the icon text of desktop clipping files when the folder is viewed as a list hasn't been fixed. Which looks uncharacteristically amateur.

Many small utilities need minor fixes - the Jagwyre Dock reclaims Command-Tab from LiteSwitch X, and I'm having problems using MaxMenus, even in its updated form. I can't recommend these two utilities enough - the publisher Proteron has good taste to spare.

My biggest beef is that the terrific package manager Fink is having problems. Given the benefits of the more recent BSD code, and the quality of Fink so far, you won't hear too many grumbles from me on this count, but I'd suggest pointing to the unstable branch and keeping track of the mailing list.

Chris Roberts at the GNU Mac Public Archive reckons it will take 18 months to get the 4,000 programs in the software library built with the new gcc 3.0 compiler, and has taken the CD off the market.

Slashdot and OS News have noted other incompatibilities.

Both my installs on my 733/G4 PowerMac - clean install and update and existing installation - leave me with a rhythmic click, about once a second, from the hard drive. Even when lightly loaded. The machine has a gigabyte of memory, and I'd sure like to know what it's up to.

What would a roomful of machines exhibiting this behavior sound like? Crickets on valium.

Conclusion

It was with the timer showing 1 hour 43 minutes to go during the Installation Process I had a heretical thought: this operating system upgrade is a minor part in deciding Apple's fate. Apple will appeal most to people on the strength of its hardware ergonomics, and features such as instant sleep and wake up. For novices the "iBundle" scores highly on functionality and usability, particularly for those strange people who think computers are a tool, and not an end in itself. For the developers, there's no more sumptuous place to be.

Infrastructure improvements such as the common address book, working with smartphone manufacturers on synchronisation and the new Rendezvous service assure us Apple is providing a valuable influence on the industry, shaming Microsoft into providing similar features. XP already looks brighter for Aqua, so even if you have no interest whatsoever in Apple, you do benefit from a healthy Apple.

But there are significant reasons for users deciding not to switch to OS X, and these Apple must address. One is the fear that as the sole supplier of Apple computers it indulges in exactly the kind of price gouging that people want to switch away from. Recent .Mac pricing and the $129 fee for this upgrade cause justifiable anxiety for potential switchers. Another is that performance has fallen so far behind the PC - with a major schism between Motorola and Apple obliging, it appears, Apple to overclock older processors. I think the performance lag is worth paying because the environment is so potentially rich. (A lot less rich now it's broken GNU software, unfortunately) But again the perception is that Apple isn't following Moore's Law, which has traditionally boosted slower software. OS/2, Windows NT and Windows 95, all arrived overweight - but Intel eventually fixed this with faster chips. Can Apple's CPU supplier?

The third, and I'd suggest biggest drawback of using a Macintosh right now - and this is worse, not better in Jagwyre - is that the web browsing experience is awful. The lovely OmniWeb browser is undergoing a major overhaul, Chimera is promising but immature, and while the Mac version of Internet Explorer is preferable in several ways to the Windows version, in its OS X incarnation it's a serious disaster. To sell Macintosh computers to that huge middle ground between novices and geeks, Apple needs to offer a great browser. ®

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