OS X beta spreading like wildfire

Summary:Famously hush-hush about its product releases, Apple is finding it difficult to keep a lid on an important upgrade to Mac OS X.Maybe it's the DVD playback and recording capabilities.

Apple Computer, famously tight-lipped about its product releases, is finding it difficult to keep a lid on an important upgrade to Mac OS X upgrade.[1PARA CLOSE]

The trading of beta, or test, copies of Mac OS X version 10.1 is running fast and furious on the Internet, with Mac enthusiasts willing to put up with five- or six-hour downloads--even over speedy broadband connections--to get the software.

Internet chat rooms are abuzz about the release, which offers performance improvements, DVD playback and recording, as well as refinements to Mac OS X 10's Aqua user interface.

Jeffrey Barbose, a San Francisco software developer and longtime Mac owner who has seen Apple demonstrations of the beta, isn't surprised that some Mac enthusiasts were anxious to get their hands on it. "OS X users and developers all have the fever: It's the best thing out there, and we want the newest and the best--for bragging rights and for knowing we're out in front," he told CNET News.com in an e-mail interview.

Apple is expected to release Mac OS X 10.1 in September. People with OS X will be able to buy the update for about $20, according to Apple.

Typically, Apple releases OS test versions to a select group of developers and beta testers, who sign nondisclosure agreements. But enthusiasm for "Puma"--the code name for Mac OS X 10.1--has opened a floodgate of leaked betas.

"I am surprised at the leaks. If at this stage of the game, there are these kinds of leaks, imagine the impact on sales when (the software) is released," said Tim Deal, an analyst at Technology Business Research.

Apple spokesman Bill Evans declined to comment on the leaks.

Three beta versions
At least three versions, or builds, of the release are currently in wide circulation: 5D15, 5F7 and 5F24. The latter was seen by CNET News.com.

As anticipation grows for Mac OS X 10.1's release, so does the pressure on Apple to deliver the upgrade on time and with improvements in speed and stability. Apple released Mac OS X in late March and started shipping the OS on new computers two months later.

Mac OS X, the first major overhaul of Apple's operating system since its 1984 introduction, is based on BSD Unix, a popular variant of Unix. Although OS X offers many improvements--among them better memory management and ability to run multiple programs--some developers privately complained of stability problems when moving their applications to it.

Adobe Systems, for example, skipped last month's Macworld Expo in New York, with some speculation of a rift between the San Jose, Calif.-based company and Apple over Mac OS X's stability. Adobe publicly pegged its absence on its need to cut costs. Microsoft, the largest maker of software for the Macintosh, currently is testing a Mac OS X version of Office, the beta of which can run only on Puma.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs previewed Puma at New York Macworld. Besides speedier performance and interface tweaks, Jobs promised OS X 10.1 will offer DVD playback, which was long delayed, and a new version of Apple's DVD authoring software.

"This is what they should have released in the first place," Deal said. "These are the kinds of features and performance Apple needed to deliver when they released Mac OS X."

Puma roars
If the beta seen by News.com is any indication, Apple may have licked some of Mac OS X's biggest shortcomings, particularly slow performance using the file system and Aqua interface.

"The current version of OS X is a tad sluggish, but only in (user interface) transactions, like growing a window," Barbose said.

In the most recently released Mac OS X version, 10.04, the operating system can sometimes take five seconds or longer to execute file menu commands, even on the fastest Macs available. The 10.1 beta largely solves that problem, although not completely. Overall handling and opening of programs and documents is also vastly improved.

"Apple clearly has done that extra fine tuning to Mac OS X 10.1," said Chris LeTocq, a Guernsey Research analyst. "It's the kind of thing you don't do when you have short deadline for (initial) release the first time around. Then, your concern is stability."

News.com observed the 10.1 beta on an Apple PowerBook G3 with a 500MHz PowerPC processor, 384MB of RAM and a 12GB hard drive, comparing it with OS X 10.04 running on a Power Mac G4 with two 450MHz processors, 768MB of memory and a 30GB hard drive. Because of the chip architecture, G4 processors are inherently faster than G3 chips, even at a lower clock speed.

Build 5F24 on the slower Mac booted up in about half the time as OS X 10.04.

Still, the biggest speed improvement may be in opening programs. Mac OS X's toolbar for open programs is called the Dock. As programs open, their icons bounce up and down until the window appears on the desktop.

On the faster Power Mac running OS X 10.04, for example, Internet Explorer 5.1 opened after 13 bounces of the icon. For additional openings, the icon bounced 11 or 12 times. But the leaked beta, even on the slower system, opened the Web browser in five bounces the first time and one or two bounces thereafter. Other programs demonstrated similar speed increases.

More tweaks
As Jobs noted during his Macworld keynote, Apple also has made a number of tweaks to Mac OS X. The Dock can be placed on either side of the desktop, instead of just at the bottom of the screen. And some controls, such as sound and display settings, can be placed in the menu bar that runs across the top of the desktop.

Many other tweaks add items found in older versions of Mac OS, such as 9.1, that were missing in 10.04. People can now easily use an Apple network time server for setting the date and time. Like earlier Mac versions, people now can place up-and-down scroll arrows together at the bottom of a window rather than separated at the top and bottom.

The beta seen by News.com, however, did not offer DVD playback, one of the features sorely missing when Apple launched Mac OS X.

"That 20 bucks could be worth it for a lot of people, just for the performance improvements," LeTocq said.

But Deal sees another important benefit to the upgrade: Full support for hardware, such as the DVD and DVD-recording drives that Apple has been shipping with Macs. Up to now, people with OS X had to rely on an older version of the operating system to run the hardware.

"One of the most important things is for people to get the most out of their hardware," Deal said, "and finally being able to run Mac OS X as their primary OS, instead of having to rely on (version) 9.1."

Topics: Software

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