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The Little Mac OS X Book: A Review

© 2002 Lawrence I. Charters

Washington Apple Pi Journal, reprint information

Let's get a few issues out of the way right at the start. First off, The Little Mac OS X Book is not little. At slightly more than eight hundred pages, it is larger than an iBook. Second, it is by Robin Williams, one of the most celebrated computer book authors in the world, which means that it is brilliant. The illustrations, layout, writing and organization are extraordinary. Third, you need a copy if you use Mac OS X. You can read the rest of this review if you wish, but those three things alone probably cover everything you need to know.

So, go out and buy a copy. If you don't own Mac OS X yet, go out and get a copy of The Little Mac Book, 7th ed., also by Robin Williams, which covers Mac OS 9. We'll go over a bit of history in the meantime.

Williams has been writing Mac books for a long time. Her first book, The Mac is not a typewriter, was written as a guide for a class she was teaching, and became a surprise best-seller. Still in print more than a decade later, this tiny, slim volume, just 72 pages, is a model of clarity and common sense, telling you exactly how to use a Mac to produce clean, professional pages of text. And, based on what I see on a daily basis, the need has never been greater: most people still don't know how to use a computer to write a simple memo, much less a letter or anything longer.

In keeping with the title, the first edition of The Little Mac Book really was little, a quarter the length of the seventh edition (covering Mac OS 9) and an eighth the length of her "little" Mac OS X book. The Little Mac Book was Williams' second foray into book publishing, and one reviewer called it the "best computer book ever written."* The highly visual style also served as the inspiration for Peachpit Press' superb, highly successful "Visual Quickstart Guides."

Which brings us to the current magnum opus, The Little Mac OS X Book. Peachpit planned to release the book almost a year ago, but Apple's changes to Mac OS X between the Public Beta and Mac OS X 10.1 caused considerable delay, not only for Williams (it is hard to document an operating system that changes so radically in such a short time) but also for software developers. The strain of trying to keep up is reflected in Williams' forward. These are usually light and ebullient, but this time around she says: "I always write the introduction last, and now I'm really tired. It's been a long and winding book. I hope you find it useful."

And this pretty much sums up Mac OS X, too: from the original Copeland and Rhapsody days through Mac OS X 1.0 to the Public Beta to the current Mac OS X 10.1.2, it has been a long and winding road. But the result is a gem: Mac OS X 10.1.2 is a gem of an operating system, and this is a gem of a book for explaining not only the operating system, but almost everything else you'd want to know about a Mac running Mac OS X.

Williams has also taken pains to make sure the book is not as overwhelming as the size alone might suggest. She has carefully marked the margins of key pages with gray dots to indicate the most critical information; taken as a whole, these amount to a "little Mac OS X" book inside the larger volume. The rest of the work covers a vast wealth of detail on everything from how to move the mouse and click on icons to sharing files across the office or across the Internet. Along the way, every major point (and many minor points) is illustrated with screen shots and diagrams. John Tollett's Mr. Url cartoon mouse also provide light touches; Williams also credits Tollett with writing some of the text.

About the only thing not covered in the book is using Mac OS X as a command line-driven UNIX operating system. The key to the underlying UNIX operating system is Terminal, Apple's eponymous terminal application, and Williams devotes one paragraph to the subject. She states, correctly, that most users probably won't need to use it.

Instead, she devotes space to things most users actually need to know, such as an entire chapter on Apple's iTools, their suite of Internet services freely offered to Mac owners using Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X. The chapter, in fact, is the best description of these services I've yet seen; Apple's own description on their Web pages frequently leaves visitors confused. Similarly, iTunes and iMovie each have their own chapter, as do such frequently troubling subjects as multiple users, aliases, printing and other topics.

Williams is very much aware that most Mac OS X users will be moving to the operating system from older versions of Mac OS, so she provides frequent pointers aimed specifically at Mac veterans. In her outstanding chapter on fonts, for example, she goes out of her way to mention Adobe Type Manager (ATM), stating that it is not necessary in Mac OS X and, in fact, Adobe is abandoning both ATM and ATM Deluxe.

One entire appendix is devoted to Mac veterans, titled "Where Did It Go? For Experienced Mac OS 9 Users." In less than 20 pages, she neatly summarizes the differences between the Mac OS 9 and the Mac OS X interfaces. If you are wondering how to do the "same old stuff" in Mac OS X, you might want to start with this appendix; it is excellent.

The book is not perfect, of course. There are a couple minor errors in the Table of Contents (page numbers are off by a page), and there are a wealth of Mac OS X details she simply doesn't cover (you could write an entire book on the NetInfo Manager, but Williams gives it one short paragraph). If you want to learn some heavy-duty UNIX tricks, you should look to one of the O'Reilly books on UNIX, or Maria Langer's excellent Visual QuickPro Guide: Mac OS X Advanced.

Most mere mortals, however, will be hard pressed to find any faults at all: it is a genuinely marvelous book, put together with meticulous care and with a keen appreciation of her audience. Unlike many computer books, it is never condescending; Williams doesn't talk down to you, she doesn't write editorials telling you how things should have been done, and she doesn't waste time trying to impress you with her clever wit and intelligence. The wit and intelligence, instead, display themselves in 40 superbly written, superbly illustrated chapters, bolstered by an outstanding index.

One topic the book doesn't cover in detail is Mac OS Classic. An entire chapter is devoted to Classic, but it focuses on using it as a tool or extension to Mac OS X, rather than explaining Mac OS 9 (the basis of Classic) in depth. If you want to know about Mac OS Classic, or you haven't quite decided to plunge into Mac OS X, read Williams' previous volume in the series, The Little Mac Book, 7th ed. Just as well crafted as the Mac OS X volume, but with half the heft, this "little" book will tell you everything you ever want to know about using a Mac, with particular emphasis on Mac OS 9.1.

Mac users are now in the middle of a vast migration. A couple years ago, Macs were barely a blip in the world of UNIX, but in 2002 Mac users will form, collectively, the largest UNIX community in the world, thanks to Mac OS X. Most of these Mac users could care less about UNIX, specifically; they just want to know how to do cool stuff with their Macs. If you are one of these people, buy this book.

* I, ahem, was that reviewer. Peachpit Press included the quote on the back cover of several of Williams' books for most of the 1990s.

Robin Williams, The Little Mac Book, 7th ed.
Peachpit Press, 2001.
448 pp.
ISBN 0-201-74580-1

Robin Williams, The Little Mac OS X Book
Peachpit Press, 2002.
xxii, 802 pp.
ISBN 0-201-74866-5