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First Impressions of Mac OS X


I had been thinking about getting a laptop for some time but a Microsoft OS was not an option so I had settled on the idea of an x86 machine running Debian (my webserver runs on a Debian box to which I have shell access). Then I found myself at the UKUUG Winter Conference where people were plugging in cool looking Apple laptops to do their presentations and after talking to some of them I was convinced. Before this I was only dimly aware of Mac OS X and did not realise the significance of what Apple had gone and done. Anyway, the upshot is that about three weeks ago I took delivery of a 12" 900MHz iBook with combo-drive, 640MB of memory and an Airport card. I had already bought "Mac OS X in a Nutshell" and "Mac OS X for Unix Geeks" from O'Reilly and done some homework, but having almost no previous Mac experience it has been a steep learning curve. Now I am starting to get the hang of the GUI stuff and Darwin is reassuringly similar in many ways to Solaris which has been my primary OS for years. So here is a brief summary of what I have done with it so far.

First task was basic setup so I switched on and followed the prompts. It only asked for the first two of the three "software restore" CDs. I entered registration details when asked but said that I would connect to the Internet later. Set up the main account which gets uid 501 and admin privilege. When I found myself logged in I turned off auto-login and then set up network connection.

I have a Draytek Vigor 2600We wireless ADSL router running at home so no mucking about with modem settings. First I plugged the iBook in to the router with an Ethernet cable and set a "home" location to use Ethernet with DHCP which worked fine. Wireless was a little more tricky as the iBook said it couldn't see any networks. Turned out that the hub has to be broadcasting its SSID for this to work - otherwise just choose to connect to a named AirPort network and give the SSID as the name (later I set a "work" location so now I can switch easily between the two and get wired or wireless connections at home or work).

At this point I logged out and then logged back in, only to be told I had not set up my computer to connect to the Internet - despite the fact that I was clearly connected. I had to confirm my registration details and say that I had already set up my connection at which point the registration was presumably sent to Apple. Next time I took the iBook to work I made use of our fast Janet link to get software updates which took me up from 10.2.4 to 10.2.6 quite painlessly. I then looked at some of the preferences panes and did things like activate the firewall.

Next I opened the Terminal application and started looking at some Unix stuff - what about cron jobs? There are no /var/cron/tabs but cron(8) also looks at /etc/crontab which calls periodic(8) to run daily, weekly and monthly tasks. Since the machine is not normally on in the middle of the night it is a good idea to run them manually using sudo. By default this would try to send email so I modified /etc/periodic.conf to log to files instead. One thing the daily job does is to back up the netinfo database which could prove useful if it gets corrupted.

So what next? Well a good way to get familiar with a system is to set up an MTA - I had tried sending a local email to myself and as expected it got stuck in the queue because there was no MTA running. Sendmail is installed and getting it to start at boot should just be a case of editing the MAILSERVER line in /etc/hostconfig but things are not always so simple and sendmail refused to start. Found something on Google - "O'Reilly Network: Configuring sendmail on Jaguar". Basically Apple have mucked about with permissions on directories and sendmail has issues with this - it will only run if you set dont_blame_sendmail in its config file. To do that requires editing the default and running it through m4, but where is m4? Turns out that it comes with developer tools but where are they? I didn't have a developer tools CD so I thought I would have to download them from Apple but then I found them on the hard disk as an uninstalled package so I just had to install it. That then allowed me to build a new and voila! Doesn't make much sense for me to be running sendmail on my laptop though so I disabled it again.

Next I did a bit more system configuration. In directory access I disabled everything in services and set both authentication and contacts to use local directory. In netinfo manager I changed my shell to bash and added entries for my frequently used hosts. In finder preferences I went to languages and set it to only search in English. This should speed up searches and applies when creating a content index of a drive too. Edited HOSTNAME in /etc/hostconfig and changed rendezvous name in sharing preferences pane. In date and time preferences I enabled network time server which started up ntpd.

Email was not a priority because I use mutt on my Debian server but I did want to sort out a nice web browser. At work I use lynx on a Solaris box but there I have IE on a PC to fall back on. Lynx is a great browser but I need a graphical one too so I downloaded Safari public beta 2 and started playing with it. I ran into a problem straight away when I went to my Internet banking site - it seems like there is a problem with Java in Jaguar. There is a highly relevant "workaround for secure java applet problem" at the macosxhints website which I have not yet tried. There is also a problem working with the web configuration interface on my Draytek router where pages are not refreshed properly, but neither of these problems was specific to Safari so I set it as my default browser and chucked IE in the bit bucket. I found "Safari Enhancer" on versiontracker and used it to enable the Safari debug menu which I then used to try various settings for dealing with certificates but this did not solve the Internet banking problem. Viewing a local directory using Safari I was surprised when it just handed over to the finder, but then that is what the finder is for so I guess it is pretty logical design.

Once I reached this point I felt pretty happy with my purchase. Apart from Internet banking I can now do what I need from home. The machine seems plenty fast enough and is impressively quiet. CDs and DVDs play OK and Internet radio is great over broadband (access using iTunes) but I have not tried CD burning. Feeling more confident with the trackpad I sped up the motion and enabled clicking and dragging. I still might buy a mouse but the trackpad is better than I expected. The 12 inch screen is a bit small for extended use and I am tempted to buy a 17 inch flat panel for home. The machine does get quite warm and I will look at buying or making a stand to let air flow under it. Currently I rsync some important stuff up to my Debian machine but I must think seriously about backups (a USB memory stick is on the shopping list and possibly a FireWire hard drive). I like to keep up to date so I will probably buy Panther soon after it is released.

Finally, just a quick note about some OS X applications. I have already mentioned iTunes but have not done much with it yet. What I have played with are the addressbook, iCal and OS X mail. I gathered together my contact information from various ASCII files and set about entering it all into the addressbook which I think is great. Information is held in a database for quick searching etc, but as well as backing up the database you can also select all entries and export them to an ASCII file in vCard format which is the standard for exchange of contact information. Just two complaints. When you have multiple phone numbers for someone and you export their vCard you can see that the first number is marked as the preferred one but there doesn't seem to be an easy way in the GUI to change the order. Second complaint is about entering birthdays - normally I don't know the year but if you don't enter one it uses the current year - does this mean resorting to the old trick of using a date like 1900 to stand for unknown? This leads me on to iCal where I was half expecting to be able to see birthdays of people from my address book but that seems not to be the case. What I do like is being able to export all events to an ASCII file, again in a standard format. The only problem with OS X mail was that running it for the first time there was no way to specify SSL for an IMAP mailbox which meant it could not connect, but all I had to do was edit the email account and go to the advanced tab to fix it. Anyway, the apps which come with Jaguar seem pretty good and I expect them to be better in Panther.

Congratulations if you managed to stay with me through all that detail, I just hope you may have picked up something useful. Now to get on with actually using my system. Ian Gregory 2010