Panther: A Look at Mac on Its 20th Birthday

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 11:10 PM

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the Apple Macintosh computer. While the original Mac is certainly meager by today's standards, there are few that would argue against its revolutionary status in the early years of personal computing. In commemoration of that event, today also marks the launch of OfB MacFor.Biz, the new section of Open for Business that will cover the Mac in much the same way OfB covers GNU/Linux and BSD. In this premier piece, we will examine the latest Mac OS X, 10.3 “Panther,” on two separate generations of Macintosh systems.

Update: Improved OpenGL benchmark results included below.

For the purposes of this review, we tested Mac OS X 10.3 on two systems, an Apple iMac G3 operating at 400 MHz (the Summer 2000 variant) and a new Apple PowerMac G5 with two 2 GHz processors. The former system is equipped with 128 megs of SDRAM and the latter equipped with 1.5 gigs of PC3200 DDR SDRAM. The G5 came preloaded with Panther, whereas the iMac was initially running Mac OS 9.0.4 and was upgraded to Mac OS X 10.2 (Jaguar) before being upgraded to 10.3. These test systems were selected to represent the low and high-end options for deploying Panther.

It must first be said that Mac OS X Jaguar was an excellent operating system in all respects. Apple clearly was given a tall order in planning a successor to Jaguar. Jaguar is reasonably fast, very easy to use, and contains an excellent suite of software. From the perspective of a GNU/Linux administrator, Mac OS X has a lot to offer - it takes a very similar type of foundation (based on BSD4.4-Lite) and tops it with a unique, easy-to-use and beautiful GUI.

It also offers a lot of the tools those experienced in GNU/Linux, or other UNIX administration, are familiar with. Pine, pico, emacs, gcc and lots of other useful command line applications are preinstalled. SSH is also included, which is helpful in working with remote GNU/Linux or Mac OS systems. On top of all that is a user interface that users will love if they give it enough time (initially, Mac OS X may be a more difficult adjustment than Mandrake Linux when moving from Windows, since Apple has a substantially different philosophy on GUI design).

In heterogeneous environments, Mac OS X fits in very comfortably with GNU/Linux and Windows systems. Like most modern GNU/Linux distributions, Mac OS X uses SAMBA for Windows file sharing and CUPS for printing. As such, it was an effortless matter to access both Windows and GNU/Linux shares from Mac OS X. We were also extremely pleased to find our printer, attached to a Mandrake Linux 9.1 system, was automatically added to available printers in Mac OS X without any configuration. CUPS, the Common Unix Printing System, is just as brilliant in Mac OS X as in GNU/Linux, and makes it very easy to share printers between most UNIX-like systems, including other Mac OS X and GNU/Linux boxes.

Likewise, SMB access between GNU/Linux and Mac OS X worked flawlessly in both directions (i.e. sharing to and from Mac OS X systems). We appreciated Mac OS X's network sharing dialog box that, among other things, keeps a list of “favorite servers.” Mounted network shares are placed on the desktop along side local disks, and are available completely transparently to applications.

If you've already deployed Mac OS X systems, you are probably still wondering when we are going to talk about why you should upgrade to Panther. That's a more difficult subject. Panther, as Apple notes, “includes 150 new features.” However, most of them are - honestly - not important enough to justify a $129 license per seat if you already have Jaguar. That's not to say that Panther isn't worth serious consideration; with Exposé and a measurable performance increase (in our tests), we found it difficult to move back to Jaguar after using Panther.

Exposé, is one of the most brilliant little tweaks to a UI that we've encountered in years. Exposé is a fairly simple concept for a serious problem: if you take advantage of the modern computer operating system's ability for multitasking, you'll quickly end up with a large pile of windows and must either look on the taskbar/dock for them, or use Alt+Tab to cycle through the huge list of programs to get back to what you need to access. This can be a serious pain that slows down productivity, especially if you have a lot of windows from the same application open (say a web browser or photo editing program).

