Mac OS X dilemma: To upgrade or not to upgrade?

Apple says its new, Unix-based operating system is ready to go to work on your desktop, but the devil is in the details

With all the hype over Apple's new Macintosh operating system, OS X ("oh-ess-ten"), during the last few days, one pressing question on users' minds might be whether they can actually upgrade now, six months before OS X shows up built into Apple hardware. There is no yes or no answer, but some may be disappointed to find that making the switch is not as problem-free as Apple's publicity might lead you to believe.

The story Apple is putting forward is that you can use OS X for most day-to-day operations, and reboot back to OS 9.1 for things like CD burning and DVD playback which aren't yet supported. More realistically, you will only be able to use OS X on a day-to-day basis today if your work doesn't require certain peripherals and software tools, or if you get an unnatural pleasure out of rebooting your Mac.

Keep in mind that OS X is no minor operating system upgrade, like moving from Windows 95 to Windows 98: it is in fact an entirely new OS, built on a core of Unix, the rock-solid system that runs many government, university and enterprise systems. The old Mac OS has had since 1984 to accumulate all the little add-ons and modifications that make it easy to use, but OS X has had about two weeks. It will take time for developers to figure out how the new Mac's brain works, and to customise it to their own ends. A good indicator of this is the fact that hardware won't come with OS X pre-installed until the summer.

That said, users might be surprised at some of the fairly basic functionality OS X still lacks. While it supports a wide variety of mice and game pads, don't try to use your Wacom graphics tablet with it -- it won't be recognised. This is significant, considering that graphic designers are part of the core Mac user base, and use graphics tablets as a standard input tool.

The Wacom tablet is not the only peripheral with difficulties. TWAIN (the basic interface used to connect scanners and other graphics input devices) is apparently supported, but Adobe Photoshop crashed consistently during a ZDNet test to import an image from a USB scanner via TWAIN. Apple said this issue was down to Adobe, and Adobe says users will have to wait until later this year for software that fully supports OS X.

Apple says the list of supported peripherals is growing rapidly, with Internet updates on the way. For some specialised tools it is down to the manufacturers to release OS X drivers, but most have announced plans to do so.

Other practical matters might make you think twice about switching to OS X as your primary operating system. For example, the networking capabilities, while they include major advancements, don't appear to have all the kinks worked out for dial-up users.

Users of the old OS are used to having their email application automatically dial and disconnect their network connection. Apple's built-in, OS X-native email program will auto-dial, but you have to disconnect manually, and the app won't dial up a second time unless you restart it. OS 9 email applications, while they work fine in OS X's Classic Mode, don't seem to be able to talk to the auto-dial feature.

This is just a detail, but it demonstrates the fact that many of the conveniences you take for granted on Windows and the old Mac OS won't be there in OS X -- at least not yet.

On the brighter side, Apple has generally done a sterling job of seamlessly integrating OS 9 apps into the OS X experience. If you boot something called Classic Mode when you start up OS X, OS 9 programs will open as quickly as you are used to. Your Palm organiser will synchronise to Palm Desktop running in Classic Mode. Music players work fine, and some popular MP3 players have already been adapted, including iTunes and SoundJam. If you are using mostly office applications that don't require specialised peripherals, and particularly if you are working on an always-on network like a LAN, OS X should cover most of your needs.

In the bigger picture, it would be surprising if OS X were as full-featured as OS 9 straight out of the box. Apple's real achievement is to have built an operating system from scratch that combines the solidity of Unix with an intuitive interface, and still runs older software.

Apple says more than 10,000 developers are working on OS X software. In a year's time, when all the more advanced applications have been tailored for OS X, it will be an appealing alternative not just to Microsoft's offerings but to Unix platforms -- and it will be usable for most day-to-day jobs well before then. But unless you're simply keen to explore new frontiers, you might want to wait on that upgrade.

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