Wall Writings – My Mac Magazine #46, Feb. ’99

Hello there, fellow Mac users! With a wildly successful Macworld Expo behind us, some wonderful new products in front of us, and a bright future ahead of us, it’s a good time to be a fan of the Mac platform. But I’ll leave analysis of the Expo and things of that nature to the experts, and instead turn my head to what I’ve come up with on my own Mac in the last month or so. Enjoy!

A New Computer for Under $100?
Or so Apple’s ad campaign for Mac OS 8.5 says. While I’m not sure I’d go that far, the new release of the operating system is a great one. Rare stories of data corruption were just enough to keep me wary of upgrading during the first semester this year (the last thing I need was a wiped out hard drive just before finals week!), so my Mac OS 8.5 CD sat on my bookshelf untouched for about a month. But over Christmas break, with the first semester over and the second one not yet started, I felt it was safe for me to install the upgrade. It turns out that I needn’t have worried; installation went on without a hitch, even though I didn’t do a clean install like some users were recommending. I haven’t had any problems at all, and my computer overall seems a lot more stable than before. OS 8.5 is a great release, and reports of problems were probably overhyped.

After the installation, I took note of all the new features of the new OS, and wow, was I impressed. Of course, the new release already has been covered thoroughly by the media–including My Mac–so I’m not going to re-list all of the new features here. I will say, though, that Mac OS 8.5.1 (you have downloaded the update, haven’t you?) feels like Mac OS 8.1 done right. And that’s not saying that 8.1 was a bad release, because it was outstanding in its own right, but it seems as if this is what Apple had in mind all along, and 8.1 was just there to whet our appetites.

Mac OS 8.5.1 is so good, that I’m not even too concerned about the whole Mac OS X issue anymore. Apple has only promised that OS X will run on stock G3 systems, not necessarily older Macs with G3 upgrade cards installed. That, of course, includes my PowerBook 1400 with a NUpowr upgrade card. I used to be worried that I would be missing out on the latest and greatest if OS X ends up not supporting my machine, but with Mac OS 8.5 showing the maturity that it does, and with OS 8.6 still to come before OS X is released, I’m positive that I can run 8.x on my machine until I can afford to buy a true G3 and run OS X on it, and still be perfectly happy. It’s hard to keep me happy if I can’t have the most recent release of all of my software, so that’s hard evidence right there that Apple has scored big with Mac OS 8.5. Bring on 8.6!

A New Favorite Browser… Again!
Ah, the irony of timing… Just as our January issue was being put online last month–you know, the one where I mention Netscape Communicator 4.5 as being my favorite browser suite–Microsoft announces Internet Explorer and Outlook Express 4.5 during the Macworld Expo. I downloaded the combo at the first chance I had, and after trying it out for a couple of days, I fell in love with the software. The cyber-ink had hardly dried on my column last month before it was rendered false and outdated. I’ve got to admit, when Microsoft wants to, it can make GOOD Mac software.

Just as Netscape was starting to catch up to Explorer in terms of features, Explorer again raised the bar. For starters, Microsoft added the easy drag-and-drop installation and auto-repair features that were praised in Mac Office 98 (and the opening splash screens now feature the puzzle-piece look of the Office applications! ) Full adoption of Mac OS 8.5 features, such as smart scrolling, is also present. In fact, Microsoft even uses 8.5 technology to beat one of Netscape’s prime features. In answer to Netscape’s Smart Browsing button, which looks at the website that you’re currently browsing and searches the Web for similar sites, Microsoft incorporates Apple’s Sherlock search engine to do the same thing. This features also allows Sherlock to summarize a web page to the clipboard, and you can open Sherlock directly if you can’t find what you’re looking for.

Additionally, MIE 4.5 adds another pane to its tabbed side window, which already allows easy access to favorites, history, and search engines. The new option allows you to hold a page with a lot of links in that window, so you can easily refer to them while surfing in the main browser window. (For example, you do a search at Yahoo!, choose one of the results, and follow a couple of links until you realize that you aren’t finding what you’re looking for. Normally, you’d have to hit the “Back” button on your browser several times to reach the Search Results page again, and then repeat the process. Again and again and again. But with the new version of Explorer, all of the links on that Search Results page can be held in the Page Holder tab, eliminating this tedious task. Sheer brilliance! Why hasn’t anybody thought of this before?

The AutoFill option is another godsend for me. Using this feature, you can enter your personal information into a preferences dialog, and Explorer will remember all of the info. Now, when you find yourself having to fill out a form on a web page, you can just click the AutoFill button on the tool bar, and all of the information will be put in the appropriate spots. This is a real time saving feature for someone like me, who does a lot of shopping, completing software registrations, and filling out mailing list sign-ups on the web.

There are a couple of gripes with Explorer 4.5, but they are minimal. The “Add to Favorites” button is gone on the toolbar; it’s seemingly been replaced with a useful History button for quick access to your History file, but I really miss the ability to add a site to my Favorites listing without going up to a menu or the tabbed window. The installer installs an outdated version of the QuickTime plug-in; luckily, I had a spare copy of the QT 3.0 plug-in in my QuickTime folder, so it wasn’t too much of a hassle for me. Finally, just in case a novice user can’t figure out that hitting the return key after you’ve typed a URL will take you to that URL, Microsoft has added a big “GO” button on the address bar, right next to the Sherlock button. A nice gesture for novices, I guess, but I would like the option to get rid of it. I don’t need it, it takes up space on my tool bar, and in my opinion, it’s ugly.

Outlook Express has also been updated to version 4.5, although I haven’t noticed as many new features in it. Support for Mac OS 8.5 is present, just as in Explorer, and there are a few interface enhancements (such as a new column with icons showing the status of the message-read, unread, replied, forwarded, etc.), but as far as I can tell, the new version isn’t updated nearly as much as Explorer. However, Outlook Express was already a pretty solid email client, so I’m not complaining too loudly.

Microsoft’s other big recent “innovation” was the opening of the MacTopia area of their website, at http://www.microsoft.com/mac. In reality, it’s simply a redesign of their existing Mac site, and although it does do a few nice things, such as offer top industry new headlines and Apple-specific headlines, it’s not going to replace MacInTouch http://www.macintouch.com or MacCentral http://www.maccentral.com as my choice for daily Apple news. In fact, I don’t plan on visiting it again until I need to download a new version of Explorer. I guess you can call it a nice gesture towards Mac users, but I prefer to take the skeptical point of view that’s it’s really just a PR move.

So, Microsoft, please don’t wow me with fancy designs and a new name for the Mac portion of your site, just keep giving me quality software like Internet Explorer and Outlook Express. I’m not a big fan of you as a company, but like I said earlier, you sure can make good Mac software when you want to.

Long winded? Me?
I didn’t mean to take so much room talking about Internet Explorer this month, but I did, so there’s not much room for anything else this month. So, next month I’ll take a look at some of the other things I meant to mention this month, most notably Apple’s Speakable Items and Insider Software’s Update Agent Online. Until then, happy Mac-ing!

Mike Wallinga

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