Panther: This Cat's Full of Surprises

Getting to Know Apple's Latest OS Release

by David Lang (Posted: 10/25/03)


Missing the Party

As I write, thousands of Mac fanatics across the country are congregating at their local Apple stores or CompUSAs to celebrate the arrival of OS X 10.3, aka "Panther." Where am I? I'm at home trying to get my children to stay in bed! Yet in between dispensing cups of water and consenting to that one last trip to the bathroom, I have to ask myself what it is about this 0.1 release of a computer operating system that has some people partying and me feeling like I've just missed the prom. I mean, is the release of Panther "all that"? Is it worth all the hoopla? And more to the point: is it worth the 129 bucks Apple is asking us to pony up for it?

A few days ago, when I first installed my developer copy of Panther on my aging Pismo PowerBook, I would have told you that although there was plenty to like about Panther, I'm not sure it's worth the $129 price tag. This assessment was not meant to be a knock against Panther; it's just that Jaguar was so seemingly complete. Just over a year after Jaguar ironed out most of the wrinkles in OS X, Apple is touting Panther as a must-have upgrade, and as a pretty satisfied Jaguar customer, I have to admit to being a little skeptical that Panther could really have that much more to offer.

First Impressions

Sure there was a lot to like: Exposé is really cool, as is Fast User Switching (I can't tell you how many times I've switched to a different user just so I could see the slick rotating cube effect). Mail seems much snappier, and the way it highlights all messages in the current thread is pretty handy. The Finder also feels much easier to navigate, and it's good to see the return of Labels, which have been absent since OS 9 and which now look better than ever before.

Overall, Panther just seems more polished and well thought-out: especially when it comes to the way it looks. I wasn't sure I'd like the use of brushed metal in the Finder, since I generally prefer the Aqua look; but the Finder's new look really does make the actual content you're working with seem to pop out at you. Even in programs with an Aqua look, the Title bar of the active window features a solid silver gradient, rather than the translucent placard appearance of Jaguar. And although the silver gradient is quite distinct from the brushed metal texture, it has the effect of helping to tie the two looks together. The overall effect is that OS X no longer seems like an operating system which can't make up its mind which way it wants to dress.

There are other subtle improvements to the way things look in OS X. The placard background now seems a little more subdued--striking a happy medium between OS 9's drab platinum appearance and the glaring white look of previous OS X iterations. Another subtle change is the return of divider lines to group related items in a menu: Panther's lines are less severe than OS 9's, yet more distinct than the mere blank spaces which Jaguar used. Everywhere you look there are little niceties such as these which help to make OS X even easier on the eyes than before.

Still, having tasted the cool new graphic effects, enjoyed the various performance enhancements, and appreciated many of the less noticable cosmetic improvements, I still wasn't convinced that Panther was really worth the cost to upgrade.

Pleasant Surprises

Then I started noticing things I hadn't yet read about in the Mac press. The first of these pleasant surprises came when I connected to my boss' home network. As usual, I chose Connect to Server from within the Finder, and found to my surprise that the dialog box no longer listed every server on the network. After the initial shock of wondering how in the world I was going to connect to the server I needed, I noticed the Network item in the Finder window's sidebar. I clicked on it, and lo and behold, every server on the network was right there waiting for me--all simply because I plugged in an ethernet cable. Even better, when I unplugged the ethernet cable, my computer didn't grind to a halt simply because the server had been unexpectedly disconnected. It may seem like a little thing, but such simplified networking was a very pleasant surprise.

Another pleasant surprise was the accidental discovery of a new application switcher. In Jaguar, holding down the command key while repeatedly pressing the Tab key would cycle through each open application in the Dock, and releasing the command key would switch to the selected application. When I tried this procedure in Panther, rather than highlighting the application icons in the Dock, a translucent application switcher filled my screen, showing me only those applications which were currently running. Again, is this a big improvement? Not really. But it shows that Apple is listening to its customers, many of whom have bemoaned the loss of OS 9's application switcher and complained that it's too hard to tell from the Dock which applications are currently running. This little surprise strikes me as just another example of how Apple is continually refining OS X in response to user feedback.

Other surprises include the ability to Zip compress any file in the Finder without having to go to a separate application, the inclusion of Finder-style sidebars in all Open and Save dialog boxes, the new Font Book application (which I've only just begun to play with), much more sophisticated DVD playback controls (most of which I'll never actually use)--heck, even the Chess game has been enhanced with new appearance options (unfortunately, they haven't made it any easier to beat!).

A Must-Have Upgrade?

So is Panther the must-have upgrade that Apple is touting it to be? I must confess, I'm beginning to think it is. If you're still using 10.0 or 10.1, it's definitely a must-have upgrade, since those iterations of OS X were, in my opinion, somewhat incomplete. Jaguar users may have a harder time deciding to fork over yet another 129 bucks, but the more I work with Panther, the more convinced I am that it's worth every penny.

As upgrades go, Jaguar was a must-have because it was really the first version of OS X that was completely functional. Panther, on the other hand, takes OS X to a level of elegance and usefulness that I haven't seen in any other computer operating system to date. Using Panther, I'm beginning to feel like I did in the heady days when I first started using a Mac--a time when the Mac OS was so clearly superior to Windows 3.1 that the only edge PC users could claim was that their computers were cheaper and in more widespread use. Over the years, as we waited seemingly forever for Copeland and Gershwin to appear, the Mac's superiority became less obvious and more difficult to point out. But with Panther, we Mac users once again have a showpiece operating system: one which seems to anticipate the user's needs, and which accomplishes its tasks with elegance, simplicity, speed, and just a little bit of graphical panache. With Panther, OS X is not just about eye-candy anymore; it's about getting stuff done, and doing it with style.

In short, Panther is a pleasure to use, and I have no doubt that the more I explore, the more pleasant surprises this cat will have in store for me.

David Lang is CMUG's Content Editor. David works as a developer of Accordance Bible Software, and lives in Maitland, Florida with his wife and four children.