Mac OS X In A Nutshell
Book Review

Mac OS X In A Nutshell
Jason McIntosh, Chuck Toporek & Chris Stone

ISBN 0-596-00370-6
US $34.95 CAN $54.95
768 pages, not including index

The nutshell series of books from O’Reilly is well known to the Unix crowd, and so it is with a certain degree of satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment that we now have Mac OS X In A Nutshell. It’s as if we are assured that Mac OS X is not only here to stay, but is here to be explored, worthy of mastery, and willing to make itself a useful and productive part of your computing environment.

In honor of this “achievement” I think it fitting that I should be writing this review using OpenOffice, (a Microsoft Office-wanna-be suite of apps but at an affordable price) running in Apple’s beta X11 environment, rather than MS Word or Apple Works. In addition, the software is not actually installed on this iMac, but rather on a remote iMac that happens to have the software installed as well as a VNC (Virtual Network Console) server that allows me to take full control of the system from a distance. I’m listening to my iTunes library as it streams from that remote system running a free mp3 server. The actual steps to doing these types of gymnastics have been available for Unix systems for some time, but not until Mac OS X came on the scene, have they entered the realm of one-click installations with GUI (Graphical User Interface) controls and preferences.

Although there are a few stalwart Mac aficionados who are still not satisfied with Mac OS X, based on a rigid comparison between known, pre-existing features in the classic Mac OS, they are missing the fact that the rest of us have moved from a 12 room up-scale home into a 70 room bona-fide mansion, and there’s a lot of Ônew stuff’ here that wants exploring and which offers more goodies than Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory! If you are an experienced Mac user, or a recent switcher from the Ôdark side’ who is prone to getting under the hood of the operating system, this book is written with you in mind. If you are a developer, administrator, or webmaster, you need this book within arms reach.

The nutshell books are primarily quick reference books covering technical issues and capabilities in detail, but without getting too far from the essence of the subject. This book won’t suggest a lot of 3rd party work-arounds or hacks to solve unique situations. It will suggest proper methods or warn you of some unexpected quirks that could sneak up on you. Perhaps you had been familiar with Mac file sharing, and knew that stopping a file share server would send a warning to the other users. Here you will be warned that Mac OS X, at least up through Jaguar, doesn’t warn anyone except the administrator. Bad things can happen when users are in the process of working with shared files and the server suddenly disappears!

Though you won’t find a lot of suggestions for 3rd party products, you will find some and they are mostly freebies that no serious user wants to be without, and most of them simplify your job by giving a GUI interface to access some of the real but hidden features of Mac OS X. One of these would be Tinker Tool, p187, a nifty little brainchild of Marcel Bresnick, that is considered in the top 3 must-have accessories in every power-user’s top 10 list.

“What if I already own Mac OS X, The Missing Manual, you ask? Tremendous! If you are a poweruser, than you are half-way home. Combined with the more terse, but more exhaustive components in Mac OS X In A Nutshell, you will have the depth and coverage to fill out the knowledge gained from The Missing Manual.

The 25 chapters are divided into 5 main sections and one appendix. The book covers Mac OS X client in detail; it does not cover Mac OS X Server at all. Section I orients the reader, depending upon their personal background and knowledge to how Mac OS X differs from, and where it is similar to, the classic Mac OS. The Task and Settings index is a tremendous resource; just look up the task you want to perform, and the menu path to control the settings is displayed for you. There are over 250 such tasks noted with the steps to accomplishing them, and reminds me of Adam Engst’s Crossing Platforms book written in a task oriented metaphor for Mac and Windows users attempting to get work done in the foreign OS.

Section II dives into the System itself, reviewing each System Preference, the core applications, including the iLife apps, networking, printing, managing files, and working in Java. The chapter on networking supports the theory that it’s wise to be paranoid when it comes to security! “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not really out to get you” as the saying goes, means that you will want to take closer look at the underlying methods to use secure protocols when sending authentication logins over the Internet (page 224). One of the least understood areas for most users is printing, and the alternate interfaces available. Power users who spend a fair amount of time in the realm of publishing will definitely want to study this in detail, learning the command-line tools when all else fails.

Where section II gets into the networking and sharing mechanisms in the system, Section III gets deeply into the core of the networking administration services; namely, the NetInfo database. This is one of the most strategic and important parts of the operating system, yet it has probably the poorest built-in tool set for managing it through a GUI, therefore, understanding this set of services is critical to the administrator of multiple Macs on a network.

Section IV covers the Developer Tools, included with each distribution of Mac OS X since the beta offering. This won’t teach you to write programs, but it will familiarize the programmer with what’s already available in Mac OS X, what the purposes of each tool are, and what resources are available to acquire additional tools and/or documentation. Since Apple added CVS (Concurrent Versions System) support with the Jaguar Developer Tools, this section details every command available at this time; it also covers every emacs shortcut and command to bring the developer as quickly as possible up to speed when working in Mac OS X. It’s the best and most concise treatment of emacs I’ve seen thus far, and my copy is already dropping open at that spot.

While a lot of the previous sections expand on the advanced features available from the command line, Section V covers the parts of Mac OS X that form the chapters of most other Unix reference books: the Terminal, grep (pattern matching), shells and shell scripting, and the X Windows system. It should give a Unix power user cause for reflection that a book of this kind can and should put off discussion of the terminal and the basic CLI (Command Line Interface; i.e. the to chapter 19 in a 25-chapter text. I think it is appropriate, particularly for the intended audience: the power user who isn’t particularly wedded to the CLI and will if a better method exists to configure and manage services, use it. Nevertheless, nearly every Unix user I know has a handy desk reference designed for each flavor of Unix they handle, covering every single available command. 220 pages of this book are enclosed in chapter 25 and aptly called Unix Command Reference. At this time it is the most complete and thorough compilation of every one of Mac OS X’s Unix commands to be found anywhere. You won’t find this level of information in any other book, on any number of web sites, and certainly not within the man pages.

There is a brief appendix, really a listing in topical format of web resources with their URLs, that winds up this excellent and much needed reference for Mac OS X. It’s really a no-brainer as to whether you need this book. If you spend a significant portion of each day using Mac OS X and have found you cannot get by without frequent use of the Terminal and system utilities such as the Console, the Network Utility, or the NetInfo Manager, this book can be a very handy resource and save a lot of searching through Apple’s support site or various Mac OS X geek sites for tips, in-depth explanations or how-tos.

MacMice Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Jeffrey McPheeters

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