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Panther Delights

by David Miller
12/09/2003

Author's note: If you're looking for the final straw to convince you to upgrade to Panther, this article is certainly not it. This article will not make you a more knowledgeable Mac user. It will not teach you hidden secrets of OS X, and it will not increase your productivity. But maybe it will help you appreciate some of the refinements that Apple has included in Panther, its latest major release of Mac OS X. After all, aren't those extra touches what we've come to expect from Apple?

On its page for Panther, Apple boasts of "150 innovative new features" available in Panther. Those who have been using Panther since its release have certainly noticed at least some of the functional improvements (such as integrated faxing and increased security), while readers of Mac DevCenter who haven't already upgraded to Panther might have already read James Duncan Davidson's article titled "Top 10 Things I Dig About Panther", in which he outlines his favourite 10 11 of the 150 new features in Panther. However, none of that "improved functionality" stuff will be mentioned here. As Mac users, we've come to expect the very best from our pal with the blue smiley face (whether he's housed in candy-coloured plastic or brushed metal). And with that high expectation comes the eye candy that OS X is famous for, for better or for worse.

Related Reading

Mac OS X: The Missing Manual, Panther Edition
By David Pogue

In this article I'll pay tribute to some of the features of OS X that have been revamped in Panther. These "improvements" will not be of the kind that finally convinces you to upgrade. In fact, you might even consider them to be frivolous, as the "improvements" listed here are almost purely aesthetic. But this list is what separates Apple from the rest of the pack; no other company puts more spit and polish into its products than Apple, and with Panther it really shows. It's like buying a new car and discovering a cup holder tucked away in the dash; it's a nice feature, but you bought the car for other reasons (I hope).

So I kicked the tires, took Panther for a spin around the block, and decided to take the plunge. And after breaking her in for a couple weeks and finding out what's under the hood, the following is a list of my favourite cup holders in OS X 10.3 (in no particular order). If there's something in Panther that you think should be included on this list, post it in the TalkBacks at the end of the article, and let's see how long a list we can make.

#1. System Authentication Button

Authentication One of the first things you might notice when opening the System Preferences application is the new lock that sits in the bottom-left corner of the administration panes. It's now much easier to see from a glance whether the button indicates a locked or unlocked state, and the image of the lock "really ties the window together," as The Dude would say. You might even find yourself inadvertently authenticating and de-authenticating yourself, simply to watch the animation between the two states. (Not that I've done that, or anything.)

It should also be noted that the new authentication button hasn't made its way into other administration applications, such as NetInfo Manager. Whether this happens in the future is anyone's guess. And by anyone, I mean Mr. Jobs.

#2. Help Button

Help button Sprinkled throughout dialog boxes in OS X's applications are little buttons with "?" as the caption. You probably guessed that these are help buttons: if you aren't sure about what you are getting yourself into, you can always click on the button to open the corresponding page in Help Viewer and find out more information before you click another button. While this behaviour isn't specific to Panther, what is new is the colour of all the help buttons: purple. The use of colour on the button emphasizes its unique role, and nicely complements Aqua's existing colour palette.

#3. Tab View

Tab view In an attempt to make the Aqua theme modern, one of its major components is the use of rounded corners in lieu of square corners. Indeed, OS X 10.0's interface seemed much more friendly than OS 9, as it introduced rounded corners on buttons, window title bars, and other elements. You can now add tab-view panes to that list as well. The difference between the old appearance and the new is subtle: the view now sports a slightly recessed appearance, and the tabs have been replaced with interconnected buttons. I find that the new look results in a sleeker appearance than Jaguar's views.

#4. Sheets

Sheet

For users who have spent hours of their lives waiting for the theme-selection dialog in Keynote to appear and disappear whenever they create a new presentation, the new sheet animation in Panther is a blessing. While the new animation in Panther isn't noticeably different from previous versions of the operating system, it is definitely faster. The animation still produces the same effect; it just gets the job done in less time and adds snappiness to an already speedy operating system.

#5. Menu Spacers

Menu spacers make a comeback in Panther.

Present in OS 9 and previous versions of Mac OS, menu spacers were left out of OS X. Instead, Jaguar relied solely on white space to delineate groups of related menu items. Panther brings the spacers back to menus using a single gray line, in addition to the white space, to produce a subtle distinction from Jaguar and its predecessors. While it's a matter of opinion in preferring one to the other, menu spacers are a tip of the hat to Apple's single-digit operating systems.