With Exposé, the remedy is amazingly elegant. If you want to see all of the open windows at once, just press “F9” on your keyboard, and the windows will zoom out so that you can see tiny versions of each window. Click the one you want, and presto, everything goes back to full size. That's nice if you're running one or two windows in each application, but what if you have ten web pages loaded at once? Then, just press “F10” and only the current application's windows will zoom out; everything else will be grayed out, allowing you to focus on the windows you are interested in. Finally, “F11” allows you to move all the windows off to the outer edges of the screen, providing easy access to the desktop. You can also setup “hot corners” on the screen, if you would prefer that rather than using function keys.

After spending some time with Exposé, I found it difficult to be without it. When back at my primary desktop, a GNU/Linux system with the GNOME 2.4 desktop environment, I found myself pressing F9 to no avail. Is Exposé, by itself, worth $129? Probably not, but it might be for some users. It is, to be sure, a major addition to Mac OS X, and makes usage of the same a lot more productive.

Another feature that is nice to see is the inclusion of Apple's enhanced version of XFree86 4.3.0 for Mac OS X. Apple's X11, like the one provided by the XFree86 project, is rootless (that is, the windows are mixed in with normal OS X windows, or it can be placed on a separate virtual screen and accessed by hotkey. Apple's X11 can auto launch when you run an X11 application, provides a menu that you can place frequently used applications in, and runs blazingly fast. On the 2 GHz G5, with the included Radeon 9800 Pro video card, we got approximately 6,500 frames per second (fps) when we used the standard OpenGL test application included in XFree86 (glxgears). To put this into a frame of reference, a Pentium 4-HT 2.6 GHz system running Intel Extreme Graphics 2 outputs around 1,500 fps and a standard Pentium 4 2.66 GHz system with an ATI Radeon 9700 provides around 3,500 fps. The iMac G3 was able to do 300 fps under Panther, a small gain over its performance in Jaguar. This is by no means a scientific way of testing, but it should allay fears that an X server placed on top of Apple's GUI will cause X11 applications to run too slow for usage.

Update: We reran glxgears using the “highest” performance setting on the G5 (the same mode we used for load tests), rather than “automatic,” and it boosted the frames per second by approximately 260, providing 6,760. This makes the result even more impressive than before and also emphasizes the importance of switching to the “highest” performance mode when you need to utilize all of the power available from the PowerMac G5.

One of Mac OS X's other big new features is Fast User Switching. Much like how it works in Windows XP and some GNU/Linux distributions, this facilitates easy switching between users while your applications continue to run. Except for the pure enjoyment of watching the desktop spin around in 3D, this probably is not terribly necessary in most offices, however, if your office has any computers that are shared by multiple users, this could come in handy.

Two other features we found notable additions are FileVault and a journaling file system, features that deal with different types of data security. FileVault does behind-the-scenes encryption of your entire home directory, making it secure from intruders (just don't lose the password). Apple does include a way to specify a system wide master password, thus administrators need not fear that absent minded users will lock themselves permanently out of their home directories. FileVault is especially useful on laptops, but is also useful on desktop systems. The addition of a journaling version of the Mac OS X file system is also a welcome addition that has been previously only available on Mac OS X Server. As with journaling file systems on GNU/Linux and other UNIX systems, Mac OS X's file system takes proactive action against data corruption by keeping a log, or journal, of modifications to your data.

Panther also gained the inclusion of the Safari web browser. Safari, which was first previewed last January, is an excellent little web browser that is based on the KDE Project's KHTML engine (the core of Konqueror's web browsing functionality). We found Apple's patches to KHTML made it work slightly better than what we experienced using Konqueror in KDE 3.1. While not perfect, Safari is quite suitable for most users' web browsing needs. Its interface is simple, easy to use, and includes a handy Google search box next to the address box. Oddly enough, however, we found that Darwin Streaming Server (the Free Software variant of Apple's QuickTime Streaming Server) was impossible to administer using Safari. Its otherwise well designed web interface had some display problems, especially when arranging media play lists, and we were forced to use the Mozilla web browser for Mac OS X to finish setting up DSS.

