Taming Mac OS X

As the deadline looms for the transition to the new operating system, here are some helpful hints for making the switch as effortless as possible

Most longtime users of Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh machines know their way around its venerable operating system, OS 9, pretty well.

But if they've purchased a new Mac or boldly installed OS X on an existing machine, they find themselves facing an almost completely alien computing environment.

For OS 9 users who have avoided making the transition, the day of reckoning is fast approaching. Until recently, most Mac users who had switched to the graphically appealing, much more stable OS X were the “early adopters” and “power users” like myself who feel compelled to have the latest thing.

Of the estimated 25 million Mac users in the world, only about 20 percent have moved to Mac OS X, according to Apple. The other 80 percent still are using some version of the original Mac operating system, the final version of which was Mac OS 9.

Apple, based in Cupertino, Calif., says the transition is on schedule, but most folks have no desire to change their operating system; some of it is inertia, some of it is fear: “If it ain't broke ... .”

But Apple's campaign to push OS 9 users over to OS X has grown more intense in the past year. Last January, it made OS X the default operating system on new Macs; in May CEO Steve Jobs declared OS 9 “dead” to developers; in September Apple said that Mac models introduced or upgraded in 2003 only would boot OS X.

Many OS 9 users fear upgrading because they know that when something does go awry in OS X, all their years of Mac experience will be almost useless.

They're right. Fortunately, a few tips I have gleaned from 16 months of using OS X should help hesitant OS 9 users become more comfortable with the new system.

First, a few troubleshooting tips from OS 9 still hold true:

  • Always check the last thing you've changed in your system to see if it is the cause of the problem. If it's hardware, disconnect it and remove the driver. If it's software, uninstall it. If the problem disappears, you've narrowed the issue down to the new item and can call Apple's tech support line for help.

  • You still can zap the PRAM -- parameter random access memory, where certain system preferences are stored -- by holding down the Command-Option-P-R keys simultaneously at boot. While this usually was recommended with OS 9, it is unclear how effective this works in OS X.

  • If one application is misbehaving, trashing the preferences still works. The difference in OS X is that the preference files are no longer stored together in the same folder.

    Most, however, are in the preferences folder buried in the library folder in your users folder. The path: Macintosh HD/Users/yourname/Library/Preferences. A detailed explanation with illustrations of where to find an application's preferences may be found in the Tutorial archives of the Creative Mac Web site.

    Beyond those procedures, troubleshooting and maintaining OS X is all new territory.

    The good news is, however, that less goes wrong in OS X; system crashes are rare, and usually are caused by hardware issues.

    If Mac OS X becomes unresponsive, it could be that one program has locked up. In OS 9, this meant rebooting, but in OS X you can force-quit the offending program without causing general system problems.

    To bring up a menu of running programs, hold down the Command-Option-Escape keys simultaneously. Select the troubled program from the list -- often the unresponsive program will be highlighted in red -- and click on the “Force Quit” button.

    But the worst scenario in OS X is a “kernel panic,” a total system crash. When this happens, the Mac's screen dims and a multi-lingual message appears instructing you to restart the computer. It's the equivalent of OS 9's "System Bomb" message.

    The difference is that kernel panics are not normal and usually indicate a hardware incompatibility -- often a memory chip not up to OS X's standards. As always, first check the latest change or addition you've made to your system.

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