Apple has released Mac OS X 10.3, universally known by its Panther codename, a version of its desktop operating system which combines the Mac OS interface with a modern Unix foundation, and the new release certainly feels snappier.
The interface has had a few tweaks. For example, the Finder now uses the maligned "brushed metal" theme rather than the Aqua. Those who found the Aqua appearance a little too gaudy will welcome the change; others will make use of several free tools available online to reinstate the Aqua look.
A more fundamental tweak is Exposé, a new window-arranging utility. Exposé is no gimmick: it’s a truly useful tool for quickly finding a window and bringing it to the front. At the touch of a button, or a flick of the mouse, windows are shrunk and arranged on the screen to make it easy to pick between them. The user can choose to select from just the current application’s windows or to send all windows to the side of the screen to reveal the desktop.
It’s surprisingly fast, even on older machines that don’t benefit from Quartz Extreme rendering. It’s likely Exposé is working behind the scenes, planning the Exposé-d view, waiting for the signal to rearrange those pixels. Exposé is a feature that you immediately miss on other platforms.
Panther also boasts fast user switching, a feature first introduced on Windows. It allows several users to be logged in at one time, each with their own desktop. A menu at the top-right corner of the screen allows switching between user sessions, which can be password-protected for security.
A few other tools deserve mention. FileVault allows for seamless encryption of home directories; iChat AV, the video-enabled version of Apple’s IM client, is included; the Panther version of Mail.app features a threaded message display and an improved spam filter; the Font Book offers built-in font management; the rendering engine of Safari, Apple’s web browser, has undergone some improvements; and the file-viewing utility, Preview, has become much faster at displaying PDFs.
Windows integration has seen several improvements. Panther includes the just-released Samba version 3.0 and Exchange support in Mail.app, iCal and the Address Book.
However, it’s the changes under the hood that perhaps have the most significance to IT users. Mac OS X has always been an elegant merging of the Mac user experience and the BSD Unix system, and Panther continues this tradition by utilising libraries and tools from FreeBSD 4.8 and 5.0. Even Apple’s implementation of de facto Unix windowing system X11 integrates surprisingly well with the Mac OS user experience.
The Postfix mail server is included and, unlike Sendmail in earlier versions, works without configuration.
Users wanting a Unix experience will want to install the free developer tools with the gcc 3.3 compiler, particularly as the provided command line tools don’t include some old favourites such as wget and lynx — although they install easily enough with the familiar configure-make-make install routine. Apple should be commended, though, for providing command-line implementations of its own applications, such as diskutil, softwareupdate and niutil.
One other change appears to be for the benefit of Linux "switchers": the default shell is now bash.
From our brief first look, Panther offers a lot to keep Mac users happy. However, Apple might wish to reflect that four major upgrades in three years is a lot for larger customers to plan for. At least it might consider offering an upgrade price to those customers that rushed to buy version 10.2 — the latest and greatest — barely 12 months ago.
Mac OS X 10.3 at a glance:
Price: about $250
Pros: New features, better integration, feels snappier
Cons: Frequent version releases; no upgrade price