#6. Preferences Menu Command

The preferences window in all Cocoa applications is now accessible via &quote;Command + ,&quote;

One of the things that Apple succeeded in doing for OS X is creating a standardized structure for menus in Cocoa applications. Windows applications generally share the same sequence of menus ("File", "Edit", etc.), but the contents of those menus is anyone's guess.

Want to change some of the options for your Windows application? You'll have to memorize which menu holds the command (probably "Edit", but sometimes "Tools"), and then you'll have to search through the contents of the menu to find what you're looking for, because it is rarely in a common location. And even then some applications refer to them as "options", and others use "preferences."

Contrast this situation with that of OS X and you'll see how much effort Apple has spent on creating a standard interface (except for the whole brushed-metal thing, but who's counting). Want to change the contents of your toolbar? Click on "View", then "Customize Toolbar..." Want to edit the application preferences? Click on the application menu, and then select the "Preferences" item, which will always be found right below the application group.

While the preferences menu item could always be found in the same place in Jaguar, it didn't always have the same keyboard shortcut; some applications used "Command + ,"; others used "Command + ;"; and some provided no keyboard shortcut at all. As of Panther, Apple seems to have finally decided upon "Command + ," as the standard shortcut to access an application's preferences. I hope the upcoming releases of third-party applications will follow suit. Some applications, such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and Flash, use their own keyboard shortcut, but the applications usually allow users to customize their keyboard shortcuts. Oddly enough, it isn't possible to user Panther's Universal Keyboard Shortcuts to globally define the keyboard shortcut to display an applications' preferences dialog.

Nevertheless, this feature is a huge improvement for those who prefer to keep their fingers on the keyboard as much as possible. But, perhaps more than anything, it's just a nagging loose end that Apple has finally tied up.

#7. Window Texture

Window textures have been re-done in Panther. The first thing you might notice in the switch between the OS X of old and the new is the texture of the windows. The recessed appearance of the widgets in title bars has been slowly making its way into Apple's software. The style was first introduced in Apple's iLife applications, in addition to other applications such as DVD Player, iSync, and Address Book. The much-maligned pin-stripe effect has also been softened to produce a much more subtle effect, and the stripes have been completely removed from the title bar. Being the first change to greet you upon logging onto Panther, these changes are perhaps the most noticeable distinctions between Jaguar and Panther.

#8. Launch-Zoom

The zooming rectangle effect has been replaced with a zooming icon effect.

Previous to OS X, the Finder produced a "zooming rectangle" effect when documents or applications were opened. It was far from pretty, but it got the job done: it's sole mission was to let the user know that the Finder was grinding away. Well, OS X came to town and with Quartz's advanced rendering capabilities, users were treated, until now, with the same "zooming rectangle" effect when opening files from within the Finder.

Panther replaces Jaguar's "zooming rectangle" with the icon of the item that's opening. While it's not a huge difference from the rectangle, it is a little more appealing to the eyes and is out of the way faster, adding to Panther's sense of speed.

#9. Graphic Design

Finder

It seems that every new release of iTunes introduces a different appearance for the playback buttons. Raised above the application window? Sunk? Flush with the window? Who knows what will happen next?

In a similar vein, every major release of OS X brings changes in icons and other visual elements of the operating system. I would love to see the number of new interface graphics created solely for Panther and its included applications--the Apple menu, the Finder, and countless other elements of the operating system--sport a shiny new pixel jacket.

10. System Preferences' Stripes

System Preferences

The System Preferences application has undergone a facelift in each of the last two major revisions to OS X. Jaguar brought the ability to sort the preference panes by alphabetical order and by category (such as "Personal" and "Hardware"). And now Panther introduces another change to the application, only this time it's purely cosmetic: the rows of preferences alternate background colour.

Log Out...

Perfection is in the details. And while OS X is still far from being perfect, Apple is making huge improvements in its flagship software with each release (none of those improvements were touched upon here). But appreciating the cup holders in Panther makes you enjoy the Exposés and FileVaults of Apple's latest release that much more. Happy computing.

David Miller is combining his passions of photography and working on the web at iStockphoto; when not hacking away with a text editor and a few web browsers in hand, he can be seen huddled over his laptop tweaking levels and curves for his freelance photography. Keep track of David's latest projects over at his home on the web.


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