Mac's new OS: Not a big deal, but free

June 21, 1999|By Dave Zeiler | Dave Zeiler,Sun Staff

When Apple releases a new upgrade to the Mac OS, it usually means a smorgasbord of new and improved features, as well as the obligatory bug fixes.

While Mac OS 8.6 does offer improvements, it isn't a major event. Then again, this upgrade is free to those already using Mac OS 8.5 or 8.5.1. As with OS 8.5, this operating system works only on Power Macs.

The biggest improvement is invisible: a new "nanokernel," the core code of the operating system. While this enhances stability (the last few bits of code remaining from the days of pre-Power Macs have been expunged) and speeds up some operations, it's not the sort of gee-whiz feature Apple gave us when Sherlock debuted with OS 8.5.

An improved Sherlock, though, tops the list of 8.6 enhancements. As users of OS 8.5 know, Sherlock is the Mac system's Find feature on steroids. The new version offers access to 20 Internet search engines simultaneously, including several e-commerce sites.

Sherlock's handy Find By Content function, which indexes the contents of every file on your hard drive for rapid, comprehensive searches, can now index PDF (Adobe Acrobat) and HTML (Web page) files.

For folks who use AppleScript, an underrated technology that automates repetitive tasks, the code is now 100 percent PowerPC native. Apple says that AppleScripts run up to five times faster now.

Owners of PowerBook G3s get the most impressive benefit from the new OS -- Apple says it extends battery life by up to 25 percent. Other improvements include support for DVD-RAM disks and faster networking.

I installed this upgrade about a month ago, shortly after Apple made it available on the Web. Installation went smoothly and I've experienced no compatibility problems. On the other hand, 8.6 doesn't seem faster than its predecessor.

The most practical improvement I've noticed is that Apple has plugged the system's "memory leak." The amount of memory Finder consumes no longer bloats as you launch and close applications. In earlier versions, this bug sometimes produced an error message saying there wasn't enough memory to launch an application when I knew darn well I had plenty of RAM.

If you're considering upgrading to 8.6, be sure first to visit the MacFixIt Web site ( to check for potential conflicts. The site is updated daily and has a section devoted to OS 8.6. Apple recently posted a warning on its Web site that the 8.6 installer deletes several system-related folders, but this is a problem only if you've stored files in those folders that don't normally belong there.

One last precaution: ALWAYS back up your hard drive before upgrading the operating system. If anything goes wrong (and it can), you'll be sorry if you weren't careful.

Is 8.6 for your Mac? If any of its new features hold special meaning for you, go for it. But this is not a "must-have" upgrade. You might want to wait for Mac OS 8.7, due out in the fall. AppleInsider ( reports that this will be a much more substantial upgrade, with improvements so juicy it is likely to be renamed Mac OS 9.0 before we see it.

If you elect to take the 8.6 plunge, you have choices for obtaining it, none perfect. The free way is to download the updater file from Apple's Web site, but the file is a modem-choking 35 megabytes that will take at least two hours with a 56K modem and much longer with anything slower.

If you're willing to pay $19.95 for a "free" update, Apple will send you a CD-ROM. Perhaps the best bet is to contact the Washington Apple Pi Mac user group ( They'll sell you a CD with the OS 8.6 installer for $10.

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