ISSUE 472: The high-tech office- Nov 10 1998


Apple's latest operating system gives users
good value and functionality for their money

In the ongoing ping pong game between Microsoft's Windows and Apple's Macintosh operating systems, it's Apple's turn to volley.

Last June, Microsoft upgraded its system to Windows 98, offering several longtime Mac features such as multiple monitors. In October, Apple returned the serve, with its new OS 8.5, the company's third operating system release in about a year.

Unlike last spring's OS 8.1, which was a free download for Mac OS 8 owners, this time you'll have to pay to play -- about $150.

And you've got to be prepared to pay another way as well: this is the first Mac operating system that is only supported on a PowerPC Mac.

As well, Apple is not supporting older Macs with PowerPC upgrade cards or PowerPC clones, either. OS 8.5 may work on such systems (it worked on my Motorola clone), but Apple is making no promises. (In fact, Apple's promised next major upgrade, so-called OS X, will require a G3 PowerMac -- models that have only been out for about a year.)

If you have the requisite hardware, you get several new features borrowed from Windows (yes, Virginia, Apple borrows from Microsoft, too).

Like a Win98 PC, an OS 8.5 Mac checks the hard drive at boot up following a system crash. Command-tab switches between running programs (the little window even looks like Win 3.1's Cool Switch). As in all the OS 8 versions, command-click brings up a Win 95-style context menu. There's
a System Profiler, echoing the Win95 Device Manager (every technician's favourite Windows feature) and a Network Browser echoing Microsoft's Network Neighborhood.

With the Appearance Control Panel's Sound Tracks, my Mac now clicks and squeaks every bit as noisily as my
Windows computer with its Sound Schemes.

? la Windows, Favorites can refer to Web links, documents or applications, and can be placed in the Start Menu (oops -- the Apple Menu) for easy access. And, as goes for Windows 98, the help system now uses Internet-style HTML files and can launch Apple Guide assistants to walk users step-by-step through solving common problems. Alias icons now sport tiny arrows just like Windows shortcut icons (though Aliases remain smarter than the Windows equivalent).

All this copying (excuse me, "borrowing") is not a bad thing. A good feature deserves to be widely used.

Still, Apple had to do more. Perhaps the best of the rest is Sherlock, an intelligent im-
provement to the Mac's aging Find command.

Sherlock has a number of dimensions. If it's useful, it can index your entire hard drive or file server. While this will take a while, it makes searching your documents' content quick and easy.

Perhaps even nicer is its ability to search the Internet. While Windows' Find on the Internet command simply opens a browser to a search engine, Sherlock offers natural language capabilities. You can type a question in normal English -- and expect a usable response.

As well, Sherlock can check multiple search sites and report its findings back in a relatively readable fashion. Ask it, "How many coho salmon were caught in B.C. in 1997?" and you can expect to come up with the answer. (You can carry out natural language searches of your own drives as well.)

Plug-ins can be developed to customize where Sherlock checks for data.

While (inevitably) bigger than its predecessors, OS 8.5 does some things more quickly. Copying large files, particularly across a network, is faster -- Apple claims that it's speedier at this than Microsoft's NT Server.

AppleScript has been rewritten for PowerPCs and is faster and supports new commands for the Finder and control panels.

If you buy OS 8.5 in the box, you'll get the new QuickTime Pro 3.0 upon registration. If you get OS 8.5 pre-installed on a new Mac, however, you'll need to spend US$29.95 to get the Pro features.

As with any major operating system change, there are a few glitches -- some software will need updates to work properly with the new version.

Additionally, there have been scattered reports of hard drives losing icons or not being recognized at all at startup -- but these only affect a tiny minority of upgraders, clones and "real" Macs. As with other upgrades, it is always a good policy to make a fresh backup first.

Previous versions' limited edition of MacLink Plus for reading PC-format files is gone -- if you need this capability, expect to buy the full version from DataViz.

Some features are more like promises than reality. New Navigation Services replace the traditional Open and Save dialogue boxes, and Smart Scrolling scroll bars only work in programs written to support them -- and even some of OS 8.5's modules haven't been updated yet.

All in all, though, a nice present for
your Mac. *


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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan