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The New Face of Apple
A new operating system for the Macintosh could put the fun back in computing while banishing some old glitches

• Screenshot

Booting up a new operating system can be a thrill not unlike sliding behind the wheel of a showroom-fresh car. The destination is unimportant. What counts is the look and feel of the thing. It also helps if the windows open and close properly.

Apple Computer has never had much trouble with the latter, but its venerable Macintosh operating system has about as much roadwear as a 1984 Toyota Corolla. The company has long known that an overhaul was needed. Now, after years of delay, a replacement version is due out early next year. It's called OS X, and rather than saddling Mac users with yet another warmed-over upgrade, the new system is fresh inside and out.

At the core of OS X is code originally developed for Apple Chairman Steve Job's former company, NeXT (Apple bought the ill-fated computer maker in 1996). But the obvious change to users will be the new look and feel. In creating Aqua, OS X's graphical user interface, programmers have discarded or downplayed some of the staid methods whereby Mac users relate to their machines. Gone are familiar standards like the Apple menu and control strip. You can still use desktop icons to keep track of commonly used files and utilities, but they are only a second-best option.

As hard as it may be to imagine a screen free of icons, OS X introduces a whizzy desktop organization tool called the dock. It's kind of a Microsoft Windows taskbar that dared to dream. The dock is a strip of colorful, 3D-like icons that run along the bottom of the screen. These can represent virtually anything — a text file, an application, a movie, a beloved Web page. Click to launch one, and the icon literally bounces up and down. Store a document and the icon swoops back to its place on the dock. Remove an item and it disappears in a puff of smoke.

The graphical fireworks are cute. But for experienced users, a crucial part of any interface is the ease with which they can organize and locate files. OS X aids this quest with a feature called "column view." It's basically a window that, when opened, displays columns of icons representing the directories, subdirectories, folders and files stored on your hard drive. PC users will recognize column view as a version of Windows Explorer. But it is easier to navigate because it allows you to see two or more columns of folders simultaneously, hence offering a wider view of your contents.

Better still, the feature allows you to preview the contents of, say, a text file, without having to launch the related application for a look. This eliminates an oft-heard Mac complaint that users, when working with multiple documents and applications, are forced to open an unmanageable number of windows. Multimedia junkies will also like a feature that allows you to quickly locate movie files and scan the clips for particular scenes.

The Mac has always been a great platform for graphics. OS X promises to be better because of a faster "rendering engine" called Quartz. It's in evidence with just a cursory glance at the OS X desktop. Windows have shadows and pull-down menus are translucent so you can see what's underneath. Buttons pulsate slightly and dialogue boxes crisply appear and disappear.

Ever crashed your Mac because of a memory configuration problem? OS X has a new virtual memory manager, meaning you no longer have to fiddle with memory partitions to suit unwieldy applications. In fact, a protected memory feature means that should the program in which you are working hang up, just that program crashes — no more system-wide freeze-ups that require you to restart the computer. OS X should be harder to trip up at any rate. Its base code is derived from Unix, the aging but rock-solid operating system used to run high-powered graphics workstations and Web servers.

The problem with new operating systems is they aren't very useful until software developers make word processors, games and other stuff for them. Apple, having fought the Windows wars for many years, tried to work around this dilemma with OS X. The program lets you use your old apps, running them in a special mode called Classic. Performance is a little slower, so it won't satisfy everyone. But the feature buys Apple some time until developers begin to release native OS X apps, and helps ease the sticker shock for users as they move to a different platform.

Right now this new OS is full of promise. I've revved the engine — it's fast. I've played the stereo - it's sweet. I've ogled the chrome - it's shiny. Now I just can't wait for the real version to roll out of the showroom.

Asiaweek Pictures.

A: OS X has translucent pull-down menus so you can see what's underneath
B: The column finder lets you drill deep into your hard drive to locate a missing file. A preview screen even plays movies
C: In Classic mode, you can run all your old app

D: Icon view allows you to set the size of icons, and insert background colors and graphics
E: The dock, where all of your favorite tools and documents live. A new graphics engine brings icons to animated life. Applications go on the left. At right are easily accessed movies, documents,and even web page

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