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THE CUTTING EDGE / PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | PC FOCUS

On Apple's OS Upgrade, Bells and Whistles Make a Sound Improvement

November 09, 1998|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

Some people think of Apple Computer as a computer maker, but the heart and soul of every computer isn't the hardware but the operating system and application software that bring it to life. Hardware vendors like IBM and Compaq can determine what their boxes look like, but Microsoft gets to decide what those boxes do.

Apple has it both ways: It controls both the hardware and software that make up the Macintosh platform. So when Apple introduced OS 8.5, a new version of its operating system, it was a big deal to the millions of current and prospective Mac users, who will now have new and better ways to use their computers.

Mac OS 8.5 is designed for Apple computers with PowerPC processors and at least 16 megabytes of memory. Owners of Macs based on the old Motorola 68000 series of chips are out of luck. If you own a PowerPC-based Mac clone, you should check with the manufacturer before upgrading.

There are all sorts of new bells and whistles in OS 8.5, but the most important difference is that it's more stable--that is, less likely to crash. Most Mac and Windows users--especially those who run many programs at once--know the agony of having the computer suddenly stop working while they're using it. While the new OS 8.5 isn't crash-proof, it is considerably better, judging from testing and interviews.

Another thing users look for in a new operating system is faster performance. Apple's Web site claims that the Mac OS 8.5 "is up to five times faster than the OS you have in your Macintosh," which is typical of Apple hype. While performance has been increased, the overall experience of using a Mac isn't dramatically faster. Certain tasks, such as launching programs, opening Finder windows, copying large files over a local area network or running automated scripts, are much faster, but overall the improvements are a bit more subtle.

I think it's a shame that Apple's marketing people are so fast and loose with their claims when the simple truth will suffice. The Mac has always been a leading computing platform and holds its own against Windows in any fair comparison. But inflated claims like this and earlier ads claiming that the CPUs in new Macs are "up to two times faster than the Pentium and Pentium II chips used in PC notebooks and desktop systems" only serve to reduce Apple's credibility among users who know that there are a lot of factors--besides raw chip or operating system speed--that determine performance.

Speaking of hype, the most ballyhooed feature in the OS 8.5 is Sherlock, a nifty but hardly revolutionary search function that lets you find Internet Web sites and files on your hard disk based on their content. To read Apple's ads, you'd think the company invented this type of searching.

Sherlock is an excellent utility, but it's hardly breakthrough technology.

The feature has three components. One is simply a minor enhancement to the old File Find feature that lets you find a file based on its name. Another, called Find by Content, lets you enter a word or phrase to find files on your hard disk. Before you can use that feature, you have to let Sherlock create an index of all your files--a process that takes up to two hours and creates a file that is about 15% of the size of all of your text and word processing files combined. Once you have created the index, the search process is very fast because Sherlock has to look only at the index file rather than the data files themselves. Sherlock can be configured to automatically add new files to its index at scheduled times, like the middle of the night, when you don't plan to use your Mac.

Sherlock's other feat is to find Web sites on the Internet. Enter a word, phrase or even a question, and without your having to even load your Internet browser, Sherlock passes your query on to Alta- Vista, Excite, Infoseek and other Web-based search engines. The results are prioritized according to whatever relevance criteria (an inexact science) the search engines use and are presented to you in a nice table.

Sherlock does an excellent job of integrating these features into a single, easy-to-use utility, but the basic technologies have been around for a while on both the Mac and Windows systems.

UltraFind, a $40 Macintosh program from UltraDesign Technology of Hampton Court, England (http://www.ultradesign.com), has had similar features since 1993.

UltraDesign's managing director, Steve Linford, isn't terribly happy about Apple giving away a product similar to the one his company sells (shades of Microsoft and Netscape), but he argues that his product is faster, more efficient and easier to use. He takes some solace in the fact that Apple has "educated the Mac community to the fact that it is possible to search by content."

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