While not included on the CD, DSS is another highly useful program for Mac OS X. Using its graphical setup tool required almost no effort to setup this fairly complex server software. While QuickTime Streaming Server is included in Mac OS X Server, installing DSS on standard Mac OS X may be a good solution if you need just a basic streaming media server.

Panther is also very easy to install over existing versions of Mac OS X. On the aforementioned iMac G3, we installed Mac OS X Panther (10.3) on top of 10.2.8, the most recent version of Jaguar. The installation took a bit longer than the initial Jaguar installation, clocking in at about one hour and thirty minutes, but there was only minimal attention required (in the form of swapping CD's every-so-often) and the system did not suffer from upgrade induced issues like those Windows desktops and some GNU/Linux distributions encounter.

We tested boot and load times of various applications both before and after installing Panther on the iMac and did notice a small, but noticeable increase in speed on any activity that required substantial hard disk activity. Some of those results are included below in the form of a chart. While these increases in speed aren't huge, they did make an older system feel more responsive. It is to Apple's credit that new versions of Mac OS X continue to improve the performance of not only newer systems, but also older ones (while our test box was a 2000 model, the iMac DV G3 400 first appeared a year earlier, making this system really somewhere between 4 and 5 years old). With an upgrade of the RAM beyond the included 128 megs, the bare minimum for Mac OS X, the iMac G3 will continue to be a great, productive system for years to come.

I could write several more pages on the functionality of Mac OS X 10.3 and still not cover everything in it. While it lacks a built in productivity suite (or a kitchen sink), pretty much all of the other basic software both home and office users might need is built in, much like a GNU/Linux desktop. The question, then, is, when should you choose Mac OS X 10.3 over GNU/Linux?

A lot of this has to do with your needs. It is my opinion that Mac OS X offers the single best-integrated user interface available. It is a joy to use and does everything most users could want and more. But, it does cost more: while you can migrate Windows systems to GNU/Linux with only minimal cost, it takes replacing all of your legacy systems to move to Mac OS X. eMacs are a fairly reasonable bargain, but for companies desiring towers rather than all-in-one systems, the price could quickly grow to $1,500 or more per seat.

Which way you go depends greatly on what you need. For offices using computers mostly as glorified typewriters, as well as Internet access clients, there really isn't any reason not to go with a lower cost GNU/Linux solution. For the most part, Mac OS X is the best choice if your organization requires creative software — the included iTools being a nice starting place — or a specific proprietary package that cannot be replaced with an open alternative but is available for Macintosh. Mac OS X is also a good choice if you feel uncomfortable, for whatever reason, deploying a GNU/Linux solution, since it offers similar benefits with its UNIX core in addition to the familiarity of Mac OS.

If you are planning to replace your hardware in the coming months, Mac OS X looks even more attractive. Quite frankly, now that Darwin fits the Free Software definition, we can truthfully say that it offers approximately the same amount of freedom as proprietarized GNU/Linux distributions such as Lindows OS and Xandros Desktop, but with more commercial support and larger market share than either of those second tier GNU/Linux distributions.
Considering its peaceful co-existence with GNU/Linux systems, it may even make sense to deploy both to users, choosing the best system for each user's needs. This allows a best of both worlds approach that minimizes costs of deployment while insuring that each user has access to all of the applications they need.

Let there be no doubt: Mac OS X is a robust, user-friendly UNIX-like desktop. While it may not be the only choice for many types of deployments, it certainly is hard to imagine how you would go wrong with it. The big black cat means business.

Performance Test Results Graphs

Summary of Mac OS X 10.3 “Panther”

Functionality:</ td>
User Interface:
Total Cost of Ownership:

UPSIDE: Apple's fourth major release of Mac OS X offers many great new features, such as Exposé, as well as a noticeable speed boost over Jaguar. While the upgrade might not be right for all Jaguar users, there has never been a better time to jump from Mac OS Classic. Panther's inclusion of XFree86 in the box makes it a convenient choice for those who need graphical UNIX functionality, but want the benefits of Mac OS X as well ($129,

Mandrake Linux 9.2, SuSE Linux 9 and Fedora Core 1

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. You can reach him at tbutler@uninetsolutions. com.